"Thank you." She stepped back to rejoin the others, resisting the urge to toss her head.
Jared realized that there was someone standing behind him; the others quickly noticed as well. It was the ancient bugbear.
"Are you winning?" he asked in heavily accented Rell.
"Three for three."
"Good." He patted the human on the shoulder. "Keep up the good work." He vanished up the stairs.
One of the goblins stepped out of the crowd, his eyes on Harrick, who drew up the hood of his cloak and prayed. There were certain things Mathelwyn granted his followers....
His friends eyed Harrick uncertainly as he moved into the room's center. He didn't seem to be walking, more like gliding. Or perhaps slithering was the word. The goblin came to meet him, his feet making no sound, undergoing a similar subtle transformation. They locked eyes.
The goblin held out a hand. A spear appeared in it, visible only to Harrick's eyes and very clearly pointed at him. The goblin circled around to the left. Harrick moved to maintain their staring match. Slowly, they exchanged positions. The goblin reached down to the ground, touched the place where Harrick had been standing, seemed to be going through the motions of tracking. In a blur, his hand closed around Harrick's neck.
The orc's hood flared up, more than it should have from the slight motion he had made when seized. From within came a soft hiss. A serpent slid over Harrick's shoulder, up the goblin's arm, and sank its fangs into his elbow. Flailing his arm, the goblin took two steps back and cut the snake in half with the spear, dropped to one knee holding his rapidly swelling arm. When he stood up, the swelling had disappeared. The spear vanished.
"That will serve," he announced to the gathering, rejoining the rest of his tribe. Harrick, unruffled as always, returned to his baffled, but thoroughly impressed, comrades.
Everyone in the room backed up a bit, clearing some extra space; they knew what was coming. So did Jared, resigned to his fate. The bugbear chieftain's daughter stripped down to the bare essentials dictated by modesty in mammals. He removed his chain mail, but retained the weighted gloves since no one objected, and the combatants moved into the center of the room. The crowd cheered and wondered "if she'll break this one in half, too."
"Don't let her bite you, you don't know where she's been," Terzin suggested from the sidelines.
Jared assumed a neutral stance as they circled. He didn't even see her kick coming before it slammed into his jaw. Blood flew from his mouth. She followed up with a hold, clearly preparatory to picking him up and snapping his spine over her knee, muttered something in his earno doubt insulting.
Jared got that look. The bugbears who could see his face suddenly stopped cheering. Robin had never seen him do this before, and those stories about Jared's temper began to make more sense.
With a mighty heave, he broke free of the bugbear's grip and spun around, smiling bloodily. She threw a light punch to his bruised face. His smile got wider. He roared and struck back, staggering her. The crowd cheered indiscriminately.
She recovered, stepped in close and landed a kick on his upper leg, followed it with a solid blow to his head, and seemed surprised that he was getting back up from one knee. And smiling. He nailed her on the chin. She left herself open. He pounced. A series of heavy blows landed on her chest. Ribs cracked, repeatedly, and he showed no sign of holding back. A final blow to the jaw laid her out. [Ed. - Having open-ended on his roll three times, Jared did 41 points of damage in one shot.] She hit the floor barely alive.
The room went quiet at that, then totally silent as the bugbears realized that he was looking for a new target. One of them ran out to tend to the chief's daughter, gave Jared an uncertain look as the berserk human moved in on him. Harrick cast a Flame Gout, aimed to go off just in front of Jared and hopefully snap him out of it. It worked in that it diverted his attention from the bugbearto Harrick, who barely dodged his swing. Terzin started rooting through Jared's pack to find the net. Harrick didn't quite manage to get out of the way of the next bruising blow.
Dubricus yelled, "Hey!" When Jared turned, water splashed from his hands into the other man's face. His eyes seemed to clear slightly, but he was still lost in the battlefog. Robin stepped up and tapped him alongside the head with the weighted stick, not too hard. He staggered, came out of it, shook his head with a confused expression and fell over unconscious as the beating he'd received from the bugbear finally registered.
There was a brief period of confusion after that, but having proven themselves sufficiently, the five adventurers met with the bugbear chief and the goblin shaman to plan their next move. The latter assured them that his people would be willing to defer the weregild owed them until the bandits had been dealt with.
There was more than one group of humans involved, they were informed. There were the bandits, who occupied a cave on the lower east wall. Another group, which the bugbears believed to be responsible for all the recent trouble, lived high on the west wall near the valley head. A third cave, which had once been inhabited by the hobgoblins before they were wiped out, now seemed to house only the dead. Huddled around the adventurer's rough map, the locals pointed out the cave of the ettin so they could be sure to avoid it, and another cave, of which no one knew what was inside. People who went in did not come back.
"We should check it out," Terzin said immediately. "And our cave was inhabited by a giant transforming rat-sorcerer. Interesting neighborhood."
Back in the old days, they were told, the various tribes had more or less gotten along, each with their place in the life of the valley. The goblins went out and hunted, the bugbears maintained their herds, the kobolds performed light work they were suited for, once in a while they would all raid the humans, but nothing large-scale. Then the humans had moved into the cave deep in the valley, about ten years ago. Two years ago, something had happened to the orcsno one knew whatand the bandits had moved in as well. Since then, it seemed clear that their goal was to wipe out the other valley dwellers. The bugbears had called for an alliance only to be met with distrust; that had finally changed.
They had little good information. The warriors they had sent to investigate the human diggings out in the forest had not returned. The kobolds undoubtedly knew more, but.... Neither the bugbears nor the goblins knew anything of the dwarvish presence in the valley.
Talk turned to the human prisoners. The bugbears were willing to let Cobb go, since the new humans vouched for him; they sent him back to the Keep after learning that he had been captured first by a group of bandits, who had been captured in turn by the bugbears and were still locked up belowthose who were alive, at least. Despite lengthy interrogation, little had been learned from them. There were four humans, one in far worse condition than the others, his hands broken, face cut, and thoroughly gagged. There were also three kobolds in another room.
"We caught them sneaking around," one of the guards explained.
"The one who's... significantly more interrogated, what did he do?" Harrick asked casually. "Pretty thorough job you've done."
"We caught him coming out of their cave one night by himself. That cave."
"Was he carrying anything?"
"Not anymore. Are you?" The guard gave him a kick.
Dubricus murmured, "I have to say I'm not a professional, but it doesn't look like he's long for this world."
"No. The gag's probably a bit much. Dubricus, can I have my knife back?"
The bugbears looked disapproving.
"Do you think he's a sorcerer?" Terzin wondered.
"Could be. By the way, in case that's a 'shout' spell you've got in there, we can test whether your shout or my Flame Gout goes first," Harrick told the captive, and cut off the gag.
"Water," the man whispered.
They got him a bit of water, unchained him and hauled him into the outer room, into the stone chair, so they could talk to him away from the others. The bugbear guards, wanting no part of this, left them to him. Dubricus was obviously right that he wasn't going to live long. The group had somewhat mixed feelings. Bandits were bandits, but torturing someone to death....
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