As our heroes were entering the long dark tunnel behind Bantum, they did not know it, but there was a man who had taken an interest in them and followed along behind. He stood watching them from a shadowy corner in the barn. This man’s name was Ibis. He was an unusual man whose very deep and profound mind thought in spans of hundreds of years at a leap. He was a careful planner, a devious plotter, a slow and methodical plodder, the rare type of man who would serenely sacrifice the present for the future of his incredible designs. He’d been working on a book at the Prancing Unicorn Inn, and training his disciple Korfu in the art of Emotional Self-Control. Korfu needed that art more than most men, and he felt he was lucky to have found a teacher such as Ibis to guide him. And guided he most surely was.
As it happened, the previous two nights Ibis had been playing fiddle among the musicians at the Prancing Unicorn as he was often wont to do as it was one of the means by which he ingratiated himself with the local bobkins. He’d been privy to the fact that a number of men had vanished in the wee hours of the morning, as his disciple Korfu had been among them. During the night of festivities he noted that his disciple had been missing for some time, yet being the very cautious sort, Ibis decided to wait before investigating further. So in the morning he decided to poke around a bit. He quietly and unobtrusively looked high and low at the Inn, and then made his way around the property until he came to the chicken barn, and at the door he found a guard standing in armor looking rather bored. He engaged him in friendly morning conversation, saying he was out for a stroll through the snow to stretch his legs, and one thing led to another and Ibis found himself drinking grog and playing a gambling game while none was the wiser.
“The Prancing Unicorn is in one of the most defensible locations in the provinces,” the guard was saying.
“What about Hobbington, up on the side of the mountain?” replied Ibis.
“Well, Hobbington, of course! That’s the most impregnable town in the entire region, naturally. Can't get more well positioned than Hobbington,” he said with a chuckle.
“So I noticed,” said Ibis. “But some of the villages round about seem pretty weakly defended. Why aren’t they better fortified, I wonder?”
“No need, really. There’s no armies to ward off, just a few bandits now and then, hehe. All in all, travel between the villages is rough business too, with the roads almost as bad as mountain passes, jagged with rocks, waterfalls, and steep drop offs. Armies wouldn’t want to spend much time trying to besiege this old place. So what need of heavy defenses at the villages? Not much, really.”
“Well what’s the biggest threat the villager face, would you say then?”
“Other than the occasional bandit, I’d say bears. And wolves. And some say there’re monsters lurking around in those dark old woods round about, but I ain’t never seen none. Other than that, though, there ain’t too much in the way of danger. But look out for them bears, though. They’ll sneak up on ya and go right for yer hide. And the wolves are even worse. Aggressive, they are.”
“I see,” said Ibis, thinking about this in relation to the treatise he was currently writing on the defense of Villages and Townships.
“So how do the villages deal with these threats, then?” asked Ibis thoughtfully.
“Well, each village kind of takes care of their own, so to say,” said the guard, whose name Ibis discovered was Tom Muleborn. He took a long swig of grog, and went on. “And now there’s some villages that have started training up warriors for this kind of work. I myself trained for a time in Bear Claw village under a great martial arts master who moved there recently. He’s teaching Iron Bear style, and I learned up on it quite a bit before I, er… decided I’d learned enough and left there,” he ended abruptly.
“Oh the Bear Claw Village? I been meaning to head out that way sometime. I heard about the school there and want to see for myself, when I get a chance,” said Ibis. He then struck on a new tack and asked Tom if he liked to play games. Tom was curious enough, and thought he might gain something by it, and so they played a game called “Stacks” that had fairly simple rules, and a little trick to it that allowed Ibis to win when he wanted. He didn’t want to. He wanted to get Tom to feel good, instead. And so he deliberately lost the first and second rounds. A few iron pieces were handed over, and with a laugh they got more grog and played some more. Eventually, Ibis wound his way around to asking about his young wayward disciple Korfu. As it happened Tom knew something about what had happened the night before.
“Yup, sure, they hired a bunch of riff raff for work in the mine last night,” said Tom amiably swilling down another pint grog. He was a tad bit drunk by then, and feeling good.
“Oh? They have metals here?” asked Ibis.
“Salt,” replied Tom.
“Salt?” asked Ibis, somewhat incredulously.
“Yup. They found an old abandoned salt mine under the Inn, and they need some men to work it, see? That’s what I heard, anyway. I’m just a guard, so no one tells me much of anything, but they went down into the mine as far as I know,” he said. “The guy who owns the Inn, was digging a cellar under the barn, when he ran into some soft dirt, and then, rumor has it, he found something strange down there. Some kind of old stone tablet I heard. Dunno. But anyway it made all kinds of fuss in the area, and some of the richest men in the province wound up making their way here. That’s why I was hired, see? I’m supposed to keep an eye on things around barn, while the big wigs talk things out. Hush hush, stuff, ya know. So naturally, I send word to my boss, and he showed up with some more of the gang, see? Now we’re all guards here. I reckon the boss wants to get in on this action, cause he even came all the way here himself. Go figure. I guess I done good this time,” he said chuckling to himself.
At that moment they heard a sound by the barn door. It was another guard. Tom got up and went over to the door to talk with him, as Ibis slipped out the back and went back to the Inn. He had plenty to think about. He spent the night quietly tucked away in his room, taking notes, and working till the wee hours, planning and thinking.
