Campaign Logs

Twilight Dawn

By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff

Chapter 84 - Seasons Changing

Berdusk 1371 DR, Eleint, 21st day, Autumn Equinox, morning

Various kinds of activities filled the past six days. Between Puddy’s and Kevin’s research and experimenting, they properly identified the collection of items recovered from the ruined mill, and described them to the others. Stashed away in one of the Mumadar’s ‘secret’ rooms, some of the items were stowed away until a proper moment of distributing them – or if needs be sell them to generate some funds aside from the sponsoring of Lord Jalarghar, as individual purses appear to be on the verge of drying up.

Of course, the scrolls and spellbook saw some changing of hands: Kevin, Puddy, Jezbodiah, Tarim and Immerine perusing the documents, adding more variety to their arcane repertoires where possible. Yet, not only matters arcane kept the wizards and sorcerers busy. Tarim spent quite some time at the House of the High Hand; the slender tower a clear landmark, and visible above the other buildings between the Running Stag and the shrine of Azuth.

Immerine’s participation in the studying is almost mechanical; it is as if the witch’s mind is elsewhere while she attends the research and rehearsals of the newfound arcane lore. Ever since returning from the Reaching Wood, the young woman has been more or less spiritually absent, but only now, back in the enclosed environment of Berdusk and the Running Stag is it more and more apparent.

The witch’s withdrawal into her self does not pass unnoticed by Tarim, the Uthgardt mage declines several invitations of the others to go to town. Instead, he stays behind trying to keep company to Immerine for as much as she lets him. Though the young woman converses and participates in the discussions with Tarim, she does not share what seems to be bothering her.

While Tarim stayed behind, Kevin spent some time shopping with Teryn and Jezbodiah, the local warrior knowing some of the better smiths in town to purchase a decent crossbow and a quantity of bolts to go with it. At the request of Jez, the same weapon smith also replaced the hilt on the etched magical sword found at the ruin.

With the Running Stag, being as crowded as it is, Branith, Tuttle and Teryn went to another tavern for drinks and merriment. Mumadar recommended the ‘Flourished Flagon’: a somewhat rowdy place and a favorite spot for residential dwarves, gnomes and halflings, as well as their visiting kin. Though still a little insecure being in a crowded place like Berdusk – a feeling Immerine sympathizes with – Tuttle nevertheless felt a little at home amongst the cavorting folk in the ‘Flagon’.

Two days after returning from the ruined mill, Matteo Ashgale came by to inform that he received a different assignment. He would not say much, but Immerine could tell that Captain Zaina somehow was part of this new ‘assignment’. He did bring some more news though; city officials had made further investigations into the warehouse where Portia and Skeen spent time in captivity. The Cult of the Dragon was behind the operation, covertly using the warehouse for their nefarious ends.

Apparently, another cell of the Cult was uncovered in Iriaebor, prompting the guard to take a more active and open role in the investigation. Matteo’s comments more than hinted at his current assignment being in relation to this. The Sembian also mentioned that Lord Sillisten, Death’s Hand of Kelemvor sent one of the acolytes of the Crystal Mansion to inform him about Portia. The red-haired priestess would have to attend duties at the shrine. Once done with these duties, she would return to join him and the others.

Besides getting to keep the ‘spoils of war’ that the group uncovered, the ruling powers of Berdusk also provide a monetary reward. Matteo brought a strong chest with him; the stout hardwood affair secured with sturdy bands of iron and an intricate lock, which Jezbodiah immediately recognizes as his father’s handiwork. Filled almost to the brim with coins, the chest contains money in the form of a variety of silver, gold and some platinum coins.

Accompanying the money is a small parchment letter:

To the company of the Running Stag,

On behalf of the city of Berdusk, I thank you for your contribution in uncovering a nest of evil in the midst of our city. It once more proves that one can never think oneself free of the taint of evil, no matter how good the cleansing has been. The discoveries have increased our vigilance, and thanks to your timely interventions, greater evil has likely been thwarted.

Please accept the reward that comes with this letter.

Cylyria Dragonbreast

Effectively, the group is now on its own, the letter and the payment a dismissal from government services. However, before leaving, Matteo did mention that in the future the city might request additional services.

After Matteo left, Kevin and Tarim turned themselves business, trying to learn the properties of the other items discovered in the last tenday. Both wizards more or less holed up in Kevin’s room, joined by a curious Puddy. It takes them the better part of a day to identify all the properties of the items, but finally they are able to share the listing with the rest of the team.

On the fourth day back in Berdusk, Branith – in a typical stubborn dwarven way – went into town on his own to purchase equipment. Being unfamiliar with the city other than the areas he had already been in, it took the sturdy dwarven priest of Moradin the better part of the day to find a suitable smithy, make his purchase and return to the Stag.

The next morning Immerine does not join the others for breakfast, and when Tarim goes back upstairs to find her, he discovers that her room is empty! Quickly he makes it downstairs to the stables, dashing trough the common room and out the front door, surprising the others. Teryn, sensing something amiss gets up and follows the Uthgardt mage.

The box with the repaired door in which Qwenta should have been stabled is empty. Somehow, Tarim dreaded this after finding the witch’s room empty. “What is it?” Teryn asks when he joins Tarim in the stables. The frail young mage stands in the doorway to Qwenta’s pen, leaning on his staff heavily. In a small, hollow voice, he answers simply, “She’s gone.”

Looking down at his feet Teryn shakes his head. “I’m sorry to hear that. I take it you don’t think she’s coming back?” Teryn’s words are as much a question as a statement. “Any idea what prompted this? Did she get into it with Matteo again?” After a few seconds of reflection, he adds, “You don’t think there was foul play involved in her disappearance do you?”

In a somber tone the mage replies “I haven’t the faintest idea what her reasons were but I don’t think she’ll be returning, no. The fact that Quenta is gone gives me the feeling that she left of her own accord.” Tarim looks at the empty stall and after a few seconds merely shrugs. “I wish her well, wherever she goes, may Mystra guide and protect her.” With that, he turns and begins walking back into the Running Stag, looking a little more frail and tired than usual.

Teryn shakes his head at the empty stall and sighs deeply, hanging his head for a moment before rushing to catch up to his friend. When he does so, he speaks to Tarim “That’s two women who have disappeared in just a few days and we still don’t know about Luna!” He hesitates for a second, a gut wrenching fear gripping him momentarily. “She better be okay!” He adds, though that last comment not necessarily aimed at Tarim.

* * *

The past days have seen an increase in activity in the cities inns and taverns as travelers and merchants throng for the upcoming Highharvestide festivities. In the Stag’s courtyard, the inn’s stableboys and some others are preparing one of the many parade floats that will participate in the holiday’s harvest parade. Also the interior of the Running Stag – like most other public places – is being decorated with the season’s theme, the smells of mulled wine and dark brown beers prevalent, and in addition to the limited selection of foodstuffs, Mumadar has added gingerbread, baked in a variety of shapes.

It is at breakfast on the morn of the autumn equinox, the fire blazing heartily to expel the chill of the morning, Mumadar has just brought another round of drinks, when the door opens and two people enter. A wood elf maiden and a gray-haired man step in. Teryn is the first to recognize Luna, the warrior almost falling off his chair in surprise.

“LUNA!” He shouts, the young warrior using the momentum of almost falling out of his chair to gain his feet as he makes haste weaving among the tables and chairs to reach Luna, hugging and planting a big kiss on her lips. After a very long kiss he whispers to her, “I was so worried about you, I thought you should have been here much sooner.” Looking serious for a moment he adds “I’m so sorry about Areo but you should be proud, he fought bravely.”

Branith enjoys the drinking and jumps out of his seat once he sees the elf-maiden come in through the door. His short stubby legs close the distance to Luna with a speed that even a fleet-footed elf would envy. But obviously not as fast as Teryn, as the warrior greets Luna the dwarf remains behind him scraping a foot on the floor. With a smile towards Luna he hugs her legs gently, or hard depending on if you are the squeezer or the one being squeezed.

“I am so glad to see you back in health again Luna.” He says with a broader smile and a reddening face once he realizes he is not that dwarven. With a more somber tone and straightened posture he adds, “If we ever find the one responsible behind this I will sure help you put him down, I swear it by my clan and by Moradin.” he looks up at her his eyes filled with resolute conviction.

Turning at Teryn’s exclamation Tarim smiles and rises, he keeps his spot however seeing the attention she has already garnered and merely gives her a happy little wave. “Welcome back, Luna.” He says, just loud enough to be heard once the more vocal members of the group have finished…

Tuttle grins at the reunion, but says nothing. He quietly imitates the tipping of his hat in her direction, welcoming her back. As soon as the excitement dwindles, the halfling steps forward. “It is good to have you back, Luna. But, I suggest that we consider our options before moss grows on our feet.”

Temporarily silenced by the exuberant greeting from her friends and the kiss from Teryn, Luna looks about a little bewildered and reaches briefly for the arm of her escort. Teryn is about to lead Luna to his table when he pauses and asks Luna, “Is this gentleman with you?”

“Yes, he has been taking care of me after I was brought back from Qheldin’s Mask.” The ranger answers, “Please let me introduce you to Tolgar Ondabarl, servant of the Morninglord.” The middle-aged priest inclines his head in greeting, “Well met.”

“I came to see if you were back and how you all are doing.” Luna says as she follows Teryn to the table, Branith and the Lathanderite following behind. “Not that I’m ready to continue with all of you at this time. I have yet to recover my full strength.” As these words sink in, it is suddenly obvious that the young woman has lost weight and indeed is not back to herself. The dappled light of the autumn canopy in the Stag hid it at first glance, but now up close, the pink skin still in the middle of a healing process there where the biting spittle of the green dragon had eaten away at her face.

“I had hoped to see you all back here…” The recovering ranger looks at those of her friends gathered in the Running Stag, the question plain on her face as she now partially leans on Teryn for support, “…but some faces are missing… where is Immerine? Portia, and Goodman Matteo?”

From his favorite spot in the rafters, the little fey looks on, as the elf introduces her companion. A small stack of gingerbread and fruit beside him slowly disappears as he observes the tall folk.

“Well met, Tolgar and thank you for taking care of Luna.” Teryn bows to the older man. As he offers both a seat, sadness replaces the happy expression he had since seeing Luna “There have been a number of things happening in your absence. Immerine seems to have left without a word; Portia and Matteo have other duties right now, though we hope Portia will be able to rejoin us soon; Telsom…” The warrior pauses, “…Telsom went a little too paladin and tried to take on that green dragon alone and lost, and this…” He points to the halfling, “…is Tuttle, a ranger who helped get us and you to safety.”

A flutter of wings sounds over the noise in the taproom, and Kevin’s winged cat appears from his hiding place on an overhead branch. Performing a controlled fall rather than true flight, he lands in front of Luna and gives her a sniff. Sitting back on his hind legs, wings tucked tightly to his back, Kethron looks up at Luna’s face, his head tilted in an almost bird-like manner. He seems curious about something.

The halfling tips his hat at his introduction and plucks a small stone from his belt. “That I did. I am indeed Tuttle. It seems that I will be your traveling companion at least for now and as long as it serves the wood.” He says, while making the stone ‘walk’ across the back of his hand. “It is good to see you alive and awake, Luna.”

The conversation of the assembled group settles quickly around the events in the Reaching Wood, and on what occurred afterward, Luna listening with interest, and asking questions every now and then. Tolgar, the priest of Lathander sits a little back and observes Luna more than taking interest in the conversations. Soon, it becomes apparent that Luna’s strength is not yet fully returned, as she excuses herself, “I’m sorry, I need to head back. The ordeal with the dragon has sapped more of my strength than I thought.”

“It is your body using energy to heal itself Luna.” The elderly priest says as he rises and helps Luna to her feet – immediately assisted by Teryn. “At least your friends know that you’re on the mend and they know that they can find you at the Roseportal House.” Taking her leave of the group, Luna lets Tolgar and Teryn escort her back out, the Berduskan warrior does not let him be dissuaded by either Luna or Tolgar and insists on taking her back to rest.

It is after a short while that Teryn returns and rejoins the others at the table – with the coming and going of patrons, the group saw a chance to pull two tables together. When Mumadar sets another round of drinks on the table, along with a few buttered toasts, the bald innkeeper looks at the group assembled. “I humbly beg your pardons, but I might have some advice.” Seemingly out of nowhere a coin has appeared in Mumadar’s hand, and he idly flips it between his fingers without paying attention to it, “That is if you would like to receive it. By no means do I want to force it upon you.”

A soft voice from behind the innkeeper says, “By all means Mumadar. You have been a good friend to each of us in times of need. Your advice is always welcome.” Immerine steps around Mumadar and looks at the gathering at the tables. She did not come in the main entrance or at least no one saw her enter. She seems more mild and composed than the day she disappeared with no explanation. She looks different too. Her hair pulled up into an intricate design and she is wearing a soft velvet green gown dipped at the bodice and adorned with lace. She also wears a new facemask crafted of a white material and adorned with feathers.

Branith greets the other reappearing shadow from the past with a nod and smile, “It is good to see you back witch. We thought we might have lost you for a while. Might one ask why you were gone?” He asks while he dips into the ale Mumadar had placed before him.

“I am sure more than one will ask. So before they do, I will tell you only this. I have made peace in myself concerning a problem. I have also gotten the items I wished to purchase. And Qwenta and I have reaffirmed the reasons we are here as well as having studied the mysteries set before me. I cannot simply study by rote, it takes a little more for me to become comfortable with the powers I am uncovering. What have you learned in my absence? Or do you even wish to share it; I know I am not the most dependable creature amongst us.” The usual acerbic tone is gone from Immerine’s voice.

At seeing Immerine, Teryn’s first reaction is momentary surprise, quickly replaced by a wide grin. “You are always welcome Immerine. Sit and we will tell you all that has happened, after listening to Mumadar’s proposition.” He stands up and pulls back an empty chair for her, holding it and waiting behind it ready to assist her in true gentlemanly fashion. “You just missed a brief visit from Luna. She is doing well but is still weak.”

Looking up from a sheet of paper he was studying the young mage’s reaction to Immerine’s return is telling. He literally lights up with surprise and delight for a moment, before clamping down on his enthusiasm and nodding to her respectfully. “Ah welcome back.” Tarim stammers somewhat lamely

“We’ve learned that the sword has a dwarven history and it now has a descent hilt. Matteo and Portia have new assignments and other than that…” He shrugs, “…The days goes by… I guess…” Jez, by all accounts, seems unconcerned with Immerine’s return, as if her sudden departure had involved personal matters. Not wishing to pry he continues, “I believe the barkeep has something he wishes to share with us. So let’s not keep him waiting.”

Immerine’s eyes flash dangerously but her voice remains smooth and calm, “Mumadar has been invited to speak and I am sure he will in a moment.” The halfling grins and pulls one of his smooth stones out of his belt. “I am always interested in a bit of advice.” Tuttle eyes Mumadar’s fingers and then twirls his stone in a similar fashion. Then, in an attempt to ‘one-up’ the man, Tuttle tosses the stone against the wall and catches the ricochet backhanded. “What say you?”

A little self-conscious, Mumadar tucks his coin away, his hands for the moment idle. “Young master Wisp actually touched upon the matter that I would bring up, goodwoman from Rashemen. Ever since you arrived here – almost two tendays ago – you had been very busy and active. As of the last couple of days, you have been hanging around, spending the coin on food, drink and merriments… No offense intended, and you are more than welcome to stay, but I could bring you in contact with someone who might be interested in your recently acquired funds. Of course, he would reimburse you for the safekeeping.” The scarred man looks at each at the table, “There are always others in need of money and willing to pay dearly for it at a later point in time. Not a business to my liking, but it might be worth thinking about.”

“I know the caravan season is as good as over and winter has typically not too much in store. However, you might want to check out the pamphlets posted on the trees at ‘Orcslayer Fountain’. These pamphlets are posted by employers and those looking for work; typically the type of work for those who one would term ‘adventurers’.”

As if on its own accord, the innkeeper’s hand slipped back into his pocket, and the coin is once more tumbling idly over the man’s knuckles. “A couple of days ago you might have noticed a mixed group of those ‘adventurers’. Those that wanted to go to the Forest Kingdom, Cormyr, these types of folk typically organize themselves into some loose band or become part of a larger mercenary-like organization. Nearby ‘Blackpost’s Bench’ is catering to these types of individuals, and many a group set out from this Tankard House after forming there. The risks are often high in the adventuring business, but the gains when successful are equally high.”

“Again, it is none of my business and if you are willing to spend the rest of your coin in my place I won’t stop you, but it looks to me as talent wasted.”

Alanna stealthily slips out of her satchel and makes her way onto Jez’s shoulder. She nuzzles her bushy fur across his neck, his cheek, and squeaks and whistles something into his ear. “Okay, I see you found something you couldn’t get your mouth around.” Jez replies a light chuckle. “You’ll get something to eat, but leave my pouch of raisins alone.”

Pulling a bright red apple out of the same satchel, Jez takes his dagger, slices off a thick chunk of the fruit and hands it to his greedy familiar. Alanna, in no time, takes the wedge of sweet fruit and chews it away hungrily. In no time, juicy crumbs and bits fall onto Jez’s shoulder and the floor below, while the ferret is caking her furry paws and chin in sticky apple juice.

Kevin enters the taproom, wearing his bandolier over his shoulder. It looks out of place without his traveling coat on, but at least two of the pockets obviously hold sheets of parchment. Presumably, the wizard has some writing implements with him as well. He stops as he sees the doubled table, then slips in next to Tarim. “Have I missed something?”

The dwarf downs the last of his beverage and says to Kevin. “Ay, you did, Luna was here, all tough she is getting better she isn’t fully recovered yet. As you can see Immerine is back as well, and Mumadar here just told us of some possible work leads.” Turning to the man in question Branith says, “Tell us more about this friend of yours who is interested in some gold barkeep.”

The halfling gives a slight grin as the bartender pockets his coin. He listens carefully to the man before giving a frank response. “The money lending is not for me, I say. I will hold onto my own purse. That is, except for what I give to you, my friend, even if it is ‘talent wasted’.” Tuttle gives another slight grin at the bartender and pockets his stone before turning to the rest of his group.

“While I’ve enjoyed this man’s wares, I already grow weary of the town life. If I am to have a vote, adventure would be my choice.” The halfling starts. “I am still bound to the forest and the druids that protect it. For now my job is to stay with you and I will do that wherever you decide to go. But, if I am to vote, I say that there are other more enticing and worthy things to do than sit on our haunches.”

“Well spoken. I agree with Tuttle. I do not like the idea of funding others with something I can do myself. And sitting here in the shade of this beautiful establishment is not why I left my homeland. There is the continued problem with the undead. It is something I need to aid in correcting.” Immerine replies smoothly.

Tarim puts the sheaf of paper down in front of him and takes a small sip of his wine. Leaning back in his chair he smiles kindly and answers the man in his smooth tenor voice, “Your kindness is appreciated, Mumadar and you are correct. These past few days have been put to excellent use in some cases. Spells have been learned and re-scribed and I have a much clearer understanding of the Lady of Mysteries wishes for me.”

“For my part the last few days have been very productive, but yes, I am now ready to get back to business as they say. I hope Immerine will allow me to assist her in the investigation into the undead presence here. I would like to help in any way I can.” The young mage’s tone is earnest and his voice conveys his sincerity clearly, along with the electric-blue eyes that regard her kindly…

Jezbodiah listens carefully to the others while the ferret has her breakfast on his shoulder, then throws his two or three proverbial coppers into the lot. “This man you speak of Mumadar? Does he have a name and is he a native of Berdusk? I may have heard of him.”

“You might very well have, your parents surely would.” The innkeeper replies. “Aulimann the Patient is his name, and he is a well respected moneylender. His rates are fair and honest, not as cutthroat as some less reputable individuals are. Just some humble advice from my side. But if you will excuse me, I see some refills are in order, for you as well as for some of my other guests.”

Taking the empty mugs from the table, the innkeeper heads for the bar, his advice having set some thoughts in motion. While the days might have been productive for some, an air of anticipation and eagerness seems to hang above the table: Tuttle and Immerine the most vocal and visible representations of this collective feeling.

“Moneylending? Hmm, intriguing idea, I’ll have to think on that.” Teryn looks thoughtful as he rubs his chin. “As for investigating the undead, that sounds like a good place to go from here.”

“I believe, good sir, Mumadar was offering us some subtle hints.” He says as he eyes the barbarian-mage. “I think it may be necessary for us to secure money for supplies and horses if we wish to continue our investigation into the on-coming event that threatens Berdusk. Mayhap a visit to my parents and then Aulimann is in order?”

“Your parents?” The warrior’s interest piqued by the half-elf’s comments, he asks, “Should I know them. I’ve lived here all my life.”

“It shouldn’t be hard to miss either one of them.” Jezbodiah says with an amused smile. “My father is a locksmith and my mother is the caretaker for the shrine for Lliira. She put her own personal touch on every festival, birthday, wake, and wedding in the last ten years.” He beams with pride until he continues. “Lately they’ve had other matters weighting on them.” Teryn notices a tang of concern in his last uttered sentence.

“That’s your mother!” Teryn says incredulously. “I used to run errands between the shrine of Lliira and Twilight Hall all the time. My mother was a priestess of Denier and my father worked at Twilight Hall!”

As Mumadar heads back to the bar a familiar voice calls out somewhat peevishly “There you are, Mumadar. While the bath was a splendid idea, I expected there to be another bottle w…” Nik’s voice trails off as he notices his companions are nearby.

“IMMERINE?!” The bard cries as he scurries over to the table. Never healthy-looking at the best of times, Nik now most resembles a corpse that has not had the sense to stop moving. Although he is freshly scrubbed and shaven, it only accentuates the sallowness of his skin and the deep shadows that hide his eyes. His clothes hang loosely on his rawboned frame, betraying the weight he has lost in the few days he has been absent.

However, a delighted grin crosses his cadaverous face as he looms over the witch. “Immerine!” Nik repeats, bloodshot eyes bright with joy. “It’s wonderful to see you! I thought you had left.” His grin becomes a bit self-conscious as his eyes flicker skittishly across the faces of his other companions. “It’s good to see the rest of you, of course.” He says quickly. Nik clears his throat and tugs anxiously at the scarf around his throat, adding awkwardly “I half-expected you to be off on some other grand adventure.”

Immerine’s eyes flinch at the sight of Nik’s sallow form. She breathes deeply and exhales slowly before greeting her friend. “Nik… no I didn’t leave but trust me the thought did cross our minds and souls several times. I have too much respect for why I am here and the beings who called to me to simply leave.”

Immerine stands up. “Come, Sit, Eat. You look worse for wear and I can assume you have simply been drinking your meals. You need solid food in your body else you are going to be as thin as the shades I am pursuing.” She walks directly to the bard holding her hands out, palms up and reaches to take his hands in her own. Her tone to the bard is commanding, yet comforting. There is no look of pity in her eyes, only happiness in seeing him again.

The gaunt bard’s smile wavers as Immerine mentions his drinking, and fear flickers in the sunken eyes. But as she takes his hands and directs him to sit and eat, Nik raises one eyebrow in mock-offence and looks down his long nose at her. For a moment he looks gravely serious, then he throws back his head and laughs, his humor for once utterly without the bitter edge that normally mars it.

