Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Mysteries Unfolding at Harrowsgate

The Stand Off

...Hermel had charged into the broad and wide tavern room, followed by the archers. Bantum, the youthful giant, pushed his way through the ranks and stood facing the Brigands fiercely. The archers knocked their bows with arrows. Seeing he had the drop on the Brigands, Hermel stared down the Brigand leader, Scarface, who stared back, his jaw set, his eyebrows furrowed; he was ready for fighting.

“You’re out numbered, and you face death. Drop your weapons and leave,” said Hermel coolly. “Archers, get ready… if they do not do exactly what I say, give them an arrow for their trouble.”

Chickenhiemer and Turkenator alighted off of Bantum’s head and shoulder and fluttered over to the bar where they alighted in front of the barkeep. Chickenhiemer cocked his head several ways, blinked a few times, and began clucking to himself.

"Something very odd is going on here," clucked Chickenhiemer quietly to Turkenator. He could hear the ultra-high frequencies of advanced radiotronic equipment echoing within the Black Dragon Inn. But this was strange, given that they were quite far from Hobbington, where Dr. Lobe had been experimenting with ancient equipment he'd discovered in the deep tunnels beneath the city. He instructed Turkenator to help him triangulate on the sound.

During the pause while the Brigands stared in consternation, another batch of archers filed into the tavern and took positions behind the first group, knocked their arrows and took aim, ready to fire on Hermel's order. The other members of the AAA Group were still outside the door of the tavern. Arik cast upon himself a mystic spell of speedy movement, and prepared to dash through the door into the room. He calculated he should be able to reach one of the Brigands in the first moments of combat if the spell worked as advertised. Meanwhile, Praymar dodged around the side of the building to see if he could find a side or rear entrance. Star remained near the front door to watch the street, while Lido climbed up onto one of the windowsills and considered whether or not he could get a good shot from there with his sling. Bantum, irate at the fact that the Brigands were accosting his friend Ishcandar, decided to leap directly into the room where the Brigand leader was standing. Bantum had a fantastic ability to leap. It was a special feat known at the Guild as 'Salmon Leaping'. However, just he was about to jump, he realized that he couldn't quite make it without crashing down onto Ishcandar because there was a table awkwardly in the way, and so stopped himself at the last second.

Scarface, without further ado, lifted Ishcandar up off the ground and held him by one thick arm, and so used the hapless Hobbit as his personal shield against the archers. No one moved.

Ishcandar, calling upon the skills that he had learned while studying at the Adventurers Guild, recalled an Invocation of Omri that, if pronounced correctly and with the proper intonation and finger gestures, would strike a man with a stone to the head. At that moment Lido was preparing just such a stone in his sling, and looking for a target. Omri, having been invoked properly, guided Lido’s strike, and so the stone lofted directly across the room to Scarface’s head. It hit with a loud ‘Thwack’! A large red welt appeared in the center of his forehead. Scarface growled and grit his teeth from the pain. Nevertheless he was a tough old cuss, and did not drop Ishcandar, but instead held him up a bit higher in front of himself.

“Go ahead,” said Scarface to Hermel. “Make my day.”

“You men there,” said Hermel to several of the Brigands, who had come running from across the room to where Scarface was standing. “My archers will hit you first. But your chief there, they won’t hit.”

The Brigands did not seem impressed by that threat. They brandished their weapons and snarled at the archers.

“Archers,” said Hermel, “use the poison arrows.”

This threat, however, impressed them.

“Whoever is missed,” cried out Bantum, “I will crush them!”

The Brigands didn't look happy about that either. They glanced at each other nervously. All eyes were darting from friend to foe, and back again.

“You didn't drop your weapons,” said Hermel to the Brigands. “One, two, three,” he said to three of the Archers, “shoot them.” The three archers drew back on their bows and took aim. Arik, having completed the incantation of the mystic spell of speed, moved astoundingly fast for a Dwarve, through the door, past Bantum, and stopped close by where the foremost Brigand was standing, his axe brandished by his strong right arm. Bantum prepared to bring down his magnificent Dwarven Warhammer on the head of the closest Brigand to him. Ischandar meanwhile squirmed quite a bit, and hoped that he would live to squirm another day.

Enter The One Eye'd Merchant

“Hold it!” boomed a voice from the balcony above. Everyone stopped. A commanding looking figure with a scar on his right cheek, and a black eye patch stood on the edge of the balcony with one arm raised. He wore a wide brimmed black hat, elegant leather vest and leggings, a long dark cloak. He had the bearing of a leader. Somehow, although he could not place him at that moment, the man looked vaguely familiar to Hermel. Deep down inside, he felt he had seen him before, somewhere. And not that long ago. But this information remained lodged in his subconscious mind.

At that moment Bantum was in mid-swing. He was not of a mind to stop it in any case. The Brigand, seeing the glinting warhammer heading for his head, dodged out of the way, and escaped the deadly blow. Everyone else stopped moving. Bantum slowly whirled to a stop and stared up at the man on the balcony.

“Scarface!” barked the man in a stern voice, “What are you doing with that Hobbit? Put him down!” Scarface looked up like an angry dog that had just been hit, but he didn't move a muscle.

“Save the arrows men,” said Hermel to the archers, “lets see what they have.”

“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” said the man with the eye patch, “I’m sure this must be some sort of misunderstanding.”

“Who are you? And why should we believe these thugs will listen to ya?” demanded Arik tensely, his battle-ax still raised in the air.

“Scarface!” order the man in a low tone, “put that Hobbit down - Now!”

“Yes, yes,” shouted Ishcandar over his shoulder, “I came in to have a drink and this man tried to take my purse!”

“Why he tried to kill me!” shouted Scarface, looking as though he was ready to run the Hobbit through with his sword.

“Me? Against you?! Ridiculous!” cried Ishcandar, believably enough.

“No, no, no,” said Hermel in his calm paternal voice. “You gave him your purse. That purse is his, Ishcandar.”

The Hobbit wondered if he could invoke Omri to drop a rock on Hermel’s head.

“Well,” said Lido to Hermel, “you upset him so when you stopped the archers from defending him. He dropped his purse because he was not of sound mind.”

