Feruq keeps a level head, scanning the action closer to the wasps' nest to gauge how concerned he should be. He reaches behind him to brandish a tonfa, fully prepared to arm himself and and dismount or do battle if the flying vermin close for melee.
Argus looks up at the sky, then to the brush nearest him and compares it to the way the bushes on the far side of the river sway in the breeze (to the best of his ability; his target is quite far away). He nocks an arrow and arcs his shot, letting the missile soar over the river and smiles when it pierces the wasp's chitin and buries itself to the fletching where its head connects to its thorax. For its part, the wasp seems less than enthusiastic about this, but empathizing with giant insects is not the ranger's strong suit.
Dalvar - 22
Wasp 1 - 20
Garyld - 16A
Wasp 5 - 16B
Wasp 4 - 15
Feruq - 14
Argus - 13A
Wasp 2 - 13B*
Thunk - 8A
Wasp 3 - 8B*
Green areas on the map denote light undergrowth, which increases the DC of Acrobatics and Stealth checks by 2 and costs 2 squares of movement to move into. Light undergrowth also confers concealment.
Brown areas on the map denote heavy undergrowth, which increases the DC of Acrobatics checks by 5 but provides a +5 circumstance bonus to Stealth checks. Each square of heavy undergrowth costs 4 squares of movement to move into and provides a 30% miss chance due to concealment. Charging or running in heavy undergrowth is impossible.
The blue portion of the map is the Churnett River. The current carries anything in its current downstream at a speed of 40'/round. Swimming here requires an Athletics DC 15 check.
Wasp 2 and Wasp 3 are surprised and flat-footed, and can't act until Round 1.
Dalvar has begun casting a spell with a casting time of one round. The spell's casting will be complete after expending a second standard action.
Wasp 5 has taken 31 damage.
It is now Thunk's turn.
"Men are the only animals that devote themselves, day in and day out, to making one another unhappy. It is an art like any other. Its virtuosi are called altruists." - H.L. Mencken
Thunk, having wheeled his mount about in response to the sudden assault by giant wasps (to tell the truth, he never actually SAW any giant bugs, but Argus just shot at something and Garyld looks pretty scared, too), decides getting off his horse is probably a better idea than risking the dumb beast doing something reckless in the heat of battle. Of course, it still might do so, but at least the barbarian won't be on its back when it does so. With any luck, he will have enough time to unsheathe his blade before they close for melee. Do wasps cut as cleanly as centipedes? We can only hope.
Dalvar had enough time to finish casting his spell before his adversary even ventured out over the water. The incantation concludes and a baleful stench pervades the area as a familiar rift in timespace begins to split apart the seams between this world and what one hopes is not the next. A thing straight out of any sane man's nightmare wriggles through, forelegs first, plopping along the riverbank as the hole in reality clamps shut behind it. Argus and Feruq are greeted with the sight of what looks very much like a spider, although probably as large as any of the biggest, strongest dogs kenneled at Nafton's in Milborne (and certainly having been birthed from one of the Lower Planes). Its front legs are more like bladed instruments than actual limbs, and this trend follows at almost every point along its exoskeleton, particularly at the joints. Spikes and serrated edges that glint under the afternoon sun contrast with blood-red and soot-black tones along the monster's chitin. Most horrifyingly of all, the spider's eyes look very much like those of any humanoid, lids and all. Six of the luminous orbs adorn its brow like some kind of infernal crown, and the remaining two are spaced similar to that of a mortal man on what passes for a spider's face. The eyes dart furtively this way and that, blinking and weeping a viscous green ichor that complements the venom dripping from the spider's mouthparts.
The beast looks up questiongly at its summoner, then its gaze locks on the figure across the river from the party. "Fangs" aren't quite the right word for what constitute the limbs around the spider's mouth behind its pedipalps, but both those and the chelicerae wriggle with anticipation.
It doesn't need to wait long before the wasp across the way, apparently having made up its mind to engage the party after all (despite the horrific damage it just suffered thanks to an incredible bowshot from Argus), tries to close for melee. When it ventures close enough for the infernal arachnid's strike to count, the beast rears up on its hindmost limbs and presents its spinnerets for combat, letting loose with a stream of bright green webbing. The terrifying goo congeals in mid-air and presents an obstacle that is more than a match for the flying vermin; try as it might, the wasp can't wriggle its wings free from the webs in time, plunging clumsily into the drink.
Two more wasps join their erstwhile sibling, electing not to dip into the river but content to buzz over its surface. Garyld lines up his shots, favoring the first to brave the Churnett, and eventually lets two arrows loose at once, spaced such that each finds its mark between the chitinous plates of a different wasp. Both shriek in pain and anger as they splash into the river, but the ranger knows this reprieve is likely shortlived and prepares for the worst.
Dalvar - 22A
Spider - 20A
Wasp 1 - 20B
Wasp 5 - 16A
Wasp 4 - 15A
Garyld - 15B
Wasp 2 - 13B
Wasp 3 - 8B
Wasp 1 has taken 31 damage. It is currently swimming in the river and must either make an Athletics check next round or resume flying to avoid being swept further downriver or plunging further beneath the water's surface. It is also entangled. Being entangled impedes movement, but does not entirely prevent it unless the bonds are anchored to an immobile object or tethered by an opposing force. An entangled creature moves at half speed, cannot run or charge, and takes a –2 penalty on all attack rolls and a –4 penalty to Dexterity.
