With weary mien the group took stock of their situation; before them was a grisly sight. Of the party Dimbol was down, Buliwyf heavily wounded and the rest were haggard, their strength depleted. Yet the enemy fared much worse; the undead still cowered in the corner of the cemetery their master fled, while of his minions one was dead and the other was trussed up like a pig ready for roasting.
There was little discussion regarding the prisoner - no murderers were this group, they would instead bring him back to Lower Valshost for such punishment as would be meted out. The slain foe Buliwyf beheaded against his fear of undead - such was not unfounded on these once sacred burial grounds.
A fair sized bounty did the party share as well in coins and equipment, though their excitement was tempered by a sinister find. Two small badges carved in the likeness of a black fisted gauntlet clenching barbed arrows were among their foes' possessions; these they left behind, cold with the knowledge that they'd somehow become embroiled in the schemes of the minions of the Dark Tyrant, Hextor.
Turning from the graveyard, the group made their way back toward the bridge leading into town. Crossing they found the gates closed. Knocking loudly they called for the watch and a voice called down, "Who goes there?"
"Travelers," replied Chakrem wearily, his mind churning over events. "Those waylaid upon the King's road just outside of yon gates."
"What, waylaid?" asked the voice. "Hold, anon. I'll get the Sergeant."
A moment passed as the group waited. Uncomfortable it seemed, exposed such on the bridge, and each had a strange premonition that most attributed to the earlier melee. Abruptly another voice, this one barking, almost angry, rained down upon them.
"State yer business! And be quick, we do no' open the gates after dark without good cause!"
The figure was a dim shade on the wall above, lit in the orange glow of a torch. He wore black enameled armor and a helm, and the cloak of a Sergeant of the guard hung from one shoulder. He held himself with an air of authority as he waited for their reply.
"We are travelers, and were ambushed by dark forces outside the cemetery across the bridge," replied Chakrem. "We held our own, but do not return unscathed, as perhaps you can see."
"Dark forces?" the Sergeant queried.
"Aye," nodded Chakrem. "Undead bones long ago laid to rest were stolen from their tranquil quietus to torment the living. Even now they quail in the face of my Patron's strength in yon graveyard."
"Undead you say?" asked the Sergeant thoughtfully.
At first the party thought him doubtful; after a moments time he called, "Open the gate, I'm going out."
The party moved back to allow the gate its path; a short time later the Sergeant exited and approached.
"Speak more of this fell foe, Priest," he demanded, coming to a halt before Chakrem.
Chakrem rubbed his eyes before continuing.
"I am Chakrem Dethe, but one among this band of adventurers called 'the Herdsmen'. We are traveling north, our initial intent to head to Coppertown to learn the truth of rumors of kobold raiders in the mines up there. This night we chose to save a silver and a gold by camping outside your gates - bad form we considered it to bivouac in the main square inside the walls."
The Sergeant snorted, "Doubtless…yet you chose a graveyard to make camp beside? You must be daft, or the lot of you simpletons at best."
Chakrem's expression was wry as he replied, "A mixture of both - we were led by a wood elf…and ranger to boot!"
"A ranger?!" exclaimed the Sergeant, chortling as Cadreil looked away, abashed. "Oh, that's rich. To the story now, though - I've mulled wine and my wife's blackbird pie awaiting."
Grinning, Chakrem continued, "Aye, we found ourselves beside the cemetery, and truth told the first watch was without incident. But the mid-watch raised the hue and cry, and we all awoke to fell deeds. As we approached the graveyard an arrow flew through the night to strike my stalwart companion here."
Chakrem pointed at Buliwyf, who nodded a weary greeting at the Sergeant.
"You're a big bastard, no mistake," noted the man, eying the barbarian suspiciously. To Chakrem he said, "Go on!"
"Battle ensued," Chakrem shrugged. "We entered the graveyard and were assailed by skeletons, but the might of Kord turned the majority away. Hidden among the grave markers however, was the real threat, including our bound friend over there. The melee was sharp, we were victorious."
The Sergeant studied the group for a moment, finally indicating their captive.
"And what do you know of him?" he finally asked.
