Leland will ready his club and shield and stand near Vandersrike. He signals Raksha and Horace to his side, as well.
As the party begins to show signs of nervousness, a voice calls out, "Alright, I can see that you know I'm here. I'm going to come out, nice and slow, and in return you'll refrain from shooting at me. Instead you can introduce yourselves and explain what you're doing in that mudhole." There's a brief pause, and the hidden speaker probes, "Sound fair?"
Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold
Vandersrike considers his words.
"Your proposal sounds fair." He flicks some viscera off his left claws and into the water.
The speaker steps out from behind the tree he'd been using as cover. It's little wonder he was able to get at least somewhat close before being noticed, as the colors of his clothing are all earth tones and muted greens, as is the paint on the shield he carries on one arm. He is well armed, but keeps his hands clear of his blades in an exaggerated way. He is half-elven, if his eyes and ears are any indication, and wears a short but shaggy beard that matches the worn appearance of his clothing.
He spends a moment taking in the scene, looking suitably impressed when his eyes fall on the largest of the slain slitherwebs. His mouth quirks downward when he sees the eggs. "Are those what I think they are?" he asks, indicating the eggs.
The kobold puts his claws on his hips. "That depends on who you are and why you're here. Would you be so kind as to indulge us?"
The kobold steps out from the expanding circle of horse remains and toward the newcomer.
"Armund," says the newcomer by way of introduction. His eyes don't immediately leave the eggs and when they do, it appears like he's shrugged off a daydream. "Apologies. I've just never seen the eggs before. I never knew whether they gave live birth or not, the foul things. Honestly, I was just happening by and heard what must have been your fight. Sound carries out here in the march."
Vandersrike nods. "I am Vandersrike, Armund. I came here at the bequest of the marchioness, along with my colleagues. Why did you come here, Armund? Are you familiar with these monstrosities?"
Henrik takes a look at the newcomer, then continues his probing of the deepest parts of the pond. This 'Armund' will have a few minutes to prepare himself for the experience of a nude dwarf issuing forth from the slimy pool.
"Ah, then you're here for Dilmer," says Armund, comprehension dawning on his face. "That makes sense. The wera'hl-pub aren't new, specifically, but their local activity has been much on the rise recently. Dilmer would be interested in that."
Armund chuckles lightly. "I occasionally let Dilmer employ me. I wish I'd thought to approach him first. I bet he'd have given me a ham, at least. But he'd have wanted me to bring him a body, and though there's much, much worse in this marsh..." He indicates the corpse of the large slitherweb. "...that might be beyond me and mine. Good job bringing it down, by the way."
He looks around briefly, his eyes falling on Joe's body, but moving on quickly. "Is anyone seriously hurt?"
By this time, Kisasi and his brother have helped the others load the largest of the slitherwebs onto the litter. He has just now hoisted Joe's corpse up onto the rump of the elf's horse and wipes the sweat from his brow. The hobgoblin takes a swig from his waterskin and arches an eyebrow as the newcomer emerges from the brush, but says nothing. Instead he lifts the blanket up off of Joe's body and regards the human's face for a moment, standing in silence with the dead while the others talk to the newcomer.
Finally, he stows the waterskin and drops the flap back over the dead body. The paladin stoops to gather his shield and nods to the half-elf. "If we turn around right now and return to the keep without further incident, the rest of us should survive," he offers, strapping the shield to his arm. "But our leader raises a good question. If you aren't here hunting abominations, are you lost? What are you doing out here by yourself?"
"Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats." - H.L. Mencken
"I live out here, most days," says Armund. "It doesn't have some of the same amenities as Grimilon Keep, maybe... but what it lacks, it makes up for in peace and quiet. And it gives me the option of exterminating the unnatural aberrations on my own schedule and in my own way. I do still work for him from time to time, but Dilmer just wants to study and know. The the roads are safer for the removal of his subjects is of secondary concern to him. I would just like to see these aberrant beasts gone."
Vandersrike is intrigued.
"What methodology do you use, Armund? I assume you do not confront them directly."
Vandersrike begins to look towards Joe's body, but stops himself.
"My kind of man!" Henrik declares, unaware of the implicit threat his nudity creates.
"Ambushes or the occasional simple trap, usually," says Armund. "Tracking them is usually pretty easy here in the marsh, but I won't usually confront anything stronger than myself unless it's weak or trapped. I've seen firsthand just how surprisingly brutal the unnatural can be."
Kisasi furrows his brow when the man says he "lives out here," but says nothing. He seems satisfied with what the ranger is saying and smiles and nods. "Well. If you want to come back with us, we won't refuse a local guide."
"I would be curious about any findings Dilmer makes about the wera'hl-pub," admits Armund. "And I have little else going on at the moment."
Armund seems to consider for a moment before nodding to himself. He follows this up with two short, high-pitched whistles. "Sally, come!" he says sharply. From behind the tree where the half-elf originated from bounds a creature too large to be mistaken for a common dog. The wolf's fur runs the gamut of white, grey and almost black. She walks directly to Armund and sits at his feet. "Would you like to go see Dilmer and Dorn?" he asks the wolf rhetorically. For her own part, Sally simply yawns.
