Sam approached the hobgoblin cleric, a friendly, disarming smile on his face. Evergh regarded the blond human coldly while maintaining his grip on Demaris, who was starting to struggle again. “Here, let me take that,” Sam said, grabbing a fistful of Demaris’ shirt while simultaneously delivering a snap kick to the side of Evergh’s knee. The hobgoblin grunted in pain and stumbled back, releasing the woman. Demaris stumbled to her knees, choking a bit as the collar of her shirt tightened around her throat.
Sam cut deeply across her shoulder with his soul blade and she cried out in pain. “That’s for punching me. Don’t do it again,” he said, hauling her to her feet and shoving her back into the prison chamber. The others watched the exchange in silence.
Then there was a loud metallic screech. The portcullis that had previously separated the prison chamber from the next chamber winched slowly upwards. Sam turned to look behind him and saw Evergh smile faintly before the hobgoblin made a mystic gesture. Everyone watched, horrified, as Sam screamed in agony and collapsed.
“Sam!” Barak yelled and moved forward to assist his friend. He managed only a single step before a hideous monstrosity burst from behind the raised portcullis. It was shaped roughly like a scorpion, if scorpions had stone plates for armor, legs that ended in blades of blue crystal, and a lamprey’s mouth in place of a stinger. Its mandibles opened and hideous purple tentacles flopped out of its maw.
The creature’s tail-mouth opened and issued a terrible multi-toned keen; the air rippled as an unseen force passed through it, striking Barak in the chest and blasting him off his feet. He skidded across the stone floor and was still. Humming to itself, the creature regarded the other people in the room, its mandibles clicking ominously.
La’ss’a was first to react, leaping onto the beast’s back and clawing at its stony hide, but her assault had little effect. Olena drew her greatsword and hacked into a leg, nearly severing it from the monster’s body. It uttered a pained squeal that made the room rattle. Then the others waded in, their blows clinking and clanking off the stony hide, doing little damage.
Yorick concentrated and sharp crystals sprang into existence, shattering off the creature’s hide. Cursing, he dodged out of the way as a crystal-clawed leg flailed at him. The creature scuttled forward and caught Olena in its jaws, lifting her off her feet. She screamed as venom filled the wound and began crystallizing her flesh, but she held onto her sword and struck again.
La’ss’a, meanwhile, found a weaker spot on the stony carapace and drew on psionic energy, ripping a hole in the monster’s back. It spun in place, attempting vainly to reach the lizard, still keening it’s maddening song. Ligeia matched her voice to the beast’s music and sang. It abruptly went silent and still—Kyrian taking advantage of the distraction to land a few blows—then it charged her, delivering a terrible bite with its crystalline jaws.
“La’ss’a!” Fa’ss’th cried, and tossed his spear to her. She growled and began thrusting it at the creature’s eyes. The lamprey mouth opened and began to issue that terrible multi-toned scream again Just as Yorick directed a vicious spray of crystals straight down the monster’s throat. A rush of ichor and bile spilled from the maw and it crashed to the floor, legs twitching for a few moments before it was finally still.
Fa’ss’th looked at Olena curiously, watching her flesh continue to crystallize around the monster’s bite. “That’s fascinating,” he said as she whimpered in pain. “It must be poisonous!” La’ss’a climbed nearly into the monster’s mouth, covering herself with slime in the process, and extracted a poison gland. Fa’ss’th hissed at her angrily, but she stuck her tongue out at him and stuffed the gland into a bottle. “No fair,” Fa’ss’th complained.
“I didn’t see you climbing onto its back,” was La’ss’a’s reply.
“I let you use my spear, though,” he wheedled.
“No. Now quit your whining and make sure the humans are still alive.”
It did not appear that Sam or Barak had sustained any real trauma. They were simply unconscious and did not rouse even after repeated prodding. Stymied, Fa’ss’th went to see what the other people were doing. Yorick, Kyrian, and Ligeia had all mysteriously vanished.
Yorick had wandered into the next room, which was full of strongboxes. He hadn’t gotten much further because on opening the chests, he’d discovered they were full of money. He was now engaged in trying to secrete as much cash on his person as physically possible. Fa’ss’th shook his head while palming a gold bar, then continued on into the next room.
