The Road Between Landoon and Tarris – 9 pm
Session date: February 12th, 2013
Karen clears her throat. “Okay, to summarize, we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night with a loaded carriage and a dead mule, while goblins are juggling explosives in the grass field to our left, a creepy forest to our right, and possibly more orc attacks ahead? Marvelous.”
“In short, lass,” Gortek offers, “we’re screwed.”
“I appreciate the need to state the obvious. I really do,” Fernando sighs. “But you two are not helping.”
“Why are the goblins juggling explosives, though?” Baellon quirks his head curiously. “Instead of the more logical devices typical to their race, like rocks or throwing axes?”
“Because they’re goblins,” replies Karen matter-of-factly. “They’re cray bastards.”
“And we’re not?” Archon scratches his head.
“Do you see us carrying explosives?”
“Then we’re not cray bastards. Well, at least, most of us aren’t.”
Fernando massages his temple. “How is this discussion productive or even related to our situation? My dear Ash, you’re the leader of this group. What do you suppose we should do?”
Archon bristles. “Hey, who died and made the ranger our leader?”
“Whoa, hold on. Archon is right. Who says I’m the leader of the group?” Ash looks around, bewildered.
“Well, someone should be one if we are to function well as a party,” Baellon strokes his beardless chin.
Ash shakes his head. “I’m hardly qualified to be a leader. On the other hand, you, Baellon, have high enough Intelligence to take on the task.”
Baellon laughs good-naturedly. “Look at me, Ash. I’m only a young wizard. I don’t have the experience and the wisdom to lead anything but a discussion group in the Academy’s Librarium.”
“And who decides that a leader should have a high Intelligence score, anyway?” Archon crosses his arms across his chest.
“Um, excuse me, but are you done talking among yourselves?” Turrin squacks from the carriage seat. “Have you decided how we’re going to haul my carriage to Tarris?”
“I don’t see how we can do that. Even with a living mule, how the hell are we going to pass through this freaking wall of stone?” Karen gestures at the blockade. “I’d say we ditch this quest and carry on ourselves to Tarris.”
“What?” Turrin rises from his seat, shaking with anger. “Are you going to leave me stranded here? Just like those traitorous guards I hired? You can’t do that!”
Karen raises a meticulouly trimmed eyebrow. “Well, you’re not exactly the leader of our party, are you? You can’t tell us what to do.”
“And who is the leader?” Gortek asks around.
Ash throws his hands up in the air. “No one! No one is the leader. We are a group of friends who happen to work together on the same quest.”
Fernando chuckles softly. “That’s… quite a sweet outlook of life you have there, Master Ranger. A little naive, but sweet.”
“Yeah, we’re not friends,” Karen throws her hair over her shoulder. “We’re just here for the reward.”
“That’s not what I meant at all, Kare. What I was trying to say was that there is always a leader in every adventuring party.”
“It’s true, though. Admit it, we wouldn’t go traipsing around in the night like this if it wasn’t for the reward. Speaking of which, why are we letting that little rogue keep her loots to herself. If we’re a party, the loot should be shared equally, right? I don’t see her working together with us. Look at her, digging around like that. I bet she thinks she’ll find more loot in there.”
Elluvio turns from where she is squatting among the grass. She puts on her best scowl as she steps back from the field.
“This little rogue has been busy disarming a booby trap so your pretty ass can walk through here without a scratch.”
Karen fumes. “Why would I even walk there? I’m not going to ruin my shoes even more.”
Elluvio points angrily at the wild grass. “Because there’s a hidden path there that goes around the blockade, you dolt.”
“A hidden path?” Fernando startles. “Where is it leading to? Is it wide enough for a carriage to pass through?”
Elluvio scowls at the druid, crossing her arms across her chest. “I think it’s leading to the other side of the blockade. It’s wide enough for ten halflings in cabaret petticoats to form a line and dance the cancan, so yes, it’s wide enough for the carriage.”
“I’m going in first!” Archon runs into the path and leaps over Elluvio. He unneccessarily slashes the grass to his right and left with his sword, then disappears at the bend that leads to the other side.
“You need to stop doing that!” Elluvio yells angrily.
“Excellent work, Mistress Rogue!” Fernando smiles widely. “Come, let’s have a look at this hidden path.”
“Pffft,” Karen snorts dismissively. “Sure, whatever. But did she need to be so snippy about it? Bitch.”
“Hah! If you think I take that as an insult, you’re wrong, bitch.”
“Maybe you should take it as an insult, Kare. Maybe you should.” Fernando ushers his sister into the path, away from the scowling rogue. Sergio follows suit.
The halfling’s observation is correct. The path is wide enough for a carriage to pass through. Fernando steps carefully along the dirt-covered track, avoiding the remains of a disarmed trap. He is eager to follow Archon’s steps quickly in case of more danger ahead, but his keen senses notice something that stops him in his tracks. Noises. Incorrigible whispering noises. By Obad-hai, his sister is right. There really are goblins here!
“Goblins,” Fernando hisses. “Ten to twenty feet to our left.”
“Got it.” Elluvio draws out her short crossbow and slips among the grass stalks.