“It doesn't matter,” replied Hermel. “He gave the purse away, and this man didn't steal it from him.”

“Men, men!” commanded the one eyed man on the balcony. “Stand down! This is some kind of misunderstanding, clearly. Let’s not have a fight in the tavern,” he said, emphasizing the word in meaningfully. He gave a stern glare with his one eye at Scarface.

“Lets not bicker and argue,” said the man. “Let me buy you some drinks, and we’ll settle things like reasonable people. Men, treat our guests like gentlemen. You know how to do that Scarface, don’t you?”

The burly Brigand stared up at his master dubiously.

“Come on Bantum,” said Arik reassuringly, “we’re not going to fight with these men after all. You can put the warhammer down. That man is going to put Ishcandar down now.”

"Ok" replied Bantum and lowered his warhammer.

With that, Scarface finally put Ishcandar on the ground.

“You haven’t told us who you are yet,” said Arik to the man on the balcony.

“I’m a trader in the hills. A merchant. I move goods from here to there and sell them, hopefully for a profit,” said the man.

“And these men work for you?” asked Arik.

“I hire them occasionally to do guard work. For that they've been effective enough. Especially in the hill country. They’re rough men, but good in a pinch. They know how to fight monsters,” answered the man, smiling politely.

“I’m here!” squeaked Praymar charging through a door in the rear of the tavern. No one took more than a momentary glance in his direction. Looking around and seeing as how the fight was not to be after all, he wondered if he should go back to the rear room and poke around to find out who had been lurking in the lit room next door. The person on the other side of that door seemed to him to be suspiciously moving, as though trying to be quiet, yet failing at that due to the creaky floorboards. Had he not been thinking his friends needed him in the fight, he would not have bypassed the room and entered the tavern instead.

“Monsters?” said Arik. “Are you on your way to the Hedge Country, by chance?”

“Enough, Arik,” said Hermel.

“But I didn’t say anything,” protested Arik.

“Enough,” repeated Hermel quietly.

“Well, men," called down the Merchant Trader from above, "buy these good people a round of drinks. And I don’t want to hear any more fighting down there tonight. You do understand me, don't you, Scarface?”

“Yes sir. Sorry about that sir. There won’t be any more fighting tonight sir,” said Scarface.

“Fine. I have more work to do on my, uh, ledgers. I don’t want to be disturbed again. I’ll be retiring now,” he said. “Good night, gentlemen. I apologize for my men’s rude behavior. I trust they shall make it up to you with a round of fine ale, or whatever you're drinking.” And with that the man with the black eye patch turned and went back into his room and closed the door.

“Lets go, men. We’re going back to the barn,” said Hermel. “Don’t turn your back on these people,” he said in a low voice, and presided over a careful and tense exit as the archers backed out onto the street. Arik went over to Ishcandar who was leaning against a post holding the wound on his shoulder and looking a bit pale.

Reconciliation

“Come on, lets go,” said Arik to the Hobbit. There was still blood flowing from his wound, and the white cloth staunching it had turned bright red.

“It was a brave fight,” said Ishcandar to Scarface, seemingly as if to suggest that Scarface was brave to dare facing off against the magnificent Hobbit. But as that was so ludicrous, people generally took it the other way. Scarface looked at Ishcandar, and nodded his acceptance of the Hobbit's bravery.

“I hate to say it,” he replied with a small awkward smile, “but I owe you a drink, as it turns out.”

“Why not?” said Ishcandar, shuffling over to the bar. “Let’s do it.”

“Bartender,” said Scarface setting Ishcandar up on a stool, “bring us a round of drinks!” And with that he took out his pouch full of money. It was Ishcandar’s pouch, actually. The zesty Hobbit assured himself that the pouch would soon be his again, and he smiled as he took the bottle of whiskey and heaved himself a big long swig. toasting all the Brigands in the room.

“What are you drinking, sir,” asked Scarface of Hermel. “You seem like the right kind of guy. You know how to handle yourself,” he added. But Hermel simply pushed his hat up with one finger, gazed without expression, and didn’t reply. A cool customer, thought Scarface to himself.

Chickenhiemer was still clucking away, and had been the entire time. He flew over Bantum’s head and landed near the kitchen door, and began pecking at the floor there. Turkenater quickly followed behind him, and they two of them clucked and gobbled together as they pecked at the floor. Bantum, wondering what Chickenhiemer was doing, followed behind him. When the cook saw Bantum quickly following after his birds, he decided it would be far wiser to leave the chicken and turkey be, and go back to chopping celery stalks and throwing them in the soup. Ah, a chicken and a turkey would sure have been nice, though, he thought to himself, watching the two out of the greedier corner of his eye. It was not meant to be.

“Where are you going, chicken?” called Bantum. Chickenhiemer and Turkenator made their way through a door into another room. It was a pantry. Bantum followed them in. Chickenhiemer was clucking quite a bit, and Turkenator was gobbling in reply. They had gone to a wall where there were no shelves, and Chickenhiemer pecked at the floor boards there. He was quite intrigued.

Meanwhile on the other side of the tavern, Praymar approached the pretty young woman who was still sitting at the far table, occasionally sipping on her mountain wine. She watched the room through eyes that conveyed only a dynamic stillness, difficult to read, yet filled with radiant danger.

“Gee, you’re pretty,” said Praymar. She showed little sign of interest at his audacious statement. He flicked out his bright red forked tongue. She raised an eyebrow. He smiled, exposing the tips of his white fangs. She went back to drinking her wine, having decided to gaze elsewhere.

Once the archers had filed out into the street, Star of Justice entered the tavern. He made his way past the Brigands, all of whom had gone back to minding their own business and were drinking merrily. When he got to where the young woman was sitting with Praymar, he approached and gave a small bow. She looked up at him. Praymar flicked out his tongue and gave Star a red-eyed glare.

“Have you arrived here lately?” asked Star.

“Just recently,” she said calmly, taking another sip of wine.

