“You boys got my fangberries?” he growled as he suspiciously watched our approach.
“Not yet,” Cane said.
“Then get off my land!” He waved his instrument at us threateningly.
Not wanting to kill a demented old man we continued on our way. For the rest of the day we crossed the undulating plain. We camped by a spring, telling ghost stories around the campfire. I sat the last watch before dawn vowing to learn alarm the next chance I get. I fed my horse, Autolycus, while eating my own groats, and then we headed southeast, the sun rising to my left over the scrub and grassland where we traveled.
More plains without much activity besides the buzz of the insects, although Piea did find an ornate pearl-inlayed gold brush for her thorny hair. She cares more for her axe than she does for herself, as befits a fighter. Let this be a lesson for you, little Pino—always take care of your tools.
On the third day we headed southeast but again saw very little. I thought about how, with a little water diverted from the river, this area could bloom with farms and ranches. But for now there is nothing here except for the large black bird cawing mockingly as it watches us from above, one wing marred by a jagged red spot.
We were just thinking of where we could stop for the night when the land began sloping downwards. Soon the horses’ hooves were splashing in murky water as we entered dank swampland.
I became more uneasy the further we traveled into it, Autolycus was skittish, very unlike that stolid animal. We had just come upon what looked and smelled like a large midden when it improbably rose from the fetid waters.
“Bluarrgh!” It roared. “Bluarrgh!”
“A shambling mound!” Lev gulped, blanching.
“He’s kind of famous around these parts,” Cane added for our benefit.
“Is that so. . .” Piea frowned as we dismounted. "is he single?"
As I quieted Autolycus, Cane let out a roar as the thing suddenly attacked him, woody rib dense and hard.
“We better run,” cried Lev, his voice quavering like a schoolboy’s.
“Yeah,” Cane agreed, a great wet green-brown streak along the side of his head, blood trickling from his ear.
Ignoring them, Piea power-attacked but somehow missed the moldering heap as it doddered toward her. She backed away cautiously, as did Kelm, supporting Cane as they went. Lev struck with a ray of frost, temporarily blinding the beast, then retreated further. Grunting with pain, Cane shot it with his longbow, windbreaker. I tried commanding it to flee but it shrugged me off like a dog sheds water. It then blindly missed a ragged blow to Piea’s head. Her counterblow sliced deeply into the stinking pile with no obvious effect, then Kelm attacked, as did Lev. Cane and I futilely plunked arrows into it.
Realizing that it was too powerful we started withdrawing but the mound paced us ferociously. With Kelm badgering her for not power-attacking a second time Piea suddenly turned on the beast. Chastened, the rest of us continued plinking at it steadily, “Stick and move!” Cane hollered, as we surrounded the beast, its limbs flailing at us grotesquely, slapping Cane straight in the gob. It couldn’t focus its attention on any one of us. I stepped in front of Cane to protect him from further damage.
Piea stood toe to . . . root with the thing, great axe flying like an acolyte trimming a hedge until it finally stopped moving. “It’s dead!” she shouted triumphantly, raising her arms in triumph.
“It’s like I saw it into the future,” Kelm, the oracle, boasted.
Cane backtracked to its lair (to be honest, anyone could have followed the trail of that smell) where we found remnants of its victims and a few pitiable coins: 24 gp, 10 sp, 34 cp, which we shared, although I troth my share to victims of the autumn plague. The extra coppers, we decided, would go to buying donuts for the good folks at Oleg’s.
We spent the night well away from the marsh and the next day headed west across the unending plain, which rolled in all directions like crossing Lake Reykal in a small boat. I kept alert by searching the horizon, seeing nothing but our black friend circling overhead. I found myself nodding with the boredom and the heat. That’s when I heard Cane exclaim from up ahead and I saw in the distance one small hill on which a lone oak tree stood vigil, a crow’s claw scraping the sky.
The tree itself was nothing special except that it was the only living thing for many miles around. The earth at the base of the tree looked if as it had been recently disturbed. Kelm expressed doubts that this was the tree we were looking for even as we uncovered a bundle wrapped in cloth. Eagerly, we laid it on the dry grass nearby and unfolded the cloth. It contained:
wand of burning hand, 4 charges masterwork dagger silver ring, 75gp identify mage armor reduce person silent image unseen servant
We argued for awhile over whether or not to keep the book while Kelm obsessed over our trail rations. Lev claimed the wand. To please Kelm we partook in the lamentable trail rations, although they were gummy and leathery at once, an unusual combination. I would have preferred to wait for Cane’s rabbit stew tonight.
