Ptolus: Midwood - "The Dark Waters of Moss Pond"

Meanwhile, in the Tulgey Wood, Hazel strides through the wood with confidence and caution. Her careful attention to her surroundings and her quarry distract her from the tangled knot of emotions inside. Sneaking after her friends like a thief heats a spark of shame that she resolutely tamps down.

It's not Bufer I don't trust. That wizard, though -- a friend of the baron's or no -- he just ain't right. And Bufer being so ill and all, hardly a week ago, he's in no shape to be looking after his own backside.

Hazel's eyes track the gnome as he moves through the trees; she's glad to see him up and about again, but he couldn't have picked a worse direction.

Why off to the Tower now? Why always walking right up to danger and tweaking its nose?

The ranger stops walking as Skeeter's head swings in her direction, but the hound seems to have merely been bothered by an insect. Releasing the breath she'd been holding, Hazel reminds herself to keep her mind focused on her task.

Just try to stay out of trouble and keep Bufer out of trouble. She frowns, shaking her head. I sound like Da.

"--'preciate your concern, Shillelagh, but this is exactly why I didn't tell the lot of ye about this in the first place," Bufer says wearily to his dwarven companion as they tromp together through the woods. "Recent events to the contrary, I'm perfectly capable of looking out for myself -- I've been doing it a damn sight longer than any of you've known me. Master Barrenackle and Mother Bridger both done gave me a clean bill of health, and this is a very delicate situation I'm walking into, here! The last thing I need is a bunch of nursemaids chasing after me to wipe my ... nose ... every time I so much as sniffle. I'm a hell of a lot cagier than any of ye ever give me credit for ..."

"Haw! No you ain't! This damn mutt chasing a squirrel up a tree is 'cagier' than you are when you want to know what someone else knows."

Emus lumbers a step or two behind Bufer, not paying too much attention to where he's stepping so long as he's in familiar territory. His usual greatclub is absent, left behind with the druids that he and Flower have recently visited. Instead, he wears a small, wooden shield strapped to his left arm, and the war axe Urak hanging from his belt to the right.

"The only reason I tried to invite Flower along is because I figured he could show me the best way around kobold territory, and maybe teach me a thing or two about his kin on the way. And because I thought he'd keep his mouth shut about it," Bufer adds pointedly. "If I'd known the two of ye were in cahoots, I wouldn't have bothered."

"Haw haw! I tell you I wasn't hiding! I was taking a leak, and when I walk out there you was, trying to get Flower to guide you to Apep's tower. Besides, Flower's gonna be busy for a little while, what with learning some druid lore and taking care of his sick buddy."

The gnome shakes his head in frustration, and sighs heavily.

"At least ye had the good sense not to drag Lil' Big'un along with ya," he mutters.

"Haw haw haw! Because that would be such a bad thing."

"You and the mutt want to tag along, fine, be my guest. But the summons was for one, an' I doubt that crapbird wizard is real amenable to uninvited guests." He shrugs and looks down at his feet. "Don't come crying to me if he winds up turning ye both into something unnatural."

"He right, you know. Storm met trees smarter than gnomey."

Bufer stops short and looks up sharply, into the sneering face of the tall kobold standing next to him.

"How?" His heart in his throat, Bufer turns back around to look over his shoulder, to find that neither Emus nor Skeeter have reacted at all to the kobold's sudden appearance. Understanding crashes over him like a bucket of cold water, and he struggles a moment to get his breathing back under control before meeting the kobold's clearly amused gaze.

"You're not really here," Bufer says firmly as he starts walking again, slowly.

"Haw haw haw haw!" Emus chortles behind him. "Pretend all you want, but it ain't going to change nothing!"

Bufer and the kobold both glance absently back at him, then back to each other. The kobold shrugs.

"Maybe Storm here, maybe Storm not," the kobold says cryptically. "Who knows but the wind and the trees?"

"Me, for one," Bufer mutters quietly. "I saw ye die, remember?"

"So? You see stooped boy-knight die too. Now he gnomey's bestest buddy. Gnomey talks to dead things so often, it almost a hobby."

Bufer blinks at him, then sighs.

"Master Barennackle was wrong. I ain't been cured at all. Clearly, I'm still insane."

"Storm always thought so," the kobold nods, then shrugs again. "Maybe nun-whore knock something loose in gnomey's head that can't be stuck back. Maybe make him crazy, imagine Stormy. Or maybe Stormy always here, and nun-whore just help gnomey see. Who knows but the wind and the--?"

"You are not Bejik-Caesin," Bufer hisses.

"Storm," the kobold says sternly. "You dirty name when you use it."

Bufer closes his eyes a moment and counts silently.

"All right, fine," he says finally, "for sake of argument, let's say ye really are Bej—Storm. Is there something ye want, or is the kobold version of Heaven so bloody boring that ye really got nothing better to do than haunt my ass? Why appear to me now, after all this time?"

"Because you like stoopid crying baybee, lost in woods with goblins on all sides," the kobold's voice replies, "just like first time I see you, only now, goblins are giant dragons with five heads, each one ready to chomp down and rip you to pieces, and you, you still just stoopid crying baybee.

"Thing is, Storm hates dragons-with-five-heads," the kobold says, "even more than stoopid crying gnome-babies. Lucky for you."

"Yeah, lucky me," Bufer echoes sardonically, his eyes still closed.

"Or maybe you right, and you just nuts!" the kobold adds cheerfully. "Who can tell but the wind and the trees?"

"Thanks," Bufer snorts as he opens his eyes. "Y'know, as guardian angels go, ye're not very—"

He breaks off as he realizes he's talking to himself. The kobold has disappeared. Blinking in confusion, Bufer frowns, then turns to look over his shoulder.

"Yeah, stare all you want, Fancypants," Emus says to him. "We're still here, and we ain't going no place."

Bufer cocks a bushy eyebrow at him, opens his mouth to say something, then thinks better of it and faces forward again. He walks in silence for a few moments, staring blankly ahead, then wrenches his eyes shut and wipes both hands tiredly over his face.

"Terrific," he says to no one in particular. "This is just what I needed ..."
 
Tucker Gallaway puts two fingers in the corner of his mouth, blasting out a whistle that can be heard even over the din of the crowd. Those closest to him clap their hands over their ears to mute the sound.

"What I am going to do about it is go into the woods and find them," he says, nearly shouting, making sure to be heard by the assembled villagers. "What you are going to do is go back to town, and stop tramping all over any trace that the twins were even here."

The townsfolk start to protest, but Tucker cuts them off.

"I know you want to help. I know I'll likely need your help -- but not yet! Father Grant and I will enter the woods, and make sure there are no dangerous beasts lurking around, either of the two- or four-footed variety. The last thing we need is more missing or injured people.

"Go back to town. Eat a good meal, and get your warm clothes. Collect everyone who is able or willing to help in an organized search, and meet back here in two hours. Little ... uh," Tucker pauses, fumbling for the kids' names.

"Pentagruel," offers Emmerson. "And Rutiger."

"Little Pentagruel and Rutiger will be hungry when we find them, so bring something for them to eat. Torches and lanterns, too, in case it gets dark. And at least two big blankets.

"Now, if any of you saw the twins at all between the time their stepmother left them here and the time she came back to find them missing, please stay and answer a few quick questions. Everyone else, go home, and we'll see you back here in two hours."

"Your cooperation will be invaluable to our search, folks," Emmerson says, as the crowd begins to disperse. "And it will help Pentagruel and Rutiger. Please heed Deputy Gallaway's words and be prepared for their return. We will find them. It's just a matter of time."

Once the Bridgers have left, the pair begins a search of the orchard in earnest. At first, they mostly only find signs that the townsfolk have been trampling around the edge of the orchard.

But pushing into the brush, even the untutored eyes of the deputy and paladin soon spot signs that the children headed north: Here is an apple core, there is a scuffle of tiny footprints, suggesting a game of tag or something of the sort, and there two branches, at chest height to the men, have been tied together to create a tiny archway. A simple gouge in the dirt shows that at least one child dragged a stick with them as they headed wherever they ultimately decided to go.