“I can’t hide a thing from you, can I?” he chuckles, ducking his head like a mischievous schoolboy. “I don’t know why I even try. Yes, I spent the last few days at the bottom of a bottle. No, I don’t know when I last ate. And yes, I suppose food should be in order.” He cocks his head and winks at her, a wickedly amused gleam in his bloodshot eyes and the crooked, manic grin on his lips. “Especially if I’m going to be any sort of help at all to you.”

He lets Immerine direct him to a chair, and reaches for a piece of toast. The bard’s bony hand trembles slightly as he raises the bread in salute to the witch, then starts to eat. In spite of his cheerful, oddly-feckless attitude Nik eats slowly but steadily; clearly he has recovered from such drinking binges many times before and knows that the return of food can be quite a shock to the stomach.

“So…” He mumbles to no one in particular, around a mouthful of toast. “What is the plan now, anyway?”

Kevin speaks up. “I have no problem with putting at least some money into a moneylending account. If nothing else, it helps to save it from thieves.” He pauses, then smirks. “Well, except for the moneylender, perhaps. But even if Mumadar was mistaken, at least we would know who the thief was, yes?”

The wizard sobers though, “Meanwhile, I would like to find out more about the undead problems. I did some research on the… creature we faced at the mill, and while it wasn’t in-depth, I did manage to identify it. I didn’t get the impression that it was a common sort of undead – someone created it, with a very specific process. The some one that created that darkenbeast, perhaps – I don’t really know how old the creature was. If it was the same person, though, he’s even more powerful than I feared. The process isn’t something one undertakes on a whim.”

“What, some dang necromancer has begun raising dead all over the country side, or was it made further back in time?” The dwarf says, with obvious distaste in his voice at the mentioning of undead things; or would that be magic in itself. “So what if we hear Mumadar out about this moneylender and then those who are interested in that might go and talk to him and the rest check out these job descriptions.” Teryn nods quietly at Branith’s idea then takes another sip of his drink.

Tears of boredom well up in the eyes of the tiny pixie as what had looked to be an interesting conversation at the table of the tall folk turned to topics of banking and moneylending. The little fey valiantly fights off the onset of ennui, and wings his way from the rafter above the table to the bows of the tree where he had previously encountered another fairy in hopes of acquiring a bit of gossip concerning Aulimann, necromancers, or even other fey.

Kevin frowns. “I told you, I don’t know.” He says with some irritation. “It’s rather hard to tell exactly how old an undead is. Now that I know what it is, I might be able to tell – ‘if’ I had it in front of me. Even then, I don’t know. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to necromantics when I was in Silverymoon.”

Tarim watches and listens, and thinks; so many differences and so many open avenues to pursue. “I, for one…” He begins, “…will be taking Goodman Mumadar’s advice. “I have read, and heard a bit about the principles of moneylending and I believe that a great deal of good can come from the judicious use of funds with certain rules applied.”

The Uthgardt wizard chuckles briefly, “Plus of course that means they will be out of my hands and safe from being spent. Until we can find more information leading to the source of the undead I think we should take a look at the notes at Orcslayer Fountain and keep busy, what do the rest of you say?”

“Kevin?” The warrior asks, “Was there anything at the mill, either in the papers or on the deceased or undead creature that might indicate their age, or what their names were in life? If we can find out who they were that should tell us when they lived. What about the clothing, maybe there was a style about them that can narrow down a time period, anything? Maybe Nik can tell something about what we found. I’ll have him look at that chain shirt.” Looking over toward Nik, who is well into his cups, the warrior looks back at Kevin “Maybe tomorrow.”

“I couldn’t find anything I could pin down.” Kevin admits, “I’m no expert on clothing, and my historical knowledge mainly has to do with arcane magic. It could well be that someone with more knowledge of this area’s history could find something in the papers I can’t. Perhaps even Nik… though, I agree, not today. Kevin looks at Nik again, seeing the bard’s hesitant movement. “And maybe not even tomorrow. I think he’ll be feeling even more miserable in the morning than he is now. I wonder what memories drive him to drink like this?”

The bard seems very absorbed in working his way through the supply of toast, but Teryn’s mention of his name draws his attention. One eyebrow raised in inquiry Nik turns to Teryn and says cheerfully, “I couldn’t begin to guess what relevant fact might be buried in the rubbish-heap I call a mind. But I don’t see why tomorrow will be any better for investigating than today.” He shrugs dismissively and adds, “Unless you all have something important to do today. I’m sure I don’t.”

As he turns back to his toast, his gaze falls on Kevin. For a long moment, there is nothing but haunted pain in the dull hazel eyes, and then he quickly looks away. “As for why I drink, Master Kevin, well, that’s a story I’ve related one time to many these past weeks.” His voice is low and toneless, and he picks restlessly at the piece of toast in his hands, narrow shoulders slumped and a tic under one sunken eye. “You’re from Silverymoon, you said. If you were older, you’d already know. At least you’d know a good bit of it.”

Nik shudders, and visibly forces back the bitter anguish twisting his haggard face. Dropping the mangled piece of toast on the table Nik stands quickly, the crooked grin back on his lips. “If you really want to know, ask Jez.” The bard says with brittle cheer. “He knows, but he doesn’t understand it either.”

“Me?” A puzzled Jez replies, “If it’s about the horse a few days back, it was nothing really. But I don’t quite understand myself.”

Hands thrust into his pockets and cadaverous frame hunched up like a man expecting a beating, Nik walks slowly to the bar. Immerine shakes her head at the negative attention and shoots looks of pity Nik’s way. When the bard heads to the bar she follows, the only noise is the swish of the new fabric of her gown against her skin and the floor.

With his face burning in shame, the wizard looks as though he wishes he had not come downstairs at all; perhaps, even wishing for a portal to suddenly swallow him. He had thought the bard could not hear his undertone, or he never would have said what he did.

“Good ears on that man…” Kevin mutters to no one in particular. He spares a quick glare at the tree above him, where, close to the roof, Kethron sits hidden, the tressym’s amused meows giving away the otherwise invisible creature.

A bright red flush crept up Teryn’s face when Nik acknowledged their conversation and walked away. Shaking his head, he looks at Kevin “I should learn to be more circumspect. I started it, let me go talk to him.” He gets up and sighs, hangs his head for a moment then snaps his head up and looks to where Nik and Immerine moved and heads over.

* * *

When she comes even with Nik she asks, “Why do you even explain? You have nothing to prove, Nik. Those who would judge you based solely on your imperfections do not deserve to know you. You are a complicated man with a terrible past. You deal with it in the only way you know how. There is more knowledge buried in your brain than I am sure even you know. You observe things and you store them away. You are a very sensitive man, and that is why you drink – that and fear.” Immerine quietly sits near the bard waiting for him to either order another bottle or not.

Hunched over, elbows on the bar and his head in his hands, Nik sighs deeply as Immerine speaks. He glances over at her, a bemused, bitter-edged smile pulling at his mouth and resignation in his dull eyes. “Why do I explain?” He says, clearly just repeating the witch’s question back to her. Nik shrugs and sighs again, turning back to stare at the top of the bar between his elbows. “Honestly? Because they ask, I suppose. It’s human nature, you know, to ask the bloody obvious. You fall down a well, and the first person to find you just has to say ‘You’ve fallen down a well! Are you alright?!’ And what do you suppose the answer usually is? ‘Of course I’m not alright, you ass! I’ve just fallen down this well!’”

Nik chuckles ruefully. “So, as further proof of the basic clueless-ness of man, I spend the past few days drunk in my room, come out looking like something the cat dragged in and then hacked up.” Nik glances at Immerine again, a bit of his old wicked humor glinting in his eyes. “And don’t you try to tell me I don’t look like the very picture of hell, ‘cause I’m not so far gone I don’t know what I look like when I drag myself out of the bottle again. But I digress. I reappear, looking, well, like shit, and then I expect everyone to, just take it in stride. I’ve fallen down a bottle, am I alright?”

The bard sighs, and the humor is gone as he returns his stare to the wood of the bar. “It would have been easier to lie from the very beginning.” He mutters, “To make something up, something that doesn’t lead to more questions. Or to so many suggestions for other answers; answers that seem so easy from the outside, but are damn near impossible from where I stand.” Nik shrugs again, a faint, hopeless little gesture, and his voice is flat and bitter as he continues, “But if I had lied to you all from the beginning, well, when the truth came out – which it always does, trust me – where would that leave me? A drunk AND, and a liar… and a … thief.”

Nik lifts his head from his hands and looks at Immerine. The pain in his eyes is duller now, more manageable, and his crooked smile is resigned. “You told me that while I drink to forget, all it does is make the memories sharper. You’re completely right, but while I’m drunk, well, everything is a little fuzzy. And it’s harder to hate the face in the mirror when you can’t see it, you know.” Nik looks away, and says softly “I’m trying, but cheerful and sober don’t go together well for me. I want to help you people, more than you know. But I don’t know how to do it… when I’m sober everything scares me, and an innocently-meant comment is like a barbed hook in my flesh. But when I’ve had enough to drink to make me comfortable, well, no one trusts me to do the slightest thing.”

The bard sighs again, and looks down the bar for Mumadar. “I’m only going to have a little.” He tells Immerine, although he does not look at her as he orders a tankard of beer. “I can’t just stop, not after what I’ve had these few days. Not unless I TRULY want to suffer.” He glances back at her, the humor in his eyes taking some of the sting out of his next words. “And I may hate what I see in the mirror every day, but not that much.”

In between serving other patrons, the bald innkeeper reaches for a bottle that seems placed in a different location compared to the other drinks on stock. Pouring a glass, Mumadar puts it in front of the bard, though the scarred man’s eyes look at Immerine and he gives an almost imperceptible nod.

The nod she returns to Mumadar too is almost imperceptible, “Nik, I do not expect you to change overnight. It will take years of support from people who care for you to even begin to erase the pain you have faced in your past. But there must always be a first step and you have already begun the path. Know that if you stumble, and you will, you do have friends to reach for in support. I will be here for you. I can catch you when you when you stumble.”

Immerine turns at the approaching sound of Teryn. Sitting down next to Nik, Teryn wipes his hand across his mouth and starts “Nik, I didn’t mean anything by what I said, I’m sorry. I just thought you might want to relax now and see if you can learn anything from the stuff we got at the mill tomorrow. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“See Nik, here is another.” Immerine laughs lightly and gently tickles Nik’s ribs.

The bard completely misses the silent communication between Mumadar and Immerine, his whole attention for the glass the innkeeper brings him. Nik gulps his drink like a man dying of thirst, but Immerine’s words distract him before he can finish. Setting the nearly-empty glass on the bar with a sharp rattle betraying the tremor in his hand, Nik turns to the witch. There is a faintly bewildered smile on his lips, and the pathetic gratitude lighting his cadaverous face and gleaming from his eyes says all the thanks he seems unable to put into words.

Teryn’s arrival brings the wariness back into Nik’s eyes, his face carefully blank. As the young warrior apologizes, confusion flickers across Nik’s haggard face and the wariness in his eyes deepens to clear distrust.

Then he jumps as Immerine tickles him; a sharp, involuntary jerk that spills the remnants of his drink across the bartop accompanied by a strangled laugh that is almost a yelp. Nik shoots Immerine a startled glance, arm pressed to his ribs in the automatic defense of the extremely ticklish. For a moment he looks horrified and confused, then the manic grin reappears and Nik chuckles. Wry humor replaces the wariness, and he winks at Immerine before turning back to Teryn.

“No need to apologize, lad.” Nik says; the genial smile on his lips mirrored in his sunken eyes. “If anyone should be apologizing it’s me. I’ve a bit of a drinking problem, as I’m quite sure you’ve noticed.” Nik chuckles, and adds roguishly, “Well, actually I don’t have a drinking problem – until the money or the alcohol runs out. Then I have a problem!”

Nik shrugs dismissively, continuing, “But you didn’t offend me, not really. I’m just, well, a bit of a basket case when I’m sober, or anywhere too close to it.” He smiles at Teryn, and says brightly, “But I’ll make you a deal, lad; something I can keep, not some overly-optimistic promise to stop drinking, or to stop being such a thin-skinned coward.” The humor in his expression takes on a serious note as he says, “I promise not to let my drinking affect whatever job you folks set me at, if you promise not to treat me like an invalid… Or an idiot.” Nik holds one bony, trembling hand out to Teryn. Then snatches it back and clenches it into a tight fist.

The bard scowls, eyes narrowed in concentration as he stares at his right hand, clearly willing the shaking to stop. The tremors slow, then finally cease, and Nik holds his hand out again. The cheery smile is back on his lips, but his eyes hold a silent, desperate plea for understanding. “Deal?”

Teryn nods soberly at Nik’s offer and firmly clasps the bard’s hand “Deal! I have not had any reason to doubt your worth. You are a true asset to this group and we would be diminished without you.” Teryn, still holding Nik’s hand, leans close to his ear and whispers something. “If I can ever help you with the promises you don’t think you can keep, I’d be glad to try.”


Berdusk 1371 DR, Eleint, 21st day, Autumn Equinox, late morning

On her way to the Running Stag to see if her companions would still be there, Portia decided to make a nice morning stroll and forsake the quicker route along Steelsword Street. Instead, the Kelemvorite priestess takes the opportunity to enjoy the cool, but sunny, late summer morning to go via the park on Clearspring Tor and behind the Inner Chamber. While walking close to the temple of Deneir, a bronze-skinned elf suddenly hails her. At first, the red-haired woman does not recognize the wiry elf, but then when he draws closer and approaches her, Portia’s memory aids her: Druth, the sun-elf monk that arrived with Telsom after rescuing the young Lady Jalarghar.

“Druth? Is that you?” Portia pauses and a smile lights up her face, “It’s good to see you again! I’m heading for the Running Stag. Care to join me?”

“Ah, Portia, I thought that was you.” The elf exclaims. “You are looking quite well. Yes, I myself was heading to the inn; I would be pleased to walk with you. How are Telsom and the others, are they still in town?”

“Not everyone.” The redhead says, and proceeds to update the elf on recent events… Once she has finished her short summary of the events, Portia asks, “So, what have you been up to?” She then starts to move in the direction of the tavern, silently inviting the elf to join her…

“Well, I had been working on my research on human activities during the Crown Wars during my stay at the Temple of Deneir, primarily. I was nearly through with my reading, and ready to move on to Candlekeep, when I came across references to a tribe of humans who lived in this area centuries ago known as the Talfir. Perhaps you have heard of them? I found clues to a forgotten city built by the Talfir; I think it lies somewhere in the Reaching Wood, but I don’t know exactly where. I’d like to try to find it if I can.”

Portia looks intrigued at the thought. “Well, from what I understand, things around here have been brought under control by the City. I’m not sure what the others are planning to do, but I might be interested. I need to warn them about the curst though – I don’t know exactly who it might be after. If some come and others don’t, everyone needs to be aware that there might be something after them.”

Portia adjusts her shield – strapped to her back above her blade. “I was taking a more scenic route through the city than I normally do, since I wasn’t really in all that much of a rush. Now, though, maybe we’d better head directly to the Running Stag?”

* * *

Eager to start the next phase of this adventure, Jez grabs his gear and his familiar and proceeds towards the taverns main door. “I’m interested in the moneylender.” Jez says. “What say I catch up with you at Orcslayer fountain in an hour to a half-an-hour and discuss what is to come of us in the next few days? Maybe this moneylender can finance some of our expeditions to come?”

“Even though the ale is good and I don’t mind your company, I just can’t sit around all day waiting for ya all to make up your mind.” The dwarf says putting down his empty tankard with force upon the table to make his point. He rises out of his chair and picks up his belongings as well as his new shield.

“So I guess the moneylender guy can wait for a few hours.” He gives Mumadar a stubborn dwarven stare across the room and adds, “Who will follow me to see if there is some work to be gained for good aspiring folk such as ourselves over at the Orcslayer fountain. I have a goal of sorts to reach, one that is yet not even close to being completed.” With out further grace he stomps of towards previously mentioned location to check out the notes of work posted there.

Tarim sits at the table looking thoughtful and generally indecisive. A few minutes pass with him examining the tiny sip of wine left in his glass before he drains it and looks around. He manages to avoid any eye contact with Immerine well enough and finally sighs and gathers himself up.

Holding his treasured staff he makes for the door. On his way out he turns and looks at Kevin and asks; “Are you coming to have a look at the fountain?”

* * *

It does not take the pair long to reach the Running Stag. As Druth opens the door to let Portia enter, the priestess almost bumps into a sturdy dwarf – Branith. Right behind the priest of Moradin is Jezbodiah. Behind the two Portia can make out several of the others sitting at a table. Only Nik, Immerine and Teryn seem to be missing at first glance.

Branith sees only Portia, his face almost bumping into the priestess’ armored chest, but Jezbodiah sees the sun elf behind the Kelemvorite – the elf’s face is familiar to the Berduskan half-elf, but the name escapes him.

The Uthgardt mage nods smiling slightly to Portia and leans on his staff listening. He realized that he can’t leave now without being rude anyway so he might as well stay and pay attention. Ened’ome glided silently down onto his shoulder, nuzzles his cheek with her small sharp beak, causing Tarim to smile absently. The wizard scratches her behind the head while appraising the new arrival.

“Hello Lady Portia.” Jezbodiah beams. “Hey everyone…” He turns his head and body half-way to the patrons in the Running Stag, “…Our favorite smiter of the restless dead is back!” This he pronounces joyously at the top of his lungs. Alanna, sensing her master happiness, squeals openly with merriment. “Yes Alanna, I’m sure there is a well-deserved title in that last announcement, for Portia at least.” He looks down at Branith and continues, “Well good dwarf, our visit to the moneylender and Orcslayer Fountain is going to wait. I’m sure Portia has something important to say to us.”

Then the sun elf catches Jez’s attention, “Goodman…” Jez says to the sun elf in elvish, “You seem familiar. Have we once met somewhere, uh… sometime ago?”

Immerine turns around to look towards the door, “We should perhaps see if Lady Portia has any news.” She nods politely to Mumadar, Teryn and Nik and returns to the table to wait for Portia. Then she catches sight of the sun elf, there is a pause in her step and she takes an irregular breath before continuing to the table.

“If you have spent any time at the Temple of Deneir and Oghma in the last several weeks, you likely saw me in a hallway or the common room. Or perhaps one of the others has mentioned my name in passing?”

“I am sorry indeed to hear of Telsom’s death. He will be sorely missed.” Looking to Portia, he smiles sadly, saying, “Portia has told me much of the past few weeks… much has happened, I see. Many of the group have gone their own way, but I see you have made new acquaintances. I had thought to ask…” the sun elf trails off for a moment, before flagging down a waitress. “Wine, please, miss.”

“I did meet someone…” Jez replies. “My memory wanders. The last few days were hazy. His name was… ah… it is gone. Maybe it will come back in time.” He snaps his fingers. “I believe the name was Grimm. Does that name sound familiar?”

Portia moves into the room – once she works her way past Branith – and nods to those present. “I’ve been following up on the undead creature we fought at the mill…” She says, “I’m not sure what you’ve discovered on your own, but what I’ve come across is pretty disturbing.”

First waving to Mumadar with a smile and a nod – but not requesting anything – then Portia looks about the room briefly before addressing her comrades. “The creature is called a Curst. It’s an odd undead type, and what makes it really special is that it can’t be killed by normal means. It has to receive a blessing to remove the curse that caused it to rise from the dead in the first place to destroy it. Unfortunately, that means the one we faced is still out there.”

The Kelemvorite priestess frowns. “In addition to that, I can’t seem to escape the feeling that this particular Curst is now hunting us. Either me, or one of you, or maybe one of its possessions that we now hold – it’s coming after us.”

After a moment’s pause, Portia smiles slightly. “That said, I don’t think we should hide away and wait it to come to us. Druth here…” She nods to the elven monk that came in with her, “…for those of you that don’t know him, was in on the early investigations that Matteo and some of the rest of us started. He’s been following up on something that sounds interesting, and he’s looking for help. I’m probably going to go with him, and I thought some of you might be interested too, since the City seems to have wrapped up the troubles here.”


The half-elf frowns heavily then speaks to Branith, “You may want to stay around and listen. What Portia and Druth are about to say will be important…” He turns and looks to the Kelemvorite. “When the time comes Lady Portia, will you be able to answer some questions for me?”

Kevin, hearing Portia’s tale, covers his eyes with one hand, muttering to himself in elven, “Stupid, stupid, stupid…”

“I did my own research on the creature.” The wizard says after a moment, “But once I found out what it was, I concentrated on its habits, how it was created, and things of that sort. I thought the creature was destroyed, so I never paid attention to how one would go about defeating it.” Kevin frowns suddenly, then looks around. “Who has that sword we found? It was the most special thing we found, yes? Perhaps the curst is after it.”

The halfling ranger continues to twirl his stone, bored and frustrated with the extended conversations. “I’ll be with you, my lass. Tis’ a noble and worthy goal. One where lives may be saved.” he says while moving away from the wall. “Much more so than playing some charlatan’s coin game.” he adds in a frustrated tone.

“That would me.” Jez replies morbidly. “Bugger,” He mutters under his breath.

Immerine chuckles in the back of her throat, “Poor Jez. It appears I will not have to go far for the undead. You desire for the sword has brought you to this and the curst upon us. I trust you will return the sword when he comes calling – or perhaps it was also that shiny shirt. Ah well… Thank you, Lady Portia, for your impressive research. Now where do we go to see if he comes?” Immerine trails off with the question her eyes fairly glitter with anticipation.

The tall bard hangs back at the bar, watching the others discuss as he waits for a refill of the glass he spilled. Sipping idly from his new drink, Nik moves over to join his companions, following Immerine and Teryn.

“Bah, there was no desire involved and Lady Immerine…” He says candidly. “…my curiosity got the better of my wits. This Curst will make life and our intrepid quest a bit more interesting and probably all too soon sometime down the road.” A taunting gleam shines in his eye and he continues, “And my Lady, gloating is so unbecoming of you. Remember, I never took the shiny shirt. It makes wonder who has that item.”

“I do, for now. Remember though that the blade and shirt were on or with the body under the wheel. The curst itself carried the necklace and the wand. My guess is it wants the wand.” Immerine says nothing to Jez, she simply turns away from him and looks towards Druth expectantly. When Teryn brings up his point she murmurs, “There is that as well.”

“Well…” Portia shrugs. “I have no idea. Cursts are generally a bit out of their minds, we all saw that, but they aren’t stupid. I don’t think the thing is just going to walk in here and start killing. I would suggest that we go about our business, and just make sure that we’re aware that this thing is out there, waiting for an opportunity. I’ve been given some lee-way from the Church. Druth here…” The cleric waves her hand at the elf next to her, “…has an idea that sounds interesting, and it will definitely pass the time…”

Jez then ignores Immerine’s comments and turns to Portia and Kevin. “It seems my hour of dire need is in the hands of two fine sages. If you have information about the Curst, mayhaps you can share it with us, or at least with me.”

“And Druth, elven sire…” He says politely, “…before you present your idea, are you familiar with the teachings of Deneir. Maybe you can read these runes on the blade. Maybe Tymora and Deneir can help in matters of memory, history and wisdom?”