Wasp 4 has taken 3 damage. It is currently swimming in the river and must either make an Athletics check next round or resume flying to avoid being swept further downriver or plunging further beneath the water's surface.
Wasp 5 has taken 6 damage. It is currently swimming in the river and must either make an Athletics check next round or resume flying to avoid being swept further downriver or plunging further beneath the water's surface.
It is now Feruq's turn.
Feruq and Thunk prepare to engage the enemy, with the monk a little more eager to meet the wasps halfway than the half-orc. Still, Thunk hefts his sword and narrows his eyes, watching the surface of the water for any sign the giant vermin Garyld shot will rise up and come to threaten him.
Argus takes two shots, but the wasps are thrashing and splashing around so much his aim is badly impaired. Both arrows make contact with the river's surface and disappear beneath the current. Perhaps the newest arrival, another wasp just visible on the far shore, takes this as a good sign and looks eager to join the fray.
It is now Dalvar's turn.
Dalvar prepares a quick cantrip and launches his attack, shouting the words and gesturing toward the giant wasp just as it breaks free from the water's surface. The globe of acid launches from his extended fingertips and hurtles through the air, colliding with the monstrous insect's face and rapidly dissolving over its mouthparts. With a pitable shriek, the beast splashes back down unceremonously in the river, presumably being carried further downstream to its untimely death.
Thunk howls in fury and moves to engage the pair of wasps that advance on the position he guards with Garyld. His blade swipes through the air and slashes across the first monster's thorax, but fails to prevent its stinger from connecting. The keratinous spear-tip doesn't penetrate the exposed skin of his bicep, leaving the giant wasp open to an eminent counterattack. Garyld fares far worse, with the other wasp sacrificing its airborne advantage to pierce the ranger's chest. He stumbles back rapidly, clutching his breast and expecting the beast's venom to course through his veins; but by the time he has loosed two arrows, it looks like he is no worse for wear. The same cannot be said for the wasp itself, with two new arrows blooming from its carapace just behind its head.
Spider* - 20A
Dalvar - 20B
Thunk - 16A
Wasp 3 - 8
Garyld has taken 14 damage.
Wasp 1 has taken 34 damage and is dying. It will continue to be carried downstream by the current and in three rounds, it will drop to -18 hit points and drown even if it stabilizes from its injuries.
Wasp 4 has taken 18 damage. It is currently on the ground in heavy undergrowth.
Wasp 5 has taken 27 damage. It is currently on the ground.
Blinky the spider has readied an action.
Another giant wasp joins the fray, making its way toward the party across the Churnett but only clearing about half the distance. Its nestmate forges on and is accosted by Feruq, miraculously, as the monk spurs his horse closer to the shoreline then leaps heroically from the saddle. The horse is grateful to be let off the hook and watches in surprise as its rider soars through the air to meet the giant wasp, extending his leg and bringing his heel down hard on the flying vermin's head.
The monstrous bug recoils in pain and alarm, its forward momentum halted sufficiently to force it down into the river. Without anything to land on, Feruq unfortunately goes into the drink immediately afterward. It is not clear at all why he felt compelled to do such a thing, but the athleticism required alone was extremely impressive.
Wasp 2 - 13
Feruq - 8A
Argus - 7
Feruq is currently swimming in the river and must either make an Athletics check next round or resume flying to avoid being swept further downriver or plunging further beneath the water's surface. He charged this round, so his Armor Class is reduced by 2 until the beginning of his next turn.
Wasp 3 has taken 3 damage and is currently swimming in the river. It must either make an Athletics check next round or resume flying to avoid being swept further downriver or plunging further beneath the water's surface.
It is now Argus's turn.
Argus is surprised to see Feruq flying through the air, but seeing the wasp knocked into the water he turns his attention to the one flying in low and fast, just behind. With practiced movements, the ranger draws back one shaft and lets it fly, followed swiftly by a second arrow. The wasp buzzes up over the sudden splashdown caused by its companion and wild-eyed human attacker, breaking through the spray just in time for the first missile to bury itself to the fletching in one of the horrid beast's many-faceted eyes. It lets loose a pitiful shriek and immediately dips down toward the water, but before it can crash beneath the current the second arrow slips between the winged horror's mouthparts and disappears down its gullet. The shrieking stops as the monster plunges lifelessly into the river.
Wasp 2 has taken 41 damage and is dying. it will continue to be carried downstream by the current and in three rounds, it will drop to -18 hit points and drown even if it stabilizes from its injuries.
Thunk pivots on his heel, moving to engage both wasps simultaneously. He effortessly slashes through the meager defense mustered by the vermin that crashed into the heavy brush, severing its body completely between the thorax and abdomen. The other wasp raises its ponderous bulk above the riverbank, attempting to sting the half-orc, but fails to meaningfully threaten him. Garyld stumps over to get a clear shot against the remaining threat, swiftly nocking two arrows at once and letting them fly. Both pierce the wasp's exoskeleton in its face, silencing its mindless protests.
Feruq knows that his survival hinges on reaching land before his insectoid attacker does. He swipes through the current as if his life depends on it (which it does) and nearly reaches shore before the current carries hin further downstream.