"So this is tracking," Emmerson says, as he carefully ducks under the arch, "It's not that hard."

Saying a prayer of thanks to Lothian for the clear markers, Tucker follows the children's trail, keeping an eye out to the woods on either side, looking for more evidence of the Kramer twins' passing.

The drag-mark of the stick vanishes in the soft wet soil, and Emmerson and Tucker look around with worry until they start finding marks about a foot and a half off the ground where the child was striking it against saplings as they went wherever they were going.

The pair follows, and eventually finds a path through fallen leaves that leads them deeper into the woods, now well out of sight of the orchard.

"I'm starting to think we should have left some breadcrumbs behind us," Tucker sighs. "What do you think the odds are that these two kids wandered this far off by themselves? There's plenty of stuff to follow that wouldn't leave any track that the two of us could spot."

"One time, Jeroen, my sister Alexa's youngest son, got lost in the brewery. How he managed to climb all the way to the fermenting vats is something we'll never know. We found him skunk drunk on Three Mix-Bitter after Thomas finally thought about looking in the restricted zones of the brewery.

"But you make a good point. Best be on guard."

The trail stops meandering quite so much, as though the children had become firm of purpose -- or at least as firm of purpose as children can get -- and it begins arrowing through the woods northward.

Eventually, it leaves the fallen leaves and damp ground and Emmerson and Tucker have to admit that they've lost the trail entirely. But they are now a long way from Maidensbridge, in the middle of the Tulgey Wood. It would be as easy to go to Green Mountain or Moss Pond from here as it would to return to Maidensbridge. If the children became lost at this point, finding their way home would be difficult indeed for those their age.

"Pentagruel! Rutiger!" Tucker shouts, turning in a slow circle as he does so. "Crap. What I wouldn't give for a real tracker right now."
 
Hazel strains her ears to listen over the sound of the dwarf and gnome bickering. The bushes ahead of them tremble with life, but not in a way that she'd associate with a person.

Unsure why Bufer and Emus have stopped walking, but glad nonetheless, Hazel attempts to circle nearer on an arc that would bring her out far in front of her friends, and behind whatever is approaching their position.

She keep her eyes and ears fixated on the rustling bushes, her mind supplying several harmless possibilities -- rabbit, raccoon, doe -- and others, less harmless -- badger, wolf -- but her thoughts keep returning to the wizard Khenemet-Apep.

Could be he's sent that nasty-lookin' cat out to check up on Bufer.

Whatever the creature in the bushes is, Hazel knows the instant the gnome sees her, any hope of protecting him is over and her ears will be in for the same blistering Emus has been getting. She's careful to keep her maneuvering well out of Bufer's view.

Still chuckling, Emus nudges Bufer to keep them moving along.

Bufer scowls and shrugs off Emus' hand, but allows himself to be prodded forwards all the same. He frowns at his feet as he shuffles along, muttering in gnomish and apparently lost in thought.

As the gnome begins walking again, Hazel silently swears.

Sure, ya can take care o' yerself, Bufer. Plannin' ta negotiate wi' the creatures o' the forest, then?

Hazel slows her approach as an odd sound reaches her ears.

Are those ... bells?

Skeeter suddenly begins barking frantically, and the bushes before Bufer and Emus explode with color.

Tiny people, each borne aloft by frantically beating dragonfly wings and each a different vivid floral hue, fill the air, chirping in tiny panicked voices. A slightly larger figure, dressed in leaves and with wings like flower petals, aims a small bow at Bufer and Emus a moment before deciding that discretion is the better part of valor.

The entire assemblage of fluttering fairies flees into the trees as one, their high voices fading into the sounds of the forest a moment later.

"The hell was that?" Bufer blinks, turning wide-eyed toward Emus.

"Looks like we need to start keeping our eyes peeled," Emus says. "They was clearly running from something. I wonder if they're in trouble."

Hoping to give chase, Skeeter gives a playful "woof" while looking at Emus expectantly. He seems perfectly satisfied with a scratch behind the ear, however.

"Trouble, eh?" Bufer turns from Emus, looks pensively after the fleeing fairies, then looks back at the dwarf. "I assumed they were running from us, but if they're in trouble, my first instinct is to help them out. This is more your area of expertise than mine, though. What do you think?"

"I think we could spend a week and a day trying to follow them and never see hide nor hair of them. Skeeter may be a good tracker, but them fey is especially good at hiding. If they want our help, they'll come to us. Besides, the more we worry about them, the less we're paying attention to ourselves. Not a good idea considering where we're going."

"Yeah, ye're probably right," Bufer sighs, then turns back to the dwarf and jerks his head in the direction they were headed. "Onward then, I guess.

"Say Emus, ye seem to know a lot of druids hereabouts. I wonder, have ye ever met or heard tell of any other kobold druids, before ye met Flower?"

"Nah, but that ain't too surprising. There ain't that many of us, I don't even know all of them, and kobolds tend to be a bit more restrictive in what they allow each other to do. Not saying there ain't any. I just don't know about them."

"I met one, once," Bufer says, disappointed. "Long time ago, back when I was just a kid, way before our pa moved us from Kibosh to Wit's End. He was different. Not in the way Flower's different, but definitely not how ye'd expect a kobold to be, you know?

"Actually, it occurs to me just now how much ye remind me of him. He never stopped giving me crap, neither. Ye probably would have got on real famous-like. Anyway, I didn't get to spend a whole lot of time with him, naturally, and he weren't exactly one for sharing his life history, especially not with me, but he did let on that kobold druids tended to being individuals. Outcasts, I guess the word is. Or maybe self-exiles, I don't know. The point is, a lot of them tended to strike out on their own, leave the clan behind, on account of their differences. Some of them even turn on their own kin over it.

"A few souls like that, either left or been kicked off of Green Mountain by this Tiamat faction, them might be folks worth getting to know, you know?"

As Emus and Bufer consider this, the bushes suddenly part, and a cursing figure emerges. He looks at them in shock before visibly composing himself.

It's Khenemet-Apep, leaves in his hair, red stings from nettles on his hands and thorns stuck in his robes. He carries a burlap sack in his left hand and a heavy walking stick carved to look like a snake in his right.
 
"Ah, the gnome and his feral dwarf. I didn't expect you quite so soon."

Skeeter suddenly goes mad barking as the Wizard of Green Mountain's cat sneers at the dog from beneath a broad bush too dense for the dog to enter.

"Down," Emus mutters in Dwarven. With a final growl at the cat, Skeeter settles down. With mutters about "that flea-ridden dirtbag" starting trouble, Emus looks at Bufer expectantly.

Normally, Bufer would be incensed at being referred to as "the gnome," and would object quite vocally at length. But he is so shocked by wizard's appearance -- both his sudden manifestation from the depths of a bush, and the haphazard, disheveled look to him -- that he actually forgets to be offended. Instead he stares open-mouthed at Khenemet-Apep for several long seconds, until a nudge in the ribs from Emus brings him back to his senses.

"Uh, good afternoon, Mister Wizard, sir," he stammers uncertainly, even as his eyes track up and down the Kemite. As an afterthought, he sketches out what he probably thinks is a polite, courtly bow. "This is quite a, um, surprise. We weren't exactly expecting ye to come out of a bush and meet us in the woods like this."

Bufer looks helplessly at Emus for a second, then grimaces and shakes his head as he turns back to the wizard.

"All right, so maybe this is going to get us off on the wrong foot here, but at the risk of offending ye, sir, I got to ask: Just what the hell happened to ye, man?"

"Nothing happened to me! I was merely out for a refreshing walk in the woods." So saying, Khenemet-Apep pulls himself fully free of the undergrowth, cursing quietly in Uraqi as he does.

Looking around, he spots a deer track and points to it triumphantly.

"Yes! I shall return to the Black Tower to await you."

He glances dubiously at Emus and Skeeter.

"You are coming alone, are you not, gnome?"

