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Forgotten Lore (Updated M-W-F)

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 31

The back room of the Gray Oak Inn was quite cozy and comfortable, even though it was a bit crowded at the moment. The members of Northpine’s village council sat along one side of the large oval table that dominated the room, facing the strangers who had offered their aid tracking the missing boy.

However, it was becoming clear that there was no consensus on exactly how to do that.

“We’ve had trouble with bandits in the Kilmar Hills before,” Laddrick was saying. “We know we’re far off the beaten path, and there are back roads and trails that never see a patrol. Over the last few months we’ve heard reports of travelers that have gone missing, and only two weeks ago one of our local hunters was found dead with an arrow in his chest.”

“Romon Cordrim,” Mayor Greenswald said. The elected leader of the council was a retired farmer, still hale despite the fact that he had at least a decade on Laddrick and had clearly spent a life at hard labor outdoors. Thus far he’d been content to let the others do most of the talking.

“Yes,” Laddrick said. “So you can see why there’s a sense of alarm here.”

“Why would bandits grab a child?” Glori asked. “Ransom?”

“We haven’t received any contacts or demands,” Comoran said. The cleric of Sorevas was younger than he’d looked at first glance, though the others had said he’d been the resident priest for the last three years. “And the Garsons don’t have much.” As he spoke he glanced over at Derik Anthernon. Anthernon was what passed for a local lord, the patriarch of a family that held an estate on the east side of town. Half of the farmers in the village were his tenants. He sat at the end of the table and seemed a bit bored.

“So a search through the hills would seem to be the most likely course,” Laddrick said.

“Why haven’t you conducted such a search yourselves?” Kosk asked. The dwarf had deliberately seated himself in one of the armchairs next to the hearth rather than with the crowd at the table, but they had no difficulty hearing him.

“The hill country’s dangerous,” the final member of the council said. Olag Beedlebrim had the look of an innkeeper, down to the stout frame, bulging belly, and the stained apron. He hadn’t chosen one of the chairs but was standing near the door, frequently dry-washing his hands in a nervous gesture. “We are all in the militia, and participate in the monthly drills, but of the permanent residents only Sheriff Laddrick and Derik’s man Colum have professional training at arms.”

Anthernon tapped his ringed fingers lightly on the table, drawing the attention of the room to him. “While I share the ambition to rid our hills of vermin, especially if said task is to be performed by generous strangers, perhaps a more local search might be more profitable in actually finding the boy.”

“You’re talking about the Kaseen estate,” Greenswald said.

“It’s well known that your family has had a long-standing interest in the property,” Laddrick said. “Could that be the reason for the suggestion?”

“Perhaps you should give our guests the background, and let them decide for themselves,” Anthernon said.

The story turned out to be one of those local scandals that most communities had buried in their histories. The Kaseen had been a notable clan in the region until twenty years ago, when the entire family was found slaughtered in the estate house. Those responsible had never been identified. Since then the place had been left abandoned, though more recent events had contributed to a growing legend that the place was haunted. Ten years ago a group of four squatters had been found dead in the cellar, without a mark on them. And three years ago, a handful of older boys from the village had visited the site on a dare. While they didn’t find any ghosts, later three of them came down with a fever and two died. Since then the estate had been off-limits, even though it had ample cleared fields and a mostly-intact watermill close to the site.

“Why would the missing child go there, if it is forbidden?” Quellan asked.

“Obviously you have not spent much company with young boys,” Glori said dryly.

“Has anyone talked to his friends?” Bredan asked.

“Yes, extensively,” Laddrick said. “I interviewed half of the people in the village myself. No one had any indication that Caric had expressed any interest in the Kaseen estate.” He turned to the priest. “Cormoran?”

The young man frowned. “If there are malevolent spirits there, it is possible that they might have been able to lure the boy there.”

“It’s also possible that the boy’s bones are lying in some animal’s den,” Kosk said.

The look the villagers shared indicated that the thought had occurred to them. “Look, I’ll admit that even if Caric is dead, I—we—have an interest in clearing the hills of bandits…” Laddrick began. But he was interrupted by a commotion from outside, quickly followed by a man bursting into the room. The swinging door almost struck the innkeeper, who stumbled back out of the way.

The new arrival was a man who wore the ink-stained robes of a scholar. He was maybe fifty, his neatly-trimmed beard belying an otherwise disordered appearance, as if he’d just gotten up out of bed. He was engaged in an angry exchange with a younger man who wore a chain shirt and a short sword, and who had apparently tried to keep him from barging into the meeting.

“Nordrum, this is a private meeting of the village council,” Laddrick said.

“Yes, but what I have to say may be germane to your deliberations,” the scholar said. “I entreat just a few moments of this august body’s time.”

“Let me guess, you have a theory of where the boy went,” Kosk muttered, but quietly enough that none of the others head him.

“Oh, very well,” Greenswald said.

The guard turned to Anthernon. “Sorry, sir, he got past me.”

“It’s all right, Colum,” the lordling said.

When the guard had closed the door the scholar straightened his robe and nodded to the four adventurers, turning a full circle to include Kosk in his greeting. “You have come to assist in the search for the missing boy?” Without waiting for a response he went on, “I believe he might have wandered to a ruin in the local area…”

Several of the other councilors let out audible groans at that. Nordrum tried to continue, but Anthernon said, “You’ve been trying for months to find someone to loot that ruin for you. There’s nothing there, just some old rubble.”

The sage drew himself up, all affronted dignity. “You speak of matters of which you do not comprehend. There is an eldritch power within that ruin, a magic beyond the ken of modern understanding…”

As the sage spoke, Bredan, Glori, and Quellan shared a look. “That sounds familiar,” the bard said quietly.

“Nordrum,” Laddrick said. “If you do not have any evidence, real evidence, that the boy might have traveled to those old ruins...”

“I have as much evidence as any of you,” the sage said.

“He’s got you there,” Kosk piped up from his corner.

“Look,” Quellan said. “Why don’t we go over all of the available options, including everything that you’ve learned from talking to the village folk. We should also speak to the boy’s mother. Then we’ll decide where to proceed from there.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 32

The day dawned unseasonably cool with gray clouds lingering low over the village. But they didn’t deepen into the angry shade that threatened rain, and they began to thin out as the four adventurers left Northpine and headed southeast into the Kilmar Hills.

Their meeting with the council had gone long and had been followed with a largely unproductive interview with the missing boy’s distraught mother. By then it had been late enough in the day that they’d decided to stay the night in the village and get an early start the next morning.

The delay had allowed Erron Laddrick to prepare a map of the hills that extended south and east of the village for several leagues. The map wasn’t as comprehensive or as detailed as the one that Starfinder had loaned them back in Crosspath, but it included a number of landmarks including the place where the dead hunter had been found and some of the many trails that wound through the hills. The sheriff had marked several sites where he thought they might find signs of bandits, if in fact they did exist and had a lair within the region. The map even included a suggested route and various places that might serve as a campsite, for even a partial circuit of the region would take them at least a few days.

“This sheriff seems to know his business,” Bredan said as they paused to check the map. That was one of the factors that had led them to try his recommended course for finding the missing child first. A search of the area around the Garson farm had turned up no tracks or other clues, so all they had to go on were the various suggestions from the local residents. They’d confirmed that none of the locals had seen the boy or had any clues from before his disappearance that hinted at where he might have gone.

“He served in the local baron’s guards for twenty years,” Glori said. “He retired as a senior officer and was given the position of sheriff basically as a retirement pension.”

Bredan blinked at her. “How do you know that?”

“I asked around,” Glori said. “All you really have to do to get to know a place is talk to people.”

“You know, we never did learn the name of the local baron,” Quellan said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Kosk said. “Half the locals probably don’t even know. It’s common out here in the west to find places like this, baronies cobbled together out of half a dozen widely scattered villages.”

“I wonder how many men—people,” Bredan amended, after glancing over at Glori, “will be heading north to Adelar. Answering the King’s call.”

“We’ll find out when we get there,” Kosk said. “Which will be later than we thought, thanks to your bloody soft-heartedness.”

“We couldn’t just leave these people in their hour of need,” Quellan said. “The boy…”

“Is most likely dead,” Kosk said, but there wasn’t any anger in the statement, just resignation.

With that grim note dogging their steps the companions made their ways into the hills. The Kilmars were rather more pleasant than the Dry Hills. The prevailing winds brought more moisture through these lands, and while they were hardly lush there were plenty of springs and streams and even some edible wild plants that could stretch their stores and bulk up their evening stews. Their route wouldn’t take them that far from the village, following a path through the hills in a broad crescent that would return them to the road half a dozen miles beyond Northpine.

The trail they followed was little more than an old hunter’s track and was almost invisible at places, but Laddrick’s map was clear enough that they didn’t get lost. They didn’t see anything larger than a rabbit—one that fled too quickly for Glori to get a shot off—until late afternoon, when they heard someone approaching on the trail ahead. They were navigating a gully thick with brush, limiting their vision to only about fifty paces ahead of them, but they quickly readied their weapons for a confrontation. By the sudden quiet it sounded like whoever it was had detected them as well.

“Ahoy the trail!” came a voice from up ahead. “We’re just travelers, not seeking trouble!”

“We’re not here to give you any!” Kosk replied before Glori or Quellan could offer a more conciliatory answer. “Show yourselves!”

The two parties approached warily. The ‘travelers’ were another quartet, four human men who were clearly equipped to deal with the dangers of the Kilmar Hills. All wore suits of studded leather armor that had clearly seen long use, and two carried short bows in addition to the swords and daggers they all carried. Their leader was a gruff-looking man who had a bushy beard and a hard look that he fixed on the four adventurers as he came forward to greet them.

“Gorus Tholrin,” he said. “You’re the first travelers we’ve seen out here. We getting close to the road, by any chance?”

“Quellan Emberlane,” the cleric replied. “Keep going this way and you’ll hit it by sundown.”

“Much obliged,” Tholrin said. “You heading east?”

“Not for much longer,” Quellan said. “We’re looking for a child that’s gone missing from one of the local villages. Been gone a couple days now.”

“Hmm. That’s rough. We haven’t seen anyone, but we’ll keep our eyes open.”

“What brings you west?” Kosk asked.

Tholrin gave the dwarf a look that suggested challenge, but then he shrugged and said, “We’re looking to take the King’s coin. You’ve heard the news?”

“Aye,” Quellan said. “We were headed north ourselves, before we stopped at the village.”

“Well. Hope you find the kid. Safe travels.”

“Safe travels,” Quellan said.

The two groups moved past each other, each side eying the other before moving on their way. Glori in particular attracted attention, and Bredan moved to stand next to her until Tholrin and his companions were well past and moving out of their view.

“You think they were telling the truth?” Bredan asked.

“About why they’re here?” Kosk said. “Could be. They had the look of mercenaries, but the line between ‘mercenary’ and ‘bandit’ can be a fluid one at times.”

“You sound like you know that from personal experience,” Glori said.

Kosk’s expression sharpened, but then he turned toward the trail ahead. “Come on, I’d just as soon get well clear of our friends before nightfall, just in case.”

Soon after their encounter they turned to the north, following another path that ran parallel to an undulating ridge of exposed granite that rose as high as fifty feet above them. They followed that ridge for the better part of a mile before it turned east and they continued north into a rough landscape of steep hills and exposed outcrops that forced them to follow a meandering course.

“You could hide a hundred bloody bandit gangs in this landscape,” Kosk said.

“They need food and water just like anybody else,” Bredan said. “This place is too rocky to support a hideout.”

The dwarf didn’t respond, but he picked up his pace just enough to force them to hurry to keep up. Glori shot Quellan a covert grin, and the cleric smiled back and shook his head.

Night descended swiftly upon the hills, but Laddrick’s map remained reliable and they had no difficulty finding one of the campsites he’d indicated. Bredan guessed that they were only maybe five or six miles east of Northpine as the crow flew, but they’d covered two or three times that distance in their meandering hike through the hills. Tomorrow they’d finish their sweep north and then curve left to find the road again, hopefully before sunset.

There weren’t any large trees in the rocky part of the hills they were traveling through, but they found enough scrub growth and dried bushes to fuel a small fire. Glori was watching Bredan snap sticks and Quellan unpack some of the edible roots they’d found earlier in the day when she said, “I was thinking more about that Tholrin and his men.”

“In my experience, it never ends well when a woman begins a sentence with ‘I was thinking,’” Bredan said. That got a snort from Kosk and a stern look from Glori, but Quellan stepped in and asked, “What’s on your mind?”

“Just this… where were they coming from? I mean, I haven’t heard anything about settlements in these hills, and it sure doesn’t look like anyone lives out here.”

“Maybe there’s some settlements on the other side of the range,” Bredan suggested.

“Maybe,” Glori said. “But if that’s the case, why wouldn’t they have just gone east into the Liir Valley? The route there is much easier, basically a straight shot to Adelar.”

“What are you saying, that they might be bandits?” Bredan asked. “That we should go back to Northpine?”

“I don’t know,” Glori said. “Maybe they were just what they seemed to be. After all, Kosk didn’t punch any of them, so maybe they’re fine.”