The wasp that Feruq attacked emerges from the water's surface, only to be put down by a glob of acid lobbed by Dalvar. His incantation complete, the wizard watches as the vermin attempts to rise up again, this time coming closer to the river's edge before being thwarted by Blinky the fiendish spider. The otherworldly arachnid's webbing ensnares the giant wasp, sending it beneath the waves yet again.
Unable to resist the river's current, the beast is drawn inexorably past Feruq's position, and the monk lashes out with a well-placed kick that just finds its mark, with his heel connecting solidly against the giant vermin's mandibles. The wasp hisses in pain, albeit unheard beneath the river's surface.
Thunk - 16
Garyld - 15
Dalvar - 8B
Spider - 8C
Wasp 3 - 8D
Argus* - 7
Argus is delaying.
Thunk is raging. He gains a +4 morale bonus to Strength and Constitution, a +2 morale bonus to Will saves and suffers a -2 penalty to Armor Class, and his rage has 9 rounds remaining.
Wasp 3 has taken 6 damage and is currently swimming in the river. It is entangled and must move at half speed. It cannot run or charge and takes a -2 penalty on all attack rolls and a -4 penalty on Dextierty, It must either make an Athletics check next round or resume flying to avoid being swept further downriver or plunging further beneath the water's surface. It also failed its Athletics check this round, so loses its Dexterity bonus to AC and all attacks made against it are at a +2 bonus. Finally, it takes a -2 penalty to attacks with its stinger and its damage is halved.
Wasp 4 is dead.
Wasp 5 is dead.
Dalvar confers with the rangers in the party, unsure of what's going to happen after his fiendish spider ends its brief vacation to Damark and returns to the Nine Hells. Meanwhile, Feruq scrambles up out of the river, hauling himself up on shore and standing (and lucky to be alive). Thunk allows his bloodlust to subside, satisfied with the carnage wrought at his feet and tries to control his breathing.
Argus and Garyld line up their shots, waiting for the wasp to break free of the water's surface for long enough to put more arrows in it. Surprisingly, it manages to flounder up out of the river but is shot twice more for its trouble, hissing and clacking its mouthparts in frustration and agony. It splashes back down, and one presumes it will either drown (because it has yet to free itself of Blinky's extraplanar bondage) or be carried far enough downstream that the Heroes needn't concern themselves with it any further.
Victory is yours!
Dalvar pats his horse on the neck, absentmindedly reassuring the beast, and observes, "That could have gone much worse. We may as well take a moment to watch the nest. If it looks as if nothing else is home," he continues reluctantly, "then I guess that I will cross with Garyld and burn it."
Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold
"That is probably being the best idea," says Feruq as he carefully unwraps his turban and squeezes it free of water.
"That was an impressive jump, my friend. I did not know you hated these creatures so intensely."
"I was having realized I did not have a bath recently," says Feruq. A wry twist of his lips speaks that he's telling a joke.
Argus joins everyone else in watching the nest for signs of survivors. Moving to stand next to Garyld he asks, "You're hurt?" Having experience with tending to injured horses he looks at the wound. When probing around it, he is surprised when his hand briefly glows and the worst of the wound closes over.
Garyld slings his bow over his shoulder and is about to protest that it isn't serious, but stops short when Argus offers his divine ministrations. The older ranger smiles. "Thank you, brother. You and I should have words in the next tenday or so. There is a place for you in the Circle once the rest of the kidnappers have been put to the sword."
Clapping his hand on Argus's shoulder, the other man pivots on his good heel and stumps away toward the riverbank, preparing his canoe for transit. Calling over his shoulder, he offers, "It shouldn't take long, Dalvar," grunting as he shunts it out of the mud and holding the craft with one hand while it starts to bob more freely in the current.
Garyld leaves his gear and weapons there and eases into the rear of the canoe, letting Dalvar find a seat in front of him before waiting for Thunk or one of the others to cast them off. True to his word, it takes no time at all to get across, and it is obvious that the grizzled old wanderer spends a great deal of time on the water. Once they are safely on the other shore and their conveyance is secure beyond the water's edge, Garyld draws a knife and begins approaching the wasps' nest, moving as low to the ground and as quietly as possible. He entreats Dalvar to mimic his movemeents as well as the wizard can, and the path he picks through the grass is on level ground with few obstructions or detritus to trip over or crush underfoot while also keeping the earthen mound between the pair of adventurers and the far treeline.
A few minutes of creeping stealthily later and Garyld has led Dalvar to their objective. There is no sign of movement along the perimeter and from this distance they don't have any trouble making out that someone is on the far shore observing them, although it is probably easier to do so because the pair knows to look for the rest of the Heroes over there. It's really no surprise it took the wasps as long as they did to detect the party's presence.
Garyld stumps over to the other side of the mound, poking and prodding at one of the bodies with the tip of his knife. He leans in close and says, "This one has somethi-" but recoils suddenly, reversing his grip on the dagger and raising it in a defensive posture. "Norgorber's balls! She coughed. This one's alive, give me a hand."
Whether Dalvar helps much or not, the ranger eventually drags the woman (a half-elf of indeterminate age, though probably not a young woman by the wizard's estimation) free and tries to lay her out in a comfortable position on the ground. Taking a moment to examine her, he cuts the heads off a few of the flowers growing in a patch at arm's length and chews them up, placing a bit of the moistened wad under the woman's tongue.