“I will certainly take a look at it, although I am no great student of languages, having studied only those needed for my research. I suspect that Master Nik would be more likely to ken the runes. If you think it important, I could possibly persuade one of the Denierath to have a look at it?”

“Nik has given a good stab at it and has revealed some of sword’s history.” He looks at Druth and arches a single eyebrow. “Perhaps we can take a walk to the Temple of Deneir within the day. Since this sword has a deep history and a history linked the dwarven folk. I can not help but wonder if it is linked to any dwarven communities, past and present within the area.”

Looking around the table to include the entire party, the elf goes on, “I had thought to ask the members of this company for some help in my endeavor. As some of you know, I am delving into certain historical aspects of human cultures and their interactions with the elven kingdoms. I had thought that I had exhausted the resources here in Berdusk, when I found reference to a tribe of humans that formerly lived in this area known as the Talfir.”

“One of the tomes I read made mention of a great city the Talfir built, but the description given doesn’t match that of any known ruin or existing city. A small passage I almost overlooked leads me to think that it lies in an area now covered by the Reaching Wood, although I admit I cannot narrow it any further than that.”

“There is, however, a footnote in the histories of the Shoon Empire that made reference to a particular outpost in what is now known as the Greenfields. Supposedly, this outpost made frequent forays into this area roughly during the same period in time. I have reason to believe that a map carved into stone lies within the fort, which would likely denote the position of key landmarks, as well as the city itself.”

“I’m afraid that I have no funds to disburse to support such an endeavor, although such ruins frequently hold relics of value to collectors, and if the city itself could be found… well, its value could well be incalculable due to the knowledge it may house. It would have the added benefit of drawing this curst away from civilized areas, if it does indeed pursue you.”

“Hence the need for a moneylender. My parents, especially my father may have dealings with this gentleman and may be able to sway him in financing our expedition. And I must warn them about this Crust if it indeed comes looking for me.” He sighs deeply and continues, “My mother is expecting soon and can be moved from our home. She is expecting another child within the month, I’m afraid. Her last birth took much out of her health. I worry whether my next sibling may not make it into this world, or worse, my mother who may not live to see it. Curst or not.” Jez’s normal mood turns gloomy and somber with his last spoken words.

“Your plan is one of the better ones I have heard, Master Druth. I will accompany you on your quest.” Immerine says simply. “When do we leave?”

“At the convenience of those who wish to go, wychlaran.” The sun elf says. “Both the outpost and city have stood where they are even before my grandfathers birth; there is no need to rush off without all due preparation.”

“I’m in.” The warrior answers, “I’d still like to see this moneylender first, perhaps Jez and I can do that while everyone gets ready. The sooner we leave town the less likely the curst comes here looking for us. Jez, is this moneylender a reputable fellow or one to break legs of those who are late with a payment?”

“I don’t know…” Jez replies. “…I’m not privy to the family finances, but I would assume my mother or father would use a moneylender only if he had a solid and well-respected reputation.” Jez scratches his chin with his thumb and index finger and ponders some thoughts. “There’s going to be two detours. I suppose a visit to the parents is called, as well as a visit to the temple of Deneir. I’m open to more suggestions if anyone wishes to speak.” Meanwhile, Alanna takes the opportunity to climb up the youthful half-elf and onto his shoulders once more.

The dwarf who after recovering from the near crash into Portia, flops down onto a chair, while the group, again, discusses things. “Count me in as well master Druth. I will follow along as well to the money lender, if you don’t mind.” Regarding the subject of the sword he says, “Sadly I can’t help you with that, long was the time since my ancestors walked the southern lands before the fall.”

Kevin’s eyes brighten at the thought of exploring an ancient city. “Oh, I am indeed interested!” He says, straightening in his seat. “Who knows what forgotten knowledge lies buried there?” With a flutter of wings, Kethron comes down from the overhead branches to land on the table in front of the half-elven wizard. Seeming to feel at least part of Kevin’s excitement, the Tressym familiar dives into Kevin’s lap, turns around, places his front paws on the table, and gives Druth a happy mew.

Nik just stands there, listening, but offering no opinions of his own. His smile is genuinely happy as he looks at Portia, and the calm in his sunken eyes reveals how his mental state seems to have improved even as he has deteriorated physically since last she saw him. Finally, Nik shrugs a narrow shoulder and says quietly “I’ll go where ever you folks want me to go. I’m not exactly well-versed in the practical applications of adventuring.” His crooked grin matched by the humor in his eyes as he adds “But I’ve no need of a visit to the local moneylender. What money I have is more than good enough for what little I need.”

Jezbodiah goes off to check on his parents – both to inquire after the health of his mother and his to-be-born sibling as well as to gather information on moneylenders in general and Aulimann the Patient. Some of the others with interest in the moneylender – or with purchases to make join the half-elf; the rest remain behind in the Stag or go their way to make some purchases at the last moment.


Berdusk to the Greenfields, 1371DR, Eleint, 22nd day

Early in the morning, the group gathers in the courtyard of the Running Stag. Dawn, which every day seems to fight a losing battle against the darkness of the night is only barely providing enough light to make all the preparations. The chill of the early morning air serves as a strong wake-up call, making everyone trying to warm-up by participating actively. Backpacks find their way onto shoulders and horses, buckles and straps secured, and the last arcane phrases memorized before everyone mounts, or in the case of Nik, Tuttle, Branith, Tarim and Kevin climbing onto the sturdy cart loaded with provisions and equipment.

There is not much traffic on the streets, but the first peddlers and street vendors move their way across the city. A few carts roll clattering over the cobblestone streets and the sound of the iron-shod hooves of the group’s horses along with the iron rims of the cart, contributes to the early morning sounds as the city slowly wakes up to a new day.

Jezbodiah and Teryn lead the way across Steelsword Street towards Bellowbar’s Gate, at Orcslayer fountain, the duo halts and dismounts, “While we are on our way out, it doesn’t hurt to check if there is anything else of interest for us.” Jezbodiah says as Teryn is already walking up to one of the three large oaks that surround the fountain.

While the two Berduskans accompanied by Branith and Portia start scanning the notes and pamphlets posted, the others take their time to look at the fountain. A statue of a burly warrior standing atop a pile of vanquished orcs depicts the hero Berdusk Orcslayer. Shivering a little, despite his new warm clothes, Nik recites some of the town’s history. The water from the fountain sprouts froth from the various wounds on the orcs, as well as from the mouth of the severed orc head that the hero holds in his hand – the other holding a sword victoriously up in the air.

“A hundred years or so ago, during one of the orc hordes that made it down from the Spine of the World all the way to here, a local warrior, Berdusk Orcslayer, organized frequent patrols to scour the countryside and attack the orcish camps. His heroics and persistent manner in taking the fight to the orcs despite the overwhelming odds boosted the morale of the local militia, eventually managed to stem the orcish tide in the region and bring some safety back to the city. It was after he died that this place was named after him.” Shrugging as he folds his arms across his chest in an attempt to stay warm, the lanky bard adds, “That’s about all I have been able to pick up in the past tenday or so. Don’t have more details to add.”

“Nothing…” Comes the warrior’s voice from behind the fountain, “…Nothing suitable for us. Then again, the caravan season is as good as done. I’m not too surprised.” Teryn, Jezbodiah, Branith and Portia re-join the others and the journey towards the city’s western-most gate continues past the smithies and related businesses in Ironward.

As behind the group the seven bells ring from the House of the High Hand, the guards at Bellowbar’s Gate admit the group to leave the city. Most traffic at this time of the day is bound for the city, and the crossing of the bridge is easy – most visitors cross the Chionthar via Moondown Isle. Behind the bridge, the road is no longer cobbles, but hard packed earth and crushed stones. It is full of ruts from the many carts and wagons that travel into the city on almost a daily basis, and for those on the cart; this part of the journey is not all too comfortable.

Close to where the group crosses is the city’s cemetery, Portia assures that with the vigilance of her brothers and sisters, there is no threat of walking dead from that direction. The Fields of the Dead are more of a concern, as well as the various necromancers and priests of Velsharoon and the like. The tombstones, shrines, ornamental and plain graves are partially hidden behind a hedgerow of hazel. Beyond the cemetery are only a few fields and simple farms, before giving away to the rolling hills of the Greenfields.

The plains are predominantly seas of grass, occasionally dotted by copses of trees or small forests. Although it appears rather flat, the gentle rolling hills of the plain often obscure gorges or small lakes and rivers; these places markedly surrounded by denser vegetation. As the sun nears its zenith, Berdusk is no longer visible…

In the open, the wind has more room to play, and despite the sun overhead, the ambient temperature has a definite chill to it. Teryn leads the way, trying to find the easiest path for the wagon and its passengers. Where closer to Berdusk there were still paths and trails, now there is only the expanse of green. With the going slow, Tuttle walks beside the Berduskan warrior, the diminutive ranger aiding in blazing a trail for the group. Overhead, Kevin’s winged cat frolics about from time to time, Tarim’s more nocturnal inclined familiar stays perched on the young Uthgardt’s shoulder. Both spellcasters looking trough their tomes from time to time, or discussing the recent events with the other passengers of the cart – Branith holding the reins and Nik, who’s legs dangle from the rear end of the wagon while the bard strums some melodies on his instrument.

Riding beside Immerine and following Teryn, Druth scans from time to time a rudimentary map. The frown on his face a clear indication that he is not all too comfortable with the scant information the drawing provides. Immerine recognizes the flow of the Chionthar – about the only true recognizable feature on the map – the rest drawn out of geographic proportion it seems. Druth points out the supposed location of the Shoon outpost. Four hills – one of them bigger and marked with some symbol – and something that seems to represent a small lake of sorts. None of the others has been able to make much of the map either back when the sun-elf monk showed it for the first time.

Portia sits her mount a bit awkwardly; still not the most comfortable in the saddle, even after the last few weeks. She places most of her concentration to the right of the group, taking it upon herself to watch that direction while suggesting that someone else dedicate themselves to the left. “Tell me Druth, other than finding this enclave, what are you hoping to discover there? Is there anything specific, or is it the thirst for discovery that drives you?”

“What was I hoping to discover?” The young elf muses, “History! Clues as to why those who walked Faerûn before us acted as they did. Magic was prevalent in the time of our forefathers… many arcane feats accomplished in those days cannot be replicated by modern wizards. Why is that, do you think? Has the Weave grown weaker over time, or is it the practitioners who have weakened, unable to pull taut the string on the bow our ancestors wielded with ease?”

“If you thought that I seek mighty magics or powerful artifacts, I’m afraid you will be disappointed. My aspirations are much greater than that!” Then, the sun elf blushes and looks around, embarrassed at being caught up on his soapbox.

The halfling ranger continues to scout ahead, relieved to be in the outdoors again and away from the city. Tuttle looks about the horizon looking for landmarks and hoping to make sense of Druth’s map. “Do you know anything else of this place that might help us get there?” He asks of Druth.

“I’m afraid not. Finding what little I have was merely a fortunate accident. Surely some remnants of the places depicted on the map remain to point us in the right direction.”

Tuttle looks a little disappointed at the response, but then manages to smile. “I had hoped that I might be able to recognize the features, but we are too far from my end of the Reaching Wood. Perhaps luck will be with us?”

“So we’re off into the unknown. I’m glad I bought extra supplies…” Jezbodiah says to Druth. “Is there anything you can tell us about the Shoon? My knowledge of ancient cultures is rather limited. I was wondering if you came across anything about them in your research.”

Immerine remains quiet as she rides across the landscape. She seems to be in a private world with just her and Qwenta. From time to time, they ride away from the group, but never far enough to lose sight; whether to the rear, the front or the sides but they always return within a moment or two.

Conversations during the trek are at a minimum, each seemingly absorbed into their own thoughts, or occupied with blazing the trail or looking out for potential threats – the idea of the undead from the ruined mill being one of the threats that could come to haunt… As the team plods on across the rolling plain, the sun moves further west, and towards the horizon; every once in a while hiding behind the clouds overhead and causing the chilly wind to feel even more colder in the absence of direct sunlight.

With dusk approaching, Tuttle signals for a halt and points at a small copse of trees on a nearby ridge, suggesting it as the campsite for the night. No one disagrees and soon the smell of cooking permeates the air near the wagon. Men and beast taken care for, the group spreads out their bedrolls near the fire, and under the cart, while watches are set to guard the night. Portia and Kevin take first watch, the priestess first attending to her daily routine of prayers at sundown.

A small drizzle falls from the sky, annoying and cold, but not enough to extinguish the low-banked fire or limit vision too much. Huddling in his cloak while scanning the area about the camp, Jezbodiah paces back and forth during his turn, the half-elf sorcerer’s familiar comfortably tucked away and sleeping in her satchel. After putting a little more fuel on the fire, Jez resumes his pacing and suddenly notices the faint flickering of lights in the distance. Tuttle, on the same watch, and who had been checking on the horses, sees Jez suddenly stop and stare.

“Tuttle, I see flickering lights in the distance… there… See them?” He points towards their immediate direction. “Awaken the others. I think we’re about to have visitors.” Jez quickly rummages through his belongings and retrieves a sunrod and his wand. He grabs his crossbow and slings it over his back. “I can’t make anything out.” He says with certainty. “I hope to Lliira it is not bugbears.”

A low sound of motion comes forth from where the dwarf lay. “What you up to?” Branith says his voice void of any signs of sleepiness. “I can’t sleep well any way, can’t seem to find a rock to rest my head on.” He says, though the two cannot really make out if it is a joke or a serious remark.

“Something’s up Branith. I can see flickering lights in the distance and I’m going to investigate. I’ll need you to wake up everybody, especially Portia. Be ready to put the fire out and get your axe ready.” Looking at Tuttle, the half-elf says. “Care to come along?”

“Aye, will do.” With that the dwarf begins the process of waking up the rest of the party, paying special attention to Portia as informing her briefly on the finding, “You are needed for nightly inquires, and without any ale.”

Jez nods. “Thanks Branith.” Jez snaps his fingers and says, “Put the fire out with sand. If it’s nothing serious, I can re-light it with a cantrip when I return.” Jez pulls the hood of his cloak over his head and covers his weapons. Looking at Tuttle, he says. “Let’s make this quick and silent. We find out who and what it is. We do not fight them or if friendly invite them to our camp. Then we return and inform the others.”

Tuttle continues to watch the lights carefully, squinting as he hopes to resolve the lights better. “Could be bugbears, could be many things.” He mutters absently. Tuttle then gathers his weapons and nods to Jez. “Aye.” He says with little emotion. “Aye.”

As Branith draws near Tarim asleep on his bedroll, Ened’ome swoops down from her perch and alights on the young mage’s prone form. Screeching at the dwarf in warning, the noise wakes Tarim anyway and he sits up gathering the perturbed little owl into his arm and caressing her beak reassuringly.

Sleepily he looks at Branith and around the camp. “Trouble?” He asks groggily.

From nearby, Portia starts gathering her gear together before pausing to watch the owl defend her friend. She smiles briefly, and then, looking about the camp at everyone getting up and ready, she asks, “now, Tarim, that’s a good question. What’s going on?” She looks about, and then calls to Jez, “Jez, are you waking us all up just because you saw some lights?” She does not sound happy. “There are some here that need all the rest we can get…”

She makes no move to draw on her armor, but instead moves to the fire. “Anyone want anything hot to drink? Tarim? Branith?” Immerine yawns and stretches when it is her turn to awaken. She makes no complaints and pays little attention to the activity. She stands, retrieves her quarterstaff and looks out toward the lights where Jez and Tuttle are preparing to go investigate. Next to her, the gangly bard tugs his threadbare blanket more tightly around himself and rolls over with an incoherent mumble of protest at the noise the others are making.

“Sorry Portia, but duty beckons.” His voice and manner become more theatrical and Jezbodiah continues, “Like flickering lights in the stillness of the Berdusk night, like a moth to flame, I go forth into the unknown, with Lliira and Tymora as my sole guides. His intentions noble, but curious, what will he find?”

As he proceeds to wrap a long shawl around his neck and lower face, Jez says with a smile, “I’ve always wanted to do something like that.” He looks at Kelemvorite and continues; his demeanor empathic and soft, “Portia, If you could as a favor, watch Alanna for me. She won’t wander anywhere tonight. Her stomach’s full and she’s too exhausted from this evening’s dinner.” He winks at the priestess then leaves with the others.

Aroused from his slumber on a branch sheltered by leaves from the rain, Puddy groggily flies around the campsite to ascertain what has caused the commotion. Deciding that investigation is the better part of valor, the little fey resolves to accompany the hin and half-elf to spy out the source of the lights. Puddy flies high above their heads in order to get a better view.

Tarim rubs his eyes and looks over at Portia and nods, “Yes something hot would be wonderful.” He sees Immerine peering out into the darkness and asks “Immerine? Can you see anything?” Portia nods and sets about whipping up a tea… “No I cannot. The half-elf’s vision is greater than my own.” Immerine takes in the evening air on her nose.

As Immerine puts her nose in the wind – and the drizzle – Branith, Tuttle and Jezbodiah set of on a midnight trek towards the mysterious lights. Overhead, unseen to all, the invisible fairy accompanies the scouts as they make their way underneath the dripping branches and through the wet almost knee-high grass – that is knee height for Jezbodiah.

Not happy to be awakened because of lights so far away, Teryn does not complain but quietly gets up and grabs his twin swords, bow and quiver and moves just beyond the edge of the camp, just past the radius of light emanating from the fire into darkness, nocks an arrow and watches and listens carefully for any sounds.

Back in the camp Portia busies herself with boiling water, adding herbs from a small pouch. Once the tea is ready, Portia takes a cup to Tarim. Settling to the ground near the mage, she says, “You’re from the Silver Marches, right? We haven’t really had a chance to talk before…” She watches the little black owl with interest. The young mage seems slightly taken surprised at her interest, pleasantly so however and answers after gathering his thoughts. “Hmm? Oh yes, I am… though I hadn’t really thought of it like that. I am Uthgardt from the High Forest… well rather I was Uthgardt…” He pauses, thoughtful.

Ened’ome stares back at the red-haired priestess, her abyssal eyes seeming to hold no end of mystery, unreadable and enigmatic. Portia looks from the little owl to the man. “Uthgardt.” She nods thoughtfully. “I’m from Baldur’s Gate myself, though I seem to have found a home in Berdusk at the Crystal Mansion.” Her brow furrows at a thought, and she says, “I wouldn’t have thought there’d be many mages among the Uthgardt?”

The young mage actually laughs our loud, quickly stifling himself and nodding in agreement. “Truer words were never spoken, Portia. I believe I am the only one, and that path has cost me…” As quickly as the laughter came upon him it is gone, replaced by something darker and sobering. Changing subjects somewhat abruptly, he ventures, “Baldur’s Gate… So, you are accustomed to the ways of the city folk then. I find the numbers of people dizzying it’s simply too much to take it all in…”

“I’m willing to bet you’ll get used to the numbers in time. The more you see the more you’ll be able to adapt. Berdusk now…” Portia smiles as she starts to redo her thick braid, “…it’s not quite as big as Baldur’s Gate. I hear Athkatla is a real City. And, then there’s Waterdeep… They just keep getting bigger!” Then she changes the subject and says, “That little fellow…” She points toward the little owl, “…is adorable. You’re a friend of Kevin too, right? How does he…” She nods at the owl again, “…get along with the cat?” Portia smiles at that, and looks around for the winged feline as well…

The Uthgardt mage chuckles and strokes Ened’ome’s feathers behind her head soothingly. “Ened’ome is a girl, be careful she’s sensitive about that… I’ve explained to her on many an occasion that ‘us big dumb naked walking sticks’ can’t really tell by looking, but she’s still a bit peevish about the whole thing.” He smiles and takes the little owl off his shoulder, holding her forward towards Portia. “Go on…” He urges the little owl “Go say hello.”

While Ened’ome makes up her mind, Tarim smiles and answers, “Yes, Kevin is actually my mentor in the Wizardly arts he’s taught me a great deal. Kethron and Ened’ome are actually quite friendly; they make great hunting partners too since they both like mice…” Ened’ome stays put for a moment or two, observing the priestess before hopping over onto her upper arm with a silent flutter of wings. She lets out a low screech, possibly a greeting of some sort.

Immerine shakes her head and looks back at the few people remaining in camp. She smiles at the little owl making new friends and looks over to where Qwenta is rubbing his head on the tree. She sighs deeply and walks over to Portia and Tarim. “May I have a cup as well? I am sorry for intruding on your conversation.”

Waking slowly, the sun elf says nothing as he watches the trio head off toward the lights. Looking around, he says, “Did I miss something? Are we to assume that they are not just travelers like us. I doubt your curst camps for the night and cooks his meal.”

Immerine looks up at the elf, “There is no telling. I think Jez enjoys worrying like an old woman. But it is safer to take precautions when you have made enemies.”

Looking over at the Rashemi witch Tarim arches an eyebrow. “It was hardly private so there can be no intrusion, Immerine. You are welcome to join us of course as well if you wish.” Thoughtfully he takes a sip of tea and nods in approval to Portia.

Portia makes another cup for Immerine, on the way back checking on Jez’s little friend. The entire time, she does her best to balance the little owl on her wrist… “Still…” She says, joining the conversation, after handing Immerine her tea, “…going to look for trouble in the middle of the night is not something they should be doing.” Her disapproval of the scouts’ actions is obvious. “If it were closer, I could understand, but those lights a good ways away. And Druth…” She nods at the elf, “…has a point. The curst isn’t likely to camp at all, one way or the other…”

Taking her seat near Tarim again, she holds out her arm carefully. “She’s beautiful, Tarim.” Then, talking directly to the little owl with a smile, “You can ride on my shoulder any time, little one.” After a moment, she says, “I just think they’re looking for trouble. We can take precautions here without wandering for miles in the dark…”

Ened’ome watches Portia with wide solemn eyes bobbing her head once before hopping onto Tarim’s arm. Smiling Tarim takes Ened’ome back and rubs her beak gently with the back of a finger. The little owl settles nicely onto his knee in a matter of moments.

With his friend settled comfortably he produces the nearly ever-present brush and works the sleep out of his long lustrous black hair distractedly, taking an occasional sip of tea. After having brushed for a breath or two, he says softly. “I’m not sure I like the fact that they decided to go off on their own without checking with the rest of us. That decision should have been made as a group, don’t’ you think?” He is not looking at anyone in particular; in fact, he is scrupulously avoiding eye contact with Immerine, so it is hard to tell whom he is asking, or even if he is indeed asking anyone in particular.

“Nothing Jez does surprises me.” Immerine’s eyes crinkle in frustration and she takes a sip of tea beneath her mask. “This is very good, thank-you Portia.”

The three scouts in the mean time have navigated their way with difficulty down the slope. Protruding roots, occasional slippery rocks and tufts of grass make the trail more of a challenge for the small unit, than ought to be. The half-elf’s and the dwarf’s eyesight – normally superior to the halfling’s and the fairy’s – fails them in accuracy with the fine drops of rain that wash across the landscape almost like mist.

Their own camp has vanished beyond sight, a comforting thought that their comrades are not visible from here, yet disturbing in making it potentially difficult to come back. With as much stealth as possible given the circumstances, Jezbodiah leads the others with Tuttle almost on his heels.

