Last Stand of the Dorinthians

Deuce Traveler

Having trouble updating this thread. I think the message is too long, so I'll try splitting...

Chalik hurried up to the humans as quickly as he could. "I have bad news," he announced without preamble. "Three of your
companions have been captured by an Imperial force that has moved into the woodland."

Danica rushed up to Chalik and was stopped in her tracks by the news. "Gracious!" she exclaimed as she took him by the hand and led him to Dartis.

Is the blood his, or...., she stopped the thought and hoped Rix and her other companions were alright.

"Do you need to wash up? Which friends? Are you alright? I'm Danica Swann can I help you? How close are the Imperial troops?" The flurry of questions
was, she was sure, incomprehensible. As she led the dwarf, guiding him, she breathed deep and tried to stay quiet.[/QUOTE]

Dartis swore. "How many are out there, can we intercept the captors? When will they be here?" asked Dartis peppering the dwarf with questions as he
simultaneously signalled the camp to pack up, to get ready to move to the cave. "Can you make it back to the mountain?"

Chalik was briefly nonplussed by the sudden attention but finally responded, "I believe there were about 50 troops. Your friends and I fought a few of them but there were too many and we were overrun." He then described the party members who were taken, not trusting his memory of their names, while gratefully accepting a drink of water and a chance to clean up. He looked grimly at Danica. "I'm sorry I wasn't able to do more. I'll do whatever I can to help you rescue them."

Silas frowned. "Infantry or horse? Are they coming this way? How much time do you think we have?" He stared intently at the dwarf then started as if he just remembered something forgotten. "My apologies, good dwarf, my name is Silas Eyrstan."

Chalik nodded at Silas' introduction and replied, "Chalik Bermax, at your service." He then answered the questions tersely but accurately. "We should have this conversation with whoever's in charge here," he concluded. "The Imperials will likely be here tomorrow."

Silas supressed a smile. He motioned towards Dartis. "Chalik Bermax, this is Lord Dartis Kalnian, Commander of this unit of Dorinthian forces."

Chalik was obviously taken aback for a moment, then bowed deeply and said, "My Lord, I wish I had better news for you." He hesitated for a moment before continuing, obviously very uncomfortable. "Though I've not earned it, I would ask a boon of you. If you are planning to try to rescue the captives,
please let me guide your people. I crave the opportunity to redress my failure."

As the party discussed their next move, one of the militia that was on guard-duty barrelled in and interrupted their conversation. His chest was heaving and sweat poured over
his light coat. After a moment he gave a weak salute and said, "Horsemen... they spotted us, sirs. Came right up to our position, they did, then rode off before
we could say spit. I think they know where we are now..."

Dartis swore again, then offered a quick apology to Danica. "Alright, back to the cave!" be bellowed. "Silas, Danica each of you take
half the men and head towards the cave, take separate routes to slow down pursuit. Danica take the northern path, Silas the southern. Put archers on the hill above and spearmen in the mouth of the cave. Put a few volunteers back about 100 feet in that dense grove of trees. We'll try to pin them if we can.

"Chalik, I wish I could grant you the boon, but right now I would ask that you accompany my men to a safer location. Hopefully we can beat back the first assault and try again.
I will stay here and give the leaders a few arrows to slow them down. Now move,"
Dartis bellowed out his orders quickly directing the direction for travel with the tip of his sword.

Silas grabbed a couple of the veterens that he had become acquainted with and sent them to preparing the men to leave as quickly as possible. After he saw the men begin scrambling in their preparations to move he returned to Dartis. "They may have archers of their own, Lord Kalnian. I can aid you a bit in that, if you'll allow it. I can give you some small protection against their arrow fire, at least for a short time. It won't protect your horse and it won't protect you from their other weapons so that will still be a danger but I would rest easier if you would allow me to cast a protective ward over you." So saying, he cast protection from arrows on the noble horseman.

Silas tried to get Chalik's attention next. "[Dwarven]Stone-Brother[/Dwarven], do you know of the cave near here?" Chalik replied that he did not, and wished he was more of a help as he followed the abjurer.

Danica Swann had never been told to lead others before. As Dartis' words sunk in she bowed slightly, and said "Yes, my Lord." She saw that Silas
was taking care of the dwarf and some of the stronger fighters. She cast her eyes around the camp and tried to rally those who were nearby. She would ensure that none were

"All of you, listen," she implored, trying to raise her voice above the mounting confusion. "We are moving out. All those on the
east side of the camp will come with me."
Here she made a sweeping gesture with one hand, as if to bisect the group. "The rest will follow Silas.

Grab your things, we're leaving right away."
Had she sounded confident enough? She hoped so.

She had her meagre gear with her, of course, but she took a moment to grab the piece of leather from her belt pouch. She ran it down either side of her face, and then

horizontally across her chest. "Keep me safe like steel," she whispered to herself. She then replaced the leather thong, once she felt her mage
spell take effect.

She stood by the access to the north road as others gathered to follow her. "Morrison! Keeling! Come on you two!" she called to two stragglers she could identify.

When Danica finally had a chance during her quick march, she reached into the velvet bag and attempted to prod the insides of it with an unlit torch. As she did so, she was
surprised to see that the torch began to disappear further into the bag than she expected. Removing the torch, she placed her hand in the bag and discovered that she could
easily put her entire arm into the thing. She also thought she felt a couple of small objects inside as she dug around. She believed that she had just found herself a bag
of holding

As the news of the approaching Imperials reached the ears of the men, a sense of panic could be felt rippling through the irregulars. Some began to pack their bedrolls and
other gear unto the few horses and onto their backs while others gathered their weapons and wandered the camp aimlessly. A few of the men that had experience attempted to mold a semblance of order, but it was the young voice of Danica that finally brought the would-be soldiers into an organized force. Within the space of ten minutes, two columns
were following the trails the men had made days before along the river, only to break off from their paths later on in order to reach the rock formation with the bear cave.

Dartis stayed behind with two dozen of the healthier, swifter men, creating a vanguard that saw to the protection of the men and took to the wilderness between the two columns
and slightly behind. They were left unharried, although a force of a dozen horsemen appeared to watch and follow them from a distance. Dartis' horse, Swift, danced
majestically around his irregulars, as the young noble raised his bow at the Imperials in defiance.

The entire force reached the rock outcropping without incident, and the third of the Dorinthian forces that brought bows and arrows took positions on the highest portions.
Another twenty men hid themselves in the woods, waiting for the Imperials to come. Around fifty men are left over, and they positioned themselves at the lower portion of the
rock formation and the green field immediately around.

It took some time... a frustrating and tense amount of time- but finally the ordered military march of the Imperials could be heard east of the party. From the top of the rock
outcropping, some of their bobbing helmets could be seen through the trees nearby, and the party members saw the group stop about a third of a mile away. From the top of the
rock outcropping, the party also saw a second group of Tallione cavalry approaching from the western side. This was a larger force, about a couple of dozen in size, but it was
hard to count through the trees.

From this second force a rider galloped forward, and the Dorinthian men knocked and readied their arrows in his direction. He burst forth into the edge of the clearing,
watching the Dorinthians with disdain. He pulled his horse back so that it would halt and shouted loudly, "I would have words with your commander!"

Dartis shouted back from a pile of rocks, "Have you come to parlay?"

The man boldly rode forward to come within 50 feet of the Dorinthian archers. He removed his helmet and stared upwards at Dartis and the party. "I don't come to
parlay, but to offer an opportunity to parlay with my captain, Commander Fralius Sassarius. He wishes to meet you away from our two forces. He wishes to request your terms
for agreeing to the parlay. I am also to add, that a refusal to parlay will be considered to be a signal for hostilities where we will then meet you on this field."

Chalik sneered at the offer of Parlay but held his tongue.

"I will meet Commander Sassarius. There is a rock outcropping a league east of here. I will meet him there, and he may bring one assistant" replied Dartis.

"It is decided, then. He will meet you with one of your assistants. Both sides may also bring two guards each, which will be expected to stand away and out of
earshot. My commander will meet you soon,"
the man said and stiffly turned his horse, as if disappointed that talk would precede violence.

Dartis turned to his companions and chose Silas as his assistant, and Chalik and Danica as his guards.

Chalik bowed his head humbly. "Thank you my lord," he said simply.

Silas seemed a little nervous but nodded his head in acceptance of this honor. He seemed unusually quiet as he prepared himself for the meeting. Finally, he presented himself
to Dartis. "I am ready, Lord Kalnian."

Danica was the first to arrive at the rock, and she withdrew her torch in order to lead the group she had led into the shadow of the mouth of the cave she had recently visited.
With a confidence unexpected by one with so few years (or in someone of her frail size, some would say) she posted guards and indicated defensible positions for archers. She
re-entered the cave and placed her pack close to where she had found the mysterious velvet bag not very long ago, but did not let people linger. She took two of her group, and
led them down deeper into the cave, to where it forked.

"I'd like you two to stand guard here. Spread yourselves out, but it appears these caves go deep, and we've not had a chance to check them out. I'm
suspicious that all of this smell is not due to the bears we fought earlier."
Confident that they have their innstructions, and that they will be able to relay a
message in case something appears -- "Letting us know of the danger is of top concern" she had stressed -- she left them with the torch if they
needed it, with the intention of checking on them regularly.

DM's Note: This was a smart move, since they didn't need another bear or something worse coming out of that cave when they had Imperials to worry about. Lucky for them, the dangers still lingering in the cave were not the kind to be so proactive. The cave's secrets never were fully explored.

As she emerged from the cave, she was told that Lord Dartis had requested her to be on his guard detail at the parlay. She flushed, and started biting a fingernail. Nevertheless, she excused herself, checked the time to see if she needed to recast her mage armor and inspected her crossbow.

She tried to look neat, or presentable, or intimidating, or some combination of the three. "For Dornithia," she said to herself, standing up and
bracing to journey with Lord Dartis and his entourage.

The party arrived at the meeting place for the parlay, while both armies watched each other from a distance. The four party members were not harrassed by any enemy besides the occasional misquito. It was a bit of a walk, maybe three miles away. Standing already at the outcropping when they arrived were four Imperials, two in legionnaire armor, one
in an officer's armor and plumed helmet, and the fourth a stooped, wizened man in black robes and red sash. As the party approched, the two legionnaires moved back to give
their commanders privacy, while Chalik and Danica also stood away. Dartis and Silas walked forward to meet them.

"I am Commander Sassarius, leader of the Imperials here. This is Rufus Nefius, my advisor appointed by the Emperor. We are chasing a dwarven outlaw that
killed a number of my men, and have no quarrel with you. No quarrel, unless you are Dorinthians, such as the three men we've just captured. If you are not men of Dorinth, who are you? And if you are men of Dorinth, how is it that you've survived?"
He asked his questions in a demanding tone, his back straight, and his hand on the pommel
of the short blade that rested on his hip. As he mentioned the dwarven outlaw, he nodded pointedly towards Chalik. Despite the distance, Danica and Chalik could hear the
conversation clearly as a slight wind carried his strong voice.

The wizened, sickly looking man called Rufus Nefius was wearing the serpent necklace of a priest of Oberius, the Cassus-Tallione god of Obedience. Those of Oberius worship evil, law, strength, and trickery. Still, by the components at his belt, the heroes guessed he was more an arcane spellcaster than priest.

At the Imperial's words, Chalik pursed his lips but didn't intervene. Instead he muttered quietly so that only Danica could hear, "This just keeps getting
better and better."

Danica smiled, but said nothing. The only act of communication was that her left eyebrow arching on her forehead. She felt the rat she carried in her pocket shift in its nest.

Silas, of course, deferred to Dartis and remained silent. However, the wizard made him uneasy and the fact that the man wore the religious regalia of Oberius...well, it
reinforced his niggling suspicion that the Tallione had treachery in mind.

Dartis met the commander's gaze with that cool arrogance that only a noble has, merged with the confidence of a trained soldier. In a clear voice he called out:
"Well met Commander Sassarius. I am Duke Dartis Kalnian, this is my advisor Silas Eyrstan. I know of no dwarven outlaws in these parts, and I would gladly turn
any over to you should I find one. In fact I would help you search these hills for them if you would accept my aid. But I doubt you would for though I have never met you, you
claim to have a quarrel with me. For indeed I am a Dorinthian. As for how I have survived well that is a long tale better suited over a tankard and table, rather than dirt and
grass. But come, you say you are having problems with outlaw dwarves? Surely the stout dwarves of the Dunkel mountains have not sunk to mere brigandry. Or have we stumbled upon some other quarrel of yours? And if that is the case, you seem to accrue quarrels at a rapid pace. But come, why do you have a quarrel with me? For being a Dorinthian? For being a soldier? For being here? Haven't you heard Commander, Dorinthia is no more, nor are we in lands once claimed by Dorinthia. We seek a new life, far from the strife of the old. Without enemies, old or new."
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Deuce Traveler

Sassarius' eyes grew wide for a moment, as Dartis' words were unexpected. He gave a regretful shake of his head and said, meaningfully, "I've come to expect
lies from Dorinthians, and here one speaks honestly, and admits proudly of his heritage. Well said, although it changes nothing. In fact, your honesty may make things worse for you. Tell me, Duke Kalnian, what you are a duke of? If Dorinthia is no more why do you use the royal title? In your hearts you remember what it is to be a sovereign people, and you will never forgive the injustice of being brought down. No decent people would. If we let you go, how long until your people insist on even the smallest of revenge for ancient slights? Would it be wise to allow even a small danger threaten my own citizens as we occupy your lands? And you never outright admitted that the dwarf beside you is not the one that killed a few of my soldiers, with help from a few other Dorinthian spies. No... the only course now is to ask you to submit to the empire now or prepare to defend..."

"Commander Sassarius, if I may make a suggestion," Rufus Nefius interjected with a thin smile under bloodshot eyes. "Our seige of the dwarves
isn't going as smooth as some of us would prefer. Perhaps we can make a deal that would be beneficial to all parties. If I may ask, what are your intentions towards the
Dorinthians being held by the dwarves, Duke Kalnion?"

Sassarius stiffened his stance slightly. It was almost as if he would rather had the party and their men killed then to have them involved in Nefius' machinations...yet he
said nothing.

Dartis listened carefully to the two Imperials and addressed the Commander first:

"Indeed, perhaps you have experianced lies from Dorinthians, but I have from Imperials, so rather than assume all Dorinthian's lie, perhaps you should judge
every man by his own honor. As for my title, well I inherited that from you. When my father was killed by Imperial troops, his title reverted to me. As for how I still claim
it, well I did not say 'Duke Kalnian of Dorinthia' did I? But when your father passes away, will you renounce the name Sassarius? I thought not. Just as you will still claim
your heritage and name as your forefather's pass on, so shall I claim my heritage, name and title, whether or not that title is attached to any land that I can claim. I was born unto the title and by the gods, I can claim it until I die and so I shall. And whether it does my weal or woe, I shall claim my heritage proudly and without hesitation or reservation."

"As to the future of my people. Perhaps the Dorinthian are different than the Imperials. Perhaps an Imperial mouse would seek vengance against the lion that
steps on it's tail. But a Dorinthian mouse seeks land where there are no lions rather than spend a fruitless life pursuing an enemy beyond him."

"But, perhaps Counselor Nefius may have the right approach to the situation. It would seem that the lion has too many deer to guard. These lands here were not a part of Dorinthia. Does the Tallione Empire truly seek to control every land, this year? Should they not take the time to digest the bite they have taken these past 40 years?
As to Counselor Nefius's question, the Dorinthians sheltered within are the remants of a few scattered villages. Inside are craftsmen and farmers, not warriors. Surely, Commander Sassarius, within the Imperial heart, within your heart, dwells mercy for fallen foes. Mercy that will not, can not be repaid by vengance."

Danica's heart rose with Dorinthian pride at Lord Dartis' words. Her sharp gaze scanned the surrounding area, watching for hidden Imperials as the negotiations continued to be

Nefius clapped in glee, "Well said, Lord Kalnian, well said. I can see that our two sides may come to an agreement after all. You see, it wasn't just by accident
that our Imperial forces came upon the dwarven lands. There is something that our Emperor needs. Something deep inside the sealed section of the dwarven kingdom. Although the crypts were made by dwarves, beyond the seal lay ancient catacombs made by hands not dwarf, nor gnome, nor man. It's a shield. Such a simple thing really, that shield, although crafted onto its surface is the face of a young king bearing a crown on his head. I saw it once while I was scrying and meditating, and just by chance my mind's eye
fell upon it. A brilliantly crafted..."

