A lone figure rode into Copperton upon the back of a shaggy pony late one afternoon in early summer and took stock of his surroundings. Compared to the humans that dominated the local populace he was short, yet his body was taut and powerful. Rounded shoulders and a sculpted chest bespoke strength, and he moved with a lithesome grace that bespoke confidence. As he stared he found the town looked familiar; though it had been some ten weeks since he last visited, it seemed but a day since he'd left. Time moved such betimes for those with elven blood.
His reverie broken as a squad of the watch strode by, he looked about and found quickly what he was searching for. A grin broke on his normally stoic face as he made his way to the inn.
"Wot ho, Cadreil!" called a booming voice, and his grin became a smile as he recognized the massive barbarian who'd called to him.
"Hail…and well met, Herdsmen!" he returned, and made his way to the table, where sat Lli and Helix comfortably sipping wine while Buliwyf and Dimble ate with relish from a great repast. Chakrem too ate, though less enthusiastically than the others, and Coran sat at the end of the table tuning his strings and offered the last arrival an impish smile.
"Nice of you to join us, eh," he said. "D'jou get lost perhaps, great ranger?"
"Almost," Cadreil shot back. "Then I took a nap next to a burial ground and the spirits showed me the way!"
Laughter, loud and high-spirited sounded throughout the commons as the ranger took his seat.
"Each of you looks different to my eyes," he said studying each with a searching gaze. "Grown somehow in stature that cannot be seen."
"You as well, cousin," replied Lli, returning his gaze with a knowing look. "Your time in Valshost seems to have been well spent."
Cadreil shrugged and then sipped wine that had been hastily delivered after he'd sat. He pondered Lli's words then gave a brief telling of his time with Moorheese. When he concluded the rest also told tales of their time apart. Hours passed as they spoke; afternoon waned then faded as dusk slowly fell.
It was night when their storytelling came to a close; Dimble was ordering another round of food as the human Sammedi entered the inn. A middle aged man, he had a streak of white in his hair, and he sat and spoke urgently of their task.
"When we spoke last I'd told of concerns I'd had regarding my copper mines; 'tis now a six month since I've heard from my foreman or any of my folk and I'm guessing the worst. I've a twenty piece of gold for each if you'll come to the mine and help me find the problem - another twenty gold if you then remove what is found."
Too long had the herdsman missed the hunt, and excitement brewed as each looked at the other; their decision was quick to take the proffered gold. Promising to meet Sammedi the next morn in front of the inn, they made some final preparations; that night sleep was slow in coming.
At last morning dawned bright and clear…and hot.
"Nice day for a walk," drawled Corun blinking up at a blue, summer sky.
"So you say," grumbled Chakrem, perspiring already in all his gear. "Kord grant us strength that we don't sweat to death before reaching the mines."
"Little chance of that, my fat friend," laughed the halfling. "A walk'll do you some good!"
Helix was studying the horizon as the two bantered, while Cadreil and Lli fell back into the comfortable companionship of long time friends. For his part Buliwyf waited stoically for the man Sammedi to arrive - soon enough they saw a plate mailed figure approach, armed to the teeth.
"Kord's balls - he's gonna walk to the mines in that?" swore Chakrem. "He'll be fried 'fore we reach the first rest."
"Nah," said the man. "It's a wet heat - you get used to it. Now, ready up, time to move. Gonna take us 'bout four days of travel to get to the mines, give or take."
Settling into comfortable roles, the group moved out with Cadreil in the lead. The jungle was thick and dank; Chakrem's prediction proved prophetic as all were sweating within minutes of taking the path.
Northeast they traveled along the narrow path, though the route was far from straight, and the group strung out behind the ranger in haphazard fashion. The press of jungle drew close about and pointed fronds of yucca and palm stabbed at them mercilessly as they passed by. Curling vines littered the floor, and dead, rotting leaves, the detritus of uncounted years. Oft times they stumbled upon ruins hidden in the brush; ancient settlements long since failed or campsites of recent travelers now being quickly overgrown. Mostly they saw little beyond the surrounding green, however, and in silence did they bear the wearisome journey, conserving their strength against the humidity.