At some point Tuttle pulls Jezbodiah back, “Wrong direction. That way.” The halfling points in a direction several degrees off from where Jezbodiah was heading. “Bah, this rain is hampering our vision, luckily it will do the same for any one at those lights.” The dwarven cleric says as he tries to keep up with the rest.

“Aye, I can’t help but think if they saw our campfire…” Jez says softly. “I hope they’re not as curious as I am, whatever they may be…” Thinking he may have jinxed himself, Jez takes a brief pause, whispers a prayer to Lliira and Tymora then continues, “Anyway, be wary of the ground before you, there could be snares, tripwires or some such.”

The ranger points off the current path. “There. We should change our course. I can feel it. Let us go quickly now! We’re nearing my lands and forest now!” The halfling waves and begins to jog along in the new direction. “Don’t get too far ahead.” Whispers Jez, as he matches Tuttle’s pace.

At a careful jog the three scouts continue their trek onwards – now in the direction where the halfling ranger is going – and despite the hin’s natural agility and familiarity with the outdoors, even he manages to stumble and fall a couple of times; though not as often as Jezbodiah and Branith. The dwarf trying his best to be silent is still as loud as a herd of rothé.

With the grumbling and muttering dwarf a few paces behind them, the Berduskan half-elf and the ranger halt when the lights become visible again through the drizzle and the foliage. Halting behind a weeping willow tree – the structure of the trunk and the position of the branches making identification even at night not too difficult – the trio peer through the branches and leaves.

Up ahead, behind further growth light seems to shimmer and dance across a surface of sorts, which is difficult to identify in the chaotic glimmering light, but is likely to be a house of sorts. The area where the scouts are observing the scene, smells of mud and decomposing vegetable matter and the ground is soggy, not only from the rain.

A shrill voice whispers just loud enough to be heard above the rain, as the still-invisible frightened fey circles the group, pulling beards, hair, and cloaks alike in an effort to get halt the scouts, “Camp! Back you go! Dangerous they are! Will-o-wisps! Turn back, we should!”

Tuttle looks up and around, searching for the voice. As he recognizes the tone, he relaxes slightly. “Sound advice.” He whispers. “Even if it is a house as it appears, we’d be better to return early in the morn: in force.”

“Well I guess it’s nothing more to do here then.” The cleric of Moradin says and turns around to walk back to camp. “Will O’ wisps, aye.” Jez nods. “Back to camp and inform the others.”

* * *

While Teryn is keeping watch just outside the circle of small circle of light thrown by the campfire, he hears something approach from the direction the scouts went. A creature – or maybe more than one – is making its way through the bushes and grasses and across the slippery slope.

Tarim’s little black owl suddenly takes to the air with silent, strong beats of its little wings, leaving the Uthgardt wizard with a feeling of sudden alert. Nearby Kethron – Kevin’s familiar – raises a feline head and even in the flickering light of the campfire, it is obvious that the hairs on the winged cat’s neck are standing up and its tail has doubled in size.

Immerine rises, setting the cup on the ground. “Company coming.” She turns from the fire and places it at her back facing away. She calmly grips her staff, a smile playing about her lips.

From a short distance beyond the light of the campfire, Teryn hears Immerine announce company is coming. He crouches down lower, bow at the ready, checking every direction by turning his head, not his whole body and watching and listening intently for any movement or sound.

Portia watches the owl take off, and nods at Immerine’s statement. “I think we should move away from the fire…” She says to Tarim, taking hold of her sword and heading for the edge of the camp. She settles down into the shadows… “Good idea. Which direction?” The elf inquires, as he scans the perimeter. “I don’t think it matters.” The priestess says, from where she is settling down. “We don’t know where whatever is coming from, do we?”

Groaning softly the Uthgardt mage struggles to his feet and with staff in hand takes cover near Portia. She can hear him whispering softly to himself, “What’s wrong…”

Apparently unable to go back to sleep, the gangly bard sits up, yawning hugely and scratching absently at the day’s growth of scraggly beard shadowing his sharp jaw. Blinking blearily in the firelight and wrapping his threadbare blanket around his narrow shoulders, Nik grumbles irritably “It’s still dark yet. We’re not breaking camp already, are we? Those ruins have waited this long, surely they can wait for daylight.”

As Nik’s sleepy eyes blink around, he sees the sleeping form of Kevin curled up a few feet away, with a feline keeping watch. Kethron seems to have doubled in size and it takes a little before the slowly waking brain of he bard realizes that all the hairs on the winged-cat are standing up. Quickly looking about the camp, he only sees Immerine standing defiantly with her quarterstaff at the ready. Of Portia, Tarim and Teryn there is no sign, also Branith, Tuttle and Jezbodiah are nowhere in sight. The half-elf’s bedroll seems unused save for Jez’s curled up familiar sleeping soundly.

Waiting in the darkness beyond the firelight, Teryn notes with his ears more than his eyes the preparations being made by the others to ‘welcome’ the incoming unknowns. He waits, patiently, for sight or sound of what might be headed his way.

The sound of something moving closer to his position is the reward for the warrior’s patience a moment or so later. The jingle of metal links – likely mail of some sort – heavy boots and a softer footfall. A moment later he sees three shapes appearing through the rain; a small one, a slender taller one and one figure that fall between the two in size, but is much broader of build.

At the same time, Jezbodiah sees Teryn partially hidden in the bushes, arrow poised on his bow. A bit behind the Berduskan warrior, the outline of Immerine, holding her staff at the ready, is visible.

“Jez, it’s Teryn!” Teryn relaxes and lowers his bow as he greets the scouting party just loud enough so the others can hear. Pausing a moment to make sure he is recognized before standing, he gets up from behind the bush to accompany the threesome back to the campfire. “You are back early, come tell us what you found.”

“Hey Teryn. Hey everyone were back from our nightly jog. I take it Alanna’s still asleep and staying out of trouble?” Jez calls out with a tiny hint of relief in his voice.

With a grin at Tarim, the red-haired priestess climbs to her feet. “I figured it was them.” She says softly. Then, with a huge yawn, Portia moves toward her bedroll, “‘Night all, I’m for bed…” As Portia with a tired look of dismay gets into her bedroll, the scouts move into the camp; mud-splattered and with some scratches and tears in clothing that were not there before.

“Bah, by the hammer this trek was worse than the ones I did through the Underdark to even get here” the dwarven cleric sputters as he stumbles into camp. “Well we didn’t found that much. Just some floating lights, will-o-wisps I think the pixie called them. Never saw any of their kind before so… There also seemed to be some kind of structure over there.”

“Covered in rotting vegetation,” huffs Jez. “My father or mother told me about them (will o’ wisps) once as a campfire story. Nasty creatures they are. Said to lure the unwary and the unwise to their doom. Don’t know what that means as I thought I’d never see any, until now, even from this distance.” He pauses then continues. “Anyway, I thought it was wiser to heed the words of caution from our pixie companion. We can check the structure in the morning, if the group thinks it’s necessary.”

Jez looks at his torn cloak; picks at the new hole in it, making it bigger, “Ruined a new cloak for nothing. Sorry for waking everybody…” In his bedroll, the wizard continues sleeping. He shows no sign that he ever stirred at any of the noise, or even his familiar’s own wariness.

As the others come back to the camp, Immerine ignores their return… including the flippant attitude of Jez. She steps outside of the firelight and approaches Qwenta.

“Is it really necessary?” Says the elf as he turns back to his bedroll, “Probably some trappers hut fallen into disrepair.” As he starts to lay his head on his makeshift pillow, he sits upright once more. “What about those will-o-wisps? Were they doing anything, or just milling around? If you think they might follow you back, perhaps we should move the camp, or at least post a guard away from the fire in that direction.”

“Just milling around the old building, I guess. I don’t think it was a trapper’s hut.” The Berduskan half-elf says in reply. “You know, this might be the outpost you were looking for.” He turns his head about, searching but not finding, “Hey Puddy…” Jez asks the invisible pixie. “…What did you see?”

An exasperated voice without an apparent source replies, “Told you, I did! Reason we fled, they were. Short memories tall folk have.” A slight buzz of wings somewhere behind Jez alerts him to the approximate location of the fairy. “I have a funny feeling I missed something. I guess it can wait until the morning.” He says as he shrugs his shoulders. “I’ll finish my watch. Who’s next in line?”

Outside the circle of light and the meager warmth thrown by the small campfire, Immerine busies herself a little with Qwenta, the horse nudging her reassuringly. Some of Qwenta’s lackluster picked-up in the time spent in Berdusk almost gone after a day’s ride in the wide open. While brushing her friend’s moist flank, the young witch peers into the gloomy darkness. Selûne’s light not able to penetrate the low hanging clouds and rain, vision is almost zero; only the shadow’s thrown by the camp at her back provide any distant hints of motion.

When Immerine returns to the camp, most have gone back to sleep. Druth, courtesy of being an elf, does not really need to sleep and sits in a meditative pose gazing towards the small flames. Tarim, Jezbodiah, Nik and Portia have turned in for the remainder of the night. Checking his gear, Branith briefly looks up at the woman returning to camp, and then resumes his inspection. A little further away Teryn paces around the perimeter, the warrior taking his turn in guard duty; hood turned up to keep most of the rain out of his face and hair.

Tarim had returned to his bedroll quickly enough upon the return of the rest of the group but found sleep, or even rest elusive. He lies still for a while, listening and watching his mind awhirl with a thousand things. When Immerine returns it is nearly a relief, to have something to focus on besides one’s inner thoughts, but of course it is better when the object of one’s focus is not the same thing.

Seeing the Rashemi witch returning he sits up and looks on quietly, his deep blue eyes intent and thoughtful from within the confines of his closely wrapped cloak. Immerine looks on the companions resting, each in turn, her eyes revealing little to those who are awake when her gaze falls on them. She carefully steps around the fire and settles back on her bedroll. She closes her eyes, but remains sitting and seemingly meditates.

The dwarf goes through his pack, takes of his scale mail and places his mace and warhammer where his head will rest. Lying down on his bedroll, he soon falls asleep with a “much better.” A heavy sound like an avalanche or a rampaging horde of Rothé soon starts issuing forth from where the snoring dwarf lays, while Teryn takes his turn at watch, paying extra attention throughout to the distant lights, making sure they come no closer. He says nothing to those still moving about as they settle one-by-one into their bedrolls.


Berdusk to the Greenfields, 1371 DR, Eleint, 23rd day

The morning of the 23rd of Eleint is just as dreary as the night has been, if not even more so. In the wan daylight, it is clear that low hanging clouds cover the entire area. Clouds from which the relentless drizzle continues, creating an eerie misty environment. Underneath the makeshift shelter – a piece of canvas attached to the wagon and supported by branches, Tarim, and Kevin are the first to delve into their studies; either to commit new complex arcane mysteries to mind, or to strengthen the existing ones.

Breakfast is chilly, wet and subdued and the small campfire is uncomfortably easily extinguished, leaving wisps of grayish white smoke to mingle with the rain and a sourly smell of ash penetrates the air. With all the hoods pulled up, the camp looks like a collection of bedraggled pilgrims huddling together.

With some of the preparations underway to continue, the discussion turns to where to go, and better yet how… The ‘path’ that the scouts took during the nightly hours is not navigable with the wagon; it seems likely to that get to the building will take the best part of the morning in circumventing the steeper declines and the denser tangles of scrubs and trees.

Immerine looks out at the landscape and frowns when she looks at the wagon. “If we must look at the building I suggest I go with perhaps one other horseman. The wagon will never make it and we really cannot afford to waste a day. Two horsemen should easily be able to investigate and return to those of you with the wagon continuing on the trek to Druth’s lost ruins. What do the rest of you think?”

“Sounds like a good idea to me. I’ll go with you if that’s acceptable.” The Berduskan offers. The halfling stands and gathers his gear. “I too would go. I doubt we will find anything of importance, but I would rather stretch my legs than sit on my ass.”

“It really didn’t look worth the trouble yesterday.” The sturdy dwarf says, while he gnaws on some rations. “But if you can solve what the purpose for all that is…” He says and waves with his left hand in the direction of the strange house, “…I guess it will brighten the day a bit, at least for me.” With that said Branith finishes his breakfast and moves away a little. Mumbling, in dwarven, filters through the drizzle as the dwarf makes his prayers to Moradin.

With a frown, Portia finishes adjusting the straps of her armor and picks up her shield. “I don’t know anything about Will-o’-the-wisps. If you think I should go, I will.” Then she says, “But even so, I don’t really get the feeling that this shack is going to help us find the Shoon outpost. It’s probably only a few decades old.”

“True, unless it were stone, or dwarven-crafted. It might stand for generations, if it were. Perhaps the rest of us should break camp while two or three investigate the building…then, if it turns out to be more than it seems, we will be ready to travel either way.” With a thought, the elf asks, “Aren’t will-o-wisps only active at night? Will the place be safe during the day?”

“I agree, if any one goes just a pair should in that case. There is a difference between being safe at night and foolhardy during the day.” The dwarf says from his prone position. Getting up from his praying he moves over and begins preparing to leave camp.

Portia shrugs. “I don’t know anything about the creatures. They haven’t come up in any of my studies.” Looking about the camp, she adds, “I suppose I can go with the investigation team though, just in case. Will someone look after my mount?”

“No.” Tarim says quietly, “We have to stay together… The last time someone stayed behind to look after the mounts…” He just shakes his head and repeats, “We have to stay together.” There is a previously unheard strength to the young man’s voice, not a command but a conviction and strength of will to make it known.

He quickly begins to pack up his gear; sheaves of parchment tucked lovingly away first and then the rest packed with much less care for their condition.

Portia looks at Tarim with a raised eyebrow, but then nods. “Alright. I say we move on then. The shack isn’t going anywhere. If it turns out that we don’t find some sign in the next couple days, we can always come back, right?”

“True but why backtrack? Why not simply eliminate the uncertainty before we move on? After all it’s not far so it won’t take long to check it out and who knows there might be… I don’t mean to be argumentative…it’s just an idea…” He quickly qualifies a little, not wanting to irritate the priestess.

The half-elf preps himself, his weapons, and his equipment for the day’s journey. For a Lliiran however, he maintains an unusually quiet demeanor saying little to anyone. His body motions and stance show his demeanor as vigorous as he packs away his camp supplies. Yet his ears remain open to the morning’s conversations. Alanna, all the while, darts around the camp and checks upon Jez’s companions, chittering, sniffing and squeaking as she moves back and forth.

“Because the wagon can’t make the journey in a decent amount of time.” Immerine snaps. “Most of us want to examine this building. You do not anyone left behind, yet we do not have enough horses to make the journey quick enough to continue our trek. So we have three choices. The first is the idea I put forth – a couple of people to check it out while the others prepare for the continuation of the journey; second is that we leave it, as Portia suggested; third is what Tarim suggested and we all go check it out. Each has problems and each has merits.”

Immerine finishes packing her camp equipment and stows it away while the others decide. It is painfully obvious she is on the verge of losing her temper and is keeping busy to keep from saying anything nasty. Tarim flushes a deep red and falls silent. Reflexively he finds himself reaching into his pouch for his brush and then stopping short and turning away to pretend to finish getting his gear together.

Moving closer to the mage, Portia gives him an encouraging look. “She’s right. Those are the options. If a couple of us were to go…” She says, looking at the rest of the group, “…I’d think Tuttle, with maybe Jez and Immerine, would make the best time. They don’t even have to go into the place if it turns out to be an old wooden shack – one look and they’d know it had nothing to do with the Shoon. If there is something that’s worth looking into, they could come back and tell us. We’d have to figure out what to do with the wagon then, but only if it’s worth it. Give them an hour, and they’ll be back either way.”

“And then we can move on.” She grips Tarim’s shoulder companionably for a moment. Tarim looks at the priestess, flashes a weak smile and nods in assent. “Sounds good.” He mutters, the young magic-user looks obviously upset, his demeanor rather reminiscent of a kicked puppy. A general lack of understanding, hurt feelings and a healthy dose of intimidation seem to be the forces at play within him.

Huddled morosely under his cloak and sitting slightly apart from the others, Nik seems to have withdrawn into himself again, shrugging off the offer of breakfast and only sipping absently at a cup of tea. The gaunt bard has not even bothered to shave, and the patchy, uneven stubble on his sharp jaw makes him look even more disreputable than usual.

As the discussion grows a bit heated Nik remains silent, but he follows the conversation with the fear-tinged wariness of a rat, peering from a hole as a barn cat goes past. “I don’t care what we do. I’ll be soaked through either way.” Nik mumbles sullenly. With a shudder, he adds “And to think I hoped the weather would be more temperate here. I suppose I didn’t go far enough south….”

Teryn stops his preparations for a moment upon hearing Portia leave him out of the suggested group going to the building after he said he would go with Immerine. Deciding not to take it personally, the warrior finishes his preparations and turns to Immerine “I’m ready. Anyone wanting to join us is welcome.” Not waiting for a response, he heads off in the direction of the shack.

Once Jez finishes his morning chores, he takes his quarterstaff and exercises an imaginary fight between himself and an unseen opponent. “I’ve pretty much made a jackass out of myself last night and disturbed everyone’s good rest…” He says openly, “…so if we are going to check the cabin, then lets do it.” The Berduskan as he swirls his quarterstaff around his back and brings it forward, thrusting as if to intimidate his unseen foe. “If not, let’s continue our trek for Druth’s ruins. Either way, I’ll feel vindicated.”

With a smile, the sun elf says, “I don’t suppose there is any hurry… the old places do not generally get up and walk about like some houses are wont to do in certain Rashemi fireside tale.” From the opposite side of Qwenta comes Immerine’s muffled voice, “Do not be so quick to discount the tales. More of them hold truth than you may be aware.”

“Bah, surface dwellers. Where I come from, peeking at too much gets you killed. If no one minds I will stay behind at the wagon and prepare our departure.” The dwarven cleric says in a grumbling tone and moves towards the wagon. At that time, Teryn finishes packing-up his bedroll sets off for the mysterious shack; much like Immerine, it is obvious he is uncharacteristically out-of-sorts.

Immerine finishes what she was doing on the opposite side of Qwenta and steps around her companion. She is dressed in a nice new set of leathers and swings into the saddle. “Enough of this dallying, those who wish to come and see this mysterious find follow me and those who wish to prepare for the journey, prep the wagon.” With barely a nudge Qwenta leaps into movement, the great stallion’s muscles a vision of beauty as they move under his beautiful white coat. Both he and Immerine are obviously anxious to be on their way and with a blink of an eye – they are. Quickly the Rashemi witch draws even with Teryn as the young warrior moves downhill at a brisk pace.

“Well, since we found it. We might as well explore it.” Jez picks up Alanna, his ferret familiar, and secures her snuggly in his satchel. The Berduskan shrugs his shoulders and follows Immerine and Teryn. The halfling grins and picks up his pack. The small ranger takes off on a jog to catch up with Immerine, Teryn, and Jez. “At last, I was sure we’d spend the rest of the fall sitting on our asses deciding which way to go.”

Portia watches some of the group head off into the woods. Shaking her head, she frowns, wiping back a damp lock of red hair. “I’ll stay here and help get things ready. I don’t imagine they’ll be very long…” As he gets to his feet, Druth comments, “Good idea… I’ll give you a hand. Perhaps we can at least keep the foodstuff dry.”

With a sigh that comes from soul-deep the young mage takes up his staff and follows those heading for the shack, shaking his head gently. Looking up from his spellbook, Kevin sees Tarim following the others. “I’m staying here,” he calls after his friend. “Send Ened’ome if you need help.”

Unseen, the little fey hovers indecisively for a moment – torn between watching over Nik and watching over his friends heading toward the hut – after a few seconds, he decides that the will-o-wisps present a greater threat than a hangover, and wings after the investigating team.

Speaking to both Tuttle and Immerine, the warrior chuckles at Tuttle’s remark and slows a bit so the halfling won’t have to run all the way “That’s why I decided to just get moving. I knew Immerine wanted to come check it out, and I’m happy for your company as well Tuttle.”

“Immerine, I’m not sure Qwenta will be able to get through all the brush, did you see the condition of the scouts when they returned last night? Tuttle, what do you think, can Qwenta get through the brush ok?” Teryn grins, happy to have both the Rashemi witch and the halfling ranger by his side.

Hearing a noise on the other side of Qwenta and Immerine, Teryn crouches down as he continues to walk and notices Jez and Tarim. “Jez, Tarim, I didn’t see you come up. Good, I was hoping for some arcane firepower just in case it is needed!” The Berduskan’s grin grows even wider.

Immerine’s voice is frosty as it reaches Teryn’s ears, “Qwenta is better able to tend himself than most of this party. He was raised in some very rough country. I just hope you are able to keep up with us.” Immerine spurs Qwenta forward to get this mission over as soon as possible.

After initially moving ahead on horseback, Immerine soon halts Qwenta, when she is not entirely sure where to go. The trees and bushes hiding most of the view at this point, and the slippery slope is not the most comfortable footing – even or Qwenta. Pushing wet leaves and branches aside to get a better view and pick a path, the witch realizes that she would be better of to wait for the others. When they draw even with her, Immerine silently contends herself to fall in-line behind Tuttle and Teryn – her expression partially hidden behind the wet locks of her hair.

Despite the relentless drizzle and the misty conditions, lighting conditions are much better than the previous night. Quite easily, Tuttle is able to find a well-used game trail, which seems almost directly to lead towards the location of the mysterious building and provides a relatively easy path to go single-file down the hill. At a few points along the downward trek, the roof of the building is barely visible and it appears to be some sort of cabin. Birds are active and a variety of calls sings through the air, several of the calls belonging to wetland birds: warblers, killdeers, herons.

Near the valley floor, the ground becomes positively soggy, and not from the rain; a marsh-like area fills the valley floor. The marsh is not very deep, two feet or such and the water relatively clear. Tall reeds, willows and a variety of other trees and rushes dot the terrain and protrude from the waters. A startled heron takes flight when the group comes too close to its feeding ground.

A trail made by deer and other four-footed animals that likely use the marsh waters for drinking runs partway along the border of the area. Several feet away some motion attracts the eye and a pair of otters briefly frolics in plain view before disappearing into the waters.

* * *

Back in the camp, Kevin continues his studies underneath the canvas overhang as Portia and Druth begin to organize and prepare for departure. With more room underneath the makeshift shelter after Tarim departed with the others, Nik settles in besides the half-elven wizard, hugging his knees in an attempt to bundle-up and retain some warmth in the miserable weather.

Sullen and clearly miserable in the chill damp, Nik barely glances at Kevin – although in more comfortable circumstances the bard would likely be full of eager curiosity about the way the young wizard prepares his magics. The dwarf paces about the camp and once in while Branith looks into the direction where the rest of the group went. Nik is about to say something to Branith about the incessant pacing, when he notices movement in the undergrowth a few yards from the camp. The bard could swear that he saw a pair of eyes looking into the camp…

As some movement at the edge of the camp catches his eye Nik’s sullen scowl brightens a bit, as if he hopes to see the others returning. However, the gaunt man’s face quickly pales, and fear widens his eyes as he catches a glimpse of something clearly NOT the others. Clearing his throat nervously Nik nudges Kevin with one bony elbow. “Erm, I… I think there’s something… something out there…” He whispers, his deep voice thin with fear.