Finally looking at Dalvar, he continues, "That was quite a shock. Although I guess it really shouldn't have been. Maybe some or all of the others are still breathing?"
Dalvar tries not to watch as Garyld chews up the plant matter and then sticks it into another person's mouth, passing it off as close attention to the mound and its macabre decorations. After giving Garyld's suggestion due consideration, he replies, "Maybe." He makes no move to approach the mound again, and instead muses, "I wonder how large the larvae of a giant wasp might be. And do you think the wasps lay eggs in the things they hunt down, or in the nest? I am trying to decide whether anything may still be here to try to eat us if we meddle too vigorously. What do you think?"
Garyld wipes his brow and leans back on his heel, his bad leg stretched out before him. He frowns and considers the question. "I can examine them all much more carefully if we can get them out of there. Sooner, rather than later, I think." He shakes his head. "I don't know a whole lot about wasps, whether big or small. But even if it's really, really big, a larva is just a larva, right? They're probably not too dangerous."
Dalvar shrugs, diffidently, "They are large enough so that the wasps collect adult half-elves to feed them. Maybe they are not dangerous out here where we can run away, but I think we should be extremely cautious of sticking anything important inside that mound, because it is a confined space that may be full of hungry predators." He frowns and adds, "To be clear, I am not suggesting that we leave these people to die, Garyld. I gave my word to the new Count that I am his man, and I am quite sure that he would wish me to make a proper effort to rescue any survivors. But it is not prudent for us to risk being incapacitated when everyone who is capable of helping is stranded on the other side of the river. If something goes wrong when we try to get at the interior, nobody can cross the river to help us because your canoe is already here."
Garyld leaves Dalvar to his examination of the mound, trudging back through the tall grass to the boat. He fetches Feruq first and when they return, the pair hurry to extract the wasps's victims from the hollows of the nest, some of whom may actually still be alive. Once they're all free and laid out some distance away, the ranger hurries to summon Argus, who thinks that between the three of them, Thunk, Puck and Bunny should be able to keep an eye on the remaining mule and other horses.
Dalvar notes in their absence that even in the deepest cavity in the mound's surface, the more thin, pulpy substance coating the interior doesn't appear to stretch further back. In fact, each papery spread of the wall is only large enough to conceal something that is probably a little taller than an adult dwarf, but still shorter than Dalvar. The only way to be sure would be to demolish the entire structure, of course, but it doesn't appear that any of the hidey-holes actually descends deeper into the dirt or further beneath the earth.
Argus helps Garyld examine each of the subjects pulled from the structure. There were two orcs, only one of whom survived; the woman Garyld found earlier; three halflings, two of whom are already dead; a doe, who Argus thinks was pregnant but also expired since the wasps attacked her; two human men, both of whom are still breathing (but only one is in particularly good condition); and a very large boar, which looks like it has probably been dead for a day or two but hasn't really begun to decompose.
None of the Heroes recognizes any of the men and women recovered from the nest, but Garyld thinks the two men live in Harlaton and are likely farmers like Balford and Bill. "Lot of strange faces around here as of late," the ranger mutters to no one in particular. The party doesn't think the orc here is one of the revolutionaries who have pledged their axes to Thunk, but at the risk of sounding racist a lot of orcs (especially men from the same family group) really do look alike. Maybe Thunk could tell the difference. Still, if the one Garyld is tending to here is in fact part of the group allied to the cult of kidnappers, he isn't in much condition to actually do anything about it.
While Garyld works, he calls over his shoulder to Dalvar. "What's the plan? We can gather some kindling and stuff it into each hole, I suppose. Light everything up at the same time and stab anything that crawls out?"
"Well, looks like we're going to have to spend some time tending to the wounded. Maybe we should combine the boar and the burning into a proper barbecue."
Garyld nods. "They're too weak to eat, probably, for a day or two at least. But I will stay here and tend them after the nest has been purged. I can send a raven to Shiraz to cover my duties with the Circle until these folk are on their feet." With that, the ranger retrieves a pair of manacles from his pack and clasps them around the wrists of the fallen orc. "There's just no way to know these days. He could wake up and try to rip my throat out, even if it means his own death moments after."
Dalvar's attention swivels onto Garyld for a moment, and the wizard replies, "The dead should go back onto the nest. I am concerned that the wasps may have laid eggs in them, so I intend to cremate their remains. All but the largest entrance to the nest should be plugged with kindling and other flammables."
He returns his attention to the nest, adding, "This was a very small nest, and only here for a short time, but they took eight people. That boar does not look like it was a pushover, either. Perhaps I am exercising an overabundance of caution, but I think that on the whole, all of us would like to ensure that this infestation is ended. So we will be meticulous and careful. Once the nest is prepared, we can move the injured across the river. If something is in there, it clearly is not planning to come out after us. That may change after its home is burning, and if we have to run away from it, I think all of you will sleep better tonight if we are not obliged to leave anyone to be devoured. Once the wounded are evacuated, I will start the nest burning from the inside out, and we will deal with whatever comes."
Thunk's concerns are warranted, safe transit for each of the injured men and women rescued from certain death in the wasps' nest is fairly time-consuming. The chore isn't going to take all day but the party will likely arrive at Kuiper's farm closer to evening than they anticipated.