"I'm just making sure Gnomenuts here gets to your tower without turning himself over to the kobolds," Emus says, sticking out his chin defiantly. "I might hang about the area for a while afterwards, too. That a problem?"

"It was always my intention to come alone, Mister Wizard, sir," Bufer says, casting a sidelong glance at Emus, "but keeping a secret in a town small as ours is no mean feat, especially when you've recently had yer brains knocked loose by ... bygones.

"Point is, Emus is right: I did need a guide, if' ye ever wanted me to show up at all. I'm afraid that, for a gnome, my woodcraft's a bit on the abysmal side of things. He ain't got no interest in accompanying me into the tower, though, sir," he looks pointedly at Emus, as if daring the dwarf to contradict him, "our business is our own."

"Well, if you wish, you may accompany me back to the tower. Your bodyguard and his dwarf can turn back here."

With a silent nod at Khenemet-Apep, Bufer turns and smiles tightly at Emus.

"I think this is where we take our leave of each other, Shillelagh," he says, reaching over awkwardly to scratch Skeeter behind the ears. "You two take care of yerselves, and Lil' Big'un and the beanpole for me. Tell them, well, it's all in the note I left, really, there ain't that much more to add. Just let them know I got this one, OK? Really. I'll see y'all when I gets back."

He smiles at Emus somberly for a moment, then giggles as Skeeter licks his hand, oblivious to the gravity of the moment. With a final pat of the hound's cold, wet nose, Bufer shakes the slobber off his hand, and then turns back to the wizard and gestures onward.

"After you, Mister Wizard, sir."
 
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Hearing no reply from the kids, Emmerson goes down on one knee at the last spot where he can see the children's tracks. After a moment, he stands back up and points.

"Green Mountain. Moss Pond. Maidensbridge."

He points to himself.

"No clue."

He points at Tucker.

"As a born and raised Bridger, what's the thing to do for kids? Anything they like to do in spring? Any place they like to go?"

"Depends on the kids," Tucker says, looking at the trees immediately around them, and selects one that looks fairly pliable.

Using his sword, he scrapes off a two-foot patch of the dark bark all the way around, revealing the lighter wood beneath. He carves a simple X on the side facing the direction they've just come from.

"We start walking in circle, spiraling outward, to see if we can pick up the trail again. This tree will mark our center. You want to start on the mountain side or the pond side?"

"Pond. I've always liked water."

"Good enough. Go three paces out from the tree, then start north. Keep the tree on your right while you work your way around. I'll keep it on my left. Hopefully by going in opposite directions, we'll increase our chance of spotting something."

Keeping in mind Tucker's instructions, Emmerson walks and searches. In the back of his mind, he recites a prayer to Lothian that asks for missing children to appear unharmed.

Emmerson and Tucker try their spiraling search pattern for a long time with no result. Although Emmerson seems content to continue placidly on, Tucker grows more and more annoyed and is about to call for a change of tactics when he spots a series of small footprints in a muddy deer track. Looking back and forth, he sees it runs almost directly north for a very long time. The footsteps fade in and out -- the deputy curses Hazel for not being here to follow the fainter trails -- but the track seems likely to be an almost direct path to Moss Pond.

Emmerson jogs over to him.

"Found anything?"

"There." Tucker points at the fading footprints.

"Lothian be praised," Emmerson says gratefully.
 
Genuinely pleased with Khenemet-Apep's joke, Emus emits a deep, if sharp, bark of laughter.

"Fair enough. See ya around, Bufer."

He tromps off into the forest.

"Come, gnome," Khenemet-Apep barks beginning to march down an animal path in the general direction toward Green Mountain. With Skeeter reluctantly departing, the wizard's cat appears beside him a moment later, giving Bufer a poisonous look. "I won't delay myself on account of your short legs."

"Me an' my short legs will endeavor to keep up," he says wryly as he hurries to follow.

"Hmmph," comes a familiar voice from beside him. Bufer looks over to see Storm striding along next to him, glaring at the back of Khenemet-Apep's head. "Real piece of work this one be. Greasier than slipperiest gnomey. Friend of kobolds? Friend of gnomey? Storm don't think so. Friend to nobody but himself, more like it."

"Oh good, you're back," Bufer mumbles under his breath, rolling his eyes. "And here I was just thinking this here walk weren't going to be near long enough ..."

All the same, he's grateful for the company, even if he is half-convinced that it's a product of his own insanity. Memories of the last long walk through the woods he took with the kobold druid come back to him unbidden, and he finds that he can't help but smile.

"I means it," Storm warns, his dark reptilian eyes boring into the back of the Kemite's head. "You watch him, gnomey, with both eyes, or mark Storm's words, you's be dead and cold before me have chance to say me told you so."

"And I'll spend the afterlife hearing all about it, I'm sure," Bufer mutters.

"Afterlife, pfft!" Storm scoffs. "Everyone knows gnomeys ain't got souls."

"Well then," Bufer sighs, "I guess I ain't got nothing to lose, then. Might as well try and break the ice, eh?"

He looks up at the kobold with a gleam in his eye, which actually makes Storm miss a step.

"No! You not gonna ... don't be stoopid!"

"Mister Wizard, sir!" Bufer says boisterously as he lengthens his stride to come up even with Khenemet-Apep. "I was just thinking on how to pass the time as we stroll together, and I was wondering: Have ye ever heard the parable of the one-legged paladin?"

* * *

Hazel remains motionless unless the wizard begins leading Bufer away. Then she rises from her crouch, takes two steps, and pauses.

What if he's got kobolds at the tower waiting to kill Bufer? Make it look like some crazy attack he weren't part of? Where did-

And then she sees Emus crossing over her back trail.

"Hsst!" Just in case the dwarf doesn't hear her, Hazel chucks a small branch in front of Skeeter's nose.

The dog gives a happy bark and grabs the branch out of midair. With his tail wagging the entire way, he sprints the short distance to Hazel and drops the branch at her feet. He can barely stand still as he waits for her to pick the stick up and throw it, again.

Emus glares suspiciously at Hazel as he walks over to her.

"What are you doing here?"

Hazel fondly pats the wriggling dog.

"Keeping an eye on Bufer. Same as you." She tilts her head, staring down at Emus with an earnest expression. "I don't reckon I can follow him into the tower, but I can at least make sure there ain't kobolds lurking around and waiting for easy pickings."

She spares a glance in the other direction.

"You coming? I don't want to let them get too far ahead."

"Honestly, I think he'll be fine with the wizard. The baron has vouched for him, after all," Emus says, before shrugging. "But I would like to get a lay of the land, better."

"An' maybe the baron's deceived. But suit yourself." Hazel gives Skeeter a final pat and rolls her shoulders to re-settle her pack. "Call it whatever you like, so long as it's within shouting distance of Bufer."

Her face set in what her father calls the foolish arrogance of youth, Hazel sets off again without waiting to see if the dwarf will follow.

Shrugging his shoulders, Emus follows Hazel. He keeps far enough back so that she's just in sight, so as to not give away her position.
 
Emmerson and Tucker continue north on the deer track. Although they don't pick up an actual trail again -- the ground here is sheltered enough by the thick canopy above to prevent much rain from hitting the ground over the course of the week -- neither do they see any evidence in the fallen leaves and the like that suggests the children have left the track.

They continue northward, the forest getting darker as they go.

"What were Rutiger and Pentagruel following?" Emmerson asks. "I don't think they would have ventured this far without someone or something either tempting them or forcing them. What is in Moss Pond anyway?"

"Water," Tucker says simply. "Surrounded by high, dark rocks covered in moss. Thus the name."

He picks his way around a stand of trees, following the vague trail.

"When I was a kid, we'd still hike out there to fish and go swimming. Not recently, though. A few years back, people started disappearing. Someone would go for a swim alone, and never come back to town. Fishermen would be hours late returning from the pond, and when people went looking for them, their boat would be floating there, calm as you please, with no sign of anyone in it. People stopped going, even in groups.