In the morning he quietly made his way down stairs and saw the AAA Group’s confrontation with the man in the corner, and their exit from the Inn. He decided to follow. After waiting for a few minutes over a cup of hot cider, he had a brief conversation with the cowled man who seemed to be in charge of the rough neck men, a man with a grizzled look who revealed little, but played along skilfully with Ibis' inquisitive banter. Ibis gave him his own name, and asked for his.
“My mates call me 'Patch',” he said, and looked up enough for Ibis to notice that the pepper haired man was wearing a black patch over his left eye. Taking his leave, Ibis made his way outside and found their tracks clearly visible plowing through the deep rifts of snow toward the barn where he’d played Stacks with Tom the day before. He made his way through the rifts along their path, and about half way to the barn he ran into Tom, and a pretty young woman who was holding his hand and laughing as they made their way to the Inn. Tom winked at Ibis as they passed, and nothing was said. When Ibis got to the barn he found the front door was locked, so he made his way around the side to the back door, which though closed was unlocked, and so he entered the barn and took a look around. Just as he turned the corner he saw a trap door in the middle of the barn floor closing as Hornmel lowered himself into the tunnel. He remained unseen. He sat down at the table where he and Tom had played Stacks and thought he would just bide his time for a bit, and then follow along down the tunnel at a distance. Ibis was nothing if not a cautious operator. He even went to far as to leave a note for Tom Muleborn on the table, in case the Guard should return while he was down stairs, saying he'd seen suspicious men enter there and decided to investigate. Tom, however, did not return, nor would have have had the skill to read it even if he had come back from his morning frolic with the maid in time. Ibis sat there for a about minutes pondering before heading down.
Down to the Salt Mine
Meanwhile, as Ibis pondered, down the tunnel Bantum was pursuing the killer of his poor little chicken into the darkness ahead. Star of Justice, seeing as it was pitch black, lit a torch and the rest of the group followed behind, curious to see where the secret tunnel under the barn led to. Lanna walked next to Hermel, and the others formed a circle around them. Hermel tried to make polite conversation with the woman as they walked.
"You know, I see that you have no intention of being the damsel in distress, and I the hero who comes to help you. You're too headstrong for that. So if it comes to fighting, you're on your own, ok?" he said in a whisper.
"Fine. I can fight for myself, thanks," she replied with a self-confidence that annoyed Hermel considerably.
“Who killed my chicken?!” shouted Bantum into the darkness, but only the echoes of his voice returned. The tunnel itself was ten foot square with piles of dirt along its edges. It seemed to have been recently dug out, though Arik noted to himself that the walls were made of smoothed M-Type Granite... hardly ordinary for a cellar. After a while they could see light reflecting on a wall ahead and he heard the sound of voices coming from that direction.
“Hello!” shouted Bantum, “Did you hurt my chicken?! I’m coming to talk to you right now!”
He came to a flight of stone stairs going downward, and followed them toward the source of the light. At the bottom of the stairs he came to another corridor perpendicular to the first one. There were stairs going up to the left into darkness as well, but he ignored that and charged down the right hand tunnel. Further up the corridor he saw two men in the glow of a gas lantern that hung from the ceiling. One man sat at a desk stacked with piles of papers, and was looking up with an expression of alarm. The other man was heavily armored in chain and stood before a wooden door set in a rough wooden wall that ended the corridor.
An argument ensued in which Bantum accused the men of hurting his chicken, a charge which both men, fearful of Bantum’s enormous girth, and the swarthy look of his friends, nervously denied.
“No! I didn’t hurt your chicken!” insisted the man at the table.
“I put my chicken down the tunnel and he was hurt, and you’re the only one here!” yelled Bantum.
“He’s here, too!” shouted the man pointing to the armored fellow by the door.
“So YOU hurt my chicken!” shouted Bantum turning on the man in chain.
“No I never saw your damned chicken in my life!” shouted the man gripping his sword nervously as he stared wide-eyed up at Bantum.
Bantum pulled his mace out from his thick black belt. Star of Justice, wise in the ways of Bantum, reasoned with the giant boob that they were not sure if these men had hurt the chicken or not at that point. Bantum, not convinced, cast a glowering eye at the man in the armor and grimaced at him fiercely. The man shrunk back.
“We should talk with them, Bantum, before deciding anything,” concluded Star with a calm voice.
“I don’t like them!” shouted Bantum, but put his mace down just the same. The men showed visible signs of relief.
“Gentlemen, we are trying to find information here. As well as the villain who hurt this poor innocent foul here," he said pointing to the limpid chicken in Bantum's hand. "We’re also looking for this woman’s husband,” he said gesturing toward Lanna.
“Ben. My husband, Ben,” she said firmly. “Where is he?”
Hermel recognized the armored man as one of the rugged men who had been so rude to him at the pub, the other night. Arik, who also recognized him, went directly up to the man and said, “You there. You look like the sort who’d know where this woman’s husband is!”
“Did he hurt my chicken?!” shouted Bantum waving his mace in the air.
“Maybe he did!” said Arik. “Now I suggest you tell us, where is her husband?! And be quick about it!”
When the man didn't immediately answer Bantum went over and grabbed him by the throat. Star, at that, interceded putting his hand on Bantum’s arm, calming him for the moment. The man at the desk took the opportunity to press a button on a small box brown sitting on his desk.
“Herman! We have trouble up here. You better get up here, and I don’t mean later!” With that everyone turned on the man.
“Hey hey hey… what are you people doing down here, anyway! Don’t you know this is private property?” he demanded, trying to defray the situation.
“Who hurt my chicken!?” shouted Bantum.