“I hope you don’t think me over-forward, but have you ever had any dealings with the Temple of Eldrik?” asked Star. She looked around and gave a meaningful nod towards the Brigands. Praymar smirked to himself. She took a sip of hot mountain wine.

“Maybe,” she said.

“You’re not certain? Or you prefer not to say,” asked Star, entirely innocent of human subtlety.

“Perhaps now is not the best time,” she said bluntly.

“Sorry for disturbing you,” said Star, who had no understanding of innuendo, having been raised in the Temple at Star Cliff by his hermetic master, without very much in the way of social experience.

“My friends and I are staying in the mule barn across the street, in case you care to speak later,” he said. And without further conversation he walked back across the tavern to where Ishcandar and Scarface were sitting.

“Bartender,” asked Star. “What kind of tea do you have my good man?”

“Tea?” asked the Bartender. “I have black dragon tea. Would you like that?”

“Do you have green tea?”

“No. This is the Black Dragon Inn. We have strong black dragon tea.”

“Do you have weak black dragon tea?”

“No. Just strong black dragon tea. We do have Bristle Berries, though. I can make you bristle berry tea, if you like.”

“No, that’s ok. I’ll take the strong black dragon tea. That’ll be fine,” said Star, thinking better of it after all. Bristle berries were really quite unpleasant. He wasn't sure why anyone would serve bristle berry tea. The Bartender poured him a cup of extra strong black dragon tea. It went down hard. It was a bitter dark black drink, reputed to make one’s hair grow thick and strong, and improve one's blood flow. Practically medicinal, in fact.

Arik had a seat at the bar and took a long draw off his mug of Hawkfeather Ale. It was a fine ale, indeed. Famous around those parts, in fact.

“Hey, you there,” he said to the thick bearded Brigand. “Come on over and have a drink with us.” The thick bearded Brigand gave a look to Scarface, who gave him the nod, and so he came over and sat down, too.

“You look like fine kind of caravan guard,” said Arik, clinking mugs with him like old friends.

“Ya have to make a living somehow,” replied the Brigand, and downed his mug like a real man.

“I get ya,” said Arik and did the same.

“Excuse me,” Praymar was saying to the young woman on the other side of the room, “you look like an amazing fighter, and I’ve never seen anyone like you before.” The woman gave him a sideways glance and went back to drinking. “Can you tell me what its like to be of your stature?" he asked politely as he could. "Cause no one ever seems to notice me,” he added, looking down at the table with a frown.

She looked at him.

“There. I noticed you,” she said.

“Thank you,” replied Praymar brightening up a bit, “but you didn’t tell me anything.”

“Waiter,” said the woman.

“Yes, yes!” said the waiter. “How can I help you?”

“What do you drink?” asked the woman of Praymar.

“Gee,” he said gushing, “no one has ever asked me that before. What do you recommend?”

“Waiter,” she said, “bring a pot of black dragon tea.”

“Yes, miss, right away,” said the waiter, and hustled off.

Another Ploy

Hermel kept a watchful eye on Ishcandar. The Hobbit was drinking his usual vast quantities, and seeming to be drunk as a cow on a log, but in fact he was not really so drunk, and was wondering to himself exactly why things had flipped around so quickly. He was hoping that he could get more information from the drunk Brigands. He suggested that he Scarface enjoy another round. The Brigand never imagined that anyone so pint-sized could drink so much!

“So what brings you fellows out to a place like this?” he asked, but there was no answer. He tried another tack. “It seems to me that men like you wouldn’t need to follow a man like that,” he said nodding up towards the room up on the balcony. “Why would you?”

“He pays well,” said Scarface, downing another shot of whiskey, drunkenly.

“Ah, yes, I could see that. But not that well, if you need my money. Perhaps I could pay you more than he?”

“Why? Do you have more?” asked Scarface, looking at Ishcandar over his shoulder, one eye a little narrower than the other.

“Can I pay more? Why of course. Have you not heard of the Rokkafellahs?”

“Sure, I have,” answered Scarface, glancing over at his bearded buddy who was also listening intently.

“Well, I’m the son of the wealthiest scion of the Rokkafellah family in Hobbington. That’s all,” said Ishcandar puffing out his chest and looking up proudly.

“You know,” said Hermel, “He would be worth a lot of money if you held him hostage.”

“Well, I suppose he might be at that,” said Scarface, appraising Ishcandar with one eye.

“It would be risky, though,” said Hermel. “His father is a bit of a miser. While he would spare no expense to get his son back, he wouldn’t waste a fathering on giving it over to a Brigand for ransom. He would do something far more decisive, actually.” And with that Hermel walked back over to the end of the bar where he had been standing. While he was saying this, Ishcandar took his greedy little fingers to the belt on which Scarface had tied his good old pouch, figuring the Brigand was suitably distracted at that moment.

“Hey, you looking ok there, Ishcandar?” said Arik loudly, and putting his hand on Ishcandar’s bad shoulder. That was quite painful, and the Hobbit winced instead of grabbed.

“Ishcandar,” said Hermel. “Stop picking Scarface’s pocket.”

Scarface put his hand on the pouch to check it. It was there, safe and sound. He eyed Ishcandar warily after that. No sense in letting his little friend steal back the money he had so kindly given away earlier he thought. Besides, he thought, the vexing little Hobbit was more likely than not to spend the whole sum sitting there at the bar after all.

“Besides,” Hermel continued, speaking to Ishcandar loudly, “It’s time for us to have our little chat. Lets step outside, shall we?”

On the other side of the tavern Praymar was sitting with the young woman as she sipped her wine. He was asking her about what she’d seen in the world. She answered vaguely about rivers and cliffs and mountains.

“Do you have any souvenirs?” asked Praymar.

“Scars,” she replied with a grave tone.

“Can I see them?” he asked eagerly.

“They’re on my heart,” she replied.

“Can I seeeee them?” he asked even more eagerly.

“Ok. Now you’ve freaked me out. Go away,” she said.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Praymar, truly regretting his outburst. “Fine,” he said finally, and he got up to leave her.

And so ended the short and fruitless romance of Praymar and the mysterious lady in Black Dragon Inn. She wasn’t his type anyway, he thought as he moped his way across the room to where Hermel and the others were standing.

