Campaign Logs

Twilight Dawn

By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff

Chapter 33 - Hillbilly Treats

Somewhere in the Reaching Woods, 1371 DR, Eleint, 9th day, afternoon

Matteo, Emlyn, Marc and Friend are able to follow the old trail into the forest with some difficulty. They find one more footprint pointing in the same direction. Walking further, Friend suddenly halts, ears pointed forward, and nose in the air, Marc’s dog seems to have heard or smelled something. Quietly the three approach where Friend stopped. Peering through the foliage, they see nothing except the slope which they were climbing seems continue for a while, toward where more light penetrates the forest. A clearing?

“Marc.“ Matteo murmurs quietly while touching his shoulder, “Can you scout ahead to see if the way is clear ahead? Don’t do anything unnecessarily brave, all we need to know is what is in front of us.“ About to remove his hand from the youth’s shoulder he adds, “And stay off the path. If anyone is there and waiting for us, that is where they will be watching.“

Marc, whose attention was fully concentrated at the forest and its contents, slightly shivers when Matteo touches his shoulder. He looks at Matteo and smiles relieved. At Matteo’s first request he answers, whispering softly, “Well saer, I can try to!“ He nods seriously while Matteo advises to stay off the trail and answers, with an admiring look in his eyes, “Good thinking. Saer!“

Marc thoughtfully looks in the direction Friend points out to them. Next he examines the forest closer to them, estimating possibilities and nodding from time to time. Then he quietly lays down his crook and takes his bow from his shoulder and gets an arrow from his quiver. He looks and smiles at Emlyn and Matteo. Then he whispers a command to the dog. Matteo can see a glimpse of fear in Marc’s eyes as he looks at Matteo a final time, swallows, and disappears in the wood as quiet as he can.

Marc follows a route, forming a right angle with the track. He moves slowly to make sure no one or nothing will see or hear him. When he’s gone into the forest some 25 yards Marc turns to move further uphill, slowing down even more, finding cover wherever possible. Constantly trying to see and hear signs of anything in his nearness, especially in front of him. When he comes closer to the possible clearing he’ll lie down and try to sneak like a tiger to the rim of the clearing to look what he can spot there.

Emlyn gives Matteo a questioning look; why send the kid off on his own if there’s danger ahead? Still, tracking is not her specialty while Marc apparently can move quietly through the leaves. “Hmm, if we would meet trouble, I’d never be fast enough…“ She mutters softly. Well, it isn’t unusual people don’t think of halflings’ small legs. The best thing to do would be to get a little head start. She rises carefully to move quietly into the direction Marc went to do his scouting.

Reaching forward to gently touch Emlyn as she rises, Matteo whispers, “Just wait a moment Emlyn. Marc should be back soon. The more of us that move forward, the greater the chance that we accidentally give Marc away and place him in greater danger.“

Emlyn looks back at Matteo and mouths a quiet ‘ok’, but the expression on her face is conveying a question. ‘Are you sure?’ Yet she remains where she is to wait for Marc to come back… or something to happen.

As Marc quietly and slowly creeps closer to the top of the hill, he sees that indeed it is some sort of a clearing. A few stumps testimony that once the hilltop was covered with trees, just like the surrounding forest. Approximately in the middle of the clearing is a crude building in a deplorable state. A tree that once stood proudly next to the building has fallen over and crashed into the small wooden house, giving it a sagging appearance. A few feet away from the house is some sort of shed, used for stabling animals. Inside Marc sees the hindquarters of what looks like a pony.

Marc hardly dares to breathe as he slowly crawls closer to the last bushes before the clearing.

Movement catches his eyes and when he swivels his eyes toward it he sees a person, dressed like a simple farmer, walking at the other end of the clearing, disappearing behind the ramshackle house, some sort of farming utensil in his hands. ‘Was that a scythe?’

Marc lies quietly while gazing at this rural image. A smile crosses his face when he looks at the scene, so familiar and peaceful and yet so… different? He lies there for half a moment, just looking, reliving memories and comparing them with what he sees.

He tries to work out why someone would cut trees to make a clearing and then just leave the trunks standing there instead of using the soil. “And what about this fallen tree?“ He wonders. It’s perhaps a bit late in the season to use the scythe (if it is a scythe), but then again Marc can think of a dozen reasons to use a scythe this time of year.

Slowly he moves a bit back and approaches the clearing again a few yards further to the right; perhaps he can see along the buildings where this peasant went and what he’s doing.

He smiles as he sees the back of the pony again; there’s so much innocence in a pony, let alone its hindquarters. While Marc tries to see if he can spot the scythe-man again, his eyes wander once more over to the stable and the pony. Something seems to draw his attention. Is it the deplorable state of the simple structure, the rusty looking tools or the flies buzzing around the pony? The pony doesn’t seem to mind the flies. Its tail hangs down without moving.

Glancing back to the tree, Marc sees that the tree is partly split in two, with scorch marks running along the length of the trunk. Whatever hit the tree destroyed it. The tree fell over, roots and all, onto the ramshackle building. The small farmhouse is a single story affair. The door leads into a room, and even though some light spills in through the damaged roof, there is not much visible in the dark interior.

Marc is intrigued and considers moving again, ‘cause he still didn’t see what the individual is doing. But slowly he retreats, still crawling the first few yards, but walking quite silently the main part. In the meanwhile he puts the bow and arrow into place again.

He leaves the woods and enters the trail about halfway in-between the clearing and Matteo and Emlyn. Looking at Matteo, Marc tilts his head and looks wondering from left to right and even behind him on the trail. He starts walking towards Matteo, and only when he’s almost there, he spots Emlyn, to whom he says, “Ah! Good! There you are!“ Marc smiles relieved, “I wondered“. He looks at them both and says to Matteo in particular, “Well, the road is clear, saer“ Marc sighs lightly, “There’s a clearing up there, and in the center of it is something like a house.“

While he bends to pat Friend on her chest, he tweaks one corner of his mouth in an awkward smile. Then he continues, “Don’t know, but… well… there’s something odd out there.“ Standing up again, he shrugs his shoulders once, “Can’t put my finger on it, but… a bit odd it is.“

Marc tries to think of a way to explain what he sensed, but shakes his head, “Anyway… the house is damaged, quite badly in fact… but not inhabited. I saw someone going from there to the other side of the clearing… probably doing some work on the land. …“ Marc smiles, “O yes! And there’s a pony too… in a shed.“ There’s a brief twitch at the corner of his mouth and for a moment his smile has an awkward appeal again. He closes one eye to think further, but shakes his head again, “Well, that’s about it, I guess.“ Then he walks past Matteo and collects his crook.

“I didn’t hear you coming down again.“ Emlyn says to Marc, looking at the lad approvingly as she follows him down to Matteo. “Next time I’ll pay more attention.“ A twitch of a smile appears in Marc’s sad eyes for a second.

“Thank you Marc.“ Matteo replies softly, “You did very well.“ Pausing for a moment in thought he looks at both Emlyn and Marc. “Well, we have only a little time before we have to return to Berdusk if we are going to beat nightfall. Let’s check out this cottage and its mysterious inhabitant. How about if Marc and I investigate while you watch our backs from the edge of the clearing Emlyn? We need someone to warn us should someone attempt to spring a surprise behind our backs or, if the worst happens, to return to Berdusk and get help.“

Her head a little cocked, Emlyn stands in front of Matteo, fists on her hips, trying to gauge the man’s intentions. “Only if something very bad happens will I desert you.“ Emlyn looks up, into the Sembian’s eyes. “Though I will remain behind, it is to provide some backup for you, not to run away at the first sign of danger.“

When Marc hears Matteo’s compliment he modestly looks down, but as he looks up to listen to Matteo’s plans it’s clearly visible in the shine of his eyes he’s glad to have heard it.

