Charn turns back to Verin and his demonic contingent. As he inquires about the paperwork relating to the license of the undead horses pulling their cart, a squeal comes up from behind the guard post. Gliberus, the quasit, is stumbling down the path from the courtyard of The Outpost toward the summoning circle.
"I have them! I have the licenses!" The quasit who resides in The Outpost and represents most of the abyssal interests here provides the licenses to the inquisitive Dragonborn. The other quasits snarl at Gliberus as he does so, but Gliberus cackles at them. Verin himself is impassive in the face of his local representative handling local paperwork.
As Charn reviews the documentation, Caleb notices that Gliberus passes Myron Ironhand with the documentation. Caleb has no more than a passing familiarity with Myron Ironhand, a dwarf who publicly serves the Archdevil Dispater. Dispater and Graz'zt are antagonists in the Blood War, and Caleb is absolutely certain that Myron will be reporting Verin's presence at The Outpost. After Myron notices that Caleb took notice of the dwarf, Myron begins ambling back toward the Courtyard.
After resolving the backlog at the portal, the remainder of the day is extremely boring. Not a single disturbance intrudes on The Outpost until sunset. Yuson accompanies the relief guards. He smiles. "Rock men!" He laughs. "Apparently, you rescued some important rocks. Go talk with the Archdruid, he wants to hear all about it."
Archdruid Taron is tending to the garden in his quarters. The halfling maintains an open-air living environment, complete with a terrace exposed to the elements. He grows a variety of herbs and root vegetables in a specially constructed terrarium as wide as an an ogre's reach with a swinging club. After the day's troubles, the Archdruid tends to his personal garden to relieve stress. When the time comes to report the details of the encounter with Hollinger, he is inspecting a spring of basil.
"So, tell me, what happened with this stone merchant?"
Eryndir lingers towards the rear of the group. He looks to the other members of the party, deferring to them for the narrative of the stone merchant.
"He's a louse. But it would appear that almost immediately after leaving town, the dwarf was waylaid by Communists on the road. They strung up his sister and killed her husband, too, leaving two children orphaned. We cornered him easily enough in an abandoned barn, but it turned into a rescue mission at that point. If there's some way to work off his debt to the Outpost without being put in irons, that might be ideal. I wager he is assuming responsibility for his niece and nephew now, after all."
"Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats." - H.L. Mencken
The halfling frowns. "Communists, you say?"
The Archdruid doesn't look up. He leans in very closely to his herbs and sniffs them very carefully.
"Yes, your, erm..." Eryndir pauses, uncertain of the proper honorific. "Your holiness? There was a traveling band of communists who were terrorizing the countryside, everyone in their path. I was accosted and taken captive as I was on my way here to report for duty. I would not have survived if not for these fellows.
"I was only able to catch the name of one - Narad, an elf. We managed to overcome most of their number, but two of them escaped as we were securing the stone."
The Archdruid looks up from his basil at the wood elf. "I'm no religious figure. I'm merely the Elector's favored druid, is all. If you have to address me, either Taron or, and I don't prefer it but I understand it, sir."
The halfling pushes himself up from the ground, much shorter than the rest of the inhabitants of his quarters. He starts walking over to a desk that overlooks the garden. "You are, of course, entitled to anything you found barring the Elector's property." The halfling begins scribbling a note from a sheaf of papers. When he is done writing, he folds the paper into thirds and seals it with wax. From a small bowl, he pulls forth a single seed and embeds it in the wax rather than an embossed seal.
"In the morning, I want you to take this letter to Druid Hatepshon. I will send Rupert with you as a guide." The halfling whistles sharply. An owl swoops down from the dark sky and lands on the desk. The Archdruid scratches the owl on the top of its head. "I don't know how long it will take for Hatepshon to find you, so bring plenty of provisions." The druid rips a piece of paper out of his sheaf. He writes 250 gold, per Taron and holds it out for you to take. "The quartermaster will honor that. Take whatever you need. Will there be anything else?"
The halfling looks up from his desk inquisitively.
"After Hatepshon finds us, will he give us further instructions, or should we come back here? And if we find trouble while we're in the wilderness, do you want us to deal with it, or just bring news of it back (assuming it doesn't insist on us dealing with it)?"
"Druid Hatepshon may have a request for you, but that's between you and him. This letter you're taking to him is my request of him that he look into these communists. He may ask you to help. You're welcome to help him or not. I do want you to address any trouble out there that you're capable of handling. The wilderness is vast and I don't want you to go getting yourself killed without letting us know what is killing you."
The halfling smiles.
"You also don't have to get yourself killed, but that's entirely up to you."
Eryndir can't help but smile at Taron's comment, the right corner of his mouth quirking upwards in amusement. He takes the note from Taron and looks to the others.
