August 6th, 2001
The Challenge was put forth to continue the tale introduced by Excrucior in the July 4th edition. Roirdei rose to the challenge and here reads part II..
"A little cash flow never does any harm," announced Kerlin, "and I say
it's high time we mastered the fine art of hauling freight halfway
across the world." Glancing around at his companions, he quickly added,
"If that is all right with you guys, of course." Diren and Herenia
immediately gave firm nods of assent, while Losinia simply mounted her
horse and, with a sharp click of her heels, left the stables at a
gallop. Knowing Losinia, Kerlin supposed this was her way of agreeing.
The other three caught up with her at the great City Gates. She was in deep conversation with a rather shady and grubby-looking man in dark and heavily frayed robes. Upon noticing their arrival, this less than sympathetic-looking character slid out of sight into the shadows.
"Why must you always hang around these... these... ruffians, Losinia?" whispered Diren as soon as he was sure the man was out of hearing range. Come to think of it, Kerlin wasn't sure it was a man at all. He had heard rumors that orcs and other creatures were often to be seen in the City in disguise.
"That ruffian, as you call him, was about to give me a tip on what the best trading goods are at the moment. But that was before you lot came barging in and scared him off," she spat at Diren. "Now I'll have to go ask my other contacts in the business."
Kerlin, wishing to avoid an argument, took control of the situation. "All right, you do that, Losinia. The rest of us will get some supplies." As Losinia headed off in her trademark silent fashion, leaving her horse tied to a post, Kerlin turned once again to his friends. "Diren, come with me to the Market, to stock up on rations and potions. Herenia, please head to the Mage's Workshop through the Great Tree and buy yourself some staves."
The group separated, hitching their mounts onto a conveniently-located post, and Kerlin and Diren were soon submerged in the great hustle and bustle of the City of Medievia's marketplace. Vendors of all types, sizes, colors and species were yelling out the merits of their wares for all to hear, while commoners flocked in throngs to see the latest fashions or buy the newest equipment. "My faith provides me with ample nourishment," said Diren, "and I have no need to stock such items. I shall purchase our potions," and with this he disappeared into the crowd, leaving Kerlin to barter with bakers, butchers and fishmongers.
They soon found what they were looking for and returned to the City Gates, their money bags considerably lighter. To their great surprise, Losinia was already there, waiting, tapping her booted foot impatiently upon the dusty cobblestone road. Herenia, it seemed, had not yet finished her errand.
As they got closer, Diren suddenly stuck out his hand, stopping Kerlin in his tracks. "There she goes again, abusing people with her faithless meddling," he whispered. And sure enough, no sooner had he spoken that there was a loud *BANG* and an unsuspecting Losinia fell to the ground, fast asleep.
A giggle came out of thin air, and a moment later Herenia appeared, holding a clear wand in her hand, which was letting out a thin wisp of smoke. "Well, the wands work," she said merrily. Kerlin and Diren gave her a reproachful look, then proceeded to revive Losinia.
While the victim of this attack, now wide awake and not amused at all, gave the still chuckling mage a thorough tongue-lashing, Kerlin took Diren aside and asked, "How did you know she was there? I didn't see a thing!"
Diren quickly told him all about the spells Clerics and Mages use to see through the invisibility enchantment. He added, "You should quaff one of these potions, yes, this misty one here. It will produce the same effect."
Kerlin took good note of this, and, taking advantage of a slight pause in Losinia's verbal assault on Herenia, he asked, "So what did your, err, contacts have to say?", trying to hide his doubts about Losinia's acquaintances.
Either she wasn't very perceptive or had decided not to make a fuss, because she promptly answered, "I have been told that we will get excellent profits if we can find some timber to bring back to the City."
"Thank the Gods," replied Kerlin adding, "Vryce knows I could use some cash," as he cast a sorrowful look at the many dents and scratches in his armor. If Diren was in the least offended by this blasphemy, he deemed it best not to show it. "How do you plan to proceed?", Kerlin added.
