We arrived at Oleg's late at night. I dropped on the bed feeling in every way like I could sleep forever. I didn't even bother to have anything to eat. Still, before I finally managed to get some rest, I saw Nagata making for the walls, likely ready to do penitence over hitting Takeshi by mistake a few days ago. We've been through this before, and I know nothing short of an attack on the fort would get them to leave the post, so I bid them a good night with a resounding BAKA and went to get myself, as locals say, some shut-eye.
I had been hoping we'd spend a few days here, but on speaking to Takeshi the following morning, I realized it would probably be less time than I would have liked. Takeshi had spoken to Oleg as soon as he got up and made his daily obediences, about establishing a trading route to get supplies to the kobolds, and Oleg was already setting aside blankets, tools and food. It is Takeshi's intention to escort the wagon all the way to Oaktop Silver Mine, and from there, set off on expedition again.
I have blisters on my boils and he's already talking about setting off again. I refuse to argue with him because, again, I know this is necessary and settling a kingdom requires a lot of hard work. But there is no salt bath in creation powerful enough to restore my poor feet to what they once were. Just hearing about a new expedition I felt more tired than I'd ever been. It's taking a toll on the rest of me, too: I think I've lost some weight and there are purple circles under my eyes. My back resents me for sleeping on the ground for so long. I'm just shy of my eighteenth birthday and I'm feeling like a grandma of eighty. I don't complain, though. I just hope that sometime in the future we'll have everything set to start our kingdom and the legwork diminishes somewhat.
We had a new visitor at Oleg's Trading Post that morning – a man who popped into existence out of thin air, wearing heavy robes, and addressed Takeshi as if he knew exactly whom he had to speak with about the issue that brought him here (which, all in all, is sort of unnerving). He introduced himself as Laeren Velzim, head wizard of the court, and said that "it had been revealed to him" that the Scottsdale tribe had been pacified and the bandit activity in this area was considerably diminished. Takeshi explained our efforts in pacifying the Greenbelt, and collected a very generous sum as a reward – while the wizard was here, he also enquired about the crafting or purchasing of magical items from Master Velzim, and arranged to have a trip to Brevoy at some point in the future, for browsing. Magical arms and accessories, he said, will serve us well in the trials to come.
Wonder if I can find a pair of magical shoes that make the going easier…
The following day, with the supply wagon for Scottsdale nearly assembled, Takeshi called for a meeting during breakfast, to decide on where we're headed. Looking at our map, we have narrowed down the general area where the Stag Lord probably has his headquarters. Takeshi would like a look at it before we decide to venture in to get him. Nagata also got some tidbits from his dead-drop friends. It appears that after Lord Garress was disowned by his father, a dwarf was brought in line for the next head of the house – likely one of the men from the clan allied to the Garress. As for poor Tania… nobody really knows where she went.
That afternoon, we went out to hunt for supplies. (sidenote: whenever we go hunting prior to an expedition I feel a sense of dread and despair. It means we'll require lots of travel rations, and that means we'll be out for a long while.) We hauled a nearly complete bull carcass back to the outpost, which gave us a whooping ONE HUNDRED RATIONS to carry out for the expedition. (sidenote again: I'm gonna be walking these hills and marshes forever like so many cursed ghosts…)
It took us five days to return to Oaktop Mine. On our way, Takeshi asked me to carefully mark the path we take, as this will likely be our first trading route across the land. That was the most leisurely part of our seventh expedition. Oleg was driving the wagon, and despite it being full of supplies, we took turns riding next to him. There are perks to traveling in a caravan – the going is slower, but you grow less tired, and as Oleg clearly demonstrated, it's easier to bring proper food along instead of trail rations. Oleg set out with a good few lovingly prepared meals Svetlana packed for him. We set off with a hundred trail rations in a bag of holding.
(sidenote: when our kingdom is formed and growing I intend to talk to Takeshi about setting up a three-day or so festival to commemorate our efforts in exploring this land. The main event will be the Trail Ration Cookout – in which aspiring, talented cooks will attempt to make trail rations into something edible and delicious using only ingredients that can be foraged in the wild. The best dish receives a sum of gold as a reward and the eternal gratitude of Ameno Uzume).
