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   Chapter 3 Arrival

Maldene - Volume One By Mark Anthony Tierno Characters: 51682

Updated: 2018-04-10 12:02


R.K. 9990, 43 Juxor.

We've gotten safely away from the cannibalistic island, though we lost a few of the mercs and all of the sailors. Our numbers are now myself, Bronto, Eldar, Candol, the desert boy Kilgar, Kor-Lebear, the hair-footed wonder Quickfoot, Filmar, the ogre Blag-ak, and the mercs Tinweril, Lur-Klakar, Thorlan Felgernon, with their leader Starke. Starke seems to know a little bit about navigation, so he's acting as our default captain, trying his best to keep us steered straight as my magic keeps wind in the sails. Our new boat isn't nearly as large or as fast as the sleem we'd traveled in until the storm, but it's cozy enough to suffice. Our voyage so far has been uneventful, but I remain cautious.

I still wonder about what that old gypsy mentioned about our approaching destiny. Only Eldar and myself know the true reason for coming this far south into unknown waters and dangers, and even we aren't too sure about it all.

"Sabu, get up from that writing of yours, " Eldar shouted as he walked across the deck, "it's too nice a day to waste it with such things."

Sabu was just finishing up his diary entry and began to put his things away into his robes. Eldar was sharpening his sword as he approached, running a stone along either side of its edges. He sat down on a coil of rope next to his friend, continuing to sharpen his blade as they spoke. The fresh sea-scented air brushed by their nostrils as the sky's bright blue color crept into the ultraviolet, though its brightness still seeable by any normal people as a color they would call orain.

"I've been thinking about that old gypsy, " Sabu told him.

"Yeah, well she was kinda weird, and rather insistent about our future. But, I use an old Elven philosophy: 'don't worry about it 'till it happens'."

"I guess so, " Sabu responded as he got up, stretching.

Kor-Lebear came out onto the deck just then. He was tall, narrowly built, dark-haired with a hard-to-pin-down complexion, and some chin-stubble. His dark clothing was able to conceal many a surprise within their folds. His eyes were continuing to take everything in but while also not appearing to. He had an air of sinisterness hidden beneath a cloak of apparent innocence.

"Now there's a creepy fellow, " Eldar nodded over in Kor-Lebear's direction. "If anyone was ever born under the sign of Naterzo, it'd be him."

"He does have a way of talking without letting on to too much, " Sabu agreed.

"You mean, you heard him speak?" Eldar responded with mock astonishment.

They watched as Kor went over to a section of deck and began practicing some gymnastics. He tumbled, rolled, and leaped. He tossed a dagger over at a chosen target and then tried to leap in front of it to catch it before it hit, sometimes getting it, most often not. His moves were lithe, muscular, and dizzying.

"He does seem to have a certain. . . potential, " Eldar said slowly as he watched the display.

"And a certain amount of style, " Sabu agreed.

At the other end of the ship, Bronto was doing his own version of calisthenics. He'd wrapped a coil of rope around a large boulder, leaving several feet of rope left with which to grab onto. Holding the rope, he was whirling the boulder around in complex patterns, switching the rope from hand to hand as needed; an inspiring display of strength, coordination, and manual dexterity. The mercenaries were watching, impressed with the exhibition.

"Now that's what I call strong!" Starke exclaimed, hand on the ship's wheel, keeping it steered straight.

"I just wish he'd at least break a sweat doing it, " Tinweril looked on amazed.

"Or at least look like he's trying, " Thorlan responded.

"Just think of how much money we could ask for if he was in our merc troop, " Lur-Klakar wondered.

"Are you kidding?" Starke replied. "He'd BE the merc troop!"

Bronto continued concentrating upon his efforts, not listening to the admiring talk, interested only in bettering himself.

The ship's mess was indeed just that; dirty pots hung everywhere, all the knives were rusted or rusting, bits of old food clung everywhere, and mold covered more than a few parts of some of the cabinets. There was the sound of rummaging, as sticking out of an open floor cabinet was a pair of short legs ending in hairy feet. Pots of moldy food were sent flying from out of the cabinet as he searched for something edible.

"Nothing decent to eat around here, " Quickfoot muttered to himself as he tossed out a radish from the last Ice Age. "Not everything can be so rotten."

He pulled a rusty knife out from the junk and tested its balance.

"This is a piece of junk, " he commented as he tossed it back over his shoulder.

It landed with a dull tinny thunk on the door frame, quickly followed by the shattering of the old knife.

And narrowly avoiding Candol standing there in the doorway. He cleared his throat to get Quickfoot's attention.

The small one immediately whirled around, trying not to look guilty.

"Uh, sorry about that, " he said quickly. "I was just, uh, taking inventory of our food supplies."

"Uh-huh. For everyone or just yourself?"

Quickfoot looked sheepish as he tried to think of a good excuse. Then Candol smiled.

"Don't worry my little friend. It's all diseased and rotten anyhow."

"Yeah, I know, " Quickfoot sighed, "but one needs to eat!"

"Well, perhaps I can cure that."

Candol went over to a table, remnants of past feasts still clinging to it. He raised both his hands over the table and concentrated. As he did so the tabletop glowed, the bits of old food melted and ran, flowing to the table's center, and then pooling up and re-shaping. Finally the glow subsided, revealing a small banquet of real edible food.

Quickfoot's eyes opened wide as he gazed at the offering.

"Such a feast!" he exclaimed.

"Go ahead, it's all yours; a gift from Indra, " Candol smiled as he turned to leave.

