The crowds milled around for a brief while after Brother Martin's miracle, but filtered back to their usual tasks when no further excitement was forthcoming. The adventurers' battered state in itself was only to be expected, given their occupation. The group repaired to the bakery cum surgery, where Jared would no doubt be unconscious for a goodly while, and told Martin about their latest tribulations while he did what he could for their wounds.
Sabine knocked on the door as they were nearly finished.
"So, would you care to explain in detail what happened?" she asked.
"We went out to explore the caves," Terzin began.
"Honestly, I think at this point it would be better served if you were to bring the six of us to go speak to the armiger," Martin interrupted, and met with general agreement. The group limped across the Keep to Devereau's residence in the northern half of the fortress. The fields where troops had once drilled were now given over to garden plots, protected by the thick walls.
They were met by the armiger's elderly manservant, who brought them some wine while Sabine spoke to Devereau himself. A short time later she reappeared and ushered them into the Hall of Justice. They found the armiger leaning on a heavy square table which dominated one corner of the room, his cane within easy reach. He bore the same air of weight and responsibility that Kenneth had.
"Hello, one and all," he greeted them. "I understand that you have been busy over the last week or so."
Terzin bowed and winced.
"Please, you're all wounded. Seat yourselves."
Dubricus and Martin dragged over some chairs, and the group settled around the table. They could now see that it was something like a planting box, full of dirt and grass.
"I have gotten a précis from Sabine," he began. "But I find it's best to hear things in people's own words. Why don't you start from the beginning?"
"Well sir, we went to investigate the caves," Terzin told him. "We've been adventuring in the wilderness around the Keep, having many strange adventures. While out there we found that there were both bandits and Winterkin."
The old servant came around with more wine, the first white any of them had ever had. It wasn't bad.
"We explored several caves," he went on, "cleared out some fungus, a transforming rat-sorcerer, but eventually we discovered that there was something of a war going on in the cave district, between the Winterkin and the bandits. The bandits have been taking the Winterkin and killing them, making them into undead, much to the Winterkin's chagrin."
"One might even say 'consternation,'" Harrick remarked, amused by the understatement.
"The bandits have a nethermancer, they're creating hordes of undead, and that's never good..."
"Yes, their giant underground fortress they're building full of undead and stolen goods," the orc supported. "Not to mention some guy in full plate."
"So to keep things short, we think it's a good time to get rid of the bandits before they get any worse, and we've killed their dwarvish mercenaries. So we've actually struck a deal with the remaining bugbears, so we were actually hoping to come back and get some men. We know there aren't many here in the Keep, but this a fairly urgent situation. And we weren't quite as wounded when we started, but now that we're here, and we are.... The dwarvish mercenaries were one of the mainstays of the bandit forces, and they're all gone now, but still they've got thirty men was it? plus the zombies, and we don't have enough Winterkin to make it at least a one to one fight."
Devereau had that look that people tended to get when listening to Terzin, one compounded of deep concentration on this vital news and bemusement regarding its presentation. "Dubricus, do you have anything to add to this?"
He paused in thought, then shook his head. "No, he's got pretty much everything."
"Also, lizardmen have been sighted in the area, but we think that's unrelated, to the best of our knowledge." He decided against mentioning the snake god Yaa.
"We do believe that it's more than just one nethermancer," Dubricus added, "that there's an actual cult, an organization of them, occupying one of the caves, at least that's what the bandits said when the bugbears questioned them."
"Yes, they worship a dark deity called Eskr...?" He tried to recall it.
"Let's not go actually using that name," Harrick suggested. "The last person who did turned into a very nasty superzombietypething."
Terzin settled for saying, "There are many signs that they are worshippers of an evil deity."
"Some form of nethermantic god?" Devereau questioned.
"These are serious tidings indeed. You had mentioned an alliance between the Winterkin and ourselves? Please explain."
Terzin tried to figure out how to say that it was sort of already concluded, but Robin spoke up.
"We have spoken extensively with the bugbear clan inhabiting the valley. They have agreed that something must be done about the bandit forces."
"We have formed an association with the bugbears, because we had to prove ourselves in feats of derring-do before they would accept us as allies," her cousin explained. "In which we were very successful."
"Several of the remaining goblins and hobgoblins have also joined into the alliance, and the bugbears are currently looking for a group of gnolls that are supposed to be in the area, as additional firepower," she tried to stress the inclusive nature of the deal.
"But even all combined, they would at best match the humans, and that's not counting the zombies. Now, they have us of course, but that's a lot of zombies. We may be able to enlist the assistance of an ettin, but it's very unreliable."
Devereau looked very thoughtful. "So from what you have seen, the Winterkin existing the caves to the north, whom we have always known existed, to a greater or lesser degree, now number in small tribes of members of the bugbear, goblin, hobgoblin, and gnoll clan?"
"A few dozen at most, combined," Terzin confirmed.
"Kobolds," Harrick reminded him.
"Oh, except for the damn kobolds."
"I've had experiences with kobolds myself, I understand," Devereau smiled slightly.
"They ate Dubricus' horse."
"Did you have to bring that up?" Dubricus muttered.
"I'm very sorry, it was an excellent horse," the armiger commiserated.
"Yes, my father gave him to me."
"We realize your antipathy for the Winterkin, but pragmatism argues that the alliance should stick, for now," Terzin argued boldly.
Devereau, fortunately, did not take offense. "The Winterkin have always existed as something of a threat, but it has also reinforced the importance of this outpost. Now is not a particularly good time for this; our troops have already been removed, as you have no doubt noticed, there is war brewing in the south, and King Daniel has not yet been able to find anyone to take the position here, which is why we still do not have a baron."
"On that note, a figure was seen riding into the valley, on a horse, with full plate mail," Terzin remembered.
Devereau repeated this thoughtfully. "To meet with...?
"The nethermancers," Harrick said.
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