Making Myth

Meanwhile, in the Abyss...
Featuring M'alnesh, the Dispossessed Demon

With a gasping cry, Gandin’s mouth gaped wide and sent the impure spirit spilling out into the air with a rush of wind and an unearthly shriek. As the man’s body began to shrink and collapse, the spirit shot unseen into the sky, higher and higher as though physically launched out from him, away from him, not to return – or at least not yet.

Eventually the momentum that had thrust the demon from the man lessened, and the spirit now writhed and twisted amongst the clouds, impotently wrathful at its forced eviction, unable to even scatter some of the smaller clouds apart. M’alnesh, like many of its fellow minor demons, was bound to the more wicked parts of the life of sentient beings, and as such the greater forces of nature were safe from its rage. It could no sooner cause these clouds to pour forth acid rain than it could summon up a dust devil in the sand. It needed a host to corrupt, and without one it was nothing. Even now, the strength it had sapped from Gandin was leaving it, and it could feel itself fade from the mortal realm. And that meant going back to the abyss. And that was not a pleasant thought for M’alnesh. The grip on the spirit was inexorable, yanking it back downwards – not physically towards the ground, but metaphorically, syphoning the spirit out of the material plane. It certainly had a similar sensation to gravity, so far as M’alnesh had felt that force whilst possessing sentient beings. It felt like being pulled down into a whirlpool of water draining out of a small hole in a large tub, and the sensation of stretching and spinning struck the spirit hard before there was a wavering shift, a slight pop, and the scenery was remarkably different.

If there was one thing this place did not have, it was creativity. M’alnesh may as well have been exactly in the same spot as when he had left the material realm: he had the same view of the towering mountains below him, the same view of fields stretching south to the sea, the same large interruption of the plateau thrusting up from the ground in the north… and yet there were differences too. The mountains were not jagged rocks, but enormous, greying teeth jutting from the flesh of the ground. Several were broken at the top, and the cavities left behind bubbled with foulness. The fields, rather than being ripe with rice plants within the irrigated pastures of the flood plains, writhed with the wriggling movement of a million little maggots, twisting and slipping in amongst each other and the glistening liquid that coated them. The sea seemed more viscous, moving with a dull sloshing; its swell a dark blood red, its crests peaked with scabby yellow-whites.

Perhaps most starkly different, however, was what sat directly below the spirit, coming into clearer and clearer view as it floated back towards ground level – nothing. Where there had once stood the mighty walls and sprawling streets of Coratka, there was mere dust and bone and rock. There were no buildings, no bazaar, no hum of life, no cloud of dust kicked up from the activity and the movement, no shouted sales pitches or hammers upon anvils. What stood there was naught but bare earth, unremarkable in its barrenness. But the necropolis which stood beside the city’s walls; that was a different matter. It seemed to teem with life, or at least life’s parody. The caves and graves were certainly sites of activity: zombie-like humanoids shuffled out of the caves, or clawed their way from their holes in the ground, moving with a purposeful sluggishness to assist others who were still trapped in their deathly sleep. Like persistent prosylites they knocked upon the doors of mausoleums; like dogs retrieving a hidden bone they clawed at the ground to free their doomed brethren. Others of the slow-moving beings were stacking up piles of stones into makeshift walls, seemingly in an attempt to block out small yet fierce beams of light that shone from some of the other caves and holes in the ground. There was a large group of them seeking in vain to pile up stones around a large pillar of light whose brilliance brought a stunning contrast to the drab surroundings. Though therer must have been hundreds of workers and thousands of stones, they had barely succeeded in building a tiny dry stone wall around the light pillar, and had done nothing to restrict its brightness.

This place certainly wasn’t a hot tourist destination, although M’alnesh took some pleasure in knowing that more and more made it their home each passing day. Turning its eyes aside from the light – thought the brightness did not pain M’alnesh as it may have others of its kind, it was still grotesque to look upon – the demon slipped through the fetid air and across the land, sending the toothy mountains and the rotting fields skating past its vision at speeds unheard of in the mortal realm, till before it arose a mockery of a tree, a twisted sculpture of sharp bones for branches and scraps of flesh for leaves, towering over three other constructions that even chilled the being of M’alnesh, clothing them in the mottled shadows it cast thanks to yet another stinging pillar of light, the constant pure brightness seeming to mock the otherwise foreboding strongholds. The bony tree seemed to sway in the breeze, but really it moved, creaking and scraping against itself, the torn muscles that made up its foliage twitching in constant spasms of pain as though teased by a breath of wind that could never exist here. The faux-branches flexed and clawed with their own false life, as though their points might tear chucks from the very air. And it was upon one of these beckoning fingers that M’alnesh was summoned, impaled upon it as the spirit descended, writhing without pain to further fasten itself to the bony spike. The action was indescribable in its own right. It could only be envisioned as a thoroughly debased parody of union, a ridicule of communion between two beings. And yet some form of message was clearly transferred: M’alnesh had been driven from its host, and the master was displeased. Even now, even here, hundreds of miles from their source, and in another dimension besides, the howling pain of Gandrin was audible, a clear sign of the spirit’s absence, and the displeasure only grew. Such an offering may have been of some pitiful value to the avenger, or perhaps the haunter of hearts. But here upon this tree it caused nothing but distain for the foolishness of defeat that M’alnesh had brought in its shameful failure.

The demon continued to spill forth the knowledge about its shame, but as it did so, the tree seemed to pause a moment, its stillness almost as disturbing as its movement. Those people. Those people who had been responsible for driving M’alnesh from the suffering man. These meddlesome companions had now thrice foiled the will of the abominable. No longer.

The bony branches of the unholy tree clenched together, before suddenly flicking out once more, sending M’alnesh tumbling into the air, even whilst ripping a way out of this place, freshness spilling from the gash like polluted air, bringing life and sound into the drabness just long enough for the demon to be thrust back into the material world. Then just as quickly, the wound between worlds was repaired, and everything was restored to what it should be – eerie stillness and silence, bar the stuttering scrapes of bone on bone, and the jarring slithering of torn flesh.

Possession is Seven Eighths of the Problem
In which everyone got some exorcise.

The dusts of the necropolis outside the walls of Coratka moved in swirls and eddies, adding false complexity to the otherwise sparseness of the landscape. Small tufts of hardy grass popped up here and there, punctuating the otherwise yellowy fuzz of growth that stretched over most of the ground. Well-worn paths, made from the treading of many feet, traced lines in various directions, showing the most popular destinations of this place: most headed straight ahead, into the lower regions of the necropolis, nearer to Coratka’s walls where the earth was a bit more easily dug; others headed to the north, some to the west, where caves in the mountains would act as mortuaries for the dead. There were a few actual mausoleums dotted around the area – harsh stone buildings bringing a sense of civilisation to this place of death – but these were scarce, with most people still seeming to choose a burial or a cave for their family tomb.

The adventurers made their way slowly across the dirt – some perhaps out of solemnity for the dead in this place, others with the latent sense of dread that accompanies graveyards, and the kender because everyone else was moving slow. Ashana’s horse, Sense, was left behind at the Qodeshi temple which stood over the entrance to the necropolis, and so even the paladin was making her way along one of the spidery paths on foot. They sought the demon-possessed man who lived somewhere in this area, but it was a big place, and although a living person would certainly stick out, there didn’t seem to be much to see. The best they could do was walk around until—

A roar shattered the silence, sent some crows flying, cawing as they took to the air, rattling the shields and the knees of the party, and bringing down some loose rocks from higher up the mountains. It wasn’t the roar of a beast – no lion or tiger would make such a cry, or even a dragon, Reich was quick to add – but rather the shouted cry of a human, turn from his throat with pain and despair, and even at the distance where they stood, they could sense a dark power in the sound. With some trepidation, they pursued it up into the hills, along one of the little paths that led to the caves there.

When they had reached the ledge where the entrances to the first collection of caves was found, they looked around, but could not seem to see anyone, or anything, that could have made that sound. They stood for a moment and reflected on the idea that perhaps he was inside one of the tombs, and they might have to go inside one of the dark tombs, and in fact even search one or more of the dark, foreboding tombs before they found him. So it was that when one of the boulders that lay on the ledge began to unfold itself behind them, showing itself to be a man, mostly naked and covered with the dust of falling rocks so that when curled up he looked like one himself, the shock was moderated by a sense of relief that at least they were out in the open sun.

Looking at the man, it was actually a bit of an anticlimax – this was no stocky brute, no deadly foe. He looked like a clerk of some kind given his weedy stature; a lost man, sad and dishevelled; and even wounded, with many cuts across his chest, arms and legs which seem to have been self-inflicted with the sharp stone that clung loosely in his fingers. His eyes were both wild and pleading, which might have been what inspired Sage to step forward with a bold smile and say, “Hi there!”

Unfortunately, all those in the party were looking merely at the skin-deep features of the man. Ashana, who had called upon Sophia to reveal to her more about this man and his affliction, saw something quite different, and quite terrifying. She could see the man’s soul – but rather than a mirror of the man without, it was shrunken, cowering within the man’s heart, surrounded by a terrible dance of seven blackened figures, taunting and slapping and mocking him, pulling at him and spitting on him. This man was not possessed by a demon – he was enslaved by seven. Every evil god had its representative, it seemed: two from Ba’ya, false god of hate; two from Ra’a, false god of selfishness; two from Tu’eva, that most cursed god of desolation; and then one from Tiyrya, the false god of fear. What suffering this man must have felt!

The stone in his hand quickly shattered into gravel as his fingers tightened around it, sending tiny shards of stone into his hand, and he opened his mouth. At first, it seemed like he was trying to speak, but mere muteness came forth, the flapping of a dead tongue against dry lips. Then came another colossal roar, this time directed right at the members of the group.

And they ran. Their feet sprang into action before their minds even had a chance to think about it, taking them down the path, over the hills and far away from that awful, awful sound. It was all they could do to stop themselves from waving their hands in the air and gibbering with their own shouts of terror. They ran and they ran, and they ran some more, the humans outpacing everyone else, over and out of the necropolis, past the temple, away from Coratka’s walls, and off into the grassy land stretching south.

It was only after a good solid three minutes of mindlessly fearful sprinting that anyone realised that one person hadn’t run – the person least likely to be able to stand up to a domestic cat in a throw down brawl, let alone a possessed lunatic – Reich, the goblin wizard. Oh no.

They began to run back as quickly as they could, but concern for a friend plus the exhaustion of running in fear was not the successful formula for attaining top speed on foot. You probably needed more electrolytes. Thankfully, as Hunter and Ashana ran back, meeting up first with Odate, and then with Sage (that she ran away already said that something strange was afoot, for kender had a reputation for being absolutely fearless), they saw the champagne haired goblin jogging swiftly in their direction. How had he escaped? By blinding the man with a spell, before quickly making good his own escape. But he followed that up with the fact that the light spell would still last a good quarter hour or so, and as such perhaps they should make the most of their enemy’s weakness and cripple him while they had the chance.

They stalked back to where the demoniac resided, this time with more caution. They saw him sooner than they had expected, stumbling and tripping, even tumbling down from the cave ledge above, coming down the narrow trail faster than was safe or wise, before getting to his feet and lunging at least broadly in their direction. Sage, seeming to have put her past experience behind her, once again greeted the man with a cheerful word, and the possessed man adjusted his swings towards the direction of the voice. Weapons were quickly drawn, and combat commenced. At first, the adventurers sought to pull their blows, to try and give only glancing hits or to trip their foe – and fair enough at that, given that despite his ferocious demeanour, he still presented as a weedy little man – loud, but still weedy.

When he put a fist through Odate’s giant tower shield with a single punch, things quickly became more serious. The gnomish clock was ticking, and it was only a matter of time before the blindness wore off and the man became that much more dangerous. And so they made the most of their advantage. Ashana dealt two savage blows to the man’s leg – the first slicing into his ankle’s tendon, the second brutally smashing his kneecap. Hunter, having made his way into the man’s rear, thrust a dagger into his upper back. Odate clubbed the man viciously across the face, dislodging his jaw and shattering a couple of teeth. With their opponent blinded, every strike told, dealing bitter blows and causing perhaps permanent damage to this man even though his skin seemed to be as tough as stone, chipping as much as it was cut, making blades clang and clatter with each strike. And yet despite these wounds which would have had even a brave and experienced fighter begging for parley, the man kept swinging. He picked up the kender and threw her, skittling the wizard and knocking him down. Reich struck his head on a stone, and was knocked out cold. He punched another splintering crack into Odate’s shield. It was as though his wounds were of no consequence to him. The magical light in his eyes was fading, but his strength certainly wasn’t.

Tears were beginning to well up in Ashana’s eyes. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could continue raining down deadly blows on a foe who could scarce be blamed for his affliction, yet was incapable of being otherwise controlled. It seemed as though his death may have been their only option – at least in the heat of this battle -and if that were to occur, she felt that might mean she had failed in her sacred duties of wisdom and honour. Yet her friend Reich lay there unconscious, and they could hardly retreat and leave him behind – not again. The paladin was drawing back her sword to strike what could well be the killing blow on this poor man, who was bruised and battered, whose bones were splintered and skin was torn even at his own hand… but then Sage leapt up from where she had been tossed, and clambered onto the man’s back. With her hoopak in hand, she drew the staff across the man’s throat, and planted her foot into the back of his shoulders, before pulling back hard, trying to choke him out and knock him unconscious. And as she did so, in the inflappably innocent manner of a kender, she apologised, “Sorry, guy, we’re just trying to help!”