"A worshiper of the Scourge of Battle," replied the cleric. "He and another had the unholy symbol of Hextor in their possession, and one other was party to their cause, a dark priest I am sure for unholy enchantments were part of the melee."
"What of the priest and the other?" asked the Sergeant.
"Dead," replied Chakrem, "or at least the other warrior is. The dark priest fled the field in the face of superior opposition."
The Sergeant looked ready to reply when Helix crouched suddenly and said, "Hsst! Do you hear?"
Everyone grew still, and this time a whisper was heard by all as a bolt passed through the party to strike their captive. The bound man's head exploded in sanguine blossom as the party looked on in shock.
The Sergeant cried, "There!"
The party followed where the man pointed, and in the shadows at the far side of the bridge a dark shadow could be seen fleeing into the night. In a fit of rage Buliwyf drew his great sword and pursued swiftly.
"I like your friend," drawled the Sergeant, then he too gave chase, following closely behind the barbarian.
At the end of the bridge Buliwyf and the Sergeant were met by a small cadre of skeletons. Engaged thus, they lost the opportunity to capture their attacker as the others in the party approached from behind. It was a short fight, and quick; soon there was little left of the skeletons beyond bone dust.
Breathing heavily the Sergeant studied the macabre remains before kicking some into the river.
"I'll have to send out a bloody detail," he said almost to himself before turning to the group and saying, "Come, the Captain will want to talk with you about these…remains. There'll be food…and likely a better place to sleep than a graveyard - at least for the living."
He chuckled, and his laughter faded back to the rest of them as they crossed the bridge. Soon they were within the safe embrace of Lower Valshost's walls, and led by the Sergeant into the gatehouse.
"Wait here, the Cap'n'll be with you shortly," he said. "Like as not he'll have more to say regarding those dead exhumed for fell rites. I'll send for the acolyte as well to tend yer wounded. As for me, my wife's blackbird pie awaits!"
He turned to leave when Buliwyf said, "We've a friend in town, a halfling. Perhaps you can send for him?"
"Tis late," replied the Sergeant, to which Buliwyf shrugged.
"Perhaps, yet he's a bard and may be up still."
Nodding, the Sergeant turned and left the gatehouse. They waited quietly, only Dimble, restless in his wounded slumber, broke the silence, saying, "Corn dogs, Mommy…I want more corn dogs!"
A short time later the acolyte of Heironious appeared. His healing was quick, puissant, and all found themselves refreshed and awake. The Captain arrived with two guardsmen in tow as the young priest departed the gatehouse, and he studied the group for a long moment. Finally to Dimble he said, "Come, there is food."
To the guard the Captain said, "Take him to the kitchen and feed him."
As Dimble was led away the Captain said, "I am Stunvaard, Captain of the Guard of Lower Valshost. Tell me of this battle."
Again Chakrem spoke, describing in detail the events of the eve which the Captain met stoically. When Kord's priest finished Stunvaard said, "We've squelched rumors of body snatching, but our villain grows bolder. You've done a service for the Count…perhaps he will speak with you on the morrow."
The Captain appeared to say more when one of the guards who'd accompanied him earlier entered and whispered for a long moment in his ear. When he finished the Captain looked at him and nodded, then turned back to the party.
"Your hungry friend corroborates your version of events," remarked the Captain. "Also, your halfling friend was found - they pulled him from bed kicking and screaming from between two of our most popular harlots - like as not he'll want to see the healer before you set off in the morn."
"We've set up cots in the top room of the gatehouse for you this eve - I appreciate folk who are spare with their sovereigns," he added, the faint crease of a smile breaking his expression. "'Tis a strong possibility your sleep will be uneventful for what's left of the night."
Turning Stunvaard said, "Be prepared for an early wake up - the watch changes at dawn, and the Count is an early riser. Good night."
The Captain left then, as the group prepared for bed.
The next morning came early, and their meeting with the Count Gustav Martin was brief. He thanked them for their effort and bid them safe journey, after which the group sold off their spoils and divided the gold gained from the melee. They left Lower Valshost soon thereafter to little fanfare, though the Sergeant lifted a hand in farewell and the Captain saw them off. As they crossed the bridge from town they heard a voice call after.
"Don't sleep next to graveyards!"
