Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Chicken In the Dark

A Bantam Chicken (seriously)
A Day in the Ogres Cave

Lanna stirred the soup with a large bone spoon staring off into the dark corners of the cavern pensively. Bantum was guarding the cave entrance, brooding over his own questions of great magnitude regarding chickens, sword slashes, and butterfly wings. Korfu, having bragged his heart out regarding the amazing role he played in the battle with the ogre, had rolled over and was falling asleep along side Hermel, and the others. Star of Justice, remained awake, performing a ceremony of thanks to the Great Elkron of the Sun for the recent victory. He contemplated the strange and terrifying sigil that Lanna had shown him on the stone she had received from her husband Ben while still down in the salt mine below the Prancing Unicorn Inn. Ben had found it, she had said, in some rubble while digging in the mine.

Star walked over to Ibis, who was still awake, and asked if he might use a piece of his paper to draw a symbol he’d seen, thinking to record it so that it might be delivered to the Adventure Guild in Hobbington upon their return. Ibis, happy to oblige, stood and watched over Star’s shoulder as he drew the symbol from his dream, and indeed it looked remarkably similar to the one he’d seen on the stone that Lanna showed him. Ibis thought that he recognized the design that Star had drawn on the paper. It was reminiscent of the an ancient symbol of the Elder Elkron who had ruled the Universe before being overthrown by Young Celestials, banished to the Realm of Ultimate Darkness, and bound there till the end of time. That such a symbol should appear in a salt mine below the Prancing Unicorn struck him as exceedingly improbable, and therefore equally fascinating. Meanwhile, having drawn the sigil, Star got a very ill feeling, began to sweat profusely and all his muscles began to quiver. He seemed feverish to Ibis. “Fascinating, indeed,” he thought, careful not to show any expression.

“I’ve noticed that you’re a well trained warrior, Star. Since you understand such matters I would like to suggest a few things regarding the organization of your party, if you don’t think that would be overly intrusive,” said Ibis, hoping to shake the gloom that had descended over the hero so that he might use the moment to exert his influence.

“What have you got in mind?” asked Star, folding the paper up and slipping it into an inner pocket with a final shudder. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and neck with his hand and looked squarely at Ibis.

“First I should admit, I’m not much of a fighter myself, as you can see,” replied Ibis, “however I have made a study of military matters for many years. Although my present work is regarding the fortification and defense of towns, my scholarship has also covered questions regarding tactical arrangements and maneuvers for small squadrons such as yours. I am trained, as it were in the essential governing elements that control the problem of battle. As such, I should like to point out in advance that any party tactics you may adopt will need to allow for the likelihood that Bantum will rush into the fray before there is time for thorough planning. Therefore, if I might be so bold, I would like to offer the following suggestions to you.”

With that he sat down on a log by the fire and invited Star to do the same. As they sat down, they did not notice that on the other side of the cauldron a certain chicken had quietly flipped a wing from the inside, over the lip of the steaming pot, and with a heave hefted himself over top and fluttered down into a shadow between two rocks.  He shook the steaming water from his wings, and sighed with relief.  The chicken had timed this action at a moment when Lanna had her back turned to get more ingredients and no one else happen to be looking. The chicken had amazingly suffered no great injuries while in the pot, having protected himself against the boiling water by his artful use of 'Iron Feather' Chickenmancy, which had been handed down in his family from rooster to cockeral over many generations. One might wonder how it was that he landed in the pot to begin with.

It’s a long story, but the short version is that Dr. Chickenhiemer, which is his name, had been working on a spell that he anticipated would turn the appetite of humans more towards beef  than chicken. It required impeccable timing, ingredients such as fire, water, salt, parsley, onion and garlic, and the clucking of an incantation so powerful as to warp reality itself.  The spell was ten years in preparation. When he discovered that the woman captor called Lanna had in fact arranged exactly the needed ingredients in the pot, and that the stars were aligned with Mount Zatok in the right configurations, he ascertained that it was finally his time.  This spell would have effected the course of Chicken-kind forever, perhaps leading to a glorious emancipation, and eventually, dare he dream it, the foundation of a Great Chicken Empire some day, perhaps.  And so during the battle of of the humans and the ogre, Dr. Chickenhiemer had been trying to collect the ingredients from the pot while clucking the Great Incantation, but during one of his swoops he slipped and fell in. This was an utterly humiliating defeat! The spell was ruined!  Cows the world over nevertheless had good reason to sigh with relief, had they only known what had transpired just then, and how close Dr. Chickenhiemer had come to executing the Great Spell of Chicken De-Delectability. No one knew, or was likely ever to know, however, and Dr. Chickenhiemer clucked his miserable complaints to the Elkron as he waddled toward the back of the cave, keeping carefully to the shadows and glancing over his shoulder nervously least anyone should notice him. 