We continued riding through the same sparse landscape, searching always for the sycamore tree until once more we stood before our river, a tributary of the Sellen. The river is wide here and would have proven difficult to cross except that, after traveling along the bank for a time, we came upon a place where a thick green rope crossed the water. An aged, rotted sign announced the place as Nettle’s Crossing 5 coppers. A rusted bell hanging on a nail nearby. Cane shook it clattering, like an angry schoolmarm, but no one arrived.
Suddenly, out of the depths of the river rose a hideously rotted corpse, skin glistering like a street vendor’s mackerel at day’s end. It approached us steadily, rising from the water like an offended prosecutor, pointing its finger accusingly. “You. Are. Not. My. Tormentors!” it cried. “Throw. The. Stag. Lord’s. Body. Into. The. River. That. I May. Look. Upon. His. Death. . . . Or. You. Will. Join. Me. Instead!”
There was not much we could say to that, dear girl, except, “It’s on our list of things to do.” Then Nettle—I assume that’s who it was—sank back into the murk.
Cane wanted to remain on our side of the river but Kelm quickly pointed out that to reach the Stag Lord we’d have to cross eventually so we each paid 5 copper to cling to the moss-slick rope. I'm sure you’ve already guessed the rest. Like at the family picnic last year, your fat uncle fell into the water halfway across. I struggled almost to shore to the hoots of my companions as Cane stripped his gear and pulled me to dry land. As I coughed the water from my lungs he offered to give me the kiss of life, as the others egged him on, but I settled for friendship instead.
While I was squeezing the water from my clothes, we went over the map Kelm has been keeping and discovered that the Swordlords had pulled a fast one and our territory was far smaller than had been described, and that we were in danger of crossing into our neighbor’s country. "And they're badasses so we don't want to start off on their bad side."
“Guys,” I said standing at the bank, miserable in my wet clothes.
“In a minute,” one of them called. “I think we got screwed.”
“It's less work for us," Piea replied, "and we’ve still got the gold mine.”
“Guys.” All I heard was the sound of their arguing. “Guys!”
“What the holy hell do you want, Marquand?”
I pointed across the river silently to where our horses stood watching us incuriously.
Thankfully, Cane and Piea, swam the horses across (paying five more coppers to shinny back across the rope) and we were soon back on the trail. From atop a low rise we saw a bare tall tree scratching the hairy chin of oblivion—the sycamore tree.
Near its base was a root-lined shaft sinking 10 feet into the earth. Restless for action, Lev went down first, blending uncannily into the murk. After a moment's wait we followed him down, turning east at a juncture.
“Waaheeh!” we heard an unfamiliar cry up ahead, “Wait!” Lev hollered, quickly followed by a terrified “Wowwooo!” and a distant thud.
We hurried into a workroom with three crude benches, tools, and hardware. At one end of the room was a wicked slope descending into darkness. Suddenly Kelm brightened, “Lev’s communicating with me from down below,” he told us. “He says the room is filled with mites."
“Sweet, holy Serenrae!” we all heard echoing from down below.
Kelm looked up without expression. "They’ve been cutting up kobolds a piece at a time and when he dies they start on another. They're a big pile of them down there."
Pino, I hesitate to tell a little girl of these things, but you must learn that the world is an evil place.
From above we heard shrieking and cursing as the mites turned their surprised fury upon Lev, puncturing him with their biting darts—death by a thousand cuts. Unfortunately, we could not reach them because Kelm had doddered into the passageway, clinging to the roots to keep his balance, acting as the proverbial cork in the bottle. From below we could hear a hoot of pain whenever a dart landed on Lev’s flesh. Finally, Kelm rolled down, landing with a thud, arms extended, “Ta-daa! How you doin’, bwa?” he crowed, only to be immediately tagged on the ass by a dart. “Woot-da!” he hollered.
I was able to cast bane on the little boogers, putting the fear of Rovagug in them, weakening what little wits they had to begin with. Then Piea waded into the fray, mite-pieces flying everywhere. Lev spoke to them as an angry giant. I wish he had given me warning. “Fe-fi-fo-fitch!” he thundered. “I’m gonna kill every sonsabitch!” I almost felt sorry for them save for what they did to the kobolds. “I need a Twizzler™ for this!” Lev growled like a fifty foot tall timberwolf, scaring them, and me, a little further.
Finally, Cane skidded down the incline, quickly killing the first mite he encountered. I watched it’s head roll away, still wearing the skullcap of the schoolboy it had probably abducted and devoured some time past. “Kill them," said a voice like broken glass from behind me. It was the little kobold. "Kill them all.”
Another squealed as Kelm took its life. Shaking off his wounds, Lev talked with the kobold—Mikmek—as I picked off one of the mites with my longbow and Piea slit one across the abdomen, causing its guts to squirt out while it bleated pitiably until she took mercy on it by slicing it's throat like a hog at the city market. “Noisy,” she shrugged.