“Be cautious, Mistress Rogue. I can’t tell how many of them are out there.”
But Elluvio has vanished from his sight. Fernando decides to move on.
Meanwhile, near the blockade, Ash, Baellon, and Gortek watch as their companions disappear into the field.
“Are they returning any time soon?” asks Turrin worriedly.
“I swear, if they start killin’ more orcs without me, Imma be really pissed!” Gortek charges into the path as well, swinging his greataxe.
“Gortek, wait, what about the…,” Ash starts to call out to dwarf, but the tall grass swallow up his stout companion before he finishes his sentence, “…carriage…?”
Baellon turns to his friend. “So it’s up to us to drag the carriage? Which is full with piles of bread? And an adult gnome?”
“Looks like it.”
They release the reins off Three Gold’s corpse and position themselves next to each pulley. If any potential ambushers failed to hear their companions’ bickering earlier, they will surely not miss the loud groaning that come out of the two men pulling the carriage.
Ash grumbles. “I can’t believe they leave two ranged classed characters to drag this thing around. We need to start organizing our group’s resources. The fighter and the barbarian are better suited for this task.”
Baellon grins at the ranger from behind the left pulley. “Now I know why they think you’re our leader. You keep saying smart, logical things like that.”
“I’ll try to restrain myself in the future, then.”
On the other side of the blockade, Archon crouches at the path opening. He attempts to Spot his surrounding, but fails at his skill check. Luckily for him, Karen and Fernando arrive at his side soon enough.
“What do you see, Fer?” asks Karen, who has also failed her Spot skill check.
Fernando squints ahead. “I see a forest clearing almost right across the road from here. Someone lit a fire there. Maybe it’s a camp of some sort. We should see if…”
Sergio dashes forward, heading to the middle of the road. Alerted, Fernando tries to Spot what his direwolf pup saw.
He gasps. “Oh, dear me! Is that what I think it is? Oh dear me, I hope we’re not too late!”
He rushes from the hiding spot, ignoring his companion’s surprised questions. He stops to crouch by a figure that lies face down on the road. It is hard to tell what the figure is. But from the clothes and the built, Fernando judges that he or she can not be an orc. He turns the unconscious body around. He sees a human male wearing a travelling tunic that is torn and stained with blood in so many parts he hopes the man passed away without feeling the pain caused by such mortal wounds.
That is when Fernando sees the man’s chest rising slowly. He is still breathing! Fernando checks for a pulse. Weak, but it is there. Fernando searches his backpack for a healing potion. He slips the green liquid between the human’s lips and watches the transformation. The wounds close up, leaving dried bloodstains on the man’s skin and clothes as a reminder that he has just cheated death.
When Karen and Archon reach them, the human is opening his eyes and coughing wretchedly. Sergio is licking the side of his face.
“OMG, Fer. He’s still alive!” Karen kneels by her brother, taking a closer look at the human.
“And he’s hot, too!”
“Really, Kare? Is this really the time?”
“Hale, yes, brother. It’s not everyday I get to meet a hot dude on the road. Not after the war, at least,” Karen pushes Sergio aside and helps the human sit up. “Hey, there, gorgeous. What’s your name?”
The man looks around him bewilderedly. He starts to scramble away from the three strange faces hovering above him, and a wolf but Karen’s strong grip keeps him in place.
“I… I don’t… Don’t hurt me…”
Fernando smiles gently. “We’re not going to hurt you. We happened to be passing by when we found you lying on the road. I just made you take a healing potion, so you’re going to feel better soon, sir.”
The man looks around with wild eyes, scanning his surrounding. “The orcs… where… are they gone?”
“Dead as rocks, those orcs,” Karen throws him her most charming smile. “Now, what’s your name, sweetie?”
“I’m… Lucian,” the man seems to realize the presence of the beautiful half-elf, who keeps touching him in places. “Um, you have pretty eyes, ma’am.”
“Oh, would you look at that!” Karen giggles, slapping a hand playfully against Fernando’s arm. “He’s cute and he has manners, too. Definitely a keeper, don’t you think, Fer? I want to keep him!”
“He is not a puppy, Kare. You don’t get to keep him.”
“Oh, shush, you killjoy.”
Disgusted at Karen’s constant swooning at the human, Archon decides to have a look at the forest clearing. Sergio is already there, sniffing the remains of a burnt caravan and broken wooden crates. The fire is still burning at some parts of the caravan, but the flame is small and easily extinguishable. Nothing valuable can be salvaged from the burnt crates.
Shortly afterwards, the party regroups in the clearing, all traces of flame have been doused. The carriage is parked by the side of the road, with Turrin still seating on the front seat. Baellon lays spread-eagled on the ground, positively exhausted and complaining of a back pain. Ash sits on top of a charred wooden crate, assessing the situation. Karen stands leaning against the human, who is still shaken from the tragedy he just survived from. The stubborn Gortek, who insists that he might still find something valuable among the ashes, keeps poking at the charred remains of the caravan and searching among the corpses. Fernando stands quietly still with his eyes closed in the middle of the clearing, trying to get a reading on his surrounding. Elluvio is nowhere to be seen.
“This caravan came from the west, didn’t it?” Ash asks the survivor. “I gathered that from the tracks.”
