The lizardfolk lurked in three groups around the center of the camp, primitive bedrolls strewn about. A larger lizardfolk with a steel shield and sturdy club sat in their midst, and that one casually gestured at the adventurers with a wicked leer. Before any of the reptilian soldiers could react to the order, Xan was in motion, plunging his blade into the nearest enemy’s heart. Liberty hurled a burning arc at the leader and caught a wounded one in the splash.
Four of the lizardfolk surrounded the rogue, but he dexterously evaded their clumsy swings. Mom beseeched Kord for a sound burst on one of the other groups, then rushed to support Xan. The one reptile that hadn’t been stunned by the spell charged the cleric, but he casually blocked the strike with his greatsword. The remaining lizardfolk blitzed Liberty and Drake, striking each of the lesser-armored adventurers. In response, the alchemist took a cautious step away from the reptiles assaulting him and lobbed a firebomb at them, burning one out and scorching the other two.
The big reptilian warrior eyed all the flame flying around, burning his troops down, and decided to take the fight to the firestarters – he charged Drake and smashed into the big man with his heavy club. Drake grunted and said, “You won’t live to regret that.”
Xan and Mom continued their fight against the soldiers surrounding the rogue, and the half-orc slipped into his battle rage. The stunned lizardfolk recovered from his earlier spell and rushed over to help their fellows against the cleric. Liberty and Drake were likewise beset by the reptiles, who smashed at them with vicious glee. The latter opted to ignore the small fries and focus on the lizardfolk leader, bringing his spiked knuckles to bear. The big warrior grinned with glee at the challenge, crying out in Draconic, “You will not defeat Kushak!”
The fight continued apace, and though the lizardfolk bloodied the adventurers soundly, they could not defeat the fleshy invaders. After Kushak fell, only two soldiers remained. One was struck down and the other surrendered. In Draconic it pleaded, “Please don’t burn me …anymore.”
Drake relaxed and looked around. “It says no more burning… Said please.”
“It can lead us to the lair,” said Xan.
“It’s worth a try,” said Liberty. Mom grunted.
The captured soldier bowed its head in gratitude to each of the adventurers in turn, then squatted in place, rubbing its burned scales gingerly. Its captors began drinking restoratives and taking turns with the healing wands, completely recovering from even the worst of their injuries. The lizardfolk watched in fascination.
Once they had recovered, Drake asked, “What do you want me to say to it? Keep it simple.”
“We’ll offer to spare it if it shows us where its lair is?” suggested Liberty. “Of course, that might be asking it to betray its people.”
“I want to know if it thinks the prisoners from the keep are still alive, and I want it made clear that it will be leading us to them,” said Xan.
While Mom looted the bodies, Drake turned to the captive. “You show us the camp, we let you go. No more burning.”
“Camp? This is camp,” said the soldier, sounding confused.
“Home base,” said Drake, struggling with the language. “Kingdom?”
Liberty cut in. “Are the people you took from the keep still alive?”
The reptile turned to her. “Don’t know. Not with those soldiers. Depends on king’s whim when they get back.”
“Take us quietly to kingdom,” pressed Drake. “No traps.”
“No,” it said. “I am at your mercy. But I won’t betray lair.” The lizardfolk sounded stubborn.
The alchemist plucked from his belt a vial of bottled fire in one hand and a healing potion in the other then said to the others, “He needs persuading.”
The lizardfolk winced but did not move or uncross its arms. “You kill me, I die a prisoner of war.”
“Kingdom?” said Drake raising the healing potion, “or fiery death,” he lifted the other vial.
“You no have honor,” snarled the lizardfolk.
“I no care,” rumbled the alchemist.
“Death!” retorted the prisoner, practically spitting the word.
Liberty surrounded her hands with flame and said, “Sure, we’ll kill you if that’s what you prefer. But you can suffer for so long before death finally takes you.” She waved the fire lazily in its direction.
Her threat proved sufficient to break the reptile’s will. “I…take you to lair,” it conceded, sounding crestfallen.
“If you missed that,” she told the others, “I think I got through to him.”
“Very nice,” said Xan. “Now we don’t have to follow old tracks.”
“You’re much better at talking, Lib,” said Drake.
“Thanks.” Her smile was hard to read.
It was decided to use the lizardfolk camp to rest for the night, and then press on in the morning, following their guide. They set a watch and were attacked by giant spiders in during Xan’s shift, but the adventurers made short work of the arachnids, and the rest of the night passed uneventfully.