He listens silently to Matteo’s ideas and opens his mouth to answer when he’s finished, but doesn’t as Emlyn is just a little quicker. He looks friendly – be it a bit paternalistic perhaps – at this small woman at first, but soon smiles approvingly, beholding her from top to toe. After her statements, Marc raises his eyebrows in appreciation and nods encouraging to her. “Well spoken, woman!“ He says in his darkest voice. Then he answers them both, “Sounds like a good idea, saer… We could do it another …“ Marc interrupts himself. “Neah… No. Saer… it is a good plan!“

He smiles at Emlyn, “Don’t know much of you yet, but somehow I just knew you wouldn’t desert us.“ He throws her a tiny wink before continuing, “Better stay a bit behind us as we walk that way.“ Marc closes one eye to think for a second, “Could Friend be of any special use?“ He asks to no one in particular. Preparing for the walk and possible confrontations to come, he checks the position of his bow again, to be sure it doesn’t look too hostile and still quick enough to grab in heartbeat. Similarly he touches his sling.

“Emlyn.“ Matteo replies quietly as he rises to his feet, “I did not mean I thought you would run at the first sight of danger. We need someone we can rely on and trust to watch our backs. You are such a person.“ Emlyn relaxes her pose, and almost visibly beams with the compliment. “You have an idea Marc?“ Matteo asks the youth. “If you do, please share it.“

Marc, returning, shakes his head a bit embarrassed, with a humble smile he answers Matteo, “No Saer, not really. …I considered volunteering for the back-up job. …I’m better with my bow than with my crook, you see… but as you pointed out so clearly, this lady is just the right man for the job. …Well, person anyway…“ He nods friendly to Emlyn, “As for me… let’s do as you suggested.“ Then he addresses the halfling woman, “So, ma’am, I wish you good luck!“ Marc whispers a command to Friend and they both start walking stealthily towards the clearing.

Emlyn smiles back at Marc, softly shaking her head at his quicksilver behavior, and she follows the two men and the dog up the hill.

As quietly as possible the three people and the dog climb up the hill towards the edge of the clearing. Intensely concentrated on the task at hand they ignore the dropping temperature. The only reminder of that are small puffs of breath that form before their faces in the cooling air. The view on top of the hill hasn’t changed much from what Marc saw previously. The almost ruined building and the small stable sit quietly in the center of the clearing.

No movement is visible. The place seems deserted, no smoke coming from the partially collapsed chimney, no sounds of habitation. Even the dung heap seems to have grown cold. As eyes swivel toward the stable, the only indication of life is the rear end of a pony and the faint buzzing of some late flies.

Suddenly Friend’s ears prick up and she raises her head, intently peering toward the other end of the ramshackle house. Within a few moments her alertness becomes audible to the others. A swishing sound can be heard, the sound of a blade cutting through air.

As Friend peers towards the far end of the house Matteo drops down behind a tree, straining to make out any movement or further sound. “Marc.“ He whispers softly, pointing towards the end of the hut the sound seems to be coming from, “How about I go that way around the cottage towards the sound and you go around this closer end? Don’t step out of cover until you hear me. If anyone is going to be a target, I’d rather it was me.“

Without leaving the track Marc looks at Matteo hiding and then in the direction Matteo points at while he speaks. Marc slowly nods, but looks startled at his last words. He shakes his head once, and then nods again and – while looking Matteo in the eyes – softly says, “All right“.

Turning towards Emlyn, Matteo smiles gently and asks, “Can you get into a position to cover us?“ Emlyn nods once in confirmation and quietly retrieves her sling, loading it with a stone. Next she pulls a couple of more stones from her pouch and puts them in front of her on the ground.

Marc stoops and silently walks towards the bushes, followed by Friend. There Marc lingers a moment, looking at Matteo, along the building, even trying to peek into the building and eventually over his shoulder at Emlyn. He doesn’t prepare a weapon, but then again he has his crook in his hand.

Taking care where he places his feet, Matteo follows Marc for a short distance through the trees until the shattered cottage lies directly between him and the source of the swishing noise. Slipping from the cover of the trees, he slowly draws his rapier as he moves carefully towards the building, watching for any signs that might warn of his approach.

Reaching the bushes near the corner of the cottage he pauses for a moment to listen before moving around their edge, gently fending away branches to minimize noise. Looking to where Marc and Emlyn are supposed to be, Matteo sees them looking past his position at the corner of the building.

As Marc looks at Emlyn, he sees her looking past the building, a curious expression on her face. When Marc swivels his head to look in the direction the halfling woman is staring, he sees the man with the scythe reappear. Moving the blade awkwardly in front of him the man walks slowly in the direction of the corner where Matteo is hiding.

When Marc sees the man appearing he shortly whistles ‘stay!’ and steps forward in the open, looks at the man with his face as friendly and open as possible, and says, just a bit louder than strictly necessary, “Good day to you, saer!“ Trying to look as innocent and harmless as ever before, Marc smiles at the man and adds: “Getting quite cold. Might even have snow today, what do you think?“. He stands there, his head cocked a little in his expectation of a friendly answer, knowing he gave Matteo and Emlyn enough warning, but still not knowing what to think of the situation. Marc’s muscles are tense and he’s ready to grab his bow in a split second.

Tightening his hand around the rapier, Matteo’s eyes flick towards Marc and then back to the ground in front of him, listening intently for sound of the approaching figure and readying himself.

From her hiding place Emlyn watches the events unfolding, her eyes switching back and forth between Marc, the farmer and Matteo. The farmer’s head snaps up, and hollow eyes stare at Marc. Dropping the scythe, the farmer lunges forward with large bounds towards Marc, passing the corner where Matteo is hiding without a glance. Following on the man’s heels, the smell of decay and rotting flesh assault’s the Sembian’s nose. The man’s clothes look old and torn, as if he has been wearing and using them for a long time. Recognizing the ‘farmer’ for what he is, Matteo lunges at him with his rapier.

Marc opens his eyes wide when he sees the hollow eyes in the man’s head looking in his direction. While moving his left hand in an incomprehensible gesture he utters something that might be best described as a groan, though it comes quite close to his usual: “Ehm…?“

Seeing the ‘farmer’ advance on Marc, Emlyn twirls the sling in ever-faster circles, ready to loosen it on the ‘farmer’. The ‘man’ is walking in an ungainly lumbering way, yet at a surprising speed. A slow moaning sound escapes from the ‘man’s’ throat as he is being hit from behind by Matteo’s rapier. The momentum of his movement carries the ‘man’ a couple of paces more before he turns around.

As the situation turns more hostile, Emlyn launches her attack, sending a stone hurling through the air. The stone hurtles past Marc and the ‘farmer’ to land with a clunk against the building’s wall. Quickly the halfling reaches for another stone.

Having loaded another stone in her sling, Emlyn swings it around, looking for an opportunity to strike. Stepping out of cover to get a better bearing on her target she lets the stone fly toward it. Again her aim is slightly off and the stone hit’s the building once more. Shrugging her shoulders Emlyn frowns and shakes her head.

Gesturing with his arms to keep the creature’s attention Matteo calls out, “Stay back Marc. Use your bow.“ Stepping backwards slightly, Matteo readies his weapon to attack the creature when it closes. The creature moves after Matteo, wading into the little bush, impervious to the branches that snag at his clothes. Moaning out loudly it flails its arms about some.

Marc throws his crook in a wide bow in front of him. Marc jumps backward and more reacting on Matteo’s suggestion than on the man’s nearness he grabs for his bow, his eyes still widely spread and fixed on the approaching being. “Saer!“ He shouts with trembling voice, “I… I don’t mean no harm…“ The announcement is a bit contradicted by the loading and stretching of his bow, as is the trembling voice with his motionless hands when he aims at the surprising peasant’s spine.

