Campaign Logs

Twilight Dawn

By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff

Chapter 77 - The Chionthar

Berdusk 1371 DR, Eleint, 13th day (The Maiming, Tyr), mid-morning

Those who are going to investigate the rumored ‘Haunted Mill’ ride at a brisk pace through the city. As they draw closer to the western side of the city, the pace slows. There’s more traffic on the roads, carts with harvested produce arriving into the city and empty wagons making their way out. A patrol of armed men – no city guards, more likely some caravan’s protective unit – marches through the streets as well, heading for ‘Moondown Isle’ where the city maintains training grounds. The group’s journey doesn’t quite take them in that direction. Following Jezbodiah’s directions, they head for ‘Bellowbar’s Gate’, the western most gate of the city.

Immediately after the gate, a sturdy stone span crosses the Chionthar River. Upstream from the bridge, the island can be seen as well as the bridges connecting the island to the opposite banks of the Chionthar. The western bank of the river is crowded with some small boathouses and piers on which barges can moor off when visiting the city and not wanting to pay the higher fines the city’s harbormaster charges.

Beyond the riverside activities are numerous fields and some orchards, all bustling with activity as the harvesting season is in full swing. Only two tendays to go and Highharvestide will be celebrated, the last of the bountiful feasts before winter sets in – and by all signs it will be an early winter.

“Do we follow the trail to Elturel, or do we follow the bank of the Chionthar?” The half-elven rogue asks as his familiar tries to find a comfortable position on the saddle in front of him.

Riding with an air of someone not used to being on a horse, but not really uncomfortable either, the Kelemvorite is enjoying the relatively warm day and the activities, remarkably normal to the priestess after the last few days, that are occurring in the fields.

At Jez’s question, the priestess actually laughs a bit, showing just a hint of the smiling priestess that presented herself to Matteo almost a tenday ago. “I would think that would be up to you, Saer Jez,” Portia says, smiling. “You’re the one that knows where we’re going, right?”

Jez reaches forward before, in her process to find a comfortable position, Alanna slips and falls off his mount. Picking the ferret up, he opens his shoulder pouch and places her inside of it. “Uh, I think so,” he says unsure of the general direction. Alanna’s squeaks of protest can be heard. “It’s been almost a year since I was outside the city. And please just call me Jez.” he says smiling back at here, “I’m really uncomfortable with formal titles.” Looking down at the shoulder pouch, he says to Alanna, “Stay, you’re safer there.”

Glancing over in Portia’s direction, Matteo absently scratches his mount behind the ears and says, “The fastest route would be along the trail to Elturel, although following the river might make finding the mill easier. However, we’d have to cross the numerous streams and small rivers that link with the Chionthar. At least the trail has fords and occasional bridges.” Straightening in his saddle, he adds, “So I’m thinking of following the trail at least until we are in the vicinity of the mill, then moving out to search the area.”

He nods agreeing with Matteo’s response. “Could be anything between here and along the river; Goblins, orcs, pitfalls, sticking to the path would be safer.”

Kevin speaks up. “Then by all means, let’s keep to the path. Yet of course, we should keep an eye on our surroundings. If such dangers abound here, then it’s too much to hope that bandits of both civilized and wild natures don’t know of and watch a path, where they might waylay travelers such as us.

Even though Nik managed to control his fear enough to mount up, the bard’s terror is obvious. Although his docile mount has shown no desire to do anything but meekly follow the horse in front of him, Nik’s eyes are wild and half-blind with fear. His bony hands are clenched tightly in the horse’s mane and his long legs grip the poor creature’s sides with a force that would cause a more-spirited animal to bolt out of control. Any wayward step forces a strangled whimper from the bard, and any actual direction is accomplished by a rough jerk on the reins before Nik renews his death-grip on his horse’s mane.

As the others discuss their route, Nik seems lost in his fear. But the mention of Elturel draws the bard’s attention back to his companions. The terror in his eyes is suddenly mixed with anguish, and he seems about to speak. But he swallows whatever he was about to say and looks away sharply; his stricken gaze now on the fields around him. “I don’t care how we get there.” the bard mumbles faintly. “I’m just here because I’m too stupid to stay out of other people’s business.” The pain and bitterness clear in his voice seems to have over-ridden his fear of horses, at least for the moment, and his poor mount sighs in relief as Nik’s clenched, rigid posture relaxes slightly.

Once the bard is safely ensconced on the mount, the little fey alternates between riding on Nik’s shoulder, and hovering a few feet above the group. Feeling a fit of pique at the bard’s morose display, Puddy decides to fly ahead of the group, scouting ahead, but keeping the lead horse in sight.

Noticing the bard’s discomfort, Kevin curses himself for drawing extra attention to dangers ahead. “Tell me, bard – Nik, is it?” Kevin asks, but since he already knows the answer, he doesn’t wait for confirmation. “Perhaps you can sing us a song or two while we journey? I’ve only just arrived in this region, and aside from the works of street performers, I’ve only heard the songs of my homeland.”

Portia nods and smiles easily. “That would be something to make the time pass.” The tall bard doesn’t even turn to acknowledge Kevin and Portia. “Don’t feel like it.” he mumbles sullenly, apparently still staring at the fields around them. “Ask the faerie, I bet Puddy will oblige. He’s always so bloody cheerful.”

Seeming to realize he’s being rude and depressing again, Nik slowly turns to face his companions. The bard’s eyes are dull and haunted, and he offers them an utterly unconvincing smile. “Sorry.” he says with a half-hearted shrug. “This road brings back some bad memories for me. And I really don’t like horses. When I’ve got my feet safely on the ground I’ll be right as rain.” The lie is as plain as the anguish in his eyes, but there is always the chance that Nik might be able to get control of his emotions.

Sighing, Nik looks out over the fields once more, but it is clear that he is seeing only the ghosts in his own head.

Portia shakes her head at the bard’s response. Then, turning her attention to the surrounding countryside, she says nothing more to the bard. She does exchange looks with the others though, shrugging and with a puzzled expression, as if to say ‘what can we do about him?’

Sitting astride his horse Matteo does not catch Portia’s look. Gazing about the countryside, the young Sembian appears lost in his own thoughts.

Kevin shakes his head, bemused. “That…” he announces with finality, “…is the first time I have ever heard of a true bard not jumping at a chance to perform. More ordinary performers, perhaps, but I thought a bard’s music was an extension of himself. Am I missing something?”

As Portia meets his gaze, Kevin tries to convey his plea for help. He knows a lot more about bardic music and the magic that true bards could summon than he was letting on – he’d visited the bardic college in Silverymoon several times – but it was the only subject he can think of that might be of interest to this morose man.

“You’re missing lots of things, lad.” the gaunt man says curtly. He turns back to Kevin, a spark of anger in his sunken eyes. “Not the least of which is the little fact that I’m deathly afraid of this beast I’m sitting on. If you think I’m going to risk the only thing I have left that I care about,” he tilts his head to indicate the leather-wrapped guitar across his back “so that you can have a little traveling music then you’re crazier than I am.”

Nik gives Kevin a crooked, sardonic smile, his haggard face filled with the acrid self-loathing that has been absent the past day or so. “Anyway, I’ve never claimed to be a ‘true’ bard. I’m nothing but a pathetic, cowardly drunk.” he says, his deep voice harsh and bitter. The anger is sharp in his dull eyes, and he adds “So I happen to have some small musical talent, and I can fumble at the Weave like a lad with his first whore. That doesn’t mean I want to break into song at any opportunity.”

The tall bard looks away sharply, his narrow shoulders slumping. “Ah, gods.” he moans, his gaze fixed somewhere on the horizon. He sighs, and a tremor runs through his gaunt frame. “Don’t pay me any mind.” Nik says his voice strangely flat and utterly emotionless. “I’m not fit company right now, and I know it. A few drinks would likely cheer me up, or at least shut me up. But I’ve made a promise, and I intend to keep it… even if it kills me.”

Nik sighs again, another shudder running through him. “Gods.” he mumbles faintly. “I’m such an idiot. I really need a drink.”

Portia shakes her head sadly, but then does her best to pretend not to notice the bard’s suffering. Instead, she shifts about a bit, trying to get used to her new armor, and tries to concentrate on the countryside. “You know,” she says, “it seems that whenever I’m out in the country, I’m always rushing from one place to another. I never get to just enjoy the beauty all about…”

Kevin looks first surprised, and then hurt. “I was just trying to help you,” he mumbles. Brushing his heels against his mount’s sides, he moves forward, putting some distance between him and the depressed man. His face burns with the embarrassment of the moment.

Still lost in his own thoughts, Matteo ignores the interplay between Nik and the others as he rides. As Kevin moves forward, his face flaming, the young Sembian snorts softly in amusement though the humor does not reach his eyes. After a moment his eyes drop to silently regard his left hand. He spends several minutes in silent contemplation before raising his eyes to sweep over the countryside.

Dropping back, Jez slows the pace of his horse enough to where he and it are riding besides Portia. “Lady Portia,” asks Jez politely. “I was wondering about something, about the prayers Kelemvor grants his faithful.” He seems a little awkward around her, but he continues. “Uh, my mother is a priestess of Lliira and I’ve seen her use prayer spells before in ceremonies and during especially funeral rites. Um, can you “bless” the remains… the remains of the deceased? It’s important that I know.” The normally boisterous half-elf has a pang of sadness tweaked in his voice.

Portia looks at the young man for a moment, and then nods gravely. “I can.” After a few moments, she adds, “That particular blessing is one of the most sought after by most. Unless a necromancer goes out of his way to do it, anyone blessed in this way will not rise again.” The Kelemvorite pauses as she looks at Jez. “May I know the reason you ask?” she queries gently.

“Lliirans detest walking undead. It’s a gross insult to our faith, the goddess Lliira and to the memory of the living. Such a thing brings emotions of profound sadness and bitter regret, especially if the follower worships the Lady of Joy has not passed into the afterlife.”

He turns his head towards Portia and continues. “We cremate our comrades, friends, and family rather than bury them. In this one method, we deny evil, malice and darkness any claim over them.”

“That’s why I’m here. If we find his remains, I will need a cleric to bless his remains before I cremate them. Normally I would ask a Lliiran from the shrine, but your here. Being a worshipper of Kelemvor makes much more sense,” He smiles. “Once his remains have been properly disposed, he will dance again in her great hall.”

The little faerie flying invisible point for the small group finds a few fellow fey creatures just a few miles out of Berdusk, but his kin are unable to provide any information about a haunted mill. They are curious as to why one of their own is hanging out with the too-serious large folk and have a small chat with Puddy on the topic.