This had been a guard room, but it was empty now. The next room was the armory, where Kyrian had already disarranged all the weapons. He had slung a rapier across his back and was examining a crossbow closely. Fa’ss’th shook his head again and started to leave the room when Kyrian spoke. “I already checked the storage room, there’s nothing in there that we can really carry easily. It looks like the hobs all went back up the ladder and closed it behind them.”
“Getting up there is going to be a problem,” Fa’ss’th remarked.
The lizard wizard sighed. “Let’s go back and get the others.”
“Yeah,” Kyrian said, “I’m done here anyway. Breaking out of this stronghold won’t be any easier than breaking in would have been.”
When they returned, La’ss’a was sitting on the floor with Demaris. “So why did you punch Sam, anyway?” the female lizard hissed.
“I thought you were with them. How was I to know?”
“We came here to help you, and two of our friends might have been killed.”
“I’m sorry! Sheesh. What do you want from me.”
“Help us get them out of here.”
“Easier said than done, little sister!” Fa’ss’th told La’ss’a jovially. “The hobs have gone back up their ladder. Trying to reach them will be hellish, and we’re already wounded and tired.”
“This just gets better and better, doesn’t it?” La’ss’a remarked tiredly.
Yorick returned from his treasure-acquisition and looked them over. “Well, we didn’t exactly have a chance for introductions before, but I am Yorick, from Athkatla. A pleasure to meet you all.”
Demaris grimaced. “He’s a merchant.”
“A psionic merchant,” Fa’ss’th added.
“Yes, well, we are what we are,” Yorick said smoothly, “and right now we are in a pit with a bunch of potentially angry hobgoblin warriors between us and freedom.”
Fa’ss’th chuckled. “Yes. I am Fa’ss’th, and this is my sister La’ss’a. I appreciate your assistance in the battle.”
“I do wish we were all met under different circumstances,” Yorick continued.
Demaris grunted. “Escape first, talk later.”
“Easier said than done,” La’ss’a said. “What do you know about our captors? Can we fight our way out?”
“After taking on that sergeant, I cannot even fathom tackling their boss,” Olena said.
“Magsaid?” Demaris asked. “He’s tough, but Lorthane is the one you have to worry about. She’s crazy.”
“Yes,” Olena replied. “She tried to get them to kill us the moment we walked in.”
Demaris shrugged. “I used to trade with them; that’s how they captured me. Magsaid made some kind of deal with that bastard Sulveig. Not sure why. Magsaid is actually kind of laid-back for a hobgoblin. He likes his food and his drink and his women. He doesn’t have much in the way of military ambitions.”
“He was very gracious to me,” Olena affirmed.
“That sounds like his style. Evergh is completely self-involved, doesn’t care about anything other than obeying his god.”
“Hmm,” Yorick said. “Perhaps we can negotiate our way out of here?”
“Do you know which god he follows, Demaris?” Olena pressed.
“Oh, ugh.” The fey woman shivered, her mouth drawing into a thin line. “I should have known.”
Ligeia returned to the room. “Does anyone have a light I can use?” she asked. Olena handed her a glowing sunrod.
Yorick said in a speculative voice, “Perhaps we can negotiate our way out of here, especially after we displayed our power in killing their pet.”
“Magsaid was impressed by how we handled the patrol, too,” Kyrian added helpfully.
“Why do you need a light?” the fey woman asked curiously.
“There is a crack in the room where the monster was imprisoned, and I hear rushing water,” Ligeia replied.
“What’s this?” Yorick asked. Olena heaved Sam up over her shoulders with surprising ease and carried him into the creature’s room. La’ss’a gestured for Demaris to do the same with Barak. Nymbus’ daughter sighed and lifted the scholar, bracing him against the wall while she got herself balanced to support the load. Kyrian helped her and after some struggle she was carrying Barak.
Ligeia poked her head into the crack and shone the light around. “There is a ledge about fifteen feet down, next to a stream or something. It is flowing quite fast.”
“Hmm,” Fa’ss’th murmured, digging out a piece of paper and doing a few rough calculations. “If I’m right, that stream probably feeds out into the pond.” He began securing his clothing while La’ss’a strung a rope down into the crack. “I’ll go first,” the lizard wizard announced, “and check it out.”
He climbed nimbly down the rope and onto the slippery ledge, where he balanced uncertainly for a moment. Then he took a deep breath, squinched up his eyes, squeezed his nose shut with one clawed hand, and jumped, disappearing with a splash.