At this point Chickenhiemer had been clucking and pecking at the wall for some time.

He and Turkenator had inspected every inch along the wall but failed to find a trigger to open the secret door. It was a stone wall, but Chickenhiemer recognized the style of architecture as quite clearly late Varincarnian, probably constructed during the Pre-Ruby War Era. That would, he speculated, explain the location and construction of Harrowsgate generally, with its enormously fortified position, and the unusual thick walls of the buildings, many of which were two to three feet of solid stone. However, given the radiotronic frequencies, and the fact that the lead edge molding was in fact the much later Hastings-Farrows style, he conjectured that a secret door would likely be found along the western wall of the pantry. Unfortunately, as he well knew, secret doors of that era were often load balanced and required the triggering of a hidden mechanism. Having searched the probable locations along the lower edges of the Hastings-Farrows floor molding, he was about to embark on a careful climb among the shelves. It was more than likely that the trigger would be a jar that needed to be pulled, or a latch along the inner rim of one of the shelf posts, or perhaps a stone button along the wall that needed be depressed to engage the pulley system. Regrettably, before he and Turkenator had time to locate the activator, Star came into the room looking for Bantum. The gentle giant, of course, had been obediently standing idle in thoughtless state of happy enjoyment waiting for Chickenhiemer to finish. But Star, as he knew, was not nearly as accommodating as Bantum, and unlikely to fall under his spell.

Without further ado, Bantum seemed to awake from his gazing as though he'd been under a kind of spell while watching the chicken and turkey peck their way around the room. Star helped him to round up the fouls and so they brought them outside where everyone else had gathered.

Off to the barn they went, Chickenhiemer clucking uselessly to Turkenator about the transducant-resonant architecture of the Inn, the matching resonant frequency of the bell in the Mission Tower, which he had noted to himself when Hermel hit it with his arrow, among a number of other details, including the Log-Periodic Dipole array he had noticed on top of the Mission Tower. The beam was curiously pointed West-Northwest, approximately 289.12 degrees. Therefore, he was quite certain that the control room had to be located on the other side of the pantry wall. Ah well. A chicken’s life is never all that good, in the best of times. But this, even for Chickenhiemer was a bit much.

He clucked despairingly as Bantum carried him to the barn. Turkenator gobbled his annoyance from Star's arms as well.

As they went back toward the barn, Star noticed three men heading toward the Black Dragon Inn. He looked more carefully and realized that one of the men looked familiar to him. In fact, the broad bearskin vest, the beaded boots, and old worn cloak left him no doubt who it was.

“Hermel,” said Star as he entered the mule barn, “I believe your cousin Hornmel has come to town. He’s with two men, and heading to the Black Dragon Inn.”

Hermel looked up from his hay stack somewhat disbelievingly. While it was not improbable that they would both wind up taking the same road to Yellow Clay, the likelihood of both arriving in Harrowsgate at the same time struck him as highly coincidental. The Elkron smirked at this.

“Hello there,” he said stepping outside the barn to intercept them. Hornmel turned from the tavern door, and seeing Hermel ran over and gave him a big hug.

“Hermel! Am I glad to see you!” he cried. “I have just come this far from Bear Claw Village. These here are two monks that were sent along by the old master there. This is Moose Marjon, and this is Jimmy Lee,” he said by way of introductions. The two monks, dressed in simple yellow robes, and bald headed, bowed and gave a sign of blessing.

“There’s no room at the Inn tonight, so why don’t you camp out with us in the mule barn,” said Hermel, giving a narrow glace toward the tavern to see if anyone happen to be looking their way. No one was. And with that they all went inside and settled themselves on the hay and prepared their bedrolls.

“Ishcandar,” said Hermel shortly thereafter, “let me take a look at your wound.” Ishcandar took off his shirt and Hermel examined it carefully. “That’s a nasty wound,” he said, “and will leave a nasty scar. Hopefully it will serve as a reminder of the danger you put us all in, and you’ll have learned a valuable lesson for your troubles.”

“I don’t see how that’s possible,” said Ishcandar raising one finger high in the air.

“Yeah? Well perhaps after you’ve gone without drinking for a few weeks, you’ll see the light,” replied Hermel in his parental tone. “Not one drop, Ishcandar, or I’ll leave you by the side of the road.”

“Certainly, that’s not possible for Ischandar to do,” said Lido who was listening in from a short distance away.

“It’s never happened in the past,” said Ishcandar. “Come on,” he went on cavalierly, “you know you love me.”

“No, Ishcandar, I don’t,” replied Hermel calmly. “A lot of blood as been lost because of you. Of course, actually, most of it was your own. But nevertheless, I think you get the point. Or at least I hope you do.”

Ishcandar could not imagine going without a drink for an hour, let alone a day or a week. He began to crave a drink.

Tales of the Monks' Journey

Star, meanwhile, had taken a seat by Jimmy Lee, and was asking him about his life at the Bear Claw School. Jimmy was a traditional monk. He had a flat face with a wide nose, and was shaved bald. He was muscular, but not overly so. He carried a small shoulder satchel. He moved with a natural grace and surety.

“There’s not a monastery there, is there?” Star was asking him.

“There is,” said Jimmy, “but we did not build it. It was a ruin for a long time on the beyond the edge of the village, at the top of the falls, and was there when the fathers of the town first arrived there. We don’t know who built it. But when the teacher came the first thing he did was to clean it out, and established his school there. I’ve been a student with him since then. I’m the senior student.”

“What style does he teach?” asked Star, deeply curious.

“The style is called Iron Bear. It’s a rolling style, using heavy hands.”

“Heavy hands,” repeated Star, not quite comprehending.

“Why? Are you interested in Martial Arts?” asked Jimmy.

“I’m a Warrior Priest of Eldrik,” answered Star. “I’m interested in the fighting styles of the other Temples as well, of course.”

“To learn the Iron Bear fighting style you must join the monastery, and take a vow of poverty, abstinence, defense of the poor and the oppressed, and obedience to the master,” said Jimmy. Moose, who was sitting with them, nodded affirmation of this. He also was dressed in the same faded yellow robes, and had a shaved head. “Then you can learn the secrets of the Iron Bear style,” concluded Jimmy.

