25 September 1380 C.E.
Quinn stepped chivalrously forward and sent his falcata flashing into the beast as it reared up and roared. “Stay close tae me!” he called back over his shoulder. Moria stepped between the paladin and Nyleth then chanted a rapid transmutation; he and his companions began to move more swiftly. The bard puffed her bangs out of her eyes and began to sing a song of battle. Mid-verse, she cast confusion on one of the owlbears. The beast’s enormous wild eyes remained fixed on Moria as the wizard retreated. It swiveled its feathered head and blinked, ruffling its neck feathers but losing none of its focus.
With a whoosh of flame, Nima’s fire elemental appeared in front of the second owlbear, attacking it even as the priest rushed forward with his scimitar. The owlbear screeched with pain as Nima’s blade bit into its flank. It wheeled on the priest, pacing round a few feet before rearing and descending on the half-elf with beak and claws. The former only grazed Nima, but the claw caught the priest’s sleeve and the beast wrapped its great paws around his shoulders, squeezing with great strength.
Meanwhile, its mate assailed Quinn. “Lessee what ye got, numpty,” said the Dalesman, raising his shield. The immense weight of the beast proved too much for him, and it clambered over to rake and bite him. “Ahhh! Bloody hells!” he cried as it wrestled him to the ground.
As the monster threw its full weight on top of the spellknight, he dropped backwards to the ground. Rolling under the beast’s claws and bracing his sword against the ground, he let the creature bury the blade deep within itself. Quinn rolled aside as the animal shuddered and rolled over dead. “Thass how we deal wi’ ye lot ‘n Invershire,” he wheezed.
“Just like wrestling your cousins back home, eh Quinn?” said Moria.
“Bah, this one wrestles like mah girl cousins,” said the Dalesman with a wink.
“Considering all the hair, that was my assumption, yes,” said the Wizard. Quinn coughed out a laugh as Moria advanced on the owlbear grappling Nima and released a spray of vibrant magical color. The beast’s eyes filled with radiance, and it gave another mighty shriek, clutching Nima tightly but shaking its tremendous head vigorously swaying back and forth.
While it writhed, Nyleth pulled her bow and fired at the owlbear. The first arrow found a place in the monstrous creature’s flank, eliciting another screech. The second arrow buried itself in the owlbear’s gaping beak, the fletching protruding from its maw. The beast groaned and collapsed, flattening Nima beneath it. Moria winced sympathetically.
“Oh no!” cried the bard. “Nima, I’m so sorry!”
“Do not concern yourself for that,” said Nima. “But a little help would be very welcome.” Nyleth rushed over and tried to pull the owlbear off of him. Quinn untangled himself from his owlbear and went to help the bard.
While they extricated the priest, Moria glanced around, seeking additional abominations, but the woods around them were eerily quiet. “Hopefully, we’ve just taken down the largest predators in the area. I wonder if their bits are worth anything,” he mused aloud. He collected one of the beast’s claws anda couple of beak-teeth.
Nyleth and Quinn heaved the beast over onto its side with a grunt, pulling Nima to his feet. “Everyone a’right?” the paladin asked.
“Not a scratch. You?”
“Nothin’ I cannae mend on mah own.”
“All good!” said Nyleth. “Nima? Are you all right?”
“I’m injured, but not excessively,” said the priest.
The holy men applied healing magic to their injuries, as the light of the sun streamed orange and purple horizontally through the trees, heralding dusk. “Welp, mebbe we kin still make it while there’s daylight left,” said Quinn.
“I hope so,” said Nyleth. “I don’t think I’d prefer to be out here at night.”
“You speak for me as well, Sayyadati Nyleth,” said Nima.
Quinn led the way as they resumed their trek to Detva Village, along the ridge and up the mountainside. The path hugged close to the cliff’s edge, and they came to a three-way crossroads. Their path meandered to the north, and a nearby waystone indicated that it led to “Hropka Tozka”. The path to Detva Village forked to join their current path on either side of an overgrown triangular hillock, pocked by patches of brightly colored mushrooms. Atop the mound is a standing stone about five feet in height with well-worn carvings upon its face. Quinn’s pace slowed as the group neared the stone.
“Oh, how pretty!” exclaimed Nyleth, moving to take a closer look. “Ah, darn. Another battle marker,” she said, sounding a little disappointed.
“Battle marker?” prompted Moria.
“Battle of Stizla’s Victory. It was during the War of the Exile Lords.”
“Oh, those crazy Exile Lords,” the wizard said without recognition.
Nyleth laughed a little. “He was awarded knighthood for his bravery and calm head during the battle. Fomoraig history can be … impenetrable at times. But this was from long, long ago. Before the Kannites.”
“Huh,” said Quinn.
“Perhaps we’ll find out more in the village,” said the bard, pointing up ahead. “Shall we?”