It was in the second hour that Dimble asked, "Are we there yet?"
Nearly three days passed thus; only after Chakrem threatened Dimble with a silence spell did the gnome finally halt his chatter. A fortuitous turn, that, for moments after it was Cadreil who returned with finger to lips. Waving for the group to follow he led them back up the path for some hundred strides before halting. Crouching quickly he took a drought of water before offering an explanation.
"Carnivorous Apes. Big, pointy teeth."
Nonplussed, the group rested a few moments before resuming the trek, and the rest of the day passed uneventfully.
They encamped that night in a small clearing, each aware that the next day might bring their death. Their dinner was somber, and they set watches and called it an early night. Sammedi said little to reassure them; the man wore a smirk as if he knew their thoughts and had similar many years before. Through a break in the overhead they saw stars shining brightly in a velvet sky, and one by one they slipped off to sleep.
The next day passed swiftly. Sammedi took a more active role, pointing out landmarks as they drew nearer their destination. Cadreil, still on point, moved with caution; fortune smiled as of sudden the noise of a rodent's anger halted him in his tracks. Moving a quietly as possible he back tracked until he had the group around him once again.
"Rodents, big 'uns," he said. "Not sure what kind…beastie's call is deeper'n a rats…I dunno, didn't get a look and didn't want to get surprised by a pack of 'em."
He shrugged his bemusement and then Dimble spoke.
"Let's go see, then," said the gnome, his first words in…a minute or so. "Let's see, let us see, and let us see what we shall see!"
Cadreil blinked once at the gnome's chatter, looked at the others once then led the gnome away. It was a short moment before they came to the place where the vegetation seemed to bunch up, but all was silent.
"Just ahead beyond the yucca," Cadreil whispered, pointing to where the sound had come from. "Maybe they lay in wait."
Dimble considered this, studying the fronds, then shook his head and moved forward. Cadreil thought to call him back, then thought better of it as the gnome approached area. The gnome crouched a bit and then held still. To Cadreil it looked as if he were spying something through the foliage. After a moment Dimble turned and hurried back.
"We're here, but they've got guards…" he said to Cadreil, "both on the ground and on the wall in the fort."
"Fort?" asked Cadreil, not recalling such described by their employer.
"Fort," the gnome agreed. "Wooden stockade type, apparently, and manned by kobolds. Seems the infestation we heard tell of the first time through Coppertown has reappeared. Of more concern to me for the nonce, however, are the giant weasels. Cute bastards…but big."
"We need to tell the others," Cadreil said, and the gnome nodded but turned and headed back to the foliage.
"Go ahead, I'm gonna talk to the weasels and see what I can learn."
Perplexed, Cadreil opened his mouth again to call Dimble back, and again he thought better of it, choosing instead to turn back to the others.
For his part, Dimble drew as near to the edge of the clearing as he dared and studied the weasel. Sleek, with soft fur, the weasel stared at Dimble through one dark orb. Drawn to the creature, Dimble reached back to ancestral talents and said, "What's up?"
The weasel turned, and now studied Dimble more closely.
"Let me loose," the rodent demanded, somewhat imperiously.
"Loose? Who me?" asked Dimble, confused.
"No, finger food, go ask one of the lizardkin on the walls to come over," the weasel retorted, it's speech a series of high pitched squeals and chatter.
Dimble looked past, and nervously noted the kobolds looking intently in his direction.
"Have a care, friend," he urged the weasel. "None shall escape of they rouse the tribe for your loud chattering! Why are you here?"
"I'm standing guard, you idiot!" snapped the weasel, growing impatient. "Now let me go!"
"I guess," replied Dimble, and using the weasel to shield him from the kobolds view he picked the lock that held the beast in place. Before even uttering a word of thanks the weasel had bolted into the jungle, and Dimble nearly shouted in shock before he too jumped back into cover.
"Are you sure that was the best course of action?" asked Helix, as he, Cadreil and the rest of the party gathered on the edge of the clearing.
"He was being held captive," replied Dimble defensively. "It was the least I could do."