Commander Sassarius interjected angrily at this. "What in Hades are you talking about, Nefius? We are here to finish the conquest of Dorinthia."
"Commander Sassarius," Nefius started with a sigh, "Please don't interrupt me again. You forget yourself. As much as capturing the Dorinthian
forces would please me to no end, we have more important matters to attend to. Such as finding this shield, the real reason I agreed to your silly plan of attacking the
dwarves, since I need to spell it out for you. It's discoverer would be awarded greatly by the Emperor. And I mean to have it and deliver it to him personally. Such an
artifact of beauty would be a great prize indeed. Greater than the ragged remnants of a conquered people. Dorinthia is finished, Commander. Seek your glory elsewhere, better
it not be conducted against your father's bretheren anyway."
At the last comment, Commander Sassarius glared at Nefius with a look of utter hate, which was promptly
ignored as the scrawny man turned back to the party members. "So what do you say? You enter the dwarven caves, convince them to allow you inside the sealed off
sections of their catacombs, and return with the shield. And then we will leave, and allow you to reunite with your men. We are a gentle Empire, after all."

DM's Note: As a twist, Commander Sassarius has a Dorinthian parent although he considers himself a loyal member of the Tallione Empire. He is an honest warrior, but somewhat gullible, which makes the up and coming commander at a disadvantage in the fragmented and corrupt Tallione court.

Chalik remembered the following:
The dwarf remembered the tales of the wall with the steel seal deep inside the dwarven burial chambers. Legend has it that a great subterranean enemy burst in large numbers
from out of a hole the dwarves had inadvertantly dug. Many dwarves fell during that almost forgotten time, and it wasn't until nearby humans came to the dwarves' aid that the
battle turned in their favor. Unfortunately, the human king was killed during the battle, and it was said that he was buried with his shield in a hidden chamber that the
dwarves had found. Chalik felt it was a good thing he had paid attention to the local history...

Dartis raised an eyebrow at Nefius's treatment of Sassarius, especially at the invocation of his heritage. Oh ho, now we see who hold the leash thought Dartis.

"Indeed," replied Dartis. "A heady prize and grand offer indeed. A mere shield in exchange for all that. Still there would be an issue of safeguards. As Commander Sassarius has so blunty put it, lies have often been put forth on both sides of the battle. What assurances could you give me that my men would be left in peace, and that should I succeed that you would indeed hold to your word and leave, prize in hand. We seem to be at a bit of a stand off, Counselor Nefius. I require you to leave, yet you require me to achieve your end. At least if you want to present the shield to the Emperor and not your children. Now how would you begin to approach this issue? I would think that the releasing of captives would be a good first gesture of good will, a sure sign that you intend to negotiate in good faith. Certainly the act of a gentle Empire after all. But that would but lay the foundations for trust upon which we can build an agreement. For I would certainly not want news of the shield and its' value to circulate among the Imperial army, I would want to assure you that the shield is placed into your capable and deserving hands and no other. But how shall I deliver the shield unto you? Shall I march down, alone upon the plains surrounded by a full division of the Imperial Army? No that will not work. Perhaps Commander Sassarius and you could stay with a small contingent while the rest are sent back to deal with the real and everpresent dangers that threaten the Tallione Empire on it's newly acquired eastern flank. Now how shall we proceed?"

Nefius cocked his head to the side, and leaned on his darkwood staff as he listened with amusement to Dartis' demands. After the nobleman was done speaking he said,
"Bravo, my young man. If you were bargaining from a position of strength, I would definitely be swayed. However, as it stands now, let me give you my own offer.
Do as we say, otherwise I will be forced to execute one of your three companions we have recently captured; a death each day until you comply. I think I'll start with the elf,
since he's a bit too high-and-mighty for my tastes. If you do agree to our terms, we will allow your men safe passage to enter the dwarven kingdom and pull our army away for a
short time so you may safely do so and join your people inside. I may even release the elf in your care as a sign of good faith. Return with the shield, and our main purpose is complete, and we will release your other two companions and leave this place. What do you think of our terms?"

Chalik gnashed his teeth in silent frustration. He growled to Danica, "That shield lies in the tomb of a true hero, though no Dwarf. I'll not see it desecrated for the amusement of these dogs or their master!"

"Better to die here and take some of them with me,"
he finished grimly, hand resting on his blade.

Silas listened intently but his mind was aswirl. For what reason do they want this shield? The fact that they want it so desperately is telling but...why? His thoughts continued to spiral in that vein until one thought in particular crystallized: The Tallione want the shield and the shield itself may give the clue as to the why.

Danica listened to the speeches, but, to be frank, she did not follow their full import. This was all a whirlwind for her, and she had been caught up in a political intrigue that in no way resembled her life from six months previous. Nor her life from last week, for that matter.

But she had been given a job. Her scan of the surrounding area had detected nothing, it seemed, and Dartis and the Imperials were speaking with words that commanded such
attention... And all for a shield. Surely our goal should be to get the shield, and put it somewhere the Emperor does not know about. And that will buy time for our captured comrades.

She had another thought. She started to speak out, "...", but then hesitated, remembering her place.[/QUOTE]

"Counsellor Nefius, what is weakness, but strength not yet realized." countered Dartis. "As for doing as you say, as you demand, well if you were interested in executing your prisoners, you would have done so, and I know that you have no compunctions about doing so. But what if that should fail to sway me? Shall you be left with three corpses and no closer to your goal? As for your terms, they are not entirely unfair, yet you have still failed to provide the crucial component, that which I am sure Commander Sassarius would no doubt take umbrage with. You have failed to address by what means or measures we can believe that you will hold to these promises. What besides your word, of which you have still not given, shall be your pledge that the terms you have stated shall be adhered to?"

Nefius grimaced at Dartis' offer, but Commander Sassarius gave him a hard look and stepped forward, offering his hand to the Dorinthians. "We give our word, this I swear. And perhaps we can offer to release this elven prisoner. His name is Kel, and he's been a gentleman while under our care. I'll need the afternoon to move our men away from the gates so that you can enter by the evening."

"With the release of Kel as a token and gesture of the integrity and sincerity of your pledge, I will accept your offer, Commander Sassarius. I shall hold you
to your word as a man, as a military man."
replied Dartis taking the proferred hand and meeting the Tallione's gaze.

Danica held her breath, as she marvelled at the interaction between these two leaders. Her nose twitched slightly, but she felt she may almost relax. Soon these men would be

As Danica looked at the Imperial commander and Dartis, she realized that their similarity of appearance was greater than just fellow soldiers. Commander Sassarius had a face like Dartis' as well, In fact, the Imperial looked much more a Dorinthian than a Tallione. Her thoughts were interrupted as the two sides broke from each other. The rest of the afternoon was a flurry of activity, as the men prepared to enter the safety of the Bermax
kingdom. One began to sing a familiar field hand song, and soon the entire camp joined in, as men happy to be alive. When word reached them of what agreement was made in
order to save them from battle, morale shot upwards and the troops flashed Silas, Danica, and Dartis many smiles. Every now and then the party members heard snippets of
conversations, such as: We were right to trust these heroes. Our leaders love us, and will not have our blood spilt unless necessary.

Danica maintained her posture, let Dartis lead, and as she followed in her official capacity, she successfully resisted the urge to look back and see what the enemy were doing.

As the word went up, and Dartis was being clapped on the back by many, Daica courtsied and withdrew to find her pack. She remebered the two guards she placed in the depths of
the cave she goes to them and relieves them of these duties. "Thank you for your assistance; it is appreciated," is all she said.

Kel reached the outskirts of the camp, led by a small contingent of Tallione cavalry, which then left him to quickly return to their own lines. The elven healer reported that
Alexander and Rix were fine, although Rix's mouth had gotten him pushed around by Imperials more than once.

Danica talked with Kel as they moved out, and listened more about the story he had of Rix, whom she realized she missed, though he had not been in her thoughts at all for the
past day.

As the Tallione soldiers left the mountain, the Dorinthian troops headed towards the gates in an orderly column. Soon, they could see the mighty steel gates of the Bermax halls, two large dwarven kings carved upon their surface. The mighty portals slowly swung open into a great hall, and allowed the militia to enter before closing mightily behind them.

As human eyes began to adjust to the dim light, the party could see that the tall, granite pillars of this dwarven hall disappeared into the darkness above. Rows of dwarven
soldiers surrounded the Dorinthian troops and began to greet them as saviors, although one tired and dour dwarf approached the party directly. It was Lender Bermax, who had
worked many times at the refugee camp. He looked the group over, then at Chalik, and said, "Chalik, we asked you to scout around and instead you chase off the
entire Tallione army. Still, it's hard for me to smile when I fear what agreement you must have made, or is it Tallione trickery at play?"

Chalik greeted his ally with a sour expression and said, "A bit of both, I fear, my lord. I'll let Lord Dartis relate the details of his arrangement, but I'm sure the Tallione command is up to no good. Even if one of them can be trusted to keep his word, they look ready to plant an axe in each other's back at the first chance."

Silas gazed wide-eyed at the craftsmanship of the dwarven stronghold, greedily absorbing every sight. Murmuring to himself he said to himself, "My master said the dwarves were masters of stonecraft. I never imagined..." As the dwarves came forward to greet them Silas will return the greeting in their own language.

Dartis left the abjurer to stare and took the time to explain the situation for Lender, who frowned deeply. "Damn Imperials," he said and spit.
"The king won't like this at all, but at least you bought as a decent chance at survival. We can't survive a lengthy siege... not with the supplies at hand. I warn you, though, that there was a reason why our people sealed up that entrance. We encountered a strange group of savage creatures we called dwellers. The battle was hard-fought, but this happened long ago, and we don't really have a decent account on what tactics worked against them. In the tales they were a savage race, more muscle than brains. You'd best be careful down there."

The dwarves were able to get each member of the party a weeks worth of trail rations and a refill of their waterskins. Kel and some of the dwarven priests were able to fully heal everyone, and the Dorinthians were placed in the large hall that they had entered into. It was large enough to place their bedrolls and lay comfortably, although some of the louder snoring from the party's fellow Dorinthians made it for a somewhat restless night.

DM's Note: Next, the party will meet some of their fellow Dorinthians that are being safe guarded by the dwarves and then enter the sealed depths of the Dwellers.

Deuce Traveler

Danica made no special preparations; she had what she needed, or so she thought. She did not plan on bringing any of the men to the cave of the dwellers, but then, it was not her call.

She did, however, find time to investigate the velvet bag in private. First, she removed a dulled short sword out of the bag, although it looked dented up and worthless. Next, she took out several rations of food, though spoilt and also worthless. Finally, however, she removed a large, round stone that was glowing with a cast continual light spell, which proved to be helpful as a light source.

With some experimentation she found that the bag itself seemed to be able to fit up to 250 pounds of equipment and a total volume of 30 cubic feet. Even when full, the bag weighed only 15 pounds.

Silas paced about the hall chatting with the Dorinthians and making certain that they got settled before he wandered off in search of a master of lore, a bard, or a Caernite scholar. His desire was to find someone who knew the lore and legends of the shield that might hint to the reason why the Tallione sought it.

Most of the bards and sages he found were simply old men with good memories and a penchant for spinning good tales and asking interesting questions. However, Silas finally ran into a venerable old dwarf named Steerfranz, who lived in a small hovel lit by numerous old lanterns that revealed rows upon rows of books. The old dwarf refused money, but also refused to answer questions at first, insisting that Silas share a strong pipe and share a mug of stale ale which tested his constitution.

An hour of idle conversation passed before the dwarf suddenly got up and pulled a book off the shelf, and pointed to a rough drawing of a shield laid upon a body. Steerfranz pointed to some of the words that were in dwarven and told Silas, "The shield was said to be owned by the 'King of All Men', and it would definitely be a prize to the Emperor, who believes himself to be the leader of mankind, chosen by the gods. Also, the shield was supposed to bear the face of the human king who bore it, and the Emperor likely thinks that the face will be that of a Tallione man like himself, if I know how Imperials think."

Silas passed the information to his comrades before eating, feeding Thebu, reviewing his spells and getting rest.

Chalik cornered Lender to get his private opinion on the matter and make sure this whole expedition was something that the king would approve. He also asked formal permission to attach himself to the Dorinthian expedition.

"Of course the king approves," Lender said over a shared jug of ale. "Although the 'King of Men' is a respected figure, he's still not a dwarf, nor is his shield a dwarven artifact. By helping the Dorinthians survive this, we make up for the debt, and if we can buy our own survival by giving up human metal, so be it. Our real worry, is that some of these creatures may attempt to get out once we open the seal. We'll be forming a defensive line to keep them in the crypt area, but be aware that if we don't hear from you after a few days, we'll have to assume the worst and reseal the passage so that we don't risk being overrun."

After their talk, Chalik made sure all his equipment was in order and spent the rest of the evening and night eating and sleeping as much as possible. There was no telling how much of either he'd be able to do in the coming days.

"My Lord," said Danica to Lord Dartis as she caught up to him and distracted him from his thoughts, before setting out. "May I have a moment? In the cave where we found the bears, well, in all the confusion there wasn't time, but I wanted to tell you..." She broke off here, because the information was coming too fast.

She paused, and took a deep breath.

"I wanted to tell you but there wasn't time. In the cave, I fouund two things that I wanted to tell you about. First, the caves went deep, milord. I posted a guard at the time, but it may be that it is an access to somewhere else. I know not what, but I had a sense. The smell was overpowering, and the bears were keeping away casual visitors.... BUt that's not what I wanted to tell you. In the cave, I also found a velvet bag. I think it is magical, my lord. In it was a sphere of light--much like my torch, magical, to aid with seeing, and a sword. Milord, I should like very much to keep the bag, but I felt I had to tell you. I guess all I find is techically yours anyway."
She glanced down, and then quickly up, her teeth emerging from behind her growing smile. Her eyes flashed, and she finished, pulling at the hair on her forehead, wishing it would grow to cover her face.

"My lord, I will follow you to retrieve the shield. I don't like going on a mission for the Imperials, but you know best, and you know affairs of state. But here are the items I found. I cannot use the sword myself, and I do not wish to be seen to be hoarding." She looked down and up, again. then, in a quiet voice, she added, "For Dornithia."

"Danica, it has been a hectic time so do not feel badly for having delaying in telling me. As for the bag. I have no lands, nor are you my vassal, so I have no claim on what you find from birthright. I am however at this time the captian and commander of what Dorinthian forces exist, barring Baron Dorin, and even then we are equals in title. As captian, I need look after all my forces. I see no reason then that the bag may not be kept by you as a spoil of war. Perhaps though you culd find a way to give a few coins to the families of the men who were wounded or killed by the bears. If, of course, we survive to find our way home again." replied Dartis.

"As for the magic stone, by all means employ it. Whatever we can do to banish the darkness will be a great help. I would be interested in examining the sword once we stop again, however. As for our mission, yes I know how you feel. I do not wish to aid the imperials, not even their vanities. But, in these times I must think of the survival of all my people, and not whether my own pride or dignity is wounded"
Dartis added sadly.

When Dartis spoke, Danica listened intently. ""Thank you my lord. The bag will help me, and an offering to the families when we return seems wise. I can offer anyone on the expedition the sword. It isn't magical, but perhaps it can be put to good use."

As they were walking, Danica lagged behind for a moment, and examined the sword. She placed it between her palms, and says "Show me your nature." With her magic the sword spoke briefly back to her, showing brief scenes of hectic training, but little use in battle. The sword apologized to her, but it explained that it was a normal blade, not at all magical, and poorly made. She looked up shyly, to see if she had been seen conversing. She scampered to catch up with Dartis, and talk a bit more.
After the night passed, the heroes formed up by the seal in the ancient dwarven crypts.