The man nods weakly. “We originally came from the north. Then we came to the intersection west of here and turned east. We were heading to Landoon.”
“The caravan is obviously Iskandarian. I recognize the coat of arms on the burnt banners.”
“Yes, it is.”
“The orcs ambushed you here,” Ash carries on. “Most likely the same orcs that attacked us. There were signs of a struggle, the people in the caravan tried to defend themselves. But you were no match to the powerful orcs. Did the leader destroy the caravan?”
“He crushed it with his giant club.”
Ash points to the tracks on the ground. “Some of the passengers managed to escape from the caravan, but they quickly met their deaths here. Their corpses show damages caused by blunt weapons. Then, I see a goblin track here. Orcs aren’t known as firewielders, so the goblin must have started the fire. The goblin then ran to the grass field. He could still be alive and ran back to his master.”
“That’s not possible. I have him here.”
Elluvio appears out of nowhere with a wriggling goblin in tow, perfectly tied with a rope. She throws the goblin unceremoniously to the ground, where he rolls until he stops at Ash’s boots.
“Caught him in the field there, alone,” says Elluvio, scowling at the goblin. “He was the one who set up the trap in the hidden path. I tried to interrogate him, but he didn’t understand me. Anyone here happen to speak Goblin?”
All heads around her shake in response.
Elluvio sighs, disappointed. “Fantastic.”
Gortek pulls the tied up goblin up to his feet. He removes the knot that covers the goblin’s mouth. “Let’s just see what he has to say now, shall we?”
The goblin looks around him with his bulging eyes. Fear is evident in those two dark pools. He lets out a pitiful whimperings and tries to escape, only to be kicked in the shins by Elluvio.
“You’re not going anywhere until we’re done with you,” barks the rogue. “Who sent you?”
The goblin shakes his head fearfully, shakily mutterings a long string of gibberish.
Elluvio kicks him again. “You speak Common? Who sent you?”
“Furtang!” the goblin squeals. “I. Furtang. I! Furtang!”
“What the eff?” Karen grows impatient.
“Furtang! Furtang! I! FURTANG!!”
Baellon sighs. “Remind me to put some skills in Goblin next time we level up.”
The goblin keeps repeating the word with his shrilly voice. It is obvious that they are not going anywhere with the goblin. The party decides to just leave him be. Elluvio unties the goblin and shoos him away.
The goblin stares at her in disbelief, as if he does not expect to be freed.
“Go! Go, you useless cretin,” Elluvio waves him away. “What? You want me to tie you up again? Git!”
The goblin grins happily. He points to his chest and says, “Furtang. Me. Me is Furtang.”
Elluvio stares bewildered at the goblin. She opens her mouth to say something. But before a word manages to escape her lips, a flash of something silver slices through the air. Gortek, who is standing in front of the goblin, tries to deflect it, but misses. Archon’s blade slashes the goblin from the left shoulder down to right hip. Dark green blood splurts across the companion’s armors. The goblin drops to the ground and moves no more.
“YOU MORON!” Elluvio yells angrily at the fighter. “Why the fuck did you do that!?”
Archon slips his sword back to the sheathe. “I’m sparing us all from a potential danger in the future. Now we’re sure that he’ll never return with his friends.”
“But to kill him like that when we have set him free…,” Fernando loses his words.
Elluvio is glaring daggers at Archon. “I was the one who caught him. I was the one who brought him to you people. And I was the one who released him. If anyone was going to decide whether he’d live or die, it was me. You had no rights. No rights.”
“What does it matter who kills the damn creature?” Archon barks back. “If you were going to kill him anyway, does it matter who swings the blade?”
“The problem is, I wasn’t really going to kill him! We could’ve used him!”
“But you set him free! What use would he be?”
“I don’t know yet. I was hoping he’d feel like he owed us his life. He could’ve helped us!”
“Might, could. Those are just words to show that you’re not sure. What is your problem anyway? It was just a stupid goblin.”
He told me his name, Elluvio thought angrily. That meant something. Even for a stupid goblin. But she was too angry to say it.
“I didn’t expect that things turned out this way,” says Ash, not completely without regrets. “But what’s done is done. There’s nothing we can do about the goblin now and we still have matters to settle. First, who are you, stranger who survived the orc attack?”
Everyone’s attention turns to Lucian once again. The young man blinks awkwardly, clearly not expecting to be back in the spotlight so soon.
He bows politely to Ash. “I’m called Lucian Joysword. I’m a cleric from Iskandar. Some time ago, I heard news about a large group of orcs coming down within the Duir borders and heading to attack Landoon. The clergy in the city gathered adventurers to warn Landoon about the attack. Inexperienced as I am, I volunteered to help. I wanted to go out and see the world, and perhaps pick up a skill or two along the way. I thought it’d be a great opportunity for me to broaden my horizons, and all that. But the orc group we were going to warn Landoon about attacked us instead. You have to appreciate the irony right there, huh?”
Karen strokes the cleric’s arm gently. “I’m really sorry for your loss, sweetie.”
“You have my condolences as well, my dear cleric,” says Fernando somberly. “But would you mind my asking you about Iskandar? How is situation in the city after the war?”