"Didn't think I'd ever meet someone who didn't come back to the keep because they decided living in this swamp is an improvement. Where do you even find a decent drink out here?" Kaarys says with a smile. Nodding towards the giant dead slitherweb, he adds "At least the company out here is more lively than the marchioness."
Satisfied that he has finished searching the pool, Henrik returns to the shore. His wet beard and substantial body hair don't hide quite enough. Before dressing he crushes the remaining eggs into jelly and washes as best he can in the muddy water. Once that is done, he dons his armor.
Untying the rope from his horse and coiling it back to put away, Swarbrick comments, "I can never unsee what horrors I've seen. The slitherweb was pretty awful as well."
Vandersrike takes an egg and takes a very small bite.
Armund manages not to look too uncomfortable while the kobold eats. "'Slitherweb?'" he says. "Huh. I like that."
Vandersrike begins gagging almost as soon as the egg makes contact with his tongue, but the agony doesn't really begin until after his nose gets involved in the show. He spends the next several minutes being violently ill into the nearby bushes, continuing long past the point when his stomach is empty and his throat sore from the acidity of his spew.
The only good thing about the experience is that he's not suffering diarrhea to go with his emesis.
"We should collect some of my bile for the gnome. Does anyone have a spare canteen?"
Swarbrick rolls his eyes at the kobold antics, "I think we've spent enough time collecting samples. Let's head out before your butchering brings more predators to the area. As much fun as this outing has been, I'm looking forward to getting paid and spending the rest of the evening drinking in an attempt to erase all memory of what I've just seen.
Vandersrike narrows his eyes at Swarbrick's response. The kobold returns to his pack, drinks the remainder of the water, and returns to the scene of his experiment to gather the evidence.
"Armund, you and Kisasi are on point. We'll need to go around the fae. Let's do a good enough job bringing the gnome his toys that he doesn't need to send out a second expedition to get themselves killed." He seals the cap on the canteen.
"Tribesman Henrik, if your feet smell like what I just ate, I think it prudent that you take the rearguard."
"As you wish, but I'd bet the smell of these creatures will drive off anything that a slitherweb could eat - which probably includes some things that can eat us." Henrik is unusually cheerful, probably owing to the naked dwarf figurine he is carrying as his personal share of the treasure.
Leland shows visible relief that most of the eggs have been destroyed and nods a friendly greeting to the newcomer. "Well met," says the druid, and he waves to the man's wolf. "Well, Raksha," he says to his own, "You'll not be alone, at least."
Late Afternoon, 17 Imogen, 973 IRSomewhere in the eastern marchZeno, Enteria
After a bit more discussion and work, you collectively decide that you're ready to start your trip back to the keep. Several of the woodsmen in your company agree on an approximate route, with the strange newcomer, Armund, providing insight into some of the local hazards that might be best avoided, and you begin the trek.
Almost as soon as you start to travel, rain begins to fall on you. This is somewhat uncomfortable, because it's wet and chilly, but not as bad as it might be because many of you were already somewhat soggy just as the natural outcome of having walked through a swampy forest for several hours. And the downpour soon helps to wash the stench of the slitherwebs off of both your grisly trophy and Henrik's body.
Even less pleasantly, a hailstorm begins about an hour after the rain sets in. This, too, is uncomfortable, although the pea-sized hailstones don't actually do you any injury beyond stinging your faces and heads. The noise is an annoyance that makes it harder for you to hear what happens around you. But worst of all, the hail begins to pile up, becoming an obstacle to travel that slows your progress. The hailstorm ends after less than half an hour, but the damage is done; Swarbrick, Leland, and Armund revise an extra hour onto your itinerary because of the delay. You continue, doggedly, through the woods.
By this time you're all feeling tired, but the livestock are suffering. In particular, Kisasi's and Gazini's mounts look like they're ready to drop.
Kisasi raises a hand to call for a halt and eases his mount to a full stop. He takes off his helmet and sighs. "My steed can't take any more of this, certainly not four hours of it. It would seem fatigue has forced our hand."
Night, 17 Imogen, 973 IRGrimilon KeepZeno, Enteria
After Kisasi suggests a halt, Henrik, Leland, and Armund put their heads together, and break out of their meeting resolved to use a little magic to help move things along in aid of not having to spend a night in the open. Curative spells are dispensed until all concerned feel secure in the belief that none of the livestock will founder, the horses are switched out for Swarbrick's and Kaarys's slightly fresher mounts, and then Leland and Armund spend some time urging the tired beasts on to one last effort.
About an hour and a half later, you arrive at the front gates of the keep, where some hammering on a barred portal finally gets the attention of the guard team on duty in the gatehouse. They open up, making disgusted noises as the odor of your trophy permeates the courtyard and worms its way into the gatehouse for them to enjoy.
