By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 81 - Wizardly Ways
Windstream Lodge 1371 DR, Eleint, 14th day, early morning
The early hours of the morning find Jezbodiah, Portia, Matteo, Puddy and a sobered-up Nik – although with a headache – sitting at a table in the inn partaking breakfast; fried sausages, baked egg, bread, wine and some fruit. Kevin – watched over by Kethron – is still asleep up in the common sleeping area. The inn’s common room is quiet and initially no-one speaks, much to the relief of the bard.
Alanna, Jezbodiah’s familiar, is playing somewhere up in the rafters much to the dismay of the inn’s resident mice. “Alanna,” says Jez in somewhat of a stern voice, “Lesson one for today. It’s not polite to torment creatures smaller than you. Bigger, yes, if you can get away with it. Now come down and enjoy breakfast.”
High amongst the rafters, Alanna smiles at the contents of Jez’s breakfast plate. With her paw firmly planted on the back of a pinned mouse, she squeaks loudly once then bats the mouse away. The small rodent slides across the flat surface of the rafter. It lifts itself dizzied, squeaks something vulgar at Alanna, then disappears into the shadows. Alanna, fleet of feet and graceful, descends from the rafters and approaches Jez. Climbing up his pant-leg, the ferret helps herself to the table and to some contents of his breakfast.
In between bites, he says to Matteo. “Discover any useful about the Windmill?”
Quietly nursing a drink Matteo periodically plays with his food in a disinterested manner, not really eating anything. “Well, I found out how to get there,” he replies with a slow shrug. “It’ll take half a day, possibly a little more, but we’ll avoid the mosquitoes and the swamps.”
Clearly hung-over yet again, the gaunt bard sits hunched over the table, looking rather ill at the smell of the food. He sips his wine slowly, and even tries to eat a little bread and a bit of fruit. But after forcing down only a few bites Nik pushes his plate away with a shudder. His bloodshot eyes never leave the tabletop, and in between sips of wine he picks absently at the scabs on the bruised and swollen knuckles of his bony left hand.
Finally the wine takes the worst edge off his headache. “I’m sorry for my behavior last nite.” he mumbles faintly. “I left because I’m a miserable bastard. I’m fully aware of that fact, and I know I have trouble keeping my… problems… to myself. So I left, to spare you all from another look into the black abyss that is my life.” Nik sighs heavily, then offers the tabletop a rueful, embarrassed smile. “I never expected anyone to actually follow me. I suppose I should have known better, but then again it’s been a very long time since anyone has given a tinker’s damn about me.”
Nik sighs again, and his sunken, bloodshot eyes flicker to Portia. It is only the briefest of glances, but before his skittish gaze returns to the table she can see an almost-worshipful gratitude lighten his haggard face.
Then the bard sighs again, a shudder running through his gaunt frame. Unable to look at Jez, Nik swallows hard and adds “And I’m sorry I blew up at you, Jez. I… I just can’t be what you want me to be.” His narrow shoulders hunch even further, and his expression is a fixed rictus of fear as he blurts “And I wish you’d stop bullying me. I’m trying, godsdamnit. But you have no idea…” his voice trails off and he cringes, face wild with terror but eyes filled with a strange resignation. The tall, frail man looks like a gutter mutt cowering from a man with a stick, knowing he’s going to get a beating, but knowing that to run will only delay the inevitable and very likely make it even worse.
“…What I want you to be…?” Jez says slightly confused. “You seem to have me misunderstood me. The only thing I’d like to see is you exert a little control over your emotions, nothing more, nothing less. Well that is until this business with the mill is finished.” His voice is soft and reassuring. “Really, it didn’t offend me, well not yet anyway. I’ve a hunch we’ll need your musical talents sometime soon.”
Jez breaks off part of a biscuit and hands it to Alanna. The ferret swipe the morsel quickly, almost in the flash of an eye. “As for bullying, you haven’t met my older brother Corrin. Rogue, gambler, and a cleric of Tymora much to my mother’s regret.” he says the last with a wink.
When Jez finishes, Portia waves her hand. “Enough of that. There’s no reason to continue discussing that.”
Looking at Matteo with interest, she says, “Half a day? That’s wonderful news. We’ll arrive in full daylight…” Rising, the redheaded priestess looks about. “I wonder if the proprietor here has a cart we can buy?” Portia steps away from the table, looking for someone that might know about a spare cart…
The little fey sits quietly on the edge of the table, occasionally nipping the odd bit of fruit or sweets while he listens to the big folks talk. Seeing the cleric walk off in search of a cart, the bored pixie silently follows.
