Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Journey to Bear Claw Village

Southward Bound from Hobbington

Hermel poked at the fire with a stick. They were in a wooded ring on the side of the road, and had built up a small blaze in the fire pit they found there.

“If we can, we should let the Bandits take the spring seed. Then we can track them and set an ambush along the way. Somehow. Then we could take the seed back,” Hermel was saying. His thought trailed off without comment from anyone. They were cold, it was getting late, and there was no dry spot for them to sleep on. Star of Justice looked into the cloudy sky. Hornmel sharpened his knife with a wet stone. Bantum sat with his bandoleer of clucking chickens around his neck. The other party members had, by then, gotten used to the idea that the giant fighter preferred to keep a bandoleer of live food around his neck.  It was hard to argue with fresh chicken, whatever else might happen.

“My favorite,” said Bantum, petting one of the fatter hens on the head with his huge hand. The chickens all clucked frantically.  The wind picked up and it began to snow again. As the sky darkened into a deep purple they heard a low gong from a bell somewhere in the distance. They looked around, but no sign of its source could be seen. They thought it sounded too loud to be coming from Hobbington high up on the mountain above them, and they also did not recognize the tone of it either. There must be a temple somewhere nearby they thought.

So they sat by the fire, and looked around at the tall narrow lichen covered standing stones which formed a twenty foot wide circle around them, in the center of which they’d found a well used fire pit. The stones were large, the size of a man, half buried in the ground, and there were a total of twelve of them, covered with botches of green lichen, and topped with a cap of snow. Bantum noticed on one a spiral groove that had been carved into it, as well as a variety of long narrow crisscrossing scratch marks.

“Pretty pictures,” he said slowly tracing one of the spirals with his eyes until he got himself dizzy. Everyone took a quick look, but the grooves seemed very old and covered over with lichen, and did not seem to present any particular danger, so they went back to contemplating their own thoughts.

Hermel noticed that at the base of the one of the tall stones there was a hole in the ground, about as wide as a grapefruit. Not knowing what foul creature might emerge from it, he took a stick from the fire and went to inspect it. He had Bantum put a rock over the hole and wedge it in with a mighty thump of his foot.

The wind was moaning through the trees, and snow was falling down steadily. Bantum volunteered to keep watch, and everyone made an effort to find a spot to sleep in. But snow had covered most of the ground and so even with bed rolls, it was not the most comfortable place in the world to sleep, but they tried to make the best of it. After a while Bantum heard something scratching around at the edge of the fire light. He couldn’t see what it was. So he stood up and all the chickens around his neck began to squawk pitifully.

“Ok its time for the lightning,” grumbled Arik rolling over and glaring at Bantum as the huge simple-minded hulk headed toward the edge of the fire light. “The bear didn’t get it, so the chickens will.” He then rolled back over and threw his blanket over his head muttering to himself. Hornmel, also awoken, grumbled aloud, “For the sake of the Elkron, kill the damned chickens.” Unable to tolerate the sounds of the squawking, Star of Justice threw off his blanket off and stood up. There was Bantum about twenty feet away heading into the darkness. He followed after him and when he was caught up by his side he asked him what he was doing out there. Away from the fire it was quite dark, though the snow made it possible to see silhouettes of trees dimly in the distance.

“Did I ever show you my chickens?” asked Bantum amiably.

“Fried chickens,” called Arik who had sat up and began to feed the fire. “Cajun, style,” he said with a dark smirk.  Meanwhile Bantum was heading toward where he heard the noise. He couldn’t see anything. He listened, but the sound had stopped. He pulled out his mace. Then he saw something in the snow moving along slowly. It was, he decided a cat. He walked closer and saw that it was a pretty little black cat with a fat white stripe down its back and ending at the tip of it’s bushy tail. Star, who had never been in the wilderness before, was a bit puzzled by the look of the cat. It was fatter than most cats he’d ever seen. But then, it must have been a wild cat of some kind, and so he too was a bit curious about it.

“Aww pretty kitty!” said Bantum and went over to pick up the small black waddling animal. Suddenly there was a horrendous odor, but Bantum didn’t know what could have caused it. He felt his arm and chest had gotten very sticky, and he thought somehow his new kitten was in some way responsible. He held at arms length, and with eyes tearing, and gasping for breath, and brought his new little friend back toward the fire so he could take a better look.

“Great Elkron!” said Hornmel as Bantum approached with the 'kitty' outstretched in front of him, and hid himself behind a rock. The animal, naturally displeased was wriggling around in Bantum’s hand as he held it by the scruff of the neck.

“Let the poor thing down,” said Star, who had covered his nose with his cloak.

“Look what I found! A pretty kitty!” said Bantum to Hermel who had rolled over and pushed his blanket aside to take a look at the commotion. Without getting up he said, “You should let the cat go, Bantum.”

“Noo… he’s my friend,” replied the gentle giant.

“Well, that’s a mommy cat and she’s trying to find her babies. You don’t want to keep her from her babies do you?” answered Hermal, wisely.

“Noo…” said Bantum thoughtfully.

“Then put the cat down out there and let her find her babies,” said Hermel firmly.

“Noo…,” said Bantum, “… she’ll get lost. You help her,” he said as he moved forward put the animal down in Hermel's arms.

“No she won’t get lost. Don’t you remember the saying ‘Black cats never get lost’?”

“Ohhh… ok,” replied Bantum and carried the skunk over to the edge of the firelight and put it down in the snow. The animal waddled off behind one of the large standing stones. It then reappeared on the other side and scurried over to where it found a rock covering the hole at the base of the standing stone next to Hermel.

“Woah,” said Hermel rolling away from it to find cover. “Bantum, move the rock away,” he ordered, and so Bantum, who thought the kittens must be inside the hole, moved the rock away. The skunk, alarmed and shaken from the experience, and rather peeved as well as confounded, didn’t go into the hole, however. She wandered back and forth in front of the hole instead sniffing this way and that, and eying her adversaries wearily. Eventually, she calmed down and went into the hole and Hermel placed the rock over the hole again.

“There,” he said, “Now she is with her babies,” as he sat down on his snow covered blankets.

“What … is … that … incredible SMELL!?” asked Arik, horrified by the outrageous assault on his senses. “What kind of cat was that?!” he demanded of Hermel.

“A pole cat,” he replied matter of factly.

“Oh? I’ve never smelled a cat do THAT before!” announced Arik greivously.

“Well these do,” said Hermel.

Hornmel, had come around from behind a stone, and gave Hermel a look with one raised eyebrow. Playing gags on city folk was a favorite pastime in the villages. He smiled. Everyone went back to their sleeping rolls, but the odor was so horrid, the cutting edge of the freezing wind so wicked, and the cold snow so wet and uncomfortable, it was very hard to fall asleep. Only Arik had no problem with that, and in a few minutes was snoring away mightily.

The Prancing Unicorn

About an hour or so later everyone had finally managed to fall asleep. Bantum, who was still sitting on watch, thought he heard music. It sounded to him like flutes, and fiddles. It was very faint. He could barely hear it. He stood up. The chickens began squawking again, but this time no one stirred, except Hermel who seemed to be having a bad dream of some sort and was murmuring “No, Ischandar, not that way…”

And so Bantum lumbered off into the darkness with his bandoleer of clucking chickens, and found the road in the snow. He followed the sound of the music, which amazingly he could hear over the rather frantic squawking. As he walked down the road the music grew louder in his ears. At one point he looked back and could barely see the firelight flickering on the trees where his friends where. He took one of the chickens from the bandoleer and holding it up in front of his face said, “You go – tell friends I go this way,” and put the chicken down on the snow. The chicken clucked once and immediately flapped its wings and made a zig-zag path toward the woods where it promptly got lost. “Good chicken,” said Bantum, not knowing the difference, and continued on his way.

Eventually he came to a dark hill covered with pine trees. Far behind him everyone was sleeping peacefully since the clucking of chickens had ceased, and the horrendous odor had faded. Though it was cold, and unpleasant to say the least, everyone was nevertheless sleeping soundly, except for Hermel, whose legs were dream-running as he murmured “No, Ischandar… you shouldn't drink that…”

Meanwhile Bantum was lumbering through a narrow gap in the hill that formed a pathway next to a bubbling brook. The music was quite audible now, and he could see firelight reflecting on large pine trees from around the bend. He came to a wooden footbridge, ornately carved with animals on each post and along the railing that crossed over the brook. He continued on toward the sound of music, passed a pool of steaming water on his left, and rounding the bend beheld a beautiful, and rather large, old Tudor style home with a great wide porch, large green door, and brightly lit windows covered with frost. Inside he could see there was much merry making going on. Above the green door there was a colorful sign in yellow, white and gold that read something and had a picture of a white unicorn prancing on it. Delighted he walked up and saw that there were many men inside playing fiddles and flutes and a large crowd of people dancing, eating, and enjoying themselves heartily.