With the attention of the opponent at Matteo, Marc realizes he should do something fast to withhold this creature from hurting his friend. Loudly he says with a low and commanding voice, hardly recognizable as coming from the same mouth, “Hold it right there!“ Yet the farmer does not respond to Marc’s command, and continues his advance Matteo. Marc let’s his arrow fly, hoping to stop the farmer form attacking Matteo, and reloads the bow as quick as he can.

The arrow shoots through the air, and impacts the farmer in the back, piercing right through the torso. Matteo sees the arrowhead suddenly explode from the front of the ‘farmer’. The only reactions from the creature are a loud moan, and exhale stale and putrid air. The odor of the creature all over him, Matteo nearly gags at the stench as he lunges with his rapier. His attack pierces through the man’s sleeve, but fails to damage anything else than the ragged piece of clothing.

Slightly reeling from the arrow the farmer brings up his arms, fists balled, threatening to attack Matteo. Emlyn has loaded another sling stone and launches it once more at the creature. “May Ilmater end your unholy existence soon, you foul abomination.“ This time her stone flies true and hits the arm of the creature, an audible crack announcing a broken bone.

Grimacing as he swallows back the bile that rises in his throat, Matteo spits off to the side without taking his eyes from the creature before him. His fingers open then close again over the hilt of his sword as he adjusts his grip to relieve the dampness of his palm. As the undead being lifts his arms to strike, the point of Matteo’s rapier flicks forward. And pierces the creature’s chest, about where the heart is located.

Matteo’s attack brings him within striking range of the farmer, and Matteo is rewarded by a solid slam into his ribs, momentarily knocking the wind out of him. Yet his quick reactions allow him to recover somewhat, and pull his rapier cleanly out of the creature’s torso.

Marc looks at the scene unfolding, glances over his shoulder to look at Emlyn, smiles encouraging at her and takes a step forward to have a better aim at the threatening creature. When he pulls the bow he aims a bit higher, breathes slowly to aim more secure. Again he shoots and reloads.

Though badly damaged the creature pulls back his broken arm in an awkward move to prepare for another strike, when suddenly another arrow pierces the creature. Reeling from this last blow, the ‘farmer’ topples sideways and crashes against the building, snapping its neck in the process. Seeing his opponent down, Matteo steps forward, grimacing slightly, and runs him through just to be sure…

“Ehm… hey!“ Marc utters when Matteo takes a blow, and “Gee!“ as he sees the effect his arrow has on Matteo’s opponent. He briefly looks over his shoulder again before walking swiftly to the fallen corpse, keeping his bent bow aimed at it all the time. When he stands next to the downed ‘farmer’ Marc shoots at the head of the wretch, just to be sure. There’s relief to be seen on his face as well as heard in his sigh before he reloads and says to Matteo, “Saer? Are you alright?“

Leaning on the point of his rapier for a moment, Matteo lets out a long, slow breath before straightening, pulling his blade back out of the fallen creature. “Never did like those things…“ He mutters almost to himself as his mouth tightens. Looking up and over at Marc he says, “Well done, Marc.“ Glancing towards Emlyn, he says, “Well done the both of you.“

Marc smiles at Matteo’s remark with a warm look in his eyes. “We did a good job, I suppose.“ He answers him, emphasizing the first word.

Emlyn comes forward, eying the clearing carefully. Keeping a little distance, she stands on her toes to peer at the corpse against the building. “One more suffering soul laid to rest.“ Resting her weight back on her feet, Emlyn looks quizzically at Matteo and Marc. “Now why would an undead abomination walk around here…?“

“Why indeed?“ Matteo replies softly. “Let’s find out shall we? I’ll poke through the cottage for any clues, if one of you wouldn’t mind checking the stables and the other have a look about the clearing we should be able to cover everything before nightfall and the snow arrive. Is that acceptable?“

Marc nods, thinking. Marc keeps nodding, his eyes gliding over his companions, the corpse, the shed and the clearing as a whole, as Matteo talks on. Then something in Matteo’s words apparently stirred an idea in his mind and startled he whispers to himself, “Ehm… wait…“ Unbending his bow without shooting, he pats his lips with his left forefinger while looking at both Matteo and Emlyn.

“Hmmm… it might be better to stay together.“ Emlyn says as she looks about. “Who knows if there are more of these foul abominations about?“ Looking up at Matteo she continues. “I would feel more comfortable if we were to stick together.“ Reaching behind her back, Emlyn pulls forth her quarterstaff with a grim and determined look on her face. “This will be more useful at short range.“

While Marc thinks he only pays half attention to the spoken words, he frowns and stares at the ground, trying to discover what is in Matteo’s words that alerted something in his subconscious. Silently he nods confirming at Emlyn’s “stay together“. He bends to withdraw the arrows from the corpse, thoughtlessly checks them and puts the one serviceable back in his quiver. Taking a breath, finger against his lips, Marc looks frowning at Matteo.

Matteo nods by way of reply, gingerly touching his ribs. “You might be right Emlyn. Let’s stick together then.“ Glancing around, Matteo’s eye falls upon the pony tethered in the open stable, flies buzzing around the poor creature. “How about we check the stable first?“ He asks quietly.

Marc’s eyes grow and the tension is wiped off his face when Matteo speaks. He waves with his left hand, his forefinger still stretched, “Yes! That’s it!“ He says enthusiastically, be it not much louder than Matteo’s speaking. Marc nods heavily. “The stables!“ Marc looks at Matteo and Emlyn to be sure he has their attention. “Remember I said there was something odd out here?“ He says in a conspiring tone, “Now I know what it is!“

Sneakily he glances left and right before slowly continuing, nearly whispering, “It’s the pony! See…? It doesn’t react on the flies! Even a sleeping pony would… Then again a dead pony would not stand, would it…? Then there are this much flies this late in the season… Think we’re looking at an undead pony… Ehm… if that’s possible, that is.“

He looks Matteo in the eye intensely and answers him, “Yes, let’s check the stables first, but let’s be careful.“ His eyes secretively glance in that direction. Hesitating he says, “I’ve got some experience in handling ponies, so perhaps…“ Marc pulls his bow again and slowly walks in the direction of the stable, aiming at the pony all the time. “Don’t get behind the pony.“ He whispers over his shoulder, “Wouldn’t like it to kick one of us.“

Walking up to the stable, just about 30 feet away from it, Marc’s eyes go wide as suddenly the pony backs of out of the stable, sending a small cloud of flies buzzing in the air. The animal turns around and charges at the young archer. Though still resembling a pony, it is clear to all that life no longer flows through it. The head is almost completely devoid of skin and flesh. Only a few patches of rotting skin hang from the skull. The creature’s right flank is a large open gap, from which more flies emerge. Hastily aiming his bow, Marc let’s fly the arrow he had knocked at the approaching horror. The arrow embeds itself in the abomination’s chest, but does not halt its charge.

Matteo and Emlyn had been following Marc at a short distance. Their eyes go wide as well when the undead pony charges from the stable. Seeing the creature storming at Marc, Emlyn rushes to the boy’s side, screaming. “Foul undead. Be gone!“ And readies her quarterstaff to strike the thing.

Marc reloads his bow pulls his bow as far as he can and aims at the head of the approaching pony. He shoots the beast, the arrow striking true once more, embedding itself between the thing’s hollow eye sockets. Trying to jump out of the way and dropping his bow, the charging undead pony slams bodily into the unfortunate archer. Dropping Marc to the ground.