The dwarf didn’t respond to the jibe. “We should finish our sweep,” he said. “If they were bandits, they clearly didn’t have the boy with them, and maybe they’ve got a hiding place somewhere around here. We can check if they came through Northpine when we get back, and if not we can worry about…”

He didn’t get a chance to finish, as a high-pitched voice called out from the darkness beyond the ring of firelight, “Hello the camp!”

The companions grabbed their weapons and scrambled to their feet. “Who’s there?” Quellan called out.

“Just a humble traveler,” came the return.

The four companions shared a look. “Did they follow us?”

“That doesn’t sound like Tholrin,” Glori said. “Though we didn’t hear any of his companions speak.”

“That fire looks nice and warm,” the stranger said. With the firelight surrounding them even those with darkvision couldn’t see anything more than a vague shadow well back from the camp.

“Come forward into the light,” Quellan said.

The figure approached, and was revealed to be a reedy figure of a human, draped in a dark cloak that looked to be a size or two too large for him. One look was enough to confirm that he was not one of the mercenaries they’d encountered earlier that day; this person looked about as dangerous as the rabbit they’d spooked earlier in the day. He didn’t carry any obvious weapons, though the cloak was big enough to conceal almost anything under its generous folds. He came to a halt right on the edge of the firelight and regarded them with a placating grin.

“Who are you, now?” Kosk asked.

“My name is Orin Lesar.”

“I don’t reckon you’ve come to take the King’s coin as well,” the dwarf said.

“King? What king?” Orin asked.

The four companions shared a look. “Um… King Dangren,” Glori said. “The King of Arresh? The kingdom you’re in right now?”

“Oh, that king!” Orin said with a wild giggle that had the others sharing glanced again. “Oh, is that stew you’re making? I’m famished!” He shuffled forward quickly enough that Quellan stepped aside before he had a chance to think better of it.

The others circled back around the fire as Orin seated himself on a rock beside the fire. The light from the flames flickered in his eyes. As he smiled up at them they could see that he was missing several teeth, and the ones that remained were blackened with decay.

“Um… where did this guy come from?” Bredan whispered to Glori. The smith still had his big sword in his hand, though he left it in its scabbard.

“I have no idea,” the bard whispered back. She likewise held onto her bow tightly, an arrow clutched in her other hand.

Kosk was on the other side of the fire and hadn’t heard their exchange, but he clearly had the same thoughts on his mind. “So where are you from?” he asked.

“Oh, here and there,” Orin said. He didn’t seem to be alarmed at their manner or the weapons they still held openly, but as the companions spread out Glori’s cloak fell open and the firelight caught on her lyre. The strange traveler’s eyes fixed on it at once. “Silver,” he said. “I thought I smelled silver.”

“Excuse me?” Glori said, flicking her cloak protectively over her instrument.

“I hate silver,” Orin said, his lips twisting back into a snarl.

“Look, friend,” Kosk said. “Maybe you’d be better off finding your own camp.”

Orin tore his gaze away from Glori and smiled up at the dwarf. “I like it here.”

Kosk’s expression didn’t change, but the others knew him well enough to sense the subtle shift in his mood. “My companions don’t like it when I punch strangers in the face, but I’m not sharing my camp with a crazy person. Move along, or there will be trouble.”

“Trouble,” Orin said. “Trouble.” He laughed, a deep cackle that bounced off the surrounding rocks and filled their camp.

“That can’t be good,” Glori said.

“Actually, I don’t think I mind if you punch this guy,” Bredan said.

Orin’s laughter continued until he was convulsed by it. He wrapped his arms around his side and bent forward until his face was almost touching the ground. The cowl of his cloak fell forward, shrouding him from view, but the cackles continued to issue from within.

“This guy’s going to get his skull cracked in a minute,” Kosk said. He lifted his staff, but Quellan quickly stepped forward. “He may have a mental illness,” the cleric said. “Orin, I think you should…”

The cleric was interrupted as Orin’s head shot up.

“Oh, gods,” Bredan said.

Their visitor’s visage had transformed; the face that regarded them now was pinched and furry, with beady eyes and sharp yellow teeth that protruded from an elongated snout with whiskers that twitched as his chuckles trailed off. He’d produced a weapon, a long dagger that he’d kept concealed behind his back.

“Wererat!” Kosk exclaimed.

“Trouble!” Orin hissed, as he leapt up and attacked.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 33

Quellan swung his mace at the wererat, but the creature ducked nimbly under the attack and dove forward across the campfire at Glori. She flinched back but managed to draw her bow and release her arrow. The shot struck Orin in the torso but did nothing to slow his violent rush; he landed next to her and let out a high-pitched shriek as he lifted his dagger to strike.

Before Orin could stab her, however, Bredan swept his sword into his torso. The heavy blade caught him solidly and launched him back across the campfire. He was flung into the rocks and rolled to a heap a good five steps away.

Bredan started to lower his sword—nobody could have survived a hit like that—but Kosk yelled, “We’re not done yet!”

Bredan looked at his victim and was startled to see the wererat spring back up to his feet, none the worse for wear. The creature darted back nimbly as Kosk lunged at him with his staff, mocking him with another series of cackles as the blows missed. Not that they would have done anything even if they’d hit, Bredan thought, not after the way he’d shrugged off that hit from his sword.

Kosk shifted tactics and tried to grapple the creature, but Orin sprang clear of his grasp and leapt back toward Bredan and Glori. The smith stepped in front of the bard, trying to think of something he could do that would have a chance of affecting this foe. He finally fell back on the sword, trying to knock the wererat into the fire. But again the creature just shrugged off the blow, bouncing up and snapping his jaws around Bredan’s forearm.

“Ahh!” Bredan yelled. He tried to shake the wererat loose, but he held on tenaciously. In the meantime Orin kept stabbing with his knife, but the heavy chainmail proved its value as it absorbed the hits without harm. The creature hissed through his clutch on Bredan’s arm and tried to clamber up onto the smith's struggling body to get within reach of his face.

Suddenly the wererat stiffened and let out a hiss of pain. He released his jaws and fell clear. Bredan could see Glori there; she’d used her lyre as a weapon, pressing the silver against the creature’s hide. Orin snarled and lunged at her.

A beam of soft light struck the wererat. It came from Quellan’s holy symbol, which the cleric had held out like a divine talisman. The pale radiance sparkled and did no harm as it brushed over Bredan and Glori, but the creature screamed and fell back as if scorched by fire. The glow continued to shine around Orin as he stumbled back to the edge of the camp. Kosk and Bredan started to follow, but the wererat sprang away from them into the rocks. He flung his cloak over his body. The dwarf and smith reached the spot fairly quickly, but all they found was an empty garment, and angry squeaks that were already fading into the night.

“What… what was that thing?” Bredan asked.

“Wererat,” Kosk said. “A lycanthrope… a magical combination of man and beast. Dangerous… and cursed.” He looked meaningfully at Bredan’s arm.

Glori and Quellan came running up to join them. “Did it bite you?” the bard asked.

Bredan held up his arm. Quellan examined it, and they were all relieved to find that while his bracer bore fresh marks from the creature’s teeth, they had apparently failed to break his skin.

“You were lucky,” Kosk said. “Such things can sometimes pass on their curse by biting or scratching their victims.”

Bredan shuddered. “Do you think it’ll come back?”

Kosk shrugged. “They’re cowardly like rats. They can only be hurt with silver and magic, and we’ve proven we have both, so maybe it will keep running.”

Bredan stared out into the darkness, hardly reassured.

As they made their way back to the reassuring light and warmth of the fire Glori turned to Quellan and asked, “What was that you cast at it?”

“The spell is called guiding bolt. It’s not that complicated, just channels a bit of divine energy into a radiant effect.”

“Good thing for us Hosrenu responded to your call,” she said.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 34

The cave was cramped and dismal, the single torch burning low in a niche in one wall doing little to push back the gloom. The single figure that sat in a sagging wooden chair made the place seem even smaller, especially when he reached out and his hand enveloped the stein that sat on the table next to him. A large double-bladed axe sat propped up against the wall within easy reach.

A shadow materialized in the mouth of the passage that led to the room. It lingered there a moment until the huge figure looked that way.

“What did you hear?” the man with the axe asked.

The shadowy figure came into the room. The torchlight didn’t do much to reveal details of his form. He was clad in a patchwork coat that looked like it had been crafted from a dozen other garments. Over that he wore an inky cloak that included a cowl that hung low over his face. “Hello to you as well, Jargo. Did you manage to eat all the food and finish the ale while I was gone?”

“Have your little friends scare us up some more,” the giant said, punctuating the comment with a deep belch.

“I fear our allies’ resources are quite nearly depleted,” the cloaked man said. He walked past the table and peered into the darkness that filled the back of the cave. As he moved past the torch the cloak briefly fell back to reveal a hand that was covered with an ugly hybrid of scales and tufted bristles of black hair. “How is our guest?”

“Alive,” Jargo said. He lifted his cup and drained the last of its contents.

“I received word from the north,” the cloaked man said.

“Yeah?”

The other waited to see if more questions would be forthcoming, and finally sighed. “We may need to relocate.”

“Why? We got a good setup here, Cthel.”

“War is coming to Arresh. Such things bring opportunity. More opportunity than the occasional wagon or unlucky traveler.” He lifted a hand, and metal clinked in his palm.

That got the big warrior’s attention. “So what do you suggest?”

“There’s going to be a lot of men heading north. Men who would otherwise be guarding settlements, or protecting caravans. Softer targets, soon. We play our cards correctly, we can make a few big scores then be on our way before anyone’s the wiser. Big enough that we can set ourselves up nicely somewhere far away from here. Someplace with finer… accommodations.”

Jargo grunted at that, but it was clear that his companion’s suggestions had drawn his interest. “And what about our prisoner?” he asked.

Both men turned to stare into the darkness, where a pair of eyes was just visible on the very edge of the torchlight, watching them in turn.

Cthel appeared to consider for a moment. “Our guest is still valuable for the moment,” he finally said. “But if we have to leave suddenly… well, sometimes one must sacrifice a small boon in the cause of gaining something greater.”

He laughed, a harsh, jarring sound that echoed uncannily off the walls of the cave.

* * *

Orin Lesar did not return, but they hardly spent a restful night and got a late start the next morning. Fortunately the difficult ground they’d been covering grew earlier around midmorning, and they passed into a series of rolling hills covered in scrub with light forest in the spaces between. Water was again easily located and they were able to both refill their bottles and wash off the dust of their hike.

It was still early when they came to one of the campsites that Laddrick had marked on his map. It was located in a sheltered nook surrounded by large boulders in the lee of a slightly larger hill. It was close to a small spring that fed a trickling stream that ran down the lower slope of the hill until it culminated in a pool about ten paces across.

Laddrick had marked the site as one occasionally visited by hunters and trappers that operated in the hills. But it was clear from even a cursory examination that the campsite had been used recently, and not by common hunters. The dull red stains that marked the rocks in a number of places were faded but recent, given that the recent rains hadn’t washed them away. And Glori found something else, a broken arrow that apparently had shattered on the rocks.

Kosk examined the arrow. “This isn’t civilized work. Humanoids, maybe.”

“Over here, there’s some tracks,” Bredan said.

They all went to take a look. The tracks were scattered around the campsite. The marks were faint, too faint to make out much about them, but they could all see that the prints were significantly smaller than any they left behind.

“What do you think, goblins maybe?” Bredan asked.

Kosk frowned at the marks. “I don’t think so. But I’m not sure, the ground’s too hard here. Too much stone.”

“Can we see which way they went?” Quellan asked.

Bredan began widening his search, but he’d barely begun inspecting the ground outside the nook when Kosk held up a hand in warning.

“What is it?” Glori asked, loud enough for Bredan to hear and stop what he was doing.

“I don’t know,” the dwarf said. “Something’s wrong.”

Quellan sniffed the air. “I feel it too.”

They all started scanning the surrounding area, so it only took a moment for Glori to notice the threat. “There,” she said, pointing to a spot along the shoulder of the hill near where they’d first entered the camp.

The hound stood in profile atop a small shelf of stone that jutted from the hillside. It looked almost normal at first glance, if larger than even the largest domestic breed. But as it turned to face them they could see that it was not even close to normal.

The hound had two heads, both filled with jaws full of sharp teeth that trailed tendrils of slather as it slowly, almost casually, approached the campsite.

“A death dog,” Quellan said.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
A what now?
https://roll20.net/compendium/dnd5e/Death Dog (wait until after today's update if you don't want spoilers)

It's one of the creatures in the appendix of the 5e monster manual.

An alternative version of this scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SwYWFRa6oU

* * *

Chapter 35

The death dog continued its measured approach, apparently unconcerned with any reactions from its prey.

“My lyre has a spell that can charm animals,” Glori said, reaching for her instrument.

“This is no normal beast,” Quellan said. He unslung his shield and grasped his mace. Bredan had started to reach for his bow, but the creature was already too close. He finally shrugged off his pack and unfastened his baldric to swing his sword around into his grasp.

