"Hello there!" a large, jolly-looking man on the first wagon hailed the party. "'Tis I!"
"Yes, Mendel, how are you?" Jedael greeted him without enthusiasm.
"What brings such a large party out this far? Not bandit problems again?"
"No. No, not this time. I think it would be best if you and your men and women just kept moving along."
"Wellwhat's going on here?"
"Just some security business for the Keep, I suggest you keep moving."
"Well, if there's a problem, my men can help."
She sighed. "I suppose it won't hurt. Just please, stay there, by the road. Over here?" she asked Harrick.
"Yeah, definitely something over there," Cobb confirmed.
They moved into the woods carefully. Jedael unstrapped the shovel she had brought and prepared to move dirt; one of the guards stepped forward and said, "Uh, I'll do that?" She shrugged and left him to it.
"Yeah, there's definitely somebody here," he reported.
"All right." She frowned and looked at the tattooed woman. "You said you could...?"
She nodded, walked over and sat down, and began scratching in the dirt with her staff.
"What in hell's name is she doing?" Mendel wondered.
"Making sure they don't get back up," Jedael replied softly.
Jared realized that he could hear something: a very faint singing sound that seemed to come from behind him. He ignored the high-pitched sing-song as best he could. He hadn't told anyone about that dream.
Ten minutes later, the graves were still quiet and the woman got back up. She nodded to the reeve, who exhaled in a relieved way.
"That was much easier than I thought it was going to be. We received some rumors a little while ago that there might be some sort of strange nethermantic activity in the area. Just things that we heard from the south, but one can't be too careful."
The travelers had no inclination to argue with that.
"Whoever the poor souls are, they were probably killed by bandits and buried here out of the way," Mendel observed. "It seems as if the bandits are getting somewhat rougher; I may have to rethink my strategy."
"What strategy is that?" Cobb wanted to know.
"I outfit myself with a minimal number of guards, if the bandits come and ask for everything, I give it to them. I figure I'm running a risk, I run a lot of small caravans, and if I lose anything, I don't lose much."
"Yeah, but if they're killing people...."
"That changes the odds entirely. Interested in a job, young man?"
"I'm thinking," Harrick began. "This could just be me, and I don't have enough evidence to really make it solid yet, but I think we've got a nice little range war going here between the bandits and the goblins up north. Plus whatever either of them happen to do to people traveling on the road."
Jedael nodded. "Interesting theory."
"Where is the bandit base of operations?" Terzin asked. She shrugged.
"Further in the woods, maybe. Are you planning on heading back up to the caves?" Nods answered her. "Walk carefully. Let me know what you find. Mendel, if you don't mind, we'll accompany you back to the Keep."
"Hm, let's see," he mused sarcastically. "Five extra guards, no, I can't do that."
They recovered the partially exposed body, and then the main group returned to the Keep.
The four travelers continued on the road northward. They had left Francis behind this time; the journey was fairly short, and they wouldn't need to worry about him being stolen or eaten.
On the way, they discussed strategy. Given the complexities they now suspected the situation carried, it might be better to try to talk to the Winterkin instead of trying to kill them all a handful at a time. They would have to try a different cave, though, they all agreed, and struck out deeper into the valley.
This cave was higher up the wall, partially masked by some thick brush; the Goblinwater issued from it. They splashed through two feet of water and entered the cave in the same order they had followed before.
Directly inside, the tunnel headed off to the left and right. The water came from the right and turned a corner out of sight. To the left they could see several dim openings along the wall. From above they all heard a sharp squeaking sound, and a flock of blood-sturges began diving at them. After a few frantic moments of batting and slashing, the animals fled, their beaks failing to penetrate the invaders' armor.
They moved cautiously to the left, leaving the water behind. This hall was very rough-hewn. Since they wanted to talk to any orcs they might see, Harrick moved up even with Robin, in hopes that anyone who saw him might be less inclined to shoot on sight. They passed the first opening and glanced inside. It was a very large room full of varied kinds of fungus, including two large, globular forms which almost seemed to have screaming human faces. There was a third up on the ceiling, where it seemed to have floated.
Harrick frowned and took a closer look. There seemed to be the remains of a corpse on the floor underneath the two head fungi.
"Anyone in there?" he called.
No answer. Terzin kept watch on the tunnel with an arrow nocked. Harrick stepped cautiously into the room.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Robin said nervously from the doorway, holding the torch high.
It was indeed a body there, the fungus growing up from its legs and head. In between, beneath the covering moss, he could see metal. He inched in a bit farther. He could see the skeleton's outstretched hand. There was a faint glint that might be a gemstone.
Robin, who couldn't see any of this, stood just inside the room and wondered what had gotten into him.
He kept going, carefully. To reach that glint, he had to ease between the wall and one of those fungi. They wobbled a bit with every breeze, but nothing happened. He reached down and used his knife to lift the remains of a silk bag that the corpse had been holding. Three cut gemstones lay inside. And that glint of metal was probably chain mail that had not rusted or tarnished despite being covered with mold. No way to get to that without disturbing the head fungus, which he would rather not do when he was quite so close. He started back toward the door.
The head fungus exploded. The explosion set off the other two. Robin covered her face immediately and didn't breathe in the stuff, but everyone else got a little bit. Harrick got a direct face full, aside from the physical impact of the blast itself, and barely remained conscious and standing. He could feel something grating inside his lungs. That couldn't be good. Everyone else was coughing and brushing themselves off as the smoke cleared and revealed Harrick still standing there, covered in some sort of green gunk.
Robin started in to help him. He was pointing at the ground, coughing. Not interested in spending long in that room, she grabbed up the mail with part of the corpse still inside it. Jared helped the orc back out into the tunnel and back to the river to wash as much of the stuff off as they could. With a wet finger he wrote on the wall We are leaving.
His breathing sounded really bad; they didn't argue.
"Can you talk at all?" Robin asked, worried.
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