It was then that the man’s body seemed to go through a shiver, a convulsion, and raising his head to the sky, he let out a loud cry – not the roar of previously, but instead an unworldly, strangled shriek that seemed to leave the man’s lips with a physical force, pushing the air aside before dissipating into nothingness. And even as the sound died away, so did the stone fall away from his skin, flaking off like chips of granite dandruff from his body, leaving a little pile of rock shards at his feet.

That was it: of course! They had been told before that the demons could be banished, but that first they needed to know their names. Now, they had also been told that the demon would be more than willing to talk about itself, but this man hadn’t spoken at all. Still, if the demons could be combatted without the harm of this man, so much the better.

Ashana wasn’t the only one to notice what happened. Odate, looking up from bringing Reich back to consciousness, saw the effect that the kender’s words had on the man – and on the demon within – and quickly a new strategy had formed within the minds of the whole party. They would flee – but not to be defeated, and not to regroup and slay this man. They would find out what to do to help him, and they would return. As they came to this determination – wordlessly, for they each knew what their path should be – the light blinked out of the man’s eyes and focused keenly on them once more. Odate held out his hand – the same hand he had used to heal the goblin – and he said in a quiet, calm voice, “It’s okay. We’re going to return. We’re going to help you. Don’t be afraid.” And just like that, the man’s head was pulled back once more, without any assistance from the kender on his shoulders, and a great roar came from his lips. It shook the very bones of the adventurers, and once more they could feel their legs dragging them from the battlefield in fear. But this time, it was different. The roar had a sense of finality. As it left his lips, it seemed to empty itself into the air, its power fading from his throat and leaving him utterly silent.

So it was that the party fled the demon-possessed man: leaving to seek knowledge, to seek help, and to bring back an answer for his pitiful condition. They would track down his family, they would learn all they could about demons, and they would try and work out what must be done to defeat these final five. But now they had a plan: a wise plan, a holy plan, and a plan of grace and mercy which the gods would surely bless.

The howling in the necropolis

As the stone bit deeply into his flesh, he howled into the dark mountainside. Not in pain – oh wonderful pain, glorious sting, how he longed for its unforgiving touch, the rake of its nails shivering down his nerves – but in loathsome frustration at the lack of it. Again and again he pushed the rock into his skin, his muscle, even scraping on his bone – nothing but emptiness; the emptiness of enslavement. The bitter, wordless howl echoed off the rocks and returned to him hollow, almost mocking, as if saying to him that he would never again have his voice heard. His cage was getting smaller and smaller.

Not to say the howl itself wasn’t loud. The ground around him shook, and in the distance he could hear the tumbling of rocks down a mountainside dislodged by the noise. But for all its great volume, it was meaningless; it may as well have been a sigh. No, even a sigh could express some emotion. It could be a soft murmur of contentment, or a moment of exasperation. But he was cruelly robbed of both, and all he could do was let out another violent, animalistic howl that said nothing more than, “Look at me, I’m loud.”

The sharp stone broke against his skin, then shattered in his iron grasp,sending shards of rock and dust through his fingers and onto the ground, barely visible in the dim light that seeped into the dark sky over the walls of Coratka. The quiet hubbub of the city buzzed even in the depth of night, and only increased his loneliness. Gods, wasn’t he lonely enough, with only the dead for company? The dead didn’t talk though; but the voices did. If you could call it talking. More like spewing forth a toxic torrent of the thought equivalent of bile: bitter,  vile, foul and sickening to the point he wished he could vomit the thoughts out of his brain. It’s this how the crazy felt? Ideas and voices so rotten, so hideous, that it would be a moment’s relief to scream them out over the tongue in the hope of purging them from the mind, if only for a moment?

And yet he could not even do that. His tongue was useless but to taste the foul rot of the meat of the dead – or sometimes a live rat if he could catch it. Or one of those he had bludgeoned with his stony fists. The thought made him gag – all of it together, it was all so disgusting. Yet he could still feel the torn flesh beneath his nails, hear the rattling cries of the dying, feel their blood staining his hands – there was nothing to wash it off with, no water among the crypts; not that he thought it would ever wash off anyway. It would remain a stain on his soul for the rest of his miserable life, trapped within the prison of his own body, and unable to gain any freedom or release. Despite his condition, he could not face death: not because he was unable to harm himself – the scars on his chest and arms and legs were a testimony to that – but because he was a coward in his heart of hearts, and he just couldn’t find the strength to end it. What an irony! He had strength enough now that he could lift a boulder and throw it like a ball, or crush it like an egg; but he could not have been any weaker in mind or spirit.

That thought brought with it another thundering howl, causing some stones to shudder and night birds to flee. And then he heard it, clear as a bell, ringing out from the city. It was a baby crying. A little boy, from the sound of it, no doubt awakened in the night by the bellowing of the wicked monster in the tombs, sobbing and weeping with fear at that awful sound, and now being comforted by the loving arms of daddy and the soft words of mum. Just a young boy, probably a year or so shy of Joshua. And with that thought came a flood of memories, as though a tap was turned and they could suddenly rush into his mind’s eye.

Memories of him and little Josh playing with a wooden spoon, or making muddy tracks in puddles, or telling tall tales and stories about who knew what; of his life as a word smith and scribe, copying works for those who would pay; works of beautiful poetry and verse, or somber importance and worth; of their little house by the wall in the Abraham district… of Shelly. Of her hair, her hands, her smile; her irritating family and her chattering friends; her youth and her verve and her cooking; her ample frame and her freckles and her steadfastness and her strength and her general wonderfulness. Then her sickness, her weakness, her fading; the temples’ unwillingness to help her; the cost of all those balms and ointments and potions, and their uselessness; the empty promises of the friends and family that things would get better, knowing that they wouldn’t. Her death. Her burial. It was all so unfair! She’d done nothing to deserve that. Nor had he. They had just lived their own life to themselves, earned their living, made a family. What was wrong with that? But the gods had forsaken them, and let her die. And when they were lowering her into that hole in the ground, he was so angry he just couldn’t take it. He lashed out, and struck the Qodeshi preacher in the mouth. Then he did it again, and again. Then he picked up a rock. Thankfully, Shelly’s family had some wits about them and ran off, and took Josh with them. He could still hear Josh’s cry, “Daddy, no!”

That priest had gotten away, but others hadn’t. They came with chains and shackles to capture him, but he broke them. They came with prayers and swords, but he broke them too. Sometimes they came with other bodies to put into the ground, and he broke them. Now there was just anger, and loneliness, and the howling, and the endless cycle of day and night. Often he would curl up next to Shelly’s grave – still open, as no-one had a chance to fill it in – and he would try to sleep. But they had even robbed him of sleep. Now there was nothing for him. No wife, no son, no voice, no pain, no sleep. Just the stones, and the dust, and the howling.

And the voices. Always the voices.

The Journey to Coratka
Including Odate's Face Off Against The Mantis

It had been a surprisingly long journey. Measured in days, it numbered a mere six since they had left Mae Lin and headed for the little village of Po Rige, and a little potato farm at the behest of an old man whose livelihood had been stolen and his only son murdered. Now that justice was done, gruesome though it may have been, the group all felt that they could head back to the road, and continue on their way. They said their goodbyes to Cad and Laté and the family, and headed back to the road, where they turned left, pointing north towards the big city of Coratka, and started on their way. It should only take them a day or so, even with the little legs of the shorter members of the team, and that gave them plenty of time to talk about what came next. Ashana was of course keen to get back to Chan Ma Rai, and try to sort out where exactly the information leak had come from. It certainly wasn’t the book that had told anyone of its movements, and no-one outside the temple would have known, other than her travelling companions. But that couldn’t have been the case – after all, none of them had been out of her sight. Except for Hunter… who had left the night before they had made their way out of Chan Ma Rai with the book… and had apparently been there at the ambush outside of Mae Lin… but no, that was foolish thought. Surely Hunter had more honour than to simply try and sell out his recent friends, only to swiftly switch sides when things didn’t go his way… right?

As the group travelled the road, Ashana was perhaps a little more pensive as she rode along slowly aback Sense. She was almost thankful when some noises from her fellow travellers brought her from her thoughts and caused her to look up at the road ahead. It wasn’t actually on the road itself, but more to the side, down in a ditch which then flowed into yet another endless rice paddy – movement. At first it looked as though large leaves of the rice itself had snaked up out of the paddy and were rustling and quivering in a wind. But upon a slightly more concentrated look, the real shape became clear: a praying mantis that must have been at least four feet tall, was crouched over something. Something that wore shoes.

What Ashana hadn’t expected (besides a super-sized praying mantis) was the kender’s sudden cry of bloodthirsty anger, bordering on an insanity-fuelled hatred, as she bellowed words in the midst of a scream that seemed scarcely capable of coming from her slender frame. The paladin couldn’t quite make out all the words, but it was certainly something along the lines of, “Die, you oversized cockroach, die!” Sage already had her bow out, nocked an arrow, and was preparing to skewer the thing on it. Unfortunately, keeping one’s bow stringed and ready for combat inevitably puts a strain on the bowstring, and Sage’s exuberance was rewarded with a sharp twanging sound, as the string broke and the arrow fell to her feet.

Ashana’s thoughts quite quickly, although perhaps not wisely, began tracking through her brain to all the things she had ever learned about the mantis. She had read a scholarly work by an elf who was very interested in insects, and remember that they had classed the mantis alongside some termites and cockroaches. Ashana always thought that a little unfair, as roaches were beastly, creepy things, whereas mantises had a more dignified, noble air about them.

But now that she saw one four foot tall, with huge protruding eyes, large serrated claws, and a mouth full of wicked teeth that were clicking away some vestiges of flesh it had stripped from its prey, she could see the family resemblance – it was icky and creepy – and she was of a very similar mind to Sage. If this thing had a taste for the flesh of sentient creatures, it was probably not a wise idea to let it feed on others who might pass along the road. She drew her quarterstaff, couched it like a lance, and thought that a pass or two might give it a few knocks and cause it to reconsider its options, and send it back into the wilderness.

Of course, even as the scenery began rushing by, Ashana started to second-guess her decision. Was it right to let this beast live? Certainly it wasn’t to blame for its hungers – it was simply feeding itself. There was no malice or wickedness in its ways. But it was feeding on sentient beings, and that was surely something that couldn’t be countenanced. But if she simply drove it away from the road, would it not just fly off into the rice paddies, and start picking off innocent goblin rice farmers? At least most people on the roads had bodyguards, or other people around who might help them in their distress.

The thought was distracting enough that as Sense whizzed past the large insect, Ashana’s quarterstaff likewise whizzed over it. She pulled Sense to a halt a safe distance away, and shook her head as though to clear it. This simply wouldn’t do. She was a paladin of Sophia, and had to get her head back in the game.

The others, meanwhile, had closed on the beast in an attempt to take it down – whether to subdue or destroy was not clear. Odate was pressing it with his shield, seemingly giving it a large but fairly well-armoured target to contend with while Hunter flung a knife in its direction. The knife struck its target, but skated harmlessly off the chitinous armour of the thing. Sage had by now drawn her sword and dagger, and was charging the mantis, the two of them fairly evenly matched, it seemed, with weapons in either hand. Unfortunately, whereas Sage moved with practised and learned skill along with a very real ferocity, the mantis was acting with fluid, natural dexterity that came from instinct. It seized the little ranger in its jagged claws, and then bit down on her shoulder, which was saved only by the merciful rigidity of her leather armour.

Reich launched a light spell at the creature’s buggy eyes, and that was far more effective. Sudden light spilled from its round orbs like beacons, and the panic in the thing’s manner was evident. Still, it continued to stand off against them with a vicious ferocity. Ashana saw her opportunity, and went to ride it down again, this time with her sword drawn. But as she closed in to the monster, another question arose in her mind – the thing had Sage in its arms. What if she missed? What if she struck her friend instead of the foe? What if… and just like that, she had ridden past again, and missed her mark. Damnation!

Hunter, meanwhile, had insinuated himself into the fray, but rather than trying to deal the enemy blows, had pulled his sling from his belt and looped it around the mantis’s claw, then drew it down and tied it off around one of its front legs. It was a fairly common, if ballsy, street fighting technique, and any normal foe would have fumbled and tumbled. But any normal foe had two legs and needed both for balance. The mantis had six, and having one out of play, while annoying, only seemed to make it more aggressive. What it did do is drop the kender, and that was certainly a boon so far as she was concerned.

However, the ferocity of the mantis was not such a joy for the ogre. With its one free remaining claw (Ashana seemed to remember the term “raptorial foreleg”), it had lashed out blindly, seized onto the edge of Odate’s shield, and launched itself upward onto his shoulders, biting into his face. Poor Odate’s face. He screamed, unsurprisingly, as the beastly creature started to feast upon his cheek, and he tried to hammer it off, but to little avail. The cursed thing had armour stronger than boiled leather! Even when Hunter had tried to lodge a dagger into its back, it was just too strong, and shrugged off even a direct blow (although in fairness, that direct blow was part of a mounting action by Hunter as he tried to jump on its back and pull it off the ogre – and Hunter, thought Ashana, was not a trained equestrian.