Rolled eyes and shaking heads answered, and then they leaned as one to look through the foliage. The fort was easily noted, centered between burnt husk of former buildings, and three other giant weasels were chained along the rest of the perimeter. Their attention drawn to the structure in the center, they thought it a middling thing, pathetic really, but it served a purpose. Above the wall could be seen four small, reptilian heads, gazing in their direction. From their attentiveness they knew something lurked; the party could see them conferring, and an occasional guttural grunt drifted its way into the trees.
Pulling back the party discussed what they should do and as each offered differing opinions the exchange grew heated.
"Let's charge," said Buliwyf, drawing his massive blade.
"I like your enthusiasm, my son, but I'd not fancy becoming a pincushion for the geckos," replied Chakrem. "Better we lay several rounds of suppressing fire before the warriors move forward in a controlled advance. Once to the walls we scale them and crush the resistance!"
With a shake of his head Helix said, "A quick strike! No quarter, no prisoners!"
Dimble said, "I'm hungry."
They all had their say and the angry mutterings were increasing in volume when Cadreil said, "Looks like the gate is open."
They all turned to look, and as they did so, the gate was pushed shut from inside.
"Well, at least it was a good idea," shrugged the elf.
Suddenly, grown impatient by the dissent, Buliwyf dashed from the cover of the jungle, waving his sword overhead.
"No, Buliwyf!" cried Chakrem, but too late, and his fears were well founded as three bolts hit the barbarian in quick succession.
"Swiftly, your bows!" said Chakrem.
A small swarm of arrows and bolts flew in succession before the rest of the party broke cover and attacked the walls. Buliwyf, in a mightly leap, reached the top, and lay about with his great sword, and Helix was lifted to the top by Sammedi; his fists of fury took a toll that would not stop until the end of the day.
One by one the party managed to breach the defenses and in the end a small pile of kobold remains were all that was left of the defending force. Lli's sleep spells and Cadreil's blades accounted for a few more, yet fortune's luck turned ill when two of the guards managed escape down the entrance to the mine.
From behind, Sammedi said, "Ware, kobolds, as I thought! They've reinforced the entrance - likely they've done so down below as well. We'll need to move cautiously."
"They'll be alert now too," said Coran, gazing into the darkness below.
"Aye," agreed Sammedi. "We'll need a better plan of attack going in- full frontal assault not likely to keep you alive long in the mines."
The party halted for a brief respite and considered their options. Chakrem tended Buliwyf's wounds as the others talked in low voices.
"You're gonna have to listen better, my child," said Chakrem, his eyes intent as he pulled the bolts from Buliwyf's wounds. For his part, the barbarian said nothing and held still under the painful ministrations.
As for the rest, they remained eager, and Dimble, assisted by the others, piled up the stock of weaponry gathered from their defeated foe - they tallied eight of the enemy dead and a stockpile of serviceable weapons, and they shared grins all around.
"Nice haul," the gnome appraised, but Sammedi was sudden and stern in his rejoinder.
"Time's not now to get cocky, lads," Sammedi said, pointing his sword down the hole. "'Tis in there y'ull earn yer stripes. Lead on, Ranger!"
Nodding, Cadreil entered first, followed by Buliwyf and the rest of the party. After but twenty feet the stairs curved right, and headed deeper into the mines. It was a dark place, and smelled of mold and dust, and some fifty feet later they opened into a small antechamber where Cadreil halted the party.
Pointing into the chamber he said behind him, "We've cover in those corners across the room. That may be a good place to stage!"
Without thought, then, Cadreil put action to words, and dashed across to the left corner. Buliwyf followed quickly, action suiting his temperament much more than sneaking around. The rest of the party remained on the stairs as the two warriors looked around.
"I hear something - down this passage," whispered Cadreil, pointing east.
"Sounds like a faint whisper, like a hiss," nodded Buliwyf.
"Let's force them out," Cadreil replied. "I'll lead!"
When Buliwyf tapped him on his shoulder in assent Cadreil dashed forward down the passage. Approaching a pile of what looked to be fallen debris his suspicions were confirmed, but as he was turning to shout warning his feet found no purchase and he plunged into gaping pit. If the fall surprised him, the landing jarred him, and he was pierced to the quick by a rusty spike.
His cry of surprise and pain alerted Buliwyf, who cried, "Cadreil!"
