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Forgotten Lore (Updated M-W-F)


Chapter 48

Quellan was the closest to the giant insect’s rush.

The mantis dwarfed even him, but the cleric did not flinch from its charge. He raised his shield and thrust forward, meeting its assault. Its front limbs snapped over the wooden barrier, seizing hold of it and trying to pull it from his grasp. But Quellan refused to either let go or let himself be dragged in. He let out a yell as he and the bug struggled for control. The creature thrust itself forward on its hind legs until it was half on top of him, its long neck slipping forward as it looked for a vulnerable place to bite.

The cleric would not been able to hold on long against that sheer ferocity, but fortunately his companions were quick to respond. Glori shot it from the flank, and while her arrow again did little damage it distracted it just enough for Quellan to yank his shield free and reset his defense. Kosk accomplished more, snapping one of its hind legs with a solid blow from his staff. The mantis leaned to the side as the limb collapsed under it, but it still clearly had a lot of fight left in it.

But the injury kept it from reacting in time as Bredan ran in from its opposite side. The creature snapped out a forelimb as he charged into range, perhaps intending to try the same trick of yanking away his sword that its mate had achieved, but this time the blade had the smith’s full strength behind the swing. It clipped the mantis’s limb, not only severing it at the joint but continuing through to strike its neck. The critical hit shattered its thick hide and separated the insect’s head from its body. The creature’s bulging eyes flashed in the weak light as the head tumbled end-over-end before bouncing to a stop a few steps away. The rest of the creature shuddered and crumpled, its limbs twitching a few times before falling still.

“Damn,” Glori said, staring down at it.

“Very effective,” Xeeta added.

It didn’t take them very long to find Colum’s remains. The man-at-arms hadn’t been dead long, but the stench of death already filled the thicket. When they saw the body there was no doubt. They took his gear, anything that might be useful or worth returning to his employers back in Northpine. None of them had even learned if he had any kin back in the village.

They found his sword lying a few feet away from the body, still in its scabbard. Glori took it and hooked the scabbard to her belt. “I can carry that for you,” Bredan said.
“No, I’ll take it,” she said. Something had changed in her manner, something that had him looking at her in surprise.

Not far from where they found Colum they encountered something else of interest, half-a-dozen ovoid eggs the size of a man’s forearm. There was no need to debate their fate; Xeeta roasted them with magical fire and then Kosk crushed them thoroughly with his staff.

As they were leaving the thicket Glori pulled Bredan aside. “Not now, but when we get back… I want you to teach me how to use this.” She tapped the sword hanging from her hip.

Bredan nodded. “You know you don’t have to be fighting in the front…”

“I know. I’d just feel better if I knew I could.”

“All right.”

They continued on in silence for a while. Colum’s maps indicated that their detour had actually taken them a bit closer to the estate, and they decided to press on instead of backtracking to the mill. It was easier to get lost in the open terrain, especially since all the hills and clumps of forest tended to look identical after a while. But the terrain was much more forgiving than it had been in their earlier excursions, and it was only a little after the sun’s peak at noon when they caught sight of both the road and their destination.

They could see the estate house from a good distance off. It was surrounded by fields that had been long fallow, the once-orderly rows overgrown with weeds. A small orchard of fruit trees followed the path before it turned into a thicket near the right side of the house. There was one large outbuilding, a barn or stable from the look of it, though it looked tired and decrepit. The house itself was in little better shape. Even from a distance they could see that one whole side of the structure was sagging and uneven, with damage to the roof that looked like at least a partial collapse had taken place sometime in the past. As they got closer they could see that the windows on the lower story had all been boarded up, but the purpose in that seemed to be defeated by the fact that the front door appeared to be partially open.

“Well, this looks like a mess,” Glori said.

“If the kid came here, he’s braver than I thought,” Kosk muttered.

“The open door suggests that someone might be using the place…” Xeeta began, but she was interrupted by Bredan, who lifted a hand. “Shh, did you hear that?”

They were all silent, but whatever sound had alerted the warrior was not repeated. “I thought I heard something coming from over there,” he said, indicating the barn.

“Let’s go check it out,” Quellan said. “The house will keep for a moment.”

They made their way over across the weed-strewn yard to the front of the barn. The heavy doors were closed but the wood was too cracked and rotten to offer much of an obstacle. After shooting a quick look at his companions to ensure they were ready, Bredan took hold of one of the doors and dragged it open.

The door swung on hinges that looked to be more rust than iron, creaking ominously. When he’d gotten it halfway open the upper hinge snapped. Bredan left the door hanging unevenly and stepped inside, the others close behind.

The entire front half of the barn was one large room. It looked unremarkable, with two stalls for animals and bins for grains that were all empty. There were a few pieces of rotten tack hanging from nails and heaps of what might have been tools in the corners, now just rusted junk. There was a missing board on the wall to their right that let in a shaft of afternoon sunlight. An open doorway led to a back room.

Bredan stood there in the entry for a moment, scanning the dim interior. He couldn’t shake the impression that something was off, something he couldn’t quite place. Dust raised by his entry sparkled in the light that filtered through the numerous gaps in the boards. The place stank of decay.

Glori finally shook him out of his reverie. “Come on, you’re blocking the way,” she said. Bredan shot her an apologetic look and started forward, but he’d only managed one step before a loud clatter from the back room shattered the quiet. He immediately unslung his sword, the steel hissing as he drew it from its scabbard.

A slight form shot forward from the back room, but instead of rushing the companions it made a beeline for the missing board. It was faster than Bredan, and it might have escaped if not for a dart of fire that shot past the young warrior and clipped the wall directly in front of the fleeing figure. It let out a startled squeak and fell backwards into a pile of rusted shovels and hoes that collapsed around it in a wild cacophony. The intruder managed to scramble out of that chaos but it barely got to its feet before Kosk smacked it heavily in the chest with his staff. The impact knocked it back to the ground, stunned.

Quellan ran past them and used his cloak to put out the flames from Xeeta’s spell before they could threaten the barn. The others converged on their captive, who turned out to be a very nervous goblin.

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Chapter 49

“Well now, what do we have here?” Kosk asked. “What are you doing here, gobbo? Where’d you come from? How many of you are here?” The dwarf punctuated each question with a prod from his staff, drawing an increasingly shrill response that was just gibberish to most of them.

“Come on, can’t you see that he doesn’t speak our language?” Glori asked.

“Goblins are canny,” Kosk said. “I wouldn’t assume anything when it comes to them, except that they’ll stick a knife in your back if you give them the chance.” As he spoke he checked the goblin for weapons. It had carried a small hand-axe that it had dropped when the dwarf had struck it earlier, but it did not appear to have anything else on its person. It wore a rough tunic of poorly-tanned leather over fur leggings that looked to be carrying roughly their weight in dirt. The goblin didn’t resist, it only looked around at each of them in turn with wide eyes.

“Do you speak their language?” Bredan asked Xeeta. For a moment it looked like the tiefling wanted to say something, but she finally just shook her head.

“I do,” Quellan said as he rejoined the others. “Neeta kraktak?” he asked. “Keevak akrat tak?

“Even their language sounds like rats chittering,” Kosk said.

The goblin responded tentatively. “He says he is alone,” Quellan said.

“Well, we know that’s not true, then,” Kosk said. “Better keep an eye out for its friends.”

“Whether or not it’s lying, that’s a good idea,” Glori said. “I’ll keep an eye out in case the noise drew any attention.” She sidled over to the crack in the wall and knelt next to it. From that vantage she could see the side of the estate house, though nothing thus far had stirred in response to the disturbance. There was another entrance there, a set of stone steps that led up to a single wooden door.

Quellan spoke to the goblin a bit more in its own tongue, and the creature responded. “He says he doesn’t know anything about a missing human boy. He says he was just looking for something to eat when we found him.”

“Don’t bloody lie to me,” Kosk said. He bent over the huddled goblin, which couldn’t mistake the threat even if it could not understand his words. He grabbed the creature by its vest and shook it. “Don’t lie! Where are your friends!”

The goblin let out a tinny shriek, then started babbling. Quellan, who had started to step forward to intervene, stopped. He asked a follow-up question, which the goblin responded to with another panicked litany.

“He says that the others are in the cellar of the house,” the cleric said. “He says that they’re led by a bugbear named Gakrak. He says that the boy is being kept there, that he’s alive and well.”

Kosk’s eyes bored into the goblin’s for another long moment before he released it. The creature collapsed and huddled against the wall, holding up its hands to keep them at bay. “I told you,” the dwarf growled. “They’re a race of bloody liars.”

“How do we know he’s telling the truth now?” Bredan asked.

“Because we’re going to make it show us,” Kosk said, smacking his staff against his palm for emphasis.

Kosk took custody of the goblin when they left the barn. He’d taken a few bits of old tack and fashioned a leash that he’d looped around the creature’s neck, keeping the strands clutched close in his fist. The dwarf had issued enough warnings through Quellan that the goblin looked barely able to stand from fear.

Their prisoner led them back around to the front of the house and the open door that waited there. The boards of the porch sagged and creaked as they put weight on them, but held. Bredan checked out the door first, confirming that there wasn’t a small army of goblins waiting to ambush them before pushing it open the rest of the way and stepping inside.

The interior of the house was consistent with the overall impression of age and decay they’d gotten from outside. The foyer was cluttered with animal droppings, leaves, and bits of broken wood and shattered glass. A staircase that had once led up to the upper floor now lay in a collapsed wreck. The balcony above it looked like it was waiting for only a strong gust of wind to follow it down. Three arched exits led to other parts of the house. The goblin hesitated only a moment before directing them to the one on the left. Again Bredan cleared the way first, sidling up to the archway and peering through. “I don’t see anything,” he said.

Kosk yanked the goblin back so their faces were close together. “Remember what happens to you if you’re lying,” he growled.

The creature’s only response was a strangled gasp.

The room beyond the arch was spacious and once might have been a comfortable living room. At the moment it was just a cluttered hazard. The wooden furnishings were all in a state of advanced collapse, their upholstery given over to vermin and rodent nests. This was the side of the building that was sagging, and the entire floor slanted at a noticeable angle. The room had a high ceiling that rose to the full height of the building, and while the beams above were holding despite the structural damage the roof had collapsed in a few places, letting in shafts of light.

There were three exits. The door leading outside that Glori had spotted earlier was in the far corner. They could see why the goblin hadn’t taken them in that way; the entire door was covered in boards that had been nailed to the frame and the surrounding walls. There was another interior door to their right, and another open archway further into the room. The goblin pointed in that direction, and after another shared look they continued their explorations. There was enough debris in the room to conceal multiple ambushers, but nothing stirred other than a rat that emerged from a ruined sofa and retreated with a skitter of tiny feet.

The archway led into another room that might have once been a parlor. It was difficult to be certain, for the ceiling had collapsed, taking part of the far wall with it. They could see outside through the gaps in the rubble, which was partially overgrown with plants that had taken advantage of the decay to penetrate into the structure.

“This doesn’t look very safe,” Glori said.

The goblin pointed at the mound of debris and said something.