“Oooohhh boyyyy!!” said Bantum and walked up to the door and put his big fist to work at knocking on it excitedly.  BOOM.  BOOM. BOOM. The house shook. The music stopped. After a few moments of absolute quiet the door cracked open a tiny bit and a frightened face peered out. As the incredible smell wafted into the room from the open door Bantum heard several people gasp, and someone said, “Oh … my … god…” The tiny face was that of a woman, whose eyes immediately watered over, and she instinctively held up her apron over her nose and mouth, gasping.

“Hellloooo. May name is Bantum,” said the gentle giant.

“Its… a giant … in chainmale … wrapped in … live chickens … with a … horrible SMELL…” gasped the woman to those cowering behind her. The door slammed shut. There was a lot of commotion inside the house. Bantum knocked again. BOOM BOOM BOOM.

“We’re closed,” he heard the woman shout from behind the door.

“I like the pretty dancing,” yelled Bantum back as politely as he could.

“So sorry, no rooms are vacant tonight! Quite full here you know! So sorry!” shouted the woman through the door.

“My friends could use the food,” said Bantum trying to think of what else he could say.

“ohhh…” groaned the woman thinking that things were going to go from bad to worse. “Oh my,” she said.

A man’s voice from behind the door shouted “Go away!”

“But I just got here,” said Bantum, slowly coming to the realization that the people inside were not welcoming him in. Then there was a chaotic chorus of people shouting for him to go away.

“You’re mean!” said Bantum angrily. “I don’t like mean people!” And so Bantum took out his mace and began putting enormous dents in the nice green door with it, cracking the wood, and scattering green splinters everywhere. Despite this, that old solid door held. Yet inside, with the house shaking from floor to rafters, there was a general change of mind.

Suddenly the door opened a crack again and the little woman’s head poked out. To her great annoyance someone from behind shoved her out onto the porch and the door slammed shut again. She looked up at the enormous, foul smelling and angry giant with the squawking chickens draped over his filthy chainmail covered body. Her face was a pale white, the color of snow. Only her lips remained a bright ruby red. With them she spoke the following words.

“Calm down! Calm down! … You smell horrible! What happened to you?”

“It was my kitty cat,” replied Bantum suddenly losing all sense of anger, as he looked down at her pretty little face. “I let him go down the hole though. He was nice. Would you like a chicken?” he asked holding up one of the bedraggled, horribly stinking, barely living chickens from the front of his bandoleer. “Cluck”, croaked the chicken weakly.

“mmmm… You need a bath,” she said.

“It’s been a long time since I have bath,” said Bantum thoughtfully trying to remember the last time he had had one. It was very long ago, indeed.

“There is a steaming pool of hot water, over there,” she said pointing toward the steaming pool situated along the side of the path. “Go jump in that pool there and wash yourself off,” she instructed. Bantum, without further ado, walked over, placed the chickens on the ground, removed his chainmail, disrobed unabashedly, and made a huge splash jumping into the pool. The water was warm and delightful. He could not remember having so much fun. The woman, meanwhile, had gone in, and come back out with a large armful of towels and a large bar of lilac soap.

“I’ve gotten you soap,” said the woman.

“What’s that?” replied Bantum slowly.

“It makes you clean. Rub it all over yourself,” she instructed.

“I usually use sausage,” he said.

“Believable,” she replied, handing him the large bar of soap. “Put it in the water and rub it all over you,” she said.

“Its slippery,” said Bantum.

“Don’t lose the soap,” she instructed firmly. Soap, in those days, especially lilac soap, was expensive, uncommon and precious.

“Ok,” replied Bantum. And so Bantum scrubbed himself all over, making a huge mauve lather in the warm steaming water. He took a chicken and played “ducky” with it until it was clean too. The woman had told him to clean his cloths as well, and he dutifully scrubbed and lathered them, too. He then went to work on his chainmail. When he was done, the woman had told him, he could return to the house.

“Your not so mean,” said Bantum as she went back inside. The music took up again, and there was a merry and joyful sound while Bantum lathered, cleaned, and played “ducky” with each chicken one after another. Eventually all was clean, and even the chickens seemed revived. Bantum dried himself off with the towels, wrung out his cloths, put them on, and then hung his bandoleer of chickens over his shoulder again. He felt great. The chickens clucked. Everything smelled of lilac. All was right with the world. He went to the door and this time knocked more gently.

Let the Music Play

The music once again stopped. The door opened and out came the pretty little woman and looked Bantum up and down. He smelled pleasantly like lilac. He was wet, but much less terrible looking. In fact, she thought he had a rather cute face after all. He gazed at her and blinked a few times happily, and looked inside.

“You said you have some friends out here?” she asked looking beyond him into the snow-shrouded darkness.

“I sent my chicken to go get them,” he said with his eyes on a table pitched high with food. “He’s a good chicken,” he added.

“Oy,” she replied. “A trained chicken?”

“I guess,” he said amiably confused.

“How many friends to you have?” she asked. It took Bantum half a minute or so to count up his friends on one hand. A man came out, and asked her, “How’s it going?”

“Its ok. He is cleaned up now, and in a better mood,” she answered.

“Nice lady,” said Bantum to the man.

“I know. She’s my wife,” he said, giving the giant as firm a gaze as he could muster.

“Ohh… you’re lucky,” said Bantum.

“I think so,” said the man placing his arm around the pretty woman’s shoulder. She smiled pleasantly. She gave Bantum a cup of hot apple cider, and offered to let him come inside and warm up by the fire.

“Oh, you are really a nice lady,” said Bantum. “Thank you. Can I see you dance?”

She didn’t answer, but turned and went inside, looking back at him with a slightly cross look, and then said, “You can warm up by the fire, and then go out and get your friends.”

“Ok,” answered Bantum as he took a spot in front of an enormous hearth with a roaring fire in it. There was a large crowd in the room. Everyone was drinking, eating and keeping one eye on Bantum.

“Helloooo everyone! My name is Bantum! Thank you for letting me come in here. It’s very nice! Thank you!” he said after he settled in at the hearth.

The music started up again and everyone began to enjoy themselves once more. The flutes and fiddles music made thoroughly enjoyable sound, with plenty of people clapping their hands, stomping their feet and singing along. There were people of all kinds in the large tavern room. There were a number of side rooms as well, one an elegant dining room with chandeliers, another room that had a red carpet, and dark wooden panels and lots of books on shelves along the walls, and another that looks simply cozy for sitting with couches, bronze lanterns and pretty little wooden tea tables. It was such an elegant place, Bantum had never seen it’s like before. Best of all, everyone seemed to accept him, and gave him friendly smiles as they sang along with the music. These were old songs that they were singing. The origin of them no one even remembered. It seemed as though they’d been singing them since the dawn of time, and the songs were about brave men, courageous women, and the great battles of old, with their triumphs, tragedies, and glories. Sprinkled in were ballads about the ancient Elkron who created and sustained the world. The music seemed to go on for a long time before Bantum remembered to go out and find his friends.

Meanwhile, Hermel was freezing under the snow with his little feet puttering along some harrowing dreamland chasing after Ishcandar, while Star of Justice sat silently stoking the fire, and Arik snored heartily in a dreamless slumber, perfectly content. Hornmel, who was wise in the ways of wilderness living, had made for himself a makeshift lean-to and was sleeping cozily under a dry blanket.

Star noticed after a while that the sound of the chickens had vanished entirely for some time. At first he thought Bantum might have gone to relieve himself, and then he got lost in thoughts of the Elkron, and it wasn’t for quite some time before he thought of it it again. He got up and took a walk around to see if Bantum had fallen asleep against one of the large stones around the circle. Nope. A wolf howled in the distance.  The snow was falling in gentle sheets.

“Eldrik make me patient,” said Star of Justice to the snow shrouded sky.

He went to Hermel and woke him up.

“We’ve lost the giant,” said Star.

“What?” queried Hermel blearily leaning up on a cold, wet, sore elbow.

“Bantum is gone,” replied Star.

“Ishcandar, leave me alone to sleep,” replied Hermel, still half dreaming, and began to turn back over. It then occurred to him that what he’d heard was not a dream.

“He probably went to take a piss,” said Hermel.

“I don’t think so,” replied Star. “I looked around. I can’t hear him, I can’t smell him. I think he’s wandered off somewhere,” he concluded.

Hornmel was awoken. He had the woodman’s skills and they thought he would be able to track the giant. Unfortunately, even Hornmel could not pick up the trail in the snow after three hours had passed. He mentioned that he had heard a wolf howl. They concluded that Bantum in his chainmail would prove too formidable an opponent for any wolf.  Nevertheless, they took torches from the fire and wandered out to the road to look this way and that way for any sign of footprints. No trail could be found.

