I awoke with a start when I heard the knock at the door. The room of the inn I was in was comfortable, if not large or opulent. A feather mattress on a bed large enough for two or three people, a small washstand and stained mirror, a cracked porcelain pitcher, and small oak wardrobe were all the furnishings in the room, and a window that looked out over tight cobblestone road. Sunlight streamed in through that window, I had slept until mid-morning already. Scrabbling to my feet, I began to dress, the leathers and furs I had so long traveled in freshly washed. The knock came again softly, and with my breeches on and laced, I called for them to enter. A serving woman in her middle-years, but pretty for her age entered with head bowed and eyes low. A glance of her eyes and the flash of a smile told me the reason behind the flush in her cheeks, and I did my best to dress faster.
“Sir, the Captain wishes to speak to you and your companions downstairs when you are ready. He has had the cooks prepare breakfast.” the serving woman said with a small smile and a furtive glance between her eyelashes.
“Very well. Please inform the Captain I will be down shortly. Will you also find something for my friend?” I nodded in the direction of Winter, who merely laid with head on paws at the foot of the feather mattress, green eyes watching the serving woman impassively. The woman looked up, and let out a startled yelp. Eyes wide as teacups, she nodded once, and fled the room. Well, Winter often had that effect on people.
I finished the laces of my shirt, buckled the straps of my leather vest, and clasped my cloak of furs about my neck with the maple leaf broach. The prayer beads hung from my neck, and with a piece of hemp cord, I tied my hair back. Fishing my pipe from my vest pocket, I filled it with some of the local tabac I had put in the fine smokebox found in the wizard’s study. After a few satisfied puffs, I turned my attention to Winter.
“Shall we?” I said, pipe clamped between my teeth. Winter sprang to his feet, and together we made our way out of the room and down the narrow, curving steps into the common room below. The Wandering Jack was not the largest of inns, more suited to the warehouse workers it normally served. It was one of the few places in the city not damaged by fire and still fully staffed after the undead attack, and so had been commandeered by the commander of the Silver Shield in this area for use as his headquarters, at least until someplace more suitable was found. Still, I liked the Wandering Jack. It had a down to earth feel, none of the pompous trappings of higher tiers of society. I like things to be simple.
“I trust you slept well, Mr. Ventius?” The Captain of the Silver Shield of Crooked Creek was unmistakable in his shining breastplate, worked with simple gilding appropriate for a man of his rank, and sword and shield with the markings of the Silver Shield propped against a wall nearby. A man just past his middle-years, with wings of white at his temples, the Captain had bluff features, a hard man for a hard job. Eyes that were both intelligent and calculating watched as I set my belongings near the door and took a seat at the far end of the table. My traveling companions were also making their way to the table, which was covered with a large spread of food. Roasted quail eggs, bacon, porridge with plums, fresh crusty bread with a soft butter, and spiced wine and ale made my stomach growl in anticipation. I could see Winter already worrying the bone of what might once have been a haunch of lamb.
“As well as can be expected. And just call me Septen.” I began filling my plate, while keeping a wary eye on the guardsmen standing at attention at either exit. If the Captain decided last night’s goblin raid was our fault, things would get ugly very quickly.
“Very well, Septen. I would like to first thank you all for your assistance last night. Those..creatures..had me and my men outnumbered, and could have done a great deal more damage if not for your..intervention. Forgive me, but I have never been a man to mince words, so I will get straight to the point. How is it you were able to control the creatures?” the Captain asked, setting his fork and knife aside to fold his hands in front of his mouth. His eyes seemed to penetrate each of us, digging for the truth, and I knew that if we gave an answer he did not like, we would be in chains before lunch.
“Lord Hendar is a god!” piped Nohj, the bells of his ridiculous cap jingling. The man was handsome, and his smile winning. Many people would find themselves agreeing with this man without thinking, many women would lose their innocence to his charms, and the effect was spoiled only by the fervent light of fanaticism, or perhaps just madness, in his eyes.
“What he means to say, Captain, is that Hendar is in possession of a powerful magical object we found while exploring a nearby cavern. We found the wizard Krassus’ former laboratory, and in it this orb, which apparently has the power to entrance some creatures. Whether or not it does more, we are uncertain, but we wish to have a sage study it as soon as is possible.” I shot a warning glance to Nohj, who snapped his mouth shut, no doubt ready to proclaim the glories of the great Lord Hendar. Instead, he contented himself by beginning to juggle a half dozen quail eggs, two loaves of bread, and a crock of butter. I shook my head and continued to eat, a rueful smile on my face.