Their travel to Martin's Hold was uneventful. It was a wealthy town of eclectic mix as foppish linen and silk merchants mixed with pit fighters; somehow the bloodsport had become a nightly event in the Hold and drew boisterous crowds each evening. Money flowed from the old mines, these having been liberated in the wars against the 'bee' folk, it flowed quicker from purse to pocket in the betting that went on during the matches.
Thick jungle surrounded the area; civilization was nearing its end as the party pushed north, and just across the river they could see thick foliage trying to encroach. Finding lodging at the Wayfarer Inn, the group settled down for a hot repast, and Corun Thistlefur performed 'Last look at the Sea', much to the delight of the gnome innkeeper Voldite.
Their stay one brief night, the next morning the party continued onward to Dwinnidale, some twenty miles north. The journey took a day, and when they made the large village they found a welcome respite to their travels at Zennuit's Haven. The famous Bard, um…Ron sung harmony and melody and limerick, and Corun watched and learned as the rest of the group settled in.
"He's a fine turn of wrist on the lute," Corun pointed out to the others.
For his part Dimble kept a running commentary going on the many fine foods found along the way; in Zennuits he found another delectable item on the menu in their beef broth with onion. When it was pointed out by Buliwyf that pig turds would taste good after a month of trail rations he disagreed.
"No, no, friend Buliwyf," replied Dimble. "Pig turds would never taste good."
For their part the elves said little during the journey. The others took it in stride, but for Cadreil it was a point of honor that he'd picked such a poor location. Earnest in his care, he worked tirelessly to make sure that the group stayed on the path - the fact that the path was well worn and traveled and they were greeted by other travelers did not deter him from his task.
At Zennuit's Lli noted a wood elf sitting alone.
"Shall we offer greetings, Cadreil?" asked Lli, curiosity aroused by the drab and humble clothing of their fellow elf. Cadreil nodded, thus both stood and made their way to his table and offered their names.
"Thought the two of you looked familiar - you've the look of one with the blood of our Queen," he replied to their greetings. "Name's Elmere…have a seat."
For an elf Elmere was plainspoken, and he introduced himself as a Druid from their forest. He made mention of Russell Windblow, and they spoke of local events. As their talk wound to a stop he cautioned them the local count was 'not accessible,' then he bade them, "Have a care for beasts in the jungle…and when you reach Valshost seek out the fisherelf Moorheese - like as not he'll have wisdom to share."
Finishing his wine he bade the two a 'fruitful journey' before leaving to his rest.
The next morning the group prepared for the longest stretches of their journey where the road grew wilder and the foliage crowded the passage north. Civilization spread thin; their goal this eve was an old burme built up roughly halfway between Dwinnidale and Valshost. Per Corun who had ways of ferreting out information, the way was patrolled; he learned that they likely would be passing one such patrol at some point that day.
As they set out Cadreil took the lead, with the rest of the party following a ways behind. Midway through their journey they passed the patrol who warned them to 'stay clear from the big, carnivorous apes' as these were aggressive, territorial and had big, pointy teeth. It seemed like good advice so the party deigned to do so and the rest of the day passed without incident as the burme came into sight through the trees just shy of dusk.
Settling camp, they ran a picket line for the ponies and shared a meal of trail rations over a warm fire. Outside the burne the sounds of jungle could be heard, night cats on the prowl as nocturnal birds called warning. They chose watches, with Buliwyf, Dimble and Corun taking the first.
The rest settled into sleep as the three strode the walkway inside the wall. Just as the rest of the party settled into sleep Buliwyf let out an angry, surprised roar, "Kord's sweaty balls!"
Up jumped the rest of the party as a hungry swarm of batlike creatures attacked. Right away Buliwyf had to contend with one of the creatures as it attached itself to his neck. The others dove through the group, with Lli and Chakrem the centers of attention for the little beasties' affections. It was a sharp, frenetic fight, the beasties swooping with quick, darting attacks, and the group unsure of how to respond. One of the creatures drank it's fill on Buliwyf - fortunately the huge barbarian had a lot of blood to spare. As it tried to rise and fly away a bolt from Corun's crossbow pierced it, and bursting the creature spewed blood down on the walls of the burme.
