“So you are . . . adventurers?” Fa’ss’th asked while Barak and Oren helped the newcomers with their injured comrades. Calix’s expression was confused.
“Is there something wrong with that? You appear to be adventurers yourselves.”
“Yes, but professional adventurers?” Fa’ss’th persisted. “I can understand becoming an adventurer if some kind of disaster happened, but not as a lifestyle.”
Calix shrugged. “The pay is good and it gets you out in the fresh air.”
“Not to mention out in the dank pits of doom,” Demaris remarked. Calix shrugged again.
“If you want the reward, you have to take the risks. So what happened to this village?”
“Sythillis’ army happened to it,” Olena said. “How did your group get so injured?”
“We ran into a supply caravan of sorts. I thought it was just orcs, but it turned out to be something else entirely. A little blue goblin almost got us killed.”
“A blue goblin, you say?” Fa’ss’th asked.
“That’s what it looked like, at least. Why, does that sound familiar to you?” Barak finished manifesting a power and ectoplasm coated his hands briefly. A low hum filled the air. Calix stared. “What did he just do?”
“Healed your friend,” Barak said, grimacing as wounds appeared on his arms. He concentrated some more and they gradually disappeared. “Would you prefer me to stop?”
“N-no . . .”
“Are you a cleric?”
“No,” Barak said tiredly. “I’m a psion. That ‘little blue goblin’ you encountered was also a psion, most likely.”
Calix shook his head. “We’ve never encountered anything like this before. Then we find it twice in one day. Wayland is going to kill me when he wakes up.”
Demaris chuckled. “You don’t think it’s a coincidence, do you? Sythillis has a contingent of psionic monsters working for his army. That’s essentially why we’re here: to try and stop him.”
“The five of you against an army?” Calix asked dubiously.
“There should be six of us,” Oren said. “Where is Yorick?” After a brief search, they were forced to conclude that Yorick was nowhere in the village. There were no tracks, no sign of any disturbance.
“Did he just fly away?” Demaris demanded.
“It looks that way,” Oren said, examining the faint traces.
“Great,” Demaris said. “We don’t have time to search for him, he’ll have to sink or swim on his own.”
“Demaris!” Olena said, shocked.
“It’s the plain truth! Besides, I’m not sure I trusted him all that much.”
“That’s a terrible thing to say!” Olena said.
“It’s also the truth. Do you want me to lie about it instead?”
“That’s enough, Demaris,” Barak said grimly. “You’re right, we don’t have time, but if you didn’t trust Yorick, you should have said so to his face.”
“Sure, fine, whatever,” Demaris said.
“You have a bad attitude.”
“And you’re going to improve it by yelling at me? I’m here to get a job done, not to be nice. If you want sugar-coating, you’re in the wrong line of work. You have certain expectations, and that would be dandy except that they paralyze you when things aren’t what you expect. I don’t have expectations. I just deal with things. Pretty soon, you’ll be glad you have someone along with a bad attitude, because I will deal with Sulveig. Will you? Or will you go so far and decide that it’s too inconvenient or too hard and someone else should do it?
“We’re all here to take care of Sulveig,” Olena said.
“No.” Olena began to protest and Demaris held up a hand to forestall her. “Oh, I’ll grant you all came along for the ride, probably with the best of intentions. But there’s not so much as a teaspoonful of conviction in the lot of you. If you only came along to be nice then go home, because it’s only going to get worse from here.”
“Is that a threat?” Barak asked.
“No, it’s a fact.”
“Maybe, but to me, it sounds like a threat, because you go out of your way to make things harder on yourself and thus, on us. I, personally, don’t appreciate it very much. At the very least, if you refuse to be nice, then have the grace to leave it alone.”
Demaris raised an eyebrow at Barak and gave him a hard stare. He returned her gaze levelly. After a long, breathless moment she smiled. It was a sarcastic smile involving only half her mouth, but a real smile nonetheless. “All right, kiddo, you win.”
“Don’t forget it.” They settled down more-or-less amicably. Olena turned a blank look on Oren.
“What was that all about?”
The paladin pursed his lips and thought hard for a moment. “It’s hard to explain.”
“You meet people like Demaris sometimes. At first, they seem like a plain bully, abusive, cruel, demanding.”
“Demaris isn’t a bully,” Olena said, perplexed.