"To the quartermaster?"
As Eryndir repacks his gear, he takes stock of his inventory. "I can survive in the wilderness if need be, but we should procure at least two weeks of rations. Simon gave us each a canteen of what smells like powerful liquor. I suppose that will help keep us warm at night. Perhaps we can also buy a fishing rod, as well? I have a bedroll, but any unaccustomed to sleeping under the night sky should be prepared."
Eryndir pulls the two scrolls that Simon gave the party out of his pack. "I can't make heads or tails of these. Can one of you?" He holds them out to Caleb and Able.
He looks over the rest of his gear. "If any of you have arms or armor you would seek to procure, Taron's gold might come of use."
"I propose we divide the gold into equal shares, and everyone can purchase what he deems most important for his individual survival." Able is used to fending for himself and still doesn't trust Eryndir not to donate his share of any treasure to foundlings or orphans.
Eryndir grins and nods once.
At the quartermaster, Eryndir tries out several of the longbows before choosing one. He presents the note from Taron, along with his old short bow. Receiving back 200 gold (presumably?) and 5 silver pieces (for selling back his short bow), he takes ten more gold pieces and the five silver pieces, and hands the remaining 190 gold to the other members of the party to divide amongst themselves.
He looks to Able. "It does not divide evenly, but I am satisfied with this portion."
Charn appears to be content with the present arrangement, and he appears to be mulling over what to buy carefully.
Just before dawn, Bendon Wilmane is sitting near the northwestern gate of The Outpost. The boy is typically known for his laughter and his unique lack of talent when it comes to preparing nuts for consumption. On this day, however, Bendon is distraught. His face is red as he draws in the mud with a stick. Sitting next to Bendon is the drow Yuson. As the travelers get ready to depart, they can hear Yuson comforting the boy. "Your mother, Georgina is still young yet, Bendon. You might still become an older brother one day."
Bendon shakes his head. "I don't just wanna be an older brother. I wanna be Jaime's older brother." Bendon forcefully shoves the stick into the mud to punctuate his anger.
"Who is Jaime?" It isn't merely Yuson's ancestry that makes him singularly unqualified to console human farm children.
"The stillbirth." Bendon barely breathes the last. As he does so, Yuson's defeat is plain on his face. As the drow looks up and sees the travelers, he gestures with his head that they should move on. Yuson does not want them dragged into poor Bendon's misery.
The weather is crisp and clear in the hours immediately after dawn. The owl, Rupert, tends to circle overhead before lazily flying in the direction the travelers must walk. The road is only modestly traveled although there are some merchants making their way to The Outpost. Some of these merchants make an attempt to hock their wares to the travelers but most simply soldier on and make the most of the weather to travel.
A lone rider, wearing the colors of Elector Gladestrider, takes note of Caleb and reins in his horse. The animal has extremely large saddlebags. As Charn is being offered "the finest scale cream from the southern sands" by a particularly unscrupulous merchant, the rider holds up a hand. "Priest, before you continue on, I ask you to identify yourself." The rider is a human with an unkempt beard of at least a month's growth. He wears durable leathers and carries a hatchet on either hip. Aside from the Elector's colors of green and gold on his jerkin, everything about the rider is brown. His tangled mane is the brown of fresh coffee and his eyes are the brown of walnut. His skin is the bronze from a dwarven furnace and his clothes are the brown of the mud in the road.
As the party reaches the road, an ease befalls Eryndir. The stiffness and uncertainty melt away. It is on the road where Eryndir feels at home.
He takes it upon himself to serve as scout, occasionally slipping from the side of the road and virtually disappearing into whatever passes for woods on its edge. He moves ahead, circles back through the brush, and reemerges behind the party bringing up the rear. He speaks little, and dismisses the merchants on the road with a mere wave of his hand.
When the rider addresses Caleb, Eryndir stands silently behind the priest, watching.
Caleb stops to speak to the stranger. "Caleb is my name. Do you require aid?"
The rider shakes his head. "No, no, no. Your name was enough. Not too many of you priests around here and the last thing I want to do is wait for you." The rider reaches into his saddlebags. As he does so, the travelers can see the horse is heavily laden with parcels and parchment. The rider is a courier.
"Here you go. For Caleb at The Outpost." The courier extends a carefully folded letter to Caleb from horseback. The letter is sealed with an unmarked yellow wax. The courier smiles, expectantly.
"The road is its own reward," Caleb solemnly intones, accepting the letter and nodding. He proceeds to open it and begin reading; if a tip for the courier is forthcoming, there is no indication of it.
Eryndir pulls a silver coin from his purse and presses it into the courier's hand with a silent nod of thanks, one member of the Gladestrider faction to another.