In the mean time the others ride by, oblivious to the fact where their tiny companion might be, talking a little among themselves about burial rites and clerical practices, as well as some arcane relevant topics. Matteo is the quietest of the group, scanning the surroundings for any signs of danger or else. Not a waste of time, for despite the vigilant patrols out of Berdusk, the trails can remain dangerous with bandits and roaming monsters, especially the further one moves away from the safety of Berdusk’s walls.

Yet nothing remotely threatening appears to the group as they travel onwards into a south western direction. A long while later – Puddy has in the mean time caught up with the rest again – Matteo signals for a halt as they arrive at a fork in the trail. Further towards the southwest the trail leads to Greenrest and the across the plains that are known as ‘the Greenfields’, and way beyond to the Amnian town of Nashkel. The other part of the fork leads in a northern direction – towards Elturel.

Sliding off his horse, Matteo says, “Might be a good idea to give the horses a little bit of a rest before we press on towards Elturel. Let’s take a half hour break.”

“Thank the gods.” the tall bard mumbles as he gracelessly scrambles off his mount. The placid gelding sighs in relief, then shakes himself vigorously as if to rid himself of the memory of his uncomfortable rider. Nik staggers back from his horse; hands raised to ward off what he fears might become an attack. When the horse simply ducks his head and starts nosing hopefully around the road, Nik lowers his hands and tugs anxiously at the scarf around his neck.

The gaunt man gives the others an embarrassed, awkward grin, but as his eyes fall on Kevin Nik sighs. Once again his right hand tugs absently at the scarf, and a faint shudder runs through his lanky frame. Narrow shoulders once again slumped in his habitual stoop and hands in his pockets, Nik slinks over to the mage. Clearing his throat nervously, the bard offers Kevin a crooked, rueful smile. His sunken eyes flicker skittishly across Kevin’s face before fixing on a point somewhere slightly to the mage’s left.

“I’m sorry for my behavior earlier.” Nik says mildly, no trace in his calm voice of either the bitterness he had shown before or the apprehension now bright in his eyes. “Self control has never been a virtue I have managed to obtain. But I shouldn’t have taken my own discomfort out on you. My fear makes me lash out at anything, no matter how innocently meant. I… I…” Nik swallows hard as his rigid grasp on his emotions slips. The bard cringes, his haggard face suddenly ashen as terror flares in his shadowed eyes. The moment passes, and the tall man sighs and stares at his broken-down boots.

He looks back up at Kevin, meeting the mage’s eyes for a fleeting second. Nik’s dull hazel eyes are full of shame and the smile twisting his thin lips is wry and sardonic.

He shakes his head slowly, chuckling ruefully. “I’m sorry.” he says again. “I’m a wreck, and I know it. I should have stayed at the inn, but I didn’t, and I owe it to you folks to hold myself together better than I have so far.” Nik’s smile is faintly hopeful as he finally looks Kevin in the eye. A flicker of desperation lurks in his eyes now, and his crooked smile wavers as he adds softly “Please, Kevin, don’t be too offended by the things that pass my lips while I’m struggling with my demons. I don’t mean most of what I say then anyway, and what little I do mean is more for myself than for others. I’ve been alone a very long time, and I’m rather out of the habit of traveling with… friends.”

Dismounting, Portia listens to Nik as he tries to explain his emotions, and looks sympathetic while leading her horse. Walking along the trail, Portia continues to take in the surroundings.

“All things wrecked can, conceivably, be repaired.” Kevin shrugs. “I know you don’t want to hear this right now – I know better than you might think – but things will be better if you just work at them. That’s why I suggested you play some music. When blackness forms in your mind, the best defense is never to concentrate on it. I would instead concentrate on my studies, learning magic and philosophy. The fact that you are a bard is the only thing I knew about you, so I suggested that.”

Dismounting from his horse, Jez opens his shoulder pack and scoops a half-sleepy Alanna from it. Examining her, he places her back into the safety to of his shoulder pouch. “Sorry about that,” he says to her. He then reaches for his magical crossbow.

“It’s too quiet,” he says as he pulls the string and coaxes his newest magical crossbow. “Portia, don’t wander off to far,” he says loud enough for her to hear his voice. Looking at Matteo, he says, “I don’t like this at all. Nothing since we’ve left the city.” He continues to scan the surrounding area watching the others and Portia as well.

A spark of anger glimmers in Nik’s sunken hazel eyes as Kevin offers his advice. The anger vanishes as quickly as it appears, and Nik looks away, sighing heavily. “I know you’re right.” he tells Kevin, his deep voice flat and emotionless, his dull eyes staring across the fields once again. “And I do try not to wake the demons that haunt me. But it’s damned hard to be pleasant when you’re scared half to death.”

He suddenly looks back at Kevin, the wry smile back on his lips and sardonic amusement in his eyes. “Telsom was right, too, back at the Stag.” Nik says with an apologetic shrug. “I’ve quite the temper, and when I’m juggling fear and despair I’ve no wit, skill or will left to keep hold of it.”

Nik’s smile widens, becoming more honest and less self-mocking. “I never did thank you for your educational instruction the other day. I’ve always had a keen interest in the workings of magic, and I gather knowledge obsessively and with as much discretion as a magpie on a junk pile. Insatiable curiosity is another of my many faults.” the tall bard chuckles, adding with a wink “When I’m not stone drunk or drowning in the murky well of my past, that is.”

Glancing back to Portia and the others, Nik says “And speaking of curiosity, now that I’ve had a moment away from that fell beast of a horse I should go ask Lady Portia what exactly I’ve gotten myself into.”

Giving Kevin a small bow and a grateful smile, the gaunt man ambles back to Portia. “Hello, milady.” he says to her with a grin. “If you would be so kind as to give me a few more details about the errand we’re on, I will rummage through my rubbish-heap of a mind and see if I can fill in the gaps.”

Having paused at Jez’s suggestion, Portia has been leaning against her horse at her ease as Kevin and Nik exchange words. She has a thoughtful expression on her face… As Nik approaches, she offers a smile and a nod. “Hello.”

Looking at the bard thoughtfully, one finger tapping her cheek, she looks at the man for a moment more before saying, “the other day, I had a vision. A vision of an old building with a waterwheel. As I knelt on the bank of the creek or stream, I was approached by a figure. From everything I’ve been taught, the figure was the spitting image of Lord Kelemvor’s mortal body, but shrouded in shadow.”

Shifting a bit, her new armor creaking slightly, the Kelemvorite priestess continues with, “I was given the impression of longing, as if a soul were yearning for release. I also felt…” She looks at the bard again, judging, before finishing. “I also had the impression of hatred and defilement.” Before the bard can react, Portia adds, in a softer voice, “Nik, do you fear me?”

Nik’s eager attention for Portia’s story vanishes in a blink as she asks her question of him. Clearly startled, he just gapes at her for a long moment, his haggard face pale with surprise and his dull eyes suddenly wide with shock and more than a hint of fear.

Swallowing hard, Nik visibly flinches from Portia, his narrow shoulders hunched as if he expects her to hit him. A shudder runs through the man’s gaunt frame, followed by a sharp, bitter cough of a laugh. Nik straightens up and turns slowly back to Portia. For a change, there is no bitterness in his eyes, only an aching sorrow. Regret deepens the lines pain and fear have etched on his craggy face, and he shakes his head. “I’m not afraid of you, milady.” he says softly, his eyes fixed on his battered boots. “Really. I… I’m not… not afraid of any of you.” The bard glances at Jez, then swallows hard again, eyes back on his boots, right hand tugging anxiously at his scarf. “But some of the things you folks do, they terrify me. I’m not brave, or strong, or skilled at much of anything but music, drinking and wallowing in self-pity.”

His eyes skitter from his boots to Portia’s face and back again, wary as a rabbit facing a stoat, and he sighs. “I’ve been prey to much violence in my life.” he adds faintly, shoulders hunched again as if just mentioning violence will cause it to happen. “Some of it I’m sure I deserved, but much of it I didn’t. And it has marked me, likely forever. Immerine said I shouldn’t be ashamed of my cowardice.” Nik sighs heavily again, and the bitterness creeps back into his deep voice. “But I am. It’s a hell of a thing, to be a mouse that walks like a man.”

Nik shakes himself, and looks up from his boots, giving Portia a crooked, apologetic grin. “I’m sure that was more than you wanted to hear.” he says wryly, his voice light but his eyes still haunted. “I never did know when to shut up. But no, I don’t fear you.” His smile broadens, and the pain in his eyes is suddenly replaced by wicked amusement. “Now that fell creature there.” he hooks a thumb back at his docile horse nosing placidly along the roadside. “That brute scares me half to death.”

With a brief smile, Portia says, “I can understand the horse thing. When I asked that though, I think I really meant, Afraid of WHAT I am, not me personally. Many people have rather poor reactions to clerics of Kelemvor. There are never-ending stories, most unfortunately true, of Myrkul. Many of these still stigmatize the Kelemvorite church.” With a chuckle, Portia adds, “let me tell you, when I first met Saer Matteo there, one of his first questions was, ‘why do you worship the god of the dead?’

“Anyway,” she continues, “I’ve had people fear me because of my affiliation with the Church, and I wanted to make sure that wasn’t one of the issues for you. If it were, I would hope that I could put it to rest…”

“Nice choice of words,” Matteo murmurs as he leads his horse past Nik and Portia, pausing for a moment. “Not a common choice in Sembia,” he adds to Nik with a wink, “Most of us are looking to get ahead in life, whereas Kelemvor is often perceived as a god of endings. Not much profit there.”

The tall bard’s high cheekbones flush with embarrassment as Portia explains just what she meant with her question. Matteo’s arrival and comment bring a wry chuckle, and Nik shakes his head ruefully. Giving the Sembian a crooked smile, Nik says “It depends entirely on what exactly is ending, doesn’t it?”

His misunderstanding of Portia’s question seems – oddly enough – to have eased the tension that had been so obvious in the gaunt man. The years seem to drop from his craggy, careworn face, and his slight stoop seems less a defensive hunch and more just the habitual slouch of the very tall. Nik seems closer to twenty than forty now, his smile open and guileless and utterly without the sardonic, bitter edge that usually mars it.

“I’m such a self-absorbed idiot.” Nik says to them, eyes filled with wicked humor above his lopsided smile. “Everything’s about me, you know.” He shrugs apologetically, looking at ease for the first time since he left the Stag. “Me, me, me.” Nik chuckles again, adding “All I’ve done since I met you folks is brood, sulk, snap, or panic, and then have to apologize and explain myself, which usually results in more brooding, sulking, snapping or panic on my part. That little death-spiral only seems to end when I can drink to the point I no longer care. You have all been more than patient with me.”

