Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Battle at Black Dragon Inn

Star's Dilemma

... The mysterious figure in the wide brimmed hat vanished into the ally and disappeared.  Star of Justice stood in the doorway of the mule barn debating with himself whether or not he should test the dart for poison, or dash down the dark alleyway after him.  He examined the dart more carefully. It glinted golden in the firelight. It was in the shape, definitely, of a winged swallow.

“Come back!" he yelled into the frigid darkness.  "You’re supposed to tell me what to do, or help me, or something. It’s not fair.” Nothing stirred.  There was no answer.

“I’ve got one of these too,” he said, taking the pin from his lapel and holding up to the light, and comparing the two.  They looked exactly the same.

Hermel came over to him and looked at both darts.

“They are the same,” said Star. “The Abbot at the Twelve Harmonies Pagoda told me that I should wear the dart on my lapel, and it would help me at the right time.”

“Cryptic,” replied Hermel as he took a glance down the street to where the Brigands were brawling.

“The Black Sun amulet is in the hands of the Abbot. I am to return to my Temple at Star Cliff as soon as possible and complete the ritual of purification to Eldrik, and then go after the other missing pieces of the artifact.   Somewhere along the way, I was led to believe, I would acquire help, in some fashion, in relation to the Golden Swallow dart here. Well, it seems we’ve stumbled across my benefactor, but he ran away.”

“Perhaps,” clucked Dr. Chickenhiemer from atop Bantum’s head, “that had something to do with the fact that Hermel had ordered twenty archers to point their bows at him. I would reckon that might be accounted as a sign of intelligence on that fellow's part, possibly.   What do you think, Turkenator?”

“I am thinking,” gobbled Turkenator, “that perhaps this was not the right time or place to engage with the young warrior priest.”

Bantum was occupied by other thoughts at the moment, mostly having to do with the ongoing brawl up the street, and missed most of what Chickenhiemer  and Turkenator had said.

“That could be,” replied Chickenhiemer, clucking quietly. “That could be.”

“Well,” said Hermel to Star, “if the dart is supposed to help you, and the guy who threw it has run away, I’m wondering if it will help you to dash off into the night to try to find him, which is what it looks to me like you're about to do.”

“Well that does sound kind of silly, now that you put it that way,” replied Star. “I suppose what you’re saying is that maybe I should wait, and let the help come in it’s own way.  Perhaps the Elkron shall guide me when the time is right.”

“In the meantime,” said Hermel, “let me see the dart. I will try to sense whether or not it’s magical.” Star, curious about that as well, handed him the dart. Hermel waved his hands, wiggled his fingers intricately, and chanted, intoning each letter of the spell very carefully. It was a perfect casting, and he discovered for a fact that the dart was not magical at all.

Star meanwhile was still looking longingly down the dark alleyway where his supposed benefactor had disappeared. He had the look of one who might venture off into the darkness alone.

“Ok. I gave you a horn,” said Hermel, staring at Star through half slitted eyes. “If you get into trouble and you need help, blow the horn once. If you need a lot of help, blow it twice. If the situation looks hopeless, don’t blow it at all. We’ll put a flower on a hill somewhere for you.”

“You know,” replied Star, still looking in the direction of the vanished figure, “I think what I’ll do is go with you. If Eldrick wants me to pursue my benefactor, I think I’ll wait for him to give me a better sign.”

“Are you sure?” asked Hermel. “I want you to help me with Yellow Clay Village, but I don’t want to stop you from following your calling.”

“Besides, I am supposed to purify myself at Star Cliff Temple before I leave on my Quest,” said Star, looking more firm about his decision.

“I hope you do that in private,” quipped Praymar with a squeak. No one paid attention.

Star put the darts in his pouch. The wind blew with a icy chill through the narrow streets. It had stopped raining, but there were still puddles on the ground. Not far off from where they were standing, the Brigands were still brawling, having stumbled out of the Black Dragon Inn into the street.

The Ishcandar Gambit

Arik watched them through one of the barn windows. There were ten Brigands dirty fighting both in and out of the tavern. One of the waiters was caught up in the melee and trying his best to avoid being hit while carrying a bottle of hot mountain wine to one of the tables at which sat a one figure, still, and unmoving. Arik could see the figure through the window. A body flew past, and slammed into a post near by, but the patron barely gave a sideways glance. A cool customer, thought Arik. Outside, however, things were much more interesting. It was a motley crew of fighting men, those Brigands. Not one had a leather vest without a hole in it, or a boot that didn’t have patches on it. They looked mean. And hungry. And in a bad drunken mood. They swung at each other with the ferocity of wolves.

“I’ll put ten Iron on the brigand with the big beard!” said Arik to Bob as the the archer Captain came up to watch with him.

“I’ll bet ten that the guy with scar will take him down,” replied Bob, pointing to the one he meant who happened to be in the light as he was swaggering out of the tavern.

“Ten Iron for whomever is left standing!” shouted Ishcandar down the street.

One of the Brigands stopped and turned around. He wiped the blood off his forehead.

“Did someone say ‘ten iron’?” he asked one of his mates, who had also stopped fighting and stood next to him peering up the dark street towards the barn. The others stopped fighting and began to walk towards Ishcandar.

“What are you talking about?!” yelled Arik suddenly. “You don’t have any kind of money!”

The Brigands in a loose band came to where Ishcandar was standing at the door of the barn trying to look innocuous, but failing.

“Did you say you’d bet ten Iron on the last man standing?” said the Brigand with the scar on his face. It was a long jagged scar that went from his chin, up his cheek and ended near his left ear.

“Don’t listen to this guy,” said Arik, quietly unhitching the leather buckle of his battle axe behind his back. “He’s a moron. He doesn’t have any money.”

Arik looked over to Hermel, who shrugged and had a calculated smile. “I see an opportunity,” he said enigmatically.

“Leave my friend alone,” said Bantum in a booming voice as he stepped outside the barn. The Brigands stepped back an inch. Lido hopped up onto a windowsill where he had a good vantage point for his sling and took out a stone from his pocket. The archers, who happen to be standing in two rows along the wall of the barn looked over to their leaders.

“Hey, Bob,” said Arik, but he was cut off immediately by Hermel.

“No,” said Hermel, holding his hand up to prohibit the archers from interfering. “How will he learn?”

“He’s not going to learn,” commented Arik to himself, but went unheeded. “You know,” he went on, this time directly to Hermel, “this is Ishcandar we’re talking about. The luckiest Hobbit ever to walk on two feet, probably. What’s more likely to happen is a meteor will come out of the sky, hit the town, kill everyone in sight, and burn the entire place to the ground. But he’ll be fine, and watch the whole conflagration over a nice sip of brandy. That’s what is more likely to happen than he’ll learn anything, if you ask me.”

Hermel just nodded his head.

“You really want him to get beat up? After all, he only bet ten iron,” Arik said.

The Elkron, high up in their Celestial Hall, were curious. What was Hermel’s true motive? There was a debate among them. Was the motive friendship? They stared. No. What was the motive?

"Hermel thinks", said Minvar, Queen of the Golden Grain, "that his motive is ‘The General Good’".

"But this was really not quite right", said Omri, as he gazed down at Hermel from his great stone chair.

“Yes, there is a deeper level, I agree,” said Eldrik, not necessarily liking what he saw. Hermel was angry. He was angry at Ishcandar’s nature, which had caused so many problems.  He really felt that if Ishcandar got beat up, he might finally learn why he should stop causing these problems.

“Or is that a rationalization?” asked Omri, stroking his long ancient beard thoughtfully. “The question is, will Hermel enjoy watching Ishcandar get beat up?”

“It seems so,” said Valanir, Lord of the Elkron, while pushing a pawn forward and putting Omri in check. “There is an element of evil there, I think.”

“Even if Hermel is doing this for good reasons, if he’s happy to see Ischandar hurt, then yes, I’ll have to agree,” said Omri. “After all, Ischandar did only a little more wrong than the others in this deed.”

“On Hermel’s behalf,” said Minvar from her golden throne, “Ishcandar was inciting them to fight.”

“They were fighting already,” said Omri, grimly staring down at the chessboard as he stroked his beard.

“And,” added Minvar, “Ischandar is not only instigating further violence, encouraging it, but he’s dragging the entire party into the fray, which he always does.”

“Yeah, so he did something stupid,” said Omri, fingering a knight, “but it wasn't wrong. He was going along with the crowd, after all. The others had started the gambling first. Why, I think it was that bird-brained Dwarve, Arik, who started it all, actually.”  He looked down over his shoulder at Arik disapprovingly.

“Well, Ischandar went too far. He directly antagonized them, whereas the others were making bets on the side, and the Brigands would have not taken any notice of them had not Ishcandar shouted down the street to them, and brought down their thieving wrath upon himself – and the rest of the party in the process,” said Minvar, now clearly having taken Hermel’s side in the matter. “It was wrong.”

And so the Elkron, great and mighty, sat in their high Hall, debating this way, while on Elthos ten Brigands had come over and surrounded Ishcandar.

“So you really want him to get beat up?” asked Arik again.

“Well, a little,” said Hermel, still holding his hand up to stay the archers.

Seeing this, Ishcandar, who had tried his best to be a loyal friend to Hermel all along, became immediately crestfallen. He dropped his silver flask on the ground. He took out his pouch of iron pieces and threw it on the ground.

“Here take it,” he said to the scar faced Brigand in front of him. “It’s not worth having. Do with me what you will. I have no friends in this world. I might as well just go to the Elkron.”

So pathetic was Ishcandar's suddenly despairing tone, a tear came to the eyes of all of the Brigands, who knew just how the poor blighted Hobbit felt. Each in his own way had been abandoned by all that was just and good in the world, and had turned to a life of crime, for it seemed there was nothing left for them.

“Who did that to you friend?” demanded Scarface, turning on Hermel. Ishcandar hid a smile behind his hand, pretending to cry.

“I told you this would happen,” said Arik. “He hasn’t learned anything. And look. You’ve just pissed off ten cutthroats. And now you’re going to have to have the archers kill them after all.”

The Brigands had angry eyes on Hermel. “So. You. You’re the one,” said Scarface. “Hurting this poor little Hobbit’s feelings like that. We may be Brigands, but we’re not inhuman, you know. He wasn’t hurting no one. You should be ashamed of yourself. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Hermel stood there dumbfounded staring. How was it possible that Ishcandar could be so unbelievably lucky? It was monstrous.

