The flames were licking at my hair as I looked around, trying to decide on my next move. The three bastards that had pelted fire bombs at me were still some way distant hiding behind some undergrowth, and I would need a hell of a running jump to make it to them. Two others were paying more attention to the rest of my group, but my biggest threat was in the shape of two chaps armed with shields and short swords that had already taken a swing at me. In the heat of the moment I realised that although I was still on fire, I would need to deal with the bastards with the weapons first, or at least get myself clear of them.
They hadn’t managed to surround me yet, and I had kept them at bay so far, and quickly moved towards the nearest bastard, the tip of my Basaedo flashing out to keep him at bay as I moved to put my back against the thick trunk of the closest tree. He managed to pull his head back from the swing, dodging rather than putting his shield in the way. An odd move as far as I was concerned, but all would eventually become clear.
I was far too engrossed in my own activities to be paying too much attention to how everyone else was fairing, but I heard Drazar hollering in my native tongue from over by the wagons. I figured out what he was trying to get across, but I obviously had more to teach him as warning me about inclement weather in the middle of pitched battle was far from useful. He had meant that he was going to cause an attack to come from above, but I had no idea how an Earth Power wielder could manage such a thing, and was grateful to be protected by the tree’s thick branches.
It was these branches that the Daemon blooded wizard had in mind for his attack, and the sound of them as they seemed to rip themselves free from the tree itself was terrifying. They smashed with aggressive force into the ground, sadly failing to connect with either of my tormentors, the nimble bastards once again quick enough to keep them from harm. The fallen branches did provide me with some cover though, and I realised that I had a few moments to try and put the fire out. I jammed the point of my sword into the ground and trusted to my dagger should I face an attack, and began to beat out the flames that had almost fully taken root in my hair.
As I was doing so, I felt a different but much more pleasant form of heat affect my extremities. Looking back towards the wagons, the beautiful Hutzlunr Vytch was crouching with her hands placed firmly on the ground and her eyes locked onto my own. Hell, that gave me the spur I needed and I pulled the blade free as quick as I dared and looked for someone to run through, but the shits were already on the move. Not a one of them was standing their ground, even though they had us outnumbered and outmatched in terms of their superior fire power.
I still took a step or two though, just hoping that at least one of them would put up something like a fight rather just dance away through to tree line. They seemed to have thought of that though, and before I could take a third step more objects were hurled towards me. It was plain to see that they wouldn’t hit me full on, but as they exploded and filled the air with white smoke, it seemed that all they wanted to do was slow me down.
Suddenly from behind me I could hear the cracking of dry branches breaking, the sound of undergrowth being torn apart and the heavy thump of something large landing near by. I turned in less than a second with my blade pointing towards the thing’s heart, but it was none other than Fjorlief. She must have started to run the moment the smoke bombs landed to have gotten here so quickly, and she slid to a halt on her knees in front of me, batting at the fire still working its way up my leg.
Looking back on it, I think I did damned well indeed to just be grateful and not make some crass comment about other duties she could have performed while down there. At the time though, all I could think of was getting the fire put out, and she did so quickly. I remember smiling at her, thinking how glad I was that she was there; not just as part of our traveling group, but with me, helping me. Ah, well. Tall beautiful women have that effect on me.
By the time the flames on my leg had been extinguished, it looked like every one of our attackers had either fled or been killed. Brand was dragging a corpse out from under the rear wagon whilst Catranasia went through the various oils, potions, and bombs that were found on the other bodies. There was handful of useful and potentially valuable commodities, but the most worrying was a jar filled with a black, foul smelling liquid that she identified as a powerful acid. The New Raphelian’s jaw dropped when she said the word acid, and he rushed to grab a canteen and dove back under the rear wagon, leaving us all confused as he threw the water away while down there.
Bloody good job he did though, as one of the little swine had cracked a jar of the black liquid over the rear axle, and if not for Brand’s quick thinking would have eaten through what remained in seconds. We all jumped to check the other vehicles, but they hadn’t been so lucky with those. The back wagon wasn’t going anywhere quickly though. Vitus was called over and for the next turning they worked to repair the damage as best they could, while the rest if us moved the heavier items onto the front wagon to save the axle from any undue stress, all the while keeping an eye out in case the brigands returned to try and pick us off again.