The ogre kept screaming, calling on Qodesh to save his feeble life, while the others sought to pull the mantis off his shield and his face. Ashana’s mind was working overtime, and she remembered reading that the female mantis would often chew the head off its male counterpart during coitus, whilst embedding her eggs in its still living body… and then for some reason that Ashana could not completely explain, but perhaps in an effort to spur her fellow combatants to more fervent action, she decided to share this fact with them in a loud, bold voice of command.

It didn’t quite have the effect she was after. Hunter’s face went green, almost as green as the mantis’s wings, and his eyes widened. Reich seemed to swallow as if trying to keep something down, and Odate simply screamed all the more. It was only Sage who seemed unperturbed, replying to the effect that yes, these things were evil, hence the killing, and she redoubled her efforts to stab the thing with her weapons. Ashana herself was feeling a little under the weather suddenly, and her next pass was as ineffective as her first. This mounted combat thing was not as easy as it looked.

Finally, when Reich chanted a few magic words and reached out with a sizzling fist, pounding it into the mantis’s side and causing lightning to flicker and spark across its body – and stopping just before it reached Odate’s lips, a testament to the mage’s skill – the mantis seemed to have had enough, and was ready to leave with its stomach full of corpse and ogre face. Unfortunately for it, though, one of its raptorial forelegs was tied with a sling to one of its other legs, and it was blind. So when it leapt into the air, wings spread in readiness to take flight, it flew directly into the path of the ogre’s wildly flailing hammer. The hammer didn’t even hit it, at first: rather, it caught into the sling and caused the mantis to come crashing down into the roadside head first. Only then did the hammer connect, crushing the insect’s head between large hammer and the anvil of the roadside. It twitched and shuddered, legs kicking, but there was definitely no more fight in it.

Odate’s face was scarred. Qodesh had certainly kept his spirits up, but it would be a few days before he was completely recovered, and even then he’d have yet another scar to add to his face’s collection. As it currently was, the outline of his skull was clearly visible around his cheeks, showing far too many of his teeth in a disconcerting smile that came nowhere near his dark, dour eyes. But at least he was alive.

Hunter and Sage made their way over to investigate the body while Ashana looked over her friends to make sure they were okay. Hunter reported nothing had been found, but Sage held aloft a scroll case with glee, and reported that the corpse was wearing shoes that were probably Reich’s size. They were actually pretty good shoes, at that – with the scroll case, that probably pointed to the deceased being a message runner. Ashana allowed the kender to keep the scroll case while handing over the scroll. “Fine by me,” said the illiterate kender, “Scrolls are boring.” The case quickly disappeared into her cavernous pockets, perhaps sliding in next to that black mage’s spellbook – in other words, never to be seen again.

The scroll, meanwhile, was a message from an ogre by the name of Zan’nin’na, who was seeking a good price on smoky quartz, and was complaining about the slump in supply of corpse’s fingernails. It was written to someone who went by the name of Refine, but there was no other information. With a bit of forethought, the party were able to divine that the message was probably heading to Coratka, and if it was on this road, was probably coming from Saadoe. But apart from that, there was precious little information.

For the second day in a row the party now had a question as to what should be done with the corpse of the runner. Burning, burying and simply leaving it were all floated, but in the end Ashana decided she’d rather walk the rest of the way and carry the corpse on her horse, so that they could perhaps find its family, and let them decide for themselves. And so, as the rain once again began to fall on the party, they continued to trudge their way towards a city, and once again with a body slung over the horse’s back.

Coratka is an amazingly large city, and is in fact arguably the largest city in the whole of Elwarne. It dwarfed Chan Ma Rai and Stoica – the other cities Ashana had known – and Hunter and Odate were able to confirm that it even rivalled the large ogre city of Ken Ta Ral. Its huge walls were visible from almost a mile away, and as they got closer were only all the more spectacular, standing at least 35 feet hight, and looking as if they had been carved out of a single, enormous stone. The archway for the entrance was enormous – twelve carts could easily enter beside each other – and perfectly smooth, and there were no doors in sight. What there was in sight, though, was a small army of city guards and administrators, who seemed to work to tirelessly lead all the visitors into the city, while ensuring there was ample room for traders who were leaving along the port road. When the rather bedraggled human worker with a clipboard came and looked over the group, he had to ask them their business, before responding curtly at their story by pointing them towards one of the thankfully shorter lines, classifying them as ‘religious traffic’.

The woman who was working the religious traffic gate line was an agent of the temple of Sophia, and was more than pleased to see Ashana. Paladins are, after all, a rare sight, and they are chosen as those who might be heroes and crusaders of the temples’ various principles. Ashana shared a brief prayer with her fellow Sophite, especially upon seeing that the poor girl had to deal with members of all religions, including those of the darker faiths, and the girl was eager to help the group in return, by pointing out that the scroll case should have marked on it the messenger company for which the runner had worked.

All eyes turned to Sage. Sage shrugged and said with an honest smile, “What scroll case?” With a collective sigh, they decided that the next best thing was probably to find Refine, and the best way to do that was to go to the central bazaar, from which, given the contents of the letter itself discussed gems, they could try either the Abraham sector (where homewares and exotic items were usually sourced) or the Bendigo sector (home to banking, financing and other money related services).

It was at this point that Hunter rather unceremoniously mentioned the fact that the party had a plan already for what they would do when they reached Corakta. “Need I remind you all that our first order of business is to find the best damn yum cha restaurant in this place, and sit down to a good hot meal?” There was a chorus of grumblings and burblings that all came from stomach height, but Ashana shook her head. “First we let this poor man get his rest, then we can eat.” There were nods of agreement, but they certainly weren’t all done with the fervour one might have expected from, say, a party made entirely of paladins. Still, they were headed to the bazaar, and looking for a trader by the name of Refine, so that was something.

They did eventually find him – he was in the Abraham sector, and in the magic quarter no less. Refine, it turned out, was an alchemist who traded in various weird and wonderful (and not so wonderful – witness corpse fingernails) items that were used as reagents for magical spells and potions and the like. When they entered, the party gave a collective sigh of relief that the goods were all kept securely behind the trading bench (all except Sage, of course, who thought this was exceptionally unfair), and they produced the letter. Refine, an older man with a well-sculpted beard and a professional manner, thanked them for the delivery of the letter (barely mentioning in passing that in the future the more decorous thing to do might be to leave the letter in the scroll case and simply deliver it to the messenger company so that privacy might be retained), and was able to tell them which company he used: Dallineun, a goblin company. When someone asked why use a goblin running service, when goblins were clearly a little… underprivileged in the leg department, Refine responded that apparently they were both well-known and had a good reputation for security, and were also very adept at working through the various administrative entanglements that could otherwise face the movement of mail throughout the country.

Probably something you need when dealing in corpse fingernails, Ashana pondered to herself.

They thanked Refine and went to go about their business, but he asked them for a brief extra moment of their time. He had, in fact, a job that might fit a group of such diverse skill sets, and it was directly involved with this very letter they had delivered. Apparently, the necropolis district of Coratka had been invaded by a lunatic of a man who had been violently ejecting people from the area, preventing not only legitimate businessmen like Refine from harvesting body parts, but also family members visiting graves and even people seeking to deliver bodies into tombs. He suggested that if they could look into it and solve the problem, he would be willing to part with a small box of diamond dust, which Reich had previously had his eye on in the shop.

Hunter moaned, and mumbled something about the plan for yum cha, and wondered aloud whether they would ever in fact eat again, given the group’s proclivity for picking up work at every turn. Ashana rolled her eyes, but did reflect that actually it was probably a reasonable thing to consider this carefully before taking up the work, and mentioned as much to Refine before they left and found the headquarters of Dallineun in Coratka. It was a reasonably sized building, with people coming and going with a frequency that bespoke their popularity. Of course, most of those visiting were delivering messages or small parcels: Ashana and her group were the only ones delivering a corpse.

But the manager of the business seemed to recognise the runner, and was genuinely thankful to the group for their kindness. It was true, the roads could be dangerous, and runners did go missing from time to time – a hazard of the job. But while lost messages did more often than not turn up (there was a reward for the scroll cases being returned intact and sealed) it was not nearly so often that someone would take the time to return a messenger’s body for the sake of their family. This man’s name had been Chin Wa, they were told, and the manager knew his family enough to be able to pass on the message that his body had been found. He thanked them again, and pointed them to a table where they could leave Chin Wa’s body. He produced a sheet to cover it with for solemnity’s sake, and with that, they were now free to go and find themselves a yum cha restaurant, and celebrate their arrival in the big city.

With all they had been through, they would have to work hard to make it more convivial than a wake. But that’s what sake was for.

The Tragedy of Po Rige
Happy ending for Beeny at least

Dear High Justicar,

Today I was called out to the farming village of Po Rige at the behest of a Wise Gallant of the paladin’s order of Sophia, a young human woman by the name of Ashana Silverlake, originally of the city of Stoica in the land of Fiiel. Ashana rode in through the Port Gate yesterday, seeking the assistance of the temple of Paliyl to judge a human family of wrongdoers whom she and her companions had already apprehended. Ashana informed me that her companions had captured and were holding this family at a farmstead in Po Rige, and requested our assistance. Along with Investigator Toms and Acolyte Runner, I agreed to attend the scene in order to ensure that this family were not unfairly imprisoned by the paladin’s companions, and to administer whatever justice was deemed necessary under the eye of Paliyl. I informed Morrow, the Head Justicar of the temple of Paliyl in Coratka, of my decision, and he agreed that it was appropriate for me to attend on this endeavour.

It took approximately one day’s travel to arrive at what I am told is the Wither family farm on the west side of the road in Po Rige. The Wither holding is a potato farm of some 30 to 40 acres, and is surrounded by a dry stone wall. The farm house is of stone construction in the manner of the houses in Fiiel, and has a sizeable vegetable garden and a small number of herd animals and avians for domestic purposes. The true owner, a man by the name of Turner Wither, was not in attendance at the home on my arrival. I was told he lives currently in Mae Lin, having retired from farming.

I found in residence at the farmstead the other members of the paladin’s company: Holy Acolyte Odate, of the temple of Qodesh outside Bushiken; Reichstag Amber-Grease, goblin of the blue dragon school of wizardry; Sage Tindernook, a kender of Po Khet; and Hunter, a human man from Chan Ma Rai. There was also the family who had been in residence at the Wither farm. The head of the family appeared to be one Azon, wife to Farrer and mother to adult daughter Petal and apparently a younger son, Beeny (not present). Also present were Farrer’s father, Furraw, and Grim, the husband of Petal.

On advice from Ashana, I sent Toms to the neighbouring beetroot farm to take a statement from the family there, and also from Beeny son of Azon. These I have attached with the mark of Investigator Toms. Acolyte Runner and I also took statements from Ashana and her companions.

As best I can make out, the land of the Wither farm had been leased to Azon and her family. Azon, having retired from work as a mercenary archer in the eastern jungles near Bushiken, took up the lease in order to have a source of income for her and her family. There was evidence given on behalf of the paladin’s companions that there had been some misdealings between Azon and the Wither family, but these are ultimately not of concern for anything besides motive for the crimes that were to come.

We found evidence by way of a burnt corpse of bones that a young human male had been murdered, his death seemingly the result of a number of arrow wounds. There was corroborating verbal evidence given by Deck, the young son of the family of beetroot farmers, and also of a slave boy by the name of Justin who lives on a nearby pumpkin farm. Both of these boys saw the corpse of a young human male pinned to the fig tree outside the Wither farm with arrows. The boy Beeny in his statement stated that the corpse belonged to Reece Wither, son of the owner Turner Wither, who was an acolyte with the temple of Paliyl in Mae Lin (this should be checked with the temple there). The motive behind the murder of Reece Wither, according to Beeny, was to rid Turner Wither of a suitable heir, thereby allowing Azon and family to take over the farm for themselves. This motive, if true, seems misguided and based on a failure to understand the inheritance laws of the land of Manxiga. Nonetheless, this statement was attested to also by Grim and Furraw.

Upon initial investigations by Ashana and her company, who had come seeking answers on behalf of Turner Wither, it was revealed to Azon and her family that there was an eye-witness to the murder of Reece – Deck, the son of Laté and Cad, the beetroot farmers. Fearing reciprocity by Azon and the family, the paladin and her companions evacuated the beetroot farmers from their home and lay in ambush in case Azon took action. What in fact happened was Beeny, childhood friend of Deck, went to warn him of the danger he faced, but was discovered by his family and, deemed a traitor, was beaten harshly. In the expert opinion of the ogre, this beating could have easily resulted in Beeny’s death were it not for the timely response of Ashana and company.

It must be noted that although in the ensuing conflict Ashana, as a trained warrior, caused serious (though not grievous) injury to two members of Azon’s family – Farrer with a broken knee and Petal with a smashed nose – this was in direct defence of the boy Beeny, as has been attested to by her victims. As such, no action need be taken for justice in this case.

