By Brian Flood
Chapter 14 - Night Songs
Along the East Way
Near Kendall Keep, Kingdom of Cormyr
Early Evening, 16th Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
[NAME] is suddenly aware of a lilting melody that plays in the near distance. The beautiful song is inspiring, telling of brave deeds and great heroes. It seems to be coming from the southeast….
At the guard post, Amiel opens her mouth to respond Tiron’s whispered question but then sees that the half-elf is no longer listening to her. Instead, he is frowning, his tilted to the side as if listening to some distant noise.
A short distance away, in the sleeping area, Cob and Alain both throw off their blankets and sit up. The two men both have their heads cocked and have a quizzical look on their faces.
Alain rises slowly from his bedroll and makes his way over to the two guards. “Well, this is strange. Do you think it is coming from a band of elves? I don’t know of any human settlements in that direction.” Alain looks to the party leaders for possible answers. Clearly uncomfortable with this latest development, Alain readies himself for a possible battle by drawing his rapier and parrying dagger.
Bewildered by Alain’s remarks, Amiel has just opened her mouth to speak when suddenly, Cob stands up jerkily from his sleeping pad, his face now strangely devoid of expression. Turning toward the southeast, the hunter begins to stumble, then jog, and then he breaks into a full run, crashing into the underbrush surrounding the campsite.
As she watches Cob move, Amiel can now discern a lilting tune playing in the distance, barely audible over the sound of crashing brush, but steadily gaining in volume. It sounds as though it is sung by a mournful female voice.
Moments later, Tiron’s face, like Cob’s, also goes blank and the half-elf brushes past Alain and Amiel. Like Cob, he starts to run toward the southeast!
“Wait Tiron!” snarls Amiel “Where in Torm’s name do you think you're going?” she yells after him. Looking at Alain, she points at Cob. “Alain, grab Cob and hod him! I suspect some sort magic has seized control of them!”
Alain, driven by his earlier misgivings coupled with Tiron’s and Cob’s strange actions, shouts a warning.
* * * * *
“WARE! DANGER! WE ARE BESET BY FOUL SOCEREY!” Alain’s shouts of alarm wake the sleeping party members. Blankets are thrown from bodies and hands reach for weapons as the waking adventurers furtively glance about the campsite that is now lit by a three-quarter moon. They instantly notice Amiel and Alain stand ready in the moonlight; the sleeping rolls used by Tiron and Cob are vacant. There is no sign of the two hunters.
With a blur of motion, Alain springs into action, sprinting across the campsite with his weapons already in hand, leaping the awakened companions. “Tiron! Cob!” he shouts, “Stop! Wait! Hold!” The warrior continues running into the woods in a southeasterly direction, headed toward the source of a lilting melody that is sung by some unseen female voice.
From is crude shelter, not certain that he is even able to stand, Velgardrin gasps out, “Who be needin’ aid? Mehaps I kin guard yer back whilst ye help.” He pauses a moment then continues, “Ewww! Me head hurts!”
Without pausing to answer the dwarf, Alain runs at a full sprint into the woodline. The large but agile warrior ducks branches and leaps fallen logs as he chases the shadowing images of Cob and Tiron, barely visible in the moonlit forest ahead.
Amiel draws her large sword from its scabbard and starts off after Alain. Unfortunately for her, the big warrior is fleeter of foot and is making better progress through the forest. Amiel can see that the gap between her and Alain is starting to grow.
Startled awake by Alain’s shouts, Malk springs to his feet staring wildly around him and swinging his sword from side to side. Alain’s warning and his own training make him quickly aware of the sweet siren song. He shouts to those remaining around the campfire, “Stay together and stop your ears with anything that you can! Do not listen to the singing! Block it out and follow where Alain has gone!”
Declan is cursing in his native language as he comes fully awake. He listens to what Malk says and then puts his own fingers in his ears as he casts looks about for something more effective to stuff in his ears. Remembering the wax in his backpack, he starts digging in there.
Salik also awakens at the sound of Alain’s cries and gets to his feet in a flash, scimitar ready to ward off attacking foes, his instincts taking over. He looks around, assessing the situation. Hearing Malk’s suggestion, he scoops up some mud to block his ears.
Nearby the rogue, Baulin rises up and grabs his weapon. He looks around, “What kind of sorcery is this?”
Taking his own advice, Malk quickly stoops and presses soft moss and earth into his ears. His tenor voice starts its own counter song, booming out into the darkness. Concentrating hard on his own singing, he picks up a glowing brand from the fire and using it he signals the others to follow. In this way he sets off at a trot/walk in Alain's wake. His sword in front, sling in his belt and the brand held just above his shoulder height as a marker.
Salik sprints off into the forest, following his companions as fast as he can. Somewhat more cautiously, Baulin starts to make his way into the foreboding treeline, as well. His proximity to Malk’s own loudly singing voice disrupts the dwarf’s ability to hear the luring song emanating from the dark forest. It also prevents him from listening for the sounds of the faster adventurers’ passage through the undergrowth. He can just barely make out two rapidly diminishing figures in the dim light ahead.