Looking behind he called to the others, "Cadreil's fallen into a pit! I'm going after him."
"I just told him not to charge," muttered Sammedi from the back row on the stairs, and Chakrem turned back and grinned, "Can't hold back a man of Kord - though the elf should've had more sense!"
Dashing from cover Buliwyf found matters gone grim to worse as a wooden portcullis had swung down and locked in place leaving the elf helpless on the other side. Thinking quickly, Buliwyf grabbed a flask of oil and set it alight; at the same moment Lli stepped forward and muttered the arcane syllables of a sleep spell.
The sibilant whisperings silent now, Buliwyf kicked in the wooden slats of the portcullis and tossed the flaming cocktail. As a large whoosh went up from behind the pile of debris, the barbarian stuck his head through the slats and asked, "Are you all right?"
"Zigged, when I should've zagged, and fell on my arse for the effort," replied the elf, holding a hand up for Buliwyf to grasp. "I'm sensing a pattern of things that happen when we charge blindly ahead."
Shortly he and the barbarian retreated back to the antechamber to find most of the party huddling in corners. Calling back Buliwyf said, "We have two options right now - south and west. There's a pit to the east, and a fire burning the remnants of a group of lizardkin. What's your call, priest?"
His crossbow locked and loaded, Chakrem descended into the antechamber from behind and replied, "Carefully now, watch for traps and let's go straight until we get some resistance."
Heeding Chakrem's words proved fruitless as the first thing Dimble found upon leading out from the antechamber was another pit. Falling, he cried in surprise…and bounced a little as he hit the floor.
"I found another pit," he called up before moaning in pain.
Just then bolts began flying up the corridor out of the darkness and toward the party.
"Incoming!" shouted Cadreil, who stepped to the side.
Coran answered fire quickly, as did the rest of the party, Lli contributing a couple of magic missiles that sent a kobold to its final rest. Finding a small ledge beside the pit, Coran moved forward to attack, but shortly the insidious cunning of the kobold appeared yet again as he too fell into the pit.
From there, it was a maelstrom of melee and pitfalls as the kobolds unleashed a fury of missiles upon the party. Their advance was slowed time and again by the narrow ledge next to open pits, and the cover that rockfalls provided their foe, and by the sudden appearance of a kobold spellcaster in the western hallway. Sammedi took wounds, as did Chakrem as they fended off this new threat from a distance, while the rest of the party moved inch by inch down the narrow passage south. Dimble and Coran took heavy damage…as did Buliwyf, but Helix proved his martial worth and Lli his arcane prowess, as both held off an onslaught of kobolds while Cadreil fashioned a rope bridge around the two pits.
Having fought to a near stalemate, and with two of their members critically wounded and a third nearly so, the party retreated up the stairs, wearied, bloodied and out of sorts. Placing their wounded in the care of the cleric, the group fashioned for themselves a wooden barricade at Sammedi's urging.
"There are no safe places in the jungle!" he exclaimed, when that came under discussion. "We stand here and fight, or else we die!"
Suitably chastised, those able set to with a will, finding pieces of burnt out wood amidst the ruins surrounding the clearing to use as a barricade at the opening into the shaft.
"We rest, now!" said their employer, and those able began the process of healing those in need. It was a long, restless night for the party, those who needed regained lost spells while others stood watch, and as the morning approached they again formulated a plan of attack.
The next day began the second descent into the mines; this time the group took their time about things. When shadows moved down below they launched an assault of flasks of oil, followed by a lit torch. A high pitched squeal greeted them and provided some measure of satisfaction that got the day off to a good start. As flames died and oil was burnt out, they began to descend.
The thick haze of smoke hung in the air as they found things a bit different down below. The eastern and southern passageways had been blocked off by rockfall, and only the passage leading west proved accessible. As the party reached the bottom of the stair they came under missile fire immediately. Without waiting Coran and Helix darted across to the antechamber and Cadreil once again took matters into his own hands.
From where he stood on the steps he leapt high and gracefully over Dimble, somersaulting in mid-air and landed perfectly in the middle of the corridor. With a dancer's precision he drew an arrow; rather than retreating to safety near Coran and Helix, he seamlessly strung and pulled and loosed the arrow into darkness. It was beauty sublime.
