The adventurers brainstormed quickly about how best to proceed before the sun set and they (excluding Mom) would be less able to see. They decided to hide in the hills and set a fire, hoping that some (but not all) of the lizardfolk army would come to investigate. Drake obliged with an alchemical blaze on the backside of a low hill while everyone took up positions to ambush any scouts.
The alchemist handed Xan an infusion before he took his own position, rumbling, “Should help you hide.”
“Thanks, Drake.” The rogue wasted no time drinking the potion, and promptly vanished from sight. Mom grunted appreciatively.
After a tense half a minute, one of the lizardfolk happened to look north and noticed the smoke from the adventurers’ fire. The creature drew the attention of the rest of its squad, then one of them darted off toward another group, staying low to the ground as it loped across the battlefield. A minute or so later, it came hustling back and gestured to the other lizardfolk. They turned as one away from the keep and began moving toward the smoke, cautiously stalking.
As they drew closer, they still did not seem to notice Xan. The reptilian soldiers began to crest the low hill where Drake had set the fire, and once atop it, they looked down at the miniature bonfire curiously. In hiding, everyone tensed, ready for action as the lizardfolk scanned the area for some sort of explanation, but none of them reacted to the hidden adventurers.
Just as they appeared ready to turn back to the keep, Xan appeared behind one and stabbed it through the neck. Liberty felled another warrior with a burst of three magic missiles that impacted with a solid thump and the sound of cracking ribs. Sam rushed forward, sword leading, but Mom rushed past her and sliced into a third. Drake closed with the reptiles and smashed one in the side with the spiked gauntlet gripped in his meaty fist.
Xan ran a second lizardfolk through and then moved to flank another. The remaining two warriors whirled around in bewilderment at the overwhelming ambush. One thought to cry aloud before clumsily swinging a morningstar at the half-orc. Drake took a shot to the ribs from the other, before Liberty ended it with another trio of magic missiles. Sam’s blade came down hard as she finished her charge, but the surviving lizardfolk caught her blade on his wooden shield. It then threw a desperate block to stop a slash from Mom, but that left it open to Drake’s pugilistic assault. It fell to the ground and knew no more.
More than one of the lizardfolk surrounding the keep were looking in the direction of the fight on the hill. A ululating warcry went up from the nearest group, and in the sun’s last dying rays, the lizardfolk advanced – some on the keep, and some on the adventurers.
“Flamin’ hells,” said Liberty.
“Fight or run?” asked Xan. “Think quickly.”
“Fight,” said Drake.
Sam snorted and nodded at the alchemist. “Sword isn’t even bloodied yet,” she complained.
“I think that… Blood makes noise,” said Mom.
“Fight it is,” said Liberty, grinning.
“Fair enough,” said Xan. “Let’s try to get out of sight of the keep this time.”
Drake started downing vials, while the others also prepared themselves. The big man cracked his enlarged, hulking knuckles when he was ready. “Time to dance,” he rumbled.
“Call the tune, Drake,” said Liberty.
Ten lizardfolk advanced on their position. As they came over the rise into line of sight, they saw nine more warriors – who looked shocked and angry about the bodies of their brethren – and one leaner lizardfolk with bone jewelry and a wooden club that took in the situation with a sneer. Half of the warriors wasted no time, lobbing javelins that fell among the adventurers. One of them managed to stick Xan, but the others fell wide of their intended targets. The other half of the warriors came rushing down the hill before flinging their own missiles, bringing them within range of Sam’s charge. Her aim was deadly.
Xan moved up beside the warrior woman and stabbed another lizardfolk in the leg. The blinged-up reptile on top of the hill drew a wand and used it to ignite its hand. It lobbed fire at Sam, burning her despite the heavy armor she wore. Drake stomped up and tossed a bomb in the middle of the line of lizardfolk atop the hill, killing one outright and burning two others. Liberty added her own flames to the assault, casting a burning arc at the enemy spellcaster and the nearest warrior to it, injuring each.
Mom added his own crescendo, charging right up the hill and past the warrior to bury his sword in the lizardfolk mystic. It fell, its lifeblood staining the hill and the flame in its hand abruptly snuffed out. The four reptilian warriors atop the hill surrounded the half-orc and began swinging wildly. One even managed to bruise him. At the bottom of the hill, Sam moved behind the front rank and cut down too more lizardfolk with a brutal swing of her greatsword. The last of these turned on its heel and ran, barreling back toward the keep. Liberty gave chase and struck at it with a pair of magic missiles from her wand; though it stumbled, it did not fall.
Xan rushed to support Mom and ended another warrior with a stab to its kidneys. Drake likewise moved to help, grabbing one of the lizardfolk from behind and squeezing with his mighty arms. It tried to claw and bite at the big man, but it couldn’t get out of his crushing embrace. The alchemist bellowed with laughter, then with a mighty twist of his arms, finished off his dance partner. Another lizardfolk got a lucky hit on the rogue, who returned the favor with interest, ending its life and the fight.
“I say we press the attack,” said Drake. “Keep them on their toes.” Mom grunted in agreement, but before anyone else could comment, they saw the lizardfolk halt their attack on the keep and slip south toward the Mistmarsh.
“It looks like they are backing off,” noted Xan. “Let’s get to the keep and make sure everyone is okay.” He led the way and the others followed.
The soldiers on the balcony on the second floor of the keep cheered as the adventurers approached. Xan waved to them with a smile, and Liberty did the same uncertainly. They saw fewer defenders than they would have expected.
“Gods below, it’s good to see friendly faces,” said one of the men, though he seemed to be given pause at the sight of Drake.
“They’ve gone for now, gods be praised. Lizardfolk scare easily, but they’ll be back and in greater numbers,” added another.