* * *
11 Flocktime, 595 CY
In the morning, the lizardfolk prisoner reluctantly began leading the way toward the lair of the Twisted Branch tribe. They traveled for the better part of the day, taking relatively easy paths through the marsh without having to search for them as Drake had had to do the night before. As the afternoon wore on, they came to a thick bundle of mangaroo branches and roots. Their guide pointed at the foliage and sighed. “Entrance there.”
“All we really want are the…detainees, right?” asked Mom.
“Yes,” said Xan. “We came out here for the wizard. But I doubt they will want to negotiate.”
Their captive held up its bound hands expectantly and muttered in Draconic, “King make war. Soldiers pay cost.”
“Why does the king make war now?” Liberty asked.
The lizardfolk sneered. “Humans cause plague. Eggs cursed.”
The sorcerer translated for the others. “Cooper didn’t say anything about that.” Turning back to the prisoner she asked, “Humans from the keep?”
“Free City wizards.”
“Why curse eggs?” asked Drake.
“Humans hate lizardfolk for growing strong.” The soldier sounded bitter. “We strong again now. Humans pay.”
After the answer was translated, Xan said, “Shit… This doesn’t sound good. Please ask him how long the eggs have been cursed.” Liberty did so.
The reptile considered the question – and Liberty – before finally answering. “Eggs rotted ten cycles ago. And again two cycles ago. No young. Only green worms.” It shuddered.
“I was afraid he was going to say that,” said Xan.
“The humans who did this to you are not our friends, but our enemies,” Liberty said to the soldier.
He looked dubious and said, “You fight for Free City keep. Wizards from Free City. All responsible.”
“It’s a big Free City,” she said, realizing how feeble the argument must sound. The captive’s scaly lips curled.
“Does he know for sure that the wizard they captured was one of the ones responsible for the curse?” asked Xan.
“I think we all look alike to him,” said Liberty.
The captive held up his bound hands again, more forcefully. “I lead you here. I lose honor for cowardice. Release me. I seek another tribe and ask for place among their warriors.”
The sorcerer translated. “How do we proceed here?”
“I got no problem with it,” said Drake.
“I don’t mind letting him go,” said Xan. “He told us more in the last minute than Allustan could tell us about the worms in the last month.”
Liberty turned back to the captive. “That is fair. You have honored our agreement; now we shall do the same.”
The soldier nodded stiffly, looking a little surprised. Once freed from his bonds, he slinked away from the lair, but paused once to look back over his shoulder. “I say before that you have no honor. I was wrong. Sazsh remember honorable fleshkind.” The lizardfolk nodded once, then slipped away into the swamp.
“Passed through fire, came out a new little lizard,” Drake said to himself.
Once the lizardfolk was gone, Liberty turned to the others and said, “Now what?”
Xan shrugged. “Now we go get the prisoners. I doubt we will be given the option of doing it peacefully.”
“Never know,” said Drake. “Not like we have really tried it.”
“Is it worth it to try a stealthy approach?” asked Liberty. Mom snorted and Drake stepped in a puddle and onto a twig to exhibit his ability to move silently.
“The problem is that we don’t know where we are going. Hard to plan a sneaky path with no points of reference.”
They decided to try it anyway. Half of them crept forward quietly, while the other half tromped along with blatant disregard for the Stealth Initiative. The level hallway beyond the flexible branches was made of earth and roots. The branches dropped back into place once they’d passed. The first twenty feet of the hall received filtered sunlight, enough to see perfectly well once their eyes adjusted to the dimmer light. Beyond that area, the path grew dark. Liberty cast light on her staff.
After about fifty feet, a small alcove filled the southern end of a tunnel intersection. A few javelins and several wooden clubs decorated with shells were propped against the far wall of the alcove, and a large clay pot held what appeared to be water. Mosquitoes buzzed noisily. Xan checked the alcove more closely, determining that the pot was filled with fresh water and was decorated with simple shapes – mostly eggs.
They had entered from the north, and from the intersection there was a tunnel to the west that curled around to the north and out of sight. To the east, another tunnel continued in that direction, but immediately to the south was a rough natural stair heading farther down. “Let’s head west,” suggested Xan.
After twenty feet or so, a passage split off to the southwest. The main tunnel continued to the north and seemed to open up into a larger chamber at the edge of their light. Something to the north stirred at the illumination. In the shadows, they could see scaly hands reaching for weapons…