Nik gives Matteo a mock-angry glare as he drawls “Well, I suppose YOU have gotten some measure of revenge by getting me on that demon-horse and out on this errand. And Immerine has gotten HER revenge by making my sotted self promise to set aside the bottle that has both comforted and chained me for most of my life.” The bard’s manic grin returns, and he turns to Portia. “To be absolutely honest, milady, traveling in the company of a priestess of Kelemvor is a comfort to a wretch like myself. I remember the Godswar, although I was far, far removed from any events of importance.” He gives Matteo and Portia a roguish wink and adds “And no, I wasn’t in prison at the time, I was around young Marc’s age and hadn’t yet managed to experience the joys of incarceration. But I digress. Kelemvor is a welcome change from the other gods who have held death as their responsibility. And while I travel with you, milady, I have no fear that my death will be lingering and painful, or that afterwards what little light remains in my soul will be engulfed by the darkness of my life and leave me a revenant for all eternity.”

The tall bard gives them an ironic look and adds with a smirk “Or until a brave band such as yourselves comes to put me to rest, like now.” Nik glances back over his shoulder to see if his mount is following. Reassured, or possibly disappointed, to see the gelding ambling along after the other horses, Nik sighs and turns back to Matteo and Portia. “See?” he says flippantly, eyes alight with amusement. “In some twisted, warped way it’s all about me after all, isn’t it?”

“And why not?” Matteo replies, looking away out over the surrounding countryside before adding in a quieter voice, “You only have your own perspective to look at things from, after all.” The black-clad Sembian seems to withdraw back into himself, resuming the quiet brooding that has occupied most of his time today.

Portia nods in agreement. “Don’t add that to your list of issues, Nik. I have a feeling that the most common feeling the others have in regard to you is concern and sympathy.” Nodding to the bard, she adds, “and that’s what I feel too.”

The feckless smile fades, and Nik’s gaze returns to his battered boots. “A joke.” he says softly, his sunken eyes worried and full of regret. “It was just a joke. A stupid little joke.” His narrow shoulders slump and he shoves his hands into his pockets, looking awkward and embarrassed. Sighing, Nik adds “I’m not really afraid I’ll become a ghost like whatever haunt we’re our way to investigate.” Nik smiles again, the humor back in his eyes as he glances at Portia. “That would take more willpower and determination than I’m likely to ever possess.”

“And I’m actually far more afraid of climbing back on that monstrous creature,” he tilts his head to indicate his docile mount following meekly along beside the pack horse, “Than I am scared of this possibly-haunted mill. Ghosts really don’t frighten me.” Nik shrugs, eyes still on the ground between his feet. “I suppose it comes from having always had enough in the material world to be afraid of. And in my experience, most ‘hauntings’ can be easily explained away by mundane phenomena.”

Giving Portia another fleeting glance full of his strange, fey humor, Nik says “And if this IS a real haunt, which your vision seems to indicate, who better to deal with it than a priestess of Kelemvor?”

Portia smiles and claps Nik on the shoulder. “I hope you’re right, Nik. Glad to have you along.” Squeezing slightly, she lets her hand drop, and looks around. “We’d best be moving along though…”

Leading the horses on foot, the small group sets off on the northern branch of the trail. Wheels of seasonal caravans have gouged their marks in the soil. The irregularities in the ground giving the whole a rough surface to travel on by wagon or coach. Though the trail is periodically well traveled, there is currently no sign of recent passage. The relative quietness doesn’t seem to sit well with Jezbodiah, the half-elf keeps looking left and right expecting trouble at any moment – though finding none.

Their tiny companion, Puddy, returns at some point, alighting on Portia’s mount and turning visible, nearly scaring the priestess. Everything seems quiet and peaceful ahead, and the little faerie has been unable to gather more information on the haunted mill from his kinsfolk.

Swinging back up into the saddle of his horse, Matteo says, “Might as well push on.” He does not turn to look at Nik, but also does not immediately set off on the assumption that everything will be alright.

After she re-swallows her heart, Portia glares at the little imp. “You,” she says, taking advantage of the first moment that she’s ever had to speak to the thing. “What are you?” She continues to lead her horse for the moment, not quite ready to clamber into the saddle with the imp so close.

The gaunt bard shudders at Matteo’s suggestion, eyes wild with terror again and arms hugged tightly across his bony chest. He casts Matteo’s back a pleading look, clearly wanting to beg the Sembian to let them walk a bit longer.

Seeming to realize that it will be futile, Nik turns to Portia. He gives her a tortured glance, his eyes glassy with fear and sweat beading on his ashen face, and he swallows hard several times. Unable to say whatever is on his mind, Nik turns away from the priestess and the fairy. Shoulders slumped and head bowed, shaking like a sapling in a gale, the tall bard trudges back to his horse. With trembling hands Nik pulls the flask Immerine gave him from one of the pouches on his belt and takes a long gulp before returning it to its place.

The long-suffering creature sighs as Nik musters his feeble courage, obviously not wanting the terrified man on his back any more than Nik wants to be there. But true to his training, the stolid gelding stands still while the bard jerks at his mouth while grabbing at the reins, and only grunts when Nik’s left leg drags across his back as the tall man swings awkwardly into the saddle from the horse’s off side. Deciding that the toe jabbing repeated into his ribs and shoulder as the bard fumbles for his other stirrup is the cue to move off, Nik’s horse snorts and strikes off at a slow trot.

With a thin, faint animal cry of fear, Nik grabs at his horse’s coarse mane with both hands, his long legs practically wrapped around the horse’s barrel, heels dug deeply into the horse’s ribs. He looks nearly sick with terror as his horse passes Portia and Matteo before the gelding plainly decides this is too much like work and slows to a walk.

Seeing that Nik has saddled his horse with some courage, Jez follows suit and places himself on his own steed. Checking his shoulder pouch one last time, he is about to lift the flap it when Alanna shoves her nose forth and squeaks boisterously. She alerts the others, and Jez as well, as to her eagerness to go. With much energy and nothing to do, she dangles her head out and sniffs the fresh country. “Well, follow the leader,” Jez says and ‘kicks’ the horse into a slow trot as they continue down one of the roads.

“No equine beast, my great fortune it is to be,” chuckles the sprite as he watches Nik’s attempt to mount and ride his horse. Suddenly, he adopts a concerned look as he examines himself thoroughly and gasps, “Why? To be what do I appear?”

“Well,” the priestess says, “you ‘appear’ to be some sort of imp or faerie.” Moving closer cautiously, she prepares to mount the horse. With an almost absent, “move over,” she swings up. Then continuing the conversation, she says, “But what I really want to know is, what are you? Race and name mostly…” Then, distracted by Nik’s obvious terror, she sighs. “Hang on a second,” she says to her passenger. She takes hold of her symbol and casts a quick spell…

Puddy shifts himself higher on the horses neck as he makes an dramatic sigh of exasperation. “Label everything, why humans must? Whether you call me imp or faerie or dragon, change who I am, it does not. Sprite, fae, pixie, fairy; to me, it matters not. Choose whichever you like.”

Settling into the saddle with the imp aboard, Portia can’t keep a grin off her face. “Alright, be that way. Dragon it is. Does this dragon have a name, or can I make that up too? I’m Portia Coldspring. Nice to meet you…” The little fey stands stiffly astride the horse’s mane and executes a stiff bow in strictest formality. “Pudruelantreda my given name is, though call me Puddy you may, as does Nik.”

Portia smiles, “Well met then, Puddy.” At mention of the bard, Portia can’t help but look his way. “It’s good to know the bard has someone looking after him…” It might be imagining things, but it does appear as if the tall bard is sitting a bit more relaxed in the saddle than before. The horse however seems still quite content to move at a walk, rather than anything faster.

“Torment not, Puddy, the poor human,” Kevin calls in Sylvan, humor coloring his voice. He doesn’t spare more than a glance in Portia’s direction as he replaces the bit on his horse and prepares to mount it again. “All to control lives of theirs, the Big Folk do. Important are names to us. Of all, humans the most aggressive of city-ones are, and so wish to themselves control the most, by other things knowing. Have a hard time letting go, they do.”

Now he does look at the fae, a half-smirk on his face. “Of course, this to me applies as well. City-type Big Folk, after all, I am. Just know it better, I do.”

* * *

A lukewarm autumn sun shines down between the clouds drifting by overhead, as the small group of investigators travels along the trail in the direction of Elturel. Despite the coolness of the weather, between the trees that flank the trail on both sides as it winds its way through a gentle sloping valley, the temperature feels warm, and it doesn’t take long before jackets and tunics are opened a little to make the journey a bit more agreeable. Most of the trees still have their green foliage, though the yellows, reds and browns of autumn are already frequently sprinkled amongst the green, creating a colorful tapestry of nature.

The slanted shadows cast by the sun are at their shortest when Matteo and Jezbodiah feel the hairs in their neck proverbially stand up. Yet before they can react to the suspicious feeling, a loud creaking and crashing noise sounds from two sides; the noise created by two trees falling down on the path – one in front, the other behind the small group. The falling trees are followed by a small flight of projectiles – four javelins sail through the air towards the surprised group.

One of the missiles strikes Matteo’s horse, causing the animal to rear-up and whinny in pain. The movement catching the Sembian unawares and he tumbles ungracefully to the ground. By reflex Matteo held on to the reigns, keeping the horse from leaping away yet his landing also keeps him uncomfortably close to the hooves of his panicked mount.

A second missile barley misses Nik and his docile mount. Though the falling trees, the near miss of the javelin and the reaction of Matteo’s horse are enough to spook the poor animal – and the bard. In a frightened reaction, Nik clamps his legs onto the animal’s body, and with a surge the horse leaps forward and through the branches of the fallen tree, galloping off away from the ambush in panic, carrying a mortally frightened Nik.

The third projectile strikes the mount of the Silvaren wizard in the flank. By Tymora’s luck, the two pack horses that are tied to Kevin’s saddle back-up keeping the half-elf’s horse from rearing and jumping away. With difficulty Kevin manages to keep control of the animal. The wizard’s animal companion Kethron – who had been comfortably dozing on the wizard’s shoulder takes to the air as the chaos erupts, seeking the safety overhead.

Only Jezbodiah and his mount do not seem to be immediate targets for the unknown ambushers, though the half-elf Berduskan doesn’t have much time to reflect upon his luck as he fight to keep control over his spooked mount, a task made more difficult by the last projectile that strikes Portia, but bounces harmlessly of the armored priestess. The impact and the other sounds of the ambush are enough to scare her horse witless and the Kelemvorite loses control, joining the Sembian in an involuntary excursion to the ground.