Scarface, who was not as much of a brute as you might have thought, waited for a few seconds, and seeing in Hermel’s eyes the mixture of petulance, annoyance, dismay, and fiery willingness to fight to the death if need be, decided against taking things any further. He half admired Hermel, in fact.

The Ironic Backstabbings

“Ok, ” he barked to one of his men, “take the coins. We’re going back inside. Let’s have some drinks.” The men all brightened up at that news. One of the Brigands bent down and picked up the pouch heavy with coins, and hefted in his hand. Scarface turned to Ishcandar and said, “Common. You can come have a drink with us, little buddy.”

“Well, I won’t turn you down,” said Ischandar sounding to all the world disconsolate to the point of despair, “seeing as how I have no friends left in this world.”

“Common. I’ll buy ya a drink,” said the Brigand, putting a big bloodstained hand on Ishcandar’s shoulder.

“Ishcandar, Brigand King,” thought Hermel to himself, imagining that by morning the Hobbit would be sitting on a huge pile of treasure with a hundred Brigands raising their glasses and cheering him.

“Hey, kid,” asked Scarface as he walked with his hand consolingly on Ishcandar's shoulder, “you want an eye patch?”

“Wow!” said Ischandar, suddenly enthused for the first time in over a minute as he took the brown leather eye patch in tried it on. He didn’t need one, of course, but still, it felt quite tough and brigandish to wear it.

“I know how you feel,” Scarface was saying as they walked to the door of the tavern. Above the door a black sign with red letters read ‘Black Dragon Inn’. It smelled of beer, and garlic, vomit, sour milk, and brazed beef, and sweat, and wood-smoke. “It’s a rotten world, isn’t it? Yer friends turn on ya and stab ya in the back like that. It’s rotten to be sure. Here, have a drink. Have a drink.”

The drinks began to flow. Mostly down Ishcandar’s gullet, actually. The Brigands didn’t quite realize just whom they had invited to the bar. He was quite prepared to drink them out of every drop of liquor they had with hardly a burp.

Outside, everyone stood staring at Hermel.

“You’re a mean person,” said Praymar.

“One day, Praymar,” said Hermel with tone flat enough to level a playing field, “you’ll find your fate, too.”

Meanwhile the archers relaxed and unknocked their bows. Everyone made their way back into the barn. Arik went over to Lido, who was still standing in the doorway looking out across the way toward the tavern.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “Everything will turn out fine. In the morning all the Brigands will be dead, most likely, and Ishcandar will still have some brandy left, too. Don’t worry.”

But Lido was worried anyway. Perhaps he even felt a twinge of remorse that Ishcandar thought he didn’t have a friend in the world, when after all, no one could have been a more loyal friend than Lido to begin with. As everyone else settled in for the night, Lido made his way across the street, climbed up on a crate and peered in the window. There was Ishcandar, sitting at a table with Scarface, swigging down a shot of whiskey straight from the bottle. Of course, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Lido, but made no move to suggest he had, and he continued to survey the room, while looking more drunk than he really was. There were ten Brigands in the room. Two on the overlooking balcony upstairs. Two waiters, one cook, and the barkeep, who appeared to be the owner.

The Mysterious Stranger

A door on the far side of the tavern opened. In walked a young woman with long black hair, neatly tied in the back, with a wide brimmed black hat, and a black cloth, and neatly arrayed wrap around robe. She was dressed like a man, and one might have mistaken her for one, had she not been quite so pretty. She carried her sword in her left hand by the middle of the scabbard. Her expression was cool as a glass lake. Her frosty eyes did not even dart around the room. She simply stepped inside, and stood still while a waiter came running over.

“Come in! Come in! Please! Have a seat! Have a seat! What may I get for you?” asked the waiter obsequiously, as was the custom in those days.

“A bottle of hot mountain wine. The good wine,” she said. Everyone in the room stared at her. There was not a sound being made by anyone. She was a beautiful looking woman. Yet she radiated an aura of danger that was so palpable you’d think you could cut your hand on her eyebrows. She sat down at a table near the door.

“Waiter,” said Ishcandar. “Get her the finest wine, on me.” Then turning to her he added, “Welcome to the Ishcandar pity party.”

“That’ll be three Iron,” said the bartender.

“It’s on my friend here,” said Ishcandar patting Scarface on the shoulder.

“What?” said Scarface. “Bold little imp, aren’t you?” he added under his breath, but he wasn’t speaking about Ishcandar. He stood up, and walked over to where the stranger had sat herself down. She stared straight ahead and watched him very closely out of the corner of her eye.

“So, where are you from?” asked Scarface of the stranger.

“From the west,” she said.

The big bearded Brigand joined Scarface, and both stood in front of her table.

“I’m here to clean up this town,” she said, turning to look Scarface in the eye with deadly menace. All the Brigands stared at her. Scarface smiled cruelly.

Ishcandar Turns the Tables

At that moment Ishcandar had come up quietly beside Scarface, wanting to get a better look at the mysterious young woman. She was sitting quite still and calm, only her eyes revealed flashes of the dangerous lightning within her. Her hand was still on her sword, which she had placed on the table in front of her. The waiter came and put the tray of wine on her table, and backed away, looking around nervously.  The atmosphere was charged with tension.

For some reason, only the Elkron know why, perhaps, Ishcandar noticed the corner of a worn out parchment sticking out from a fold in Scarface’s cloths. It suddenly looked extremely interesting to him. All eyes were in fact on the girl, so he felt confident that neither Scarface nor anyone else would notice if he slid the parchment into his own pocket while obscuring the deed with a suitable turn of his shoulder. With nothing in this world to lose, he decided to try that.

It failed. Scarface had a subconscious reaction to anyone getting too close to him, and without thinking about it, because his mind was focused exclusively on the dangerous stranger, he brushed Ishcandar aside, not even realizing that his little friend had tried his darndest to pick his pocket.  Without thinking about it he shoved the parchment further into the folds of his cloths.

Ishcandar glanced around. No one noticed. Except the woman at the table, who had, he thought, seen what he had tried to do, and ever so slightly raised one eyebrow and smiled, ever so slightly. With that Ishcandar decided that the stranger-lady outclassed everyone in the room, and that she had in mind to clean up the town of the Brigands. Seeing this, the young Hobbit considered his position carefully.  He realized that by drinking and carousing with the Brigands she might get the wrong idea about him. What if the deadly looking swords-lady mistook him as being one of them? Why she might kill him, too, he thought. He reasoned that he needed to show the pretty lady just whose side he was really on, before things got out of hand and turned fast and ugly, as it looked like things were about to do.

Ishcandar, without a moment’s further hesitation stepped quietly behind Scarface, withdrew his knife, and stabbed the unwitting Brigand in the back. The rather awful irony of this was not lost on the Elkron who observe all things and took note of it.

“Now, that’s a bit of irony for you," comment Valanir. "Having rescued the Hobbit from dissolute friendship, Scarface himself is stabbed in the back, having so recently commiserated with his newfound friend on that very point,” he went on, turning a grave eye back towards the chess board.  "Is it any wonder, really, that desparate men feel bereaved of all that is good and just in the world, and turn to a life of crime?" Omri let out a grunt that shook the all of the hills in the vicinity of Hobbington.  The tremor was felt far and wide, and in the Black Tavern Inn dust fell from the ceiling.  But no one noticed that.  There was too much else to capture the attention of the people there. 

Lido gawked at all this from the window where he was peering into the room. While he was always ready to help Ishcandar in most any scrape, this time he really thought his friend had utterly stepped in it. Surrounded by vicious Brigands, having attempted to stabbed their chief in the back, and only one lady with a sword in the vicinity to help save his life. And she wasn't really leaping up and helping him either.  This most certainly did not look good.

Meanwhile Scarface had heard the ‘shint’ sound of Ishcandar’s dagger being unsheathed behind him, and so the backstab, which should have laid the villain low, missed entirely as Scarface suddenly pivoted, unsheathing his own sword. His counter attack was severe, cutting the hapless Hobbit across the shoulder, leaving a red gash. All the Brigands leapt to their feat, all swords were withdrawn in a flash, and the fighting men all clammered angrily.

“Young lady,” shouted Ischandar, “I’m here to help you!”

At this the pretty young woman raised an eyebrow. Other than that, she sat quite still, one hand on her sword, one hand on her cup of wine. She raised her cup and took a sip. It seemed to suit her, and she took another.

Lido, seeing how the Brigands were surrounding Ishcandar, and the young heroine was apparently not going to lift a pinky to help him, decided that something needed to be done. He considered trying to hit one of the lamps on the ceiling to knock it down and hopefully cause a fire. But looking at the solid materials from which the tavern was made, the heavy dark wooden tables and benches, the stone slabs on the floor, and the thick and solid doors, he had the impression that this was a tavern built to last. Burning it down, even with proper fire making materials, seemed to him on second thought to be highly improbable.

“Help! Rothmon! I need help!” thought Ishcandar into his telepathic ring. Unfortunately, the ring only had a range of about a mile or so, and Rothmon, back in Hobbington, was quite out of range by then. Lido heard him loud and clear. And little did either of them realize, but so did someone else. But she was not surprised at that, though had they known, the two Hobbits certainly would have been!

Guess Who To The Rescue?

Lido hopped up on the window sill and shouted, “The Calvary has arrived!” and then turning about and facing the barn across the street shouted, “Ishcandar’s in trouble!”

In the barn, Hermel sat up. He threw his blanket off and shook the straw from his hair. He felt very ambivalent about it. After all, who was shouting to get their help? Lido. Ishcandar’s henchman. He considered flipping a coin to see what he should do.

“I guess things turned out for the best anyway," he said finally. "Ok, lets go get Ishcandar’s bacon out of the fire,” said Hermel to the group, all of whom were in various states of unreadiness.

“Who is this guy?” asked Praymar. “How stupid can he be?”

“I will help,” said Bantum loudly, and ran for the door with his blanket still wrapped around him.

In the tavern Ishcandar was surrounded. The Brigands, having seen the error of their ways in taking in the untrustworthy wretch, had their knives and daggers and swords in hand, all glinting with sharp edges, ready to carve the misguided Hobbit into pieces. Possibly for a stew.

Fight Like a Man, You Hobbit

“I challenge you,” said Ishcandar boldly to Scarface, “to a duel. One-on-one. Mano-a-Hobbito. You're not a real man if you have to have all your buddies fight your battle for you. What are you? Scared?”