Back at the campsite, Velgardrin staggers to his feet and grabs his axe, hoping that he is holding the right end and prepares to guard whoever’s back. In his enfeebled condition, however, the brave dwarven priest cannot even lift the heavy axe head from the forest floor. Declan, seeing Velgardrin’s rather vulnerable condition, quickly elects to stay at the campfire to keep an eye on the dwarf.
Well into the forest now, Amiel runs furiously, trees and limbs brushing rudely against her. She still can only watch helplessly as Alain increases the gap between himself and her.
Then, Amiel notices Alain launch himself into a flying tackle. The warrior tumbles to the forest floor, grappling with one of the enspelled hunters. At this distance however, she cannot tell which man Alain has brought down. She is also unable to see any sign of the other hunter in the darkness ahead.
* * * * *
At the campsite, Declan glances at his companions and sees that they are concentrating on Amiel and Salik. So, he turns to watch the rest of the forest as he places the wax in his ears. He holds his quarterstaff ready and tries to figure out what the hell is going on. Nearby to the watchful mage, Velgardrin stoops to plug his ears with dirt from the ground.
Declan and Velgardrin remain at the campsite as Malk and Baulin move to join the adventurers that have raced off into the woods after the ensorcelled hunters.
Baulin continues to move in a southeasterly direction. “I’m following them,” the dwarf announces to those near him.
To the dwarven warrior’s right flank, Malk weaves off into the darkness singing as if his soul depended on it. His song is of the greatness of Milil, and of his protection of those who love song and poetry. He tries to follow Alain, Amiel and Salik at a fast walk.
Ahead of Malk and Baulin, Salik runs as fast as he can after his friends, fearing the worst. As he nimbly dodges branches and rocks that are in his path, he catches sight of Amiel running in the same direction. “Flank them,” he pants, trying to attract Amiel’s attention. He points to her right, indicating she should peel of in that direction and he would take the other direction, as they had done previously the day before, in the hope that it will be easier to catch the hunters if approached from different directions.
Amiel starts to curse at her lack of foot speed, but cuts it off to save her breath and time. Her sword in hand, she tears after the remaining man. Salik continues sprinting onwards in an arc curving to the left into the dense undergrowth, trying to spot the remaining hunter.
Salik and Amiel run by Alain who is struggling on the ground with one of the enspelled men. By the light of the moon, the two sprinters can see that it is Tiron that Alain has managed to bring down.
Alain gives a quick curse to the god's of chance, when he sees how far ahead Cob has gotten. Realizing that a bird in the hand and all that, he holds on to Tiron, though in his heart he is racing to join his endangered countryman.
Amiel and Salik hurry past the warrior, both of them pursuing the barely visible form of Cob in the darkness ahead. In the dim light, they can see Cob stumble over a root and fall to the ground.
* * * * *
Back at the campsite, Velgardrin takes a feverish step forward. His axe head drags on the ground, leaving a furrow as the dwarven priest stumbles a few steps forward. Glancing to the southeast, the dwarf can see Malk and Baulin silhouetted in the bard’s diminishing torchlight.
Malk and Baulin continue to move briskly but cautiously into the dimly lit forest. Soon, the sprinting forms of Amiel and Salik disappear from sight. Only the diminishing light from Malk’s torch – and the bard’s vocal resonance – mark the pair’s passage into the forest.
Moving along within the illumination from Malk’s torch, Malk and Baulin soon discover that the bard’s loud song prevents the two adventurers from hearing any sound of the others’ passage through the forest.
Wrestling with Tiron, Alain manages to hold the half-elven party leader on the ground. He looks worriedly over his shoulder in the direction that Cob went, his despair growing when the outlines of Amiel and Salik also fade into the moonlit shadows.
The strange song from the southeast is suddenly brought to battle by a courage-inspiring song that emanates from the northwest. Malk’s voice slowly grows in strength as the light of a torch flickers dimly in the direction of the camp.
Having left Alain behind, Amiel and Salik close in on the prone form of Cob, taking advantage of the hunter’s loss of footing. They wince in frustration as the form rises from the dirt and resumes sprinting toward the enticing song that lures him forward.
In the gloomy distance ahead, the two pursuers can see that the hunter is racing toward a large oak tree. Somewhere in that tree is the source of the charming song.
* * * * *
As Velgardrin continues watching the fading light from Malk’s torch, he suddenly realizes that he is very hungry. He begins nibbling on the bread and bacon that he saved from breakfast to ease his hunger.
Declan moves up to stand beside the
snacking dwarf and says, “Vel, you had better take it more easy. No need
getting ourselves in even more trouble. Stay here and wait for them to call
for help. If they do, then we can be more
Velgardrin glances curiously at the mage. At that point, Declan realizes that their attempts to drown out the noise are now hindering communication between them. The mage repeats his suggestion, louder this time. The dwarf merely nods and continues snacking.
The two companions then notice that the light from Malk’s torch has stopped moving away. By the flickering light of the torch, they can see the bard pause.
Malk stops in his tracks, sticks his sword in the earth, and ceases singing. He carefully removes the moss and earth from his right ear and listens, ready to press it back into place if he senses the risk.
With Malk silent, the only sound in the forest is the inviting female voice still singing in the distance. Over the sound of the enchanting song, Malk and Baulin suddenly hear a cry coming from the darkness ahead.
“Malk! Over here!”