“It’s all right, I guess. The late King Shieldheart is still deeply mourned, but the city is getting back on its feet again. The rules are really strict now under the new Duir-appointed Warlord. People who are loyal to the late King have no choice but to bow down under the new reign or leave the city. A lot of them did. They went underground. We have frequent rebellion skirmishes in the surrounding regions, but they are no match to the might of Duir’s armed forces.”
“I see,” Fernando looks troubled. “And how about the Queen? Has the public seen her lately?”
Lucian shakes his head softly. “No one sees the Queen anymore. She is kept prisoner in the Light Tower, at the Royal Palace. The last time she appeared in public was during the King’s execution.”
“What did she look like?”
Lucian seems surprised by the question. “I don’t really know. I’m only a simple cleric. It’s not like I’ve ever had the chance to see her up close. Only members of the royal court get to see her. Even so, she’s known to wear a veil all the time. The rumor says she’s the most beautiful lady to ever walk on the face of the realm.”
For a second, there is a hint of sadness in Fernando’s smile. “I heard that as well. I’ve been wanting to see her ever since I heard the rumor. Thank you for answering my questions, Master Cleric.”
“So, what are you intending to now?” asks Ash.
Lucian seems unsure. “Well, Landoon still needs to be warned about the orc attacks. There might be more to come.”
“He’s right,” Baellon adds. “We were attacked only by four orcs. The news mentioned a large group. What if the orcs we encountered were merely scouts while the rest are waiting somewhere ahead?”
Ash rises from his seat. “It’s all up to you, Joysword. Are you going still going to Landoon or will you be joining us in our trip to Tarris. We might meet the rest of the orc group further down the road. We can definitely use a cleric’s help if we do.”
Lucian smiles, which turns Karen’s heart all aflutter. “That’s exactly what I came down here to do. I’ll go with you, if you’ll have me. I hope we still have the chance to vanquish those blasted orcs.”
“Oh, sweetie, I’m so happy you’re coming with us,” Karen lands a kiss on the cleric’s cheek, which turns to a shade redder than a southern ruby.
“Finally! We officially have a healer in our group!” Fernando beams happily.
Archon points a finger at the cleric. “I hope you’re wise enough to stay the hell out of my way in battle, cleric. And Karen, do you really need to keep touching him? He’s a man of the cloth. You’re not supposed to do that!”
“Bite my designer heels, you dork.”
Gortek lets out a thunderous laugh. “A new member to our party. This calls for a celebration, I’d say!”
Elluvio scowls at the dwarf. “More people to split the XP and loot with? How does that call for a celebration?”
“At least there’ll be more bodies to distract the enemies in battle?” Gortek suggests helpfully.
“Oh. Okay. I can live with that.”
The long-forgotten Turrin clears his throat loudly over the hoops and cheers. “Pardon me. I don’t mean to disturb your sudden happy celebration, but may I remind you that we’re still stranded in the middle of the night without a mule to pull the carriage?”
Ash grins mischievously at the gnome. “Oh, right, about that. We seem to have been struck with a streak of good luck. Not only did we get a cleric to join us, his caravan brought us something better than a mule. A horse. I saw its tracks leaving the clearing during the battle. It must be hiding somewhere around here. So, Fernando, if you would?”
“One Wild Empathy skill coming right up, Master Ranger!”
The intersection, on the road between Landoon and Tarris – 4 am
“Are we there yet?”
“For the 517th time, Miss Cartwright, no.”
“I thought you said we were going to rest at the intersection.”
“As you can see for yourself, Miss, this is not the intersection.”
Karen leans back against the seat, feeling royally bored. She managed to secure a spot on the carriage beside Uncle Turrin after complaining about the blisters in her feet for the past twenty minutes. Lucian has sweetly healed the blisters, bless that cleric! But now that she has nothing to distract her from the long, exhausting journey, she is getting restless.
It is amazing how the prospect of being assaulted by another group of orcs has slipped away from her mind. Such is the workings of Karen Cartwright’s mind, which is now filled with thoughts of Burberry cloaks, of finding a high-quality shoemaker in Tarris, and what Lucian Joysword looks like naked. There is, however, one other thought that keeps appearing in the back of her mind. One that she keeps burying beneath other more important thoughts (like Burberry cloaks, finding a high-quality shoemaker in Tarris, and what Lucian Joysword looks like naked), regardless of what Fernando promised her.
“We’re going to find her, my dear sister. And when we do, all of the questions we’ve been holding back in the deepest nooks of our hearts will have to be answered. I’ll see to it that they will be answered.”
Some things are better left alone in the deepest, darkest corner of one’s mind. For what good would come from opening a long-forgotten wound? To watch it bleed its murky blood anew? To further stain a heart that has withered from weathering the worst?
Better leave such things behind the closed door of blissful ignorance. Karen has no intention to add more knots to the tangled mess that is her life, despite of what her brother wants. She would rather concern herself with more pressing matters, such as what Lucian Joysword sounds like tied up to a bed and spanked with a hairbrush.
Such thought turns Karen into a wistful silence, something Uncle Turrin is more than grateful for.