Scarface looked down at him with a raised eyebrow. He smirked as he held his men off with a raised hand.

“Ok then. You and me,” said Scarface, staring at Ishcandar with glowering eyes, testing the edge of his blade with his thumb. It was sharp. "One on one."

“Lets go outside and settle this like real men!” said the Hobbit.

“Fight now, or die now,” said the Brigand, still smiling.

“You’re not a real man!” shouted Ischandar.

“You’re afraid of a Hobbit?” laughed Lido from the windowsill scornfully. A man took two steps from where he was and knocked out the wooden window bar and the shutter slammed down, due to which Lido leapt backwards into the street. He landed on the crates, and scrambled to his feet.

Inside Ishcandar prepared to fight Scarface with his dagger. The Brigand circled around the diminutive Hobbit, half crouching, sword in his right hand glinting along it's razor sharp edge. He was waiting for Ishcandar to leap at him. He planned to smack him down with one hand and stab him through the back with his sword. It would have been a bit of justice, thought Scarface.  And the Elkron didn't entirely disagree with him, at that.

Ishcandar lunged forward. His attack missed, but he managed to scramble behind a table before being pinned to the floor. The Brigand struck with his sword, but the Elkron were apparently against him after all. As he swung the deadly blade, he sneezed, fumbled over the leg of the table, and let his sword fly out of his hands. It winged across the room and ‘shunked’ into a doorpost. Everyone stared at the Hobbit with their eyes bulging.

“That lucky bastard,” said one.

"Scarface never misses!", said another.

“You see, young lady!? And you were scoffing at me before!” shouted Ishcandar. She looked over and gave him an infinitesimal smile.

Scarface, infuriated to no small degree, went to punch Ishcandar. He was, as it turns out, known far and wide for his boxing skill among those who took account of such things. He stepped forward and took a swing at the little Hobbit. A bone-crushing blow knocked Ishcandar across the room, and landed him into the post just below the still vibrating sword.

“Wow, you’re a really big man,” shouted Lido from the door, “beating up on a little Hobbit, aren’t you?”

“You see?” said Ishcandar to the young lady, with a flourish of his dagger hand as he slid down to the floor on his butt, “I’m still standing!”  His other hand mopped the blood from his shoulder with a handkerchief. The hankie went from white to red rather quickly.

At that moment Hermel arrived at the door with the members of the AAA Group, followed by the archers who formed up in two groups and readied their weapons. Lido turned around as Hermel and the others approached.

“What happened?” asked Hermel.

“Ishcandar tried to backstab the Brigand leader,” replied Lido. Hermel looked at him. He looked at the crowd surrounding Ishcandar in the tavern room. He looked back a Lido.

“It's not going so well.  Even I didn’t think it was such a good idea at the time,” said Lido. “Nobody thought it was a good idea. But he did it anyway.”

“Alright,” said Hermel, resigned to go in and save Ishcandar. After all, he really didn’t want the obnoxious Hobbit killed. He just wanted him beat up some.  And that for his own good, and the good of society.. And so far, that seemed to be working out to his satisfaction.

“Do you think it had anything to do with the pretty lady sitting at the table in there?” asked Lido. “Would he have wanted to win her favor by picking a fight with all ten Brigands single-handedly?  It is rather brave.  I… I don’t try to figure out why he does things, anymore.”

With that Hermel marched into the room followed by as many archers as could fit in along the walls on both sides of the door facing into the room, which happen to be six of the twenty archers, lead by both archer Captains. Bantum pushed his way past the archers and stood next to Hermel. The others were pressing the door eager to enter, or at least see what was happening.

“He’s a miserable little Hobbit,” said Hermel to the Brigands. They all turned to face the door. “But he’s MY miserable little Hobbit.”

“I knew you were still my friend!” cried Ishcandar, delightedly.

Previous Episode: The Brigands at Harrowsgate Village

Next Episode: Mysteries Unfolding at Harrowsgate

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Brigands at Harrowsgate Village

The Horrible Trial of Bohao Chu

Our heroes ate and made merry at the Wolf & Lamb Inn until the wee hours of the morning, and then went to bed. Everyone slept soundly. All except Ishcandar who kept waking up from troubling dreams he could not remember. He took out his flask, and drained it of the very last drop of brandy. He sat up in bed. There was nothing but for him to go down to the bar and order himself a drink. So he got on his cloths and went downstairs. The taven at that hour was nearly empty. Just two men sitting at the bar, nearly slumped over, sauced beyond desire for conversation. One of them belched.

Ishcandar took a seat, dangling his legs over the edge of the stool, and tried to engage one of the men in polite conversation, but that didn’t go far. The men grunted, and Ishcandar's efforts merely inspired them to stagger out into the rain and head home.

“Our wives will be looking for us. We don’t want to take the beatings for it,” said the more sober one, wrapping his collar tight around his neck before heading off into the cold raining darkness. Lightning flashed in the sky and their silhouettes loomed black against the sudden blue-white illumination of the street.  A bat flew past the window.  Thunder rolled deeply through the darkness.

“So long, fellahs.  If the storm don't get you, yer wives probably will!” called the bar tender after them with a small grin. He went back to cleaning glasses and then began blowing out the candles around the empty tables.

“My good man! A fine brandy please,” called Ishcandar to the bar tender.

“It’s getting a little late, sir, don’t you think?” replied the bar tender coming back around to where Ishcandar was sitting. He rubbed one eye with his left hand, and looked at Ischcandar hopefully with the other.  Clearly the bar tender had in mind to head off to bed. 

“Well, how about fill my flask with brandy then, and we’ll call it even,” offered Ishcandar.

“Well that I can do,” replied the bar keep as he uncorked one of the better brandies. “I’ll bill your room for that, sir, if you like.”

“Sure, sure, my good man, please do,” said Ishcandar as he took his first sip.  It was a nice brandy at that.   Even so, he looked out the window pensively. Another flash of lightning revealed another large bat flying past, winging it’s way through the dark. He had a sense of foreboding. The dreams he could not remember tugged at the hem of his mind. He looked around.

“You wouldn’t happen to have any sleeping powders?” asked Ishcandar.

“No, I’m afraid not,” said the bar keep.

“Well, how about a bottle of the brandy then, good sir?  My flask will run short soon enough.”

“Sure. This ought to help you sleep, at least” said the bar tender as he handed Ishcandar the bottle. “Well, I reckon I’ll be heading up to my wife then,” said the bartender, and seemed to be waiting for Ishcandar to vacate his seat.

“Do you mind if I just sit down here for a while?  I'm having trouble sleeping you see,” ask the young Hobbit. He did not much feel like going back up to his room just then.

“Well, ok, but don’t forget to blow out the lamp before you come up,” said the bar keep, and with that he went upstairs.

Alone, Ishcandar sat in the little glow of lamp light, sipping on his brandy. The wind howled outside. Something banged against the side of the wall from outside. He had a weird feeling that he was being watched. Fortunately, Ischandar had a peculiar skill by which, when he felt he was being watched, could determine where he was being watched from. Once he focused on it he felt quite strongly that he was being watched from upstairs. He blew out the candle and stood up quietly. With that he felt even more strongly that he was being watched from upstairs. He made his way as silently as he could up the stairs which for a Hobbit is very silently indeed. Except this time.  The floorboards creaked. He took another swig of brandy from his flask. He was remembering his recent encounter with the Fifth Animal, and still felt the sting on his neck from where the deadly dart had hit him. He quietly made his way to his room. He felt that through the door, although closed, somehow, something was watching him.

He opened the door. The room was pitch black. Lido was Hobbit-snoring, “ninnyninnyninnyninny”. Praymar was dead asleep half on his bed, as well. The wind howled. Over by where Lido was sleeping Ishcandar saw what looked like a faint redish glow against the floorboards. It seemed to be coming from Lido’s backpack, actually. He felt as though two terrible eyes were fixed on him from within the backpack itself, as impossible as that sounded, even to him. A flash of lightning outside illuminated the room briefly, and sparked a sudden recollection from his dream - a terrifying memory, but just as instantly it vanished again, and slipped away. Ishcandar stared into the darkness.  What was that dream?!

“Wake up! Wake up!” he yelled suddenly.

“What? What?” called Lido from his bed, shaken, but not stirred. Praymar pulled himself onto his bed and sat up staring with his red eyes at Ishcandar.

“There is something in the room!” shouted Ishcandar taking one step through the door towards the backpack and pointing at it.

“What? Something? Where?” demanded Lido, finally sitting up and rubbing his eyes.

“Over there, don’t you see? There! That red glow!”

Lido looked. Praymar looked. They saw no red glow. Ishcandar however still felt that he saw it dimly coming from under the flap of the backpack. It was hard to make out, but he was sure it was there.

“You’ve been drinking a bit, haven’t you?” asked Lido as he walked blearily over to his friend. Perhaps it was a residual effect of the Black Lotus poison, thought Lido to himself, as it was known to cause hallucinations.

“Not nearly as much as I should be,” replied Ishcandar, thoroughly flummoxed by the strangeness of his feeling. “You see, when I was downstairs I felt someone was watching me. But it seemed that the feeling came from our room. When I opened the door, I saw a red glow next to your bed, Lido. Instead of charging in, I thought it best to wake you up, and get you to step away from it.”

“But I don’t see any red glow,” answered Lido, looking back into the room. Praymar went over the wall where Ishcandar said the light was coming from, but the young albino didn’t see anything there either. He flicked his little red tongue out. He tasted nothing unusual.

Meanwhile in the room next door, Hermel had heard Ishcandar shout, and then some conversation, but rolled over and went back to sleep.  He too was having fitful dreams, but he was used to that by then.

“The strangest thing is, I’ve been having bad dreams all night. And then I remembered that my father warned me about something before we left. There is something strange, and dreadful, he said, following you, Lido… in your backpack!”

With that Lido, who was not the sort of Hobbit to be unnerved by superstitious nonsense, felt a twinge of alarm. He went over to his backpack, picked it up, and brought it over to the light of the hallway. He opened it and looked inside. He turned it upside down and emptied the contents on the floor.

Ishcandar said, “Let me see it,” and took the backpack. When he did he noticed, after a moment of looking inside of it, that he heard no sound. It was odd. The sound of rain had stopped. He looked out the window. Raindrops seemed frozen in mid fall. Strange. He looked at Lido. He was unmoving, not even breathing. He looked at Praymar. The same. Then within the backpack he felt something move. And within he saw a dim red glow, and it grew a little brighter.