“Bantum!” yelled Hermel loudly into the darkness. “Bantum!” There was no answer, except for the wind whistling through the trees, and the long low howl of a wolf in the distance.

“Its slippery. He’s not the surest of foot,” said Star. “I hope he is not lying dead in a ditch somewhere.”

Hermel wandered fifty feet south and took a big wiff of the air, hoping to catch the smell of Bantum. While he was attempting that he noticed what looked like it might be a very faint pattern of footprints heading southward along the side of the road. He called Hornmel over, and he confirmed that they were indeed tracks, about three hours old, and their size matched that of their gigantic friend. They went back to wake up Arik, which was not so easily done, and Hermel removed the stone from the entrance of the skunk’s lair. When Arik woke up, finally, and had gotten himself and his gear together, he noticed that he thought he could hear the sound of music very faintly in the air. Dwarves, from ages of underground living, though sometimes poor in eyesight had highly evolved sense of hearing, it was often said, and this proved itself to be true in this case.

“I hear music,” he said. “Sounds like somebody’s having a good time.”

“Well, it’s not us,” replied Hermel.

“If the big guy ditched us to go to a tavern, he’s gonna hear about it!” Arik angrily growled.

“Shades, of Ishcandar! The irony never ends, does it,” said Hermel to himself. “I think you’re a little snow-crazy, maybe, Arik. No one hears music except you,” he asserted.

“Well, I tell you I hear the sounds of people enjoying themselves, music and singing, though faintly, on the wind in that direction!” declared Arik firmly pointing a stubby finger down the white road that vanished off into darkness southward.

“Whether there is music or not,” said Star of Justice calmly, “the tracks do head in that direction. We ought to follow them.” And so everyone gathered their gear up, and they left the safety of the stone circle, heading out into the darkness with a couple of meager flickering torches in hand, a tiny band of men trudging through the ever thickening snow in the dead of night.

Shadows On the Road

Bantum, who was now getting ready to head out from the tavern asked if he could buy some food for his friends.

“Do you have any money?” asked the lady. Bantum pulled out a bag full of iron pieces.

“Ah ok, you have enough money. How many people did you say? Did you say ten people?”

“What is ten?” asked Bantum.  “Let me think…” he said drawing up his right hand fingers to count on. “Hermel… stubby little man… super hero kind of guy… and a friend… Oh and do you have any food for my chickens?” asked Bantum petting one of the half dead feebly clucking creatures on the head.

“Why don’t you leave the chickens here?” asked the woman.

“Will you take care of them?” he asked in return.

“I sure will,” she replied.

“Ok…” said Bantum. “Be good little guys!” he said to them as he exited out into the cold snowy darkness with the basket of food under his arm. The woman put the poor bedraggled chickens in the pen with the others. The other chickens clucked and waddled to the other side of the pen and stared at the new comers. “What the devil is that smell?” asked one. “I think its lilac and skunk,” replied another. They all held their noses.  Bantum's chickens, however, paid no heed at all and waddled straight to the seed pile and began pecking away with abandon. 

Meanwhile, Hermel, Star of Justice, Arik and Hornmel had been trudging southward down the road by torchlight. Up ahead they saw ahead a shadow. It was a dark figure on the road. The party hid themselves by ducking down along the side of the road. Up ahead they saw an enormous man. By the torchlight they could see the man was wearing chainmail. Suddenly, Arik stood up and clambered onto the road again.

“Where have you been!?” he demanded of Bantum.

“Robbers!” shouted Bantum and drew his mace ready to bash some heads in.

“Where have you been?!” repeated Arik loudly.

“Oh it’s little short stubby man!” shouted Bantum gleefully when he saw that it was Arik and gave him a big hug. “I found pretty music, and found slippery stuff that smells good. It was really good. And my chickens are very happy. And I found a fire and it was warm.”

“Ok,” said Hermel. “A fire… that sounds good. Where was that, Bantum?”

“At the lady’s house.”

“Oh … that sounds pretty good. Where is it?”

“Up that way, to the music,” replied Bantum pointing his big finger into the darkness southward.

“I see! So I was right! You went to a bar without us!” yelled Arik angrily.

“Interesting… Well, why don’t we be off that way then?” said Star of Justice, glad to hear that such a prospect existed in that desolate snow bound wilderness. A wolf howled on the wind just then, and the moon grazed momentarily through the clouds casting silvery beams across the land, and vanished again. It was freezing and it seemed the best course was to follow Bantum down the road south.

“Bantum, you did a bad thing,” said Hermel as they trudged along.

“I’m sorry…” said Bantum. “What did I do?”

“You left us alone in the wild at night. You were keeping watch. A wolf could have eaten us.”

“You could give it one of my chickens,” said Bantum struggling hard to think.

“You took your chickens with you,” said Hermel calmly.

“That’s true,” replied Bantum. “I’m sorry,” he said sincerely.

“It’s ok. Just don’t do it again,” said Hermel.

“Ok,” answered Bantum and the matter was settled.

As they walked Hermel heard a rustling in the woods. Everyone froze. Suddenly a chicken came fluttering into the firelight frantically clucking.

“My friend!” cried out Bantum has he ran over to grab the poor creature. The miserable chicken panicked and began to scramble around in a circle, dodging between Bantum’s legs. Hermel leaped forward to try to catch it. The chicken with an erratic pivot scrambled away to the left, evading Hermel’s outstretched hands, causing him to fall over into the snow. Hornmel also lept forward, and caught the chicken by a leg. As Hermel was standing up, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a large dark shape moving along the edge of the woods like a huge black shadow. He stopped. Everyone stopped, except the chicken who kept clucking frantically until Hornmel took it by the throat and quickly calmed it down.

“Don’t look but there’s a shadow over there,” said Hermel quietly.

“Where?!” demanded Arik in his usual booming voice. He had this strange idea that he’s prefer to be incarnated as a Beast Master. “Eye of the Beast” echoed in his imagination as he thought of himself riding a giant Roc’s back as it flew through the dark cloudy sky. He then snapped back into reality and took a look into the edge of the woods. While he could not see very well, he had a keen ear, and heard the footfalls of a large heavy beast. He mentioned as such and pointed to where the sound was coming from.

Hermel, considered the situation carefully. He intoned in a low voice, and after a few moments he had transformed a shadow and branch and leaves into a mirage of a leather pouch laying in the snow. He thought that bandits on the road might prefer and easy gain, to a chancy combat, and he advised everyone to move along quickly.

“Oh but look at that pouch!” yelled Bantum pointing his great big finger at the illusion in the snow.

“Um, no Bantum, that’s nothing, lets go,” said Hermel as calmly as he could.

“But its so big! I want it! What’s in it?! I want it!” cried out Bantum.

It took a while, and pretty much everyone pitching in, to convince Bantum to leave the pouch on the road and keep going. He finally agreed, and they moved south. Along the side of the road the shadow on the right was still tracking along side of them on the edge of the woods. Hornmel, at that time, was not looking there, but on the other side of the road. He gave a nod of his head to Hermel, who looked. There was a second large shadow on the other side of the rood, also moving along the edge of the dark forest.

They lit a couple of extra torches. Light radiated a little further, and they could see by the edge of the forest large shaggy forms. There were deep heavy growls.

“Prepare your lightning,” said Hermel to Arik, as he pulled out his sword. At that time Star of Justice invoked a power of the Elkron which was known in the temple as The Aura of Retribution. It was of such a nature as to cast harm upon those who harmed Star’s flesh. He’d never called upon it in combat before, and did not know what to expect exactly, having only learned it in the temple recently. A faint blue glow like a haze of mist was surrounding his body. Bantum, meanwhile, was looking at the bear to his left thinking that it looked very cuddly, like a big furry pillow.

Star was glowing on the field of battle. Arik waved his hands and crossed his fingers in the ancient patterns that summoned forth the fierce energies within him. Soon his fingers would shoot forth a bolt of lightning great enough to kill a man. Hermel and Hornmel prepared themselves for fighting. Bantum, happy to see a new friend, wandered forward saying “Cute bear!” and had every intention of hugging the mammoth creature.

“You guys surround Bantum’s bear, and I’ll keep this one busy,” said Hermel.

The bears roared as they lumbered rapidly forward, one from the east, the other from the west. Hornmel completely ignored Hermel's instruction and charged forward toward the other bear coming in from the west. Arik was holding in his hands a electric ball of crackling lightning and had planned to unleash it at the closest bear to the east, but Bantum wandered in the way. He was still peeved about Bantum’s going to a tavern without them, and had to exercise considerable will power to restrain and hold onto his lightning arrow. Even so, he thought he had a shot, and so he took it, shooting both hands forward and letting the ball of lightning blaze.  Meanwhile Bantum, stuffed the poor chicken into his vest to keep it safe. It clucked weakly. He said “Bear!” happily as he walked forward to hug it with his arms out stretched. A blue white flash hit the side of the bear, causing sparks to fly and fierce red embers to blaze amid sizzling flesh and burning fur. The bear reared up in agony, roaring, both its arms high in the air.