Lev had Mikmek talking in common—if not common sense—and we were treated to a self-serving tale that is not worth retelling.
“Wha’!?” came the cry as Cane, who had been poking around in the shadows, fell down another hole to the next level, where he woke a giant whiptailed centipede. “Help! Help! There’s a great huge nasty thing down heah!” he cried in terror. Kelm took aim, blind as he is and hit it twice with his crossbow and I used my longbow as Piea leaped down into the fray, missing her first attempt at the creature. She bloodied it the second time, dodging it’s fangs and tail all the while. Finally, Lev mailed in a touch attack, finishing it off.
They quickly searched its nest but found nothing except little round balls of filth as the rest of us climbed down to join them.
“Come on! You’re wasting time! Let’s kill these mites!” I looked up to see Mikmek beckoning us back.
“We’re working on it,” Piea grumbled as Lev persuaded him to join us.
This led us to another room, which was truly filthy, like first-year students at the academy. There was a rickety table held together with twine, covered with a grime encrusted red-checked tablecloth, heaped with twigs, dirt, gravel and—wonders—a map. At one corner a bloodied ivory statuette of a reptilian devil weighed down a scrap of paper. “The statue!” Mikmek cried, lunging to snatch it before Lev could stop him.
A scraping sound emerged from the darkness where four mites waited by what seemed to be a large boulder in the tunnel ahead. Only this boulder was slowly rolling towards us, the sound of it's approach was like chalk on blackboard. When it finally lumbered into the light we were disgusted to see a huge yellowish tick ridden like a pack animal by a fat brown mite. You can imagine my disgust. It reminded me of the bloated wood ticks we find on your dog, Pooter, only this one was as big as Swordlord Harry’s stagecoach!
I quickly moved into the tunnel, putting an arrow through its rider. The monster tick, now spattered with the gore of its master, turned on us savagely. It scooped up Lev, shaking him like a rag doll until he fell senseless to the ground. Seeing us distracted Mikmek grabbed the statue and hightailed it out of the corridor with Cane close behind, leaving us without his strong arm in our time of peril.
Desperately I dropped my bow and pulled out my sword, searching for the weakness in its armor. Kelm bloodied it with his crossbow, but it still managed to take a savage bite out of Piea. To my horror I watched as it seeded her with its young! Oh, Pino, may you never witness such a thing!.
With fury I struck it into a seam in its armor and was rewarded with a cold gush of dark blood. I heard a meaty thunk as Kelm’s bolt struck home. Eerily the creature made noisome chittering sounds, like feasting maggots heard through an Andoran listener’s tube.
I hit it again, “cutting off a piece of its ear,” as the song goes. Piea, limp and unconscious, dropped to the ground. Suddenly, Cane ran back onto the scene, a look of horror on his face as he beheld our situation. Once more I drove my sword home and suddenly the battle was over.
Kelm bounced up and down with joy as I struggled to catch my breath.
Some time later, after we’d revived Lev and Piea, we explored the mites' bunker, finding four more trampled in their rush to escape our swords. “Where’s Mikmek?” Piea asked Cane but he shrugged, averting his eyes. She looked to me, “The statue?” When she turned back Cane had gone.
“Guess he lost track.”
We found lots of little daggers and darts and a sack under the table yielded:
• 12 small spears
• 32 gp
• 120 sp
• 193 cp
On a table we found a map and a paper arranged into two columns but in a language none of us understand. Packing the stuff up we followed a path leading upwards to a cavern, the floor crisscrossed with shallow trenches. The floor was wet, the trenches putrid and foul and stinking dunghills, infested with vermin and dark centipede eggs, like raisins in a muffin. At one end of the room three more giant centipedes waved their legs in alarm at our approach. Fortunately, they were nymphs, hardly worth our time. Then we destroyed the eggs despite Kelm's protests that they make delicious omelets.
Once we finished clearing out the vermin we returned to the map on the table, which turned out to be of another set of caves southeast of here. We argued about what to do next, with Lev and Kelm wanting to forge ahead and the rest of us wanting to hustle Piea back to Oleg’s to cure her of the infestation that even now was moving about beneath her skin. While I’m no fan of democracy, in this case the majority abided, Kelm grousing all the way—one of the many drawbacks of the democratic process.
We reached Oleg’s at midnight. Surprisingly, the gates were shut and barred.
“Halt, who goes there?” an unfamiliar voice challenged.
“We have a decree from the Swordlords,” Lev wheedled unnecessarily. “Ask Oleg.”