A more complex situation is that of the human, Hunter. During the confrontation, a light spell from either the wizard of the Qodeshi (the accounts differ) apparently highlighted Azon’s location, back from the melee. Hunter claims that having seen Azon use her bow to deadly effect the previous day (the wound allegedly done to the ogre had by that stage been apparently healed), he felt it necessary to neutralise her. He claims to have approached her openly and bested her with a lucky blow from his dagger. However, the wound’s trajectory, striking deeply into Azon’s collarbone over and past the collar of her studded leather armour, would counterindicate such a conclusion. Unfortunately, none of the other combatants seemed to get a good look at what precisely happened. If two of the witnesses were not a Wise Gallant and a Holy Acolyte, this blindness would seem decidedly convenient.

As it is, however, Azon refused to give testimony, remaining silent in the face of the charges against her or any questions we had. The other members of the family involved in the attack on Beeny have given guilty pleas; with the exception of Grim, who sought to distance himself from Azon and her family, stating that he alone sought to be a voice of reason, and attended the beetroot farm in the hope of stopping what was planned. Though his non-aggression in the conflict tends to support this claim, the blood found on the butt of his scythe speaks against this story.

Due to the serious nature of the crimes involved – murder, attempted murder of a child (and blood relative no less), conspiracy to commit murder of a child, as well as suspected fraud and dishonesty charges relating to the administration of the Wither farm, and the sufficiency of the evidence available, Azon and her family were found guilty and sentenced to death, effective immediately. The sentence was carried out by way of hanging. The last words of Azon were simply, “Such is life.” Other family members, namely Farrer and Furraw, gave apologies for their wrongdoing. Petal and Grim protested their innocence with tears, weeping and threats.

I am given to understand that Beeny has been adopted by Cad and Laté. He was offered the possessions of his late family, but has opted for them to be sold at auction in Coratka and the money raised to be given to the family of the beetroot farmers. This will be collected by them upon their next visit to the city.

In the name of Justice,

Honesty Carter, Justicar of Paliyl

Azon's story
More jungle, less boogie

There it was again.

It was almost impossible to pick it out from the sounds that filled the air. The constant pattering of the rain on leaves, plaintive calls of birds in the trees moaning the misery of yet another wet afternoon in the jungle as they sheltered under the fuller parts of the canopy, the rushed rustling of movement as some animal or other decided to make a break for it in a futile effort to find a more comfortable perch in the afternoon shower – even her own soft, steady breathing and the beating of her heart added to the cacophony in her ears. Of course, the constant crack-crack-crack of axe blows against wood didn’t help either, but they were at least dulled by distance into a more muted thump-thump-thump.

And yet, as difficult as it was to pick out one sound from all the others… there it was again. A light scraping, like leather against bark. Azon froze in place. While it was almost impossible to hear such sounds, it was absolutely impossible to survive without hearing them. That’s how the elves fought: they’d secret themselves amongst tree branches or in camouflaged hides, wait for someone to walk past, and then drop them with an arrow and silently return to their hiding place. And that’s where she came in: while the other mercenaries scouted out the elven hides on the ground, her job was to watch the trees for elven archers, and to engage them when they made their whereabouts known – usually by firing an arrow into one of the others. She was rarely able to prevent them from loosing their arrow first – but that wasn’t why she was there. Her job was to prevent them firing a second arrow. Sure, some of her own might fall, but that’s what they were paid for. She got paid too of course, and there was even a bonus for confirmed kills. But that wasn’t why she was there.

The fighting rarely got beyond these sorts of tit-for-tat skirmishes, but it was still important. If Azon and her fellows weren’t there, the elves would be firing their arrows at the lumberjacks, and would slow the felling of the trees, the processing of the wood, the building of homes and shops and goods. Not that Azon really cared about any of that. Homes could be built, and fences and furniture and whatever. But that wasn’t why she was there. Those things could all burn for all she cared.

Suddenly, a scream filled the air. Azon blithely considered how funny it was that the jungle air always seemed so full, and yet still had room for a scream, for her loosed arrow, and for the falling body of the elf who had just shot one of her mates. The two bodies fell to the ground almost simultaneously, both with arrows protruding from their necks. She’d learned from this job that it was better to make your first shot count. That’s why she used the heavier tipped arrows, made for penetrating armour – they also took bigger chunks out of the enemies. That’s why she always tried to aim for the face or neck too – not nearly as much chance of surviving that kind of wound.

She counted to ten, and then padded slowly over to the corpses, yanking her arrow out of the elf’s neck. The elf groaned and whimpered a bit in pain, and Azon scowled and drove the newly released arrow back into elven flesh, twisting the arrowhead, causing it to bite and tear. The elven whimper turned into a shriek, her body thrashing once with pain snapping the arrow’s shaft, before just as swiftly returning to the silence of death. Azon shrugged and dropped the now broken shaft from her fingers. She could always buy more arrows, made from the very wood whose harvesters she protected at that.

There was another sound, this one from the man who had been dropped by the elf’s arrow. He was gurgling and bubbling blood from his lips, whining pitifully into the forest floor. There were probably tears. Azon rolled her eyes, and reached down to the man’s neck. Putting her boot on his shoulder, she yanked the arrow from his wound, making him seemingly black out from the pain, his face falling limp and silent to the leaf litter. The wound on his neck went from a dribble to a steady flow, soaking the ground with his blood. That probably indicated he could be saved, but not by her. That’s not why she was there.

Azon moved on, sheathing the arrow into her quiver, stalking for new prey. It wasn’t one of her preferred stock – the elves used mostly sharpened wood or stone arrowheads, shaped by the hands of their Carna clerics or magic users, and they were light and supple, more suitable for hunting than combat – but the thought of dropping an elven warrior by shooting one of their own arrows back into their face was simply too delicious. She didn’t even clean the arrowhead off – let the blood of the dead and dying from both sides mingle together in her next target. As she slipped deeper into the jungle, following another of the mercenary warriors she used as bait, that picture brought a smile to her lips.

After all, that’s why she was there.

Too much cheek?
At least there were brownies

Farmland stretched out in all directions now, and the way back to the village had long become lost in a maze of dirt paths, fences and row upon row of various crops. Some of the crops were really recognisable – tea bushes for instance were well-known in Manxiga – but others were more difficult to identify. It seemed that this area was popular for root vegetables of all kinds, along with creeping vines, and it was not a simple task to attempt to tell one from the other by their leaves or their flowers. They passed a number of farmsteads built in the Fiiel design, none particularly easy to access without jumping fences, but the party were able to see smaller cottage gardens around them where the farmers and their families no doubt grew their own supply of vegetables, as well as rearing a handful of livestock. In fact, if it weren’t for the growing humidity of the approaching afternoon and the stark greys of the mountains to the west, one could be forgiven for thinking the flood plains were far from here.

It wasn’t until both goblin and ogre spied a certain plant over a low dry stone wall that they thought they were on the right track. Reich recognised the flower and leaf structure as a plant belonging to the nightshade family, and remembered that potatoes were related to nightshade. Odate simply knew the plant when he saw it – that was a potato. They couldn’t see anyone working the field, but they could see that this land was pretty well cared for – potatoes all in rows, earth tilled, weeds scarce. Figuring that if they followed the wall they would find a gate eventually, they choose a direction and started in their way. After 10 or 20 minutes, the adventurers had found what they sought – a large, wrought-iron gate stood in the midst of a worked stone gateway, large enough for a cart to pass through. The gate itself was heavy and impressive, and also apparently locked. Hunter was keen to give the lock a closer look, to see if it really was all that locked, but Odate forbid it. Besides, they had some other information to get first.

Back in Mae Lin, Odate had the idea to check with the farm’s neighbours that old man Withers had a solid story. Now they were here, it seemed the wise thing to gather this information before confronting the current inhabitants. Ashana was, of course, all about wisdom, and concurred with this plan, so the party continued down the road a ways, looking for a nearby homestead. Of course, “nearby” is a subjective term, and in the farms of Po Rige, it seemed to mean a good half an hour or more before another home was in sight.

This farmstead was not quite built in the typical way of its neighbourhood. Not only was it a mix of me brick and stone, but it seemed to use this effect to create a jarring mix of colours, to which was added several large splashes of red and purple, haphazard and strange, but certainly striking. The fence had a gateway with no gate, and the path leading up to the house itself was laid with red terracotta paving tiles. The whole ambiance of the house was colourful, playful and bright. A knock on the door led to it being answered, revealed one of the house’s colourful, bright and playful occupants. Laté was a mature grey-haired human woman, whose wrinkly smile and purple-splashed apron both beamed with colour. She was delighted to have visitors, even total strangers, and welcomed them in without a moment’s hesitation, despite the fact that they might include ogre, goblin and kender. She even apologised for not having any furniture large enough for Odate, but more than made up for it with her welcoming hospitality.

And the brownies.

The smell alone was heavenly. Chocolate was certainly not unheard of in Elwarne, but cocoa beans came mostly from the jungles of the elves, and they were a long way from here. That meant these treats were a rare delicacy, and yet were being offered willingly to total strangers. The brownies seemed to be still warm, and they were deliciously sweet for all who tried them – Odate alone turned them down, thinking that they were too extravagant for a cleric of Qodesh. Hunter certainly helped himself, and Sage quickly resembled a chipmunk with cheeks stuffed full of the sumptuous bounty of sweeties. Laté explained that the sweetness came from the beets they farmed, and this quickly also explained in everyone’s mind the splashes of red and purple that were spread about the house. Laté seemed to revel in the colours, seeing them as representative of her farm and family. She seemed joyous at seeing people enjoying her brownies, and asked polite and thoughtful questions about what brought them out to this humble part of the world.

The unfortunate news about Wither’s son Reeve, and the subsequent investigation they had come to start, was enough to dampen her spirits somewhat. She explained that she knew the Wither family well, having been a good friend of Turner’s wife, Wenda. But after she had died, Turner had become more and more insular, until giving away farming all together and moving to Mae Lin to take up reading or some such. He had taken their only son with him, Reeve, and she hadn’t really heard from either of them since they had gone. She knew he rented out the farm to a family of farmers, led by the wife of the family, Azon. She didn’t know much about that family, except that they kept very much to themselves. Which was not so unlike Turner had done, but that had been on account of his wife’s passing. These ones were just insular, and didn’t seem to fit in with the other families of the west side of Po Rige. But with a sigh and a shrug of her old shoulders, Laté expressed a sentiment that each should keep to their own.

The party wondered if any more information might be gleaned by the father of the house, and Laté was more than happy for the adventurers to trek out into the beets and find her husband, Cad. He was out there working with their boys, apparently. She pointed them in the right direction, and they went out on their way. At least 10 minutes of walking was required before they were able to spy several men seeming to work over the soil with hoes in the distance. The smallest of the figures seemed to notice their approach first, and with an overloud boyish voice cried out, “Look pa, an ogre!” The greying hair of the fatherly figure, who must have been Cad, had to indeed look twice before realising the boy had spoken the truth.

Cad was a grizzled man, but his smile was as easygoing as his manner, and his handshake was strong and warm, even squeezing hard against the ogre’s big fingers. He welcomed them without even knowing what they were doing there, and introduced the boys from oldest to youngest: Jammy, Breaker and little Deck. This time, the party tried to be a bit more circuitous in their questions about the family now residing at the Wither farm, trying to find out some more information before levelling their accusations. They discovered again that the family mainly kept to themselves, that there were eight of them in all, and that the mother, Azon had fought in the battles against the elves in the eastern jungle, and was apparently a seasoned warrior. Cad was able to add that Turner Wither was a good man, but had never really taken to farming, having picked it up as a way to pay the bills when he and Wenda had first emigrated here from Fiiel looking for opportunities. They had done well of it, but once Wenda had passed, Turner saw little reason to stick with it, wanting a simple and quiet retirement to focus on his reading. Reeve was not adverse to a city life, and sought to become an acolyte in the temple of Paliyl. So the Withers had rented out their farm to Azon and her kin, and for all they knew had been working the farm just fine and paying their debts from their harvests. Little Deck said he knew the youngest of the family, a boy his age named Beanie, and they had played together sometimes, sneaking out together at night or going hunting with their slings.

When asked if they had heard anything recently from Turner or Reeve, the father and his two eldest shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders – Jammy had received a letter or two from Reeve, but that was about all – and it was only because not everyone in the party was at adult height that a couple of the shorter members of the party noticed the boy Deck had started to tremble and look about uncomfortably. When Sage asked him if he had something to say, the boy suddenly began to wail and cry in anguish and fear. Apparently he had seen Reeve’s body pinned up against the fig tree outside the gate of the Wither farm, held there by several arrows. The sight had clearly traumatised this poor boy, and it took the consolation of Ashana’s soft words to get him to even agree to come back to the homestead to get some comfort from his mother. Once back there, he wept a little more, and Ashana led some prayers with the boy and his mother, and Jammy’s wife Pepper who had also come out from the kitchen to lend the young man some support.

This was enough to also gain from young Deck that he hadn’t actually seen the murder (but clearly Reeve hadn’t nailed himself to a tree with arrows), so their evidence was still entirely circumstantial. But the motive of taking over the farm was a strong one, and it seemed right to go and investigate this tree, and also perhaps confront the family at Wither Farm.