A hand-picked mix of dwarves and Dorinthians stood ready with their weapons in order to engage any dwellers that might come out. The wheel on the great seal (that showed a battle-axe etched onto the surface) was turned counter-clockwise by two struggling dwarves, until finally it came open on a hinge with the sound of rushing air. The passage stunk of stale air and mildew, but was about 10 feet wide, more circular than square, and descended at a gentle 2 degree slope into the darkness below.

The tense silence was broken by Kel, mumbling something about hating the darkness.
Chalik didn't complain as his vision worked fine in the dark, but he did have his blade drawn and ready as he stepped towards the front of the group.

Silas looked a little burdened down by the gear that he had stuffed into his pack and strapped onto the outside of it. However, he shrugged out of the pack and untied the lantern that dangled from a strap on one side. Rummaging within the pack he pulled out a flask of oil and proceeded to fill and light the lantern. Once lit, he heaved his pack back across his shoulders, grabbed his staff in his right hand, and the lantern in his left. Obviously excited about this trek despite its rumored dangers, he grinned. "I'm ready. Now let's see if we can find this shield the Tallione are so desperate to get their hands on. Dwellers beware!"

"It'd be nice to have Alexander here for this" said Dartis idly.
The last few days had been a whirl of activity. It seemed an eternity since they had been fighting the kobolds in the cave and yet not but a few weeks had passed. Fate too had been fickle, promising ruin, delivering salvation, but with a cost. Whether the gods and Fate would deliver he and his people yet, Dartis did not know. But it had been on his mind greatly the last few days. What would they do after they freed them? Where could they live? Dartis had to shake himself several times to get out of such thinking. Right now his duty was before him: recovering that shield. That way lay their only hope of survival and so what came later would need to be left to thinkers like Silas and the future.

Dartis drew his sword and, once Silas lit the lantern, stepped over the threshhold, into the barely lit darkness.

The party conversed quietly amongst themselves as the delved deeper into the tunnels below. The journey was uneventful, and it took several minutes to reach a chamber, roughly 40 feet in diameter. The tunnel continued north, but the heroes could also see another passage in this chamber that went west. Around the north passageway they saw arrows pointing upwards, while on the western passageway were designs depicting a blob with two tendrils. Both passageways continued in a gentle downward slope. "Look! This dungeon is labelled!" observed Danica, pointing at the sign with clear delight.

Silas frowned at the symbols then looked over at Challik. "Do you know the meaning of these symbols? I confess, I was so busy with everything else that I neglected to get directions to the grave where shield lies." He looked somewhat abashed at his negligence.

The tendrils curved like opposing crescents, starting in the directions away from the main body and having both heads of the tendrils facing one another.

After a few moments of staring at the carvings, Kel cleared his throat, as if to ask 'what now'?

With no answers forthcoming from anyone else, Dartis picked the tunnel with the arrows, a fortunate sign for him and headed down the path.

The tunnel continued downwards for approximately 70 feet, until it opened up into an irregularly-shaped circular room about 40 feet in diameter. From the entrance of this room, the party saw a passageway directly ahead and another that led to the right. The ceiling was about 30 feet above.

In the northeast, the corner of the room was raised like a platform and stood about 20 feet high. The heroes couldn't see what was on top of it, but Kel and Chalik warned the party that they could hear something shifting its weight frantically. The sound started as soon as the party stopped in front of the room. As the party struggled to listen to what their companions detected, they could hear the sound of something on top of pebbles and rock.

Dartis readied his bow with a drawn arrow. In a soft voice he said "I doubt we will find many friends behind the seal, though let us not make a foe out of one who is not. Hold the light higher so we can see what is on top of the platform."

Silas lifted his torch higher and looks upwards trying to catch a glimpse of the maker-of-sounds. Musing quietly to himself, Silas said, "Can't quite see. Shall we move closer? Eh, Thebu?" As the warty head of a toad poked out of the exterior pocket of his cloak (obviously recently and crudely stitched in place) and myopically peered about as Silas took a step forward.

Silas could not scry his familiar at his level of talent, but he could gather a general impression of what the familiar saw. After standing on Dartis' shoulders, he held the toad slightly over the rim of the raised stoneworks. His familiar gave off a feeling of fear at what it saw and two words were felt in Silas' mind... "Chained lizards..."
Not knowing that Silas had detected a presence, Danica held her everburning torch in one hand, and her crossbow in the other. She took a few steps forward towards the northwest.

"I am happy to go investigate, but I do not see an easy route up. Perhaps we should just continue?" This last was asked with an accompanying gesture from her torch hand, towards the left-hand passage.

As Danica moved towards the other passage and made her suggestion, she suddenly heard some creatures arguing in a gutteral language. The voices seemed to be coming closer, and there wasn't much cover to hide behind in this room.

Quickly returning Thebu to the comfort of his pocket, Silas turned to the others and saids, "Lizards of some sort, chained. Beyond that, I couldn't say." The toad wiggled around in Silas' pocket then poked its nose out and lets out a low noise. "Brip, brip."

But Danica hissed for him to be silent. Hearing the voices, Danica dropped her torch and raised her hand, quickly, to offer a signal to her companions watching her. The signal did not last long, however. For the same hand was now reaching for her pouch, where she grabbed the leather thong within, and drew a large x over her heart, saying as she did "Protect me, keep me safe. Keep me safe, protect me." The x was drawn large, the x reaching from shoulder to hip, hip to shoulder. (She was casting Mage Armor). She raised her crossbow and took a step back.

Catching Danica's movement from the corner of his eye and seeing her attention directed down the passageway, Silas stepped towards the wall and sets his lantern down on the floor. Gripping his staff in both hands he prepared for whatever might be coming.
Dartis was still contemplating the lizards on the platform when he noticed the preparations going on. He turned, arrow drawn to wait for the source of the sound to emerge.
The party saw two creatures they mistook for a moment as humans. But then they noticed their snout-like faces, webbed and clawed feet, and thin reptilian tails. With a grunt, the two creatures charged the party, clawed hands outstretched. They started their charge from 30 feet away.

Dartis made a comment to Silas "I guess we should have expected them to say Hi." as he rapidly fired a pair of arrows at the leader.
Danica raised her crossbow and fired, severely injuring the lead creature with a crossbow bolt to its shoulder. It gasped and stumbles, only to be shot only a few inches away from his fresh wound by Chalik's own arrow. The strange creature fell at Dartis' feet and gave a death rattle.

Dartis fired off two rounds, but both bounced off the rubbery hide of the second, enraged creature. It gave a howl of anger as it saw its companion fall. Dartis smelled the stench of rancid water as the humanoid reached him and tried to bite him, showing a hideous row of long, razor-sharp teeth that looked to be able to kill a man with one chomp. Right then, perhaps because of its blind rage, it stumbled on the body of its dead comrade and tumbled to the ground.

Silas rushed up and stabbed downwards with his staff, further pinning the creature after bruising it in the chest. Kel followed and took an aimed strike with his scimitar, killing it. The party took a moment to smile at one another at their victory, but then Chalik detected the sound of claws on rock. A third creature had gone unnoticed, its skin blending into the rock with a near-chameleon ability. It was crawling on the wall with its claws, and nearly made it to the raised stoneworks in the corner of the room, a key dangling from a belt at its otherwise bare hip.

Dartis and Chalik were the only ones able to react in time, with Chalik's arrow missing and striking the wall just underneath the creature. Kel fired his own two shots, one arrow missing, but the other striking the creature's lower back.

It howled, but hung on long enough to drop onto the raised area of stone and disappeared from sight. The party's alert ears were filled with the jingling of keys, the rattling of chains, and the hissing of angry lizards.

Deuce Traveler

Silas turned back towards the lizard platform. He held his staff at the ready, squinting in the dim light as he waited for the creatures. Dartis grabbed Danica's arm and pulls her back away from the area of raised stone right as two sets of eyes appear and gleam at the party from their heights. Two giant lizards appeared from the shadows, their red serpentine pupils set within gray eyes. Their skin was a dull, sickly green but looked tough enough to turn weak blows. Although the heroes didn't see teeth when their tongues flicked out to sense the terrain in front of them, their mouths were huge and looked capable of swallowing a small human whole. Their feet had long claws, and the party members imagined them rending the flesh of their opponents into smaller chunks. They were balanced by a thick tail. As they began to climb down towards the party, the heroes saw a third lizard being unchained by the humanoid creature. That task complete, he moved to unleash a fourth, when the third lizard smelled his blood, and pounces upon the unsuspecting lizard-like man. He screamed in terror, but the sound was swiftly replaced by the echoes of torn flesh, broken bones, and swallowing on the part of the third freed lizard and the fourth chained one.

Danica, a small human, stepped back and regained her footing, exclaiming, "Yip! Dartis, I thought he was dead!" She fired her crossbow at one of the advancing lizard creatures.

Silas began to move forward but then abruptly stopped with a whispered curse. Frantically, he waved one hand in ritual movement and pronounced the words of power that summoned forth his arcane defense... Extended Mage Armor.
Chalik was the first to move, and he switched to his rapier, and then waited for the approach of the creatures. Danica fired off her shot, burying a crossbow bolt deep inside the neck of the lead creature. It shrieked, but did not fall, and angrily closed in on Chalik, who sliced a nasty gash into the creature's front leg.

The lizard attacked next, slicing a nasty wound into the dwarf's shoulder. Dartis fired his shots next, both arrows lodging into the giant lizard's side, causing it to scream and flop uncontrollably onto the ground. The second lizard crawled over his dying companion and attacked Darts as the fighter switched from bow to his blade. The clawed front leg slammed the young lord squarely against his chest, and although Dartis did not feel the edges cut into his skin, he did feel his ribs become bruised from the force of the creature's blow.

Silas cast a spell, although the rest of the party was unaware of its effects. Kel moved forward next, yelling some ancient elven battlecry, and slicing at the lizard attacking Dartis. He slightly wounded the creature on the flank, although its full attention was still on the human fighter.

Along the corner of her eye, Danica could see that the third lizard had finished its meal and was beginning to crawl down the raised area of stone. She shouted a warning to her comrades.

Chalik came to Dartis' side and driving his rapier fully through one of the creature's legs. It snarled, and moved to strike at Chalik with its other leg, when Danica's crossbow shot distracted it by zipping in between the combatants, barely missing both dwarf and lizard. Dartis stabbed at the creature with his sword and traced a thin gash in the lizard's face. Kel joined the melee, only to have his own attack bounce off the tough hide of the lizard.
The third lizard moved behind Chalik to strike him from behind. Having given himself a modicum of magical protections Silas felt more prepared for battle. At Danica's warning cry he turned. Seeing the third lizard bearing down upon the group, Silas raised one hand and pointed at the lizard. Foreign words rumbled out from his mouth and a searing beam of light shots forth from his hand... Scorching Ray A bolt of flaming light erupted forth from his palm, hitting the creature squarely in the chest and causing it to shriek in pain as its claws missed the dwarf widely.

"Gotta get me one of those", thought Danica to herself.

Chalik attacked again, but missed, the fact that Danica nearly missed him and that she is reloading her crossbow and that he had a lizard to his back distracting him to no end. Danica's next bolt sang true, however, and the creature fell with a pained hiss as her bolt pierced its lung.

Dartis moved to another of the creatures behind Chalik, but his sword bounced off the lizard's skin. Kel joined in once more, and once more he also failed to penetrate its tough hide. The creature countered, striking Kel severely across the face. The elf screamed and fell, his hands protecting his slashed throat and cheek. Silas hurried to protect his comrade by standing over him and striking with his staff, cracking the lizard's ribs with his staff.

Chalik yelled to see if Kel is alright, but the elf merely replied in moans while the dwarf's rapier knicked the creature in its side. Danica fired her bolt, but the lizard was too fast, and she missed its side by inches. With a warcry, Dartis was the one who ended it, leaping onto the lizard's back and burying his blade into the center of the creature's neck.
Kel recovered himself and cast a spell of healing, his face and neck wounds closing, and the color rushing back to his face.

The only sound now besides the heroes' labored breathing, was the fourth lizard that they still could not see and was straining to free itself on the top of the raised stone area.

Deuce Traveler

Silas looked around warily to make sure that his companions were all still standing. His worry about Kel eased when he saw that the elf was still capable of healing himself but he still helped the elf to his feet. Flooded with relief that they'd all managed to survive another dangerous incident, Silas grinned. However, noise from the chained lizard grated on Silas' nerves and he approached the raised stone area to see if he could get a better view of what was going on up there.

Scrambling up on some rock debris, Silas peered over the edge and could see that the creature was still enraged, attempting to pull the chain from the wall, and was standing over the torn body of the lizard-like humanoid.

Danica readied her everburning torch, and advanced towards the rock pile where Silas was.

"Chalik, help Kel. Danica reload and watch that corridor. Silas, cover me in case that thing breaks loose." ordered Dartis picking up his bow. He the proceeded to the platform and climbed on top of it, his naked sword still covered in saurian ichor, ready to finish the deed.

Silas nodded at Lord Kalnian's command. "Yes, sir."
"Yes, milord." answered Danica to Dartis' command. She stepped back from the rocks, and reloaded and raised her crossbow, pointing it down the corridor.

At her feet, she saw the corpse of one of the humanoid lizard creatures. She looked at it, and what it was wearing. "Does any one know what these creatures are called?" she asked, in curiosity.

Silas stood nearby, staff held firmly in both hands, ready to jump in should Dartis need assistance. When Danica asked about the men with lizard-like features he glanced at them briefly. Brow furrowing in thought he tried to remember if his master of the arcane mentioned such creatures or if he might have read about them somewhere. They seemed to be a mutated version of Skum. Besides the ability to climb walls and chameleon-like abilities, Silas was unsure what else they could do.

Maintaining his vigilance while Dartis dealt with the lizard, Silas spoke,
"During my apprenticeship my master would tell tales at the end of the day. I thought they were tales to entertain a young boy but I realize now that they served the purpose of education as well. I remember creatures such as these but there was little information beyond what we've already seen. They can hide themselves like a chameleon and are able to scurry up walls as well. We'll have to be extra careful."
Dartis heaved half a dozen or so small boulders up onto the platform. He then climbed up to the platform. While standing at respectable distance from the lizard he began heaving the boulders onto the head of the lizard. He was not going to waste his arrows if he could help it.

But the lizard was rewarded by its struggles when the bolts fastening its chain finally gave, sending it temporarily off balance as it skidded to a halt in the center of the raised stone corner. The party scrambled back down and prepared for combat before the creature could begin to climb down.

Having seen the nasty results of the lizard's long claws, Silas was reluctant to get in too close. However, since Dartis has been chucking rocks at it and was unready, Silas did his best to dash in yelling and whirling his staff about in order to distract it until Dartis could again arm himself. He got a lucky shot in, striking the creature firmly across its side as it scrambled off the rocky platform.

Danica whirled around and fired her crossbow at the lizard creature. Pfft... missing the creature, but tearing a hole through Silas' sleeve. The abjurer was surprised, but unhurt as the lizard attacked and also missed.

Chalik yelled and swung his rapier, but the creature's thick hide was too much and the blade almost snapped. Dartis moved to Chalik's side and swing his own blade, cutting deeply into the creature's flesh with a mighty cleave. It was Kel, though, that finished off the beast, his strike biting into the lizard's throat and silencing it forever.
There were no more bestial sounds, and it appeared that the party were the sole survivors of the carnage.

Silas was able to get to the top of the stone platform and searched the disgusting remains of the lizard-like humanoid that was torn apart. On the corpse he found a keyring with four black keys with curvy shaped lengths.

In a pouch by the corpse he also found a well-made sling, two small sapphires, and ten crude gold pieces with the face of a lizard-humanoid emblazoned on both ends. Also on the corpse, Silas found a silver ring with runes of an unknown language etched upon its surface.

Silas packed away the items that he had found with the intention of sharing the treasure with his companions when they returned to a place of safety. He examined the ring and jingled the keyring. Silas could see that the language on the ring was a blend between aquan and undercommon, but leaning more towards the undercommon side.

"Found some keys and a bit of stuff that may be worth some coin if we make it out of here alive." He grinned. "So. Which way now?" He ambled over to check the walls near the two exits to see if they had markings similar to those they found previous.

"Let's try that tunnel" said Dartis pointing to the tunnel to the north.

