In the morning, everyone arose creaky and still tired. Sleeping on the ground--or whatever bits of floor were convenient--was beginning to pall.
La’ss’a confronted the ogre immediately. “So. Lead on to this stronghold.” The huge, hairy monstrosity hung its heavy head glumly and led them back onto the road. Barak trotted to keep up with its length strides.
“So, did you do any thinking about your life last night?”
The ogre blinked at him, perplexed. “No. I sleep last night.”
Undeterred, Barak persisted. “So what do you think will happen to you in the next day or so?”
It shrugged. “I dunno.”
Fa’ss’th joined in, “What will your former leader do once it finds out you led us here?”
“I think hobgoblins kill you, but that not my problem,” it fell silent, its expression dull. After another eight hours of hiking they came to a sharp bend in the road where a massive dead tree crouched ominously. The ogre shoved aside some underbrush, revealing a hole that led under the tree and opened onto a narrow track.
Olena looked up at the ogre. “Does this path lead to the stronghold?”
The ogre’s massive brow furrowed. “I dunno, maybe tree, fo’ miles.”
Kyrian grinned and whispered to Olena, “He’s thought of something! The first time is always the hardest!” Olena gave him a black look and shushed him emphatically. The ogre frowned down at her brother.
“Are you makin’ fun of me?”
“Oh, no! Of course not!” Kyrian announced cheerfully. Olena jabbed him in the ribcage with her elbow and waved to get the ogre’s attention.
“What else can you tell us about the stronghold?” She demanded.
Fa’ss’th nodded. “Any traps or passwords we need to know?”
“Dum . . . ‘don’t kill me, don’t kill me’?” It contemplated the hole under the tree for a few moments. “Path goes around pond to rocks, hobgoblins watch there.”
Sam nodded briskly. “Give me five minutes, then follow,” he said, and vanished into the hole. He surveyed the lay of the land on the other side. A narrow trail skirted a wide scummy pond—perhaps more accurately called a bog—and passed a few scraggly trees before disappearing into some rocks. At the top of a stony ridge beyond the pond there was an enormous round pile of earth surrounded by a palisade. Smoke issued from holes in the top of the mound, which resembled the kind of ancient barrow where primitive people buried their kings. There was an entrance to this mound behind the log palisade, looking much like the entrance to a mineshaft. Sam nodded and began making his way around the pond.
The others waited impatiently, exchanging a lot of glances and weary sighs. Finally, they came to a wordless, fidgety agreement that they’d waited long enough. “So, what should we do with the ogre now?” Kyrian asked.
Oren looked at the hole a bit nervously, then at his warhorse. “I will stay here, if you wish, and await events.”
Kyrian nodded. “Sounds good to me.”
They clambered awkwardly between the dead tree roots. Sam had vanished, but they could see a few faint tracks on the muddy verge; it looked like he had skirted the pond and climbed a ridge on the far side to, perhaps, come up behind the hobgoblin sentries. La’ss’a squinted and thought she could see the sentries in the rocks; they didn’t seem too concerned with hiding, but they were in their own territory.
“Let’s walk up normally. It will give Sam the best chance for a surprise attack,” La’ss’a decided.
“Agreed,” Olena nodded.
Barak looked back at the ogre. “Now, you wait here for us. You’ll want to be on our good side if we come back, and well, if we don’t you can say you were coming to help the hobgoblins.” It looked extremely perplexed, but nodded slowly. “Good. We can work on your world view some more when we get back.”
The sentries spotted the group approaching in short order and raised a shout. One bellowed down towards the adventurers, but it was incomprehensible. The hobgoblins were well-armed with crossbows and swords, but they didn’t seem inclined to fire just yet.
La’ss’a approached slowly, holding her hands up. “Do you speak Common?” There was a brief pause while the hobs conferred, then one stepped out. Unlike the others, who were dressed in odd bits of metal and leather, he wore a proper suit of chain mail and carried a shield. He looked a bit like a sergeant.
