It was an odd chain of coincidences, we thought — Escobert sends us through a secret tunnel, straight into a kobold and cultist ambush. Then he sends us to a mill — straight into a cultist and mercenary, this time, ambush.
The burning mill behind us tossed our shadows at our feet as we dragged the prisoner to the edge of the forest. Losing the mill wasn’t really part of our plan, but … at least we were all still alive. And now we had a prisoner who could tell us… everything!
“I can’t tell you anything,” said the prisoner, as we stopped for a moment to let him catch his breath without a gag. He smiled as if finding himself dragged along a forest path was the most natural thing in the world. “I don’t know anything! They just hired us to…”
“They?” snarled Zalandrin. The wood elf ranger continued sharpening an arrowhead as he spoke. “They — who?”
“Toomi never told us! Why would he tell us anything? Benoro Toomi is the boss, he’s the only one that talks to clients. Nobody tells Korma Rham anything. That’s me. Rham the toad. Guard this. Kill that. Eat this. I’m only a mushroom in this outfit. Kept in the dark with my feet covered with shit.” The mercenary — Rham — seemed desperate to please. And to keep breathing.
Zalandrin stayed silent. Eager to please, Rham continued. “Look. We’re supposed to collect all the pillage. I can show you where. And introduce you to Toomi.”
Errwyn coughed. The forest gnome had been trying to get the prisoner’s attention for some time. “I’m sure you would like to introduce us to Toomi,” piped the gnome. “And his dozen closest friends. Like the ones with you at the mill.”
Rham shrugged as best he could, caught in Gina’s iron grip. “A job’s a job. Toomi tells us to sit around in a mill until some adventurers come calling, that’s what we do. We all gotta do what we all gotta do, right?”
“Riiiiight,” agreed Zalandrin. “Gag him.”
Gina gagged him. Rham winced as the dwarf pulled the gag tight, but made no further sound.
As we headed through the forest toward the sewer grate, we happened upon a patrol — three human guards and a cultist. Gina dropped Rham, who scurried to the safety of the nearest tree.
Gina smiled as she unlimbered her axe and swung it in a smooth circle through the collarbone of the nearest guard. I drew my rapier and finished the job. Bards can do some harm with words, but sometimes steel sings more sweetly. Errwyn leaped up and smashed a guard upside his head. Zalandin took the arrow he had sharpened and planted it through the neck of the cultist. Gina gave a guard and his arm a quickie divorce; he then felt a stabbing pain in his heart and fell. As I pulled my rapier free, I wondered is that’s all heart attacks really were; gnomes with long knives. Just trying to get home. The last guard made to run, but Errwyn changed his mind for him.
At the end, Errwyn was the only one who’d taken damage, but he was determined to continue.
“Who knows how many more of them we’ll find before we get back to the keep,” said Zalandrin. He glanced at me. “I could use a little help to find out.”
I nodded, took out my hurdy-gurdy and gave him a couple notes of inspiration. Refreshed, the elf faded into the dark. A moment later he dropped from a tree. “One more patrol, looking for the ones we slew outside the tunnel.”
I stood outside their torchlight and shouted some curses at them. This kept them mad enough that they almost missed Gina killing a couple while Zalandrin finished them off. I snapped my fingers and set the last guard’s hair afire. He went screaming for the river.
Our drunken cleric roused himself just enough to unlock the sewer grate that led back into the keep before he returned to his somnolent state.
Gagged, and with his head covered with a spare sack we had fished out of the mill, the prisoner stumbled before us into the keep’s cellars and up the stairs and ladders until we were standing once more before the red-bearded dwarf, Escobert.
“The mill?” asked Escobert, as he ripped the sack harshly off the prisoner’s head and let him have the full force of his stone stare.
“Blowed up, sir,” replied Zalandrin. “The cultists got there before us. It was all we could do to chase them away, and capture this one.”
“Well. I guess that ended as well as it could have. We’ll have words with our guest, shall we?”
Gina’s blood ran cold for a second. Rham will tell them what really happened, she thought. As if following her thoughts, Rham looked at the fighter and gave her a slow, obvious wink.