"My contact tells me the best place to get timber is at the Ranger's Cabin, off Crystal Lake," replied Losinia. "It isn't all that far, we should be able to run over there, get the goods and be back here before nightfall, if we do it correctly."
A strange look came over Diren's face. "You really seem to have planned this well," he mused.
Losinia shrugged, and answered, "It's in my best interest for it to be well-planned, I'm in this for the profit," then added, "and not for the pleasure of your company," her eyes shooting daggers at Herenia.
"So be it!", exclaimed Kerlin, and, securing their supplies into their packs, they mounted their horses, headed through the City Gates and set off into the wilderness. Kerlin and Losinia took the lead, with Diren and Herenia riding drogue. Soon the City was far behind them, a mere speck on the horizon, as they rode south-east through hills and plains, through forests and over rivers, under a sunny blue sky full of puffy white clouds.
Conversation soon died out (Diren and Herenia had been bickering yet again), as the sky grew steadily cloudier, the trees thicker, the light dimmer. The party members cast wary glances around them as they passed, every shadow a potential menace, jumping at the slightest noise. Kerlin brought the group to a halt, and at his demand Herenia chanted out a string of arcane magical words. One by one, they faded away from view.
Feeling much safer now, they set off at a good pace, Diren and Herenia doing their best to magically enhance their steeds' capacities. "This would be far easier," wheezed a magically exhausted Herenia, "if we were powerful enough to cast the spell on the whole group at once." The sky above their heads had now turned dark gray, and loud, booming crashes of thunder could be heard.
The party had just passed a particularly dense patch of trees when Herenia brought her horse to a halt, sniffed the air, then turned to Diren and said, "Do you smell something?" The source of this foul odor was soon evident. A huge figure stepped out of the trees behind them. They heard the sharp snap of breaking branches, turned around and saw to their great dismay an overwhelmingly fat and ugly Ogre, glaring at them maliciously. The monster swung the uprooted tree it was using as a club at Herenia, who happened to be nearest to it. Despite the fact that she was invisible, the blow struck her with perfect aim and sent her sprawling to the ground. The creature apparently knew how to see through the invisibility spell as well.
Kerlin rushed to her aid, but had gone too far ahead. The Ogre let out a triumphant yell and raised its club high over its head to deal the killing blow to the now helpless Mage. Suddenly, there was a brilliant flash of light as a bolt of white lightning arced down from the heavens straight into the Orge's massive body. The earth under their steeds' hooves shook and swayed as the massive monster fell to the ground, a gaping hole of badly charred and slightly smoking flesh where moments before there had been a corpulent gut.
Diren was as white as a ghost on top of his horse. He kept looking at the fallen Ogre in bewilderment, muttering under his breath. When he came back to his senses, he turned to his companions and stammered, "I... I didn't know it would do that..." Kerlin was giving him an apprehensive look, Losinia seemed to have gained some respect for him.
Herenia, having picked herself up off the ground and mounted her horse again, turned to him and said, "Not that I'm not grateful, but did your Gods order you to save me from that thing or did you do that on your own?" With a derisive laugh, she set off again, and the others followed suit.
The rain was pouring down hard now, and they were growing weary. Kerlin sensed this and ordered a brief halt to eat, drink and relax a bit before resuming their journey. They stopped by a river, swelling with rainwater, and prepared a frugal noon-time meal. They sat down under a tree near the riverbank, and talked while they ate. Diren, who had now fully recovered from his shock at his own powers, was bickering once again with Herenia.
Kerlin was about to step in to tell them to stop when Losinia spat out the flying fish she had been eating, and let out a scream, her gaze fixed upon something in the air above them. He followed her gaze and saw it too, a huge dragon, black as the night, swooping down on them from above. Kerlin froze, thinking vaguely that after that Ogre a dragon seemed like someone's idea of a very bad joke.
Losinia was the first to recover from the shock. Realizing that no friendly dragon could be summoned to their aid in this storm, she cast her mind about for an alternate escape route. With reflexes born from her harsh upbringing and intense training, she pushed and kicked Kerlin, Diren and Herenia - reserving a rather strong kick for the latter - into the raging river, before diving in herself.