Quickfoot needed no urging as he dived into the pile of food.

A rusty knife that had been made shiny new by Candol's spell quickly disappeared into Quickfoot's pocket.

In the lonely quarters that he'd chosen on board the ship, Filmar was polishing his sword as he meditated to himself. He was thinking about his home and father, both so far away, and of his mother, so beautiful and strong. He also thought about the journey that he was now involved in.

"I hope that you were right, " he whispered to himself.

Kilgar had taken up position in the crow's nest, sitting relaxedly, but still casually vigilant. He was amazed that there could ever be so much water around. Not like his desert home, where even a drop of water was extremely precious. This amount of water within sight would amaze his people. He looked out over the watery horizon as he wondered about this.

A flock of bird-things, each the size of a man, with long tentacles in place of where their feet should be, wings flapping swiftly towards them. Kilgar's ears picked up a faint screeching sound coming from them as they seemed to look hungrily at their ship. His instinct told him danger.

He stood up in the crow's nest and shouted down to the others.

"We've got something coming! Look!"

He pointed in the direction of the oncoming danger.

All eyes gazed over towards the odd creatures. It was a flock of maybe twenty or so of them coming towards the ship. As they began to bank down for a power dive, Eldar put his sharpening stone away and got his sword ready for battle.

"What are they?" Sabu asked.

"I know of them, " Eldar answered, "they're called Freels. They're not animals or even strictly birds; they're plants."

"Plants?!"

"Yeah, and they're mindless and dangerous."

"Hmm, interesting. What do you think that their species classification would be like? And about their biological-"

"Come on!" Eldar pulled him up, disrupting the sudden interest in zoology.

Sabu got up as Eldar ran over to the other side of the deck to shout his warning.

"Don't let their feet-tentacles touch you or you'll be paralyzed!"

The mercs were already drawing their swords, Kilgar readying himself up in the crow's nest. Blag-ak and Filmar came up from below deck to see what was going on while Sabu readied a spell.

Bronto was still whirling his big stone around and around, only now he did so much faster. A dizzying pace he obtained, almost spinning like a top, until finally. . .

The large boulder went soaring through the air like a mad comet, the Freels heedless of its approach; two of the strange birds even went towards it, thinking it some large bit of food.

The boulder splashed into three of them at once, their remains flying jet-propelled on into the sky as the boulder splashed down into the sea, far away.

Blag-ak took out one of his heads and began whirling it overhead. This time everyone in his way ducked as he made ready to let go.

One Freel squawked no longer as head violently contacted head.

The birds came down upon the ship's deck, two around the crow's nest. Kilgar slashed at them with his dagger from behind what little cover the crow's nest provided. The mercs took swords to them as Eldar came at them with his. Suddenly the birds' screeching shifted to a different pitch, the kind guaranteed to rack one's bones and claw at the nervous system. Ears were grabbed at by their owners as the noise tried to prevail upon one's senses.

Lur-Klakar and Thorlan stood stunned and motionless from the noise. Quickfoot had just begun to crawl out from below deck to see what was happening when he too stopped, stunned by the noise. Tinweril was rolling on the deck, hands over ears in an effort to quench the offensive sound. Eldar appeared unaffected by the screeching.

Blag-ak just got enraged by the noise.

One of the birds was diving straight for Lur-Klakar as he stood there unaware of the world. Eldar's sword came slicing down to sever an outstretched tentacle and again to slice at a wing. The bird changed his target to Eldar, remaining tentacle wrapping around both sword and arm, pulling him closer as the beak tried to peck at him. Eldar looked to be in trouble.

Its head exploded with the impact of one of Blag-ak's thrown heads of death.

"Now we even for you saving Blag-ak from demon ladies, " he rumbled.

Just then the screeching was stopped; the birds' mouths were still moving, but no sound emitted from them.

Sabu smiled as he brought down his hands from their outstretched positions, pleased that his spell had worked. Eldar gave him a thumbs-up sign.

Candol had come up and was tending to Quickfoot, hands on the poor creature's head to relieve him from the noise's effects. Eldar was kicking at Lur-Klakar to stir him, while Starke was getting Tinweril.

A shout was heard.

Eyes turned to see Kilgar trying to fend off two of the creatures from his perch. Both of the birds had wings torn from his knife. Kilgar looked trapped, with no one near enough to help him.

Kor-Lebear altered his gymnastics a bit. As he came jumping up, he rolled into a midair ball to avoid an oncoming Freel, came out of it, and threw a knife as he came down. The Freel flailed around in the air for a moment then crashed into the deck.

The dagger was hilt-deep in the beast's brain.

Filmar had taken cover on deck and had brought out a different weapon from off of his back; it was his bow, notched with a deadly-looking arrow. He took careful aim and fired. The first shot only clipped a wing. He reloaded and shot again, this time hitting the lower body.

"I should have listened a bit more closely when I was learning how to use this thing."

Lur-Klakar, now relieved of the stun's effects, charged at the nearest creature, diving at it with his sword. The bird swooped away from the impending sword blow as both of its tentacles wrapped themselves quickly around his shoulders.

Immediately Lur-Klakar froze up with paralysis, unable to move, as the bird lifted him skyward. Starke shouted as he tried to fight his way nearer, but it was already too far above the deck, pecking violently at its victim's head as it climbed. Two hundred feet up and it dropped him, to fall limply downward, though all the while was he still conscious and aware but unable to move a muscle.

Lur-Klakar lay dashed upon the deck, body broken, as the Freel then came swooping downward to get to the bits of meat that were now the former mercenary.