Baulin continues to plod forward, leaving the light of Malk’s torch. He plods steadily toward the cry that came from the dark forest in front of him, moving carefully so as to avoid tripping on the many vines and roots that hinder his progress.
Alain yells out to the approaching light of the torch and then, with Tiron still squirming beneath him, the warrior resumes his attempt to contain the struggling half-elf. Over the din of the song, he can barely hear Amiel shout something unintelligible; the song, however, drowns out the ranger’s exact words.
Behind her, Amiel can hear Alain shout something, but the song coming from the tree drowns it out. “Get him before he reaches the tree!” she grunts to Salik in between gasps for air.
Ahead of the two pursuers, Cob has come to a stop under the tree’s branches. He stands completely still and stares up into the boughs as if mesmerized. At that moment, Amiel and Salik also notice that they can no longer hear Malk’s voice but only the female voice that originates from somewhere in the tree.
Salik races forward, aiming for Cob’s exposed back. Judging the distance to his target, the rogue leaps into a flying tackle that bowls over the enchanted hunter. The two men collapse to the forest floor, Salik’s arms wrapped tightly around Cob’s waist.
Moments later, a flying form springs from the tree to swoop down over the two prone men. Two wicked talons slice the empty air over the pair of companions and then the attacker continues on, flying over the downed men and into the forest beyond.
In the moonlight, Amiel and Salik manage to catch a glimpse of their adversary. It appears to be a crossbreed of human woman and some sort of carrion bird. A hideous face tops the naked upper torso, which is that of a human female. It grasps a club in one of its arms and its bird-like legs begin at its waist and end in vicious talons. Two feathered wings that sprout from its back make its flight possible.
The bird-woman flies over Amiel’s head, headed eastward into the forest and gaining a few feet of altitude so that it flies above the reach of any melee weapons. Its aerial flight takes it through gaps in the trees and over the low shrubbery. As the adventurers watch, it begins a slow curving arc to the south, staying some fifty feet or so distant.
Even as it flies, the thing continues to croon its enchanting song. Beneath Salik, Cob struggles to free himself and head toward the creature.
* * * * *
Identifying the beckoning voice as Alain’s, Malk quickly stuffs the moss back into his ear and grabs his sword from the earth. The bard begins to move hurriedly into the foreboding woods, toward the original of the cry. He begins a steady trot, opening his stride but not breaking into a full sprint.
Back at the campfire, Velgardrin continues watching and nibbling. At the dwarf’s side, Declan continues looking into the darkness beyond the campfire, especially in the opposite direction from that in which his companions have disappeared.
The two companions left to guard the campsite soon see Malk start to move again. This time, the bard moves with a little more quickness to his step. The light from Malk’s torch gradually moves away into the forest, although the light from it silhouettes Baulin’s form as he steadily falls behind the running bard. The companions’ blocked ears are unable to detect the sound of the bard and dwarf’s passage, and even the strange song has now been silenced by their attempts to block out any noise.
Alain sees the torchlight start to move in his direction. Malk’s singing has stopped, but to the southeast, the enchanting female voice persists in its crooning. In fact, the voice seems to alter somewhat, as if the source has moved.
Glancing anxiously back to the approaching light, Alain can now see Malk’s body highlighted in the torch’s glow. Baulin follows somewhat behind the bard. The two looks anxiously around; apparently, the torch has ruined their night vision outside of its lighted area. Alain yells to get their attention.
“Malk! Come quick! Over here!”
Baulin hears the cry for help over his trampling of the shrubs and fallen branches. He estimates it originated to the southeast, about twenty to thirty feet from Malk’s location. Glancing toward Malk, the dwarf can see that the bard has missed hearing the plea – most likely due to the blockage he has stuck into his ears.
Under the large oak tree, Salik sees that Cob is still under the influence of this evil spell and he tries to bring the man out of his reverie. Kneeling on Cob’s arm so he is still pinned down, Salik tries to force some mud and moss into the struggling hunter’s ears to prevent him hearing the alluring song of the bizarre, winged bird-woman. Unfortunately, even with the substances jammed into his ears, the hunter continues to struggle under Salik’s attempts to subdue him.
Leaving the prone and struggling forms of Cob and Salik behind her, Amiel runs to close the distance between her and the flying monstrosity, weaving through the undergrowth. She looks for a clear line of sight to the monster as her hand reaches for one of her daggers.
The bird-thing sees the ranger coming and continues its slow arching flight, increasing the distance between it and Amiel. Amiel adjusts her course, but cannot stop in time to hurl the dagger. The thing’s flight takes it looping toward the east; as it turns, its head looks over to where Salik and Cob wrestle on the ground near the great tree.
* * * * *
Declan starts putting more wood on the fire, building it. Once the fire is bright, he will start taking brands out of the fire and then placing the brands sticking up on the edge of the camp. His reasons for this are twofold; to shed light as much as possible and to as a beacon for wondering companions.
Velgardrin sees what Declan is doing, but decides that he can’t be much help. In fact, he sheathes his axe and then looks for a place to sit because he is still pretty wobbly.
Dodging roots and branches as best he can, Malk keeps up his steady trot, heading towards where he thinks Alain’s voice came from. He holds his light higher to try to see further as he moves.