“Allustan told me that the Mistmarsh is not to be traveled lightly,” said Liberty.
“We are just the advance party,” said Xan. “The Diamond Lake garrison is on the way.” Another cheer went up at the news.
“Hang on a minute. Let’s get you inside.” After a moment, they heard the sound of nails being pried out of wood, and then the battered door of the keep was wrenched open. A couple of dirty faces peered out and then the adventurers were waved inside. The sturdy wooden door had seen better days; it had been broken, but it appeared that the soldiers had nailed planks to the inside as a way to reinforce it.
The entry area took up most of the interior of this level of the tower, giving the defenders plenty of room to maneuver should they need to repel invaders. Four doors and a flight of stairs led out of the room, and a small fireplace was nestled in the southwest corner. Once the adventurers had gathered inside, a couple of men swiftly replaced the barricade and nailed it back in place. A couple more soldiers came down from the battlements, and it was clear from their haggard faces that none of the men at Blackwall keep had seen much sleep recently.
“This has been going on for longer than I thought,” muttered Liberty.
“How many have you lost?” asked Sam.
“At least half our number,” answered a man who introduced himself as Cooper. “Including the commander. And they snatched four of us this morning, including the wizard.”
“Dragged ‘em off into the swamp,” said another man, spitting.
Liberty frowned at the news. “Did they become more aggressive recently?”
“Aye, patrols seen ‘em more active over the last few months, but they ain’t never raided the bloody keep, until last night. Never saw it comin’.”
“Was it the same ones, or do their ranks increase?” asked Drake.
Cooper shrugged. “Can’t rightly tell ‘em apart, but I think it’s all the same tribe, if that’s what you mean.” Sam snorted.
“Do you have a guide, or anybody who knows the marsh?” asked Liberty.
“We did. They’re among the casualties.”
“Anyone need a healer’s touch?” asked Drake.
“We got some wounded, sure,” said Cooper. He showed Drake the small infirmary, and helped the big man set up shop. He did what he could for the injured without using infusions. Liberty identified some fruit taken off the body of the druid as goodberries, and it was decided to gift them to the soldiers.
“How long ‘til you think they can regroup?” Drake asked, once the wounded had been seen to.
Cooper thought about it for a moment. “Like I said, the first attack was yesterday at dusk. They struck again this morning. You bloodied ‘em pretty good, though. Another day maybe?”
“Well, then. Hope we can get ready before they hit again. I’ll need to set up and take a look at the wizard’s quarters to see what I can get together. Potions, etcetera.”
“Unless we take the fight to them, Drake,” said Liberty. “I mean, if we find their lair, maybe we can end the raids, find out why they’ve been so aggressive, and get the missing people back.”
The alchemist nodded. “I’m good with that plan, too.”
“Yes… I think that it is really important that we retrieve the taken,” said Mom.
Liberty nodded at him. “Of course. The question is, how dangerous is the Mistmarsh at night?” She looked at Cooper.
“Dangerous, sure. The tribe lairs somewhere in the middle of the Mistmarsh, but we aren’t exactly sure where. You might could follow the ones that fled, assuming they’ve gone back home to roost. Or get reinforcements.”
“We can retrieve them,” said Drake, “but we should get these men ready as best we can before we take the fight to the reptiles. So they can hold, should we… So they can hold,” he said.
“Sure,” said Liberty, eyeing him.
“I reckon you bought us some breathing room,” Cooper said to Drake. “I don’t imagine those who were taken have the same luxury.”
“I’ll stay here and support the troops,” Sam announced. The others looked at her in some surprise, but no one argued.
“So, leave now or in the morning?” asked Xan. “I don’t think it is smart to delve into an unknown swamp in the dark. Most creatures come out at night.”
“I’m still full of spells, and I’m not likely to sleep any time soon,” said Liberty. “I’d just as soon get on with it.” Mom grunted in agreement.
“I’m happier getting to them before they have time to recover,” said Drake.
“And I’d hate to let their trail go cold,” added Liberty.
* * *
The Mistmarsh was an area of wet ground, grassland, shallow streams, and strange hazards that rested in a bowl-shaped depression in the middle of the Cairn Hills. The marsh was over sixty miles across at its narrowest point, and had no clear border, as it was surrounded by a fringe area of drier grassland. It was named for the harmless mist that lingered from two hours before sunrise to until mid-morning, and again for several hours after sunset; the mist limited visibility and also seemed to muffle sound – a distinct advantage for the adventurers tracking in the dark but not wanting to broadcast their position.
According to Cooper, the waterways were either too shallow for boats or too infested with crocodiles. Small ponds were common but never very deep, and even the drier parts were muddy. Occasional “islands” of mangaroo trees were really just great tangles of roots and branches that required climbing rather than walking. These factors made travel slow in the Mistmarsh, limiting exploration to its fringes except for dedicated adventurers or those with the magical means to bypass its obstacles.
Drake proved his worth again by finding the trail with little trouble and leading the others through the swamp expertly, despite the shrouding mist. After an hour or so, he mentioned to the others that they were catching up.
“If we overtake this group,” said Xan, “we can take them out before they gain any more numbers. Let’s quicken the pace.” Sam, sweating in her heavy armor, nodded stoically. Liberty grumbled a little, but increased her pace as well.
Two miles into the swamp, Drake came across signs that the lizardfolk would be camping soon. “Hundred yards, give or take,” he reported softly. “Be ready. We’re likely to be among them sooner than we think.”
“They’ll see the light soon, if they haven’t already,” said Xan.
The adventurers crept through the swamp as quietly as they could, but not all of them were so adept at stepping lightly. It was little enough surprise when they found themselves at the edge of an alerted lizardfolk camp.