An Unexpected Encounter
… There they were, at the top of Hobbington Long Stair, looking out over the dark forests that covered the steep hills of Hobbington Province. Hermel had taken Star ahead and was quietly speaking with him about his plans for subduing the brigands at Yellow Clay Village. Behind them on Hobbington Wall a crowd had gathered to wish the Archers good luck on their adventure. They waved little red kerchiefs for good luck, and called out their well wishes. It was the case that whenever the Archers left Hobbington friends and family members would gather to pray for them to come back from the perilous journey to the Provinces safe and sound. Often when they did return they were worse for wear, and sometimes some of them did not return at all. Once in a while no one returned at all. It was for this reason that the Province had such a poor reputation, and most people preferred living in the relative safety of Hobbington township high up on Mount Zatok.
Hermel and Star were about a half flight of stairs ahead. They noticed that the snow had cleared from the hills below. Spring was approaching rapidly, thought Hermel, worrying himself that they might not arrive in time to intercept the Brigand leader for the trade of prisoners, including Hermel's sister, Alisa, in exchange for the villages’ supply of ‘Spring Seed’. Above them Hobbington was still cold, blustery and snow shrouded, as it often was high up on the mountain, of course.
It was a long uneventful, albeit windy, journey to the bottom of the Long Stair. The AAA Group, and the two Dectalions of archers with them, looked around at the steep hills towering ahead. The road at the base of Mount Zatok headed off North and South. Earlier they had taken the Northern Road to the Prancing Unicorn Vale. This time they would take the Southern Road, which wound its way up to a small plateau beyond which the dark hills of the Lupisylva could be seen. The route to Yellow Clay Village was a treacherous one, passing rickety bridges over deep ravines, waterfalls, and fens, among other difficulties.
Hermel set the group’s marching order, and handed out the white armbands to the archers and everyone in the company. The point position was given to Praymar, far ahead, followed next by Ishcandar twenty feet or so behind, then Lido another twenty feet behind, and then the main cluster of the party, all of whom were to be followed by the two Dectalions, comprised of ten archers each. One might have thought that Hermel positioned the party members in order of his personal preference as to who should be sprung upon suddenly by monsters and slain first, but that would be absurd. We oughtn't to suppose that Hermel would ever do such a thing. In fact the order was most likely calculated to provide the main body of men the best chance of advanced warning in case of ambush, as he said.
On the road leading up to the plateau they could see an old man riding a wagon laden with four pine wood boxes, being hauled by an old mule. He wore a wide brimmed wicker hat, and had stopped within a shallow ravine near some groves of tall pine trees. He appeared to be trying to cajole his mule into continuing the trek up the slope, without much success.
“I wonder if those are not the four Animals,” commented Hermel to the others. “Perhaps they faked their deaths, and this is their means of escape.”
They approached closer, but the old man, a weary care-worn seeming fellow, paid no attention to them. He kept his head down, with the hat brim covering his face, and continued with his efforts to get his mule to move, still without success. This might have been due to the fact that the wagon wheels had been braked in place, and could not be budged. The old man said nothing as Praymar passed by him with nary a nod.
“Ho there, old man,” said Ishcandar in his friendliest tone as he came up to the wagon ahead of the others, trying to peer up under the wide brim of his hat in order to see the man's face. He caught a glimpse but only a brief one as the hat quickly interceded. The old man didn't respond to him, but tilted his head the more to conceal his withered old face.
“What are you hauling?” Ishcandar asked, but the man ignored him, and so he awkwardly continued past the wagon up the road. Lido, as he passed, tried putting his ear to one of the pine boxes to listen within. Perhaps, he thought, if someone were alive in there, he might hear him. But no sound was heard. Lido then tried to get a peek under the old man’s hat, too, but also failed to do so. The others struggled to catch up with them as Ishcandar and Lido tarried just ahead of the cart. Praymar, for his part, had gone a bit further on ahead, and was looking around warily, darting his little red forked tongue and baring his fangs now and then. He caught sight of a small figure wearing a black robe and gray cap coming towards them down the long road from the hills.
The Nefarious Ambush
Suddenly, the old man leaped off the wagon, somersaulting in mid-air, drawing his sword as he landed directly in front of Ishcandar.