“Aye,” said the Dalesman.
“Let us carry on, then,” said Nima.
They took the right fork up to the village, just as the sun set at their backs, disappearing into the flat horizon of Dimgrit Fen below. Detva Village was constructed along a cliff, rising up and up along two slopes, cradling a more level saddle between. The village was sparsely wooded with skinny red pine saplings and wide chalk maples. There appeared to be hearths being lit, and smoke was only just rising from chimneys as night fell.
They did not have to wander far to find a strapping young Fomoraig boy splitting logs alongside his home in the deepening gloom. Nyleth cheerily inquired about the location of the nearest inn. The boy wiped his brow, paying her no heed, before pointing up the path. She thanked him pleasantly, and he nodded absently and began truculently splitting logs again. The party headed in the indicated direction.
The inn was a long two-story building with narrow peaked slate roof, and a stucco exterior built on a sloping knoll along the east road out of the village. The waystone indicated that the east road led to “Kamenar’s Rift”. The inn was surrounded by chalk maples, and firelight shined through leaded glass windows. A wooden shingle hung from the eave above the entrance, depicting a slattern clutching a jug.
“S’not wi’out its charm,” Quinn sighed as he opened the door and held it for the others.
Inside, the commons were crowded with predominately local folk, mostly hunters, trappers, tanners, and craftsmen. The commons flanked a great hearth opposite the entrance, where a haunch of ox-chuck turned on a spit, basted and brooded over by a hump-backed old woman with sallow cheeks and a bright yellow babushka worn over a stained cook’s apron. A stack of carved wooden bowls sat near at hand, and tucked into her narrow leather belt she wore a long curved carving knife, paired with a two-tined iron fork, with matching antler handles. To the left of the hearth was a small cellar door, only four feet tall, through which emerged a child-sized grey-bearded old man bearing tankards of ale for his patrons. To the right, at the end of the long-commons was a man-sized stair, leading up.
“So, this is another language I dinnae ken,” lamented Quinn.
“I have picked up a little,” Moria told him in Faerie. “But do not worry. We still have Nyleth.”
As if on cue, the bard stepped to the fore to speak for the party in the local tongue. “Good evening, Honored Mother,” she said politely to the babushka. “Might we join the common room?”
The old woman grunted and nodded, never taking her eyes off the roast. She paused to draw her tools, sliced off a long ribbon of meat, and dropped it into a bowl, handing it to Nyleth without so much as a glance. She did the same for the others as they approached.
“Thank you, Mother,” said Nyleth. She tried to find the cleanest table, but stopped on the way to ask a very short man about the beer of the house. Upon closer inspection, the innkeep bore the large eyes, pointed ears, and curly hair of a halfling. Though childish in stature, his face was deeply lined and his hair almost completely grey. He bustled about the commons, attending the locals and making conversation whilst serving a thick black ale in carved horn flagons.
“Greetings, friend. Might we have a bit of that? It smells wonderful.”
The short innkeeper smiled with tight lips and pressed the last tankard in his hand into Nyleth’s. She thanked him profusely and tried the brew. The ale was thick and dark, smelling of pine and toast, with a strong malty flavor, spiced with just a touch of juniper, finishing tart and bitter. The halfling looked up and down at her and Moria, then he eyed Nima and Quinn before declaring, “Tri!” holding up three fingers, and scurrying off.
Surveying the crowded room, they espied only one table tucked into a dark corner with empty seats, currently occupied by four weary-looking Fomoraig sellswords, by the look of them. Three men and a woman played dice amid the skeletal ruins of a hearty meal of game birds. They wore mismatched hauberks of brigandine and mail. Under the table, in a heap, were baldricks of various-sized axes and their longbows and half-full quivers were neatly leaning unstrung in a neat sheaf behind them in the corner.
Moria blinked in recognition, even as Nyleth approached the table and addressed the sellswords. “Hello,” she said brightly. “Would you mind if we shared your table?”
“Nyleth…” Moria said in Faerie.
The tallest of the three men smiled at the bard and said in Fomoraig, “Of course, young maid! Sup with us! I am Reko! These are Stiko, Drata, and Katya.” The woman narrowed her eyes at the elves, studying their faces keenly. Moria feined disinterest and took a seat in the corner. Nyleth thanked the man and slipped in next to the wizard, keeping Quinn and Nima between them and the woman.
The two men looked the Dalesman up and down appraisingly. “Evenin’,” Quinn said in Icatian. Moria glanced at him. It was as good as a smile. The woman’s eyebrow arched suddenly. The tallest of the three men smiled his most disarming smile at Nyleth. The short innkeep appeared suddenly with three tankards of ale and set them on the table, patting Quinn on the back. The Dalesman expressed his gratitude monosyllabically.