Meanwhile Hermel faced off against the other bear with his sword.  The shaggy beast was lumbering forward rapidly through the snow toward hiim. He instructed Hornmel to circle behind it with a wave of his hand.

The first bear that had been hit by Arik’s lightning was enraged. Arik prepared himself to cast a second lightning arrow.  The bear facing Bantum swung his heavy paw and hit squarely onto Bantum’s chest. But the stout warrior was equipped with a set of chainmale, and his body was so thick and heavy, he was not so much fazed by the blow, as he was surprised that the bear could possibly think to do such a thing. Star of Justice had run forward toward the raging beast from the side and swung his morning star along it’s exposed rib cage causing a great gash and breaking several ribs.

Hornmel, for his part, had flanked his bear, and went in for a strike with his staff across the back of the neck. The hostile beast turned unexpectedly toward him and heaved a massive paw across Hornmel’s vulnerable chest. The black nails dug four long grooves across his chest splintering ribs as they went. Hornmel fell into the snow face down. He didn’t move. A pool of dark red blood bled out in a large stain on the white snow.

“Nooooo” shouted Hermel, deeply moved by his cousins sudden demise, and stabbed the bear with his sword, gouging it deeply near the spine. The bear roared ferociously and turned its attention toward Arik who was directly ahead of it, some twenty feet away with his back to the enraged creature. It charged straight toward him, ignoring anything else. At that moment Arik was unleashing his next blazing white arrow at the bear that Bantum was playing with. The huge fighter had managed to catch the bear in his massive arms and was trying to wrestle it to the ground.

“Good bear!” he said, holding him in a most amazing bear hug. He pinned the bear down, but it did not intend to stay down long before rolling over and escaping his grip. Just as Arik was about to cast the lightning arrow, he heard the other bear charging up directly behind him at full tilt. Hermel, having run behind it, leapt forward with his sword. The bear charging from behind tried to take a ferocious bite at Arik’s neck, but instead bit down on the rim of Arik’s metal shield, breaking a great white tooth, which fell into the snow.

Arik turned, letting the lightning bolt sizzle uselessly into the air and pulled out his axe while whirling around in the nick of time. He swung the axe and it landed heavily into the bear’s side. Hermel’s strike clove deep into its spine from behind, and the bear fell into the snow, dead.

Hornmel was barely breathing face down in the snow. Hermel ran to his side and cradled his head in his arms, looking down at him with great pity. He took his healing stone of Minvar from his pouch and waved it over Hornmel's wounds slowly and steadily while chanting in low tones, staring down into the earth. His cousin was breathing erratically, but then after a few moments began to breath more evenly, and the blood ceased flowing out of his wounds.

Meanwhile, Star of Justice was trying to strike the remaining bear whom Bantum had managed to wrestle to the ground again, but he missed and clouted Hermel on the left arm with his morning star. Fortunately, Hermel was quick enough to lean out of the way in time, and was only lightly grazed. Bantum had wrestled the bear from behind with a Full Nelson, keeping his knee in the beast's back, holding it up on its two hind legs. It was rather amazing to behold. Bantum was quite strong, really!

“Now, now bear, lets play nice!” said the giant as he wrestled with his new bear-friend. Once again Bantum hurled the bear to the ground, and began scratching its belly happily. The bear was trying to roll over, but Bantum was preventing it.  Arik wanted to shoot another lightning arrow at the bear, but now both Bantum and Star were in the way. He cursed under his breath and instead ran a short distance on his stubby legs to get a better line of site. Meanwhile the bear was having serious trouble getting out from Bantum’s iron grip.

“Come on Bantum, put the nice bear down over here,” yelled Star of Justice, hoping to get a good angle to strike from. Arik’s lightning arrow hit the bear on side of the neck. Bantum spun it around to see what caused the sudden flash of light.  The melee was confusing Bantum something awful.  He really did just want to have a fun time playing with the bear.

Hermel meanwhile was holding Hornmel’s head in his hands and the lad’s eyes opened finally.

“I’m alive? Thanks be to Minvar, and to you Hermel,” he said weakly, realizing with relief that he was going to live.

Star maneuvered himself to one side of the bear, while Arik ran to the other. Bantum was holding it behind the head, the veins of his neck bulging out as he tried to swing it away from his friends in an effort protect the brutish beast.  Arik’s blow landed heavily, and after that another blow from Star rendered the bear broken and senseless. Bantum, feeling sorry for the pain the bear might be feeling, struck it dead with his mace in an act of simple-minded mercy, and so the battle ended.

They all stood panting, sweating, freezing, bleeding, and gasping in the snow. The two bears prostrate on the ground and bleeding, one with several smoldering scorch marks. They got themselves together and staggered down the road, carrying Hornmel as they went. After a while they heard the sound of music on the wind. Bantum told them that the music came from the nice house with the "horsie" on the door. They walked through the gap in the hill, over the bridge, past the pool and at last came to the Prancing Unicorn. The band was playing, the floorboards beating along with the stomping feet, and there was plenty of voices in the chorus. Bantum pointed out the steaming pool was where he had washed up with the soap, and so the others thought taking a hot bath sounded like a grand idea. They stopped by the pool and Hermel healed the remainder of his own wounds and those of his friends who had scrapes, cuts and bruises while the others bathed. When they were done Bantum went to the green door and knocked.

The woman came to the door again, cracked it open a bit, and seeing it was Bantum in a good mood, was delighted and invited them all inside. They looked rather road worn, and so they ate their fill, and afterwards Hermel arranged for a room on the third floor to which they soon retired. Except for Bantum who wanted to dance. And so he ate a great deal of roast chicken, and drank huge quantities of hot cider and danced the jig to his hearts content.  The others carried Hornmel up stairs, and Hermel went straight to his bed. It had beautiful blue quilted blankets and purple goose feather pillows. He thought it looked like the most comfortable thing he’d ever seen. By the time his head was settled into the pillow he'd only had time to think that it might be significant that the two bears had attacked both Arik and Hornmel as they were the two that had hunted and killed the first bear earlier, before he was fast asleep and snoring. The others followed suit, and everyone slept soundly... while downstairs the music played on and on and on.

Previous Episode: The Descent From Hobbington
Next Episode: Intrigues at the Prancing Unicorn

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Descent from Hobbington

The Hasty Departure

It was a cold dawn with snow flurries piling up white drifts along all the streets of Hobbington. Hermel awoke and stood up stiffly from his straw mat, the mist of his breath noticeable in the frosty air. He rubbed his hands and woke Hornmel, and the two of them donned their new cloaks and went out. The streets were covered with a sheen of snow which drifted in soft white clouds off the roof tops whenever the wind blew past.

According to plan, the two young fighting men wound their way along the alleys and tunnels and over the foot bridges toward the Guild Hall.  They were the first to arrive, and so they entered the Hall and sat in the study waiting for the other members of the group. Star of Justice came from the Temple Eldrick Pagoda with his cloak billowing handsomely behind him, the bright golden star on his chest practically gleaming.  When he came in, Hermel made a point of billowing his own cloak behind himself.  Hornmel gave him an affirmative smile.  They were both proud to be wearing new cloaks.  Arik came in behind Star, having stayed with him at the Temple that night. He blustered and threw off the snow from his bushy red hair and massive shoulders with a mighty lion-like shake. Garrison, came through the front door with a frown seeming more to drag himself into the Hall than walk. He sat down on a chair and wiped the snow from his boots with a brush he found there. He greeted the others with a curt nod, practically scowling at the winter weather.

It was decided that once the leave Hobbington they should head to Bear Claw village first, as Hermel knew that they might find monks of renown who could help fight the bandits. There they hoped to meet the Sifu (teacher) of the Iron Bear Kung Fu School. The Sifu had become famous in the villages for his fighting prowess, and had opened as school in Yellow Clay village.  When the leaders of Bear Claw village had arrived in Yellow Clay to challenge him, the Sifu beat them without any effort.  They all praised the Sifu and offer him a large sum of money to teach in their own far off village, and the Sifu accepted the generous offer and went with them that day.  Yellow Clay village saw many of its young men leave the town to follow him, or disperse themselves elsewhere, finding little left to hold them to the impoverished Yellow Clay. Hermel at that time went to Hobbington to seek his fortune in the town above. It was hoped that they could convince the Sifu and his students to help them defend Yellow Clay village.

Konar came in looking a bit bedazzled and confused. He was not a very bright young man, but he was able to follow directions, and so he showed up on time, just after dawn.

“What would they do with the seed,” wondered Arik out loud once they had refreshed themselves in the study and began to discuss things.