Behind the bard, Baulin sees he is falling steadily behind and tries to pick up his own pace. The dwarf’s stubby legs pump as he breaks into a run, chasing Malk’s torchlight.
Alain continues to use his bulk and weight to pin Tiron to the ground. He can see the torch gradually approaching, so he cries out once more.
“Malk! Baulin! Over here!”
Baulin hears Alain’s voice cry out again over the enchanting song. Running behind Malk, however, he is unable to warn the bard that they are closing in on their companion.
The light from Malk’s torch illuminates two struggling forms on the forest floor. Alain is lying on top of Tiron, attempting to pin the frantic half-elf to the ground. Tiron, on the other hand, squirms beneath Alain’s weight, trying to free himself. The half-elf’s blank gaze is fixed to the southeast.
Alain looks to his approaching friend. “How can we break this evil spell?”
Malk can see Alain’s lips move, but he cannot seem to make out the words over the makeshift earplugs he has stuffed into his ears. The bard cocks his head to the side and looks curiously at the warrior.
Under the great oak tree, Salik continues to struggle with the clearly deranged Cob, glancing up now and again to check the beast’s location. Judging the distance to the flying creature, he draws back his scimitar-wielding hand and strikes downward with the pommel of the weapon.
Crack! The pommel strikes Cob in the back of the head – a well-placed blow by the rogue. The hunter’s body goes limp under Salik.
Meanwhile, the bird creature swoops around to the north and begins to fly back toward Salik and Cob. It continues to sing its alluring tune even as it vectors in on the two prone men.
As it does so, Amiel moves to try to intercept its course. Seeing that the creature will pass above and in front of her, the ranger pulls a dagger from a belt sheath. When the thing passes ten feet in front of her, she hurls the weapon.
The dagger misses its intended target and continues on into the dark forest beyond. Without sparing the ranger a second glance, the creature swoops down toward Salik and Cob, its wicked talons stretched out before it and a bone club clutched in one of its human hands.
Salik tries to get as low as possible to meet the attack. Still, one of the thing’s talons scrapes against his back. The rogue grunts at the sudden pain and then his eyes become blank and expressionless as his head turns to follow the sound of the creature’s enchanting song.
The bird-woman’s flight takes her past her targets and to the north. Her haunting tune continues to echo through the dark forest.
* * * * *
Making his way slowly to the fire, Velgardrin cuts off a chunk of the day’s meat from the spit and sits down to eat.
Declan looks over at his companion, “Why are yer eatin’ so much Vel, then, eh? I mean, right, I know yor weak, but food, then, squire? At a time like this?”
Velgardrin sees Declan speaking but didn’t learn lip reading, so he accepts what he thinks is a compliment, smiles, raises his food in salute, and then continues eating.
Declan shakes his head and returns to placing the torches around the campsite. Then he looks around. Not seeing anything, he takes out the earplugs but holds them ready to replace in his ears if he needs to. As he watches, the light from Malk’s torch fades from view as it moves further into the moonlit forest.
Now completely out of sight of the camp, Malk stifles a fit of giggles at the sight of Alain mouthing soundlessly while trying to restrain whomever is under him. Then the bard quickly repeats the process of sticking his sword in the ground and clearing his right ear.
Alain looks up at Malk, and scowls at his lighthearted friend’s smirk. “We need to break the spell that is holding Tiron!” the warrior exclaims. Then Alain looks to the approaching dwarf, “Hurry Baulin, Cob may be in danger!”
As Baulin huffs and puffs his way into the torchlight, Malk grabs a handful of dirt and moss from the forest floor. “Hold him still,” he instructs Alain.
From behind Malk comes a grunted, vengeful dwarvish oath followed by a THUD. Cursing, Baulin picks himself back up from the forest floor and starts to resume his ambling trot toward the alluring song in the near distance.
About thirty yards away from the torchlit scene, under the moonlit shadow of the large oak tree, Salik slowly stands as if he was held in a trance. He gazes off to the north at the flying form of the bird-woman as it starts to turn to the west, as if it plans to circle around once more.
Amiel runs up to stand beside Salik, her back to the circling bird-woman. “Salik!” the ranger screams, “Snap out of it!” Seeing no reaction from the thief, Amiel turns to watch singing creature as it flies its arcing course through the moonlit forest, some fifteen yards or so distant.
* * * * *
Back at the campsite, Declan continues to patrol the edges of the camp, listening and looking for anything peculiar. Nearby, Velgardrin continues eating, hoping to gain enough strength to stand without falling over.
Unable to completely wipe the smirk off his face, Malk begins to sing to Tiron against the spell. He then stuffs the moss and soil into Tiron’s ears. To assist Malk, Alain snakes his arm around the half-elf’s head and holds it steady.
Malk’s torch waves dangerously close to the faces of Alain and Tiron as the bard tries to simultaneously hold the burning brand while plugging the ears of the struggling ranger. Fortunately, he manages to jam bits of mossy soil into both of the half-elf’s ears.
Behind the struggling trio, Baulin resumes his run toward the unseen songster. The dwarf’s stubby legs churn underneath him as he runs toward the edge of the torch’s illuminated area.
Briefly, over the conflicting songs of Malk and the alluring female voice, the trio in the torchlight here another voice. It sounds female – but the cacophony of songs prevents them from discerning the speaker’s words.