The current seized him immediately and dragged him down between stone walls. He paddled furiously and managed to avoid striking anything large, then popped out abruptly into calm water. “Huh! Guess I was right!” he observed. A few moments later Ligeia popped up beside him. She looked slightly battered by her passage, but began swimming gamely to shore. La’ss’a appeared, bleeding heavily, barely able to keep her head above water. Fa’ss’th helped her and found that she was struggling to support Sam’s unconscious body.
“He’s not breathing . . .” Fa’ss’th said.
“Damn it,” La’ss’a snarled, dragging Sam to shore. She pounded the human on the back and blew into his mouth with little effect. Fa’ss’th pulled a long, slender crystal rod out of his pack and set it on Sam’s head. It glowed and a moment later Sam coughed up water and blood. The two lizards turned him onto his side to keep his lungs clear, and after a few moments he began breathing normally again.
“Close one,” Fa’ss’th remarked.
Olena and Demaris hauled Barak to shore similarly, followed by Kyrian and Yorick. Kyrian flapped his wet wings and grumped. “I can’t fly like this.”
Yorick wiped blood away from a gash on his forehead. “That was the easy way? We had best make haste away from here, we are in no condition to fight now.”
They returned to the dead tree, only to discover Oren lying unconscious on the ground, his warhorse nudging him in confusion. Demaris sighed in relief at the sight of the horse and slung Barak over its back with some effort. It tried to sidle away from her until Olena caught the reins and hushed it. It was a big, strong animal, so she laid Sam on it as well, helping Demaris lash them in place so they couldn’t fall off.
La’ss’a flicked water out of her clothing onto Oren’s face until he blinked, sputtered, and awoke. “Wha . . .what happened?” the paladin asked, staring about stupidly.
“Doesn’t matter,” La’ss’a announced. “Are you hurt, or can we use your horse to carry the unconscious.”
Oren felt the back of his head. “Um, I am fine, I think. That . . . ouch . . . I think the ogre hit me over the head. I’m a bit dizzy, but I’ll live. Um. Why are you all so . . . wet? And who are these people?”
Yorick snickered. “Imagine an ogre doing something like that.”
Kyrian grinned. “Yeah, he got hit with too much philosophy in one day.”
“We can talk more once we’re away from here,” La’ss’a said decisively. “Do you know somewhere quiet we can go?”
Oren thought for a moment. “Not too far from here.” He took the horse’s reins and led the way. After a little more than an hour, they reached a small clearing. It looked like a travelers’ camp: there was a fire pit and a crude shelter built in the lea of a boulder.”
Yorick looked around. “Well, it will do for now. Some of us can rest while the others stand watch. Although, I think almost all of us need to rest.”
“Agreed,” La’ss’a said. “My trip down that tunnel with Sam was back-breaking. Literally.”
“Yes, and this bite is all . . . crunchy,” Olena said, poking her fossilized flesh.
“I can stand a watch,” Demaris offered, shrugging again.
Oren reached out and put his hands on La’ss’a’s head, closing his eyes. A faint glow issued from beneath his palms, and La’ss’a felt some of her wounds begin to knit together. “Nice,” she remarked. “Maybe you aren’t completely useless after all.” Oren flushed angrily and looked away. La’ss’a sighed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
The paladin nodded. “I realize haven’t been much assistance thus far. I am happy to help.”
She nodded. “Yes, and thank you.”
Oren began chanting quietly, and touched a hand to Yorick’s head, healing the ugly gash. Ligeia eyed the young paladin speculatively and began singing softly, a familiar old song about a knight’s doomed love for a mermaid. She tossed her long, dark blue hair out of her face and combed through it with her fingers. Oren coughed, blushing again, and busied himself with starting a fire.
Kyrian and Olena smiled at each other and joined in the song. The three slightly ethereal voices intertwined, filling the clearing with strange harmony.
“I think I hear someone coming,” Demaris said abruptly. Yorick perked up.
“Yes,” he murmured. Kyrian and Olena stopped singing, although Ligeia continued, unconcerned.
“Travelers, I’d wager, coming to use this campsite.” Olena guessed.
“Or maybe an ogre who doesn’t know his place in the world any more,” Kyrian retorted snidely.
Fa’ss’th shook his head. “It’s a female elf . . . they are tracking something on the way to Murann.” The approaching noises abruptly ceased. The lizard raised his voice, “This campsite is free to peaceful travelers! If you’re looking for a fight, go elsewhere!”