We finally arrived on the morning of the sixth day, and the kobolds seemed very happy to see us and the supplies we were bringing in. After a year under the rule of that fake shaman and waging pointless wars with the mites, they were in dire need of help. Chief Sootscale asked about the possibility of getting his people some crossbows – kobolds usually hunt with spear, but that means getting up close and personal, and despite fierce, they are still small. Ranged capacity would likely improve the results of their hunting parties. Takeshi had a word with Oleg about it – with the money we have coming in, we can outfit most of the tribe. At this point, Scottsdale has twenty or so members, and finding twenty or so crossbows will likely not be that hard. We have quite an investment out of our own pockets in these supplies, but I trust that it will pay off once the mine begins producing silver once again.
For the time we were there, a couple of kobold scouts approached us as well, saying they'd found something in their last outing we might want to hear about. They described an area nearby in which there used to be a ferry across a river that is quite the problem to cross everywhere else. While looking for game, the kobolds described some creature that came out of the very waters as if it was part of them, and looked in everything like an animated corpse. The kobolds managed to best it, but that night, the two members of the scouting party that killed the creature were afflicted by nightmares so vicious and terrible they lashed out at one another until both were dead. And the following morning, the remaining scouts were appalled to see the undead creature once again walking on the waters, laughing at them! Of course, the kobolds realized they were out of their depth, and fled back to Oaktop as fast as they could.
Takeshi heard the tale with a grim look on his face, then began to ask questions: could they give us a more detailed description of the creature? Did it talk? Were they sure it was a corporeal creature? Were they positive it had been killed, only to reappear the next morning? The kobolds nodded and shook their heads, and tried to describe the thing to the best of their abilities. According to them it looked in everything like the regular undead: an obviously deceased, rotting body that moved, walked, talked and apparently thought. Takeshi said he would suspect a dread zombie or dread ghoul, but none such creatures has ever been known to walk on water. The kobolds insisted on this point several times, however: it formed from the water and walked on it, and when it died it melted again into the water as if it was part of it. The fact that it returned after it had been slain, and that it managed to haunt its enemies into fighting to the death reminded me of the tales I've heard of ghosts. But ghosts, Takeshi assured me, are incorporeal creatures. If this had been a true ghost, then the kobolds' spears would have had no effect. Bear brought up a theory that this obviously has to be some kind of undead that behaves like a ghost, so it obviously has some unfinished business in the Material Plane. Resolving that business is likely the one true way to get rid of it.
I recalled that the first time we met Mathis, he told us of similar rumours: an undead guarding some kind of bridge or crossing. So obviously, we were going to investigate.
(sidenote: I have never seen an undead before and I would be very happy if I never did… the very idea of a dead creature returning from beyond gives me the heebie-jeebies. There are a thousand stories in Minkaian folklore concerning ghosts and the living dead, and roughly nine-hundred and ninety-nine of them end poorly for the living characters!!)
Before Oleg set off to the Trading Post again, we ran the story by him, and he confirmed the rumor Mathis had told us about. There used to be some sort of tolling operation down the river, which was abandoned when the Greenbelt was lost to bandits. Whoever was running it was never heard of again. (creepy!)
Monkey was quite vocal about killing it. He said a thing like that couldn't be allowed to walk around, it wasn't natural! Yet Takeshi explained it would do no good to kill it – the kobolds did, and look what happenened to them. Nagata argued he would kill it better and as many times as it took for it to understand it was supposed to stay dead. Bear had to convince him that it's a better idea to try and speak to the thing first, if it parleys, and discover what's keeping it here and if we can do something to send it off.