“They most likely would sell it to a wealthy town,” replied Hornmel, shrugging his shoulders.

“Hornmel, did the bandits actually see the seed?” asked Hermel.

“No, the elders had the villagers hide the seed in holes in the ground after the first assulat of the bandits the day before.”

“What happened at that time?” asked Star of Justice.

“The bandits arrived from the west with bows, spears and swords and ambushed some of the wheat-monks who were in the fields, two of whom were wounded.  One of the bandits was killed.  The bandits, angered, came again later to the village. This time they burned down two farm houses, killed four men, and took six  young captives,” answered Hornmel gravely.

“Who is the bandit chief?” asked Hermel.

“His name, or the one we know of him, is Black Patch, on account of the eye patch he wears. He is a short stocky fellow with pepper hair, but a brutal fighter, and the one who threw the first torches on the farms,” replied Hornmel. “Other than that we know little about the bandits or where they came from or where they went to.”

Hermel thought about this, and concluded that it was likely that Black Patch would return sometime before spring to collect the seed and exchange the hostages.  Such things have happened before in the villages, and that would be the typical pattern.

“If we can find out where they went we might be able to effect a rescue. I have experience with rescuing,” said Hermel optimistically. There was a long pause.

“Perhaps we can negotiate with Black Patch,” offered Garrison half-heartedly thinking out loud.

“Negotiations for him will be pretty simple considering he has hostages,” replied Hermel, unhappy that his  idea garnered so little response from the group.

“But remember, his stomach is also grumbling,” replied Garrison. “After all, they would appear to be in a desperate situation themselves, since they are pulling off a theft of spring seed from a poor village. Dead hostages are useless, of course. I think we have more of a bargaining chip than you think. We can use their desperation to our advantage.”

“The only other thing I can think is to make them part of the village. Offer them the fruit of the harvest in exchange for helping to protect the village,” replied Hermel.

“Let me get this straight. The village has just enough seed to feed the villagers as it is, and you plan to offer the bandits their scarce supply of food. Wouldn’t that be as bad as letting the bandits steal the seed?” asked Garrison incredulously, with an almost mocking tone.

“There is a little excess harvest each year, if all goes well,” offered Hornmel. “We use the excess to sell in market to buy supplies for the next winter and following season,” he added.

“Since so many men left the village after the Sifu went to Bear Claw Village, isn’t there space to house the thirty bandits, then?  I think it would be best to make an alliance with the bandits. Instead of fighting to the last man, burning the village and the grain with it, they can come to the village and live with us there.  Everyone benefits.”

“What about the possibility that we find the Sifu who left the village, and try to get his help?” asked Garrison.

“Well, he’s obviously turned mercenary, and we don’t have enough money to hire him,” replied Hermel bitterly.

“Since the Sifu came from Yellow Clay originally, is it possible he still have family living there?” asked Star of Justice.

“Yes, Sifu does have some family members who live there,” replied Hornmel. “He was born in Yellow Clay, after all.”

“There’s our bargaining chip,” replied Garrison slapping his knee for emphasis.

A Sudden Interruption

Hermel considered that Bear Claw Village was on the other side of the six village region. There was no direct path from Yellow Clay to Bear Claw, but they would have to wind between several villages along the way, and the journey was not an easy one.  He himself had never been to Bear Claw, but Hornmel had been there once to visit the Sifu and bring a gift of blankets from his old mother at the beginning of the winter.  The terrain between the villages was often treacherous, either passing through peat bogs, or scrambling over jagged hills on barely discernible foot paths. Deep ravines, frothing streams, and dense primordial forests characterized the landscape thereabouts. The villages typically had little do to with one another, except during the Festival Days, of which there were several through the course of the year, the two most famous being Samhain, the beginning of Winter, and Beltane the beginning of Summer.  Every year on these two festivals the entire six villages would gather together and have three days of feasting, games, and marriages.

“How do we know how many bandits there really are?” asked Garrison.

“The town is guessing at that,” answered Hornmel frankly. “We saw as many as ten at one time, and we think there are about thirty of them in total because we saw different men at different times. Roughly thirty, the leaders think.”

Star of Justice asked, “What transpired during the raid, exactly? What time of day did they attack?”

“They came at night. They burned down the barns, killed four farmers, and took the hostages,” answered Hornmel.

Hermel was lost in thought.  The Sifu was a popular figure among the Villages because of his great prowess in Martial Arts, and his many daring exploits while protecting the villagers round about. He was the master of the Iron Bear style of Kung Fu. Legend had it that he had been an ordinary farmer like the rest in Yellow Clay, impoverished and barely surviving, but one day his dog found a hidden cave in which he found statues and walls covered with sacred inscriptions. He felt compelled to stay there and study for many years until he mastered the works. When he returned to Yellow Clay he was a Master of Iron Bear, and began teaching his fellow villagers to meditate and practice Iron Bear Kung Fu. The villagers built a small wooden monastery and founded the Iron Bear School, which they called “The Order of the Golden Wheat” to honor the Earth Elkron Minvar, and the monks who trained there became known as the Wheat-Monks of Yellow Clay. They became renown for their feats of physical prowess, and spiritual inspiration. After the Sifu left the village for Bear Claw, most of the Wheat-Monks followed him, or scattered, but a few stayed behind to tend after sick family members, or out of simple loyalty to their home village.

“You’re leading this thing, so what are we doing?” asked Garrison of Hermel breaking the silence.

“And when do we get to fight?!” pitched in Arik with an enthusiastic rattle of his ax.

At that moment a commotion was heard outside in the street. They all moved across from the seating area to look out the window and there through the snow flurries they saw a man dashing frantically down the street, pushing people over as he ran.  Behind him further up the street were three men in black uniforms, but their features were unclear due to the distance and the snow flurries.  Seeing as how they were on the first floor, Hermel, not wasting a moment, opened the window and jumped out into the snow bank below. Drawing his sword, he billowed his cape and cocked his head upward proudly. However, he noticed a small clot of dirt on the bottom left hand corner of his beautiful new cape!  He stopped.   "That does it," he thought as he considered running back into the Guild Hall to find a cup of seltzer water.  It dawned on him, however, that the clot of dirt might be a sign from the Earthen Elkron, Minvar, whom he had taken as his Patron of sorts, and so it might be useful for Earth Healing later.  His pause was barely noticable before he dashed toward the commotion at hand.

“Woah woah woah! What’s going on here?” he demanded loudly.

Kunar and Arik also came clambering out of the front door of the Guild Hall and down the short flight of steps.  Star of Justice walked out behind them, standing at the top of the steps looking out as far as he could see to try to catch any details he could of the pursuers. They all tried to get a bead on the pursuers, of course, but none of them could make out more than that there were three dark figures in the distance. Hermel noticed that the black uniforms looked rather like the uniform of the man who had attacked him when he had been waiting of Ischandar outside of the sewer. 

“You want some of this?” yelled Arik raising his ax in the air and shaking it at the men in black.

“What’s the problem, friend?!” yelled Hermel as the runner came dashing up the street towards him.

The Fateful Barb

At that moment the man came skidding to a halt at Hermel’s feet, and collapsed. The three men stopped running, and each turned and dodged into alley or behind a cart and rapidly vanished from view. Hermel dropped to one knee and held the man’s head up and pulled away the old tattered gray scarf that was covering his face.

“Bernie!” shouted Hermel in dismay.  Blood was trickling down his side from a wound between his third and fourth rib. Hermel found a red feathered dart there with a black shaft. He tried pulling it out, but the dart was barbed. He carried Bernie inside, as the others waited outside keeping a careful watch on the roof tops and down the street. The three men, whomever they were, had vanished completely, and were seen no more.

“Damnit, come back here and fight!” yelled Arik into the snow flurries shaking his mane.

In the study Bernie opened his glazed eyes again. He saw Hermel but did not seem to recognize him.  His eyes were glazed over, his face pouring sweat, and he was breathing erratically.

“You came to the right place,” said Hermel, and taking the clod of dirt from his cloak he used it to cover the dart wound. He very gingerly and carefully extracted the dart, and then rubbed the dirt into the wound with an invocation to the Earthen Elkron, and the wound healed. Bernie, for his part, looked on at this with some surprise, but when the wound’s fiery pain faded, and the gap in his flesh sealed shut, he was suitably grateful, and came back more to his senses. Hermel was gratified to see that the healing had worked, and that his cloak was once more pristine and beautiful. 

“How do you feel? Numbness? Strange sensations around the wound? Any odd feeling at all?” asked Hermel calling on his knowledge of Herb Lore. Bernie was still too weak to answer, and Hermel noted that the area around the wound had turned a disturbing black.