A woman’s clear voice rang out, speaking the elven tongue. “We have no quarrel with you, we seek only to shelter for the night! Do not think that we will hesitate to defend ourselves, however.”
“Then be welcome!” Kyrian called out. A moment passed, then four elves emerged from the trees.
“Odran!” Olena cried, launching herself at one of the elves, her twin brother close behind.
“Goodness, children, whatever are you doing out here?” Odran, a moon elf with rather typical dark hair and skin, embraced both of them tightly. “You look hurt! What happened?” A badger poked its nose out of his backpack and sniffed Olena, then turned away as though offended. Olena laughed and petted it gently.
“It’s a long story,” Kyrian told him. “Come sit down!”
“Odran is a friend of ours,” Olena explained. “He visited the valley a few years ago.”
The female elf that had spoken smiled at the reunion indulgently. She was taller than most elves and stately, with short black hair and bright green eyes. Yorick stood and bowed formally to her. A large yellowish dog wandered over to sniff the merchant, its tail wagging violently. “I would be obliged, dear lady, if you would tell me how I might defend myself from your beauty.”
Fa’ss’th rolled his eyes. “What is it you seek in these woods?” The female elf bowed stiffly to the lizard.
“I am Jacynth, and these are Hadrilyn, Odran, and Turtori,” she began. Hadrilyn was lean and athletic-looking, his hair tied back in many slender braids. He snapped his fingers and the dog returned to him, lying down at his feet. He had two scimitars strapped over his shoulders. Turtori was dressed in crude skins, feathers and beaded leather cords decorating his hair. He carried a trident and favored the group with an excessively bored expression. All four elves wore identical cloaks and boots.
“A name worthy of such beauty, if any are,” Yorick announced. “I am Yorick Kam, Knower of Things, lately of Athkatla until I was roughly kidnapped by smelly hobgoblins.”
The elves froze, halfway to sitting on the grass. Jacynth stood again, slowly, staring at Yorick in shock. “You!”
He blinked. “Ah, I see my fame and renown have spread further than I assumed. How have you heard my name, if I may enquire?”
Odran stared at Olena and Kyrian in horror. “You travel with this creature? Why?!”
“It matters not!” Jacynth spat out. “Wicked one, you come with us!” She reached for an arrow.
“Creature?” Olena and Kyrian asked together.
“It . . . yes. It’s a long story.”
“Whatever he has done, you said you would not fight,” Fa’ss’th interjected mildly.
“Creature indeed! Perhaps I have not shaved or bathed properly in some time, but I hardly think that makes insults appropriate!”
Jacynth nodded sharply to Fa’ss’th. “As I said, lizardling, we have no quarrel with you. But we must carry out our mission. Do not attempt to stop us.”
“He helped us escape and deserves at least one night of rest,” the lizard wizard insisted.
Odran shot Jacynth an appealing look. “Let’s hear them out, lady.” Hadrilyn nodded.
Turtori spoke up suddenly, “Let’s just kill them and be done with it. We could be back in Suldanesselar in a week.”
Olena looked over at La’ss’a. “Why do people always want to kill us without explaining why?”
La’ss’a sniffed. “This is how my week started and it best not end that way.”
Jacynth shot Turtori a furious glance and appeared to make up her mind. “No, no killing.” Gathering her cloak around herself, she sat.
“So, does the condemned at least get to hear what he is accused of doing?” Yorik asked, sarcasm heavy in his voice. Jacynth began to make an angry retort, but Odran forestalled her with a hand on her arm.
“No. It is a shameful thing, and I would not speak of it until we decide what to do. Let me use my magics to heal your wounds, and we will listen to your story if you will tell it.”
Yorick drew himself up and struck a majestic pose. “I have known many elves in my time, and I have nothing but respect for their art, their wisdom, their virtues, but right now you are causing me to doubt the justice of the elves, for it is unjust indeed if one may be accused in secret, and condemned without trial!”
“It is not a matter of justice or of accusations, vile one!” Jacynth spat. “You are a . . .”
“Jacynth!” Odran shouted. She bit her tongue and looked away.
“You mean he hasn’t actually done anything?” Demaris asked abruptly.
“I am a merchant! A trader in goods and information! What evil is there in that?”
“None,” Jacynth returned, “unless that merchant is a demon!”
“Jacynth, be still!”
“I can bear it no longer! His kind are an abomination and a corruption of all that is elven! They . . .”