Meanwhile Ibis was saying, “So in that case it might be a good idea to assign roles for each member of the party, including myself. Perhaps a primary and secondary role in case things get mixed up during battle.”

“Interesting thought,” answered Star, now fully engaged in the conversation.

“I would say that Bantum’s primary responsibility,” Ibis went on with a smile, “should be to wait for instructions from one of the other party members, either Arik or yourself. He secondary responsibility should also be to wait for instructions, by the way.”

“I don’t know if he will understand that concept, to be honest,” replied Star thinking about how Bantum’s tiny brain worked.

“Well, yes, that could be problematic. But desirable in any event, if possible. At any rate, to move on, Korfu could be positioned in the second rank of the battle order to cast his blinding flash, against one or two opponents, and provide covering fire with his bow, provided we can retrieve it from the Prancing Unicorn, or obtain a new one for him. Additionally, he should be a capable scout, especially at night as he has the power of Night-Vision.”

The two of them sat and supped soup from their bone bowls. The after effects of the failed Chickenmancy had given them an unusually strong craving for chicken soup, as it so happens, but they noticed that the chicken flavoring in this batch was a bit weak. They didn’t complain to Lanna however, but instead continued their conversation.

“Arik does not have the speed for pursuit, as we should note from his inability to catch the kobold just now. Instead his best role may be to attach himself as wingman to Bantum, who should probably stand on the front line as he’s by far the largest and strongest of everyone in the party,” added Ibis over sups.

“Good points,” replied Star thinking it over and supping.

“As for myself, I’m capable of stalling an opponent who is wiling to talk before a fight, which could give the rest of the group time to prepare. Sadly, however, from a combat perspective, I’m more or less useless, being a scholar, not a fighter. Nevertheless, I’m a friendly sort and am reasonably well skilled at acquiring information about such things as might effect a tactical situation, and drawing up plans, which I consider to be my chief asset to the group. Ah well in any case, each member of the group should think about what combat skills they bring to the battle and we can begin to map out these kinds of primary and secondary roles for everyone. I suggest that we map out these kinds of tactics, and create a marching order that we will assemble into upon engaging in a battle situation. It would help, I think, considerably to increase our chances of success. Good organization in combat is one of the principal factors leading to victory,” concluded Ibis enthusiastically. Star nodded his agreement.

“I also think it would be helpful for the group to review battles and adventures afterwards looking for what we do right, and what we fail at, in order to increase our proficiency with better organization as we go forward… and finally, I suggest we consider that the group itself could be divided into two teams. There should be a “front line” team, and a “support team”. The support team would be assigned such tasks as going after escaping enemies, first aid and healing, and pulling people off the front line, or re-arming friends when they’ve fallen. Had we taken this approach we might have captured that kobold, and gotten some answers,” said Ibis finishing up his soup.

“I think these are all good ideas. We should discuss them with the group in the morning,” replied Star, also finishing the last dregs of soup from his bowl. He had come back to himself and was no longer under the cloud of dread that the image of the stone had emanated.

Meanwhile Arik was too frustrated that the kobold had escaped to fall asleep. Having listened quite enough to Korfu’s bragging about his blinding flashes, as compared to his own failed spells, he stomped out of the cave into the snow with a huff. He remained near the entrance practicing hurling his hatchet at the ogres head, which he had placed on the dead monster’s chest, having chopped it off earlier. Boring of that he practiced sprinting, in case he should happen to need to chase down another kobold in the future, but that quickly proved to be less than satisfying. Arik, being a Dwarve, had thick stubby legs, and was simply not cut out for running, alas.