“Interesting. Very well. This brings me to the second reason I asked you here. As you know, we have had some very strange occurrences in Crooked Creek as of late. I am not very fond of strange occurrences, especially when I don’t know where or why they are happening. I do not have enough men to spare to send them gallivanting off to investigate what is happening. That is where you come in.”
Setting my utensils on my plate, I looked at the Captain with a calm but inquiring expression. This man certainly did not care to dance around the subject, straight to business he was. I liked that. Simple.
“I’ve hired your like before, adventurers and eccentrics. Unconventional, but effective. I want you to investigate the problems we have been having here, starting with the old ruins to the north. Can’t get any of the locals to get near the place.” The Captain said, with no small amount of contempt in his voice. It was apparent he lost no love for either adventurers or peasants.
With a questioning look at Julius, he shrugged slightly and adjusted his white robes before answering.
“Ghost stories mostly. People think the place is haunted by witches or ghosts, and such. A few people have disappeared up that way over the years, so nobody goes around there anymore.”
“Folktales and nonsense.” The Captain said with a shake of his head. “In any event, I can’t get any of the locals to go, especially with all that has happened. I somehow doubt ghost stories will stop you. Especially since I know exactly what language your types speak.” With a small toss, a small leather bag flew from his hand and landed on the table with a thud and clink of coins. A rather loud thud.
“One hundred gold marks if you take the job, and another hundred for each of you when you return with proof of your venture. We are not asking for you to do anything other than take a look around and gather what information you can find.” The Captain looked around the table expectantly, obviously looking for who would take the pouch and proclaim themselves leader. Nobody moved, save Nohj, whose juggling now involved knives, forks, and spoons. The jingle of his cap was the only sound for several moments.
“What of looting privileges? Do we keep what we find?” Targ asked with a challenging raise of his chin. The mercenary had an obvious dislike for authority, and had sat through the entire breakfast meeting with a scowl on his face, directing dark glances at the Captain.
“Full looting rights are yours, with the exception that any objects related to the current troubles will be used in whatever manner necessary to close the matter, and returned if able once concluded. This, of course, includes the orb you used last night.”
A flood of protests immediately sounded from around the table, with Targ going so far as to reach for Warhammer 40k at his hip. The guardsmen at the doors, who seemed so like statues before, dropped into ready stances, hands going to sword hilts. With a calm look around, I raised my hand, calling for quiet. After a few moments, everyone settled into their chairs once more, tension and unease thick in the air. I looked at Nohj, who stopped juggling, catching the final falling quail egg in his mouth, chewing with a grin.
“A contract!” He exclaimed though bits of egg. “We shall have to draw up a contract of the accord, signed, sealed, and notarized. I have a bit of experience with that you know. We will submit it to the local banker, so that both parties can be held accountable. Anyone have a pen?” The man looked around the table with an expectant grin, the bells of his cap jingling madly. For a man that played the fool most of the time, he could be unexpectedly sharp.
A clerk with the badge of the Silver Shield on his breast came running from a side room at the Captain’s barked shout, pen, paper, inkwell, sand, and sealing wax in hand. After a few words with the Captain, the clerk scribbled furiously on the paper before handing it to the Captain for review. After a curt nod, the paper made its way to Nohj, who made a few remarks to the clerk, handing the paper back to be changed. After review by the Captain once more, he grunted, took out a ring with the Shield on it, and pressed it into hot wax dribbled on the page before signing his name. I did the same with the Wolf’s head signet my father left me, and the deal was made.
“Very good. My man here will show you the way to the ruins, and ensure that my investment reaches its full potential.” With a gesture, one of the shadows near the fireplace moved, and the shortest halfling I had ever seen materialized from them. His eyes darted around the room, as if searching for threats that weren’t there, but held contempt for everything he looked at. This one could prove to be a problem, if left unwatched. Not even Winter had noticed him!
“Now, if you please, we would have that orb.” The Captain held out his hands expectantly.
“Actually, Captain, for your own safety, you might not want to touch the orb directly. It seems to have some kind of effect on those that touch it, and not always good. It may be unsafe.” Hendar said hesitantly, as he unwrapped the pulsating pink globe from his pack. His look at the globe was almost..reverent. I had a feeling that we have no idea how unsafe it really might be.
“I will judge what is or is not safe. Torven, take the orb.” With a snap of his arm in salute, one of the guardsmen near the door hurried to Hendar and reached for the orb. After a few moments hesitation, Hendar reluctantly placed the orb in the guardsmen’s hands. A shudder and look of horror, or perhaps ecstasy, passed over the man. He stood, staring into the depths of the glowing globe, enraptured.