“He says that the entrance to the cellar is hidden under that mess,” Quellan translated. The cleric asked the creature a question. “He says they keep it hidden, but if you move that clump of roofing there you’ll see it.”

Bredan glanced back to make sure that the others were in a position to cover him, then he sheathed his sword and edged cautiously forward. The damaged floorboards sagged under his weight but held. Quellan circled around to the left to help him, careful not to get in the line of fire from Glori or Xeeta. Kosk remained back by the entrance, his grip keeping the leather strap tight around their prisoner’s neck.

Bredan grabbed hold of the debris the goblin had indicated, a segment of roofing that still clung tenaciously together despite the collapse. But before he could exert his strength it shifted, seemingly of its own accord. The young warrior quickly stumbled back, alert to the danger of another collapse.

But the source of the disturbance became clear a moment later as a squat form erupted out from under the rubble. Bredan turned to face it, but couldn’t react in time to keep whatever it was from latching onto his right ankle. As it bit down with a crushing grip he stumbled back, only to trip on the uneven floor. At least the fall tore his leg free of the creature’s grasp. As it emerged fully from the debris they could see that it was a beetle roughly the size of a wagon wheel, its segmented body culminating in a plated abdomen that reared up behind it as it scuttled forward toward the fallen warrior, intent on securing its meal.


Lying little liar! Brave though...
They should've listened to the dwarf!

* * *

Chapter 50

As his captors were distracted by the beetle, the goblin reached up covertly, using its body to conceal the movement, and slid a tiny knife under the leather strap around its neck. As Kosk yanked it around the strap parted and it was free. It darted immediately toward the exit arch, ducking low to avoid any attacks that might come its way.

Unfortunately for it, the dwarf had been expecting such a maneuver, and he too had a knife handy. The goblin was just a half-step from the cover of the doorway when the monk spun around and buried one of his throwing knives in the back of the fleeing humanoid’s neck. The goblin’s momentum carried it forward through the doorway, but the thud of impact on the floor reported that it did not get far.

Kosk turned back immediately to help his friends, but it looked like they had the threat well in hand. Quellan had stepped in to block the beetle’s rush toward Bredan, giving the warrior a chance to regain his footing. One of the beetle’s eyes was a blackened wreck, suggesting that Xeeta had already joined the fight. Glori’s first shot had bounced off its armored body, but she was already lining up a second, wary of hitting her friends if she missed again.

The beetle apparently didn’t like the odds, for it abruptly turned back in the direction of the rubble pile it had emerged from. Quellan took a step toward it, but as it lifted its abdomen the cleric’s eyes widened. “Take cover!” he warned, putting his own advice into action as he flung himself aside and raised his shield to protect his face.

Kosk reacted just as swiftly, hopping back into the relative cover of the doorway, but unfortunately his companions were unable to react in time. With a loud popping sound the beetle unleashed a spray of noxious liquid that hissed as it sprayed over Bredan, Glori, and Xeeta. All three cried out in pain as the stuff burned their eyes and skin.

The beetle spun around again, no doubt ready to take advantage of the confusion it had created to grab a victim. It started toward Glori, but before it could cover more than a few feet Quellan came at it again from behind. The half-orc slammed his mace down hard onto its abdomen, filling the room with a loud crack as its carapace shattered. The beetle let out a high-pitched sound of distress and started to turn around again, either to attack the cleric or to attempt escape. But it didn’t get a chance to do either before Kosk drove his staff into the gap between its neck and body. With another loud crack the creature sagged to the floor. It kept twitching for a few moments, but that was just the delay in its body figuring out that it was dead.

“Ack, that was awful,” Xeeta said. She took out her waterskin and sprayed water into her eyes to clear them.

“What in the hells was that?” Bredan asked.

“Bombardier beetle,” Quellan said. “They… they don’t normally get that big.”

“You don’t say,” Bredan said. He gratefully accepted a clean cloth from Xeeta and used it to wipe off his face.

“Wait… where’s the goblin?” Glori asked.

“It tried to make a break for it,” Kosk said, jerking his thumb toward the outer room. “It didn’t get far.”

Glori took a quick look to confirm the dwarf’s words, then came back. “What happened?”

“Little bastard had a hidden knife. It waited for the bug to attack then cut and ran.” The dwarf shot a challenging look at both Quellan and Bredan. “You lot going to start trusting my instincts now?”

“We had to check, even if it was lying about the boy,” Glori said. “We still do.”

Bredan turned back toward the rubble pile. “You think it was lying about the trapdoor too?”

“Do you think that even gobbos would be dumb enough to set up shop under something like that?” Kosk asked. “No, it was full of crap, all of it.”

“I don’t know,” Quellan said. At Kosk’s angry look he quickly added, “Okay you were right not to trust the creature. But some of what it said was oddly specific.”

“Gakrak,” Xeeta said. “A not-uncommon name for a bugbear. And you did suggest that it was unlikely that the goblin was here alone.”

“Maybe there is a cellar, but the entrance is someplace else in the building,” Bredan suggested.

“If so, then they probably heard the fight and know we’re here,” Kosk said.


I thought I posted ch51 on Wednesday, I guess it didn't go through. I'll post two chapters today so you have a proper weekend cliffhanger. :)

* * *

Chapter 51

Bredan started to turn but winced as he put weight on his injured leg. “Hold on, let me heal you,” Quellan said.

The cleric cast cure wounds spells on Bredan and Xeeta, while Glori used her lyre’s magic to treat her own injuries. After just a few moments they were ready to set out again and returned to the ruined outer chamber. Kosk hefted the body of the dead goblin and tossed it behind the ruined sofa after recovering his knife.

The interior door near the foyer arch opened with just a token resistance, the brass hinges lacking the caked rust that had characterized the iron fittings in the barn outside. It led to a dining room that had been thoroughly looted. The furnishings had been removed, with only a fragment of what might have once been an impressive table propped up pathetically in a corner. Ceramic shards of dinnerware and shattered crockery were scattered across the floor. The decorative wallpaper was covered in ancient stains where it hadn’t rotted away altogether. A tall shelf just a few feet below the level of the ceiling circled the room, but it looked like any items that had once been stored there were now likely part of the detritus that covered the floor. The large windows that might have once allowed generous beams of sunlight into the room were now all boarded up, allowing in only slivers of light.

There was another door in the center of the wall to their right that was slightly open. The most promising feature, however, was a set of stairs that descended along the wall to their left. The railing that had once protected diners from accidentally stumbling into the stairwell had been almost entirely torn away, leaving just bits of uneven wood sticking up like jagged teeth. The stairs began on the far side of the room, but as they entered the room Xeeta slipped carefully forward enough to peer down over the edge into the darkness below.

“Door at the bottom,” she reported. “Could be the cellar.”

“Seems like a good place to check first,” Quellan said. He started forward, his boots crunching bits of crockery under his considerable weight, but he was still short of the center of the room when they all heard something, a faint skittering sound. The sound seemed to come from beyond the other door. It might have just been another rat, but after their earlier encounter they all tensed in response.

Finally Bredan drew his sword started to head in that direction. But he made almost as much noise as Quellan did, and after a few steps Xeeta made an exasperated sound and gestured for him to stop. The tiefling crossed the room without any apparent effort, yet her soft boots made hardly a whisper of sound and she somehow didn’t step on or scatter any of the myriad ceramic or glass shards that littered the floor.

Staying close to the wall, Xeeta leaned out and used her rod to prod the door further open. It let out only a slight creak that went unanswered, and when it was fully open she leaned forward cautiously and looked into the next room.

“Kitchen,” she said. “Looks clear.” Without waiting for a response, she went in.

“Wait!” Bredan hissed. He hurried after her, his progress across the room sounding more like an avalanche compared to her delicate tread. With any chance for stealth utterly ruined, the others followed.

The kitchen was in almost as bad a condition as the dining room, though there was somewhat less clutter. Once again it looked like anything of value had been stripped bare, but the embedded sink and a large brick oven, with an iron door caked with rust, remained more or less intact. Some cupboards along the wall to their right had been thoroughly ransacked, down to having their doors ripped off their hinges in a few cases. An open arch to their right led back to the foyer, while another interior door in the opposite wall presumably led to yet another part of the house.

Xeeta had already made her way over to the arch. Confirming that nothing was waiting for them there, she came back over to the others, glancing into the empty cupboards on her way. “Could have just been a rat,” she said.

“Or it could have been a goblin, or a pack of them,” Kosk reminded them.

“Let’s stay close, and stay alert,” Quellan suggested. “If there is an ambush, we don’t want to get separated.”

Xeeta inclined her head, acknowledging that the comment had been directed at her.

“So… the cellar?” Glori suggested.

“Shouldn’t we clear the rest of the building first?” Bredan asked.

“Normally would be the best strategy,” Quellan said. “But in this case the cellar would be the most likely hiding place for any more goblins, and therefore the most likely place we could expect to find the missing boy.”

“If he’s here, I’ll eat my sandals,” Kosk said.

“Let’s just go,” Glori said. “This place gives me the creeps.”

But once again as they started to turn they heard another noise. This one was both softer and closer, close enough that they all heard it, a subtle scrape of something moving.

They all turned slowly and scanned the room once more before their eyes all drifted inevitably to the oven.

The oven was of the sort one might expect to find in an inn, large enough to cook a dozen or more loaves of bread simultaneously. The iron door was just slightly open; the latch that would hold it shut was obviously broken.

Silently the adventurers spread apart and took up positions facing the oven. Kosk was the closest, and once the others were ready he stepped forward and extended his staff to grab hold of the handle. The iron ferrule settled on the handle with a soft click.

The door burst open and a furious eruption of legs, hair, and fangs exploded out into the room.

Chapter 52

The companions found themselves confronted by a giant wolf spider, which proved quite irate at the interruption of its rest.

The spider seemed to swell as it emerged from the relatively small opening of the oven door, its legs spreading to catch hold of the brick exterior in anticipation of a springing leap to attack. Kosk tried to slam the door shut, but the spider overwhelmed him with sheer leverage; after a momentary struggle the door snapped back and slammed against the outside of the oven.

Xeeta let out a sharp squeal and staggered back, her eyes wide. Flames shot out from both ends of her rod, but it was a raw reaction rather than an actual spell. Yet it seemed to draw the spider’s attention, and its huge multifaceted eyes fixed on her as it leapt forward.

The tiefling’s face twisted in terror and she sucked in a breath to scream, but she didn’t get the chance. The arc of the spider’s jump was nearly flat, propelled by its many legs, but before it could reach the tiefling it was intercepted by a descending slab of tempered steel. All the quickness in the world couldn’t save it from that impact, which drove it to the floor. It twitched there, Bredan’s sword embedded in its side. For a moment it looked like it might still somehow get up, but then Glori stepped up and with a look of disgust on her face fired an arrow point-blank into its head.

The spider convulsed once and fell dead. Xeeta kept staring at it, her eyes wide and her chest heaving, until Glori touched her arm. The tiefling jumped, causing the bard to quickly hold up her empty hand. “Hey! It’s me! Are you okay?”