After a while Arik returned to the cave and went over to the cauldron, took a bowl of soup which he quaffed down in huge gulps, and rolled over to go to sleep. Ibis spent some time talking with Korfu about his habit of bragging, advising him that others might not respond as well to a braggadocio as they might to a more reserved gentleman. Korfu nodded his ascent to Ibis’ thoughts, and after a brief meditation he went to sleep.

Ibis, thoroughly absorbed in his machinations, considered the idea of going back to the Prancing Unicorn to retrieve his Town Defenses manuscript, a treasure trove of knowledge he had been loath to leave behind. He also thought there might be some chance that he could convince the magistrate that Korfu should not be sent to the mine, as he was coerced into signing the contract by the application of a drug. This would, of course, be difficult to prove. He considered his options further, and eventually fell asleep… his last thoughts regarding the ancient artifact and what its appearance might portend. Dark clouds seem to gather on the horizons of his mind as he began to fall long and deep into dreamland.

Sudden Attack

Just as Ibis was about to fall asleep, however, Lanna whispered “Wake up! Wake up!”

Hermel who was only half asleep anyway, turned over, and leaning on one arm gazed at her and asked “Ok, what haven’t you told us about now?”

She scowled at him and whispered harshly, “Shhhh… I heard something outside!”

“I will go look,” said Bantum who had been awake watching the mouth of the cave. Hermel, however, thinking about it, suggested that Bantum stay where he was, and allow him to go and investigate instead. He crept to the entrance and peered out. It was gray on the horizon, and silhouettes showed starkly against the snow. Off on the other side of the flat snow bound riverbed he saw something moving against the gray rocks. It was a wolf. There were two of them. Then another. Three.  Maybe four.

“Is the body of the ogre still there?” asked Star softly, swiftly throwing his blanket off and moving forward.

“Yes, its there,” replied Hermel over his shoulder. He picked up two handfuls of snow and formed a ball, and threw it outside toward the gray rocks, thinking he might get a reaction from the wolves as they stalked forward. Suddenly there was a blur of motion at the mouth of the cave. A wolf with a savage snarl turned the corner and leaped inside directly at Hermel. On the wolf’s back was the kobold, his red cap and hair singed from fire and his little arms waving in the air with wiggling fingers and an invocation on his lips. The wolf sprang onto Hermel and tore a chunk out of his left arm. As this happened the Kobold finished his incantation and a blast of bitterly freezing wind knocked Hermel back, and frosting over the top of his head and left side of his face.  Fortunately his shield had blunted the force of the blow.

Everyone sprang into action! Bantum made a tremendous leap toward the wolf and landed directly next to it. Hermel staggered back and crouching behind his shield took out his healing stone. Arik took up his shield and ran forward. Star leaped forward. Korfu, who was exhausted from the last battle, staggered a bit near the fire and took out his dagger with help from Ibis.

Bantum swung his mace at the Kobold, connecting with a resounding thud, splattering the pulp of its brains in a wide area, and shouted “You bad little thing!” The wolf bit into Bantum’s chain armor, breaking several of his own teeth. “Poor little doggie!” cried Bantum who was trying to hug it.

Meanwhile, Hermel felt the healing stone warm in his hand as his bones filled with the strength and power of Minvar, and he was healed. He looked over the edge of his shield and noted that all of the inexperienced fighters were winning the battle without him. He smiled to himself. “I like to lead from behind, I think. Seems to be working out pretty well, really.”

Since Bantum’s smashing blow also happen to have crippled the wolf, he decided to put the poor doggie out of its misery. With a single blow he crushed the creature’s head, and so it perished from the world. The other three wolves, bereft of their leader, fled into the distance howling.

Everyone gathered back inside the cave, and brushing off they sat down and discussed why the Kobold would have returned. Hermel conjectured that perhaps there was more to the cave than met the eye, but no one commented on this, least of all Lanna who stood next to the cauldron stirring silently while gazing toward the shadows at the back of the cave.

Arik inspected the Kobold’s leather jacket and found a small pouch. Inside he found five iron ingots, and a brass key. He showed them to the party. As there was nothing else to do with it at the moment, he put the pouch in his pocket.

“Lanna,” said Hermel suddenly, “Why do you keep staring to the back of the cave? What are you not telling us?”