Dawn is coming. The faraway stars bid their adieu from the sky that is turning pale. Rose-colored streaks mar the vast expanse above like a flush over a fair maiden’s cheeks after a kiss from her beloved silver knight. The monotonous thumps made by the horse’s hooves on the dirt road makes sleep a mighty challenge to conquer.
Ash squints at a point further up the road. He rushes ahead of the group to get a better look. He sees a wooden pole that sticks up from the ground, with two boards pointing at opposite directions. He jogs to the pole, passing Elluvio who is riding on Sergio’s back again in front of the carriage.
Elluvio rides up to his side. “The intersection?”
“Seems like it.”
Ash reads the sign boards. The one pointing to the left reads “Tarris”, while the one pointing to the right reads “Whispering Forest”. The road shoots out in three directions. The first, the eastern one, is the one they are coming from. The second leads to the left, which is the south. The third one continues the first road up a short hill to the west.
“We’re taking the left, then?” asks Elluvio again.
“We are, according to the signs.”
Yet something is bothering Ash. Though he has never taken a road trip from Landoon to Tarris, he is not entirely a stranger to these parts,. To the best of his knowledge, Tarris lies to the west of Landoon. They should not need to take a turn, just follow the road that leads straight from Landoon. The road sign, however, says otherwise.
The rest of the party catch up to them. The carriage pulls to a stop, waiting for Ash to make a decision.
“What are you waiting for, lad?” asks Turrin impatiently. “We’re going to the left, obviously. Come on.”
Baellon walks up to the road sign. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s the sign. I have a feeling something’s amissed.”
“How so?” Baellon looks up at the boards. “Wait… you’re right. Tarris should be right ahead, not to the south.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Can we get a move on now?” asks Turrin again.
“Wait, I thought we were going to rest here?” protests Karen. “Let’s rest, Uncle Turrin. I’m exhausted. I need my beauty sleep.”
Turrin turns to Karen, but speaks loud enough for the entire party to hear. “I know what I said, Miss Cartwright. But I seem to have miscalculated the distance. I just remembered that Tarris is just a couple of hours away from this intersection. I know you’re all tired. So am I. But now that we’re so close to the town, won’t it be safer to rest in a warm, cozy inn, instead of sleeping out here where the orcs might attack us?”
“I’m all fer goin’ straight to the town,” Gortek speaks up. “Been hours since I had some meat and ale in me belly. It’s better than eatin’ breads. Can’t be good for the digestions, all these breads.”
“You’re not going to touch my breads!” shouts Turrin. “They’re for the orphans! Come on, we need to keep moving.”
Fernando scans their surrounding. “That’s odd. The sign that says “Whispering Forest” points to the right, but there’s no road that leads there. And there’s no sign that points to the west, where there’s clearly a road.”
Ash crouches on the signless road that leads to the west. “And that road clearly shows a lot of traffic. I see many cart tracks and footprints leading up this road, and just as many leading down the one we came from. This is obviously a busy trading route.”
He moves to take a closer look at the south road. “On the other hand, this road here also shows some traffic, but they occured only recently. They’re mostly boot prints. None of them were made by carts or carriages. The prints are disturbed, so I can’t get a good reading, but they’re all leading away from the intersection. None of them returns here.”
Fernando knits his brows. “Curious.”
“Hey, check this out!” Elluvio gives the wooden pole a push. It sways a little then turns aside. The sign boards are now pointing to completely different directions. “This road sign has been tempered with. There are signs of it in the dirt around the bottom of the pole. Someone turned this pole around, not too long ago.”
“Someone wanted to mislead the travellers,” Ash stares at Turrin, who is now looking all around him and twitching his eyes. “Or, more likely, someone wanted to mislead us.”
“Are you accusing me?” the gnome gasps incredulously. “But I was with you the whole time. When did I have the chance to mess with the signs?”
“How about before ye hired us in Landoon?” Gortek walks back to the carriage, his greataxe in his hand.
“And what would I do that for?”
Baellon strokes his chin ponderously. “I don’t know, but some things you said seem off to me. Firstly, you said a carriage trip from Landoon to Tarris takes two days. I know that it’d normally take merely a whole night. You said you take these trips every month, but you didn’t know that? Secondly, I’ve never heard of an orphanage in Tarris. The only orphanage in these parts is in Landoon.”
Turrin shakes his head. “You must’ve been away from Tarris for quite some time, lad. The orphanage was built last year, near the temple.”
Baellon nods hesitantly. “That’s true, though. I have been away from Tarris for years.”
“That’s not all,” Fernando turns to the carriage. “You claimed that orcs and goblins are asleep at night. It’s common knowledge that they’re nocturnal creatures. I decided not to point this out to you earlier because you’re an old gnome and that you might have been told wrong about them.”
“Mind your words, druid. I don’t appreciate being accused as a senile,” Turrin bristles. “Look, if they’re nocturnals, then why do they attack travellers in broad daylight?”
“Maybe they don’t. I heard in Landoon that someone—a dwarf, I think—was attacked at night.”
“And one other thing,” Elluvio produces the severed human thumb from the depth of her pocket. “I found this hidden in your carriage. I also found a soiled shovel. Who did you kill and where did you bury them?”