Danica smiled at Silas, a coquettish grin which acknowledged the danger she had put him in. "I'll aim for the lizard, next time," she offered, looking down at his sleeve as she reloaded, and glancing up again quickly to see if he was still watching her.

Still grinning, Silas shrugged. "It's just a hole. The bears did worse." Truly, his clothes did look a little worse for wear. He turned away and quickly retrieved his lantern still sitting on the floor near the cavern wall.

She added in apology: "I can try and mend that for you later, if you wish." And with that she headed down the tunnel, lifting her everburning torch to help illuminate the passage. With her hair cut short, Danica was missing the strands with which she used to habitually play. As she walked, she did so with a grace that she knew would appear feminine to most, and she winced at the thought that, such a short time ago, she actually hoped to disguise herself as a boy. The memory ached, but she fought back the embarassment. But are all my secrets this transparent to the others? she asked herself.

The smooth, circular corridor Danica led the group through went for 40 more feet, with a slight decline that made it impossible to see the next chamber at first. As the heroes neared the end of the tunnel it did come into sight. They were just before the entrance of a very large chamber, about 90 feet from east to west, and another 40 feet from south to north. Two large pools of water stretched from the west and stopped at a large statue in the east.

The statue was in the shape of one of the humanoid creatures, but showed only its torso and higher, the rest of the body submerged in another pool of water. It stood 40 feet above the water, its head just barely touching the ceiling. On the forehead was what looked to be a large gem, while two outstretched hands with palms up were held 10 feet over the strip of earth that formed a path between the pools. Another tunnel was in the north.

Silas stopped as they arrived at the next cavern. "Ai! That thing's huge. At least there's no bloody alters. Think they're lurking just under the water waiting for us to pass?" His grin had faded into a smile that, coupled with his eyes that darted about the cavern, seemed more strained than jovial.

Danica grunted approval at Silas's idea--it did seem likely that something awaited in the water. Still, as the party began to enter the room she was looking up, at the ceiling and the walls, looking for places of potential ambush. With her back to the wall of the new room, she side-stepped her way 10 to 20 feet along to the right. She was not going in the water, yet.

"There is only one way to find out. Stay here and cover me until I cross so we know it's safe. Silas, do we know what this shield looks like? That gem couldn't be it could it?" asked Dartis as he drew his sword and began to walk down the path between the two pools. Danica covered Dartis with her crossbow.

Dartis crossed the path without any difficulties, and Danica found that there was no target for her to plug holes into. From his vantage point, Dartis could see that the gem is simply that... a large and cut green stone, but unlikely to be a shield.

Assured that there is no threat of arial assault, Danica moved forward to stay close to Dartis, her eyes scanning the surface of the water. Dartis beckoned the rest of the group over and examined the corrider out.

From his vantage point he could see that the corridor continued for 30 feet, before bending to the right. At the bend, he believed he could see signs of rubble.

Silas approached Dartis. "No, that's not the shield." He went on to relate what information that he received from the dwarves that he spoke to prior to coming into the tunnels. Holding his lantern a little higher, Silas looked over towards the rubble. "Looks like a bit of shaky footing over there..."
Danica advanced carefully, to test the footing of the ground. The ground seemed steady enough.

As the heroes approached the bend to take a closer look, they saw it was a part of the ceiling that had collapsed. Axe-marks scarred the surface of the wall and ceiling near the collapsed section. Both the rubble and the scarred surfaces looked very old, and it seemed that little travel actually occured through this area. They could only marvel at what might be on the other side.

"Well our way is blocked. Chalik do these axe marks look to have been made from this side to intentionally collapse the tunnel?" Asked Dartis as he headed back down the corridor to the room with the statue.

After a few moments, Chalik answered in the affirmative. "Hmmm... yes, I would say they do. And the marks look to be quite old. From the amount of rubble, however, I think that we could try to clear some of it out with 30 minutes or so of work. Maybe it will let us see what's on the other side."

"Well, let's set to it stout dwarf" said Dartis with a grin, clapping Chalik on the shoulder. "Danica, would you hold my bow please and help keep watch?"

The men began digging as Danica stood watch closer to the room with the pools of water. The four of them formed a line, Dartis and Chalik passing rocks and rubble to Kel and Silas to place along the ground. The four of them worked up a sweat, until their clothes and skin were covered in a thin layer of dust, but within 30 minutes a hole was made on the top of the pile of rubble that was large enough to allow a human or even a dwarf. Chalik stopped the party for a moment, lest the opened passage become too unstable. The dwarf climbed up the pile of loose rock and stuck Silas' lantern into the next room. The heroes heard him gasp, as he scrambled over the rubble and inside the next room.
"Gods!" They heard the dwarf gasp and the scraping of metal against stone. "We've found it!" They heard him struggling with something in the darkness.

Meanwhile, Danica stared into the room with the pools, hearing the sound of something scraping upon the stones. It seemed to be coming from the direction of the tunnels that her party had come from. As she concentrated her vision in that area, she believed for a moment that she could see a flicker of movement, then the sound seemed to get slightly closer, but then the movement came from the ceiling, and in many directions. She backed away in fear, as she also watched the pools of water begin to move in noticeable waves, as if something or somethings swam quickly beneath its depths.

"Whatever we've found, can it wait?" asked Danica, as she leaned the bow against the wall and raised her own crossbow instead. Her voice squeaked a bit as she asked, and in her mind she didn't sound serious enough. So she added, "There is something moving in the room with the pools. In the water, and on the ceiling. I think we need to prepare ourselves."

With her left hand, she threw her everburning torch twenty feet in front of her. Perhaps her action would catch some creature, like a deer in Dancing Lights. After she threw, she raised her crossbow and aimed...

"What did she say? Someone throw me a rope and take this shield!" Chalik shouted, as something metallic was pushed against the lip of the cleared opening.

Silas grabbed the shield from Challik pulling it up through the crevice created by their excavations. "She said that something's moving around up here. Possibly a lot of somethings. How much room is there in there? Might be wiser for us to retreat in there and limit their options in surrounding us..." He looked over at Dartis to see what he would suggest.

"Not unless there's another way out of there. Let's arm and see what's out there. Now that we have the shield, or at least a shield (and Silas check it out to make sure it's the one we want). we can leave here. I would prefer to fight our way back out. At the least make sure one of us gets out with the shield to free our people. Come let us see what we are up against" said Dartis grabbing his bow and drawing an arrow.

Silas grabbed the shield, and with a quick glance could see ancient writing and the molded features of a male human on its surface. It definitely looked to be what they were after, but before he could take a closer look Danica fired her crossbow as the sounds of crawling creatures came nearer. Her bolt missed, but the party could hear the hissing chattering of agitated humanoids, sounding like the ones recently fought. From the sounds of it they were almost on top of the tunnel opening now...

Danica reloaded, and prepared to fire again. The illumination only lit the area enough to show shadows flitting ahead. She hugged the right side against the wall, taking steps to avoid chargers, firing bolts --

Silas stood directly in front of the cave entrance. He slid the shield a little towards Dartis in case he should need to grab it up and use it. "It certainly looks like the shield we were told about." Quickly he knelt and slid his pack from his shoulders, trusting Dartis and Danica to keep whatever is out there off his back. He unstrapped the rope he had and tossed one end down to Challik and affixed the other end to himself to use his own strength to help Challik out of the hole.

It was Dartis and Kel who handled the first charge, as several figures fell from the ceiling near the cave opening. Kel moved first, but missed the skum that dropped in front of him. Dartis followed, with two shots at point blank range from his bow that killed another creature dropping in front of him.

Danica attempted to help Kel, firing a crossbow bolt that injured the creature in front of him. At the same time, Silas helped Chalik, who took the opportunity to crawl over the tunnel's opening and drop on the other side, weapon drawn.

The lizard-like creature in front of Kel slashed at the elf with its claw, but missed him. At the same time, two more scum dropped behind him from the ceiling, while another three erupted 30 feet behind those, from the pool. Chalik took a moment during the confusion to move himself into the front ranks.

"Silas, some oil set ablaze on top of one of those pools may slow them down, or at least keep more from coming out" suggested Dartis as he fired another pair of arrows at one of the new creatures.

Silas heard Dartis' suggestion about the oil but wasn't really certain how to go about implementing the idea. Instead he stepped up between those fighting in the front and, waiting for a moment when he could catch more than one of the creatures in its effect, cast Burning Hands.

Chalik and Kel block the entrance to the tunnel, which only allowed two of these mutated skum to attack in melee at a time. There were five skum in front of the party, with one being wounded and directly in front of Kel. Another uninjured one closed with Chalik. The two others that jumped from the pool were halfway to the group.

Chalik attacked first, slicing at the creature in front of him with his rapier, and was able to penetrate the creature's tough hide. The creature howled as it was wounded, then Danica's crossbow bolt flew passed its head, and misses its companion behind it.

One skum counterattacked against Chalik, but was unable to bite into the dextrous dwarf. Kel was not so lucky, as the wounded creature in front of him unsuccessfully raked his armor with two clawed hands, but then bit into the elf's arm.

Silas attacked next, his hands outstretched inbetween his two companions in the front row as an arcane cone of fire erupted from his hands, hitting the first five skum and killing off the two in front of Kel and Chalik, turning them into screaming masses of charred flesh.
The other three also screamed, and in retaliation their heads reared backwards and then lunged forward as they each spit a green wad that exploded on the ground in the midst of the party. The greenish gel flew in every direction, some of it splashing on the bodies of each of the heroes. Where it touched clothes, holes were made, and what they realized was the acid took some skin with the fabric. All were hurt, and Kel nearly incapacited again.

Despite the pain, Kel stopped his bleeding with a prayer for healing. Dartis fired in retaliation, hitting and felling another skum, but breaking his bowstring on the next shot. The human fighter would need time to pull out another string and restring his weapon.

There were four skum left, two injured ones that had just spit, and two that had now closed the distance from the pools and were behind the first two.

Silas looked grimly out over the battle. He struggled not to rub the acid burns fearing he'd injure himself further. With a look of grim determination he hefted his staff and prepared to step forward to give Dartis the time needed to restring his bow should it appear that he would do so.

But Dartis tossed down his bow in disgust, and ran towards the front line, drawing his sword as he did, pausing only long enough to grab the Shield from Silas, as a mate to his sword.

Chalik and Kel moved forward and out of the tunnel to attack, both targeting opponents that were already injured. Chalik's rapier moved swiftly, his hand a blur as he feinted in one direction, then sliced his blade to the other, leaving a thin trail of green blood across one skum's throat, which choaked and fell. Kel missed the other, but Danica's shot flew true, critically hitting into the second skum in between the eyes and throwing it backwards five feet right before it struck the elf down. The elf turned back towards the sorceress in both surprise and appreciation.

Silas stepped forward to meet the next two skum, but the piles of skum bodies around them served to drive them into fleeing. The pair headed for the pools of water, but not before the party unloaded with their missile weapons. Danica, Kel, and Chalik all struck one at the same time, bringing him down. Dartis took his restrung bow and fired two more salvoes, but couldn't tell if they had struck, as the creature dived into the water as the arrows reached his vicinity. No body came up to the surface, and Dartis believed that although this skum might be injured, it was probably still alive and swimming quickly elsewhere.

"Let us move quickly before more come back!" shouted Dartis urging group along.

Danica reloaded, and scanned the water, looking for a target. "You cross first. I can follow." She said with the confidence of command; an authority that seemed to be her true inner nature suddenly emerging from the shy persona she normally exuded. But then she remembered her place, "Er. Sir. If that's alright." She offered a coy smile.

Dartis paused to give Danica a wry smile of his own. "How kind of you. NOW MOVE! And that's an order. I'm last out. Danica, Chalik, Silas then Kel. now GO!" ordered Dartis almost pushing his small band across the bridge.

Silas bent to recover the shield, then hurried after the party. The group's flight was a harrowing and frightful affair. These mutated skum camouflaged with their surroundings, and they would pose a great threat if they were allowed to form into larger formations. But they were only able to attack in ones and twos, trying desperately to impede the party from escaping. Chalik's keen eye discovers several, which he points out to Dartis who was able to send such would-be ambushers back into hiding. The braver skum were made quick work of, although Dartis was taken by surprise once, and some invisible force around Danica seemed to divert a clawed strike from another dark niche.

The pursuers become more aggressive as they realized that the party was heading for one forgotten direction: the way into the dwarven kingdom. The heroes disappeared past the dwarven seal just as a dozen skum appeared down one tunnel, but the dwarves acted fast, firing crossbow bolts and throwing axes to disrupt the beasts while others worked their backs into closing the great seal. Finally, with a loud creak, the seal slammed shut, causing the sounds of the party's pursuers to cease reaching their ears, as if they had never existed.

One dwarven sergeant saw the prize in Silas' arms and said, "Good job, lad. I'll send a runner to the king, who will inform the Imperials that we're ready to barter. I must say, I'm glad to see this thing is nearly at an end, although 'tis a shame to have to give up such a treasure."

Upon saying that, Silas turned the prize over for the party to see. The shield was round, and small; something fit for a warrior on horseback. Around the edges, in script amazingly similar to that used by ancient Dorinthians, were the words: 'The King of All Men' along with engraved laurels. A portrait of a man wearing a breastplate and furs had been hammered into the center of the shield, the exact bearing of a willful and handsome warrior-king from the old barbarian times before Dorinth was ever established. What is more stunning is that the face is an exact twin of Commander Sassarius.

Deuce Traveler

Danica too marveled at the shield, making a wee circle with her thumb and forefinger and holding it up to her eye. "Let me see its nature," she said, almost under her breath. Detect magic

She stepped closer to Dartis -- "Does he need help with those wounds?" She wondered to herself --, and asked, "Um. We're not actually going to give this to him, are we?"

Danica detected a mixture of abjuration and enchantment magic. The magic of the shield seemed quite stronger than anything she had seen before.

OOC: The Shield of Kings, small Shield +2 of arrow catching, can be activated 3 times a day for a +4 charisma bonus that lasts one turn.

Dartis was broken from his study of the shield by Danica's question. "I don't wish to. Such an artifact should stay with Dorinthia. But," he added with a sigh, "I don't see any way to save our people without doing so. Much less without further endangering these fine dwarves who have already risked so much. But if any of you have any further suggestions I am glad to hear them."

The party was ushered into a large chamber, where their wounds were treated and they were fully healed by the rough hands of the local dwarven clerics. Soon, the dwarven king himself came to visit and asked to see the shield. "This is a work of beauty, and something I never thought I'd see in my lifetime," he admitted while holding the metal object in old, worn hands. "That strange gentleman has come to the front of our gates with an armed escort, and a large chest. He asks that we cover the shield in this," he said, showing a black cloth sack that he had curled underneath his arm. "It would seem that the only ones who are to see the shield are us and that robed man with the shifty eyes."

Silas looked with a little curiosity at Danica as she performed her nearly unnoticable ritual but the arrival of their esteemed hosts distracted him. He respectfully greeted the Dwarven king in his own tongue. He scowled upon hearing the shield was to go directly to the sinister wizard and not Commander Sassarius. He looked over at Dartis to see how the commander was going to handle the wizard's attempt to circumvent his agreement with Commander Sassarius.

"Um. Is it possible that we could give him another magic shield --or even a shield that he thought were magic -- instead of the one that he clearly needs? His expectations of us clearly indicate he doesn't want it uncovered in front of his troops. But what if we could make him think he had the Shield of Kings, maybe only for a short while? Would that be enough to accomplish OUR goals? I have an idea on how we might be able to trick him, for a short while, at least. Um, sir." Danica's shy offer filled the silence. She knew that she must appear like a simple girl with a bad haircut--nothing more. But she did not want to give away such a treasure.

The king thought it over for a moment and said, "Well, we could just throw some shield with runic writing, but didn't that shady-looking Imperial know what this artifact was supposed to look like? We could try creating a duplicate, but it would take us a couple of days to make a decent likeness.

Danica shrugged at the King's query. "I really don't know what they know. But I do think that a nicely carved shield that radiated magic could be made to seem to be the Shield of Kings. Even if a wizard simply cast a Continual Flame spell -- is that what it's called? -- it would glow and flicker and radiate magic. That would make it seem to be a magic shield," she said, and paused for a second, taking a quick glance at her companions. An incisor nibbled at her lower lip for a moment, and she exhaled, deeply. "After that, I think I know how to make it seem to be the Shield of Kings, for a while at least. What I don't know, is if such a ruse actually accomplishes our ends." She glanced back and forth between the Dwarven King and Lord Dartis, expectantly.