Xeeta sucked in a deep breath and nodded. “Sorry. Sorry. It’s just… I don’t like spiders. I really don’t like spiders.”

“Most people don’t, when they’re this big,” Kosk said. He peered into the open oven. The spider’s nest was full of small bones and other debris from its previous victims. The back of the oven, which extended past the rear wall of the house in order to let it vent safely, had burst open, revealing how the spider had gotten in. The dwarf prodded at the bones with his staff, but didn’t see anything that looked big enough to have come from a goblin—or a human child.

Bredan pulled his sword clear and carefully wiped it off before stuffing it back into its scabbard. “Well done,” Quellan said.

“Thanks,” Bredan said. “Maybe we’re starting to get the hang of this, eh?”

“Let’s see if we all get out of here alive before we start patting ourselves on the back,” Kosk said as he swung the oven door shut.

The companions made their way back through the dining room and carefully descended the stairs. Kosk took the lead, the dwarf’s impatience making the decision before Quellan had a chance to step in. The cleric followed right behind him, the half-orc’s hulking frame almost completely filling the narrow breadth of the staircase. Glori and Xeeta were right behind him, while Bredan brought up the rear this time, his big sword unlimbered and in his hand in case he needed to draw it suddenly and put it to use.

The door at the bottom of the steps opened easily to Kosk’s touch, the hinges creaking a bit in protest. Behind it was the cellar, a dark chamber that extended for a good twenty-five feet ahead of them. When nothing stirred immediately out of the darkness Quellan summoned light, affixing the spell to his shield.

The cleric’s magic revealed another thoroughly looted chamber. The racks that were constructed along the walls were mostly intact, though the barrels and crates that they’d once held were almost universally shattered and broken. The room had a musty scent that wasn’t quite unpleasant, but other than a few small piles of debris in the corners and a couple of mostly-intact barrels in the back there didn’t seem to be anything there that could conceal a threat.

“Looks like he was lying after all,” Glori said as she followed them in.

“There’s something not right here,” Kosk said.

He took a few steps forward, sniffing the air, but a sound drew his attention to the left. Both he and Quellan raised their weapons, but the disturbance turned out to be just another rat, which emerged from the wreckage of a shattered crate only to quickly skitter behind one of the wall racks.

“I think we can all be excused for feeling a little jumpy…” Quellan began, but as he turned to the others he detected movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned in time to see one of the barrels in the back of the room shift and then topple forward, revealing a concealed door behind it.

A small horde of goblins poured through the opening and shouted a cry of “Bree-yark!” as they rushed to attack.


Chapter 53

Eight goblins emerged from the hidden door, rushing toward the companions with weapons drawn. Most held hand axes or small swords, but the last two carried bows with readied arrows that they raised as soon as they were through the door, looking for targets.

Quellan cursed and tried to get back to meet the rush, but the creatures were fast, too fast. The goblins’ unexpected appearance had left Glori and Xeeta exposed; Bredan was just coming into the room, and while he drew his sword it didn’t look like he’d be able to stop them before the ambushers got to their friends.

But neither woman retreated. Glori strummed her lyre, her fingers producing the soft melody of a lullaby. Both of the archers slumped to the ground, along with the two rear-most of the charging warriors.

The remaining four warriors kept on coming, unaware that the bard’s sleep spell had cut their numbers in half. But even as Bredan and Quellan rushed forward to meet them Xeeta tucked her rod under her arm and held out her hands toward the goblins, her thumbs touching and fingers outstretched. Even as the lead goblin closed to striking distance she smiled and spoke a word of power.

A sheet of flames erupted from her hands, extending almost to the back of the room. All four of the charging goblins—and two of the sleepers—were engulfed in the burning hands, which mercilessly seared exposed flesh. Goblin screams filled the chamber, echoing off the close walls. Bredan and Quellan drew reflexively back from the flames, though they did not spread past the sorceress and did not persist. As the spell faded they stepped forward again, but their weapons were no longer needed.

“Damn,” Glori said.

Kosk came around the others and went forward to inspect the fallen goblins. A few were still on fire, their clothes burning and filling the room with tendrils of smoke. Quellan unfastened his cloak and hurried to douse the flames before the smoke could make the air in the cellar unbreathable.

Bredan looked at Xeeta. “That was… impressive,” he said.

“Thank you,” the tiefling replied.

Kosk went over to the archers, who were the only ones of the ambushing party still alive. He bent and grabbed one by the head. “Any objections?” he asked. Quellan looked troubled, but none of them said anything. Glori looked away as the dwarf snapped the goblin’s neck.

“Maybe we should leave the last one alive…” Bredan suggested, but too late to stop the dwarf from killing the other archer with a blow from his staff.

“There may be more of them,” Quellan said. “Perhaps guarding the boy, if he is here.”

“And no bugbear,” Glori pointed out.

“If our captive wasn’t lying about that,” Bredan reminded them.

“Only one way to find out,” Kosk said. “Let’s go.”

He was again the first through the hidden door. It had been built into one of the racks, clearly designed to conceal whatever lay behind. It was low enough that only Kosk could pass through without bending down, and it took Quellan a few seconds to negotiate the tight space. But behind the door was another room almost as big as the first cellar.

The room might have been spacious in dimensions, but at the moment it was full of an awkward clutter. Quellan’s light revealed an impressive collection of assorted furnishings, obviously relocated here from the house above. None were in any better shape than the ones they’d already encountered, and most were covered with fresh stains and other messes left by the goblins who’d made this space their lair. There were also more crates and barrels, these more intact than the ones in the last room but hardly in good condition. Narrow paths had been arranged haphazardly through the confusion, turning the room into a sort of maze. On the far side of the room they could just make out a passage that exited near the end of the wall to their right.

The stink of sweat and rotting food filled the air, causing each of them to recoil in turn as they stepped through the door. This time the room was so obviously full of potential ambushes that Kosk waited for all of them to make it through before he started into the labyrinth. There were two main paths forward through the heaped junk, and he chose the one on the right that veered closer to the far corridor.

Glori strummed her lyre to summon dancing lights to illuminate the far corners of the room. But this time she didn’t get a chance to finish her spell.

A huge figure rose up from behind a broken couch along the left wall. The couch had been arranged, by happenstance or design, away from the denser clutters of furnishings and storage containers, so it hadn’t drawn the adventurers’ attention the way the more ominously large mounds had. By the time any of them detected the threat the stealthy foe was already launching his first attack.

Glori heard a warning shout from one of her companions, but caught up in the critical moments of the spell she had no chance to react in time. Then she felt a terrific impact and a massive explosion of pain that shot through her body. For a moment, everything drifted out of focus.

When she came to again, she was lying in the shattered remnants of an empty barrel. When she lifted her hand, she saw fresh blood glistening on her fingers. She tried to lift her other hand, but it was tangled in something. In dawning horror she realized that the mess was the wreckage of her lyre.

Her terror was complicated by the fact that a massive battle seemed to be going on in front of her, and that her friends seemed to be in just as much trouble as she was.


Chapter 54

The goblin taken prisoner by the five adventurers hadn’t been lying about everything; Gakrak was all too real. Having taken down one enemy in a single hit, the bugbear faced off against the rest of the intruders of his lair without apparent concern for the odds against him.

Perhaps that confidence was because the odds were not as imbalanced as they had first seemed, as Kosk quickly discovered.

Even though the dwarf’s chosen course had taken him away from the bugbear, he was quick to react to the sudden attack. But as Kosk spun and prepared to vault the awkward heap of chairs and crates that formed the long central divider of the room, a goblin emerged from behind a vanity dresser next to him and stabbed him in the side with a military pick.

When the ambush had sprung Quellan had gotten his shield up, only to realize that the bugbear’s attack was not targeted at him. When Glori went down he hesitated, but Bredan rushed instinctively to her side. There wasn’t much the young warrior could do for her since they were out of healing potions, but with Kosk busy with another enemy that meant that the cleric was for the moment the only one standing in the way of the goblins’ ferocious leader.

The half-orc turned back toward the bugbear, and saw that even the brief delay had given it time to vault the couch and produce a second axe, this one a huge weapon equipped with a spike that extended a good foot beyond the end of the blade.

“You would be Gakrak, I presume,” Quellan said.

The creature met his eyes and twisted his lips in a smile of invitation.

The half-orc felt something stir in him in response, an instinctive response to that challenge. He lifted his shield and mace and charged. His hip clipped a protruding crate but the impact barely slowed him. The bugbear adjusted his footing and waited, content to let his foe come to him.

As Quellan came within reach Gakrak lifted his axe to strike. The cleric raised his shield, but at the last instant the bugbear stepped aside and swept his weapon up from below, coming up under his foe’s guard. The blade slammed hard into the half-orc’s side, crunching the steel scales that protected his torso and tearing through the flesh and muscle underneath. Quellan was lifted off his feet from the impact. He hit the sofa and went over, bouncing off the wall and flipping the damaged piece of furniture over onto him. He left a gory smear of blood on the wall where he’d hit. A single boot jutted out from under the edge of the sofa, unmoving.

A bolt of flames shot past the bugbear’s head, narrowly missing before splashing harmlessly against the wall. Gakrak turned to see Xeeta staring at him with eyes wide with terror. If he was discomfited at facing a magic-user the giant humanoid didn’t show it; he merely chuckled and said in thickly-accented Common, “Two down.”

Then he started forward toward her.


Chapter 55

With a deep growl Kosk tore the pick embedded in his side free and tossed the bloody weapon aside. The goblin, smiling at its handiwork, drew out a dagger and lunged forward to finish him off. But the little humanoid didn’t expect the monk’s sudden pivot, or the foot that snapped up and cracked it under the jaw.

The goblin was flung backwards to where it had started, bouncing off the front of the vanity. The dresser wobbled, then cracked as Kosk slammed his staff down where the goblin’s head had been a moment before. The creature had obviously decided that this foe was too much for it, for it ducked and dove back into the cover of the piled up furnishings, disappearing as suddenly as it had appeared.

Bredan carefully tore away broken bits of wood as he tried to get to Glori. He could see where the axe had struck, and the blood that was soaking through her vest to stain her tunic. Her lyre had been shattered by the impact, and one of her hands was tangled up in the broken strings.

“Glori…” he said, trying to think of something to do.

“Bredan!” came a panicked yell from behind him. That cut through the bard’s haze of pain more than his calling her name had, and the confusion in her eyes cleared as they met his. “Go!” she yelled, pushing at him with her bloody hand. “I’m… fine!”

It was clear that she was anything but, but Bredan knew he couldn’t help her until they were out of danger. He rose up, grasping his sword as he turned. He saw the enemy at once, a brutish hulk of a monster that was making a surprisingly sinuous approach through the maze of crates. Off to his right Kosk was fighting a goblin, but Bredan’s attention was fixed entirely on the primary foe. He recognized its type from the bodies they’d encountered at the shrine of the Eth’barat, but those corpses were nothing like this very alive and very vital foe that was coming forward to face him. He flashed back to his battle with the half-ogre in the kobold lair, but there at least he’d had the power of a magic potion pulsing through his veins, not to mention room to swing his sword.