Turrin, growing angry under the torrent of accusations, rises to his feet and points a finger at the halfling. “Now, that’s unacceptable, lass. You had no business searching through my stuff.”
“This thing has no business being in your carriage too, you fool.”
Turrin huffs with rage. With his flushed purplish face and puffed up chest, he looks like a cranky, bloated eggplant. “That belonged to my father. He passed away recently. I buried him myself on the hill behind my family’s manor. I must’ve forgotten to store the shovel away. And so what if I keep his thumb as something to remember him by? I’m sure you’ve done more horrible things than I did, you cursed thief!”
Ash narrows his eyes dangerously. “Was your father a human? Because that’s clearly a severed human thumb.”
Turrin opens his mouth to say something, but closes it again. He tries searching for words, yet fails to find any. His face grows into an alarming shade of of green. His eyes glazed up as if he is dazed, and his hands flail beside his body.
Karen inches away from the gnome. “Umm… guys? I think we broke him.”
“I… think I know what’s going on,” Lucian peers at the flaily, green-faced gnome with worry. “I’ve seen this happened before. The poor old man is charmed!”
“Charmed?” asks Fernando.
“Someone is controlling what he says and does.”
“Can’t we find out who’s controlling him?” Karen turns to Lucian. “Can’t you fix him up, sweetie? Use your Detect Evil spell?”
“That’s actually a Paladin skill, Miss Cartwright.”
“You can call me Karen, luv. How about Dispel Evil?”
“That would only work if we’re attacking evil enemies, though. And I’m not at a high enough level to learn the spell.”
Karen crosses her arms across her volumous bosoms. “Seriously, what exactly are you good at?”
Lucian thinks for a few seconds. Then he smiles. He smiles his charming, boyish smile until Karen has to sit down, her hands over her heart, sighing blissfully.
“Oh, right,” says Karen breathlessly. “You’re very good at that.”
Rolling her eyes, Elluvio unties the rope from her belt. She makes a loop at the end, and throws it expertly at the flaily gnome. The loop wraps around the gnome’s chest. Elluvio quickly pulls at the rope and loops it around a few more times until the gnome is perfectly trapped inside the coil. She then secures the other end of the rope to the carriage railing. She cuts the remaining end with her dagger and secures it around one of her belt loops.
“Nice Use Rope skill check there, lass,” comments Gortek.
“Thanks. It’s not my first time.”
Lucien turns to Ash. “We need to get him to a temple. A High Cleric would be able to dispel the charm."
“There’s a Temple of Pellor in Tarris,” Baellon chimes in, pointing to the west road. “And that town lies to the west.”
What happens next should go down in the party adventuring log as something that everyone should have seen coming. After all, they know that they are travelling with an erratic time bomb that has a tendency to blow up in their faces at the most unfortunate times. Now is one of those times.
Archon jumps up to the carriage seat. One giant leap for Archon the Great, one giant misstep for the entire party. He shoves Karen aside and takes the reins in his hands. He snarls wickedly at his gaping companions, which stay frozen where they stand.
“Screw this! I’m going to where the orcs are! I’ll slay them all! Bards will sing about my valor in every tavern in Gaea. It’ll be an epic tale of the legendary Orc Vanquisher, the bravest hero of all time! HEYYAAAHH!!”
He whips the reins against the horse’s back, causing the poor animal to rear up on his hind legs, whinnying like a cursed hell steed.
“OH NO, YOU DON’T! NOT AGAIN!!” Karen shrieks, holding on to the carriage railing as if it is her very life line.
The adventurers are still gaping dumbfoundedly when the blunt side of a greataxe hit Archon’s head. Our mighty fighter drops to his feet like a sinking galleon. Less than a fraction of a second later, a gently tinkling tune fills the air. It can be heard for miles around in the quiet still of the dusk. Two dozen hulking figures that skulk in the depth of the Whispering Forest may or may not have heard the tune. If they were awake, they would probably be wondering where the tune was coming from. And they would also probably wondering why they suddenly needed to lay down and fall into a nightmare-filled sleep.
Tarris, Temple of Pellor – 6 am
Someone is banging on the door. The deep thumpings break the peaceful tranquility in the stony halls of the church. Each bang reverberates in the empty air, sending a tremor up the grand pillars that stand as silent sentinels under the heavily frescoed ceiling.
Another bang echoes through the halls. The soft patterings of leather sandals against the cold marble act as a response to the noise that is disrupting the quiet. A small glow of light appears at the bend of the stone stairways that wind down from the Sun Tower. A small head, with curly, white hair sticking from under a flannel sleeping cap, is bobbing behind the light.
The old halfling rubs his sleep-laden eyes with one hand, as the other holds the oil lamp to light the way. He mutters his annoyance for being woken up so rudely at such an ungodly hour. Or is it godly, since he is a holy servant of Pellor?
Another bang can be heard yet again from the front gate. Where is everyone? The old halfling wonders. Why must he be the one to answer the door this early in the morning? He stumbles his way out of the temple, tripping his toe against the foot of a pew. Cursing—or blessing, rather—aloud, he leaps with one leg—the other one is now throbbing with pain—down the marble staircase to the pebbled pathway that snakes down to the giant front gate.