“Sods and Gods,” rasps the half-elf harshly under his own breath as javelins zip pass and Nik’s horse breaks into a full gallop.” Sensing her master’s anxiety, Alanna squeaks from the protected depths of Jez’s shoulder bag. “Hang tight,” he says, “and get used to it.”

A chitter of fearful concern can be heard from the leather shoulder back. “Easy now!” he cries as he leans forward on the horse to calm the beast. Once he has his steed under control, Jez kicks the horse into gear and races off after Nik.

Breathless, Portia rolls over and staggers to her feet, reaching for her mace. Blinking, she takes a first, shuddering breath, and releases it in a scream of pain and outrage. Running forward – toward the direction the javelins came from – the priestess rushes the brush along the side of the trail wildly, shield and mace at the ready.

Grunting in pain as his shoulder takes the strain of the reins, Matteo fumbles about in an effort to get his feet underneath him while his horse bucks and paws at the ground. After a moment of ungainly struggle, the young Sembian manages to regain his feet and releases the reins of his horse. A low hiss of steel sounds as he draws his rapier and he turns towards Portia’s direction as she charges off into the brush. His face expressionless, Matteo draws his matching dagger and begins to walk implacably after her, not saying a word.

Kevin struggles to control the three panicky mounts with one hand as he draws a wand with the other. Fortunately, the fact that the three animals – each with their own notions of where safety lays, are effectively canceling out each other’s pulls – helps somewhat. Kevin knows he has to get off his wounded mount soon, but the priority lays in making sure the enemy doesn’t kill him first. Whomever and whatever that enemy is.

Kevin scans the nearby foliage wildly as his tense body gripped the horse beneath him. <Kethron!> he calls in Elvish, echoing the mental call he sent over their shared link. <Find me a target!>

At first sign of the attack, the small fey immediately fades from sight. After taking a glance at his comrades to see how they fared, Puddy takes flight about 20 feet from the ground, heading in the direction the javelins came from.

Too terrified to even scream, Nik just clings to his runaway horse, the reins flapping loosely from fists clenched in a death-grip on the horse’s mane. The scared animal runs headlong down the trail, flecks of foam flying from its mouth. Despite his terrified state, the unfortunate bard hears hoofs pounding the earth some distance behind him.

As the chaos erupts around the small group as a result of brightened and spooked horses, Portia storms off towards one side where she thought she had seen the missiles fly from. She makes it to the brush growing on the side of the trail when two large shaggy humanoid creatures step forward, wielding wicked long-bladed daggers. For a moment the red-haired priestess has the impression that she is facing a pair of bears standing on their hind legs wearing crude armor, then she abandon’s these thoughts as the two brutes attack.

Invisible to friend and foe, the small faerie flies in opposite direction from where Portia is heading. Puddy saw one of the missiles coming from that side, and he soon finds that he was not mistaken as another of the brutes emerges from cover, balancing another javelin and readying to throw.

Matteo having gained his footing back under him and finding himself no longer threatened by flailing hooves, starts to walk in the direction of a beleaguered Portia. The Sembian’s face is grim as he quietly yet determined moves towards the beastly attackers.

Through the link with his familiar as well as with his own eyes, the still mounted wizard sees three ‘targets’ emerge, yet a split second later, Kethron’s senses pick-up another three of the brutes climbing over the tree that crashed on the trail behind the group. Things don’t look very promising to the young Silvaren and his companions…

Pointing the wand at the three creatures climbing over the fallen tree, Kevin utters an arcane word and three bright sparks shoot out unerringly at the advancing enemy, striking each one of the ugly-faced, beast-like things. Two of the three growl in pain as the searing spark burns their skin and sends thin tendrils of smoke in the air. The third apparently barely registers the impact, the only immediate effect being that Kevin now seems to be the prime target for the big brute.

Seeing that the group seems to be somewhat surrounded, Puddy finishes his reconnaissance, and concentrates for a moment on the trees and brush along the trail around the party. Suddenly the three beastmen find their movement impaired as the vegetation around them suddenly seems to cling to their arms and legs, the more supple branches of the fallen tree wrapping around the creatures torsos.

Behind, and unseen to Kevin and the invisible hovering Puddy, two other creatures advance. Glaring at the things that just tried to skewer her, Portia points her mace at the creature drifting to her right and snaps off a quick spell. “Halt!” Once she casts, the priestess faces the second foe full on, ready to defend herself, easily deflecting a lunge with a long dagger aimed at her neck. The creature quickly recovers though and swings in for another strike, managing to scratch the blade across the priestess’ armor.

The other opponent gets a stupefied look on its already ugly face and stops in its tracks, making no attempt to attack the priestess from its now advantageous position. The creatures expression becomes even more idiotic as it suddenly realizes it is being skewered from behind. Matteo’s rapier finding an easy way through the unmoving creature’s armor, severely hurting the beast.

From the groups vulnerable side the 6th creature launches its attack. Clearly the bestial creatures are not dumb and recognize the most dangerous threats. Seeing Kevin focused on his hapless companions, the creature snarls once and then launches the javelin at the unsuspecting wizard. The projectile lodges itself squarely between Kevin’s shoulder blades. With an anguished cry of pain, Kevin topples forward as the world around him goes dark… Only his feet braced in the stirrups prevent him from falling of.

Further down the trail two horses are racing. One in control by its rider, the other fleeing in panic with an even more panicked rider on its back. “Dancing goddess, I hope he can hear me,” Jezbodiah thinks to himself in desperation. “Stop the horse!” he yells nearly at the top of his lungs. “Nik, get a hold of the reins! Pull ‘em!” A shrill chittering of desperation can be heard from his shoulder satchel. Poor Alanna, all she wants is a nice shady tree and for a master to stop the world right about now.

Whether Nik hears it or not is unclear, the result is the same, his horse keeps its panicked gallop foam flecks flying. Jezbodiah manages to close the gap slowly though, it won’t be long or the Berduskan will have come abreast of the Silvaren bard.

Paralyzed by fear, the bard seems unaware of Jez catching up to him. He hangs onto his runaway mount with the single-minded fixation of a drowning man clinging to a bit of flotsam in a storm. The bard’s mount however apparently did notice another horse, and slows its madcap run along the trail, allowing Jezbodiah to coma abreast.

Reaching for the bard’s reigns, the lithe half-elf grabs them and manages to bring Nik’s horse as well as his own to a standstill. The chests of both horses heaving like bellows, something mirrored by he two riders. Sweat is dripping from Nik’s forehead and his back appears drenched as he finally manages to straighten.

Quite a way behind the two, the ambush turns into a nasty fight. Bringing his dagger into play Matteo launches a second attack at the creature, probing with two weapons at the weak points in the creature’s armor. Though after the first painful stab, the bleeding beast manages to avoid the stinging bite of the Sembian’s weapons at the cost of landing a counterblow.

Portia’s opponent is not so unfortunate, and manages to slip through the priestess’ defenses as she is trying to press her attack. The wicked long dagger scores a deep gash, across Portia’s arm drawing blood. Trusting in Matteo to handle the second foe, Portia brings her mace to bear on her opponent as she grits her teeth against the stinging wound on her mace-arm. With another cry of anger, she whips her mace forward, smacking the monster’s chest and cracking some ribs.

Puddy looks on in dismay as the javelin strikes the wizard. He pulls forth his tiny longbow, and begins to fire arrows at the creature which brought low the wizard. The tiny arrow speeds through the air to land in the beast’s broad neck – apparently unnoticed as the burly monster continues its advance towards the fallen wizard.

Puddy quickly grabs for another arrow and is about to shoot again when he notices a slight faltering in the bear-faced creature’s steps, a faltering followed by a wide yawn and the crashing of the monster to earth, snoring deeply. Its companions remain in the grasp of the fallen tree’s foliage and are growling in frustration as they are trying to break their way out.

Kevin remains very still on the ground with the javelin sticking out of his back. A stain of blood slowly spreading around the impact point. The horses huddle together near the center of the site, both Matteo’s and Kevin’s horse in the middle of the small herd.

Of Nik and Jezbodiah there is no sign.

Concentrating upon the movements of the creature before him, Matteo’s eyes narrow and though the cold impassiveness never leaves his eyes a soft smile crosses his face. Probing forward with his weapons once again, he renews his attack on the creature. Lunging in to a perceived opening, Matteo’s dagger is turned away by his opponent’s long bladed dagger at the last possible moment.

Not worried about the lost opportunity for a moment, the cool headed Sembian uses the creature’s defensive move to his advantage and presses home with the more serious attack of his rapier, piercing through the flimsy armor the large creature is wearing. As he withdraws the blade, immediately blood starts welling up, staining the clothes in an almost mirror image-like pattern as on the back.

Apparently it has had enough and Matteo’s opponent tries to turn the proverbial tail. It would probably have succeeded in getting away if it turned in the right direction, it doe however pass within reach of Matteo’s dagger and it is the sharp blade of that weapon that cuts open the creature’s jugular. Futilely it reaches a hand up to stop the flow of blood, but its legs suddenly give way and death claims the creature before it hits the ground.

Behind the victorious Sembian the fight continues. Doing her best to ignore her wound for now, Portia crouches low, raising her shield to protect herself from the monster’s blade. Grunting in pain from Portia’s mace-blow, the priestess’ adversary manages once more lunge past the shield and threatening mace, scoring once more a hit on the well armored priestess. The long dagger glances of the armor initially but the sharp point finds a way between the chinks of the armor near her shoulder and plunges into the soft flesh below.

The pain and the angle of attack force Portia further down on her knees, and as blood starts flowing from the puncture wound in her shoulder, she grits her teeth to return the favor. Swiping her mace in from the side, she strikes at the thing’s knee with a short shriek of effort. The mace connects with the creature’s knee solidly, causing it to overbalance and crash to the ground in agony, seeing an opportunity she can’t miss, the red-haired Kelemvorite brings the mace about once more, this time connecting with the beast’s skull cracking it open like an egg.

Satisfied that the sleeping enemy is no longer a real threat for the moment, an invisible Puddy zooms over to the three creatures wrestling in the grappling twigs and branches of the fallen tree. In quick succession two tiny arrows strike through the air to sting the creatures and further enrage them.

Seeing three of their own down, the remaining three suddenly don’t seem to feel that comfortable anymore, especially now that both Portia and Matteo turn around and start making their way over. One of the three is lucky and manages to break free of the trees entanglement, despite the harassing pricks of the faerie. Without further regard for its companions, the ugly creature sets off at a run into the bush.

