By Brian Flood
Chapter 37 - The Abandoned Farmstead
Along the Dusk Road
North of Asbravn, The Sunset Vale
Mid-Afternoon, 2nd Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
The next day brings a respite from the damp and dreary weather. A northerly wind blows in on this day, bringing with it a slight drop in temperature as it also forces the every-present rain clouds to dissipate to the south.
The newly christened Iron Wolf Company has been moving steadily northward all day when Darius and Alani, moving at the head of the column, suddenly call a halt. Several long seconds of silence follow as the two scouts - Darius, in particular - gaze at a farmstead that lies just off the right (or east) side of the Dusk Road.
The farmstead is much like all the others that the small caravan has seen in the area surrounding Asbravn. Three similarly constructed out buildings accompany a small stone-and-sod farmhouse. By their size, one is most likely a barn, another is an outhouse, and the third is most likely some sort of storage building.
A cluster of split-rail pens rings the structures. A small shed-like building in one pen identifies it as a chicken coop. Another pen is filled with mud and slop - a pigsty, most likely. The third pen, which is quite large and encompasses a stretch of ankle-high grasses, is probably a pasture for cows or some other herd animal.
The fields surrounding the farmstead are not yet harvested. This is in stark contrast to those that the party has passed thus far. Most of the farmers were either just finishing the harvest or had already taken it to Asbravn for trade and sale. These fields, on the other hand, are filled with rows of corn stalks that are bent over nearly in half by the heavy weight of many ripe cobs of corn.
One more distinction sets this farmstead apart. There is absolutely no sign of life, here. The doors to the farmhouse and the barn hang open on their hinges, creaking slightly in the wind. No livestock grazes in the field, no farmhands work the fields, and no pets or animals wander the area around the house. And unlike the previous farmhouses, whose chimneys spouted a thin stream of smoke to combat the chilly autumn weather, this dwelling lies silent and cold.
Scrutinizing the farmstead, there is one last item of note. Several large holes - looking to be four to six feet in diameter, are scattered about the area. The party can count half a dozen from where they stand on the road. One is on the dirt trail that leads from the main road onto the farmstead. Two others are located in the chicken coop and the pigsty. The last three pepper the pasture area. From the placement of the dirt around the holes, they look to by some sort of burrowing coming up to the surface from underneath the soil.
Darius shakes his head in amazement, and looking at Alani. "I know of no natural creature that can make the holes like those we've seen," he says. "And they must be gone, as the other farms have harvested the crops but these should have been taken weeks ago."
Looking back at the caravan, the druid decides on his course of action, "Soft Fang and I will investigate these holes. You should stay here, because it looks like the creature did not come near the road."
* * * * *
Back at the main body, Lucas dismounts from his mount and dismisses it with a wave. He appears to concentrate a minute or two as if trying to meditate. Upon coming out of his meditation, Lucas remarks, "I don't think we want to split up the party up...Let us regroup and circle the farm first to look for any clue before approaching the farm and the mysterious holes in the ground. I say we approach the chicken coup first; then go on to the next building."
"We should perhaps be careful," Kjira interrupts as she muses over the strange burrowing holes in the farmland before her. "I've heard rumors of a terrible giant ant-like beast from travelers from Baldur's Gate. To hear the stories told they sound quite ferocious and deadly...hard to kill as well."
"Perhaps one of our more nimble companions should step forward to investigate," she suggests, "while the rest of us stand close with our ranged weapons drawn in case they're needed."
* * * * *
Not able to hear Lucas, Alani and Darius continue their conversation. "I don't like the look of those holes in the ground either," replies Alani slightly nervously. "Especially, since the farm's deserted, whatever came up from those holes obviously wasn't friendly." Glancing at the sun, low on the horizon, she says, "But I think we better investigate. We'll be making camp not far from here and we wouldn't want any more surprises. I think I'll come with you..."
Darius nods at Alani's response and then he shapechanges into a wolf. Once the transformation is complete, he and Soft Fang - with Alani trailing behind them - begin to move down the trail that leads to the farm. The two wolves and the elf move slowly and cautiously, trying to sense any ground movement or vibrations. Ever so carefully, the three searchers approach the first hole.