“Sort of. Who’re you?”
“I am La’ss’a, and I hear you know a friend of mine.”
“A friend of yours?”
“Yes. We’ve come to speak with a lady you have kidnapped.” One of the hobgoblin sentries suddenly vanished. Fa’ss’th and Kyrian smirked at each other silently. La’ss’a noticed one of the other hobs starting to look around and cleared her throat noisily, baring her teeth to get its attention.
The hob sergeant continued speaking, a smirk on his face. “No ‘ladies’ around here.”
“We know you have a female human,” La’ss’a remonstrated mildly. “At least, we found the remains of your attack on her house and tracked you here. I’m sure we can arrange some sort of . . . compensation . . . if we are permitted to speak with her.”
“That so? Well, maybe we’ll let you talk with our boss, then. What kind of compensation are we talking about here?”
Another hobgoblin shrieked. “What the . . . something bit me!” It put a hand to its back and gaped at the bloody mess. The sergeant glared at him in disgust; all five sentries drew swords and began scanning the rocks.
“You people stay here and behave,” the sergeant ordered them harshly.
“But I have my offer ready,” La’ss’a objected, and raising her claws she launched herself into the sergeant’s stomach. They heard more scuffling in the rocks as Sam continued his surreptitious attack.
La’ss’a scratched futilely at the hob sergeant’s armor, growling. Kyrian darted forward and slammed his sword into the sergeant’s shoulder, causing a nasty wound. Within moments the melee had become general. Fa’ss’th covered himself as best he could while casting a spell: tongues of fire leapt at his command to bathe two of the hobgoblins. Barak fired energy beams into the melee, scorching a few rocks but otherwise not having any appreciable effect. Olena and Kyrian hacked and slashed mercilessly.
The sergeant attempted to retreat back to the stronghold, taking a thrown soul blade from Sam but somehow managing to remain on his feet. La’ss’a charged up the path, power crackling from her claws and managed to drop the sergeant before he could escape the rocks. She looked over her shoulder to see Sam, grinning insouciantly. The blond human pointed up the hill.
“You hear that?”
La’ss’a listened. “Hear what?”
“Hey guys!” Sam yelled. “I think we’re about to have company!” The adventurers looked at each other, then as one charged into the rocks, taking up whatever hiding places were available. Sam grabbed Barak and tried to make the academic take cover, but Barak was concentrating on a power and only crouched down a little.
A large group of hobgoblins issued from the barrow entrance and fanned out to take defensive positions behind the palisade. Finally, when there were at least twenty of them crouching behind the logs, a dozen of them broke off and began making their way down the trail. In the lead was an individual of massive size in a suit of fine chain mail, the hilt of a fancy sword banging his hip. He stopped to survey the carnage. Then, he began to laugh.
“You may as well come out, I can see at least one of you.” He waited for a moment, then shrugged. “As a matter of fact, I’ve rather been expecting the lot of you. So come out, let’s have a look at you.”
Barak stood up, defiantly, electricity crackling off his fingers as his power dissipated. He tried to put on a brave face, but he looked more awkward than anything. After a moment Olena and Fa’ss’th emerged from hiding as well. A dozen crossbows pointed at them, but the big hob waved them away.
“Surprising. You don’t look like much, but you took down a full squad. I’m Magsaid, the big boss hob of this fort.” He bowed rather extravagantly.
Olena blinked, startled. “Well met, Magsaid. I am Olena.”
Magsaid grinned widely, showing a great many sharp teeth. “Charmed, madame.”
“I am Fa’ss’th. We did try to negotiate with your guards, but they didn’t listen so well.”
“Hmm. Well, it’s no great loss. If you and your . . . friends are interested, you are welcome to join us for a meal. I think we all have some matters to discuss.”
“What matters?” Fa’ss’th asked.