“Wooo!” he exclaimed and closed the backpack. It was silent as death everywhere. He opened the backpack again. There were two red glowing eyes within. A tiny red hand with black fingernails reached up from within the backpack.

“Creature, what is your name? I must know because you frighten me so.”

“Come with me,” croaked a sinister little voice from within the backpack, echoing strangely.

“To where?”

“Trust me,” said the sinister little voice.

“Have a drink with me first,” said Ishcandar holding up his bottle of brandy. “If you drink with me, then I’ll trust you.”

The little hand reached up, took the bottle, turned it upside down into the bag. Glug-glug-glug-glug-glug. It then handed the bottle back to Ishcandar. It was completely empty.

“Now I know you’re evil!” said Ishcandar with dismay.

“Come with me,” whispered the evil creature.

“What of my friends?”

“They’ll wait for you,” said the creature, its rasping voice echoing faintly.

“So I presume then that I shall return?”

“Yes, you will return,” whispered the creature.  "Trust me."

“Ah what a conundrum! To leave my good friends, such as Hermel, who care so much for me, to an uncertain destiny, departing to a heaven or an abyss, I know not what!  Perhaps to never to return! What would Hermel say?”

In his room, Hermel was sleeping. He was having a dream of Ishcandar being called by a little red man with black fingernails. He rolled over in his bed, and muttered to himself.

“I will never forgive you for drinking all of the brandy,” said Ishcandar, “but I will go with you.”

And with that he took the creature’s hand, and was pulled into the backpack. Down and down he went through a long tunnel, and then down a very long winding flight of stairs until they came to a huge cavern lit by smoking torches along the walls. Ishcandar could see the creature now. He had stubby little legs, and skinny little arms, and a large fat head, obscenely oversized. When he turned around his glowing red eyes looked like burning coals, and his teeth were sharp little yellow points. He smiled with a humorless grimace. Ishcandar shuddered to the bottom of his bones.

On the far side of the enormous dark cavern there was a long winding line of people. As the passed Ishcandar noted to himself that all of them had grievous injuries. One man had brains spilling out of his head. A woman was holding her heart in her chest with one hand. A child was bloated with worm-infested blisters. Endless thousands of people, all horribly disfigured. All of them moaning and groaning in agony and pain.

The little creature took Ishcandar through a doorway and they passed through another long and wide cavern through which the line snaked this way and that. There were braziers of smoky fires beneath huge stalagmites that formed bizarre columns reaching up into the cavernous darkness.  Bats flitted through the air.  The masses on the line all moaned in agony and terror.

“Creature. Do you have a name?” asked Ishcandar as the tiny monster pulled him along, now recognizing it as one that Lido had told him about after the adventure of the Hour Glass of Time that had chased him through the black tunnels beneath Dunn’s Bridge Tower what seemed a long long time ago. He realized then that the creature must have hidden himself in Lido’s backpack since then. He wondered if all the creatures from that horrible place had attached themselves to his unsuspecting friend somehow. He shuddered again.

“I do,” said the creature with a dreadful tone.

“What is it?” asked Ishcandar.

“I won’t tell,” said the creature.

“My name is Ischandar,” said the young Hobbit, hoping this would be reciprocated.

“I know,” said the creature, and left it at that.

“You have me at a disadvantage,” said Ishcandar.

“I do,” said the creature, smiling horribly.

“I prefer to not go with you any further until you tell me your name,” said the hapless Hobbit.

“I won’t,” said the creature calmly.

“Why won’t you tell me your name?” asked Ishcandar.

“Names are power. I don’t give out mine freely,” answered the creature.

“What if I give you my word that I won’t hold it against you,” said Ishcandar.

“What if I don’t believe you?”

“You have my word. On my brandy,” replied Ishcandar.

“Insufficient,” said the creature.

“Insufficient?!” cried out Ishcandar in disbelief. “Do you not know how much I love this brandy?” he said stuttering as he held up the empty bottle.

“But there is no brandy in that bottle,” said the creature with a leer.

“Oh. Right you are. But there is brandy in here!” exclaimed the Hobbit as he pulled forth his silver flask. “My finest reserve,” he said and took a big glug.

“Would you wager your soul on that brandy?” asked the horrid creature, leering all the more.

“I think I may already have,” replied Ishcandar uncertainly.

“Come with me,” said the creature as he pointed his bony finger toward another tall wide archway. At the edge of the portal was a huge horned demon, a massive hulking monstrosity with hair and eyes of purple fire, holding a massive stone trident. The runt from hell ushered Ishcandar past, as the demon stared down at him with its hellish gaze, crimson flames spilling from its mouth like a fiery waterfall.

Within there was a smaller chamber, though still enormous, shaped like a giant stone cube. It was a dreadful.  place. Dark and gloomy it was, with the only light coming from a square pool of molten lava in the center of the chamber, into which suspended a long metal chain that hung down from a pulley attached to the ceiling with huge iron bands. On the other side of the lava pool was a tall and wide bench made of stone. Behind it sat a heavy man with a dusty judge’s wig, tightly curled, and an ornate black hat with silver broaches, and a musty old black robe. His jowls suspended to his chest, his teeth were yellow and black, his eyes sunken holes. Further down the stone table to his right, there were two hags, shuffling papers, quietly muttering incoherent nonsense. Other than their mumblings the chamber was dead silent, with the exception of the boiling lava which 'blupped' and made an occasional hiss. As he grew accustomed to the light Ishcandar noticed two men standing before the bench that had not moved a muscle. They were tall and thick, with dull gray robes that hung almost to the floor. Their heads were black orbs, almost featureless. They held in their hands reams of paper. One of the papers got caught in an updraft from the burbling pool and caught on fire, wafting up to the ceiling and burning to cinders.

“Your Honor,” said one of the men with the black heads in a slow heavy drawl, “my client claims he is not guilty of the charges of murder, kidnapping, arson, adultery, and public drunkenness.”

“Your Honor,” said the other with an equally slow and heavy drawl, “the defendant is a known liar, a rogue, and brigand, contemptuous of the law, and a miscreant who should be punished to the full extent that the law allows. I have documented evidence here.” And with that he walked slowly to one of the hags and handed her a tall, jumbled pile of papers. The hag, not putting her bony hand under the pile correctly, tipped it over and many of the papers fell and fluttered into the lava pool, burning instantly to ashes. The hag stamped the remaining papers with a huge stone stamp, and handed them one by one to the other hag, who muttered insanely, her eyes rolling to the back of her head, her black and bloated tongue lolling out of her mouth.

The Judge sat with the gloom of the ages hanging over him, smothering the room with a stifling everlasting boredom. There was no sound for some time except for the lava which continued to boil and hiss. Finally, after what seemed like days or months or years, one of the hags finished stamping the papers, and muttered something toward the Judge.

“Summon the prisoner for questioning,” said the Judge finally. With that the huge lumbering demon hauled on the chain, and out from the lava pit came up a flaming mass of charred flesh, screaming hysterically, three huge hooks protruding through what Ishcandar took to be its chest and head.

“Am I a prisoner?” whispered Ishcandar fearfully of the creature.

“Shhh… be silent you fool,” whispered the creature in return.

“Do you deny that you have committed adultery?” asked the one whom Ishcandar took to be the Prosecutor. The blob of flaming flesh, from which a large chunk slew off and fell into the lava, continued screaming horrendously, the soul piercing sound of his agony echoing into eternity.

“He refuses to answer. Dip him again,” said the hellish Judge. And the demon lowered the blazing hysterically screaming flesh back into the lava, completely submerging it so that once again the chamber was as silent as a tomb.

“Out of order. Common Pleas pursuant to Section 119.12 of the Revised Code; double dipping is prohibited. He has been dipped on this question already, your honor,” said the Defender. There was a long period of silence.

“Sustained. Un-dip the prisoner,” said the dreadful Judge. And the demon heaved the chain and up came the burning lump of flesh, screaming horribly. Through the flames Ishcandar could make out the man’s face. It was, he was sure, someone he knew. In fact, it was one of the Five Animals. He recalled that the man was one of the students of the Fifth Animal, the master of Five Animals Hall. It was the same man who had served him wine when he sat in the chamber with of the Jade Dragon.

“My Lordships,” said the little creature in a voice that far exceeded his size, “I have brought a witness.”

“Bring him forward,” said the Judge gravely, looking out of sightless eye sockets at Ishcandar.

“Ishcandar Rokkafellah, do you agree to be a witness and give testimony in the trial of Bohao Chu?”

“I do,” said Ishcandar.

One of the hags held up stone with a strange symbol on it and the Judge intoned, “Ishcandar Rokkafellah, do you hereby swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in the court of Hell, to suffer eternal damnation if you shall fail?”

“I do, sir,” said Ishcandar, shivering in his boots.

“State your Testimony,” thundered the Judge.

“I witnessed kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, coercion and murder,” said Ishcandar.

“Names. Give us the names of the victims.”

“He helped to Elizabeth Warden and her father,” and with that a stone tablet was drawn on as the Prosecutor intoned “Kidnapping of the Warden family”, and with that he drew a fiery line across a stone tablet.

“And he participated in the killing my friend Bernie,” Ishcandar went on.

“Murder of Bernie Ratzo,” said the Prosecutor, and drew another line.

“And kidnapping young children of the Haggelsmith family,” exclaimed the young Hobbit.

“Kidnapping with the intent of selling into slavery the Hagglesmiths,” intoned the Prosecutor, drawing another flaming line in the stone.

And with each accusation the flaming lump of flesh on the three horrendous hooks screamed horribly, ceaselessly, and with such a force of agony that the chamber itself seemed to vibrate.

Ishcandar was grilled from both sides up, down and sideways. The Prosecutor rooted out every detail of Ishcandar’s memory, with a series of questions ponderous and smashing. The Defense likewise cross-examined the poor Hobbit with such withering force that it was a marvel the Hobbit managed to remain standing. He felt freezing cold, then burning hot, in turns, as though his body was being frozen, and roasted over and over. His hair, he was sure, had caught on fire. It was grueling, and seemed to take forever.

But in the end they extracted the information, and the prosecution concluded that the prisoner had indeed killed Bernie with a poison dart, had been an accomplice to the kidnapping and imprisonment of Elizabeth Warden, and her father, the poisoning of Ishcandar with the Tears of the Black Lotus, extortion, blackmail, slavery, and the pursuit of illegal research in the Hall beneath Dunn’s Bridge Tower.