They were instantly pulled under by the river's flow. The dragon was buffeting air above the river surface, darting here and there, trying to peek into the murky depths. Kerlin choked and felt water entering his lungs. Between drowning and dying in battle, he knew which he preferred. As he started to swim back upwards, a gloved hand reached out and pulled him down. It was Losinia.
She was gesticulating at Diren, who was mouthing soundless words and letting out sprays of bubbles. All of a sudden, Kerlin felt his lungs contract and harden up. More water entered his lungs, but he was astonished to discover that he could actually breathe it in. The spots and stars which had started to blind him faded away, and his thoughts were much clearer. He saw Diren muttering further words as every party member took a deep breath of clean, pure, life-bringing water.
The dragon, seeing the bubbles rise to the surface of the water and concluding in its shrewd and calculating mind that its prey had been smashed to pieces on the rocks. Either that or they had drowned - it let out a mighty roar of frustration, swung its tail around and headed off in search of another meal. Far underwater, Kerlin let out a watery sigh of relief.
Four very wet and very scared faces popped out of the water. They clambered back onto the riverbank, and returned to their mounts. As if to mock them, the storm clouds thinned, parted, and a ray of golden sunlight shone down upon them. They dried themselves as best they could, climbed back onto their horses and set off once more, still shaking from their narrow escape.
Kerlin couldn't help but think back to how quickly Losinia had reacted. She must have known that Diren would be able to cast that spell, whatever it had been. If she hadn't pushed them into the river, they would have been dragon chow. He was starting to feel guilty about doubting Losinia's moral qualities. If there is one thing a warrior learns, it is that when someone saves your life you are in their debt.
The sun's rays playing across the tranquil surface of a nearby lake interrupted his reverie. It was, he realized with a shock, Crystal Lake. They had almost reached their destination. Indeed, what seemed like only a few moments later, they were tethering their tired horses to trees and entering the Ranger's Cabin.
It was in fact a small, cramped trading shop, where a busy shopkeeper ran around this way and that, taking orders, overlooking the charging of freight on and off of a wide variety of types of hauling beasts. They didn't quite know what to do amidst this frenetic activity when the shopkeeper hurried over to greet them.
"Welcome to Ranger's Cabin, may I take your order?", he asked very rapidly. "Oh", he said, taking the time to actually look at them properly, "You're still young ones. You won't be going very far, in that case. Let me guess. Timber to the City?", he inquired.
Kerlin took a step forward, cleared his throat and answered, "Indeed, my good man. Would you please fetch us four of your sturdiest hauling beasts, each with a full load of timber?"
The shopmaster smiled, and, with a little bow, replied, "Yes M'Lord, one moment please," as he ran off to the back of the shop.
Each was soon fitted with a nice, strong horse pulling a covered wagon, full of wooden planks. As he informed them of the price, the voice of the shopkeeper was suddenly lost amid a series of shocked gasps. "That is the total sum, I should hope?", asked Losinia, taken aback.
"No, I'm afraid that's per head," replied the man, wearing a huge smile upon his face and not looking in the least embarrassed.
Kerlin, Diren and Herenia searched around in their pockets, found the correct amount and paid the smiling shopkeeper, who pocketed the cash. He then held his hand out to Losinia expectantly. "Just a moment, please," she said pseudo-sweetly, then turned towards the others.
"I can't find my money pouch anywhere, I must have lost it when we dived into the river!" she whispered urgently, "Can any of you lend me enough to pay for this stuff? I'll repay you when we get to the City, of course," she added quickly.
Diren and Herenia didn't seem all too keen on actually *giving* their money to someone whom they strongly suspected of being untrustworthy. Perhaps some of these doubts showed on their faces, for Losinia smirked and said, "Listen, if it were my intention to steal your gold, I wouldn't be asking you, I'd just take it."
In his mind's eye, Kerlin saw Losinia's hand reaching out, stopping him from going to fight the dragon. He owed her, and he found that he couldn't help but trust her. He searched around in his pouch, counted out the money and handed it over. He gave her a warm smile, feeling as though he had always been too cold towards her.