Eventually, however, they work out a good system. Argus and Feruq help carry the wounded to the riverbank and gingerly lay them down again in a row like Garyld had them earlier. Meanwhile, the older ranger prepares his canoe, using a thick blanket to swaddle each patient then strapping them as securely as he can manage to the watercraft. Then, one at a time, Garyld casts off and takes them back across the river, where Thunk helps unload each passenger and lay them out in a similar fashion some distance away from the water (where Garyld will set up his impromptu clinic once the Heroes have saddled up and resumed their afternoon ride).
The whole thing is fairly streamlined by the time the party finishes, with everyone else on the far side of the Churnett doing what they can to prepare the next person to be ferried across. Eventually Thunk helps Garyld with the unconscious woman and is content to stand guard while his colleagues turn their attention to the nest itself.
Argus and Feruq, after loading up the last passenger, return to Dalvar and begin stuffing the corpses back into their hidey-holes. There's still no signs of life from within, which is a real shame if the larvae intended to make more of an effort to save themselves. Eventually enough dry brush and kindling is crammed in the holes that the party is satisfied they can set the whole thing ablaze in relatively short order. Feruq is the quickest on his feet and handles the torch: once everyone is in position, the monk lights both the cavities housing corpses as well as the ones just stuffed to the brim with fuel, moving from one to the next while Argus and Garyld prepare to fill whatever crawls out with arrows. Dalvar, too, is ready for the worst, but it never comes.
If the larvae everyone fears are old enough to pose an actual threat to humans, they either aren't strong enough to hatch and wriggle free or die too quickly to try to escape. It isn't even easy to tell if the hissing and whistles audible once the fires roar to life in earnest are coming from the fire itself or the giant vermin. After several minutes, two things are clear. First, the mound of dirt itself will likely not be adversely affected by the conflagration. Second, its hollow spaces are burned out completely, and there is no indication any insects remain to harass travelers or threaten wildlife.
Cheerfully, Dalvar comments, "I especially like being proven wrong about how dangerous a situation really is. It is one of my favorite things." Ever practical, the wizard casts detect magic and looks around for signs that some of the corpses (or injured parties) may be carrying items of value. He takes especial care to have a look at the little pile of belongings that Feruq looted off of the dead.
A Respite From Wasping
"Well, the raven is a wicked bird; its wings as black as sin; and he floats outside my prison window, mocking those within/And he sings to me real low, 'It's Hell to where you go, for you did kill Kate McCannon" - Colter Wall, "Kate McCannon"
The Heroes help Garyld prepare his triage center as best as they are able with limited supplies or time. Eventually, however, the survivors recovered from the wasp nest before it was set ablaze are as comfortable as anyone present has any right to expect. It is time for the party to say their goodbyes and saddle up again, hopefully not being delayed further on the remainder of their ride to Kuiper's farm.
Garyld thanks the Heroes for their help and promises to notify Shiraz that they are now on their final approach to Kuiper's place and about his own whereabouts, which isn't the worst idea in the world since he will probably eventually need more help tending the wounded civilians. Whether an assault on Broken Spire Keep is imminent or they intend to go somewhere else to tackle some other issue, from this point on it seems prudent that the loose network of rangers and druids who watch over Haranshire keep tabs on its most stalwart defenders.
"If some of these folks wake up and have any insights about the possessions you recovered, I will send word. You can decide what to do with them then. In another hour or so, I will make my way back across the river and say a few words over the dead. We should try to keep vengeful spirits to a minimum, I think, traveling along the Churnett has become dangerous enough."
With that, he says farewell, thanking Thunk again for his help in watching over the victims. It looks like it is roasted wasp for dinner for the grizzled ranger and any of his charges who regain consciousness this evening. The others mount up and reorganize their riding column, with Argus leading, Dalvar and Feruq in the middle and each responsible for one of the mules, and Thunk bringing up the rear. It is now later in the afternoon than anyone would have preferred, what with negotiations with Werner von Hirch eating up significant time this morning and the incident with the giant wasps causing unexpected delays.
But the rest of the ride is uneventful, thankfully, and although warm the ride is pleasant enough compared to the prospect of battling giant vermin. There is no sign of either the remainder of Werner's unaccounted for skeletal minions or the remaining wasp; perhaps it managed to haul itself up out of the drink and dry its wings before flying off somewhere else, but more likely it drowned or was accosted by something worse lurking beneath the surface. The way Garyld tells it, riding or walking along the riverbank or navigating the river itself by watercraft is one of the safest ways to travel throughout Haranshire. But when things go wrong, they go catastrophically wrong.
Home Away From Home
"T'was a bitch to break ground but the wine kept us goin', the moonshine was flowin', keepin' us warm; 'cause you can't hold a girl with a fistful of shovel, gotta find your fire in the company o' corn" - Tyler Childers, "Banded Clovis"
The state of affairs at Kuiper's s as busy as lively as when the Heroes last left here days ago. The master of the house is unavailable, having set out the same day they escorted Count Parlfray to Milborne on his own expedition. One notable addition to the estate, however, is Tauster's unassuming cottage, picket fence surrounding his garden and all. The wizard apparently decided to set down roots here, at least temporarily, and his two mastiffs lazily eye the perimeter from the home's front steps.