Magsaid considered. “Perhaps you can tell me. You see, we’ve had forewarning of your arrival, and from an unusual source. Tell me, do you understand the nature of prophecy?”
Olena shook her head. “Not I. My people are more creatures of the here and now. Still, such talk intrigues me.”
“In my experience prophecy depends on who reads it and how it is interpreted,” Fa’ss’th replied.
Magsaid’s grin widened slightly. “We have a small temple here, and our cleric is rather in favor. Sometimes he knows but cannot explain why. He knew you would come, and he knew that we must assist you, somehow. This is the God’s will.”
“He saw us?” Olena asked skeptically.
“Not you specifically, but there were signs we could use to identify you. So, you see, I am very interested in discovering what brings you here.”
Barak blinked. “Signs? What signs?”
Magsaid gestured at the corpses. “Your prowess in battle, for one.”
“If my companions agree, I’d be happy to partake of your hospitality,” Olena said.
Fa’ss’th stepped back a bit. “I’d like to see an act of good faith here . . . all those crossbows put aside along with whatever additional weapons they carry.”
The boss hob shook his head. “No. They will remain here to take care of the mess, but they will not disarm. You have done well, but I do not think you can fight all of us, and I will not be ordered about in my own stronghold. If I allowed such, I would not remain boss for long.”
Sam considered the proposal from his hiding place, tossing his ephemeral blade from one hand to the other. Finally, he decided and stood.
“All right,” Fa’ss’th said grudgingly, eyeing Sam. “We will come. Lead on.”
“I was feeling a little hungry anyway,” Sam said by way of explanation. His eyes narrowed. “But I’m still not the trusting sort.”
“I don’t think trust has any place in our relationship,” Magsaid replied. The soldiers began shipping their crossbows and hauling the bodies away. Magsaid led the adventurers into the stronghold. Inside it was dark but pleasantly cool. They passed a guardroom and entered into a wide earthen chamber illuminated by a few torches. The room was carved from the earth and buttressed with crude beams, but the dirt floor was covered with clean rushes and the food on the heavy wooden tables smelled appetizing. At the far end of the room was a raised platform supporting a wooden throne draped with animal hides; Magsaid sat down in this chair, resting his feet on the head of a bear as though it were a footstool. Grabbing a haunch of meat from a nearby table, he bit in and began chewing with gusto.
Two other hobgoblins entered the room: one a tall female laced into an elegant lady’s dress, the portions of her anatomy that she obviously considered significant squeezed and lifted into prominence. The other was a second abnormally large male hob in a coal-black spiked breastplate. He carried a black spiked shield and a morningstar as well and appeared formidable. One of his eyes was cut through by a pale scar; it had turned white and milky and gave him an evil look.
“Come, sit, eat. Tell me your concerns,” Magsaid called, gesturing to the tables. “These are my advisors: Lorthane”—he indicated the female—“and Evergh,” he indicated the black-armored male. Lorthane sneered imperiously and Evergh nodded.
The adventurers made themselves more or less comfortable. Sam helped himself to a slab of meat while Barak eyed the food a bit and looked ill. La’ss’a and Fa’ss’th nibbled daintily, using their sharp teeth to good effect. Olena took an apple to show willing and Kyrian harrumphed at her.
“We’ve come to speak with a certain human female you recently acquired,” Fa’ss’th said at last.
“Well, it is true we have recently acquired a human female.”
“Yes,” Lorthane all but hissed. “In a successful raid.”
“Will you allow us to speak with her?” Fa’ss’th asked.
“That would depend on your reasons for speaking with her.”
“We have news of her family and wish to ask her some questions.”
Magsaid regarded the little lizard in disbelief, then burst out laughing. “You came all the way out here, past mortal peril, for that?”
Sam looked up, still chewing. “We’re close friends of the family.”
“It was faster to come here than go home,” Kyrian affirmed.
“So then, after you speak with her, you just go on your merry way?”
“Well, no, not exactly,” Sam spat out.