“Nothing,” she said turning toward him fiercely. “It’s just that we haven’t gone back there, and I don’t know what’s there… and it frightens me.”

“But you told us that we should stay away from the back of the cave,” he said.

“Yes, that’s right. Because I don’t know what’s back there… all I know is that there are some tunnels, and other than that …”

“Ok well why don’t you trot back there and check it out, and let us know, ok?” asked Hermel, now gazing back toward the shadows himself. He was wondering if whatever it was that might be back there might also explain why the Kobold had returned.

“Yeah, I’ll be doing that,” she said, sitting down.

Arik was thinking to himself that Lanna had still not turned herself into a bear… he was convinced that she was secretly a bear-woman of some kind. “She hasn’t shaved her legs lately,” he was thinking, “and if you ask me she’s looking more bear-like every day.” Still though, Lanna did not turn herself into a bear, but instead continued to stir the cauldron with her bone spoon.

Bantum Goes for a Pee

With this, Bantum realized that he needed to take a pee. Having heard mention of the back of the cave, he stood up and headed off that way into the shadows looking for a place where Lanna would not see him. Dr. Chickenhiemer quietly tip toed into a crevice and hid. Having taken a pee on one of the cave's two massive stalagmites, Bantum noticed something glinting on the stone by the torchlight. It was, he realized, a round plate of brass about five feet above the ground attached to the column. He pressed his finger on it, and it felt cold to the touch. Being a bit frightened by something he did not understand he quickly went back to the fire and announced that he found something at the back of the cave.

Lanna turned pale, and recommended that they don’t investigate further and leave the area alone. With this Hermel’s suspicions peaked.

“What, Lanna, are you NOT telling us?!” he demanded.

Finally, she admitted the truth. There had been a party of adventurers with her when they cleared out the cave of the first ogre, whom they tracked there because he’d been attacking villagers. When they began exploring the cave one of them announced that he’d discovered a secret passageway that he’d opened by some means he didn’t explain. While Lanna was busy tending the wounded, and some others were outside hunting down several of the escaped Kobolds the adventurers decided to enter through the secret door. Unfortunately it slid shut behind them. They never returned. Since none of the rest of them had any idea how to open the door, they were stymied, and decided to bring others back to the cave to help. This was the point at which Lanna was sent to the Prancing Unicorn to retrieve Ben.

Hermel asked Bantum to show them the metal plate and so they all went back there to look. Meanwhile, Dr. Chickenhiemer picked his way through some tall stones quietly as he could and hid in the shadows nearby watching over the top of a rock as they investigated the object. He’d already done an extensive analysis of the circular plate on his own, but the results were inconclusive as yet. He was curious to see what might happen next. However he was to be disappointed because the next thing that happened was that Ibis recommended everyone to go back to the front of the cave and rest and recover their energies before investigating further. This they did and eight hours later everyone felt much better. Dr. Chickenhiemer, however, was a very patient Chickenmancer, waited in the shadows on the expectation that they would return to the plate eventually.

When they woke up they were all hungry. Hermel suggested that Hornmel go out and hunt for food. Hornmel looked at one of the chickens clucking and pecking at the ground.

“Uh… why do I need to hunt?” he asked.

“Because of him,” replied Hermel pointing at Bantum who was watching over his chickens trying his best to count them, and failing as usual.

“oh,” replied Hornmel. He went over to Bantum and asked him, “Say Bantum do you like to eat chicken?”

“Not any more,” replied Bantum as he cradled a chicken in his giant hand.

“But we like to eat chicken, though,” said Hornmel hopefully.

“That’s bad,” said Bantum looking a little cross at Hornmel.

“But you used to like to eat chicken!” protested Hornmel.

“I don’t now, though,” answered Bantum, “They’re friends!  They helped you lots of times, didn’t they?”

“Ok ok,” said Hornmel realizing that he was not going to even come close to winning that argument. He went outside and hunted for a bear, but seeing a chicken had wandered outside, came back shortly there after with “bear” meat and threw it hastily into the cauldron before anyone could take a careful look. Lanna stirred the pot with a wry smile, but said nothing.