But he missed…then got hit with two crossbow bolts and two magic missiles in succession…and then he fell down.
"Medic!" he croaked.
With Helix help he dragged himself to cover as quickly as possible, the floor blood stained and spattered behind him. As he was ministered to, the rest of the party moved into the corridor and began an ongoing battle with the insurgent lizardkin.
Once again frontal assault played a role as Buliwyf continued to prove his worth as a pitfinder. Racing headlong down the corridor toward a grouping of kobolds his quest for glory came just shy at the bottom of a twenty foot pit.
Behind came the party, gaining foot by yard the corridor in a running clash with kobold archers, spearmen and spell-weavers. It was a bloody melee, until they finally reached the stairway that descended into the depths of the mine.
Here was the stiffest resistance. Buliwyf was put down by kobold spellcasters, and none of the rest of the party remained unscathed in the ensuing battle. Shadow wolves were summoned to assault the party's flanks, and magic bolts were fired with unerring accuracy, yet the group's fortitude and martial prowess finally won the day. In particular the kobold sorcerers proved wily and difficult to kill, but once they were slain the first level of the mines grew quiet.
"Come…come, they retreat!" cried Sammedi suddenly, and he descended the stairs in quick anticipation.
Weary and not a little bit bloodied, the rest of the group followed their employer somewhat half-heartedly, following around a corner to find Sammedi standing alone.
"They flee," he called to them. "Let us give chase!"
"No," replied Chakrem, and Buliwyf, fresh from the brink of death, agreed. "We've freed the mines of the kobolds foul presence, 'tis time to take stock and retreat ourselves."
Disappointed, Sammedi nonetheless agreed, and after pillaging the dead the group headed up the stairs to the clean air of late afternoon.
"T'was a good battle, lads," Sammedi said as they divvied up equal shares of treasure. He tossed each a small purse with an additional twenty gold apiece and finished, "If your willing, I'll throw another thirty gold to escort my new cadre' of laborers to the mines a month hence."
"Might be worth our time," replied Coran. "Though we may be elsewhere."
The halfling, his exploits not minor through the two days of fighting, had been poking around one of the dead kobolds as he spoke. Suddenly he stood and held up a small sigil in the shape of a lizards head. Of particular note was the dab of green paint on the effigies nose.
"What does this mean?" he asked.
Approaching, Sammedi took the sculpture from the halfling and frowned.
"Greensnouts!" he spat in disgust. "That's this tribe of lizardkin. Thought we'd bested them the last time we had an infestation…that was some years back. Seems they've grown again, and are pushing boundaries with the human lands. I'll have to make those in power aware of the threat."
Looking at each of the party he continued, "'Twas no small feat lads - this was a cunning and tough band of kobolds, unafraid of humans and who've seen successes against our settlements in the past. Your work here is appreciated. Let's bandage our wounded and get a night's rest, and tomorrow begin the trek back to Copperton."
As if a harbinger of good fortune the next day dawned bright, clear and the temperature surprisingly temperate as the group began the trek west and south toward Copperton. Spirits were high, all that is except for a certain barbarian who seemed disconsolate. Finally, bemused by the lad's quiet demeanor Chakrem approached and asked, "You seem troubled, Buliwyf, what ails ye?"
"Hmph!" replied the barbarian. "This was a poor showing. But thirty-six of the bastards dead, and we saw multiple times one or another of us near to falling!"
Chakrem smiled, but replied, "In two days time we've killed some twenty or so percent of the local band, an even greater amount if you consider only combatants. We came upon spell-weavers who had a certain puissance that was unexpected given our knowledge of kobolds, and for our part we retreat bloodied but unbowed, with none gone on to Kord's grace."
"More important, perhaps," the Priest continued, "we've learned the importance of never underestimating an enemy, and of asking better questions before setting out on a mission. No, my son, not a poor showing at all, so take solace and find the ebullient joy Kord graces us with whenever we find success in battle!"
Slapping the big warrior on the back Chakrem sucked in a big breath and with the rest of the party began the journey back to civilization.
Click here to see Buliwyf's musings