So after seeing Oleg depart and promising chief Sootscale we would look into the issue and get rid of the undead creature, we set off once again – uphill, downhill, past the sycamore tree once more, and in the direction pointed by the scouts. It was a quiet two days, as we were all looking forward (or not at all) to see this undead thing that came out of the waters. I was reminded of a Minkaian tale about a water ghost that haunted a river, and the fisherman who not only saved himself from joining the court of the dead, but also managed to outwit the ghost from killing people for several years, until eventually he managed to send the apparition off in peace. It's one of the few stories I could recall in which the living character doesn't die or has some other misfortune happen to him on account of his supernatural experiences. The spirits in Minkaian folk tales are always vicious. I wonder how the ghost stories of the Greenbelt are…
I asked Oksana but she shrugged and said it was probably not the best time to tell scary stories, and that she would tell me a few folk tales from her country once we were done with this.
It was on the dusk of the ninth day of expedition that we approached a ruin on the river margins. It was once a ferry, of that there was no doubt: on each margin there was the ruin of a dock, and a rope ran between two post to guide the ferry to safe harbor. There was no ferry to speak of, however, not even a dingy. A sign near the post read "Ring Bell for Service – 5 copper pieces", with a bowl beneath it to receive the coins, and a rusted bell above it to ring for the boatman. Appropriately, there was sepulchral silence. Only the fast river water made a noise. No sign of anything lurking in the waters.
I was going to say that this was hardly a good time to be summoning up ghosts – night was approaching and this was spooky enough without the darkness. Takeshi agreed, but by another logic: we had been walking all day, and were in no condition to do battle if necessary. We camped within sight of the ferry, but it wasn't a peaceful night. Nagata began his watch pacing back and forth between us and the river like a tiger in a cage. On my watch, I tried playing a little tune to cheer myself up, but the air was so heavy around me that even the most joyful song I know gave me an impending feeling of doom. When Oksana took my place, it took me forever to fall asleep. And when I did sleep, I dreamed I was a fisherman in a tiny raft, throwing nets into the water to catch people falling into the river before the water ghost could get them. When I awoke, Nagata was pacing again. Breakfast was eaten in silence, and as we packed and made for the ferry crossing again, there was a general feeling of getting this over with in the air.
Takeshi went straight for the post with the bowl, the sign and the bell, and deposited two shiny silver pieces – enough to pay for four people crossing, according to the sign. Then he rang the bell three times.
At first nothing happened. But after a few seconds, a shape began emerging in the middle of the river – just as the kobolds described, as if the waters themselves were gaining consistency and building up into a creature. As it loomed closer to the margin, it kept forming, until we were staring at the dessicated, rotting corpse of a man, wet hair falling in clumps from its ruined skull, pieces of innards peeking from a gash on its side, and what looked like a massive harpoon in hand! And as it made its way towards us (I remember being frozen by the sight, but Nagata had both wakizashi in hand and Takeshi had taken the naginata off his shoulder), and before Bear could ask it anything, a voice emerged from the creature's mouth. A soggy, eerie voice. And what it said was quite clear: we were not whom it sought. It wanted us to bring it the Stag Lord's corpse and hurl it into the river, that it might see him dead. Or else, we were bound to join him in the waters.
Takeshi began backing away from the margin, and as he was the one closer to the water, we had no choice but to back away with him. As we put distance between us and the creature, it quite literally laughed in our faces and melted into the river again, as if it was, indeed, made entirely out of water held together by some force.
After that, we returned to the place where we'd made camp the previous night to discuss what we had seen. More than ever I felt like a soothing cup of tea. The image of that thing rising from the waters and walking over them as if they had been solid ground creeped the ever-loving wits out of me. Nagata recalled this was the same river we'd followed down from the hotsprings, and from what we had seen of it, there were likely very few places to cross it safely. Recovering and refitting this ferry would be very useful. Plus, Nagata wanted that thing gone as soon as possible – he would not allow a creature like that to walk the land. Takeshi was in agreement, but of the opinion it was pointless to fight it. That thing was once a man, likely a man the Stag Lord murdered, and it had informed us very politely that it could not rest until it was sure the Stag Lord had died. Our objectives aligned: the Stag Lord was our next goal, and we had been delaying it long enough. The time was ripe to head South, and discover where he was hiding.
We returned to the Oaktop mine briefly, to inform chief Sootscale of what we must do, and then we set off southwards, on a mission to end the Stag Lord's realm of terror once and for all.