As the pony barrels into Marc, Emlyn swings her staff and angrily yells at the creature. “You don’t belong in this world foul creature. Don’t you dare touch my friends!“ With a mighty swing for such a petite woman, Emlyn brings her quarterstaff down on the pony’s hindquarters and causes the creature’s knees to buckle sending it crashing to the ground

Matteo’s eyes go wide in shock at the sight of the desiccated pony and he curses softly under his breath. Drawing his sword he swings around towards the cottage to come at the creature opposite Emlyn, flicking the point of his blade out as he approaches. Seeing the opportunity to strike after Emlyn’s hit, Matteo lunges with his rapier, yet the tip of the blade glances of the pony’s bony shoulder, failing to damage to the thing.

As Marc scrambles hurriedly to his feet, Emlyn strikes once more at the unmoving creature, bring her quarterstaff down in a vicious blow. Satisfied with the result, she plants the tip of her staff on the thing’s hindquarters and leans on lightly on her staff. “Good riddance!“ Matteo carefully pokes at the thing’s skull. A quick glance learns that it is destroyed.

Marc stands a bit dazzled, with one hand near his chest under his smock, and gazes at the dead pony. “Ehm… So now he’s… ehm… dead?“ He looks at Emlyn, standing there so fiercely, and asks, puzzled, “How do we know?“ Sheathing his sword Matteo moves around the beast to Marc. “Are you alright Marc?“ He asks gently.

Marc tries to point his eyes at Matteo, but has a bit trouble focusing. Then he shakes his head, blinks his eyes twice and says with an awkward smile, “Well…“ He looks down at his slim body, retrieves his empty hand, and looks up at Matteo again. “Yes saer, I think I’m quite alright… Mustn’t do this too often though.“ Now his smile is genuine “Had such a collision with a ram once… was black and blue all over my… ehm… anyway.“ He smiles a bit embarrassed at Emlyn.

Marc sighs and says to her, “So…? You were right indeed about staying together… We’d better be careful too as we enter the house then.“ Marc bows to try to retract the arrows out of the dead pony, but he can’t get them out without breaking them. Next he moves over to pick up his bow, which goes less troubled. Looking once more around to see if there are other dangers around, the three move away from the corpse, Friend following them on their heels. Matteo steps warily through the doorway into the ramshackle building, carefully checking the doorway before stepping through.

Upon entering the house it takes a little while before all eyes are adjusted to the gloom. In the far right corner of the room, the tree has smashed into the house, landing almost on top of the far wall. A little daylight comes through the remains of the roof and the gap in the wall. In the far left corner an opening suggests passage to another room. The floor of the room is littered with debris from the roof and branches and leaves from the fallen tree. The room smells musky and something else; it smells like rotting flesh. Something seems to move in the rubble under the tree.

Marc squeezes his eyelids to try and make some sense of the twilit room. He gestures at Matteo and points at the bulge at their right, “There might be something there.“ He whispers as soft as he can. While he glances at Matteo from time to time, he aims his weapon somewhat in the direction of the sound, waiting for another sign of… life? Nodding, Matteo moves carefully in towards the center of the room and begins to make his way forward, the metallic hiss of his rapier being drawn the only sound to mark his passage.

Emlyn steps in warily behind the two men, their poses suggesting more danger. Quickly she glances back into the clearing, making sure no one is following them. Not making a sound, she looks at Marc, and then at Matteo. Carefully Matteo moves over to where the fallen tree has made a mess of the room. There, pinned under a branch and other rubble, another half-rotten person is moving. Moaning sounds escape the almost skeletal face as hands flail groping about, not able to reach Matteo.

Covering his mouth with his sleeve, Matteo feels the bile rise in his throat. Swallowing hard, his eyes narrow as he studies the movements of the creature. “Marc, no sense risking a lucky blow. Can you shoot an arrow into this thing?“ Marc gestures at Emlyn when she enters the room, pointing in the direction he showed Matteo earlier. At Matteo’s suggestion he carefully moves in on the thing, his eyes pinned on the remains, making sure he stays out of reach of it. He raises his bow to shoot the rotting torso, but stops his movement and turns to Matteo to ask him: “Where should I hit it? In the head?“

“Through the chest if you can hit it.“ Matteo replies dispassionately. “There’s too much bone in the skull to guarantee a killing shot.“ Surprised Marc lifts his head a little, staring at Matteo, “O…? Just like an orc then?“ A smile emerges as a memory pops up in his head. Then he turns to the target. Marc closes one eye, raises his bow and shoots, hitting the smelly chest. In triumph he turns to Matteo, smiling widely. This smile stays on his face as he turns to Emlyn.

Emlyn gives Marc a smile back; tough it is an emotionless one as she stares in the direction of the pinned corpse. “Let’s see if there are more of these foul beings around and lay them to eternal rest.“ His eyes still fixed on the flailing creature trapped beneath the fallen tree. Matteo frowns, then speaks once more. “One more shot, if you don’t mind Marc. Lets make sure it is destroyed before moving on.“

“Emlyn, do you have any light source on you?“ Matteo asks the halfling woman, “We might need it to check that other room.“ Without replying, Emlyn shrugs of her backpack. Rummaging in the pack for a moment, Emlyn produces a torch. Lighting the torch using her flint and steel, the small woman rises and steps over to Matteo, “Here, this should work. Let’s go clean house.“ Her voice is resolute, and anger burns in her eyes. Walking back to her pack, she once more shoulders it and grips her staff. “Ready when you are.“

Marc reacts disturbed when Matteo asks for another hit: “O! Ehm… Sorry!“ In a mild gesture he shrugs his shoulders, smiling at the brave companion. While Emlyn is lighting the torch Marc takes another arrow out of his quiver and lays it on the bow. This time he takes a step forward and his arrow nearly enters the body vertically. Marc’s Adam’s apple bounces and disgusted he turns away from the smelly wretch. “Will this do, saer?“ He asks Matteo.

“Yes, that should do it Marc.“ Matteo replies quietly. “Thank you.“ Lifting the torch up he makes a sweeping gesture to illuminate the room they are currently in. “Look. There are writings on the walls, runes in charcoal.“ Emlyn swivels her head and looks at the nearby wall. Walking closer, she reaches out her hand and touches the writing carefully. Pulling her hand slowly away, she turns it and examines her fingertips. “Charcoal all right. But I can’t make out what the runes are saying.“

“No, neither can I.“ Matteo murmurs as he steps closer. “Do either of you have any paper? We could copy the runes and take them to the Magistrati.“ Marc shrugs his shoulders, “I haven’t.“ He says modestly, in the meantime searching the room for any other clues or possible items worth investigation or retrieval. “Ehm… and these signs don’t mean a thing for me either.“ He adds tardily.

Standing for a moment, staring at the rune-covered walls Matteo suddenly shrugs off his cloak. “If we get a sharp knife or dagger we can cut the runes into the cloth. That way we’ll have a record to chase up when we return to Berdusk.“ Slipping a dagger from within his sleeve, Matteo hands the torch over to Emlyn. “Here, can you hold this while I cut the cloak?“ Emlyn shakes her head. “Now is not the time to look for writings and their meaning.“ Gripping her staff and stepping towards the opening that seems to lead to another room, she continues in a firm voice. “We should first clean this place out.“

Marc’s moving throughout the room, looking for clues that might bring them closer to finding the lady’s mother’s corpse, in passing recollecting his arrows from the pour souls remains. When Matteo proposes to cut a copy of the runes in a cloth, Marc reacts, “Good idea, saer! I’d use a board or a shelf myself…but… By the way…“ Marc’s hand in the direction of his chest when he sees Matteo’s dagger appear, “Ehm… never mind“. Marc interrupts his search when he sees Emlyn move towards the opening and, while standing up, nods enthusiastically to confirm her opinion about priorities.