“Torven!” the Captain said sternly, and the man, blinked and shook his head, as though coming out of a trance. Hurriedly, he saluted again and left the room. Hendar’s eyes followed, a strange look on his face. Very unsafe. Why can’t things ever stay simple?
The sun had began its long descent in the sky before we reached the ruins the small halfling was leading us to. A crumbling wall of gray stone fifty feet high reached up out of the surrounding forest, a forgotten fortress of days long past. The crenelated towers poked just above the tops of the trees, and one had fallen, collapsed with age and rot, tearing down a section of crumbling wall with it. The only sound in the air was the wind, which disturbed me more than an army of orcs would have. A forest this close should have been teeming with the sounds of life, and yet was still as death. An ill omen. I tightened my grip on the scythe in my hand, the blade gleaming in the afternoon sun that sifted through the tall trees.
Nohj had moved forward, scrambling quickly up the pitted wall to sit atop it, watching for dangers and looking for a way in. After a few moments, a balled up scrap of parchment fell at my feet. Unfolding the page, I looked at the crude map Nohj had drawn. A small keep, with a few dilapidated buildings and a courtyard, but apparently empty. I had an odd feeling that it wasn’t. Something Julius had mentioned earlier tickled in the back of my mind, but what it might be fled before I could nail it down. Dismissing the thought, I edged my way into the opening of the collapsed tower, looking for a way inside the wall, Targ close behind.
As I stepped into that darkened tunnel, the hairs on the back of my neck raised up, and with a jerk of my scythe I barely stopped the blade meant to cut my skull in half. A creature with blue-tinged skin, muscular and man-shaped, snarled wordlessly at me as I stumbled back into the sunlight. Crude weapons and rusted armor somehow gave more menace to this creature, and the half-dozen companions that came rushing from the tower entrance. With a cry of exultation, Targ charged in, swinging his warhammer wildly. Shee-Ra, Julius, and the others joined the battle with cries of their own, swords and fire pushing the beasts back before their onslaught.
As I regained my balance, I realized the fight was over. In a furious storm of deadly magics and dance of weaponry, my companions had slain all of the creatures before I could even gain my footing. A quick search of the bodies was conducted, and with a professionalism that would make any soldier jealous, we moved on.
The courtyard of the keep was overgrown with weeds, and many of the buildings already collapsed. The training ground smelled of death and decay, the murky waters of a bog having claimed it. As we moved through the inner yard, I knew I would be the only one to be able to move swiftly through the watery morass of the training yard, and began to move that way to look for evidence of darkness and evil.
As I worked my way forward through the swampy terrain, a green and decaying hand shot out from the murky depth and gripped my ankle like a vice. With a yell of surprise and horror, I tried to shake the thing loose, to no avail. Its grip like iron, it pulled on me with a strength that was unnatural. I began to slip beneath the surface, and knew that today would be the day I died. This monstrosity would drag me into the depths, and I would spend eternity weeping my deathly sorrow in the bottom of a bog.
The shaft of an arrow blossomed in the hand, and its grip loosened enough for me to pull free. I scrabbled away, back to the edge of dry land, calling on the land to aid my escape. I glanced to my left, and saw the halfling, crossbow in hand, nod at me even as he loaded another bolt. The others stood ready, watching the bog, waiting for whatever it was that had come for us this time.
Out of the morass, the bloated and hideous remains of two women, their features twisted in horrible delight even as black blood and putrid water streamed from their mouths and noses, rose into the air. Their hands, the hands that had tried to drag me to the depths, were armed with claw-like fingernails. With a hideous cry of malfeasance, they came forward to take our souls. True warriors all, my companions and I stood our ground, each determined to send these hags back to hell.
I sat around the campfire that night, smoking my pipe and listening to Nohj play a soft and soothing tune on his magical lute. Winter slept soundly near my feet, the others in their bedrolls. An owlbear pup, tamed for the moment, slept next to the snoring Hendar, his arm around the creatures body. A terrible idea, that. I had no doubt that would end poorly, but since I owed Hendar my life, I would continue to try and keep the creature from ferality. Targ slept like the dead, barely surviving the days battle, nearly drowning in that bog. Those hags had torn bloody shreds out of him, out of all of us, but we finally put them down.
I considered what the next day might hold for us, and thought I could hear the whispered future on the wind. What had caused the undead to rise? Where had the goblins in the city come from? What is that pink orb? Who had killed the man who might have known where my father is, and why? I sat, staring into the night sky, and wondered. I sat, and pondered, wondering just how many ghost stories were true.