Another bang hits the wooden gate.
“Hold ooooon,” he says groggily to the rude guest at the gate. “I’m comiiiiiing…”
He takes a wooden ladder set aside near the gate. He positions the ladder right under the viewing latch and climbs it. He opens the latch.
The old halfling stares annoyedly at the six travel-worn strangers behind the gate. “Yes? What can I help you with?”
The face of a male human suddenly looms over the viewing latch. The old halfling almost drops his lamp and himself off the ladder with surprise.
“Good morning, Reverend,” says the human face. “We apologize for visiting so early. I’m Lucian Joysword, from the Temple of Ehlonna in Iskandar. I have a friend here who needs to see the High Cleric.”
“Can’t this wait until after the morning mass?”
“I’m afraid not, Reverend. He’s in a pretty bad shape. He needs help right away.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s a victim of an evil charm spell. Please, Reverend, we wouldn’t insist on bothering you this early if it wasn’t an emergency.”
The old halfling stares at the earnest face beyond the viewing latch. He pauses for a while, then lets out a deep, weary sigh.
“Oh, very well. I suppose it’s all right if it’s an emergency. Give me a minute to open this gate.”
He climbs down the ladder, muttering softly about the cold, and moves it to the right side of the gate. He climbs up again, now muttering about his back pains, and pulls down an iron chain that hangs down from the contrapment high over his head. There are the sounds of moving gears coming from within the thick, wooden gate, peppered with a little clink and clunk every now and then. He climbs down the ladder again and puts it back to where it belongs. Yawning sleepily, he waits for the gate to make the loudest, final clonk, then pushes it open.
“I’m the High Cleric. Come in, come in,” he waves the strangers in. “Don’t mind my manners, please. I’d give you a proper welcome had I not been still half asleep. Let me see this friend of yours.”
Uncle Turrin is quickly shuffled to the front of the group. The High Cleric raises his oil lamp to the side Turrin’s face. When he sees the glazy eyes and the green shade on the gnome’s skin, the High Cleric mutters his general disapproval toward all the evil things in the world.
“Hmm, yes, yes, I can dispell the charm, all right. But it will cost you dearly.”
Elluvio snickers. “So, even the humble servants of Pellor fall victim to capitalism. Interesting. Do you have a rate card? Do you take Master, Visa, or both? Is there a discount package for the holiday seasons?”
The High Cleric eyes the halfling coldly. “We take the Iskandarian Express card for large donations, which will help support the maintenance of the clergy and given back to the people of the town in the form of free public blessings, which I’m sure skeptics like you won’t benefit from.”
“How much will it cost to dispell the charm?” Lucian asks, moving slightly to the side to hide the rogue behind his tall figure.
“Three hundred gold.”
Karen steps up, smiling sweetly. “Surely, you can be more lenient about the cost, Reverend. We can’t afford such amount, but we also can’t let our poor friend here suffer from the curse. I thought clerics were supposed to be good Samaritans?”
The High Cleric stands his ground. “It’s not about monetizing, really. The service itself is free. The components I need to cast the dispelling spell, sadly, are not. I charge only as much as the components cost. This may be a holy temple. But if we have to cover the cost for every high-levelled spells we do, there won’t be a functioning holy temple at all in this town.”
Lucian looks back at his companions. “Do we have that kind of money?”
“Maybe if we all pitch in to…”
Ash’s words trail away as Elluvio walks up behind Uncle Turrin, searches his pockets, and produces a bulging coin pouch. The rogue counts the coins, which amount to, uncannily, three hundred gold. She tosses the pouch to the High Cleric, who deftly catches it with his halfling agility.
“Problem’s solved. And we don’t even need to take out our credit cards.”
“Very well. Your friend will need to spend a night here,” says the High Cleric, this time turning back to Lucian. “The charm will take a whole day to dispel. Seeing as you’re a member of the clergy, you’re free to stay here. Go to the dormitory and take any unused bed you can find. As for your friends, they are welcomed to return here during the day, but not to stay.”
Having left Uncle Turrin and Lucian in the safety of the Temple, the party gathers outside the clergy gate once again.
“So, what are we going to do now?” Karen glances around. “Hey, Bael, you’re from this town, right? Do you know any good inn around here?”
Baellon breaks into a smile. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Welcome to Wheezing Wizards! We have rooms available!”
A beautiful dark-haired young woman in glasses greets the party as they step into the inn. She is wearing a plain, yet neat, dark blue frock with a low, silver-laced neckline. She smiles warmly to her guests and, when she notices Baellon, breaks into a toothy grin. She wraps her arms around the young wizard’s neck, kissing his cheek tenderly.
“Bael! Is that really you, dear? Why didn’t you send words that you were coming? I would’ve prepared a special welcoming feast!”
“I wasn’t planning to return home today, Caetryn,” Baellon laughs and releases the woman from his embrace. “Can you prepare my room, though? Also six others for my companions here. Just put everything on my tab.”
The party erupts into a weak, worn-out cheer.
“Hey, thanks, Bael!”
“That is very kind of you, Master Wizard. Thank you.”