“I knew it was you!” shouted Ishcandar.
“You wretched Hobbit!” he announced, flinging off his hat, “Now it is time for you to die!”
“It is a shame you will have to die today, as you had such exquisite wine,” replied Ishcandar. The fifth animal, he thought, must have been excellent at conceiving disguises, as even without his hat the Hobbit could not in the least bit recognize him as the man who had captured Lido and he in the Five Animals Hall. But by his words, he knew that it could only be the Fifth Animal.
As it happened the wagon was in a position on the road between two small groves of pine trees and thickly overgrown underbrush. As that spot was rather narrow the cart blocked easy passage along the road. The groves of trees began just where the cart was located, while before it, in the direction from which the party was running up, there was a wide grassy meadow, on both sides of which were steep rocky rises, roughly fifty feet to the north and south. The road was located along the flat section of a low trough between two ridges, both of which were roughly ten feet high. Chickenhiemer noted to Turkenator that such a spot was ideal for an ambush. However, everyone was too busy and excited at the moment to pay any attention to the cluckings of the rooster on top of Bantum's head. Nevertheless, Turkenator flew off of the gentle giant's shoulder and landed near the cart. Although he had no particular advantages in any sort of physical combat, especially with human opponents, the turkey-commander thought it best to position himself where he might be able to do some good, if possible. He gobbled loudly as he did so in an effort to distract the old man with the sword. Arik glared at him jealously.
“We’re both short and stocky, but you can fly, while I can’t,” muttered Arik to himself under his breath. In some distant place, Omri, the Earth Lord of the West, smiled, and said to those earth spirits ministering him in his great hall of stone, “Birds fly. Dwarves walk. All is right with the world.” Arik pulled out his battle-axe and ran forward, waddling on his stumpy little legs, vastly annoyed.
Meanwhile, Star began intoning a prayer to Eldrik, Elkron of the Sun. “May Thou with Thy Bright and Shining Eye see the Evil-Doer, and with the Divine Light of Thy holy countenance Smite him Divinely, oh Mighty Eldrik!”
Ischandar tried his best to strike his adversary with his dagger as the old codger landed, but man's astonishingly quick reflexes allowed him to dodge the preemptive blow. At that moment Praymar ran up behind the villain, and reaching out with his fingers, touched him on his shoulder. The man was immediately drained of some portion of his mystical power. He darted a glance over his shoulder and gave the bizarre little albino a very nasty look. Praymar flicked his red forked tongue and smiled.
Bantum lumbered over to the cart, and not being able to get around it without crushing Ishcandar and Lido, picked up one of the coffins and hurled it at the sword wielding man. With surprising nimbleness, however, the man stepped aside with a twist of his torso. In the process, however, the coffin grazed his shoulder, tearing his shirt, and creating a dark blue bruise. The coffin landed with a heavy thud in the dirt at the edge of the grove of tress. The mule hawed and tried to escape his bonds but that was not possible and so he calmed himself and stood stock still after that. Lido crept to the far side of the wagon and drew his bow to shoot an arrow beneath it at the legs of their wily opponent, but the angle was too difficult to manage and his shot swished off into the woods.
Star was disappointed to find that Eldrik did not respond to his plea for the Divine Strike at the adversary. He wondered if Sun Lord might still be holding a bit of a grudge against him for having misused his power of the 'Aura Retribution' earlier in his adventures. It was, indeed, possible. Or it may simply have been poor timing, as Eldrik’s attention at that moment might have been elsewhere. The Elkron were awesome and powerful, but one could not say that they were Omnipotent. Like all creatures within the Universe, even the Elkron have their limits.
The Archers of the first Dectalion who happened to be in range, maneuvered to a position at the center of the glade where they might have a clear shot, and under Hermel’s order fired a volley at the villain. Their aim was good, and numerous arrows hit the old man. However, none of the attacks struck him in a vital spot, and most simply grazed him, as he deftly dodged the others.