Moving the goods took less time than the repairs did, which gave me the chance to take care of some personal grooming. As well as making sure that my wounds were cleaned, I really needed to do something about my hair. Missing my fine hat was one thing, but looking like a scare-corbie was quite another. There was nothing to be done at the road side to make me look even remotely presentable and still keep a hair on my head. The barber’s arts have never been at my disposal, but to maintain my beard and mustache I knew how to keep a blade and shave with it, so had only one real course open to me. We were still close enough to the river to get some fresh water, and with it I managed to do a passable job of shaving my head.
The chill of the water made it trickier than it should have been, but by the end I looked like a hired thug rather than a crazy person. Not much of a choice, I grant, but given the options I was glad to take the former. I was still a handsome young devil, and hopefully Fjorlief wouldn’t find the sight of my stubbly head too hideous.
* * *
With everything about ready to go, we were alerted to our rear by some loud moaning and groaning. The Zammerite we had previously walked past was kicking up a hell of a fuss, so a few us wandered back down the road a spell to see what his problem was. Valerius had joined us, and took the time to try and translate to us what was written on the slate around his neck.
Apparently the man was a liar and a thief who was to be confined to the halls of a certain order for his crimes. He was also making a hell of a noise, seemingly unable to form a full word but gesturing dramatically to his robes and the slate. None of us really wanted much to do with the wretch, and were quite happy to leave him there, but Skuza had decided to follow Valerius like an inecure shadow and was soon making his opinion known. “It is our duty as citizens and followers of Pelo’s way to see this… person back to his order. He has been judged and found guilty, and must complete his punishment.”
There was much rolling of eyes at this, but he was the boss. Even though he had once again managed to do us the immense favour of staying the hell out of the way while we fought, it seemed he was uneasy not to be involved in our actions for longer than a turning or two. The lock was easier to get passed than it should have been, which was odd, but not overly so. If we were going to have some extra company, then the least I could do was make his journey a tiny bit more pleasant. I can’t imagine that the Zammerites would show mercy to him, and liars and thieves had made my family what it was.
I offered him my canteen to slake his thirst – fully planning on washing it at earliest opportunity – and then led him back to the wagons. The cooling liquid seemed to loosen his tongue and allow him to reassert his control over it, and he tried his best to let us know what misfortune had befallen him. In broken Pelo Margo he weaved a tale of a vagrant whom had tricked him, stolen his clothes, dressed him in the robes he was currently wearing, hung the slate around his neck and left him hanging in the cage.
On top of all that, the bandits we had encountered had also drugged him to prevent him from speaking and left him there while they planned their attack on us. We had evidence enough to believe they possessed the alchemical expertise to perform such a trick, and as we tried to move the hormorn on, we discovered another of their tricks. No Earth Power had been used to stop them, rather a compound that had been sprayed across the road that had rendered them almost incapable of forward motion.
With our new travel companion squared away, I used a bucket from one of the wagons to fetch river water to wash the foul alchemy clear, and refill my canteen while I was at it. With everyone working together, we were able to move on without much more delay, just going slowly to avoid undue stress on the axle we had managed to repair. Thankfully Pelosian roads are usually well kept, and even this close to the border, the surface was almost completely smooth, and we barely had to slow down much at all.
The walk was as pleasant as it could possibly be, but Caderyn was acting a little strange whenever the river meandered close to the road. For the rest of us, it was a welcome opportunity to cool down and refill canteens. In my case, to douse my head in the bracing water. Not only was the heat getting to me and already beginning to burn my now shaved skull, but the blisters had formed regardless of the healing that Fjorlief and myself had administered. Our Dummonii scout was nervous though, and never went too close.
He must have noticed that I had raised an eyebrow when he once again looked at the moving water as if expecting it to leap from the river bed and drown us all. ” There have been attacks in these parts recently”, he said. “The white spirit of vengeance was called to deal with the creature that was responsible, but the attacks continue. People have been dragged from their homes at night by something that lives in the river.” He looked genuinely concerned, as if the aquatic beast was simply biding its time before swallowing him whole, but continued “There’s a reward to whoever manages to kill the bloody thing, and bring the body back to one of the villages we’ve passed.”
“Well”, says I, “How about we try our best not to camp too close to the river at night, and keep an eye out. If we manage to kill the bloody thing, I doubt even Skuza or Valerius could claim that the bounty was part of their cargo.” He smiled at that, but I found myself also watching the water a little more warily. Nothing came out of it though, and we carried on our way until another crossroad, marked out by the usual gallows – thankfully without victims – and a small roadside shrine.
Hiding from the midday sun in an alcove in the shrine’s side was an elderly gentleman wearing dark robes that damned near dwarfed him. He was an old man, with hair so white as to be grey, and looked even more frail due to the bulky over-sized clothes he was buried in. He seemed a decent enough chap though, and was quick to lay on the compliments while asking if we could possibly spare his old legs and let him ride with us a spell.