The death dog kept slowly padding closer. They could hear a low rumbling issuing from its twin throats, a grim and menacing sound that was somehow worse than a howl or something else more aggressive.

“Maybe I can scare it off with an illusion,” Glori said. But she’d barely touched the strings of her instrument, issuing a few fragmentary notes, when the unnatural hound launched itself forward at them.

The monster moved with surprising speed, closing the remaining gap to them with just a few bounds. Its focus seemed to be on Glori, but Bredan and Quellan quickly moved to block it. But the dog just charged right into them, the sheer mass of it knocking both men back several steps. Bredan stumbled and dropped to one knee, while Quellan kept his footing but had to abandon his attack.

Kosk darted in and struck it on one of its necks with his staff. The head of the weapon impacted with a loud crack, but it clearly didn’t do much in the way of real harm to the creature. It spun and lunged at him. The dwarf started to dive to the side but the jaws of its right head snapped on his robe. The fabric tore as it jerked back, but held together enough to bounce Kosk around roughly as the hound shook its head back and forth violently. Its other head tried to seize the dwarf as he flopped around, but he was just able to contort out from the path of those deadly teeth.

Glori ran at the hound and stabbed it in the flank with her dagger. The hound whirled on her. Kosk’s robe finally ripped under the abuse and the dwarf was flung into the rocks. Glori tried to retreat, but the hound lunged forward and seized hold of her left shoulder with one set of jaws. She screamed as its teeth bit through her cloak and the protective leather vest underneath it, tearing the skin underneath.

“Glori!” Bredan cried. He ran forward but was met by the monster’s other head, which snapped at him. He responded with an angry snarl of his own and thrust his sword into that gaping maw. The sharp steel ripped into the top of its jaw, carving open a broad bloody gash. The dog drew back in reflexive pain, releasing its grip on Glori. But its retreat lasted only long enough for both heads to focus on the adversary that had stung it so.

The hound leapt forward again, but this time the companions were ready for the speed of its attack. Bredan sidestepped, avoiding the hound’s rush and forcing it to twist its body around to face him. It had no difficulty following, but before it could bring its deadly jaws to play again it ran into both Quellan and Kosk. The dwarf came in low, striking it solidly in one foreleg with his staff. This time the crack of impact was accompanied by the solid sound of a bone snapping. The monster flinched, but could not react before Quellan stepped up and drove his mace down solidly into its spine, right where it split into its two necks. The force of the impact drove the creature to the ground. For a moment it looked like it would somehow overcome all the damage that had been done to it, but after a moment trying to get back to its feet it slumped to the ground. Even then its jaws continued to snap feebly at them, until Bredan stepped around its heads and drove the full length of his sword into its body.

“Ow,” Glori said, clutching her injured arm.

“Quellan,” Bredan said, but the cleric was already coming around the other side of the dying creature to her aid. “Just a moment,” Quellan said. He touched his holy symbol and sent the healing power of a cure wounds spell into her. The spell took effect quickly, but the cleric’s expression remained troubled.

“What’s wrong?” Bredan asked. “Did that monster do something to her?”

“All I know about death dogs comes from books,” the cleric admitted. “Petellian’s Bestiary of the Realms has the most complete account.”

“I don’t need a bloody lesson, just tell me what’s wrong!” Bredan said.

“Bredan, just let him finish,” Glori said. She put a hand on her friend’s arm.

Quellan nodded. “All sources agree that the creatures’ bites can inflict a nasty disease that causes the flesh of the victim to rot away.”

Bredan paled. “Can you treat it?”

Quellan started to shake his head, but Glori looked strangely pleased. “I think I’m okay,” she said.

“But if you get sick…” Bredan began.

“No, look,” Glori said. She tugged her cloak around and showed them the silver brooch they’d found in the Dry Hills. “I’ve been studying this, and I think it protects against sickness and poison.”

Bredan looked at it dubiously, but Quellan said, “I think you may be right. That would fit with the serpent motif. Look, one of the gem-eyes has turned dark.”

“We can still go back to Northpine,” Bredan said.

“There’s no need,” Glori said. “I’m fine.”

Bredan reluctantly went to collect his gear. Quellan went to check on Kosk, who was examining the dead creature. His robe had taken most of the damage from the hound’s jaws, but he had some cuts that he insisted were fine. At the cleric’s warning about the sickness Kosk merely said, “I’m a dwarf,” but he didn’t object to Quellan cleaning out the wounds and bandaging them.

Glori came over just as the cleric was finishing. “I suppose you’ll have something to say about rushing into a fight,” she said to Kosk.

But the monk just nodded toward her dagger. “Next time go for the big blood vessel on the inside curve of the leg,” he said.

Bredan came over to them with his usual burdens back in place. “Thus far we’ve found some mercenaries, a half-rat, half-human crazy man, and a two-headed monster,” he said. “But no bandits, and no missing boy. Based on our experience, I doubt the kid would have survived ten minutes if he’d been dumb enough to come into these hills. Should we go back now?”

“We haven’t finished checking all the places on the sheriff’s map yet,” Glori said. “And what about those tracks you found?”

“Those could have been anything,” Bredan said. “And do you really think the kid made it this far out?”

Kosk had unrolled the map, and Quellan bent to look over his shoulder. “We’ve still got a lot of day left, and there’s another possible location not far from here marked on the map. We’ll go that way, see if we find any more tracks or other signs of who visited this place and left blood behind. If we don’t find anything we can still cut back to the road before nightfall.”

In the end it didn’t take them very long at all to find their foe.

The only tracks they found leaving the trapper’s camp were some marks that headed north. They rocky landscape soon gave way to a wooded valley. The trees grew more closely together there than they had encountered previously, but that actually helped them maintain a quick pace as the dense undergrowth that had forced previous detours was largely absent. At first Bredan spent a lot of time looking for tracks, but then Glori pointed out that there was only one likely way that a traveler coming this way could have gone; the sides of the valley were steep and nearly vertical in places, promising a difficult climb up to the level of the surrounding hills.

They passed another two streams before the ground began to slowly rise again. They filled their water bottles again but then pressed on, intent on finishing their sweep before the day ended and forced them to spend another day in the hills. Bredan guessed that less than an hour had passed since their fight with the death dog before the trees thinned out and the valley walls drew back to reveal another broad open space ahead.

The sun had broken through the clouds while they had been in the forest, and the sudden brightness blinded them for a moment until their eyes adjusted. To the west and east two rows of lightly wooded hills marched forward like sentries, while directly ahead of them the ground rose in a gentler slope to a low hilltop a few hundred yards away. The hillside was covered with rocks that had choked off all growth but the usual weeds and the occasional enterprising bush that had found enough soil to take root.

“Great, more climbing,” Bredan groused.

“Let’s see what we can see from up there,” Quellan said. “We must be close to the site that Laddrick indicated.”

“Seems like if I was looking for a place to build a camp I would have chosen the valley,” Bredan said. “It had shade, water, shelter…”

“Exactly,” Kosk said. “So if there’s danger here we’re not seeing it. So keep an eye out.”

They started up the rise. Even with the lack of growth and the relatively easy slope the uneven scatter of rocks made the climb slower and more difficult than it otherwise would have been.

They were about halfway to the top when Bredan paused to shift his mail coif and wipe his brow. Now that they were in direct sunlight he was starting to sweat profusely under his armor. Glori paused and looked back at him. “You okay?”

“I’m starting to feel like I’m back in the forge,” he said. “Look, do you really think we’re going to find…”

He didn’t get a chance to finish, as he was interrupted by an arrow that thudded into his shoulder. For a moment he just stared down at it, the feathered end of the shaft quivering for a moment before he felt the burning pain spread out from the point of impact. He sucked in a breath to call out a warning, but this time Glori beat him to it.

“Ambush!” she warned.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 36

The companions scattered and dove for cover. None of the scattered rocks were big enough to offer much protection, but dropping prone presented their unseen attackers with smaller targets. That proved a wise course a moment later as a second arrow shot by above them, followed a moment later by something small and hard that bounced off a rock with a loud “ping.”

“Are you okay?” Glori asked Bredan. The smith’s large pack bulged up, revealing his location, but it actually offered some protection against fire from above. “Hold still, I can come to you with healing.”

Bredan held up a hand as she started to get up. “No, I’m fine,” he said. He yanked the arrow out, carefully unhooking the head from the metal links of his mail. “It barely penetrated my armor.” It stung like fire, but he tried to ignore that for the moment. He held up the arrow so she could see the familiar shape of it. “Guess we found our bandits after all.”

“Did either of you see where the shots came from?” Quellan asked. He and Kosk were above ten steps further up the slope, the dwarf almost invisible in the scattered weeds, the massive half-orc somewhat less so.

“No,” Glori said. “The shot had to come from somewhere up there, though,” she said, indicating the summit of the hill.

Bredan shrugged off his pack, flinching as another arrow shot past him. But it missed by at least five paces, and he quickly reached for his crossbow.

“That’s it, draw their fire,” Glori said. He glanced over at her and saw she had her bow already prepared, with an arrow fitted to the string. She shot him a grin and winked.

“Yeah, draw their fire,” Bredan said, taking a bolt out of the case.

“There!” Quellan said, as a tiny head popped up from the rocks about a hundred feet up the slope. Glori fired at about the same time as another arrow arced down from above, but the thing had disappeared again by the time her shot reached it. Its arrow in turn landed in the rocks about twenty paces away from any of them.

“They’re not very good shots,” Glori said.

“Yeah, not very good at all,” Bredan said dryly. He’d gotten his bow loaded, and lifted his head slowly while he scanned for targets.

But before he could locate an enemy, Kosk abruptly stood up. The dwarf was muttering something under his breath and looked disgusted. Without waiting for his companions he started running up the slope.

“Kosk!” Quellan shouted, but the dwarf ignored him. The cleric rose and started after him, his shield raised to protect his face and body. The proved to be a wise precaution as a sling bullet bounced off it, making a clatter as it ricocheted off the stones of the hillside.

“Okay, I guess we’re doing this,” Glori said. She launched one more arrow at the enemy position then rose and rushed forward after them. Bredan had no choice but to follow.

As they ran up the hillside they could see that there were in fact two such positions, separated by maybe fifty feet. The little heads of their foes popped up and down in a manner that might have been humorous if not for the deadly missiles they launched each time. Kosk drew most of their fire as the unarmored dwarf pulled ahead of his companions, but either the creatures weren’t very good at targeting a moving target or the monk was proving extremely lucky, as none of the shots even came close to hitting him. Finally the attacks stopped as the dwarf drew close to the closer of the two positions. But instead of waiting for his companions to reach him, Kosk leapt forward and suddenly dropped out of view.

“Kosk, wait!” Quellan yelled, some obvious frustration creeping into his normally even tone. Grunting with the effort of charging up the slope, the cleric gestured with his mace. “Check the other one!” he shouted back to Glori and Bredan.

Bredan ignored the sweat running down his back and gathering under the armor protecting his brow and veered after Glori. It didn’t take them long to check the sniper post, a small pit dug into the hillside. Rocks had been carefully arranged to provide cover and concealment without revealing their presence to anyone coming up from below. The two peered into the hole, shared a quick look, and then hurried over to rejoin Quellan.

The second hole was just like the first, down to the low, narrow tunnel opening in the bottom. “The other one’s the same,” Bredan said. “Except there’s a little dead reptile-man in it with one of Glori’s arrows stuck in its head. Nice shot, by the way,” he said.

“Lucky shot,” Glori said. “Kosk went in after them?”

“It would seem so,” Quellan said.

“What are those things?” Bredan asked.

“Kobolds,” Quellan said.

“We’d never fit in there,” Bredan said. “Even without our armor it would be a tight squeeze.”

“I know,” Quellan said. His whole body seemed tensed with the need for action.

“I can fit,” Glori said.

Both men turned on her. “No, no way,” Bredan said.

“We can’t just leave him in there alone,” Glori said.

“Hey, he chose to run off by himself…” Bredan began.

“Look!” Glori said. They followed her gaze and just caught a glimpse of another reptilian head another hundred paces or so up the hillside an instant before it dropped out of view.

“There must be another entrance up there,” Quellan said.

“Go on,” Glori said. “I’ll follow Kosk, and meet up with you up there.”

“But…” Bredan persisted.

“Look, I promise if I run into trouble I’ll run back as fast as I can. I know I’m not a warrior, okay?”

“You’re as brave as any warrior I’ve ever met,” Quellan said.

She smiled at him, then drew her dagger and jumped into the pit. Without another look back she bent low and crept forward into the tunnel.

“Come on,” Quellan said to Bredan, and the two resumed their climb up the hill.

* * *

Author’s Note: this encounter was my first experience with layered disadvantages. The kobolds had 3 reasons for disadvantage at one point: for sunlight, range, and prone targets. Per the rules-as-written they had the same chance of scoring a hit whether their targets were 100 feet away and prone or standing in the open 10 feet away. Maybe Kosk recognized this, and that’s why he decided to charge. :)

I am a big fan of the simplicity of the 5e rules, but they do lead to some odd situations. If I was DMing this I would probably have granted the adventurers 50% cover, even though the description suggested that the rocks weren’t really big enough to hide behind.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 37

Glori was not a fan of tight spaces.