The old man, beset by many attacks, nevertheless leaped toward Ishcandar and struck him in the shoulder with his sharp black bladed sword. A narrow wound opened up, and blood began flowing freely from it. Ishcandar staggered backwards with his back against the wagon. He tore his shirt away to look at the wound. It had a black tinge to it. He saw the beginnings of black spidery veins emanating from the wound, heading up his shoulder towards his neck.
“Blast! The tears of the black lotus!” he gasped. “Again!”
“Get out of the way!” yelled Hermel, realizing that the best strategy would be for the party members to give way so the archers could shoot without risking hitting any of them. However, not everyone fighting there was ready to disengage, and poor Bantum simply didn’t quite understand what he was supposed to get out of the way for.
The old man, realizing that his wounds were more severe than he had expected them to be so soon in the battle, leaped to the nearby trees and vanished into the undergrowth. Lido tried to follow him, but the old man was as wily as a coyote, and hid himself expertly in the greenery. Lido could not see where he was.
“You coward,” yelled Ishcandar. “They call you a deadly animal!? I think not!”
There was a whistle from the woods, loud and high-pitched. Hermel ordered the archers to move forward onto the meadow and form a line facing the woods where the old man was hidden.
“Beware of poison darts!” Hermel shouted to his party members still clustered around the wagon.
“Archers,” yelled Hermel next, thoroughly annoyed by his party members failure to adhere to his rather sensible instructions, “if the party members get in the way, mow them down!” This of course was said in the hopes that the party members would get the hint that they should definitely get out of the way. He, of course, didn't really mean it. The archers, however, well ... they were there to follow orders, not make moral decisions after all.
Arik wondered if he could set the woods on fire with his mystical lightning bolt, but he thought better of it. Such lightning was not in fact ‘real’, but mystical in nature, and thus it really couldn’t be used to catch things like wood on fire. He muttered to himself about that. Ishcandar, overhearing him, considered what he himself might be able to do to set a fire at the wagon, thinking that a fire might just smoke the old man out of the woods at that. He looked at his brandy bottle. No. It was quite impossible for him to spare brandy for even such a worthy cause. But he did recall that Bantum, a long time ago, had obtained a bottle of the ever so effective Sticky Oil from Hagan at the Rat’s Den way back when.
“Bantum!” he yelled, “Look in your backpack for a jar of black oil! Throw it at the wagon!” Bantum followed these simple-enough instructions, and once the jar was broken against the cart, Ishcandar drew his flint and steel, and set about lighting it on a fire.
“Look! On the ridge!” yelled Arik as he waddled towards the cart. Up on the southern ridge a band of ten men had shown up in response to the whistle from the woods. They all pulled up bows, knocked arrows, and prepared to fire a rain of death down on those who were in line of sight from the ridge. In fact, Hermel’s Archer Dectalions were the best targets for them, and so they fired at the closest one.
Bantum clapped merrily as the cart began to burn, the black sticky oil rapidly igniting from the sparks of Ishcandar’s flint and steel. Meanwhile, at the coffin which Bantum had thrown on the ground, Praymar pried off the lid. He stared with relish at the dead body within. He looked at the corpse to see if there was anything worth stealing. The only thing of note seemed to be a yellow strip of paper written with strange black lettering that covered the man’s face down the center and ended at his chest. Praymar had seen such a thing before. Certain cults in the provincial towns believed that when the dead were being transported to their graves, their spirits had to be constrained by such mystical papers. Otherwise, it was believed, they might break the bounds of death, and their animated corpses rise and terrorize the villagers.
“This is stupid!” he squeaked, and thought it pretty rotten that the dead man had nothing of evident value, such as a fancy necklace, bracelet or ring that could be easily seen and taken, and so he left it and went back to watching the battle.
As the archers on the ridge were above them they had a distinct military advantage, being defended behind a barrier of stones and having the high ground. However, they were not as skilled as those that Hermel had hired, and so their advantage of position was neutralized by their lack of experience. As there was a stream of water at the base of the ridge, and only one small area where it was possible to actually attempt to climb up, Hermel gave up on the idea of an assault on the brigand archer’s position. He ordered the first Dectalion to return fire, and the second Dectalion to maneuver into a better position to fire up at the ridge as soon as they had achieved line of sight.
