"Little," he rasped.
They headed back outside. Harrick realized that there was a source of strong elemental magic nearby. It was the stones in his hand, which no one else had even realized he had picked up. They could wait. He felt truly terrible. They were unanimous in their intent to head back to town immediately, not really sure what was wrong with Harrick but not wishing to take chances when that fungus had seemed so unnatural.
As they passed the hill, they could all see, very clearly, the Shy Tower. It cast a shadow, too.
Just then someone behind them cleared his throat. They turned around to see a man standing in the middle of the road.
"Howdy," he said cheerfully. "You guys look like you're a little beaten up."
"Only me," Harrick said wryly. "Why?"
"Just thought it might be easier for you to get where you're going if you weren't so weighted down."
Robin sighed and drew her sword. They really didn't have time for this. "Don't even try it."
"You know, normally this would be a lot of fun," Harrick rasped. "And Terzin would be willing to be witty at you for hours, banter back and forth, but frankly, here's the deal todayI feel like shit. You'll probably kill every single one of us, I guarantee you'll go to hell first. So why don't we all just walk in opposite directions today?"
"Besides, all our money's back at the Keep," Terzin added.
"Frankly, actually, he's also telling the truth. 'Cause when you're out to kill Winterkin, you don't bring the spare change." He looked as intimidating as he could. The bandit took a step back. Something rustled in the woods to each side, and two more emerged with bows drawn and aimed at Harrick.
"Just put down your weapons and that nice bit of chain mail you're carrying there, and we'll call it even, how 'bout that? Otherwise your friend develops a couple of extra limbs."
"I'll return the favor," Terzin replied promptly, nocking an arrow of his own.
"Let's just all be reasonable, put down your swords and the chain mail..." the bandit said soothingly.
Jared's steely stare sent him back another step and looked for a second like he might wave the archers off. One of them was on the other side of the river, out of reach.
"You have no idea how many of us there are," he pointed out, his resolve firming. "There could be thirty of us back here. The only way you're going to find out is if the arrows start flying. I don't know if you're good enough to kill me with one shot. I'm willing to find out."
If Harrick hadn't been ready to fall unconscious at a stiff breeze... he contemplated setting the underbrush on fire, but it was probably too damp to catch well, with who knew how many hidden archers.
Robin tossed the mail to the man's feet.
"This, you can have." It grated, a lot. "Let's call it even."
She looked at it, looked at him, and said, "My dead body."
"That's what you get this afternoon, boys," Terzin told them.
"That's worth more than anything else we're carrying," she assured the bandit.
He elected to avoid the risk. "All right. Start walking."
They backed away warily.
"Catch you next time, old son," Harrick muttered.
"Looking forward to it," was the calm reply.
They got a goodly distance away and turned around. The tower was gone. They all blinked.
"At least now we know where they are," Robin mused once they were out of range.
"At least they didn't see the gems," Harrick added.
He showed them his find. "Yeah, he had some gems in his hand. They're enchanted, though, so I'm going to have to take a look at these."
"Oh. Well, I guess I lied to the guy."
"At least something in here's enchanted, I'm not sure what is. That was very nice chain mail, I think it's probably magical. So we probably want to go find it again."
"Damn straight! I just didn't think it was worth your life right now."
"Don't worry, when we kill them later on, there'll be plenty of stuff to take," Jared asserted cheerfully. The orcs, after all, had been defending their home; the bandits, on the other hand....
At the gate Harrick told Sabine, "You can tell the reeve we're killing every bandit in these woods. Just so she knows. Where's the doctor?"
Martin took one look and beckoned them inside immediately. "Don't talk," he ordered Harrick. "What happened?"
"Fungus of some sort, this high," Robin described.
"Did it look like a human face?"
"Get out." They all moved back past the doorframe. "Did any of the rest of you inhale it?"
"I don't think so."
"For your own safety, leave." He went back into the room. "Jen, run down to the One-Eyed Cat and buy a gallon jug of wine. Red, white, doesn't matter, whatever. If they don't have that, then anything you can find in harder liquor if necessary." Martin emerged again and said, "One of you get a washtub, fill it with water, bring it back." Terzin and Jared went on the errand. "How close were you to it?" Martin asked Harrick, who held up his thumb and forefinger almost touching. Martin's frown grew even deeper.
Jen came running back with a bottle of whiskey. Martin directed them to set the washtub down. He dumped the whiskey into the water. Opened a vial and sprinkled whatever it was on top of the water, then stirred.
"Stick your head in, and breathe," he ordered Harrick, who winced. "Inhale as much as you can."
He put his head in, started to inhale, coughed. Martin put his foot on the back of Harrick's neck and forced his head down until he'd breathed in a good amount, then hauled him upright, wrapped his arms around the orc's midsection, counted to ten, and pulled hard. Harrick vomited up a mess of whiskey/water/herbs/spores and promptly passed out.
"That's nasty," Robin observed with a sympathetic wince.
"It's better than the alternative," Martin replied somberly. "The spores would have grown in his lungs, eventually exploded out of his chest cavity. One to four of them, they then would have ballooned across here until they encountered something sharp enough to break them. They get weaker as time goes on, until they would have exploded and infected anyone who inhaled it."
"Glad we got him back here fast, then. He going to be okay?"
"He should be."
They took him back to the Green Man and tucked him into an actual bed for the night, then looked at the bag he had dropped at Martin's. They found three colored stones cut into different shapes.
Magical stuff was Harrick's domain, and they left the stones for him to worry about when he woke up.
Since he wasn't going to be doing much other than resting, while everyone else was out he applied himself to just that puzzle the next day. One was probably jade, cut into a prism-shape; the other two were octagonal rods, one quartz, the other caught the light like nothing he'd ever seen. Diamond? Perhaps they were image-stones? Those were usually larger, these were quite small and would be easily lost, and they radiated far more magic than the image-stones he had seen.
Earth-based enchantment of some sort... granting properties of stone to the holder, he guessed at last. Someone might have carved the runes into the centers, somehow, too small to be seen with the eye... they were undoubtedly older than the kingdom, maybe even than the Republic.
One way to find out what they did. He started with the maybe-diamond, held it in his hand for a while. Some time later Terzin wandered in and saw him sitting there, not breathing, holding something in his hand.
Terzin picked up the quarterstaff in the corner and poked at Harrick's hand.
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