The smell of blood in the air as well as the wounds on two of the horses makes the whole bunch rather agitated and the small herd moves restlessly about, not a comfortable situation for the non-moving wizard who lies not very far from the hooves of the horses. A quiver in the upright javelin is an indication that the young wizard is still alive, but judging by the amount of blood, it is by a mere thread.

* * *

Further down the trail a mile or two beyond the ambush site, Jezbodiah releases the reins and says, “Can you ride back and help the others or do you wish to wait here?” He ‘kicks and motions’ his own horse away from Nik’s mangy steed, readying himself for the ride back to Matteo, Portia and the others. He looks at Nik with impatient intent.

The bard slowly turns to face Jez, his face corpse-gray and streaked with sweat and his eyes blank with terror. He swallows hard and manages a faint nod before pulling feebly at one rein in an attempt to turn his horse back around.

Glad to have the company of another horse, Nik’s mount obediently turns and follows Jez’s horse. Nik is shaking with fear and adrenaline now, but he locks his hands in his horse’s coarse mane and bows his head in preparation of the ride back to the ambush. If Jez pauses to look, he can see that the bard’s eyes are closed tightly and his teeth are gritted in terrified anticipation of the return ride.

“Heeyaa!” cries Jez sharply as he kicks his horse into motion. He quickens his horse’s pace and hopefully shortens the amount time needed to return to the scene of battle. He can only assume Nik’s scraggy mount will follow him. And assumption that proves true as mere moments later he hears the hoof beats of Nik’s mount following his own.

* * *

As the remaining two creatures continue wrestling with the greenery in order to escape, Puddy keeps up a barrage of needle like arrows that seem to enrage the creatures further and hampering their attempts at extracting themselves from the clinging growths.

Pale from the pain of her wounds, Portia’s shield slumps as she lets her guard down. The pain of keeping her shield up is not worth the effort at the moment. Upon seeing the mage, Portia shifts her direction, and says, “Matteo, take care of the vermin would you?”

Looking up from the fallen creature before him, Matteo gives the blade of his dagger a flick of his wrist, sending some of the blood upon it spattering over the forest floor. Picking his way through the entangling undergrowth with deliberate care, Matteo quietly closes in upon the closest beast seeking to end its life.

While Matteo makes his way towards the creatures, they stop their struggling in an attempt to defend themselves, growling in a guttural language that is vaguely reminiscent of the goblin-tongue. As Matteo closes with the first, the bloodshot eyes of the other seem to seize up the Sembian for a moment before wrestling its way closer to join the fray and aid its companion.

Noticing the second creature closing to support its fellow, Matteo’s facial expression becomes even more neutral and devoid of emotion if at all possible, lightning quick his rapier and dagger flash in feint, attack and counterattack, scoring solid hits on the two real strikes and enraging the trapped – but not defenseless creature. Growling at the top of its lungs, it rips a branch from the fallen tree and flings it at the Sembian who easily dodges the makeshift weapon, however the creature is clearly capable of quick learning and improvising, following the throw with a lunge of its own wickedly long dagger, scoring a scratch across Matteo’s torso.

Its victory and its compatriots look of murderous glee are short-lived, as with a subtle twist and a flick of his wrist, Matteo sends his dagger plunging straight into an eye socket of the ugly faced creature killing it immediately as the sharp blade penetrates the brain. Puddy trying valiantly to discourage the second opponent pins another set of arrows into the enraged creatures flesh. Though the individual arrows don’t seem to do much damage, they do serve to slowly drain resolve and strength.

In the meanwhile Portia has arrived at the fallen wizard’s side after having moved the horses away to the ‘safe’ side of the ambush area. The priestess kneels near the mage, reaching out but not quite touching the shaft of the javelin. “Oh, boy, that’s really got to hurt,” she mutters, and then proceeds to cast a healing spell. For the time being, she ignores her own wounds…

As a still invisible faerie archer and the wounded Sembian swordsman prepare to engage the remaining ambusher, Jezbodiah and Nik arrive at the opposite site of the ambush. As Jez reins his horse in he quickly surveys the scene, noticing to his amazement that there is only one enemy left standing and to his horror that the young mage appears to have fallen. The pale-faced Portia kneeling beside the unmoving mage doesn’t seem to bode well.

Only when his horse has finally stopped moving does Nik dare to open his eyes once more, blinking a few times against the light. The first sight that greets the lanky and terrified bard is Portia administrating some rite over a fallen form of Kevin, the second sight is Matteo apparently facing of by himself with a very ugly bugbear.

Portia’s administrations and prayer call forth a nimbus of gray mystical energy that surrounds her hands as she probes carefully the area where the javelin entered Kevin’s body. Tendrils of the grayish energy seem to seep into the wound and loosen the javelin. Pulling the embedded weapon carefully with one hand while keeping the other close to the wound, Portia begins to remove the javelin from the wizard’s back. Though fresh blood wells up immediately after, the mystical energy seems to stop the flow and actually send it back into the severely wounded man’s body.

As Matteo manages to dispatch the final enemy – this time with incurring a counterstrike – Portia succeeds in removing the weapon entirely from the wound. Offering another prayer to the Lord of the Dead and a brief one to Mystra the red-haired woman’s hands pass over the wound once more, the grayish energy once more enveloping her hands and seeping into the wounded man’s body restoring life and knitting flesh and bones together again.

The half-elf begins to stir as the healing energies of Kelemvor’s priestess flows into his body. As the javelin is removed, though, Kevin jerks awake and struggles, uncomprehending of his surroundings. Weakened as he is, though, the priestess has no trouble keeping him still enough to call upon Kelemvor’s favor once more.

As more healing energy fills him and dulls the pain to memory, Kevin stops thrashing. He is suddenly aware of Kethron nuzzling him, practically shouting his concern and worry. Reassuring him with one hand – and through their mental link – Kevin also takes in his surroundings as best he can. With no enemies in sight, and two friends watching over him, the wizard feels his weariness grow stronger.

Laying his head down again, he attempts to moisten his mouth. After a moment, he asks “ Is everything clear?” The action prompts a coughing fit, as Kevin’s body tries to expel the traces of blood that had been in his throat and lungs.

Discarding shield and sitting down near the mage, the now very pale priestess shrugs. “For the moment, I think so.” She shrugs off her pack. She winces as she tries to work the pain out of her shoulder. She starts digging around in her pack and comes up with a wand. “Might as well break this in…” She’s holding the cure wand that the group recovered from the warehouse. She touches her shoulder, triggering the wand.

Squatting down beside the two nearby bugbears, Matteo wipes their blood from his weapons on their hides before sliding the weapon home in their sheathes. Not yet rising to his feet, the Sembian begins a search of their bodies.

Kethron, after reassuring himself that his person was in no danger of dying any longer, darts over to Portia. He rubs his head and wings against the cleric’s leg and arm, purring loudly. Then, before the woman is over her surprise, flashes back to Kevin. The weakened wizard rolls over on his side to receive his familiar in both arms; the tressym continues to purr loudly, vibrating Kevin’s entire body. He does spare a moment, though, to turn his head to give Portia another thankful look.

Kevin smiles. “Looks like Kethron counts you as a Good Person now.” He studies the bloody javelin, lying on the blood-stained grass not far away, with sober eyes. “As do I.”

He forces a grin, though. “I guess Kelemvor didn’t want me dropping in so soon. Likely lingering memories of my father’s passage through his domain; my father would have tried even the Judger’s patience, I don’t doubt. Not that he wasn’t a nice person, he just… well, he liked making wisecracks about everything,” he finishes lamely. The young man is obviously trying not to show how disturbed he is at how close to death he came, but is – of course – failing.

Realizing that his babbling isn’t helping, he hugs Kethron tighter and looks around. “Where is everyone?”

“Hey, everyone look who I brought back! I thought I’d never reach his horse.” Jez says aloud beaming with pride. “Is everyone okay?” Jez views the scene of the group’s most recent carnage and cringes shortly before he dismounts his horse.

The roguish half-elf turns and looks at Nik, still paralyzed with fear, and merely shakes his head in disbelief. “Remember the words Immerine spoke to you in the stables. Focus on those words, the words she said to you. That should help you calm yourself.” He nods his head and looks at Nik’s mangy steed and says, “Uh, you could let go his mane? I think the horse, well, is trying to say something. Your grip looks rather painful.”

“Those entangled in the shrubbery and the sleeping one, you want me to dispatch them?”

Seeing that the fight seems to be over, the little fey leaves the sleeping and entangled bugbears for the more powerful warriors to dispatch, and begins to invisibly circle the area, both in attempt to salvage as many of his tiny arrows as he can, as well as keeping a sharp eye out for other creatures possibly in hiding.

For the longest time the tall bard just sits slumped and trembling on his long-suffering horse, gasping for breath as if he had run the distance instead of his mount. Sweat plasters his thin shirt to his gaunt body like a second skin, casting his jutting bones and the knotted web work of scars across his hunched back in sharp relief.

The sound of Jez’s voice brings Nik’s head up slowly, and his glassy, unfocused gaze turns in the half-elf’s general direction. Nik’s haggard face is streaked with sweat and ashen with terror, in fact he looks like he has come closer to death than Kevin – at least in the bard’s own mind. It takes a moment for Jez’s words to penetrate the haze of fear, and Nik swallows hard and looks down at his hands, still twisted in his poor horse’s mane.

Somewhat reluctantly the long fingers unclench, and Nik half-falls, half-slides off his horse. Somehow managing to land on his feet, the tall bard staggers only a few feet away before his trembling legs give out. Crumpling down to hands and knees, Nik retches weakly, sick with fear.

When the dry heaving subsides Nik sits up, his knees now drawn up to his bony chest and his face buried in his crossed arms. Nik’s breath comes in ragged gasps and sobs, his frail frame shaking like a leaf in a gale.

Once again freed of the uncomfortable and irritating burden that is Nik, the docile bay gelding shakes himself and ambles towards the grassy side of the road. As he passes the huddled form of his troublesome passenger, the horse snorts and rolls his eyes at the acrid reek of fear in the man’s sweat. Clearly the excitement of the flight from and back to the ambush site is still coursing through the normally stolid gelding’s veins, and he actually prances a few steps with his head and tail flung high until he is past the hunched-up lump of concentrated terror. Once he is safely by, however, the bay’s practical nature takes over once again, and he snorts just once more before lowering his head to nibble absently at the grass.