“Very well.“ Matteo replies, rising back up to his feet and drawing his sword. Stepping beside Emlyn, Matteo peers into the next room, holding the torch high to keep the light from blinding his vision. The next room seems to be a hallway of sorts. To the right the hall seems to have two openings to either side. Almost beyond the light circle of the torch, broken and old equipment lies in a corner. A shovel, pick, and some rusted shovel blades. To the left more of the fallen tree is visible, a sturdy branch resting across the hallway, supporting the bulk of the tree form crashing all the way to the floor. Strung from the branch is a rope with a body hanging in the noose. There is something wrong with the picture; the body’s feet adequately reach the floor. Though the clothes and armor on the body look slightly exotic for the Heartlands or the North, Emlyn’s eyes flicker momentarily in recognition of the style. “By the pasha’s cursed behind.“ She utters, a stricken look on her face.

Marc follows the others to the opening, trying to catch a glance of what is behind it over the shoulders of his two friends. After shifting a little from left to right Marc discovers he can see most when he’s standing behind Emlyn, and so there he stands, almost bending over her to see as much as possible. In the meanwhile he loads his bow, without straining it yet. Standing behind the others he can hardly see the standing figure, yet he moves his upper body in all directions, trying to see as much of it as possible when suddenly Emlyn utters her curse. Marc starts and steps back. He sees enough of Emlyn’s face to discover that her emotion has something to do with the body there, rather than his nearness. In a friendly tone he asks her, “What’s the bug, Emlyn?“ First than he realizes the exact phrase she spoke and giggles silently.

“I think, Marc.“ Matteo replies softly, “that Emlyn is referring to the clothing and armor the figure wears. I’d hazard an educated guess that it is Calishite in origin and approximately one thousand years old. The same holds true for the garments worn by the undead that attacked the Lady Jalarghar last night, except their clothing is of ancient Cormyrian and Amnian make.“

Glancing behind at Marc, Matteo winks. “You see, a thousand years ago the Shoon Empire was at its peak and expanding north and east from what is today Calimshan. They were turned back by the armies of Azoun, King of Cormyr at the time, at the place now called the Fields of the Dead after all those that perished. Azoun drove all the way into the Shoon Empire and sacked Ithmong before returning home. That marked the demise of the Shoon Imperium and about seventy-five years later the tributary nation of Tethyr killed the last emperor, thus ending the Age of Shoon. Someone has been to the Fields of the Dead it seems, and is raising the fallen to undeath.“

“You are right on the fact that the armor is Calishite in origin.“ Emlyn says walking up to the hanged body, anger tinting her voice, “The only link that this poor soul has with your theory though.“ Standing on her toes, Emlyn reaches up to the man’s neck and pulls something from underneath the armor. Yanking something loose, she turns about. “This man is a Janessar, a warrior dedicated to the Triad.“ Holding out in front of her, Emlyn shows her find. Matteo and Marc can see a necklace with a small copper disk. Etched on the disk are two hands, bound at the wrists: Ilmater’s Holy Symbol. “The Janessar help free the slaves of Calimshan and help them flee to safer territory outside Calimshan.“

Marc, who followed the two inside the corridor, standing behind them near the corpse which is hanging there this disrespectful by coincidence – if it is coincidence, tries to follow the narrations but very soon discovers he can’t make cheese out of it and starts examining this room and the hanging man. He smiles awkwardly at Emlyn as he senses her anger and pats her friendly at her shoulder. Then suddenly he stares at the man’s face, frowns and then smiles, eventually shaking his head in disbelieve.

“Hasn’t brought him much luck though“ Marc sniggers, “Ehm… well, sorry… but we tend to hope these horseshoes may turn fortune our way.“ Marc steps forward and looks closer at the dead man’s face, “No, it’s not a tattoo… not a horseshoe either.“ He turns to Matteo and Emlyn, and ads in a worried tone, “Look there, on his forehead… it’s… some burn mark or something?“ He looks at the man’s forehead again, examining it more thoroughly, “it’s…“ He looks at his friends faces again, and ads slowly, as if he is thinking, “… something like a… harp??“ He bites the nail of his left middle finger, “What on earth is that supposed to mean?“ He frowns deeply, “Why?“ Marc sighs as he looks at his companions for some explanation.

“May I have a look?“ Matteo asks, moving forward a little. “Ah.“ He murmurs softly under his breath. “I’d guess that this man was killed for belonging to the Harpers, or at least for being affiliated with them. That is a crude approximation of their heraldic symbol. A number of less benevolent organizations tend to brand or disfigure captured Harpers this way… the Zhentarim, the Cult of the Dragon, a number of them really.“

“A strange coincidence.“ Emlyn says softly. “My fellow Ilmatari at St. Faelar’s didn’t understand my wanderlust… I thought I did, but now, this far north, I stumble upon this…“ Emlyn clasps the necklace around her neck. “I will need to find out what has happened here, I owe that to my brother’s and sisters.“ Anger visible on her face, she lifts the symbol up in her small hands and glances at it for a moment before letting it dangle freely. “Up until now I had no idea why I have wandered so far North of my home, but it seems that the One Who Endures has guided me here.“ She closes her eyes for a moment before continuing, her voice now clear of anger and more determined. “I have had training at the Cloisters of St. Faelar in the Marching Mountains. That mountain range serves as the border between Calimshan and Tethyr. There are several cloisters and monasteries of Ilmater in the mountains and more throughout the countries in the south. Most of these have supported and harbored the Janessar and freed slaves. I don’t know why this man is so far North of the normal area where they operate in, nor do I know why he would have been branded with a harp symbol. Yet there must be something why he was here, and I’ll try and find out what that is.“

Pulling out his dagger Matteo cuts through the rope and lowers the body down. “He’s not going anywhere at the moment, the poor man. Let’s check the rest of the building then come back to him.“ “If you want.“ Emlyn says to Matteo, “We could find another piece of charcoal, or create one, and copy the runes on a piece of cloth or something. Then I propose we put the bodies in here and set fire to the house to offer some rest to them…“ She sighs. “And then we might as well return to Berdusk…“ She smiles wearily. “And get some rest ourselves.“

“There’s a room beyond the tree.“ Marc points into the darkness ahead. “Could you bring the light a little closer?“ He asks Matteo, while peering into the murky darkness. When Matteo holds his torch in the direction, they all see beyond the tree another opening leads to a room. The opening is almost sealed off by crushed beams that once supported the roof. Crawling about the fallen tree and the rubble, Emlyn leads the way, having easier access due to her smaller size. She enters through the partially caved in doorway first.

Crawling through the small opening, which leads to what appears to be a bedroom, causes some debris to fall from the ceiling. A groan resounds through the structure as the tree sinks an inch or so toward the ground. Against the wall opposite from the entrance is a half-open chest. In the corner near the chest lies a collection of items tumbled together. To the right, at the far end of the room is an ordinary bed.

Climbing from the bed is what appears to be a woman, dressed in traditional framers clothes, but tattered. A moan escapes from her mouth as she moves towards the intruders, preceded by a wave of a nauseating rotting smell. Immediately the symbol on Emlyn’s neck starts to glow, casting a pure white radiance into the room, the undead woman raises her arm in an attempt to shield her eyes from the bright glow, yet advances cautiously.

Surprised by the sudden bright light, Marc momentarily fumbles with an arrow. “Ehm… Halt… Ehm wait a moment…“ He stumbles while fitting the arrow on his bow. Finally able to aim the arrow at the approaching figure, Marc hazards a glance to Emlyn. “Wow… Ehm… I mean… Ehm, where did you get that light from?“ Rolling to his feet after wriggling his way through the partially collapsed doorway after Marc, Matteo draws his rapier. “Worry about the light later, Marc.“ He snaps a little too harshly as he advances on the decaying corpse.