For the first time, we marched South with the intent to do battle. Up until now, our travels had been of exploration, or plainly running away from pursuit. The clearer objective made the trip seem to fly by. We spoke at length of what else we would be keeping an eye out for during our trip. I recalled Lord Garress telling us about a man who used to run with him, Falgrim Smeeg, who ran south to join a group of bandits, and we were very sure we might find him with the Stag Lord. I pulled the wanted poster I'd taken from the Trading Post, with a depiction of Smeeg's face, and had everyone have a good look at it, in case we saw him. Lord Garress would rather we capture the man alive, so we would have to make an effort to keep him safe if it came to battle, which most likely would.
We followed the river south, and Nagata's theory seemed pretty evident – the waters were too deep and fast to cross safely at any other point than the ferry. Eventually, we found a place where another arm of the river joined the main course, and began following that. The waters were quieter and less deep there, and we hoped to be able to swim across it further ahead. Despite everything, there were saving graces to that trip. Nagata seemed very interested in the waters for a while. At first, I thought he was still looking out for traces of the undead, but after a while, I realized his interest was much simpler: fish.
That evening, the thirteenth since we left Oleg's Trading Post, we camped near the margin and Nagata tried to fish. The water was shallow enough that he could wade in to his thighs and stay still for long enough to stab through some fishes. He even managed to very acceptably fillet some! It's been so long since I had properly cut fish! It's not bonito or salmon, but still immensely tasty. We even tried to convince Oksana to eat some, but she looked at us as if we were insane. Instead, she took a whole fish and roasted it over the campfire. Smelled pretty good, but I'm positive it's not as good as the raw deal. Besides, you couldn't get any fresher than just caught – why ruin it in cooking?
As we gulped it down, we made a list of all the things we must try to get from Minkai to make it perfect. Some rice, foremostly, and soy sauce as well. I would like some anko paste and ginger pickles too. Oh, and wasabi, seeds or shipped whole so we can grate it and get the freshest sting we can! Nori as well, although I am curious as to how some of the local algae fare as foodstuffs. As we kept on listing things, I was trying to explain to Oksana what they were, and she wrinkled her nose several times. But I'm sure if she had a proper tasting, she would likely enjoy it.
It was a good night, with a belly full of fish. The following day, we continued following the river – we're pretty sure this is the Thorne. Further ahead, it will rejoin the Shrike, like as not, and continue South.
I would have liked to say we had a very uneventful and very delicious trip – for as long as we could, we forgot about the trail rations in favor of freshly caught fish, and after a few tries, even Takeshi was growing adept at catching them with the naginata. Unfortunately, while we were camping in the margin around the dawn of our fifteenth day, we were roused by Nagata yelling for backup. A giant centipede had come by our camp, and even as we scrambled to our feet, it stung Nagata pretty badly.
The battle was much more difficult than the one in the mite lair. This centipede had the advantage of room to move, so it wasn't an easy fight. It ended with Nagata succumbing to the poison and Takeshi seriously wounded. Oksana and I were mostly untouched, but my brothers took the brunt of the centipede's might. We spent the day right there, tending to our wounded and resting. It would have been unwise to simply continue south with two people in such dire need of medical attention. Takeshi used the blessing of Shizuru to close their wounds and halt the poison in Nagata's blood. So on that day, it was our job to fish – Oksana totally cheated by putting the fish to sleep. So I figured it was just fair I used my music to fascinate them into stillness, then picking them off the water with my mage hand. Perhaps it was slower than stabbing them through the water, but it did the trick.
Just taking time to rest at camp reminded me of our first few days in this land. Camping in the woodlands for days, trying to figure out what we were doing next, start learning the language, living in hiding at the edge of the villages. Nagata went about the farms, taking some vegetables here and there, production the owners likely wouldn't miss. When he went to town, he always brought coin back – coin we did not overly ask where he found. It was the difference, sometimes, between going to bed hungry and not. I remember I used to find myself a corner where lots of people went by, sit down with a pot or bowl next to me, and play for hours for some money. Eventually I improved my number – I'd make origami animals to move about with prestidigitation, making them dance as I played. When the weather was good, I was like to make some fair amount of copper pieces in an afternoon, too. And Takeshi – well. Takeshi actually found jobs in the villages. Mostly odd jobs, like unloading ships and boats who came by the docks, in inland villages as stablehand or all-around helper. Anything he could do, really. We went very much from the edge of a village to another, until we managed to get a good command of the language. Then we began going into villages and staying at inns. Speaking the language was the difference between Nagata clearing out every shady gambling den in a town, or being unable to understand gambling rules. I could now negotiate to play at inns and taverns, and Takeshi could sell his skills at the smithy.