Dartis had been lost in thought. Finally he spoke:

"This is something I do not want to relinquish. It may indeed be an heirloom of our ancestors, and in any case anythings we can do that is contrary to the Imperials we ought to do. Still, this was undertaken as a way to save not only the remaining Dorinthians, but to relieve our very good friends the dwraves, who have provided them sanctuary and protected them. Still, I dream of ridding the land, or part of it at least, of the Tallione. This would make a tremendous rallying standard."

"One of my ideas previously was to try to substitute the shield. Of course Nefius will know if it is not magical, but I doubt he knows exactly what it looks like. he is crafty though, and his precautions for delivery betray both his desire and his fear. For upon seeign the shield I thought that if I must hand over the shield that Commander Sassarius must see it. That may spark some dissent or conflict between them that may work to out advantage. So I say, let a new shield be made, and let us offer it up. If it is discovered, we must ensure that commander Sassarius sees it though. We gamble greatly, the Imperials still hold friends whose lives may be forfeit if this rouse fails, and indeed this stronghold is then imperiled. But with the King's blessing, let us begin!"

The king nodded and said, "I share your concerns, and will support your decision, but the Imperials are nearing our gate as we speak, and they bring your captured friends in tow. How do we stall them for two days?"

"Your Majesty, My Lord." Danica began with an awkward courtsey directed midway between the two, and smiled. She put down her crossbow, hanging it on a leather loop on her belt, and ensured that the bolt was secure and safe. Now her hands were free to use excitedly when she talked.

"If I may..." she breathed in deeply, and continued. "If we have another shield that can radiate magic...really any magic, I suspect, which is why I suggested a Continual Flame spell, or else a less unique magic shield that someone might have, thjat we could use rtight away, then here is what I suggest."

Danica's eyes sparkled as she spoke, and it was clear that she was building up to something. "I think that if we had such a shield, that I could make Lord Sassarius believe that he held a unique item that was destined for him." She paused before continuing, her fingers wringing one another for the moment. But prompted by the silence, she continued.

Deep breath, and she began again. "My Lord, I have a confession to make, and it is one that does not come easily to me. You have been good to me, as have you all," she said, turning, and encomapassing her companions with her gesture, "but I have not repaid your trust with transparency. There is something I have wanted to tell you, but, well, I haven't. But it may help us here." Danica felt like she was hyperventilating, and her face had flushed completely.
"I, um... I can er, um. Okay. Sometimes, when I need to, I can do things. Magic things, er. I've never actually said this aloud before. Whooo. Okay. When I need to, I can cast spells, I guess. Since I was fourteen or so, and I don't need a spell book or anything." Danica looked around, clearly expecting this to be a big revelation. It occured to her for a moment that maybe her companions had known all along; but I hid it so well. She rushed on with her plan, suppressing the thought.

"Anyway, it occurs to me that I might be able to make the Commander think the Shield was talking to him. If I were hidden in the woods, say, even a fair ways away, as long as I could see him, I think I could make him and the others think the shield was talking to them. And, um, I've heard of Intelligent wepaons and things, and if suddenly a magic shield were to start talking to you and using your name and saying you were the chosen one, and that it was destined to be held by you in battle, and all that, well it might be that we could fool him like that. I think I could do it for hours if we needed to, it's really quite simple magic. But if we did it a few times a day, I think I could make him think that he had an even better shield than he is expecting. An Intelligent Shield... a Shield of Kings. And that might play on his vanity."

"Um. Boys like it when you play to their vanity."
She smiled at this and looks around, hoping nobody was going to laugh at her plan.

Silas listened quietly to the others planning and was quite surprised when Danica confessed her innate ability to use magic. He felt a momentary pang of jealousy which quickly faded when he realized that it was not so much the use of his magic but the study of it that gave him pleasure. Drawing his attention back to the conversation he listened a moment longer before interjecting.

"If we must give up the shield I would give it up only to Commander Sassarius and no other. This wizard, Nefius... I do not trust him. I do not trust Sassarius either but he, at least, seems to have some honor. However, I agree that we should not turn the shield over to them at all.

Silas looked at Danica. "I've no skill with the magics of misdirection. To go through with this we'll need to rely upon you for that. But it seems to me that Nefius fears the shield being seen as it is carried by one worthy and with the right to rule. It is the Shield of Kings." He straightened a little and looks bluntly at Dartis. "We should give Nefius what he fears. Ride out, in full procession, bearing the shield."

"That's a good point," Danica said about it being Nefius at the gate. "That does change things, I guess." She looked around for other ideas, hoping that something could be salvaged. She could barely make eye contact with Silas, a real magician. Nevertheless, she must.

"I'm afraid I don't really get how scrying works. That shield was in the dark, buried. Is it possible that Nefius would have not been able to see the details of the shield? He won't have seen the shield except through that spell. Is it possible that something can be done?"

She hesitated, and continued: "I know that the wizard comes with our friends, including dear Rix, and we don't want to endanger their lives, or indeed those of the dwarves..." Danica here awkwardly repeated her courtsey, and continued."Is it possible that we could get Nefius to bring Sassarius here? Could this be made into a matter of diplomacy, not for seconds, but only for true leaders? What if we sent out someone who was obviously unequal to Nefius, with the request that the Shield of Kings is to be born by Kings, and by Kings alone?"

Danica blushed. "You all must think me the most horrid, duplicitous scoundrel. It seems every thing I say involves lying. But to give away an artifact to the Imperials... Well. I can't imagine it will save many lives, even if it spares our friends for the time being." Danica trailed off contemplating the greater good argument, wanting to help her friends but not seeing a clear way through.

"Indeed, the thought has crossed my mind I must admit Silas. However, we did agree to hand over the sheild. But no specificis were made as to whom we should hand it over to. We can and shall insist that we hand the shiled over to Commander Sassarius. Nefius made no demand that he receive the shield directly from us. That at the least may buy us some time. And I trust the honor of Sassarius more than Nefius. It was Sassarius who forced Nefius to give his word of safe passage.

Although. Although perhaps Silas maybe right. Now Silas do we advance out in full procession, bearing the shield, only to turn it over to him? Or do we ride out in full procession, shield borne upon my arm, to free our friends and cow or sway the Imperial forces before us? Or do we strike what bow we can and slay the few Imperials that set foot upon the threshhold of this fortress?"
mused Dartis.

Silas sighed. "That is, truly, the question." He looked at Dartis and it was plain to see that he was torn. "It is pleasant to think that we could ride out behind you, sway Commander Sassarius and his troops to our cause, strike down those who have injured or oppose us, and then build a safe home for our families.

But the reality would likely be far different than our dreams."
Silas straightened. "Nevertheless, that would be my advice. Take up the shield, let us ride out behind you with our allies, the dwarves, with us. Ignore Nefius. Approach the commander and declare for Dorinthia. Sway them or cow them, whichever seems appropriate at the moment, but let us do this all with the honor of Dorinthians. Let us strike no blow except in defense."

He smiled but it was tinged with a soul-deep weariness. "Whatever your decision, I will stand by you and for Dorinthia."

King Bermax nodded, "Very well, if that is your decision we will stand by you. What of your friends held by Nefius, however?"

Silas turned to King Bermax. "Sire, your people will be directly affected by our course of action. What do you recommend? As for our companions, I don't know."

The dwarven king answered, "Your plan is solid, if it is to get the attention of this Sassarius. However, perhaps there is a way to sneak a message to him, or to sneak into the camp with the shield (although I do not know how in broad daylight), or to even try to get Nefius and the prisoners closer before making our move so that you have a better chance of rescuing them before we chase him off. Even then, we may have the whole Imperial army at our backs and would have to hope to find a way to make parlay."

"How many men accompany Nefius?"

"Six," the king answerd.

"So be it. Let us prepare to meet the Tallione delegation. Be ready for whatever may occur, including Imperial treachery" said Dartis respectfully taking the shield from Silas, and with a bow to his advisor, strapped the ancient shield to his arm.

Deuce Traveler

The party moved forth from the halls of the mountain dwarves, the great portals opened by several strong and stout warriors. The Dorinthian refugees gently cheered as Dartis led the procession, shield on high. Their eyes were both full of hope in the face of the heroes' bravery, and full of worry over the loss of their protectors.

The party moved forward with confidence, Nefius and his six men standing in front of the perty initially by 100 yards. As the heroes came closer, they could see that Rix and Alexander were kneeling on the ground in front of two armored men in the rear wielding short swords held near their throats. The two men in the middle were wearing dark robes, although the one on the right looked like he had a sort of holy symbol around his neck and a glint of armor underneath. The final two men that stood nearest also were armed, in a similar fashion to the men in the rear, but were also holding shields.

Nefius stood in the center of the six guards and two prisoners, a chest by his feet. He looked back nervously at a company of Imperials coming from the far away camp, led by a man too far to recognize. He turned back towards the party as they approached within 50 feet, stared at the shield and motioned to the open chest by his feet. "What do you think you're doing," he hissed in anger. "Turn over the shield and your friends will live."

"Harm either of them, and I promise that not only will you not walk away from this site, but that this shield will be buried so far under the mountain, not even the dwarves will be able to find it." shots back Dartis.

"As for what I am doing, Counsellor, is delivering the shield. You never specified unto whom it shall be delivered, nor under what conditions. As to your fear, I have no time for it. You cower and seek to hide it from eyes. because you fear what shall happen when those eyes behold it. What do your guards think to see you cower and cringe because some shiny bauble is naked to the world and not enclosed in deceit? What, I wonder, do you fear, Counsellor? Surely the great Nefius cannot fear a ragtag group of Dorinthians. No, your fear is approaching." said Dartis staring off at the lone figure in front of the Tallione army.

Wheeling his horse around and moving closer to the group, Dartis gestured with the shield and addressed the guards. "I command you to release the prisoners!" Dartis called out in a voice that only a Lord used to ruling could summon.
Danica stood in the back of the delegation, her crossbow in hand, feeling protected as she had cast Mage Armor over herself before leaving the protection of the dwarven fortress. Her spell was cast covertly, as with all her previous magics, and she was conscious that she had revealed too much of herself. Her confession about her powers had cost her the trust of her allies, it seemed, and with no benefit to be gained. She had thought her plan was worth pursuing, but as soon as it was spoken, it seemed to have been passed over without even an acknowledgement as it was rejected.

It ached whenever she thought of her confession, and she wondered if Lord Dartis will ever have a real use for her. As a crossbowman, she had a purpose. As a messenger, she had a purpose. As a sorcerer? She felt she has been a traitor to the cause, --no that's was not right, but she feared it is how she was seen now -- the cause for which she has fought. But where could she go, she wondered to herself.

Danica was sullen, her lips pouting subconsciously, as she stood looking at those in Nefius' delegation. But she had a job, at least for now, for Dorinthia. She eyed them up, looking to assess which one of them presented the greatest physical threat, and which one of them was the most heavily armoured. After some review, Danica believed that Nefius was the most dangerous, although the men who flanked him look to be spellcasters, while the rest were soldiers.

As Dartis commanded the release of the prisoners, Silas felt a surge of pride. Though he tried to keep his face bland he couldn't help smirking at the furious Nefius. Even so, he was aware that this could degenerate into violence quite easily and he kept one hand tucked within his sleeve grasping a wand.

As Dartis spoke, the six soldiers surrounding Nefius stood in an uncomfortable fidget, nervous glances thrown in one another's direction. There was something in the haughty demeanor of the Dorinthians and the conviction of the nobleman who led them. And that was when the heroes saw into the eyes of these Imperials and knew instinctively that they weren't true soldiers, but mere cronies of Nefius.

Their leader licked his lips nervously, turned to look back at the approaching Imperial company. With a twisted red-lipped smirk, pale Nefius grasped his dark quarterstaff with both hands and said simply, "Kill them."

The black robed man said a few words of magic, and his companions around him were suddenly strengthened in courage, the fear disappearing from their faces as they moved to attack the party.

At an impulse, Danica raised her crossbow to eye level, pointing it at the person wearing the holy symbol and the armor. She gave a moment's glance to Dartis, and back. "Your strength is gone," she proclaimed, and a ray coursed from where the crossbow bolt was, enfeebling her opponent.

As if expecting such a brtual response from the Tallionian, Dartis immediately sprang into action spurring Swift forward and drawing his sword. The great horse leapt straight towards the guard by Alexander, man and horse both seeking to strike him down.

Danica was the first to act, a coruscating ray flying from her crossbow and sapping the strength of the priest next to Nefius.

Rix also moved as he sensed the danger, throwing his head backwards to catch his guard by surprise before hurling his body forward in an attempt to escape. Unfortunately, the man recovered and slashes the kobold in the back, causing a cry and spurt of blood. Upon seeing this, Alexander roared and broke the bonds that were holding him, but was unable to shake off his guard. The Imperial stabbed the half-orc in the chest, his blade sinking deep.

Chalik moved forward and attacked one of the front-line guards, his rapier slashing but missing. Dartis charged forward and around the flanks of his enemy, his concentration on the guard with his blade in Alexander. The man looked up in surprise, as Dartis cut into his upraised arm, nearly severing it and causing the Imperial to collapse clutching it in shocked horror. As he fell beneath the noble's horse, Swift reared up and brought a hoof down squarely onto the dying man's head, finishing him off with a sickening crunch.

Kel moved forward with his longsword, attacking the guard in the front ranks, but missing him badly. Silas moved his horse past the elven priest and around the opposite flank from Dartis. When the abjurer got off his horse, and makes an amazingly talented landing in front of the guard that had just stabbed Rix from behind. His staff whistled before cracking into the side of the Imperial's helm, harming but not dropping him.

The Imperials returned the favor, although Kel was missed by the strikes of the soldiers in the front ranks. The priest moved to attack Silas, but missed him in his weakened state. The other robed figure next to Nefius made a motion with his hand, and a bolt of arcane magic flew forward and struck Danica, who grunted in pain and surprise.

Behind the party was heard a dwarven war horn and as the army of the mountain king was on the march.

When the bolt of energy blasted into Danica's shoulder, she became aware that it was the first time she had been struck by magical energy, and that it had happened within seconds of the first spell she had ever cast openly. My whole life has changed, hasn't it?
Danica shifted the crossbow and pointed it at Nefius. This time, she pulled the trigger, sending a bolt flying for the group leader. She reloaded. I'm getting sloppy she thinks to herself. I've really messed this up.

Dartis turned, the fire in his eyes matching the flame that just scorched his shoulder. With Alexander out of immediate harm, he let out a cry as he spurred Swift on towards Nefius, bloody sword raised high. At the same time, Danica fired once more, this time at the black-robed Nefius in the center of the enemy group. The shot hit him squarely in the arm, causing him to clutch his wound in surprise.

Chalik attacked one of the guards in front of him once more, but his rapier was parried by the man's shield. Dartis moved forward, barreling past a surprised mage, and attacked Nefius with his sword. The blade cut a gash into the side of the Imperial's face. As Nefius turned in surprise, Swift reared and kicked out with a hoof, slamming into Nefius' chest hard enough to cause him to stumble to the ground and cough up blood.
Kel attacked one of the guards that was in the front ranks, but like Chalik, his blow was parried by a shield. Silas attacked the man he was engaged with previously, but his strike went wide.

The Imperial engaged with Chalik closed in with the dwarf and attempted a short stab, but the stout rogue was too nimble for him. The man attacking Kel was much luckier, tricking the priest with a feint before sticking his blade into the elf's side. Kel grunted in pain, but maintained his stance.

The guard next to Silas smirked, thinking that a wizard shouldn't bring a stick to a sword fight. His grin soon disappeared, though, as his overhead smash was easily blocked by the stoic-faced and melee-hardened abjurer.

Nefius' clutched his blood-covered face as he dropped his quarterstaff and pulled a vial out of his belt pouch. He downed the strange liquid, and Dartis cried in frustration as he watched the Imperial fade into invisibility. He knew the man is about to flee, and took a final swing at where Nefius last was, but missed his mark. He soon had other problems to worry about.

