17 Flocktime, 595 CY
Allustan helped the adventurers compile the notes and discoveries they’d made about the Ebon Triad in Diamond Lake and the spawn of Kyuss in the Mistmarsh. He provided them with an address for his associate Eligos, a sage in the Free City, whom – it was hoped – could bring greater resources to bear to figure out what exactly the cult might be plotting.
The journey from Diamond Lake to the Free City was about eighty-five miles along a spottily patrolled road through the hills. Most of the party had made the trip a time or two already between their previous adventures, and they hadn’t expected any trouble on the road. However, they passed several other travelers on the road – traders, farmers, pilgrims, and a couple of groups of soldiers – who indicated that the way is not as safe as it had once been. The Free City would be hosting its annual Champion’s Games soon, and the increased traffic seemed to be enticing bandits and monsters to take advantage of that.
They made camp along the side of the road and had just finished up dinner when Mom and Xan heard the sound of something large prowling toward the horses. Mom grunted in warning, but it was not a terribly informative sound. Xan leapt to his feet, readying to meet the threat, but not quite prepared for what emerged from the trees.
The creature resembled a blue-black panther with two additional forelimbs and a pair of powerful black tentacles sprouting from its shoulders. The tentacles were tipped with horny edges and resembled the club-shaped catching tentacles of a squid. For all its distinctive shape, the form looked indistinct and seemed to shift from one moment to the next, making its exact position difficult to pin down. One of the beast’s tentacles lashed out and tore a chunk out of Ember, Liberty’s horse. All of the horses then reared and screamed in terror.
“Two here, one across the road!” Mom shouted before charging off into the darkness in the latter direction. He brought his greatsword down and through where the beast lurking there seemed to be. But the image offered no resistance, and his blade bit into the ground, rattling the half-orc. A jagged tentacle flashed past his face, narrowly missing gouging out his eyes. Xan leapt at the displacer beast attacking Liberty’s horse and sliced into one of its tentacles, though his blade met resistance before it appeared to strike the monstrous cat. The third of the creatures emerged and lashed out at Drake’s horse, bloodying the hobbled mount.
Drake stood and rushed the beast that Xan had engaged, striking something solid and unseen. The image to the left reacted to the punch, yowling in anger. “Hmm,” the big man rumbled thoughtfully. Liberty cast a trio of magic missiles into the beast attacking Drake’s horse, but that did not seem to deter the predator from its target. The alchemist and rogue evaded a flurry of tentacles and flashing jaws. Mom took a step back, hoping to put enough space between himself and the monster to cast a spell, but the damned thing raked him with one of the deceptively long tentacles on its back, breaking the half-orc’s concentration on the spell. Drake was scratched and torn by the first displacer beast, but Xan continued to evade its ropy tentacles. The alchemist’s horse fell to the other monster’s onslaught, and the other horses managed to snap their lines and bolt in all directions.
The others continued struggling against the displacer beasts, and Liberty finally came under assault from the creature she’d been peppering with magic missiles. She panicked and tried to brain it with her staff, but only struck empty air. With a curse, she took a step back toward the road. Drake had backed away, so Xan had to avoid both tentacle and teeth from the monster he and the alchemist were fighting. And then the abomination spoke.
“You’re a quick one,” it mewled at the rogue. “I bet that makes you even tastier!” The other beasts laughed horribly.
Xan smiled. “I bet ugly cat steak tastes like shit, but I’ll find out later.” Then he stabbed the monster again.
“You are doomed, man-thing,” Mom’s foe taunted, tearing at him with its barbed tentacles. It licked some of the half-orc’s blood from one of them and then howled, “Deliciousss!”
Liberty fell to the assault of the third, and it crowed, “The magic one is spicy!” Drake downed his new mutagen and hulked out, growing jagged teeth and clawed talons! He stepped back up to the one missing Xan and laid into it. The creature yowled in surprise and pain, then retaliated, shredding Drake’s hide. Mom abandoned the fight with his displacer beast, rushing back across the road to where Liberty lay senseless. He cast a curative prayer from his recently acquired ring of spell storing, reviving the sorcerer. The monster he’d been fighting gave chase and bit him on the shoulder. The one that had taken Liberty down flanked the half-orc and took his own samples of green flesh and blood.