The kobold tunnel was not that difficult to navigate, though she had to keep her head low and walk in a sort of shuffle. She regretted not taking off her backpack but decided not to stop now. She could hear faint sounds from up ahead but couldn’t quite identify them.

As she left the light of the hillside behind her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The gift of her father’s heritage let her see more or less clearly, though there wasn’t anything to see except for the irregular line of the tunnel heading deeper into the substance of the hill. There were wooden beams supporting the passage at regular intervals, but she still wondered just how good kobolds were at building.

After about forty feet the tunnel turned sharply to the left. As soon as she reached the bend she saw a kobold waiting for her. She jumped in surprise, although the creature was lying motionless on the floor of the passage, its head lolling at an awkward angle. She approached warily and prodded it with her dagger. It was dead, its neck broken.

The tunnel ahead had grown eerily silent. “Dwarves,” she muttered to herself before resuming her exploration of the kobold complex.

The tunnel seemed to go on forever, but she knew that was just an illusion created by her own hyperactive mind. It twisted slightly back and forth, keeping her from seeing very far ahead, but finally she saw an open space ahead. She hesitated for a moment but still didn’t hear anything.

When she shuffled into the room her eyes widened in surprise.

Four more kobolds had met their end here. The room wasn’t very big, and was set up as a small guardroom. The furnishings were crude and sized to the kobolds, and had been scattered in disarray. One of the chairs had been shattered into fragments, a dead kobold lying in the wreckage. The iron scent of freshly spilled blood filled the room.

There were three other exits. To her right there was a small opening blocked by a wooden grate. To her left was another passage similar to the one she’d just navigated, which she guessed probably led to the other sniper position she and Bredan had scouted. On the far side of the little room was a rough-hewn staircase that led up. She headed in that direction, careful of the corpses in case any of them were not quite finished.

None of the kobolds moved, but she saw a wet glistening on the blade of the dagger that one of them carried. She saw more blood in spatters as she made her way to the steps.

Kosk hadn’t gotten past these guards unscathed.

That thought was confirmed as she found an empty potion vial on one of the steps. She didn’t need to check to know it was one of their potions of healing. There were more smears of blood on the steps, and a few marks on the wall where the monk had probably leaned for support on his climb.

She started up, slowly, but then heard a sharp shriek of pain from up ahead. It didn’t sound like it had come from the dwarf, but she found herself running anyway, grimacing as her elbows scraped against the walls of the narrow ascent.

At the top of the stairs another tunnel continued in what she guessed was roughly the direction of the hilltop, though it was easy to get turned around in these meandering corridors. She hoped that Bredan and Quellan had found another way into the kobold complex, and that she was heading toward them rather than toward another ambush. She was acutely aware that the passages she’d bypassed meant that more of the creatures could be behind her.

The passage briefly widened into a slightly larger space. It resumed directly ahead, but to her right there was a scattering of gear next to a ledge that dropped off into darkness. Glori could hear sounds coming from below, shuffling noises accompanied by low squeaks. She edged over to take a look.

The ledge overlooked a small round space maybe ten feet across. The drop was only about six feet. She saw that the sounds she heard were coming from a huge, fat pig.

She picked up a loose pebble and tossed it down. “Hey, pig!” she hissed.

The stone bounced off the pig’s head. It looked up and grunted at her.

A sudden loud clang of metal on stone caused her to jump again. It came from the far passage and sounded close. Thinking of the dwarf’s staff and its iron tips, she hurried forward.

The tunnel began to ascend slightly, just enough for her to notice the grade. It continued to twist, just enough so that she couldn’t see more than fifteen or twenty feet ahead at a time. That kept her from seeing Kosk until she almost ran into him.

The dwarf had been facing away from her, but he spun quickly and swept his staff up toward her face. Glori flinched back, but at the last moment the iron-tipped end came to a stop with maybe a hand’s span to spare.

“You shouldn’t be down here,” Kosk growled. He stepped back, but Glori could see that he had to lean against the wall for support. There was another kobold lying on the ground just past him. There was another bloody knife lying next to its hand, indicating that it had gotten another piece of the monk before it had died.

It looked like Kosk had lost many such pieces already. His robe was gashed in a number of places, and covered in bloodstains.

“You’re crazy,” she said. “Rushing in here alone.”

“It will take more than a bunch of kobolds to put an end to me,” Kosk said. When Glori sheathed her dagger and unlimbered her lyre he said, “I’m fine.”

“You’re about to collapse from blood loss, you stubborn fool,” she said. She played a soft melody that invoked the healing magic of the lyre, channeling the power of a cure wounds spell into the injured dwarf. He took a deep breath as the magic took hold and eased the worst of the damage he’d sustained.

“Where are the others?” he asked.

“They went around. We think there’s another entrance further up the hill.”

“You came down here alone?”

She shot him a look. “You’re going to second-guess me? Really?”

“Never mind. Come on, there was one more that got away.”

Without waiting for a response Kosk started forward again, forcing Glori to hurry to keep up. As she stepped over the dead kobold she said, “You must really hate these creatures.”

“They’re vermin,” the dwarf said without looking back.

The tunnel continued its gradual ascent. Glori was beginning to think that they would pass through the entire hill when they came around another slight bend to see the reassuring glow of daylight ahead. Kosk was still going at full tilt up the passage and was quickly drawing ahead of her.

“Wait, damn it, just wait!” Glori said.

The dwarf didn’t stop, but he slowed just enough for Glori to catch up to him. She reached the bright exit only a few steps behind him, and emerged into daylight.

They were in a round canyon roughly thirty feet across. The cliff walls that ringed them were almost twenty feet high. There was another tunnel opening on the far side of the canyon roughly opposite where they’d come in, and another opening to its left, which accessed a narrow ledge about ten feet off the ground. The late-afternoon sunlight didn’t reach the canyon floor, but after the absolute dark of the tunnel it took their eyes a moment to adjust to the sudden brightness.

Because of that moment of adjustment Glori didn’t immediately see the kobold that appeared on the ledge, but she caught the hint of motion when it lifted a bow and aimed another of the stubby arrows directly at her heart.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 38

Glori froze as the kobold archer took aim at her. She knew she should look for cover, but there wasn’t anywhere to hide.

But before the kobold could unleash his missile a loud, deep cry drew her attention up to the rim of the canyon. She was startled to see a large armored form come hurtling down out of the sky. The kobold saw it too, and flinched back. It dove for the tunnel mouth at the back of the ledge, but just as it reached that escape the descending figure landed on the ledge. Glori couldn’t see if the kobold had been crushed or simply knocked into the tunnel, but she did see the new arrival bounce off the solidity of the cliff wall and totter backward. For a moment her heart caught in her chest as he hung there on the very edge, half his body tilted out over the empty space below, but then he managed to recover enough to fall forward to relative safety.

Once he was secure, Quellan turned and waved at them.

“And you call me crazy,” Kosk said.

“Where’s Bredan?” Glori yelled up at the cleric.

“He was right behind me,” Quellan said. And as if summoned by the half-orc’s words the smith appeared along the rim of the canyon. He took a less direct route down to the ledge, following a series of faint, almost invisible steps that had been cut into the cliff face.

“Did you get that archer?” Kosk asked.

Quellan nodded. “Broke his back, I think.”

“There must be a way up there,” the dwarf said. He hurried off again before Glori could stop him, vanishing into the far tunnel. Glori just threw her hands up and followed him.

This tunnel was more spacious than the earlier ones, and Glori found that she could walk fully upright and without scraping her elbows on the walls. The passage continued for about twenty feet before emerging onto another guardroom, similar to the first except for the more generous dimensions. The room was vacant except for a small table and a few chairs, but there were signs that a number of kobolds had been there recently. There were two exits, one that went back toward the canyon and another in the far wall. Kosk took a quick glance at the closer exit before moving over to the other one. For a moment Glori thought he might go charging off again, but he only peered into the passage, careful to remain behind the cover of the corner.

A clank of mail and heavy boots announced the arrival first of Quellan then Bredan, who came into the room from the near passage.

“Sorry it took us so long,” Quellan said. “The kobolds set some snares on the hillside.”

“As far as I’m concerned you came at exactly the right moment,” Glori said.

“Are you crazy?” Bredan asked, coming around the room toward Kosk. “Rushing off alone like that?”

“I already told him,” Glori said.

“Quiet!” the dwarf hissed, holding up a hand to keep Bredan from stepping into the view of the far passage.

Quellan and Glori sidled around the table to join Kosk. “What’s ahead?” the half-orc whispered.

“It’s their lair, I think,” Kosk said. “Heard a bunch of them skittering around in there before you two louts arrived with all your clanking.”

“How many, do you think?” Glori asked.

“Not bloody enough,” Kosk said.

Glori stepped forward so she could grab him in case he went charging off again. The dwarf glared at her but didn’t move. “Can we maybe think of a plan first, this time?”

“There’s only one way in,” Kosk said. “One of the outer guards got away from me, they’re probably preparing for us as we waste time here. I heard some scraping sounds, they’re probably moving furniture to fortify their position.”

“Maybe we can negotiate with them,” Quellan suggested. “If they have the boy…”

“They’re kobolds,” Kosk said with disgust. “They’re cowards, but they’ll fight like devils defending their lair. If they do have the boy, our only chance to save him is to hit hard and hit fast.”

“I think… I think I agree with him,” Bredan said.

“Right,” Kosk said. He looked at Quellan. “You coming?”

Quellan sighed and lifted his shield. “All right. Glori, you said your lyre had the sleep spell?”

Glori had already grabbed her instrument. “Way ahead of you.”

“Let’s do this,” Kosk said, but Quellan interrupted him with a hand on his shoulder. “What now?” the dwarf hissed.

“Bredan, you still have that potion we found in the shrine?” Quellan asked.

After a moment the smith nodded. “You might want to drink it now,” the cleric said.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 39

Grisk and his kobolds waited in ambush behind the row of barrels that they’d dragged into the center of the Outer Lair. The reptilian creatures—seven of them—held their weapons and focused intently on the entrance tunnel. Only Kuluk had a bow, but several of the others held small spears that they would throw at the first intruder to appear. Once engaged they would all draw their knives and swarm at the enemy from all directions, darting and slicing until all of the enemies were dead.

Grisk glanced back at the tunnel that led to the rear cave. The cave where the great Nuruk had lived when he had been chief of the small tribe. At least until Jargo had ripped his head off with his bare hands.

Grisk couldn’t help but shudder at the thought. It was the kobold way, yield before strength, but it still rankled to have turned over the leadership of their tribe to a pair of outsiders. Outsiders who still hadn’t made an appearance, though it had been at least fifty pulsebeats since Vurk had gone to warn them of intruders in the complex. They should have been here by now, unless…

“Enemies come!” Kuluk hissed. Grisk turned back, lifting his scimitar. The looted weapon was his most prized possession, though the blade was old and pitted. Shadows shifted in the entrance passage, and the kobolds tensed. Grisk let out a sharp whistle to let the ambush force know to be ready. They were kobolds, they would defend their lair with clever cunning, regardless of what their “leaders” chose to do.

But before the first foe appeared, a loud shout reverberated through the cavern. It sounded louder than anything Grisk had heard before, louder even than Jargo’s battle cry. The kobolds all flinched back from that sound, but Grisk quickly urged them back up, knowing what was coming.

He was right, as he lifted his head to see a dwarf and a human come charging into the room with their weapons raised to attack.

* * *

The echoes from Quellan’s shout, augmented by his thaumaturgy, were still ringing in Bredan’s ears as he rushed into the cavern behind Kosk. But the kobolds looked to be even worse off. A bunch of them were gathered behind a row of barrels arranged directly across from the entrance, not far from a firepit built under a natural chimney that allowed just the faintest hint of natural light into the room. Bredan opened his fist and tossed the pebble that Quellan had enchanted with a light spell across the room. It skittered to the front of the barricade, causing the kobolds to flinch back from the bright glow.

A spear shot past his head, but it flew well wide and struck the cavern wall behind him. Another kobold was trying to get a bead on Kosk with its bow, but even as it drew the string back it slumped to the ground. Several of the other kobolds fell as well, victims of Glori’s sleep spell.

Kosk moved right, coming around the edge of the line of barrels. A kobold darted out to meet him, but had to duck back to avoid getting brained by the dwarf’s staff. A second creature tried to come at him from the side, but Kosk spun into a kick that cracked the kobold in the chest and knocked it sprawling. It managed to crawl away, but was clearly badly hurt.

Bredan saw several more of the creatures huddling behind the barrels, including one that had a curved sword almost as big as it was. It was trying to wake up one of its sleeping companions, but on seeing Bredan it let out a squeak and grabbed the sword.

Bredan lunged and delivered a solid kick to the barrel. It toppled over, striking the kobold and knocking it back. The smith lifted his sword and prepared to finish it off, but a shout of alarm from Glori spun his head around.