“No?” Oren asked chuckling slightly. “What was it she just tried to do to Barak? Your real bully, though, is happy with being a bully. He likes it when people are weaker than he is. He likes having people he can push around. If you stand up to him, he might leave you alone, and if you prove that you’re actually stronger than he is he may become your sycophant because he doesn’t know any other way to behave. Demaris is the opposite. If she discovers she can bully you, she won’t. It’s not her style. She’ll treat you like a pet that can’t look out for itself. That’s not what she wants, though.”
“What does she want?”
“She wants you to stand up to her and prove you’re her equal. Not her better . . .you’ll never convince her that anyone is better than she is. She’d stand up to a god and spit in his eye. You can’t put her in her place, because she doesn’t think she has one. But if you assert yourself as her equal and demonstrate it, she’ll be happy to defer to you.”
“Because she’d rather someone else was boss, but she doesn’t trust most people with the position. Well, most of the time. Being the boss of Demaris is never going to be easy or comfortable for anyone.”
Olena shook her head violently. “That’s really . . . strange. Really, really strange. She can’t earn many friends that way.”
“Are you two DONE over there?!” Demaris shouted. Olena jumped.
“Not like that,” Oren whispered, squeezing Olena’s shoulder gently. Olena bit her lip.
“Sorry, we know you can’t get by without us for a whole entire minute!” Olena yelled. “Don’t worry, we’re coming to rescue you!”
Demaris chuckled and turned away, shaking her head. Oren winked at Olena. “You see?”
Fa’ss’th waved his hands frantically at the newcomers while the heated discussion went on behind him. “Calix, someone has to take these villagers to safety. We can’t do it.”
Calix nodded. “Yes, but where?”
“We know a safe place. You can take the villagers there, most of the supplies and, uh, some dragon eggs.”
“Dragon eggs?!” Isaic squeaked. Calix grinned.
“That sounds like a real adventure.”
“Oh nooooo . . .” Isaic whimpered.
The surviving women left quietly with Calix’s riders. Freed of concern for their welfare, Fa’ss’th, Barak, Oren, Olena and Demaris turned north, towards Athkatla. They rode for two days through trampled lands picked clean by the army. By the afternoon of the second day, they could smell smoke, and that night was not entirely dark. A deep orange glow hung on the horizon all night. A few hours later, they could see the source of the glow. Athkatla was burning.
The entire city wasn’t on fire, but it cast a dark pall for many miles in all directions. A black mass clung to the walls like a foul fungus: Sythillis’ army. The walls were breached in several places and it was obvious the fighting had spread through the streets. At this distance, it was impossible to tell whether the defenders were still holding. Everything looked like chaos.
Olena squinted into the distance, along the coast. “There’s a shipbuilding facility down there . . .it looks empty. I see a ship! We could try using it to get into the city . . . if anyone knows how to sail one.”
“All this smoke will make good cover,” Fa’ss’th mused.
Demaris frowned. “If there’s a ship, there may already be some sailors down there.”
“Anyone have any better ideas?” Barak asked. Oren stared at the city, his face blank with horror. Barak reached over and grabbed the paladin’s reins. “I’m going to take that as a no. Let’s get moving.” They began making their way down the slope towards the coast. Olena nudged her horse forward and gripped Oren’s shoulder.
“Oren, we have to go, we can’t help them from here.” He blinked and his eyes focused on her.
“Ah . . . yes. Let us be off. We should see if we can reach the Order building once we get into the city, though.”
“All right, then.”
As they approached the little shipyard, it became obvious that it wasn’t entirely abandoned. Two figures stood on guard at a gangway leading onto the ship. They looked a little too bulky to be human.
“Not the usual crew, I suppose?” Olena said quietly.
“It could be,” Demaris said. Only one way to find out, really.”
“It’s a war,” Fa’ss’th said. “No pondering, let’s just march up there.”
“Right,” Olena announced and urged her horse forward. “You! Look alive there!”
Demaris grinned. “I like this idea.”
At close range, the guards appeared to be hobgoblins in simple leather armor. They leveled tridents in Olena’s direction and one turned his head and bellowed at the ship. Fa’ss’th flung up his arms and chanted. Instantly, a thousand streamers of sticky goo formed and settled over the gangplank. The hobgoblins howled, stuck fast. There was a commotion aboard the ship and four more hobgoblins, one wearing a chain shirt, burst out of the hatches. They stopped at the edge of the goo and began shouting. Oren cheerfully shot one in the chest.