“Nyleth,” will you be kind enough to ask the server for an unopened bottle of wine?” Nima asked in Hammaddin.
“Bílého vína?” she asked the halfling.
He looked up at her quizzically. “Vino? Jeden?” he asked, holding up one finger.
She held up one finger as well, and smiled. “Láhev, prosím.” The innkeep nodded and scurried off.
“Many thanks, Sayyadati Nyleth,” said Nima, sticking with his native tongue. She nodded and turned her attention to address the sellswords.
“Greetings! I’m Terra, and these are my friends Sabin, Locke, and Cyan,” she said in Fomoraig, pointing at Quinn, Moria, and Nima in turn.
Reko smiled appreciatively and scooted his stool closer. Drata and Stiko resumed their dice game, wagering tiny copper groats. Katya focused on Moria and asked him a question in Fomoraig, speaking too quickly for him to follow. The dicers glanced up at him, curious.
Moria shrugged helplessly. “Speak more slowly?” he said in hesitant Fomoraig. “Am new to language.”
The woman eyed him suspiciously and said very slowly, “Už … ste .. .niekedy … boli … na … Protea?”
“Protea? Lavinia?” he asked.
Katya furrowed her brow at Moria, and he shrugged helplessly once more, gesturing apologetically. She leaned over and whispered something to her companion Drata. The other man Stiko asked in Lavinian, “Katya says she has met you before?”
“Met?” said the wizard, grateful to be speaking a more familiar tongue. “I do not believe I have had the pleasure, as such.”
Reko looked up suddenly at the sound of Lavinian. “You speak the mariners’ tongue? How splendid!”
“I find it useful when traveling these Eastern waters,” said Moria. Katya glanced sidelong at her companions. Ignoring her, the wizard added, “I am new to the language, but a relatively quick study. Not to boast. Much.” He assumed an expression of false modesty.
Katya muttered something else to her companions, who said, “Ja. I think I recognize you, as well. It was in Eidothea.” Katya and the third man muttered quietly to one another.
“Oh? I have been to Eidothea once, yes. A few weeks back.” Reko looked perplexed, and forgot his conversation with Nyleth momentarily while he and the other Lavinian-speaker conversed rapidly in Fomoraig.
“Sabin,” said Moria, gesturing at Quinn, “had a holy vision there.”
“Ahh, thass why I dinnae remember ye, then,” said the Dalesman. Reko nodded slowly, coming the long way to comprehension.
“I’m almost certain we’ve not met before, lady,” Nyleth lied smoothly. Reko and Stiko seemed to believe her, but Katya and Drata looked skeptical. Drata shrugged and stood to fetch more ale, but Katya folded her arms and leaned backwards slightly on her stool, frowning.
“So, mebbe ye saw ‘im, an’ mebbe ye dinnae,” said Quinn in Lavinian. “Whass goin’ on here tonight?”
“Oh, let’s not be angry with each other,” Nyleth said, her tone mollifying. “Can we perhaps all play at dice together?”
“I could never be angry with you, sweetling,” said Reko. Quinn rolled his eyes.
Stiko shook his head and said, “We are staying until first light, then we’re bound for Kamenar’s Rift … slowly.” Reko chuckled at that.
“Is it dangerous?” asked Nyleth. “I have heard these passes are full of beasts.”
“Slowly?” Moria prompted.
Stiko glanced at Reko. “Ojai! I don’t want to run afoul of our lieutenant on the road.”
“On leave?” the wizard asked.
The sellswords stifled a laugh. “Of a fashion, you could say! Hah!” said Reko.
Moria chuckled politely. “Indeed.”
Reko leaned backwards on his stool, exhaling heavily. “We were with Dominak Lukil’s column set out from Port Crorbak, escorting a train of exotics bound for the Dominak’s stronghold.”
“Oh?” said Moria at the same time Quinn said “Oh, aye?”
Reko, deep in his cups and open with information, seemed to annoy Katya. She gathered up her weapons and stalked out of the commons.
“Does she need followin’?” Quinn asked softly in Faerie.
“Maybe … wouldn’t hurt,” Nyleth replied softly. Nima got up and walked out of the commons.
Reko continued heedless. “We enlisted with the bivouac in Crorbak. They were hiring all the swords they could find to fill the column. We were to escort something to Barad Golodhel, something valuable if they needed so many extra hands to strengthen a hob-legion, but we waited three weeks in the bivouac, eating the castellan’s stores bare. Whatever it was never arrived in port.”
“How unfortunate,” said Nyleth. “Were you paid, at least?’
Stiko scoffed and gestured to the meager pile of groats on the table with the dice in disgust. “Ahh,” said Moria. “A shame. The next round is on me for your misfortune.” He signaled the halfling.
“I ne’er seen much that I’d call ‘exotic’,” said Quinn, drawing Reko out.