For a moment, Emlyn herself seems startled by the glow of the symbol hanging from a pocket in her smudged shirt. She takes it out slowly, a shiver creeping down her spine. Then she looks back at the undead farmer’s woman. “You’re not a true being.“ She says slowly. “You are a soulless, wretched corpse…“ She raises the holy symbol in her hands. The glow illuminates the normally friendly face of a young halfling, but now her brown eyes seem ablaze as she aims the source of the holy light towards the undead woman. “And I will not let you harm another!“

The light emanating from the symbol seems to coalesce, and take shape of two milky white hands. The hands glide toward the undead wretch and envelop it in a soft embrace. The apparition causes Matteo to halt his advance toward the woman momentarily. Wriggling in a hopeless attempt to escape the holy embrace, the woman cries out in a soundless scream, but to no avail. Slowly the rotting skin melts away, exposing the skeleton underneath. Unsupported by muscles and ligaments, the skeleton crumbles together in a heap. With all the garments, skin and flesh gone, the skeleton grows transparent until there is only a pinpoint of bright light. Then, all of a sudden the light winks out, and Emlyn wobbles a little unsteadily on her knees. Emlyn sinks to her knees, the holy symbol clenched in her hand. Her curly brown hair hangs in front of her face and she trembles a little until she regains some of her strength. Still sitting on the floor, she manages a shaky smile to Matteo and Marc. “It looks like that.“ She nods in the direction of the collapsed heap of bones, “wasn’t the only one feeling the touch of a god…“

Openmouthed, Marc stares at the scene enfolding before his eyes. Lowering the bow as it becomes clear the immediate threat is gone, he turns to look at Emlyn, pointing at the spot where the woman disappeared. “Ehm…That was… Wow! Ehm…“ Not knowing what to say, he just stares at the small woman kneeling on the floor, amazed by the power she wields. Looking from Emlyn to where the undead woman stood until recently and back again, Matteo nods unconsciously in agreement with Marc, his eyes a little wide around the edges. Going to sheath his sword he fumbles, missing his scabbard on the first attempt and gives up. He opens his mouth to speak then shakes his head. Stepping carefully around Emlyn he moves over to the half open chest and flips the lid up with the point of his sword.

Flipping the lip of the chest open, Matteo looks at the messy contents of the chest; it is as if someone had to empty it in haste. Several blank pages and a couple of written ones lie tumbled about. Kneeling beside the chest and carefully browsing through the contents, Matteo finds 3 vials and a small velvet bag with its contents of 53 silver coins partially spilled. One of the pages draws his attention, and fishing it out of the chest it becomes clear why. It is a crude map of Berdusk. There are a few markings on it, one stands out though: Jalarghar Spires is circled.

About to rise to his feet, Matteo notices a small plaque inside the lid of the chest. The copper plate is engraved with a name: ‘Beldevar’s Carpentry – Hill’s Edge’. Near the half-open chest, thrown in a heap, is a quiver with several arrows, a broken longbow, and a longsword in a scabbard, along with a backpack. The backpack clearly shows to have been examined. Part of the contents hangs out, and inside everything is tumbled around. The contents consist of a few items; a set of clothes, some common items like flint and steel, a climber’s kit and a bronze symbol of Ilmater’s faith on a chain.

Still on his knees Matteo quickly scans the written pages then carefully repacks the backpack, also placing the vials, coins, and assorted papers within it. Picking up the scabbarded longsword he rises back to his feet, leaving only the common utensils and broken longbow behind. “Time to quickly check the rest of this place and get back to town, I think.“ He says quietly. “Are the two of you alright?“

“Ehm… Yes.“ Marc answers, looking from Emlyn back to Matteo. “What have you found in the chest?“ Marc puts the arrow back in its quiver and slings the bow over his shoulder. Walking up to Matteo, Marc peers quickly into the chest, and to the backpack’s contents. “Hmm… Shame of that bow… looked like a decent one.“ Picking up the quiver, he pulls forth one of the arrows. Seeing it is in good condition still, he looks at Matteo and Emlyn. “Ehm… I’m sure nobody will mind if I take these?“ His brown eyes looking pleadingly from Matteo to Emlyn, before he shrugs his shoulders. “Would be a waste to leave them here now wouldn’t it.“

“Take them.“ Matteo replies with a straight face, “No one here needs them any longer. We might as well remove the armor from the warrior out in the hall too before burning his body. Perhaps Telsom will find it useful, it looks as though it might fit him.“ With interest Marc follows the actions of the calm man, forgetting the kneeled halfling for a moment until he mentions their well being. “Well I am… ehm“ Marc takes a step toward Emlyn.

After a while, Emlyn slowly rises. “I think so…“ She mumbles. She looks how the two young men pack up their finds and nods in agreement at the propositions regarding quiver and armor. “With the symbol and the papers, if we can make some sense of them, our trip at least hasn’t been in vain.“ Noticing only now she still holds the bronze holy symbol, she puts it back in her pocket, a puzzled look on her face. “I have met saer Telsom…“ She begins, “But are there any more in your group of comrades with… well, some knowledge of the divine?“

Marc puts a hand on her shoulder and bents over to look her in the eye. “Strange things happening today!“ He softly whispers, still looking at the woman’s face. After some silent heartbeats he answers her, “Immerine, certainly Immerine… and the priest Portia of course… ehm… I wouldn’t know of one of the others, but I’d start with Immerine.“ After a moment he thoughtfully ads, nodding, “She seems to be wise as well.“ Marc suddenly smiles as if some memory emerged in his mind, “Well… mostly that is.“ In a more conversing tone he asks, “So? If you ARE okay… lets search on… And next give these pour souls a decent farewell as you suggested.“ He looks up at Matteo briefly for confirmation. When Marc mentions Immerine’s wisdom Matteo snorts softly, shaking his head.

Nodding at Marc’s later words he says, “Yes, there seems to be just another couple rooms within the building.“ Glancing up at the fallen in roof timbers that nearly bar the doorway he adds, “Snow and darkness are approaching. We do not have a great deal of time.“ A brief smile flickers as he says, “Come then, let’s get moving. If one of you doesn’t mind wriggling back out first I’ll pass the pack and sword through before following myself.“

While not knowing this Immerine, Emlyn’s eyes gleam with a spark of amusement at Matteo’s frustration. “Must be a special sort then.“ She says, and still with a smile: “I’ll go back first, I have no need to wriggle.“ She steps back through the hole and starts looking for a piece of charcoal to possibly copy the runes on the wall.

Marc and Matteo follow soon after the extraordinary halfling woman through the partially collapsed doorway. Leaving the dead Janessar for a moment, the three continue down the hall. Giving the rusted tools not a second glance, Matteo glances to his right. Drawing his rapier, he steps carefully into the room. This room seems to be a kitchen of sorts. A crude yet sturdy table dominates the center of the room. Three chairs are grouped around it. To the right is a fireplace. An, as good as, empty cupboard stands against the left wall. Lying next to the fireplace is a branding iron, the top of which resembles the crude likeness of a harp.

Seeing no threat present Matteo returns to the hall. Marc and Emlyn have continued a little forward toward what seems to be the last room of the ruined house. Entering the room, an eerie feeling sends a wave of shivers over the three explorers. The first item that catches the attention is a partially destroyed desk and a smashed chair. Grinning morbidly from the destroyed desk is a small skull fashioned into a cup. The skull is either a halfling or gnome skull. In the far corner stands a short stone pillar covered by a rotting piece of cloth. Resting on top of the pillar is a human-sized skull. The strange feeling seems to be centered on the skull.

When Marc enters the room he first tries to ignore the shiver that touches his spine. Acting as manly as he thinks he should with the halfling woman so close, he takes a breath and states, “Hey! Perhaps we can find some paper… perhaps even some ink!“ Proud at this idea he looks at Emlyn, “To copy those runes…“ But while he is speaking he just can’t shake off this awkward feeling, somewhere deep in his belly and he frowns while he speaks this last words slackened.