“If you do us this service, Magsaid, then we will be in your debt,” Olena murmured.
The boss hob chuckled some more. “I like you folks. You’re nearly as crazy as I am.” Lorthane snarled something at him in incomprehensible Goblin. Magsaid simply smiled at her and took another bite, leaning back in his throne. After a moment he belched hugely. “She thinks I should have you all killed, but she is a bloodthirsty one.”
Barak concentrated on a power.
Fa’ss’th tried to switch tacks. “Well, maybe if you shared some of the prophecy you spoke of, we might be willing to share more of our knowledge.”
“That is for Evergh to say. Evergh?” The black-armored hob made a complicated gesture. Magsaid grinned some more. “He says you will be the source of events that will rock the foundations of Faerun and pave the way for a new order. The God believes he will enjoy great new opportunities if you succeed.”
Kyrian stopped mid-bite. Lorthane snarled something angry again. To break the silence, Fa’ss’th coughed. “Forgive my manners. Could you have a messenger deliver this note to the guards down by the dead tree?” The lizard wizard dug out a piece of paper and began scribbling.
“Certainly. Lorthane, dearest, fetch a messenger, will you?” The female hob swelled visibly with outrage, then turned and swept from the room.
“So, are there any details on how this foundation-rocking will occur?”
Evergh gestured some more. “He doesn’t know. The God is big on obedience, not persuading with lots of details and reasoned arguments.”
“So we just wander off and wind up changing the world?” Barak asked, bewildered.
“I don’t pretend to know. But stranger things have happened.” Magsaid leaned forward a bit. “I believe I will allow you to visit your pet female. Perhaps we will all learn something interesting.” He kicked aside a fur rug in front of his throne, revealing a trapdoor. Evergh bent and opened it.
“All right, then,” Barak said, “Let’s go talk.”
“Evergh will lead you, so you will not think we are laying a trap.” Evergh climbed ponderously down the ladder beneath the trapdoor. Setting aside their food, the adventurers rose and followed him. It was very dark below; the floor was stone and the air smelled of damp. They could hear water trickling somewhere nearby. Olena dug out a sunrod and sparked it, shedding a warm golden glow over the cave. Barak and Sam pulled glowing stones from their pockets. The room they stood in appeared to be used for storage; it was filled with barrels, casks and sacks.
Evergh led them through the piles of goods and through several more chambers. One appeared to be an armory, one in which four guards played quietly played dice, and another that seemed full of iron strongboxes. He gestured for them to continue into yet another room.
* * *
“So let me see if I understand this,” Demaris said to one of her co-prisoners. “You let on that you had special ways of knowing things, then you went back to your quarters one night and boom, you had a bag over your head? I wouldn’t have expected that much subtlety out of that cretin.”
“So you know Sulveig?” Yorik asked.
“In a sense. He had to come brag over me when the hobs brought me in. He said he was ‘too busy’ to deal with me now, but if I wasn’t prepared to cooperated by the time he returned, I’d regret it. I think he’s off attacking Athkatla or something. I don’t know what he thinks he can do that will get the ogres into that city, but he seemed pretty sure of himself.”
“In my experience, he’s either working with the Shadow Thieves, or he will be crushed by them.”
“What Shadow Thieves?”
“It is the local thieves guild, except it is the only guild. They are intertwined with every facet of life in Amn. Nothing happens without their knowledge, and they are equally certain to have a stake in the matter as well.”
“Never heard of them. I think the ogres want Athkatla so they can control the trade from Maztica.” Demaris sighed.
“I can understand that. I have seen some of the trinkets and baubles that come through the trade markets. It is genuinely a land of wonder and opportunity.”
“The three of us are in a pretty lousy mess here. I don’t think anyone will even notice I’m gone or think to look for me.”
“Trust in Yorik, my skills are always in demand, and I haven’t found a situation yet I couldn’t get out of . . . or profit from. Somehow.”