“Iron Bear,” repeated Star. “And what of you, Moose?” he asked, “Are you also a monk of the Iron Bear School?”

“Yes,” said Moose with pride in his young voice. “I am a junior student. Teacher sent me. After Hornmel arrived and spoke with our teacher, he agreed to allow me to go with him to ascertain the disposition of the Brigands at Yellow Clay. We are then to send word back, and the teacher will decide what to do.”

“That was good of him,” said Star. “We’re on our way there as well.”

“It has been a dangerous journey. We lost three students along the way,” said Moose.

“What happened?” asked Star, surprised and alarmed to hear this.

“Great bunch of fighters,” commented Praymar from his bed sarcastically.

“Be quiet Praymar,” said Star.

“What’s this?” asked Moose as he and Jimmy took note of Praymar for the first time.

“This is Praymar,” said Star.

“Its… it’s a creature…” said Moose hesitantly.

“It’s ok. Just pretend not to notice him,” called over Arik reassuringly. Praymar glared at him and flicked out his forked tongue with a hiss.

“He’s not a man,” said Moose nervously looking over his pale white skin, long silver hair and red glowering eyes.

“Excuse me?” asked Praymar, now sitting up and leaning on an elbow. “I’m more of a man than this guy,” he added with a flick of his forked tongue while pointing a finger at Jimmy.

“Hmmmm…” said Moose.

“Wanna arm wrestle?” asked Praymar.

“Umm… well,” said Moose. “Maybe another time.”

“Wimp,” replied Praymar while laying back down.

“Be quiet Praymar,” said Star.

“I’m just saying… these are the guys who are supposed to help us save your village? Humph,” answered Praymar.

“You don’t know what they went through to get here,” replied Star quietly. “What did you go through to get here?” he then asked of Jimmy.

“Apparently more than they could handle,” suggested Praymar from his hay pile.

“Praymar!” said Star sternly. "Please, Jimmy, do go on."

“We left Bear Claw Village,” said Jimmy, ignoring Praymar, “and came to a mountain hamlet where we met an old Shaman. He controlled everyone in the hamlet and no one would help us there. So we left and futher on we met a Giant.”

“A Giant?” exclaimed Star.

“Yes, a magical Giant. He's a fisherman and we got captured in his spell, so to say. Then the Shaman and his witch-wife attacked the Giant, and we helped him to escape the poison spell. Moose got that knife he has from there. Then we had other adventures through the hill country, and finally we came to Grizzly Falls. There the town was under some dark power. We lost three students there.”

“Oh sure sure,” said Praymar. “Blame it on ‘a dark power’. Some excuse.”

“Praymar!” yelled Star at him as sternly. “Be polite. These men are our guests!”

“I’m just sayin…”

“I’m just saying,” said Star, cutting him off, “keep a civil forked tongue in your head, … please.”

“It just seems a little far fetched, that’s all,” insisted Praymar. “I mean really, common… a magical fishing Giant? Really? And then they helped him? What is that? Seriously?”

“Well, why don’t you listen to the whole story, and then decide?” suggested Star with the patience of a Saint. “Besides, I should think that a little albino boy with red eyes and a forked tongue should not be so surprised by magical beings.”

“I’m not magical,” said Praymar. “Well, maybe a little,” he added on second thought.

“Do you remember what happened in Hobbington?” asked Star.

“Well, actually, I don’t.” replied Praymar, wishing he could remember.

“It was very magical,” said Star.

“Well, maybe. But anyway, I don’t know about these guys. Do you think they would help me if I was in trouble? I don’t think so.”

“Would you help Praymar if he was in trouble?’ asked Star of Moose. There was a pause.

“See? I don’t think so.”

“Why don’t you let them speak for themselves,” insisted Star.

“I am! I’m listening!” insisted Praymar.

“You’re being very rude!”

“Sorry I’m being rude,” said Praymar to Jimmy.

“It’s ok,” Jimmy replied without rancor.

“I just can’t understand how you can be so incompetent,” went on Praymar tossing a hand in the air.

“Maybe if you listened to what they had to say you would understand,” said Star.

“Fine. Go ahead,” Praymar in reply, clearly not believing it would happen.

“Well, uh, yes,” said Jimmy. “Well, when we got to Grizzly Falls, we went to one of the Inns. We noticed that the towns people were striken with fear. It seemed to center around the presence of a girl in a black cape, but we only caught a glance of her while we were there. We stayed at the Inn. That night bears attacked the town and killed a lot of people. We tried to help, but three of the students were mauled and died.”

“Bears?” asked Praymar.

“Were there many bears?” asked Star.

“Yes,” answered Jimmy.

“There were lots of bears, I think,” said Moose. “It was dark. But it seemed there were tons of them. I don’t know how many.”

“Did you say you saw bears?” asked Arik who came over and sat himself down on his knapsack with a thud. A few flies flew off of the rancid smelling thing.

“Yes,” said Moose. “Crazed bears. They went berserk on the entire town.”

“Bears?!” asked Bantum who had come over with Arik. “I want to play with them!”

“No, these were crazy bears. They killed a lot of people,” said Jimmy.

“Noo, they wouldn’t do that,” said Bantum looking up thoughtfully with one finger on his chin.

“These bears did,” replied Moose.

“Ohhhh… they are bad bears. Lets go kill them,” answered Bantum.

“We have other things to do,” said Arik.

“Well, we felt lucky to get out of there alive,” said Jimmy.

Hermel walked over. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said. “You came to help Yellow Clay?”

“Yes, we did,” said Moose.

“Well, since you came at my request, I know owe your village. I will repay you as best I can.”

“You don’t owe us anything. We came at our Teacher’s request,” replied Jimmy solemnly

“Well, I owe your Teacher then,” answered Hermel. As always, he was quite serious about that, and fully intended to back up his words.

“You can speak with our Teacher about it, if you wish,” said Jimmy. “But our mission is to report to the Teacher about the Brigands. Once we see what is going on, we will send word by special courier. The Teacher will decide what to do.”