“Um, excuse me,” said Hermel calmly. “But this is the part where things get very violent very fast, unless you tell us what we want to know – and I mean before Herman gets here. Get it?”
The man, suitably alarmed, fumbled with his papers… “Yeah yeah yeah! Ok ok! Ben? Ben! Hold on… yeah! Ok here he is,” he said holding up a piece of paper. “Look, see? He signed a worker’s contract! He’s working in the mine!”
“What? He signed a what?” asked Hermel looking dumbfounded at the paper with the funny scrawls on it. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means he signed an agreement to work in the mine for a year, see? It says so right here,” replied the man condescendingly pointing at Ben’s signature.
“My chicken didn’t sign it!” cried Bantum.
“Listen, lady,” said the man, “That’s your husband’s signature, isn’t it?” holding the paper aloft for her to read.
“Well,” she admitted, “that ‘X’ does look like his, I suppose.”
“Is your husband a miner?” asked Star.
“No, he’s a farmer,” she said. “He’s never mined anything in his life.”
“What are you mining?” asked Arik abruptly, now interested in the operations below the earth. He'd already noted that the crystalline metamorphosis of the M-Type Granite walls implied a local magma chamber not far off.
“That’s none of your business, sir. This is a private mine. Now, do you folks have any reason to be down here?”
“We’re here looking for this woman’s husband,” said Star.
“Well he’s in the mine, and it’s all legal as can be, so I think you haven’t any more business here, do you?”
“Why would he sign a contract like that without telling his wife?” asked Star insistently.
“How should I know,” said the man gruffly. “I just work here. And so does he.”
“Well we want to speak with him,” answered Star firmly.
“What about my chicken!?” yelled Bantum.
The man glared at him.
“Just wait a minute, the foreman is coming up, and he’ll be here in a minute. He can answer your questions,” said the man, trying to placate Bantum as best he could. Finding this answer unsatisfactory, Bantum banged his mace on the man’s desk, with a loud thud. Two of the table’s legs cracked, and papers went flying.
The Miners Return
At that moment they all heard a rumbling sound from behind the wooden wall, and then a loud clang. A few moments later the door opened and out stepped a big man covered in dust with a short curly brown beard wearing heavy workman’s cloths and a steel cap. He looked to be about forty perhaps, and not in the most pleasant mood. Behind him followed two fighting men in chain armor. They entered the room. The man in the in the lead looked around the room and seeing Bantum let out a slight gasp. He appraised him highly. Without a further pause he said, “You want a job, son?”
“Who me?” asked Bantum looking behind him trying to understand who the man was talking to.
“Yeah you! You want to make a large sum of money?”
“How much is large?” asked the simpleton sincerely.
“A LOT,” said the foreman. “If you want a job, you got one.”
“Ok,” said Bantum with a big dumb smile, pleased to know that he was wanted and was about to get a lot of money.
“This man may be the one who hurt your chicken,” said Hermel from behind.
“What?! He did?! HEY! Did you hurt my chicken!?!” yelled Bantum furiously.
“What?! A chicken?? No! I didn’t hurt anyone's chicken!” shouted Herman back, alarmed and frightened by Bantum’s sudden and wild mood swing.
“We’re looking for a miner, this lady’s husband,” said Star to the foreman, taking him by the arm. “If you can see your way to having him come up for a few minutes to speak with his wife, I think I can calm down our friend here, and we’d be very obliged.”
The foreman thought that over for a moment, looked at Bantum, the chicken, at Star, and then back at the chicken before deciding what to do.
“That chicken is not hurt,” said the foreman. “He’s sleeping.”
“He’s not sleeping!” shouted Bantum, “He’s hurt! I know my chicken! Who hurt him!? Was it you!?” he yelled waving his mace around again.
The foreman, deciding that his skill at handling the angry giant was not as good as he'd hoped, thought better about it after all, said, “Ok! Ok! …Ben, Ben, Ben… let me see…”, he said looking at the contract. He then he noticed Lanna standing there scowling at him.
“Oh that Ben,” he said. “Hi Lanna. What brings you down to the salt mines?”
“Where’s Ben, Herman!?” she demanded.
“Uh, yeah… well, he’s down in the mine, of course. We hired him, don’t ya know,” he said somewhat sheepishly.
“What MINE?! There’s never been a mine here!” said Lanna emphatically.
“Well, no… there was no mine down here. But there is now. The Inn keeper found an old salt mine when he was digging out a cellar in his barn, as it happens. ...Just do me a favor and keep it to yerself will ya? We’re trying to keep this, um, under wraps, until we have all the arrangements worked out, you see.”
“You know this man?” asked Star incredulously.
“Yes, we’ve met him on occasion at the Inn. He’s a mine foreman from the Western Hills. He's come to the Inn on occasion. But I never thought you’d do something low down and dirty like steal my husband out from under my nose! You better go fetch him, or I think my friends here are going to get pretty riled up!” she said with a clenched fist.
“Alright, alright,” said Herman. “Ok, just because it’s you, Lanna, I’ll go and fetch him. But I can only give you five minutes. He’s under contract, and I’m not even supposed to do that much. Just promise me you won’t tell anyone about the mine!”
With that Herman left went out through the wooden door, leaving the guards behind. They stood along the wall and stared at the interlopers, and particularly Bantum, nervously. The members of the party continued conversing about chickens, salt mines, and contracts until Herman returned with a dust covered young man in gray burlap, leather thong shoes and a hardened leather cap.