Ishcandar took a swig of brandy as he sat with his back against a small tree near the burning cart. He looked at the painful wound on his shoulder. Black spidery veins were creeping up his neck. This displeased him to no small degree. Lido came to his side and looked as well.
“That’s rather unfortunate,” Lido said, “but you’ve been afflicted by this poison before, and come through. So lets hope for the best again.”
“Aye,” said Ishcandar, not entirely convincingly, as he took another swig from his silver flask.
At this time, the short black-cloaked figure with the gray cap who had been waddling down the road from the hills took note of the burning cart and the two groups of men and archers fighting below. He hustled as fast as his little legs could carry him, his handlebar moustache curling and uncurling unnaturally as he did. He was the kind of Hobbit who looked for trouble wherever he went, a demolition expert, and a bit of a loose cannon if there ever was one. He was as it happened, just the sort of Hobbit who might be related to Ishcandar in some way, but neither of them had ever seen the other. He chuckled with glee as he approached, rubbing his hands as he ran.
Hermel moved to the trees to take cover. Star followed behind, and took a safe position next to him. Arik ran back to take cover near the burning wagon. The others were already blocked from the line of fire of the brigand archers on the ridge, and so they crouched down where they were.
Ishcandar, seeing a fellow Hobbit, albeit an oddly provisioned one, coming down the road towards them, got to his feet, wobbly as it were, and made his way up the road towards him, somewhat delusional at that point from the poison coursing through his veins. The odd fellow traveler was looking forward to seeing, or causing, some mayhem, and was a little miffed to discover that he was in fact a bit late to participate in the battle, as it had nearly ended by then. As Ishcandar made his way on wobbling legs toward the newcomer, the black-clad Hobbit drew his sword, held it aloft, and quickly grabbed Ishcandar around the neck with his free arm.
“Friend!” said Ishcandar, “Have a drink!” as he handed the rude newcomer his silver flask with no small pang of regret, as there was little enough left within it.
“Sure!” said the black-clad Hobbit, who put down his sword and took a swig from the silver flask with great relish and a wag of his head.
“My name is Ipsy!” he announced pulling on the curls of his large black moustache and handing the silver flask back to his new found friend.
“Glad to meet your acquaintance, I’m sure. My name is Ishcandar,” he replied uncertainly, and with that sat down on the ground, the Tears of the Black Lotus making him woozy, and beginning to see unnatural colors, and strange shapes in the scenery.
Meanwhile, the battle of the Archers did not last very long. Due to their greater experience Hermel’s two Dectalions made short work of the brigand archers despite their better vantage point. Soon the battle was over, and while some of his Archers were wounded in the combat, none of them fatally so, and Hermel was sure that they would be healed sufficiently by the time they arrived at Yellow Clay Village. He ran to Ishcandar, fully aware that the old man had very likely poisoned the drunken Hobbit with the Tears of the Black Lotus, since that was, after all, the villain’s modus operendi as far as he knew.
Ishcandar was beginning to hallucinate by that time, though he didn’t mention it. Among the various odd things and patterns in the clouds he saw, there was a pair of peculiarly disturbing eyes, glowing red as coals, peering out at him from inside of Lido’s backpack. It was so bizarre, those glowing red eyes, Ishcandar felt quite compelled to take another swig from his silver flask, which, he noticed with alarm, had become deplorably depleted.
Curing the Poisonous Wounds
As he did so, Hermel called upon Minvar, the wondrous Elkron of earthly healing, to cure the poison in his friend, just as he had done before with Constable Barnstormer. This time, however, Minvar seemed to take no particular notice of his plea. Perhaps this was because he was muttering something about “wretched, no-good, low-down, troublesome Hobbits” as he invoked the Wondrous Elkron’s powers. Shaking his head, and rubbing his eyes, for some of his power had been used up in the effort, he tried again. Again he couldn’t help himself from muttering his annoyance at the irksome Hobbit as he did so, and again the mystic plea went unheard. So, Hermel stood up. He rubbed his eyes and forehead, and took note of the fact that he was now nearly depleted completely of mystic energy. It would take a full night’s sleep for him to recover even a portion of what he had already spent that day. He was thoroughly annoyed. He tried again. Again Minvar’s attention was, so it seemed, elsewhere.