“I hope there will be time enough… the Brigands might be hasty, and there are dangers on the road, you say. Perhaps the Teacher will not have time to provide help before it’s needed,” commented Hermel.

“Our courier is fast. He will not fail. The Teacher will know the situation shortly after we do,” answered Jimmy. “But yes, the road is dangerous. The worst of it was in Grizzly Falls. It was unexpected. Never have we seen bears in such a frenzy. They seemed to be driven mad by something.”

Praymar, who grew up in Grizzly Falls, smiled darkly to himself. Yes, there were frightening things in that mountain hamlet. He knew it well.

“Praymar,” said Hermel. “Can I speak with you for a moment?”

“Now you want to speak with me? Okay.”

Hermel took the young albino aside and spoke with him in a whisper.

“I just realized how you can be of help to us,” he said as they walked out into the dark street away from where others might overhear them.

“How is this?” asked Praymar, intrigued.

“Well, you know I’m going to want to try to get information out of the Brigands once we capture them, right?”

“Uh huh,” answered Praymar with a non-committal tone.

“What is that thing that you do you when touch people and they lose consciousness?”

“I don’t know,” replied Praymar, “it just happens.”

“Well, I think we’re going to be seeing a lot of that. It doesn’t kill people, though, does it?”

“Not yet,” answered Praymar.

“So this is what we’re going to do when we capture them. When I tell you to, you are going to sap their strength. Can you do that?”

“Sounds like fun!” answered the strange albino enthusiastically.

What Hermel did not mention was that he planned to tell the Brigands that every time they got sapped it would take away ten years of their life. He figured that would be sufficient threat to get at least some of them to divulge important information that might be needed at the time. In particular, the whereabouts of his sister Aliza, for whom he felt a growing anxiety. For a brief moment, Hermel felt a twinge of guilt at this plan of lying to the Brigands, but he determined it was necessary for the greater good. After all, they wouldn’t really suffer any harm. They would just think they had. The Elkron looked down with raised eyebrows, but none of them commented on this.

With that they went back to the barn. Everyone settled down for sleep.

“You men set a heavy watch. I don’t trust that merchant,” ordered Hermel of the archers. Bob organized some men to keep watch. They stood at posts in the barn and kept a lookout on the two doorways.

“I will stand and watch!” exclaimed Bantum cheerfully.

“I think you need to rest,” suggested Arik instead.

“I’m not sleepy!” Bantum insisted. He really wanted to watch.

“You can take the second watch,” said Arik. “That’s the important one, after all.”

“I’m not tired. I’ll sit over here with my chickens then,” said Bantum and with that he went and sat down next to Chickenhiemer and Turkenator. The two of them had been pretty much clucking and gobbling and pecking at the seeds on the floor the whole time. “I’m gonna play with the turkey, too,” said Bantum as he picked up Turkenator and started bounding the poor turkey on his knee. Turkenator, not accostumed to being handled in this fashion gobbled loudly, and made quite a lot of noise. Up and down went the turkey on Bantum's knee. This kept everyone awake, except for Lido who was busy Hobbit-snoring in the corner of the barn.

“Lido,” thought Ishcandar into his mystical telepathy ring. “Lido, can you hear me?”

“Ninnyninnyninnyninny,” Lido snored.

“Is this thing on?” asked Ishcandar tapping the ring. “Lido, did you happen to pick up my silver brandy flask when I dropped it?”

“Ninnyninnyninnyninny,” Lido snored. He seemed to be studiously asleep.

“Gobblegobblegobblegobble,” complained Turkenator loudly.

After a few minutes of that Hermel asked Bantum to stop bouncing Turkenator on his kneed. Bantum said he wanted to play. Hermel asked him to be quiet anyway, so Bantum decided to go outside and play. Hermel asked him not to.

“Ok, I’ll play with my hammer then,” said Bantum and he began banging his hammer on the ground. Everyone groaned.

“Please don’t do that,” asked Hermel.

“But I want to play!” exclaimed Bantum, quite peeved at all these restrictions.

The archers had taken up their beds around the barn, and those who had not managed to fall asleep right away were now staring up into the rafters wondering when the noise would die down.

“Arik,” asked Hermel, “would you tell Bantum a bedtime story?”

“Unfortunately, I feel I’ve rather lost the knack of it lately. I’ve been entirely focused on improving my other skills. Sorry about that,” said Arik, looking a bit bashfully. He had been practicing his other skills so intently the past few days that his mind was completely absorbed by them, and story telling was simply not on his mind.

Hermel offered to tell Bantum a story himself. It was a very long and boring story about his father, the farmer, who decided to plant corn. Seed by seed he planted the corn in the field. One, two, three seeds. Four, five, six, seven seeds. Eight, nine, ten seeds the farmer counted, very slowly. More and more seeds. On and on the planting went, while Hermel hoped that Bantum felt drowsy.

Outside, Star noticed a figure exit the tavern. He was wearing a wide brimmed hat, black as night, and a dark cloak so it was difficult for Star to see the shadowy figure. He walked past the barn and went along a narrow street. He did not turn around to see that Star had left the barn and was quietly following him. He turned a corner. Star turned the corner. He went up a side street. Star followed him. The figure slowed down a bit, and so Star slowed his pace. The figure turned a corner, and Star turned the corner a minute after him. The street was empty. Star decided to turn back. It was too late.

“Thwip!” He felt a sharp pain in his neck. Clutching his hand to his throat he ran back down the streets the way he came. The pain was excruciating, and he felt dizzy and things around him began to swirl. He didn’t know quite how he made it back to the barn but he managed to stagger in and fell down where Hermel was trying to get Bantum to fall asleep.

“Wow,” said Bantum for the umpteenth time, “that sure is a lot of seeds.” So simple minded was he, that every number was a mysterious and unknown quantity, far beyond his comprehension, and yet utterly fascinating. He was wide-awake. It was seed two thousand three hundred and fifteen.

Star withdrew the dart from his neck carefully, and looked at it under the light of a lamp. It was a thin dart with a black shaft and red feathers. He’d seen it before.