Another one wrapped a tentacle around Bronto's arm, but to somewhat different effects. With a loud battle scream, he shook off the encroaching paralysis and, using the hand that had the tentacle wrapped around it, slammed the bird abruptly to the deck to make it into a messy smear. He then took out a sword from his belt, a much shorter one than the one he normally used, and heaved it through the air.

The bird diving for Lur-Klakar's remains hit the deck with a sword thrust lengthwise through its body, limp and unmoving.

Filmar saw the boy Kilgar trying to fend off two of the birds. They were grabbing at him as he held onto a mast with one hand and slashed with his dagger in the other. But wounded though they looked, they still outnumbered him. Filmar notched his bow, aimed, and hoped. The arrow went sizzling through the air.

And bounced off of the thing's head, serving only to distract it.

But during that distraction Kilgar's knife flashed as it moved quickly, to leave a wide slit oozing green at the thing's neck. But as it fell, a tentacle from the other Freel wrapped around Kilgar's knife-hand as the beak came pounding down. He struggled, concentration pouring out from his face, as by sheer will power, he tried to resist the paralyzing touch. When the beak came down, he moved his body aside, still trying to free his hand. But, not yet being full grown, his strength wasn't quite up to it.

Mystic words were spoken upon the air as outstretched hands bid magic welcome.

The Freel fell asleep, releasing Kilgar, and bouncing its way from mast to mast down towards the deck, ending with a final crash.

The boy looked down to see Sabu smiling. He smiled back and then began wiping his dagger clean.

Candol was getting sick of all this trouble. He took out a small coin, flipped it, looked at what came up, and then nodded. He raised his voice to shout upon the winds that grew with each successive word.

"Begone foul birds! Let the power of sight be taken from you all!"

There was a sudden blinding flash that stunned all of the creatures, sending them reeling back in total blindness. Sabu then pointed with one hand as wind seemed to fountain from his body towards the flock of remaining birds. The sudden bolt of wind sent them all spinning off. Tumbling, they were unable to control their flight; blind, they were unable to see the fast approaching ocean surface as they impacted hard upon it as if it was solid rock.

Not one bird moved thereafter.

Sabu walked over to Candol and slapped him on the back.

"Nice teamwork there Candol, " he smiled.

Candol just gave a tired smirk in response.

As everyone picked themselves up, cleaned off their swords, and covered poor Lur-Klakar's body, a cry was heard from Kilgar in the crow's nest.

"Land Ho!"

Adrenaline still pounding in their veins, all eyes gazed towards the approaching distant island.

Lur-Klakar was quickly buried at sea, his sword wrapped with his body as it plunged down into the depths.

"This is a pretty pit-poor town, " Eldar remarked as they walked down the dock from their ship.

"It does seem to be lacking in certain basic social commodities, " Sabu responded.

Their ship was one of two docked at the rather shoddy looking port town. The dock they were walking along looked like it could fall apart at any moment, the buildings within sight looked like they'd seen one too many storms, and the few trees within sight looked too old for their own good. The people going about their chores even had a worn out and shabby look to them, as if they too might just fall apart at any moment. The sky overhead even had a dull dingy grey color to it, if indeed the word 'color' was the right word to describe its appearance.

"Is it possible for air to smell shabby?" Kilgar remarked as his nose took in their surroundings.

As they looked around, they saw a basic small port village, complete with a general store, fishing and boat supply, tavern, small warehouses, and other buildings. It appeared to have a single main street with a few small alleys branching off of it at random intervals. Beyond the main street and business district could be seen a scattering of small shacks passing themselves off as homes, with only the occasional dirt path leading to them to call itself a road. The main road seemed to start around the dock area and work its way along the coast a bit and then inland through the forest seen starting beyond the town's edge.

The few locals passing by and going about their daily chores seemed to subtly stay clear of the newly landed group. Even the dock worker handling their boat stayed out of their way, not speaking as he went about tying up their boat.

"Well, where do we start?" Starke asked.

"Let's just ask, " Tinweril offered.

So saying, he went over to a passing dock worker and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Excuse me good sir. We wanted to know where we might obtain some information."

The man just looked at him suspiciously, muttered something unintelligible, and then quickly walked along his way.

"Well, " Thorlan smiled, "that did a lot of good!"

"I'd like to see you try, " Tinweril responded looking just a bit miffed.

"Now just calm down and let a priest try it, " Candol interrupted. "Local townsfolk in small cities of this type often have great respect for the clergy."

Candol then straightened up his robes and went over to a passing woman carrying a bag of fish. He walked up, presented himself, did a short bow, and then began to speak.

"Excuse me kind lady. I don't want to interrupt your chores, but I can carry your load as we talk if you wish."

As the woman eyed him with distrust, Candol reached for the bag and continued.

"I am but a humble priest of Indra and seek only local directions. In exchange I would be happy to put a blessing upon your household."

The lady suddenly got an almost frightened look on her face and began to back off, leaving the bag in Candol's hands. As she backed up she seemed to mouth a voiceless word over and over again. At about ten feet away from Candol, she then just ran away down the street, faster than a woman of her middle age could normally be expected to do.

There were some snickering and smirks coming from Candol's friend and the mercs. He looked at the bag of fish that he was holding and then off at the retreating form of the woman. In response to the snickering, he gave reply to the woman.

"Oh yeah?" he shouted. "Well, just for that, I'll put a curse on your home instead! It'll rain day-old dead fish there every rise for a kev!"