* * * * *
Unfortunately for those with the main body, the scouts have apparently decided on their course of action without waiting to consult their companions. The remainder of the party watches at the trio of scouts nears the hole that is rent in the trail some thirty yards away from the main road. The three companions stop at the edge of the hole and proceed to examine it.
As they do, Lucas completes a second meditative pause and then comes out of it to discover that several party members have already departed the party. The red-robed mage shakes his head with contempt for those that left on their own without discussing the options with their travelling companions.
"It seems we should have learned this lesson about splitting up the party," Lucas growls. Let us catch up to those examining the first hole. We should leave the wagon, carts, horses and mules here on the road. Shall we proceed?" asks the red-robed mage to his fellow companions.
As he waits for their responses, Lucas readies himself to assist the party with his spell arsenal should the need arise. "By the way," he adds, "I sensed no current movement or bodies that could easily be seen when I was concentrating back there."
Dolak listens to Lucas' suggestions and then drops from his pony to the ground. As he does, he pulls his battle-axe from the leather thong that holds it strapped across his back.
"There'll be some head knockin' on this one," the dwarven warrior predicts. "We dinna see too many burrowers around the home - mostly 'cause its all rock. This could be some insect or mammal varmint, but based on where I see them holes, I'd say it definitely eats meat - even pasture-sized animals."
"Master Tomar," the dwarf begins, addressing the party's employer, "kin you and yer assistant take all the animals and wagons back down the track a few paces while we figure out the danger? I'd not like to have somethin' burrow up under us and run off with me forge and the animals. Someone probably needs to stay with Master Tomar just in case. Any takers? Lucas, kin ya cover us from behind or even better in the air while we move forward to the holes?"
"I really would have liked to see if anyone was here and needed help a'fore getting side tracked," Dolak finished with a grunt.
Tomar nods at Dolak's suggestion. "Aye, good dwarf. Ori and I will stay here while the lot of you go to look for clues to this newest mystery - I would rather not have to go through the trouble of turning this unwieldy wagon around and backtracking. Who is it that will be staying with us?"
"I will stay to protect our charge," Cyzicus announces. Then the halfling warrior-priest begins to guide his pony and toward Kjira's mule, looking to take the reigns for the beast of burden.
"May the Defender guard you," the halfling priest says in a lay blessing to his companions.
"Kjira," Lucas declares, "let's follow behind Dolak up to the others." He then moves into position to follow about ten paces behind the dwarf to provide covering fire.
Not accustomed to open-air combat, Corax follows the stout dwarf's lead and matches his pace. Corax moves up to Cyzicus and hands Doom's reigns to the halfling, draws his rapier, and then moves toward the scouts.
* * * * *
Along the trail that leads to the farmstead, Darius and Soft Fang sniff around the first hole. After a few seconds, the wolves seem to finish their inspection.
The larger sandy-haired wolf - which Alani knows to be Darius - yips at Soft Fang and backs away slowly. Then, it bumps into Alani's legs and backs away further, growling softly as it does.
With an arrow cocked, Alani backpedals away from the hole, following Darius' lead.
* * * * *
As those who have elected to go the scouts' aid prepare finish their preparations and begin to move forward to the trail that leads to the farmhouse, they see that Alani and the two wolves are slowly backing away from the first hole. Alani has an arrow nocked on her bow, and the two wolves display raised hackles along their backs. The two small groups meet at the trail-road intersection.
Seeing the small meeting about to take place at the trail-road intersection, Cyzicus ensures that all of the animals are calm and decides to move to closer in order to hear what is being discussed.
Before he leaves, however, Cyzicus turns to the party's employer, saying, "Master Tomar, if you would allow me, I have an enchantment - bestowed by the Defender himself - that will allow me to know when you are in danger. Would you grant me permission to cast this charm upon you?"
The bookseller agrees and the halfling priest nods before starting the low chanting and somatic movements of a spellcasting. Moments later, Cyzicus lightly touches Tomar, causing a soft silver glow to surround the bookseller. The aura shimmers briefly before gradually fading from view.
"That should remain with you for about a day's time," announces Cyzicus. "It will inform me when you are in danger. That way, should we decide to investigate this farmstead, we will still be able to come to your aid if needed."
Tomar nods in thanks to the halfling priest. "It is merely my duty," intones Cyzicus faithfully before moving to join the others who wait impatiently for the withdrawing scouts to give their report.