Ranch hands take the adventurers' mounts and beasts of burden at the pier and nod up to the wizard's cottage, just off the path from the docks to what is left of the burned-out barn. "Tauster's here," one offers, perhaps not knowing that the party are in close counsel with the wily old mage. "We're just finishing up for the day at the barn and stew is on in the main house, as usual."
Dalvar nods curtly, and replies, "I will speak to Tauster before I eat. But before that, where should we put our animals?" He pats his mule on the neck, and notes, "Bunny is a friendly sort, if you need him to share space with another animal. I do not know this horse very well yet, although he has made no difficulties for me."
Alvor, the fiddler who played at the funeral ceremony for Gideon's victims, is not the one who spoke at first; Dalvar doesn't recognize that man, really more of a boy. But the musician shakes his head from the back of the throng of workers and raises a hand. "We'll take care of it, Master Dalvar. We have a place quite a bit a-ways from the back of the barn where we're hitching the animals at night. It's not perfect, but not permanent, thank the gods."
Dalvar inclines his head, and replies, "I appreciate your help, Alvor. Thank you. I am sure that will be fine." He pauses, and adds, "Oh. You may or may not hear from Garyld. We helped him with a nest of giant wasps. There were survivors, and he stayed behind to nurse them until they are well enough to travel. I do not know if he will bring them here or take them back to Milborne."
With that, he makes for Tauster's cottage.
The Lights Are On...
"The old days are gone, the time goes so fast/Like the cars of a train, watch 'em go past/The feeling's still here and it won't let me be/ didn't waste no time. Time wasted me." - William Elliott Whitmore, "The Chariot"
Dalvar leads the rest of the party up the steps leading away from the pier, entrusting their mounts to the hired hands sworn to Kuiper's service. Argus once quietly observed that the ranger had assembled a veritable army in this neck of the woods, and it is more true every time the Heroes visit the homestead.
The mastiffs "guarding" the gate don't even raise their heads to regard the adventurers when Dalvar steps beyond the picket fence and approaches the front door. Knocking and politely waiting bears no fruit, nor does calling the wizard's name. He can't have gotten far, except by magic; the man is approaching his eighties, for gods' sakes. But unless he died inside since the last time anyone here spoke with him, he must be elsewhere. The raucous laughter and bustling sounds of the workday winding down in anticipation of a hearty dinner, as well as the warm light spilling out from the doorway of the common room of the main house, offer a clue about where one might find Tauster instead.
...But There's Nobody Home
"The Sheriff does not know my face, he does not know my name/But before the sun goes down, he'll know them just the same/One kiss before I leave you, and one more for the wind/Every day I hope and pray to be with you again" - The Steeldrivers, "To Be With You Again"
As Alvor and the others promised, stew is certainly on. It is a hearty mix of beef aged in whiskey, cooking stock and something else Thunk can't quite place, bubbling for hours over a low fire in a pot with tomato sauce, various greens and vegetables, and chunks of peculiar fruit the half-orc has never tasted before. The tiny squares are yellow and juicy, and very hot, as would be expected. The juice is very tart but pleasant, like a sweeter lemon. Although day-old crusty bread is on hand to pair with the stew, this medley is too hearty to be eaten any other way than with a large spoon. Thunk thinks a good portion of whatever booze wasn't used up to age the meat in also went into the pot when it was time to cook this batch; it isn't enough to make him woozy, but he can tell he and the other diners are "buzzing," as the locals refer to the warm, heady feeling before short-term brain damage sets in.
Tauster is holding court in the middle of the long table along the western wall, regaling the locals and laborers with a tale about the time a hostile tribe of lizardfolk crawled out of Shrieken Mire and laid siege to Thurmaster. As the old wizard tells it, the damage to most of the outlying buildings of the now-destroyed thorp is just an occupational hazard for evokers, and had very little to do with the reptilian marauders. "Green, pink and yellow fireballs burn wooden hovels to cinders just as good as any others. Truth be told, the kill count wasn't all that high."
"Oi! You gave 'em what-for, is what I heard!" shouts one of the ranch hands.
The wizard shrugs and smiles, raising his tankard to take a long draw of mead. His eyebrows arch playfully and he lowers the mug to offer, "Well, maybe a dozen or so lay dead when all was said and done. In their defense, the last time they raided Thurmaster did not boast a student of the arcane sciences."
Across the room, a handful of locals are mingling with workers from the barge that most recently docked here. They're playing some manner of dice game, and it is probably one that originated here; although the Heroes are from all over, none hail from Haranshire, and the details of how it is played are unknown to any of them.
Dalvar gets a bowl of food, then plops himself down at the table as close as he can get to Tauster's chair, commenting, "I would speak privately with you after supper is over, sir. It is no emergency, but I have news that certainly will be of interest to you, some of it of a personal nature."
Tauster's face lights up when he notices the party, truly delighted to see Dalvar again. "Oh! You're here. Good, good. Yes, we will have time to talk later. I do love the homestead! So many friendly faces."
But Tauster is old and perhaps not accustomed to the vagaries of barroom etiquette. Not all the faces are friendly. The game in the corner doesn't appear to the be source of discord, but rather the throng of mixed company watching the action. The men who accompanied the most recent barge here will likely be the last crew that come this far down the river, now that Thurmaster has been wiped from the map. Many are strangers even considering how many people are moving from place to place recently in Haranshire, and not all of them seem keen to make a good first impression.