Kevin looks up with irritation as his companion disturbs him, but stops his harsh words when he sees the fear in the bard’s eyes. He looks out of the tent, following the other’s gaze. “Where?” he whispers back, drawing a wand. Kethron unfolds himself from the dry, warm bedding he had been sitting on, to look himself what the sudden fuss is about. With a lazy yawn, the winged cat decides that a bit of grooming is in order and sets to licking his fur.

From where she is puttering about with the mounts and gear, Portia notices that Kevin has pulled a wand. Her eyes widen, and she pulls a sodden lock of not-quite-so-curly hair back from her face. “Kevin…” She says evenly, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the two men staring into the bush, “…what is it?” Her hand drifts up and back to her sword hilt…

The sun elf pauses for a moment as he notices the rest of the party’s alarm, but continues his labors – surreptitiously pulling a dagger from his belt as he tries to ascertain the source of their concern. Nik points at the edge of the camp, and while the cold could explain the tremor in his hand, it is most likely the fear so plain in his haggard face. “Th… there.” He stammers. “Eyes… I swear there were eyes…”

Kevin looks at his familiar, then at Nik. “Kethron doesn’t think there’s any danger…” He says, “Did you just see eyes? What did they look like?” Just in case, Kevin keeps an eye on the bush Nik had indicated, as well as the surrounding area.

The dwarf looks at the bush and the huddling humans… then again the bush, the humans and the bush again. With a “bah”, he walks over to the bush and pokes inside it with his warhammer saying, “Look, nothing here. Not saying that there was not anything here; perhaps a hungry wildcat.”

As the dwarf discovers nothing hiding in the bushes where the bard indicated he saw something, shouts drift up through the trees from the direction of the cabin…

* * *

As the group gets closer to the cabin, more details are visible. The small house stands on short stilts, its roof covered in bird droppings. Though perhaps 50 years or so old, it appears very sturdy. Despite its age and weathered appearance, the red coloration of the wood shows plainly, as if valiantly resisting the work of time. The door stands slightly ajar, and one of the two windows on the front side appears open, the other shuttered. Windows on each side give the owner a view of the surrounding bog. One could imagine that this is the home of a druid or reclusive ranger.

Immerine reins in Qwenta, “We have seen the mysterious building and know what it is and is not. Now may we continue our journey?” Tarim arrives on the scene substantially later lagging behind the faster moving folk. He says nothing at first, preferring to take in the details of the structure and looking thoughtful. “So you know what it is, Immerine?” He asks gently, his voice only slightly edged with criticism, “And what might that be?”

“It is a building – on stilts; old enough, but not what we are looking for. Does that answer your question, Tarim? I never intended to do more than scout it out, which is why I suggested only a couple people on horseback – not half the damnable party trudging on foot. I am going back. If the rest of you wish to look closer, be my guest. But then again you wouldn’t need me anyway. I am nothing more than a priest and a mage, very little good for anything.” Immerine snaps and turns Qwenta around to head back to the others.

Tarim smiles back and answers, his voice fairly oozing sweetness “If you took the time to think like a mage or had the discipline of a proper priest, I might be inclined to listen to you Immerine. But since all you have done is overreact, and under-think every situation we’ve been in, I think I’ll give the situation a bit more thought.”

“So while I’m very glad that you are personally satisfied with your assessment of this structure, things are rarely all they appear to be. You go ahead and run back now, though if you’d have taken the trip by foot you might have a little less energy to expend on snippy remarks and perhaps a little more inclination to consider the possibilities.” Taking a few steps forward towards the cabin, he says to the others, “I think I’ll have a bit more of a look.” Immerine laughs at Tarim and rides back to the others.

“As will I.” He says, “I don’t think we are in much danger. Trouble maybe.” Jez proceeds towards the cabin, cautious of the ground and area before him. Turning and looking at Immerine ride away he mutters, “Women, must be her time of the month.” Then he follows Tarim into the marshy waters, “There’s a reason why that thing is built on stilts…” He ponders to himself.

The halfling grins at the structure. “It is likely on stilts to stay above the marsh. The water is likely to rise and fall with the wet and dry seasons.” Tuttle ponders the cabin and the words of the others. “I do not think that this is what we seek. But, I’d guess that the fellow that lives here knows the area and may just know of what we seek.”

Without another pause, Tuttle cups his hands to his mouth and begins to call out to the cabin. “Ahoy there friend of the forest! I say, would you have some advice to spare for some weary travelers in need of direction?” No answer is forthcoming at Tuttle’s call, only a few nearby birds flapping away annoyed at the disturbance and the incessant whisper of the drizzle break the silence.

Tarim and Jezbodiah, both wanting to find out a bit more about the cabin, find that the marsh is navigable – albeit through something like two feet of water at times. Suddenly a patch of reed-like grass that seemed stable to step on, gives way underneath Jezbodiah, sending the half-elf facedown into the marshy waters. Alanna squeaks in panic when the diminutive familiar also receives an involuntary bath.

“Sorry Alanna.” A spluttering and dripping wet Jez says, “Try and stay on my shoulders, okay.” Alanna, soggy and waterlogged, squeaks and chitters loudly in agreement. She quickly goes for the sturdiest and driest place on Jez’s back and begins to groom herself.

While trying to push himself upright again, Jezbodiah feels something hard, round and smooth underneath his right hand, though it does not feel as if it were a simple stone. Pulling the object out of the water as he stands up, his eyes suddenly go wide and then he throws the object away, a grimace of disgust on his face. In the few heartbeats the object sails through the air, the others catch a glimpse of it: a skull…

“Myrkul’s balls!” A disgusted half-elf hisses as he wipes his hand thoroughly on his soaked pant leg. It appears touching the dead has unnerved the half-elf somewhat. “You poor soul…” The half-elf mumbles, realizing that he might be standing in the middle of a skeleton, Jez glances down and something other than bones catch his eye…

“Hello… What’s this?” Jez reaches forward and pulls a leather bag out of the mud. “Anything under water this long must be magical. I wonder if it contains anything…” He looks at his companion and says, “Tarim, Let’s check the cabin quickly and head back.”

Pausing to make sure that Jez is ok, Tarim watches then nods to the half-elf in silent agreement as he makes his way to the cabin. While he waits listening for any response to Tuttle’s hail, the mage casts a spell on himself out of simple caution.

The warrior is quiet when Immerine has trouble navigating the swampy area and again when she decides to curtly leave and head back to the camp. He has learned it is sometimes best to not egg on Immerine but wait for her mood to improve on its own.

“The occupant, perhaps?” Teryn offers to Jez, knowing his companion would have no way of knowing. Not waiting for an answer, Teryn has his twin swords ready as he moves to the bottom of the stairs and calls out a loud “HELLO!”

The halfling ranger paces impatiently from the edge of the marsh. His eyes perk up as he sees Jez’s discovery, but quickly becomes impatient again. As Teryn shouts to the cabin, Tuttle shakes his head. “I already tried that! No one home! Now, let us go. I don’t like being further separated from the group.” Tuttle turns to see how far Immerine might have traveled before turning back to Jez. “Jez! Put that man’s belong’s back and let’s go!”

“Nah!” Jez replies as he hoists the bag up from the muck. “The bag feels heavier than normal and it’s magical. Hello, What’s this?” Jez’s sight subtly drawn towards the stilted cabin and Alanna begins to sulk and lower her head, almost fearful of the building. “You’re right. The cabin doesn’t feel right…”

The Uthgardt laughs to himself softly: such hurry towards no clear objective. They were coming out here to look around were they not? Well that is what he is doing – silly people… When after a few heartbeats no answer is forthcoming, to Teryn’s hailing, the warrior cautiously wades up to the slightly opened door before calling out again “HELLO!” Tarim follows closely behind the Berduskan.

“Wait!” Whispers the small fey slightly beside the Uthgardt, “Something inside… something unnatural therein dwells!” At the same time, Ened’ome alights from the wizard’s shoulder, sending a strong wave of ‘uncomfortable’ across the shared bond.

A few yards away, Jezbodiah is examining his find, when out of the corner of his eye, he notices something and with a dread foreboding, he looks towards the cabin with magic enhanced senses. Unbeknownst to the half-elf he echoes the warning of Puddy: “Noooo!” He calls out to Teryn and Tarim at the top of his lungs… “Teryn! Behind you! Defend yourself!” With words that escape his mouth, Jez unleashes the magic in his blood.

Too late… as suddenly a section of the cabin deforms, and morphs into a sort of arm-like appendage – the thing striking out like a battering ram towards a fast backpedaling Teryn. With the treacherous and watery footing, the warrior cannot get out of reach fast enough and the large ‘fist’ slams into his chest. The impact of the glancing blow sends the Berduskan flying a few feet through the air and Teryn lands with a splash on his back in the bog; incredibly enough, he managed to hold on to his weapons…

* * *

About halfway back towards the camp, Immerine hears the hailing of Teryn as Qwenta picks his path along the game trail. Then something else catches her attention – or rather Qwenta’s attention. The horse’s ears prick forward and he snorts once alarmingly. When Immerine looks into that direction, she sees a large four-legged shape moving through the bush several yards upwind from her position, coming from the direction of the camp.

Immerine pulls Qwenta up and raises her mask to sniff the air. Initially it is the wet wood and rotting vegetation underfoot that the young witch notices, then more subtle smells enter her nose, the sour smell of ashes, the sweat of humanoids and horses, as well as fresh dung… and even more subtly beneath that tapestry, the musky smell of a large predatory animal… a smell not altogether unfamiliar.

From behind her and the direction of the cabin a shout draws attention before Immerine can fully place that last scent: “Teryn! Behind you! Defend yourself!”

“I warned them… I told them to leave. Damn fools.” Immerine turns Qwenta to go back to the cabin.

* * *

Invisible, the tiny pixie gasps as the house attacks his friends, then steels his resolve. He watches the ‘house’ intently, and prepares to cast a spell should it move again. Below the hovering faerie, the Uthgardt looks on in horror as the blow takes the large man clean off his feet and deposits him on his back in the marshy waters. For a heartbeat, he freezes and then begins feverishly to put distance between himself and the animated edifice. A few feet away from the hastily back-pedaling wizard, Jez finishes one spell and begins another.

The horizontal Berduskan warrior groans as he tries to regain his feet. “You and Immerine were right Tuttle, time to head back to camp.” The struggling warrior coughs a painful cough that racks his body and he spits out a mouthful of blood. “I don’t know if I can take another hit like that…” He informs the halfling. Another cough racks his body as he tries to stand, blades at the ready though he makes no motion forward or away from the attacking structure.

“A fine bit of good ‘being right’ will do me if we all die here.” Tuttle shouts back. The halfling grabs for a rope in his pack, but finds that he only has a short bit of rope. Frustrated, Tuttle calls out to the creature. “We mean you no harm. Let us go peacefully and we will do just that: go! Perhaps a trade?”

No audible response is forthcoming at the Hin’s offer, instead, another – or is it the same – appendage morphs out of the cabin and strikes out towards Tarim. As the young wizard attempts to dodge the blow, he notices an incongruous bit of leather stuck to part of the appendage. That is the last conscious act Tarim makes at that point and his instincts take over – or is it bad-luck like Jezbodiah’s – and he falls backward into the marshy waters: the cabin’s ‘fist’ missing him by a hair’s width.

Up in the air, Puddy murmurs a few words and suddenly water vapors rise up into the air around the cabin. The quickly forming mist almost completely obscures the living building, though because of its bulk parts of the ‘roof’ protrude. A groan of irritation issues forth from within the quickly thickening mist and suddenly another ‘arm’ lashes out slamming into the bog a mere foot away from the prone Uthgardt.

Seeing Tarim in trouble, Teryn musters all his strength and pulls his twin short swords and moving toward Tarim shouts as best he can at the slow moving, mist shrouded ‘building’, “OH NO YOU DON’T.” The shout causes the warrior to cringe in pain. To whoever can hear him, he adds in more normal conversational tones “If I don’t make it, find my friend Cale in town and give him everything I own.”

“Over here!” Jezbodiah yells. “Come on! Ya git! Ya freak of nature, follow me.” The half-elf snarls and grits his teeth. He lifts his hand and it glows from the magic in his blood. He fires a magic missile towards the house-thing. Hoping the bolt of energy will ‘its’ attention and ignore Tarim, Jezbodiah pull his wand and grips it tightly in his hand. “Everyone move to dry ground!”

The bolt of arcane energy sizzles through the air, leaving a curious trail of sparks that pop and wink out within a heartbeat, and disappears into the mist…

As the hand of Mystra pushes the young Uthgardt onto his back, saving his life, he issues a gasped prayer of thanks. Lurching to his feet, the soaked mage yells to Teryn, “No! Run away!” before trying to scramble underneath the ‘Shack of Doom’ and out the other side behind it. Teryn then moves between Tarim and the mobile cabin and takes a defensive posture. Belatedly realizing the sudden fog and seeing his path blocked by Teryn, the young wizard halts his forward movement and scrambles back instead.

The halfling ranger grimaces at the blow. Giving up on any hope of convincing the strange beast of peaceful intentions, Tuttle tries to wade forward into the swamp, throwing his meager bit of rope ahead. “Toss me a longer piece of rope if you’ve got it. I’ll help to pull you out!” He shouts towards Tarim and Teryn as the mists stops thickening but still billows around the structure…

* * *

“Oy, seems something is going on over yonder where our comrades are.” Branith calls out to the others in camp. “I told them not to go. Shall we go and see what it is or stay here? We can’t just leave the campsite undefended though…” Branith looks at the others for any ideas.

Kevin hesitates a moment, then turns to his familiar, using both speech and his empathic link to communicate. “Kethron, Tarim and Ene’dome are in trouble. Fly over there and find out what’s going on!”

Portia cocks her head and listens, then nods when Kevin sends his familiar. “No point in rushing in without a little more information. I knew there’d be trouble…” The soggy priestess starts preparing herself for trouble, her mood going downhill as events pan out as she expected them to. “I hope those idiots have learned a lesson, and I hope the lesson isn’t fatal…”

Almost mimicking the Kelemvorite in the head movement, Kethron also cocks his head when Kevin makes his request. Then with an air of ‘well if I really have to…’ the winged cat takes to the air, flying through the somewhat lessening rain in the direction of the swamp.

“It would take me a little while to finish my spell preparation.” Kevin says as his familiar flies off. “Kethron will reach the others in about the same amount of time. It will take us more than twice that to get there ourselves. We may not get there in time to help… one way or another.”

Portia nods. “Oh, I think you’re right, Kevin.” Still, she seems distracted, straining to catch the sounds drifting their way… “Ay, agree with you Portia.” The dwarven cleric says while he hefts his warhammer to his belt. “What shall we do with the camp then?” He adds, seeing there are still things to load onto the wagon.

Kevin looks thoughtful. “One thing we can do…” He begins, looking over the terrain between their camp and to where their companions are. “They may need a healer, Portia, no matter what the outcome. I can memorize a spell in couple of breaths that will increase a horse’s speed by about half. At a gallop, with that spell, someone can get over there in a few moments. We’d have at least some knowledge from Kethron by the time I’m finished memorizing the spell.”

“Branith, Portia… you’re both good fighters, and can heal them if you arrive after it’s over. I don’t think they need a mage like myself right now. Or, you can go without the spell… or we can just wait for them to come back.” Kevin frowns in frustration. “It’s up to you. I’m just the wizard.”

Portia nods, but then frowns. “If there were a clear trail, I’d say let’s do it. There’s no way we’ll be able to take the horse through these woods at a full gallop though. A slow walk, maybe, but nothing faster, not without getting knocked off by some tree branch… I don’t know…”

“But…” The priestess continues, “…You’re right. They might need some more healing than Immerine can handle. I’m going to head out.”

In spite of Branith finding absolutely nothing in the brush, Nik still seems very ill at ease. His eyes keep wandering to where he swears he saw something, and his left hand tugs nervously at the scarf around his neck.

As Portia prepares to leave, Nik clears his throat and gets to his feet. “I’m sure that by the time you get there what ever is happening will be over and done with.” He says slowly. “But you shouldn’t go alone.” He swallows hard and adds “I swear there was something there, watching us…”

The idea of the gaunt, nervous bard protecting Portia is utterly ridiculous, but from the odd determination in his eyes, that is clearly, what Nik is meaning to do.

The elven traveler grabs his bow and quiver and looks to Portia, “I shall go with you. These…” He waves his hand to indicate the camp, “…are just things made by hands, and can be made again. Friends are much harder to come by.”

“Well then let’s go, but we wait for that flying kitty to tell his master what he found before we move in. I rather not charge into a horde of orcs if that is the case.” The dwarf says and takes a last look around camp to see that they are all ready to move off.

Abruptly, Kevin crosses his arms and gives Branith a sharp look. “‘That flying kitty’ has a name.” He snaps in the guttural tones that form the Dwarven language. “He’s also not a dumb animal. He is my familiar, and that is a bond you can never know. If you insult him, you insult me.”

The change in behavior is odd and sudden, but the catch in his voice and the slight tremble in his hands show this was simply the last straw for the wizard’s nerves.

The dwarf, a bit taken aback by the human’s near perfect dwarven, soon counters with a tirade of his own. “No, how could I, knowing my language you probably also know that we don’t have many arcane spell casters among my kin. Nor do we have many druids. The life beneath the earth calls for other powers.” The priest says in rumbling dwarven. His accent though sounds a bit archaic and older then the form that Kevin used.

Switching to common Branith adds, “Now if we could all just be off. I am sure…” The dwarf looks at Kevin and continues “…Kethron will relay his findings to Kevin.” With that, he stomps towards the cabin and the rest of the group. Swearing and muttering words like stubborn and aloof humans as he goes.

The others soon follow the muttering dwarf, through the incessant rain and down the hill. The little wind that moves the rain at a snail’s pace down into the valley, suddenly gathers a little in strength and the rain intensifies, becoming a grayish curtain that obscures vision beyond the throw of a hand-axe.

* * *

Doing his best to stay near Tarim, the Berduskan defensively backs up as much as he can without providing the house an extra opportunity to attack as he gives Tarim cover to move away from the fog-shrouded attacker.

The mist-shrouded ‘cabin’ groans in anger and moves partially out of the foggy area, the two windows are open, and the door moves on its hinges like a vertically positioned hungry mouth. The backpedaling Tarim and his valiant defender have the feeling that the eye-like windows center on them, causing Tarim to re-double his efforts in getting out.

An agitated owl flitters between the two group members and the threatening building, but its hoots of frustration and anger seem to have no effect on the creature. With its windows free from the conjured mist, the building once more sends a pseudopod out, striking towards Teryn.

“Split up and get away from it. And get back to camp everyone, move it!” Jez yells again with his hand tightening on his wand. “Puddy! Have the others cleared out? Can you use a spell of entanglement on that thing?”

Realizing that the half-elf’s words hold at least some wisdom, the little fey uses his innate magic to reach out to the plants around the house-monster, asking them to impede its progress, “Slow it down it will only, land-bound long enough to flee, it may.” Despite feeling positively waterlogged due to the now intermittent drizzle, Puddy feels the energy course through his blood and into the boggy waters.

The fey’s effort comes to late to stop the cabin’s attack, as again the ‘fist’ hits the fighter, despite his best efforts at defense, the impact this time knocking Teryn unconscious and of his feet… this time he does not sail backwards through the air, but instead appears ‘stuck’ to the ‘cabin’s’ fist as it retracts towards the main body.

Tuttle pulls a small stone from his belt and considers throwing it at one of the windows, but as grappling attack on Teryn causes him to reconsider. At Jez’s command, Tuttle begins to back away from the house as well, while keeping his eyes peeled for a large branch or stick that might be of more aid than his meager piece of rope.

The halfling does find a large pole-like branch, remnants of a willow that must have fallen victim to a storm. As Tuttle moves towards the branch, Immerine comes riding back, Qwenta snorting at the sight of the moving, partially shrouded ‘cabin’. Not sure if it is his imagination or not, the halfling glimpses movement in the undergrowth a few yards behind the witch and her horse.

At that moment, Puddy’s magic takes effect in the area of the cabin, reeds, water plants and grasses all wiggling and moving into the fog-shrouded area, a particularly long creeper manages to ‘drape’ itself over the roof of the building; both the fog and the active plants quickly obscuring Teryn’s fate…

Another growling sound issues forth as the cabin tries to break free of the plant growth, clearly irritated, it lashes out in the direction of Tarim and Jezbodiah. “Crap…” The half-elf mutters in sickened disbelief, “Just like fishing…” Gritting his teeth in anger Jez points his wand and fires. “Burn, you freak!” Alanna hops out of her satchel and makes a quick break for the woods, the small and slender creature darting across the bog.

The unfortunate warrior is stuck to the house, arms and legs spread at an awkward angle, as Teryn seems plastered against the ‘wall’. To make matters worse for the young man, the magically enhanced growth of the bog presses him even tighter against the ‘building’, and the heat from Jezbodiah’s wand is not making things more comfortable either… The sheet of scorching flames barely misses Teryn and burns blisters on the creature, the flames effects seems subdued by the abundance of wet plant growth and the falling rain.

As the falling rain intensifies a bit – making the visibility in the entire area similar to the fog-covered area of Puddy’s spell, an agitated halfling grabs the large branch he spotted at the edge of the bog, and turns to move back towards the cabin and the chaotic battle. As he sees Immerine approach, he stops in his tracks. “Immerine! Behind you!”

Tuttle drops the branch and grabs one of his stones, ready to guard his friends flank. The bedraggled witch however is busy whispering something into Qwenta’s ear, with one hand on her symbol and another on her steed. The white horse virtually glows for a moment before leaping forward at his mistress’ bidding, throwing clumps of mud in its wake as powerful hooves plunge into the bog.

Tarim meanwhile backpedals with all the strength he can summon, trying to put as much distance between himself and the cabin as possible, his mind whirling and looking for some way to free the rash warrior. Pre-occupied with his thoughts and in getting out of the bog, the Uthgardt does not see a large wolf-like creature, which appears from the direction Immerine came. The animal stops at the edge of the bog, regarding Teryn with baleful eyes, but it does not make any move to attack, instead its gaze returns to Immerine and Qwenta.

This close, Tuttle can smell the musky odor from the creature’s wet fur…

Immerine looks over her shoulder and almost falls off Qwenta when she sees the wolf-figure. “Don’t harm him!” She shouts back to Tuttle and refocuses on rescuing Teryn. Behind her, the halfling eyes the wolf warily, his stone held high. However, at Immerine’s command, Tuttle does not attack.

“I can use some help over here!” Jezbodiah raise his wand and fires again, aiming the sheet of flames a bit better in an attempt to avoid damage to a comrade who might, or might not be alive. The flames sizzle and his and this time the acrid smell of burnt flesh is a clearer indication of the success of the attack. It is immediately obvious that the creature is not pleased with the irritating flames, and unerringly it lashes out, straight at the half-elf and the human.

Desperate to halt the attack of the house long enough to allow for a rescue of his friends, Puddy points at the windows of the house and mutters the words to one of the few arcane spells he knows. In response to the half-elf’s, almost desperate, request for aid, suddenly out of mid-air a cone of rainbow-colored light bursts forth to strike at the ‘windows’ of the cabin.

Before the ‘fist’ can strike either Jezbodiah or Tarim, the cabin almost rears backwards, stunned by the sudden vivid display of colors. Immerine, now within striking range, seizes the opportunity and lashes out with her quarterstaff at the appendage as she rushes past towards Teryn.