“OVER HERE, ALAIN!” screams Amiel, trying to summon reinforcements. ‘I am NOT leaving Salik,’ she thinks to herself. ‘If I leave, that thing makes a meal outta them.’
Amiel prepares her final two daggers, holding one in her right hand ready to throw and the other clutched in her left, its pommel pressed against that of her sword. The ranger steadies her breathing and waits for a clear line of flight to the creature. She curses as she realizes that the poor lighting and the amount of branches between she and the thing will prevent her from making an effective missile attack.
* * * * *
Noticing that Declan has removed his earplugs, Velgardrin removes what dirt he can from his left ear and shakes his head to clear it so that he can hear Declan.
Declan asks, “Yer right, me boyo, is it? Why are yer eatin’ like an ‘orse?”
Velgardrin blinks in surprise and replies, “Ach! I thought that maybe I mights be getting’ ernough strength to be helpin’ ‘stead o’ fallin’. How long was I out? What day is it, anyway?”
Declan snorts at the concept, “Same day, me friend. Just night now.”
Tiron’s exertions continue; this time, however, the ranger’s head whips frantically from side to side as if looking for something. Still pinning Tiron to the ground, Alain continues to hold him steady.
Malk stops singing, and continues to stuff moss and dirt into Tiron’s ears. As he does so, he tries to keep the torch out of Alain's face.
Even with the additional blockage in his ears, however, Tiron continues to frantically squirm beneath Alain.
Leaving the wrestling trio behind, Baulin continues his running progress toward the singing female voice. He leaves the lighted area of Malk’s torch and continues on into the moonlit forest beyond.
The dwarf blinks as he catches a glimpse of some sort of man-shaped flying creature moving through the branches ahead. He discerns that the voice he hears is coming from that creature. One heartbeat later, he utters a harsh dwarven curse as he trips over another exposed root and tumbles to the forest floor.
With a string of oaths, Baulin pushes himself off the forest floor and prepares to resume his journey. He looks into the forest ahead for any sign of the flying creature.
Standing over Cob’s prone form, Salik remains motionless as his eyes follow the bird-woman’s arcing flight. The blinking of his eyes is the only sign the rogue is still conscious.
Amiel watches as the singing creature banks once again and begins to head directly for her. The ranger transfers both daggers to her left hand so that she can hold her sword properly in her right.
The flying thing draws closer, its hideous human face is outlined by the moonlight. Its talons twitch as it prepares to rake Amiel and it raises the arm holding the bone club, preparing to strike with that weapon, as well.
Amiel holds her ground and then swings her sword as the thing closes to within reach, preempting the creature’s attacks. The bird-woman’s song warbles slightly as the Amiel’s blade open a long gash across the thing’s naked female torso.
Then, the creature’s talons tear into Amiel as it passes overhead. The ranger twists with the blows that tear through her leather jerkin and rip their way across the skin beneath. The motion causes the thing’s club to swing through thin air just behind the ranger.
Amiel turns to follow the bird-woman’s flight. The creature ends its flight by perching on a branch of the great oak tree, a few paces behind the ranger. Amiel can see that it is within reach of her sword – but that she will also be within reach of the creature’s club – if she were to close the distance to the thing.
* * * * *
Velgardrin cleans the dirt from his right ear and looks at and beyond Declan to see if someone is approaching. Seeing nothing, the dwarven priest continues to eat.
In the circle of torchlight, Malk picks up his sword and tries to knock Tiron unconscious with the pommel. “We have to Alain!” he says as he does so. Alain nods to Malk’s suggestion and clamps is arm down tight around Tiron’s neck, trying to help subdue the half-elf by cutting off the blood flow to his head.
WHACK! The pommel of Malk’s short sword bludgeons the back of Tiron’s skull. The half-elf goes limp under Alain.
Well out of the radius of Malk’s torch, Baulin continues to run toward the sound of the singing female voice. He goes only another ten yards or so, however, before he once again pitches over onto the forest floor as his foot catches a branch.
Glancing up from his place on the ground, Baulin can see barely see Amiel some twenty yards in the moonlit distance. The ranger appears to be doing battle with some sort of winged creature that is perched in a large tree.
Facing the singing bird-woman alone, and wincing in pain at the gashes in her side, Amiel deliberates for a split second. ‘It uses a club to knock its prey senseless for feeding on them later,’ she thinks. ‘Well, not me,’ she declares and then makes a mental note to avoid both its talons and club. Not hearing a response to her earlier cry for help, she decides that attack is the best again.... she’s the only thing between Salik’s and Cob’s death.
The ranger steps forward to do battle with the hideous creature. She ducks a blow from the thing’s club and then delivers an attack of her own.
The creature dodges to the blow from Amiel’s sword. The ranger’s backhanded blow a few moments later misses as well.
* * * * *
After a few more seconds of snacking, Velgardrin staggers to his feet and moves to the edge of the camp. There, he sits again, watching in the direction where he last saw his other companions.
Declan looks at Velgardrin and says, “Careful me mucker. We don’t need ter go rushin’ off and makin’ things worse than they are. If they need us, we can be ready.” The mage continually watches the woods and makes sure all the brands stay lit as well.