“Oh that’s probably Black Lotus Poison,” commented Hermel nonchalantly.

“Step aside!” said Ishcandar. “I will take care of this!”

Ishcandar had practiced his Mystical Power of poison curing. Star, though somewhat delirious, Blessed Ishcandar by the power of Eldrik in order to improve the Hobbits chances of success with the invocation. The Elkron, great and mighty, looked kindly upon him and so Ishcandar was blessed indeed. Unfortunately, however, as it happened Ishcandar, due to the variety of his mystical efforts earlier, was in fact quite low on mystical energy. He paused. Maybe curing Star was not such a good idea. After all, once he spent all of his mystical energy he’d be pretty useless and unable to do very much after that for quite some time. He thought it over.

Meanwhile, Hermel was still counting seeds for Bantum, who encouraged his effort by yawning. “Two thousand three hundred and twenty two,” he was saying.

“Um,” said Star trying to politely interrupt if possible. “I think I’m kind of dying here.” He had begun to hallucinate black shadows like serpents creeping in through the windows of the barn, and sliding up into the shadows in the rafters.

“Ishcandar,” said Hermel calmly. “Please help Star. I’m trying to coax Bantum to dreamland.”

“I’m not feeling quite up to it, I should say,” replied Ishcandar, examining his wound again, and looking at Star dubiously.

“Fine,” said Hermel, resigned. He stood up and went over to where Star was laying against a post and whose eyes were beginning to roll in his head. Hermel noted that there was the tell-tale dark vein creeping up his neck toward his left ear. Not a good sign.

“Ah yes,” said Hermel. “This looks like the exceedingly rare, and fantastically diabolical Black Lotus Poison, …again.” He rolled up his sleeves, folding the cuffs carefully. “By the way, now that I’m looking at you more closely, I just want to ask you, Star… are you part Hobbit at all?”

“No, I don’t think so. My feet are not particularly hair,” said Star thoughtfully. “Although I have to admit, I never did get to know my parents very well at all. My father died when I was quite young you see. And my mother left me at the temple of Star Cliff at a very tender age,” he explained as black shadow serpents began to wind their way down the posts of the barn to the floor near by, and the roof wavered like the rolling waves of the sea.

“I notice,” said Hermel, “that once again, Star has placed his faith in Ishcandar, and how Ishcandar has failed him once again. Not only insulting Star of Justice, but the Elkron themselves.”

“I must reflect,” replied Star woozily, “perhaps now more than ever, on your extreme disposition when it comes to Ishcandar. It’s become almost obsessive that you seem intent on putting Ishcandar down in every situation.”

With that Hermel grabbed Star by the forehead and said, “By the wondrous power of Minvar, the poison shall leave you now!”

And so Minvar, Wondrous Elkron of the sacred earth, cured Star of the poison, and they watched as the thin black vein stopped advancing, and then slowly retreated. Seeing this, Herml went back to counting seeds for Bantum, who yawned and put his head on his arm and closed his big brown eyes, finally.

Star felt weary, but very clearly felt much better. So powerful was Minvar’s great healing upon him that within a few minutes he was completely back to his normal self again. He stood up and stretched. He felt quite good in fact. A bit light headed maybe, but other than that, quite good. It was then that he noticed a figure in a broad rimmed hat exit the Black Dragon Inn. Without the slightest hesitation Star of Justice strode out of the barn and went promptly and directly over to the figure. It was, in fact, the young woman from earlier in the evening. She took him aside to a shadowy area near the barn, and they held a conference.

“It seems we meet again,” he said holding up his golden swallow dart. “From your response, I take it you are possibly the owner of this,” he said.

“I am from Star Cliff,” she said.

“I also am from Star Cliff,” he replied.

“I know,” she said.

“I was told by the Abbot of the Twelve Harmoines Pagoda to wear this…,” he answered holding the dart toward her.

“Yes. It is mine.” She took it from his hand.

“I take it you know something of my errand?”

“Yes. Something. But, not much. I spoke with the Abbot in Hobbington, but he was vague,”

“I am charged with finding an ancient artifact of great and evil power and returning it to the temple in Hobbington. The Abbot hopes to neutralize its power. He has half of it. And I’m charged with finding the other. Before then I must go to Star Cliff to visit my old master there. I must undergo the ritual of purification before I set out to find the artifact. There is also the matter of the man who was commanding the archers in the tavern. There are Brigands threatening his village. I vowed to aid him in that.”

“Ah,” she said.

“I’m hoping I can do that on the way to Star Cliff.”

“You mean to take on the Brigands at Yellow Clay?”

“You know of them?”

“Yes, I passed the village on my way here. It is quiet now. The Brigands are away. In fact, they are here.”

“The men in the tavern are the same who are threatening Yellow Clay?”

“Yes, I followed them here,” replied the woman as she stared at the Black Dragon Inn.

“Is their leader in the tavern, the man who came out and stopped the fight, the one with the eye patch – is he responsible for what is going on in Yellow Clay?”

“Yes. His name is Black Patch.”

“I see,” said Star darkly. “Would you be willing to come to repeat this to my friend? If your mission is to clean up this town of the Brigands I’m certain he would be willing to help. It seems our goals coinincde. But I should ask... what are your goals?

“I’m hunting a man.”

“What sort of man?”

“An evil man. One of dark power,” she said in a whisper that made Star's spine tingle.

“Is he a martial artist?” he asked.

“Yes, he is.”

“The leader of the Five Animals Society, by chance?”

“Perhaps,” she replied uncertainly.

“Does he use darts that look like this?” asked Star as he held up the black dart with the red feathers.

“Yes, that is him,” she answered and held up another dart of the same kind.

“This was extracted from my neck. My friend was able to call upon Minvar to heal me of the dreadful Black Lotus poison on the dart. The man who struck me is in this town. I saw him a few minutes ago. In fact I thought he was you, and so I followed him down this street, and at a turn he ambushed me covertly and struck me with the dart. I lost track of him there. But I can show you where I last saw him, if you wish.”

“He showed up this morning with a coffin,” said she.