"Now even the 'official' paths to the pond are nearly overgrown -- heck, we're probably having an easier time following this deer track than if we'd tried to come the 'real' way."

"What happened to the missing?" asks Emmerson. "Was nothing ever found of them?"

"Nothing but what they'd left on the shore or in their boats. It's probably just a combination of factors: someone looking to make a break from town, using a phony 'drowning' to keep anyone from looking elsewhere; a fisherman's line got caught, and he dove in to free it, but then couldn't climb back into his skiff and was carried downstream; part of it's probably just rumor and exaggeration, too."

"But if they were carried downstream, why didn't they just climb out when they got back to town? The river is wide and slow by that point."

"Yes, that's true. But my father tells stories about his time in the baron's army. Once his entire regiment went for a swim in a seemingly safe river. But it had been raining in the mountains above, and the water was deeper, colder, and moving faster than usual.

"You couldn't see it, but there was a spot in the river where the water was flowing differently, much faster than the rest. A corporal wandered into it, and was sucked beneath the surface immediately, before he had a chance to even cry out. The only reason anyone even knew what happened was that three people were looking right at him when it happened. They thought he was kidding around, but when he didn't come back up, they started to worry. Two of the men dove into the stream, to see where it would take them, and the rest got out of the water and started running down the bank."

"Some kind of magic? A spell to speed the water along somehow? Did they find the man?"

"No magic: It's apparently something that just happens under the right conditions. They did find the corporal -- half an hour's march from where they had been swimming. The way the water was flowing, he was pinned to the bottom of the river just by the sheer force of it. If the other two hadn't gone after him, he'd probably still be there now. All three of them were out on the bank by the time my father and the others arrived. The corporal apparently got quite the chewing out from the warrant officer when he got there, and for the rest of the campaign, any time the regiment stopped by a river, stream or pond, the guy was only allowed in the water if he tied a rope around his waist and the other end around a sizeable tree."

They continue to chuckle intermittently as they walk. Just before they reach the edge of the woods, Tucker adds one final theory.

"You know the story of the Maiden's Bridge, right? You've been here long enough to hear the song?" Emmerson starts to hum the tune, nodding. Tucker continues. "When I was a kid, I snuck out of the house with a bread knife, looking under the bridge for the troll. I didn't find anything, of course. Not under the bridge. The rumor is that the troll lived -- or lives, maybe -- here in Moss Pond."
 
"-- stable hands just look at each other in a panic, because they know if they actually give him their best horse like he demands, he's going to fall right off the side of it the second it breaks into full gallop, and make the king's army look like a bunch of idiots! But then the first one gets this look in his eye, winks at the other, and says 'Of course, milord, right this way!' And he leads him to the stall of this broken-down nag, see, who leans perpetually to the left --"

"Ngggh. Bad poops or no, Storm should have eaten gnomey when me had the chance ..."

Khenemet-Apep's cat yowls in frustration over Bufer's continuing monologue, and in response, the wizard redoubles his pace. A moment later, he, the gnome and the cat break through the edge of the forest and stand before Green Mountain.

Despite himself, Bufer pauses in mid-joke for a moment. Green Mountain stands out like a giant emerald against the snowy background of the Hotash Mountains. And Green Mountain itself is covered in white highlights, like a gem gleaming in the spring sunlight, with edelweiss dotting its slopes.

If Bufer squints, he can see, near the peak, a flat area he knows contains the glacial lake that was supposed to be the impenetrable gate leading into Glangirn: The dwarves of old would lower the bridge into the fortress when enemies approached, once the dwarven army had taken the field. But five centuries ago, they met an enemy who could breathe underwater: Gax had swum beneath the lake and entered the fortress while the majority of the army was in the field, battling her kobold invasion force. The surviving dwarves, trapped outside their home, scattered into the Tulgey Wood, first taking refuge with the gnomes of Treeline before the kobolds came for them as well.

Below the peak, to the south, a ragged scar in the earth marks the caves of the Green Mountain Kobolds.

"Not that way," the Wizard of Green Mountain snaps, pointing around the northern edge of the mountain. "Baraj Al-Aswad is just over that ridge, near the base."

He sets out briskly across the green fields, his brown skin gleaming like mahogany in the sun. Bufer lingers for a moment, staring curiously at the dark scar that hides the kobold warrens.

"Don't even think about it," Storm says, next to him. "You not even make it halfway up. Even Tosh not near sneaky enough. Traps. Sentries. Hidden. Lots."

"How would you know?" Bufer mutters. "I thought you weren't from Green Mountain."

Storm snorts, then shrugs.

"Kobolds is kobolds. Scales different color, but think the same." The druid's gaze moves slowly over the green slopes of the foothill. "Probably at least a couple watching you now."

"Really?" Bufer says, surprised. He breaks out into a grin, and starts to raise his hand.

"Don't. Wave." Storm barks sternly. "You piss them off."

"Awww, I'm just trying to be neighborly."

"Trying to be dead more like it," Storm snorts. "Come. Greasy wizard getting too far ahead. You being with him probably only thing keeping you alive right now."

Bufer nods at Storm, casts one last glance to the south, and then scurries to catch up to Khenemet-Apep and his cat.

"Now," he says, out of breath, "Where was I? Oh, yeah: So then the stable hand takes him to another stall ..."

Hazel stops just short of the tree line and scans the landscape, trying to determine the best way to approach the tower without revealing her presence. She maintains her silence and raises a warning hand to Emus, although she's dying to ask the dwarf if he's ever come here before to gaze upon his ancestral home.

Hazel spends a long moment listening for any sounds beyond shifting leaves in the wind and Bufer's long-winded recital.

If I hadn't heard him tell that joke before, I'd swear it ain't got an ending.

Hazel and Emus gaze upon Green Mountain.

At first, it looks uninhabited, but they see soon see dark shapes appearing and disappearing around the cleft marking the kobolds' caves. It takes a moment for their brains to translate what they're seeing over the distance, but the shapes appear to be giant weasels, as long as horses, slipping above and below the ridgeline. Kobolds are known to use them for guards and mounts, but at this distance, neither can see any kobolds.

Emus stares at Green Mountain with a blank expression for a long time. He almost doesn't notice when Hazel moves on, but he follows her just in time to continue to keep her just in sight.

"If you miraculously come this way alone at some point," Khenemet-Apep says, interrupting Bufer's joke once more, "Come during daylight hours. The kobolds patrol much of the mountain by night, but they stick to the caves for the most part by daylight hours, although they let their pets run free during those times. At this time of day, truthfully, you are in more in danger in the darkness of the forest than you are on Green Mountain, so long as you give the colorfully named Caves of Chaos a wide berth."

As it stalks through the grass, the wizard's cat meows something that Khenemet-Apep apparently understands.

"Don't blame me: That idiot Gideon Midwood had to frame everything in terms of Order and Chaos. I imagine he took more than one serious blow to the head during his military career."

Bufer smiles to himself at the wizard's assessment of Gideon Midwood.

Maybe he has a sense of humor, after all.

He turns to remark as much to Storm, then blinks in surprise as he realizes that the kobold has mysteriously disappeared again.

"Hmm," he says, frowning thoughtfully. "Thank ye, that's handy to know. Not that I plan to make a habit of strolling out this way or nothing, but, with all due respect, but I didn't exactly foresee a day when I'd be setting out for the Black Tower, neither. These, uh, pets of theirs ye mention: They'd be those big weasel-shaped things, I'm guessing. Dangerous, are they?"

"It's said during the assault on Glangirn, the weasels would pull down the dwarves' war ponies, tear out their throats and drink their blood while the dwarves were still trapped underneath, helpless until the kobolds came by to slit their throats." The wizard chuckles as he picks up the pace, his voice getting fainter as he strides along the narrow rocky trail. "And, of course, they train them using gnome effigies."

"Of course," Bufer says dryly as he hurries to catch up, no longer quite so sure that he appreciates the wizard's sense of humor.
 
Half an hour passes, and Bufer and Khenemet-Apep approach the front door of the Black Tower.