“Ben!” shouted Lanna, and they embraced passionately.
At that moment Ibis came stumbling down the stairs in the darkness. When he arrived at the lower corridor he followed the light ahead and saw the entire crowd of adventurers, foremen and guards. Closest to him were Lanna and Ben, who happen to still be embracing. As he was still far in the shadows no one noticed him.
Finally, Lanna pushed her husband back, and said “Ben! What are you doing down here?”
“Well, you know, we owe so much money on the farm… I signed up to do some mining down here for a while, I guess", he said sheepishly. "I’m sorry not to have told you, but we had to decide right then, and was a little drunk I suppose, and I didn’t have time to send word. I’d planned to send you word today somehow.”
“So you were not threatened or coerced in any way?” asked Star.
“No, no… not me,” said Ben. “I need the money, and it’s a good paying job, actually. And I need the money,” he concluded and kissed Lanna on the forehead. She seemed bewildered but tried to smile.
Ibis came forward at this time, introduced himself briefly as another concerned party, and asked about Korfu. He mentioned that his friend was likely in the mine with the others, as he’d last seen his friend was in the pub with Ben and the others. The foreman looked through the contracts and sure enough Korfu was among them.
“My friend Korfu is my student. He would not have signed any contract without telling me,” said Ibis.
“Not my problem, buddy. He signed the contract and that’s that, see?" stated the foreman while waving the contract in the air. "Anyway, I don’t know who you people think you are, but you’re all trespassing. I'm gonna have to ask you all to leave now. Our business is concluded.”
At this Bantum let out loud bellowing shout, and demanded to know once and for all who hurt his chicken. Ibis managed to use the possibility of Bantum’s overweening anger to convince the foreman that Korfu should be allowed to come up and talk with his teacher for just a few minutes. The foreman, highly annoyed, behind schedule, and yet rather scared of that hulking behemoth with the mace, decided that keeping everyone calm was probably a good idea. And so he agreed to that, albeit reluctantly.
The Chicken Killer
As he was about to leave, Ben asked him if he might have a few moments of privacy with his wife, and the foreman waved his concent, sending one of the guards with a nod to follow not too far behind. And with that he went through the wooden door and down into the mine again, saying he’s return with Korfu soon.
When he returned little while later, he brought Korfu. And with him another four guards, also wearing chain armor and carrying swords. Korfu, greatly relieved to see Ibis, went directly to him and they shook hands as Ibis eyed him intently for any signs of odd behavior. He deeply suspected that all of the new miners from the pub had been drugged, and forced to sign the contracts under suspicious influence.
“Ok,” said Herman firmly. “You’ve seen your miners. Now I’m going to have to ask you folks to clear on out of here. This is private property and you’re all trespassing. Let's go”
“Not until I find out who hurt my chicken!” roared Bantum, entirely enraged at having been ignored for far too long.
Herman looked momentarily as though he were about to burst his top, but then calmed himself, thought for a second, and said, “Did anyone here hurt this man’s chicken?!”
There was no answer.
“Sorry, son, but no one here hurt your chicken.” he said authoritatively.
“I sent my chicken down by himself and when I got to the bottom he was hurt. So someone down here hurt my chicken!” insisted Bantum stamping his foot.
“Wait a second,” said Herman. “Let me try to understand. So you were at the top of the trap door in the barn?”
“Yeah!” said Bantum.
“And you dropped a chicken down twenty feet?”
“And you heard a ‘Thwap’ sound?”
“Ok. I know who hurt your chicken,” concluded Herman folding his arms across his chest.
“Who!?” demanded Bantum looking around at everyone.
“You did!”, said Herman.
“Never!!!” cried Bantum incredulously.
“Yes, you did. Listen, son, you dropped a poor defenseless chicken twenty feet onto a hard stone floor. That’s what hurt your chicken!”
Bantum held the limp chicken up to his ear. “No! He says I would never hurt my chicken!”
“Ok ok, let me show you,” said Herman suddenly taking the chicken from Bantum’s hand. He held it up by one foot, and then dropped it so that it landed with a dull thwap on it’s head, making a crunching noise.
"See? That is what hurt your chicken!" said Herman conclusively, staring down at the dead chicken with satisfaction.
“Oh now you’ve done it,” said Arik grimly. Bantum was staring at the poor defenseless and quite stone dead chicken in abject horror. A look of unusual ferocity began to grow across his broad face.
“Nooooooooooo!!” shouted Bantum wildly.
With this Arik turned to Ibis and Korfu, and said under his breath, “Follow me!” and began to run back down the corridor toward the stairs, which led back to barn. Ibis, Korfu, Ben and Lanna ran after him. Meanwhile Bantum was about to heave into the foreman with his mace when Hermel put his sword across Bantum’s chest and said, “Bantum, stop!”
“He hurt my chicken again!” he said pointing to the dead chicken on the ground.
“Bantum, I’m sorry to tell you, but the foreman was right.”
“But I can’t have hurt my chicken! I love him!” cried Bantum.
“It was an accident, Bantum. You didn’t mean it," replied Hermel in a soothing voice.
“Oh… I’m sad now,” Bantum said, looking down at the chicken. Tears began to roll down his cheeks.
“Your chicken is ok, he’s ok,” said Star to Bantum. “Eldrik has received dear chicken to a better world. ‘Not a chicken shall fall, but He shall see it’”, he quoted.
Herman was looking very relieved. “Are you looking for a job, son?” he asked Hermel with admiration.