The dark-robed cleric to his right reached out and grabs the nobleman's leg. Immediately Dartis felt a cold chill as dark magic coursed throughout his body. Soon after that, the robed wizard that Dartis pushed past before cast a spell at him, and the mounted noble felt a wave of exhaustion. Dartis fought off the magical sleep, much to the disappointment and rising fear of his enemy below him.

Silas blocked another of the guard's strikes with the thick oak of his gnomish-crafted staff and was pleased when the staff withstood the blow. An iron taste filled his mouth and he realized that he had bitten his tongue. He spit blood, and, hearing the cries of his companions, swung his staff at the guard facing him. Silas struck outwards with his quarterstaff, catching his Imperial opponent by surprise from the abjurer's strength and speed. The quarterstaff just barely connected with the man's jaw with enough power to cause him to spin and topple after a sickening crunch.

"Imperial Coward!" shouted Dartis at the space that Nefius had occupied. But the fire still burned as did his leg and Dartis swung his trust cavalry sword down at the dark robed cleric whose touch chilled the very marrow in his bones. At the same time urging Swift on with his knees to strike at the cleric as well. Swift kicked outward, but missed the dark-robed priest next to the noble. But as the priest moved out of the way of the hooves, Dartis' blade raked across his breastplate, gouging out a piece of the metal and wounding him badly.

Wheeling Swift around, Dartis called out: "Your craven master has fled and left you to your enemies. Flee and follow while you may!" None of the Imperials answered Dartis' call. It looked as if they still had some fight left in them.
Danica was aware that none of her magics could work against invisibility, and she cursed herself that her ink vial was in her backpack, and not her belt pouch. That might have kept him a target she thought to herself. But with no sure target, she turned her crossbow to the warrior who had attecked Kel. "Your strength is gone," she proclaimed, as another ray coursed along the crossbow sights at her foe.

Danica's ray shot forth and touched the soldier, and for a moment he shivered, but then shook off the magic with no other visible affect.

Chalik attacked the soldier next to him, but again his blow was parried by the grim-faced warrior. Kel also made another attack against the man who had injured him, but he also failed to make contact.

The Imperials moved next, but both front line guards missed Chalik and Kel. The injured cleric made an attempt at hitting Dartis with a light flail, but his weakened strike bounced harmlessly off the noble's armor. The dark wizard took a step to flank Dartis, then cast a spell that hits the rider forcefully from behind, drawing blood.

Rix and Alexander were both down. Rix was bleeding pretty badly and not moving, but Alexander looked to simply be stunned as the heroes could see him move slightly every so often. Both Imperials that were slicing into them were killed by Silas and Dartis. Kel and Chalik were engaged with two Imperials that were still uninjured and had swords and shields. Danica was behind Chalik and Kel and shooting. The two robed Imperials were engaged with Dartis.


Dartis cursed as his leg was again bitten by Imperial magics. Still, a soldier doesn't falter, and he would be damned if he had come this far to let a few Tallione take him down. Spurring on Swift they both attacked the wounded robed Imperial.

Despite Dartis being pressed by two Imperials, Silas moved to the still and bleeding Rix. He knelt and ripped a strip of cloth from Rix's clothing to use as a bandage. Though he had little skill at it himself, he attempted to perform first aid on the kobold. "C'mon, you little bugger," murmured Silas, "I know you haven't finished being contrary, yet." He looked up from his work to yell for help. "KEL!"

Silas tried to stopped the life from seeping from the bleeding Rix, then screamed out for Kel's help. Danica's shot buried itself in the thigh of the Imperial fighting Kel, causing the man to scream and spurt blood down his leg. He remained standing, however, and focused on the elf in front of him. Kel tries to finish him, but was unable. He runs past him instead, causing an attack of opportunity that barely missed him. Kel scrambled next to Silas and yelled, "Go back to the battle. I'll help him!"

Chalik swung at the second soldier, but missed once more and cursed his luck. Dartis attacked the priest in front of him, but his sword went wide. Swift had better luck, kicking out and crushing the dark-robed man's head in. He went down in a slump.

The wizard cursed and walked backwards towards the two remaining soldiers. He cast a spell and a ball of acid sprang forth and hit Dartis. The soldiers both attacked Chalik, with one moving to flank the dwarf. Although one of the soldiers missed the nimble rogue, the second swung and barely wounded him across the forearm.

Dartis gritted his teeth against the pain of the acid burning his flesh. Fine, if they want a distance combat, I am well prepared to fight that way he thought as he drew his bow. His eyes flickered over the field, taking in the movements of his men and Danica. Rix and Alexander were safe, or as safe as they could make them. Chalik was in need though.
Mounted on a trusty steed, bow in hand, as the arrow was drawn, a flood of memories assaulted his mind momentarily. Here though was the pride of Dorinthia, here was their glory, here was their skill. Little felt better to Dartis than being on horseback with a drawn bow. He smiled at the Imperial, not as a form of intimidation, but through sheer joy of being on horseback firing a bow. Not since the disaster at Kalden had he felt it. Rythmically, two arrows sped from his bow at the Imperials. The first missed the robed man, but the second landed squarely in his ribs. The man wheezed, and a spell fizzled, but he remained standing.

Seeing Kel's reckless dash through the battle to aid Rix and Alexander, Silas quickly stood to give Kel a little defense so that he could work to save the kobold's life. Whipping the wand of magic missiles from his sleeve Silas fired it at the nearest Imperial.
Kel continues to work feverishly on Rix, casting a spell of healing to attempt to stabilize the kobold. As he did so, Silas' bolt of magical energy sprang forth, hitting the black-robed wizard that Dartis had just shot and causing him to flip over dead at the feet of the two remaining Imperials.

Danica saw the soldier that attacked Kel let the priest run by, and instead moved to attack Chalik. She fired at this man, but missed badly and nearly hits the dwarf instead. Chalik hardly noticed, his concentration instead on the Imperial in front of him. With an angry shout, the dwarf feinted in one direction, then brought his rapier straight for the raised armpit of his enemy, connecting with the flesh in between the armor and ripping a chunk out.

The two Imperial troops respond in kind, with the injured one missing Chalik, but the other hitting the dwarf from behind and leaving a bloody slash along his back.

Despite the pain, Chalik smiled at them and pointed at the battle field, showing the men that they were all that still stood fighting the Dorinthians. At the sight of this, both of the remaining Imperials backed slowly away from Chalik, gently placed their weapons and shields onto the ground, and placed their hands up in surrender.

As the party considered what to do, the lead Imperial column stopped just short of them, led by Commander Sassarius. On the other side, the dwarven army and human militia stopped at an equal distance. Both forces considered one another for a moment before spending the next few seconds dressing up the lines in preparation for battle. The two surviving Imperials looked back and forth and noticed that they, and the party, were dead in the center of any charge that might happen. "We're dead men," one of the Imperials wailed to his companion in worry.

"Chalik, bind their hands and lead them back. Kel get Rix on his feet and out of here with Alexander. Back to the line. Danica, Silas, watch my back. Nefius is still out here somewhere. Meanwhle slowly back up towards the column. I am going to see what I can do." said Dartis.

Before Dartis rode out to meet Commander Sassarius, Silas hurriedly stepped over to Lord Kalnian's horse and, murmuring a string of words of arcane power and briefly touched Dartis on the leg, casting a protection from arrows. He ducked his head in obeisance to Dartis' command saying, "Yes, Lord," then slowly retreated toward the Dorinthian and Dwarven line.

The young noble then slowly trotted out alone towards the Imperial line, hands empty and raised in a token of parlay. He stopped just out of bow range from the Imperials.
"Commander Sassarius, I would speak with you!" called out Dartis.

As Silas went, Dartis' words concerning Nefius echoed through his mind. Nefius still about, but hidden... He frowned and tried to come up with something that he could do when he realized that there was one spell... As soon as he was able he cast Detect Magic and began scanning the area of their short-lived battle for sign of the wizard...

Silas moved his cone of detection around as he swept the area for Nefius' location. The twisted man was definitely out of the range of the abjurer's spell and it seemed clear that he has fled, although Silas could not be sure unless he attempted to follow a dissipating trail of magic and leave the safety of his group. On the other hand, the black staff that Nefius dropped glew brightly with moderate transmutation magic. A crossbow by the side of the dead robed wizard also showed an aura of magic.

It took both Chalik and Danica to help support the gravely wounded Alexander and move the barely breathing half-orc out of the way of the approaching conflict. Kel picked up the nearly dead kobold in his arms and carried him gently away. After Silas cast his magic and did his sweep, he picked up the magical items and marched the two remaining soldiers away and towards the dwarven lines.

Dartis took the moment to get off his horse and retrieve the magic shield and his sword that he had to drop in order to fire off his last two arrows. After doing so, he remounted as three Imperial horsemen broke ranks and approached him. It was Commander Sassarius, and two of his trusted men. He looked furious, and he stared hard at Dartis as he asked, "Is this the way Dorinthians negotiate, lordling? By slaying those who approach in a manner of peace? Nefius may have been an object of loathing, but he was still an Imperial and your murdering him must be answered for."

"Greetings Commander Fralius Sassarius" replied Dartis calmly and formally. "I should ask you the self same question regarding negotiations since it was Imperials who drew weapons first! On one point though I think we can agree, that Counsellor Nefius is indeed an object of loathing. Unfortunately, he is still an object of loathing. After he ordered his men to kill us, he used some of his dark magic to dissappear. I knew well that it was only his fear of you that forced him to even agree to this intial arrangement. But apparently once out of your sight, Nefius does as he pleases and ignores your orders. Should he ever approach your camp again Commander, I would watch my back. He fears you and sought to betray you. I respect you as an officer and an honorable man too much to have you fall to the schemes of such a scoundrel."

"So I have no murder to answer for. I wish I had a body to present and evidence of self-defense. He order his men to attack, and struck me with his foul magic. Alas that i could not kill him to indeed answer for a murder or a death. I know that within the Great Empire of Tallione to defend oneself is considered a right, is it not? That a man is permitted to strike at those who strike at him? It was Nefius who ordered this. I sought you out, as I did not trust Nefius. That threat drove him over the edge. As I said he fears you. Perhaps he feared that if he learned your forces had been delayed here on a fool's errand, you would be cross with him."

"Commander, Nefius' errand was fruitless. All it managed was to delay your stay in these parts. Dorinthia is no more. You task is complete. If you feel the need to salt the earth and destroy every drop of Dorinthian blood in these parts, you may find that a larger task than you hoped" added Dartis with a subtle and diplomatic reminder of the Commander's heritage.

"These poor people are not seeking to forment rebellion. They merely wish to live in peace. It has been the machinations of Rufus Nefius that has led us all here. Two armies on the brink of war. Let us end this in peace. Greater glory awaits you in the Empire I am sure Commander. None lies here. You task is complete. Seek a new task elsewhere, I ask. The man who poisoned your counsels is gone, take your own,free of his webs."

Silas stood and listened as Dartis spoke with an eloquence born of his nobility and he hoped that Commander Sassarius proved himself as noble. With a start he realized two things: his distraction had nearly caused his arcane vision to lapse and, their commander, Lord Dartis Kalnian, was currently facing the Imperial Commander and his escorts without an escort of his own.

Quietly he attracted Danica's attention. "Danica, Lord Kalnian faces the Imperials without attendants..." Slowly, he began to approach the mounted delegation, hardly noticing if Danica followed as he continued to scan for traces of Nefius' magic as he walked. To Danica he will whispered, "This crossbow I found has the air of magic about it. Best stow it away from Imperial eyes."

He continued forward until he was only just behind and to the left of Dartis as befitting a guard or counselor. Silas continually scanned the limit of his vision for further trace of Nefius or his magic.

At Silas' words, Danica nodded primly, took the crossbow Silas offered, and moved forward to stand a few meters behind Dartis, to his left. As she approached, she hung her own crossbow on her hip. She loaded the new one, and held it in her hands as she stood ready to guard Lord Dartis.

As Silas and Danica took their places to the sides of Dartis, the companions near Commander Sassarius stiffened and readied their weapons as if anticipating an attack. The three heroes did the same, and for a moment the sun glinted brilliantly over the ancient shield that Dartis held in his hand.

A gasp was heard from the soldier to Sassarius' left. "Gods... Commander, gaze upon the face on that shield and tell me my eyes don't deceive me. Is that the one that Nefius wished retrieved?"

"It must be, Commander. It is your image on the Shield of Kings. Do you know what this means?" The second companion asked, his eyes glazed in imagined glories.

But no such lust for glory reached the eyes of the Imperial leader. Instead his face remained a visage of stone, though his hands gripped the reins of his horse until the knuckles became white. Finally, he said, "It means that Nefius would have sowed chaos among myself, my family, and my friends. Bringing this to the emperor, even if I brought it to him sealed in that chest without seeing it first, could have been perceived as an intent to usurp the throne. I would have been killed, my family banished, and my allies removed from power. In one easy move, Nefius would have erased my opposition to him at the court."

"But though his plot might have been ruined, Nefius still lives, or so these Dorinthians say. What if he makes it to the emperor before we do? He'll be able to set whatever plot he had in motion anyway."

Commander Sassarius turned his head sharply to his companion in alarm, then looked back to the heroes and said, "We must ride away, and fast. It is a long way back to the Imperial capital and it would seem we have business there. Hand us over those two prisoners you have taken that stood by Nefius' side so that we may have them testify in front of the emperor and we will leave you in peace," he offered.

The heroes agreed to this. The chance of watching this army leave and having Nefius hang was too good to pass up. As Sassarius turned to leave and muster his army out he said one last surprising statement. "My mother was Dorinthian, but was a minor noble on the borderlands. Her uncle usurped her father's position, had him imprisoned, and sold her to the Imperials across the border. As you might imagine, she never had good words to say about her fellow Dorinthians. Still, she was the greatest woman I've ever known, and I must say that there might be Dorinthians with character like hers after all." After this partial compliment, he left with the two prisoners, and shortly afterwards the army did, too.


The celebrations started almost immediately after the last Imperial disappeared over a hill. The portals to the dwarven kingdom were opened wide, and everyone began to gather on either side of the opening. The human refugees started crying and hugging with the happiness of being alive, while the dwarves started rolling kegs of ale with the intention that they would soon be enjoyed.

Kel and Chalik went to help Rix and Alexander reach the clinic and be healed, while Dartis and Silas took Danica to meet with a Dorinthian who led one of the columns of armed refugees with skill. The man's name was Barok Hume, and he had a rapier dangling from his side (OOC: Introducing Nephtys' character here). Before they could begin their mutual congratulations, however, Chalik came back with a manacled Imperial. The man's clothes look raggard and he seemed like he hadn't slept in a long while. "I'm sorry to bother you," Chalik said. "We captured this Imperial weeks ago as he was wandering nearby on his own. Initially, we thought he was a spy and planned to execute him. The problem is that we are now almost certain that he was a defector. The other problem is that there are still plenty of dwarves that still want to see him dead. I was hoping that he might get a fairer trial with your people since you are mostly humans, after all. His name is Tessan Ventus." (OOC: Introducing hafrogman's character)

Deuce Traveler

The prisoner seemed to be on his last legs, worn and tired, with weeks of stubble covering his face. But as he was delivered from one jailer to another, he took a deep, ragged breath and drew himself upright. For a moment he stood straight and spent a time considering the four standing before them. He met the gaze of each unflinchingly, and deep conviction burned within his eyes.

He stood silent, awaiting the decision.

Dartis had watched the Imperial column leave, barely breathing. He had been relieved that more of his people would not have to fight. And that the dwarves who sheltered them would be spared the brutality of war. But now, as he thought he could relax he found that he faced the Tallione prisoner, who stood almost defiantly before them.

"Well Tallione, how come you to be here?" asked Dartis.

"If we treat every defector as a spy we will get no surrenders and will have to fight twise as hard in the future, but if we treat every spy as a defector we will have no secrets left. Question is, what secrets do we have left anyway? Seems to me our enemy knows our every move already. And if we already have spies in our midst what harm can yet another spy do?" Barok snorted, a wry smile almost touching his lips as he turned to his new companions. "But the choice is yours, do with him what you want, you've certainly earned it."