He hesitates, beholding the room with his eyes, continuing, “Ehm… There’s something wrong here… really wrong I mean.“ He still looks at Emlyn, but less self-confident; not just looking for confirmation, but for advise as well. With a disquiet look in his wandering eyes he adds, in a lower voice, “… ehm… like… evil?“ Marc swallows.

Grimacing in distaste, Matteo drops the sheathed longsword and backpack and unbuckles his cloak, shaking it out before as he crosses the room towards the skull on the pillar. Laying his cloak over it he tries to scoop the skull up. “Time to take this outside and destroy it.“ He mutters while reaching out for the cloth covered bone. When Matteo enters the room and covers the skull, Marc follows him with wide-open eyes, stepping back and slightly hiding behind the halfling woman.

To their surprise the cloak starts to rise into the air, the cloak slipping of the skull. The eerie feeling grows in strength and most horribly the lower jaw begins to move up and down as a maniacally laughter issues forth from the bony head once it hovers a few feet above the pillar. It is as if tendrils of shadow creep from the under the floating skull and flow towards the three momentarily stunned people. As the cloak starts to move and then falls to the floor, Marc’s breath stalls. He stands like nailed to the floor, gazing at the scene.

The evil sound piercing his ears and the shadows approaching make Marc tremble, then he swallows again. He taps Emlyn at her shoulder and says to her and Matteo, “Ehm… we’d better leave… I guess.“ Slowly Marc starts to walk backward to the door, glancing at both of his friends, but mainly focused on the horrible head.

Then his foot touches something on the floor. He looks down startled and sees it’s the sword Matteo dropped. A bit reassured he moves another step back when an idea comes to mind. He bends and pulls the weapon out of the sheath. Again he glances at Matteo, who’s clearly the closest to the item of terror, and Emlyn, lifting the sword with two hands between himself and this floating peril. Backing away from the cackling skull, Matteo swallows past the lump in his throat and licks his suddenly dry lips. “Ah… I think we should perhaps leave. Rather soon.“

While Marc trembling moves away there seems to be a veil covering his thinking. All he can sense is this awkward feeling in his stomach and the urgent urge to leave as quickly as possible. When he sees his friends linger too long to his tasting, he seems to be torn in two. He wants to aid them, protect them, fight evil together with them, but he just *has* to leave, run even.

When he grabs the sword and holds it in the air before him the sight weapon gives him a slight reassurance. The urge is still pulling him away from the awful head, but the veil fluttered and in his mind he hears the warm voice of the blacksmith: “Fear makes you cautious, panic makes you dumb.“ He feels sweat dripping from his armpits and realizes this is indeed panic overwhelming him. In his mind he’s anxiously grabbing for grip. Then he sees and hears the image of his mother singing to encourage him.

Still breathing fast he swallows, and – at first very softly, with a tiny, fragile voice – he starts to sing a fragment of the song of Chauntea’s circles of life repeating the same verses again and again. He can feel the rate of his breathing slowing down and, while the fear still burning in his veins, he hears the words of the blacksmith completely: “Fear makes you cautious, panic makes you dumb, and courage is to face your fear and do what has to be done.“

Holding the longsword trembling in two hands before him Marc gazes at the dreadful cranium and shambles backwards, his forehead shining with sweat. Marc swallows and then he starts to sing. Softly and squeakily at first, but as he continues the sound of his voice becomes more solid. Soon Marc is standing trembling in the door opening, his eyes fixed at the body less creature, holding the large sword in front of him. He’s singing his heart out, repeating these verses endlessly, the room resounding his dark voice:

The sound of his singing increases with every breath he takes until he is standing in the opening to the corridor, without knowing why, just singing, singing, and singing. He senses Chauntea. He feels the strength of Dryham’s community behind him as he felt during nightly raids against the Orcs, the power of the blacksmith’s mind, the warmth of his mother.

With his eyes pinned to the terrifying skull and dread in his muscles there’s warmth in his chest while he continues to sing, as if the singing itself is a fight he’s fighting. He can’t do otherwise; he just has to sing even if it is the last thing he does.

Inching backwards, his sword point wavering out in front of him, Matteo licks his lips. Not taking his eyes from the awful apparition before him he swallows. “Marc, fall back… we can’t get out with you in the doorway. I’ll close the door and… and we’ll burn the place down around it.“ Flicking a quick glance down to the backpack near the doorway he bites his lip. “Emlyn, can you get the parchment from the pack and copy those runes in the outer room? Use dirt if you have too. You have until Marc and I set this accursed place alight.“

Looking at the grinning skull, Emlyn’s own mouth drops open. “What in the name of…“ Her words slowly die away, but she continues to stare, trying to determine whether this is a creature or not. When Marc reaches for the sword, a spark of her own warrior instinct takes over and she pulls forth her sling. Still, the motion is more one of defense than of an attack. Suddenly, Marc’s song fills her ears and Matteo’s words definitely break her apathy. She reaches for her flint and steel and hands it to Matteo. “Just in case.“ As soon as Marc leaves a little bit of room for her, she goes and follows the plan.

When Marc sees his friends are leaving the room as well, he steps aside, still singing. He looks just a tiny bit more comfortably now seeing his friends leaving the threatened area. When they’ve left the room, Marc – in a reflex – grabs the sheath from the floor and swiftly runs for the door through the corridor and the room into the open. There he runs another ten feet. Then he stops, turns to the door to see if nothing has followed them, and falls on his knees, breathing heavily. After breathing a couple of times he is breathing normally again and he stands up. For a brief moment he beholds the dwelling and its surroundings, then he walks towards the corpse with the scythe.

Emlyn quickly makes some sketches of the charcoal runes before running outside, tossing a quick glance over her shoulder to see if the skull is following her. To her relief nothing emerges from the building. While Emlyn is busy copying, Matteo removes the armor from the dead Janessar. Bundling the armor into a more convenient package to carry, he takes it outside.

Marc drags the farmer’s body into the building, placing it near the fallen tree. With some help from Matteo and some hay from the stable the two light a fire that quickly grows. Satisfied that there is enough fuel to ignite the rest of the building the two men leave the doomed farmhouse. When Marc walks to the stable to see if there is some more hay to toss into the building, something in the dung heap next to the stable draws his attention. Marc walks closer to the heap of manure to look better. He moves his shoulders and then bungles a bit with the position of the sword, which he shoved between his belt earlier and hangs proudly at his side now.

Marc looks amazed at the dung heap. “Ehm… hey!“ He looks over his shoulders at his companions, takes a breath, but glances another look at his finding before he calls to them, “Hey! Look what I’ve found here!“ He beckons them to come to the dunghill as well. Then he bends over, tinkers a bit at the manure and starts pulling… “Come on.“ He calls, “There are feet up here! Ehm… well… shoes actually.“ When Marc finds out the pulling has little effect he starts digging the heap with his bare hands. He mumbles to himself: “… and I’m quite sure some-one is wearing them.“ As Friend sees her boss digging she helps enthusiastically, soon big lumps of dung fly through the air.