We sat down for a short rest. I took out my baubles and bits and made a little wind-up rat. I felt better. I get restless when my hands aren’t working the hurdy or fixing something broken.
The cleric found a bottle somewhere and soon had it emptied. He fell into a drunken slumber with his back against a wall, and refused to be awoken when Rham, Escobert in tow, walked up to us, a catlike smile plastered across his somewhat bruised face.
“He’s what he seems to be,” said Escobert, nodding at the mercenary. “He couldn’t tell us what the cult wants with Greenest. I’ve had scouts reporting back with tales that the mercenaries are collecting their pillage in a barn on the northern side of town. Rham here says he can get you there. I know we have no call to send you back into danger, but we could all die if we don’t get some answers, and soon. That dragon isn’t going to hold back forever.”
Zalandin snorted with disdain. “Bring that snake with us? I think not. How many innocents have you killed — Sir Snake?”
Rham’s eyes widened. “Why, none. We’ve killed nobody. We’re not here to kill. We’re here to …. to loot. Cause a little fuss. That’s all.”
Gina shrugged. “We’ll do it,” she said. “Right after we deal with this killer. We saw your cultist friends trying to slice up a family — that’s them over there. They’d be dead if we hadn’t come by. Kill this murderer, and then we’ll get your mercenary lieutenant for you.”
Gina didn’t fight too much when the rest of us urged her to let him live. Killing on the battlefield is one thing — but the gods don’t react kindly to outright murder. There was no possible way we’d be taking the prisoner back to his friends, though. That would be worse than wrong — that would be stupid.
Rham shrugged and went to find something to eat as we descended again into the sub-basement, and through the tunnel to the sewer grate. We circled the town toward the north and soon came to the barn.
It was well guarded, with three mercenaries in front, clearly on the lookout for some adventuring party not unlike ourselves. Around back, two more guards stand near a rear door. Zalandrin asked me to make a distraction for him. I snapped my fingers, and a stream of gold coins dropped from a tree branch and piled themselves on the ground.
The guards didn’t miss this odd sight. One pounded on the door. A guard inside stuck out his head, the guards exchanged quiet words, the guard pulled his head back and shut the door.
The other guard waited a moment, then unslung a crossbow, lit a bolt from a wall torch, and fired it into the forest. It struck a nearby tree, which immediately began to burn. I extinguished it with a word.
Gina and Errwyn spotted the other guard sneaking around to the west. Screaming a challenge, they startled the guard and soon had him dead. Zalandrin shot the other. Wounded, the other guard fled into the barn.
The three guards from the front ran up on the west side of the barn. Gina and Errwyn stood ready. Three other guards snuck up from the east, taking Zalandrin by surprise.
Zalandrin emptied his quiver, then dropped his bow and drew his swords. As they fought, I did what I could, darting in with a strike, setting hair on fire when I had a breath, but it was clear things were not going well. Zalandrin is a deadly fighter, but three at once is much even for him.
There was yelling from the barn. I left Zalandrin to check it out — as Zalandrin fell, I entered the barn and saw it empty except for three people tied to a pillar, screaming as their flesh was ripped away by flames. Flames which had spread to engulf the entire interior. Of the guard leader and the loot, nothing remained. I ran out of the fully open front door as I heard Zalandrin’s last attacker enter the barn behind me.
As I ran to help Errwyn and Gina, the barn collapsed, killing that guard.
Errwyn staggered as I arrived, falling dead on the ground. Gina managed to kill the last guard. Bleeding freely from a dozen cuts, she still stood, grinning for a moment before remembering Errwyn’s sacrifice. It was too late for the forest gnome — he was dead. He’d fought bravely, and died bravely.
Gina tenderly lifted Errwyn’s small body, and we ran to find Zalandrin. He was unconscious — but alive. We suddenly remembered that Escobert had given us health potions and used one on the elf. Coughing, he spit out some blood and managed to stand. He looked at Errwyn’s body and said nothing.
“Back to the keep,” he said. We headed back, devastated at our failure and loss.