The bard had followed them into the room, ready to support the warriors with her lyre in her hands. Quellan had rushed to help Kosk, leaving her alone for the moment. She’d moved to the left not to get in the way of the fighting, but that had brought her closer to a narrow side passage that Bredan hadn’t immediately noticed in the confusion of the fight. But he noticed it now as another five kobolds rushed from that passage and ran toward Glori with knives gleaming bright in the light.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 40

As soon as the second group of kobolds appeared Glori knew that she’d made a mistake. She reached for her lyre, hoping to get a second sleep spell off, but as the first kobold raised its knife she knew she wouldn’t get the chance.

“Glori!” Bredan yelled. She knew he’d be coming for her, but there was no time.

In desperation, she scraped her fingers wildly across the strings of the lyre, unleashing a chaos of sound from the instrument.

She didn’t expect anything to happen, but to her surprise the discordant notes built into a wave of sound that erupted outward from her. The pulse caught the first kobold up and physically hurled it across the room. It struck the wall of the cavern next to the passage and crumpled to the ground. The others that had been right behind it were all knocked to the floor. As she stared in surprise she saw that only one of them was moving, and that one was crawling feebly away, leaving a trail of blood that trickled from its nostrils and ears.

She turned to see Bredan staring at her with a look of surprise on his face. But she also saw a flash of movement behind him. “Look out!”

Bredan spun around. His sword barely caught the scimitar that swept out toward the backs of his legs. The kobold’s weapon shattered from the impact, and before it could get away the smith swept his huge blade around and severed its head from its shoulders.

The few kobolds left alive were in full flight, rushing or crawling toward the exits. After driving his final foe to the ground Kosk started after them, but he barely got half a dozen steps before a new combatant entered the fray.

Bredan had to do a double-take before he could believe what his eyes were telling him. The figure that strode forward into the room from the far passage was huge. He had to be eight feet tall, his head brushing the ceiling of the cavern, his shoulders as broad as a wagon’s axle. His features were clearly not human, his skin a mottled gray with a splayed nose the size of a dinner plate and too-large teeth bulging in his mouth. Bredan was reminded of Starfinder’s butler, but unlike Mog this creature had a weapon, a huge double-bladed axe that seemed to glow in his hand as it caught the light.

If Kosk was intimidated by this new adversary he didn’t show it. He immediately pivoted toward the giant and swept his staff around toward his left knee. The giant turned into the blow, absorbing the impact on his upper thigh. He countered with a sweep of his axe. In the close quarters he couldn’t get his full strength behind it, but the impact still struck the monk with devastating effect. Kosk was lifted off his feet and flung across the room. He landed hard and skidded to a stop near the fire pit. Bredan could see the bright red smear he’d left on the stone floor of the cavern.

Quellan ran to the fallen dwarf’s aid, while Bredan stepped forward to confront the giant. The creature took him in with one quick look, noting his mail coat and huge sword, and his lips twisted into a grim smile that highlighted his misaligned yellow teeth.

Then he leapt forward and swung his axe with a loud cry of battle.

Quellan grasped his holy symbol as he knelt beside Kosk. The dwarf’s side was still spurting blood from the deep gash just under his ribs. One look was enough to tell the cleric that his friend would die in moments without immediate intervention.

But Quellan did not have a chance to begin his spell before he felt a sudden lance of pain penetrate his side. He reflexively thrust his arm out, connecting with an unseen adversary who was knocked back a few steps. As the cleric turned to face the foe he saw a figure clad in a dark cloak over a coat made of mismatched fabrics. Their collision had knocked his attacker’s cowl back, revealing a visage out of a nightmare. He was humanoid, but his facial features were a confused jumble as chaotic as his coat. One side of his face was covered in uneven tufts of wiry black fur, while the other consisted of gray scales that extended from his jawbone up to his eye. The eyes were also different, one beady and yellow and the other the cloudy gray of smoke.

The mongrel-man lifted a short sword that glistened with Quellan’s blood. “There are few who can withstand my sting,” he said. “I will take my time carving you up, orc-kin, so you can listen as Jargo chops your friends to pieces.”

Quellan didn’t reach for his mace, but instead presented the holy symbol in his fist. The mongrelman tensed, but the cleric’s guiding bolt still caught him in one shoulder before he could shift out of the way. The creature stumbled back to the edge of the fire pit. He wasn’t seriously hurt, but his lips twisted in an angry snarl as the sparking radiance of the spell continued to shimmer around his body.

Bredan’s uncle had trained him to expect the unexpected when facing a foe, but even so the speed of his giant adversary took him by surprise. The clang of metal striking metal echoed through the cavern as their blades met, sending sharp jolts of pain up Bredan’s arms. He only just barely ducked under a follow-up stroke that would have cleaved his skull in two had it connected.

He tried to distract his foe with a desultory sweep at his legs, but the giant merely chuckled and tapped the sword aside with the shaft of his axe. The weapon had to be heavier than Bredan’s sword by a good margin, but the brute wielded it as though it was one of the wooden practice blades that he’d trained with behind the smithy.

The one advantage Bredan had was the low ceiling, which meant that the giant had to swing his axe sideways and couldn’t rely on the power of an overhead strike. But that constrained the smith just as much, and as he was driven back he had to be alert to the danger of clipping his blade on the cavern walls.

He pivoted back toward the center of the room, but the axe blade was there to meet him. He caught it in a full parry that drove his sword back into his own body from the sheer force of impact, but the layered mail of his hauberk protected him from being cut by his own weapon, and the stamina granted by the magical potion let him shrug off the effects of the hit. He caught the head of the axe behind the edge of his sword, and for a moment the two warriors were drawn close together. Bredan tried to pull the giant in even closer so he could drive the pommel of his sword into his face, but Jargo saw the gambit coming and held his ground easily.

“You’re good, but not good enough,” the creature said.

Bredan tensed, expecting him to either yank his axe clear or try to jam it into his body, but the giant did something else unexpected. Jargo released one hand from his weapon and let the other slide down to the very end of the haft, then stepped back and drove his boot into Bredan’s belly.

Bredan was not a small man, but the kick drove the air from his body and launched him across the room. He hit the floor and slid, coming to a stop in front of the entrance passage where the fight had begun just moments before. Gasping for breath, he looked up to see the giant striding effortlessly toward him.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 41

Jargo’s approach toward his staggered foe was interrupted as an arrow thudded into his coat. But he only spared Glori a desultory glance before returning his focus to Bredan. “When I’m finished with you,” he growled, “I will deal with your woman.”

Bredan felt a sudden calm fall over him. His hand tightened on the hilt of his father’s sword. He flashed back to the courtyard behind the smithy, where he and his uncle had spent countless hours practicing with every kind of weapon the elder Karras could either get his hands on or simulate with blocks of wood. This giant was unlike any foe that Bredan had ever faced, but the axe was just another weapon. Time seemed to slow to a crawl and he could see in his mind how the giant would place his foot, how he would shift his weight as he placed his strength behind an unblockable sweep of that deadly edge.

Bredan sprang up and swept his sword into the giant’s path. He wasn’t sure if it was the potion or the adrenaline rushing through his body, but the weapon suddenly felt as light as the wooden practice blades he had trained so long with. Jargo met the blade and parried it easily, bringing his axe up to chop the edge into his adversary’s throat as the weight of his sword pulled him inevitably around. But Bredan kept control, continuing his pivot and spinning down into a crouch even as the axe carved the air where he’d been just a moment before. The half-ogre realized his mistake and released the axe to drive his foe back with a punch to the face that likely would have shattered the smith’s nose if not his skull. But even as the massive fist started forward Bredan finished his spin and thrust forward and upward with all his strength. His father’s sword slid into the giant’s body. Jargo convulsed and let out a bloody cough. The fist that had had so much power behind it just an instant before bounced off the smith’s armored forehead without effect. With a feral growl Bredan drove the sword deeper into his enemy. The half-ogre that had seemed so deadly just heartbeats earlier stumbled back and then crumpled to the floor.

On the far side of the room, Quellan and his opponent witnessed the whole exchange. The glow from the guiding bolt had faded, leaving the pair facing off with their normal weapons, but as Jargo slumped to the ground his companion darted back and fled into one of the passages in the back of the cavern. Quellan didn’t bother to try to chase him, but instead turned back to Kosk and stabilized him with his final cure wounds spell.

Glori went over to Bredan with a look of concern on her face. “Are you okay?”

With an obvious effort Bredan tore his sword from the dead warrior’s body. “Yeah.”

“I’m out of healing spells, but I still have my potion…”

“Save it. I’m getting my second wind.” He thought of all the times his uncle had forced him to fight through bruises and cuts and strains, and silently thanked him. He rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand, a little surprised not to see any blood. “That spell, with the kobolds… what was that?”

“I don’t know… I didn’t know the lyre could do that.”

A groan followed by a familiar curse drew their attention back over to the far side of the room. “Kosk!” Glori said. “Is he okay?” she asked Quellan.

“I’m fine,” the dwarf said. He was still lying on his back but appeared to be intact and alert. His wound had closed, but he still looked pale. “That big bastard… you got him?”

“Yeah, I got him,” Bredan said. “We got him,” he amended with a look toward Glori.

“Good,” the dwarf said. Ignoring Quellan’s cautioning hand, he pulled himself to his feet. “Where’s my staff?” he asked.

Glori stepped in front of him. “Here,” she said, offering him her potion of healing. “Drink this, you can barely stand.”

“I said I was fine.”

“And I said you can barely stand. I’m not offering this to be nice. A number of the kobolds got away during the fight, and I saw that guy that stabbed Quellan take off too. If we run into them again, I don’t want you going down if one of them breathes on you too heavily.”

The dwarf glared at her, but he accepted the vial.

“Speaking of that,” Glori continued, “Quellan, you’d better drink your potion too, if you are out of healing spells.”

The cleric blinked, then as if just remembering his wound he glanced down at the bloody trail trickling down his side. A pool of blood had gathered beneath him just in the few moments he’d been helping Kosk. He quickly pressed his hand against his side to staunch the flow of blood. “I used my potion to save Kosk in the shrine, in the fight against the mephit.”

“Of course you did,” Bredan said. He stepped forward and produced his vial.

“You need that more…” Quellan began, but Bredan quickly interrupted him. “I’m fine,” the smith said, tapping his chest. “Trained warrior. Second wind. Now please drink this before you bleed to death.”

After a moment the cleric nodded and accepted the potion. He drained its contents in a single swallow, and let out a sigh of relief as it worked its magic.

Thus fortified, the companions turned to an exploration of the cavern.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 42

Quellan recovered his light stone and used it to push back the gloom that lingered in the back part of the cavern. The spell’s glow revealed a total of four exits around the perimeter of the room, all of which were far back from the entrance and the chimney over the fire pit.

“The kobolds fled via those two,” Kosk said, indicating the two leftmost exits. “There’s probably another lair further back.”

“The creature that attacked me went that way,” Quellan said, pointing to the passage furthest to the right. “It seems pretty clear that he and the half-ogre were in charge here.”

“That was a half-ogre?” Bredan asked.

“Indeed,” the cleric replied. “An uncommon combination, but possessed of incredible physical strength and stamina, as you saw.”

“Yeah,” Bredan said, with another look at his fallen foe.

“Did you check to see if he had anything on him?” Glori asked. She started to head over to the corpse, but Kosk said, “You can loot the bodies later. Every second we waste here is time for the kobolds to rally and set up another line of defense.”

“You think they’ll still put up a fight after what just happened here?” Bredan asked.

“They’re kobolds,” Kosk said. He made their decision by marching over to the leftmost exit, the one that the kobold ambushers had appeared from, though he waited for the others to follow before continuing ahead.

None of them spotted the dark figure that appeared from one of the other passages. The figure waited until they had headed into the dwarf’s chosen exit before he slipped through the room, making his way silently toward the tunnel that led outside. A large sack bulged under his cloak, but the extra weight gave him no difficulty. Within moments, he was gone.

The four adventurers came to a short flight of steps that deposited them on the edge of another cave. This one was maybe half the size of the main lair, but it seemed even smaller because of the low ceiling. A potent stink filled the air. A pool of water stood just off to their left. Beyond it the floor rose to meet the ceiling until the clearance between them was less than four feet.

Crowded into that space was a small horde of kobolds. It was difficult to count them all in the close confines but it looked like there were at least a few dozen of them. The creatures blinked and skittered back as the light in Quellan’s hand penetrated back into their hidey-hole.

“Time to finish this,” Kosk said.

“Wait a moment,” Quellan said. “Look at them, they’re no threat.”

A closer look at the survivors of the tribe seemed to bear out the cleric’s comment. Only a few of the kobolds carried weapons, and from the wounds they bore those were the survivors of the fight in the outer lair. The others ranged from slightly smaller than the warrior males to half their size. The females and young cringed back against the far wall of the cave.

“They’re terrified,” Glori said.

“They’re kobolds,” Kosk said, his voice thick with anger. “What do you think those little ones are going to do when they grow up?”