By the time they had returned to the fig tree outside the farm gates, it was afternoon, and the regular showers would probably be starting in an hour or so. The air was becoming laden with moisture, and the heat and humidity were uncomfortably rising. The tree’s leaves were bristling out from the branches, but much to Sage’s disappointment (even though she had stuffed herself full to bursting with brownies) there were no figs in season on the tree. What there were, however, were a number of slits in the tree trunk, which could be consistent with arrowheads. There was no blood on the tree to be seen, and certainly no body (which would have been something they certainly would have noticed when they’d passed this way before).

Rather suddenly, a voice woke them all out of their introspection about the tree. Behind them, and behind the steadfastly shut iron gate, stood the whole of the family that were occupying Wither Farm. Most of them were holding some sort of farming implement – hoes, axes, or quarterstaves of some description. But Azon stood out clearly from the rest, both in her fatigued studded leather armour, and with her long bow in hand, and an arrow with a wicked looking armour-piercing tip resting in her fingers. She called on the party to state their business, and it was perhaps unfortunate that Odate took up the post of the party’s diplomat. In his typically dour, frank and unyielding way, he put to the family that the son of Turner Wither was missing, presumed to have been killed, having been seen by a witness, and now they were investigating both the fraudulent assumption of his land, and the death of the man’s only son. Azon took umbrage at these suggestions, nocked her arrow and drew it back, warning Odate and his friends that such suggestions were slanderous, that they owned this farmland fair and square, didn’t need to answer anyone’s questions, and suggesting in none too fine terms that the adventurers should go on their way.

That’s when Odate suggested that perhaps this was the kind of welcome they had shown Turner’s son, Reeve. And for that remark, he landed an arrow in the mouth.

An inch to the left, and he’d have been dead. But thankfully – inasmuch as anyone can give thanks for an arrow in their mouth – the head had pierced his cheek, and the shaft was sticking through the skin. There was blood seeping down his lips, and quick as a flash the archer had nocked another arrow, this time aiming it at the goblin wizard. She informed them that they had one more chance to get moving.

The family were behind a locked gate. Although the dry stone wall was only three feet tall, that presented quite a challenge to the party’s wizard (who shouldn’t be thinking of scaling it) and the party’s damage-dealer (who most certainly should). Moreover, it would be easily defensible, even for farm boys with hoes. The sting of that one arrow nearly felling the mighty ogre had given everyone pause, and what’s more, they didn’t feel that they truly had a strong leg to stand on. Was there really sufficient evidence to start spilling blood, and perhaps even lose a member of their own party, as they so nearly had done in the last fight with Reich and the axe?

Deciding discretion was the better part of valour, as the rain began to fall and the ground began to turn from dust to mud, everyone quietly filed behind the ogre’s large shield, and backed away out of sight.

Working for peanuts
Sorry they couldn't satay longer

It had been a long damn day. It was hard to believe that it had only been this morning that the party had left Po Kin, been ambushed by Malone and his thugs, then reached Mae Lin only to be accosted by the goblin cleric of Tu’Eva, met with the sage and delivered the book, handed the thugs over to the Paliylite authorities, and then been harangued by the kobold cleric of Tu’Eva and his flunkies, before finally destroying the flail and getting first aid (or in Reich’s case, fairly serious intensive healing) from the Qodeshi temple. They hadn’t even had dinner yet.

Suddenly, despite having to figure out where they would go next, what they needed to do, and even what possible kinds of planning these might require, dinner quickly skyrocketed to the top of the agenda. Dinner, and comfy beds. Lucky for them, both were in abundance in Mae Lin, and everyone was able to find a hot meal, a cold drink, and a soft mattress for the night. Sleep was deep and untroubled across the board.

With the new day came a renewed energy for action. Ashana was still nursing a few bruises and scrapes from her interactions with the unwise the day before, and sought the blessing of Sophia to revitalise her spirit before the party started on their way. But where were they going? Odate informed the paladin of the old man, Turner Withers, and the sad tale of the stolen potato farm and the murdered son. Between the two righteous members of the party, it was soon agreed that this man’s plight should take precedence – especially given the location of his homeland being pretty far away from just about anything else, and the likelihood of him being forgotten if they were to get too quickly involved in anything else.

So after (quite wisely) seeking some advice as to the best route to follow to get to the farming village of Po Rige (because apparently despite Reich’s having grown up in this area, he didn’t know much about the human settlements), they left Mae Lin through the south-western gate and made their way along the coat road towards their next stop, Po Lel. The south-west road out of Mae Lin was fairly busy, mostly with traders and travellers making the trip to Saadoe. For while Mae Lin was a working port, it served mainly administrative functions, and was therefore goblin-based. Saadoe, on the other hand, was the official ogre port, and as such had different requirements, different rules, and primarily was a different market, and so a trader selling goods in Mae Lin could often take some of their stock and sell it, perhaps even more lucratively, only a couple of days’ travel away.

The sea road to Po Lel was well travelled, but otherwise uneventful. The waters were rather picturesque, and as the morning turned to afternoon – bringing with it the seemingly ever-present warm showers that came with the latter half of a Manxiga day – there was plenty of light cloud cover, especially gathering over the mountains in the distant west to create a splash of colour that reflected across the rippling sea that stretched out to the south. By the time the party had made it to the little village, they were treated to a very pleasant sight: the gathering of well-built and well-appointed beach houses cast hard-lined silhouettes against the more natural curves of the distant mountains, both highlighted by the oranges and purples that the sun left as it dipped below the high western horizon. The village looked far more well-appointed than the others they had thus far visited. While it seemed to have a local population of fishermen, these ones actually had boats – wood being scarce in Manxiga, this was clearly a sign of prosperity – and it had not one, but three inns available for travellers and locals alike.

The typical town hall establishment for the local farmers and fishers of the village – the hoeseog as it was known in Goblin – was built in the same fashion as the others. It was a long building, with a thatched roof that extended out to a broad verandah in the front of the building, covering a number of low tables, and with large open doorways to enter the indoor meeting area. Most of the rest of the building was taken up by a small number of individual rooms – probably only five or six at best – and one of those would certainly be sized for an ogre, as was custom. This one was well cared for, and was probably comfortable enough, but the party did not venture in there, because there were two other much finer establishments that grabbed their attention.

Reich and Sage decided to attend the tavern that seemed to serve predominantly a goblin clientèle, and were eventually joined by Ashana when she realised that she’d probably rather stay in the same inn as her wizard friend. Its name was Bul gat-eun Ilmol – the Fiery Sunsets – and it catered to the collection of Goblin scholars who had decided to reside close to, but not within, Mae Lin itself. They were language scholars for the most part – it seemed that the goblin administration had seen a value in procuring for itself bureaucrats who spoke the various languages of the sentient races of Elwarne, and found them more capably trained, as well as generally of more use, near the port towns on the south sea than cooped up in the goblin capital of Terrkan. Apparently being a language scholar paid well for these goblins, as they were the ones who lived in the smaller beach houses beside the sea. The mood was quiet but positive, and the food and drink understated but of fine quality. Reich seemed to attract a goodly amount of attention from the scholars who were in residence that evening, his mage robes marking him out as an intellectual like them. When Reich tried to explain to the others who these goblins were – that one reason they did not live in Mae Lin was that they did not consider themselves to have reached the rank of ‘sage’ – the kender piped up loudly and helpfully to inform them all, “I’m a Sage! they should all listen to me!” After which they most certainly did no such thing. But the furnishings in the place were more than sufficient, especially for Ashana who, being the only non-demihuman in the establishment, made use of the tavern’s ogre-sized bed for the night.

Odate and Hunter, meanwhile, went to the other tavern in the little village – a rather more ostentatious place by the name of Koto, which the ogre told Hunter loosely translated as Lonely Island – the idea, he surmised with a look at those in the tavern, being that this was a place to come where one could escape the rigours of a busy life. Indeed, one look around the large inn told the observer that not only was this place built for ogres – even the barman had to be an ogre, so that the ogres need not lean down to get their drinks from a goblin – but it was built specifically for middle class ogre tourists who were coming for a beach holiday. There were a few families, some who looked like minor nobles, or perhaps clergy of Ra’a, and others who were probably high ranking guards or fighters. It was a louder, more raucous place, and although the food was of good quality, Hunter found the wriggling limbs of the odori-don put before him a little too much, and stuck to the rice and cod roe. It seemed that Odate’s presence was thoroughly ignored by his fellow ogres, however – for what reason he did not comment on – but the beds were large and comfortable enough, and everyone woke up relaxed and ready for the new day.

That new day brought with it a shorter walk, as the port town of Saadoe was less than a full day’s walk. They still left at their normal early-morning time (it’s difficult to stop a Qodeshi and a Sophite from getting up in the morning) and so beat most of the trader traffic, having a quiet and pleasant hike along the sea road and towards the ogre port of Saadoe. Odate had been keen to visit this port, knowing it to be a predominantly ogre settlement, and wishing to see it for himself. But alas, the town failed to impress a single member of the party. In fact, the sorry state of the buildings closest to the docks, along with the bawdy nature of most of the street inhabitants, the common sight of men stumbling about drunk, the rowdy cries of cheer mixed with pain that seemed to come all at once from somewhere in middle distance to a nearby alley, the dirtiness and the poverty, made everyone feel more than a little uncomfortable. There was s till a couple of hours of serviceable light to be had in the sky, and with one accord the party trotted calmly but quickly from paying their head tax to exiting through the northern gate in record time, and all breathed a sigh of relief as another hour’s travel on the north road brought them back into the relative quiet charm of the rural idyll. Of course, as the darkness began to make itself well and truly felt on the group – none of whom could see in the dark – they thought it best that they find somewhere to rest.

Hunter suggested scoping out a barn or similar farm building, and simply bedding down in some straw for the night, and Ashana agreed with this idea, especially if they were to pay a local farmer for the trouble. The first large building they found capable of fitting both Odate and Sense was a large mud brick granary in the lee of the mountains. They approached the small farmstead to which it belonged, and found a goblin farmer who was more than willing to let them stay in his granary. And when they offered to pay him for the trouble, he even told them to eat as much as they wanted. Eat as much what, they wondered, and Reich asked in the goblin tongue. No sooner had the wizard translated the word ttangkong – peanuts – that Sage had let out an exuberant whoop of “PEANUTS!”, and fair sprinted out from the farmstead’s verandah, heading as fast as her little legs could carry her before diving into a large sack full of peanuts. Hunter worked a few moments longer to bargain the price of a few bottles of satay sauce from the gobiln – anyone who grew peanuts was sure to make their own – and so dinner consisted of satay rice and vegetable stir fry, and a good helping of roasted nuts for dessert. It was the first night they had ever felt the need to set a watch, and it’s surprising anyone got any sleep at all, given that the whole night was regularly punctuated by the sound of a cracking shell and the gobbling up of a few more nuts.

Morning came, and with it the party, now laden down with nuts both inside and out, waddled back to the main road, and travelled fully content to the little human village of Po Rige. This was the first human village the party had visited on their travels together, and it was quite different to those goblin villages they had passed through. For one, it was not surrounded on all sides by rice paddies – the closeness to the mountain ridge made this area more hilly, with a firmer soil, and a little raised up from the flood plains below. The buildings too were more appropriately human-sized, and looked comfortable if not bordering on reasonably well off. Interestingly, there was no tavern or place public rest in this village, but rather it seemed to be made up entirely of nice homes, split evenly down the middle on east and west sides of the road. Not all of the homes gave the feeling of being occupied, but even with the party standing there, wondering what they were going to do with themselves as the sun continued to disappear, a friendly face leaned out of one of the doors to their right and then tipped its straw hat. The man introduced himself as Lan Aretz, an oat farmer from the east side of the village. He asked them about their reason for stopping in the sleepy little hamlet, and when they explained their plan to help a farmer from the west side, he shrugged his shoulders amiably and informed them that while he probably shouldn’t get involved in west side business, they were welcome to stay at his home for the evening if they so desired.

The group gathered together in the home – Odate had to duck and squeeze his way in – and enjoyed a delicious meal of pork chop, corn and bread which Lan cooked them himself, before they settled in with some whiskey distilled from his own oats, apparently by a gnome called Lendle out in Saketome. Odate did not partake, and Ashana merely sipped it to gain an appreciation of the flavour for future knowledge, but everyone else enjoyed a glass or two as they swapped their stories. It turned out that while Lan was probably related to Soncho Aretz – the sage in Mae Lin – in one way or another, the Aretz name was fairly well spread, as Aretz had been the first human to buy his freedom from goblin slavery and settle himself on a farm in Manxiga. There was even a village called Ha Aretz that was out to the far east past Ken Ta Ral, which was the original farmstead of the Aretz family. This house was in fact not Lan’s alone, but shared by three or four Aretz families that held pastoral selections around Po Rige, and they would share the use of the homestead when bringing goods into the village before carting them to wherever they were headed. Lan had actually just returned from Coratka, and was overnighting here in Po Rige before he would head back to his farmstead in the morning, so they were lucky to catch him.

The night wore on late, warmed with friendly conversation and whiskey. When morning came, it came early, with the crowing of roosters and the clattering of a large pot, which contained oat porridge, spiced with a dash of cinnamon. Lan flatly refused any hint of contribution to his hospitality, and wished them all the best in their endeavours. They crossed the road into the west side, and then past the row of half a dozen or so houses, and started trekking into the hills, which were fenced off in irregular strips of farmland. Now, to look for a potato farm. All they needed to know was what a potato plant looked like. How hard could it be?