For his part, if things turn south and stools and mugs start flying, Tauster is well looked after. The audience enjoying his tales of wizardry are all semi-permanent members of Kuiper's staff, most of whom the Heroes recognize from past visits. Anyone looking for trouble would need to wade through half a dozen roughnecks who do not take kindly to guests in the house being accosted.
The rough crowd reminds Argus of a personal tragedy in his past. He looks from one newcomer to the next not at all politely trying to sense who might have created trouble in the past.
"The more pain I feel, the less that it hurts; the more I move on, the more I am sure/That I will rob 'til my fingers, they are down to the bone; wander 'til I can't remember my own home/Drink 'til I don't know the meaning of 'alone,' 'til that bullet flies to carry me home" - Devil Makes Three, "The Bullet"
Rough crowd, indeed. What appeared at first blush to be a dispute over the card game has snowballed into something much more serious (or perhaps a personal grievance fueled the initial squabble, the Heroes ignorant of what transpired before they arrived and settled down to eat). Whatever the case, amidst the crowd surrounding the card table, the jostling and arguing turns to shouting and shoving. The argument will soon spill over to the other tables and threatens to engulf the entire common room in a brawl.
After having looked over the crowd, Argus had identified the ring leader. Moving behind him he points him out to Thunk and gets ready to hold his arms while Thunk puts his lights out. The half-orc readily accommodates him, seeing no further need for words when fists will do and maneuvering into position to bash some heads together.
A man in an overcoat stands up as the belligerents draw the attention of the crowd. The man's brown stubble is as ragged as his tousled hair and his blue garb matches many of the other stevedores and rivermen present. Peculiarly, the chest button on his overcoat is open and a rather ugly mutt's head is sticking out. The dog is quite small, no bigger than a buckler, with grey matted fur and lips that don't quite close over a crooked grin. The dog's cloudy eye on the left side doesn't match its brown partner on the right. Adding to the pathetic creature's plight, its lower jaw is not set properly and one canine tooth frames an eternally lolled tongue on the left side.
The man steps toward the altercation and looks at each of the two stevedores causing a ruckus in turn. "Davos. Ammon." The man barks as only a sergeant can. "Your orders were to play cards and smack the shit out of anyone we do business with, so why aren't you smacking anyone?" The man's voice makes it clear he views himself as the superior of Davos and Ammon.
"We weren't ordered to play cards and smack people, Leon." Davos spends more time looking at Leon's chestdog than Leon's face.
Leon keeps staring at Davos while his chestdog pants. For their part, Davos and Ammon look sheepish but still ready to throw down unless the whole room turns against them.
"Grumpy" to describe Jugg was an understatement. Jugg'r was still on the mend and hadn't seen his friends in some time. This was supposed to be their moment to catch up, throw back an amount of beer reminiscent of the great Booza-Palooza he and Thunky had battled in some time before, and revel in victories past and ahead.
And no one, the least of which these cry baby assholes, would stop that. He climbed atop a chair and said nothing. He was shirtless save for the bandages, donning only his armored kilt, ferocious beard, and filthy mohawk. He made sure they made eye contact with him. He wanted them to know he saw them and that they were about to fuck up beyond belief. The tension building was such that they should have been able to hear his Dwarfhood swinging heavily between his legs.
Jugg'rnaut of Clan Shieldcrusher, Hero of Haranshire, Dwarf of War was not happy.
The new arrival Aramil, much closer to the fray than the others, stands up to get a few steps away from the folks causing such a ruckus.
"Come on, let's end this this nonsense. Let us not end the day in this manner. Surely we can come together over drinks?"
Dalvar doesn't bother to get up. Instead, the wiry little mage raises his voice and calls, "Gentlemen, you are not in an inn. You are in the home of a loyal subject of the Count of Haranshire. It would be good manners, as well as better for your health, if you stepped outside right now. I suggest you settle your differences somewhere other than under this roof, because if blood is shed or you damage Kuiper's property, the Count will be forced to take an interest in you."
Violence is never Feruq's first inclination but something about the two men singled out by the stranger in the blue coat resonates with him. He couldn't see the initial argument through the crowd or hear anything over the din in the common room, but they look like they could be brothers and the others seem to be looking to them to make the first move.
The monk picks a path through the stragglers at the edge of the crowd and smashes the one called Davos in the chest with the flat of his palm. The man stumbles back into the crowd, with three men behind him holding the immediately unconscious brawler up; the bottle in his hand goes wide, throwing off his brother's block of the impending blow. Feruq whips his arm up to backhand Ammon in the face, containing his satisfaction at the sound of his nose disintegrating under the blow. The pair falls to the floor in a pile like a couple of marionettes without a puppeteer.
The man they were arguing with, someone Feruq recognizes from a few days ago when they dropped Jugg off here to recover, was palming the handle of a knife on his belt before his savior arrived. He nods in silent gratitude and sits back down at the card table, and the rest of the crowd disperses as if none of them were about to indulge in a riot only moments before. The Heroes and the newcomers have saved countless lives by intervening.