He then turned towards his friends, looking just a bit sheepishly.

"Oh yes, " Bronto chuckled mightily, "they sure do have great respect for priests here. They really know how to treat them!"

"But that offering of the blessing on their household always works. They go for it every time!"

"You almost had me convinced, " Eldar smiled.

"Well, " Candol looked up and smiled slightly, "fish anyone?"

As Candol set the bag down, Sabu began to look a bit thoughtful and then finally spoke.

"Well, if the rest of this town is as scared as she looked, then we're going to have some problems. Normal polite subtleties of conversation seem almost useless in these circumstances. We need to try a different method other than asking people off of the street, and maybe bolden our approach."

"Well, we could try one of the local businesses, " offered Starke, "but which one do we start with?"

"There's always my favorite place, " smiled Bronto.

Bronto headed for the nearest and only tavern, strolling boldly down the street. Its sign hung limply at an angle, bearing its name and a picture. Its name identified it as "The Dead Cock Inn", possibly even shabbier than the rest of the town.

"If that sign's right, this place is probably the liveliest place in this stupid town, " Kor-Lebear remarked derisively to himself.

Filmar noted that the picture above the sign looked less like a male chicken and more like something else that the name might suggest. He closed his mind to the obscene image and continued on with the others.

The inside of the place had a drab dusty feel to it, the air smelling of old urine and even older beer. A few chipped wooden tables decorated the old floor, with scattered remnants of people spaced around them. At one end of the room were some stairs going up that didn't seem that they could support even Quickfoot's light weight. Intermittent candles and dirty windows kept the place dimly lit, while occasional wisps of smoke wafted through the air. Another door stood on the wall next to the grimy-looking bar. Behind the bar, standing in front of a rather sad looking collection of old drinks, was a potbellied bartender. His attempts at wiping the bar-top were having less the effect of cleaning it and more of the effect of just relocating the existing grime. The bartender looked out of one side of his eyes as the others came walking in.

Starke noticed that conversation went down to whispers as they came walking in. Tired looking people cast sideways glances at them as they went over to the bar. Everyone seemed to be sizing them up except for a large man in the back who was engrossed in an excessively large tankard.

Tinweril and Blag-ak stayed just outside the door while Quickfoot and Kilgar disappeared into the nearest shadowy recesses. Most of the rest strode up to the bar where the bartender glared at them suspiciously. Bronto went over to the other end of the bar where he sat down and ordered something from a passing serving girl. Thorlan whispered in Sabu's ear as they all entered.

"Don't worry. I'll show them 'bolden'!"

Before he could be stopped or cautioned, Thorlan went up to the bar to be the first of the group to speak. He faced the general crowd of the shabby looking inn, and spoke.

"I am Thorlan Felgernon. I and my companions seek a guide to your fair island; someone who knows the way to the lair of the evil-"

Before he could finish, the barkeeper had turned white and the rest of the crowd turned silent. Eldar smiled at Thorlan's rather simplistic approach while Bronto kept on drinking from the tankard just served him, and Kor-Lebear just slapped his hand to his face.

"That prize Idiot!" he hissed to himself. "We would be better off to put him out our misery!"

Sabu grinned trying to contain himself.

"This isn't quite what I had in mind, " he said to himself.

Starke decided to try and fix things and so interrupted Thorlan's naive public address.

"What my companion means, " he interrupted hastily, "is that we need someone to guide us around your town as we're new here and just landed and-"

At the mention of the word 'new', heads turned, some people found the back door, and even more shied away.

"I don't think that worked either, " Eldar chuckled.

"It does appear to have stimulated a most detrimental response from the local populace, " Sabu smiled back.

Eldar sometimes wished that his friend would talk like normal people.

"Uh, " Starke stammered as he looked at everyone backing off.

SLAM!!!

All heads turned to see Bronto's tankard having been just smashed halfway into the bar's counter top, with Bronto standing up and looking around the crowd with a fierce eye.

"Does anyone here claim to have the true spirit of a warrior?" he shouted, his voice ringing one or two glasses. "Or are you all the field mice that you appear to be?!"

The big man in the back with the large tankard stood up. Candol had been looking at him as he stood up.

"I was half expecting that, " he said to himself, "it was too much of a cliche' for the gods to pass up."

The big man walked over. He was almost as tall as Bronto but possibly even more largely built. He plunged a fist down on the counter top in front of Bronto, leaving a dent on its surface.

"Grog not afraid of no one!" he bellowed slowly. "Grog brave!"

"Oh, we have a real intellectual winner here, " Eldar said quietly to Sabu. "I'll give you even money that he can't finish a complete sentence before we leave this bar."

Sabu thought a moment and then responded, "You're on."

"Can you be our guide?" Starke asked. "We'll pay you three pieces of platinum."

Grog looked from Starke and back to Bronto again, "He say me afraid."

"Actually, " Starke began, "he meant-"

"What I meant was, " Bronto interrupted, "you can prove that you're brave by helping us."

"Grog Brave! Grog used to be guard of tower, " he replied while thumbing in a direction in back of him.

"Okay, " Sabu said to himself, "so now we know that the place has guards. . ."

"Grog help feed Master's monster pets in there! Grog brave."

". . . and assorted beasties also guarding what appears to be a present or former refuge of his Master, which could well have been Miro. By how proud he looks I'd say that the beasts that he talks about would be rather nasty and large. . ."

"Grog also best drinker in all island."

". . . and, we're about to have a drinking contest between him and Bronto."