Still. You're home, and an unfortunate servant is pressed into service on his way back from the privy and ordered to tell Dorn and Dilmer that you've returned. The other guards seem more interested in getting back into the gatehouse, where they can avoid smelling the slitherweb's carcass and probably get back playing dice. So while you wait, you've got a little bit of privacy.
Vandersrike visibly relaxes upon making it through the gatehouse.
"Tribesman Henrik, you have your statue. Are we liquidating the remainder of the bounty?"
"Surely that's best. I didn't swear any oaths to the marchioness so I don't know if she has any claim to it, but I'm not willing to risk getting executed by some 'noble' for violating a rule that is only enforced by killing those unfortunate enough to break it. I'm not sure of the value of the statue, but if she wants me to pay her for it, I can."
Vandersrike shakes his head.
"You went into the water when no one else would. That's your statue. I'm asking about the remainder - are we selling it or is there anything anyone would like to keep?"
"Surely she cannot claim first right to Joe's possessions. That might be a good place to start if anyone needs any of the gear he brought with him."
Swarbrick looks at the soggy pile, "I'd suggest we have someone divine whether or not some of this is something other than what it looks before we trade it for coins, drinks, and whores. Likely we should look at the statue as well."
"And she has no claim over any of this. This is adventurer's findings and part of our compensation. I work for the gnome and what we find, we keep."
Kaarys nods. "Yeah, the pilfered loot is ours to keep. We should get that ::points at the slitherweb:: to Dilmer's workspace as quickly as possible, though, or the whole courtyard will reek for a week. And the eggs. Did anyone think to remember where that pond was? There's going to be a lot more slitherwebs in that area soon if any remaining eggs aren't dealt with."
"I remember well," says Armund. "If Dilmer wants, I can take he or his back there. I'll be going back there myself, if he does not. Already too many of those foul things out there as it is."
"By yourself? Great plan. I'm sure you'll kill all of them. I suppose we should havr just given you another hour and we wouldn't of had to lift a finger and Joe would still be alive. Or you could join up with us and actually have a chance to kill these kinds of beasties, but I doubt slitherweb is going to on the menu for a while yet." Henrik adds to no one in particular, "who do I need to smwll me to get the servants to work drawing a bath?"
Vandersrike says nothing. However, even his reptilian features make it clear that his thoughts are in alignment with Henrik.
"That isn't what he said, Henrik. But for my part, I agree - Armund's aid likely saved lives today. I will ride with you anyway," he offers, turning to the half-elf and extending his arm.
As the hobgoblin pledges his help to Armund's future endeavors to cleanse the hatchery pool, Dilmer shows up, breathless as if he may have run or jogged part of the way. He pauses when he sees Johten's corpse, looking regretful, but he says nothing about it except, "I know it happens, but I wish it didn't."
Shaking himself out of his funk, he continues, "Show me what you have. Tell me what you saw."
He pauses again when he spots Armund, looking surprised. "Didn't expect to see you again this soon. Keeping well, Armund? Did your supplies spoil, or something?"
"Armund showed up just in time to save our bacon, Dilmer," Kisasi offers, stroking his horse's mane. "The beasts would not have made the trip home without his guidance."
Dilmer looks a bit surprised, "Blind luck, eh? Well, I'd rather be lucky than good anyway. Thank you for stepping in, Armund." He bustles over to the slitherweb, and observes, "Big one. I didn't know they got to be so large." As the smell hits him, he wrinkles his nose, and adds, "Didn't know they smelled quite so bad, either. My word, those eyewitness accounts weren't an exaggeration at all! You lads deserve a little something extra for putting up with this reek all the way home."
Releasing Kisasi's hand, Armund turns to take in Dilmer. "I just saw an opportunity to help," he says. "Though my importance here is overstated. I just helped them get home. The situation was so familiar, it was the least I could do."
Kaarys says, "We'd love to tell you what we saw, Dilmer, but even more so, we'd love a bath and a drink. And to be away from this smell."
Cheerfully, Dilmer agrees, "I don't blame you. Best if you get on with story time."
As he speaks, Dorn enters the outer bailey through one of the gates leading into the inner bailey. Unlike Dilmer, he seems perfectly composed, so it's unlikely that the half-orc ran to get to you. But he couldn't have wasted any time, either. His gaze takes in the scene, including Johten's and the slitherweb's corpses, and then settles unerringly on Vandersrike.
He rumbles, "It looks like you boys had a relatively successful hunt. Too bad about Ward. He was looking like he was going to turn out well." Like Dilmer, he grimaces in distaste as he catches wind of the corpse's scent. But maybe he's a little more sensible; he backs away until he can't smell the thing any longer, and then beckons. "Come stand away from the stink of that thing, and let's get this debriefing over with. I'm sure you'd like to get cleaned up and fed."
Vandersrike nods. He walks away from the fetid corpse, silently.
Henrik moves closer as well, hoping the rain was enough to keep the stench from moving with him to bother anyone.
Swarbrick moves as well, looking impatiently at the kobold to give his report.