Doggedly pursuing their objectives
The only thing that would have been more fun was tequila

It wasn’t every day that Soncho Aretz had a horse parked outside his home that was piled high with unconscious bodies. However, it wasn’t the first time the sage had dealt with a paladin apparently, because he welcomed the party into his home with a smile and cordial hospitality, offering the comfort of floor cushions and cups of hot tea. Although there wasn’t any cushion quite large enough for the ogre, Odate simply took a number of cushions to make himself at home. This wasn’t nearly as invasive as letting the kender loose in the home though, who was quickly flicking through books she couldn’t even read, looking at any maps she could find, and the household was probably missing some quills and a tea strainer by the end of her visit.

As the rest of the group sat, Ashana took the book carefully from its oilskin and held it out to the sage in outstretched palms with something akin to reverence (or perhaps veneration, since reverence would more properly be reserved for properly holy objects, and this isn’t the sort of thing a paladin wants to get mixed up) whilst intoning solemnly, “I present to thee, Sage Soncho Aretz of Mae Lin, this book from the library of the Temple of Sophia, goddess of Wisdom, in the city of Chan Ma Rai.” The sage, rather disappointingly, lifted the book in one hand, gave a somewhat uncomfortable smile and a little nod of his head, and said, “Thanks very much,” before tucking it under his armpit.

Nevertheless, he was quite excited, in a sedate kind of way, to have the book, and expressed his pleasure at being able to look over it and examine it more closely. The group explained to Soncho that they had met more than one piece of opposition along the road, people who seemed to quite specifically want the book, and questioned his own security arrangements. Without explaining himself, Soncho simply assured them that he had no concerns about his wellbeing. As if this reminded him though, he fished out a little pouch of coins, and counted out a few small piles of gold, one for each of the party in payment for their work. There was no pile of coins for Ashana – the paladin was working on behalf of her temple after all, so there was no need for payment – but Soncho still had something for her. It was a little bit of his own sagely wisdom, an the wisdom of a professional sage was certainly nothing to sneeze at. He pointed out to her that the presence of these hoodlums seeking the book for various purposes could only mean that there was an information leak in the Temple of Sophia in Chan Ma Rai. The book itself was certainly not unknown, but its movements would have been kept on the down low. If Ashana wanted to serve her Lady in wisdom, it would be important to discover the source of this information indiscretion. The paladin nodded in acceptance, both of the correctness of this statement, and by implication the responsibility she now had to undertake a new quest – the discovery of the leak in the Temple of Sophia.

Soncho then opened up the resource of his wisdom to the rest of the party, in case they too had any mysteries he could possibly illuminate. He couldn’t answer many questions about the book – after all, he had only just received it – but he was still a sage, and although most of his knowledge seemed to be focus on the giftings of races, and in particular that of humans, he was still a clever guy. Perhaps the most helpful information he gave them related to the options they had for dealing with the collection of captives that still burdened Ashana’s poor horse outside. And while Hunter felt the decision was a simple one – ditch their bodies in the river, or just leave them in a tavern to become someone else’s problem, thankfully for the moral sensibilities of the rest of the party Soncho was able to give some more fullness to their possibilities. Clearly Hunter was right – they could kill their defeated foes, and dump the bodies, or leave them to die on someone else’s coin. That was essentially the result of leaving them; at least three of them would succumb to their injuries. They could get them healed and then release them, although that did seem to be a bit of an injustice for people who had attempted them significant harm, alongside the desire to rob them of the book. Still it was an option, and someone of a particularly forgiving nature – perhaps a follower of Hesed – might have countenanced. Selling them all into slavery was a third option – one that tweaked Hunter’s ears, along with the supplementary suggestion that the dark cleric could have been ransomed back to his temple – but the rest of the party had various objections to this solution. Slavery wasn’t particularly palatable to some of them, while others weren’t keen to profit from the misery of others. This also meant handing the robbers over to the Mae Lin secular authorities was out of the question, since they were highly likely to simply throw them all into the slave market and keep the profit for themselves – with the exception of the Tu’evan, who was more likely to be ransomed or simply returned to his local temple. The final option, and the one that seemed to have the most widespread appeal, was to take them to the temple of Paliyl, and seek to have them tried for their crimes. Soncho was even able to give a prediction of the resulting punishments the captives would face – though he wasn’t a lawyer, and of course couldn’t give legal advice. But in his estimation, while the regular thieves would be facing slavery for their crimes – albeit in the service of the temple itself, and towards the aim of rehabilitation rather than simple profit – the Tu’evan would need to be extradited to a human controlled city, where he could be given the only punishment that fit his crime – death.

With that veritable bouquet of unsavory options, the party made their decision. Thanking Soncho for his time, they filed out of his front door and made firstly for the temple of Tu’eva. The building was the size of a regular temple for a town of this size – it probably had a capacity of over 200 occupants, and the whole place had an air of claustrophobia, no doubt lent to it at least in part by the cloying stench of foulness that emanated from the general area. Thankfully, for the party’s purposes they didn’t need to go inside. Instead, they just dumped the paling goblin on the steps, gave a shrug, and walked away assuming that he would be found by his brethren. What they certainly didn’t leave behind was the cleric’s possessions. Ashana had the cleric’s coin purse, with which he had attempted to tempt them into parting with the book. The party wouldn’t be seeking a ransom from the temple of desolation, but that wouldn’t stop them from taking their own reparations, and putting the coins to holy uses that would bring only further deprecation from Tu’eva.

His flail meanwhile had already caused entirely too much trouble, with Reich and Sage having gotten into a snatching match, following by a shouting match in the middle of the town’s streets. If it hadn’t been for Hunter’s quick thinking – taking the unconscious Malone’s hand (who he dragged out of a dark alley where no-one even knew he was) and using it to shift the flail from the ground into a sack, which was then put into the possession of the Qodesh cleric – who knows what kind of attention the whole scene might have attracted. Besides, Odate was under a compulsion from his orders to ensure the destruction of any such item that had received the foul and twisted touch of the goddess of woe. He determined to take the flail to his own temple – one was located outside the town’s walls, as was typical for Qodeshi places of worship – while the rest of the party would take Malone and his gang to the Paliylites, where they could face an appropriate and righteous justice. Hunter decided to stick with Odate, and the two of them headed for the north-western gate.

The rest of the group, headed by Ashana leading Sense by her bridle, made their way to the small, functional building that served as the Paliylite temple for this town. Paliyl had perhaps the smallest establishment of the five gods in this town, staffed by perhaps a dozen acolytes and less than half that in actual clerics. The temple had a tiny cell, which would be stretched to capacity to fit these ruffians, but thankfully it was presently empty – apparently the temple dealt mostly with civil matters, and didn’t have much call for the cell as a rule. Ashana spoke with the temple’s leader – a goblin justicar by the name of Allida – who informed them in a little more detail of the situation that Malone and his unconscious gang faced. Essentially, if the group pleaded guilty, they would be placed in slavery within the structures of the Paliyl temple, where they would be expected to serve in accordance with their giftings, receiving training and encouragement to create something of five times the value of the item they had attempted to steal. Unfortunately for them, the book was essentially priceless, so to receive their freedom they would need to likewise produce something of inestimable value. Still, slavery to the temple of Paliyl, while restrictive, was hardly torturous, and would hopefully rehabilitate the offenders so that they would become boons rather than banes to society. However, if they were to plead not guilty, there would need to be a trial, and it was likely that, if found guilty, they would face a much harsher kind of slavery which would seek to more directly extract several thousand gold from each of them in the form of physical labour. Such a trial would require statements from each of the party members, and as such Allida suggested they provide statements now, taken by one of the acolytes, to help prepare any case that might arise. So Sage, Reich and Ashana settled in for the next few hours, providing the details of their recollection of the attack on the south coast road.

Odate and Hunter, meanwhile, had followed their eyes towards a large, four storey building made of stone on the ground floor, mud brick on the next, wood on the third, and then wood and paper on the highest level. It was quite a striking site, and as they came closer the human and the ogre found that the temple to the god of holiness stood on a small island in the midst of the river delta on which Mae Lin was constructed. It was reachable easily enough – a small fjord of stones allowed crossing of the thin waterway surrounding the island – but the message was clear: this place stood apart from its surrounds. The small stone wall that surrounded it gave the same message, with but a single entrance through a doorless gap towards the temple proper. Despite its height, the temple was small, and probably could not have housed more than 10 within – likely less. Odate instructed Hunter to remain outside, and as the ogre moved through the entryway, his large shield very nearly became a door for the portal. Upon entering the ground floor, he stripped himself of his personal belongings,including the flail, and performed a series of ablutions before making his way past the first floor, where any worshippers would be found. There were none. He continued up to the second floor, where those dedicated to Qodesh could congregate, and sure enough met two others of his ilk. He gave a series of ordained prayers there, before requesting an audience with the temple’s high priest. One of the two there rang a bell, and the high priest – another goblin, this one by the name of Seong Jeon – made his way down the steps from the highest storey to greet Odate. When informed that Odate had a descrated weapon within the bounds of the temple, the high priest informed him rather curtly of the need for its removal from the temple and subsequent destruction, but was not capable of providing much insight into what precisely was required. He suggested a visit to the temple of Sophia in Mae Lin for such information. Odate, only briefly and lightly shamed for having brought a cursed item into the sanctuary of the temple, bowed in thanks, and made his way perhaps just a little faster than he had entered, collecting his belongings and heading out to meet a very bored Hunter, telling him that they needed to go back to Mae Lin. Which they did, but not before some cajoling on the side of Odate to ensure that Hunter entered through the gate like a normal person, and paid his head tax – although in the end, it was Odate who paid.

After visiting the temple of Sophia, where Odate learned that in the past, illegal shipments of opium had been destroyed with a mixture of lime and salt set afire, and that a dose of the same mix should purge the flail of its wicked past, the two met up with their friends at the Paliyl temple, and Odate took his turn providing a statement of his recollection of events to the acolytes there. Hunter, of course, did not provide a statement – he had never been at the fight, so far as anyone knew.

Rather than sit about being a third wheel, Hunter went to find a salt seller – well, not just any salt seller, but one whom he thought would be sufficiently amenable to his walking away with about 15 pounds of salt without paying for it. He found her too – a youngish salt merchant who Hunter was quickly able to establish a rapport with, insinuate that he worked for a company that regularly purchased salt from this place, and that he had no doubt that his boss would pay the credit required in no time, before he walked away – rather awkwardly – with 15 pound bags of evaporated sea salt.

Ashana and the others likewise weren’t really interested in staying at the Paliylite temple any longer than was really necessary, having already been there for some hours, and so they decided to visit the Sophite temple – a library-style building, mostly open to the public and capable of seating about 50 or so people. Ashana’s goal in this visit was rather different from Odate’s – not only was she interested in discovering some wisdom to help guide her in seeking to raise up a school for disadvantaged children to learn the ways of several of the gods in unity, but she thought perhaps it would be wise to discuss what the sage Soncho had told her, about needing to wheedle out the mole within their ranks. This latter discussion was something best done in private, so the kender and the goblin ended up leaving her there (although not before Sage found a map or two within the temple’s collection that she hadn’t seen before) and went off to find Odate and Hunter. If they weren’t going to be able to hear what the Sophites were talking about in their secret library business, they would at least hopefully get to see an evil flail get destroyed. Or perhaps get the flail back. Both of them kind of still wanted the flail.

While Hunter had been quickly successful in getting the salt, the ogre wasn’t quite as comfortable in a town setting, and a mixture of unfamiliarity with mercantile endeavour and simple stand-offishness meant that he only ended up finding one purveyor of quicklime, and they refused to sell it to him because he wasn’t a regular customer, and they didn’t normally sell in such small quantities. However, thankfully when his friends arrived they were able to suggest what would be unthinkable to a Qodeshi – offer a little more money, not as a bribe, but just as a premium for their time and effort – and fairly soon the group had both lime and salt, and were ready to mix it up outside the town walls and watch the pretty lights that would no doubt ensue.

It was turning out to be quite a long day by this point, and the sun was drawing long and low on the horizon by the time they made it to the north-west gate. Odate thought it would be most appropriate to destroy this flail within the shadow of the Qodeshi temple, and since everyone else figured the cleric knew what he was doing, they went along with it. As they approached the gate to leave, however, a man hailed them and moved over to them. He was a human, older in years, who looked like he’d had a life of labour behind him, and who was wearing reasonable clothes befitting an older man, but his demeanour was one of trouble and distress. His attraction to them seemed mostly to do with the weapons at their sides, although he did also remark on the Qodeshi’s shield (it was hard to miss). He introduced himself as Turner, and gave the group a tale of woe.