"You know, " Eldar said to Sabu, "most people add up one and one and get two. You add one and one and discover calculus."

Bronto smiled broadly, "Now there's a contest that I can get int

o. Will you help us if I beat you in a drinking contest?"

Grog thought a bit and then replied, "Yes, I accept!"

"And that qualifies as a complete sentence, " Sabu finished to Eldar as he held out his hand, "hand it over."

Eldar shook his head and grinned as he fished out a piece of gold from his pocket and gave it to his friend.

Moments later found the two behemoths at either end of a small round table, large tankards being put on the table by the serving girl. The shabby looking crowd managed to gather itself around the spectacle to have a look while the two readied themselves.

"This is probably the most exciting thing to hit this town in ages, " Kor-Lebear sarcastically remarked.

Candol noticed that Quickfoot had somehow materialized from out of the shadows and was taking bets from amongst the gathered crowd. He sighed; what that little hairy wonder wouldn't do for either quick money or a free meal.

The bartender came over to officiate. He made sure that the mugs were each evenly filled, eyed each person carefully, and then spoke.

"Okay. Start drinking at the count of three."

Grog seemed to think to himself, as if trying to puzzle out where the number three fit into the scheme of things.

"One,. . ."

The two mountains of muscle looked at each other.

"Two,. . ."

They each reached for their tankards.

"Three!"

There was a blur as large hands swept mugs to mouths, to empty them and then reach for the next one just filled by the barmaid. Cheers began to come from out of the shabby crowd, definitely a much livelier response than Eldar would have given them credit for. All eyes faced the small table.

All eyes except for Kor-Lebear's. His were on the locked box of coins sitting behind the bar counter as he sidled a bit closer to it.

Drinks were emptied as the two men looked at each other through their large mugs. Cheers went around for both of them. Quickfoot continued to take a few last bets.

And no one had noticed how the box had gotten unlocked and emptied in so short a time.

Grog was a blur of activity, almost being one with his supply of drink, a stern look upon his face. Bronto was drinking at a less rapid rate but seemed to be enjoying it a bit more, putting on an occasional smile for the barmaid and cheering back at the assembled crowd.

"I think that Grog was named for the drink he likes best, " Eldar observed with a smile.

"Yeah, " Sabu responded, "and our friend Bronto just seems to enjoy the spectacle of the thing."

The heavy drinking went on for several diids, both opponents indulging heartily in their drinking, onlookers cheering on their favorite drinker. Beer-foam misted in the air around the small round table, the drinking was so intense. The barmaid was hard put to keep the mugs filled and moved along fast enough, as one tankard after another hit the floor, emptied of its liquid contents. The sheer amount of frantic drinking energy almost qualified it as an intense form of aerobic exercise. The bartender just smiled to himself as he kept count of the large numbers of drinks that they'd have to pay for.

Suddenly Bronto stopped drinking and got up, "This is getting us nowhere."

"What's he doing now?" Candol asked himself.

Bronto went back behind the bar and through a door to a back room. Silence overcame the crowd. Suddenly someone shouted.

"He's given up. Grog's the winner!"

There were simultaneous cheers and moans as money began to change hands, while the jingling and pouring of several bottles was heard in the back room. Then a few moments later, Bronto's heavy footsteps were heard coming back. As he came back into the room, he carried with him a large bottle of some drink he'd either found or made up. As he went back over to the table, silence came upon the crowd again. Money stopped changing hands. Grog stopped drinking and looked at him puzzledly.

Bronto smiled and sat the large bottle down in front of Grog. He then went over behind the bar and grabbed a few bottles of what looked to be the most potent drinks available and began to mix them into an even larger tankard, whistling in a deep baritone as he did so. Everyone just watched him, wondering.

Finally he finished making his concoction and came back to the table. He placed the drink down on his side of the table, put his hands on his hips, and then spoke.

"Okay, let's lay it all on the line. For Grog, I got a whole large bottle of the weakest beer that I could find here. I doubt if it would even make passable mouthwash."

The bartender made a face at the remark about his beer but kept his silence.

"And for me, I made up a full tankard of the most devastating brews that I could find behind that bar; guaranteed to get a small herd of elephants drunk. I say that you can't finish off this single bottle of weak beer, but that I can drink this entire tankard of death brew even after having drunk as much as I already have. If you finish yours and I also finish mine, then you still win, but if you don't finish then I win; and leaving the table means that you lose."

Grog thought about this for a bit, "Grog can drink many times that amount of cheap beer and not get drunk!"

"So, do you accept?"

"Grog accept, " as he plunged his fist down into the table.

Grog then picked up the large bottle, put it to his mouth, and began to drink the flood of liquid that ran down into his mouth. Bronto just slowly slipped at his drink, each sip almost enough to defeat a normal man that hadn't drunken half as much as he'd already had.

Grog tried to drink the large bottle dry as fast as he could. Bronto just sat back, sipped, and smiled broadly, while the crowd cheered on Grog. Just when Grog seemed to be about halfway through the bottle, a funny expression came over his face. He tried to drink some more but began to look more and more uncomfortable. Finally, he stopped drinking and put down the bottle. He looked around the room as if trying to spot something. Bronto just continued to sip.

Finally, "Grog have to go!"

Grabbing his pants at the belt with one hand, he then ran out the front door to the outside, followed a moment later by the sound of a rather intense stream of liquid hitting the dirt road outside and Grog giving a large sigh of relief.

Bronto smiled widely as Eldar soon broke out into uncontrollable laughter. The assembled drab local bar-goers finally caught on and began to laugh also. Money exchanged hands one last time. Starke came up and slapped Bronto on the back.