I waited on one side as the badinage continued. The night was black and I wanted to be sure to be well away from my partners’ voices if the Post's defenders decided to ambush us. Thankfully, I heard the gates squeak open as a man holding a torch beckoned us inside. There a rough-looking mercenary awaited us with his bullyboys. “I am Kesten Garess,” he rumbled.
As we introduced ourselves I noticed their tents set up at the south end of the stables. I should be happy to see Garess but I've already got a bad feeling about the man. Maybe I'm misjudging him. That's when Svetlana arrived to sweep us all into a midnight feast of leftover moon-radish soup and, yes, moon-radish wine—I promise you a bottle at your wedding. Then we bargained with Garess—my opinion of him dropping again—over Piea’s life, trading our stake in the dead bandits for the antitoxin she needed. Kelm shook his head disapprovingly. “Selfish,” he muttered when Piea couldn't hear him.
The next morning we bid Garess and his boys goodbye. I felt disturbed that we’d found out so little about them and how their mission fits in with ours. Is Garess here to help us or hinder? Is he the Swordlords’ insurance against our ambitions? Will he be exploring the countryside or will he leave that to us? Can we depend on him to watch our backs?
Heading westward we encountered the forest, once more finding little except one lonely weathered skeleton. Cane stayed on point, refusing all offers to let him rest. Another day passed and we considered going back to the trading post to retrieve our new equipment but decided to explore one more day to the southeast towards the river. We crossed into a stand of birch trees, stopping to set up camp.
In the morning we discovered to our embarrassment that we had been invaded during the night by the fey. Since none of us had been willing to stand guard we had only ourselves to blame. They had taken a liking to our cookwear, leaving with the half pot of beans we’d saved for breakfast. Lev tried to wheedle them to show themselves but was met with a justifiable hoot of derision.
Admitting our defeat, we turned southwest and in a quiet glade found an abandoned temple invaded by the forest. Pillars, some toppled, framed a courtyard overgrown with vine and shrub. Vegetation poked from between the courtyard's paving stones as we dismounted to walk quietly within. In the very heart of the quiet space stood a reeking pool of water.
Above us towered a cliff of hard stone at least 100 feet high. An immense carving of an elk was scribed in the cliff’s face, its drooping antlers framing the wide entrance to a cave with a flight of stone steps leading up to it. I felt no doubt that this was a place holy to Erastil, filling me with an odd sense of purpose. I say odd because, as you know, I arrived late to the worship of "Old Deadeye," mostly at your father's behest. To find myself moved by Him manifest is unexpected, but welcome. I'm beginning to think I've done the right thing, I am walking the correct path, embracing the fate meant for me, given to me by your father, Jaquizz.
As if to mock me, a giant grizzly bear emerged from the cave, like an actor answering his cue, roaring its anger at our arrival. It was met by Piea’s competing roar of defiance as she hacked a hole in it. Lev froze off a couple pieces of its rump. “Ha, haa!” he cackled excitedly, like a schoolboy harrying a dog. In his excitement Cane fumbled his sword, somehow embedding it deeply into solid stone. I rushed to the bear’s opposite side as he savaged Piea. (As this rate she will soon have more scars than Zon-Kuthon!) Holding her in its slavering jaws it flailed wildly at the rest of us. I was able to slip under its guard, making the killing stroke as, with a gurgle, it dropped Piea and fell to the cave floor.
Its sigh was all too human and, where a savage animal once lay, the grizzled form of an old man appeared, a smile on his face, happily freed from some curse or other, perhaps from the time the temple itself was abandoned. I kneeled in humble prayer, glad to have done this service for him, my faith in Erastil confirmed. The oppressive feeling, that I had not even noticed I bore, lifted. When we returned to the temple we saw that even the fetid pool had cleared, pristine again. We drank of it heartily as Cane sheepishly freed his weapon from its stone, bearing our jibes manfully. Looking about me I vowed to again make this a place of worship .
The next day we returned to Oleg’s, happy to note that the supply van had arrived intact. I immediately stripped off my leather armor without thinking of the ladies present. Not minding their titters—at my age any attention from a woman is flattering—I slipped on my new chain shirt, its extra weight offset by a darkwood buckler.
When I emerged later in the afternoon after a nap I found Kelm reading from a notice posted on the fort’s gate:
"Every Greenbelt hunter has a story about Tuskgutter, each wilder than the last. The ill-tempered beast took my leg a year ago, and it’s about time someone took down this monster!
"I pledge my masterwork longbow, as well as six magic beastslaying arrows to anyone who kills Tuskgutter.
"Bring the head of the beast to Oleg’s Trading Post. I plan to stuff it as a trophy, and I might just share the head cheese I'll make out of it with you as well!
"Old, retired Vekkel Benzen"
On that I'll bid you adieu, sweet girl.
Obey your Mother,