The stuck hobs were quickly dispatched as Barak began firing lances of fire and crackling electricity into the melee. The other hobgoblins jumped off the side of the ship, injuring themselves a bit as they landed. Olena, Demaris and Oren drew weapons and charged them. Olena cried out in pain as the hobgoblin in chainmail buried a trident in her chest. The tines of the weapon glowed blue and her flesh froze around them. Oren struck the monsters, his sword glowing whitely for a moment with holy wrath. Then Olena whipped her greatsword around and decapitated her attacker, nearly killing the hobgoblin next to him as well.
The melee was so fast and furious that only one of the hobgoblins had time to think about escaping. He jumped into the water as his last comrade fell, disappearing somewhere among the rotting piles and contrivances of the shipyard. In the silence after the battle, they could faintly hear cries coming from inside the ship.
“Hey! Hey! Is someone there?!” Olena flitted up onto the ship and Barak burned off the remaining webs to join her. They pulled the hatch open and peered down into darkness.
“We’re down here! In the hold!”
“We’re coming!” Olena said as they jumped down into the belly of the ship. They located the massive iron cage that passed as a brig; a dozen sailors were locked inside. Olena started to pull out her greatsword again but Barak waved her away and concentrated for a moment. There was a loud click and the padlock fell to the floor. The crew stared at the two of them in silence.
“I’m Olena, this is Barak,” she said a bit uncertainly.
“Do you have any wounded?” Barak asked. From the back of the cage a stocky human pushed himself forward.
“We’re fine. Where’s the Captain?” He demanded belligerantly.
“We haven’t seen your captain yet,” Olena said. “We have to secure the rest of the ship still. If we help you, can you take us to Athkatla?”
“That’s up to the Captain, miss.”
“Then we’ll find him. Or her?”
The man scowled, disgusted. “Him, miss. We’re not fighters, we’ll stay here while you look.” Olena left to locate the Captain. Barak glared at the spokesman.
“This is how you talk to the lady who just fought her way onto your ship to help you? And now you’ll stay here rather than help look for your captain?”
“We don’t want no trouble.”
“Really?” Barak said. “Well, you’re going about it the wrong way,” he said, and turned to leave. Outside, Fa’ss’th was looting the hobgoblin bodies and pushing them, one by one, into the sea, with a little help from Demaris and Oren in the heavy lifting department. Olena winced at the sight.
“That’s . . . does anyone want to help us look?”
“Look for what?” Demaris asked.
“For the Captain. Or any more threats on board.”
They located the Captain very quickly by the simple expedient of looking inside the Captain’s cabin. A human in his late thirties with light brown hair and muddy blue eyes was tied to a chair inside, a gag over his mouth. “Mmph!” he said. Olena pulled out the gag. “Thank you! Is my crew all right?”
“Yes, they’re down in the hold,” Olena told him.
“Good. I wasn’t sure what to expect when those hobgoblins stormed aboard and took us all prisoner.”
“Do you know what they wanted with your ship?”
“I’m afraid not. They didn’t seem eager to damage it, though. Thank you kindly for your assistance. What brings you here?”
“We need to get into Athkatla. Your ship seems like our best chance. How long have you been kept here? Do you know?”
“A couple of days, at least. Is there some reason you can’t just walk to Athkatla?”
“Well, it’s sort of occupied by an army currently.”
The Captain’s face whitened. “Well, that would explain why it took two days for someone to notice we were kidnapped.” He marched briskly onto the deck and pulled out a spyglass, training it towards the city. “It doesn’t look good,” he said after a while, “but if you’re willing to wait until nightfall, we should be able to drop you off quietly. I won’t question your desire to enter the city, that’s your business, not mine. I’ll get the crew up here and we’ll cast off immediately. You folks may want to get some rest.” He hesitated. “Oh, my name is Garmon, by the way, Captain of the Starless Sky.” He bowed.
“Well met, Captain Garmon. I’m Olena.”
“A lovely name for a lovely lady,” he said, taking her hand. She blushed, confused, and glanced over at Oren. The paladin was not paying attention; he was preoccupied with watching the city again.
“I’d better get Fa’ss’th!” Olena said and darted away, almost tripping over the lizard as he came up the gangplank. Fa’ss’th blinked at her in confusion, then shrugged and began stashing his gear aboard the ship.
In the wee hours of the morning, while it was still dark, they climbed off the Starless Sky onto an unoccupied pier. The smoke and the stench of burning were terrible. Far above, something flashed a brilliant gold. It soared for a moment, then stooped into a sickening dive. A line of brilliant light tore away from it and obliterated a distant building. Fa’ss’th grimaced.