But there was no more time to consider tactics; the bugbear was right in front of him.

Bredan came at Gakrak cautiously, wary of the clutter that surrounded them both. That proved prescient as the giant goblinoid abruptly kicked a loose crate in his direction. The crate was empty and did little damage as it bounced off Bredan’s left hip, but it left him off-balance for just a moment. The bugbear exploited its advantage with a speed that belied its size, sweeping the axe around for a killing blow.

But Bredan was fast as well. He brought his sword up as he dodged, the two steel blades filling the room with a loud ring that echoed off the surrounding walls. The impact knocked Bredan sideways into a stack of loose barrels that tottered threateningly against his weight. He managed to pull himself clear before he toppled over with them, a scant instant before his foe’s axe smashed into one and shattered it into kindling.

Xeeta shifted in the narrow space, looking for an opening for her fire bolt. As Bredan was flung aside she raised her rod and summoned her magic, only to lose the spell as a sharp pain exploded in her back.

Biting back a cry of pain, she turned to see that the goblin that Kosk had frightened off had returned. The creature looked pathetic in a moth-eaten linen shirt that had probably been scavenged, like all of the other junk that filled the room. But there was nothing pathetic in the silver-edged dagger it carried, already stained with her blood.

Stumbling back to gain space, Xeeta lifted her rod and unleashed a fire bolt from the tip. But at the last instant she had to dodge as the goblin tried to stab her, and the spell flashed wide past its target. It was perhaps fortunate that it struck the wall rather than the highly-flammable wooden and cloth furnishings stacked throughout the room, which might have complicated matters for both sides.

Glori finally managed to pull herself up out of the ruins of the crate where she’d fallen. Still wincing with the pain that shot through her body with each movement, she struggled to unlimber her bow. Her fingers felt thick and unresponsive as she fumbled for an arrow.

Kosk leapt up onto the heaped chairs and crates that partitioned the room. The uneven platform wavered under his feet, but he easily maintained his balance as he thrust his staff out at the bugbear. But the creature ducked back before the iron-tipped end of the staff could connect. Bredan took advantage of the distraction to regain a stable footing. He thrust forward with his heavy blade, forcing the bugbear back another step.

A shifting motion behind the bugbear drew their attention just as the upturned couch fell over and Quellan rose up behind it. The durabaility granted by his orcish heritage had allowed him to barely cling to consciousness even with the terrible wound in his side gushing blood. Bolstered by a quick cure wounds spell, the cleric had a fire in his eyes as he lifted his mace and charged at the bugbear from behind. Gakrak heard him coming but couldn’t pivot with two foes facing him from ahead. But as Quellan slammed him with his mace the bugbear turned with the blow, absorbing what had to be a painful hit while thrusting back with the long haft of his weapon. The half-orc was struck hard in the gut, and he slumped once more to the floor. As Quellan struggled to draw in a breath the bugbear lifted his axe to finish him off.

“Die, you bloody bastard!” Kosk yelled. He jumped onto an adjacent chair, intending to leap onto the bugbear before he could strike down his friend, but even as he landed on it he could feel the rotten wood give way. The chair disintegrated, as did the empty crates underneath as the dwarf fell heavily onto them. For a moment Kosk vanished within the wreckage, the curses rising from the collapse telling them he was only temporarily out of the fight.

Gakrak chuckled at the dwarf’s would-be heroics, but shot Bredan a quick glance. The young warrior raised his sword and charged, but he was too late to stop the big goblinoid from driving his axe down into Quellan’s back, slamming the hapless cleric to the floor. Bredan yelled and lunged, but the bugbear spun quickly and almost casually knocked his thrust aside with the haft of his axe.

“You next,” Gakrak said to Bredan.

Although she was engaged with her own foe, Xeeta could hear the titanic clashes of her allies against the bugbear and knew that they needed her help. She thought that her display of magic, inaccurate as it was, would drive the already-injured goblin to seek cover again, but to her surprise the creature sprang forward to attack. She brought her rod up to try to deflect its lunge, but to her surprise it reached up and grabbed hold of her focus instead of trying to stab her again. The unexpected maneuver caught her off guard, and the goblin was able to yank the ebony rod free of her grasp after just a quick struggle for possession.

The goblin lifted its prize, a feral look of triumph on its face. But that triumph faded when Xeeta raised her hand and flames burst from her fingers.

“I don’t need that to burn you, you little idiot,” she said.

Realizing its mistake, the goblin tried to flee, but this time it was too late.

Too late to save Quellan, Bredan pressed his attack against the bugbear. This time he anticipated Gakrak’s quick evasions, and he was able to score a hit that tore a deep gash in the hides that covered his foe’s left shoulder. Blood oozed up from the wound, but the bugbear didn’t try to retreat as Bredan drew his weapon up for another strike. Instead he leapt forward, wrapping the arm on his injured side around the smith’s broad shoulders and dragging them both against the wobbling row of barrels. The rotten wood sagged but held as the two combatants fought for position. Unable to use his sword, Bredan focused on staying upright as he tried to keep the weight of the bugbear from pinning him.

Gakrak flinched as an arrow thudded into his side. Bredan took advantage of the distraction and thrust the fist holding his sword against the side of the bugbear’s face. He was rewarded with a solid crunch as the impact dislocated his enemy’s jaw. The goblinoid, now seriously injured, started to withdraw, but even as Bredan pushed himself up he could see the intent in the creature’s eyes.

With blood pouring down his side and his crippled jaw hanging loosely, the bugbear lunged forward at his foe. There was no room for Bredan to dodge, and no time to get his sword up to absorb the creature’s rush. Once again he was slammed into the barrel, but this time he went right through it and into the wall behind. The sheer mass of the bugbear knocked the breath from his lungs, and only the pressure of the creature’s body against his kept him from falling.

He’d either dropped his sword or had it pinned; he couldn’t tell. His entire right side felt numb. He lifted his left hand and grabbed hold of the bugbear’s shoulder, intending to push him off. But he heard a chuckle and looked up to see Gakrak staring down at him. The creature shifted slightly, just enough for Bredan to see the axe that he was holding in his right hand like a spear.

Bredan heard someone yell his name, but could do nothing to stop the bugbear as he drove the steel point at the end of the axe deep into his body. The last thing he heard was Gakrak’s voice rasping in his ear.



Wow, that fight's been a nailbiter from the very start. And yet you torture us with another weekend cliffhanger. Evil lazybones ;-)

Gesendet von meinem GT-I9301I mit Tapatalk


Thanks for the post, Azkorra. Back in the day my readers gave me the title, "Cliffhanger King," it's good to see I can still pull it off. :)

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Chapter 56

“Bredan!” Glori screamed.

Gakrak reached up and pushed off from the wall. As he moved Bredan slumped to the floor, blood pouring from the gaping wound in his belly. It glistened on the spear-point at the end of the huge axe, leaving behind spatters on the floor and the shattered boards of the barrels as its owner shifted ponderously back toward the front of the room.

A rumbling announced the return of Kosk moments before the collapsed rampart of crates and chairs shifted and exploded outward. The dwarf came out at a run, lunging at the bugbear. Gakrak turned, moving more slowly now as his wounds took a toll, and took a punishing impact to his left leg just above the knee. The joint cracked out of alignment as the dwarf’s staff drove into it, and the bugbear let out a hiss of pain. The creature swept his axe around, though rather feebly compared to the deadly strikes he had unleashed earlier, and Kosk was able to dodge back in time to avoid that questing edge.

Gakrak took a halting step after him, putting most of his weight on his good leg, but Kosk’s retreat didn’t last long. The dwarf fell back against the damaged crates but used them to push off—more carefully this time—and press his attack once more. The bugbear lifted his axe to intercept his rush, but before he could try another sweep another arrow slammed into his side. That was followed barely a heartbeat later by another fire bolt that struck him in the neck, searing his exposed skin and splashing flames over his savaged jaw.

The twin impacts staggered the bugbear and left him vulnerable to Kosk’s assault. The dwarf opened with his staff, delivering another punishing strike to Gakrak’s damaged knee. That was too much for the limb, which crumpled. The bugbear fell awkwardly, and as he flapped his arms in a vain effort to gain purchase on the bloody floor Kosk spun and drove the heel of his foot hard into the foe’s throat. Gakrak’s angry cries became a thick gurgle as the monstrous combatant slid the rest of the way to the floor.

“One, you bastard,” Kosk spat as the light faded from the bugbear’s eyes.

Glori rushed forward, heedless of any fight that might be left in the dying bugbear as she jumped over their fallen foe and rushed to Bredan’s side. The young warrior was unconscious, and blood continued to seep from the terrible wound in his belly as she fumbled for bandages in her pack.

“We have to help him… we have to…” she said while she worked. “Quellan! I need Quellan!”

Kosk knelt to check the injured cleric, frowning as he sought out the lifebeat in his friend’s throat. “He’s alive, but unconscious,” he reported. “I’m glad I didn’t insist on us leaving our packs outside this time,” he added in an undertone. The blow from the bugbear’s axe had been devastating, but the cleric’s armor and his leather pack had absorbed much of its force.

“But… he has to heal Bredan…” Glori said.

“I’m sorry,” Kosk said. “We’re out of potions.”

“You have to heal him,” Xeeta said. Glori blinked and looked up at the tiefling, who’d followed her over and was standing near the remaining barrels. She was holding a bloody rag against her back, but at the moment she looked better off than the rest of them.

“But I… I can’t, my lyre was destroyed…”

“No,” Xeeta said. “You have to heal him.”

“But I…”

“He’s dying!” Xeeta said. As if to punctuate her statement, Bredan’s body shook with a soft gurgling cough. Blood trickled down from the sides of his mouth and speckled his lips.

“I don’t have any magic…” Glori began, but before she could finish Xeeta knelt and took her hands. “I haven’t known you very long, but I know a little something about magic. I don’t know what your mentor told you, but it wasn’t just your instrument, it was you, it was always you. Your magic is in your music, and without your lyre, you have to make it on your own. You are the only one who can save him, and that’s that.”

The sorceress pulled back and rose to stand over them. Glori stared up at her for a moment and then turned back to Bredan. “Please,” she whispered, a prayer to anyone who might be listening, then she began to sing.

The melody came easily, even without her lyre. The music was a part of her, her voice creating sounds that matched exactly the notes she heard in her mind. But while the song was potent, haunting, there was no thrum of magic accompanying it.

She kept on singing, digging deeper within herself, holding nothing back. Tears filled her vision, blurring Bredan’s broken and bleeding form. She sang until her throat felt raw, and yet still nothing happened.

She had failed. Xeeta was wrong, she had no magic, had no secret power. Her best friend was going to die because of that lack, and she would have to live with it.

The song trailed off, and she lowered her heard.

A hand took hold of hers. She started to resist its grasp, thinking that it was Kosk or Xeeta, trying to pull her away. That would mean that Bredan was dead, and she wasn’t ready to accept that.

But then a soft rasp of a voice shook her back to full awareness.


She opened her eyes and blinked away the tears to see Bredan looking up at her. He still looked horrible, his armor covered in blood, his clothes savagely torn, but he was alive, and he even managed to pull himself up a bit.