Marc looks at their combined efforts and shakes his head. He shrugs his shoulders and addresses his faithful friend, “Might as well stop, Friend… this way it’ll take all afternoon.“ He glances over his shoulders to look at his companions, but Friend apparently enjoys what she’s doing and continues digging wildly. Looking at the dunghill with an expression of faint distaste, Matteo glances about. “Is there a spade or shovel lying about anywhere?“

Friend’s behind is all there is visible of her, heavily wagging while a broad stream of morsels emerges from between her legs. The sound of the lumps falling on the ground a few feet further sounds like a prudent hailstorm. Marc stands looking at the joyful animal, smiling while he wipes his hands. At Matteo’s question he looks at him, a naughty twinkle in his eyes emphasizing his smile, “Well, actually… yes saer, there is!“ His smile broadens, “There are shovels and even a pick …“ Marc waits a moment to get most of the situation, “… they’re over there… in the house.“

Marc gestures at the building, from which large tongues of fire rise up, reaching two, three times the height of the building. “In the corridor.“ He ads, laughing, “It looked like a *good* shovel too… didn’t think we’d need it then… Guess we’d better leave it there now… Ouch!“ A bigger lump has hit his forehead and Marc looks at the digging dog, “Ehm… Friend…? I think you better…“ Marc pushes against the dog’s flank and the flow of manure turns away from him. He turns his head to Matteo again, “Fortunately the dung is quite dry.“ Marc giggles, striking his forehead, “as you can see.“ In a more serious tone he concludes, “I think we might… ehm… *pull* him out… in a concerted action.“ Marc tilts his head as he looks at Matteo and Emlyn, speechlessly asking them for assistance.

Turning to regard Marc, the expression of distaste on Matteo’s face gives way to one of muted bemusement. “You know, no one has ever asked me to handle manure before.“ Squatting down by the protruding boots and indefatigable dog he grimaces for a moment, sliding a hand momentarily inside his jacket to his chest. “Not a bad pair of boots really.“ He says in a flat voice. “Well, there’s a first time for everything, they say.“ Emlyn grins.

“You know, if we had a rope this would be much easier. We could tie it around his ankles, belay it around one of the foundation pillars of that stable for leverage, and pull whoever this is out with much less effort.“ Glancing up at Emlyn and Marc he asks, “Do we have any rope? Is there any in the stable?“ “Yes, a rope would be much easier.“ Emlyn agrees, “For otherwise, well, combined efforts would for me be tugging at your knees…“ She too looks around the stable to find a rope.

Emlyn returns shortly with a bit of old rope, but serviceable enough for the task at hand. Matteo ties the rope around the feet of the corpse, and he and Marc pull together, while Emlyn keeps watch. At first there is hardly any movement, but then slowly the corpse is being pulled from under the old manure. Matteo’s eyes widen slightly as he thinks he recognizes the clothing. When the body is pulled out completely, he understands why; it is the body of Tharkas Lhun, the crossbow bolt still protruding from his head.

“Pfff“ Marc puffs when, at last, as the final part of the corpse looms from under the lump. He stands bend, holding his knees, sighing from the exertion, and lifts his head looking at the revealed man. An awkward frown deforms his face when he sees the bolt. Slowly he shakes his head, “Poor man! Well, at least he didn’t suf …“ As Marc looks at his friends he sees the expression on Matteo’s face and stops this sentence halfway a word. He steps towards Matteo, tilting his head, looks questioning at the man’s eyes and says, “Matt??“

Pursing his lips, Matteo looks at the uncovered body for a moment then briskly crosses the ground to where it lies. Seemingly unconcerned by the manure still clinging to parts of the corpse he quickly checks through the man’s clothing, even going so far as to remove the boots and shake them out. Not finding anything he glances at Tharkas’s skull and the protruding crossbow bolt but seems to dismiss that as well. Glancing back over his shoulder at Emlyn and Marc he quietly says, “Doesn’t seem to be anything left remaining on his person. Shall we toss him into the fire with the other bodies?“

Marc gazes at Matteo’s actions, the questioning look still on his face. Hastily he nods at his proposal, absent minded he whispers “Of course!“ Still trying to gather what happened to Matteo when he saw the face of the body. Emlyn looks at the dead man and frowns. “Apparently this man hasn’t been one of the undead…“ Looking at the routine with which Matteo searches the body, she comes closer too. “You know this man? If so, it might be wiser to return to Berdusk and warn people of his death, so that they can bury him.“

When the halfling warrior speaks Marc looks over his shoulder at her, and nods. “Yes, you’re right, he’s not been dead too long, people might be looking for him… better not burn the p…“ Marc’s eyes widen, “Know him?“ He turns to Matteo and touches the mans shoulder, “Did you…? Ehm… know this man?“ With compassion he looks at Matteo.

“Yes.“ Matteo replies, though his face and tone betray no hint of grief or despondency. “His name is Tharkas Lhun. He was killed last night in the city by those with ties to the current trade disruptions I am investigating and possibly also with the attack on Lady Jalarghar. Those others in Berdusk that knew him are already aware of his death so there is little point taking his body back. As far as I know he had no family in the city.“

Marc quickly shakes his head and spreads his hand, “Well, I’m not familiar to the customs out here… So? You think putting him in the fire is for the best?“ He looks at the face of the diseased man and sighs, sadness apparent in his moist eyes. “Well.“ He says, squatting near the corpse’s shoulders and carefully putting his hands around them. “Then, let’s get it over with“ With dark eyes he looks at his companions, expecting them to join him in this imperfect effort paying the dead man his last honors.

Nodding, Matteo takes hold of Tharkas’s feet and with Marc’s help lifts the corpse from the ground and carries it towards the burning building and casts it inside. Stepping back he watches the flames lick around the frame of the cottage and rise up into the sky for a quiet moment before turning away and gathering up the armor. “Time to leave and head back to Berdusk, I think. Are we ready?“

Marc stares in the fire with moist eyes and his thoughts miles away when Matteo suggests leaving. Wildly he shakes his head, like a wet dog would shakes its body, “Ehm…“ Marc looks at the sky and bites his lip, “Hmm… No! We should… well… we didn’t find what we were looking for.“ Marc looks disappointed and throws another glimpse at the height of the sun and the incoming clouds. Firmly he utters: “Drunk Dragon!“

He shakes his head as he turns to his friends, “It don’t feel right…“ He shakes his head slowly and bites his lip once again. “But then… with rain or… snow coming…“ He squeezes one eye. “And we did have some kind of appointment in the city, didn’t we…? Ehm… besides, I’m curious about the lady… Ehm… Jalanthar or something.“ He nods, “Hmm… You’re right saer. Let’s go“

He tinkers at the longsword on his belt as he walks towards the center of the clearance, to pick up his crook. He looks at the dunghill, where still bits and pieces are flying through the air, but no dog is visible. “Come on Friend!“ At the heap the digging stops and a dog’s head pops up, looking cheerfully in his direction. Then she jumps down and walks towards Marc, heavily wagging and looking extremely dirty. Marc smiles broadly, “Gee, you surely had some fun, hadn’t you?“ Marc giggles, “Better find a place for you to swim, before we enter the Inn.“ He looks at his hands, “And wash my hands.“ He adds in an afterthought.

Slightly burdened with the armor and other equipment found, Matteo, Marc and Emlyn make their way back to where they left the horses. The ruined building reduced to a pile of red hot cinders, the dry wood and dilapidated state of the construction adding to the speed with which the fire consumed all, marks the grave of Tharkas and the unknown Janessar, as well as the final resting place of the unfortunate farmer’s family.

The trek back through the forest is a cold one. The wind has picked up and occasional snowflakes penetrate to the forest floor. Though the trees provide a shield against most of the early winter storm, the cold nevertheless soon chills the three wanderers. Marc tries to cheer his companions with a little singing, but soon the weather dampens even that lively spirit. Fortunately at the end of their cold trek, the two guardsmen are waiting with the horses. They walked a little into the forest, taking the horses with them, to take a little shelter. After a brief relation of the events, the equipment is distributed over the three horses. Marc finds a little stream and sends Friend into the water, and he washes his hands and lower arms quickly in the cold stream. Emlyn and Matteo share a ride with the guards, while Marc is bundled up amidst most of the gear on the Jalarghar horse.

The content of Twilight Dawn are the property and copyright of J P Hazelhoff, and are not to be published or redistributed without permission.

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