“I’ve got things to do, sorry,” replied Hermel. “Maybe in a few months.”
“Sure sure, we’re always looking for good men. You seem to know how to handle people. Come back if you want to make some good money later,” he said.
“I might take you up on that,” said Hermel.
“Guards, you better go and fetch Korfu and Ben. Looks like they’re trying to get out of their contract,” he said looking down the corridor at the receding group. The guards looking that way drew their swords and marched off into the darkness. Meanwhile Ben had stopped in the corridor. He was holding Lanna’s hand, and said, “Don’t worry darling, I’ll be home soon enough.” And then he turned back toward Herman and walked over to him. Only Star of Justice noticed that Ben had handed Lanna a small bundle wrapped in cloth that she slipped into the folds of her cloths as they had been talking.
“You sure you want to do that?” asked Star of Ben as he walked past him.
“Yup. I need the money. And ya never know what you might find in an old abandoned mine, now do ya?” he said quietly, half to himself.
As this was happening Korfu was making his way up the ladder and into the barn with Ibis, followed by Arik, who was holding the guards at bay with his shield. From behind came Hermel, Hormel, Bantum and Star of Justice, along with Lanna who was looking rather forlorn.
“Leave my friends alone!” said Bantum as they came up the corridor, and the guards, not eager to be the objects of Bantum’s displeasure, or take on the adventurers, decided to step out of the way and let the adventurer’s pass. Everyone climbed up into the barn, the guards following behind.
“Don’t worry,” said Ibis to Korfu. “We’re going to get to the bottom of this.”
“You are absolutely right,” said Star. “There was something very strange about the entire arrangement down there. I also believe the miners signed those contracts under the influence of some kind of drug based on what I saw while I was observing them that night.”
Lanna quietly made her way to the door of the barn and went out into the dark snowstorm.
“We have to take this man back to the mine,” said one of the guards, pointing to Korfu.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Ibis. “He was abducted, and we intend to get to the bottom of this.”
“I’m sorry, but we have our orders,” said the guard.
“He said NO!” shouted Bantum loudly stomping his foot such that all the chickens who had been pecking at the dirt in the barn began clucking frantically and scrambling around. The guards grew pale.
“We are going to take this up with the magistrate, but I promise if he rules against us we won’t stand in your way,” added Ibis.
“Well, … ok then,” said the guard, looking at Bantum anxiously. “We’ll just be going now.” And turning they climbed back down the ladder into the tunnel. As they did they could be heard chuckling to one another, saying, “They’re going to tell the magistrate, heh heh.” as they closed the trap door.
Star took notice that Lanna had left the Barn. As Bantum began collecting up his remaining chickens to tie to his bandoleer, and the others to varying degrees helped him, Star departed swiftly from the barn and caught up with Lanna about half way to the Inn.
A Mysterious Stone Tablet
“Listen, I don’t mean to bother you, but I happened to notice that your husband handed you something down there in the mine. I’m not interested in taking it or anything like that, but I should like to know what is going on down there. Matters here are very strange, and I feel this must be a piece of the puzzle. Would you mind showing me what he gave you?” asked Star.
She wiped tears away from her eyes, and said, “Its none of your business. It’s a gift for me. He said to keep it and not show it to anyone.”
“Its very important that we find out what is going on down there. Your husband’s well being, and everyone elses down there, may well depend on it,” said Star. Lanna stared at him for a few moments thinking.
“Ok. I’ll show it to you,” she said taking the bundle of cloth out from the fold in her cloths. She opened it and inside they found a smooth round stone that had been broken in half. On the surface was engraved a round symbol that formed what looked like a series of jagged ‘z’ shaped lightning bolts from a central black circle. Star got a very bad feeling. He suddenly remembered the dream he had the other night, and realized that this was the same symbol he’d seen in the dark depths of his nightmare. He became suddenly very cold, and sweat suddenly covered his entire body.
“By the great beard of Eldrik,” he said under his breath. Along one side of the stone were unknown glyphs that had been carved along the edge of the outer circle forming what appeared to be two words that almost seem to dimly glow with a dark yellow light. As they were speaking the rest of the party members were coming along through the snow. Lanna bundled up the stone and hid it away again.
“For the sake of my husband, promise not to tell anyone about it,” she said as she wrapped herself in her scarf and pulled the deep cowl over her head. Star didn’t answer as she trudged away through the snow into the darkness.
“You’re welcome,” called Hermel after her.
“Thank you for helping me,” she called back on the wind, and turned away to vanish into the darkness.
The heroes then stood and discussed matters. Hermel was aware that salt in the region was very valuable. In fact so much so that in some cases people used it for money. He suggested that whomever the actual owner of the mine was probably would be pretty keen on keeping it a secure secret. Herman had said as much. He suspected that none of them were in a very safe position now. He questioned how far such a person might go to ensure that the secret did not get out of the Prancing Unicorn vale. They conferred about all of the events recently, and the strange persons who had shown up at the Prancing Unicorn, and the mysterious meetings that they’d become aware of. It all began to come clear to them that there was much more to the picture than met the eye. Star considered that the salt mine was only part of the picture. Arik had the same feeling, but for different reasons.