Over breakfast Lanna revealed another unexpected detail.  She had expected to find the rest of her friends in the cave when they arrived, and was alarmed by the fact that no one was there. This was another reason why she feared the back shadows of the cave.

“I worry for what may have become of them, but then again, perhaps they went back to the farms for supplies,” she said pensively. No one was particularly happy to hear this, and everyone looked toward the shadows with a certain amount of anxiety. After a while they decided to go back to their investigation.

Ibis Takes A Turn for the Worse

Upon returning to the column Ibis was the first to actually attempt to manipulate the metal plate, but that did not turn out so well. He put his hand to the platen and attempted to spin it to the right, but it would not budge. He then turned it to the left and suddenly a blue light flashed out from the top of the pillar, and a frosty blue beam shot down and hit his arm, freezing it nearly solid from his left hand to just above the elbow. He staggered back and fell down. Hermel quickly ran to his side and taking out his healing stone called upon the mercy of Minvar.  The mighty Elkron of the Earth was once again very merciful, though she had good reason in this case not to be.   Ibis’ arm was healed. He expressed enormous gratitude and decided to stay as far from the brass plate as he could get.

Star decided to wake Arik from his snoring slumber and ask him if he’d take a look around. And so Arik pulled himself up by the boot straps and took his hand to the walls around about the cave.  After a diligent search he located a very fine seam in a wall at the very rear-most point in the cave. It was, he announced, a secret door, the construction of which, while not in the Dwarven style by any means, was at least as well crafted. He could find no flaw in it at all, and had he not been a Dwarf with special knowledge of geology he would never have noticed it at all.

“Finely crafted indeed,” he said with an unusually thick drawl.

While he had been searching the others examined the plate more carefully and Star noticed that there were barely discernible script letters along the rim of the circle. It was written in a very old dialect that he had studied a long while ago while at the Temple Academy, but he was unfamiliar with the lettering. Nevertheless he struggled to translate it, and eventually derived that it read something like “Gray Serpent Cavern”. There were another older looking scripted letters but he could not make it out at all.

Ibis had heard of the Gray Serpent tribe of ancient days. It was indigenous to the Glendale region, and had been a legendary race of powerful mystics. There were also legends of the Gray Serpent, the details of which were hazy, but the tales conveyed that a dreadful monster by that name once roamed the darkness. In addition there had been an Elkron who ruled over the Gray Serpent people, and resided in a cave called Gray Serpent Cave, but little did he remember of that story. He could not recall any further details at the moment, but explained the ones he could to the group.

They spent a good deal of time trying various methods to cause the secret door to open, including banging on the plate with Bantum’s mace. However, the plate made a loud clang and the secret door did not budge. Arik, frustrated by their lack of progress, said “This is ridiculous! Step aside Bantum!” and went to the plate and tried giving it a sharp turn to the left. However, nothing happened. Arik grunted and stepped away. He was unwilling to press his luck further.

“This is where I’ve been the whole time,” said Lanna. “I don’t know how to even go about finding my friends. When I hit this point last time, I told my friends to wait here for me and that I would return with Ben, who would have known what to do.”

A Ray of Sunlight

They went to the front of the cave to refresh themselves with fresh "bear" soup, it being about five o’clock on the seventh day after Hermel had drawn the Dragon Card from the Tarot Deck of the old man that he had helped back in Hobbington. It seemed like a very, very long time ago. They noticed then that that storm had broken and sun poked a ray of golden light through a hole in the clouds near the western horizon. It was a beautiful sight to behold.

“I think that Ben may be in more trouble down in the mines than he thought,” Lanna was saying. “I’m inclined to return to the Prancing Unicorn and get Ben out of there. I’m hoping you folks will be willing to help me.”

“We do need to return there anyway to retrieve our items, equipment, and for myself I should like to get my manuscript back,” said Ibis. He went on to explain that he planned to argue on Korfu’s behalf to the magistrate, though everyone thought that the chances of success at that were next to nil.

Hermel had his own reason to return that way, as he had decided that his secret gift was due to become far more valuable the following day, which was the eighth since he'd received it – but only if he could bring it to someone to whom its value would be apparent, and who could afford to pay the price it commanded. And that lead him back to Ischandar. Or, he thought slyly, Ishcandar’s father perhaps.