Finally, at the last, the man who had been known as Bohao Chu shrieked one last time as he was plunged back into the molten lava by the demon, and the stone tablet with his name on it shattered into dust. And so it was that Bohao Chu got what he deserved in the end, for he had been an evil man, and had committed many evil crimes.

Perhaps It Was The Brandy

At that moment Ishcandar awoke in his bed, jolted upright, sweat pouring off of him from head to toe, and screamed.

Lido woke up slowly. He had been in a deep sleep.

“What? What happened?” he asked, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.

“It’s too much for words. You would not believe me,” whispered Ishcandar, shivering under his blanket, a cold sweat covering his entire body.

“Oh, ok. I’ll go back to sleep then,” replied Lido, as he rolled back over and put the blankets over his own head.

“No, really,” said Ishcandar a little louder.

“Oh, ok, ok,” replied Lido, as he sat up. “What happened?”

“I was in a hot place with a strange creature, and they were asking me questions and there was a judge.” Ishcandar babbled, “You remember that story you told me a long time ago, maybe three weeks ago, or so, about the strange creatures in the black tunnel, with the big heads and stick-like arms and legs?”

“Yes, I remember that,” replied Lido, more thoughtfully now, “I didn’t like those at all.”

“Well one of them took me down to that place, and made me give Testimony.”

“You mean it took you to hell?” asked Lido, incredulous.

“I don’t know where I was. But I do know that now I’m back,” said Ishcandar, and with that took a big swig from his silver flask. “And one thing is for sure. I promise to be a better friend to Hermel!”

With that Ishcandar reached around until he found the bottle of brandy he had gotten from down at the bar. He pulled it up, and it was empty.

“That proves it!” he cried, staring at the bottle. “When I got this bottle it was completely full. And look! Now it’s empty!”

“Uh… well, …” replied Lido, “I’m not sure that an empty bottle of brandy in your hands really the most persuasive way to prove that what you’re saying all really happened, you know.”

“You don’t understand!” yelled Ishcandar, a bit panicked at that comment.

“Are you sure you didn’t drink the brandy?” asked Lido, trying to sound objective.

“I’m quite sure!” snapped Ishcandar. And with that Praymar woke up.

“What the hell are you people doing?” the longhaired albino asked with a squeak. “It’s early in the morning! People are trying to sleep!”

“Ishcandar has an empty bottle of brandy,” said Lido.

“Isn’t that always the case with him?” asked Praymar, still annoyed at having been woken.

“He says he didn’t drink it,” explained Lido. There was a pause as Praymar raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Well, I don’t know if I believe him either,” said Lido finally.

“Have you ever known me to lie, Lido?” asked Ishcandar. “Wait. Don’t answer that.”

“I’ve known you to drink a lot of brandy,” replied Lido, “but ok, ok. So you really think you went to hell?”

“I don’t know where I was, but it seemed as much like hell as I’d ever imagined.”

“Well, how did you get there?” asked Lido.

“I told you. There was that creature. Smaller than both of us. He took me down through your backpack.”

“He took you to hell through my backpack?”

“Yes. There’s a tunnel in there,” said Ishcandar.

“Ok, let me check,” answered Lido, and calmly went and got his backpack from next to his bed. He emptied it out onto the floor. He looked into the backpack. He did not see a tunnel. He turned it inside out. Nothing. He turned it right side out again and looked it over some more. “I don’t think there is a tunnel to hell in here, to be honest with you,” he said.

“Let me look into it. Hold it up for me,” said Ishcandar, not wishing to touch it. Inside he thought he saw a dim red glow within. “Close it! Close it!” cried Ishcandar frantically. Lido closed the lid and put the backpack down.

“If you think there is a portal to hell in my backpack, maybe I should get rid of it,” said Lido, staring down at it.

“Well, it is a nice backpack, though,” said Ishcandar, his practical side emerging for a moment. “It would be a pity to through it away. Its expensive, and well crafted, after all.”

Meanwhile, Praymar had made his way into the hall, wondering if anyone might be about. He went downstairs and looked around. It was raining heavily. He wandered around downstairs but there was nothing down there of interest for him. Eventually he made his way back to the room, and found Ishcandar and Lido sound asleep. He crept over to Lido’s bed, and took, very gingerly, the backpack and lifted it up. It was empty. With his mysterious night vision he examined it carefully, and on the outer flap he found an inscription.

“May contain portal to hell. Open with caution.” He put it down gingerly and slinked back to his bed. It was hours until morning, and so Praymar, with a shrug and a yawn, went to sleep also.

Bantum's Charm

The morning came with a gloomy gray wind. The town was soggy, and people bustled through the streets with their cloaks wrapped tightly around themselves. Hermel, in his room, took the time to meditate and thus recuperate some of his mystical energies. He meditated on the path that they should take to Yellow Clay Village. There were several possibilities. There was the long way, which was the safest, and the way he had originally come to Hobbington. That path circled around the rough hills, and edged along the Lupusylva Forest. That way, optimistically, would take three or four weeks. There was a faster way, an old trail that went through the rough hills but he’d never been that way before, and the stories told of it made most people think twice, and avoid it. Star meditated as well, while Arik and the others got their things and prepared to leave.

They all went downstairs together, and had a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, cheese and bread. Lilac Village was well known for its hospitality. It was a crafts village. Some of the finest work in the Province came from Lilac.

“I’d like to buy my friend here a charm against magic,” said Ishcandar, pointing to Bantum who was on his fourth plate of eggs and bacon. Bantum was delighted and smiled with a big, colorful, grin.

“Thank you!” he said happily, a piece of egg falling from his mouth.

“Please, don’t mention it,” said Ishcandar, glad to be able to help the simple minded giant.

Meanwhile, Dr. Chickenhiemer, perched on Bantum’s head, was being utterly annoyed by his inability to conjure enough of a spell to make the AAA Group members develop a sudden preference for oatmeal, and so watched all the eggs being eaten with horror.  Their will to eat chickens far exceeded even his enormous capability.  “My babies,” he clucked, hopelessly. Turkenator gobbled along with him, also horrified. But fouls as they were, they had grown accustomed to the dreadful dietary habits of mankind, and preferred to look the other way after all. And with that Chickenhiemer and Turkenator hopped to the ground and began pecking at fallen bits of bread and seeds.

At that moment a man in a long brown leather coat came in and sauntered past the party to the bar. He shook the rain off his coat, took his wide brimmed hat off, and put it down on the counter.

“There’s been a murder last night,” he said grimly, turning around to scan the room. There were a number of patrons who were in the tavern at the time. No one stirred.

“Who was murdered, and where?” asked Star of Justice. The man gave him a searching gaze. He knew they were the only strangers in town that had come in the night before, and yet, Star was so just, so steady of eye, and sincere of voice, that the man decided he was trust worthy.

“One of the Gate Guards. Gerard Martin. Killed by a blow to the neck, it seems,” said the man. “We’re taking him to the Magistrate now.” Outside they saw a cart being pulled past the Inn by two men, and on it was the body of the victim, wrapped in a cloak.

The AAA Group went out into the street, and Star asked if he might be allowed to take a look at the body. The man with the brown leather coat gave him permission. The victim had been bludgeoned to death, a large blue bruise on his neck clearly showing the cause. The townspeople were gathering around the cart. They followed behind as the men pulled the cart up the muddy street towards the Magistrate’s Hall. Some were crying, some were praying, some were murmuring rumors of all kinds.

“Perhaps we should offer the townspeople our help in solving the murder?” asked Star as they watched the congregation head up the street.

“Perhaps we should go rescue my sister,” said Hermel.

“Yes, I think that sounds fine,” said Star.

“You know, you seem kind of … whipped,” quipped Praymar with a devious smirk. Everyone turned around and stared at him. He was suddenly flush and overwhelmed by the attention. “I’m just saying…” he said, grinning maliciously.

“You know, I think he’s got a point there,” said Arik with a grunt. “Ok Hermel, what do you want Star to do now?”

“Cut it out, you guys,” said Hermel. He was not really in the mood for jesting. And with that the AAA Group went back inside, paid their bill, and left the Lamb and Wolf. They made their way through the muddy streets toward a Boyer’s shop where Hermel bought arrows and a few extra pieces of equipment.

“I’m wondering, sir,” said Hermel to the Boyer, “if you might be able to recommend a shop where they sell, um, charms? Charms against magic, that is?”

“Well, that depends,” said the man, pulling on his beard. “Do you want the finest charms, in which case I know a shop for that, or are you looking for the low sort of charms that have as much to do with luck as they do magic?”

“No, no, my good man!” interjected Ishcandar. “I want the finest charms in the village for my friend!”

“Well in that case you will want to go down the main street, turn left at Hardborrow Street, head two blocks to Rand Row, and turn right. Go another block and you’ll see ‘The White Swan’. That’s the place you’re looking for.”

And with that, they settled their business there, and followed the Boyer’s directions to ‘The White Swan’. Along the way Hermel tried asking Dr. Chickenhiemer which direction he thought the party should take to get to Yellow Clay Village. But Chickenhiemer was not forthcoming, since he felt that Hermel should use his brain and figure out for himself which way would make the most sense.

In any event, they arrived at shop. There were crystals in the window, and necklaces and candles, and books. It was, indeed, an elegant shop, with a gorgeous white swan statue next to the door. They knocked. A very pretty young lady came to the door and opened it.

“Can I help you?” she asked, her long tresses of rich black hair billowing down her lithe young body.

Hermel slicked his hair back. Ishcandar darted out his hand to offer her a cheerful handshake.

"Well," said Hermel.

“Let me,” said Ishcandar.

“No, I got this,” said Hermel, pushing himself ahead of the Hobbit.

“It’s quite alright!" the Hobbit blurted, trying to shove his hand past Hermel.

“No I…,” objected Hermel as he tried to impose himself on the doorway.

“I think I should go first,” said Ishcandar, trying to step past Hermel by weaving between his legs. “It is my money after all!”

Everyone stared at the two of them.  Arik, disgusted enough for three people, finally broke in.

“Oh by Omri’s beard, let me!” grumbled Arik as he barged in pushing the two of them aside. “We want to buy a charm for our big friend here. Every time we bump into a wizard, the first spell that comes along boggles his poor brain, and down he goes. Have you got anything like that? Something that can help protect the big guy?” asked Arik, gruffly paying no attention to the girl’s lovely appearance. After all, she wasn’t sporting a beard, and as far as Arik was concerned she was far too skinny to be appealing. Dwarves, as it happens, find humans as appealing as humans find Dwarves, which is to say, not very much at all.