"Nice work! But how did you know that he'd-"

"Our friend Bronto here knows his drinks, " Eldar replied for his friend. "I taught him how to make that concoction that he mixed up for Grog. It is one used by elven healers to allow one to, ah, pass water much more freely and relieve constipation. It normally doesn't have such immediate and intense effects. . . unless, of course, one has already drunk a lot of alcohol."

"Ha! He's smart as well as strong. And without even having to finish that alcoholic rat-poison there to win!"

Bronto smiled, "But I said that I'd finish it and I'm going to!"

With that, to the stunned silence of the crowd, he finished that large tankard of a hundred and fifty proof death in a single swig, wiped off his mouth, and laid the empty mug down with a crash on the table. Starke's jaw hung open as Bronto got up, slapped him hard on the back, then went out towards the front door.

"Shakoo,. . ." was the only expression of astonishment that Starke could manage to slowly mouth silently to himself.

Starke shook his head as he finally came over to Sabu and Eldar. He'd gotten his jaw closed by then and had an expression of astonishment and puzzlement on his face. He looked over at Bronto as he went out through the door, then back at the two in front of him.

"That,. . . I mean, after what he'd drunk already. . . he should be dead! How. . . that one drink should have felled any two men. . ., " he stammered on in astonishment.

"You ought to have seen him drink some mountain men under the table once, " Eldar smiled.

"Yes, " Sabu responded, "I believe it was a native drink called a mountain high-baller. That was the closest I've ever seen him to getting drunk."

Starke just shook his head in disbelief and began to go for the door. Eldar just smiled broadly at Sabu as he himself started to get up.

"Of course, " he said to his friend, "it could have something to do with Bronto's father owning that vineyard of his; drinking all that wine as a kid has to have made his liver just about impervious."

All of the others started to follow, to collect their new guide as he'd finished relieving himself. Sabu, Eldar, and Candol left, Sabu tossing the bartender a couple of gold coins for payment as he left. They were followed by Kilgar scurrying out, and then Thorlan. Tinweril and Blag-ak had been first out, since they had been by the door to begin with. Last out was Quickfoot, carrying a bag heavy with winnings from the bets he'd taken.

Outside, Grog was just finishing doing up his pants, as the others filed out. Bronto came up to him and slapped him on the back, smiling his broad grin.

"Well friend, " he rumbled, "what have you to tell us?"

Grog wiped his mouth with the back of his right hand and answered, "Grog know two ways there; one short and dangerous, the other long and easy."

"Isn't that always the case?!" Eldar smiled to himself.

"What's guarding the place?" asked Starke.

"Guards outside, wizard inside in charge of the Keep. Grog can't count how many of Master's beasts are in there."

Eldar whispered to Sabu, "Are we sure that he can count at all?"

Sabu smiled in response.

"Get to the good part, " Tinweril put in, "what's guarding the treasure?"

"Grog never get that far. Only know it size of small mountain, " Grog tried spreading his arms apart to emphasize the size but only failed. "Old man east end of town know better; he used to feed it."

Sabu and Eldar just exchanged knowing looks; they'd been over this before. There were some things that they'd thought better not to tell their hired mercenaries.

"We go to this old man then, " Sabu said quietly, "we need the information."

"Very well, " Starke gave a quick curt nod and then motioned his men into line.

Unseen, a small dark raven-like bird flew down and landed on a convenient rooftop. It watched down on them with inhuman eyes that seemed to reflect only the empty depths of pure evil. It watched them travel across town and then shifted its gaze off in a different direction, beyond the town into the forest.

They were passing by the few shabby buildings that this town had to offer, the shabby people making way for them as they strode by. Bronto was smiling as usual, Filmar was looking concerned, Quickfoot was keeping out of sight, Kilgar walked soundlessly with his knife at the ready, and Candol was making quasi-religious gestures at the passing peasants just to see them run off in superstitious fright.

Distant thunder heard coming upon the wind, slow and rolling, echoing throughout the town. People stopping and looking up at the sound.

Eldar looked up at the sky and muttered, "That's funny, I don't see any clouds or storm signs."

Sabu, ever ready with an explanation for anything, "Well, there have been instances of heat lightning at this latitude and under climatic conditions of similar. . ."

Distant sounds getting closer, now punctuated by a sudden crack of lightning. Or is it the snap of some giant's large whip? People now scattering for the indoors, windows shutting, doors slamming, businesses closing. A small group of customers being pushed violently away from the suddenly-closing fruit-stand that they'd been about to make a purchase from. The street emptying itself of all apparent life.

Candol had been trying to bless someone when that person suddenly looked up into the distance and ran. Candol looked around puzzledly.

"That's funny, they've usually been running after I try and bless them."

Bronto quietly sniffed the air and then began to draw his sword. Kilgar stiffened motionless for a moment, then dived into the shadows. Kor-Lebear, instincts of the hunted, was nowhere to be seen. Starke looked questioningly over at Sabu, who concentrated.

Distant sound of thunder and lightning, getting closer. Now sounding more like large hooves pounding the hard earth and long whips being cracked upon the air. Distant animalistic cries coming through the air. Four abandoned customers of a fruit-stand being the only ones not yet hidden, leaving Eldar and Sabu and their companions as alone in the street as an oasis in the desert.

"I sense approaching riders. . . and trouble, " Sabu finished his concentration and opened his eyes.

"We appear to have some company then, " Starke said as he drew his sword, "Let's prepare to welcome them."