She could only stare at him. “You’re alive.”

“Thanks to you. You pulled me back, Glori. I heard the music, and it pulled me back…”

Any response she might have offered was consumed as they enfolded each other in a furious embrace.


Chapter 57

While the others rested, Kosk and Xeeta cautiously explored further into the cellar.

Bredan tried to join them, but Kosk ordered him to stay put. Even with Glori’s healing the smith remained weak, and the dwarf pointed out that in his current condition a runt goblin with a club could knock him again through Death’s door, and this time the bard wouldn’t have a spell to pull him back over.

Glori was hardly in better shape herself, and she remained with Bredan and the unconscious Quellan while the monk and tiefling went looking for the missing Northpiner boy.

Aware that they were hardly unscathed, Kosk and Xeeta began their explorations slowly and cautiously. After verifying that there were no more threats lingering in the cluttered confines of the goblin lair, they pressed on into the side passage they’d spotted earlier. Without Bredan there was no need to bring a light that would betray their approach, and without the metal-clad warriors in their midst they made barely a sound as they slipped forward.

The passage turned into a long hallway that clearly extended beyond the foundations of the estate house above them. The tunnel was packed earth, reinforced by wooden beams and thick planks that supported the ceiling at regular intervals. After a short distance they passed a small room on their left. The place was crowded with a massive bed that had been assembled from several smaller pieces of furniture.

“Looks like our friend Gakrak took his rest here,” Xeeta said.

Kosk grunted in agreement as he leaned into the room. He was greeted by a rich funk that seemed to confirm the tiefling’s assessment. There was an earthy mustiness under that reek that suggested that place might have once been an herb cellar. Bits of faded greenery were still visible in the packed dirt of the floor.

There was a chest near the foot of the bed, but Kosk ignored it for the moment, lingering only long enough to confirm that the room was empty before gesturing his companion on. They continued down the tunnel, which bent slightly to the left and then continued on for a good thirty or forty paces before ending in a door.

“This looks like a fairly recent addition,” Xeeta observed. “And rather slipshod work.” She ran a hand along the threshold, which had been hammered into place around several of the support beams that supported the ceiling. The door hung crooked, with gaps around the edges that were wide enough to squeeze her fingers through without difficulty. In place of a latch the door was secured with two wedges of wood that had been hammered into the jam.

“They probably took one of the doors from upstairs and installed it down here,” Kosk said.

“Makes you wonder what they were protecting, doesn’t it?” Xeeta asked.

“It could be another way out,” Kosk said. He pressed his face up against the edge of the door, peering through one of the cracks. “Light, and fresh air,” he said.

“Shall we see?”

“Get your blasting stick ready, just in case,” the dwarf said. He waited until the sorceress was in position, then used his staff to free the wedges holding the door shut. Once those were clear it opened with some reluctance, due to the poor alignment of the hinges, but Kosk got it wide enough to reveal what was beyond.

The tunnel continued for a short distance further before it culminated in a steep slope that rose up to a narrow opening above. The exit was surrounded by dense bushes that extended into the interior, but they could see a small patch of blue sky through the growth.

“Looks like this was a hidden escape route for the owners of the manor house,” Kosk said. “Not uncommon in these sorts of isolated settlements. Probably how the goblins came and went.”

“Avoiding the hazards in the manor,” Xeeta agreed. “Should we go back?”

“No reason not to,” Kosk said. “I never thought the kid would be here.”

They retraced their steps, and steeling themselves against the stench of the bugbear’s quarters they went back to the chest they’d bypassed earlier. It had a hasp lock that was broken and ruined, so they had no difficulty getting at its contents. Those contents included a heavy wool cloak that looked to be in decent shape, a bag full of biscuits that were the consistency of iron ingots, and a bulging sack. The sack clinked as Kosk lifted it, which proved promising until he opened it to reveal that it was full of copper coins.

“I guess Gakrak and his little band weren’t very good at banditry,” Xeeta said.

Kosk tied off the sack and looked up at her. “Don’t give up so easily,” he said.

The dwarf proceeded to tear the room apart. He poked through all of the bedding before separating the bed into its components, pushing them into the corners of the room. As he was doing that his foot scraped on something that drew his attention. The source turned out to be a loose stone that he pried up with one of Xeeta’s daggers to reveal a concealed space below. There was another chest in that hidden niche, this one banded in iron and with a fully-intact lock securing the front.

“Ah, that’s more like it,” Kosk said. Grunting with effort, he lifted the chest up out of its cubby.

“Should we force it open?” Xeeta asked.

“That may not be necessary,” Kosk said. “I think I might have an idea of where we’ll find the key.”

It only took a minute to confirm the dwarf’s theory. They went back to the cellar annex where they’d left the others and searched the dead bugbear. At first they didn’t find anything; Gakrak’s pouch was empty except for a sling and a few stones, and there weren’t any pockets in his bloodstained garments. Xeeta even pulled off his boots to check them, grimacing at the fresh stench that was unleashed. But Kosk didn’t give up, and finally he found the key on a long throng around the bugbear’s neck, tucked under his armor.

Glori had come over to watch them. “No sign of the boy?”

“He was never here,” Kosk said. “The goblin was lying.”

“We found a treasure chest,” Xeeta said.

“Oh?” Glori asked, interested. But Kosk insisted again that she remain to watch over their injured companions while he and Xeeta went to learn what they had found.

The key fit perfectly in the lock, and the chest opened to reveal a decent haul of loot. This time there were three sacks, filled with sorted piles of gold, silver, and electrum coins. Wedged into the back of the chest behind the sacks was a copper plate, which Kosk pronounced to be of little value, but under that was a small wrap of faded leather that from its feel had a few items inside. The throng holding it shut fell to pieces as the dwarf pulled at it, and he carefully unfolded the wrap to see what it held.

Inside the roll of leather was an ivory statuette, small enough to fit easily in Kosk’s hand. It had been carved into the shape of an armored knight, with an attention to detail that showed considerable craftsmanship. The dwarf stared at it for a moment before handing it to Xeeta.

“That’s good work,” she said. “What’s that there?” she said, looking back over his shoulder.

“Crossbow bolts,” he said, taking two thin shafts out of the wrap. Their heads were silvered and stamped with runes that looked obviously magical. “For the boy, assuming he ever gets to use the damned weapon.” He handed those to Xeeta as well, but before she could examine them the dwarf let out a satisfied sound.

“What?” she asked.

In response he held up two small metal flasks. Each was marked with a single rune that both adventurers recognized.

“Healing potions?” Xeeta asked.

Kosk gently shook one of the flasks to confirm it was full. “Aye. And unless they’re full of poison or something, it means we’ll get out of here sooner rather than later.”


Huzzah! Something good happens! :)
Not only that, but we're coming up on a level-up! I'm going to hold off on posting the next set of stat blocks for a while, however, since there are some story spoilers in them. :cool:

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Chapter 58

Glori lifted her head and pressed a mostly-dry towel to her dripping face and hair. She glanced down at the washbasin and saw flecks of dirt and dry blood around the rim. The water that remained was cloudy. This was the third time she’d washed since they had returned from the estate house and the cellars underneath it, and she still wasn’t clean. She had a feel that it would be a while before she felt fully clean again, in a way that had nothing to do with dirt.

She looked up and regarded herself in the mirror over the small dresser that held the basin. The mirror was cheap and blurry, but it was probably for the best that she couldn’t see her own face clearly at that moment. Her clothes were new; the ones she’d worn to the estate were no longer fit even for rags. Maybe the villagers would burn them.

“You wanted to be an adventurer,” she said to her reflection. Her doppelganger didn’t respond, of course, and after a moment she sighed. She turned to the bed where she’d laid out her gear, but was interrupted by a firm knock on the door.

Her first instinct was to reach for her dagger, sitting on the bed in its scabbard, but she silently berated herself and with an effort of will went to the door. But she paused with her fingers on the latch-handle. “Who is it?” she asked.

“Quellan,” came the low rumble through the wooden panel.

She opened the door to find the cleric standing there in the hallway. He’d taken off his suit of scale armor, but he managed to look imposing even in a simple robe of undyed gray wool. He was carrying a parcel under one arm, a package that might have been bulky for her but which seemed barely an afterthought for a man of his size.

“Ah… I’m sorry, I wasn’t… do you want something?” she asked.

“Just a moment of your time,” he said. “May I come in.”

“Oh, yeah, sure.” She stepped back to let him come into the room. “Sorry for the mess.”

“You should see the room I’m sharing with Kosk,” he said. He glanced down at her bed. “You’re keeping that sword?”

She looked down at the longsword that had been the property of Colum, before the giant mantises had done for him on the way to the estate house. “Yeah. Figured I could get Bredan to teach me how to use it. Don’t tell that local noble, okay? I figured he’d be the sort of guy to ask for it back.”

“Your secret is safe with me.” He stood there in the center of the small room, suddenly awkward.

“What’s that you’ve got there?” she asked, nodding toward the parcel.

“Oh, this. It’s yours.”

She started to protest, but then saw what it was when he started to pull away the cloth wrapping it. Her eyes threatened to fill up, but she angrily blinked them clear. “How did you…”

“You left it in the pile with all the other extra stuff we brought back from the estate. I thought you’d want it back.”

She ran her hands over the lyre, her fingers lingering on the curve where the bugbear’s thrown axe had shattered the metal. It was now fully intact, and he’d somehow even found new strings for it. Her fingertips traveled reflexively to the strings, and while the instrument was out of tune it was otherwise as if it had never been damaged.

“How?” was all she could manage.

“I took it to the local priest. He knows the mending spell. It cannot restore magic items, of course, but…”

That pulled her attention from the restored lyre and she looked up at it. “The lyre’s not magical. It never was.” She turned away and laid it on the bed.

“You haven’t changed since yesterday,” he said. “Now you know the magic is in you, and not the lyre. You’re still the person you were before. The magic doesn’t change that.”

“I know that, intellectually, but I can’t help but feel different. I don’t know, I guess I’m not making sense right now.”

“Actually, it’s quite understandable,” Quellan said.

She gave him a wry grin. “Well. You’ve known that you’ve been a spellcaster for longer than I have.”

“While I can channel the power of my patron, I don’t consider that power to be the feature that defines me,” Quellan said. “I’d like to think that even without it, I’d be the person I’ve set out to be.”

“I’m sure you would,” she said. “Anyway, thanks. For the lyre. It was a nice gesture.”

“It was my pleasure. Are you going to come down and join us? As a priest I’m supposed to be above such things, but I must admit the thought of a hot meal prepared in an actual kitchen is quite appealing.”

“Maybe later,” she said. “I just need a little time.”

“Of course,” he said. He turned back to the door, careful not to jostle any of the surrounding furniture in the cramped quarters.

“Quellan?” she asked, causing him to hesitate in the doorway.


“Thanks again.”