As the others remaining at the breakfast table fall more or less silent – the only one active being Jezbodiah playing with his ferret – Portia walks up to the innkeeper who directs her to somewhere in the hamlet. Following the directions and with the invisible Puddy in tow, the Kelemvorite goes on her quest for a cart.
As life begins to stir in earnest in the small Western Heartland hamlet, Portia returns to the inn, pushing an old but functional looking cart. The two wheeled affair seems capable enough of being pulled by one of the horses and could carry most of the group’s gear.
In the time that Portia and Puddy are away, the young wizard and his winged-cat familiar make their way down to partake in breaking the morning’s fast. Much recovered from yesterday’s ordeal, Kevin consumes a healthy meal to regain further strength. As Matteo informs him of Portia’s plan to find a cart, he nods in agreement. Swallowing a bite he says, “I’ll drive the cart then. That way Nik doesn’t have to be close to the rear of the horse either, and he could be our ‘eyes-in-the-back’ so to speak.”
Nik’s eyes light up a little at the prospect of not having to confront a horse up-close, and then swivel to the door through which Portia re-enters the establishment. The priestess returns with the news of her acquired cart. After settling the bill, gathering the equipment and preparing horses and cart, the small team finds themselves on the road again.
The morning is a little chilly and a light fog drifts over the lands, more dense in the direction of the river and the wetlands. The sound of hoofs on the packed earth now accompanied by the rattle of wheels and the creaking of the cart. The late summer’s sun slowly burns the fog away, leaving the air humid and slowly warming. A little breeze blows across the open areas, taking most of the oppression away, but where the trail leads through copses and small forested areas, sweat breaks out with the least exertion…
The Kelemvorite priestess sits her horse easily, seemingly growing ever more comfortable with her seat. She also looks a bit leaner than she had just a few days before – the last few days have been rather trying for her. Still, she looks about alertly, both at the surrounding terrain and at her companions. She can’t restraint a smile at the sight of Nik in the cart…
With her blackened armor and her hand and a half sword across her back, she does not seem to be all that representative of the typical Kelemvorite. Again, this can be attributed to the stresses of the last few days. It is obvious that she is gaining confidence in her abilities.
“We are fortunate. While there are undead that move about during the day, there are even more that are confined to the hours of dark. We won’t have to worry about those during the day, and should have several hours to investigate the mill before we have to consider that danger.”
Matteo, out front of the group, sits easily in his saddle. Dressed in the same black clothing as yesterday, his only concession to the oppressive heat is the removal of his long leather coat. While the others chat easily the young Sembian remains as withdrawn as he has been for the last day or two.
The lanky bard lies sprawled in the back of the cart, long legs dangling over the back edge and his hands tucked comfortably behind his head as it rests on his backpack. His precious guitar lies beside him and Nik whistles tunelessly between his teeth as the cart rattles on. The morning’s hangover seems to have been tamed by the wine he drank for – and as – breakfast, but even though the bard downed more than most would find prudent on an empty stomach he doesn’t seem drunk at all.
In fact he seems simply relaxed – even cheerful. Eyes closed against the morning sun, Nik even has a small, contented smile on his face. His casual, indolent pose seems almost unnatural when one considers the cringing fear, black depression and frothing rage that have been his only emotions since leaving Berdusk.
Portia’s observation about the habits of the undead draws Nik’s attention and he rolls over onto one elbow to face her. “So, milady.” he says, his shadowed eyes sparkling with curiosity. “What advice CAN you give us? On the matter of facing the undead, that is. While my rubbish-heap of a mind contains many a fascinating fact – even some that are actually useful – I know next to nothing about the undead. Knowledge is power, or so I’ve been taught.” One eyebrow raises in amusement, and the crooked grin takes years off Nik’s careworn face. “Of course, I’ve had to amend that lesson a bit over the years. I’ve found that ignorance backed up with strength can beat the shit out of knowledgeable frailty five times out of seven. But by and large I believe that being ignorant is far more dangerous than being informed.”
His wry grin widens and he adds with a cheerful wink “And seeing as I definitely sit on the frail end of the beam, I had best not handicap myself further with ignorance if I’m to have any hope at all of getting out of this alive.” But there is none of the bitter, self-mocking humor glittering in his shadowed, sunken eyes; instead they burn with an almost-obsessive hunger for knowledge – the same need that brought the bard to Kevin and Tarim’s magic lessons the previous days.