“My kind?! Wait . . . you think I am a demon?!”
Odran glanced over at Olena and Kyrian apologetically. “Some of the elves of Suldanesselar trade with the humanoids of Murann. It is discouraged, but there is so much wealth to be had that it is difficult to keep them away. One of these traders brought news that they had discovered a . . . a . . .” he looked ill, “a daemonfey, there, posing as a human.”
“A . . .a what?” Olena asked, bewildered.
Hadrilyn spoke, his voice quiet and musical. “A daemonfey. Some corrupt elves have given themselves to demons and produced vile halfbreed children. They can disguise themselves with great skill.”
Yorick laughed. “Well, I grant you I am pretty darned persuasive, but I bargain for baubles and stories, not souls. How do you even know when a human is a demon in disguise?”
“And what makes them so vile?” Fa’ss’th asked.
“You do not know, that is the problem,” Hadrilyn said. He sighed. “The talebringer seemed so sure. He said some orcs were bragging about capturing it. They used the name Yorick several times.”
Kyrian spoke up, “And you trust this source?”
Hadrilyn nodded. “We do not distrust the words of one of our own.”
“So, let me see, you are going to go around killing every human in the land because an orc, an orc, mind you, says so?” Yorick snarled, his voice once again dripping with sarcasm. Jacynth started to stand but Odran clamped his hand on her shoulder.
“You do not understand,” Hadrilyn said gently. “Even a rumor of this is so horrifying that it must be investigated.”
“I AM a merchant! I AM from Athkatla! I can show you my shop, my scrolls, my trinkets! Yet you are prepared to strike me down on the word of an orc! Is THIS elven justice?!”
“Do not mock us!” Jacynth shouted. “You know nothing of the elves! You sit there unharmed and dare to question our honor! Were we humans hunting a monster, you would already be dead!”
“I mock not the elves, the beings that bring so much beauty, art, and soul to this dirty little world. But I ask you, does the scenario you have outlined make any sense? Is it just to slay a defenseless man on the word of an orc?”
“Slay? No. Take captive to Suldanesselar. Turtori speaks of killing, not I. But Turtori is a beast, all know this.”
“We will help you if we can,” Oren spoke up, looking extremely uneasy, “but you must produce some proof.”
“Yes!” Kyrian announced. “Thank you, Oren.”
Demaris shook her head. “We don’t have the time to deal with this. We need to get to Athkatla and stop Sulveig from doing, well, whatever it is he’s doing.”
Olena nodded. “I think Demaris is right. That’s the most important thing we could be doing.”
“Wait!” Yorick shouted. “I think I know who you are looking for!” he snapped his fingers. “It’s so obvious. A being of tremendous guile, with strange powers, commanding an army of evil creatures . . . might not Sulveig be this demon you seek?”
“Who is this ‘Sulveig’?” Jacynth demanded.
“Sulveig is a Maenad,” Demaris announced, somewhat less than helpfully. Yorick pointed to Ligeia and Demaris.
“Sulveig was our captor. We have escaped his grasp . . . perhaps this is his way of making sure we don’t get to far. Spread stories that we are demons!”
“He may also be involved with the stone that changed the magic of our valley,” Kyrian added.
Jacynth looked utterly bewildered. “I don’t . . . it could make sense . . . I guess,” she flailed helplessly, appealing to Odran and Hadrilyn.
“Such an ingenious plot!” Yorick continued. “Just what a demon would come up with! And he has strange mind powers!”
“Except that Sulveig is a Maenad,” Demaris insisted angrily.
“Wait,” Odran said, turning to Kyrian. “What stone?”
Speaking quickly, Kyrian and Olena explained what had occurred in their valley. “Mighty Silvanus!” Odran exclaimed when they had finished. “Jacynth, this is far more important than one daemonfey that may or may not even exist.”
Jacynth’s mouth twisted sourly. “I am forced to agree.”
“You can seriously be considering just letting them wander off,” Turtori demanded.
“We must get to Athkatla immediately,” Oren said. Jacynth looked over at the young paladin.
“I don’t know. We are not on good terms with the humans in Athkatla.”
Kyrian smiled. “I’m sure if you were discreet, no one would bother you.”
“There must be some kind of acceptable compromise,” Hadrilyn said.
“I . . . yes. Let us get some rest and think about it some more, then we can talk in the morning,” Jacynth offered finally.
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