Of a sudden Lli's magic glared brightly in the night - two magical bolts flew unerringly at the beasties to his relief. Helix lent a hand to Lli as well, while Cadreil and Dimble came to the priest's assistance, grasping at the beasties besetting Chakrem and smashing them into the ground. As the last creatures flapped about in their final death throes Buliwyf asked wearily, "What in all nine hells were those things?"
No one had an answer for the time being and they passed the rest of the eve in a tense, restless sleep.
The next day the group moved out from the burme, on their way to Valshost. On the trip they passed a second patrol and told them of the previous night's encounter.
"Aye," said the sergeant who led the group, "Stirges is what the critters are called - we call 'em skeeter birds, some calls 'em swamp skeeters, take yer pick, but they're thick as flies 'round here. If you camp at night, big fires keep 'em away…sometimes."
With those words of wisdom as guide the party thanked the patrol and continued on. Their journey came to an end in late afternoon as the town of Valshost came into view. The group settled in the Tower House Bar and Inn and enjoyed a fine repast. His brush with mortality against the scions of Hextor now apparently forgotten Dimble set himself before a huge repast and set to with a prodigious will. Helix, for his part, looked on in some amusement while considering the speed with which the gnome ate.
"If you slow a bit, Dimble, your chances of asphyxiation by choking decrease dramatically," he said, though the gnome was hardly deterred.
"If I slow a bit, others might take it from me!"
Corun, ever curious as to local custom and local talent met another songmaster, this one possessing a modicum of talent, and soon learned the ballad The Split of the House of Martin'; the rest of the evening he spent earnestly practicing the necessary chords to perfect it.
Buliwyf was himself. A hearty meal and hearty ale, then he said, "I'm off to find a wench, lads…don't wait up!"
For their part Lli and Cadreil settled in quietly, their plan to rouse early the next morn and seek out Moorhees, their kinsman. Thus the night passed uneventfully, and the morning came bright. Passing through the taproom of the inn they encountered Corun, still up and practicing his craft. Seeing the two he waved them over and said in a low voice, "I've heard tell of pegasi down by the lake. I thought that might be of interest to both of you, being of the fey and all."
Lli considered the news while Cadreil replied, "You are a wealth of information, Corun Thistlefur. Many thanks."
Considering this the two left for the water in search of Moorhees.
Shortly after the two wood elves left, Buliwyf came down to the common room, passing Corun who was headed to bed.
"Methinks we'll be here another day," Corun said to the tall man, who nodded his agreement.
"Aye and road weary I am. Methinks I'll see what the guards around here look like, an' if any have a stomach for tradin' blows with me."
Grinning Corun replied, "Best o' luck with that, friend Buliwyf! I'm off to find some rest."
With that he turned and scampered up the stairs. Buliwyf made his way across the tavern common room and exited, heading for the tower. Once there he found the Captain of the tower, a Sir Guillard, overseeing the comportment of morning training. Approaching the Captain he said, "I am called Buliwyf, and many long miles have I traveled, with little enough practice with the blade. If you can stand another, I would drill with your squad this morn, Sir."
"You're late," replied Sir Guillard blandly. "Get in line."
The burly barbarian earned some rough and questioning stairs as he made his way into formation, but soon the Captain was barking orders and putting them through their paces. As the morning wore on he'd earned a grudging respect not just from the guardsmen, but from the Captain as well. As morning wore to the lunch hour Sir Guillard approached him.
"You're passing fair with that back scratcher you call a blade, northman," said the Captain. "I could always use a good man in our ranks. What say you?"
Grinning Buliwyf replied, "Many thanks, milord. You've a good group here, so I'm proud you would consider me to wear the colors. But I'm beholden to none in this life I lead, and prefer it so. Much there is left for me to see and do that I could not do here, and soon I would chafe under your command."
Sir Guillard nodded once and said, "Good fortune to you then, and should you change your mind…"
"I'll know where to find you, milord," Buliwyf nodded.
They shared a brief laugh before Guillard turned back to his men. At the same time Buliwyf headed back to the inn, hungry after a morning of exercise.
Meanwhile, Lli and Cadreil had found their kinsman. As they had approached the area he was reputed to live, they saw him approaching.