“Yes pray tell milady.” Kevin says from the front of the cart, managing the rickety horse-cart combination decently across the often bumpy trail. “Though I have some knowledge of where the Art touches upon the necromantic, it isn’t much. The only specific magic against the un-living is a small disruptive release of positive energy. I would agree with Nik that further knowledge in facing off these creatures would be beneficial and aid in our chances of survival at a minimum.”
Portia nods, and says, “I’m not fully versed in the undead, but I have picked up a few things. I’ve also seen that spell you mentioned in action at the warehouse, and it’s pretty effective.”
Portia goes on to explain the lesser undead, and how they can be handled directly – do enough damage and they fall down. She explains the difference between corporeal and non-corporeal undead. How some undead require some magic (spells or enchanted weapons) to hurt them.
When she says this last bit, she taps the mace at her hip. “Death’s Head might be effective against them, as she’s got some magic about her. This big cleaver,” she strokes the hilt of the blade across her back, “might not do anything worthwhile.” She shrugs.
“As long as we don’t go rushing in, and have some idea of what we’re facing, we should be alright. It might not be a bad idea to set up some sort of, I don’t know, retreat point or something, where we can all meet if things go bad and we get separated.”
A now visible Puddy drowses in the sun as he lays on one edge of the cart. As the conversation turns to the undead, he makes a rude noise and a face, then says, “Hrmph! Stupid undead. Little magic of faerie not so potent is against such things.” Then, he pulls forth a tiny silver flute, and begins to play what should sound like a mournful dirge, but comes out sounding chipper all the same. Giving up, he returns the flute to his pocket, extends his frail-looking wings, and contents himself with enjoying the sun once more.
Jezbodiah seems rather uplifted and alert this morning as he sits comfortably in his horse. With his stomach fed and his perception rather hawkish, the half-elf scans the surrounding country with his brisk sharp vision awaiting any sign of approaching danger. Alanna, his ever-playful familiar, resting comfortably in his satchel squeaks and squeaks now and then, but is content to stay put in her current home.
The Berdusk native rides up then astride the Kelemvorite’s steed and cheerfully speaks. “Portia my lady, do tell, what type of undead roam the marshlands. Care to guess what we might find at the mill?”
Kevin, his fellow half-elf having beaten him to the question, listens intently for the answer. He wonders if the spells he’d prepared this morning would lend any aid in their mission. Surely there would be some battle joined in the time ahead; this was looking more and more like a typical sort of malevolent haunting or infestation. Now to see if academic knowledge translates to practical application.
The priestess shrugs. “No telling. For some reason, and based only on my dream, I can’t help but think it’s some sort of ghost. It could very well be something completely different though.” Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she adds, “and I wouldn’t even want to guess at what types of undead can be found in a swamp!”
“Ghosts and spirits… Oh lovely, “ he says with a smidgen of sarcasm. His eyes roll as he continues, “you make this venture sound like so much fun.” His attention turns to the wizard. “I was wondering, would magical fire be effective against the incorporeal undead. You know, like spirits and such? I’ve only discovered my new abilities recently and I’m not all that familiar or comfortable with them.”
Kevin looks somewhat embarrassed. “I’m not actually certain, I’m afraid. I never made much study of the necromantic fields. I think they might be partially affected by normal magic. I do know they are fully vulnerable to force effects, which makes me glad I have my wands.” He pats the bandolier over his chest, under which he had stashed the magical items. “Perhaps we can go over what powers you have later?”
After Kevin’s reply, Alanna squeaks loudly at Jez. “Yes, oh all right young lady. I did not want to be noisy or disrespectful to Portia. My lady is there anything you can say about your dream? Can you describe it or what was in it? Maybe who even?”
“Maybe,” he says. “I can fire a magic missile, more so when my powers grow in strength…” He stops in mid-sentence then continues, “but I’d like to leave a proverbial ace or two in the hole. Mayhaps we can find more knowledge in the city’s library once we finish with the mill and return to Berdusk, Hmm.”
Along the Chionthar, 1371 DR, Eleint, 14th day, early afternoon
The journey along the trail northward turns out easier compared to the previous day, the only hostile creatures being the numerous flying and biting insects in the marshy environment, though even that is less than before. With the sun past its zenith, another side road comes into view. This time with a dilapidated sign.
Matteo, not bothering to dismount, rides up to the rotted wooden sign, tipping it slightly with his blade so the faded and barely readable characters become visible: ‘Qheldin’s Landing.’ Turning slightly in the saddle to look at the others which have come closer in the mean time the Sembian says, “According to the Hellrider patrol, our best chance to find the Mill from Portia’s dream would be close to the landing. Lets ride on and see where this leads us. Be vigilant.”