Seeing that his attack was effective, Malk jams his torch into the soft earth and drops his weapon beside it as he begins to search Tiron for a bowstring to tie him up. “We must go after Baulin,” the bard says to Alain as he works.
Alain nods in response as he rises up gathers up his weapon. “Tie him up, I’m off to help the others,” the warrior says.
Baulin lifts himself from the forest floor and resumes his run toward the imperiled ranger ahead of him. In the moonlight he can see that Amiel and the winged creature are exchanging blows. Then, the strange song is replaced by a keening wail of pain.
Under the limbs of the huge oak tree, Amiel spins away another blow of the bird-woman’s club. Using her spin to power aid her momentum, the ranger delivers a powerful one-handed stroke with her bastard sword. The blade shatters the creature’s left kneecap, almost severing its lower leg.
With a screech, the bird-woman falls out of the tree and onto the forest floor, its damaged leg folded beneath her. Discarding its club, the creature claws at the ground trying to pull itself away from Amiel. Its alluring song is now substituted by a keening wail of pain.
* * * * *
A strange and eerie silence suddenly falls over the forest as the singing voice is abruptly halted. In the moonlit forest, only the faint sound of the wind now carries from the southeast.
At the campsite, Velgardrin continues looking where he last saw the torch but remains sitting and says, “I be nor runnin’ after ‘em lest it be ours yellin’ in trouble. But I be makin’ sure I kin help if needed.”
Declan again circles the camp making sure none of the brands are going out. He also peers into the darkness, anxiously awaiting the return of his companions.
Standing in the circle of light provided by Malk’s torch, Alain prepares to pursue the other party members. “I’ll follow,” Malk says to Alain as he starts to tie up Tiron. Alain nods agreement and starts running after Baulin to the southeast.
Marveling at her good fortune thus far, Amiel considers the struggling creature in front of her for a moment. ‘Mercy?’ she asks herself. ‘No, my first duty is to protect the people of the Keep and the Borderlands. This creature will never understand or obey our laws and will continue luring travelers to their doom once it heals its wounds. Imprisoning it will also be pointless...’
With that she sweeps her sword through the air, aiming its blade squarely at its neck. The ranger’s first blow sends dirt spraying into the air as it strikes the ground next to the thing’s head. The follow-up attack strikes the thing a blow to the back of its skull, opening a gruesome wound. The thing continues to kick and squirm on the forest floor.
* * * * *
Velgardrin continues watching and finishes eating the last of the chunk of meat he carved earlier.
Malk finishes his trussing of Tiron. He props Tiron comfortably against a tree, making note of its location. Looking to the southeast, the bard can no longer see nor hear any trace of Alain’s passage.
After leaving the circle of light, Alain continues running to the southeast, listening for any signs of his scattered companions. Finally, he catches a glimpse of them over to his left. Veering to the east, he runs toward the shapes.
Baulin’s course brings him to a large oak tree. Underneath the tree’s overhanging boughs, Salik stands as if mesmerized. Cob’s motionless body lies at the rogue’s feet.
Amiel hears arriving footsteps behind her but she concentrates on the slowly squirming form on the ground in front of her. Her sword comes down again and with a meaty THWACK, the hideous human head is separated from the winged creature.
Salik suddenly jerks and he looks around to get his bearings. The rogue first sees Baulin and Amiel to his direct front, standing near the still body of the slain enemy creature. Looking down, Salik sees that he stands over Cob’s unmoving body.
The three adventurers’ heads turn at the sound of breaking branches. From the west, Alain arrives at a full run. The warrior holds both his rapier and dagger ready.
* * * * *
With a brief glance back at Tiron, Malk picks up the torch and his sword. Listening for the sounds of others, he opens his legs into a quick walk and follows where he thinks Alain and Baulin have gone.
“Wha…? What happened?” Salik looks around, dazed. Seeing Cob on the floor and remembering that he was forced to knock the poor man out, he drops to his knees to check that he’s alright.
Unfortunately, the wounds that the beast had inflicted upon him had been completely forgotten and he keels over in pain. Muttering foul curses, he manages to pick himself up and check that Cob is still alive and that he hadn’t hit him too hard.
“Damn!” snarls Amiel, “Tyr forgive my clumsiness with the blade,” she whispers as she looks sadly at the bird creature’s decapitated form. Seeing that Baulin and Alain have arrived, she gestures at Cob, slumped unconscious on the ground.
“Carry him back to camp as soon as possible, please,” she orders. “He took a nasty blow to the head, so be careful. I don’t think he needs a litter. Gather his weapons if you see them, too.”
Turning to Salik she gives his wounds a quick look, ascertaining his condition. “What happened to Tiron, Alain?” she asks as she frowns at the drying blood caked on Salik’s clothes. “You’ll survive,” she declares to Salik after a moment. “But we’re going to have to see to those wounds soon. I’ll give you a hand back to camp, but just give me a moment.”
With that, the ranger quickly searches the area around the large tree that the creature was first spotted in, looking for anything of value. After a minute or so of pacing under the tree, her foot strikes something that jingles. Stooping down, she retrieves a small purse from the forest floor. The string has been cut – perhaps a result of the sword blow that struck the creature’s chest. Amiel opens the small purse and pours out into her hand a little more than a dozen platinum coins and a small, glass vial.