“We need to get someplace and stash these two eggs, the dragon is circling overhead.”
“Does anyone know the city?” Olena asked, holding her nose futilly.
“Of course,” Oren said. “I would like to head towards the Temple district and see what the Order is doing. Very likely they are organizing a defense of some kind and we will be able to assist them.”
“Is it far?” Olena asked.
“We will have to cross the river, and the bridge is likely a site of great contention.”
“Let’s stash the loot first, it’s not going to be easy to go down these streets with a cart. Then we can try to bargain with the dragon. I think that kind is good-natured, at least the one from the swamp was.” The dragon swooped and dove again, burning down a group of stubborn defenders.
“Maybe we should hurry,” Barak said.
They made their way through the streets, skirting the edge of a massive white structure that resembled a games arena or circus. A loud voice suddenly shouted, “HOLD! SHOW YOURSELVES!”
Everyone looked around, baffled, then looked up. A dozen or more archers were perched on top of the white marble wall looming above. They weren’t wearing any kind of uniforms, making them look more like bandits than soldiers or militia.
“Blast,” Olena said.
“DO WE LOOK LIKE HOBGOBLINS TO YOU?!” Demaris bellowed. Almost by instinct, Oren and Barak grabbed her arms and hauled her backwards, Barak helpfully putting his hand over her mouth. “Mmph!” she protested.
“Apologies!” Fa’ss’th said smoothly. “We are merchants. Do you have a safe place we can hide?”
“Go around to the entrance and ask for Quentin.”
“Right! Thank you!” Olena said as they dragged Demaris down the street.
“Idiots,” she announced.
“Hey, watch it, lady!” one of the archers snapped.
“We discussed this, Demaris,” Barak said scathingly.
“Sorry. I get a little nervous when people point bows at me.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t yell at them. Just a hint.”
“What is this place?” Olena asked, looking at Oren.
“Waukeen’s Promenade. It’s like a marketplace, only more so.”
“Oh,” she said.
The entrance to the Promenade was blocked by some overturned carts and guarded by a surly human and half-orc. Fa’ss’th shouted, “Quentin!” and they stood aside, waving the party through. Inside, everything was tidy and organized. One side of the open area was taken up by a makeshift hospital and kitchen. Tents were pitched to shelter large numbers of civilians. The guards pointed at a tall, lean man in rich robes. He was relaxing in a chair. His hair and beard looked clean and freshly trimmed, and he held a delicate china cup in one hand as he spoke quietly with a huge, bald man in a blacksmith’s apron.
“That’s Quentin.” As they approached, the man stood and bowed formally.
“Welcome. Please, join us. I am afraid you find us in rather strained circumstances, but I am certain we can find you some accommodations. This is Cedric, foremost blacksmith in the city. Would you care for some tea? There is also chocolate if you prefer.”
“You seem to be doing pretty well, considering there’s a war on,” Demaris noted.
“Indeed, madam, we have organized our own defense and handled our own concerns. War is no reason to let yourself fall into poor habits. We are somewhat enclosed, here, do you have news of the rest of the city?”
“We’ve only just arrived,” Olena explained.
“You came from outside?”
“Yes, the city is surrounded, we were lucky to get in.”
“That doesn’t sound good. I was hoping . . . ah, well. We can hold out here for a few more days, if necessary. If you need healing, potions or the like, you should speak to Old Felda. Will you be joining in our defense? Currently our greatest difficulty is with the cursed dragon. It hasn’t attacked us directly yet, but when it flies overhead sometimes the archers will panic and fall to their deaths.”
“We may be able to fix that,” Fa’ss’th said.
“I am sure we have a few extra bows around here, if you want to help with the walls . . .”
Fa’ss’th chuckled. “That’s not quite what I meant.”
“Ah. I hesitate to ask, but if you are capable of doing something about the dragon, we may be able to begin retaking local streets. At the very least, you may leave your belongings here in safety.”
“Right. Do you have some paint?” Fa’ss’th asked. “And is there a big, flat roof around here I can make use of?”
Quentin blinked in surprise, but rallied quickly. “We have paint and an adequate supply of rooftops, I belive.”
“Great,” Fa’ss’th said. In short order he was escorted to a high building and hoisted onto the roof by mystified archers. Working quickly, he painted in Draconic: “Dragon Eggs Recovered. Negotiation Requested. Meet us Here.”
“There. That should get its attention.”
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
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