I think we would have done so happily, and without even thinking much of him, but our other traveling guest began to kick up a bit of a fuss when he saw the old geezer, “That’s him! He took my clothes, those are my clothes! He locked my the fuckin’ cage and hung the bloody slate around my neck”!
What followed was a hell of a back and forth, with one side claiming not only innocence, but also not a shred of recollection as to what the other was talking about. The other side, seemingly completely earnest and angry, would not be dissuaded that the old man was in fact the thief that deserved to be wearing the slate. Skuza just seemed to want to get one of them back the Mazzerite order, and wasn’t too concerned as to which. The old man was going in our direction anyway, so it made sense to keep them both with us for now.
As far as I was concerned though, there was more yet to be made clear. The man from the cage was wearing clothing clearly too small for him, and if he had been locked in the cage for any length of time, the reverse should have been true. The white haired fellow’s clothes were practically burying him, and out of the two, he was the only one who seemed capable of lying well enough for it be useful to him, and worth punishing. Thinking fast, I put him up on Skuza’s carriage, while asking Valerius to make sure he didn’t fall or jump off, explaining my suspicions.
To our robed friend, I took the time to try and explain what was going on. He was to keep protesting his innocence, but know that we were trying to get to the bottom of it, and if he was telling the truth, he would do well out of it. Skuza would feel absolutely terrible if a man he dragged miles away from his route after finding him languishing in a cage was actually innocent, and would certainly offer some form of recompense. I was just as sure that Valerius would be unwilling to give up even a share of his share and would manage to talk the boss round. I kept that last bit to myself of course, but he was enough of an idiot to not quite get what I meant regardless.
He carried on protesting his innocence, but not because I wanted him to, just because he thought it might actually work to convince someone. I tell you, if he was the liar and thief, I was Pelo reborn. But for now, I just wanted to get him away from us and back in the hands of the order.
We didn’t have too long to wait thankfully, as our next stop was at a checkpoint manned by some Mazzerites armed with spears and an overly officious manner. Skuza was once more in his element dealing with devout travelers on the path of Pelo’s Way who also wanted to check his travel documents. Four red garbed guards had spotted us approaching from a distance and when we came close enough lowered the points of their spears towards us. It was disconcerting to say the least, but the tired, disinterested looks on their faces made me think that this may have been naught but a ceremonial way of greeting strangers.
The man in charge, wearing a finer outfit, with even some familiar looking armour on came forward, pushing the point of a spear that had drifted away from where it was supposed to go and ended up in his way. “Papers please”, he barked in Pelosian not even bothering to waste a glance on anyone with whom he shared no common ancestry. The minutia of such border crossings and check points was of no interest to me, but we were close to the actual Mazzerite cathedral and so would hopefully soon be rid of our two new friends. I approached the man in charge once everything was correctly stamped and signed, and told him the story of the two oddly dressed chaps with us.
He seemed about as interested in their story as I was in correctly filed paperwork filled in and filed in triplicate, but told us where we needed to go. “Ah, we will be walking through Mazzerite lands with at least one criminal, should we get stopped we could end up in some trouble ourselves. Could you spare one of your fine spear-men there to accompany us until we hand them off to the correct authorities”? With a sigh, he took the paperwork back from Skuza’s grip and offered a compromise; our papers would be modified to show that we were doing Pelo’s work by transporting two possible lost souls and would need to make no further precautions about our dealings with them.
We were a lot closer than I thought to the cathedral, but it was much more than that. It looked like a small town with the overtly religious building dominating it. Everything was clean, neat, and ordered, obsessively so. The residents wore matching uniforms, and even the grass seemed to have been instructed to stop growing past a certain point. It was getting pretty late in the day, but a good ride and some small good fortune would have still seen us to Tuthom-Pothrie. It was a welcome break to stop while our guests were taken care of though.
The Numare walked them away with Vitus tagging along to keep them under control while the rest of us helped ourselves to some trail rations and took in the view; at the same time it managed to be beautiful and awe inspiring, while also dull and soulless. Caderyn looked particularly unimpressed. In his native country, nature was encouraged to run rampant and quite the reverse was going on here. Add that to the fact that he was surrounded by folks who would be likely to kill him by nailing him to wall if they met him out in the wilds, and the reasons for his uneasiness were obvious. Hell, as long as he could keep it under control, I’d be happy.