Despite the feeling that they had a moral obligation to help the abducted miners, it was decided after much discussion standing in the snow that they should not return to the Inn, or even stay in the area at all. Ibis was the most displeased about this has he had all of his work, a great treatise he had been writing for several years on the subject of ‘Village Defensive Works on Mountainous Terrain’. However, he too realized that there was little chance after all that magistrates who happen to be at the Inn would turn out to favor their case, as it was more likely that everyone there was somehow in collusion regarding the mine. Deals were probably being struck, legal frameworks detailed, and contracts signed all the while. Going back to the Inn, and announcing impropriety they decided, might well turn out to be their death warrant, if the existence of the mine was seriously meant to be kept a secret.
And so the young heroes decided that there was nothing left to do but to follow after Lanna and hope that she would be willing to put them up at her farm until the snowstorm abated. Thus they trudged along after her leaving all behind, across the wooden bridge and through the narrow gap in the hill that lead out of the Prancing Unicorn vale. It was terribly dark and windy, and snowing, so they had a devil of a time following Lanna’s trail, but eventually, by good luck or the will of the Elkron, they managed to catch up with her. Or so they thought at first.
There was a dark shape on what they believed was the road south that they could make out dimly as a silhouette in the snow ahead. But Hermel thought it seemed to be lumbering along, rather than walking. He thought, and others conferred, that it seemed too large to be a woman, and after a moment’s reflection he decided it looked more like a shambling bear than anything like a person. Everyone stopped.The wind howled.
“Lady!” called out Bantum in a booming voice. Hermel slapped his forehead with his hand and looked down at the ground. The shadow stopped and it seemed to turn around.
“Hey Lady! It’s your friends!” shouted Bantum. The dark shape moved toward them. But as it came closer it seemed to not loom so large after all, and by the time they could see details and features they realized that it was Lanna after all. Hermel, along with everyone else, was deeply relieved.
The Flight Southward
“We’re of the opinion that we might never leave the Inn if we went back there, seeing as how there seems to be a strong interest in keeping the mine a great secret,” said Hermel, “and we were hoping you would find it in your heart to take us to your farm with you, seeing as how we helped you to find your husband, Ben.”
“You’re very pessimistic,” observed Lanna dryly.
“Yes I am,” confided Hermel. “That’s how I have managed to live to the ripe old age of fifteen.”
And with this, Lanna was persuaded to bring them along with her. However, she too had her concerns, and had decided not to return to her farm either.
“I know of a safe place in the hills,” she said. “There is a cave that was cleared out which only I and my friends have knowledge of. I am on my way there. It is large enough for all of us, and warm, and we have wood and equipment there, and food,” she said.
It was a long freezing trek through the snow. Eventually, they came to a place where there were two large standing stones. Lanna turned from the road and headed between them westward toward a line of jagged hills barely discernible as darker ribbon in the otherwise coal gray landscape. The wind was howling still, but the snow had temporarily ceased falling. The light of dawn was still a long way off from graying the horizon. A hawk screed from out of the darkness in the distance.
“Seriously?” thought Hormel to himself when he recognized the standing stones. “This way leads to the Black Hills of Ashkorah! It is an ill destiny, then, that brings us this way." He'd heard the rumors of a race of cannibal-ogres that lived in those hills, but he cast those thoughts behind him. Whatever may come of it, they'd no choice but to follow Lanna as she lead the way down the narrow path along a steep slope into a long thin valley holding a lone flickering torch above her head. The wind howled through the dead branches of the trees that lined the jagged hills about them. They crested a tall narrow hill with a sheer drop into a dark crevasse below. For a while they passed through a black pine forest tinkling with ice that lined the bottom of a vale following a frozen brook. They crested another rocky hill, and wound their way between huge boulders capped in drifts of snow like the hoary heads of long dead giants. Several times various members of the tiny group nearly slipped on the ice and plunged headlong into yawning black rifts. The going was slow and treacherous.
Finally, frozen, hungry, and exhausted they came to a steep defile at the bottom of which was a flat snow bound ridge backed by a tall gray cliff. At the center of the ridge they came a wide cave opening through which a large bear might easily enter. Lanna passed into the darkness of the cave and the adventurers followed. Once inside they found a broad and deep cavern. Lanna lit a torch and placed it in a nook along the wall. She lit two more, and so the cave took on a comfortable glow. She lit a fire in a pit where wood had been stacked up. There were pots and pans hanging from pegs that had been hammered into the wall. Toward the back of the cave there were two large columns that gave the appearance of holding the ceiling up. Beyond them was only darkness leading hither to where none knew. Lanna warned them against passing beyond the columns.
“I’ve no idea where those tunnels lead, and it were easier to get lost in them than not,” she commented as she began to boil water in a large pot. Everyone sat around the fire warming their hands and feet, and drying their cloths. Lanna brought out a stack of heavy blankets from a large wooden chest and laid them on a flat stone for them to pick from. The cave was an ideal hiding spot they all thought.
As they sat Korfu explained as much of what he knew about the salt mine as he could. They’d found an ancient set of metal tracks on which well crafted metal wagons had been placed. There was a mechanical shaft that lifted the wagons between the two levels of the mine, and he guessed that when they descended it was about one hundred feet downward. The mine itself was a series of large rectangular rooms, interconnected by long square corridors. They’d been sent to chip away in one of the chambers. Several cave ins had occurred recently, but none while he was there. He also told of a Master Miner who was a Dwarve much like Arik with a braided red beard and thick limbs and the disposition of an ogre. He also mentioned that there had been a group of three men picking away in one of the galleries with small metal tools and brushes, and seemed to be very intent on whatever it was they were working on. No one was allowed to go near them, and a metal gate cordoned off that area, but Korfu had snuck over to take a peek surreptitiously. After that, Korfu was too exhausted to speak any more and so wrapped himself in a blanket and fell fast asleep. Others desired to follow him.