Lifting Bernie in his arms, Hermel laid him down on the couch in the study. Seeing this Garrison, and feeling he ought to make some effort, when to the front desk, and asked if there were a healer in the Hall at that time. Indeed, Johan was there, and he was summoned. Coming up the stairs from the underground levels of the Guild Hall, Johan greeted Hermel kindly, and took a look at Bernie. Johan's expression clouded over with gloom.

“Tears of the Black Lotus.  I’m sorry to say, but I fear he has only a short time.  I'm sure it must have gotten has gotten into his internal organs, so any mitigation of the spread of the poison will be necessarily limited,” said Johan gravely. Bernie, however, had reacted well to the healing, and the poison had in fact ceased its progress for the time being, and so Hermel and the others were encouraged by these facts.   Perhaps he could pull through somehow.

“Bernie, what happened?” asked Hermel. But Bernie, looking around at all of the people there, just shrugged with a faint smile. He then reached up slowly and grabbed Hermel's arm with his hand and said in a low rasping whisper, “Get out … of town…” just before fading into unconsciousness unconsciousness again.

Rothmon then came downstairs.  He listened to the tale as Hermel gave it with a grave expression.  Hermel concluded, “I think the kidnapping villains who we thwarted yesterday may be angry, and it seems they got to my friend Bernie here. I think he came here to warn me. We want to do our best to save him, if we can.”

And so the fighting men took him to Doctor Shiloc’s office on the third floor of the Guild Hall, and pressed him to do what he could to save the boy. However, the antidote for the Tears of the Black Lotus was not easily concocted and would take time, and there was only one person who anyone knew of that might have the antidote. And that was the mysterious master of the Five Animal’s Hall under Dunn’s Bridge. No one, however, wished to inquire of him. While Doctor Sniloc worked away at gathering increadients to add to his bubbling flasks for an antidote, he mentioned that even at his fastest pace it was very unlikely that he could complete it in time to save the boy. Johan for his part had no particular interest in saving Bernie, or at least in going especially out of his way to do so, given all that he knew of the young man’s reputation as an underworld figure. Yet, still, he would do his best to save him just the same.

Meanwhile outside Konar and Arik had been hunting around for any tracks or signs of the attackers, but found none. As this was going on, Garrison was sitting quietly in the Guild Hall study considering what use he could make of Konar, who was certainly a fool, and very possibly an utter idiot.  Certainly easily manipulated. “I supposed I could convince the poor lad to serve as my personal meat shield,” he thought to himself. “I wonder if he would mind if I attached a leather strap to his back somehow, a harness maybe, that I might more easily keep him in place…”, he thought, chuckling to himself at the idea. Star of Justice, who had returned to the study observed Garrison's expression and found it disconcerting.  He wondered what machinations might be brewing in the man’s mind. But he said nothing of it, and they remained in silence.

When he came around again, Bernie explained to Hermel in private that he’d gone to look for Ishcandar and Lido, and having failed at finding either of them, ran aground against the Tower’s security force, the men of the Five Animals Hall.

Finally, Bernie said that before he died, he wished to confess something to his friend before he went "to that dark dusty land from which there is no return".   Hermel looked into Bernie's bleary eyes listening as any friend would   And so Bernie confessed that he’d been working for Doctor Lobe all along.

“But I didn’t do such a good job, I’m afraid,” he said wincing with pain, his eyes rolling to the whites for a few moments.   He was panting hoarsely and coughing.  Strange images of horrors untold were beginning to flash across his mind.  Sweat poured from him so that he was drenched.

“What? What do you mean?” asked Hermel incredulously.

“You remember when I let you into the underground study under Dunn's Bridge?"

"Yes, we were very appreciative of that," he answered.

"You were not supposed to come out,” he said. “Unfortunately for me, it turned out that I liked you just a little bit too much after all, Hermel,” he concluded with a rasping cough. And then Bernie repeated weakly, "Get out of town, Hermel... why are you still here?", before passing out again.  Doctor Sniloc was busy working on the bubbling bowls for the antitode, mumbling to himself that he'd not had enough time. 

An Artist is Born

The adventurers reconvened to discuss the situation.  It was decided that they should seek answers at the Rat’s Den.  But Hermel decided that Konar was simply too dim witted to go on any adventure beyond the city gates, as he would be far to likely to get himself killed.  He would be a liability to himself and others, he thought.  He explained this to Arik, who looking at Konar had to agree. The poor lad was not only stone stupid, but weak and awkward, too.   He'd stand no chance on a real adventure. So along the way to the Rat’s Den Hermel gave Konar ten iron pieces, and concocted an elaborate and confusing plan, saying in the end that he would meet Konar later. Konar was confused by all of this, naturally, and insisted on going with them. Then Arik asked Konar if he could carve wood.

“I can wood carve!” replied Konar Wuldcarva enthusiastically. So Arik broke off a large piece of wood from a crate that was lying in the street, and handing it to Konar asked him if he could carve it into anything. Konar was so taken in by this challenge that he took the wood in his hand, and sitting on a stoop began carving it with his knife.

“We’ll catch up with you later,” said Hermel, but Konar was so focused on his task that he didn’t even notice, and with his face screwed up in a knot of concentration carved away at the wood.

When the party got to the Rat’s Den they descended down the long stair tunnel to the bottom, and with three knocks were allowed inside. There they saw Hagen behind the long bar, and he greeted them with a broad black toothed smile.  Hermel took him aside as the others sat at the bar drinking beers.  The two men talked in quiet tones on the far side of the bar.

“Who is Bernie to you?” asked Hermel pointedly.

“Why Bernie is one of my best boys. Numero Uno pick pocket, frankly. Knows everything about the underground around here. Why do you ask?”

“Bernie said he is working for Doctor Lobe. He’s been poisoned by the Tears of the Black Lotus, and he’s gonna die. Anyway, if you going to kill me can you do it quickly?  I like to get it over with,” finished Hermel nervously in a rush of words.

“But I like to make it linger slowly,” replied Hagen drly staring off into space at the news he'd heard.

Meanwhile, outside and down the street, Konar happen to have gotten lucky. Not only did he manage to carve the most remarkably lifelike dog out of the piece of wood in his hand, but a passing merchant noticed it and was so enthralled by it that he offered Konar a large sum of money for it’s purchase.

“This wooden mastiff of yours is sublime! Magnificent! I must have it!” the merchant effused enthusiastically. However, before Konar could answer, another merchant who also happen to be passing by heard this, and immediately counter offered twice what the other merchant would give. The two merchants went into a bidding war over the wooden dog, and in the end Konar got an heavy bag of silver pieces. More than he could count. The merchants wandered off together bickering about how much it would eventually sell for, one overjoyed, and the other bitterly contesting the sale as "unfair" and "ruthless". And so it was that Konar Wuldcarva’s career as a famous wood carver began.  With nothing left to occupy his hands, he got up and walked down the street to the Rat’s Den in order to tell Hermel and the others all about his wonderful luck.

As this was happening Hagen and Hermel were still conversing in low tones in the Rat’s Den.

“Where is Bernie now?” asked Hagen asked Hermel.

“He is back at the Guild Hall, but he does not have long to live, I’m afraid,” said Hermel. Hagen got his coat, gloves and hat, and declared his intention to go to the Guild himself and see Bernie.

“Sally, take care of the bar! I’ll be back in an hour,” yelled Hagen behind him as he rushed out the door and up the long flight of stairs. Konar was coming down the stairs, but Hagen pushed him aside as he rushed past into the snow dappled street. Konar continued down unfazed with a broad smile, and entering the bar looked around for Hermel. Seeing him he ran up and began shouting about how much money he had made and clunked the big bag of silver down on a table. Every seedy, dirty, unwholesome character in the bar turned a bloodshot eye towards the little group of adventurers.

Hermel, now that Hagen had just rushed out figured the bar room might suddenly not be such a safe place after all, quickly grabbed the bag, and looking inside, announced, “Konar, you fool, that’s just a handful of copper pieces!   I don't know how the Elkron made you so dumb, but here you are.”

“Do you think I can buy a new sword with it?” asked Konar innocently wondering what the difference between copper and silver was.

“No, not at all. It’s only a few coppers. You can’t possibly buy a sword with that,” he answered firmly while throwing a few of his iron pieces on the table to cover expenses. “Come on, it’s time to go,” he added, and hustling everyone together made a straight line to the tavern door, and promptly exited. As he following up the rear, Arik turned around at the door and said to everyone in the bar who happen to all be looking at them, “I just want you to know, any of you who care to try to follow my friend there, … I’d be real happy about that,” and clapped his right hand on the top of his ax. He then turned and slammed the door behind him and marched stoutly up the stairs.

And so the adventurer’s returned to the Guild Hall. Bernie was suffering greatly at this point, and foam was coming out of his mouth. He had become delirious, and the nurse, a lovely young lady by the name of Elizabeth, was patting his head with a wet cloth. Johan was there, but there was nothing more he could do. Doctor Sniloc was toiling away frantically, but he seemed no closer to having the antidote than before.