One last time, as he had only just enough mystic power to do so, Hermel invoked the healing power of Minvar, and this time, finally, he was rewarded with her attention, and healing effect. Ishcandar slowly stirred from the stupor he had fallen into. He opened his eyes. The black spidery veins emanating from the wound on his shoulder began to recede. Minvar had healed the Hobbit just in the nick of time. Another minute and the poison would have reached Ishcandar’s brain, and that would have spelled doom for the happy go-lucky scion of Mr. Rokkafellah.
With this Hermel sat himself against a tree, and rested, muttering about how much he hated Ishcandar. He watched the burning wagon as it caught the nearby undergrowth of the wood grove on fire, it's billowing black plume rising high into the air. He closed his eyes, took his Dragon Stone in his right hand, and rested himself, still complaining rather bitterly, while the others tended to the wounds of the archers.
“Oh I’m sure you don’t really mean that, Hermel,” said Ishcandar overhearing the poor man’s complaints, and offered him, out of the kindness of his heart, one of the last available swigs of his very precious brandy.
At that moment a little - thwip – sound was heard, and Ishcandar felt a sharp sting on his neck. Grabbing at it with his hand he pulled away a tiny black dart with red feathers.
“Oh, no!” he cried out, “Gosh! Again with the Tears of the Black Lotus!” he exclaimed dismally as he sat down with his back against a tree next to Hermel. Off in the woods nearby the old man was crouching behind a tree, very expertly hidden from view, preparing another dart, should it be necessary. There was one thing, for some reason, in this world that the old man truly hated, and that was Ishcandar Rokkafellah! In an odd sort of way, this, unwittingly to them both, kind of made Hermel and he something almost like allies. Except of course, they were nothing of the sort! They only had that one thing in common, and naturally, Hermel, being a good guy, not an evil villain, would never consider hurting the wayward Hobbit, no matter how much he might detest him. In any event, the entire party ran over to Ishcandar as soon as they heard him cry out. However, unfortunately, no one had any idea as to a way to help Ishcandar this time.
“We’ve got to get the heck out of here,” said Arik, glaring in the direction of the pine trees.
“Yes, we need to get out of range of those trees, otherwise we may all be subject to the deadly darts,” said Star pensively scanning the grove for any sign of movement.
Turkenator flew along the edge of the woods, and unerringly spotted the wily adversary. But it was useless for him to announce that fact, as no one there spoke Chickenese, except Bantum who spoke only a few words, and actually had no comprehension whatsoever of the peculiarities of the Turkey dialect. And so Bantum picked up Hermel and gingerly carried him in his arms, following behind Arik who carried Ishcandar, along with everyone else up the road towards a safe looking bluff up ahead. As a final gesture of defiance, Praymar went to the coffin and tore the yellow paper off the face of the corpse, and tore it into pieces.
“I hope you never find the afterworld!” shouted Praymar at the corpse. It was an ill-advised notion that compelled the freakish little albino to do this, though Praymar had no idea what the result of that might be.
Once they were well out of range of the woods they stopped and put the Ishcandar and Hermel down, letting them rest. Ishcandar already began to feel woozy. Everyone was thinking hard about what they could possibly do. Even Hermel, who one might have thought would have felt no particular loss were Ishcandar to perish from the horrors of the Black Lotus, leaned himself against a tree, and offered his advice.
“Ishcandar,” he said, “you remember when we were in the Guild School and we were shown a variety of mystic powers we might be interested in learning as a Freemen…?”
“Yes, I do recall, somewhat,” murmured Ishcandar vaguely.
“And you remember they showed us all how to do various things, but only some were able to grasp those things, while others were not? If you think back, you might remember having seen Cure Poisons invocation of Minvar, the invocation I just performed on you a few minutes ago. Do you think you could repeat it exactly verbatim?”
“I’m not so sure,” replied Ishcandar, unsteadily. “I do recall it, but it’s very intricate.”
“I might be able to assist you with this,” said Star of Justice. “If I invoke the power of Eldrik to bless you at the use of this skill, he may deign to improve your ability enough for you to succeed at it.”