“We can’t even fit back there,” Bredan said. It was clear from the look on his face he shared the reluctance of the cleric and bard.

“That’s what the crossbow is for,” Kosk said. “If you don’t want to do it, give it to me.”

“We’re not murderers,” Glori said.

“Careful!” Bredan warned, as several of the kobolds shuffled forward. The kobolds flinched as the adventurers lifted their weapons, but after a moment continued their approach. They were carrying something that they put down near the edge of the pool before retreating back to the edge of the crowd. The object was a shallow copper bowl that was filled with an assortment of copper and silver coins.

“An offering?” Glori asked.

“A bribe,” Kosk said.

“Do any of you speak Common?” Quellan asked.

A stir went through the kobolds, accompanied by yapping in low voices that didn’t sound promising. “What language do they speak?” Bredan asked.

“Draconic,” Glori said.

“Which none of us understands,” Kosk pointed out.

After a moment one of the kobolds shuffled forward again, obviously reluctant. Smears of blood covered its face, suggesting it was the one who had survived Glori’s thunderwave. “I speaks some hooman,” it said.

“Ask them about the boy?” Glori prodded.

Quellan nodded. “Is there a boy here? A human boy?”

“Yeah, I’m sure he’s here and treated like royalty,” Kosk muttered.

The kobold looked between them, clearly not understanding. “The boy… a captive?” Quellan said. When the kobold just looked at him blankly he added, “Prisoners? Are there prisoners here?”

The kobold let out a sharp bark. “Prissner! Yes! Jargo and Cthel keep. In chief cave.”

“Jargo and Cthel, that would be our friends from back there, I expect,” Glori said.

“We killed the big one,” Quellan said. He made a ferocious expression and then mimed holding an axe, then pointed to Bredan and his sword. “Our warrior killed him.”

“Oh, for the love of…” Kosk said.

The kobold let out an angry hiss that was echoed by those behind him. “Jargo bad, we hates Jargo!” the creature said. “Jargo kill chief, pull off head!”

“Is the boy alive?” Quellan asked. “Prissner alive?”

At the kobold’s eager nod Glori said, “We’d better find him before this ‘Cthel’ decides to use him as a bargaining chip.”

“What are we going to do with them?” Bredan asked, gesturing toward the kobold. “I may not agree fully with Kosk, but the fact remains that they most likely killed that hunter from the village, if not more people.”

“That could have been the leaders’ doing,” Quellan said.

“And even if they did, we’re not like them,” Glori said.

“You know what I bloody think,” Kosk said.

Quellan slipped forward into the low space of the cave. The kobolds drew back, but the half-orc only took hold of the bowl and slid it over to where Bredan waited. “You will turn over all of your weapons,” the cleric said, his voice heavy and low. “You will stay here until we leave, and then you will depart this place and never return. I do not care where you go, as long as it is away from the human lair beyond these hills.” As he spoke his voice deepened and the sound of it echoed off the walls, an effect similar to the one he’d created in their initial intrusion into the lair. Glori, seeing what he was doing, strummed her lyre and created a minor magical illusion. A softly-glowing radiance shimmered into being around the half-orc. Within it Quellan seemed to swell outward, his visage taking on an added ferocity and his eyes glowing red. “You must swear by your god Kurtulmak that you will not threaten any humans again, or I will come for you!”

The kobolds were now crawling over each other in a general panic, one that ebbed only fractionally as the cleric finished his declaration. They might not have understood everything he said, but the threat definitely got across. When Bredan stepped forward and said, “Weapons! Now!” there was a general stir and then a few knives and clubs were tossed forward to land at his feet. The smith swept them all up and tossed them into the bowl.

“You’re all bloody nuts,” Kosk said, but he remained with the others as they left the cave behind and returned to the outer lair.

With the knowledge that the mysterious and dangerous “Cthel” might still be lurking ahead the companions moved into the other part of the complex. Unlike most of the rest of the kobold lair this passage was large enough to accommodate all of them comfortably, making it obvious why the half-ogre and his confederate had chosen it for themselves. They passed a small chamber that was empty save for some scraps of wood and a few empty sacks of torn canvas. A passage in the back of the room led back to the main lair, while to their right a set of natural stone steps ascended a steep shaft to another cavern above.

“Supply room, maybe,” Bredan said, peering into the side-room.

“Nothing left,” Glori said. “Looks like our big friend was eating the kobolds out of house and home.”

Kosk just grunted and started up the stairs. Glori followed him, with Quellan and Bredan just a few steps behind.

The cleric’s stone revealed a long, irregular cavern that extended into darkness. This place had been left more or less as nature had created it, down to the stalagmites and stalactites that extended along the walls. The only compromise to comfort had been a cleared space in the center of the cave where a table and two chairs had been set up. The furnishings were obviously sized for creatures significantly larger than kobolds.

“Looks like someone left in a hurry,” Kosk said, pointing to an open chest along the wall to the left of the stairs. A few objects were scattered around the chest, and a bulky fur hung from the side of the container.

The dwarf found out that wasn’t all they’d left as he stepped forward and tripped a thin, almost invisible wire stretched across the top of the stairs. There was a loud click, followed by a deluge of rocks that plummeted down from above.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Rocks fall...? ;-)
I've been busy, so I just got to read four in a row - loving it! Thanks, Lazybones!
Thanks for the post, carborundum!

* * *

Chapter 43

As soon as he felt the pressure of the wire on his shin Kosk launched himself forward. He landed in a tumble and rolled to his feet as the head-sized stones that had been carefully stacked on a shelf over the entrance struck the floor and started bouncing down the steps. He hadn’t gotten through unscathed, but ignored the painful twinges in his shoulder and hip as he scanned the darkness ahead for threats.

As soon as the rocks started falling Quellan grabbed hold of Glori and yanked her back out of the area of the trap. He felt a sharp pain as one of the rocks bounced off his shin, but didn’t flinch as he sheltered the bard with his body. Bredan let out a curse but kept his footing as the stones continued their noisy passage down the stairs before rolling to a stop in the passage below.

“Are you all right?” Quellan asked.

“Yeah,” Glori said. “Thanks. Again.”

“Kosk, are you okay?” Bredan called up.

“Bloody wonderful,” the dwarf shot back. “No sign of the bastard.”

The others hurried up to join him. “Bet your scaly little pals sent up a cheer when they heard that,” Kosk growled.

“I bet they’re already a mile away by now,” Bredan said.

Glori had headed over toward the chest, but abruptly drew back. “Crap,” she said.

“What is it?” Bredan asked, only to recoil as he got a whiff of the same stink.

“Literally crap, I think,” Glori said. “It looks like someone dumped a chamber pot in there.”

“If I can’t have it, no one can?” Quellan asked.

“Looks like our friends paused to grab their loot before heading down to meet us,” Kosk said.

“If so, they still might have it on them,” Glori said. She’d turned halfway back toward the stairs before Quellan stopped her. “The boy, first,” he said.

“Right.”

They started forward again. The cave extended for quite a ways, becoming more irregular and rough as they pushed on. They passed a pair of rough bedrolls, mounds of cloth and fur that stank almost as badly as the foul mess that had been dumped in the chest. Finally the light revealed the back of the cave, the rough wall obscured by a small forest of mineral formations.

“I think I saw something moving over there!” Glori hissed, pointing into one irregular corner where the light didn’t quite reach.

They readied their weapons, but no threat emerged from the shadows. Quellan finally bent and tossed his stone forward. The glowing rock skittered across the floor, coming to a stop at the base of one of the larger stalagmites.

The light revealed the prisoner. It wasn’t a boy, but a full-grown woman. She was securely tied with ropes around her ankles, knees, and elbows, with her hands secured in what had to be a painful tension behind her back. She was gagged, with another rope fastened around her throat that connected to the mineral pillar and kept her from lying down.

But what caught their attention most immediately was her appearance. She might have been human, save for the obvious red tint to her skin, brighter and deeper than any sunburn, and the pale horns that jutted from her forehead and twisted back in tight curves above her ears.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 44

Bredan started forward toward the bound woman, but Kosk stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Careful. She’s a tiefling. Fiendspawn.”

“She’s a prisoner,” Glori said.

“Yes, and we don’t know why she’s here,” the dwarf said. “Her kind are dangerous.”

The woman could clearly hear their exchange but only watched silently, her only movement the shifting of her chest with each breath. Her clothes looked like they might have been of good quality once, but now were rather the worse for wear.

Bredan pulled away from Kosk’s grasp. He turned to Glori and extended a hand, nodding toward her belt. After just a moment’s hesitation she drew out her dagger and handed it over hilt-first. The smith took it and headed over to the prisoner. Kosk didn’t stand in his way, but he shifted to the side in a meaningful move to give him clear access if anything happened.

Bredan knelt before the tiefling woman. “We’re not going to hurt you,” he said. “I’m going to cut you free, okay?” At her nod he leaned forward and severed the rope connecting her to the stalagmite. She slumped forward, wincing as the motion sent twinges through obviously strained muscles. But she managed to scoot herself up and turned so he could get at the ropes binding her wrists and elbows.

Once Bredan had cut those bindings she extended her arms and flexed her fingers. She reached up—moving slowly, obviously not trying to provoke them—and undid the gag. “Do you have water?” she asked.

Glori handed over her flask, and she drank deeply before handing it back. “Thank you,” she said. Bredan had left her legs tied, but she didn’t ask him to cut the remaining bonds just yet.

“What are you doing here?” Kosk asked.

“I thought it would be obvious,” the tiefling said.

“I’m Glori, by the way. The sour dwarf is Kosk, the looming mountain over there is Quellan, and the dashing warrior who freed you is Bredan.”

The woman looked at each of them in turn with a slightly bemused expression. “I am Xeeta.”

“That’s an unusual name,” Glori said.

“Not where I’m from.”

“And where is that, exactly?” Kosk asked.

“From the south. The Island Kingdoms.”

“You’re a long way from home,” the dwarf said.

“Yes.”

“I think what my friend was getting at before,” Quellan said, “Is how you came to be captured by the kobolds.”

Xeeta let out a deep sigh. “Stupidity and bad luck, I suppose. I was traveling through the hills near here and became fatigued. I came upon a campsite that looked like it was used fairly often, so I assumed that meant the region was safe. I normally am a fairly light sleeper, but they caught me unawares.”

“You were traveling alone?” Kosk asked.

She straightened at that, though it had to cause her at least some pain to do so, especially with her legs still bound. “Yes. For some reason, many people don’t feel inclined to trust me.”

“I understand,” Quellan said, and something in the way he said it had her looking at him again. “Bredan, you should free her legs, those ropes must be uncomfortable.”

“Quite so,” Xeeta said. She waited until Bredan cut the remaining few lengths of rope, then she sighed and extended her legs. Her trousers were cut in several places, showing that the reddish tint to her skin extended over her entire body. There were also a number of places where her clothes were marked with old bloodstains. “I think I will wait a moment before trying to stand up, if that’s okay with you.”

“How long have you been here?” Glori asked.

“A few days. Though it feels like longer.”

“We came here looking for a boy,” Quellan said. “A human child of eleven years who went missing from a nearby village.”

“I haven’t seen any other prisoners since I’ve been here,” Xeeta said. “I assume you ran into Jargo and Cthel. Are they dead?”

“The half-ogre is,” Kosk said. “The boy killed him,” he added, nodding toward Bredan.

Xeeta smiled, revealing teeth that were slightly pointed, and Bredan flushed. “The mongrelman got away,” Quellan said. “He might have gotten past us.”

Xeeta nodded. “He’s stealthy, that one.”

“What were they doing here?” Glori asked.

“From what I could overhear, they arrived here a couple of weeks ago. Killed the kobolds’ chief and took over the tribe. They’ve been sponging off them ever since.”

“We figured it was something like that,” Quellan said.

“Did they talk about any plans?” Glori asked. “Raids they might have been planning, that sort of thing.”

“Not specifically, but recently I overheard them talking about moving on. Something about trouble in the north, and opportunities for a ‘big score.’”

The companions shared a look. “The King’s proclamation,” Glori said. “They must have heard about it.”

“Proclamation?” Xeeta asked.

“There’s been an invasion, near Adelar,” Bredan said. “An army of goblinoids burned some villages and killed a bunch of people. The King’s called for aid. We were headed that way when we heard about the missing boy.”

“I see.”

“You hadn’t heard anything about that?” Kosk asked.

“I don’t spend much time in settlements, for obvious reasons.”

“That sounds lonely,” Glori said.

Xeeta blinked at her in surprise, but said nothing.

Kosk cleared his throat. “It’s clear that the boy isn’t here. Let’s finish our sweep and get out of here.”

“Did Jargo and Cthel have any treasure hidden around here?” Glori asked Xeeta.

“They had a cache under a rock near where they sleep, but I think they took it with them before they left to confront you.”

“How much you want to bet that shifty bastard has it all with him now?” Bredan said.

Xeeta tried to stand up, only to sag as her legs gave out under her. Bredan took hold of her and held her upright. “Thank you,” she said. “Do you mind if I accompany you, at least to this village you spoke of?”

