Returning to town, Cecil was again too busy with his fancy noble-blooded affairs and did not deign to meet or speak with us, his low-blooded vassals, and had left Luth practicing his punches, nearly sundering the trees around Cecil’s property. The monk barely greeted us, but fell in with our group again. The man is stubborn and disagreeable, but says so little that he may be the least annoying of my new companions. We retired to the Adventurers Guild tavern, where I hoped Belus would have had enough of adventuring and returned to her former life as a bar wench. She is quite capable in a fight, but her incessant prattle wears on one accustomed to natural solitude, and her tiny stature combined with her recklessness means she needs constant minding. Alas, she seems to think we are close friends, and introduced us as such to her former co-workers.
Morty, the crusty old dodger that owns the place, nearly had his eyes bug out of his head at the sight of the dragon skin we carried into the bar. No doubt trying to re-live some of his past glories, he pulled us into a back room and showed us a treasure he had been hoarding, a magical quill that, propelled by its own powers, drew a mystical treasure map on the dragon’s skin, supposedly to the greatest treasure the beast knew of. Since the map did not direct us to the hoard we had already plundered, I can only assume that we now know roughly the location of its father. I suspect the beast will eventually hear of the fate that befell its child, so at least I now know from what direction my doom will come. I had the hide tanned and rolled it up, hoping to find a future use.
In conference with Luth, we decided that it was time to exact bloody revenge on the Stag Lord, and that the best route would be to ambush him as he did us. We returned to Oleg’s trading post and offered to serve as tradesmen for him, bearing a shipment along the route the bandits had preyed upon, with the hopes of surprising a group expecting defenseless merchants. With Luth and Mogrin wearing cloaks in the cart, Belus and I crept through the woods alongside the road.
Traveling along the southern road, we encountered many patrols from Barstoi, who continued to tell us about the purchase of the southern territories from Karcau. The patrols are apparently commanded by a soldier named Islin. We did not find any bandits, who had no doubt been suppressed by the heavily armed patrols. Undisturbed, we made our delivery and returned to Oleg’s. We earned a peasant’s wage for the job, but at no point was I attacked by a dragon, molested by the undead, or locked in mortal combat with a deranged criminal. At times I think of returning to my simple life in the woods.
In conference with Oleg, we agreed that the road had probably been cleared by the patrols and that banditry would have shifted to unpatrolled areas. We again attempted the ruse of posing as simple merchants, this time taking the King’s road west, through the abandoned and desolate lands there. As we traveled, Luth seemed to have been infected by whatever it is that keeps Belus from shutting her mouth, fawning over the half-woman in a foul manner. I am sure that there were few women among the hardened men that trained him, but to (literally) stoop to this girl-woman seems unnatural and foul.
We set up a camp at the crossroads, with a roaring campire that would signal to any bandits that we were the stupidest and fattest merchants in the region. I retired into the woods, some ways from the fire, and watched the shadows for dark-hearted men.
Something much darker came to us in the night. I did not notice, but a being of pure shadow had lifted the halfling and seemed to be feeding on her, but leaving no visible wound. Nevertheless, she groaned in pain. A strange battle ensued, as we tried to attack a creature that barely seemed to be there. I would swing my weapon at a shadow, and just when I thought I had missed, my blade would catch at a wisp of darkness as if it was solid tissue, but then the feeling would be gone again, with my sword swinging clearly through the air. I truly have no feel for this weapon, even in combat with a more earthly enemy. The sword, with its thin, curved blade and delicately weighted handle, is the tool of a dandy, delicate and artful, and not in keeping with what I know of combat. It belongs in the hands of someone wearing silk underwear, who has attended a fencing school and fights duels of honor with other noblemen because he has nothing else to keep him busy. Nevertheless, its edge is preternaturally sharp and it seems to guide itself towards the enemy. If only I could find an axe with the same craftsmanship.
Mogrin approached the shadow fearlessly, the stout dwarf driving a strike where the beasts legs joined to its trunk, a blow that would have unmanned any earthly warrior. The creature seemed to cry out and melted away. Perhaps the spirit had more in common with mortal men than is readily apparent.
Belus had been gravely weakened by the foul touch of the thing; although she had not suffered so much as a bruise, her eyes fluttered weakly and she could barely lift her head. The cleric tended to her throughout the night. In the morning we found that we had set up our camp not far from an unnatural death. A once-stout warrior had been slain by unnatural forces, his shriveled body lost within armor that must have fit him well in life. This was the fate Belus had narrowly escaped.
With Belus’ strength recovering as she rested, we decided to press on, with the intention of letting her fully recover in the safety of town. My life being doomed to eternal affliction, we had barely moved further down the road when three bandits stepped out to block the road and steal our goods, one of them wearing the terrible crown of horns that had seemed such a nightmare in the snowstorm that night.