"What have you discovered?" Lucas yells out to Alani. While waiting for an answer, the mage continues to scan the area - concentrating on the area toward which Alani's bow is pointed.
As Corax approaches the scouts he shouts, "What is it that you can see Kjira, what do you think it is?"
From her position behind the party's new arrival comes a reply. "Just a nice ass, that's all I can see," Kjira says with a smirk. "You might try asking Alani what it is she's looking at, however." The lady mage continues to follow the others toward Alani and the company's namesake wolves.
Corax grimaces at Kjira and says almost under his breath, "Great, so here I am yelling and I can't tell one female from the next, pitiful." Then he says wryly, more to Kjira, "Sorry about that... though I didn't realize you felt that way...So, ALANI what is it that you see? I'd certainly like to know so as to choose strategies."
As Corax nears Dolak he asks, "Is Kjira always this humorous, or just when we are about to enter a melee?"
Dolak glumly replies, "Nay, lad. She is always like this," he tells the rogue, while trying to suppress a grin with only limited success.
Now that more of the companions are gathering, the sandy haired wolf changes back to Darius. The others hear him yip a moment at Soft Fang, <Guard, Listen for creature>. Then to the group he says, "Soft Fang and I caught several scents at that first hole; fresh dirt, fresh blood, and a faint whiff of a human. I would suggest that whatever dug those holes was large, very large. With the holes at six feet wide the creature must be ten or more feet long, and not something I would want to meet in those tunnels, or have come up underneath me. What do you want to do?"
Dolak's grin fades as he turns his attention back to Alani and the danger at hand. "Ye said you could smell a human among other things. I dinna have your sense of smell, so I dinna know if carrion and live people smell the same or not. Are ye smellin' a live person, a dead one, or kin ya tell?"
"We may be needin' some fire for this one," the dwarf continues, "whether to fight with or to smoke the critter out is still to be seen."
"It was a live being, human or something very akin," replies Darius.
"Aye, then," responds the dwarf, "we now have some choosin' to do. Someone's probably needin' a hand down below, but Tomar's counting on us bein' able to guard his books when we start down the trail again. I am fer goin' after whate'er it is that's moved in, but we need to do it smart so we kin still guard Tomar when we are done."
"I thought o' smokin' out the critter by buildin' and dumpin' a wet fire down there," Dolak goes on to explain, "but like as not, the smoke would kill whoe'er else is down there. Has anyone else got a way to bring whate'er it is up from its hidey-hole?"
Her arrow still nocked, Alani says, "Why don't we find out what it is we're dealing with before bringing it up here. And if there's a human scent down there, it maybe that there's someone buried, injured and in need of our assistance down there. In such a case I'd rather not have them smoked like a chunk of bacon. Would you, Master dwarf?" she asks Dolak, tilting her head.
Dolak arches his eyebrows at Alani, his face a mask of confusion, "That's what I said the first time, and that's why I've already discarded the idea and asked everyone else if they'd come up with a way to bring the thing out o' its hidey-hole. Now as to findin' out what it is before we bring it up, I can only come up with goin' down the hole, find out what it is, and try to beat it to the surface a'fore we become its evenin' meal. That plan will likely not work. Unless..." Dolak turns to Lucas, "Kin ya turn someone invisible?"
"Nay Dolak," the mage answers, "I cannot wield such powers yet. I say we scout all these buildings and holes on the surface first for clues and then perhaps decide on entering one in force. I stress that we must stay together."
Dolak ponders for a moment then says aloud, "Given where the holes are, I'm thinkin' the critter somehow knows what's what on the surface. It knew enough t' burrow into the pasture, the pigsty and the coup, and all those animals are not to be seen now.
"The hole in the path puzzles me some, though. And I'm t' wonderin' if we will find a hole in the house. I'm t' thinkin' we are goin' t' have to assume that once we start down the path and into the buildin's, the critter is goin' to know we are here, and may decide to come up and greet us. But standin' here is not goin' t' solve the mystery, so I agree with you Lucas; let's have a look around."
"Aye," Cyzicus adds, "but listen and feel the ground as well. I have a feeling that is where the critter will come from."