“The locals there might not be welcoming,” Kosk cautioned.

“We can speak on your behalf,” Quellan said.

“That might not be necessary,” Xeeta said. She waved a hand and spoke a word that reverberated softly in the air before vanishing from their memories. The air in front of her shimmered, and her appearance changed. She was still more or less the same size and shape, but her tiefling features were gone, replaced by a milky-pale skin, light blonde hair, and green eyes. Her horns disappeared, and when she smiled her teeth looked normal.

“You’re a wizard!” Glori exclaimed.

“A sorcerer, actually,” Xeeta said. “My powers are innate.”

Kosk had shifted into a ready stance as soon as the tiefling had begun her spell, and he only relaxed slightly when it became clear she wasn’t going to unleash some nasty destructive magic. “I knew it,” he muttered.

“By any chance, have you seen a rod of black wood, about the length of my arm?” Xeeta asked.

“No, but it might be in the crap box,” Glori said.

That drew a raised eyebrow, but no comment.

They made their way back out of the cave. Xeeta allowed Bredan to help her, though she did a good job of masking the obvious pain she felt as sensation returned to her battered limbs. Now that they knew what to look for they could easily see the stalagmite that had been shifted to conceal the bandit leaders’ treasure. Glori took a look inside the hollow space, which was just big enough to hold a small chest or other container. Now, of course, it was empty.

Once they returned to the outer room, Xeeta went over to examine the open chest. On detecting the mess that the bandits had left behind her nose wrinkled and she muttered, “Animals.” But she had no difficulty reaching into the chest and pulling out a black rod. It was smeared with filth, but she held it out and summoned her magic. Her eyes seemed to flash and wisps of flame erupted from her fingers clenched around the wooden shaft. They traveled up and down the length of the rod, scouring it clean without inflicting any apparent damage on the wood.

“Is any of this other stuff yours?” Glori asked.

“No,” Xeeta said. “This is all I need.”

“I think we could have used you earlier,” Bredan said.

“Let’s go,” Kosk said.

“The kobolds have been destroyed, I presume?” Xeeta asked as they started back down the stairs. The tiefling woman was moving more easily now, though she still held onto one wall for support as she negotiated the steps.

“We killed most of the warriors,” Glori said. “The rest we let go.”

Xeeta glanced quickly at each of them in turn, noting the dwarf’s scowl in particular, but made no comment.

The main lair was as they had left it. There was no sign of its former inhabitants, or the mongrelman rogue.

Xeeta walked across the room until she was standing over Jargo. She muttered something in a harsh, guttural language, the abruptly raised the rod and smashed it down into the dead warrior’s face. She delivered several more blows in rapid succession, then drew back, breathing heavily. Bredan had started to step toward her, a hand raised to offer support, but he hesitated.

Glori came around the other side of the half-ogre. “Big surprise, his purse is gone,” she reported.

“Thieving little bastards,” Kosk muttered.

“We accomplished what we came here to do,” Quellan said.

“Did we?” the dwarf asked.

“We’ll find the boy,” the cleric said. “We swore an oath.”

Bredan sidled slightly closer to Xeeta. “Are you okay?”

The tiefling took a deep, steadying breath, and then straightened. “I’m fine. I’m ready to leave this place now.”

They filed toward the exit. None of them looked back.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 45

Xeeta stared at herself in the tiny mirror.

The mirror was of poor quality and showed a slightly blurred image, but the distinctive features of her heritage were clearly visible. The clothes were new, and cheaper than what she’d been wearing, but they were clean and sturdy. Between that and the natural imperfections in the mirror she could almost imagine that the face she saw belonged to a stranger. Almost.

She turned away and looked around the room. It was also tiny, though clean and neat. The proprietor of the Gray Oak Inn clearly put a lot of effort into his accommodations, even out here in the middle of nowhere.

Her gaze swept back to the basin under the mirror and the small purse that sat upon its edge. It held only a handful of silver and copper coins. Her rescuers had agreed to give her a share of the money they’d taken from the kobolds. It was generous, especially since she’d done nothing to earn such a reward, but she couldn’t help but think back to earlier days. When she’d left Li Syval she’d had a purse full of platinum trade marks and electrum obots, along with fine clothes trimmed in silver thread and a dagger with an opal embedded in the hilt.

That was a long time ago.

She shook off the memories of the past, angry at herself. She had long since stopped allowing herself to wallow in what might have been. It was well past time to embrace reality.

She looked back at the mirror, challenging the face staring back at her. Finally she lifted a hand, spoke the words of magic that summoned her power. The image in the mirror blurred again, but this time it was replaced by a new face, one with pale skin, a normal shade, framed with gentle curls instead of twisting horns.

She reached out and took both the purse and her rod. Two steps were sufficient to bring her to the door and the hallway beyond. She didn’t bother locking the door behind her. It wasn’t as if she had anything worth stealing.

A few more steps, simple enough, thought they felt harder than the first. Finally she was standing in front of another door. She could hear the sounds of activity from the common room drifting up from the stairs at the end of the hall. She normally didn’t enjoy crowds, but at that moment those noises pulled at her like a magnet tugging on iron shavings. Her disguise would last for an hour, plenty of time to go down and enjoy a glass of wine or a bite of food and pretend she was normal.

You’re being a coward, she berated herself. She reached up and rapped on the door.

The response came at once. “Come in.”

Bredan’s room was only slightly larger than hers, though it had an actual table and two chairs crowded into a corner. The warrior was seated in one of those chairs, while Glori sat on the bed with her legs tucked under her.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to intrude,” Xeeta said when she saw the half-elf woman.

“You’re not intruding,” Glori said. “I was just about to head down to the common room, if you were looking to talk with Bredan alone…” There was a hint of something in her tone that had the warrior—gods, he was really just a boy—coloring up his neck to his ears.

“It’s quite all right,” Xeeta said, coming into the room enough so she could close the door behind her. “I’d like to speak with both of you, actually.”

“Would you like to sit?” Bredan asked. At her nod he took the other chair and turned it around so it faced into the center of the room.

“Thank you. I understand you’re going to continue your search for the missing boy tomorrow.”

“Yes, there are a few more sites on our list,” Glori said. “Apparently this village is surrounded by abandoned houses and old ruins.”

“This whole region was once part of the Mai’i Empire,” Xeeta said. “The nature of its collapse left a great deal of wreckage behind.”

“So we’ve been told,” Bredan said.

“I take it you’d like to come with us?” Glori asked.

Xeeta was not often caught off guard, but she blinked in surprise and betrayed a moment’s hesitation before nodding.

“We could use another spellcaster,” Bredan said.

Glori and Xeeta continued to match stares. “You’ll need to convince Quellan and Kosk,” the bard said.

“I know. I thought maybe you could speak for me.”

“Why would they object?” Bredan asked.

The two woman shared a knowing look. Bredan was about to say more, but saw that something more was going on and held his tongue.

“They’ll want to know why,” Glori said.

“I thought about using the argument of my debt to you, for freeing me from those bastards.” She indicated her new clothes. “For helping me get back, for everything.”

“That we would have done for anyone,” Glori said.

“Yes. Yes, I see that. Even Kosk would have done that, maybe.”

“So since you’re not going that way, what reason did you decide on?”

“The truth. It seemed appropriate.”

“And that truth?” Glori asked. Bredan thought that she already knew the answer, but needed to hear it. He looked over at Xeeta, who nodded as if she’d come to the same conclusion.

“I have nowhere else to go.”

“We’re probably not going to find anything at this old estate,” Glori said. “And our road eventually leads north.”

“Well then, I suppose we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Xeeta said.

“I expect the others will want to hear more about your story,” Glori said.

Xeeta nodded again, clearly unsurprised. “It’s not a tale I wish to recollect, but it is a fair request.”

Glori looked at her a moment longer than sprang up. “I think that Quellan and Kosk are in the common room. We can…”

But even as Bredan and Xeeta started to get up they could hear someone approaching. It was impossible to miss the distinctive tread of the cleric ascending the narrow steps of the inn; even though Quellan tried to be unobtrusive it was hard to conceal six feet and three hundred pounds of armored half-orc. Glori went over and opened the door to the room.

“Ah, Bredan, Glori, I was looking for you,” the cleric said when he appeared in the doorway. If he was surprised to see the tiefling there he quickly recovered. “Miss Xeeta,” he said.

“Xeeta wants to go with us tomorrow,” Bredan said.

“Oh? Your aid would be welcome.”

“I told you,” Bredan said.

“I would not wish to insert tension in your relationship with your companion,” Xeeta said.

Quellan waved a hand. “Kosk’s bark is worse than his bite. He’s more tolerant than he seems. After all, he accepted a half-breed as his friend.”

“You’re more than your bloodline,” Glori said.

“Thank you,” Quellan said. “I would say that the same applies to you, Miss Xeeta. Don’t be alarmed if Kosk treats you with caution, or even suspicion, that is just his way. Master Karras received much the same treatment at first.”

“I don’t see how that’s changed,” Bredan muttered.

“I understand that trust is something that must be earned,” Xeeta said. “I appreciate being given the chance to earn it.”

“You came up here to tell us something, Quellan?” Glori asked.

“Oh, yes. The mother of the local notable… Anthernorn… she sought us out, spoke to Kosk and me downstairs. She wants to help us in our investigation of the old abandoned estate.”

“News travels fast,” Bredan said. “We only just briefed the council about the bandits a little while ago.”

“Small town,” Glori said.

“I got the impression that Althea—that’s her name—is the real driving force behind the family,” Quellan said. “She strikes me as the kind of woman who knows everything that happens within her demesne.”

“I’m familiar with that sort,” Xeeta said. “What kind of aid is she offering?”

“She wants to send one of her family retainers with us tomorrow morning.”

“The one with the sword that we saw earlier?” Bredan asked. “That first time we met with the local council?”

“That’s the one,” Quellan said. “His name is Colum, and apparently he knows the area quite well.”

“Is he any good?” Glori asked. “Can he handle himself?”

“I suppose we’ll find out,” Quellan said.

“What did Kosk say to this offer?” Bredan asked.

Quellan smiled. “I believe he is interested in expediting our trip so we can resume our travel north.”

Bredan snorted. “Yeah, I bet that’s exactly what he said.”

“Should I go speak to him now?” Xeeta asked.

“Let me,” Quellan said. “Perhaps you’ll come down and join us for a drink later? We’ll likely get an early start tomorrow, but I think we’ve earned a moment’s respite.”

“I can come down for a little while,” Xeeta said. She made a gesture with her hand that highlighted the changes to her features.

Glori nodded; she understood. “I was thinking of turning in,” she said. “Especially since I know what Kosk’s definition of ‘early start’ means.”

“I’ll buy you a drink, Xeeta,” Bredan said, but as he got up he hesitated. “Should I bring my sword down or leave it in the room?”

“I think we’re safe in an inn common room,” Quellan said.

“I don’t know, I’ve been in some pretty wild inns in my time,” Glori said.

“I can almost hear Kosk’s voice in my head,” Bredan said. “Should I be worried about that?”

Xeeta allowed a small smile at the interplay. “I can protect you, if need be,” she said. She snapped her fingers and a wisp of flame rose from her hand, dancing in her grasp for a moment before dissolving into nothing.

“Well, I guess I can skip the flint and steel at the next campfire,” Bredan said with a grin. He’d finally decided on taking the sword, tucking the baldric under his arm. He stuck out his other elbow toward the tiefling. “Shall we, then?”

After a moment Xeeta took his arm, and they headed downstairs.

“I think she likes him,” Glori said when they were alone.

Quellan looked suddenly awkward. “I thought… you and Bredan…”

“We’re just friends,” Glori said.

“Ah. Well. I know you wanted to get some rest, so, ah, I’ll just go, then.” He started to turn toward the door.

“Quellan?”

He turned back. “Yes?”

“I’m glad you’re with us. Both you and Kosk. I don’t think we could have managed without you.”

“I’m glad too. Good night, Glori.”

“Good night, Quellan.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 46

“You sure this is a good idea?” Kosk asked Quellan as they prepared to set off.

The small company had gathered in the common room of the Gray Oak Inn. Olag Beetlebrim was standing behind the bar, watching as they checked their gear. Outside the front windows the village remained dark in the predawn gloom. Northpine remained asleep, even the hard-working farmers and artisans of the small community still abed at that early hour.

Besides the innkeeper, only a few of the locals had woken to see them off. Erron Laddrick was there, along with Comoran. Also present was Colum, the Anthernorn’s retainer. He had added a wool cloak against the morning chill, but it didn’t conceal the chain shirt he wore or the sword and dagger that hung from his hip. The man-at-arms was not very talkative, and merely checked his gear as he waited for them to leave.

Quellan knew that his friend wasn’t talking about the locals. He looked over at Xeeta, who was standing in the corner near the side door. She wore a cloak with the cowl pulled forward to conceal her features. The cleric understood; she was saving her magic against possible need and thus had not used her disguise self spell to conceal her true features. Comoran shot her a few curious looks, but he did not approach her.