I thought then I would never be as tired as when we first arrived in this country. I was wrong. Still – we've come a long way from those first few days. With this in mind, we dismantled our camp on the twentieth morning since the expedition began, and continued to march South.
Around mid-morning we spotted a great valley from atop a hill – like a wrinkle in the earth, between several heights. Likely it would have gone unnoticed, if not for the ungodly amount of thornbushes populating that particular wrinkle. And thornbushes like I had never seen – some taller than me (sidenote: some taller than Bear!!), thick, dense, and with thorns like stakes, some as long as a hand. Looking at our map, we reached the conclusion we must be at the place Bokken had mentioned to us so many weeks ago – and these would be fangberry bushes!
There was also something else that made us notice the place. The equally ungodly amount of white, spindly silk weaved between them, among them and atop them. If not for the way it waved in the wind and the temperature, I would've said I was looking at bushes from a wintry landscape, covered in snow. As we carefully approached, we began wondering aloud at how many spiders it would take to make such a thing. I began to wonder if it was better to find a single, lonesome yet gigantic spider… or thousands of tiny ones. (sidenote: alright – comparatively I think I'd rather have the big one. At least like that we can all direct our attentions to a single target, instead of running around stomping our feet and shrieking at tiny bites like fools!)
Close by, I could spot some bright yellow, thorny berries deep set in the innermost branches of the bushes. The ones closer to the edges, of course, would be pilfered by birds and animals with ease. It would be quite unpleasant to venture into the thickets to get them due to the thorns, let alone the promise of spiders. Takeshi said we shouldn't miss the opportunity while we're here though, so we began picking up berries – the ones that had escaped the wildlife and could be reached by stretching out an arm carefully through the thorns, or the ones I could see and nudge out with a mage hand. It was slow and complicated work, and the valley was some good three miles long! Still, around the edges we went, carefully pulling berries into a bag.
The following day, we kept at it. But eventually, it became obvious we would have to move further inside the thicket. By the time we had gone all around the bushes, we were still just about halfway there. With no more berries to grab from without, it was time to brave the thorns. Takeshi and Nagata exchanged a look and braced to push in, and begin "digging" a path through which we could all pick up more. No sooner had they gone ten or twelve feet in, a wave of spiders, each about the size of my thumb, began crawling out of everywhere, accompanied by what sounded like someone's teeth rattling together (sidenote: later, Oksana would tell me they are called "chewing spiders" because of that sound). As Bear and Monkey started to get swarmed they pulled back, and the grass became pitch black from all the tiny vermin crawling out after them! As they rolled about and slapped their arms and legs trying to get rid of them, I pulled the wand of burning hands from my bag, and after several tries (note to self: practice more!) I managed to torch the swarms to cinders without setting any of my brothers' eyebrows on fire.
Before the spiders would regroup, we picked the area as cleanly as possible, and Monkey and Bear ventured in again to take some more. Every time they came back out of the bushes they had new cuts and bruises, and by the end of the day they were bloody, tired and made into mincemeat. I looked over the full bag we managed to get, and Oksana considered that perhaps these were not the best fangberries we could possibly pick. But for the time being, it's the best we could do. The berries went into the bag of holding, and I spent most of the evening pulling thorns from my brothers' backs and arms with a pincer.
We kept heading South for nearly a week without much incident – carefully observing our surroundings as we went, looking for signs of a fort or fortress near a lake where the Stag Lord would have his base. I remember on one night camping in the hills, we felt a great shift of the air above us, as if something immense had flown overhead. We couldn't see anything (sidenote: especially not anything green) but I slept next to Takeshi all the same that night.