Before too long our companions returned, thankfully without the two new additions, and had news for us. Whether it was good or bad very much depended on your country of birth I suppose. Skuza had once again failed monumentally to keep his big mouth shut and had apparently gone on at length about his travel companions, including that rarest of creatures; a well behaved, practically civilised Dummonii. As a result of his showing off, the Patriarch of this order had invited us all to see him.
Well, I’m no idiot now, and I was no idiot then; when someone that important invites you to call on them, it’s probably best to think of it as an order, rather than a suggestion. I was pretty much resigned to it, and thought we might get a decent evening meal and a nicer place to sleep out of it, plus maybe some better than average doctoring. It hadn’t been that long since I almost had my leg broken, and only hours previous I had been on fire. The Dummonii – tamed or not – was less than keen to show his face, and Drazar looked ready to run for the hills at the merest suggestion.
Everyone else seemed okay with the idea though, so it made sense to leave the two of them behind and put in an appearance. Well, it did to everyone expect to the boss of course; he had waxed lyrical about his men, and wanted dearly to show them off, almost going so far as to try and drag them along. Valerius seemed quieter than usual, and so it seemed it was my job to dissuade Skuza from putting his men in a life threatening situation. “My lord, these Mazzerites are pious folk indeed, as is Caderyn, but in different ways. These different ways caused us some small inconvenience when last we met a man who was not as, ah, accommodating as yourself in matters of opposing theology. I think it would be best to avoid another confrontation, don’t you agree?”
The poor fool paled considerably at the thought, and it occurred to me I may have pushed back too hard. There was now a very real possibility that he would willingly confess all, martyring himself as penance for our ‘crimes’. I’d have to do something about that, but wished that the other Numare would weigh in. I could butter up those who thought they were higher born than myself, but complicated verbal sparring and intrigue was beyond me.
* * *
We once again found ourselves walking through well manicured landscapes and between imposing towers. All normal I assumed for the Numare, but the scale and sophistication for what was essentially an out of the way border church, was staggering even to my city born eyes. Ahead of us was a larger building constructed from green glass and metal, visible within was what looked like an indoor jungle worthy of New Raphelia.
At its door was a pair of guards wearing armour almost as fine as that buried a few days earlier by Caderyn. In a way, I was glad that Skuza looked so permanently ill, as I’m sure he was shivering and deathly white even in the stifling heat of the evening. Before being allowed to enter into the presence of the high-to-do priest, we were instructed to give up all of our weapons. This was no big surprise, and I was happy to hand over my Basaedo and dagger, while the Hutzlunr made a sizable pile of her own weapons. The guards seemed put out by that much steel on a lady, and they felt the need to double check if she had anything, to which they were informed that she did indeed have a small dagger in her boot.
Being the gentleman that I am, I was unhappy with the thought of her being molested by the guards, and so offered to retrieve it for her myself. I can only imagine what she thought I was playing at, having not spent much time in polite society – something I would seek to rectify – but with a puzzled luck on her face she gave me permission to take the knife from her. As I placed it atop her pile, I noticed that Brand’s sword was not amongst our possessions. He certainly wasn’t still carrying it, so must have stowed it safely back on a wagon.
Eventually we were ushered past them though, through two sets of double doors into the private jungle of the Patriarch. I recognised a few of the plants as being native to Brand’s homeland, but there were countless more that were foreign to me.
Flapping about in their branches were large, thoroughly unnerving looking insects. As we moved further down a wood chip covered path, I saw what could only be the Patriarch ahead of us. Wearing robes of the finest and deepest red, he stood not much taller than the average Pelosian, but seemed to tower over everyone but myself and Fjorlief. His gauntleted hand was raised to chest height, and fluttering above his open palm was another of the large winged creatures. The evil looking thing had a barbed tail coming from its read end that put Fjorlief’s boot dagger to shame.
Of course, the presence of the insect was far from accidental, and throughout the course of the introductions he made a point to compare it to our absent Dummonii. Apparently removing it from the wild was enough to remove its savagery. Something told me that Caderyn would take issue with such a blanket statement and I was glad he had stayed with the wagons.
As all introductions were made, I saw a chance to stop Skuza from damning us all and took it; “We thank you for your hospitality Pater Piam, but we are sadly the bearers of bad tidings. On our travels we came across an order of woman offering sanctuary to those who travel these dangerous roads…”
“Ah yes, the Grey Order”, he interrupted before allowing me to continue.
