The bugbear shamaness was not pleased by the appearance created, that she would ally with the Keep to maintain her position. She would far rather battle the gnolls directly, but that was obviously impossible, given the numbers, and eventually she was forced to accept that power in the valley was going to be shared. There was a ritual bloodletting among the Winterkin and Brother Martin to seal the pact.
"Essentially, I've just brokered a peace deal stating that for the next several years, we won't take any offensive action against them and will aid them in the destruction of whatever nether creatures still exist here. They're willing to deal equally with one another, balancing out strengths, and direct all of their attention right now towards clearing out those caves that are containing things that need to be dealt with. I've also managed to convince the gnolls that there is sufficient plunder for them already, without them claiming any of the bugbears' materials. I do have some bad news. Um, the bugbear woman have already laid claim to the cave that I believe you were working out of. Since the gnolls haven't been here in a while, the shaman put forward that they had claimed that already, and since their people were in there the gnolls had no reason to dispute them. This is one of the few points the bugbears succeeded on. I'll see what I can do about getting whatever equipment you may have left in there back to you."
Heck with that, Jared decided; he'd go get it himself. He worked his way through the parlay crowd to the cave, walked down the tunnel to the well, and hauled out the oilskin sack. The bugbear women watched him uncertainly, but did not attempt to interfere, and Martin didn't ask any questions.
Meanwhile, the Bufons, Dubricus, and Arpad struck out toward the Keep once again. Nothing molested them on the way, which was just as well. None of them spoke much beyond what was necessary for their journey. As far as they could see, they had accomplished nothing of any lasting worth, led a number of folk to their deaths, and lost one of their best friends. Terzin had the additional memory of his glance into the abyss to comfort him.
They were greeted with a minor hero's welcome, although the Keep folk didn't seem entirely sure what it was that they had done. There was cheering and bell ringing; the Keep had lost only one person, Third, and she hadn't been in the town long in any case. Arpad was reunited with her joyful father. The adventurers avoided as much of the hubbub as they could, returned to the inn to clean themselves up, and went with heavy hearts to report to Devereau.
"When Sabine told me that you had gone in there, I hoped that she would later extend the story to all of the zombies dropping to the ground because you had killed their controllers. Instead apparently nothing happened, and we feared that all of you had been lost," he told them gravely.
"We never found their controllers; there's a huge complex down there." Terzin shook his head. "There were many levels that went through the entire canyon, it extended to the complex that we showed you up here...." He pointed it out on the map.
"Which has been destroyed, correct?"
"Yes. When we went down there the way was blocked by the sand. There's still a lot of undead down there, or nether spirits, something evil, that will have to be cleaned out, probably in the hands of priests, somebody who really knows how to deal with these things."
"What are you going to do?"
They looked at each other blankly.
"Go back south, I guess," Terzin said hesitantly.
"We can stick around here for a little while," Robin said. "Help out."
"We'll stay until everyone is healed up, at least."
They told him the entire story of the day. He asked a number of pointed questions, and updated the crystal map as well as possible, since they all tended to contradict one another on distances and directions. When they were almost done, Sabine knocked, opened the door and said, "Jared and Brother Martin are back. Brother Martin wanted to speak with you."
"Send them in. I have to thank you for locating those... unexpected allies," he told the priest.
He shrugged. "Well, I had taken a chance, and as is usual for worshippers of Duncan, chances play out. I just wanted to let you know that with Jared's assistance, I've been able to arrange a sort of peace treaty between the bugbears and the gnolls, and the Keep, that will hopefully stabilize the situation and give us the maximum chance of clearing out the bandit and nethermancer problems."
Dubricus looked shocked. "You organized a peace treaty?"
Martin looked a bit embarrassed. "Yes, Dubricus. I'm afraid I have to pull rank, I've been specially tasked by the earl of my village to come up here and
Dubricus started laughing. Robin's jaw dropped. Jared was just shaking his head.
"We were sent by the countess," Terzin admitted.
"My uncle sent me," Dubricus stated, getting himself back under control.
"The Duke of Amberville."
Devereau looked from one to the other bemusedly. "You mean, you've all been... Oh."
"Maybe Third was, too," Terzin speculated.
"Well, it seems as if from what you had told me earlier, Brother Martin, the Earl Wilson had been tasked by the king to send someone up here and investigate. Is that correct?"
"To the best of my knowledge, correct."
"That's strange," Dubricus said casually. "My uncle the duke had been tasked by the king, to send someone up here and investigate." He looked at the cousins. "Wasn't the countess tasked by the king...?"
"Why, yes," Robin confirmed.
"I think he was playing his cards close to his chest. Why don't we take a look at those papers you said Jared had?"
They spread them out and began scanning. Dubricus was the only one really suited for the task of fitting the names together.
"Um, excuse me, Lord Devereau. Does the name Darcy Blackman mean anything to you?"
"Yes, he's one of the people who is high on the king's list for being in charge of this baronetcy."
Dubricus looked somber. "I suggest we scratch him off the list. 'Darcy Blackman arrived as usual in full plate and shield, will be staying with us for some time,'" he read. "'We hope that the initiation rites go well.... Lord Blackman has seen the face of Eshkagril and is ours forever now.'"
Terzin flinched sharply at the sound of the name.
"I think the king may have had good reason for not telling anyone directly," Dubricus suggested.
"How far does this cult go?" Devereau asked, sounding somewhat aghast.
"I'm afraid, my friends, we will have to be very careful in the future as to who we can trust."
"I think we'd already come to that conclusion," Robin replied.
Night had long since fallen before they gave up. The records showed a systematic pattern of corruption. Merchants working for the cult carried information and materials. The cult itself might have started in the caves near the Keep, but had since moved its headquarters to a location which was, unfortunately, not disclosed. Derek was mentioned quite prominently; he had discovered the crypt in Crapaud and brought all the books on nethermancy from there to his private library in the valley.
Yes, Robin decided. He has to die.
They spent several more days at the Keep, healing from their recent exertions and beginning to come to terms with Harrick's loss. The four of them had been friends for such a long time, it was something like losing a limb, and they felt his absence keenly.
Reports passed back and forth between the Keep and the valley. The bandit cave had been cleared out, the loot they had gathered claimed by the gnolls. Some of the bandits had probably escaped, but they were few enough to pose no threat. The gnolls and bugbears had then mounted a joint attack on the main temple. As they began to enter, the roof of the tunnel had collapsed, burying five or six gnolls and entirely blocking the way. They had also mounted an attack on the cave where the owlbear lay in wait, lost a few swords to the "puppy" before they pummelled it to pieces with clubs, and reclaimed that cave as their own, refusing to allow others entrance. The gnolls had also called in a few reinforcements from tribes nearby, and taken over the goblin and hobgoblin caves, having cleaned out the remaining undead. There was no sign of the two wizards who had been seen during the battle, which meant that all of the cultists had gotten away.
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