Bufer isn't sure what he was expecting from Baraj Al-Aswad, but he's greeted with something that he suspects would look more at home in the desert wastes of Uraq: It's a squat stone tower of dark bricks topped by pale spikes jabbing upwards, like the lower jaw of some beast. The windows, each hidden behind intricately woven grills of cast iron, suggest that the building has three above ground levels, not including the roof.

The front door is in inscribed with what Bufer at first assumes are merely decorative symbols, but if he squints, he thinks they actually look like Uraqi writing, twisted about into decorative shapes. But something about the writing looks older still, and somehow malevolent and a shiver runs down the gnome's back.

Khenemet-Apep says a quiet word before laying his hand on the cast iron handle and inserting a thick black key. It turns with a clank and Bufer realizes that the wizard and his cat were holding their breath until the door unlocked.

The Wizard of Green Mountain opens the door and steps to the side, heels together, hands beckoning Bufer in.

"Ebuferpaly Whitethatch Malpractice Bearscave Fancypants Potentloins," Khenemet-Apep says, smirking a little to see Bufer's surprise at hearing all his names rattled off with practiced assurance, "You are a guest in my home. Come and share salt with me."

Bufer stares wordlessly at the wizard for a moment, ice water running through his veins as the full litany of his names echoes in the recesses of his mind.

No, not quite. He didn't use Bejik-Caesin. He doesn't know your true name, not really ... at least, not yet.

Forcing himself to breathe, Bufer actually manages a polite smile for Khenemet-Apep and his mangy cat.

"Thank ye, Mister Wizard, sir," he says, sketching out an awkward bow. "That's most kind of ye. You honor me with the recital of my full name -- part of which, I'll have ye know, was chosen on account of something ye said to me once -- although 'Bufer' is fine from here on out. Oh, I just remembered: I have something for ye!"

Looking down, Bufer mutters to himself as he digs in the pockets of his threadbare sackcloth robe for a moment, then produces a small, metallic cube that sits comfortably in the palm of his hand.

"It's a gnomish puzzle box," he says, displaying it proudly to the wizard. "My Pa makes them, for Tootenfest. I used to love them when I was a young'un. I thought your luritas might be one to appreciate a good old gnomish riddle."

Khenemet-Apep turns the puzzle box over in his hand, looking as though Bufer has deposited a dog turd there.

"Thank you," he says at last, "But the spirits of Green Mountain require rather more to mollify them than a gnomish gewgaw."

Nevertheless, the Wizard of Green Mountain places the puzzle box on the shelf beside the front door.

The heavy door closes behind the wizard and gnome with a decisive thud and Hazel and Emus pop their heads over a gravel-strewn ridge 100 feet below the tower.

"Well," Emus says, picking something between his teeth with a fingernail, "What now?"

"We need to be closer," Hazel scowls. "What if he's casting a spell on Bufer like he did on Ren? And nobody would know what it did but him."

She lightly shifts her weight, grimacing at the miniature rockslide.

"It's too noisy here, and there's no cover. Bunch of kobolds come up the trail and, bam, hit us from behind."

Just as Hazel starts to move forward, Emus places a hand on her shoulder keeping her stationary.

"And what if they're in there just having a sip of tea? Just like you said, there's no way to know. Why don't you tell me your plan before you go skulking all through the wizard's bushes?"

"The plan is to make sure Bufer's safe."

Emus's measured stare flusters the young ranger, eventually flooding her face with color as she drops her head to the gravel.

"I'm an idiot." Hazel crosses her forearms and rests her chin atop them. Her eyes avoid Emus, concentrating instead on the tower door. "I didn't think of anything past Bufer. Not the mountain or the tower. Of course the wizard's got defenses. Living here, who wouldn't?"

Her voice drops to a thin thread; she's almost talking to herself, now.

"But Bufer, he gets hurt. All of the time, like it ain't no never mind to him. Nearly died twice this year and the leaves hardly even on the trees yet."

"For what it's worth, I ain't worried about Bufer all that much," Emus says, shaking his shaggy head. "The baron trusts him more than a little bit, and if that weren't enough, the wizard knows that there's a witness who saw Bufer head off with him.

"And you know, he may be little, but he ain't entirely helpless," Emus says, recalling the fight with Artos Nachtmann. "Let's head back. Now that we know where the tower is, we'll come back and check on him in a couple days."

"Days?" Hazel's panicked outburst is louder than she expected. Her expression holds an apology as she turns to the dwarf. "You think he'll be in that place for days? If he ain't back tomorrow, we ought to just march up to that wizard's door and demand he send him out."

Her shoulders sagging under the weight of Emus' silence.

"Or wait until he's done on his own time," she mumbles.

Hazel lets Emus take the lead; she follows silently for the most part, chastened by the dwarf's calm acceptance of Bufer's decision. Still, she can't help but worry about the gnome.

You know he's bound to say something offensive. Please, Estanna, let the wizard be the honorable fellow the baron thinks he is.
 
Emmerson turns and looks away from Moss Pond, thinking of all his nieces and nephews born to his sister Alexa, and cannot speak.

Tucker looks at the object floating atop the dark waters of Moss Pond, slowly twisting in the gentle breeze.

"Yep," he says at last, "That's a child's shoe, all right."

"Whoever did this, better pray to whatever gods he knows that we find the children alive," Emmerson hisses. "Otherwise I shall cleave them from neck to waist."

Mossy rocks, some taller than a man, many low enough to serve as the chairs for children, surround Moss Pond. Tucker finds a spot he remembers sitting on as a boy not too many summers ago.

He and Emmerson circle the pond, looking for any place the children could be hidden. They find several fallen trees that float half in the water, half out. Time and the moisture of the pond have hollowed out the interior of several.

"RUTIGER! PENTAGRUEL! ARE YOU HERE?"

The paladin's voice echoes across the pond, but there's no other reply.

"Found anything, Tucker?"

"Mud." Looking at this part of the pond, Tucker can see the bottom only about five feet out. After that the water reflects too much of the sky and the surroundings. "Do you know how to swim?"

"With this armor? Not even a decent dog paddle, I'm afraid." Emmerson removes his backpack and takes out his rope. "I'll remove my armor, tie this around my waist and wade in towards the logs, or if I can reach it, the shoe. You take this end and keep me tethered. If anything happens, you pull me out."

Even this time of year, the water is icy in Moss Pond, and Emmerson shudders in shock as he wades in. Tucker smiles grimly on shore -- as children, no one went swimming in Moss Pond until the height of summer had sufficiently warmed the alpine run-off.

The deputy has his mouth open to call out a warning to Emmerson when the paladin suddenly vanishes under the water, only to reappear, sputtering and pale, a moment later.

"OK, I found the drop-off. It's pretty steep. Goes straight down from there."

So saying, Emmerson ducks his head under the water once more.

Emmerson finds himself looking almost entirely at black water, although he cannot help but feel he's staring into a great void stretching out in front of him, full of creatures just beyond the edge of his vision.

"No use," he says, spitting water as he resurfaces. "I cannot see a blasted thing."
 
As the pair approach Maidensbridge, Hazel breaks her silence.

"Emus? Could ya maybe not mention to Bufer that I was following him?" She grins sheepishly. "He might take it the wrong way, and I know meeting with the wizard is important to him, even if it is fool headed."

"Unless he asks me to my face, I won't bring it up."

As Emus and Hazel approach town, Skeeter starts barking when he sees the commotion in the orchard and races forward toward what he sees as play.

"What the hells?" Emus trots after Skeeter.

"Your guess is as good as mine."

Heda Littlelark grabs Hazel by the hands, and begins to tug her in one direction, then the other.

"HAZEL! The constable was looking for you! Where is he? He was over ... but maybe he's ... try at the general store!"

She releases Hazel and runs over to a group of Farrin dwarves who are muttering darkly and pointing toward Green Mountain looming through the trees.

"That's odd. Heda's not one for flustering easy."