“She hasn’t done anything that would cause us to doubt her story,” Quellan said.

“I’m sure you noticed that she didn’t tell us all that much, in the way of details,” Kosk noted. “Just that she grew up in the Isles, and had to leave when her sponsor or patron or whatever they call it died.”

“I have heard that a person has a right to their past,” Quellan said. “That they should be judged on who they are, not what they are.”

“You read that in one of your books?”

“Actually, I got it from a friend, one who is wiser than he lets on.”

Kosk muttered something under his breath.

“You have good instincts for knowing who to punch,” Quellan said. “I have good instincts for knowing who to trust.”

Kosk snorted, but didn’t offer any further argument. They’d spoken at length the night before, and not just about the decision to allow the tiefling woman to join them. Quellan knew that once a decision had been made, it was not in his friend’s manner to second-guess it; he just liked to complain.

Comoran came forward and lifted the icon of Sorevas that he wore. “I will call upon the god’s blessing to bring you success and keep you safe,” he said. “Normally we wait for the rising of the sun for the morning invocation…”

“Why don’t you wait, then,” Kosk said. “The rest of us are going to get moving.”

The priest stared after them as they filed out through the side door and made their way out of the village. This time their route would take them north and west, into a region of light forest and scattered hills. According to Colum they would reach the old mill after about two hours of walking, with the abandoned estate roughly another hour past that.

The track they were following looked like it had accommodated carts at one point, but now it was overgrown and disused. Laddrick had told them that sometimes Northpiners used to came out this way to cut wood or gather herbs, but that recently few went far from the security of the village, especially with the uncertainty of events surrounding the disappearance of the village boy and the death of the local hunter.

They certainly didn’t encounter anyone that morning. The sun was slow to rise, while a thin fog hung over the surrounding hills, obscuring visibility past half a mile or so. Kosk set his usual brisk pace. Colum carried a portable writing kit in a satchel he wore under his cloak, and he frequently took out a quill to make notations on the sheaf of maps he carried. But their new companion had no difficulty keeping up, and his eyes were in constant motion as they traveled, taking in every detail of the surrounding landscape.

They had been walking for maybe half an hour when they came to a copse of trees that extended along the length of the road. A row of stumps indicated that this was one of the spots where the villagers harvested wood. A small hand-cart had been left overturned by the edge of the path, the dense growth surrounding it suggesting it had been there for quite some time.

Kosk barely slowed, but Xeeta called out, “A moment. Colum, if we’re going to be traveling together it is only fair that I show you something about me.”

The man-at-arms turned toward her, but before she could continue Bredan said, “You should know that it’s not a problem for us.”

Colum didn’t say anything, and after a moment Xeeta reached up and drew back her cowl. The weak light of the morning was more than sufficient to reveal the bright coloration of her skin and the spirals of horn that extended from her temples.

The man-at-arms betrayed no panic or alarm; he just said, “Do the Anthernorns know, or the Council?”

“It’s not their concern,” Bredan said. He looked like he might say more, but Glori touched him lightly on the arm and he subsided.

Colum looked around at each of them in turn. Finally, he shrugged. “Don’t see how it affects the job I’ve been ordered to do,” he said.

“If that’s settled, then let’s keep moving,” Kosk said. “I want to get there and back before nightfall.”

They pressed on. The road grew more overgrown. They had no difficulty following it, but they had to switch to single file as the bushes and stalks of prickleburr pressed in from either side. The route meandered around low hills that were hardly obstacles at all compared to the rough landscape they had navigated over the last few days. The fog burned away but the sun remained hidden behind low clouds, leaving the day dim and gloomy.

They encountered the stream shortly before they came to the mill. The structure was sagging and decrepit, the large wooden wheel that had once powered the internal machinery lying broken on its side in the weeds. The spillway was overgrown with reeds and other growth that had opened gaping holes in the wooden framework.

The mill itself was in little better shape. The foundation was stone and had held up reasonably well, but the wooden boards of the upper level were warped and rotten. There were holes where iron fittings had been scavenged, and the main door was entirely gone, leaving a dark hole at the top of a short flight of stone steps that led into the interior. Other than the gurgle of the adjacent stream, the place was utterly silent.

Colum took out his writing kit and began sorting through his parchments. Kosk looked over at him and growled, “We’re not here to make maps.”

Without looking up, the man-at-arms said, “The child might have gone inside, fallen through the floor or gotten pinned under a beam.” He found the sheet he was looking for and took out a quill and a pot of ink that fit into a slot on the top of the wooden kit.

Kosk looked sour, but Quellan said, “Come on, let’s take a quick look.” He opened his hand and summoned forth light that shone from the palm of his glove.

The others started to follow them toward the entry, but Kosk held up a hand. “You lot stay here and keep an eye out,” he said. “This place isn’t that big, and it’ll only take us a moment to check it out.” Without waiting for a reply he followed Quellan inside.

“Your companion is not shy about sharing what he thinks,” Xeeta said. She went over to a wooden fencepost that no longer had a fence to go with it and leaned against it before taking out her waterskin.

“Yeah, he’s not shy,” Glori said. “And his people skills could use some… refinement. But he’s good in a fight.”

“When he’s not charging in alone to try to get himself killed,” Bredan said.

“You’ve been together for a while, then?” Xeeta asked.

“Not that long,” Bredan said. He walked over and found another orphaned post close to her. This one sagged under his weight and he quickly stepped clear before it would have dropped him on his backside. “We only joined up to find…”

“Wait, where’s Colum?” Glori interrupted.

“He walked over there, around the edge of the building,” Xeeta said. “I believe he was taking notations on the condition of the structure.”

Glori nodded, but after a moment said, “He should know better than to wander off alone.”

“I’ll go check on him,” Bredan said. But he’d only taken a few steps when they heard a loud, alien sound, a sharp chittering that they couldn’t quite classify. But they had no difficulty identifying the source of the scream that followed.

Bredan and Glori sprinted around the corner of the mill. They saw Colum at once, along with the source of the strange sound.

The man-at-arms was being held in the grasp of a praying mantis the size of a wagon. The thing had him pinned in its hooked arms, clutching him against its body as he struggled weakly to break free. Seeing Bredan and Glori, it spun around and trotted off with its prize.

The two couldn’t immediately follow, as a second creature emerged from the tall growth along the stream and charged at them.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Giant insects! It's been a while since I used those. Thanks for the idea!
They are pretty challenging foes (CR3 in 3.5e). One conversion can be found at https://www.dandwiki.com/wiki/Giant_Mantis_(5e_Creature). Mine here weren't quite that tough, but it was still fortunate that the party didn't have to face both of them together...

* * *

Chapter 47

Bredan rushed forward to engage the giant insect before it could get to Glori. The second mantis was somewhat smaller than the first, the size of a cart rather than a wagon, but it still loomed over the warrior as the two closed to melee range.

The creature was incredibly fast, and it reached Bredan just as he was getting his sword clear of its scabbard. He tried to slash at it before it could strike, but one of its forelimbs lashed out and snagged the blade. The other limb snapped out to try to grab him the way its mate had grabbed Colum, but he managed to just duck under its grasp. For a moment the two combatants awkwardly wrestled over the sword, but then the mantis jerked back and launched the weapon flying into the stream. Pulled off balance, Bredan staggered to the side, disarmed and vulnerable.

An arrow stuck into the insect’s side. Glori’s shot distracted it for a moment, but the arrow had barely penetrated and as it twisted around the missile was knocked clear. It took another step toward Bredan, who’d managed to dig out his small work hammer from the kit of tools he carried. The weapon looked pathetically tiny against the massive scale of the creature, especially as it reared up in anticipation of another lunging attack.

But before the mantis could hurl itself forward again, there was a bright flash of light and heat. The insect stumbled back for a moment, its long limbs skittering on the packed earth that surrounded the mill, before turning toward the source of this new assault.

This time it didn’t hesitate, launching itself forward toward Xeeta.

The sorceress had just come around the corner of the building, and as the insect charged she ducked back behind that cover. The mantis followed, cutting the edge of the structure with a dexterity that belied its considerable size. As it rounded the mill it lifted its claws to attack its tormentor.

What it did not anticipate was finding a half-orc cleric standing there to meet it.

The priest slammed his mace into the mantis’s armored carapace. The blow knocked it back a step, and though it recovered they could all see the shattered plate that oozed gelatinous fluids from inside its body cavity. Glori tried to circle around to get a shot at that newly vulnerable location, but before she could finish the maneuver the mantis turned and lunged again at the cleric. Quellan stood his ground, lifting his shield to meet its charge.

But before the insect could reach him there was a massive crash from above. All of the combatants—even the bug—looked up as a segment of rotten boards from the upper level of the mill exploded outward and Kosk came flying out from the interior. The dwarf dropped faster than the mantis could react, landing hard on its back. His staff drove through its body, impaling it like a spear, and his weight overpowered the strength of its spindly legs. As it fell the dwarf rolled clear, leaving his weapon stuck through the dying creature.

The adventurers gathered to watch the creature die, careful to stay clear of the last violent twitches of its long limbs. Bredan was the last to arrive, dripping wet from recovering his sword. “The other one’s gone, with Colum,” he said.

His words stirred them back to the moment. “Is everyone else all right?” Quellan said. “Bredan?”

The young warrior shook his head. “Just wrenched my wrist a bit is all. I’m fine.”

“We have to go after Colum,” Glori said.

“Bug’s probably taking him back to its nest,” Kosk said. “If he’s not dead already, he will be soon.”

“We can’t just leave him,” Glori insisted.

“Even if he is dead, leaving such a creature alive so close to the village would be dangerous,” Quellan said.

“If it were me, I’d want you guys to come after me,” Bredan said.

“There could be more of those things where it’s going, more than we can handle,” Kosk said.

“All the more reason to deal with them now,” Quellan said. “What if they come on us on our way back, perhaps when our strength is depleted from another encounter?”

Kosk looked at each of them in turn before settling his gaze on Xeeta. “Well? You have anything to add?”

“I will defer to the will of the majority,” she said.

“Looks like we’re going looking for trouble again,” the dwarf muttered as yanked his staff from the dead mantis. They went back around to the side of the mill. The only thing they found there was Colum’s writing kit and a few loose pieces of parchment. Bredan picked one up and showed it to the others; it was a map of the area that showed the mill and stream clearly. “Looks like he was taking notes,” he said.

“Bloody idiot should have been keeping his eyes open for trouble,” Kosk said.

“It might not have helped him,” Bredan said. “Those things were fast.”

“All right, if we’re doing this, no sense standing around chattering,” Kosk said. He crossed the stream and trudged off into the tall grass on the other side at his usual brisk pace.

“Did you see anything inside?” Glori asked Quellan as they hurried after the dwarf.

“Nothing,” Quellan said. “No sign of the boy.”

“Well, at least the way it ran off was sort of the way we were going anyway,” Glori said.

Her statement proved less accurate as the day went on, as they followed the giant insect’s meandering course. At least its tracks proved relatively easy to follow. Its wedge-shaped body left a noticeable path through the tall grasses, weeds, and scattered brush that filled the landscape beyond the mill. They also found periodic bloodstains that did not bode well for the condition of their erstwhile companion, but no other signs of the mantis’s captive.

They had been walking for maybe half an hour when the trail vanished into a dense thicket. There was no mistaking where the mantis had gone, but it was also clear that it could have been anywhere in there, as there was ample growth to conceal a creature of its size—or a dozen of them.

“Think it’s in there?” Glori asked.

“I wouldn’t bet against it,” Kosk said.

“You smell that?” Bredan asked. At that prompt they all sniffed the air. There wasn’t much of a breeze, but they could all make out just a hint of something acrid that did not encourage exploration of the thicket.

“We could try and make some noise, try to lure it out,” Glori suggested.

“I have a better idea,” Xeeta said. She raised a hand, and flames erupted within her palm.

“That could end up burning the entire region,” Quellan said.

“All the better,” Kosk said.

“Could you maybe just make a display?” Glori said. “Throw a blast up over the thicket, maybe accompanied by one of Quellan’s augmented shouts.”

“That could work,” Bredan said.

“And if there are a dozen of those things in there?” Kosk asked.

“Then we take cover,” Quellan said. “Those trees over there… there’s enough of them that creatures the size of those bugs would have some difficulty getting at us.”

“That wouldn’t slow them for long,” Kosk said.

“Look, we didn’t come all this way to back off now,” Glori said. She took out her bow and fitted an arrow to the string. Bredan drew his sword and took up a ready position between her and the thicket.

“Bloody reckless,” Kosk said. But he lifted his staff and staked out a likely spot.

Xeeta remained the furthest back. She glanced over at Quellan, who raised his holy symbol and nodded.

The fire bolt arched from the sorceress’s hand and streaked over the thicket. As it reached its peak Quellan used his own magic to utter a deafening shout that launched flights of birds into the air from nearby hilltops.

The echoes of the shout were still bouncing back to them when there was a sudden burst of motion within the thicket. That was all the warning they got before the giant mantis exploded out of the growth and charged at them.
 

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