“Indeed. Sadly we arrived to find them all hanging by their necks from the door frame and many more dead within the walls. Included in that number were several partisans along with some Pelosians. One of whom was wearing the armour of your order, and was well decorated indeed. He seemed a young man from his face to be so well adorned with battle honours. We buried him as best we could with words from our noble employer, but full rights were beyond our means. If you wish to see him correctly interred, I’m sure you could send some men to him.”
“Thank you for this news, sad though it is, we will retrieve his body and perform the appropriate rights. Until then, I insist that you all join us for our evening repast. We have facilities for you to clean the dirt of the road from you, and then it would be my pleasure to dine with you all, the Dummonii included of course.” Before we could answer, he lifted his arm and sent the beast flapping away and continued, “For now though, it is best if you leave. Although controlled at the best of times, too many strangers can get them riled up, and that is the definition of a bad idea.”
There was little else to be said about that, so we made our way back to break the good news to Caderyn. I’m not sure how, but we had managed to get through the conversation without Drazar being mentioned at all. He may have a boring night without us ahead of him, but it was a far better prospect than watching him try to enter any of the buildings we went through. The markings on the walls and arches bore some similarities to those that caused him problems back at the Grey Order hostel. I had failed to remove those, and they were just painted on wood, there would be no avoiding the impressive carvings while walking around this place.
Before that though, there was one extra matter to deal with. The older of the two men that had been placed in the care of the Zammerites had been causing some problems for Drazar. Drawing attention to his unusual nature and outfit, and demanding that we speak out for him had brought one of the warrior women of the order over to question the mask Drazar was wearing. We arrived in time to see her walking away, but looking over her shoulder suspiciously.
He filled us in on the details, but I was only half paying attention to begin with. Caderyn was sat with each foot in a small hole that he had dug. Now, he was a strange sort, and no mistake, but this was odd even by his standard. “Seriously mate, what the hell are you up to?”, I asked.
“I just needed to be closer to the earth”, was his reply. Well, that was the end of me hoping he wouldn’t make a scene, but the white haired codger in his cell was still a matter that needed dealing with. Apparently, we were supposed to leave them to silent contemplation, but he wasn’t going along with that, and so neither would I. While everyone else was discussing Caderyn’s appearance at dinner, I wandered over, much to the prisoner’s approval.
He repeated his earlier pleading, hoping that we would help him by vouching for him with the Patriarch, but when he heard my voice, he changed tack somewhat. The next words out of his mouth were Raphelian, and it occurred to me that he had often spoken with the very same accent. He saw my orange sash and immediately claimed to be Bajo himself. While I doubted that at first, it would make sense. Not all wearers of the sash were sailors and fighters, but also smugglers and confidence men. He had the patter down right, but all I really wanted was for him to shut up and leave us in peace. Hell, something about his face was reminding me of something, or somebody from my past.
I had no doubt he was a liar, so didn’t feel bad about spinning a yarn of my own. “Strange to see a brother so far from home, but I will not allow you to languish here any longer than necessary. We dine with the Patriarch this evening, and I will do my best to talk him round as we eat. Until then, a sign of my word”. I reached round to my pack and drew forth the sash I had taken from the Bajo’s corpse earlier that day. “Take this, and keep it close, you will be wearing it again soon my brother”, I took his hands in mine, and he quickly had the sash hidden in his fist, with fingers as dexterous as any pick-pocket I had met.
With any luck, that would quiet the bugger down for now, and although I couldn’t trust him, him trusting me could pay off down the line. Walking away from him, I could see that the others were still deep in discussion, with Caderyn far from pleased. A deal was struck though, involving Valerius having the unpleasant task of discussing Caderyn’s religion with Skuza, and what he was allowed to say to the Patriarch.
While the rest of us had been pretty happy pretending that Skuza – who had stayed behind to join in the evening’s prayers – was doing a great of putting us on Pelo’s way, the Dummonii was a bit too pious to even pretend to turn his back on the many Gods he worshiped. In the end, a compromise was just about avoided, with Caderyn practicing a couple of key phrases to keep the Patriarch off his back; “Skuza has been diligent in his efforts to see us on the right path”, and “Ser Skuza has never relented in his efforts to see us redeemed”.
There was no guarantee any of it would work, but simply not turning up wasn’t an option at that point. We had all left weapons behind at this point, taking our cue from Brand, but I kept my dagger. Although I couldn’t take with me into the Patriarch’s presence, having it on route and back just made me feel better.
Thankfully, our gracious host was happy to have us smelling better when next we were in his company, so we were taken to a bath house. My hair was cut a little neater, my blisters treated with a cooling cream, and it was just about possible to imagine that the meal to follow wouldn’t end in disaster.