“Bantum, why don’t you keep watch on the cave entrance for us? Can you do that?” asked Star.
“Ok,” replied Bantum looking over at the cave entrance. His chicken bandoleer had been placed down next to the fire and he pet one of the sleeping hens, and then covered them all with a nice warm blanket.
“Now, Bantum, don’t go out of the cave. Even if you see a pretty kitty, stay in the cave, ok?”
“Um… why don’t you, uh, take watch with him?" asked Hermel. "He shouldn’t be doing it all alone. He really shouldn’t be doing it all alone.”
“Well, yes, I do suppose you’re making sense,” said Star who was looking doubtfully at Bantum as the big fellow lumbered toward the cave entrance.
“Well,” spoke Ibis, “if no one wishes to play a game, I think I’ll turn in and get some sleep.”
“I happen to have a set of fourth edition manuals for a game called ‘Pencils and Paychecks’,” said Star hopefully.
“What kind of game is it?” asked Ibis, interested in all forms of gaming, even if they did not necessarily involve gambling.
“It’s a fascinating game played with dice and paper. You play characters in another World… where people live in tall glass towers and work on miraculous glowing machines all day and go shopping…”
“Hmm… well,” said Ibis, “... *ahem*... I was thinking more of a gambling game, to be honest.”
“I’m not much into gambling,” said Hermel as he rolled himself up in a blanket.
“Me neither,” said Star as he followed Bantum toward the cave entrance. With that Ibis shrugged and decided to get some sleep, too. Hornmel and Arik were both already sound asleep and snoring. Only Lanna remained awake by the fire stirring the pot with a large bone spoon. She had a troubled look as she watched Star heading off. He happen to turn around and notice it, and so came over to her.
“Is everything alright, Lady Lanna?” he asked politely.
“I get a strange feeling from the stone. It’s been weighing heavily on me the whole time,” she whispered to him.
“It may not mean anything, but the night of our journey to the Inn I had a very peculiar dream in which I saw an engraving on a stone that looked very similar to the one on the stone your husband gave you. The dream disturbed me greatly.”
“I don’t want the stone,” she said. “It scares me.”
“I would be willing to take it from you, if you wish for me to hold on to it for the time being. Of course I would return it to you, unless we discovered for a certainty that it were evil and needed to be destroyed,” offered Star of Justice. When he said this he thought he heard a distant voice very faintly from some far off place in the cave echoing the words “…my precious…” and it gave him a sudden chill to the bones and stood the hair of his neck up on end.
“I promised my husband I would hold on to it for him,” she replied after thinking it over.
“I understand. But please be careful. I sense that the stone has some dark power. If you decide you need help with it at any time, you may rely on me to help you if I can,” he said reassuringly. Then, turning around, he looked to see what Bantum was doing. The huge young man had unwrapped his chickens and freed them so that they were now clucking and scratching away at the dirt near the fire. One of the chickens wandered just a little bit too close to the soup, and somehow managed to find it’s way into the cauldron. Lanna smiled innocently, and took a taste with her spoon.
The Belligerent Visitors
It was the very wee hours of the morning. There was a roar that echoed through the cave. Hermel, who was on watch at that time, woke up the rest of the group. Arik, rising quickly, grabbed his axe and made his way to the entrance of the cave. Ibis was not much of a fighter, but withdrew his dagger and stood near the fire. Hornmel, Star, Korfu and Bantum got into positions around the entrance. Lanna stayed near the fire and kept a watchful eye on the rear shadows of the cave which were dancing in the flickering firelight.
“There is some kind of monster outside,” whispered Hermel.
A bellicose gravel voice boomed into the cave from outside, “Whose in my cave?”
Lanna, turning to peer out through the cave entrance uttered, “Uh oh.”
“Something to tell us?” asked Hermel.
She bat her eyelashes.
“If I die, I’m going to be very peeved with you,” said Hermel.
“Not for long, at least,” she replied. “Well… there used to be an Ogre who lived in this cave, … but we killed it.”
“Maybe it’s his brother?” suggested Star.
“Whose in my cave?!” demanded the enormous voice.
“Who wants to know?” yelled back Bantum through the entrance. Everyone stared at him, and then looked at the entrance again.
“It is my cave! I am Broknok!” came the booming answer.
“I am Bantum!” yelled Bantum in return.
“Come out and fight!” boomed the challenger.
“Ok,” said Bantum and began to move to the entrance.
“Come IN and fight!” yelled Ibis as Star positioned himself between Bantum and the cave entrance and stopped him with his outstretched arm.
“Bantum, let him come in and fight,” said Star.
“Ok,” said Bantum and stopped.
“Aye, that’s right! Come in and we’ll all fight ya!” yelled Arik.
In the entrance of the cave they could see a huge head, the size of Arik’s broad barreled chest. Korfu immediately began a chant and threw his hands up in the direction of the head. A dazzling flash shined from his palms and a bright blue light beamed forth. The Ogre however, having seen enough, had leaped backwards and vanished from view with a tremendous laugh. "Huh huh huh huh!"
They heard a voice outside but could not make out what was said. Then another low laugh, “Huh huh huh.”
“Perhaps we can negotiate with the creature,” suggested Ibis.
No one objected to trying.
“Sir Broknok, my name is Ibis. Can I ask a question?”
“Huh huh huh! Go ahead and ask!” came the voice.
“Can we make a deal?” asked Ibis.