“Doctor Sniloc, is it possible that Bernie is a Replicant?” asked Hermel suddenly.

“I … I … I don’t know… why do you think that?” asked Sniloc.

“Well he is deteriorating so fast… could it be that’s why?”

“I don’t expect so… this is a fast acting poison, and very powerful. The most likely explanation is that the poison got into his guts and moved rapidly to his brain via the main arterial routes,” replied the doctor.

The Death Brawl

As he was saying this, Bernie revived enough to open his bleary eyes. Foam flecked his dry and cracked lips, and he asked for water.  Elizabeth gave him a drink from a glass while cradling his head in her arms, and he leaned back and rested his eyes again. Hermel, out of sheer curiosity, checked Bernie’s clothes to see if the rat they’d seen with him earlier was still there. The rat, which was all black except for one white area around its right eye, was indeed there, and nestled itself further into Bernie’s cloths when Hermel found it. He left it alone, but the rustling around his inner clothes woke Bernie up again.

“Why… are … you … still … in … town…?” asked Bernie grabbing Hermel’s arm weakly. “Save… yourself…” he sputtered, and then his eyes shut.

“My goodness, Hermel, what have you gotten yourself into?” asked Garrison doubtfully.

“I’m not so sure. I stopped some men from getting a shipment of fresh children, and they seem to have taken offense at that,” replied Hermel.

“… fresh … children…” said Star of Justice slowly.

“Yeah, don’t you hate when that happens,” said Arik.

Rothmon came in and took a look at Bernie, and then asked the Doctor how things were going.

“Not well. He does not have long,” replied the doctor gravely. 

“Have you heard from the Hobbits?” inquired Hermel of Rothmon after a few minutes of pacing around the room.

“No!” he answered unhappily.

“Have you tried to contact them using the Rings?” asked Hermel.

“Yes!” he said with no less dissatisfaction. His tone of voice gave the impression that he did not have much hope for Lido and Ischandar after all.

“I see,” said Hermel gloomily.

At that moment, Bernie, who had been babbling to himself for some time about the horrors of the damned, opened his bulging bloodshot eyes with a great convulsion of his body, and drooling with terror as though the very stickmen of hell had entered the doctor’s office, fell dead on the table with a dreadful moan.

“I told you we were wasting our time here,” said Garrison drly.

Hermel without a moment’s hesitation spun around and punched Garrison squarely to the face, however Garrison was fast at dodging and Hermel missed him. Star of Justice grabbed Hermel in order to restrain him. Garrison immediately swung his staff at Hermel, and with a resounding smack hit him on the crown of his head. A trickle of blood dripped into Hermel’s left eye. He drew his sword, and said to Garrison, “Get Out!”.

At the same time Arik rushed at Garrison, stomping forward on his stumpy little legs. Garrison, seeing him waddling toward him with his fists clenched in rage could not help himself but broke out in laughter, knowing how easily he could evade the stout red bearded fellow. This, of course, enraged Arik even further and he was well on his way to pulling out his ax when Rothmon made his overwhelming presence in the room felt.

“Cease!” said Rothmon in a low voice so that the windows and cabinets shuddered and dust fell from the rafters. Everyone stopped moving. “These antics are ill befitting the members of our honorable Hall.”

Hagen, had fallen to Bernie’s side and was on the verge of tears. “You poor kid. Whoever did this to you, I’m going to make him pay. I promise you,” he said choking back his tears.

“I can’t believe anyone would do this to such a fine young boy,” said Garrison to Hagen.

“Oh put a sock in it!” yelled Arik fiercely.

“Who do you think would have done such a thing,” continued Garrison ignoring the Dwarve, but Hagen just gave him a nasty look.

“I’d be willing to help you find out,” continued Garrison, adding a skilled diplomatic touch to his intonation. It was just enough, and Hagen, now beginning to regain mastery of his emotions, asked him what he could do to help.

“Anything you need done,” replied Garrison.

“Come to the Rat’s Den tomorrow, and we’ll discuss it further,” said Hagen wiping away tears from his eyes as he picked up the rat from within Bernie’s cloths. The rat, however, squirmed and leaped to the ground, and scurried into a hole between two cabinets. Hagen shrugged, and digging his hands in his deep pockets headed wearily toward the door.

Hermel had put his sword away, and Doctor Sniloc was swabbing the wound on the top of his head. He was thinking that he now wanted to get rid of two members of his team, one because he felt sorry for him for being so godawful stupid, and the other because he hated him.

“You are not coming with us,” said Hermel to Garrison.

“Wait a second, now. I just said something, but you attacked me. Which is the worse? I should not have been attacked for saying something,” said Garrison.  “I meant no disrespect toward you,” he added in his most diplomatic voice.

“That’s even worse!” replied Hermel. “The fact that you would say such a thing, and not even mean it convinces me that you are incapable of determining what is right and what is wrong, which means I don’t need you.”

“If you think of this from a purely logical standpoint, whether to go and rescue your Hobbit friends, or to rescue your village, either way, this fellow,” he said pointing to Bernie, “had no part of either.”

“What?!” said Hermel shocked yet again by Garrison’s outrageous comments.

“Exactly,” concluded Garrison.

“I don’t want you on either expedition. You are useless to me,” said Hermel with finality.

“Brains… only some people have them,” concluded Garrison to himself.

Bernie was carried down stairs. A cart was drawn up to the door. Since he was but a street urchin, and had no particular friends or family, a funeral for wayward orphans was arranged for that afternoon at Saint Elaine’s cemetery near the orphanage on Harrows Street, not far from Dunn’s Bridge in the Old Quarter.  It was a gloomy cemetery, a haunt of screech owls and reptiles.

Drake Barnstormer, the Constable, showed up a little later. He collected information about the murder from Hermel and those present. The dart was recovered by a deputy from the snow where Bernie had first fallen. Rothmon had nothing to add to the report. He was clearly troubled by having a dead body on the premises of the Guild Hall. He glanced at Hermel, noting to himself that while the young man was earnest, honest, and hard working, and good, but he had a tendency to drag trouble along with him somehow.

“I still owe you a drink, sometime,” said Drake to Hermel as he was leaving.

“Sure, I’d enjoy that, but I don’t know when it will be,” replied Hermel evasively.  "Be careful," he said as he shook hands goodbye.  Barnstormer gave him a final look and trekked off into the snow. 

There was a knock at the door of the Guild Hall.  Everyone in the party, Hermel in particular, suddenly grabbed weapons and stood ready.   It was only a messenger from Hagen at the Rat’s Den bearing a package for Hermel. It was a set of new cloths with which Hermel could disguise himself.  Hermel had not worn a new set of clothes at any time in his life that he could remember.  He also received a sturdy broad brimmed hat made of brown and tan straw.

“This will keep me from being recognized by prying eyes as we leave Hobbington, ... hopefully,” said Hermel as he put his rags in the bag and donned the new cloths. He looked quite handsome, he thought as he gazed at himself in a mirror.  New cloths.  New hat.  New cloak.  He looked very handsome indeed.  Unbenounced to him, the young nurse upstairs happen to be passing by on the second floor, and she thought so too.  Unfortunately, perhaps, Hermel didn't notice her admiring gaze.  Who knows what might have happened if he had? 

“Shall we leave separately and meet at the Rat’s Den?” asked Hermel of the group.

“That sounds like a good idea,” replied Garrison.

“You’re not coming with us,” stated Hermel flatly.

“I’ll come along for the ride,” said Garrison with equal flatness.

“You’re not coming with us,” repeated Hermel even more flatly.

“We’ll see about that,” replied Garrison with a flatness so flat that you couldn't slide a razor blade under it.

“Do you want me to take him down,” asked Arik fingering his axe handle. Hermel held his hand out to restrain Arik from another hasty action in the Guild Hall.

“You're not coming with us,” said Hermel to Garrison with finality.

“Stop me,” answered Garrison.

“I will,” replied Hermel. “As soon as you’re asleep my sword will slide through your chest. You’re not coming with us,” he concluded.

As it turned out, despite every attempt he made beyond that point, Garrison was unable to persuade the group that he deserved to join them on the expedition.  He claimed, among other things, that he also wished to help the people of the villages.  No one believed that.   In fact, so terrible were his latter attempts at diplomacy that he managed to get even Star of Justice to glare at him. He decided, therefore, to make his own way, and so left the Guild Hall, and made his own plans.

Konar was confused as to what he should do. He went to Hermel and asked him if he could go on the expedition, since he had no where else to go, but Hermel told him that he should continue to carve dogs for sale and then he could use the money he earned to help the villagers by purchasing seed for them in the spring.   Konar, accepting this without demure, happily trotted off into the snow to go look for more wood.