Having had enough, Drake bit and clawed the first displacer beast to utter death. From the ground, Liberty cast burning arc on the remaining two, scorching each of them quite a bit. Mom continued to distract the creatures, and Xan decided it was time to start shooting off his mouth. He pointed at Drake and declared loudly, “This predator is stronger than you. He has barely gotten started, and now you are down to two. And then there are the rest of us. You really would be smart to withdraw.” The rogue’s words struck to the nearer beast’s heart, and it was unable to land a meaningful blow on the Superior Predator. Mom’s beast bit him again, its attacks growing wilder and less accurate.
Drake put down the demoralized displacer beast, and the remaining monster blinked. Liberty cast magic missile from the ground, and Mom finally landed a pair of hits on the creature. “I warned you, fools,” said Xan. The last beast’s nerve failed, and it broke for the trees across the road. Drake roared after it, and then the night grew swiftly quiet in the wake of the unexpected combat.
“Mom, thanks for- oh, shit,” said Liberty, seeing the half-orc fall senseless and bleeding to the ground. His rage must have been the only thing keeping him on his feet. Drake stepped over his fallen companion and fed him a healing potion.
“Gah!” the half-orc cried as he sputtered awake. “I don’t know what those things were, but I hate them.” He proceeded to pray to Kord for additional healing.
Xan glanced sidelong at the alchemist. “That’s some serious stuff you’re mixing these days, Drake.”
Drake shrugged his feral shoulders. “Just a new formula. Better than the last.”
“You keep that up, and I’ll sell you to a freak show for a neat profit,” teased the rogue.
“Heh. Good luck getting the leash on.”
Xan turned to the sorcerer. “You okay, Lib? That was a close one.”
“I’m fine, thanks. Mom’ll get me fixed up right.”
“And after that, I’m gonna sleep ‘til noon,” slurs the half-orc.
The scent of blood hung heavy in the camp; Drake’s horse lay dead at the edge and the two displacer beast corpses littered the center. The other mounts had scattered into the night. Once Mom finished healing the group’s injuries, Drake and Liberty went to search for the horses. It took them a little while to locate them all, but eventually, they returned with the animals. The group had to move their camp, because the horses remained skittish around so much blood.
Drake cut off pieces of the bizarre creatures for later examination. “Not really useful, per se, but could be educational when I get a chance to study it more.”
True to his word, Xan sliced off a steak from one of the displacer beast bodies and cooked it up. Liberty looked up from her bedroll. “Um. How is that?”
“Tastes like being right!”
* * *
18 Flocktime, 595 CY
Mom lent his horse to Drake and removed his armor for the next leg of the trip. Somehow, he was able to keep pace with the riders, so long as they traveled at a walk. They continued on until mid-afternoon when Drake and Mom saw a new threat!
Lumbering out of the trees was, upon first impression, a pair of enormous humans with broad, thick shoulders and two solid tree-trunk arms stretching down to almost drag on the ground. Further examination revealed that their skin was a sickly greenish hue, and their eyes were pools of inky blackness. Their faces were long and angular, with solid pointy chins, and crooked, hawkish noses. The creatures’ hair looked more like a mat of forest weeds and rested tangled and greasy upon their heavy brows. There was an air of unsettled violence about the two – their hands ended in razor-sharp claws, and their bodies seemed taut and agile despite their size.
One cried out in Giant when it noticed being noticed. “You give money or you die!” Then it charged, slashing at Drake, who happened to be closest. The alchemist got lucky as the vicious claws just missed him. He fumbled for a bomb and fell from his panicking mount as he did so. The troll stabbed down into his guts as he lobbed the fiery missile into it. The first troll howled in alarm and the other cried out, “Murnk!”
“BURN!” Drake screamed. “Lib! Use fire!”
“Spluh?” was her reply.
“As opposed to … you know … the other stuff you do,” said Xan.
“Smartass,” Drake complained from the ground.
Bereft of his armor, Mom cast a spell that sent a ball of force hurling into the first troll’s guts, knocking the breath from it. The other troll finally charged as well, raking Drake with a massive claw.