Hermel, not giving up, decided to make a play for the girl’s attention. He spoke up with the intention of convincing her that his knowledge of magic was deep and profound.

“Magic is big,” said Hermel.

She smiled.

“What kind of magical protection are you looking for? We have charms for protection against hexes, fire, cold, bladed weapons, illusions… what category are you trying to defend against?” asked the girl, very professionally.

“We want something that will protect against all of those. And anything else besides,” said Ishcandar enthusiastically, with a big smile.

“Against everything?” she asked doubtfully.

“Yes!” pronounced Ishcandar, “Everything!”

“Well,” she said, stammering, “we only have one charm that is that powerful, but it is the most expensive in the shop. In fact I’m sure it’s quite out of range for most people. Are you sure you could afford such a thing?”

“Miss,” replied Ishcandar puffing out his chest, “I am a Rokkafellah!”

“A who?” asked the girl, flummoxed.

“By the Elkron, you have never heard of the Rokkafellahs?!” demanded Ishcandar, thoroughly insulted.

“Why no, I’m afraid I haven’t?”

“Why we’re among the highest class citizens in Hobbington! Surely you must have heard of us!”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve never been to Hobbington,” said the girl, trying to ameliorate the irate Hobbit.

“I’ll handle this,” said Hermel, slicking his hair back. “Miss, how much for the Charm-Against-All-Magic?”

“Why sir, it’s the most expensive in the shop, probably in the entire village!”

“That’s ok. How much is it?”

“It’s three thousand Iron,” said she.

“Fine. I will pay you in gold,” replied Hermel pulling out his bag. “You will pay me back when we return to Hobbington, of course, yes?” he asked of Ishcandar.

“Of course! Of course! You know I’m good for it,” said the affluent Hobbit with his chest still puffed out.

Hermel wished, before he purchased the item, to test it by casting a spell on it, which would sense its power, or lack thereof. The charm was located in a beautiful crystal case set into the stonework of the wall. The girl, unsure that the patrons could afford such an expensive item, summoned the owner of the shop, and after a brief deliberation, an old white haired, and exceptionally elegant woman, opened the vault in which the amulet was set.  Hermel cast his 'Sense Magic' spell upon it. It was indeed exceptional for magical quality, and touched upon every category of magic he’d ever heard of, and some he hadn't, each configured with a special glyph of protection. Qutie powerful.  Satisfied, he laid down the thirty gold pieces on the counter.  The party members practically gasped at seeing Hermel depart with so much of his filthy lucre at one time. 

And so it was that Ishcandar and Hermel obtained for Bantum one of the finest magical protections in all of Hobbington.

“Thank you!” said Bantum with a big grin. On his head, Dr. Chickenheimer clucked with approval. Turnkenator looked admiringly upon the moronic giant. It was a happy day for them all. Everything was working out just as Chickenhiemer had foreseen.

“Ok, Bantum,” said Hermel, “now promise me. Never take this off.”

“Ok,” said Bantum looking at it reverently and put it around his neck. It was a beautiful golden amulet on a silver chain, designed in the shape of a circle with all manner of delicate designs woven around it.

There was the final bill, which came to 36 gold pieces. Hermel raised an eyebrow, but the old woman pointed out that there was the tax, of course. Everyone looked rather astounded as Hermel paid the bill in full without argument. The woman took the gold and put it into an ornate looking iron chest shaped like a boar, and carried it upstairs.

They went out into the rain, and trudged back to the Wolf & Lamb. There they collected the archers so that they might set off to Yellow Clay Village. The archers were all fed and ready to go.

“Should we tell the magistrate about the Fifth Animal?” asked Hermel as the archers got their equipment and gear. “It might be our fault if he came here looking for us. On the other hand, if we leave, he will probably follow after us and leave the village alone, so there may be no need to mention it.”

“His method appears to be attacking with poison, not bludgeoning,” said Ishcandar.

“That’s true, but he’s a martial artist, and a good chop to the neck could have caused that injury,” replied Hermel as he adjusted the leather straps of his boots.

“By the way,” said the barkeeper to Ishcandar, “my daughter sells umbrellas in case you need them,” said the barkeeper.

“How much are these umbrellas?” asked Ishcandar.

“Two iron each,” said the daughter stepping up eagerly. She was a stocky girl with a wide nose, fat red lips and crooked yellowing teeth. Bantum took an immediate liking to her. She had a warm hearted smile, he thought.  He stared at her smiling sheepishly.

Seeing this, Hermel took Bantum to the side, and offered him advice on how to get a woman’s affection. “Now you slick your hair back like this,” Hermel demonstrated.

“I can’t, or Chicken will fall off,” replied Bantum pointing at Dr. Chickenhiemer who was perched, as usual, on his head. Dr. Chickenhiemer sneered. Well, as much as a rooster can sneer, that’s what Chickenhiemer did. It was hard to tell, though, and so Hermel took no notice of it.

“Don’t worry, I’ll hold the chicken,” said Hermel as he unceremoniously hefted Dr. Chickenhiemer (you can imagine the much abused rooster’s expression, perhaps) in his hands and nodded his head encouragingly to Bantum. The gentle moron with a big grin slicked back his hair, and sauntered over to the girl just as Hermel showed him. The girl was thoroughly smitten, looked up into Bantum’s large brown eyes with her own large brown eyes, dropped her umbrellas on the floor, and swooned. Bantum, naturally, caught her in his arms and patted her face to see if she would wake up. Her eyes opened and she gave him a beautiful fat-lipped crooked-tooth smile. He smiled in return.

“There you go, little lady,” said Bantum gently standing her on her feet. “My name is Bantum. Let me help you pick up your umbrellas.” And so the two of them crawled around on the ground picking up umbrellas, happy as two fat pigs in a mud sty.  Afterwards Ishcandar purchased enough umbrellas for the entire crew, including all of the archers. They thought it wise to protect themselves as much as they could from the rain.  No sense in everyone catching the flu along the way to Yellow Clay.  Hermel tried out his umbrella. He had never owned one before. It was a well-constructed wicker umbrella with bright yellow cloth covering.  He liked it a lot, and felt it went handsomly with his green cloak, which it did.

“Bantum,” asked the girl, “will you stay in town from now on?”

“Ok!” said Bantum happily.

“Oh good. My father can hire you. He will pay you lots of money!”

“Ok!” said Bantum happily.

“Bantum,” said Star, “we have some things we have to do first.”

“Like what?” asked Bantum, not taking his eyes off of the girl, whose name by the way was Sally-Sue Jones.

“We promised to help Hermel to rescue his sister, remember?”

“Oh… I forgot,” said Bantum, sheepishly. “Ok.”

“But you promised to stay in the town with me!” said Sally-Sue.

“Oh… I forgot,” said Bantum, sheepishly. “Ok.”

Hermel, who sensed that the girl was none too bright herself, intruded himself and said that Bantum would definitely return as soon as he finished helping his friends. She was very disappointed, but eventually Hermel convinced her that Bantum was sure to return. She made Bantum promise he would, and Bantum promised very sincerely to return as soon as he possibly could. Hermel, to his credit, would have encouraged Bantum to stay and take up a peaceable life with his newfound girlfriend, if he did not think that the Fifth Animal would be sure to show up in town sooner or later and do something quite terrible to his enormous, simple-minded friend. Better for him to be close by friends where they could protect each other, than alone in the town against such a cunning and terrible foe. And so the party was finally ready to head out. They thanked the bar keeper, Bantum said a tearful goodbye to Sally-Sue, and everyone tromped out into the rain under their bright yellow umbrellas.

They made their way up the main street until the came to the large steps leading up to the Magistrates Hall. Two guards stood with Halibards in front of the door.

“Sirs, perhaps you can help us. We’re heading towards Harrowsgate and beyond to the villages out west. Could you tell us which road would be the safest?”

“Well, there’s one road to Harrowsgate. It’s been a bit rough lately, what with the rain, rock slides, and the Brigands round about. So be careful. Once you get to Harrowsgate, you’ll be able to take the road around the Lupusylva. That's safest.  Or you can take the old road through the Ravines, perhaps, but that way is overrun with Brigands of late. If you take the south road through the hills, though, you’ll come to the Hedge Country, but I wouldn’t take that path. They say there are monsters out that way."

“What kind of monsters?” asked Star.

“I’m not sure, I haven’t been there. Different kinds of monsters, I hear. It’s said there’s bands ogres that live there. And some say there’s red devils out and about, too.  But I don’t believe nothing unless I see it with my own two eyes.  Old wives tales maybe.  But there's also, and you won't doubt this, vicious wolves in the Hedge Country, large and cunning.  And Goblins, as well.  Not to mention the Kobolds.  And that's just to name a few.”

“I see,” said Star, not entirely convinced that one should believe the rumors of peasant folk from the Provinces. They thanked the Guards and headed toward the western gate.

“I’m wondering,” said Hermel to the group, “if the Brigands in the Ravines might be the same ones we are looking for?”

“Common, you don’t think there’s more than one group of Brigands in the Provinces?” asked Praymar. “There’s a lot of Brigands in the provinces, and the Ravines are not even close to your village. Why would they stalk Yellow Clay from the Ravines?”

“Do you think they camped out right next to Yellow Clay?” replied Hermel.

“I bet you ten iron they did,” said Praymar with a squeak.

“Your stupid,” answered Hermel. There was a pause. Praymar flicked his little red tongue out.

“… well played,” he said.

“In any case, we’ve no choice but to go to Harrowsgate. Once we get there, we can ask the locals what route is best.  Perhaps find a scout as well.”

The AAA Group left Lilac Village through the western gate. On the parapet stood Sally-Sue waving goodbye.  A dark figure in a wide brimmed hat watched them leave from a darkenned doorway as well, but none of the adventurer's noticed him.

“Everyone keep an eye out for the Fifth Animal,” said Hermel.

“You know,” said Star, “our umbrellas would probably make good shields against darts.”

“Good idea,” said Hermel. “In any case, lets keep an eye out for him. He may not give us time to prepare an umbrella defense.”

Onward to Harrowsgate

They took up their marching order, with Praymar far out ahead, followed at a distance by Ishcandar, and then Lido, with the rest of the group clustered together around Hermel. Following behind were the two Dectalions of archers, each one lead by their Captains.