Swords were drawn. Blag-ak readied one of his heads, Candol held tightly to the symbol of his god Indra hanging around his neck, and Sabu held himself ready to cast any needed magic spell.

Thunder now definitely the sound of a number of large hooves pounding closer, their thunder being felt from the ground itself. Thunder and animal-like cries and shouts coming from just around the curve of the street. Adventurers readying themselves for what they knew not.

As they looked on in the direction of the nearing sounds, from around the corner came bursting forth six large figures that then stopped at the far end of the street observing. Each figure was on a large bulky horse that stood a full eight feet at its shoulder, long mangy hair covering its entire body, fierceness streaming from the eyes, dark smoke coming from the nostrils. More frightening than the mounts, though, were their riders. Each large rider would have been as tall as their horses had they been standing. Their faces were a contorted combination of human, wild boar, tusks, horns, and hair. Each one had one clawed hand gripping the reins of their mount, while the other brandished a sword almost as long as a man is tall. Dark mist seemed to exude from their bodies into the air around them. They talked briefly amongst themselves in their own guttural language.

"Are those 'whos' or 'whats', " Thorlan inquired as he gripped his sword all the more tightly.

Blag-ak whirled one of his heads by its hair and let it fly. It streamed through the air at a frightening velocity, screaming straight towards one of the riders. Blag-ak smiled as he saw what was going to be a sure hit.

The head exploded as a large sword came down on top of it, sending bits of it flying off harmlessly in multiple directions. Blag-ak grumbled his disapproval. One of the other riders pointed his large sword at the group. Out of it streamed a bolt of blue fire, flying straight towards the group.

Candol muttered a quick prayer under his breath, running the words all together into a single word.

"ProtectUsMightyIndraFromThisComingHarm."

A shimmering wall of light sprang up in front of the group. The bolt of blue fire hit it, harmlessly scattering bits of blue fire and shimmering light in different directions, both bolt and wall destroyed.

Candol staggered back as if he'd been hit in the stomach. Filmar dashed over to help him stand back up. Eldar called over his shoulder, not taking his eyes off the riders at the end of the street.

"Are you okay?"

Candol waved Filmar off as he got back to his feet, "Yeah, but I can't hold off another one of those bolts."

Sabu turned to Grog, "What are those creatures?"

"They bandit beast riders sent by Master to collect from town. They no like Grog; they say Grog too stupid."

"Gee, " Kor-Lebear whispered to himself from out of the shadows, "I just can't imagine why!"

"Well, " Sabu began, "I'll see if my magic can hold them off for a bit."

"Have no fear, wizard, " Thorlan Felgernon stated boldly, "cold steel will slay them!"

The horses stopped pawing the ground as their riders signaled them into a charge. Their charge down the street sounded like a large rumbling earthquake. Thorlan leaped in front of the rest, his sword at the ready, as they came ever closer.

"No Thorlan!" Tinweril shouted over to him. "That's suicide!"

He started to go after Thorlan, but Starke put a retraining hand on his shoulder to stop him.

"His choice, " Starke said sternly, "it's too late for it now."

Tinweril reluctantly stopped and just readied his sword.

Doesn't seem much more foolish than his usual, Kor-Lebear thought to himself from somewhere in the shadows.

The ground under Thorlan's feet shook as the six beasts pounded down towards him. He put up his sword in a defensive position, as if to block their oncoming attack with that gesture. They were halfway down the street towards him when one of the riders pointed his sword.

The popping sound of air ionizing, as a blue streak of fire courses through the air. The swift swish of a sword as a brave soul seeks to deflect it with mere steel. Cry of pain as an explosion of indigo flame sends a man, burnt and crumpled, flying backwards through the air to slam hard upon a building and slowly fall down its side to slump upon the ground.

Tinweril reacted quickly. He ran up in front of their oncoming path, jumped to one side, and immediately swept his sword low at the legs of the hairy mounts. At the same time, a knife came whizzing from out of the shadows in which Kilgar hid, and another deadly head released from Blag-ak. All homed in upon their targets.

Tinweril's sword bounced off of the beast's leg harmlessly, the dagger was caught and crushed in the hand of one of the riders, and the head was met by another bolt of blue fire. The net effect didn't even slow them down. Tinweril tried to jump back to the side as they passed, but one of the riders caught him with its large sword, slicing a gash of blood down Tinweril's back. He tried to stifle a scream of pain as a slick poisonous oil from the blade's edge seeped quickly into his wound.

Another bolt of blue screamed out to hit Blag-ak, unleashing a loud growl from the ogre. He stumbled back from the force of the blow, but seemed to still be okay. One of the riders ran over to where Bronto was, his sword at the ready, but sheer momentum of the rider looked to overwhelm Bronto even if his strike was true. A whip lashed out from another rider, wrapping itself around Starke to draw the struggling human closer towards the large sword in the rider's other hand.

Thorlan had somehow crept out from where he'd fallen, staggering weakly, his burned features almost unrecognizable, muscles withered, armor melted against his body. Still he came out to observe the carnage about to be reaped upon his companions. He stopped, sighed weakly, gathered his strength for a moment, and then suddenly charged out screaming at the top of his lungs.

All heads turned briefly, including those of the riders. The nearest rider readied his sword as Thorlan approached. Thorlan ran and leapt towards his intended target. While he was midway through the air, the rider's giant sword suddenly immolated in blue flame. Everyone watched as if in slow motion.