We spotted the fort on the twenty-seventh day of expedition, and Nagata found several boot tracks to confirm we were headed the right way. The night before we stormed the Stag Lord fort, we slept cautiously without a fire for the first time in a while.
Hindsight is the best kind of sight, because it is always accurate. And on hindsight, the Ameno clan and their friend Oksana are dummies. We quite literally found the hardest, most convoluted, less effective way to storm the Stag Lord's fort. We made a terrible plan that backfired in horrible ways and we still kept with it. So perhaps we are not master tacticians, scholars of common sense or even moderately smart. But we are persistent.
It all began with our first sight of the fort. It was set right where the Shrike flowed into a lake, and was surrounded by a tall wooden palisade. We could also see some dark stone towers that seemed to be all but ruined, certainly much older than the rest of the fort. Oksana attributed this to ancient constructions that allegedly dot the lost lands of the Greenbelt, built by some people called Yonbari. Probably whoever built the fort did so atop one or more ruined buildings. The fort was protected on all sides by hills, and the watchtowers seemed to be ever-vigilant towards the front and sides. A beaten dirt path ran all the way to the gates.
Now if we had been moderately smart, we would have realized that the passphrase give to us by a captured bandit so long ago was worded such that it implies someone asking you a question. Like, for instance, "Who goes there?" I went back on my journal and I even considered this the first time we heard it. But somehow, we did not reach the conclusion we could very well approach, wait for some of the watchers to inquire who went there, and reply with the passphrase. I don't know how I can convey the amount of knocks I gave myself once it was all over and I realized this could have been so much easier. I suppose it was a language glitch that caused us to forsake it. Or perhaps we were so nervous about the whole thing we completely forgot about it.
The second moment where we should have stopped to contemplate if our plan was sound, was when Nagata suggested an approach through the back of the fort. The landscape was ripe with large boulders and bushes, and we could probably go around the fort to the back, where no visible watchers were on duty. Now, maybe I wouldn't have reached it, but from a tactician's point of view… why was there no need to guard the back of the fort? Sounds like there's something we're missing, right? Well – both of my brothers wondered aloud about how we should be careful as there must be a reason why the back of the fort was unguarded. And still he went ahead with the plan!
So we began a very elaborate game of hide and seek come dusk. Nagata took point, sneaking between obstacles and watching for the watchers, giving us a sign when it was safe to cross over to the next one. We crossed between obstacles one at a time, waiting until the watchers were distracted or looking elsewhere, then rushing ahead for the next hiding spot. Painfully slowly, we went around to the back, and indeed, no watchers seemed very concerned with looking behind. The hide-and-seek game became easier the further to the back we went. I could tell it made the others concerned. It made me concerned. Why weren't they guarding the back of the fort? And still, knowing fully well we were likely headed towards an unpleasant surprise, we pressed on!
Persistent, if not overly smart.
Now behind the fort, and still from one boulder cover to another, we began approaching the palisade proper. By now, night had fallen, and while I could see without a problem, I know my brothers and Oksana were relying much on the fort's own lights to tell where they were headed. Still taking point, Nagata ran behind a boulder as close to the palisade as he could get… and that's when the ground around him started moving, as skeletal hands popped out of the dirt and began digging themselves out and reaching for him. Four foul-looking zombies (sidenote: seriously Uzume? Is there such a thing as a fair-looking zombie?!), their sleep interrupted by Nagata's soft steps, were now surrounding him from every side!
We had decided upon stealth with this plan, but stealth went right out the window at that moment. In my head, my big brother was in danger, and helping him was the priority, so all idea of silence was gone – I began playing for courage, and Takeshi went rushing in. A first swat of the naginata turned one of the restless dead into a mound of rotting flesh, and a second sent another's head flying back. The third managed to get close, thought, and bit hard on Bear's shoulder. The fourth came in to get a bite also, and what he got instead was a naginata through the chest. Between the Bear and the Monkey, the remaining zombie was in the worst possible place I can think of, and didn't stay long enough to realize what befell him.