Hazel sets off at a run for Kramer's General Store. Constable Bridger stands on the front step, looking grim, speaking to someone inside the shop. When he spots the pair, he bids the person he's speaking to farewell and stumps down and heads toward the bridge, beckoning Hazel and Emus over to him.

"Heda said ... you're looking ... for me," Hazel gasps as she skids to a halt.

"I wish you had been around earlier," the constable growls, watching her pant. "Rutiger and Pentagruel Kramer are missing. Their father says they were going to play in the Tulgey on the edge of the orchard, but they apparently had a nasty argument with their stepmother earlier. I sent Deputy Gallaway to look for signs of them, and he had Emmerson with him, but those two are no trackers. If you and Emus could find them and aid with the search, I'd greatly appreciate it."

He hobbles another pace away from the general store, lowering his voice.

"There's too much in the woods that can make a wee one disappear, never to be seen again. The longer they're missing, the less likely their father will see them again alive."

"You got anything Skeeter can use to get their scent?"

"Ask inside. I'm sure the children's parents would let the dog sniff their bedding."

"We'll find 'em, sir," Hazel says, flooded with guilt. "How long ago did Tuck an' Emmerson set out after them?"

"I don't know. An hour ago?" The constable shakes his head. "I've spent my afternoon listening to panicked parents and sorting out fairy tales when I should have been out in the field myself."

Emus walks inside the store, Skeeter at his side.

"Attention! Constable asked us to help Tucker and Emmerson in the search. I need something of them for Skeeter to get the scent."

Skeeter sits in his hind legs, doing a dignified open mouthed breathing (dignified only because no saliva is dripping on the floor), shaking his tail.

Lars Kramer brings the twins' blanket from their bed at a run, thrusting the somewhat threadbare quilt at Emus and Skeeter in a panic. His young wife looks on, somewhat skeptical of the dog and dwarf shedding leaves and mud all over the store's wood floor.

"Here, of course! Please, Master Dwarf, you'll find them, won't you?"

Emus takes the quilt from the shaking Lars and shows it to Skeeter.

"Smell." Skeeter's nose sniffs up and down the quilt until, with a snort, he announces to Emus that he has the scent. "Track."

Skeeter's eyes shine. Sniffing the air, he runs outside the store.

Outside, the constable claps his hand on Hazel's shoulder.

"I know you'll do your best, Hazel. Deputy Gallaway and young Emmerson set out more than an hour ago, setting out from the orchard. I'm certain you'll find a track left by those two."

She manages to hear Emus's voice as he and the dog run away.

"Hazel! Skeeter's got the scent! Get moving!"

Hazel waves a hasty good-bye to the constable and runs after the dwarf and his dog toward the orchard.
 
The antechamber of the Black Tower is dark, with closed three closed doors, but little else, save an iron chandelier shaped like intertwined snakes, with candles in their mouths. Only one candle is lit.

"Follow me," says the Wizard of Green Mountain, heading up a staircase to the second level of the tower. His cat watches Bufer until the gnome begins to move, and then darts past him to the next floor.

Bufer resists the urge to kick the mangy cat as it darts past him, and follows it and the wizard up to the second level, struggling a little with the stairs that have clearly been built with only human legs in mind.

As he climbs, he glances up and around at the dark antechamber in the flickering light of the lone candle, his eyes lingering a moment on the snake-motif chandelier.

"Cozy," he remarks, slightly out of breath.

At the top of the stairs, Khenemet-Apep gestures for Bufer to turn right, into a large parlor facing a fireplace with no fire burning. A pair of great divans, one covered in unidentifiable fur, the other buried beneath layer upon layer of blankets, form a small space facing the fireplace. The walls of the wizard's parlor boast floor to ceiling shelves, each full of books, scrolls and assorted mementos, including a several small gold statues of faeries. A bowl on a small chest between the two divans has chunks of broken chocolate in it -- Bufer's gnome twitches at the scent; gnomes have adopted the treat from the Distant South as their own -- and it too seems to be broken pieces of chocolate statues once shaped like faeries as well.

"Sit, Ebuferpaly." The wizard seems to be posing beside the fireplace, toying with an ornamental scimitar hanging over the mantle. "I have news of great importance to impart."

Bufer does as the wizard bids him, and clambers up onto one of the divans, looking up and around the room as he does so in curiosity.

"Quite a library ye've got here," he remarks. "Oktav would probably faint dead away from sheer ecstasy if he saw it. Whoo-wee, this is more books than I ever saw in my entire life, much less been in the same room with! I imagine ye've read them all, too. You know, my ex-uncle's half-sister's cousin's former flat mate holds the world record for most books ever read in a single sitting, as we gnomes record these things. Not on purpose, mind ye, it was just a really bad crop of apples that month, if ye catch my drift, and a body's got to keep himself occupied somehow, after all. Ye wouldn't happen to have any first editions by Dergunswoon on hand, would ye? I've been told I ought to be reading up on him, and the only one I ever come across got bundled up and carted off to Middleborough without me so much as glimpsing the table of contents, ain't that always the way? Not that I ever been much for book learning, mind ye, but it still would of been nice to ... you know, I really like your fairy collection, too, I got to say. It's, um, kind of eccentric, but it works for ye. Really. Say, if a man has a fetish for faeries, does that make him a faetishist? Ye mind if I help myself to some chocolate?"

Bufer's gaze finally lands on Khenemet-Apep, and he finds both the wizard and his mangy cat staring at him with identical expressions of bemused irritation.

"Sorry," he says. "Ye were saying something?"

"Please," Khenemet-Apep says, "Feel free to occupy yourself with as much chocolate as you wish; anything to keep you from talking. Now, as you may have heard, Flavivirus is dead."

Bufer, his mouth full of chocolate faerie, gives him a blank look.

"Flavivirus," the wizard repeats, putting his hands together and making a flapping motion. "Flav. Iv. Irus. The dragon? The Lord of the Floating Cave? Oh, honestly, I'm surrounded by ignorant hill people.

"Flavivirus was a black dragon who lived in the swamp east of Erish-aga, before some Delvers -- the Order of the Ancient Egg -- decided they wanted his treasure and that he was in the way. It was quite an impressive feat. In any case, they've chopped him up and have been selling off all the parts as they make their separate ways back to Ptolus. His blood has been sold off, his hide has been turned into armor, his wings have been made into boots and gloves, his teeth have been used for a magical staff of some sort, and so on.

"His entire corpse, as I understand it, is gone or spoken for at this point, all except for a single scale. The swashbuckler Valerius has let it be known that he will be passing through the Duchy of Southerly on his way to the Low Road and a ship to the Sea Kingdoms. He should be at the Graywall in a week.

"I mention this, of course, because the Children of Tiamat's plan relies on five dragon scales, one for each color of Tiamat's heads. The green scale, of course, they will get from within Glangirn at some point, and they already have their red scale. According to a particularly talkative member of the Blackbones, the Dragonlord is sending the five champions of Tiamat south with a chest full of jewelry taken from Glangirn to buy the scale from Valerius, whom I doubt will have any problem selling it to them. This will put the Children of Tiamat two-fifths of the way through their plan and destroying the barony and Wit's End. I imagine you'll want to stop them from getting their hands on it."

The wizard pauses, enjoying the reaction the chocolate-stuffed gnome has had during this speech. Khenemet-Apep can plainly see the gears of his little gnomish mind turning behind his eyes.

"Oh, and you might want to mention to your paladin friend: The cleric of Tiamat apparently gained quite a bit of status from killing him. She's been promoted to the ranks of the five champions. She'll be leading the group to purchase the black scale."

After a moment, Bufer grimaces and struggles to swallow down the chocolate in his mouth.

"Emmerson and me can raise a party of six or seven in a right hurry, if need be," he says gravely, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. "I expect the baron knows about this, and was probably him what suggested ye send for me. I expect he'll disavow it if he's asked, but is our mission to be securing the scale itself, or just keeping Pick and her crew from getting their claws on it?"

Khenemet-Apep toys with the scimitar hanging over the mantle.