Bantum Joins the Party

Since the party was suddenly bereft of two members, Rothmon mentioned another recent Adventure Guild recruit who might serve as a replacement. He was tall, heavy boned, but not very bright, explained Rothmon. A good candidate for the front line in any fight, he added. He also wore chain-mail which was a great asset. He was, noted Rothmon, tremendously strong. The building shook. It shook again. Rothmon suggested that it might be Bantum coming into the Hall.

“Helloooo? I hear people need help,” yelled Bantum from the outer hallway boomingly.

The clerk from the front desk brought Bantum into the study. Rothmon introduced him as Bantum Brewster, a 1st Level Guild Fighter, newly recruited.

“I will help you, if you need it,” said Bantum slowly.

“Let me ask you one thing,” said Hermel. “If a friend of mine is hurt by a stranger what would you do?”

“I would hurt the stranger,” replied Bantum earnestly.

“Ok, I like you. You can come with us,” answered Hermel satisfied. “I think we’re ready to head out then.”

“You want me to carry you?” asked Bantum.

“No thanks,” said Hermel.

“Ok,” said Bantum.

The members of the group decided to split up, and determined to meet at a specified time at the Rat’s Den. They took circuitous routes through the town in order to throw anyone who might be following them off their trail. Once they made their connection there, they split up again and met at the main gate of Hobbington. It was getting late, and the winter sun was starting to set. There was a long winding stone stairway that wound its way down the side of the cliffs of Mount Zatok, and from the main gate of Hobbington it usually took about an hour to descend to the narrow plain at the base of the mountain.

At the gate of Hobbington there was a plaza. There was an old priest who lived in an ancient shrine along the northern wall next to the gate. There were people milling about a warm fire in a brazier at the foot of the steps of the shrine. The old priest stepped out into the snow to look at the new comers as they entered the plaza. He was wearing black and red feathered cape. They all knew that he was the priest of the gate, though few of them had ever happened to meet him. Star of Justice would know more of him than the others, and that the old priest blessed those who were on dangerous and righteous missions outside of the town. This included the occasional hunting parties that would descend to the dark forested hills below. Such hunting expeditions as went out were often returned unburdened by game, and just as often battered, bleeding. Sometimes the brave hunters did not come back at all. So he stood, Nathaniel the Priest of the Gate in his red and black feathered cloak, bearing the staff of Sartor. It was said the staff could summon lightning if the Elkron were offended. Some did not believe it, though many swore to it.  The old priest eyed the adventurers as they walked across the plaza   Nevertheless the party walked passed him in their dash to get out of the town. Hermel believed it would be wise for him to leave as quickly as possible.  Thoughts of black darts with red feathers flashing through his mind as his eyes glanced in every direction from beneath the broad brim of his new hat.

They made their way across the plaza toward the main gate, a huge stone archway leading out onto a small plaza, and then the Long Stairs down to the forest hills below. The land down there, Hermel knew all too well, was a dense primeval forest thickened by wild undergrowth and vines, dotted with deadly fens, and jagged hills carved by roaring streams and waterfalls. Many caves were there, and some old tribe was said to live in them, though Hermel scarcely believed that old wives tale.   He was a pragmatic man, after all, and only believed the magic that he saw with his own two eyes.

As they were about to silently take their leave under the gate’s high banner, they noticed a merchant smiling broadly at them. They could not help but notice that he was selling a very finely carved mastiff, harking out to passers by, “Wonderful Mastiff for sale! Only eighty silver pieces!” … There were several wealthy looking men eying the wooden dog covetously and searching their purses.

In any case, Hermel went to a shop along the Gate Wall that was selling provisions for hunters and he bought eight days worth of rations. Everyone bought supplies. Bantum, who was quite large, bought ten chickens for himself. He was a hungry lad, and liked chicken, he said.

On To Bear Claw

They descended the Long Stairs for well over an hour. They were rough, narrow, and worn with age. Once upon an unknown time perhaps they had been worn down by many thousands of feet, but in these days it were not so. There were few who ventured into or out of Hobbington Township on high up on Mount Zatock. And it was only twice a year that the villagers themselves brought their harvests to market there, on the Festival days.

As the descended the Long Stairs, they observed the terrain below, which was in fact difficult to do as a dense mist lay upon the forest so that only the tallest tree tops seemed to float above the mist like black leafy islands. There were a number of jagged rocks that split the mist which rolled around their sides so that the hill tops took the appearance of great vessels at sea. Everything was shrouded in a white dusting of snow, and a majestic sight to behold it was that day. Finally when they arrived at the base of the stairs they met the Stair Guards, a renown and elite troop of soldiers.  It was their duty to protect the entrance of the Long Stair, and sound the horns of alarm if any attack came. They were stalwart men on watch, looking steadily into the edges of the mist beyond. It began to snow again. The sun was soon to set. There was a low worn down stonewall that formed a broad and wide barrier around the base of the stairs, and there were two small buildings that seemed almost worn completely down with time, their stones grooved with the rain of ages.

“Good evening,” one of the soldiers said as the adventurers passed by down the ancient road.

“Good evening,” replied Hermel. They walked to the gap in the outer wall, and Hermel pointed to the south, which was to their left.

“This is the way to Bear Claw Village. We’ll go there first and see if we can gain the help of our old Sifu there,” said Hermel. Everyone agreed that was a sensible plan.  He noted that in the other direction that the road took lead to far off Yellow Clay village, his own home town.   He began to long to return there to see his family and if he could rescue his sister from the bandit, Black Patch.

“Well I couldn’t bear to pay those prices for rations at the Hunter's Shop,” said Arik, suddenly to no one in particular. “But now that I think on it, I’m hungry. I think I’ll hunt a deer, and shoot it with a lightning bolt,” he declared.

“Oh wow. Well, take Hornmel with you,” said Hermel. “He’s experienced, and you can learn something from him.”  Everyone agreed to wait for fresh deer meat, which sounded good to one and all, and Hermel began to make a fire in a tree-lined enclosure of stones along the side of the road.  Star of Justice, Bantum and Hermel sat around the fire, and Hermel asked Star about his life. Star went on a long rant philosophically about the Elkron.

“Eldrik is the protector of Justice and Good and Uprightness in the world. As his loyal disciple, I can heal and I can hit things with this,” he said holding up his mace. Hermel held up his sword and said, “I can hit things with this, and I worry a lot.”

And so Arik and Hornmel took to the road southward. After a while Hornmel spotted tracks in the snow. It was a bear. Arik was excited to hear it.

“I’ve never hunted a bear using lightning bolts before,” said Arik cheerfully. Hornmel imagined the lightning bolt catching the bark of a tree on fire. He then imagined the forest burning down in a huge conflagration. He then thought, “And so ended the six villages…” and chuckled to himself. Hunting with lightning! Hornmel thought the dwarf quite a humorous sort. He did not at all realize that the dwarf meant it earnestly.

And so they followed the tracks toward the darkening woodlands. As they came to some rocky terrain shrouded in snowdrifts just at the edge of the wood, they saw an enormous brown grizzly bear. It was scrambling up and over a snow covered ledge along the side of the hill, heading toward the woods. It would in a moment be over the ledge and gone from view.

To Hornmels greats surprise, Arik, with his hands waving, sang out in a loud voice the 'Chant of the Lightning Dart'. However, as it turned out the bear was not nearly far enough away for that, and as soon as Arik began his chant the beast roared and charged down the slope toward them at such a speed that Arik was caught off his guard and barely had time to abandon his spell and pull out his axe. A sputter of sparks ricochet off his finger tips as Arik gave a great Dwarven battle curse just as the hurtling bear clawed at him with its hulking paw. Arik managed to dodge out of the way, and so took a swing with his axe but he was a hair too far by then and so he missed.

“I wonder, but that this may well be … the bear … The Bear ... of Bear Claw Village,” thought Hornmel to himself superstitiously as he prepared to strike with his staff at the growling mountain of teeth, muscle and bone.

Meanwhile Hermel, back at the campsite, was saying to Star of Justice, “Yeah so these Hobbits kept getting into trouble,” as he stirred the fire with a stick. “More trouble than they were worth, really. Glad to be traveling with humans now. And Dwarves, I guess. They’re more sensible than Hobbits, I suppose. The problem I had with Hobbits was that as soon as I turned my back they’d wander off and get themselves into trouble.”

Their reverie was broken by the loud but distant echo of a bear’s roar. Hermel looked down at the fire and stirred the embers. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure Dwarves are more sensible than Hobbits, so that's good.”

Arik and Hornmel returned after a half hour, carrying a great brown bear on a pole between them. They told the tale of the battle to their companions as the bear was skinned and the meat cooked. Nothing like the scent of freshly grilled bear meat, which wafted in long wispy threads into the darkening sky.

Previous Episode: Interlude - The Cantankerous Tutor
Next Episode: The Journey To Bear Claw Village