With a distrusting eye on the wolf, Tuttle swings his stick back into the bog towards those stuck in the bog. Seeing the cabin’s sudden ‘hesitation’, he cries almost in desperation, “Take hold lads.” The wolf-creature for its part ignores the halfling as well, turning its gaze towards Immerine as it paces nervously along the edge of the bog.

Qwenta’s magically enhanced legs take Immerine quickly past the cabin’s appendage; the speed of her mount and the awkwardness of wielding the staff from horseback likely contributing to Immerine’s attack resulting in an ineffective blow against the ‘fist’. Not deterred by the outcome of the attack, the witch reaches out for Teryn, grabbing the warrior by his armor. Using the momentum of Qwenta and her own strength, Immerine attempts to tear the young man free from the strangling embrace of the plant growth and the sticky surface of the creature.

Stopping, with his mind awhirl at the turn of events and yet another close encounter with death, Tarim tries a desperate tact muttering a heartfelt prayer yet again and reaching soul-deep for power to stop this THING. Murmuring some arcane phrase and gesturing with both hands in attempt to have the magic influence the creature, the young Uthgardt sprinkles sand into the air in the direction of the creature and Teryn.

Immerine’s hold on Teryn is firm, but so is the sticky hold of the creature. In addition, the plants do not help the situation either. Qwenta’s forward momentum almost yanks Immerine out of the saddle and the sudden imbalance causes her to lose her grip on Teryn, gashing her fingers on the armor. The horse moves several feet away from the cabin, jumping skittishly to the side the moment the plants start reaching for its hooves.

Whether Tarim’s magic took effect on the creature or Teryn is hard to tell, the warrior is still stuck against the ‘building’ beneath tendrils of plant growth, and the ‘cabin’ is still quivering in place from the colorful attack; somehow the quivering is more reminiscent of a volcano about to blow rather than quivering in pain or fear…

* * *

Portia slogs along with the others, hunching against the rain. She can already smell her armor – the damp sweatiness of the padding mixed with the smell of the metal. She too is muttering softly to herself… A few paces behind her, Druth peers through the torrent warily, alert for signs of ambush as he tries to follow the sounds of battle.

The flash of fire and something colorful glimmers briefly through the sheets of rain and the undergrowth as the group hurries along downhill; the sightings accompanied by muffled shouting. Through the link with his familiar, Kevin receives the feeling of serious trouble as the winged cat crosses the distance and comes into view of the cabin.

“Kelemvor keep them safe.” Portia mutters, sounding both worried and angry. She does her best to move as fast as she can once she has spotted the light of the flames. Druth focuses on the light display to guide his steps, the elf making no comment on the irony of invoking the Lord of the Dead to keep one’s friends from his domain.

Half-elves are naturally lean, much like their elven progenitors, and Kevin is no exception, yet he had never needed a strong physique or good stamina while at the Lady’s College. Now, as he struggles for breath while hurrying behind his companions, Kevin is wishing he had spent more time exercising, or, perhaps, had prepared a few quick-fix spells for the occasion. At least Branith is not going any faster.

The connection with his familiar interrupts the wizard’s self-pity. “Kethron’s just arrived!” He pants, as he tries not to trip on the undergrowth. “I’m not getting anything but a lot of danger, though. He’s getting a little scared.” The dwarf looks up at the half-elf panting besides him and says, “Is that good or bad? Being a flying cat I hope he scares easily.”

Shivering in the chill rain in spite of his new cloak, Nik seems more focused on where his large feet are stepping than on where they are headed, but his infrequent glances up are full of worry and not a little fear. As he spots the flicker of fire through the rain, Nik hesitates, swallowing hard, but it is barely a moment before the gaunt bard is able to choke down his fear and force himself onward.

* * *

Immerine curses loudly as she feels Teryn slip from her grasp. She allows Qwenta his head as he pulls away from the entangling plants. The horse eagerly takes the opportunity and veers off, away from the entangling growths, while the witch busies herself by reaching into her healer’s kit and grabbing the bottle of alcohol.

The tiny fey emits a hysterical giggle of amazement when his spell gives pause to the attacking house. Deciding to tempt fate, the pixie repeats the incantation once again; another cone of blinding multi-colored light bursts out of thin air to strike at the creature. It is unclear whether the diminutive sorcerer manages to duplicate his feat, the ‘cabin’ – still stunned from the previous display of lights – quivers and shudders slightly on its ‘stilts’.

Seeing a moment’s opportunity arise Tarim seizes on a desperate hope and pulls something tiny from his pouch. Throwing the tiny object towards the ‘mouth’ of the thing that holds Teryn, he utters another prayer, for Teryn’s safety, not his own…

The Uthgardt’s aim is true, and the tiny, shiny object sails through the air towards the ‘open door’ and disappears inside. No sooner has the item disappeared, or the whole building seems to shift color in a weird way for a heartbeat, before turning back to its previous state.

“You felt that one? Good! Leave my friends alone!” Jezbodiah shouts at the creature as he steps back and raises his wand towards the cabin again. Uttering the command word, the Berduskan half-elf aims another sheet of flames at the building in an attempt to blister the creature’s ‘skin’. In stepping backward, the half-elf made a miscalculation on the effectiveness of the wand; the extreme edge of the sheet of flames just stops short of the ‘cabin’.

Seeing neither the Uthgardt, nor Jezbodiah reach for his helping hand, Tuttle sighs in frustration and drops the branch. Throwing another suspicious look towards the pacing wolf-creature, the halfling crosses his arms in front of him, “Great!” Then the eyes of the halfling widen in surprise as suddenly the cabin-creature lets out an inhuman shriek. The dire wolf next to the hin flattens itself on its belly, ears against its head. Immerine almost loses control over Qwenta when the horse spooks at the sound.

Two appendages suddenly form and the creature begins slamming them around at random, Tarim’s action – which Jezbodiah correctly identified as a fireball attack – causing the creature severe pain. In its blind fury, the two club-like arms send clumps of mud and plants flying around, the debris landing as far away as where a surprised Tuttle regards the spectacle with disbelief.

The tiny fey emits a strangled squeak as the pseudopods start slamming through the air near him. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, he wings his way to hover beside Tarim and Jez, pulls his tiny bow and begins to fire arrows at the house; the first missile striking towards the building swatted away by an errant swing of the creature’s club-like appendages.

Heartened the Uthgardt mage eyes the scene while taking a few steps backwards readying another throw. He tries desperately not to think about Immerine and those flailing arms, failing miserably. There is a strange duality about the mage; on one hand, he is terrified for his friends and plagued by such guilt, as he has never known, over the threat to their welfare that he has caused; on the other, he is calm, collected and extremely analytical about the situation. Necessity comes first, survive first and cry later, he tells himself as the panic tries to rise within him.

Several feet away, with only a little difficulty, Immerine manages to get in control of Qwenta again; the horse calming down once away from the enraged cabin and the entangling plants. The bottle of alcohol in one hand, the witch murmurs a sharp arcane phrase and twitches the fingers of the other. With a soft ‘poof’, a vaguely visible spectral hand appears in mid-air, and Immerine releases the bottle into it.

“Excellent Tarim! Excellent!” Jez yells as he gracefully dodges clumps of mud and other debris. “Did that hurt? Now, try looking this!” The half-elf hisses loudly at the house-thingy, while the palm of his hand brightens with arcane energy. The glow quickly consolidates and, as an arcane bolt, shoots unerringly towards one of the creature’s windows, impacting against the ‘window’ in a small green flash which ripples briefly across the surface of the creature in small concentric circles.

The halfling frowns again, but as he sees the speck of light fly with some success, Tuttle once more pulls out one of his own stones. With a deft touch, the halfling lets the rock fly. The projectile sails through the air and strikes the roof of the cabin, skipping over the top to disappear with a small splash in the bog beyond.

Both the magical and the mundane projectiles do not seem to faze the berserk creature; it continues to flail about with both ‘arms’. Tarim, about to throw a next projectile, hastily backpedals another few feet as the two appendages slam into the bog a little too close for comfort. The mud and bog-water sprayed around by the double-impact drenches Tarim, and his appearance is now similar to Jezbodiah. Ened’ome zooms past, flying almost directly at the Uthgardt’s face, conveying panic and fear over the link as it tries to drive the wizard further away from the creature.

The frantic actions of the cabin have almost cleared it from the entangling growth.

From somewhere to Tarim’s left a droning, almost hypnotic sound emerges as out of thin air. The sound is a little annoying to the wizard and to Jezbodiah, but otherwise has no effect on them. Jezbodiah, mind racing frantically to think of another way to combat the creature takes a few quick paces backward seeing that the ‘cabin’ is as good as clear of the entangling growths.

Focusing on the magic-shaped hand, Immerine points and guides it between the flailing appendages of the creature. Succeeding in her maneuvering, the hand tips the content of the vial along Teryn’s back, in hopes of dissolving enough of the sticky material, which keeps the warrior stuck to the ‘building’.

Trying to avoid putting his friends in danger the young wizard keeps stepping away from the weird creature, carefully taking aim. When a brief opening offers itself, Tarim almost hesitates, and then at probably the very last moment he throws the tiny projectile at the cabin’s flank; in the hopes that the bulk of the ‘cabin’ shields the others form the effect of the fireball.

The alcohol from the flask pours along Teryn’s arms and back, the flow of the liquid from the flask guided by subtle movements of Immerine’s finger; the young witch struggling with her legs to keep Qwenta in range of her spell’s effect. The effects are noticeable almost immediately as first the arms and then the back of the warrior comes free, Teryn sliding forward as his body rotates at the hips.

Frustrated at the loss of the stone, Tuttle moves off to his right, pulling a dagger from his belt as he goes. After a few steps, Tuttle stops and pauses, then after a moment’s careful reflection, he lets the dagger fly towards the cabin and his friend, no sooner is his dagger in the air or the halfling has to shield his eyes from the sudden eruption of flames.

With a loud ‘whoosh’ the tiny ornament from Tarim’s necklace transforms into a large explosion of fire and heat, cooking the vines and plants that hold the ‘cabin in place, as well as severely blistering the outside f the creature. Just a heartbeat or so after the eruption, the resulting heat wave and burnt smell rolls across the bog, and reaches even Tuttle at the edge of the wet area.

Pain upon insult: the halfling ranger’s small dagger – slightly off the mark – thuds into the creature’s wounded and blistered side. The combined effect of fire and metal, results in another loud shriek, almost a wail of pain, and suddenly the ‘cabin’ rejects Teryn. Left clinging to the creature from the waist down, Teryn slides into the waters of the bog, almost silently, without a sign of life and uncomfortably close to the stampeding legs of the enraged house.

The halfling is satisfied at the aberration’s scream, but the bog and his short stature still prevent him from charging into the heart of the fray. Instead, he watches Immerine work to help the fallen colleague. “Immerine! Bring him to me!” He shouts while pulling a vial from his belt.

Seeing Teryn slide off the building and into the boggy waters, Immerine spurs Qwenta towards the ‘building’. The horse however, does not seem to cherish the idea of venturing close to the trashing limbs and wriggling growths. Instead of obliging, Qwenta bucks and fights the young witch’s lead, making it difficult for Immerine to stay seated.

There is no sight of Teryn, when the cabin suddenly brings both appendages down into the murky bog, sending a wave of water, mud and plant-life into the direction of Jezbodiah and Tarim. Both men break whatever they were concentrating on to shield themselves from the spray and muddy objects flying in their direction.

Behind the temporary screen of water, the creature retreats a few paces away, trying to stay clear of the groping and constricting growths. Puddy, realizing that if Teryn is still alive, his spell might put the warrior into mortal danger, dismisses nature’s grip with a quick word.

From the edge of the bog, the large wolf growls at the struggle between Immerine and Qwenta, the wet fur in its neck upright as it bares its teeth; the feral look of the animal giving Tuttle a brief pause in retrieving the vial. Taking a couple of tentative paces into the bog, the wolf-like creature looks suddenly uncomfortable and jumps back to the shore.

Immerine’s attempts at getting her mount closer to the fallen warrior seem for naught and she dismounts quickly, leaving the horse to stay at a safe distance. No sooner have Immerine’s feet descended into the – now murky – waters of the bog, or Qwenta quickly moves to more solid ground, shaking the water from his hide.

Reminiscent – in an awkward way – of a wounded animal, the cabin-mimicking creature retreats further into the boggy area, away from the variety of painful and irritating attacks, leaving in its wake a churned-up muddy area.

* * *

As fast as their feet and the slippery surfaces allow, and with varying degrees of success and elegance, Kevin, Nik, Branith, Portia and Druth make their way down the hill. The bard, gold elf and the Silvaren half-elf having pulled away several feet from the more encumbered warrior-priestess and dwarf, are the first to glimpse a few images of the struggle through an opening in the undergrowth: The cabin spotted last night moving and flailing, Immerine on horseback trying to control her spooked mount. At the same time, an unearthly shriek reaches the small group.

Within a few heartbeats, another flash of light penetrates the rain and the undergrowth; a large eruption of fire occurs on one side of the moving cabin, while on the opposite side something seems to fall of the building into the bog.

Muttering anxious curses under his breath Nik continues as quickly as he can, one had steadying the guitar across his back. Several feet behind him Portia and Branith follow, “Huff, Puff, Huff, Puff, Huff, Puff…” The Kelemvorite keeps moving as fast as she can, running when she has enough clear space to do so… The dwarf has begun lagging behind somewhat and sputters forth between his gasps of air. “We dwarves are not built for long runs. Very dangerous on the short sprints.”

* * *

The small ranger continues to hold his vial, hoping he will get a chance to use it. Tuttle hops about, from foot to foot, trying to see anything in the muck. The small man points and jabbers. “Over there. No. To your left. To your left. Too far. There. There!” He shouts frantically, trying to help.

Immerine struggles against the bog, hurries to where Teryn disappeared, and starts looking for the warrior. Not finding him quickly enough she shouts back to the others, “By all that you hold dear help me find him before he dies!”

Though the Rashemi witch does not notice, Tarim is already on his way moving through the muck with every ounce of strength he can muster. As he slogs through the mire, he tries to calculate where the warrior dropped and pull him free. Guilt and terror weigh heavily on his mind, his own recriminations thrashing him brutally even as he rushes to save his comrade.

The little fey sheds his invisibility and flies as fast as his wings will carry him to the spot where Teryn slipped into the water. He tries to peer through the murk to spot a body in the water.

Smiling at the house expeditious retreat, Jez turns his head to another of Beshaba’s misgivings and begins his search for Teryn in earnest. Using the now visible faerie as a guide, Jez makes his way to the last spot where Teryn fell and slowly submerged under water.

Frantically Immerine, Tarim and Jezbodiah search the muddied waters, while overhead Puddy keeps alert for any sign of the warrior. Spotting something a few feet from where his friends are searching, the diminutive member of the group quickly points it out and redirects the search efforts of the others. Indeed the object in question turns out to be the broken, battered and muddied body of Teryn.

While Tuttle anxiously hops back and forth along the bog’s edge – his actions almost copied by a pacing wolf – the others carefully bring Teryn to shore, the last few feet aided by the hin as he too wades partially into the bog. The halfling takes a few cautious steps forward into the murk, closing the gap with the rescuers and the battered body. “It’s not too late is it?” he asks while holding his potion up. “Get the water out of his mouth and dump some of this down his gullet!” The Berduskan warrior’s body is cold and disquietingly still as the rescuers lay him down on firmer ground.

Nursing its burns and other wounds, the cabin-creature continues its retreat away from the group while closer by, the wolf similarly retreats from the small mud-caked and bedraggled crowd. Cocking its head in the direction of the camp, its ears briefly go flat and it bares its teeth. Almost silently, the great wolf-like creature pads away into the brush again, quickly disappearing out of sight.

Having faded from sight once again after the others pulled Teryn from the swamp, the little fey keeps watch as the others work on their friend – keeping a very close eye in the direction the house escaped. The job being an easy one for the moment as the creature seems to proverbially lick its own wounds at the far end of the bog.

Exhausted after the ordeal with the creature and carrying Teryn’s limp form to shore, the Uthgardt mage falls to his knees in the wet grass in an attempt to catch his breath, knowing that he cannot do much for his companion now. Between breaths, the young man glances over to where the Rashemi starts tending the Berduskan warrior.

Immerine exhaustedly grabs Teryn’s limp form and whistles for Qwenta. In the meantime, she makes sure his airway is clear and forces what water she can from his lungs. As the halfling does what he can Immerine places one hand on the man’s pallid forehead and another on her holy symbol and begins praying to Kheliarra.

Jezbodiah looks over the landscape and tries to find anyone else from the group. “In Lliira’s name, where are the others? We could use Portia right now.” He then looks at Immerine and asks, “Will he live?”

For the moment, the bedraggled witch does not acknowledge the half-elf’s presence or his question. Instead, her concentration focused on saving Teryn’s life. Near the conclusion of the prayer, Immerine feels one with her goddess and the warm, healing energy flows from the center of her being through her hands into Teryn.

Under her hands Immerine can feel bones realigning themselves and knitting together in their proper places, but she knows that the prayer is not enough. Lifting Teryn into more of a sitting position, she motions for Tuttle to come over. The halfling does not hesitate and pours the contents of the vial into Teryn’s mouth, tilting the man’s head back slightly to make swallowing easier.

Within a few heartbeats, color returns to Teryn’s face beneath the grime and mud from the swamp and he coughs repeatedly before doubling over and – aided by the effect of the potion – expels some bog water from his lungs. The coughs wrack Teryn’s body and by the expression on his face, it is clear that not all of his physical hurts have healed, despite the magic.

Jezbodiah’s question seems partially answered by the results of prayer and potion, but worry still etches lines on the half-elf’s brow as he looks at the warrior. Suddenly he catches sounds of something moving through the brush. Wiping some wet strands of hair from his face he peers in the direction of the sounds and spots movement.

At an almost breakneck pace – given the terrain and the conditions – Nik, Kevin and Druth rush down the hill towards the bog and, judging by the sounds he picked up, somewhere behind Portia and Branith are likely to follow.

For a few heartbeats, it seems as though the beaten warrior’s coughing fit alone will kill him, but as his lungs expel more bog water, he seems to settle a bit. Seeing Immerine helping hold him up, he smiles wanly at her, still weak from his brush with death “Thanks, beautiful.” He whispers, barely audibly. Taking a deep breath miraculously free of coughing, he asks Immerine “Mage…out of danger?” Before dropping his chin back toward his chest.

Immerine shifts again to the warrior and as he doubles over lays a cool hand on the back of his neck and again murmurs a soft prayer beseeching Kheliarra for more life-giving force. Divine power courses through Immerine once more, to spread out into Teryn. This time the soft prayer is more powerful and building upon the effects of the previous prayer and the potion, the healing energy is able to repair all but a few bruises and aching muscles.

The effects of the spell immediately perk Teryn up as he sits straighter on his own, and runs his hands through his muddy hair while looking about at the assembled party members. Smiling at Tarim, he looks around to see if everyone is present and intact. Seeing only one member missing of those who did not stay in camp and seeing some of them starting to arrive, he looks a bit worried. “Puddy?” He asks.

“The fey is fine. As are the rest of us. Perhaps now you will understand why I wanted to leave.” Immerine unceremoniously stands, dumping Teryn from her lap. She turns and looks for Qwenta and the wolf. The warrior flops onto his back with a groan. Sighing heavily, he muses on his interactions with some of the women in this group and gets a dreamy look in his eyes and mutters, “I miss Luna.” Rolling over, he stands slowly then pats himself down checking for anything missing, including his swords. From the corners of his eyes, he notes the retreating house in the distance.

The look that Tarim shoots Immerine is something along the lines of pure death, too winded to say anything. Slogging slowly over to Teryn the Uthgardt lays a hand on the man’s shoulder and gasps, “Thank you.” All he can manage for the moment as he begins heading to shallow ground

Seeing that Teryn is no worse for wear, Jezbodiah turns his attention to the magical bag he accidentally discovered, retrieving it cautiously from his belt. Finding a somewhat dry place to sit, the half-elf puts the bag in his lap and starts murmuring the words of a spell. Concentrating Jezbodiah studies the bag a little before opening it and retrieving several items; these he studies in turn as well.

His sight enhanced by the spell, Jezbodiah recognizes the bag and a bird-like mask as magical. The gems, the small snake figurine, several small pouches and the paper do not register as anything out of the ordinary. The magic nature of the bag likely explains why it appears so well preserved despite its submergence in a bog, as well as the condition of the items retrieved from within the bag.

The figurine resembles a coiled-up snake with its head upright and ready to strike, and it appears to be silver with small gemstones for eyes. The trinket is probably worth some, if at least its weight in silver and the value of the two gems. Elegant script, in a language the half-elf does not recognize, covers the two pages of folded paper; and the collection of small bags contain various powders and other substances – spell components.

The only other magical item is a mask, which resembles in an abstract way the head of some bird of prey. The item is rather small and seems more suitable for a child than a grown-up – or a halfling or gnome.

The warrior smiles broadly at the Uthgardt, “I knew if I got in trouble you would not let me down. Don’t worry about her” he nods toward Immerine “I’m getting accustomed to it.” Patting his empty hilts, the Berduskan frowns and he starts to look about, “My swords! Have you seen my swords?” Without waiting for an answer, the fighter calls out “Anyone know where my swords are?” He sounds a bit distressed and tries to determine where he was last standing when the building walloped him into unconsciousness.

Tuttle sighs in relief as the warrior recovers. “Are you sure you feel ok?” He asks while backing out of the muck. “Twas a mighty blow you took.” Stopping to regard Tuttle for a moment, Teryn smiles “I’m tired, sore and way out-of-sorts, not to mention having a really bad headache, so I’m not sure of anything right now my friend, other than if I don’t find my swords I’m not going to be happy at all. There is one other thing I’m sure of, you guys are the best! I’m so lucky to be adventuring with this group.” Continuing to look around, Teryn calls out to another party member “Puddy, can you help me, can you see anything from a higher vantage point?”

“Perhaps I can help.” Jez replies, having finishes the examination of his find for now. “Do your weapons possess an enchantment?” Waiting for Teryn’s answer, Jez’s attention briefly turns to the retreating monster. Watching the beast, Jez can only ponder on how it managed to evade the city’s patrols. “The city constables must hear about this when we return to Berdusk.” He says openly. “A dangerous creature, hunting close to Berdusk bares no good for the city.”

“No, unfortunately they are not enchanted.” The young warrior answers without looking back toward Jez. “As for that… thing… can’t we finish it off with ranged weapons and magic? Perhaps that would be a better service to Berdusk than leaving it roaming about until we can warn someone. I’d hate for someone else to get too close. By the way, can you fill me in on what happened after I got hit? All I remember is seeing a pseudopod I could not avoid, then having a potion poured down my throat.”

Jezbodiah shakes his head at Teryn’s foolish notion. “If you wish tempt death again, you may do so at your own leisure. I’m splattered in mud and swamp water. I’ve handled the remains of a dead man. I wish to clean myself as soon as possible.”

“Oh, while you were unconscious, you were about to become room service for that house-thingy yonder.” He points in the creature’s general direction. “I imagine it was very hungry and not to choosy as to what it ate.” Jez continues and emphasizes, “If it wasn’t for Immerine’s bravery and intelligence would have died. You owe the witch your life.”