As the group approaches the old landing, the contours of several buildings become visible across the river. Qheldin’s Mask stretches along the eastern bank of the Chionthar, which appears deceptively placid as it flows along. The wooden structure juts out from the shore amidst a copious amount of reeds, some of which have found a way between the planks of the landing. It is obvious that it hasn’t been used in a while.
Kethron chasing dragonflies across the expanse of reeds, suddenly veers up and wings its way back to Kevin, the young mage watching the familiar with a surprised smile as some form of communication flows along their bond.
Pulling back on the reins of his horse, Matteo watches Kevin impassively before dismounting. Waving a hand in front of his face in a disinterested attempt to ward off a few buzzing insects, he spits on the ground before taking a drink from his waterskin.
“Judging by the viciousness of the mosquitoes… ouch…” replies the half-elf as he swats his left cheek, “…we’ve found our mill.” He looks at the winged feline darting back to Kevin and says, “It seems your familiar has found something already. Is it important?”
Kevin smiles. “Important as regards our quest? Perhaps not. However, Kethron seems to have spotted an owl in flight. Simply the fact that this bird is so active at this time of day is strange, but it also seems to be one familiar to him. And where that bird is, a certain mage is surely near.”
Shading his eyes with one hand, he looks in the direction his familiar is indicating, hoping to spot Tarim or another member of his group.
Matteo’s eyes narrow at Kevin’s words and he releases the reins of his horse, turning in the same direction as the mage looks. His hand falling to rest on the pommel of his sword he begins to move forward.
Some figures can be seen moving along the opposite bank and in the single ‘street’ leading through Qheldin’s Mask, as well as some livestock and some horses. It is the sharp eyes of the half-elf Berduskan however which spot the familiar shapes of Immerine, her horse, Tarim and some others which are not recognizable from the spot the group is in.
As Matteo steps onto the old landing, the wood creaks suspiciously but does not give way under the weight of the Sembian. Though he does get closer, he isn’t able to make much more then previously. The obvious recognition points are the white and the black horse, although two white horses should be there if the others are indeed in Qheldin’s Mask…
The ravenous insects don’t seem to bother Nik much at all. Either the bard is more used to the outdoors than he seems, or the bugs just find the alcohol content of his blood to be unpalatable. At the mention of Kethron’s discovery, Nik lunges up and jumps out of the wagon with more grace than seems possible. Shading his eyes with a raised hand, the gangly bard peers across the river. “I thought they would be far from here.” he muses as he squints at the figures across the river.
“Yes, they should be.” Jezbodiah replies to Nik; dragonflies zip past and dart away from the half-elf as he kicks his horse forward. “You know, this has all the tell-tale characteristics of horse manure,” utters Jez to nobody in particular. Continuing forward, he swats away more mosquitoes. “Something isn’t right, I think. Jez pushes his horse closer and focuses eyes across the bank.
“Since when does Immerine herd livestock, Qwenta maybe but cattle? That’s beneath her?” Jez stops his horse and without words, gestures. His eyes take a familiar glow.
Still basking in the sun, Puddy lazily cracks one eye open to see what the fuss is about; the eyelid starts to slowly drift shut again, but as the half-elf makes some subtle gestures, both eyes snap open so the pixie can observe the spell being cast.
Sitting her horse, the Kelemvorite priestess looks about curiously, at both the town and at the thought of the potential companions that might be on the other side of the river. “I suppose that’s interesting and all, but where’s the mill? If it’s over there, we need to cross, but I was under the impression it was on this side of the river?”
The priestess slaps at a bug absently while she waits for the others. Then she says, “Let me remind you, we need to find the place while we still have plenty of daylight…”
Looking for magical auras, Jezbodiah initially doesn’t see any, then his eyes roam over Matteo and a few, mixed auras where Jezbodiah knows the Sembian has some potions. Similar sightings happen when he sees the others in the group. Besides that, nothing immediate is revealed with his arcane enhanced sight.
Kevin makes a face. “Yes. Night in the open is dangerous enough when you’re not dealing with undead. Yet shouldn’t we at least contact the others? I could send a quick message with Kethron.” He looks to Matteo for a decision.
From where he stands on the rickety old jetty, Matteo nods without turning back to look at Kevin. “Do it. Might as well see how they’re faring.” With a final look across the river, Matteo turns back to his companions and walks towards them, loosening his shoulders as he does so. “Might as well let the horses forage for a bit and take a break ourselves.”Kevin nods and quickly fishes in his pack for some parchment, ink, and his pen. He quickly writes in a neat, flowing script, while mentally calling Kethron back.
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