“If the Fifth Animal does show up, get out of the way and let the archers do their job,” ordered Hermel to everyone. “And Bantum, when I say ‘Get out of the way”, I want you to come to where I am and keep your head down, ok?”

“Ok,” said Bantum. And with that they wound their way down the rough rocky slope, covered with loose stones, and rivulets of water. The rain had lightned, but the road was tricky.  It was not much traveled.  At the bottom of the hill they came to a wooden bridge, beneath which a torrent flowed wildly. They crossed the bridge and made their way up the next hill. It was slow going, cold and wet, and everyone started to feel miserable pretty quickly.

It took the rest of the day to get to a campsite. On top of a hill in a cluster of trees they found an abandoned pagoda made of bamboo poles and a partially broken reed roof.  This was one of the common campsites that dotted the province along the trails.

“If anyone asks, we’re going to Elmwood,” said Hermel, not wanting any of the locals to know their final destination. Hermel was a cautious man. He knew that there might be those among the Brigands who could act as spies. They might pose as ordinary farmers, or country wanderers, or hunters. As they set up camp Hermel considered all of these things. Fortunately, when they arrived there was a pile of dry wood under the awning. They used that to create a fire. It grew dark. It was windy and raining.

Bob, one of the two archer Captains, came over to where Hermel was sitting and said, “There are two men at the edge of camp. They wan to share our fire.” Hermel gave a nod, and Bob waved them up. The two men approached up the hill along the muddy track. They were soaked in their leather coats and stared out grimly from under their wicker hats. As it was a common campsite, and custom had it that any might use it when need be, the men took a look around and nodded.

“We’d like to share your fire, if ye first folks don't mind too much,” said one of the men with a thick country accent, as was customary. He was a short hearty looking fellow with natural grin. His companion stood silently, and had the lean look of a hungry wolf.

“Where you men from?” asked Hermel looking out at them from beneath the awning.

“Oh round abouts the country here and there,” said the man, a common phrase among those folks who lived off the land. “We’re hunters.” They had long knives strapped to their legs, and short bows strapped over the backs.

“We’re passing through to the west,” said Hermel.

“Oh, new comers, ey?” asked the man, and gave a sideways glance to his friend. The other narrowed his eyes, and rubbed his hands in front of the fire, not saying a word.

“Have a drink,” said Ishcandar, offering the man a sip from his flask. The man thanked him, and took a rather larger than expected slug from the flask. Before Ishcandar could say anything, he handed it his friend, who did likewise.

“Well, that’s not bad,” said the man as he handed the flask back to Ishcandar, who looked remaining brandy in it with a small twinge of regret. “You fellah’s ain’t so bad after all, I reckon,” said the man, smiling. He seemed in a much better mood. “Terrible weather out here. Been like this for days. We appreciate it, letting us warm our hackles by the fire.”

“Any news from the west?” asked Hermel.

“Any news from the west? Eh? Well, uh, it’s wild. Pretty wild out that way,” said the man as he rubbed his beard. His companion tipped his hat back, also looking in a somewhat better mood. “Wild west out there. Pretty wild. You know that guy has a chicken on his head over there?” he asked pointing towards Bantum.

“He’s my friend,” said Bantum jovially.

“Yer friend, eh? Well,” he said, looking Bantum up and down, “you can have any friend you want, I guess, haw haw.” He nudged his friend with his elbow and the fellow looked at Bantum and gave a slight grin. He was obviously in better spirits now.

“And I got a charm! It’s very expensive! My friends got it for me!” said Bantum, pulling out his charm on the chain and showing it to the strangers.

“Oh really,” said the man, wide eyed. “Where’d you get it?”

“My friends got it for me!” said Bantum stupidly repeating himself.

“That’s amazing,” said the man, “You’ve got good friends, there.” The other man looked sideways at Bantum, his eyes fixed on the charm.

“Yeah, you know,” said Hermel to the hunter, his mouth cupped behind his hand, “we paid two iron for it. Don’t tell him, though, he’d feel a little disappointed. We told him it will protect him from magic spells,” he said with a wink.

“Oh, really,” said the man, “I see.” And he winked back at Hermel. His companion looked at Hermel and narrowed his eyes again, and  went back to warming his hands by the fire.  He seemed to take no further notice of anyone.

“There was a murder in Lilac Village, you know,” said Hermel.

“Who was it? Do you know?” asked the hunter.

“One of the Gate Guards,” said Hermel.

“Do you know the muffin man?” asked Lido of the stranger suddenly.

“What? The who?” asked the man.

“The muffin man!” said Lido again.

“Oh never mind him,” cut in Hermel, giving Lido a nasty look.

“Is he, eh…, well, uh, I mean…” asked the man as he stared at Lido quizzically.

“They all are,” replied Hermel dryly, glancing around at his crew.

“I see,” said the hunter hesitantly. “Anyway, that’s a shame about the murder,” he went on gravely. “Sorry to hear it. Bad news. It’s been bad times lately. The hills are covered with Brigands. Monsters in the forest. Life is getting hard. We’ve lived here all our lives, and never seen so many Brigands. No one can make a living anymore,” he said.  "Too damn hard."

“Maybe it has to do with the new taxes,” offered Hermel. “People can’t make an honest living inside Hobbington, so…”

“Naw, I don’t think it has much to do with the taxes, frankly. The Brigands came before the new taxes,” replied the man. “They’re like a plague. Can’t move any goods around without them taking a bite, or all of it if they're hungry. It’s gotten plenty worse lately.”

“Where are these Brigands from?” asked Star.

“I don’t know. But we used to have a Hunter’s camp in the Ravines, making a pretty good living, but they came and we had to retreat out of there.”

“What do you hunt?” asked Star.

“Crocodiles,” said the man.

“There’s crocodiles in the Ravines?” asked Arik, incredulously.

“Oh yeah, big ones, too,” replied the man. “There’s a number of lakes in the Ravines, and they live in 'em. Some of them get pretty big, too. Their hides are worth a good chunk of iron. But lately, we can’t even get to the lakes with the Brigands robbing us blind. So we stopped going that way. Now we’re hunting to the north for badgers and small game. Hard to make a living this way,” he said. His friend grunted at that.

“I once hunted a crocodile that ticked like a clock,” piped up Ishcandar with an upper class draw.

“That was a bottle of brandy you ran into, I think,” said Lido. “Anyway, why don’t you train a crocodile to walk ahead of you on the road, and let it eat the Brigands when the come?”

Both men stared at Lido like he was crazy.

“Anyway,” continued the man, “I would avoid the Ravines, if I were you. The Brigands are a rough bunch. If you have anything of value they’re sure to take it.”  He looked at Bantum.

“We hear stories of monsters,” said Hermel.

“Yeah, we’ve seen them, far in the west.”

“We met a few monsters as well, but I won’t say where. The creature was bigger than my chicken-hatted friend here, and had twelve eyes in a row around his head. And I felled the creature with one blow!” said Ishcandar, taking a swig from his flask.

“Oh you did?” asked the man, with a raised eyebrow.

“Brandy was involved?” asked Lido, with a grin.

“Are you two brothers? You look related to each other,” asked the stranger.

“We’re Hobbits. All Hobbits look this way,” replied Lido.

“I see,” said the man.

“Would you like to look into this backpack?” asked Ishcandar pointing Lido’s backpack.

“There may be a portal to hell in there,” said Lido gravely, holding it up.

“What?” asked the man, “are you … crazy?”

“Now you’ve met Hobbits. I’m sorry,” commented Hermel dryly.

“It’s ok. I think,” said the stranger, edging away from the two Hobbits. “Hmmm… well, anyway, you all seem like odd folk, but do you mind if we crouach by your fire for the night? We don’t mind taking a watch if you want.”

“You can stay, but we keep our own watch, thanks,” said Hermel.

“Say,” said Arik, “you fellahs are hunters right?”

“Yep, that we are,” said the stranger.

“Well do you deal in skins and the like? Do you happen to know where to unload a skin?”

“What kind of skin?”

“Well, like this one here,” said Arik pulling out the old musty bearskin. A number of flies buzzed around the matted, blood stained, and stiffened hide.

“Oh, that’s what that smell was,” squeaked Praymar stepping away.

“What do you think I can get for it?” asked Arik, wiggling his eyebrows and brushing his big bushy red beard. “I cured it myself.”

“You cured that yourself, eh?”

“Yeah, sure did,” answered Arik proudly.

“And now you met a Dwarve,” said Hermel.

“I see. Well, it’s quite the crew you have her, mister.”

“And in case you think we’re all crazy, I have to say, whatever you do, don’t talk to the chicken,” said Hermel pointing at Dr. Chickenhiemer.

“Oh shut up about the damned chicken!” barked Arik. “He thinks the chicken is some kid of genius. He thinks it’s a genius chicken!”

The two strangers stood up.

“Well, as nice as you folks are,” said the man, “and as much as we’d like to stay and chat with you all night, we just remembered that we have an appointment. Yeah, and it’s getting a little late, I think. Well, if you don’t mind, I reckon we’ll be heading out. Yer a great bunch of guys, but we got a long way to go, actually. Uh. Nice to meet you folks. Carry on. Good luck with it all. We’re leaving now.”

“If you know of anybody who would like to buy that bearskin…” said Arik as they exited the pagoda.

“Ah sure, yeah. We’ll send ‘em your way, for sure,” said the stranger, and with that the two men tromped off into the darkness, a hard rain falling, and fled rapidly back down the road from whence they came.

“They were probably going to try to rob is in our sleep,” commented Arik. Everyone nodded. Once the excitement died down, the men pulled out their blankets and made the best of the shelter as they could. Slowly everyone fell asleep. It rained long into the night.

The Brawling Brigands

By the next morning it had stopped raining, but the sky was gloomy and gray, and a cold wind had picked up. The men were all sore from sleeping on the ground in the cold, and they trudged along the road towards Harrowsgate without talking. Eventually, after a long uneventful day of marching, they came to a vale with tall cliffs on both sides. In the middle of the vale was a plateau on which was a fortified town surrounded by a stone wall, along which were situated a number of towers. There were guards, each of which held aloft a gray banner with the image of a white boar on it. Through the gate they saw gray and brown houses made of baked bricks, some one story, some two, and a few three stories tall. It looked like a small cramped village of meager resources and grim aspect. A horn blew. A man on a tower called down to them as they approached.

“Ho there,” said the guard. “Whence cometh thee?”

“From the east,” replied Hermel.

“Whence goeth thee?”

“To the west,” replied Hermel.