With nothing to lose and nothing else to try, they decided to give it a go. Star invoked the Blessing, which Eldrik kindly gave, and Ishcandar’s luck held out, and so he was thus able to invoke the mystic invocation of Minvar to cure himself of the deadly Tears of the Black Lotus, which by this time had reached as far up his neck as his right ear. Once again, the thin black veins began to recede, and Ishcandar’s hallucinations of glowing red eyes peering at him from within the folds of Lido’s backpack faded back into the stuff of forgotten nightmares.
On to Lilac Village
And with that, and many wary backwards glances the adventurers made their way up the road toward the top of the slope. As they marched an argument ensued as to whether or not they should take the opportunity to go back to the burning grove and make an end of the old man, whom they all presumed was indeed the Fifth Animal, once and for all.
“He’s at his weakest now, being wounded and alone without his students or archers, and doubtlessly demoralized,” argued Ishcandar vehemently. “We may never get a better chance to rid the world of this villain again!”
“No,” argued Hermel, “it is still too risky. We do not know how many poison darts he may have left, and going anywhere near that grove of trees could spell a horrible death for whomever might get hit. It’s too risky! And besides, he certainly now knows that he’d be better off not tangling with the AAA Group at any rate! We’re obviously more than he bargained for!”
“I’m pretty sure," added Star, "if we go back to fight the Fifth Animal at least one of us is going to die. We don’t know where he is in there, and he can shoot us with darts while we blunder around searching for him,” concluded Star, who was not relishing the idea of suffering the horrors of the Tears of the Black Lotus, or watching anyone else do so.
And with that they continued up the path. No one seemed to notice that Ipsy had vanished from their party again, without a word of goodbye. From the plateau the adventures also didn’t turn around to take a final look back, but behind them the black smoke of the burning cart, and the woods which had by then caught fire, rose into the darkening sky. This, any of them might have noted, seemed strangely reflected by the plume of smoke that also rose from Hobbington high up on Mount Zatok, where several fires could be seen having broken out in two areas of the mountain township. And this, it seemed, was again reflected by another far more distant pillar of black smoke that rose from the vale of the Prancing Unicorn Inn, where the disaster of the salt mine had occurred. And so none of them took note of the odd fact that wherever they had recently been, smoke was seen rising into the glowering cloud laden sky. The Elkron, however, as they always do, took note, some smiling, some nodding, and some frowning.
The sky was dark with clouds and it began to rain. A storm was coming in. Arik, having let Hermel rest enough, ushered everyone down the road. It took the rest of the day, and well into the night, before they came to Lilac Village. It was a walled township, very prosperous, with lots of two and three story buildings, shops, and guards at the gate, as well as a watch patrolling the streets all night. Explaining their errand to the guards, they were allowed entrance, even at that late hour, and brought by a townsman to the closest Inn. It was a fine place, filled with flaming hearths, plenty of food, drink, comfortable beds, pillows and blankets. And so the AAA Group took rooms there for the night, while Bantum carried Hermel to a bed so he could sleep. The archers, who were on a more modest budget, took rooms in an adjoining building, not quite as nice, but serviceable enough for military men. And so it was that the AAA Group collected themselves in front of a warm fire at a large table, and with great relish ate a late dinner of roasted port, hearty three-grain bread, white butter, honey-mead, and all the trimmings they might have wished. After that, they retired to bed. Meanwhile, the archers, those who had not been too wounded, played dice by the fire, and sang drinking songs long into the night. Somewhere in the distance a church bell rang twelve times, and then even the archers grew sleepy, and so retired drunkenly to their rooms to get some sleep.
Outside in the black of night, the rain poured down in heavy sheets. Lightning flashed across the horizon, silhouetting a black figure riding the back of a mule, one fist raised in the air, shaking. Behind the mule were being dragged the charred bodies of four corpses in black burlap sacks, sheets of wet, charred and tattered yellow paper scripted with arcane letters adhered to each.
“I will get you for this one day,” intoned the old man riding the mule in a voice as low and sinister as the left side of doom. “You will see. By all that is dark and unholy, one day you will regret that you chose to double-cross the Five Animals, Ishcandar Rokkafellah!”
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