Demaris shook her head. “I’m just going to kill that bastard. The rest can take care of itself.”
Yorik looked at her appraisingly. “You are going to kill a man with an army of ogres at his command? That is, well, ambitious, don’t you think?”
“It’s that or let him do whatever he wants with me. And granted what he’s threatened to do, I prefer to adopt a positive outlook.”
“Given that I don’t see a lot of big magical weapons hanging about here, I hope you won’t mind my skepticism about your chances. Might it not be better to work with him, learn his secrets before killing him?”
Demaris grimaced. She glanced at the ceiling. “What is that noise? Are they having a war up there?” She tugged angrily on the chain securing her to the wall.
Yorik made a show of listening. He thought he could make out the sound of many booted feet running above. “They’re certainly moving around a lot. I don’t suppose your bastard indicated when he would be returning?”
“No, they only brought me here yesterday, though. I’d be amazed if it was this soon.”
“Perhaps this is a rescue, then.”
Demaris snorted. “Not a chance.”
Ligeia, the third prisoner, stretched slightly and adopted an expression of studied boredom. Every so often, though, her eyes would flick towards Yorik and Demaris, following their conversation.
“Then why exactly are you here?” Yorik persisted. He smiled disarmingly. “I very much doubt a simple farmer with no friends would be of so much interest to the leader of a conquering army. I wouldn’t be Yorik, Knower of Things™, if I didn’t think there was something you weren’t telling me.”
“The only people that might be vaguely interested in my welfare haven’t seen me for months. I can’t imagine they’d just coincidentally show up at this moment and decide to go looking for me.” She scowled at Yorik, beginning to grow angry.
“My dear lady, I have a rule of thumb I set for myself: coincidences are never coincidences. Perhaps you are not aware of the significance of something you know, but our captor is? It is always the smallest piece of the puzzle that is most difficult to fit.”
Demaris gritted her teeth audibly. “My . . . father . . . trains people with . . . odd abilities.” She spoke as though every word were wrenched from the pit of her stomach with great difficulty.
Yorik patted her shoulder soothingly. “Odd abilities? You aren’t talking about a mage, I gather?”
She snorted. “No. This plane is lousy with mages, I wouldn’t exactly call them odd. Except maybe odd in the head.”
“And do you have some of these abilities?”
Demaris laughed bitterly. “No. Never.” Ligeia watched her as though mesmerized, abandoning the bored pretext. “Even if I could learn it, I wouldn’t.”
“Why wouldn’t you want to learn it? Would it not make you more powerful?”
Her face stiffened. “Powerful? Oh, yes, I could be very powerful.”
“Ah, then I admire your tremendous courage and resolve . . . rare are the beings who could refuse such power,” Yorik said smoothly.
“And stupid are the beings that don’t,” Demaris retorted.
“When you say odd,” Ligeia piped up, her voice soft, “what is that?”
“Psionics,” Demaris announced bluntly. “Mind powers. Uncommon on this plane from what I’ve seen. Sulveig uses them, some of his followers do as well. I find it absurd, but there you go. Most people who have the power can’t get trained here and aren’t smart enough to teach themselves. So, they never discover their ability.”
“And you and your father trained such people?”
“No. Just my father.”
“You disapproved then?”
“It doesn’t matter much whether I approved or not now, does it?”
“It’s as I was saying, you never know where you might find that last critical piece of the puzzle. Do you think you are here as a way for Sulveig to get at your father?”
“Hah, much good that’ll do him. I haven’t spoken with the old man in years.”
“A father will do much to protect his daughter, even when their relationship is . . . strained. Might Sulveig be trying to acquire more soldiers for his army? Would your father’s students do such a thing?”
“To be honest, I don’t know. I think maybe Sulveig is one of my father’s students.”
“Oh dear, has he perhaps gone down the path to the dark side?”
“The dark side? That’s a bit melodramatic, isn’t it?”