As it happened Bob, the archer Captain had been to Harrowsate before, and he and the guard knew one another. They parleyed for a few minutes, and the gate opened.

“We’ve come up this way on the Hunt a number of times. The last time was on rumor of devils,” said Bob to Hermel. “But we didn’t find any. Only tracks. Three toed tracks. And blood. But no devils.”

They went to the one Inn in the town. As they walked through the narrow stone streets, shutters on windows closed, and eyes from alleyways peered out at them silently. They came to the Green Dragon Inn, but it was full. The inn keeper, a heavy set man with a gravelly voice, pointed them to the mule stable. He looked weary.

“Long day?” asked Hermel.

“You don’t know the half of it,” said the tavern keeper. And then in a low whisper he added, “We’ve got a band of Brigands who took up all the rooms a few days ago, and they’re a rough bunch to take care of, I’ll tell ya.”

“What would you pay us to clean the place out for you?” asked Ishcandar.

“What? You fellahs couldn’t clear the place out. I can’t even clear the place out. And besides, even if you did, a hundred more would come here for revenge before a fortnight.,” said the man.

“Well, that’s true,” replied Hermel.

“But thanks for the offer. It’s appreciated.”

“Waiter!” shouted a gruff angry voice from inside the tavern. “Where’s our food! Hurry up! We’re hungry!” and there was pounding on the table.

The tavern keeper pointed to the mule barn and said there’d be enough room for them there, and then hustled back into the tavern. And so they took up lodging in the mule barn. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, but at least there was hay on the ground, and it wasn’t directly in the wind.

Hermel asked Bob if he knew where they could find a scout to take them through the Hedge Country, as he decided that monsters might be easier to handle than Brigands. In fact, Bob had hired scouts in this region before, and new where he could find someone. He left and after an hour returned with a man. He was a leathery looking chap with a flat face and short-cropped peppered hair. He said he knew the Hedge Country.  He wanted one hundred iron to take them through. Hermel balked at that. He offered the man fifty instead. The scout agreed and said he would meet them for the journey the following morning, and left. His name was Raul.

Outside in the street there was a commotion. Some drunken Brigands had spilled out of the bar and were accosting a waiter, beating him with their hands and kicking him.  Hermel, adverse to getting involved, but unwilling to stand by, told everyone remain in the barn, and stepped outside.

“Hey, hey, hey, who is going to serve me my dinner? You guys?” he shouted.  "Leave that waiter alone."

One of the Brigands, a drunken lowbrow sort with a scar on his cheek and split lip shouted, “Mind your own business!” and shoved Hermel against the a wall. He went back to beating the waiter. Hermel conjured the illusion of a fire in his right hand. It was a large flaming mass the size of a grapefruit, with a golden orange flame.

“You should reconsider,” said Hermel. The men turned around, and looked at him. They believed the illusion, and saw it as though it was entirely real. However, the illusion was not very frightening to them. They mocked him with their eyes. Hermel turned the illusion into a red ball. And then a bird, and the bird flew around their heads, and as they watched it, it sparked flames behind it. Being as drunk as they were they became confused by it, and as it flew around their heads they grew dizzy.  And so the Brigands gave up and beating the waiter and staggered back into the tavern.

The waiter got himself up off the ground and thanked Hermel for saving him, and went around the side of the building to enter into another door. Hermel returned to the barn, and sat down. He told the men what had happened.

Hermel took a seat next to Star.

“I don’t think these Brigands are here for no reason. Nor do I think they are what they seem to be. We need a way, when we capture the Brigands at Yellow Clay, to find out the truth from them. And we also want to find out which ones are trustworthy so we can co-opt them as guards for the village. But I’m not sure how to do that. I have in mind to create an illusion of myself killing one or two of them saying that they weren’t very useful to convince them that I’m a tough guy who they should follow. But I’m not sure what to do with them after that.”

“It’s certainly important to find out who they are working for, but killing their compatriots may not be the best way to win their trust, but under the circumstances it might be the best and quickest way to serve the greater good,” said Star. “If there is a bigger threat, or larger presence is trying to move in on the village, then we do need to find out what it is.”

“I don’t know what it is, or what they are doing. But also, what was Senior Borge doing at the Prancing Unicorn that night?  I'd like to know.”

“He was meeting with some people there, I believe, but I don’t think we ever had an inkling as to why. I conjecture it had something to do with the mine. Perhaps conferring ownership, or looking over paperwork? He is a lawyer, after all.”

“Maybe they would tell us something useful, if we can find some loyal men among them?” suggested Hermel.

“From what I know of Brigands, the only interest they have is money. There is no virtue in any of them,” butted in Ishcandar.

“Perhaps some of them are only Brigands because of impoverishment and circumstance,” replied Hermel.

“They’re just lazy,” said Ishcandar.

"You're a Conservative!" accused Hermel.

"Liberaly ninny!" accused Ishcandar.

“Well,” said Bob, “I agree with Mr. Ishcandar.  You’re going to have a hard time finding a loyal man among the Brigands. That’s my opinion.”

“I agree,” said Hermel. “But what do we do with them after we capture them in that case? My plan was to convert them to town guards if possible. If not, I’m not sure what to do with them.”

“Well, there’s the matter of justice,” said Bob. “Frankly, they all deserve to be executed.”

“But who will do that?” asked Hermel, raising an eyebrow.

“In fact, I am a deputy of Constable Barnstormer. I’m authorized to execute judgment in the provinces,” replied Bob, “so long as the execution thereof is conducted in pursuance of the Hobbington Charter, uner the the Eradication of Brigands clause as articulated in Section 9.2 Sub-Section 4.”

Hemel frowned.

“How about bringing them to the temple of Eldrik? Don’t they deal with Injustice?” he asked.  Hermel had been wished from the outset to avoid killing the Brigands, or anyone else for that matter, if it could at all be avoided. Which is why he had gone through so much trouble to acquire the Misty Cloud Venom, and the archers to deploy it.  Executing the criminals was against the entire spirit of his plan.  He wanted to use the Misty Cloud Venom to knock the Brigands out, and in this way save his sister, and the village, without having to kill the Brigands. It was only now that he began to consider what to do with the Brigands after that. His hope was that they could turn the Brigands towards a better purpose in life, by convincing them to reform and become defenders of Yellow Clay, instead of it’s oppressors.

“Yes,” said Star, “but Eldrik is more a destroyer of evil monsters, than police office, I think, and I don’t believe the temple is in the business of handling the criminal element.  This is what we have magistrates and courts for, I believe.”

“Well, what if I convince the Brigands that they should follow me?” suggested Hermel.

“Typically, Brigands follow the leadership of the toughest man,” said Bob. “You’re not, frankly, the kind of ruthless villain these men would likely follow.  No offense intended.”

“What if we had them follow Bantum?” suggested Lido. “He’s tougher than most anyone, isn’t he?”

“Oh boy!” cried out Bantum excitedly. “I will make everyone bring me kitties so I can pet them real nice!”

Everyone agreed that Bantum was not the ideal Brigand leader after all.

“Well, Hermel,” said Bob, “if I might be so bold as to say so, and no offense again, but your plan seems fairly impractical. If your purpose is to rid the area of Brigands, you’re going to open a box of worms when you try to convert some of them to guard the village. It reminds me of the old proverb about ‘The foxes guarding the hen house’. These are violent cruel men who have committed numerous crimes already.”

“For one thing,” replied Hermel, “we’re going to drop these guys in mere moments with our tainted arrows. We’re going to take out their force very quickly. So, you know what? Let them go and tell all the other Brigands how quickly we dropped them. The It will strike fear in the others and they will avoid Yellow Clay Village in the future.”

“That’s a different plan than co-opting them to join you in guarding the village, then,” said Bob.

“I expect to convert very very few. But if I can get some fighting men join my forces there, that’s what I’m going to do. But I want to make sure that they’re men that I can trust enough to have there. As for the rest of them, let them spread the word.”

“So you’re planning to let whatever Brigands don’t join you to go?” asked Bob, scratching his head.

“I may arrange for them to manage their own escape. Tie one up poorly,” said Hermel, thinking out loud.

“Sounds like a fool’s folly,” said Praymar, but no one paid attention to him, except Bob who nodded.

“Well, I suppose that might work,” answered Bob dubiously.

“It’s stupid,” said Praymar.

Hermel, annoyed, took out his bow and picked a difficult target. There was a window through which he could see the town's Mission bell in a tall stone tower.  There was an old iron bell handing in it. Hermel took aim. He shot. The arrow hit the bell with a loud clang.

Everyone was impressed, and the archers clapped.

“That was a good shot,” said Bob. “I will try that.” He took his bow, made careful aim of it, and fired. The arrow shot just shy of the bell and hit a wooden post on the inside of the bell tower. “Damnit,” he said.  His men looked the other way, and some rolled their eyes.  Bob stood there, annoyed.

Then there arose a commotion outside in the street.  There was a street fight going on. A barroom brawl that spilled outside into the street, perhaps because of the sound of the bell.  It was getting dark. They saw the Brigands fighting amongst each other. Hermel held his hand up, indicating that no one should interfere. That went on for a while, but settled down eventually, and the Brigands went back into the tavern loudly demanding more drinks and food.

Later another brawl in the bar broke out. Ishcandar went to watch out the barn window. He noticed, from the light of the few lamps along the street, that there was a lone figure walking slowly toward the brawl, which again had spilled out into the street. The figure wore a wide brimmed wicker hat.

“The Fifth Animal!” he called to the men in the barn with a loud whisper.

“Everyone get your weapons, and follow me,” said Hermel. They filed quietly as they could into the street, and made their way along the edge of a wall towards the shadowy figure, keeping low and out of his line of sight.  He was dressed in black cloths, and wore a gold sash, barely visible in the darkness.  The figure stopped and turned toward the party. Hermel had the archers cock their arrows and stand up.

“Hey mister, take off that hat, real slowly,” said Hermel.

The figure took an acrobatic somersault and vanished into an alleyway. At that moment a dart landed in the doorpost next to Star of Justice. The party followed, but Star remained behind to examine the dart. He pulled it out, and found that it was a brightly polished bronze dart, in the shape of a swallow.

“Hermel!” he yelled. Hermel stopped and came back with the men.

“What is it?” Hermel asked.  Star showed him the dart. He took out another similar dart from his lapel that the old master at the temple of Eldrik had given him. It was in fact, exactly the same.

“It’s the Golden Swallow!” said Star.

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