Chapter 59

Bredan tried not to think about the persistent twinges in his belly as he made his way down the stairs. His wounds had all been healed, but apparently even divine magic could not fully erase the lingering effects of what had been done to him. But those persistent pains were offset by the feeling of relief at not having the weight of his armor bearing down on him. He was going to have to talk to the local smith tomorrow about repairing the gaping hole in the front of the armor, but for now he allowed himself an hour’s freedom of not worrying about the next day.

The common room of the inn was busy, but he spotted Kosk at once. The dwarf sat alone at a table that had a generous breadth of extra space around it. Bredan could have chalked that up to the monk’s splendid personality, but he thought he sensed something else in the crowd of villagers, a current of wariness and alarm that seemed to pervade the general mood. He supposed he could not blame them for being worried. It was one thing to know that you lived in a dangerous world, and another to learn that not one but two bands of hostile enemies had been living less than a day’s walk from your home.

He went over to the bar and asked for a mug of ale. Several of the locals sent respectful nods his way, but none tried to start a conversation. He handed over a few coins for the drink and made his way over to the table where the dwarf was seated.

“Mind if I join you?”

“Suit yourself.”

Bredan pulled back a chair and settled into it, ignoring the twist of protest in his gut. It faded quickly, however, and he was able to relax before he took his first sip of the rich local brew. “That is nice,” he said.

Kosk didn’t respond. A mostly-full mug sat next to him on the table. “Where’s Quellan?” Bredan asked.

“He said he had an errand in town.”

Bredan nodded and settled back comfortably in his chair, focusing on his drink. The silence stretched out between them, untouched by the low din around them, until finally Kosk’s face twisted up like he’d swallowed something unpleasant and he asked, “How’s your girl?”

“She’s all right,” Bredan said. “She said… she needed some time alone. I think what happened… it was hard for her.”

“You know that it’s only going to get rougher in the north,” Kosk said quietly.

“I know,” Bredan said. “She does, too. Said as much when I tried to tell her the same thing, when we got back.”

He thought for a moment. “I don’t regret leaving,” he finally said. “Everything that’s happened… even our decision to stay here and help these people.” He glanced around to make sure none of the locals were listening, then leaned forward across the table and added, “Even if we don’t find that missing boy, I think we’ve done something important here. I feel like… like we’re getting ready for something. Something important.” He snorted and leaned back in his chair. “I guess that probably sounds pretty stupid to you.”

Kosk’s expression was a neutral mask, but after a moment he shook his head. “No, it doesn’t sound stupid.”

“I suppose you were right before, about us not being ready. I mean, I almost got myself killed taking on that bugbear.”

“You did all right,” Kosk said. For a moment it looked like he would say more, then he looked up past Bredan and frowned. “Bloody hells,” he said.

Bredan turned just in time to see the front door swing open and a familiar figure come into the common room. From the soft titter that filled the room it was clear that Nordrum’s reputation among the village council extended to the rest of the village as well.

The sage saw them and made a beeline for their table. “Gentlemen,” he said. “I heard you got back. Your companions?”

“Busy,” Kosk said.

“Well, you can impart what I have to say to them.” Without asking permission he took the last free chair and sat down between them.

“Look, Master Nordrum,” Bredan said. “If this is about the missing boy…”

“I must be honest with you and say that I do not think that the poor youth is at the old ruin,” the sage said. “Though I believe that my fears about the site remain justifiable.”

“Hostile magic,” Kosk said.

“Not hostile per se, but certainly dangerous,” Nordrum said. “Please… I know that you have already made a significant detour from your objective to help the people of this town, but the ruin is not far, it would only take another day, perhaps two, to verify what I say is true.”

“We know something about ancient magic,” Bredan said. “What is it that’s at this ruin?”

“I am not certain,” the sage said. At Kosk’s look he quickly added, “Please, I beg you, hear me out. Yes it is true that the people of Northpine consider me to be touched in the head, obsessed. You will likely join them in that assessment if I tell you all that I know, how I was drawn to this place. Maybe I am mad, I don’t know. But if I am right, then this village may be in danger.”

“You didn’t answer the question,” Kosk said. “Okay, you’re not certain. But what do you think is there?”

“Power. Lore of a bygone age. Writings… inscriptions, engravings, old books centuries old. Perhaps an artifact, something small, yet potent…”

“A crystal?” Bredan asked.

Nordrum gave him a steely look. “Perhaps. Why, do you know…”

“This is the first time we’ve ever heard anything of this place,” Kosk quickly interrupted, as much to forestall Bredan as to answer the sage. “If this power is so dangerous, how do we know that you can be trusted with it? Or for that matter, that we won’t simply take it and be on our way?”

Nordrum blinked in surprise. “I… you wouldn’t do that? Would you? As for trust… I know people who understand this power, and can keep it contained. It would be safe, both to the people here and from those who would use its power for evil.”

“Well, that eases my conscience,” Kosk said dryly.

“Please. I can pay you for your time,” Nordrum said. “Even if the ruin is empty, it would be a relief… just to know.”

“Just for reference, how much are we talking about here?” Bredan asked.

Nordrum took another look around and then leaned forward conspiratorially. “I’ve been here longer than I expected… drew down my resources… but you’re going to Adelar, yes? I can give you a writ you can cash out at the Mercantile Guild in the city for… five hundred golds?”

Bredan coughed and quickly took a sip of his drink.

“We’ll need to talk it over with our companions,” Kosk said.

“Of course. You know where to find me, if you need any more information. Here is a map to the ruin.” He drew out a tightly folded square of parchment and slid it across the table toward the dwarf. The sage waited until Kosk had picked it up before he got up and quickly left the way he had come.

“Well,” Bredan said. “That guy doesn’t seem all there.”

“He remind you of anyone?” Kosk asked. He held the parchment in his hand, but he didn’t unfold it.

“Who… Starfinder? She wasn’t like him.”

“Intensely dedicated, even obsessed. Willing to turn over huge sums to virtual strangers to brave a location they could easily walk to themselves.”

“Well… the shrine of the Eth’barat was dangerous.”

“I expect we’ll find the same if we go hunting this ruin,” Kosk said.

“I know we just found those sacks of coin at the mansion… but five hundred is a lot of gold. Assuming he was telling the truth about having the money in Adelar.”

“It’s not uncommon in the south for sums to be transferred that way,” Kosk said absently. “Even up here a man could find himself in a lot of trouble, throwing around the name of the Mercantile Guild without the credit to back it up.”

“So what do you think we should do?” Bredan asked.

Kosk looked down at his mug, and picked it up. “Like I told the sage. We need to talk it over with our companions. But first I think I am going to finish this drink.”


You guys know I love my metaplot. :)

* * *

Chapter 60

The skies were clear as the adventurers made their third excursion into the wild country that surrounded Northpine. The landscape was familiar by now, low hills covered by fringes of boulders and dry growth, copses of trees that occasionally thickened into more substantial patches of forest, and the omnipresent prickleburrs and thorny weeds that lashed at their leggings as they walked.

This time they had no road or path to follow, and while they rarely encountered obstacles substantial enough to force them to retrace their steps, their progress was slow through the uneven terrain. But Nordrum’s research had apparently led to a fairly precise identification of the location of their destination, and they had little difficulty following the simple map—accompanied by a complex list of instructions on the back of the parchment sheet—that he’d provided them.

It was a warm day, and fairly quiet save for the occasional rustle of a small creature in the brush and the constant buzzing of insects. A single raptor hung in the bare blue skies above, seeming to monitor their progress through its territory.

Their surroundings were quiet, but the adventurers kept up a busy chatter as they made their way further from the village.

“So we don’t know exactly what we’re looking for, or even if it exists at all,” Glori said.

“That’s about the sum of it,” Kosk growled, swatting at a bug that persistently buzzed around his face. He caught the insect and crushed it, but within two steps another had replaced it, and he scowled.

“He seemed legitimately concerned,” Bredan said.

“If there is a dangerous magic here, this close to the village, it is our duty to deal with it,” Quellan said. “Left untended, minor threats can become major problems.”

“What do you think is there?” Glori asked. “Another artifact like the stone?”

“Stone?” Xeeta asked.

“Just another job,” Kosk said.

“A paying job,” Glori pointed out. “You think the sage is good for it, Bredan?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, it seemed like it. Kosk said that it’s common for folk to use notes of credit in the south.”

“That is true,” Quellan said. “I have even seen such notes at the monastery in Crosspath, from time to time.”

“Even if this sage is being honest about his finances, it does not explain his motivations,” Xeeta pointed out. The tiefling had let her magical disguise lapse shortly after they’d left Northpine that morning, but she kept the cowl of her cloak up despite the building warmth of the day, keeping her distinctive features hidden under the concealing fabric.

“We can reserve judgment until we see what, if anything, is to be found at this ruin,” Quellan said.

“I notice you didn’t say anything about the boy,” Glori said.

“The sage admitted that it’s unlikely we’d find him at this place,” Bredan said.

“It may be unlikely,” Quellan admitted. “But at least we will know that we investigated all of the options before we resumed our journey north.”

“At this rate the war will be over by the time we get there,” Kosk muttered.

Around noon the terrain became rockier, the trees thinning out and the tangles of dry brush becoming stringier and smaller except in deeper gullies where water tended to collect. That allowed them to improve their pace somewhat, though they remained alert to the landmarks that Nordrum had indicated on his map. According to the sage they should be able to reach the ruin before nightfall, although unless they found what they were looking for immediately it was likely they’d have to spend the night there. They’d brought enough extra supplies for several days of camping, just in case.

After a brief pause for rest and a quick lunch they continued on their way. With the sun beating down on them and few opportunities for shade the day quickly became oppressive even for those not wearing armor, and eventually even Xeeta took off her cloak. The tiefling looked self-conscious as she carefully folded it and tucked it through the straps of her pack, though they hadn’t seen so much as a single traveler since they’d left Northpine hours before. They knew they were only a few miles from the road that had brought them to the village, but it felt like they were in a true wilderness, untouched by the busy arts of civilized hands.

They were climbing a low rise cluttered with an assortment of large boulders when Quellan cursed and stopped.

“You okay?” Glori asked.

“Yeah. It’s my armor.”

Bredan came over and took a look. All of their gear was starting to look rather ragged. The dwarven smith in Northpine, Sindrix Strongarm, had done what he could to make quick repairs to Bredan’s mail and Quellan’s scale armor, but both suits needed several days of attention in a well-stocked armorer’s forge. Bredan said as much as he examined the half-orc’s armor and unpacked his tools.

“We can get our gear tended to more thoroughly in Adelar,” Quellan said. “They’ll have armorers there.”

“You might want to consider investing in something more substantial,” Bredan said. “A suit of half-plate would provide much better protection, and won’t be that much heavier or cumbersome if it’s crafted well.”

“That’s all we need, more metal clanking about whenever we move,” Kosk said.

Bredan looked over at him. “If it stops a spearhead or deflects an arrow, it’s worth it,” he said. “And we can afford it, what with what we found at the estate, plus what the sage promised.”

“Don’t count your riches just yet,” Kosk said. “I know that pile of coins seems like a fortune to you, but it won’t go nearly as far in a place like Adelar, especially with a war going on to drive up prices.”

“For someone who claims not to be interested in money, you sure seem to know a lot about it,” Glori said.