"What news of the north wood, or fair Lobellian, if that's where your coming from?" he said as they halted before him.
"Both, really," replied Lli. "Our home is in the north, however."
"You've the look of folk of my clan," nodded Moorhees, seemingly unsurprised at their sudden appearance. "Come, then, I've breakfast waiting at the Tower House. You can regale me with news of our folk as we eat."
It was a short jaunt up the hill, and soon they entered to find Buliwyf and Dimble eating lunch at a table by the hearth in the taproom. Cadreil offered a quick wave before he and Lli took a seat with their companion, and when the other settled in he said, "I'm Moorhees. I've lived around these parts for many years, though I once hailed from the north wood. You are?"
Lli said, "I am Lli, and my companion Cadreil Eryllion."
"Eryllion, huh?" said Moorhees. "I knew your father, I believe, some years ago during the fights with the Yak folk. That means you're a ranger - you studied under Russell Windblow?"
"Aye," nodded Cadreil, a bit flustered by the man's perception. "He accompanied me to Kronenbourg where I met with the group I travel with now. Haven't seen him since."
Moorhees nodded, then hailed the waitress over and said, "Three common breakfasts, with mulled ale to warm the soul."
She grinned at his wink, and as she ran to retrieve their order he continued their conversation.
"Russell's like that. Trains you up, then let's you go. Cuts the cord quick, he does, and it's a good thing, I believe."
He paused a moment before continuing.
"I trained under Russell as well. If he thought you sharp enough to handle the rigors of our…profession, then I count you comrade. Should you have need, I'm here for you."
Turning to Lli he said, "You, however, I can't help…but at least I'll buy you lunch."
Each laughed at the humor before Cadreil asked, "We've heard tell of Pegasi, down in the wetlands."
Moorhees frowned, but nodded and said, "Aye, I know of them. A couple of smaller herds intermingle from time to time - their territory covers a wide swath around Lake Bonanza. 'Tis common rumor, but I'm working toward keeping it from becoming common knowledge, so I just as soon you did not mention the fact to others. Treasure seekers enough seek enough in fur and ivory from the indigenous species without the word of a large population of pegasi getting out."
Lli and Cadreil both nodded understanding as Moorhees finished his lunch. Standing he said, "Next time in town, stop by. I'm in the old shack next to the water - if my skiffs in, it means I'm home. We'll trade news and rumors and next time lunch is on you."
Leaving the price of breakfast, plus a tip on the table, he turned and left the Tower House.
That afternoon the group gathered and agreed that they would stay the extra day before moving on. Some plans were made; this the longest stretch required two nights in the wilds. The first day's journey would lead them to the Lookout, an old, but maintained fort in the wild, the second day would bring them to another burme. The third day should bring them safely to Coppertown, where they would decide their next course of action.
The found this leg of the trip to be mostly routine. A great oak tree, unusual for the jungle, grew from the center of the Lookout, and there they crossed paths with a merchant caravan. Despite a nervous encounter with a pack of shocker lizards they made it through the night unscathed; the caravan guards were invaluable in providing advice during the evening that prevented them from becoming high voltage toast. They parted ways with the caravan the next day, and without incident reached the burme that evening. There they had their second encounter with the swamp skeeters, but this time experience played out as they dispatched the beasts without too much fuss.
The next day the Tear of Viliana came into view, as did the man-made canal surrounding the newest constructions in Coppertown, and again they made plans. Early in their visit a man called Sammedi approached with work for the party. He contracted to pay 20 gold for the party to go to his copper mines and discover the cause of recent issues at the mine, and another twenty to correct the issue. There was also the matter of recovering the corpses of some of his miners.
When Sammedi was finished with his tale Chakrem said, "Friend Sammedi we will take it under advisement, yet some of us have errands north and south of here. When do you need this accomplished by?"
"None have taken the contract though I've been offering for several months now," shrugged the man. "I suspect the contract will be here when you get back."
Chakrem nodded agreement and said, "We will give the contract every consideration then. Good day to you, Sir."
The man left the group to their musings. A plan of action was set down, and their course set, the Herdsmen agreed to meet back in Coppertown in just over two months time. The Kobolds are waiting…