The tall man was happy to oblige. “The Daan Kal Kal was the ship we waited on, we heard. Lost at sea, must be. The ship was owned by some lordly vyjebanec named LeJantre. He was responsible for the cargo, whatever it was, so when it was lost, he had to make good, and quickly! So, this freak-show was put together to appease the Dominak and get us out of the bivouac. We marched here six days ago to rest and re-provision, not that they were happy to see us,” he said to his companions, eliciting a smirk from the other two men.”
“Wha’ manner o’ freaks make up a freak show?” asked Quinn.
Stiko smirked. “Well, we was escortin’ more than what the hobs thought we was!”
Moria scoffed. “Hobs. Am I right?”
Reko nodded. “Not long after we arrived here, there was a great commotion amongst the ranks. One o’ the other sellswords was caught in the lieutenant’s tent, I heard. They put him to the question and found him to be a spy.”
Stiko chimed in, “I saw the vyjebanec, when they nailed him up. He had a coiled snake tattoo on his scalp. They shaved the hair from it and nailed it to the tree with him.”
“Well, we were staying put after that,” Reko continued. “The lieutenant had to separate us all from the gob-kin and check our scalps. We all got roughed up, too. Asked us all manner of questions: where we’re from, who we’ve served under, and all that.”
Stiko sucked on his teeth, regarding his tankard intently. “It were in all that confusion the jann-man escaped. I thought sure some of us would get flayed for that. That’s why I said to Reko, ‘We ought to volunteer to go after ‘im.’, to avoid the captain’s wrath.”
“Ahh,” said Moria. “So you are ‘On Assignment’, eh?”
They laughed out loud at that. “The sergeant puts together a hunting party of about 10 worg-riders, and a dozen of us sellswords, hunters like us,” said Reko. “We set out after the janni, but we didn’t know what we were looking for. They kept the beasts and slaves separate from us, in the core of the column, we don’t know what he looked like, how big he is, whether he needs to eat, not nothing! He left no sign, no tracks, no hair, but the worgs had his scent, so we tried to keep up. They run so fast! We were tracking them more than the quarry, just to follow along.”
“So, wha’ happened?” asked Quinn. “Did ye kitch ‘im?”
Reko shook his head sadly. “It was the first morning when we noticed two goblins were gone. A hobber turned up missing the night after that, left his arms and kit behind, right where he was sitting by the fire. They all just vanished in the night!”
Drata piped up in thickly accented Lavinian, “Drakles Valley … haunted! Mátohy in ze foresti!”
Stiko nodded sagely. “We knew they was dead, and after the first Fomoraig disappeared, we had enough.”
Reko swallowed, “You can’t pay your flesh-debt if you’re dead flesh, my da’ always said. So, the next time we lagged behind the worgs, we just turned about and headed back to Detva.”
Moria nodded in understanding. “Simple wisdom, that. I commend you.”
“How terrifying,” said Nyleth.
Reko shrugged., “We asked the village richter if he had any work for us, but he just wanted us gone. No friends to the Dominak, that one. He said that there was a good bounty to be had in Kamenar’s Rift. Someone’s put out a big purse on the head of some Hammaddin magus, there.”
“Izzat right,” said Quinn, trying to keep his tone neutral.
Moria just went for it. “Amirandi?”
Reko shrugged. “You’d have to ask the richter. We need to be on our way on the morrow, just in case any of the hobbers gain sense and come out of the woods.”
The wizard nodded thoughtfully. “So, the hobs remain on the hunt for the escaped jann man … in the haunted lands. More the fools, they.”
“Ojai. They’re still down in the valley, far as I know,” said Reko. “They’re welcome to it.” The sellswords finished the dregs in their cups and pushed away from the table.
“Best of luck, Reko! Be safe!”
“Good hunting, friends.” Moria saluted. The men thanked the adventurers for the conversation, bid them farewell, and retired for the night.
After they’d gone, Moria spoke softly in Faerie. “We will want to lock our doors tonight … if possible.”
“An’ mebbe post a watch,” suggested Quinn.
“Can we stay together again?” asked Nyleth.
Moria regarded her intently. “Of course.”
“I … really don’t feel safe sleeping alone,” she said.
“I dinnae see why nae,” nodded Quinn.
“Man, many thanks,” she said with a small smile.
“An’ mebbe in th’ morn we kin ask this richter wha’ he kens aboot this magus,” said the Dalesman.
“Amirandi can wait, if it is he. Gods willing, we are not alone in our distaste for the man. I’m for entering the haunted valley,” said Moria. “One fewer Fey to save, should we find this ‘jann man’.”
“Indeed, if we can locate one, perhaps we might learn of the others as well,” said Nyleth.
“Sounds best, aye,” said Quinn.