By the time that Nik has emptied the contents of his stomach a chuckling half-elf finishes off the sleeping bugbear at Matteo’s gesturing. The Sembian, in the mean time, stands up from the where the first pair of bugbears was dispatched, holding one of the creature’s long daggers in his hand appraising the weapon.

With some administering of her own wounds, and acknowledging the thanks from the half-elven wizard, Portia manages to take the worst bite out of her own wounds. Kevin in the mean time does nothing more than sitting up and letting his body acknowledge the beating it received. The young wizard’s face is in concentration as his friend and familiar takes off to join an invisible Puddy in a scouting mission.

Some time later when Nik has recovered from his ordeal and Kevin manages to weakly stand up, leaning on one of the horses, Puddy comes back – as well as Kethron – and reports nothing unsavory in the vicinity. The remaining bugbear is well under way, fleeing to someplace far away from the victorious group.

Matteo and Jezbodiah return from checking out the slain ambushers and display their findings, a small collection of coins – most of them copper – a ring, two precious looking stones, a slightly dented silver cup, a small weathered statuette of some four-legged animal, a necklace with a precious stone inlay and two flasks of unknown contents.

Having already slipped the dagger into the sheath at his waist, Matteo slides his own dagger into his boot then makes his way over to Kevin and Portia, quietly turning the moonstone necklace over in his hand and looking at the stone. Sighing, he glances over towards Nik then over to Portia and Kevin, his eyes lingering on their injuries.

Sifting through the loot, Jez says, “if no one is interested in the money, I’ll take it. I know a church that will see it go to an orphanage.” He also panders the signet ring looking at it for markings, writings, or anything that will indicate history or lore. He also examines the statuette, turning it onto its base looking for writings an such.

Looking up from where she’s resting, Portia glances at the bard as well, and then quirks an eye at Matteo, shrugging. She uses her newly acquired wand on her wounds again, then holds it up and waves it at Matteo. “Looks like you could use some of this too.” Pulling herself to her feet, the priestess stretches, and then moves to treat the Sembian.

Matteo blinks as Portia addresses him and glances down at his side where the bugbear’s dagger sliced his black doublet open. Reaching in with his hand to touch the wound he winces and when he pulls his hand back the palm is covered in blood. “I suppose so,” he murmurs. Looking back at Portia he gives a lop-sided grin, though his eyes remain a flat slate gray. “If you would be so kind?”

Portia touches the man with her wand once, before saying, “may I?” She nods toward the knick-knacks that Matteo has been collecting…

Kevin also glances through the items Matteo found. “Well, I suppose they’ll have a resale value,” he notes. “I wonder if that statue represented some animal totem? I’m afraid I’m not very knowledgeable about primitive religions.” He picks up the cup, noticing the dent and wondering what caused it. “Well, the city guard ought to be happy about some of the raiders I’d heard about having been taken care of. We’ll have to tell them about this when we get back, of course.”

Finally Nik’s terror ebbs to a level he can handle, and the bard gets to his feet with the shambling gracelessness of a zombie. His narrow shoulders are still hunched and his head is bowed so his chin nearly touches his bony chest. Another tremor runs through his tall, gaunt frame, and then he turns back to the others.

Some of his ragged, uneven mane of hair has come out of the thong that ties it back, and a few errant strands stick to the sweat now drying on his haggard face. Absently Nik reaches up to push the hair from his face, and he gives the others a wan, faint smile. Shame is now as stark in his face as the terror was a moment ago, the bitterness dark in his sunken eyes.

“I told you I’m afraid of horses…” Nik says, his voice ragged and thin. The old bitter, sardonic grin twists his face as he adds “And when your life has been as miserable as mine, well, let’s just say it’s not what you want flashing before your eyes. In fact…”

His voice trails off as he watches Portia using the healing wand on Matteo. Nik’s head drops to his chest again, and he heaves a shuddering sigh and heads towards them, shoulders still slumped and his hands stuck in his pockets. The bard’s long strides are still a bit unsteady, with the beginnings of a limp as abused muscles begin to stiffen.

Looming over Portia and Matteo, Nik offers the ground between them an apologetic smile, shame still coloring the angular planes of his face. Clearly unwilling – or unable – to meet their eyes, the bard stares fixedly at the battered toes of his boots. He clears his throat nervously and says “You shouldn’t waste such a useful thing as that, milady,” he waves a trembling hand at the wand, “When I can put to use what meager talent I possess.” He flashes his rueful smile at the ground again and adds bitterly “And were I less of a coward I would have been able to save you from having to use that wand at all. But coward I am, and so you use what’s irreplaceable and I end up on all fours heaving up like a sailor after a week-long bender.”

Nik shakes his still-bowed head and begins to sing. His voice is the fainted breath of a whisper, the words indistinct but the barely-heard melody and rhythm are soothing.

Jez looks at Nik and the others and says aloud as he sifts through the treasures, “When I was twelve or thirteen, my parents wanted me to learn the acrobatics of horseback riding. you know, learning how to stand on a horse and jump to and from a horse. I was excited about it and it was necessary at the time as they were part of a traveling carnival. Anyway, to shorten the story, they had the horse and safety harness in place and the ride around the track was pretty successful until the harness gave way. Don’t recall why it did, but I lost my balance and ended up dislocating my left shoulder and right collar bone with the rolling fall. It was pretty painful and I screamed for most the day.” He looks at Nik and says, “But it hasn’t made me afraid of horses, more like saddles.”

There’s a squeak and chatter from Jez’s haversack and Alanna the ferret pops her head out. “You’re right Alanna. They wouldn’t let me do it again. It was the parallel bars and gymnast bars. All I wanted them to do was make them proud of me.”

“Thank you,” Matteo says quietly to Portia and Nik as the knife wound in his side knits over and heals under their care.

“Don’t get too attached to that money or ring, Master Wisp,” he says to Jez, a slight smile turning up the corner of his mouth. “I am going to use it to offset some of the colossal expenses you and the rest of our motley gang continue to rake up at Mumadar’s. The last bill was for over two hundred in gold, and that was six or seven days ago.”

Jez whistles in astonishment. “That’s a large bill,” he says surprise. “I’m glad I’m not drinking out his wine cellar. That and Mumadar must know good customers when he sees them.” Jez looks at the ring again. “Tell you what, if there’s a history or lore about ring, I wish to keep it. If not it’s yours to cover bills.” he says. “And if you need help covering Mumadar’s bills, no problem, but I’d still like to donate loot some to charity. It’s just not my way killing something and not doing something good in return.”

Looking around one last time, he tilts his head to Portia. “I noticed some of the horses were hurt. You think that wand could them any good?”

Matteo shrugs a shoulder at Jez’s reaction to the size of the group’s expenses, and in a vaguely disinterested voice replies, “It isn’t exorbitantly expensive, largely a matter of volume and location really. We have a lot of people staying at one of the finest inns in the city and almost all the food they are eating has to be ordered in from other establishments. And we need the location for the time being.” About to run a hand through his hair, Matteo glances at the moonstone pendant then tosses it in with the other items taken from the bugbear bodies.

Closing his eyes for a moment, he adds, “If it makes you feel better, think of the families we are helping in our efforts.” From the detached tone of his voice, Matteo sounds as though he may as well be discussing the weather.

“Is there something on your mind?” Jezbodiah says to Matteo. “You’ve seem more distracted than not. Any problems lately?”

“Nothing I care to share,” Matteo replies, turning away from Jez and moving over in the direction of his horse.

The half-elf merely shakes his head and says nothing. He collects the loot into a large sack, but not his sack and ties it shut. Alanna, in all the meanwhile, looks up at her master but remains silent. “It’s okay girl,” he says. “I can’t figure the man out. That’s all.”

A moment after wincing at the mage’s bloody robes, Portia winces as her own wounds once more draw her attention. She takes hold of her holy symbol once more and casts. Again a gray nimbus of mystic energy forms around the hands of the priestess as she tends to her own words, the gashes knitting themselves together and leaving only a faint outline of where the wounds had been.

While the red-haired priestess tends to her wounds, Matteo makes his way over to inspect his horse when Kevin steps up to him. “I hadn’t realized you’d be picking up our bills,” Kevin says to the Sembian with some surprise. “I thought we were paying individually.” He smirks as he recalls the drunkenness of the others the first night there. “Not that I’m likely to change any habits of mine simply because someone else pays for my consumption. If nothing else, that apple juice Mumadar gave me tasted better than many wines I’ve tried.”

The words of thanks from Matteo seems to have lifted some of the burden of Nik’s shoulders, though the lanky bard remains sullen as he waits until the rest have gathered themselves up again, giving a disinterested look at the bugbear corpses lying around. Unnoticed by the bard, Puddy gives more attention to the deceased, flitting over the bodies looking to retrieve his tiny arrows.

Kevin’s remark about wines he has tried brings a wry grin to Matteo’s face and the young Sembian replies, “Stick to your apple juice Kevin, if nothing else it is less likely to mask the presence of poisons.” About to continue on his way to his horse he adds, “I don’t pay for most of it, various third parties cover most expenses. It is just that I don’t want to become too dependent on those third parties.”

The young half-elf starts at the idea of poison in a drink, but after a moment, seems to taking as a joke on Matteo’s part – albeit a rather morbid one.

Nik offers Kevin a tiny smile, still just the shadow of the bard’s manic grin. The wry humor has returned to his dull eyes, however, and he tells the young mage “I pay for my own poison, you know. I don’t like to be beholden to anyone.” The crooked grin widens, and Nik winks at Kevin. “I never know what trouble I may have to run from.”

With a faint shudder, Nik looks over at the wounded horses. The tall man swallows hard, then says softly to Matteo “If you’ll hold them still, I may be able to help them.” Clearly the whole idea of approaching the wounded horses frightens Nik, but determination has replaced the shame in his haggard face.

Kevin smiles back at Nik, pleased to see the normally so depressed bard trying to make a joke. And one that, this time, wasn’t quite so self-insulting. The smile goes from encouraging to pleased as he hears the bard swallow his fear of horses. He rises from his spot on the ground; he’d been looking for something to do, anyway.

As Matteo and Kevin calm the horses and Portia finishes the administrations on her own wounds, Nik once more shows that he is more than a self-insulting, semi-alcoholic refugee. His voice flows once more into the soothing rhythm of a healing song, causing the horses to calm down even further. And as Nik’s hands pass over their wounds, the flesh and skin knit together again, leaving no sign of injury behind.

Jez finishes packing his steed quietly, but keeps a careful half-elven ear on the discussion between Matteo and Kevin. He shakes his head at the mention of the word “poison”.