The courier takes the coin. "Thank you. The road is a fitting reward for itself." He puts the coin inside his saddlebags with a disapproving look for Caleb. "Safe journey." The courier puts heels to horse and rides on in the direction of The Outpost.
From high above, Rupert hoots.
Caleb folds the letter back up after reading it and tucks it into the backpack lashed to his mule's pack saddle. "My father is coming to town soon," he offers to no one in particular, clicking his tongue to urge the animal back into motion.
Eryndir looks back to Rupert, and when Caleb urges his mule into motion, he again slips from the road to scout ahead, then behind, then rejoins the party. He follows this pattern at irregular intervals as they travel.
An hour after Charn's memorable encounter with the merchant selling scale cream, Rupert makes a sharp left turn toward the south. The owl flies in a path that takes the travelers through a thicket that is annoying but easy to overcome. Emerging into a clearing in the wood less than 50 yards from the road, Charn finds the owl feasting on a squirrel.
As the travelers take a moment to eat with their companion, Able takes a moment to find somewhere to sit. A sharp pain in his left foot causes the tiefling to yelp as he recoils from and finds a thin and almost completely transparent sliver of something that was sticking up out of the clearing. A small drop of Able's blood now adorns the glass-like edge of the object.
Eryndir sits on a log, quietly eating one of his rations with more efficiency than enjoyment.
At Able's yelp, Eryndir stands; his hand drops to the hilt of his dagger, and his eyes turn towards the brush around them. He scans intently for a long moment before looking at the others in turn and shaking his head once.
He turns his attention to the sliver of glass, getting low to the ground and observing it as closely as he can without touching it. Uncertain, he sits back on his heels.
Able backs away from the crystal shard and lets Eryndir investigate.
Eryndir crouches low again, bringing his face close to the shard. Slowly, carefully, he begins brushing dirt away from its edges. After a moment, he pulls one dagger from his belt and similarly begins moving dirt in an attempt to see if he can excavate the object.
Eryndir removes enough of the dirt that the shard topples over. It appears to be some sort of makeshift dagger, with the translucent crystalline substance wrapped thoroughly at one end with strips of leather. Even a cursory inspection reveals that the edge of the blade is biting into the leather strips - using the blade in combat would quickly fray the leather and give the wielder a severe set of lacerations across the fingers and palm of the hand.
Eryndir lifts the make shift dagger, holding it carefully by the leather wrapping.
"I have never a weapon this sharp before. It was not made by any smith of the Empire. Nor of this plane, most likely. But this weapon's last owner did not appreciate nor understand what he had found. It was not intended to be wielded this way."
"No, indeed. I am unfamiliar with any wound like this. You'll heal up nicely, Able," Caleb offers, standing. "Perhaps the owner left it here because a simple trap like this is the safest way for him or her to make use of it."
Eryndir nods somewhat absently, his eyes remaining on the strange item. "Perhaps, though we seem to be alone."
He offers another glance to the surrounding brush, then back to the makeshift dagger.
Charn examines the dagger and observes, "It must be quite sharp, to have pierced a boot. Perhaps we should look about for other such things."
Eryndir pulls his focus from the blade and looks to Charn. He nods in agreement, places the makeshift dagger on the felled log where he was sitting, and helps carefully clear away more of the upturned dirt.
A second or two of digging bears fruit - literally. Several rotten apple cores, bites clearly visible, surround the area where the blade was found. Some seeds, partially chewed, liter the soil as well. Eryndir's hand brushes against a piece of cloth with a very sturdy core. As the wood elf excavates the site, he discovers a sackcloth bag. Opening the bag reveals 6 pieces of gold, a small book entitled The Upcoming Revolution, and an iron medallion with the same stylized "C" known to represent the Thousandfold Men of Industry.
Eryndir sifts through the bag carefully, not wanting to "find" another perfectly sharp extradimensional weapon the hard way. When he finds the gold, he holds it out, showing the party, and places it next to the dagger on the log. He keeps going until he finds the medallion and pauses. Then, he likewise holds it out.
He glances once more at the dagger. "Didn't those bugs at the portal have crystalline weapons? Are they in league with damn filthy communists? Did anyone get a close enough look at their weaponry to see if this dagger is of the same origin?"
Eryndir lifts the dagger carefully by the leather grip. He examines is more closely, paying close attention to the location where the edge is cutting through the grip.
"No. If the insect creatures were working with the communists, this weapon would not have been made so shoddily. Its wielder is guaranteed to to as much damage to his own hand as to his adversary. This was done by someone unfamiliar with the creatures or their technology."
He looks to the others. "They said they had been robbed, correct? By an elf of some sort. This must be the satchel of the thief. Did the insectoids say anything else? I cannot recall."