Burned, foolish, but brave, a man slowly flies through the air. Blue sword of flame comes searing down upon its approaching target. Loud crack of thunder as contacting sword turns a man into a fine spray of blue flame and finger-sized blackened bits raining slowly down upon the street.

No one there had time to mourn for the loss of one Thorlan Felgernon, mercenary both foolish and brave. Only one person watching them all knew quite well that Fate did not reward the unwise.

"Well, " Eldar began, "I don't know about you, but I'm impressed."

Sabu just nodded as he wracked his brain for a spell that might be effective.

Tinweril quivered on the ground, as Bronto's fate seemed sealed and Starke was drawn to within reach of the sword. The beast charging down upon Bronto then unleashed a horrendous inhuman battle cry as it drew back its sword.

Zing! A whip suddenly breaks, releasing its victim as, seemingly at the speed of thought, the same offending shaft of wood continues on to imbed itself in the right eye of another rider's mount. Loud cry as the mount rears back in pain to send its huge rider crashing down upon the ground.

Zing! Another arrow speeds out to imbed itself in the back of the neck of the one that had felled Tinweril. Death scream ringing loud upon the air as a rider drops dead upon the ground.

Zzzt! The sound of steel slicing through the air as a blurred figure dives quickly in front of Bronto, sword hitting with surgeon-like precision the one large vulnerable vein in the fearsome mount's neck. Blood spurting and mount now running wildly, Bronto leaps to one side, slashing his sword up and across the rider. If thunder there be in the power of muscles, then a thunderous peal sounded from Bronto's arms as his immense strength and heavy sword cleaved the beast rider at its waist. As the mount crashed with the remains of its rider into a wall, Bronto stood beside his new companion.

Flash! A small but sudden burst of light appears in front of the eyes of another rider, sending them both screaming about with momentary blindness. Sudden cry from both mount and rider, Sabu following up the unknown magical help by sending them flying fast up into the air. Mount and rider only seen to arc high over the rooftops as they land with a loud crash in the woods beyond.

Kor-Lebear, seeing the opportunity, went leaping from out of the shadows, feet poised in a forward kick aimed straight at the head of the rider that had killed Thorlan. Simultaneously another, more female, battle cry sounds as a second body is seen leaping from the closed fruit stand towards the same target. The force of his kick sends the rider off its mount and laying on the ground with a loud crack, as the new figure's leap ends by crashing the rider's head against the hard ground upon which it rested. As the mount goes galloping off, Kor-Lebear looked at his new female companion and she at him. Immediately they knew each other for what they were; people of similar attitudes, tastes, and goals. Each saw determination, greed, and a certain amount of blood-thirstiness in the other's eyes.

Each liked what they saw, as they shared a single grin.

Starke used his reprieve to leap to one side and slash at the demonic horse with his sword. Not the mount was he aiming for, but the saddle straps around its underbelly. Snap went the leather harness as the saddle loosened. Then did the beast rider rear up with his horse with a mighty swing to be aimed at Starke's head. Leather slid against hairy flesh as the entire saddle suddenly slid off the hairy beast, depositing its rider hard upon the ground. Starke's sword sliced down at the fallen rider, but only to bounce off of its black armor. The beast rider brought up his sword and began to rise, grinning hungrily.

Suddenly, a loud scream is heard as Grog charges up to the same mount by Starke. He carries not sword in hand, but merely fists. The evil horse glances just briefly in his direction.

Ka-Thwak!!! The sound of Grog's mighty fist impacting straight into the deadly horse's head. Slowly it seems as the horse rears back from the force of the blow, toppling over upon its hind legs to finally land back upon its own rider, trapping him as the rider's own sword spears through his horse's chest.

Starke swung at the trapped rider, but still his steel only served to dent the armor as the rider struggled to get out from under his dying horse. Thinking for a bit, he then aimed for the eye-slits in the beast's helmet. Blood spurts out with a satisfying scream as a pierced eye occupies the beast. Still, though, it doesn't die, as Starke then steps back to think.

Leaping past Starke, Filmar, flashing silver sword in hand, comes down with a swift single stroke. Through black armor, neck, and flesh it cuts, cleaving head from shoulders. As the dead beast's head rolls aside, Starke wonders again about Filmar as he looks at the silver sword's razor-sharp edge.

One beast rider alone remained, standing besides its fallen horse, now pierced through the eye with an arrow as it lay dead upon the ground. It faces the rest, evil glowing in its eyes, blue flames dancing along the length of its drawn sword. As everyone faces towards it, Eldar draws a small object out of his pocket.

"Here, catch!" Eldar yells as he throws the small object at the beast rider.

The beast leaps aside as the object hits the ground, emitting a sudden flash of light. Just at that moment then, a loud roar is heard as Blag-ak shakes the ground with his running charge. The beast turns just in time to see the large ogre leap towards him.

The sight of a large ogre doing a cannonball dive straight towards you is enough to quell even the bravest of hearts. The beast got a momentary expression of fear on its face just before Blag-ak plunged right through it, sailing straight into a stone wall beyond. When he got up, it was quite clear that both the beast and the remains of the wall were now as one.

As Blag-ak picked himself up, everyone relaxed as adrenaline levels returned to normal. They looked over their fallen foes as well as each other. Eyes turned to also seek out the new unforeseen help. The skirmish had been won.

On a rooftop nearby, a large dark raven fluttered its wings and flew off in disgust, having observed more than enough.

As the dust from the battle settles down to the ground, in a nearby alley a gold-skinned gypsy ducks unseen into the shadows as she looks on approvingly.

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