Bredan twisted a wire with a set of pliers and gave Quellan’s armor a quick tug. “All right, I think you’re good for now, but I should take another look at it tonight in camp,” he told the cleric.

“Thank you, Bredan.”

“Can we get moving now?” Kosk asked. “I’d prefer we find this place before nightfall.”

They resumed their winding course through the field of boulders, with Kosk in the lead and Xeeta bringing up the rear. “Speaking of riches, do you still have that odd key we found in the shrine?” Bredan asked Glori.

“The jade dagger?” she asked. “It’s wrapped up in the bottom of my pack. I haven’t found a place where I could sell it yet. I was thinking there would be jewel merchants in Adelar who would offer a good price for it.”

“Could be it’s worth a few hundred more golds, maybe?”

“Maybe. It’s difficult to tell with odd items like that,” Glori said.

“That is true,” Xeeta chimed in from behind them. “Sometimes there’s a collector who will pay many times an item’s raw value in precious metal or rare gemstone, just because it’s unusual or historically significant.”

“Hmm. I wonder if the sage would be willing to pay for it,” Bredan said. “Especially if this ruin and the… the other one are connected.” He glanced back at Xeeta as he changed what he’d been about to say, but the tiefling didn’t seem concerned at the edit.

“Maybe we should have Kosk appraise it,” Glori said. “Since he seems so knowledgeable about economic issues.”

Bredan barked a laugh, and Glori joined in. Even Quellan’s lips twisted into a smile, though he quickly hid it as Kosk turned around. “In case you lot have forgotten, we’re in the bloody wilderness, not a bloody tavern—”

He trailed off as a deep, guttural sound arose from behind a boulder the size of a cottage directly behind him. The companions shared a quick look then reached for their weapons. The noise wasn’t repeated, but it had sounded close, as if whatever it was had been directly on the other side of the massive stone.

Silent now, the companions crept forward to see what was ahead of them.

As they edged around the boulder they could see what looked like a small, temporary camp. A few nasty-looking furs had been tossed haphazardly among the surrounding rocks, along with a slab of wood that looked oddly out of place until a huge hand reached and grabbed hold of it.

The hand belonged to a massive figure that stepped into view as it rose up out of the shelter of the boulder. The companions’ jaws dropped as they stared up—and up, for the creature was almost twenty feet tall, with a bulk that caused the ground to shudder underneath them as it shifted its feet. It was clad in a clout of fur fastened around its hips, with fur leggings protecting its feet and shins. But its most arresting feature was its face, or more precisely the single eye set in the middle of it that blinked as the giant regarded the adventurers.

“Cyclops!” Quellan hissed.

“Um…” Bredan said.

The cyclops didn’t give him a chance to say more, as it lifted its club menacingly and roared, “Smash you!” before taking a ground-shaking step toward them.


Chapter 61

For a moment, the adventurers could only stare up at the massive giant in overwhelmed horror. For all its size the creature moved ponderously, and now that it was in full view they could see that it was injured. Dried blood covered its arms and torso, and half-healed scars crisscrossed its bare chest. The broken shaft of an arrow jutted from one bicep, the missile like a tiny sliver against its bulk.

But wounded or no, the cyclops was still a dangerous foe. As it took one more slow step toward them both Kosk and Bredan stepped forward, the dwarf spinning his staff, the smith unfastening his baldric with trembling fingers. But before either could launch themselves at the giant Quellan grabbed hold of both of them.

“We cannot defeat this foe! Run!”

Kosk shook off the half-orc’s grasp, but the delay had given Glori an opportunity to walk past all of them toward the creature. “Glori, no!” Bredan yelled.

Glori did not stop or look back. The cyclops looked down at her, the bard seeming pathetically frail in contrast to the giant. But before it could decide whether to stomp her or smash her with its club she took up her lyre and began strumming a melody upon it.

The music filled the air. The cyclops blinked, and the warriors likewise hesitated, wary of the danger but unwilling to jeopardize whatever it was that their companion was trying to do. Xeeta had already begun to retreat even before Quellan’s shouted warning, but she lingered about twenty steps away, her rod clutched tightly in her hands.

Glori continued to play. The cyclops shifted in a way that was menacing simply due to its size, but it did not attack.

Without stopping her playing Glori said, “No smash. Sit down.”

The giant blinked at her again, but looked confused until Glori nodded toward the adjacent boulder and made a sitting motion. To her companions’ surprise the cyclops turned and sat down. The boulder was just a bit too large for it to use it as a chair, but it settled its weight against it, lowering its club to rest at its side.

Glori looked over at Quellan and gestured with her head for him to come to her. Moving slowly, careful not to make any threatening moves, the cleric did so. The others remained where they were, but kept a ready grasp on their weapons.

“I’m keeping it calm, but I don’t think it speaks much Common,” she whispered to the cleric.

Quellan nodded. He looked up at the giant and spoke to it a deep, gravelly tongue.
After a moment, the cyclops responded.

Bredan sidled closer to Quellan, careful of doing anything that could disturb Glori’s hold over the creature. But the bard kept on playing softly, and the cyclops seemed, for the moment, to be quiescent. “What did it say?” he asked quietly.

“I asked him what happened, how he got injured,” Quellan said. “He said it was orcs. Many orcs.”

“Ah, that could explain why it reacted with so much hostility on seeing us,” Xeeta observed. Bredan started slightly; he hadn’t heard her approach.

“Don’t think for a second that this beastie wouldn’t stomp us all in a second if it got the chance,” Kosk muttered. “Giants will kill just for the sake of killing.”

“Where did this happen?” Glori asked. Bredan looked up at the cyclops in alarm, but apparently the bard could speak without disrupting her spell.

Quellan passed the question on to the cyclops in the Giant language, and after a moment it answered in a long rumbling line of syllables that sounded like a rockslide in progress. Finally the cleric turned to them and said, “He was at the ruin.”

“Big surprise,” Kosk said.

“Was that its lair? Did the orcs drive it off?” Bredan asked. “And how many is ‘many’?”

“You’re assuming this thing can count past five,” Kosk said.

“I got the impression that Corbrus is a wanderer,” Quellan said. “He is not from this region originally, but from the north.”

“A refugee of sorts, perhaps,” Xeeta said.

Kosk snorted, but did it quietly. “A deadly dangerous one. You may be on a first-name basis with the thing, but don’t think we’re all friends just because our girl’s got the pebble that serves as its brain ensnared in her magic.”

The giant rumbled something else, and Quellan answered. “He asked what we are doing here,” he said.

“Don’t tell him about Northpine,” Bredan hissed.

“He’s not an idiot,” Kosk hissed.

Quellan continued to speak. After he finished he said to the others, “I told him that we are hunting the orcs, who attacked some of our people far away from here.”

“Will he believe that?” Bredan whispered.

“Giants aren’t generally known for their sharp wits,” Kosk returned.

“Um, I think we shouldn’t stay here any longer than we have to,” Glori said.

“She’s right,” Xeeta said. “This situation is not stable.”

“We can’t let it wander around and possibly make its way to Northpine,” Bredan said.

“I agree,” Quellan said. “Glori, can you direct him to head a different way, away from the village?”

“Not without casting another spell, and that will end this one,” she said. “And there’s no guarantee the new one will work.”

“Right,” Kosk said. “We take it out, then.”

“How?” Bredan asked. “I can’t even reach higher than its legs.”

“Then you chop it down, and stab it when it falls,” Kosk said.

“Um… how good is its hearing, do you think?” Xeeta asked.

They all looked up at the cyclops, but it didn’t seem to be interested in their mutterings. But neither did it seem all that discomfited by its wounds.

“It’s too dangerous,” Quellan said. “Even with surprise, I’m not sure we could defeat this foe, at least before he could kill one of us.”

“Then we just leave it be, and hope it doesn’t head the way we came?” Bredan asked.

“Let me try talking to him,” Quellan said.

They stood back while the cleric addressed the creature in its language. The giant responded a few times, but mostly listened as Quellan spoke to it at length. Finally the cleric drew back and gestured for them to follow him as he backed off and then led them away roughly in the direction they’d been originally traveling. The companions kept on looking back, in particular Bredan, but the cyclops merely remained leaning against the boulder until they went around the curve of the next hill and it disappeared behind them.

“Wow,” Bredan said once they were clear. “That was impressive, Glori. I didn’t know you could do that.”

The bard stretched the fingers of her strumming hand and put her pick away. “I didn’t either, actually. I started playing the song that lets me charm animals… and I was able to, I don’t know, change it somehow. It was mostly luck, I think.”

“Your power is growing,” Xeeta said.

“What did you say to it?” Kosk asked the cleric.

“I told him that if it sees the rest of our army, to please point them in the way we went.”

The others all looked at Quellan for a long moment, then Glori laughed. “Deception, from you?” she said. “Now I’m the one who’s impressed.”

Quellan couldn’t blush, but he clearly was embarrassed at the comment.

“It may not believe you, or it may not care,” Kosk reminded them.

“All the more reason to finish our mission quickly and get back to Northpine, so we can warn them,” Quellan said.

“At least now we know where those orcs that the elven scouts were looking for ended up,” Glori said.

“First kobolds, then goblins, and now orcs,” Kosk said. “This bloody village is either the unluckiest place in the kingdom, or it’s cursed.”

“It may be that the conflict in the north is driving more humanoids into King Dangren’s lands,” Xeeta said. “This could be just the beginning of a disturbing trend.”

“We still don’t know how many orcs are waiting for us at this ruin,” Bredan said. “Or how fortified the place is.”

“It’s a ruin,” Kosk said. “From what the sage said, a very old one. There may be some stone walls left intact, but it will hardly be a fortress. As for the numbers, we know from the elves that there weren’t that many left after they ran them off from their forest up north. We can handle a few orcs.”

“Corbrus couldn’t,” Glori said.

That killed the conversation for a lengthy interval. Finally Quellan said, “At least we know what we’re getting into this time.”

“Let’s hope we don’t get in over our heads,” Bredan said.

“We won’t, if we shut up and pay attention to where we’re going,” Kosk said.

They took his advice and continued in silence, moving steadily deeper into the hills. High above them, the solitary hawk continued tracing lonely circles in the empty sky.


Chapter 62

“I don’t see any sentries,” Glori said.

“They’re there,” Kosk said. “Orcs aren’t the brightest, but they’re not that stupid.”

Glori sent a quick look at Quellan, but the half-orc acted as if he hadn’t heard the comment, staring at the ruin ahead of them with an intent look on his face.

Bredan shifted and stifled a sneeze. What came out was barely louder than their whispered conversation, but all of his companions shot him an alarmed look. With an apologetic look the smith drew back deeper into the cover of the fringe of weeds that protected their hilltop vantage.

“Let’s pull back before we do something to let them know we’re here,” Kosk said.

The companions carefully crept backwards until they were well behind the crest of the hill, then they carefully made their way back to the shelter of the copse of trees at its base. With the forewarning from the cyclops they had approached the ruin carefully, remaining in cover until they could locate a spot from which they could observe the site covertly.