“What kind of deal?” came the booming voice.
“Well, we give you something you want, and you give us something we want. Like that. So first, lets find out… what is it that you want?”
“I want human flesh for dinner!” thundered the voice with a tremendous bout of laughter.
“I’m not so sure we are going to be able to negotiate,” said Star.
Ibis considered sending Korfu forward as an offering, briefly, but realized that this act, while tempting to him under the circumstances, was not something that he calculated the people in the group would remotely accept. He quickly put the thought aside and tried another tack instead.
“Why don’t we play a gambling game for it instead?” called Ibis out the door.
“Don’t like games!” said the Ogre. “Now send somebody out so I can eat ‘em! I’m hungry!” thundered the monster.
“Look Broknok, you don’t have the upper hand,” called Ibis out the cave. “If you come in here we’ll kill you. If we go out there you’ll kill us. It’s a stalemate. We can only negotiate,” he said.
“Huh huh huh!” laughed Broknok.
Bantum took one of his chickens and said, “Go see what is happening,” and threw it out the entrance of the cave. They heard frantic squawking, and then a sudden crunching noise and a final squawk.
“What did you do to my chicken?!” yelled Bantum infuriated.
“I ate him!” came the booming voice. “Send another! Huh huh huh huh!”
Bantum, enraged, waved his mace in the air and said, “You hurt my chicken! I will beat you!” as he charged forward intending to have it out with the monster in the snow shrouded darkness.
“Well,” thought Hermel, “Bantum would make an all day meal for the monster… on the other hand… I kind of like the big guy…” He grabbed a chicken by the throat and held his sword to its throat. The poor chicken was clucking frantically.
“Bantum!” yelled Hermel to get his friend's attention before he leaped out of the cave. Bantum turned around and seeing this he shouted, “You’re a bad man!”
“Bantum! Come here and take your chicken!” shouted Hermel. “I’m doing this for your own good. You need to gather up all your chickens, or the Ogre may step on them when we battle him in the cave.” Bantum looked bewildered. He looked around at the remaining chickens and suddenly felt that they were all in danger of being stomped by the Ogre and realized that he had to protect them. So he ran back into the cave and began collecting the chickens, which were scattered about squawking throughout the cave. One by one he caught them and attached them carefully to his bandoleer.
Meanwhile, Arik yelled out, “Hey ugly boy, why don’t you come in here and get some?!”
A four foot tall, fur covered humanish looking creature in a red cap and brown vest appeared at the entrance of the cave and looked inside.
“Who are you?!” shouted Arik. The creature lifted his hands, wiggled his fingers and began to chant in a low sing-song voice. Arik, however, was a bit faster, and chanting his own spell, blazed out a Lightning Bolt from his fingers. At the same moment Korfu, who was also chanting, beamed forth another blinding flash from his palms. The lightning blasted the creature backwards, and the blinding flash caught it directly in it’s eyes. It vanished from view.
“I’m blind!” shrieked the little creature from outside the cave. Suddenly the Ogre’s head appeared again, and glancing inside for a quick moment, swung his arm and hurled a large rock into the cave. The rock slammed with a thud into Star of Justice, staggering him five feet backwards. His right shoulder was crushed.
“Huh huh huh huh!” the Ogre laughed.
Korfu, alarmed at the turn of events, summoned his last reserve of power and chanted his Blinding Spell again. Arik, also low on power, but still capable of chanting, tried to cast his Lightning Bolt, but it failed him, and only sparks shot forth from his fingers. He grumbled at the ineffective sputtering. Nevertheless, the Ogre was caught by the Blinding Spell, which flashed a blaze of dazzling blue-white lights across his eyes from Korfu’s palms.
“Arrrgggghhh!!” roared the Ogre and staggered backwards from the cave entrance.
“Oh Great Minvar, Ancient and Powerful, Mother of the Earth, may thy Mercy infuse through thy Holy Stone, to bring healing to our Just and Brave companion,” he intoned deeply. After a few seconds Star felt no further pain. A few second later he stood up, and moved his arm around, trying it this way, and that. Amazingly, it was completely healed. He gave thanks to Hermel, and to Minvar, and to Eldrik, for this good fortune, recommitted himself to the work of Justice, and with that blessed his Morning Star and turned toward the entrance of the cave with resolve engraved across his noble face.
With both the Ogre and the Kobold blinded the party surged outside after them and gave chase. Bantum, Star and Hornmel surrounding the Ogre bashed it, hacked it, and bludgeoned it to death against the stone ridge. Meanwhile, Hermel hung back, not caring to do harm to the monster after all, as is was his nature not to want to do more harm than absolutely necessary to anyone. Arik, for is part, had run after the Kobold, but even though he managed to zap the wily creature with a glancing bolt of lightning, and even though it had been blinded, it still managed to scamper away across the snow in the opposite direction, the hairs of its backside smouldering with embers of lightning. Arik weighted down by his own bulk, and the girth of his shield, could only follow after it so far before he found himself waste deep in snow, shrouded darkness, a little too far from the cave for his comfort. He begrudgingly returned, cursing under his breath, and so for good measure vented his great frustration by hacking at the Ogre’s head with his axe until it was fully separated from its shoulders. Inside the cave, meanwhile, everyone had gathered around the fire. Lanna, with praise for their heroism on her lips, and an eye fixed toward the shadows of the rear region of the cavern, served them chicken soup, and suggested everyone warm themselves and rest. Outside the horizon was beginning to gray with the coming dawn.
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