Without hesitation I loosed arrows at his companions, felling one where he stood, and gravely wounding the other. Luth, quick as a flash, was out of the cart and sprinting towards the Stag Lord, who barely hesitated at the death of his men and drew his own weapon, badly wounding the reckless Luth. The party struck our most lethal blows on the towering villain, who seemed surprised by the bestial fury of our attack. He seemed to recognize Luth as he staggered under our blows, and turned to run. Like all those who prey upon the week, the man was a coward when he faced his own mortality.
Just as I had crawled into the bushes to die like a dog so many weeks ago, the Stag Lord fled into a bramble. Luth, covered in an admixture of his own blood and the brigand’s, sprinted without hesitation after our quarry. As our short-legged companions rushed to catch up, I heard the sounds of a furious struggle in the undergrowth. I found the two men locked in a deadly embrace, and knew that within moments one or both would be dead. Firing from feet away, I buried two arrows in the Stag Lord’s body, which gave Luth enough time to grab his foolish helm and snap his neck with a noise like a man crushed by a heavy cart. The enormous body immediately went limp, and I pulled off his helm to take his head for a trophy.
The face underneath the mask was horribly scarred, as vicious in death as his actions in life had been. Wanting to see the world as such a man had, I placed the helm on my own head. Rather than simple bone resting on my brow, I felt as if I was looking out at the world through eyes not my own. The stag’s skull must have been blessed with the power of the Stag god Erastil himself, turned to foul uses by this man. The god’s power that had not led me in my own life had been guiding this man in preying on the innocent. Stripping the other bodies, we gave them a bandit’s burial and returned to town with the helm under my arm.
We met the countess to collect our reward. The noble clearly resented that we had interrupted her dancing halflings and other amusements of the idle rich, and turned up her nose at the rude clothing of our group, but nevertheless the beauty did seem to genuinely appreciate that we had stopped the bandit lord.
We collected the reward, a sack of gold coins the size of a farmer’s sack of flour. My companions, especially the halfling, ran on at the mouth about our achievements, as the queen rolled her eyes and yawned. Then, with a wave of her hand, she brought out another sack, just as large as the first, and handed it to our group. To dispense such wealth with a wave of the hand! Nobles are as alien to me as that shadow in the dead land. The feeling must be mutual, as she expressed far more concern about missing a theater performance because of some disappeared theater group than the fact that a necromancer had been slaying peasants on her land. Knowing artists, the performers had probably accumulated too much debt and decided to take their show to another city.
The countess seemed shocked to hear of the Barsoi patrols, and said that no such land sale had been made. This could bring war to the land. I hope we can be far away when the nobles decide to spend the lives of their people to protect their own claims to wealth.
At Oleg’s trading post, we met Islin leading a detachment of Barstoi irregulars, come to assist us in emptying the Stag Lord’s fort of what bandits remained.
I rode in the van, wearing the horned helm in hopes of confusing those behind the walls. The gambit worked, as the doors opened to our train amid much confusion and grumbling from the bandits. Realizing that their leader had been killed, the bandits threw down their arms when facing down a dozen loaded crossbows. Even as the apparent leader of the group approached us the parley, there was some bedlam involving a giant half-wit, and a giant door opened, allowing an owlbear into the yard. The moon calf was slain by the creature, and I shot down bandits attempting to flee, but the fort was quickly subdued by our superior numbers.
Belus used some combination and magic and revealing clothing to persuade the bandit lieutenant to give us information, and he informed us that the decrepit old man we had heard of was still in a secret basement under the fort.
The man, acrimos, revealed the door down, and I descended into the mouldering depths. The filthly hovel was decorated with bits of bone and other foulery. Just as I had begun to look about the area at the bottom of the stairs, chaos broke out. A giant ant attacked us, then a horrible swarm, and I saw a freakish wolverine walking along the ceiling like a nightmare vision. This creature was clearly the old man in a wild form, as it directed the actions of the other creatures. It caused part of the ceiling to fall in on us, nearly crushing Belus, and attempted to scuttle upwards through the hole it had created. Even as the wounded creature disappeared from view, it fell back to earth, split into two pieces. Acrimos, who had not descended with us, had struck the beast’s head from its shoulders with one clean blow.
We found an amazing amount of wealth in the dingy area, the bandit’s spoils. We managed to convince the Barstoi men to leave without searching the area, with Islin clearly understanding our intention, although they did clean out the armory. As we counted out the gold coins, I overheard Luth making some sort of lewd comment to the halfling girl about buying baubles in exchange for certain favors. Disgusting. If Mogrin wasn’t so slow-witted that he didn’t understand the meaning behind these comments, I’m sure he’d protest the complete lack of morality and respect for natural order on display among our companions.