“Disgusting,” he mutters to himself. Checking the straps and making sure the harness and newly collection of spoils are well-balance and firmly secured, Jez soon turns his attention to health of his steed. He pets and strokes the horse’s neck as if ushering to lower its head to the ground. Downward, the horse sniffs the land then stretches his lips and teeth, first biting then chewing the shrubbery. Tasting the green fruits of the land, it begins to gaze with zest, realizing it is getting a chance to rest and recuperate. Not wishing to sound impatient, he speaks to the others politely, “If you’re ready and the horses are ready, we had best be on our way to the mill. I’d hate to see more bugbears return, and in greater numbers.”

Portia, settling her gear once more, nods in agreement. The cleric collects her horse, mounts, and looks at the others. “I agree. Let’s move.” Holding her mount still, she looks about the small battlefield, her eyes slightly unfocused. A moment later, after murmuring a brief prayer, she looks down at Nik and smiles briefly. “I’m thinking a walking pace would be appropriate for now though.”

As the others prepare themselves, the redhead touches the haft of the huge blade, which never left it’s scabbard during the battle, protruding above her shoulder. She looks thoughtful…

“Where did you find the blade?” Jez asks Portia. “I noticed it came with you when you entered the tavern. I meant to ask earlier but the morning’s previous chatter prevented such.”

“Oh,” the priestess says, blushing slightly, “I, ah, asked for it at the Crystal Mansion. It’s one of the things I’ve been doing these last few days, practicing with my god’s chosen weapon.” She waves a hand deprecatingly. “It’s not the best hand and a half ever made, and I’m not entirely comfortable with it yet, but I think…”

She shrugs, leaving her last statement unsaid, and instead says, “…well, anyway, waving the thing around isn’t as easy as it looks. I would have used it here, but,” she smiles faintly, “I, uh, forgot it was there.”

With a ringing skirl of steel, Portia pulls her blade free with her right hand, holding it up so that the others can see it, being careful not to hit her horse in the head with it. Her grip is firm, and the blade does not waver. “Next time, we’ll see. It’ll be useless against most undead though.” She carefully re-sheathes the heavy blade.

Matteo gives a wry smile at Portia’s deprecating comments about her sword and, after a few minutes walking, mounts up on his horse.

“I didn’t know Kelemvorites had a chosen weapon. A sword in the hands of a cleric seems a bit out of place,” Jez says with a perplexed look on his face. “Do you know anything about the blade’s history? May I see it? I promise to give it back when I done with it.”

Shrugging, Portia wriggles a bit, detaching the sword’s sheath and holding it out to Jez. “I don’t think there’s anything special about it, other than being favored by Kelemvor. There are hundreds of blades like it in armories across Faerûn.”

Once the young man has taken the blade, Portia says, “as for the bastard sword being the favored weapon of the order… It’s taught that when Kelemvor was a man, before being raised up, he carried a hand and a half sword as his personal weapon. That has taken hold in his church, and he truly does seem to favor those that wield his that particular blade. The Doomguides all carry them.”

Jez looks at the blade and studies it carefully. “Doomguides?” asks the half-elf. “I’ve never heard of them. They sound dangerous.” He looks at Portia as if he doesn’t know who they are or what they do. His question sounds genuine however.

“Doomguides…” Portia looks off in the distance. “Well, like most priests of Kelemvor, the Doomguides minister to those that are dying. Unlike most Kelemvorites though, they take up arms against the undead as well. Now,” she waves a hand, “there are priests of several different gods that battle undead, I know. The Doomguides though, they are the elite. With blade and faith they battle to protect the living from the unnatural taint of undeath.”

Blushing slightly, the redhead adds, “I don’t know. Learning how to use that,” she nods toward the big blade in Jez’ hands, “is a step in that direction. It seems… right.”

“Hmmm,” he says as he sheaths the sword back into its scabbard. “Sounds like my mother’s affection with throwing blades. Something that I haven’t pick up yet.” He smiles at Portia. “The sword’s not my type of weapon. But I understand what you are saying. I’ve the urge to learn and master the scimitar.” He hands the sheathed weapon back to her. “You have any intentions on becoming a Doomguide? They sound like monster slayers. Crusaders that eliminate undead. The kind of stuff I heard in stories.”

Kevin speaks up, hesitation in his voice. “Shouldn’t we wait for Kethron and Puddy first? They may have information about the area.” Despite the reasoned suggestion, it was obvious to those present that the wizard was longing for his familiar’s presence. Indeed, both familiar and master had parted only with great reluctance, and the tressym only because his person had insisted he could withstand his absence for a short scouting flight.

“Have you sensed anything from your companion?” asks the half-elf. At this point, Alanna squeaks and squeaks loudly as she stick her head out of Jez’s Satchel and looks around. The young wizard doesn’t seem to acknowledge the question from the Berduskan half-elf as he stares off towards the trees and rushes next to the path. A few heartbeats later Jezbodiah’s familiar ducks away within the folds of the half-elf’s clothing and the winged cat appears within sight, circling once close overhead, before alighting on the saddle of Kevin’s horse.

“Kethron!” Kevin says, joy in his voice. He reaches out to his familiar, but feeling barely strong enough to stand, does not pick him up. As it is, he has to lean against his horse just to stay upright. Kethron rubs against his person’s hands with equal pleasure, looking very pleased with himself.

Kevin’s mouth quirks as he looks up. “Kethron didn’t see anything dangerous out there. At least one wolf, but no more bugbears that he could find. He did find a bird that he says was tasty.” Kethron mews in agreement at that, and settles down on the saddle to begin grooming himself.

The mention of food suddenly makes the wizard realize how hungry he is: his body telling him more fuel was needed to replace the lost blood. He begins fumbling at his saddlebags, his fingers lacking their normal dexterity, looking for his trail rations.

“Ow, ow, ouch! Sharp nails… You’re scratching you know.” The words come forth illustrating the half-elf’s discomfort. “Now c’mon out, Is there something wrong? Some days I just don’t understand you…”

Getting close enough to the horses to heal them seems to have used up what little courage the tall bard had left. As soon as the horses were healed he scurried away from them, as if he expected some sort of violent outburst from the beasts he is clearly so frightened of. Now he stands apart from the others, long arms wrapped around his bony chest and eyes dull as he watches the others mount up and prepare to move on. The gaunt man looks utterly exhausted, even defeated. His haggard face is blank and emotionless now, as if even his habitual bitterness has been wrung out of him by the day’s terrors.

Portia’s comment about continuing at a walk draws Nik’s attention, and he offers her a feeble smile that does nothing at all to change the dull, deadened look in his sunken eyes. Without a glance back to see where his borrowed mount is Nik starts trudging down the road, head down, back bent under the weight of his precious guitar and the limp rather pronounced now. But his slightly-uneven strides quickly gain a steady -if plodding- rhythm, obviously he has covered many miles afoot and is prepared to do so again.

Having finished picking through his spent arrows, the little fey wings his way after the rest of the party. Alighting once again on the tall bard’s shoulder, Puddy is content for a time to ride along in silence. However, his nature soon gets the better of him, and he turns to Nik and says, “A nice horse, he is. Perhaps, if spoke to him you did, reach agreement you may?”

Nik snorts disdainfully at Puddy’s comment, a spark of anger brightening his dull eyes. “It’s a damn animal, for all that it more resembles some fell hell spawn sent to torment me.” Nik grumbles. “I can’t talk to animals. At least not so that they’d understand me.”

The tall bard sighs, and some of his old wry humor replaces the anger. Shaking his head ruefully he adds “Anyway, even if I could talk to it, I think it’d just tell me to stay the hell off its back and we’d both be the happier. I’ve no delusions that I can ride those beasts. I’m sure it’d be just as glad to be rid of me as I would be grateful to never sit on it again.”

In a thoughtful tone, the little fey replies, “Still, made arrangements could be.” Then in a more mischievous tone, “Proper instruction for sitting, suggest he might,” Puddy pipes before falling into a fit of giggles.

After Kevin mounts his horse with some help from Jezbodiah and Portia, soon the whole group is mounted once more – with the notable exception of Nik. Pacing the horses to Nik’s strides the group sets out once more, leaving the ambush-site behind.

As the slightly damaged and weary group travels on towards a distant Elturel, they come upon a crossroads – that is, some small, almost game-like trail intersects with the beaten path which runs between Berdusk and Elturel. Willows and birches are the predominant trees rising up from the high rushes and reeds that seem to cover the area both left and right of the road as far as the eye can see – given the abundance of vegetation not very far…

Small clouds of tiny flies and mosquitoes buzz through the air making any halt uncomfortable in the damp, moist and oppressive air that hangs between the vegetation. The marshy area and the vapors that rise from the ground seem able to keep the onset of colder weather at bay for the time being.

Despite the unfavorable conditions of a halt, the group stops to debate in which direction to travel, when from the direction of the river a lone traveler approaches, carrying a large pack on his – or her – shoulders. Still wary from the recent ambush, Puddy takes off from the tall bard’s shoulders to scout invisibly in the area while the others – hands close to the hilts of weapons and wands – await the approach of the lone wanderer.

As the stranger comes closer, more details become apparent, a thick beard, furs and leathers which make up some sort of outfit. Trapper is the first word that comes to mind, and from the looks of it the right word. The man’s eyes from under a fur-lined cap and heavy brows take in the scene of the riders and a wanderer halting at the crossing, and he halts as well, warily scanning the area.

The half-elf swats weakly at the flying insects, a steady stream of muttering coming from him. Those near enough to understand him can tell that the mildest thing he has to say about this was that the bugs’ very existence was clearly demonic in origin, and certainly sinister in nature. However, he soon begins to repeat himself, his quiet complaints turning into rambles; he sways in the saddle with every step of his horse. In fact, it seems that if it weren’t for the distraction of the very insects he curses, he would have fallen asleep already.

Indeed, it takes him some moments to realize the party has stopped at all, and has not yet noticed the approaching man.

The invisible faerie in the mean time has returned from a quick scouting mission and reports his findings to Matteo. The Sembian is almost imperceptibly startled at the sudden voice in his ear, but masks his surprise. “Of ambush no sign there is.” The familiar voice of the tiny unseen companion whispers, “Alone a man is he on the path.”

Almost reflexively, Portia looks about nervously. Her hand drifts to her mace, but she doesn’t pull it free. Instead, she looks to Matteo questioningly… Lifting a leg, Matteo swings over the pommel of the saddle of his horse and slips down to the ground. “Wait here,” he says quietly to Portia before advancing towards the lone man, his hands hanging loosely by his side.