Jez turns and says, “Alanna! Come here! We’re heading back to camp.” At the sound of her master’s order, Alanna scurries down from the nearest tree and waits for her master to proceed to firmer shore. “Yes, I understand. Wet ferret does not smell too good.” Jez grabs his belongings and cautiously navigates the marshland and approaches his familiar. Kneeling, he picks up his familiar and places her on his shoulder.

As the half-elf straightens, he sees both Portia and Branith arriving on the scene. The last yards both have slowed their run, seeing there was no immediate danger. The exercise still leaves both of them sucking their lungs full of the cool, moist air. The scene that greets the arrivals is a group of bedraggled and mud-stained companions recovering from their ordeal with the creature, which is still huddling in the far end of the bog.

The look Immerine gives Jez is unreadable as she peers over her shoulder. For once, her ire is not aimed at the half-elf and she remains silent. She catches hold of Qwenta’s saddlebags and pulls out a simple piece of cotton from the healer’s kit. She pours a bit of water on her sliced fingers and wraps them in the cotton, choosing not to tap her waning spells for such a minor incident.

Once her healing is over, she checks Qwenta over thoroughly to make sure he suffered no ill effects from the rescue. Then she again looks around the clearing for the wolf and instead sees the cabin paused as far from them as it can without leaving the bog.

“We need to be away from here before it recovers. We should go as soon as you have all caught your breath. Tarim, you seem more taxed than the others – dredging your robes through the muck. Would you like to ride Qwenta on the trek back?”

“Hi Portia. Hi Branith! That thing over there…” The sodden warrior points from his place knee deep in brackish bog water “…that resembles a building almost killed me.” Nodding at Portia, the warrior adds seriously, “Thanks to our fine companions I’m not face-to-face with Kelemvor just yet. I think we should finish it off while it is badly hurt, but not everyone agrees with me. We’ll need to do it from a safe distance, I think that should be easy. What do you two think?” He rests his hands on his sword-less scabbards waiting for an answer.

The dwarf does not seem overly happy about having had to run the distance to the cabin area. After a deep intake of breath, he greets the warrior with a nod. “I told you there was trouble over here. All though I didn’t think it would be the house itself.”

“I don’t know much about roaming houses though so it is better left alone, or are you content to whack everything down whether you intrude or not.” He says in a lecturing tone. After looking around the area where he is standing he adds, “I will be heading back to camp if no one needs healing.”

The diminutive ranger sighs as the drama subsides. “No, friend Branith, it seems that your skills are not needed. Unless, you have a cure for folly and greed?” He asks sadly, “Immerine saw the danger at once and made a warning. I too sensed something amiss, but my warning came too late.” The halfling makes a sharp kick at the air with each foot, flinging some of the muck from his boots in all directions. “I will listen more carefully next time.” He finishes to no one in particular before starting the trek back to camp.

Breathing heavily, Portia spends some time simply standing, trying to catch her breath. At Teryn’s question, she looks in the direction of the ‘cabin’, and shakes her head. “It attacked you?” she asks breathily. She shakes her head. It is obvious she is a bit irritated – though the reason is not immediately obvious. “Would it have bothered us up in the camp?”

Waving a hand – the question is purely rhetorical and she does not expect a response – she then says, “I suppose a thing like that could be dangerous if it wandered into an area more heavily populated. Here though…” She waves a hand about the swamp. “It probably lives on the critters that like this area. I say we leave it be; head back to camp and actually accomplish something today.”

“You’ll certainly face Kelemvor if you don’t leave it alone,” Jez snaps at Teryn. “It was never harmful to you. We walked onto its hunting grounds, nothing more. Let’s be away from this place before it finishes licking its wounds.”

Immerine snorts in derision directed at Teryn, “I refuse to pluck you from Kelemvor’s doorstep again if you attempt to continue your futile actions against that creature. Since you seem to choose to ignore my warnings once again, I will leave you to your folly. I am going back to the camp. If you choose not to follow… so be it.” Immerine heads away from the bog, on foot. Qwenta snorts in joy to be moving AWAY from the sucking muck.

The young mage, obviously surprised by the gesture on Immerine’s part, for a moment has no words. Of course, his pride and his irritation with the witch do not help him come to a very eloquent response either. He desperately wants to say no and to trudge back up to camp with his self-respect – if not his dignity – intact, but knows he would not make it in anything even approaching a timely fashion. So after a moments hesitation he answers breathily, “Yes, If Qwenta does not mind bearing me, I would be most grateful for the help.”

A soft puff of air comes from behind the witch’s face mask, “I am sure he won’t mind as long as you ask him nicely,” her voice is quite pleasant and there is a hint of happiness in it that no one has heard in days. She stops Qwenta and rubs his neck gently. As Tarim approaches, she says softly, “Everyone makes mistakes, Tarim. So long as we learn from them, no one is to be faulted. There are tales in my land of another hut that walks on legs. It is the home to a dreadful hag known as Baba Yaga. I can tell you the tales sometime if you like. That was why I chose not to pursue this avenue. It is ground into me… cabins on stilts are dangerous things. I do not believe this thing to be her home, as it acted contrary to the legends and I am not sure her hut makes people stick to it.”

Listening interestedly to the witch’s explanation he nods.” Interesting, I would like to hear more of those legends.”

A moment passes as he rights himself, hen with a sharp glance to Tuttle he adds, “Perhaps it is my pride speaking but there was nothing of greed in my decision to see what was in the hut. Knowledge of one’s surroundings and those who live within is important, at least to me. It is very easy to say after the fact, ‘You should not have done that.’ But if we had not looked we would not have known of this creature’s existence. How many travelers like the one whose bag Jez now holds would have died in the days to come? Now at least we know of this thing, and we can tell the guard who can field a force sufficient to slay it, or at least post warnings to keep travelers from falling victim to its deception. And make no mistake a creature of this type’s very nature is targeted towards weary travelers, looking for shelter.”

“In my opinion, the only real mistake made was us not sticking together… again. Something I warned against before we ever set out to investigate. Well perhaps that and my eagerness leading me to get ahead of Teryn for which he nearly paid with his life. I am truly sorry for that Teryn. I will try to be more patient in the future.”

Speaking softly to Qwenta and patting the massive steed’s neck, Tarim says, “Well my friend? What do you say? Would you mind bearing me for a bit?” Finding that his hand is still attached the Uthgardt – with Immerine’s help – clumsily swings himself up onto the horse’s back.

With the young mage safely on horseback, Immerine mounts behind him. She leans forward and whispers something in the young mage’s ear. “I am sorry to make you hate me. I would like to talk to you quietly when we have the chance – unless you would choose not.”

Tarim’s head cocks to the side as he listens to Immerine’s whisper after a moments surprise he nods and whispers back, “I do not hate you, and I would love to speak to you; especially quietly.”

Kevin hangs back from the group, his wand lowered but still in hand as he looks at the ‘hut’. He glances up to the treetops for a moment, a look of concentration on his face, probably communicating with his familiar.

Frowning at the chastisement from the dwur, the Berduskan human ponders, “If it were a natural creature of the area, I’d be more inclined to leave it be, but it is not. It is most likely a creation of fell magic.”

The Kelemvorite looks up at Teryn’s last statement. “Or a remnant? Something left over from Druth’s enclave?” She looks at the elf expectantly. “Could such a thing be possible?” Portia turns and looks at the ‘cabin’ more closely. “If not a direct creation, maybe a descendant of a creature that was spawned in those days?”

Nik stops short of the bog and quickly appraises the situation. Seeing there is no longer any urgency, Nik bends over with his hands on his knees, gasping and panting for breath. He keeps one wary eye on the “cabin” as he mutters darkly “Nothing good ever comes of bog-dwelling creatures, if you ask me.”

As the tall bard finally catches his breath, he straightens up, still breathing heavily, and wipes absently at the sweat running down his haggard face. Teryn’s suggestion to finish off the creature draws an annoyed look from Nik, but as the others clearly oppose the idea Nik looks relieved. When the warrior’s comment about the creature’s magical origin draws Portia’s curiosity, Nik frowns. “Well…” He says finally, “…I don’t much care where it came from – or how it came to be here. It is certainly more than we can handle. Let some city militia handle it if it leaves this dreary place and heads for civilization. That’s what they get paid for, after all.”

Nik looks bored and surly, but his shadowed eyes keep glancing back the way they came. He clearly wants to get back on the road – and as far away from the ‘cabin’ as possible.

“I don’t think we’re close enough for that.” The elf monk says with a frown. “Could any of you tell if the thing is a living creature, or a wizard’s construct? If it is alive, that could mean it is descended from some conjured thing, and has prowled afield of its ancestral home. If it’s a construct, then we may be closer than I thought… unless there is a wizard’s home nearby.” Druth says thoughtfully as he stares at the beast.

Portia nods at Druth’s words. “I suppose there might be any number of explanations for it. If it isn’t likely to be from your site, though, I think we should leave it well enough alone for now and move on. When we get back to Berdusk, we’ll let the authorities know its location.”

She looks at the others, nods, and then spends some time looking for Teryn’s weapons with the warrior. From above Puddy also scouts around close by, peering in the muck for the lost swords. The fight with the cabin, as well as the displacement of the plants as a result form the fey’s magic have stirred up the mud and made the once clear water a murky soup. After what seems an eternity for the ones waiting on the shore, the searchers give up and leave the water.

Gathering everything up the team sets out for the camp – having reached some consensus on not to further attack the creature. Leaving improvised signs behind to warn other hapless travelers, the bedraggled group makes it back to the camp in the drizzle, which seems to become a little more intermittent.

During the trek back to the camp, Immerine keeps an eye out for the wolf-like creature. However, neither she, nor Puddy spot the four-legged animal. The witch does pick up its faint scent, assuring her it is stalking through the bushes somewhere close.

Wary, relieved and frustrated are but three of the emotions that are prevalent when everyone is back at the makeshift camp. In relative silence, efforts at cleaning and grooming take place, for once the rain being helpful, albeit a cold blessing. Jezbodiah shares his findings with the others and between him and Kevin they identify the leather bag as a magical bag of holding – a fairly common and useful item.

The feathered, bird-like mask – sized for a human or elf child, or a halfling or gnome – is a sight-enhancing item. With Tuttle being the only one of the right size to use it, the item falls into his possession. The collection of pouches contains a variety of spell-components, which Jezbodiah distributes among the practitioners of the arcane Art.

The two remaining items from the pouch are a silver figurine of a snake, poised to strike, and two pages with fine flowing script. Nor Kevin, nor Jezbodiah are able to make heads or tales from the writing, but when they show the writing to the somewhat bored Nik, the bard lights up and almost tears the pages out of the half-elf’s hands.

Under the cover of the tarp, the lanky bard intently studies the writing, proclaiming them of great value. The pages hold the song text written by Malik yn Shalgar of Almraiven: a Calishite poet whose works are much sought after in the upper societies of the Sword Coast and the North. Absorbed in further deciphering the text, the bard ignores the rain and his companions for a while.

Unable to find his swords, the warrior graciously accepts Portia’s loan of a mace until he can replace the twin weapons. Quietly removing his empty scabbards and storing them on his horse, he takes a few practice swings with the mace, and continues to practice every time the party stops to rest, getting used to a type of weapon he has not used in some time.

Finally, close to noon, the small caravan sets out on the trek into the Greenfields once more, leaving the bog-creature behind.


Somewhere in the Greenfields, 1371 DR, Eleint, 25th day

Having again been drenched in a heavy rain shower, Immerine walks next to Qwenta and with Tarim. The wind is a bit chilly, but at least it aids in the drying process. The swishing sound of the long wet grass parting before their feet and the steady drum of Qwenta’s hooves as well as those of the draft horse in front of the wagon the only sounds for a while as the gloomy troupe makes its way across the Greenfields.

“Tarim, I know I have not treated you or the others very well.” Immerine says, breaking the silence between the two of them. “Mostly I do not wish to get close to any of you. I made that mistake with Matteo. I fell in love with him and now I am hurting because I did, but I see that I have hurt you somehow and did not mean to. I am sorry that I have made you hate me, because I wanted you as a friend. Apparently, I am not very good with friends either. It is hard for me to apologize, so for whatever I have done I am sorry.”

Tarim smiles gently at the final unveiling of Immerine’s human side, “Immerine… I do not hate you. I was angry with you… because I… um value your opinion and I want your respect, no that’s a lie… well not completely… I do, but that wasn’t why I was so angry.” The young man pauses and tries to breathe as his heart trip-hammers away inside his chest; his skin flushed with his own embarrassment and shyness as his mind’s eye looks into the pit of wolves he is about to cast his heart into…

“I wanted you as a friend too.” He pauses. ‘Another lie…’ He thinks to himself. “No. Not true, I will accept and always value your friendship, but that is not all I wanted…” Tarim stops for a moment, feeling slightly light-headed from his anxiety, breathing deeply to try to get his equilibrium back.

Immerine is quiet for a few minutes after Tarim finishes and only the steady beat of Qwenta’s hooves in the rain-sodden ground interferes with the silence. “Tarim, I would like you to be honest with me. I think I know you want to be more than a friend. I can see it when you look at me. You expect me to be more than I am. Perhaps one day. But right now I cannot be what you want me to be – I wish I could. You think I betrayed a trust – don’t you?”

“No.” The young Uthgardt says softly, “And I don’t expect anything, Immerine. I think you underestimate me yet again.” He sighs, “What I want… and what I expect are completely separate entities.”

“Then you have me completely confused Tarim. I do not underestimate anyone… because I do not expect anything from anyone. Therefore, there is nothing to underestimate. Perhaps it is because I do not speak this common tongue so well. I seem to use the wrong words all the time.” Immerine sighs, “I was hoping to come to an understanding and I do not think we can.”

Tarim sighs sounding very weary, “No you are communicating fine, I am just being bitter. You have no concept of what being near you does to me. How badly I want… No, never mind.” He sighs again trying to ignore the feel of her behind him… to drive the images of her naked form stretching in front of the campfire from his mind. It does not work: not at all.

Immerine actually laughs lightly, “I am not wrong then. I do know what you want. See, I am learning this stuff about men and women. I grew up around women and only women. Sure, there were male animals and I know all about the nature of things and sex. It is the other things that I am having trouble with – the part that makes you want to give yourself to someone. It is a strange feeling and I have had it thrown back at me time and again with Matteo. I thought we were going to be mates for life. Then he treated me terribly in front of everyone. I know he wanted to keep the relationship secret, but he didn’t have to hit me.”

“Knowing that Captain Zaina is what he prefers hurts, and knowing his oath to me was little more than words uttered hurts. Realizing he would willingly do this hurts. That is what I cannot go through again so soon. I do not like feeling like this. It makes me feel empty, angry and lonely.” Immerine lowers her head the façade disappears and Tarim sees a very hurt, naïve young woman. “I like you Tarim. I could not see you hurt like this. And I would hurt you and I know it.”

“As far as you hurting me? You’ve already managed that several times Immerine… and I’m still here…”

Immerine does not say anything; instead, a strange sound comes from behind her mask that sounds something like a sob. The mage’s expression shifts to one of sorrow and sympathy and he hops down off Qwenta gracelessly and hurriedly almost falling on his face in the process.

Timidly reaching out to take Immerine’s hand he says, “Immerine…what I mean by that is that I’m not so easy to drive off. I might look fragile but I’m not, I promise. I’m learning to understand you a little and I want to learn more…a lot more. I’m not one to make pledges of endless love or other poetic notions so quickly, that’s just foolish I think. I just know I want to be with you.”

“Is that so bad, so terribly dangerous?”

“Yes.” A raw sound comes from behind the mask, “It is dangerous for you, but it is your own choice to make. I can do little more than warn you.” When she meets his eyes, her emotional mask is again firmly in place only the red rims of her eyes show her lapse of a moment before. In a stronger voice she says, “You should know we are being paced by a friend of mine. He is a rather large and protective wolf.”

Rubbing the back of Immerine’s hand with his thumb, he smiles at her gently and maybe a little sadly. “Is he going to come and tear my throat out for making you cry? Because I rather feel I deserve it…”

“No the wolf is not the danger to you. Other things are, but if you remain with me you will discover this.” Immerine shakes her head.

Smiling ruefully Tarim shakes his head. “I’m not really trying to convince you of anything, Immerine. Other perhaps than the fact that you are not some plague visited upon Faerûn. The only thing missing from this conversation is any indication whatsoever that you feel the same way that I do.”

“I’m sorry Tarim. Right now, I feel dead inside, I like you but I still do not know you very well. Perhaps in time I can feel something. Matteo damaged my romantic sensibilities give me some time to come to terms with them. I do care for you and if you were gone, I would feel loss, so I know there is attachment. Please be patient with me. Agreed?” Immerine’s eyes are serious and kind as she probes the Uthgardt’s face.

“It is unfortunate that you do not realize the power of your beauty, and even more so that you chose so poor a man to invest your feelings in. Why perfectly brilliant women seem to enjoy throwing themselves at such callous louts is beyond me…” Tarim sighs… his venom apparently spent and he turns away to look down the trail.

Immerine’s eyes blaze angrily at the outburst when she speaks again her voice is cold and distant. “You have nothing to fear Tarim. I neither will touch you nor be touched by you. You will not have to flinch again at the sight of my flesh. I believe we are now through.” The witch turns from him abruptly and swings up to Qwenta’s back. She presses the stallion forward and ignores Tarim for the remainder of the journey.


Somewhere in the Greenfields, 1371 DR, Eleint, 25th day

Mostly empty rolling plain, dotted with copses of trees or shrubs, ‘Grayfields’ would have been a better name for the area given the current weather conditions. Morale is still mediocre with the weather wearing on the nerves, and miles upon miles of the terrain passing by with nary a word said. Two more days of dreary travel since the encounter with the cabin in the marsh have passed – since yesterday, the rains have fallen only in sudden downpours, though whether that is a relief from the steady drizzle… – when Portia and Nik spot a tendril of smoke curling upward into the slowly clearing skies.

After the days of miserable weather, the Kelemvorite is a bit peevish, but still manages to carry on normal conversation – and even laugh every now and then. More than once, she expresses the wish that the rain would stop; her armor is starting to smell a bit rusty in spite of her treatments. Teryn speaks not a word unless spoken to during the travel, though whether it is to contemplate his brush with death or chastisement for trying to explore the ‘house’, or the loss of his swords, is not clear.

Cocking her head, Portia looks off into the distance for a bit. “Anyone else see that smoke?” She points in the direction of the tendril trailing into the sky. At first, the smoke is not clearly visible against the clouded sky, but soon everyone is able to spot the grayish wisps. The source is not visible, a ridge of some sorts roughly a mile or two away obstructs the view. The smoke is more reminiscent of a campfire or chimney rather than a more ominous source…

Kevin shades his eyes as he looks to where Portia is indicating – though, with the overcast sky, the gesture is likely of habit only. “Yes. We have company, it seems. Or they have us, perhaps.” The wizard gauges the distance. “A bit far for Kethron to scout for us, I’m afraid. We’d have to get closer to find anything that way.”

Kethron, somehow having gained a comfortable perch on Kevin’s backpack, under a flap of blanket, gives an ominous sound as much like a growl as the tressym’s tiny body could produce; apparently not liking the idea of flying off in the rain.

“No smoke without fire Lady Portia.” Replies Jez, as he looks towards the sky to discern the direction and distance of the puff column. His speech is smooth and his manner is casual and relaxed. Well enough for the days they have traveled on the road.

Portia sniffs, not really in the mood for whimsy, and looks back at the rest. “I know I was a bit annoyed with some of you when you insisted on checking out that swamp. In this case, however, I think we should see what’s making that smoke. Whoever is doing the cooking might be willing to sell us some decent cooking, and might be willing to get us under a real roof for a bit. I’m beginning to smell a bit ripe, and my armor could use some care out of the weather.”

Shifting back around, she looks into the distance at the smoke, well in the distance, and says, “What say you?”

The halfling watches the wispy smoke with some concern. “I do not mind the weather or the road and its company, But, I agree, priestess. That is something to be investigated.” Tuttle pauses and looks about at each member of the group deliberately. “This time, though, we should all go together as one powerful group. We made a mistake at the swamp indeed.” Then, looking at Teryn the hin says, “We all made a mistake and a friend nearly paid the highest price. It is a mistake we cannot make again.”

Teryn nods once, quietly, and there is a hint of a smile on his face.

A sharp but slightly muffled shrill issues forth from beneath Jez’s cloak. Alanna the ferret, now soggy and wet from the day’s travel, agrees with Kelemvorite. It is obvious, from the ferret’s perspective, that a dry roof and a warm fire would do her fur good. “Sounds good to Alanna and myself,” replies the half-elf. “But let us exercise caution this time. I’d hate to see another killer cabin try to stand on its own and eat one of us again.” The last statement spoken in jest.

“Er…” Kevin begins hesitantly. “…I have a spell that cleans things; both objects and people, actually. I should have said something earlier. I just didn’t think about it. Its an alright substitute when you can’t get a real bath. It also cleans off rust, though it takes another spell to actually make repairs…” The wizard trails off, feeling embarrassed at having butted in.

Portia blinks. “That must come in handy. Will it get rid of the rust?” Then, she shakes her head, a sudden thought causing her to grimace. “Oh, I’m an idiot…” She mutters, starting to rummage in her gear, pulling out assorted bits of this and that. “I have a spell too, Kevin. Not for cleaning though. I can cast an Augury to see if a future action will produce good or bad results.” Softly, she mutters, “I wish I’d used it the other day…”

Dismounting, Portia prepares to cast her spell. “I’ll only get a ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ ‘both,’ or, if we’re unlucky, I won’t get anything, but it might help to guide us…” The Kelemvorite quickly casts her spell, ending it with a question. “What will happen if we investigate the smoke over that rise?”

No sooner has the Kelemvorite uttered her question, or the winds pick up, accompanied by a mournful whistle. From nowhere suddenly a translucent image appears; a skull enfolded by a hood, and surrounded by the flapping in tatters of a diaphanous gray robe. The lower jaw of the skull moves briefly up and down before the whole image fades into nothingness again. Only the mournful winds linger about for several moments before they too fade away…

“Wicked.” Jez gasps as the skull fades away. Alanna, however, squeals loudly in fear at the sight of the totenkopf and forces her way under Jez’s armor and cloak. “Ow, ow! Don’t bite!” He yells, “No, ow! It’s not for you, seriously. Ow. Yes. I’m certain. Just calm down and it will be all right.”

Portia actually smiles at the sight of the image, and as it fades away, she blinks and shakes her head. “I’ve never cast that particular spell before.” She says, turning to the others. “The Lord of the Dead seems to think that good things will happen if we check out the smoke though, so I suggest we move along.”

Portia mounts up, creaking into the saddle, and says, “Carefully though – just in case. Kevin, would you do me the favor of casting your cleaning spell on my armor?”

“That was a ‘good’ sign?” The Berduskan warrior shudders, “What does Kelemvor show for a bad sign, rainbows and sunshine? No, wait, I get it.” Teryn waves his left hand in dismissal a he looks down at the ground. “Death is his portfolio, makes sense on some level. Don’t mind me…” His voice trails off as he continues to look down.