Alain looks around the battle site. Upon hearing Amiel’s question he replies. “Tiron is back with Malk. We ended up having to knock him unconscious.” Alain continues to stand guard while the ranger searches the clearing.
Salik walks over to the body of the slain beast clutching his side where he was wounded. “I only seemed to fall under the creature’s spell after I got hit,” he muses. “Maybe it used some kind of poison…” Salik investigates the body for any traces of noxious substances or anything of value.
As he searches, Salik notices a slight glimmer in the moonlight, coming from near the slain creature’s head. Looking closer, he can see that it has some sort of jeweled earring pierced through its left earlobe.
* * * * *
After walking for several yards and seeing no trace of Alain, Baulin, or anyone else, Malk stops momentarily. Deciding to risk it, he hollers out into the dark and foreboding forest ahead.
The adventurers under the great tree pause in their searching at the sound of the male voice coming from the northwest. A faint glimmer of light shines through the trees and seems to be coming from roughly the same direction as the hollered query.
“That must be Malk,” notes Alain, as he moves from his guard position to place himself in between the voice and his companions. “At least I hope it’s Malk.” Alain lifts his weapons and lowers his body into a fighting crouch.
To Alain’s left, Baulin also readies himself. The dwarven warrior hefts his battle-axe in his gnarled hands and directs his attention to the north and west.
Salik bends over, wincing at his wound as he does so. He takes the earring from the corpse and gives it an angry kick. “May you rot in hell,” he mutters. Then the rogue turns around, scimitar in hand, to face the possible incoming threat.
* * * * *
Standing alone in the moonlit forest, Malk cannot hear any answer to his call. The light from the bard’s torch illuminates a small area, but beyond that there is only foreboding darkness and silence.
Malk picks up his pace and he keeps heading towards where he thinks Alain and Baulin have headed. He heads east for a few paces and then to the southeast for a few more. Then, he pauses once more to call out, his voice new developing a nervous rise in pitch.
“Anyone, please answer!”
Those near the tree hear this next call several about a score or so heartbeats after they heard the first. As they watch, the glow of a torch comes closer from the northwest. Through the intervening branches and trees, they can see that a man – or, at least, something of equivalent size and stature – holds the torch. The voice sounds like Malk’s although it seems to have a slightly higher, warbling tone. Whomever – or whatever – it is, it is about ten yards or so to Alain’s front and steadily coming closer.
Alain cranes his neck around trying to get a clear view of whoever is approaching. He shouts out in a voice ringing with authority.
“Halt and identify yourself!”
Amiel whispers to Salik, “Get out of sight and circle around. Be ready ambush on my signal.” Then she walks over to stand by Alain, sword drawn.
Salik nods wordlessly and then glances to his right and left, mentally deciding his course. After a heartbeat or so, he moves slowly and cautiously off to his left (or south), performing his now-habitual flanking maneuver.
Over his nervous breathing, Malk hears the answering query ring out from the forest. It comes from the east of the bard and seems to be about half a score or so yards away.
Malk replies, “Alain, is that you?” and moves quickly with the torch towards the voice. He looks and listens to the dark forest as he goes.
Alain and the others hear the answering query. Then, they notice the torchbearer closing in on them. Moments later, they identify the person as Malk as he steps to within a handful of paces of the small band under the tree.
The light from Malk’s torch falls on Alain’s crouched and combat ready form. Approaching the warrior, Malk soon also sees Salik emerge from the shadows to his right; the rogue holds his curved blade ready, as well.
In the flickering shadows just beyond Alain, under the branches of a large oak tree, stands Amiel and Baulin, both with their weapons readied. The bard notes that Amiel’s bastard sword has a slick covering of blood and gore along its blade. The ranger’s leather jerkin also has a fair share of dried blood caked upon it.
Lastly, Malk sees that Cob’s body is at Baulin’s feet. The hunter is prone and unmoving.
Lowering her sword in relief, Amiel signals for the rest of the group to return to camp. “Where’s Tiron?” she asks Malk by way of greeting.
Malk grins in relief to see the rest of the party, but does not lower his sword. “Phew! Hello people, Tiron’s back in the woods, but he’s a bit tied up at the moment. What happened? How’s Cob? Baulin, are you alright?”
“I’m as good as ever,” Baulin replies to the bard’s question. “We were just leaving; do ya think ye can lead us back to Tiron?”
Malk speaks to Baulin while trying to watch all around him. “Just leaving WHAT? Whose blood is that? And what about Cob? This is crazy!” His voice rising with concern
Baulin’s eyes widen at the sight of the bard’s emotional distress. “We were leavin’ the remains of the thing that bespelled Cob ‘n Tiron. Amiel killed it before any of the rest of us could lend a hand. We’re gonna search ‘ere for about five more minutes and then head back to camp so that we can sharpen our blades and lick our wounds.”
“As for Cob,” Baulin shrugs, “I’m guessin’ they ‘ad to knock ‘im o’er the head, same as you did Tiron. Now, are ya gonna help us get back to Tiron, lad?”