The ruin was situated atop a low rise that was studded with boulders. There wasn’t much left, just a few crumbling walls and irregular foundations. On the northern end of the site, just beyond the ruins, there was a thirty-foot cliff that ascended to a truncated bluff overlooking the entire area. It looked like there might be the remains of another structure up there, but it also could have just been a natural feature. It would be impossible to tell for sure without getting closer.

What they could see were plenty of places where a watching orc could be hiding.

“I think we should approach from the east,” Kosk said as soon as they were under the cover of the trees. “There’s more cover that way and we can be on them quickly.”

“Perhaps we should not rush headlong into an unknown danger,” Xeeta said.

“It’s not unknown, we know they’re there,” Kosk said.

“But we do not know exactly where they are, or how many there are, or what traps or ambushes they have laid,” the tiefling explained patiently. “Let me scout ahead first.”

“You can scout?” Bredan asked.

“I have some small talent at avoiding notice,” she said.

“That’s something that will come in useful in this group,” Glori said.

Kosk looked doubtful. He didn’t say anything, but his feelings were clearly written on his face. Finally Xeeta sighed and said, “If it is still a matter of trust, after what we have been through together…”

“I trust you, Xeeta,” Quellan said. “See what you can find, but be careful.”

“Yeah, if you get into trouble, just yell and we’ll come running,” Bredan said.

The tiefling smirked at him, then slipped out of her pack. She put her folded cloak onto it, then slipped out of her tunic, leaving just a light undershirt that highlighted the curves of her form. The bright red tint to her skin covered her entire body; if she was self-conscious, there was no way of knowing.

“They’ll see you coming from a mile off, girl,” Kosk said.

Xeeta offered him a smile, then held her rod and concentrated for a moment. As she called her magic her skin began to darken, transforming into a mottled pattern of pale grays and browns that closely matched the dry growth and bare rock of their surroundings. Even the pale ivory of her horns changed to a tan that fit with her overall camouflage. Her remaining clothes were already dark enough that they did not spoil the overall effect.

“That is cool,” Glori said.

Xeeta smiled—even her teeth had darkened—then turned and darted off toward the curve of the hillside. She made barely a sound, and within twenty steps she vanished into the background of the landscape.

“Okay, she’s good,” Glori said.

“It won’t do any good if she steps on a deadfall or tripwire,” Kosk said.

“Should we go back up and watch?” Glori asked.

“It’s unlikely we’d see her, and if we raise any more dust by moving around we might alert our foes,” Quellan pointed out. “We’re close enough that we’ll hear if she runs into trouble.”

They waited there in silence, the shade provided by the trees offering only partial relief from the hot, dusty air. Bredan drank deeply from his waterskin and adjusted the fit of his baldric. Glori tested her bowstring and shifted her lyre so it wouldn’t get tangled up with the strap of her quiver. They’d already stored their packs in case they had to rush off into a fight, but as the minutes crept on the tension thickened.

“Shouldn’t she be back by now?” Glori finally asked.

“It’s possible that she had to circle all the way around the ruin to find a good approach,” Quellan said, but it was clear from his expression that he too was worried.

Kosk muttered something under his breath.

“What do you think, should we go take a look?” Bredan asked.

“That won’t be necessary,” a voice said from directly behind them.

They all spun in time to see Xeeta step forward into full view. Apparently she’d been able to approach to within five paces completely undetected. She maintained the mottled camouflage pattern of her spell, but once revealed they could see her easily.

“What did you find?” Glori asked.

“The ruin’s in pretty bad shape,” Xeeta said. “There’s not much left. There are two orc sentries in one of the more intact buildings. They weren’t all that alert, but they’ll almost certainly hear your approach. One of them has a signal horn.”

“Where are the rest of them?” Bredan asked.

“I didn’t see them, but there’s a cave entrance along the base of those cliffs, directly behind the ruin. There’s a clear path leading through the weeds to it, and a big heap of trash just outside. I couldn’t get closer without risking detection, but I’d say they’re very likely inside.”

“So we still don’t know how many we’re facing,” Quellan said.

“That’s why we need a plan,” Kosk said. “Surprise attack.”

“That would be a welcome change, us being the ones doing the ambushing,” Glori said.

“How close can we get?” Quellan asked.

Xeeta considered before responding. “Kosk was right about the best cover being to the east. But the growth thins out considerably once you get to the base of the slope leading up to the ruin. I’d say a hundred paces, at best.”

“That’s a real long bowshot,” Glori said. “We’d be lucky to score a hit at that range.”

“We could lure them in,” Bredan said. “Make them come to us.”

“What if they decide to take cover in the ruins, and shoot back?” Glori asked.

“That won’t be a problem,” Quellan said. “Orcs move quickly, and they’ll charge on sight.” He looked troubled, and after a moment Glori reached out and touched his arm.

“We can use that to our advantage, right?” Bredan asked. “Especially if we can hit them as they come out of the cave.”

“We’ll still need to deal with the sentries,” Kosk said.

“I can deal with them,” Xeeta said.

“You’ll be on the flank, alone,” Kosk said. “If you get into trouble, we won’t be able to get to you quickly.”

“I can take care of myself,” Xeeta said. “Unless you still don’t trust me.”

“We’ve seen what you can do,” Quellan said. “It’s just that we want to make sure we all get out of this alive.”

“Yeah, especially after last time,” Bredan said. When the others all turned and looked at him, he blinked and said, “What?”

“It’s a decent plan,” Kosk said. “All right,” he said to Xeeta. “Give us some time to get into position, then we’ll wait for your signal.”

“How will we know when you’re ready?” Bredan asked.

“Don’t worry, you’ll know,” Xeeta said.


Chapter 63

Xeeta felt a ball of tension growing in her belly as she made her way up to the ruin for the second time. She wasn’t worried—that worried—about the orcs. She had never faced one in battle, but she knew enough about them not to underestimate them. She had enough confidence in her own abilities to be able to deal with the two sentries, and enough faith in her new friends to believe they could handle the rest of the fugitive band hiding in the cave.

What concerned her was the energy she felt building in her blood.

The Demon was stirring.

It woke any time she used her magic frequently. It was unpredictable, and dangerous to both her and those around her, her Demon. She had lived with it ever since her magical talents had begun to surface when she was a child. It was a part of her, not something she could ever escape. The only solution she’d found was to avoid using magic entirely. That was an imperfect solution that had worked for a time. But being what she was, alone in a dangerous world, the denial of such an integral part of herself was not something she could long embrace.

And now she was here, once again in danger. Not alone, but she could not shake the reality that the closer she got to her new companions, the more likely they were to suffer from the secret she could not share with them.

She realized that her distraction was placing her at risk, and with an effort of will focused again on her surroundings. She was near the summit of the rise, on the outer edge of the ruin. She could see the cliffs ahead, and in the foreground the imperfect outline of the structure where the orc sentries were stationed. Had been stationed, she reminded herself. It would be foolish to assume that nothing had changed since her last visit. For all she knew there could be more orcs there now, a new shift arriving to spell the guards. Or maybe she hadn’t been as stealthy as she’d thought, and even now there were hidden eyes marking her every step.

That thought had her pausing again, and she had to berate herself mentally to resume her slow approach. She knew that her new spell of transformation—superior in most ways to the mere illusion she’d used before, though unable to affect her clothing—was almost spent, and while she could refresh it with a thought, it would deplete magic that she would almost certainly need in the coming battle. The orc guards hadn’t been paying attention earlier, but if one of them happened to get up and look around the spell might make the difference between being detected and remaining hidden.

She shifted her approach slightly to give her a view of the eastern side of the hill. She couldn’t see her companions, but she could guess at where they were. A shallow gully ran along the base of the rise, likely created by the rains that doused the region each spring. At the moment it was dry and choked with brown stalks that were easily tall enough to conceal a band of assorted adventurers.

She briefly debated trying to signal them, but decided against it. They would know soon enough when she acted.

Keeping low, she crept around to the rear of the ruined structure. The remaining walls ranged from low enough to step over to about five feet high, with enough gaps that they didn’t provide any real security against anything trying to get inside. But what remained was solid enough to offer decent cover. The foundation, cracked with weeds, was a square roughly thirty feet on a side, but there wasn’t enough left to indicate what the place had been or what purpose it had served when intact. Maybe it had been a military outpost back in the day of the defunct Mai’i, or maybe it went back even further, to the days of the old empires that predated the current human civilization that dominated the continent.

She realized she was stalling again in her musings about history, and after taking a steadying breath she carefully eased forward to the nearest of the gaps in the outer wall.

The orcs were exactly as she had left them, leaning redolently against one of the inner walls of the ruined structure. From their location they could have held a commanding vantage of both the southern and eastern approaches to the ruins, and a protected firing position from which to use the two crossbows propped up against the wall a few steps away. The orcs were awake and talking quietly; as she looked in one let out a deep guffaw in response to something his companion had said. They wore suits of armor crafted out of animal hides and scraps of metal that looked ragged and dirty even by what she assumed to be orc standards. From what the others had said, these orcs were the remnants of a tribe that had tried to raid the elven settlements in the forest beyond these hills to the north. One of the pair had a fresh bandage wound around its right arm, likely a wound suffered in the recent clash with the cyclops. Hopefully the giant had killed a bunch of them; it would make their job easier.

For what she had in mind she would have to get closer. Careful of where she placed her feet, she crept into the interior of the ruined building. There were loose bits of stone everywhere, and plenty of cracks deep enough to snag a boot, but she managed to cross to the far side of what might have been a small bedroom or sitting room. All that was left now was a small stone basin that protruded from the waist-high interior wall, carved with half of a face that was so worn down that it could have been almost anything.

She slowly lifted her head over the crumbling top of the wall. The orcs still hadn’t moved. One had taken something out of his belt pouch and was gnawing at it. The other perked up, interested. He growled something, obviously asking if his friend had brought enough to share.

Xeeta didn’t wait for the sentry to respond. Rearing up, she extended her arms over the wall, touching her thumbs together as she drew upon her magic. The movement drew the attention of the orcs, but they barely had time to register that they were not alone before a rush of flames seared into them.

As usual the unleashing of her magic for a moment obliterated all else but the glorious surge of power through her blood. But she was used to that, used to immediately pulling back from that wave of sensation to evaluate the results of her casting.

What she saw in this case seemed pretty gratifying; both orcs were down, their filthy garments coated in soot, their mottled hides blackened and crackling. But while the first stayed down, the second stumbled to his feet, letting out a sharp squeal of pain but clearly not so injured that he couldn’t fix his eyes on her. Through the vagaries of luck he happened to be the one carrying the horn, and while the device had been singed it looked like it might be functional enough to sound a warning.

Xeeta reached again for her magic, intending to finish off the wounded guard with a fire bolt. But before she could begin the spell she felt a rolling surge of power building of its own accord within her. It was the Demon, coming in response to her burning hands spell, seeking freedom. She tried to hold it back, but the wild magic would not be contained.

She screamed as fire exploded out from her in every direction. The fireball enveloped her, searing her as she had seared the orcs, blinding and deafening her with the ferocity of the blast.

Halloween Horror For 5E