Turner was once the owner of a potato farm in the hills around Po Rige, a village to the north-west. Since he was getting old, he’d decided to leave the farm in the capable hands of another family of farmers, who had promised to deliver to him a share of the crops so that he might live on the profits, and retire to a life of quiet reading and thought in Mae Lin. Things had gone all right at first: he had received a shipment of potatoes for the first two or three years, but then things had petered out. By the time the seventh potato season had come and gone, no potatoes were forthcoming. He’d sent a couple of messengers to see what was going on, but they’d been turned away, unanswered, and one of them had even been beaten up. Still, he thought that maybe it was simply that they didn’t recognise the messengers, and so decided instead that he would send his son, Reeve, who they did know, and who had visited the farm from time to time to give reports to his father about how things were going. Weeks went by, and Turner had heard nothing from his son, nor seen him return. Wondering if he had perhaps been waylaid on the road, he send a couple of messengers off to the farm – not only to find out if the renters had seen Reeve, but also to ask along the road if anyone had seen anything suspicious.

The messengers had returned with the worst news possible. The farmers had apparently answered the messengers blithely that the farm belonged to them. Worse yet, while there was nothing for the messengers to see, apparently one of the locals had reported to them when asked that he had seen a young man pinned to a nearby elm tree by several arrows. Turner now simply wanted justice, but for reasons he couldn’t really articulate very well, neither the temple of Paliyl nor the secular authorities in Coratka seemed interested in helping him. He was now close to losing his humble living quarters in Mae Lin, he was living in poverty, but he didn’t care about any of that – all he wanted was justice for his boy. After they had questioned him for some details, the old man had ended up on his knees, begging them to help, almost at tears, such that they felt they couldn’t say no. Apparently their path was going to take them to Po Rige sooner or later.

But for now, it led them out of the town walls, and between the little rivulets of the river delta towards the Qodeshi temple. As the sun set fire to the western sky, highlighting the fiery mountains on the distant horizon, they were met by three dark figures – two humans, seemingly led by a kobold of some sort, and all of them dressed ominously in black. One of the humans, a female wrapped in black wizard robes, stood in a haughty pose, while the other, an armoured male, wielded a heavy, two handed axe. The kobold bore a strange spiky trapping device, which marked him out reasonably quickly as a servant of Tu’eva – that was the kind of sadistic tool they enjoyed using – and he barked orders at them (quite literally, being a kobold), requiring them to hand over the flail at once, since it was a holy relic belonging to their goddess. Qodesh said he only obeyed orders from one person, and they weren’t a tiny barking goblin – to which Reich quickly corrected him and pointed out it was in fact a kobold, at which time the ogre dismissed the detail as irrelevant, given that they were all clearly demi-ogres of some description. Hunter took exception to the term demi-ogre, but mostly because he was looking for a reason to storm off in anger, which he did, and Sage tried to strike up a conversation of introduction with the kobold. In the face of this menagerie of confusion, the kobold – Ukulethwa was his name, not that anyone but Sage cared – called out that if they weren’t going to hand the flail over, they had no choice but to pluck it from their corpses, and ordered his minions to attack, while calling what sounded like a rather ineffectual curse down from Tu’eva onto the group – something about making them as incompetent as they clearly appeared to be, and the battle was joined swiftly.

Perhaps, in fact, a little too swiftly. Sage, a mite too eager to draw her swords, sent her short sword flying into the air, to land a fair distance away, sticking in the ground, shuddering comically. She frowned, and whipped out her hoopak instead. Reich squared off against the female wizard, who drew back her hood to reveal a fairly pretty face, and shockingly blonde hair. “Hello,” the goblin said almost as a reflex, but then realised that she was reaching forward to grab him with a hand wreathed in an icy blue flame. He narrowly avoided that, and responded with a little inappropriate touching of his own. Electricity arced through his fingers and flooded into the mage’s system, causing her muscles to tighten and her hair to stand on end a moment, but she regained her composure and began casting another spell, this one summoning rocks to gather around her fists like gauntlets. She rammed them together threateningly, only to suddenly crumple under a mighty blow from the ogre’s warhammer. He then turned and bore the brunt of a flurry of axe blows from Swing the fighter, against his large shield, deflecting them as much as he was able.

But then Odate felt a stinging pain around his thigh, and looked down to see that the kobold had trapped his leg in his dastardly mancatcher, and was taken by such surprise that he was pulled to the ground by the kobold reefing his foot out from under him. The shield thankfully covered his body, preventing any of the axe blows from hitting home, but it was a close run thing, assisted no doubt by Reich summoning a blast of telekinetic energy to pull the axe out of its path just in time. Sage began poking and prodding at the kobold with the pointy end of her hoopak, and after a jab or two the kobold pulled his arms in on himself and called on Tu’eva to “make these stupid idiots more stupid” – the kobold didn’t really have a way with words, but when the kender next went to strike at the kobold, she just couldn’t muster up the will to strike. Worse yet, Hunter, who had circled around the long way so as to make a surprise appearance, popped into the kobold’s view at the last moment, only to also have her attack foiled by the goddess’s cruel twisting of his mind. Damn you, Tu’eva!

Things started to go bad. Using the moment of relief, Ukulethwa asked his goddess to hop him up with energy, and he was filled with verve and pep that seemed to make him ignore his wounds. Then things escalated to worse – in an attempt to draw away Swing’s massive axe with his magic, Reich miscalculated precisely how much energy he had put into the little yank, and managed to cause the axe to sweep widely away from Odate’s shield, and directly into the goblin’s squishy unprotected head. The axe bit deep, there was a spray of blood, and Reich went down faster than an oyster at a sword swallowing competition. One small mercy – because the party would take anything at this rate – was that this at least ripped the axe out of Swing’s hand, forcing him to change from big to small, pulling out his backup weapon – a dagger.

Apparently the change of weapons was just what he needed though, because while Odate was trying to focus a blow on the kobold’s head with his warhammer, Swing jabbed forward at the ogre’s flank and bit deep into his side. The dagger wound made Odate cry out in pain, and he fell to his knees, then to the ground. In his anger, Hunter tried to physically pick up the kobold and throw him at Swing, but to no avail – Tu’eva seemed to be protecting the cleric still. And so Sage figured that well, if a weapon change was good enough for the human, it was good enough for her, and tumbled out from the melee towards her short sword. But instead of grabbing it, she instead rolled to her feet, knocked an arrow, and fired over Hunter’s shoulder into the back of the shoulders of the kobold that she was wrestling with. A second arrow was nocked and released, passing Swing’s dagger as it flew through the air, narrowly missing the kender. Sage’s arrow didn’t miss though, striking Swing square in the knee, and causing him to rethink his rapidly diminishing odds. His days as an adventurer were clearly over, and so he raised his hands in defeat. It took precisely one second for Hunter to flip her short sword over in her hand and bring it crashing down on the fighter’s face, before a backhand blow knocked him clear into unconsciousness.

That was all well and good, but Reich had an axe stuck in his brain. He was still twitching… but since neither the kender nor the human were really sure what that meant, they figured that it must be a good sign, and Hunter lugged the goblin across his shoulders and fireman carried him to the temple of Qodesh, where he was able to beg for healing on the premise that he was going to destroy this gods-forsaken flail and that his friend had been given his new hairdo by a band of Tu’evans. Two of the clerics there took Reich into their care, seeking to carefully heal the rather savage head wound he had suffered, while another ran to the aid of his brother Odate. The ogre thankfully was back on his feet in a few minutes – Reich on the other hand would take two days to recover from his injury, and even then not fully. Apparently Qodesh had a sense of irony, and had decided to impart a blessing of sorts onto the goblin mage: due to a very precise bit of brain damage (it seemed poor to call it surgery when it was done with a massive axe), Reich had seemingly lost his amorous appetites.

But that was another story. In the meantime, Hunter felt he had no time to lose. Lugging the flail, the salt and the lime into the shadow of the Qodeshi temple, just as Odate had wanted, he pulled the flail from the bag – so desperate was he to destroy it, that he actually grabbed the flail without even thinking, but thankfully did not succumb to its dark powers – and dropped it to the ground. Pouring salt all over it, and drawing a circle around it, Hunter stood there with the quicklime. Hunter wasn’t a praying man – he had seen enough in his time to think that the gods could keep their ways, and he was better off looking after himself – but damn it, they’d gone through a lot to get rid of this cursed weapon, and he wasn’t going to let anyone – not even Qodesh – get in his way. So he did the one thing that he was actually quite proficient in. He gave a speech. He implored Qodesh to accept this act as worthy, to oversee the destruction of this filthy flail, and to accept it on behalf of his good frend Odate, who could probably really use Qodesh’s help right now too. With that, he poured out the quicklime, and for a moment nothing seemed to happen. Then there was a brilliant flash, a pure white flame, and the flail simply melted into the ground, leaving nothing but a blackened scar in the shape of the weapon.

The deed was done. So there was just one thing left to do: take the unconscious, bleeding and battered Tu’evans, carry them back into the town, pay yet another three gold for the bloody slave excise, and then dump them outside the Tu’evan temple again. Maybe now Tu’vean’s followers would leave them alone.

That's one popular book
From a certain point of view

Morning brought with it the promise of a new day, an overcast sky, and a breakfast of fish and rice. They hadn’t made a fire – they didn’t need one in these late summer nights, plus wood is expensive in Manxiga and they were travelling light – so they were eating their rations cold. The rice balls were pretty average, but filled a hole. The fish was smoked though, and that was a bit of a treat, since most fish that made it to where they were from was dried. They’d been on the move pretty much non-stop for the last four days, sleeping rough, stopping only briefly for supplies when necessary. Koors was even down to his last bottle of sake. “Savin’ it for th’ victory drink,” the dwarf said soberly as Malone looked at him, nursing the bottle in his hands a while, before slipping it back into a belt pouch.

Malone took a moment to look about at his team. He and Koors had worked together before – the dwarf had a drinking habit, but what dwarf didn’t – and they shared a sort of camaraderie that, while it may not have extended to trust, at least had a kind of mutual respect. The three other humans – Bugsy, Caper and Bushel – were likewise sitting about with Malone and Koors, tucking into their rice and fish, washing it down with water. Malone didn’t know any of them. They were all just faces and names, people assigned to him by the boss. He knew of Bushel, or at least of his reputation with a sling. He had made a pass at Bugsy a couple of nights ago, but that had gone nowhere – so apparently not all the girls that work for the boss are as easy as they say. Caper hadn’t even joined them till Ken Ta Ral, but he seemed to know the drill. Finally, Ho, the bugbear woman, was the muscle of the group, although she brought more sinewy strength and lithe movement to the group than, say, an ogre might bring actual muscle. She was doing her daily dagger routines, having already eaten her portion for the morning.

Six of them, and apparently only five in the group they were stopping. And although they were accompanied by an armed and armoured paladin of Sophia, Malone reckoned they’d be able to take them down – or at least distract them long enough for someone to grab the book and do a runner. After all, their instructions weren’t to kill anyone, just to get the book. It would most likely be with the paladin, since the book belonged to the temple, so try for her first.

Malone and his temporary gang had gotten here the day before, and spent the whole day camped on the road, waiting for their marks to come. They were a good two or three miles away from the town of Mae Lin, so that they couldn’t be seen loitering on the road from the walls. The last thing they wanted was any official harassment. Malone would have preferred to grab the book in the town itself, where there was a much easier escape route – pretty much everyone in the gang was a townie, except Ho, so slipping into the shadows would be hells of a lot easier in crowded streets than in the middle of a road flanked with swamp on one side and rice paddies on the other. But the boss didn’t have many friends in Mae Lin, and the gang couldn’t really afford to stage a snatch’n’grab in the town without the chance of getting the Ra’vens twitchy – and that would probably lead to all of them just getting dead.

Still, the road meant that they could bottleneck their marks, and Malone’s plan was to stick Bugsy and Caper in the swamp with slings, to give sneaky cover fire whilst Koors, Malone and Ho stood across the road and blocked their way. If they didn’t hand over the book, they’d start a little toe to toe, give ‘em a few jabs, and hopefully distract them long enough for Bushel to dart out, grab the book, and then skive off into the paddies where the horse couldn’t follow. Then they could all scarper, and meet up later in the Sacred Grove. Again, Malone would’ve preferred to do the rendezvous in Mae Lin, but that would be stupid. Not only might the Ra’vens catch them, but the party would probably look there first. No, best to trek into the rice, meet up in the Grove, and move together from there. Much harder to follow that way. Then they could get the book back to Saketome, and get their reward.

When the last of the food was done – Malone had made sure they only had enough food for today, purely to save money in case any of his gangers didn’t survive to make it home – they got to the hard work of waiting. It may not seem like much, but keeping a half a dozen rogues from doing something stupid when they’re all bored is harder than it sounds. Finally, just when Bushel and Caper were talking about playing a round of “Can You Take It” involving throwing daggers at each other, Malone saw some movement on the south-east horizon. While he couldn’t make out how many there were, even from that distance he could see a big one and one that was on a horse – that had to be them.

Malone started barking out the orders, “All right, you three get into the swamp and keep your heads down. If they start trouble – or hells, if I do – start ringing that din’s bell with your rocks.” He pointed, but the three humans were already climbing into the swamp, and gingerly plucked their way in amongst the reeds, where they crouched and hid. There were a few whinging complaints at first about the squelchy mud and the smell, but Malone quickly told them to shut their rice holes.