“If we do return to the Prancing Unicorn, Korfu,” Ibis was saying, “we should try to find a way to help the miners who were abducted to escape there. If the magistrate will not side with us, then I think you will be in the best position to do so from within the mine. You can send messages to me in the Prancing Unicorn as things develop, while do planning from above, and work on making connections with the magistrates.”

Korfu frowned however as he had an objection to the plan. As it happened Korfu thought that once he entered the mine, he would scarcely have any way to get any messages out. And the prospects of being stuck in the mine for a year did not please him overly.

“Well we have to work from the other direction, then. We must convince the magistrates to agree that the minors should not be held completely without contact with their family members,” said Ibis.  "I will work on that angle while you are inside."   This made Korfu feel a little bit better about the plan, but Korfu still objected.

“The exact conditions for the miners is specified in the contract, which explicitly states that they are to be interred in isolation for one year, Ibis,” said Korfu. “Other than this, your plan makes some sense.”

“Actually,” said Hermel, “I know of a magical way for you two to stay in contact. But it requires a sojourn back to Hobbington where we would need to convince the Guild Lord there to allow you to use it.”

Star, for his part, was also anxious to bring back word of the dreadful stone to his masters at the Temple of Eldrik. Lanna was hopeful that Korfu would prove instrumental in helping Ben to escape the mine. To this point, Ibis suggested to Korfu that he would have a trustworthy contact on the inside of the mine, should he return there, and this was at least something Korfu considered helpful.  He'd been down in the mine, and he knew just how difficult any uprising would be to kick off. Yet, he was game to try it just the same.

“In this case,” said Ibis, “to recap, it seems that Korfu and I should return to the Prancing Unicorn and appeal to the magistrates. If they find that the contract is invalid for Korfu we will argue that this must mean that all of the contracts are invalid, and so attempt to free the miners though legal means. Of course we don’t expect things to go that way. In which case we will allow Korfu to return to the mine, and he will make contact with Ben there and will attempt to bring about a rebellion within the mine. Meanwhile I will return to Hobbington and attempt to obtain the means of communications from the Guild that you mentioned.”

This however was, Korfu pointed out, not entirely a valid plan either, as once he returned to the mine he would have no way to make the connection again with Ibis, which was apparently necessary in order for them to use the method of communications that Hermel had alluded to. In fact, Hermel replied, that was quite right. They would all have to go to Hobbington first, because there were two items involved with the communications, and both Ibis and Korfu had to have one for the communications device to work.

“You will need to offer the Guild Lords something in exchange… you will need to make it worth their while.  The are an odd bunch, but you can likely bargain with them for knowledge, which they seem to crave above all else,” said Hermel.

“Well,” said Ibis, “we can bring them information about the sigil of the Elder Elkron that is on the stone…”

“What sigil of the Elder Ekron is that?” asked Lanna incredulously. “What are you talking about?!” She demanded, looking at Star with a fierce expression.

“Oh… …” Star began to say but his words trailed off.

“Ah… oh… um…,” Ibis stammered as Lanna’s fierce gaze met his.

“You didn’t tell him about my secret?” asked Lanna of Star harshly.

“I… I…” Star stammered.

“Well, in that case, now that it is out in the open,” said Ibis firmly, “we need to adjust and deal with matters as they are. We are all potentially affected by the stone, you realize. It is not something you can simply handle on your own, Lanna.”

The Dark Stone Revealed

Everyone at that point insisted on seeing the stone so she took it out and unwrapped the cloth and put it down next to the fire. The half broken stone witht the odd design seemed to be shrouded in a dark yellowish shadow. Everyone shivered as they beheld it, and Star once again broke out in a cold sweat as the terrifying memory of his dream struck him with full force. It looked to him as though the fire light near the stone was dimming perceptibly. He quivered and his flesh began to crawl.

“This stone’s symbol appears to be that of the Elder Elkron who were overthrown at the end of the Dawn Age and cast into the a place known as 'The Depths Darkness Forever' by the Young Elkron, lead by Eldrik. It is something that you can not be expected to bare alone, Lanna,” said Star, his voice shaking slightly. With this Lanna seemed almost relieved, though she still cast a malevolent eye at Star, and determined not to trust him so easily again.  She quietly wrapped the stone up in the cloth again, and hid it in her vest pocket.