“Whattaya say girl,” replies Jez to Alanna. You think the stranger smells funny?” Alanna climbs out of Jez’s haversack and sprint up his arm and takes a comfortable position on his shoulder. The ferret stands upright and tries to gaze upon the stranger coming down the road. She sniffs the winds and drinks its aroma heavily.

Jez looks at Portia. “Can you see anything troubling about the stranger yon ahead?” Jez places his hand on the pommel of his sword. Jez then levels his eyes on the road ahead. They sparkle with colors of mischief and joy.

“Well met,” Matteo calls, pausing about fifteen to twenty feet from the man. Glancing away over the fetid swampland he adds, “Bit warm, though the insects seem to like it,” in a casual drawl.

“When one lives and works in this area the flying pests don’t seem to bother as much…” the stranger replies, “…of course a beard and good clothing help.” The mans eyes regard Matteo and the others with some caution, though his face remains friendly. “You’re city folk.” He comments more like a fact than anything else, “Are you lost?”

“Nah,” Matteo replies, playing up the cosmopolitan drawl of his native tongue, “not really. ‘Spposed to be checking out some haunted mill along the river hereabouts for the city guard. In Berdusk that is.” Shrugging his shoulders in a resigned sort of way, the young Sembian waves his hand in front of his face to keep the insects at bay and says, “Can’t be too hard to find, can it? I mean, all we gotta do is follow the river ‘til we get to it.”

Letting his eyes run over the trapper in a slightly bored manner he adds, “How do you collect your pelts? Cages? Or do you use noose-traps or spring-clamp traps?” Giving a bit of a lopsided grin Matteo adds by way of explanation, “My uncle had an interest in trapping. Used cages, but then he was after the more exotic furs and didn’t want to inadvertently mark them. More trouble, but worth more at market.”

“Nooses and nets mostly.” The trapper replies, “Sometimes a cage, but like you say, more trouble.” Scratching his beard absentmindedly, the man looks back along the trail with a small frown of concentration contracting his eyebrows. “There’s a mill a couple of leagues down this trail, don’t know about it being haunted though.”

Returning his attention back to the man on horseback he continues, “I’m on my way to a small hamlet, about half a day’s ride from Windstream Lodge, If any that’s where people might know more about old mills. If you’d make it to Windstream Lodge, you might find a patrol of Hellriders. Could be that they or the folk in Windstream might know.”

Nodding slowly as though deep in thought, Matteo waves his hand in front of his face to keep the insects at bay then replies, “Sounds like it might be a good idea. Would you mind the company to this hamlet? Not much point us following along just behind…”

Behind Matteo, the invisible Puddy and the trapper, the swarms of insects buzz around the others – apparently sitting still is the surest way to attract the pest’s attention. Alanna, Jezbodiah’s ferret takes a few snaps at the insects, managing to catch a few to eat. Kethron, the winged cat who accompanying Kevin apparently is not too fond of all the buzzing vermin and has taken to the air some time ago, transmitting some emotion of disgust to the wizard in a way only cats can do.

Jez studies the man for a moment then he turns his head slightly to see what Alanna is eating. He notices a small ruby dragonfly in her mouth. Its energetic wings no longer flicker and its tail showing lifelessness all but makes Jez squirm with disapproval. “You shouldn’t eat that,” he says to his familiar. “You don’t know where its been, besides there’s trail mix in the satchel.”

The ferret immediately drops the insect with Jez’s declaration. Her whiskers twitch and her tail whisks back and fourth vigorously with the thought of trail mix with all its raisins, nuts, and small crunchy pretzels sticks. Her attention span limited, but it is obvious she is eager to venture to the hamlet, with Jez, to rest and partake in the promised snacks.

Seeing that there doesn’t seem to be any immediate danger, Portia keeps an eye on Kevin. “Matteo!” she calls out, “We’ll need to find a place to hole up. Kevin needs a bed more than anything else right now.”

“I’m… all right.” Kevin attempts to straighten himself in his saddle. The call of a bed is strong – even lying on the ground would be good. He can’t remember feeling this tired, even though it isn’t even noon yet. However, he doesn’t want to inconvenience anyone, especially his new acquaintances, so he attempts to look more alert than he feels.

Nodding at Portia’s words, Matteo turns back to the trapper and asks, “How long will it take to reach this hamlet?”

“If our paths lead the same way, I don’t see why we couldn’t travel together.” The trapper replies, “Windstream Lodge will take me close to sundown. You’ve got horses and could be there earlier for sure.” Adjusting the load of furs and pelts on his back the trapper starts walking up to the others still at the intersection. “Whatever you decide, I need to be moving. I don’t want to miss my ale and my bed… and if I don’t make it soon after sundown, I’ll have to settle for water and the stars as a blanket.”

Jezbodiah winces at the idea of sleeping in a swamp. The cold swamp water would a poor bed and worse, the insects would make terrible sleeping companions with their buzzing and biting. “A night in the Ruby Shawl would be better than this place,” he mutters. He then slaps his forearm. “I hate mosquitoes.”

Nodding, Matteo watches the trapper for a moment, lips pursed as he seemingly weighs up options in his mind. A brief moment later he hails the trapper. “Ride my horse, seems a fair exchange for leading the way to the lodge.” Turning back to Portia, he regards Kevin with expressionless eyes. “Strap him to his horse, he can sleep all he likes once we reach the lodge. If he collapses and it becomes necessary, I’ll ride behind him and keep him from falling.”

Portia nods at the Sembian’s words and moves to keep a closer eye on Kevin.

“Want me to keep an eye on Nick,” Jezbodiah says to Matteo, “…in case his horse decides to bolt across the Western Heartlands again?”

Waiting for Matteo to answer, Jez appears to be gazing out of the corner of his eye. He seems to be watching his familiar, Alanna, who once again is trying to reach out for the nearest, plumpest, and yes tastiest dragonfly she can grasp with her small paws. A thin rasp of disgust can be heard in his voice. “I though I told you to stop eating those things.”

Alanna, in a feeble attempt to grasp a darting dragonfly, nearly slips off of Jez’s shoulder. Clinging desperately to a lock of his hair, her clawed feet desperately dig into Jez outerwear but she maintains her hold and does not fall off.

When Jez asks whether or not he should keep an eye on Nik, the priestess doesn’t say anything, but the first time she catches the young man’s eye, she glances quickly at the bard and nods her head surreptitiously.

“Watch him all you like,” Matteo replies with a disinterested shrug, “I suspect you’ll find Nik is an expert in finding his way to a warm meal and a soft bed without any assistance.”

The little fey returns to his seat on the pack of Nik’s horse. Whispering to the bard, Puddy grumbles, “Hrmph… trapper. More honest living he should make, sweets from children taking. Liking him, I will not be.”

Moving her mount at a walking pace, Portia closes up on Matteo and the trapper. “Well met,” she says, nodding from her saddle. “I’m Portia Coldspring, of Kelemvor.”

Looking up at the red-haired woman, the trapper smiles through his beard and offers his name in return, “Drouth Wildfoot ma’am.” Surprisingly – or not – the name of the Lord of the Damned doesn’t seem to elicit a reaction from the trapper as he moves on at a pace that is similar to Nik’s. Although the trapper makes three paces for every two long strides of the bard.

The bard stands slightly away from the others, occasionally waving an absent hand at the bugs. He looks more exhausted than anything, dull eyes roaming disinterestedly over the landscape as he waits for the group to travel on. Jez’s comment about his horse bolting brings anger back to the bard’s sunken eyes, and Nik snaps “You watch me all you like, Master Wisp. Watch me walk on my own two feet to where ever it is we’re going. I’ll not be getting back on that four-legged demon. That beast can run all the way to the hells that spat it up, for all I care!”

Matteo’s comment about Nik’s ability to find food and shelter draws a wary glance from the gaunt man. Nik bites back whatever retort was on his lips, the anger fading as the weary patience returns to his haggard face.

“A simple ‘thank you’ could have sufficed,” Jezbodiah says in a reserved manner. His features and face unmarred and unchanging by Nik’s latest outburst. Alanna, still atop of his shoulder, looks at Nik with sadness, then scampers down into the satchel she calls her home. He turns his horse away from the group and takes his position in the back of the party.

With Drouth, Matteo and Portia leading, the small group continues the journey along the caravan trail in the direction of Windstream Lodge. Jezbodiah, leading the pack horses and Nik’s mount, makes up the rear, keeping an eye on Kevin and Nik. The tall bard striding next to the recovering wizard, keeping as much distance between himself and Kevin’s mount as possible.

From time to time, Jezbodiah halts his horses and turns his back away from the party. He briefly scans the surrounding area, looking intently for another group of bandits, be it bugbear or human. Alanna sticks her head out of satchel and sniffs the air of any sign or aroma of trouble.

Satisfied with the caravan’s safety, he motions his horse into a gallop and shortens the distance between him and the party.

Seeing that Drouth is happy walking, Matteo remains astride his horse and lets it walk at its own pace. He rides easily, one hand idly playing with the hilt of his long dirk as he remains watchful of the group’s surroundings. The red-haired priestess following the Sembian’s lead rides abreast with him.

The journey along the caravan trail is one that leads repeatedly through clouds of mosquitoes, especially at places where the trail is bordered on the sides by swampy smelly land. Occasionally flocks of birds take off with loud noise as the travelers come too close for avian comfort.

Jezbodiah’s vigilance at the rear of the small caravan yields some results as he spots some frog-like bipedal creatures in a particular swampy area of the wetlands between the trail and the river. The creatures however hop between the reeds as soon as they spot the group and as the others try to spot what the Berduskan half-elf pointed out, they see only the seemingly endless fields of reeds and occasional trees. Far to the east a dark line marks the horizon – the Reaching Wood, where the other members of the group are trying to find the hide-outs of the group’s adversaries.

About midway during the afternoon the group halts within the relative cool shelter of the trees for a brief meal. Like the journey, the mood is subdued and not much communication takes place. Jezbodiah and Drouth are the only ones who do engage in some form of conversation as the half-elf asks the trapper about the general area between Berdusk and Elturel. The trapper does have a store of knowledge and shares some of this with Jez. Though the others don’t partake in the conversation, they do pick-up the information shared. Though the information is useful in general, Drouth doesn’t have anything more on the mills in the area other than what he already divulged earlier or further speculation of his own.

After the meal and some sanitary activities the little caravan set’s off once more towards Windstream Lodge as the shadows have lengthened significantly. By the trapper’s estimation it will be a close call, but he expects to be at the waystation on time – that is baring any misfortunes during the remainder of the journey. And Beshaba’s eye probably looked the other way as there are no further delays during the trip. The last part of the journey was more pleasant with the swampy-boggy ground giving way to more solid soil and light forested areas.

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