Ventus turned his eyes on Dartis as soon as Barok finished speaking. His voice was rough from lack of recent use, but he spoke forcefully enough. "It is as it has been said. I am . . . I was Legionaire Tessan Ventus. I served my empire. I fought and killed my enemies on the field of battle. . ."
He paused, considering the recent events in his life. Speaking of it for the first time, there were many conflicting emotions and memories. When he continued, his voice was quieter, and although he still held his head aloft, he no longer met anyone's eyes. He stared into empty space ahead of his.

"When the killing moved from the battlefields and encompassed those who were not soldiers. . . I was forced to reconsider much that I knew to be true. I left the legions to find my own way in the world. My paths crossed that of your allies, and now I am your prisoner."

He returned his eyes to those standing judgement, firmly meeting the gaze of Barok to add, "I am no spy."

Silas had schooled his face to blankness and listened quietly until this point, but his emotions were given away by a pursing of his lips and a tightening around his eyes. He stared at the one named Tessan Ventus, but then an ill feeling arose. I've faced men like him and I've killed men like him... "All men deserve the chance to make a life of their own choosing," he murmured hardly louder than a whisper. He looked to Dartis and didn't envy him the decision with which he was now faced.
Ventus’ mind raced on how he had gotten into his predicament. He remembered his wanderings that led him to the dwarven kingdom; he found a glade hidden by tall hills that looked wild with growth untouched by man.

However, Ventus had found that impression to be false. Inside the glade, by a crystal clear lake and large tree that appeared foreboding at night, he found a group of men sleeping in tall grass that wrapped around their bodies and kept them as prisoners. They seemed to be deep in dream, and no amount of prodding could wake them. On closer inspection he saw that they wore the cloaks of Dorinthian calvary!

He then heard singing coming from the large tree, and as he looked he saw a lithe woman holding a Dorinthian noble in her arms, his face blank as if in a trance. The music compelled Ventus to walk towards her and the Imperial grew sleepy as the grass seemed to wrap around his legs and pull at him.

As Ventus was about to drift off, a slumbering Dorinthian somehow gathered enough strength to break the spell and grab his thigh. "By the gods, run from here man!" He begged as the grass tightened against him and pulled him once more closer to the ground.

The spell temporarily broken, Ventus took his advice to heart. You ran, and did so for two days before being captured by the dwarves. The Imperial realized that perhaps these Dorinthians would be interested in the tale, and see value in leaving him his life.

His moment of memory broken, Ventus turned to face Silas for a moment, considering the man's statement. He inclined his head in a slight bow, aknowledging the sentiment. He appeared to be deep in thought for a moment before speaking again. These Dorinthians were at least willing to hear him out it seemed, more consideration than had been offered before.

"I am certain that your dwarven allies believe me to be one who would say anything to his own benefit, but I hope that in this you will at least take me as a man of my word. There are more dangerous things afoot in this land than man. As I wandered lost, I came upon a cursed glade. I nearly fell prey there to whatever evil magic held sway, but in the end it was the actions of one of your kinsmen who set me free. If it is not too late, I would render him the same aid, but alone I was powerless. Render your judgement upon me, but grant me this boon. Lend me your strength in the rescue of your blood."

Dartis listened to the exchange between Silas and Barok and Ventus carefully. After considering everthing spoken, Dartis turned to Ventus: "The Emporer does not easily release his legionaires. Nor do they often seek to be released. The punishment for desertion is well known in the legions, and few dare to risk it. Fewer find fault with the tactics of the legions or the goals of the Emporer."

"In light of that I find it doubtful that the Tallione would send a spy under such pretenses. It would have been far too eas to have inflitrated the refugees. Not withstanding the timing would have put Ventus here as a spy far easlier than the Imperial column."

"If his tale is true, and the brutality of the legions, the breaking of the laws of war, and slaughter of civilians finally caused the Tallione conscience to finally awaken, then by all means we need to allow him to pursue his destiny a free man, so long as it is not to the detriment of Dorinthia."

"Here then is my judgement. We shall provide the opportunity for Tessan Ventus to demonstate his truthfulness and intentions. He was under no obligation to inform us of our kinsmen. Should his story be true, he will have done Dorinthia a service and shall have his freedom. In the meantime, he shall remain a prisoner of Dorinthia, but a prisoner of honor. He shall be permitted to shave and clean himself, and his possessions returned to him. He shall be fed as we are and shall lead us to our kinsmen. This we will do if he will swear an oath, that he is not a spy, agent or legionaire of the Empire of Tallione, and owes no allegiance to it and that he will make no attempt to escape our custody until he has lead us to our kinsman and we have declared final judgement. Since he claims to no longer be a legionaire and cannot swear by his legion or its standard, I would ask Tessan Ventus as to what he would swear by that we would deem his oath as binding," declared Dartis to Ventus and the assembled crowd.

Ventus listened patiently as the Dorinthian noble reasoned his way through the situation. The stubble covering his face itched fiercely, but he maintained his stance, keeping his bound hands in front of him.

Dartis's statements about Tallione almost provoked a response from the former Legionaire, but he gritted his teeth and said nothing. For all his feelings of betrayal, his old home was still firmly lodged in his heart. He listened stoicly to the judgement pronounced against him, nodding solemnly in response. "Bring me my sword, the sword of my family. I will swear upon the blade, may it break under my hand if my word be sworn false."

Barok glanced at the prisoner, "You'll know the truth of his oath at the glade, my lord." He turned to Dartis, "It seems the Empire has its reasons to want you dead, and I wouldn't put it past them to lay a trap for you. I'm pretty much done here, and don't really care whether I'll make it out of this war in one piece or many as long as I get a chance to kill some Imperial scum along the way. You've done well so far sir and I'd like to join you fighting our enemies, whoever they may be." He saluted the Baron sloppily, something halfway between laughter and sorrow in his eyes.

Silas clamped his lips tight as he realized the words he spoke were not quite as quiet as he thought them to be. Your wagging tongue will bring you to sorrow, yet, he thought. He gazed at Ventus appraisingly as the scene between the Imperial and Lord Dartis Kalnian played out. Briefly he glanced over at Danica to see how the young woman was taking these newcomers, especially the Imperial, Ventus.

Thinking he saw a slight hint of command from Dartis, Silas stepped over to Ventus' dwarven captors and retrieved Ventus' weapon. Unsheathing the weapon and holding the bare blade horizontally in front of him he moved over to stand in front of Ventus. He glanced back at Dartis. I hope to the gods I'm not overstepping my boundaries...
"An oath made while in chains can never be binding." He looked at the nearby dwarves. "If this has Lord Kalnian's approval then cut him free, so he can give his word, freely." He returned his gaze to Ventus. "Know that I am a Caernite scholar. Not only will your oath be heard before two sovereign peoples but the earth itself will hear and bind your word to you."
Ventus met Silas's gaze without flinching. "I understand, and accept." He held his hands up in front of him, fists clenched and held apart so the binding ropes were pulled taunt between them. He too awaited the final word from the man to whom he had submitted himself, this Lord Kalnian.

"And gladly would I have you join me Barok. Our first order is and has been as you yourself have been serving, protecting and gathering our peoples. But in doing so there has been much fighting. I am glad to have your sword. Dorinthia is grateful for your service" said Dartis clasping the man on the shoulder. "So be it." replied Dartis as Silas retrieved Ventus' weapon. As Ventus held his hands out Dartis gave a nod to Silas.

In a rich and full voice far more suited for court than a battlefield, Dartis announced:"Tessan Ventus you are hereby remanded unto the custody of Dorinthia. Upon your honor you have sworn to remain as a Prisoner of Honor until such time as Dorinthia has rendered her judgement. Advisor Eyrstan, release his bonds."
As Silas cut the cords, Dartis added in a more personal tone as Silas handed over the sword: "The weapons of ones ancestors are sacred, thier deeds are bound to them, and the manner in which their decendants employ them either desecrates or reveres their memory."

"Silas, see that he gets what he needs." Addressing the small assembled host, "Come, let us now celebrate while we may. Tomorrow we will ride out to find our kinsmen and provide Ventus his reckoning"

After his bonds had been cut, Ventus gestured for Silas to hold out the sword horizontally. He placed his hand over the blade, slowly, to ensure that no one mistook his intentions. He spoke deliberately and clearly to all assembled. "I, Tessan Ventus, do swear the following, of my own free will. Upon the blade of my father, I am no longer a legionaire in the service of the Tallione Empire. I hereby renounce all allegiance to the government of my homeland. I harbor no concealed duties, being neither spy nor agent for the Emperor or any other entity. I will attempt neither escape nor any attack upon my captors. All this I swear, to be witnessed by all."

Silas listened solemnly as Ventus makes his oath, nodding his approval at the man's words. With the ceremony concluded Silas quietly said, "So witnessed, by the peoples of Dorinth, Bermax, and the earth who gave up a portion of herself so that your ancestors might arm themselves."

Ventus bowed once to the four assembled before him, then left with Chalik and Barok to retrieve his equipment from the dwarves. He stayed away from the celebrations, not sure of what kind of reception he would get, nor if he even had anything to celebrate. Best to leave the Dorinthians in peace. The morning would bring time enough to meet those with whom he was to travel.

Leaning in to Silas, Dartis whispered, [sblock] "Thank you my friend. I go to the king, come when you can and send Danica" [/sblock] With a last look at Ventus, and a nod to Barok, Dartis turned and heads back into the celebration.
With a concerned look, Kel went with several dwarven priests to attend to Alexander and Rix. Strangely, the three of them had become very close throughout their adventures and the elf was obviously agitated about the condition of the half-orc and kobold.

Barok and Chalik took Ventus to get cleaned up and retrieve the rest of his equipment. At the same time, Danica, Silas and Dartis met with King Bermax. The lord of the mountain was happy enough to listen to the party's requests and agreed to allow the Dorinthian militia and refugees to stay a bit longer as guests while the party followed Ventus to the location of the lost Dorinthian cavalry. Pondering the plight of those men, he added, "It's a strange story this Ventus tells, although there may be some truth mined from it. We dwarves never go to the location he is said to visit, as it is known as dryad territory. I would be most careful, as the fey can be vicious."

The party talked with him some more before the group got together to enjoy the celebrations and then bedded down for the night. The party that was formed consisted of Dartis, Danica, Silas, Barok and Ventus. The area was estimated to be two days away, and the dwarves provided five days of trail rations for each of the five party members. They also allowed them to peruse their stockroom for extra goods. This was what was available to take:

3 Gauntlets
4 Punching Daggers
2 Spiked Gauntlets
3 Light Maces
2 Heavy Maces
1 Heavy Crossbow
2 Light Crossbows
1 Hand Crossbow
50 Bolts
20 Throwing Axes
2 Light Hammers
5 Hand Axes
3 Short Swords
3 Battle Axes
4 Warhammers
1 Spiked Heavy Shield
1 Greataxe
2 Shortbows
1 Longbow
40 Arrows
1 Dwarven Waraxe
1 Dwarven Urgrosh
3 Suits of Leather Armor
2 Suits of Studded Leather Armor
5 Chainmail Suits
3 Breastplates
1 Splint Mail suit
1 Banded Mail suit
3 Bucklers
2 Light Steel Shields
1 Heavy Steel Shield
1 Tower Shield
4 Backpacks
2 Bedrolls
1 Winter Blanket
1 pack of caltrops
1 Crowbar
1 Grappling Hook
1 50' coil of rope
7 Hooded Lanterns
12 Oil Flasks
25 Trail Rations
3 Waterskins
1 Piece of chalk
2 Signal Whistles
3 Whetstones
5 Torches
2 Tanglefoot Bags
3 Sunrods
1 set of Masterwork Artisan's Tools
1 set of Thieves Tools


When he was next seen, Ventus was much changed from his captivity. His sharp, new shave revealed the face of a young man. His hair had lightened several shades with washing and it had once again been cropped short in the style of the Legions. He still seemed slightly reduced as a result of his captivity and wandering before that, but a true night's rest had done much to restore his vigor. His frame was broadly built, and dressed once again in shining armor he looked the part of a warrior, no longer a languishing prisoner. But he had left the remains of his binding cords intact. They no longer restricted his movement, but they still hung from his wrists as a reminder.

Much of his legionaire's gear was left at the battlefield long ago, and now his distinctive scale mail had been changed for a breastplate from the dwarven stockroom. However, despite the new armor and the Dorinthian shield; the cut of his clothes, his stance and bearing, and the features of his face all loudly announced his history. And from his belt hung his highly polished blade, proudly bearing the golden eagle of the empire. Tucked into his pack was a battle axe, also borrowed from the dwarves. He figured one might never know when you might need to threaten a tree.

Ventus had stayed away from the celebrations, although there weren't many places for him to avoid being seen. Most people didn't notice him during the festivities, but the few that did made him feel uncomfortable indeed. Since Chalik was standing guard by his side, he was safe. Still, he resisted the unconscious urge to rest his hand on the pommel of his sword. He found that their reactions were slightly more positive in the morning, as it did help that he abandoned his old armor.

Before they set out, he did his best to describe in detail the scene that he was a witness to.

"The men lay under the effects of the spell, as I myself nearly fell prey to. It enduces a weariness it seems, a powerful effect when coupled with the plants that held them captive. I do not know what the woman's purpose was in holding them so, but they were clearly there against their will, or with no will left at all."

Silas mind was still considering King Bermax's description of the area, and again to Ventus' tale. Worrying, Silas had stayed at the edges of the evenings celebrations. Silas was allowed access to the small dwarven wizard's hall, though from the limited resources it was clear that most dwarves avoided this vocation. Since Dorinth's magic schools were all destroyed and Silas was one of the few surviving spellcasters, this was difficult for his vocation to say the least.

Silas tried to focus on learning some new spells, but the upcoming mission and the extended separation from his family weighed heavily upon him. He also looked for Ventus but did not catch sight of the man before the morning preparation. Though he frowned a little when he saw Barok he wasn't quite sure why and hoped that the man would prove a trusted friend. Repeatedly, he found himself watching Danica, surprised at her transformation, and thinking to himself that she would be key to what was to come.

Danica hurried about, not formally greeting either Barok or the newly freed Ventus. As she passed them during preparations, she bent at the waist, and tipped her hat, before remembering that she was no longer disguised as a boy. She blushed and continued to fuss about.

When she was freed from her obligations, she went to Rix, and spendt some time with him, speaking soothing words and holding his paw-like hand. She was proud of him, how he never squeaked during the battle, and what great lengths her companions were willing to go for a kobold. Things have changed so much, since we first met, she thought. You're a hero now.

She thanked Kel for his help, and said to the Dwarven priests, "Take good care of him now," kissed her finger and pressed it between Rix's eyes. She almost skipped away, so relieved was she at seeing Rix safe.

Later in privacy she went over her gear. She stood, the two crossbows bouncing awkwardly against her legs. Hmmm. Can't travel like this. Taking a walk, she went past the sight of the last battle, hesitating where Nefius had stood, and on a hunch, bendt her thumb and forefinger into a loop, and said, "Show me what glows." She held her fingers up to her eye, and looked about, to see if there was any hint of Nefius, or anything else. detect magic Danica found no trace of Nefius outside or anything else of interest, but a chill wind blew while she looked, causing her to shiver. For some reason, Danica knew Nefius survived and that his mind was also on the Dorinthians. It was as if somehow he had watching her from far away and when she casts her detect magicspell, for a moment in her mind she saw a dark figure huddled around a glass sphere and observing an image of Danica inside the crystal ball. ... but that must have just been her paranoia.

Satisfied, she looked to see if there were any bodies left that needed to be cleaned and properly disposed of, helping the dwarven teams that were sent out to clear them away. She then returned to the Dwarven tunnel, and busied herself helping with the cooking up a meal. A fist of anxiety caught in her throat as Dartis passes, and she looked down, hoping not to be noticed. How could I have been so stupid to have thought my magic could help in a deception against Nefius? But she swallowed it, flicking a remaining curl over her ear as she stirred a pot of some sort of stew.

After eating, she looks at her equipment. She was still carrying the magnificent Imperial crossbow, and it was suggested that this could be hers. She compared the weights of the two crossbows. The Imperial crossbow was a light crossbow and radiated magic. She had some more considering to do over whether or not to abandon her old, familiar weapon that had become so used to carrying

Danica was conscious she was not strong as a real warrior, and she rebuilt her pack, starting with replenished bolts that the dwarves had offered, to see if she could carry all her belongings without slowing her ability to move through the forest. She also remembered to move the ink vial to her belt pouch, for next time.