Kjira readies her staff in her hand and follows Corax as the group moves forward toward Alani and the other scouts, keeping a wary eye on the ground before her. "I'd hate to think how much a thing that size must eat a day," she says reassuringly as the party advances.
"You are right Master Dolak," agrees Darius, "the creature will surely know where we are once we start down the path. The hole in the path is probably where the creature either caught someone in its first attack, or attacked someone running away," the druid observes.
Darius continues, looking mostly at Dolak and the wizards, "I do not know about combat and tactics with warriors and magicians. When Florin -- my mentor-Soft Fang and I rid the woods of the worg that had destroyed much of the animal life west of Berdusk, we used the tactics of the pack. Florin started the combat as a bear. Soft Fang and myself tore at its flanks, while it and Florin were tearing at each other. I do not think that this will work with a creature as large as this one must be. Also the worg was in the open, not underground.
"Dolak, your people are warriors and understand combat, no? Kjira, Lucas, are you not taught magical combat as part of your training? I will follow your lead in this. The only suggestion that I would have is to keep at least ten feet apart and travel slowly and carefully, listening and feeling for ground tremors."
"Dolak, Kjira, Lucas - what are your commands?" the druid finishes.
Lucas turns to the druid and thinks a moment before speaking. "I suggest the following marching order as we proceed with this investigation of the farm. Darius, you, Soft Fang, Alani and Dolak take the lead. Kjira and I will be in the center. And then, Cy and Corax bring up the rear to make sure nothing rushes us from the ground into the rear of the party. Each group will have about 10 feet between the others to allow for some maneuvering. I propose we head down the path in our marching order and inspect the hole before the farmhouse. Next, we inspect and clear the farmhouse, chicken coop, and then the pigsty area in that order. After those, we can finish up with the barn, out building, and then the pasture. All is subject to change if critters attack, but let's stick to this plan so we can get this done before nightfall.
"Any questions? If not, Cy, run back and tell Tomar what we are planning and have him move the wagons back down the road a ways for safety's sake. We shall await your return to get started." With that said, the red-robed mage prepares himself to do a little scouting.
Cy responds, "I did that before leaving the wagons, Master Lucas. I also asked Arvoreen to tell of any trouble from that quarter. I do agree with your plan of action." The halfling moves to his position in the marching order, keeping alert for any movement. He also draws both of his short swords.
"Well said, Lucas," Dolak says approvingly. The dwarven warrior holds his axe at the ready and waits for the others to ready themselves before starting down the trail.
"Yes Lucas," replies Darius. Turning to Alani and Dolak, he continues by saying, "Allow Soft Fang and I to get a bit in front, and let's keep ten feet apart."
Darius yips to Soft Fang, <road, right side, smell for creature>. The druid then grabs his shield and spear and - after ensuring the other party members are ready - he heads down the left side of the road to the first hole.
"Unfortunately, I disagree with course of action. I'd say our best bet is to send in one or two light footed individuals and remain separated as much as possible, to minimize the sounds of our footfalls."
With a sweep of her hand, Alani continues, "Whatever creature that has caused this obviously lives beneath the ground. It must be able to sense the sounds and vibrations of passage on the surface to hunt its prey. Surely, even ten feet apart, the sounds of seven of us plus Soft Fang, travelling in a line will attract its attention?"
All set and ready to go with his fellow adventurers, Lucas stops as Alani voices her concerns. "Fear not. We shall be ever ready to confront any critters or 'tremors' by our footfalls' cause. We are not some unwarned farmers trooping about. Everyone else is ready to finish this before nightfall Alani, so let's get started."
With that said, Lucas once more looks over the party members for any further comments before nodding to the lead group to start.
"What!?" exclaims Alani in response. "Fear not? Ever ready? Unwarned farmer? Before nightfall? Tell you what. Whatever you're on, Lucas, why don't you get us a whole bagful. We'll sell it and make millions. Better than this caravan guard nonsense," Alani growls sarcastically.
Seeing little point in arguing further, she says to the others, "If the rest of you place any value on your lives, for heaven's sake SPREAD OUT. There's no point staying clumped together, making a racket and THEN more than one of us getting taken at a time."
The elven scout gives Lucas a dark look and moves down the path towards the hole, arrow ready, and walking very softly. The others in the group exchange uneasy glances and then head down the path in pairs - separated by three or so paces, as Lucas suggested.
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