“Piuthar mo shàrachadh breisleach, that’s a big shield,” said Koors, more or less to himself but loud enough for the others to hear, as their marks got closer. And indeed it was – Malone could see it even from a few hundred yards away. It must have been an ogre carrying it, and gleam from the shield’s boss in the centre of its wooden wall, alongside that of the paladin’s smaller but fully metal shield in the noonday sun, made it look like the glowing eyes of some large beast were slowly prowling down the road towards them. Malone grimaced and shook his head – why the hells would he come up with a picture like that when he was trying to pump himself up for the upcoming barney?

As they got closer, the gang could hear the chatter coming from the group approaching. Well, not so much from the group, but mostly from one member – the kender.

“What does the note say? Does it tell you to kill us all? How many of us do you think you could kill with your magic powers? Are you going to wait until we’re asleep? Don’t do that. It would be terrible is you killed us all with your magic and I didn’t get to see it because I was asleep.”

A few moments passed where it seemed the other shorter member of the oncoming party may have said something in reply. Then the kender’s too-loud voice was again heard, “Hey, I found this note, can you read it for me? I bet you can’t even read, and that’s why you aren’t reading the note. But that’s okay, you can just make it up. None of us can read it anyway. If the note could say anything, what do you wish it said?”

There was a bit more toing and froing of words between the group, and as they got closer Malone noticed that there wasn’t five in their party, but only four – so that was a bonus. A few more words were able to be heard as well. Apparently the goblin had got a note from some other goblin in the last village they’d been in, and they were talking about whether they’d give the book over to someone who had offered them an amount of gold. It seemed like they weren’t keen, which wasn’t much of a surprise given the goody-goody paladin who was leading them. Good, thought Malone. It would be terrible for them to get all disappointed when he and his thugs deprived them of the book a few hours early. Being stolen from was much more honourable than being bribed, after all.

It was only when the adventurers had come within about 30 yards or so – quite close, really – that Malone realised that with all his planning, he’d never actually considered what he would say to these adventurers to get them to give over the book. He figured “Give us the book” was probably too direct, and so instead went for the much sneakier and deceptive, “Halt. We’ve set up this road block to search people for illegal books.”
Yeah, that’d work. Unfortunately, the party didn’t go for it, and instead started saying things like, “By whose authority?” and “We don’t carry any illegal books,” and “Where are you from?” Before he could really think about it, Malone had told them, “We’re from Saketome, and the book is illegal there and the mayor requires it, and so we’ve been sent to collect it. So you will have to submit to being searched so that we can confiscate the book.”

Even after he’d said it, Malone knew it sounded dumb. He was bracing himself for their response when rather surprisingly the kender raised her hand and waved it about and said gleefully, “Ooh, ooh, me first!” and strode forth to be searched. That was both unexpected and rather unwelcome, but Malone gave a nod to Ho, and thankfully the bugbear had enough of a head on her shoulders to, whilst fending off the kender’s roving fingers with one hand, deftly relieve Sage of her short sword with the other. “Hey, my sword!” said the kender plaintively, but the bugbear simply needed to hold the sword above her head for it to be out of the little person’s reach.

“Enough games,” the ogre let out in a low rumble, and planted his shield firmly before him in defiance. He said a prayer to Qodesh, asking for his holy blessing, and then stated gravely, “Let us push forward through these insignificant ruffians.” Ashana nodded in agreement, and drawing her sword in salute, clicked a heel into Sense’s flank and drove her forward in a slow walk beside her large companion, with Reich taking up the rear. Malone started to panic. Now there was a mounted, armoured warrior, a huge ogre, and – Qodesh’s holy halibut – a wizard as well. He looked over at Ho and used his eyes to quickly flick between her and the kender, her and the kender, his eyes widening as if to say silently, “Do something!”

So Ho did the only thing she could think of – tried to grab the kender, and put the sword to her throat.

Things went kind of downhill from there. Odate charged towards the bugbear in order to save his little friend, war hammer in hand. Malone stepped forward with Koors to waylay the progress of Ashana’s horse – after all, there was no payday for anyone if the book got away – and he copped a slash at the face from the paladin’s sword. It was only after a moment that he felt blood trickle down his cheek and a sting of pain telling him that the blade had hit home at all – it must have been sharp. She could be trouble – and that’s what the reinforcements were for.

Sling stones started to fly from the muddy roadside, their exact provenance hidden by the reeds. One slammed ineffectually against the monster shield of the ogre, but the other rang off the paladin’s helmet with a loud metallic ‘donk’. At a boy, thought Malone, assuming it had most likely been Bushel – though for all he knew it could just as easily have been the new guy, Caper. At any rate, they’d done the job, and just like clockwork, Bugsy sprang up from the reeds and made a dash for the horse’s saddlebags. Unfortunately, just like Gnomish clockwork, something went wrong, and she couldn’t get the flap of the bag open.

That seemed to be all the time the goblin needed. Striding up to the girl, he extended a hand and spoke a harsh word of magic. There was a crackling sound, a flash accompanied by a smell of ozone, and then a wisp of smoke coming from the thief’s clothing. Her hair stood on end before withering down to her scalp, and her skin blackened sickeningly, before she fell straight back, spasming and twitching briefly.

Now Koors hadn’t grown up in the best of dwarven families, but even they had taught him to distrust magic – it was, after all, the gift of dragons, who constantly threatened their homeland under the mountain. Plus, his life had taught him two things. One: wizards are deadly. He only had to think back to Saketome for that. Two: always attack the wizard. So with courage and anger, the dwarf lunged forward and sank his dagger into the goblin’s belly. Blood quickly soaked the wizard’s blue robe, a growing patch of darkened purple spreading regally across his abdomen before he fell to his knees and curled up into a little ball, whimpering.

By now, Sage had freed her hoopak from her back and was jabbing it threateningly at the bugbear. Ho knew she couldn’t last long in this situation – two against one was bad odds, even for a bugbear – so she took a gamble in hopes of evening the odds, stepping sideways and pulling the short sword up into a guarding ward to fend off the ogre’s blows. She didn’t even need to look past him to Malone – she knew it he saw an opening to stick a knife in someone’s back, he’d take it.

But that opportunity never came. As if warned from above, Odate sent his shield back even as the hammer struck forward, and there was nothing Ho could do to block the blow. There was a wet thump, and the hammer came away with bits of bugbear scalp as she sank to the ground in a heap. It was only a moment later that Ashana’s back swing dug her sword’s blade into the dwarf’s collarbone, and in wrenching the sword to back to herself brought with it a strangled cry of pain.

Malone knew something was wrong. Maybe Sophia and Qodesh really were with this group. And where were the sling stones? He was expecting more cover than this. Maybe one of them was planning another jump at the book….

As if summoning the rock from the air, another stone – but only one – flew from the rushes and hit the paladin’s helmet with another loud ringing noise – no wonder they called them dins – and Malone took his chance. Swinging under the horse’s neck, he slipped an agile hand into the saddlebags and grabbed the oilskin that surely held the book. He had it there, in his fingers, sliding out of the bag – and then it slipped,and it was gone.

That had surely been his last chance. There was nothing to do now but run his arse off and hope to hells that the paladin was too dizzy to ride him down. Malone quickly disengaged and sprinted north-east along the road back to Mae Lin like his life depended on it. Which it probably did. In fact, the kender launched her hoopak at him like a javelin, but since it was aimed at tangling his legs, he was able to give a little hop and skip and it clattered at his feet, and soon Malone had left the eating his dust as he quickly sought to make himself a speck on the horizon.

The party took their time healing the injured – including the enemy combatants – and loaded those who were still unconscious up onto Sense’s back, before continuing their way towards town. Sage did a quick check of the reeds, but could only see a track leading deeper into the mud, and decided that if they would simply let the slinger go.

As they departed, none of them saw the short-lived but highly animated shaking of a small patch of reeds, or heard the faint sound of gurgling that accompanied it.

Malone ran and ran, until his lungs were burning and his stomach was heaving and his legs were aching. He stumbled to the side of the road and threw up into the reeds – so much for that smoked fish – before looking up and grimacing at the face of a goblin who floated past in a small canoe, pausing in her harvesting of papyrus to watch him. Malone scowled at her, before carrying himself in fits and gasps to the gate. What he needed was a drink, another drink, a third drink, and hopefully by then Bushel and Caper would join him here, and they could work out what to do next. Probably catch a boat to Winter Pines – there was no way they could go back to Saketome after having failed the boss.

A few hours passed, and there didn’t seem to be any sign of the other two. Maybe that was that. Maybe they had followed the plan and headed back to the rendezvous in the Grove – in which case he should head out there and stop them from heading back to Saketome and facing the wrath of the angry little gnome. He pulled himself out of his chair and ambled to the door – he wasn’t drunk, but the three sakes had definitely taken the edge off his brush with death – but when he’d pushed his way through the rice paper door, he thought that perhaps he had had too much to drink, because Koors’ bearded dwarven face, pale and drained of life, floated right past him. There was still blood around his neck.

Malone’s eyes widened and his heart raced, and he just stood there motionless – or perhaps paralysed – in the door as the horse passed by him, with the bodies of Koors, Ho and Bugsy slumped over its back.

Then Malone heard a groan, and realise that his fellow thieves weren’t dead at all – they were unconscious, possibly even patched up, and for some weird reason still in the custody of the paladin and her companions. And look, they had captured Caper too! He wasn’t unconscious at least, and was instead walking with them. They must have grabbed him out of the swamp. No sign of Bushel though. Maybe they were going to be sold as slaves – that was not an uncommon punishment for criminal activity in many areas of Manxiga. Malone shook his head and sucked his teeth at the idea as his fellows continued on their bumpy ride down the street through Mae Lin’s warehousing district. He wasn’t quite sure what he could do to help them, but maybe he could do something. Or maybe he could still get the book – after all, then they wouldn’t have been captured in vain, right? He could even maybe talk the boss into buying them back as a reward.

So Malone did what he did best – took to the streets, kept to the alleys, and shadowed the party from a distance, watching what that were doing and where they were going – they were following the goblin’s lead, but looked utterly lost – all while deciding whether to try to free his friends, or take the book.

After some twists and turns and doubling back, the paladin and her party ended up going into the scholar district. As Malone tailed them, he did think it was a little odd that they just had Caper walking along with them, and that he wasn’t bound up or restrained in any way. And they seemed to be talking amiably with him, almost as if they knew him. But perhaps that wasn’t so surprising – after all, Caper did have a mouth on him, and he could be pretty charming. It might just be he surrendered and convinced the paladin that he would play nice. Everyone knows paladins and girls are both soft touches like that.

When they got to the scholar district – about a hundred or so houses in all, most made of hill giant mud brick, the rest from dwarf-cut stone – they started moving from dwelling to dwelling, as though looking for a specific one. But as they wandered the streets looking about, a black clad goblin stalked up to the goblin wizard, and started a hushed conversation that Malone couldn’t quite make out. Even if he could, it was likely be wouldn’t have caught much anyway, as his Goblin was pretty lousy, and they were unlikely to be asking each other “Where is the gaderobe”.

But when the black clad goblin turned and started addressing the rest of the party, he spoke in Common, clearly and persuasively. He introduced himself as Song Young, and was going on about some note he’d sent them, some offer for the book, and when they turned him down, he got a little more insistent, before becoming downright demanding – never threatening though; he spoke with an easy confidence as though his getting the book was a sure thing. Malone recognised a shake down when he saw one, but surely this guy’s balls were bigger than his brains, because there was no way he could take four of them by himself.

If course, Malone hadn’t figured the goblin for having Tu’eva on his side. His lips snarled a dread curse, which he spat the at ogre, and despite his holy faith, his limbs went limp and he just sort of sagged there, a faraway look on his face. Caper took the moment of distraction to rush down a nearby alley between two of the houses, much to the apparent surprise of the wizard and the din – good for him! But they had bigger fish to fry, and focused on the Tu’evan. Reich threw out a jolt of sparks, but it flew wide and splashed across a brick wall, leaving a small black stain. Ashana saluted her foe, but that also telegraphed her movements, and the goblin stepped easily aside. Sage flicked a rock at the cleric, but it impacted harmlessly off his blackened chain shirt. He grinned as he slowly drew a black and red flecked flail from his belt, and cast his hand over the paladin, seemingly taking great pleasure in the fact that she too lost her motive force, slowing and sagging into a wide eyed haze. And then there were two.

Unfortunately for the Tu’evan, one of them was the kender. He had meant to drug her mind too, but wasn’t really concentrating on her – not when there was an ogre, a paladin and a wizard to consider. But apparently looks could be deceiving, because when Sage dropped her hoopak and drew her short sword and dagger, Song might as well have been facing two opponents for all the blades that were whirling around his face.

This was Malone’s chance – to sneak out of the shadow, snatch the book, and make like a stocking and run. He could go to the Grove – Caper would probably be waiting there for him, and maybe Bushel too – and…

Malone’s train of thought was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder, and when he turned to see what it was, was greeted with dark eyes, the word “Malone”, and a dagger pommel to the nose. Suddenly the stars looked really bright, even though it was only late afternoon, and as he turned and started on his long, slow fall to the ground, Malone saw he was in good company – the Tu’evan goblin had taken a sword to the chest, a dagger to the belly, and then a pommel under the chin, and was going to join him in in hell. At least he wouldn’t be alone.

As the lights went out, the last thing Malone thought he heard was the wizard saying, “Oh, look, a flail.” And then everything went black.


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