“Unfortunately, I had to knock Cob out to prevent him from hurting himself,” the Salik explains, shaking his head sadly. “He was lucky; I too fell under the beast’s spell when it hit me.” He shows off the raking wound on his back. “Someone help me carry Cob and we’ll get back to camp.”
“Aye,” offers Baulin, “I’ll help ya carry the poor sod.” The dwarf and the rogue then begin to prepare Cob for transport back to the campsite.
As he works, Baulin calls over his shoulder to Amiel, “Give us a few minutes, lass, to get Cob ready fer haulin’. In the meantime, you kin finish yer searchin’ and git the others ready to go.”
Malk looks around sheepishly. “Oh, I missed it all, did I?” He goes on, “I’ll give a hand with Cob when everyone is ready; we can pick Tiron up on the way. Amiel, is it alright if I go and have a look at this thing?”
At Amiel’s wordless nod, Malk walks past the gathered companions until the light from his torch falls upon the decapitated corpse of a winged beast. The bard notices that the creature’s bloodied lower body is that of a large bird; its hacked and bloody upper torso, however, is that of a human female. Nearby, the head of the thing lies staring with empty eyes at the branches above. Malk can see that it, too, is that of a human woman. Swallowing a bit of bile that rises in the back of his throat, the bard leaves the corpse and goes to help his companions.
Aided by the light of Malk’s torch, the small band spends another five minutes or so searching the area around the tree. Finding nothing further of interest, Amiel gives the order to move back to the campsite.
Her gore-covered sword still drawn and ready, the ranger takes up a position at the head of the small band. Behind her follows Malk, his torch and short sword held ready as he whispers directions to Amiel that will take the party back to Tiron. Behind the bard come Baulin and Salik, hauling the unconscious body of Cob between them. Finally, Alain takes up a position at the rear of the small band, his rapier and dagger held in his hands.
The companions travel back toward the spot where Malk left Tiron. Their progress is slow; due in part to both the cautious nature of the trek and the laborious task of hauling the unconscious Cob.
Finally, after traveling about a score and half yards to a spot almost midway between the tree and the campsite, the small band comes across Tiron. The half-elf slumps motionless with his back to a tree. His arms are stretched behind him, and it would appear that his wrists are bound together behind the tree – effectively imprisoning him in his current location.
“Hmmph,” snorts Baulin. With a grunt, he lowers his end of Cob to the ground. “Now we git ta carry a secon’ sod back to th’ fire. How do ye propose to do that?” he asks, looking from Amiel to Alain.
The moment of silence is interrupted by a soft moan coming from Cob. The hunter’s eyes slowly open and he looks around the torchlit clearing.
“Where…where…” the hunter stops talking and rolls over onto his side. With a gagging cough, Cob vomits onto the forest floor. His hands reach up to feel the back of his head. Instantly, he winces and gives a brief exclamation of pain.
Malk walks to Tiron and kneels beside the unconscious half-elf. Using his short sword, he cuts Tiron’s bonds and checks on the ranger’s condition.
Tiron’s eyes flutter open. He blinks rapidly and slowly his vision swims into focus. He glances around slowly and sees that he is in an unfamiliar clearing, somewhere in the forest. The light of a torch carried by Malk lights the clearing.
Malk’s face is within spitting distance of Tiron’s. The bard is kneeling next to Tiron and looking into the half-elf’s face with concern. Behind the bard, standing in a circle of light provided by Malk’s torch, stand four other party members.
Nearby, Amiel stands guard with her sword in hand. The torchlight reveals a slick coat of blood and gore along the weapon’s blade.
Behind Amiel, Baulin and Salik stand near the prone form of the hunter, Cob. The hunter, on the other hand, is lying on his side on the forest floor whilst convulsing and retching into the dirt and leaves.
Finally, behind Baulin and Salik, the flickering torchlight reveals Alain’s concerned face. The warrior is looking anxiously around the clearing, his weapons in hand.
Then Tiron realizes that he is sitting on the ground with his back against a tree. His arms are behind him, and he brings them forward. Around his wrists are the marks of some sort of cord – as if he has been recently bound. He raises one of his hands to touch a sore spot that he has mysteriously developed on the back of his head. He winces from pain as his touch reveals a rising welt.
“Are you alright, Tiron?” Amiel asks, still watching the forest. “And what about you, Cob? I don’t think any of us has any water. If you men can stand, Malk and Salik will help you walk back to camp. We need to get back there quickly. Strength in numbers – I’m not sure if there are any more of those things out there.”
To Alain and Baulin, Amiel says, “When they’re ready, we move in a line. I’ll take point. Baulin, you’re next – ten paces behind with Salik, Malk, Tiron, and Cob. Alain, take the rear and for Tyr’s sake KEEP ALERT.”
Offering Cob his shoulder for support, Malk prepares to move out. With his spirits and confidence returning, now that he’s back with the group, his smile is back on his face as he replies with mock meekness to Amiel, “Yes, boss.”
Alain gives Amiel a terse nod and returns to scanning to the rear of the party.
Tiron remains silent, obviously still stunned by his current condition. He allows Salik to help him to his feet.
Following Amiel’s instructions, the battered group of adventurers heads back to the campsite to reunite with their companions.
The content of Company of the Silver Claws is the property and copyright of Brian Flood, and are not to be published or redistributed without permission.
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