When this was done, she rejoined her friends, and had some stew. Her repacking has taken much of their supper time, but it saved her having to make conversation. Danica realized that her disguise failures had been her own fault: her boy disguise was seen through as soon as she encountered someone who had known her before, and she herself had revealed her real secret. So much for that. She tookthe silly cap off her head, and unbuttoned her collar. No more secrets. Her lopsided smile grew as she ate -- it was clear she was hungry -- and by the end of the meal she stood proudly, and looked to make one more change.

She started to look for a nice, silk blouse among the dwarven women, hoping something meant for a dwarven female child as some sort of formal wear. But something feminine, and something from here. Danica spent some time among the dwarves looking for a more feminine outfit. She had little luck, as most of the wide dwarven clothes made her look like an apple. The sorceress did meet a Dorinthian refugee, however, that came up to her and offered her one of her spare clothes for two gold pieces. The price was steep, but the woman was in need, and Danica found that she couldn't refuse. She was pleased by her decision, however, as she found that the dark blue silk blouse fits her perfectly. From the looks of some of the other men in the camp, it is also shouted female.

Barok had one last night with the woman who warmed his blankets on the trail and said his farewells before helping himself to some supplies (a bedroll and a tanglefoot bag). Then he headed out to join the others. Having had little sleep and a lot to drink he was not in a cheerful mood, but kept himself steady and seemed competent enough.

In the morning of the preparations Dartis found time to speak with each member individually. First he tracked down Barok. "Barok, they tell me you are a man of sharp eyes, I charge you with keeping a close watch upon of our captive then. While he has sworn his oath. As you have said an Imperial trap is not out of the question. I have no suspiscions of him, but we will give him enough rope to hang or save himself."

Barok winced slightly at the volume of Dartis' voice and rubbed his left temple before answering with a grim expression, "I accept your charge, because I do not trust him. But not just because of that. He has the blood of murderers in his veins and wether or not he has done murder against our people he has helped make murder possible for his brothers. It will take a lot more than an oath to make up for that."

Dartis next had summoned Danica, and when she appeared he was taken aback a bit at her transformation. "Danica Swann, I wish to thank you for all of your assistance, especially venturing out with Silas to serve as my honor guard against the Imperials. It took a great deal of courage. You are part of why Dorinthia has and will be great. And Dorinthia will always be proud of Her daughters, so long as they stay to to her. I am glad to see that you no longer conceal yourself from your countrymen. You have earned every right to stand alongside Her defenders. You have the gratitude of our remaining peoples, they will not judge you so long as you do not judge yourself. Silas has told me that you found an Imperial crossbow on the field. It looks of excellent quality. Long may you use it against our enemies. Enjoy your free time, you have earned the opportunity to relax."

Danica was flushed with the compliment that Dartis offered her, and she courtseyed low. She patted the new crossbow at her side, and nodded, her lips pursed at the seriousness of what awaited them.

Dartis then caught up to Silas

"Silas my friend, I am worried. Imperials I will stand before and face a thousand arrows, but fey? The memories of the gnome still haunt me. I will lean heavily upon your knowledge her and well as your and Danica's magic for our next challenge. But we must succeed! To find kinsmen, to find cavalry! Do you know what that would mean to our people? Such hope it would bring!

But still I worry, the Imperials are on their way back to Tallione, but how long will their own schemes keep them occupied? And what do we do with our people Silas? We cannot rely upon the gnomes or the dwarves or the elves forever. Hopefully the reduced Imperial presence will allow the elves to breath a bit more easily and keep us a while longer. But we must find a new home. Arable lands for our farmers. And it must be soon. Our people grow less scattered. We have begun assembling them. We must provide them a direction, a place to go, a place to live......."
after a pause Dartis added, "a king." said Dartis staring into Silas' eyes.

"Do you think our people need these things? Ruminate upon them. Put your Caernite mind to work upon these problem my trusted Advisor, and see what answers you can give me"

Silas bows as Dartis presented the ring to him. "Respectfully, Lord, I must decline. I am well protected by my magics and I feel it would do more good for Danica. She baffles me, I must confess. She almost seems ashamed of her magics." He shook his head in amazement. "And I feel that she will be instrumental in our next mission. I know nothing of the fey except that dryads seemingly prey on human males. I hope that her gender will provide us some manner of protection. As well as her magic." His brow knitted together in concern and thought. "Perhaps I should try to find out more about what she can do with her magic? Though I'm afraid that no matter how cautiously I proceed I will still tread too heavily." He sighed.

Returning Dartis' forthright stare with one of his own, Silas said, "I have thought long about these things you bring up already. I share your worries and fear that once the Tallione finish with their internal squabbles they will once again turn towards the remnants of Dorinth. We cannot flee them forever. We need homes and fields, places where we can raise our children in safety. We need something greater than ourselves, a community, leaders, a king. Baron Dorin is old, his son lost...and the Shield of Kings has been placed into your hands..." Unsure if he has brought up something that he shouldn't have, Silas quickly pressed on. "I will continue to consider these things and provide you what counsel I may."

When Silas saw Danica again, he handed her the ring they discovered in the Skum caverns and told her it would protect her. (ring of protection +1)

Kel and Chalik came out to bid the party good luck, as did several other well-wishers that were able to get up early despite their hangovers. Interestingly enough, King Bermax was not one of them, and the heroes heard that the lord of the mountain was so pleased at the survival of his people that he had a private celebration with five hundred year old dwarven ale, and would likely have the kind of morning no one would envy.

Silas split some of the winnings of the previous adventure amongst the three previous party members of Silas, Danica, and Dartis. It came out to be 86 gp, 6 sp, and 6 cp each. It probably would not be of use against dryads, but he was glad to get the obligation out of the way.

After making their final arrangements, the party moved to leave. Ventus served as their guide through the fields to the east, although instead of going northeast towards where the Dorinthians stood against the Imperials, he cut to the southeast towards some high hills. The journey was uneventful, but not without its own tensions as the ex-Imperial soldier was not allowed to take watch, and was himself observed closely in poorly disguised anxiety. The situation was not helped by Barok's foul mood. He constantly sipped at his waterskin, though by the evening the color returned to his face and he seems to be in better spirits.

The party reached the foot of the hills on the morning of the second day, and spendt most of the following day climbing up hilltops and back down ravines. As the last minutes of the afternoon ticked by, Ventus stopped the group in front of a large ring of tall hills that circled, what he said, was the valley where he found the men.

It didn't look like an easy climb. The incline was steep and filled with brambles, and the heroes began to understand that Ventus' previously rough look may have been less about his treatment by the dwarves and more about his journey. For a moment the wind picked up, and the party briefly heard the attractive voice of a woman singing in an unknown language.
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Deuce Traveler

Ventus stared up the slope; he remembered it as being much less daunting coming down, but then again, his mind wasn't very clear at that point. "This is the way that I came. There may be another, but I could not tell you of it. Scout as you wish, but I would advise you to guard your ears against the siren's song. Together we may stand a chance, aiding each other to break the spell, but alone you will be easy prey, and we will not know your fate."

I'll keep my distance" Barok said and began climbing, cursing in his mind as he was scratched by the thorny brambles.

The party watches as Barok climbed to the top of the hill, doing a fairly good job of staying quiet despite the brambles and undergrowth. Soon, he disappeared from sight.
Barok reached the top of the hill with confidence that he had moved as quietly as possible under the circumstances. He heard a hauntingly beautiful song that pulled him, and made him want to rush into the grove below. In the twilight he gazed upon the grove below, a scene that should have been breathtaking in its natural majesty. The grove of trees and tall grass was about 200 feet in diameter, with a shining pond that surrounded a small isle. On the tiny isle stood a great oak, but its leaves and branches looked twisted and wrong in a way that he couldn't quite understand. Barok believed he saw a couple of figures underneath the great oak, but the twilight conditions made them hard to make out.

Barok kept moving around the rim, the song making him reluctant to go back down. He tried staying behind cover as much as possible, as he both tried to observe what happened on the island and look for hidden foes along the periphery. Knowing little about matters pertaining to the fey he was still not convinced it was not an imperial ambush. Though it would be a shame to have to kill whoever is creating such beautiful music.
As Barok moved around the periphery he noticed that the power of the song pulled stronger at him the closer he got to the isle. At one point he was definitely sure that there were two figures by the oak tree, and one seemed to be stroking the face of the second.

He also noticed that to the north of the grove was another grove previously unnoticed and on the top of another collection of hills below the ones he stood on. The second grove was a fifteen minute walk away, in his estimation, and in the center were three giant oak trees. These seemed more natural than the twisted tree on the isle and did not fill him with the same sense of foreboding. Barok sensed that there was something special about those trees, but beyond that he has little experience to understand more.

Such a wonderful way to die, he mused to himself... Maybe the Imperial didn't lie, after all.

Barok returned to the others to let them know what he had learned. When the Dorinthian came back to the group, Ventus was able to breathe a little easier. If he had fallen prey to the music's lure, it would have been difficult to earn any trust. As it was, Ventus was relieved that the song and the woman and her tree were all still as he had seen them. He had half begun to doubt his own sanity.

"It doesn't seem to be an Imperial ambush," Barok admitted grudgingly to the group after saluting the Baron, "but some sort of tree-bonded fairy with a captivated humanoid under her spell. I did not come close enough to see whether she intended to mate with her captive, eat him, or both, but I got a feeling she's not entirely benign."

He thought for a moment, then shrugged. "I did notice something else though, but I don't know if it's relevant. There is another glade on an island close to here with three huge oak trees very similar to the one with the singer. There is a possibility that there are more fairies there, but my feel of the place was very different. While the singer's island filled me with unease, the second island felt more natural. It might be worth looking into, or not."

Danica stood there, listening to the description. When she worked as a messenger, her habit had always been to avoid forest spirits and fey—“give them room, and they don't bother you” had been her cautious assessment. She stood there with a cool wind blowing past, her rat poking its nose out of a small pocket in her backpack. "I don't suppose we want to just go around all this...?" she asked with a smile across her face.

"Not as long as there are Dorinthians in there, no" replied Dartis to Danica. "Barok, is the way into the valley easily on the far side? In any case I think that may be an easier way in. If the malevolence is less or absent from that side as you sensed, we may get farther into the valley with less risk." suggested Dartis

Ventus listened to the Dorinthians discussing the approach, and the description of the second glade piqued his interest. "It is good that at least one captive still remains. It means that she has not simply killed them all since I was here last. The second area seems of interest. Tell me, was it surrounded by the same strange grass as the other tree? The song is bait to draw prey near, but it seemed as if the grass itself is what was holding your kinsmen captive."
Barok remembered seeing grass, but not as tall and wild as that in the first glade.

"I don't suppose anyone has any beeswax we could use in our ears? Or perhaps when we get to the top we should tie ourselves together? Spells like these often work to reduce the will of an individual--as a group, we might be okay." Danica shrugged as she asked this -- she was guessing, but wanted to be helpful.

Barok answered, "We can't fight this creature all bound up together. But blocking our ears might work I suppose, the enchantment felt stronger the closer I got to the singing. Guess I should have tried holding my hands over my ears, we can try that once we get up there and decide then whether we want to stuff mud into our ears. But I think we should take a closer look at the other glade, if this thing has enemies or disappointed relatives it could be helpful to us. And if they too turn out to be hostile to men at least their lawn looked less feral."

Danica nodded, her eyebrows thrust up in mock despair. How does one attack killer grass? she wondered.

Barok led the party the long way down the hill, around the base of the raised earth, and up and over a smaller hill away from the twisted grove. Only a third of a mile from the grove with the trapped Dorinthians lied another grove, this one with three large oak trees in the middle, the tallest being the center one. The grass was wild and came up to human ankles, but didn't seem threatening. The heroes were about 100 feet from the oaks when they saw a mountain lion rise up from where it was resting at the base of the trees and pace back and forth, watching them warily and with a surprising amount of intelligence.

Danica noticed the large cat, and anticipated a charge, and started to walk towards it. She left her crossbow at her hip, but she extended the pinky of her left hand, the rest of which was in a fist. She walked up to fifty feet.

Dartis started to reach for his bow, but the strange actions of the puma, along with the light of intelligence in its eye made him hold for a moment. His martial urges pushed him to draw, yet he fought them, telling himself that here they were dealing with fey and fairies. He wished they had Alexander with them.

As Danica advanced, Dartis kept a careful watch on her, the puma and the large oaks.
Brave Danica was the first to step slowly forward, her hands away from her weapons in a sign of peace. Dartis was more wary, but stepped in next to her and was ready to move at the first note of danger. Suddenly, the party noticed that the bark of the trees began to morph, and from them three women appeared, whose dark skin was like that of an oak. The one in the center looked older and matronly. She called out, "Manlings, you should not be in this forest. These are dark times for those who wish to travel amongst us. Already, many men have come and many men have fallen. For your own safety, we urge those of peaceful intent to turn back."

Dartis stared at the transformation, jaw open for a moment, but as the women spoke, he regained his tongue. "Our apologies ladies of the forest, we did not mean to intrude. But tidings of these dark times have come to us. We know that many men have fallen. Indeed that is why we come here. They are our countrymen, our friends and family, our kin. We have come to take them home. Is there some way that we can rescue them. I humbly ask for your guidance and wisdom." asked Dartis reverentially.

The three women of bark turned to look at each other for a moment, then they began to speak in a language that sounds like elven, and yet different. Finally, they turned back once again to the party, and the older tree-woman spoke in Dorinthian once more. "My daughter, Trieste, is the one that has captured your men. It is odd she has not killed them, for that has recently been her way with strangers that venture into her glade. She has turned wicked ever since Morduk the Corrupter had stolen her heart from her oak tree through his dark magic and trickery. Morduk had come to our forest and taken over a small temple to a forgotten, but evil god. He fell in love with Trieste, and when she did not return his love, he stole her heart and cursed her. To return Trieste to normal, you must confront Morduk and return her heart by placing it inside the dark hole in her oak tree that was created when Morduk ripped the beating treasure from its core. Morduk's temple can be found on the top of the largest of hills." Upon finishing her speech, the woman pointed upwards to a tall hill that stood above the rest a mile to the north. It was late, but the heroes could still make out what looked to be a structure or rock formation at its summit.

"I thank you for your wisdom, we shall go both to restore my kinsmen to us and and to restore your daughter to you. Tell me though lady of the forest. How shall we know Morduk the Corruptor and how shall we know your daughter heart?" asked Dartis.

Ventus stood respectfully back from the three women while they discussed the priest Marduk with the Dorinthians. His eyes narrowed somewhat at the reference to those killed by Trieste in the past. How many men had met their doom here already? The three women seem strangely unconcerned with the fate of their daughter, or her captives. Were they no match for Marduk, or simply too uncaring to act?

He gazed upwards, considering what passed for a temple to an evil god in this glade. Their path seemed clear, but at least for now he looked to Dartis for the lord's instructions.

"You will know them," the dryad answered. "Morduk is a mighty warrior-mage, and you will know and sense his great power. He has never been defeated, and he single-handedly slew Trieste's animal guardians. As for her heart, it will also be familiar to you. Remember, neither the heart or Trieste's oak or Trieste is to be harmed. If you do not restore her, we will not aid you in restoring your friends.”

Danica was somewhat surprised at the candour of the tree spirits, and at their trust of the interlopers, among whom she was numbered. As Dartis took control of the conversation with the fey women, Danica lowered her gaze, and slowly stepped back to join with the others.

When they indicated the temple, Danica looked up, and a small shiver ran down the base of her neck. But her obligation was clear, and Morduk had to be stopped. She turned to Dartis, gavesa nod when she caught his eye, and waited expectantly.
Barok kept to the back, knowing that he lacked the charisma needed to parlay with the fey. He briefly considered whether it would be a better choice simply to kill the corrupted dryad than to take their chances with Morduk, but kept his thoughts to himself.
The party was in agreement, at least verbally, on the course of action. They left the three dryads and headed towards the location of Morduk.

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