Murnk then laid into Drake, missing with its disgusting teeth, but devastating with the claws. The alchemist did some quick calculations, and if his math was right, most of his blood was now on the outside of his body. Hypothesis: Nothing good can come of this. Liberty got up from where her horse had tossed her and cast burning arc at the giants. Xan flipped off of his horse into a flanking position on Murnk and stabbed the troll in the kidney. It stumbled to its knees.
“Murnk?” asked the other troll, something like concern creeping into its tone.
Drake slugged Murnk in the nose, and the troll slumped facedown in the dirt. Mom raged, and rushed the other, carving a gash in its warty flesh. “Nathk surrender!” the troll said in Giant, raising its claws in the air and taking a tentative step back. “No kill! Give last of gold! Please no kill!”
“He’s surrendering,” Drake translated before laying his head back on the very comfortable ground and holding his insides in.
Liberty wreathed her hands in flame. “Are we accepting?”
“He’ll just kill the next group passing by if we do. Are we okay with that?” asked Xan.
“Can’t say as I am, no,” said the sorcerer.
A thought flashed across Xan’s face, then. He spoke to the creature in its own tongue. “Wait … how much money?”
Nathk tossed a small pouch at Xan’s feet, which clinked pitifully. The troll continued blubbering. “Lair ruined. Brothers killed by small things. Quick elf bow-thing. Large loud man with shiny belt. Horrible bearded man that throw fire like that one,” he pointed at Liberty, with tears streaming from his glossy black eyes. “Please no kill!”
Mom cast a healing spell on Drake, and the alchemist turned his head to the side at the troll’s description. “Wait…”
“What’s he saying?” Liberty asked.
“He’s describing the people that turned them out of their lair. ‘Loud man with shiny belt,’ was one of ‘em.” Drake started pounding infusions like he used to do whiskey. His wounds knitted themselves up quite swiftly.
“He’s run into your adventuring friends,” Xan said to her. “Maybe he can show us a trail to track them if we let him live. Any reason we need to find them?”
“Absolutely. How long ago were they here?”
Murnk stirred, but Nathk quickly shouted at him to stay down. The other troll complied, groaning in pain. Xan addressed them. “You lead us to where they attacked you and give us what you have. And we will think about letting you live. Deal?”
“They attack lair. Maybe three suns’ travel from road. Can take there. Only have coin in pouch,” Nathk said miserably. “They kill three brothers and take all we have.”
“It would be a three day ride off the path to get there,” Xan translated for his companions. “Do we want to go that far out of our way?” Mom grunted negatively.
“That sounds like too much diversion to me on the off chance that the Free City Adventurers are still there,” said Liberty.
“No, they’re gone. But still no reason to kill these guys if they pay us,” said Drake.
“I have an idea,” said Xan, with that look in his eye. Mom rolled his eyes and Drake slowly facepalmed.
The rogue turned back to the troll speaker. “Nathk, is it? You seem like a smart man to me. Trust me, I have an eye for this kind of stuff. How about we work out a better deal?”
“Nathk listening,” the troll said warily.
“There have been some nasty creatures threatening the roads lately. Not civilized bandits such as yourselves, of course. I’m talking about true monsters out there. I’m sure you’ve seen signs of them, right?”
After a long pause for consideration, the troll said, “Nathk see monsters, me think. They no have moneys, so Murnk and Nathk avoid.” Murnk nodded emphatically in agreement.
“Good, good,” said Xan. “Let me ask you something else. How much money are you generally getting from the people traveling the roads?” Somewhat embarrassed, Nathk indicated the pouch at Xan’s feet. The rogue scooped it up and took a quick glance inside. It contained less than a hundred silver pieces and but a single gold coin.
While Xan counted, Liberty sidled up to Drake for a translation, and the alchemist obliged. “He’s … I think he’s talking about hiring them to kill things like the displacer beasts. That crafty son-of-a-bitch.”
The sorcerers face expressed a sudden realization. “He’s not just good with people. He’s good with monsters!”