"Only that they wanted to eat you," Caleb offers absentmindedly, sitting again while he waits for his colleagues to conclude their investigation. "For the record, I would fight until my dying breath to prevent someone from killing you for the purposes of devouring you; whether they are bug people or not."
Eryndir grins. "Likewise." His eyes once again go to the brush. "And we may have to do just that if they happen upon us in possession of this weapon. Unless we seek them out and present it to them, though I'm not convinced they would differentiate between me and any other elf."
"I'm not prepared to make a blanket statement that I'll risk my life to save yours from being eaten. Maybe for anything smaller and less numerous than our little team. But if a Purple Worm erupts from the ground, you're going to have find your own way out." Able prefers honesty.
Charn regards the banter with mild amusement, then offers, "Let us hope, then, that they eat the communists instead and render the matter moot, hmm?"
Eryndir's brow furrows in concern. He shakes his head, continuing to look towards the brush. The corners of his lips pull upwards and his teeth grind in an expression of concentration.
"Something is not right. I see no one, but something is not right." His voice is a low, hushed whisper.
He readies his longbow with an arrow and carefully steps towards the edge of the clearing, moving as quietly as he can into the brush.
"I'll see what I can see," he whispers again.
"This is how it starts. I'm sure there is a purple worm out there. I can feel it in my bones."
Caleb stands and readies his shield and mace. He knows if Eryndir can't successfully evade onlookers in the brush, the heavily armored, clumsy cleric stands no chance whatsoever.
Squares with shrubs are difficult terrain and provide partial cover.
18 - Eryndir
15 - Charn
13 - Green Zombie
08 - Orange Zombie
06 - Able
1a - Caleb
1b - Blue Zombie
It is now Eryndir's turn.
As three zombies enter the clearing, Eryndir and Charn both wait for an opportunity to strike. "Let them get a little closer, rather than run into their arms," says Charn. His patience is soon rewarded.
One of the zombies appears to be missing significant portions of its anatomy. It drags itself along the ground with its hands until it makes eye contact with Caleb. As the undead monster countenances the cleric, the zombie's spine distends and pushes the corpse's chest further off the ground. With frenzied locomotion, the zombie propels itself towards Caleb. With a snapping noise that can only mean the breaking of its own bones, the zombie attempts to thrust the distended spine through Caleb's leg in a pinning strike. Caleb artfully dodges the attack.
Unfortunately for Caleb, another zombie follows the first. It moves more fluidly than the savaged corpse and brings its head down on the bridge of Caleb's nose. Caleb's vision blurs for a moment as his blood runs down his mouth and over his garments.
Able pauses for a moment to ensure that Caleb was not bitten. As he does so, Caleb's vision returns and the cleric's eyes focus on the undead in front of him. These are zombies animated through the use of extremely common necromantic magics. Caleb quickly relays the oldest zombie killing trick he knows - aim for the head. He steps south, drawing the attention of his two assailants as he does so.
The scales along Charn's mouth slide back as Caleb's gambit provides him an opportunity. He dashes to the exposed flank of the zombie that moves with fluid grace and brings his sword down in a flashing arc. The sword bites deeply into the zombie's shoulder and narrowly misses the head. The blow would have felled most living men, but the zombie is merely inconvenienced.
Able, understanding the shortcomings of the undead condition, puts distance between himself and Charn's quarry. As he does so, the warlock unleashes a blast of fury summoned from hell itself to underscore Charn's assault. The travelers cannot help but wince at the sound of tendons audibly snapping as Able's attack separates the zombie's joints.
The final zombie, clad in the raiment of the Thousandfold Men of Industry, passes by Eryndir's hiding spot. Eryndir uses the opportunity to slip his rapier in between the zombie's ribs. The zombie, only slightly off kilter from Eryndir's blade, makes an off-balanced attempt to pin Charn to the ground. Charn easily deflects the monster's grasping hands with his shield.
Unable to meaningfully separate the communist zombie's skull from its spine with his rapier, Eryndir engages the half-zombie that attacked Caleb. As the spine curls like a scorpion's tail to strike the cleric again, Eryndir stomps the zombie's tailbone with the bottom of his boot. When the mangled skull turns toward the wood elf, Eryndir's rapier plunges deep into the corpse's eye socket and out the back of the zombie's skull. The attack is both ironic and effective. Without so much as a shudder, the half-zombie collapses.
Characters with half their hit points remaining or less are considered bloodied and are denoted with red circles on their tokens.
18 - Eryndir
15 - Charn
13 - Green Zombie is no longer animated.
08 - Orange Zombie has taken 18 points of damage and is bloodied.
06 - Able
1a - Caleb has taken 6 points of damage and is bloodied.
1b - Blue Zombie has taken 5 points of damage.
After a few more seconds of carnage, the restless dead finally lay dormant.
Rupert hoots, contentedly.