"Riding a warhorse."
Oh yes, this was getting complicated.
[Ed.I lost some dialogue here under the noise of the fan. We're going to have to put it farther away from Brian next time.]
"We stand at a crossroads. Which direction will we take?" the bugbear asked him.
He might have meant it rhetorically, but Harrick answered him, "They're the threat. They're a threat to all of us. You've been here for well over sixty years, and haven't been a threat to the Keep or the people around it."
The chief smiled. "We are somewhat of a threat. Don't underestimate us."
Harrick shrugged a bit, as usual the soul of practicality. "Yes, but there are threats that are good, and threats that aren't. A little something to keep them on their toes is one thing."
"Returning the corpses of loved ones to walk anew...?"
"That's another," he judged firmly.
"Daughter. We must speak with the goblins."
From the look on her face, this had been discussed before. "Father, how do we know that they are even remotely capable?" she asked, looking their guests up and down.
"We'll discover that soon enough."
"You cannot be recommending sending our men out to die in this foolish"
"If we do not go, we will all die!" he shouted. "You may not care for the taste of alliance; I've lived long enough to know it's necessary."
"Can't we at least... test them, first?" she asked more quietly, a gleam in her eye.
Terzin reached the bottom of the stairs and found a room with a couple of crude stools and a table, a chair carved from a stone block, and two armed, armored female bugbears chatting easily. The noiseswhich came again as he stood therecame from a passage out of the room to the left, muffled as if by a door, but he could hear a voice speaking in Rell.
"Just leave him be!" it shouted. Another cracking sound.
The bugbears weren't looking in his direction, and the only light came from a small brazier. He slipped silently past them, into the hall. It took a sudden bend and revealed another bugbear leaning against a barred door, beyond which whatever was going on must be taking place. He listened to the torture session for a bit; the voices were not those of his friends, but he did recognize the speaking one as Cobb, the forester who had come out with Jedael and the others to look at the roadside graves. The bugbears didn't seem to be looking for information, just beating the heck out of someone.
There was nothing he could do about it right now, with at least four bugbears in the immediate neighborhood; if Harrick was actually creating an alliance, they could always ask the bugbears to let them go. He crept back out of the cave and waved to a much-relieved Robin, who had begun to wonder how long she should wait before assuming the worst, and what on Hespere* she should do then.
"Bring back your friends at sunup," the chief directed Harrick, who motioned to Jared that they were finished.
The daughter escorted them back out into the larger room, where she told the other bugbears, "There will be a testing before sunrise." This news seemed to delight the others.
The two of them left the cave, trusting that Terzin would be able to find them.
Terzin saw a large, armed bugbear leave the cave after them. She was moving quickly, down the hill and across the valley, toward the mouth. He motioned to Robin and they fell in beside their companions, heading for their cave.
"How did it go?"
"Fairly well," Harrick judged. "We gotta get Dubricus."
"I went in and snuck around, they're torturing one of the woodsmen down in the basement. Think we could get them to let him go?"
"Maybe. Depends on why they caught him."
"We'll have to ask them."
"One of the woodsmen?" Robin asked with a frown.
"The one that helped us dig the graves up."
"That's not good. We'll definitely have to see about that."
"They've got a nethermancer," Harrick informed them baldly, adding in response to their shocked looks, "Not the orcs, the bandits. Sorry."
"So the humanoids are fighting the bandits?" Terzin asked.
"Yes. Or rather, the bandits are killing everybody they can get their hands on in order to create more zombies."
"I see. How do the kobolds fit into this?"
He shrugged. "They're a bunch of flaky idiots who are much too impressed with their own stealth and cunning."
"Does that mean I can shoot them when I find them?"
"From what it sounds like, they're trying to play all sides against the others." They reached the cave, keeping an eye out for sturges.
Dubricus was unconscious and had a large, painful lump on the back of his head, and everything of any remote value or utility, except for the clothes he was wearing and his knife, was missing.
Robin tried to get him to come around. He groaned.
"Which tribe was it?" she asked.
"No one came inthey were behind me."
Small, light kobold tracks led to the door in the back wall of the old rat roomthey had a pretty good idea where it went, now. They hadn't found the stuff in the well, but Francis and the horse were gone. Many curses filled the air. Kobolds had suddenly become fair game.
"I'm going to move that green slime down into their tunnels," Harrick decided, returning to where Robin was helping Dubricus up. "I have to tell you, remember that horse you used to own...?" Judging from all the blood, they'd butchered it in the rat room and carried the pieces through. Francis they'd somehow squeezed through the opening.
"My father gave that horse to me," he mumbled, one hand touching the lump on his head wincingly.
"We'll take it out of kobold hide," Robin promised grimly. "After we deal with the bandits."
"The bugbears are willing to negotiate," Harrick informed them. "The bandits have been killing everything they can get their hands on to raise as undead. It's not impossible that you're right and it's a wizard using an animate," he said to Dubricus, "but it's not impossible either, that they have a nethermancer. They're raising the dead to use as guards, as people to dig..."
"If nothing else, that set of tunnels out there. There was a tribe of orcs here, they killed all of them and animated them. There was a tribe of gnolls here, they escaped."
"They could be building the dungeon as a base of operations," Terzin speculated.
Harrick told them about the man on horseback the chief had seen.
"Just one man?" Terzin asked.
"One man, on horseback, full plate," he confirmed.
"This is seeming very un-bandit-like," Robin observed.
"Dependsare they bandits, or are they Raelites?" the orc shrugged.
"It goes against the Raelite code to use nethermancy," Dubricus said.
"Doesn't go against the Raelite code to use animate, now does it? They might not be Raelites, this is true," he admitted. "It might be somebody else who can afford to put together a suit of full plate."
"How many did the bugbears say they had?"
"They didn't. On the other hand, they said that there were approximately thirty? at least dozens of the humans, and then heaven alone knows how many of the walking dead. The bugbears are at this moment opening negotiations with the goblins to back us on this. The bugbears also apparentlyat least their leaderdon't think the kobolds are worth the spit to drown them in."
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