"I told him I had news. What you do with it -- and what you are capable of doing with it -- is up to you. For myself, I'm paying attention to how many scales the kobolds get, because I have no illusions that the Children of Tiamat will want me around once their plan has come to fruition."

He seems to suddenly realize he still has his burlap sack in one hand, and with forced casualness, tucks it behind his back, under one armpit.

"Is there anything else? I have work to do besides telling the baron's errand-gnome information Wit's End should already know, if your people have any real interest in not sharing in the fate of the Treeline gnomes."
 
Bufer's eyes linger a moment on the hand Khenemet-Apep has pressed into his armpit, the embers of curiosity fanned by the wizard's attempted nonchalant manner. At the mention of Wit's End possibly sharing the fate of Treeline, the burlap sack and its contents are forgotten as the gnome glances up sharply into the wizard's face, his eyes tightening somewhat at the corners.

"What Wit's End knows or don't know, and what it plans or don't plan to do about it, is their own business, I'm afraid," he says. "While it's true I did spend a few days there recuperating for a spell, I ain't on the best of terms with my kin at the moment. If I can be said to be here on anyone's behalf, it's Emmerson Grant and the heroes of Maidensbridge, and nobody else's. If I'm anyone's 'errand-gnome,' it's theirs, and a proud one to serve, at that."

Pushing away the half-eaten bowl of chocolate -- half-formed notions in his mind making him slightly queasy at the sight of it -- Bufer hops off the divan and strides towards the fire and gazes into the flickering flames, pointedly not looking at the hand Khenemet-Apep has casually shoved up underneath his armpit.

"I understand ye're busy, sir," he says politely, "but I wonder if ye'll indulge a question or two more..."

Before the wizard can reply, Bufer rounds on him, takes a deep breath, and begins peppering him with a barrage of queries that would make Katadid Leach very proud, indeed.

"Who or what is this Dragonlord? How much support does he have in the warrens? Is there any manner of dissent we can exploit there? What about outsiders -- druids, exiles, outcasts and the like? Any hope for assistance from that quarter? What's the composition of Pick's party like to be -- clerics, wizards, soldier-types, what? How can we expect to find them kitted out? When do they leave, or have they left already? What route are they like to take, and what's the best way to head them off? What do ye know about this 'Order of the Ancient Egg,' and how apt are they to deal with us if we get to them first? How about if we get to them second, and explain the situation? Any hope in hell that they'll take our side? Will the baron be amenable to providing funds to buy the scale outright if it comes to that? Will this 'Order' be amenable to giving it up for a good cause if he ain't? Do ye happen to have any spare maps, scrolls, wands, potions or some other hocus-pocus doodad that might come in handy that we could borrow, maybe? And finally, even though I know ye're going to look down yer nose at me for it, I got to ask: Is there even the faintest glimmer of hope that all this could possibly be resolved in some sort of diplomatic fashion, huh?"

Bufer stops and blinks for a moment as he mentally reviews the last few moments, to see if he forgot anything.

"Also," he adds with a frown, as something else occurs to him, "Do ye not want to hear how that parable ends? 'Cause I'll tell ye, the suspense would be killing me!"

The wizard raises an eyebrow, but has no other response to Bufer's barrage of questions.

"You sound like a Jecture freshman," he says. "The Dragonlord is the kobold who has seized power in the caves and is a violent zealot devoted to Tiamat. His party rules the kobolds currently, but their control is not complete. The traditionalists still cling to the worship of Kurtulmak, although that will likely change once the Dragonlord has led their armies to wipe out the gnomes -- again. The Blackbones are necromancers who worship the Night Dragon, and would likely be the first to move against him, although I suspect it would go even worse for the barony if they were to achieve power. Apparently there are a few who worship other dragon gods, including a small cult that insists Gax has become a goddess herself. The true outcasts, like the sexually confused friend of your bookkeeper's father, the kobolds have a nasty tendency to hunt down and kill, so unless you're going to impress the dead into service, they're not likely to be of much help.

"If the Dragonlord has any weaknesses, I don't know of them; I'm not some stupid gnome to ask a kobold to his face about the possibility of assassinating his leader.

"Pick is riding with the Champions of Tiamat. If you didn't pay attention during your religious studies to guess at what that should mean, I'd be wasting my breath on a dead gnome telling you about them. If they haven't left already, they'll be doing so soon.

"The Order of the Ancient Egg are a tedious group of Delvers from Ptolus who fancy themselves dragon hunters. I've only had the displeasure of meeting the improbably named Gleep Wurp the Eyebiter back in school. Like most Delvers, they're mostly interested in glory and gold. If there's anything else they understand, I imagine it's ale and whores. I suppose you could slip into a dirndl and try your luck.

"And any magical items and artifacts I have would be too expensive for you to purchase, although it might be amusing to see you set yourself on fire with them.

"And as for diplomacy ... it's funny, but the Treeline gnomes asked that very question, as the kobolds tell it.

"Now get out; I have work to do."

"Begging yer patience, Mister Wizard, sir," Bufer says, making a great show of looking wounded by the wizard's casual dismissal of him, "But there is one other small matter fer discussion: my apprenticeship, sir. You offered once to have me come up here and learn the ways of the kobolds from ye, ye'll recall. And the last time we spoke, ye indicated ye were still willing to make good on the offer, in exchange for a show of good faith.

"I wonder, sir: Is this thing with Pick and her champions what ye had in mind? Or is there something else ye might be requiring of me to prove my worth to ye?"

At this, Khenemet-Apep is finally brought up short. He opens and closes his mouth several times before his cat makes a noise and the wizard slams his mouth shut while he thinks, a calculating gleam coming to his eye.

"If you survive a second encounter with Pick and her fellow champions, come see me again. I will have something for you to do, Sir Gnome. Complete that, and I will happily teach you more about kobolds in general and this tribe in particular.

"Do keep an eye on your paladin this time."

Bufer blinks at the wizard's reaction, then glances curiously at his mangy cat, wondering for the first time if it isn't truly the brains of the operation. The cat notices him watching, and with an air of smug superiority and general indifference, it slowly raises one hind leg and begins grooming a rather intimate portion of its anatomy. Bufer cocks an eyebrow before looking back up at the wizard, and affecting a crude bow.

"I shall, sir. I'm sure Emmerson appreciates yer concern. Thanks awfully fer the tip-off about Pick and her crew. I'll return as soon as I'm able, I promise."

Wearing a mischievous smile, he glances up and around at the library again.

"Ye really do have an impressive collection here," he observes. "I'll have to tell Lord Rubik about it all the next time I see him; I expect he'll be interested. Heck, he may even wanna come down and see it for himself."

He glances at the wizard's face to catch his reaction, then quickly at the cat to catch its.

"I'll see myself out," he says then, more to the cat than the wizard.

With that, he turns and heads back towards the stairs, but stops suddenly just short of them.

"Oh!" he says, snapping his fingers, then turns around and addresses the pair. "'Do not despair for me, sirrah, for I dost ride side-saddle!'"

He returns their blank stares with a wink, then turns and heads back down the stairs and out of the tower with a particularly gnomish bounce in his step.
 
The bounce in Bufer's step has all but disappeared, along with his smile, as he exits the Black Tower, replaced by a pensive frown. Heading in vaguely the same direction as he came, he watches his boots as he strokes his chin, deep in thought.

"Hmmph," he mutters aloud. "Well, that was distasteful."

"No doubt. Eating greasy wizard would make for bad poops." Bufer looks up to see Storm walking next to him, looking over his shoulder at the wizard's tower. He catches Bufer watching him, then shrugs. "Would probably eat him, anyway, just to make point."

"Ugh, please don't talk to me about eating," Bufer grimaces, as he absently strokes his protruding belly. "I think I'm in for some bad poops, myself."

"What you eat?" Storm frowns curiously at him. "Stoopid cat?"

"Oh, only about one-and-a-half magically transmuted faeries," Bufer says. He grits his teeth as his stomach gurgles in response. "Ugh. I think I'm going to be sick."