“Remind me to treat ye to a pint later, lad. I hate knowin’ I be owin’ an elf sumthin’.”
“That’s racist, Gortek.”
Caetryn peers at the adventurers from behind Baellon’s shoulder. Her gaze stops at Karen, who stares back with a raised eyebrow. Her smile falters for a second, but she quickly recovers.
“Of course! Friends of Bael are friends of the Wheezing Wizards.” The innkeeper’s smile returns in full force. “Do you have lugagges with you?”
“Just our backpacks.”
“Would you have breakfast first?”
“No, we’re really exhausted from our travel, Cat. We’d appreciate it if we could go straight to our beds.”
“Very well. Follow me, then. I’ll send someone to prepare your room, Bael. Your friends can stay in the vacant rooms on the second.”
They follow the innkeeper up a large, wooden staircase. Baellon excuses himself and continues up to the third floor, while the rest of the party are shown into each of their room.
The first thing that Gortek sees in his room is a small, unlit hearth in the corner. A tall wooden drawer and a wooden chest stand against the wall to his left. The stone floor is covered with a large, dark-green rug, decorated with brownish vine motifs. A short, wooden sidetable sits by the wall to his right, on top of which a water basin and a folded cloth are arranged neatly. Next to the sidetable is a sight that make the dwarf annoyedly shake his fist.
“I knew I shouldn’t have trusted an elf…”
In the next room, Fernando stares up at the floating mattress in the middle of the room. “What in the name of Obad-hai is this curious thing?”
In the room further down the hallway, Elluvio scowls at her own floating mattress. She knows she can land on it if she jumps to the wall and does a backflip in the air. It just seems too much effort to to sleep.
“Fucked up wizards in a fucked up wizard city,” she grumbles under her breath, as she takes the bedroll from her backpack and huddles in the shadow at the furthest corner of the room with a dagger in her hand.
In the room next to the halfling’s, Ash is lying face-down on his floating mattress in his full travelling gear, already sound asleep.
Karen steps through the last door in the hallway and notices the mattress. Dropping her backpack on the wooden drawer, she approaches the devilish thing. The mattress floats right across her bosoms. The only way she can think of to get on the damn thing is to climb on it. She can probably manage that, but the mattress is too high for her to climb it without risking her dignity, or what is left of it.
“Nuh-uh. I’m not taking this shit from a stupid mattress.”She storms back into the hallway. The other doors are closed. Looks like her companions have no problem dealing with their weird-ass mattresses. Is it possible that their rooms have normal beds? She can not be the only one who lucked out and got the worst room, right? She walks up to Fernando’s door, ready to call her brother out. She hears footsteps on the staircase and sees the innkeeper arriving from the third floor.
“Excuse me? Miss?” Karen calls out to the innkeeper. “I have a problem with my bed.”
It is obvious that the innkeeper tries to ignore her.
“Hey, miss? Excuse me? Can you come over here, please?”
The innkeeper turns, her lips tighten into a forced smile. “Yes, what can I help you with, ma’am?”
“I, uh, need help with the, um, mattress.”
“Is there something wrong with it?”
“Yes. It’s floating.”
Caetryn stares at her as if she just says the most ridiculous thing in the world. “Of course, it is. It’s a floating mattress. That’s what it does. It floats.”
Karen puts her hands on her hips. “Look, I know your job is shitty. I know your customers treat you like shit. Trust me, I’ve been in your shoes, sister. I’m tired. I just want to get some sleep. Can you get me a room with a normal bed? You know, one that stays of the floor? That’s all I’m asking.”
“I’m afraid all of our rooms are equipped with the same mattresses.”
“What kind of a fucked up place is this?”
“This fucked up place happens to be the best inn in town. We are rated three Mirellin Stars from the Iskandar Board of Tourism.”
Karen grits her teeth. “Whatever. I just want to sleep. Can you at least show me how to get on the mattress? Do you need to get me a ladder or something?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I need to get down to the pub and oversee the preparations for the Tarris Annual Culinary Convention in our dining hall. You are, of course, welcomed to sleep in the stables in the back. The hay pile stays on the floor, if that’s more to your liking.”
“Oh, that’s it, bitch. Get me your manager. I’d like to file a complaint about your attitude problem.”
“There’s no manager. I’m the owner of this inn.”
“Fine, if that’s how you want to play it, sister,” Karen crosses her arms across her chest. “Then I’ll just go upstairs. I’m sure Bael won’t mind sharing his mattress with me.”
Caetryn pauses, glaring icily. Then she quickly walks past Karen and steps into her room. Karen follows suit, a wicked smile blooming on her lips.
“This is how you lower the bed.” Caetryn gives a little push to one end of the mattress with her hand. The wretched thing floats down slowly until it hovers about half a foot over the floor. “If you’d excuse me, I have a convention to prepare.”
The innkeeper leaves the room and closes the door with a slam. Fuming furiously, Karen opens the door and shouts to the hallway.
“YOU ARE SO NOT GETTING A TIP FROM ME, BITCH!”
Then she slams the door close again.
Meanwhile, in a carriage stowed away in the stable behind the inn, a tightly tied-up Archon snores loudly under piles of bread.