“Oh… yes, yes of course.” The half-elf looks a little rattled at the form the spell took. “Do you want it now?” he continues, seeming to push his feelings aside. “It would take about a goodly breath or three to properly clean your armor and freshen the padding under it; about twice as long for a person. The spell lets me do these things for about an inch of a candle.”

“I can also heat small amounts of materials, and light fires with it, or turn things different colors for a short time. It’s really a very useful spell.” Kevin chuckles at a memory. “A classmate of mine once changed our instructor’s hair purple with it until the magic faded. She never realized why people seemed so amused that day. I think she just thought it was her bad jokes.”

“You’d think Alanna would be afraid of killer houses?” Jez asks to Portia. “I guess this is a side of you she has never seen. Well, not until now.” Alanna’s head pops up once again; she chitters, finds no sign of the hooded visage and takes her place on Jez’s shoulders once more.

“Well…” Portia watches Alanna’s antics with amusement for a moment and then says, “My thanks, Kevin. I think I’ll wait until we find out what’s ahead though.”

Druth wrinkles his nose in distaste at the visage summoned by Portia’s spell. “If that was a good omen, I think I would not care to see one that foreboded ill. Perhaps the smoke merely indicates the presence of an inn?”

Immerine seems distracted as the others discuss their plans. Even the gloomy visage of Portia’s messenger did not interrupt the witch from her thoughts. “If you all choose to follow the smoke I will go.” She says simply.

The witch’s words seem to be the decisive ones as no one else objects strongly to investigating – the ominous sign from Kelemvor not entirely satisfying to most, but trust in the red-haired priestess wins out – and the prospect of a night under a real roof is too tantalizing to ignore.

Plodding on through the wet grass and shrubs the group moves towards the distant tendril of smoke. Lathander be blessed, the pouring rain stops and a scant few rays of sunlight streak through gaps in the clouds overhead, creating a large rainbow spanning a portion of the horizon. Shrubs and trees become a bit more common and ahead there is even a suggestion of a smallish forest.

After trekking a mile or so, the sound of streaming water attracts the group’s attention and upon investigation, they find a small spring burbling up from the depths below in a somewhat bowl-shaped depression ringed by trees and shrubs. A tiny rivulet flows from the spring toward a sudden steep drop of a narrow gorge. Tuttle spots sheep droppings in the grass, as well as a human-sized footprint in the mud near the spring.

One side of the valley follows the gorge as far as the eye can see and slopes gentler away from the surrounding land, making passage with a wagon possible. The diminutive ranger confirms to the group that the owner of the footprint as well as the sheep have moved in that direction within the last day or two.

Seeing the clear, clean water of the spring, the warrior stops and he surveys the surroundings from his horse. Satisfied the area is relatively quiet and safe, he dismounts and moves closer to the body of water, looking into its depths as much as his vision allows. “Perhaps this is a good area to stop and clean ourselves and our armor just in case the source of that smoke is not a friendly place?” He waits for the others to discuss and decide on his suggestion.

“Agreed… though only a couple at a time please… the rest of us should keep watch in readiness, just in case.” Tarim says as he moves towards the wagon. “The same holds true for the smoke…” Druth replies, “I propose that we split into two separate groups, one to wait out of sight while the first approaches.”

The witch shrugs and tugs at her itchy clothes, “I will be looking for herbs ad things to restock what I can of my supplies.” She dismounts and lets Qwenta shrug off his burden for a while. Then she starts looking at vegetation around the pool, turning rocks over and taking a good stiff drink.

Portia dismounts and refills her water bags while making sure her mount drinks. Rummaging through this chest on the back of the cart, Jez retrieves the travel’s empty flasks and after the Kelemvorite, fills them with cold spring water. Unusually silent, Jez keeps his eyes and ears open for any sign of approaching danger.

Alanna looks at Jez, eyes open with curiosity. “Can you sense anything in the area?” The half-elf queries his familiar, “Anything out of place? Mayhap the owl and the Tressym can give us a bird and cat’s eye view?”

“What say ye?” He asks the others as he finishes filling his share.

The dwarf having been mostly quiet since the trip after the cabin battle speaks out. “Sounds good to me.” He moves down to the water and drinks a few mouths full. He then moves to keep watch while the rest discuss and refresh.

His momentary fascination and unease with the results of Portia’s augury having passed, the tiny fey hovers in mid-air and he watches the tall folk argue about staying together or splitting up. Deciding that they are capable of settling the argument, Puddy decides to follow the young witch, curious as to what she is up to.

* * *

Leaving the others to fill their waterskins and have the horses get their share of the cool cold liquid, Immerine climbs back out of the bowl-shaped depression and into the shrubs and bushes ringing the valley and the gorge beyond. Though the growth is not dense, the elevation quickly obscures the others from sight.

Not even realizing she has separated herself from the others, Immerine continues her search for herbs and anything interesting. When she finds a peaceful place, she sits down for a moment and closes her eyes – letting the sounds of nature wash over her: the wind through the trees, rustling leaves and branches, the chirping of birds a bit further away.

Suddenly she feels something wet against her face, too warm for a wet leaf blown by the wind… As she opens her eyes, her emerald green orbs meet a yellowish pair: a large dire wolf stands in front of her, its snout easily at the height of her belly, and now looking down into her face. A warm, soft tongue is hanging form its partially opened mouth. Now that the wolf is so close does she smell its musky perfume, it must have cautiously approached her downwind.

Immerine’s eyes do not leave the wolf’s, almost as if a vital part of communication would be broken if she did. She removes her facemask and there is a sad, gentle expression in her eyes. She sniffs softly and smiles, showing her teeth. Then she raises her head and presses her cheek to the side of the wolf’s. She speaks softly, “I’ve missed you …”

The dire wolf unable to reply verbally, nevertheless expressed similar affection as it once more moves its snout close to the witch’s face and, with a quick lap of the tongue across Immerine’s nose, returns the comment. Briefly, its ears twitch back as the sounds of wagon wheels rattling over stones drift up through the undergrowth.

The little fey takes the scene in with silence for a moment, then softly asks from a nearby tree, “Friend of yours, he is? Attack you, he does not?”

Immerine answers softly, “Yes, a very good friend of mine indeed. He has saved my life and I have nothing to fear from him.” Immerine picks up the mask and settles it back across her face, “It sounds like the others are moving. We should go too; plus Qwenta will be wondering where I am and I don’t want him getting any notions of wandering off to start his own herd.”

The dire wolf sniffs the air at the sound of a tiny voice coming from seemingly mid-air, either the fey is upwind from the wolf, or Puddy’s smell is as diminutive as his size. Not quite trusting the situation, the animal flattens its ears and warily looks about. When it is clear that the witch is preparing to descend and retrieve the horse, the dire wolf remains behind within the cover of the bushes covering the edge of the gorge – too many two-legged creatures in the direction Immerine is going.

The little fey silently follows the witch as she collects the horse and sets off toward the village. After a moment, he speaks up once again, “Hidden your face you keep, you do why, when other humans do not? Exiled by your clan, you are? Or of wrongful deeds, a doer?”

“No, little spirit, I am not a doer of evil deeds. It is tradition in my land for… ummm… the wise women to keep their faces covered. We do not have to do so when amongst outlanders. I do it here to keep me in mind of who I am and what I am trying to accomplish. I have strayed at times when I remove the mask. And I have hurt the feelings of many men. I do not wish to alienate them any further so now I keep the mask on to remain aloof, isolated and distant.”

“I sometimes wish I were like the humans these others are, but I am not. I am not saying I am special … I am saying I am different. I can speak to the spirits of Bhalla. You are one of these spirits, though of a type unfamiliar to me. You are like and unlike them, as much as I am like and unlike the other humans.” There is a tinge of regret in Immerine’s voice, but laced beneath, is a will of iron.

* * *

Druth’s suggestion to split up evokes a reaction from Tuttle. “Nay!” The halfling says suddenly. “A split invites a disaster. We’ve just barely escaped that very mistake. No, we should stay as a group. Or, are you suggesting an ambush?” The hin asks while taking a drink of water from his skin.

“I am merely suggesting caution, not actually splitting up.” The gold-elf replies, “Unlike the incident in the swamp, the second group will be watching the first, ready to rush to their aid. If the all clear sounds, the second group can rejoin the first. If we cluster together, a foe could dispatch us like dropping a rock on ants.”

“Humph, maybe that is true about elvish ants but dwarven ants bites back, and hard.” the dwarf ads with a stoic smile to the gold elf. “But either way your plan sounds like a good one Druth.”

“But I don’t think it’s really necessary.” The Kelemvorite looks over from where she is securing her waterskins. “Kelemvor would have indicated danger had there been any. I think we would be fine simply continuing as a group. However, I can understand that some of you might not be as trusting of the omen…” Portia smiles wryly at that.

“However we proceed, I see no reason not to get on with it.” She mounts. “I’ll ride in the first group.” With that, she urges her mount onward…

“I think Portia has the right of it. Separating the party will only allow any adversaries a head start anyway before the rest of us can join those at the front.”

“The concept of scouting ahead is usually accomplished by sending ahead an individual, usually a stealthy one but the subtext to such an arrangement is that it is better to lose one member of an expedition rather than the entire group. This is usually better suited to military actions where one or two individuals might be considered expendable. In our group, no one is expendable and I would strongly recommend that we all stay close together for safety’s sake. There is safety in numbers at times and Portia has divined that there is no danger ahead.”

“Let us trust her judgment; she has not led us wrong.” With that, Tarim moves to the front to catch up with Portia. Aside to Portia he says “I would like to speak with you privately on a matter of faith, if you can find the time later…”

“Of course…” She says, “…Perhaps tonight?”

“Yes that would be fine. Thank you. Portia.” He answers softly.

At some point during the conversation, Alanna scampers off Jez’s shoulder and onto the damp forest ground. Getting a good distance from the spring and the pile of sheep manure, Alanna stands on her hind legs and sniffs the air. She drops to scan the forest’s floor then rises again to look about one last time. “So little lady…” chirps Jez, “…did you find anything?” The animal remains quiet for a moment before continuing to scurry about in an unconcerned manner.

Kevin speaks to the rest of the group in general. “Military actions and scouting are things out of my depth, but I know a thing or two about divinations. I did not recognize Portia’s spell at first, because I’ve never seen the Kelemvorite version. However, that spell is quite reliable. Vague, and sometimes fails, but if it gives an answer, the answer is correct.” The half elf’s lips quirk. “Mind you, sometimes even a correct answer doesn’t help much, because it hardly says anything. But I’m inclined to trust that Kelemvor and Portia both know what they’re doing.”

He grabs the reins of the draft horse and sets the wagon in motion after Portia and his friend Tarim. The slightly unexpected motion causes Nik to stop playing and, quickly with one hand, the bard steadies himself against the lurching motion of the conveyance.

Refreshed and somewhat cleaner from the clear water of the bubbling spring, Teryn’s spirits seem much improved since his brush with death two days earlier. He finishes donning his armor and mounts his horse, kicking it into a short trot to catch up with Tarim and Portia.

The halfling listens impatiently to the discussion, turning a stone in his deft little fingers. Tuttle’s eyes lift as Tarim comes to a close. “You speak like a village elder. Indeed, you speak twenty words when four would do and say nothing that’s not been said already.” the halfling gives a wink and a spry smile. “But, amongst those words is another idea. A lone scout may be warranted.” After a pause, he slowly repeats “A lone scout.”

“I’ve argued against splitting the group into two teams. Aye, that would be a danger. But, a lone scout moving a short distance ahead is a valuable asset. In silence and in the shadows is the way. I would do my part in that role if the rest agree.”

“It would appear to be a moot point, now, scout…” Druth drawls dryly. “I suppose the question is should we ride to catch up, or follow at a leisurely pace? I doubt not Portia’s intent, but what the human Lord of the Dead reckons to be a favorable omen may yet be an unfavorable surprise to us mortals, hey?”

“I agree with Tuttle…” Jez chimes. “…No offense to you Elven Sire…” He bows, “…but splitting the group would be foolish, given what happened in our past encounters.” He turns and continues to speak to Tuttle. “And, uh, we have a few friends of our own to help you. Could you use their company?”

Jez looks at Alanna, whose mouth holds a large acorn. “Oh Lliira, get that out of your mouth. Honestly, you don’t know where it’s been. You and your greedy-gut…” Alanna drops the large acorn and blinks at Jez and advances towards him. “I should have some raisins or some such…”

Qwenta drinks deeply his withers twitching where his mistress removed his burden for a time. The white stallion raises his head from the water and arches his elegant neck to scratch and itch. He watches and listens to the odd two-leg creatures his mistress traveled with; when they gather to move out again he pays them no mind. His mistress would decide when she would move and even he, Qwenta, could not budge her when she did not wish to go.

Despite the threatening rain-laden skies overhead, no water is falling from the skies now, when the group puts itself into motion while debating how to scout or split-up. Branith also catches up with the other on foot and walks near the halfling ranger. So engaged in the discussion is the team that apparently they forget that Immerine has left their company. The white stallion – Qwenta – remains behind, not at all perturbed by the departing wagon.

Following the downward sloping side of the valley, the group reaches the bottom of the gorge after roughly half a mile. While rocky, narrow and with the little stream flowing in the middle, the gorge is traversable with the wagon. Cliff-like walls rise up at either side of the gorge, sporting occasional rocky overhangs as well as bushes or trees that have found some form of purchase.

Water trickles down the walls almost everywhere, the rainfall of the previous days have saturated the soil and slowly that excess water is finding its way into the stream, adding water to it, the further it flows into the gorge.

Where sheep snagged their coats on twigs or rocks, plucks of wool are indicators that the four-legged creatures use the gorge frequently – and if the footprint found near the spring is an indication, a humanoid shepherd likely accompanied the herd.

Trusting in Portia’s augury, the group continues along the gorge’s floor following the trail of the shepherd. The trek is not easy, the rocks and irregular floor of the gorge as well as the presence of the small river provide plenty of obstacles for the wagon and its inexperienced driver. With no way to turn the wagon – short of disassemble and reassembly in the proper direction – the only other option is to continue with or without the wagon.

When the group discusses the strategy to follow, a grumbling Branith scouts a little ahead; his dwarven nature not seeing the perceived obstacles, and he is determined to find a way through. Persistence rewards the dwarf, when he discovers that after a bowshot distance most of the debris on the bottom of the gorge is cleared, creating a pasture-like floor easy to traverse with the wagon. A few yards beyond that, the walls of the gorge open up into wide, bowl-shaped valley.

A rubble strewn and overgrown area, surrounding a dry fountain with the remains of feminine statue, hints at past occupation of the spot. Beyond these remains and west from there, current occupation is visible in half-dozen cottages, an open fire and a variety of farm animals scurrying about. The arrival of the group – minus Immerine – has not gone unnoticed, a small group of farmers – judging by the implements they are holding – warily eyes the arrival.

Jez raises an eyebrow when he notices Immerine’s absence and quips, “Where in the name of Lliira has she gone now? I thought we were supposed to stick together… Oh well, she’s an island unto herself after all.” The halfling ranger finds a rock on which to rest his small and weary legs, he pulls out a stone and begins idly to turn the rock. As Tuttle looks about his eyes furrow and he replies to Jez idly, “I had rather hoped Mistress Immerine would be along as well.”

Dismounting and securing the reins of his horse to the wagon and placing his bow, dagger and borrowed mace inside, the unarmed warrior holds his arms outward, palms forward to show he has no weapons as he walks slowly toward the farmers, “Greetings to all of you. I am Teryn, of Berdusk. My companions and I have had a rough couple of days with the rains. It does not look like shelter is to be had but might any of these animals…” He does not lower his arms but twists his upper body to wave toward the farm stock, “…be for sale, that we might feast tonight?”

Sitting her horse, Portia lets Teryn do the talking. She keeps her expression pleasant, and makes sure that the folk ahead can see her god’s insignia on her buckler. “Hallo!” Jez says to the farmers and waves his hand in a non-threatening manner.

Branith on the other hand does rather the opposite. Crossing his arms over his chest, he remains where he is on the wagon and eyes the farmer and their tools with a weary look. “At least they have some sense living in this good rocky area.” He mumbles more to himself than any one else.

Kevin, a trifle nervously, tugs the brim of his hat a little lower over his face, hoping he does not look too much like a wizard. He sends Kethron an empathic request to stay hidden in his pack, which is sitting on the wagon bed behind him. Kethron, of course, is a cat – whatever his wings might say. His master’s warning makes him cautious, but the Tressym cannot resist popping his head out enough to see.

“Well met, Teryn of Berdusk.” One of the farmers replies, stepping forward after handing a stout staff to a young boy standing beside him. The man’s expression is cautious as he moves towards the warrior, “We do not get many visiting strangers that often, certainly not in this time of the year.”

The man, of average build and height sports a thick beard – like many of the dozen or so men-folk behind him – and appears to be one of the shepherds judging by his clothes, “You have among you a priest of the dead, her service might be enough payment for shelter and food.”

At those words, a murmur flows through the group behind the farmer, as if not all of the villagers agree with the man’s proposition.

The Berduskan nods and takes note of the seeming dissent but keeps smiling as he turns toward the rest of the party, “Perhaps. Would you come with me and we can see what she might do for this village?” He turns and guides the villager toward the cleric of Kelemvor. “Portia, this gentleman wishes to make an inquiry about your services.” He looks expectantly at the man, waiting for him to voice his needs.

“If you have need, saer, you have only to ask. If I can serve, I will.” Portia looks curiously at the man. The muttering of some of the other folk does not seem to surprise her, but she does not react to it. However, before the man can answer a voice from the behind the other group of villagers sounds; “What are you louts standing about here?”

The voice, rather masculine in volume and timbre belongs to a woman of impressive girth, yet she moves with elegance not common for similar sized humans; it is almost as if the woman is a moving mountain, her presence almost tangibly solid. Moving her way through the throng of men-folk – who part hastily before her – she walks up to the group’s spokes person. “Are you stirrin’ up trouble, Nuldus? Better leave stirring a pot to the women, you men don’t even know how to peel taters.”

The man, who previously had appeared somewhat self-confident, now almost withers before the firm woman’s stare and backs off reluctantly. “I take it ye are good folk.” The woman continues, her basso voice now aimed at Portia and the others, “There’ll be room in the hay for sleepin’. You’ll have to look after yer own animals. Food will be ready before dusk.”

Apparently having said what she needed to say, the big woman turns and glares once more at the men, who hastily remember that their business is elsewhere and left untended. Looking past the woman into the village proper, it is easy to distinguish the stables; the longest building amidst the timber-frame and plaster constructions that make up the village proper.

Teryn relaxes his stance and looks impassively at the bossy woman, making a mental note to remember the man he was just talking to and try to get alone with him later. “Thank you ma’am, we are honored.” He bows politely before he turns to get his horse. As he turns facing only the group, he raises a questioning eyebrow at the priestess of Kelemvor.

With a laugh, the dwarven cleric jumps of the wagon. “Hah, now that’s a human woman that reminds me of my mother back home.” He helps the others with the horses, as much as a dwarf can do with draft animals. “By Moradin, it will be nice to sleep under a roof again; even though it’s in a barn with lots of hay.” He says as they lead the horses to the stable.

Tarim kept quiet, watching the proceedings with a slight smile and keeping near Portia with the intent on learning as much as possible from what these folk expect from her and her response to it.

The sun elf maintains his silence as he dismounts, and prepares to lead his horse to the stables. Druth looks around at the gathered farm-folk to take the measure of their mood. “I get first dibs on the loft.” Jez quips to the group in his usually joyous manner, “Portia? Do you mind if I accompany you?”

With the appearance of the woman, Portia looks slightly amused. The amusement still in her eyes, she catches Teryn’s look and nods encouragingly. To the woman, she says, raising her voice slightly to reach the departing woman, “Excuse me, Ma’am, but one of the men mentioned a need for a healer?”

The stout woman stops on her way back towards the collection of houses and huts, turning to face the priestess, “Lass, you should know, there is no healing of menfolk. They’re just born that way.” About to say more, something behind the group attracts her attention, “Another traveler? Or a straggler from your group?”

Portia checking where the woman is gazing, recognizes Immerine leading her horse as she approaches from the gorge towards the group – the young witch has her decorated mask back in place.

The warrior sees Immerine approach and turns back toward the village woman “That’s Immerine, she’s with us. She’s a healer of sorts also, though despite her attempts she hasn’t been too successful healing the men either.” Teryn grins at the woman, watching for any sign that calling her a ‘healer’ has with the woman or the crowd.

Immerine does not indicate she has seen the others as she approaches. Upon closer inspection, it looks like she is talking to thin air.

Portia nods at the woman’s statement, her slight smile still in place. After looking back toward Immerine and again nodding, this time in agreement with Teryn’s acknowledgement of Immerine’s inclusion in the group, she says, “Well, if you do need any assistance, we’d be glad to provide it. We’ve had some rough times in the last couple days, and the weather hasn’t really helped. We truly do appreciate the offer of shelter.”

She turns once more to look over the group, noting the worn look on some of them. “Some time to dry out and relax would do us some good…”

Tuttle puts his stone back in his pouch as Immerine approaches. The halfling regains his feet with a satisfied and relieved look. “Bah.” Is all he can manage at the disparaging of the men folk; the halfling returns to flipping his stone, again bored with the conversation.

Looking over at Tarim, Portia says to him, “We should be able to rest up nicely here, even in a hay pile. I think that once we have a day to just sit, we’ll be ready to really tackle Druth’s quest.” Nodding slightly Tarim agrees, “Yes, a bit of wit gathering and some time to prepare for another foray would be an excellent idea. I also wish to speak with you about a personal matter.” At this, Portia quirks an eyebrow at the mage, “Of course, I’m sure we’ll have time tonight.”

Not knowing what to make of Immerine’s detached appearance, Jez merely shrugs his shoulders. “Well, If nobody wants to…” He says openly to his companions, “…I guess I’ll take the horses and the cart to the stables.”

“Where can we meet once I’m finished?” He asks politely as Alanna climbs onto Jez’s shoulder and sniffs the wind.


Phorvar's Gap, 1371 DR, Eleint, 26th day

Once the horses are stabled, or left to graze, and the packs and bedrolls have been taken up into the hayloft, the group reassembles in front of the stables. Some small talk with the locals yields name of the hamlet: Phorvar’s Gap, a flyspeck of a place in the middle of nowhere, completely autonomous and largely self-sufficient. Every once in a while, travelers pass through, or even the odd caravan, but mostly the villagers are on their own in the midst of the Greenfields.

A council of elders leads the village, with the large woman encountered earlier as the most senior of the council. She not only virtually appeared a mountain, she apparently has elemental blood in her veins; earth elemental. Teryn is able to seek out the villager who addressed them at first, Nuldus. Taking the man to the side and out of sight of the big woman, the warrior sets up a friendly conversation with the man, while Portia and Tarim wander off, back towards the entrance to the gorge to discuss private matters.

Having seen an instrument, several of the villagers, including a host of kids, accost Nik with requests to play. Initially wary, the bard gives in and retrieves ‘Julia’. Picking a bench near a large tree close to the stables, the Silvaren bard strums a few notes to check the tuning and once satisfied begins to play.

Phorvar's Gap, 1371 DR, Highharvestide

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