"Hmmph," Storm says, clearly impressed. "Tinkle-bugs be good eating, if can catch 'em. Tasty wings."

"Ugh!" Bufer groans as his stomach gurgles again. He scowls at the kobold walking next to him. "Ye're disgusting!"

"Me?" Storm blinks. "You be the one who ate a tinkle-bug and a half --"

"Where in th hell did you go, anyway? Ye suddenly remember ye had something better to do?" Bufer snaps, desperate to change the subject. "Right as I'm walking into the bear's cave -- poof! -- away ye go! For a guardian angel, ye sure leave a hell of a lot to be desired, I'll tell ye that!"

"Storm no 'go' nowhere," the kobold sneers at him. "Just because gnomey no see Storm, don't mean he no be there."

"Well, what'd ye disappear for, then? It's not like he could see ye!"

Storm wrinkles his snout.

"Stoopid cat could, I think. Looked right at me." He shudders. "Gave Storm the heebie-jeebies."

Bufer snorts.

"I don't know what's funnier: the idea of a fearsome kobold spectre like yerself being given the willies by a mangy old cat, or hearing the same say the word 'heebie-jeebies'."

"Why that funny?"

"That's a gnomish word if I ever did hear one."

"If it be gnomey word, that only 'cause tricksy gnomeys steal it from kobolds."

"Oh, whatever. OK, I think we're far enough out of sight of the tower now," Winking at Storm, Bufer draws himself up to his full height, cups both hands around his mouth, and calls out: "All right, Lil' Big'un! Ye can come out now!"

"What you think you doing?" he asks.

"It's Hazel," Bufer chuckles. "She's been following us ever since we left. Ain't that right, Lil' Big'un? We know ye're there, ye might as well come on out!"

"Storm not notice nobody following."

"Of course not; neither did I!" Bufer says, as though it were obvious. "That's the whole point! She wouldn't be much of a tracker if a gnome with no woodcraft and some out-of-practice druid who's been dead longer than she's been alive could pick her up that easy, now would she? C'mon, Lil' Big'un! The jig's up!"

"But didn't you leave note plainly telling her not to come along?"

"Well, of course I did!" Bufer says. "I always tell her not to come along! Then she comes along anyway! It's a system we got! Hazel, c'mon! Give it up! The gnome found you out! Ain't no shame in it! Get on out here, already!"

Bufer and Storm wait together in silence, their eyes darting from bush to bush to tree, hearing nothing but the mating calls of distant birds.

"Hazel?"

For a moment, nothing. Then, somewhere in the distance, a frog croaks in response.

"I don't think she's out there."

"Mmm-hmm."

"Well, how do ye like that?" Bufer says indignantly, placing his hands on his hips. "Can ye imagine? Letting me walk all the way out here, on my own! With clearly no idea of where I was going, how I was going to get there, or what was going to happen to me when I got there!"

"It practically insane. You did have the dwarf ..."

"Oh, screw the dwarf! Ye heard him! If that damned wizard had taken it into 'is head to transmute me into something like one of his precious faeries, Emus probably would have just pointed an laughed!

"I could have been killed! He could have killed me!"

"Storm should be so lucky. Of course, day still young, and if gnomey insists on standing here and yelling guts out, something bound to come along and kill him eventually."

"Oh, crap!" Bufer snarls. "I was counting on Hazel to get me home! I have no bloody idea how to get home from here! I wasn't paying attention on the way in; I was too wrapped up in relating that parable."

"Gnomey god chooses priests wisely."

"Listen, are ye going to stand there an' make jokes, or are ye actually going to be helpful here, and yes I appreciate the irony implicit in me uttering that sentence, so just wipe that look right off yer face, thank ye very much!" Bufer says. "Ye were a druid, right? Ye think ye could guide me the way back to Maidensbridge?"

"These not my woods," Storm says, after a moment. "But me think me remember the way. Come."

Storm sets off in an apparently random direction. Bufer grins in relief, then falls into step behind him.

"Wow, this brings back memories. Just like old times, eh?"

"Gnomey not shut up then, neither."

"I'll tell ye, the first thing I'm going to do when I get back is find Hazel Sawyer and Emmerson Grant, and give them two children a piece of my mind. Just where the hell to they think they get off listening to me, anyway?"

"Clearly, system needs work."
 
And so it is, as Hazel and Emus trail Skeeter at a rapid jog through the Tulgey Wood, they all but run down the gnome cleric, wandering in the wood and talking, apparently, to himself.

"OH SURE, NOW YE COME RUNNIN' TO FIND ME, HUH?" Bufer explodes. "IF IT WEREN'T FER ... MY INNATE SKILL WITH NATURE ... CRAP ... I'D PROBABLY BE DEAD BY NOW, NO THANKS TO YOU! WHY IN GARL'S NAME DID YE HAVE TO CHOOSE TODAY OF ALL DAYS TO START LISTENING --"

He breaks off as he realizes that Emus has charged right past him. Bufer blinks.

"All right, what now?" he asks wearily.

Hazel face widens into a huge grin, yanks Bufer to his feet with more force than is needed, and embraces him in a fierce hug.

"Glad you ain't dead, crazy. What're you doing wandering around out here? Last I, uh, thought, you were visiting the wizard. Never mind, got to run. Kids are missing."

She sets off again at a jog.

"Wait, what?" Bufer asks as Hazel hurries after Emus and Skeeter. "Hey, hang on! I got some important news we got to dis-- wait, what kids? Hazel? Hazel! Oh, hells."

Bufer grimaces and hikes up the hem of his threadbare robe, and starts running to catch up to the trio.

"Should have eaten him when I had the chance," Storm mutters, then glances up at the sky. "This no way to run an afterlife!"

After an endless period of fruitless investigation -- the floating shoe floated out of reach time after time before Emmerson was finally able to slip Judgment's tip through its open top and sling it to Tucker on shore -- the paladin's teeth are chattering violently.

He hears something move at the edge of the pond and turns to find Hazel, Bufer and Emus looking on him with concern. Skeeter, though, knows what's going on -- a game! -- and dives into the pond, swimming out to greet Emmerson.

At the improbable sight of Emmerson dog-paddling in the midst of Moss Pond, Hazel realizes two things: one, he's not out there for his health; and two, if the two children are out there, they're probably dead.

"Oh, no." She turns to the deputy with a sense of dread. "Are you sure the tracks end here? Did you search all around the edge?"

"We did," Tucker says, "But that doesn't mean anything: We'd be lucky to find water if we fell off the dock. Feel free to take another walk around the shore."

Hazel eyes the dripping shoe in Tucker's hands.

"Might have lost it getting away from something, maybe ran without thinking bout direction." She lays a hand lightly on his arm as she passes him. "Ya'll did good to track them this far."

"Lass, ye think ye could find me a rabbit or a badger or something around here?" Bufer says, tugging on Hazel's sleeve. "If any of them saw the kids, I ought to be able to find out what happened."

Hazel begins examining the shore and the foliage near the pond's edge for signs of disturbance - footprints, snagged cloth, broken branches and the like.

Emmerson gets out of the water, shaking like a newborn. He can barely control his hands as he reaches for his backpack, hoping he packed an extra set of clothes. He pulls out his cleric vestments. He dries himself the best he can and gets dressed.

"Thank Lothian you're h-here, friends. We've t-tried everything. No s-sign of them. Perhaps they followed someone."

"The two of ye did the best ye could manage on yer own, beanpole," Bufer says, reassuringly patting his cold and soggy friend on the shoulder. "Lil' Big'un will pick up their trail now, don't ye worry."

Feeling useless, Bufer worries the end of his threadbare sleeve as he watches Hazel's search, then glances up at his friends.

"How come nobody else from town's here?" he asks. "Why's it always us? I'll tell ye, I really can't wait for the day that Heda gets to sing 'The Heroes of Maidensbridge Took A Much Deserved Day Off, And Someone Else Picked Up The Slack For Once'.

"It'd be catchy," Bufer insists.
 

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