“One coffin?” asked Star. “When we encountered him on the road he had four coffins.”

“He had one coffin on a mule cart, and three large sacks. He took them inside the tavern. I was not able to discern where he placed them. There is something about him that is very, very ...wrong.”

“Do you happen to know anything of Dr. Lobe?”

“Only by reputation,” she replied with an expression of great interest.

“He has something to do with that man, but I’m unclear as to the connection myself. In any case, our mission seems to overlap. I will offer you whatever help I can,” said Star. He went on to explain what he knew of the Fifth Animal, and their adventures related to him up to that point. He conferred with her about Dr. Lobe.

“The Doctor is an exceptionally mysterious figure. In fact he is widely believed to be dead. His abode is Dunn's Bridge in Hobbington. It’s very strange, and very strange things have happened there.”

“Hmmm,” she said.

“The man you are looking for wishes us ill. It would be good to see him captured… or otherwise neutralized,” said Star.

“He is very dangerous,” said Golden Sparrow, looking at the rooftops.

“He seems to have an inexhaustible supply of Black Lotus darts.”

“How many times has he used them that you’ve seen?” she asked.

"I'd say about six," replied Star.

“He is probably running low by now. If I’m guessing correctly he has only has a few left. It is possible, however, that he has more, depending on how great his resources were when he obtained it. Black Lotus poison always comes in sets of thirteen doses. It is very expensive.”

“You know where it comes from?”

“There is a valley,” she said nodding her head towards the Northeast. “There is an old shrine in the valley. It is said to belong to one of the ancient dark Elkron. No one can enter the valley save by a secret passage. Very few know of it. There is a coven of witches there, and they grow the Black Lotus, and distill the poison. The teacher of Star Cliff told me of it. One of my objectives is to locate that valley. It is called The Vale of the Black Moon.”

“How is Teacher?” asked Star. He was suddenly flooded with fond memories of the old white bearded master.

“He does well. The Old Master is still strong,” she replied. “Several other groups have showed up in Harrowsgate recently. There seems to be a gathering of forces here,” she said. “Black Patch showed up a week ago. There was a battle with the town guard, and most of them were killed or fled. He took over the town and killed the Constable. He is posing as a trader. He and his men seemed to be waiting for someone, but I think that person arrived today.”

The Conniving of Brigands

“Those Brigands that we saw in the tavern… what percentage of Black Patch’s men are they?”

“There are more men in rooms to the rear. And some stationed upstairs. He also has men still back at Yellow Clay. They have a hidden encampment in the cliffs a day off from the village.”

“We hoped to set an ambush for the Brigands at Yellow Clay.”

“There could be a good opportunity here,” she said. “As for the man with the black darts. I don’t think we need to follow him. He will come to you.”

“Indeed," answered Star. "By the way, my Hobbit companions have magical rings of mind-speaking."

“Like this one?” she said holding up her left hand, on which was one of the six telepathic rings.

“So you are a member of the Adventure’s Guild as well then?” asked Star, putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

“Yes. I met Rothmon some time back. He gave me one of these while I was visiting the Abbot at the Twelve Harmonies. I joined the Guild as Provincial Explorer and send him maps and news from the frontier. There is much here that remains to be discovered.”

“So you can communicate with him?”

“Yes. The ring he gave me is the master-ring of the set, and allows me to speak with him at great distance.”

“Ah. Well in that case, we have a way to contact you, and you us, should anything amiss happen. Try to get in touch, if you need to, with the one named Lido. The other one is somewhat … unreliable. But we will be in touch, I'm sure.”

Before he had finished speaking she had leaped up and grabbed a beam of the roof with her right hand and flipped herself over the top of the roof and vanished amid the shadows.

Star went back to the barn. He spoke with Hermel and explained what he had just discovered. Hermel for his part was entirely skeptical. He had trusted Star, but he did not necessarily trust the woman. He was quite angry with Star that he had told her that the groups destination was Yellow Clay.

“I trust her,” insisted Star as Hermel rolled over to go back to sleep.

“I regret calling upon Minvar to save you,” said Hermel, deeply worried that the leak of information could jeopardize his sister’s life. He had been very specific to everyone not to tell their destination to a soul. He felt that Star, of all people, should not have betrayed his trust. But nevertheless, Star insisted that the woman was trustworthy, and that he had received a sign from Eldrik that she should be trusted.

“I do not wish to be disturbed,” said Hermel as he rolled over and went back to fitful sleeping.

Everyone laid themselves down. It was the dead of night. The winds howled through the rafters as they blew through the ancient frontier town.

Later in the night, Star woke up. He heard something. There was someone, he thought, on the roof. He continued to listen. A shadow flitted past the door. Then another, then another. Suddenly a shadow passed a window. He wondered if they were the same shadows as he saw in his hallucination, or if he were dreaming. Bantum was already awake, playing with Chickenhiemer. Another shadow flitted past the door.

“What was that?!” cried Bantum loudly.

Star got up and went around waking up various members of the group, but studiously avoided Hermel. The archers formed a circle in the center of the barn, and everyone kept their eyes on the doorways. It was dark. The cold wind was howling.

Suddenly a blaze of flame lofted through an open window and landed on a hay stack. It caught on fire and began to burn brightly casting wavering shadows in all directions. Everyone who was not up already awoke hastily and grabbed their gear and brandished their weapons. Outside the sounds of men moving could be heard.

“Oh great,” said Hermel, finally throwing off his blanket and sitting up. He shook the hay from his hair. “Now we’re surrounded, and trapped in the burning barn. Aren’t we?” He looked annoyed, but hardly panicked. He glanced over toward Bob.

“I thought I told you to place a heavy guard,” he said to the Archer leader. But Bob had a worried look on his face. He had placed a heavy guard. He wondered if they were still among the living. He was at that point inclined to think that they were not.

Outside in the dark street footfalls where heard organizing into formations. The fire in the barn caught another haystack and began to lick its way up the walls on the south side of the barn. The mules who were stalled their began to bray. All the men looked to Hermel.



Previous Episode: The Battle at Black Dragon Inn

Next Episode: Four Melees To Hell


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