“We should go to Hobbington first, then,” said Ibis, “and when we get to there I will need to convince the Guild Lord of the importance of our mission in the salt mine. Do you have any advice on how we should go about doing that, Hermel?”

“Carefully?” replied Hermel with a thoughtful nod.

“Thank you for that advice,” said Ibis dryly.

“Be sure to day ‘Hi’ to my friend who carves doggies,” said Bantum.

“Who is that?” asked Ibis.

“He’s a very nice man named Wulkarva,” replied Bantum cheerfully.

“Ayee, and he does carve the most wonderful hounds you’ve ever laid yer eyes on,” added Arik zestfully.

“Ok, I’ll look for Wuldkarva, thank you,” said Ibis. “However, I’m hoping you will advise me further on whatever I may need to know in order to convince the Guild,” said Ibis to Hermel.

“Well, to be honest, Lanna and I should go with you. They won’t be easy to convince, and can be difficult. Lanna I'm guessing you would prefer to have them take a look at that ... artifact. If it is as powerful as it seems, then they would probably know what to do with it.”

“Yes,” said Lanna, her mind still reeling from the recent revelations. “On the assumption they are trustworthy, this is the first bit of advice you’ve offered that I agree with. We should go there first, and as soon as possible,” she said, feeling the dark weight of the stone pressing against on her breast. Her heart felt heavy, and her mind was shrouded in gloom.

“When we get to the Guild, I am hoping we can find the good Priest Johan there. He is a member of my Temple Order, and would be the most knowledgeable person at the Guild to discern the nature of the stone, and know how to handle it,” added Star of Justice.   Lanna did not look at him directly, but nodded her ascent instead.

“Will you come with us, Bantum, and help me?” asked Lanna coyly.

“Of course,” said Bantum cheerily “I will help you!”

“Hey,” growled Hermel, “Bantum you said you would come to help us at Yellow Clay Village, not her!” to which Lanna just smiled and stepped to where she could hide behind Star.

“I did?” asked Bantum.

“Yes, you did. But Bantum, if you want to be a liar, that’s ok… we can go to Yellow Clay and help the innocent people there without you if you insist on following after Lanna,” making a dog-paws gesture with his hands.

“I’m not a liar,” said Bantum.

“Well, you would be if you don’t go with me, which is what you promised, remember?”

“Oh. I’m confused,” said Bantum looking awkwardly at the ground.

“Well, don’t worry Bantum. We’re all going to go together to Hobbington anyway after all. But just remember… you’re with me, not Lanna, ok?”

“Ok,” said Bantum looking relieved. Hermel smiled at Lanna. She scowled back at him and turned to go back to stirring the pot.

“And what of you, Hornmel?” asked Star of the young hunter. 

"I am concerned most of all with rescuing Yellow Clay village and have no interest in the stone, or returning to the Prancing Unicorn, or Hobbington," he said bluntly. “I will go ahead to Bear Claw Village and seek help from the Kung Fu Master there,” he said, “while you return to Hobbington with Hermel. We can meet up again at Yellow Clay after you finish your business in the city.”

Despite Hermel’s objections due to the danger of traveling through the provinces alone, Hornmel was determined to do what he felt was right, and that their best chance was to get help from the Sifu as quickly as possible.

“By the way,” said Ibis, “some of the writings I have been working on at the Inn may help you with the defense of your village. I happen to have been working on a treatise that covers tactics and strategies of defending mountain Townships. If it is possible to slip into the Prancing Unicorn and retrieve my belongings, I would be happy to provide you with a secondary draft of it to help you folks, Hermel." While glad to hear that, Hermel reflected on the fact that he could not read, and so would have a hard time with such a work of scholarship, and thought it far better if Ibis would come with them to Yellow Clay in any event.  He seemed a shrewd and diplomatic man, and his knowledge could be very helpful indeed.

And with this, everyone sat down with bowls of soup and began to settle in for the night. It was getting dark outside, the sky had cleared and stars could be seen twinkling through gaps in the clouds in the black and indigo heavens high above.

Meanwhile at the stone pillar there was a certain chicken who was studying the metal plate very diligently.

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