Their horse-drawn carts full with timber, they climbed back into their saddles and set off along the road, heading north, back towards the City. Crystal Lake shone before them, indescribably beautiful in the late afternoon sun. Soon, the Lake and the Cabin were both far behind them, as they rushed to make up their lost time.
The sun ran its course across the sky, dipping steadily to the west. The sky's azure soon changed to crimson, a small breeze made the temperature drop ever so slightly. Losinia offered to put her scouting skills to use and to run ahead to check the way for any dangers. The others agreed and marveled at Losinia's exemplary behavior once she had left.
The whole sky was now ablaze; a Medievian sunset in all its glory. They were making excellent time, the road was miraculously free of pitfalls, their progress uneventful and unhindered. Yet they knew they must be back to the safety of the City before nightfall, when the land's armies of monsters and evil beasts ran wild. They pushed their horses to the limits, and knew that if they could keep going at this pace, they would surely make it back - alive - in time.
They turned north at an intersection displaying the life-size statue of a golden dragon. The City's golden towers shimmered brilliantly in the glow of the setting sun. Losinia's customary shout - "All clear!" - reached their ears, and they pushed their mounts even harder. Kerlin could already feel the profits from their run weighing down his money bag, his head was full of pictures of himself decked in the finest (and in consequence the most expensive) equipment money could buy.
He caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned around to get a better look, and was suddenly thrown out of his saddle as his horse bucked and reared. He hit the ground hard, and simply sat there for a moment, stunned.
He then glanced around to see what had happened. His horse, as well as Diren's and Herenia's, had stopped just short of running straight into a tree which had fallen across the road, just after a sharp bend. The other two hadn't been thrown off, but they were both looking with bewildered expressions at something in front of them.
Kerlin stood up to see for himself, and nothing could have prepared him for the shock he was about to receive. A band of snarling highwaymen, swords drawn, were pouring out of the surrounding forest, from behind large rocks, from everywhere they could possibly hide. "Ambush...", realized Kerlin in a flash.
They seemed to be led by a particularly large and imposing man who was standing just behind the fallen tree. Looking at the tree's base Kerlin saw that it hadn't fallen at all, but had been chopped down, and rather ineptly at that. Kerlin cursed himself for having fallen into such a simple and absurd trap.
Kerlin drew his sword, prepared to save his party or die in the effort, and saw that Diren and Herenia were doing likewise. However, the men seemed to be in no hurry to attack. They formed a circle around them, rendering both advance and retreat impossible. They appeared to be waiting for some sign. Finally, a shadowy figure stepped out of the woods ahead.
"Now, Kurdax, don't forget," drawled a familiar female voice, "you may do as you will with them and their equipment, but their freight belongs to me." It was Losinia.
The large bandit leader grunted his approval of these terms. Kerlin couldn't register what his senses were telling him.
"You?", he muttered in shock. All he could manage to say was, "You?"
Losinia gave him a would-be-charming smile. "Yes, I, great leader," she snickered. "Nothing personal, of course," she said. Then, with a glance in Herenia's direction, she added, "Oh, all right, maybe it is somewhat personal. But mostly, like I said, I'm only in this for the profit,' she explained, taking her time. "And if I add your freight to mine, there is just so much more of it!"
With this, she broke out into a fit of high, cold, humorless laughter, turned her back and walked away.
This triggered the ambushers into action. Snarling, they closed in on their prey, some leaping over the fallen tree, others bringing up the rear. Diren and Herenia turned this way and that, in a state of panic, and not knowing whom or what to attack. How could they have been so stupid as to actually trust the backstabbing, honorless knave?
Maddened by the betrayal, everything seemed to be happening in slow motion before Kerlin's eyes. The fading sunlight, the horses' whinnies, the snarls of their foes, everything swirled together and became confused in his mind. Above all else, he could feel one thing, and that was the pungent odor of death filling the air.
Battle rage descended upon him. Suddenly, all thoughts ceased, and, with a massive battlecry, sword raised, he rushed into the fray.
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