With the symphony of violence concluded, Leon turns to the man palming his knife handle. "Pascal my mate, Ammon's crooked nose is going to remind him of this night every time he sees himself in the river water. Davos is going to see that crooked nose every single day he goes to work and remember that you fucked his wife and that's going to eat at his manhood every single day for the rest of his life. It ain't right, and it ain't fair, but you want to take that knife of yours to Blackstar and find yourself some friends that the Darrows won't want to fuck."
Leon scratches the head of his chestdog. It pants happily and breathily.
"If you want to go work for Pricilla, tell her Leon Ranellen sent you."
Pascal smiles and claps Leon on the shoulder. "It's in the past. My place is here with Kuiper, he gave me a chance when no one else would."
Thunk looks slightly disappointed that the brawl was diffused so quickly. He easily reaches down and hefts the unconscious ringleader high in the air with one hand.
Leon's attention shifts from Pascal to Thunk as Thunk is picking up Davos. "Hey there big fella, I think Davos there," Leon points to the unconscious form held in the air, "he learned his lesson. I think he wouldn't be so disagreeable as to not pay for his instruction." Leon yells into the lolling head of Davos. "Davos, lad, tell me if you don't want me to pay for a drink for your instructors." Leon waits a beat. "Alright, lad, I heard you do want me to pay for their drinks for your education." Leon nods at Thunk.
"Since Davos is paying, what do you say we put him in a chair in the corner and I go be your bar wench for a round? What are you drinking on his tab?"
Since the fighting is over and nobody Dalvar cares about has gotten hurt, the little wizard gets back to eating his supper. Conversationally, he asks Tauster, "What do you know about Priscilla Darrow? A local girl who has gone off to make something of herself in the big city, is she not?"
Thunk eyes the other man, still being held off the ground, and then looks back at Davos. He narrows his eyes, "Thunk say sleepy man get food too."
Leon nods. "Yup. Definitely. Food for all, is what I heard. What are you eating, mate?"
Leon's chestdog pants happily. Leon himself appears less positively disposed toward life.
Thunk roughly drops the man into the indicated chair. Then he brushes him off a bit and straightens his shirt before turning around to Leon. "All. Thunk eat all."
Some of the laborers in the crowd help take the unconscious man off Thunk's hands, letting him return to his bowl of stew. Tauster calls after the bargehands, "this room is for revelry! If your friends insist on taking a nap, they can rest outside." This is met with a chorus of cheers from Kuiper's staff at the wizard's table.
Turning back to Dalvar, he sits down and sighs. "Priscilla. Yes, a girl making her fortune in the big city, although only for old codger like me. She is close to twice your age, of course. The Darrows languished under her father but the latter years of the Mindwar were very good for business once Priscilla took the reins. She manages cargo between here and the royal capital."
At this, the elderly mage leans in closer but in his slightly inebriated state, his conspiratorial tones are scarcely quieter than his normal speaking voice. "Mind you, the war is over. Profit is harder to come by unless you traffic in contraband. I know she does, because some of the things I need for my research would at the very least face stiff tariffs when passing through the Queen's jurisdiction. I have no interest in paying such exorbitant fees, so the Darrow Discount is a better deal for everyone involved."
Finishing his drink, Tauster continues, "Gordrenn is a good man with good friends. I am glad to count myself among them, and Priscilla helps keep the lines of communication open for all of us."
Jugg's angry face broke into a smile, and then into full on laughter as Feruq dispatched the two with extreme prejudice. That, of course, was a mistake and he quickly bursts into winces of pain and fits of soft coughing as he makes his way off the chair.
He takes two pints and moved to Feruq's side.
"Gods above an'demons below, I've missed ye, brother." He hands the pint glass to the monk, regardless of the fact that Feruq didn't drink. The gesture was more important.
[OOC: Feruq doesn't drink, right?]
Feruq takes the glass, though finds an excuse to set it down untouched at the first opportunity. "How is it you are feeling, Jugg?" he asks, smiling for the first time since entering.
"You need to make a full recovery - I still owe you and I can't let you take my debt to your grave," Argus adds.
Jugg waves off Argus with his newly freed hand as he finished the pint in two large gulps. Though the fact that he needed to take a breath in between somewhat answered Feruq's question.
"Aye, I'm hurtin'. I'm hurtin'. But I'd be hurtin' a whole heapin hell of a lot more if it weren't fer the bandages. Who've I to thank for that? An'don't worry about me takin' anythin' to any grave, Argus. You'll definitely pay me back in good time."
Though Jugg definitely had to wrack his brain to remember what exactly Argus owed him. He wouldn't mention that part of course.
Now that the situation has been defused peacefully and Thunk is distracted with copious amounts of food, Argus makes a point of looking for the man with a dog poking out from his shirt. "I heard you say your name is Leon? What brings you to Kuiper's?"
Leon nods, extending a hand out toward Argus. "That's me, friend. I'm a longshoreman working the riverboats between here and Blackstar." He jerks a thumb toward Pascal and Ammon. "These sorry excuses for stevedores are taking the boat back."
Leon stands up straight, taking in Argus and Thunk. "I assume the big fellow is Thunk, which makes you . . ." Leon squints. His dog pants happily. "Dalvar?"
As Argus channels his inner autist and leaves mid conversation with Jugg, the dwarf picks his nose absently.