Ignoring the chatter from his companions, Xan continued. “Aww … that’s a shame. Big, strong men like yourselves should be doing much better. How about this: I will be back this way in about fifty suns. You stay in the area and kill anything that seriously threatens these roads. When I come back, you tell me how much you killed, and I will pay you ten gold for every creature. But trust me, I’ll know if you are lying, and then we will have to kill you.” The rogue smiled widely. “So, what do you think?”
“Well…” said Nathk, considering. “Monsters no have fire, so that good.”
“I think it will be well worth it,” Xan said. “And if this works out, maybe we can make it a permanent job.”
“Can still rob travelers?” Murnk asked hopefully.
“No, no. We can’t have that,” said Xan. “Buuut … how about this: I’ll pay you two gold for every group of travelers that you let pass by without robbing them. How’s that?”
The thought seemed to bounce around in Nathk’s big head for quite a while. Eventually, he grinned cannily. “You have deal, flippy man.” Drake translated the moniker and Liberty had to stifle a giggle.
“Excellent!” said Xan. “You’ve made the right choice, my friend. And it will make you rich. Now get along and heal up so you can get started on your new job tomorrow. And here,” he said tossing the pouch back to the troll. “Keep it.”
Nathk looked down at the pouch in wonder. “You damn decent to no kill Nathk and poor Murnk. We down on luck.” The troll helped his brother to his feet, and the pair made their way off the road.
As they neared the edge of the verge, Murnk was heard to say “My ass burn, Nathk.”
“I know, bro. I know,” said Nathk. Drake laughed out loud.
Once the trolls were gone, Liberty asked Xan, “So was it like this when you went to the Free City with Sam?”
“Not at all. But it looks like I may have procured a patrol of sorts.” He explained the deal he’d worked out. “Who knows, I might actually come back and pay them.”
“I really hope we hear about the ‘Hero Trolls of King’s Road’ at some point,” said Drake, highly amused.
“So, what happens if you don’t pay them?” asked Drake.
“Good question,” said Liberty. “I’m pretty sure they fear us enough to keep at it for at least a few extra days.”
“They’ll either die protecting the road and it doesn’t matter, or they will keep looking for me for a while after the fifty days and then give up, I guess,” said Xan. “At the very least I’ve turned them from a threat to an asset for a time.”
“If they can even count to fifty. Still, if they can stick with it, I’m … glad we didn’t kill them,” said Liberty. She seemed to find the idea surprising. “Traveling with you fellows has been educational, and no mistake.” Mom grunted derisively.
“Everyone can be used for your benefit, Lib. Everyone. You just have to know the right leverage to use.” Xan seemed proud of his assessment, but after a moment he seemed to realize how it sounded and his expression grew more somber. Liberty only nodded.
Drake’s amusement fled at the comment. “Huh.”
“Aaanyway,” said the rogue. “Apparently tricking trolls into becoming guards is kind of a hobby of mine.” His smile was a little fragile as he got back on his horse.
* * *
19 Flocktime, 595 CY
On the third evening of their journey, the glistening Free City came into view. Perched on the banks of a broad, slow-moving river, and larger than any other they’d ever seen, Greyhawk was home to tens of thousands living together with the hope of a better life. Tall spires and gabled roofs crowded together and peeked out over the high stone walls that surrounded the bustling metropolis, while smaller, less opulent buildings spread from its walls in nearly every direction. Scores of common folk, along with carts and wagons laden with wares for market, formed a long line slowly trudging toward the nearest gate.
It was always a bit of a trial to get into the city, but never had it been as bad. A fellow waiting in the line ahead of them explained that it was because of the upcoming Champion’s Games. Gaining access to the Free City was a lengthy endeavor that involved waiting in line for up to two hours, followed by an inspection performed by the guards at the gate. Although the Free City was open to all and relatively safe, the city militia had stringent laws against contraband.
“Gotta love bureaucracy,” said Xan.
“It’s going to be worth it,” said Liberty. She did what she could to disguise herself, putting on her baker’s apron and putting all of her magical implements away. Drake winced as he poured out a pair of vials that contained some viscous blue liquid. He did not explain. The others shrugged and followed the line.
When they made it to the gate, one of the guards looked them over appraisingly then called out. “Well, what do we have here? Fancy folk here to spend their coin in the Free City. Well, what’s your business here? And be prepared to turn out your pockets.”