Yorik gave a rueful smile. “Alas, I am just a merchant, and not the great actor of my childhood dreams. I cannot be anything but transparently melodramatic.”
“Let me put it this way: I think Sulveig has gone so far down the path to the dark side that he’s fallen off the end.”
“I can see this must be a difficult subject for you, but I suspect you saw this coming? You did not want your father to teach these students for fear of what could happen?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” Demaris said wearily. “If people want to learn, that’s their business. I just wanted . . . I just wanted him to leave me alone.”
“He wanted you to learn something? To develop some of these abilities?”
“I . . . sort of. It was like he expected me to be something special.”
“The fact that you are here, a prisoner, means you are special somehow. You won’t like it, but sometimes we cannot choose not to be special. Sometimes that decision is made for us.”
Demaris shook her head. “I think everyone can choose. We just have to decide whether or not we can live with the consequences.”
“Sometimes you have to choose to be special to get out of situations like this,” Yorik said, shaking his chain suggestively.
Demaris sighed. Reaching down into her boot, she withdrew a very thin sliver of greenish metal. “I was saving this, but we may as well give it a shot.” Wedging her chained foot against the wall, she applied the metal sliver to the iron cuff. She strained at it for a long moment, then gasped as her grip slipped and the sliver gashed her foot badly. The metal cuff fell off and clanged on the floor. “Dammit!”
Yorik rushed over to her and began fussing over her foot. “Here, stop that,” Demaris said angrily. She handed him the metal sliver. “It’s adamantine, it can cut through most anything, but it’s a small piece so you have to be careful. Do your cuff, I’ll take care of my foot.” She ripped off her sleeve and began wrapping it like a bandage with practiced hands.
Yorik turned away and busied himself for a few moments; the cuff came off his foot easily and he handed the adamantine sliver to Ligeia. The quiet woman freed herself with similar ease, avoiding another injury. She glanced up at the exit, hearing voices and seeing a light approaching.
“Quick,” Ligeia instructed, “put the cuffs back on.”
* * *
Sam stepped past Evergh and looked into the next room. There were three people chained to the wall: two women and one man. He thought one of the woman looked a bit familiar . . . he’d last seen her wearing a straw hat. At least, until she turned into an ogre mage. The man was utterly nondescript; pudgy, middle-aged, but with a cheerful, friendly expression. The other woman was obviously not human. Her flowing hair was dark blue and her slender athletic body was draped against the wall like an odalisque.
“Ahh, our captors at last! Come to do your worst?” The man piped up. A hideous shriek rattled the room, coming from a wide opening in the far side of the crude prison. “I assure you, you will not have to spill any blood to get me to scream like that!”
“Demaris?” Fa’ss’th demanded, poking his snout around Sam’s waist.
“What the hell?” Demaris demanded.
“Um, this may sound odd in the current circumstances,” Sam said, “But I have bad news for you.” Demaris gaped at him.
“You have bad news?! Tell me, is it worse than being kidnapped by hobgoblins and given to a madman for sport?”
La’ss’a sidled towards the other captives. “We’re not here to hurt you, be patient,” she whispered.
Sam cleared his throat a bit anxiously. “Your father lies near death, unable to awaken. One of his previous students thought it best that you take possession of his estate.”
“Oh, that’s just wonderful! That’s just what I need right at this very moment! A house in the country!” Demaris hurled herself to her feet and presented an angry finger for Sam’s inspection. The cuff around her foot clanged on the floor and she realized what she’d done. “Dammit!” she yelled, and taking advantage of the distraction, she slugged Sam hard in the gut and ducked around him into the far room.
A black-mailed arm shot out and snagged her. Evergh backhanded Demaris impersonally across the face as she attempted to bite him, leaving a bright red mark. She lolled against his grip, barely conscious.
Sam pulled himself together and tapped his obsidian blade thoughtfully against his leg, eyeing Evergh fiercely.
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