The fight was quick, but my first thought afterwards was to the watchers. I stopped playing, and carefully peeked out from behind the boulder that was keeping Oksana and me from sight. Takeshi and Nagata ducked behind the one ahead.
One of the watchers was jabbering about "hearing music", but considering the reaction of his companion, nobody seemed to give his opinion any credit and eventually, he forgot about it. We still had our stealth. I allowed myself a sigh of relief, and signaled my brothers that everyhting seemed clear. Nagata got ready to give me the sign for crossing over next to them…
And four more pairs of hands began digging out of the ground around Bear and him.
(sidenote: I said a few Minkaian words not worth mentioning at this point, the kind of words Grandfather would ground me for saying when I was little. Oksana chewed a few epithets in her own language that probably meant the same as mine, so we're keeping it between us)
As soon as another chord left my shamisen, I knew one of the watchers had spotted us – or the zombies, it hardly mattered. He knew something was about, and shifted against the light to get a better look. There was no helping it – he was already suspicious and I had just confirmed that yes, he was hearing music. As the zombies closed in, Takeshi dispatched them. I saw the watcher pull up a bow and draw an arrow on Bear, the slowest of targets. I was about to call for Oksana to stop him, when clearly we had a small moment of divine intervention. Shizuru, likely rolling around in the Heavens and grabbing her tummy at our stupidity, declared that the bow's string should break and strike the watcher between the eyes. I saw him vanish from sight and heard the translation for the words Oksana and I had been saying just before. Lucky!
It was the only chance we were going to get, and Monkey saw it. He ran at the top of his speed towards the palisade, and clambered up it like his own namesake. The second watcher trained another arrow for Bear, and Takeshi recalled the passphrase, shouting it as loudly as he could. And, adding insult to injury, the watcher himself yelled out why this was the dumbest idea ever: "From the back of the fort?! Right!" Of course. So much for that.
While the watcher had an arrow trained on Bear, I managed to cross through to the other boulder, all the time playing the song. Bear closed in the angle on the archer's shot to go after Nagata – so when Oksana came in to view, running behind me, the arrow flew for her. Just before I reached the boulder, I saw Nagata vault up the palisade and vanish inside. Takeshi hollered for Monkey to open the gate, and keeping as close as possible to the palisade to avoid the archer, he began running around the fort.
With one of my brothers out of sight and the other bolting for the front gate, I wondered what to do. Going after Takeshi was the obvious choice: there was no way I could clear the palisade after Nagata. I was studying the watcher next to Oksana, bidding my moment when he might try to shoot Takeshi once more, giving me time to reach the palisade and close the angle…
I glanced down at my feet then, because a skeletal pinky finger was nudging my big toe from beneath the dirt.
That… very much sealed the deal, and I ran out of there as fast as my legs would take me, archer be damned. To my credit I managed to avoid screaming like the little girl I am and am proud to say that while perhaps the "Ode to the Wayward Samurai" was never played at such fast pace, I did not interrupt my performance under distress. I made the palisade and began circling after Takeshi, and Oksana ran right after me, under fire from the watcher, and the four bloody zombies that sprung out of the ground like so many decrepit mushrooms ran right after her! Of course, I can't possibly outrun Takeshi's longer legs, and the watcher had taken a liking to targetting Oksana so she couldn't be as fast as she normally would be… still, a missing brother, flying arrows and FOUR OF THE RAVENOUS DEAD running right in your tail will make for a great incentive to be quick. All around the fort we went, as close to the palisade as we could.
I only stopped when I bumped into Takeshi in front of the gate. It wasn't open.
Bear howled for Nagata to open the gate again, and yet it remained closed. A cold shiver went through me – where was Monkey, and how could we possibly reach him to help? And how far behind us were those undead?
It was only much later that I heard the tale of Monkey's solo adventure inside the fort. He retold it to us over a cup of coffee to ease our nerves once the whole thing was over.
Considering the situation – stealth not being an option, no other viable entry points and a very good incentive not to linger outside, Monkey took the right approach – he climbed over the palisade like he had opposable thumbs on his feet, and vaulted within to try and open the gate.
What he wasn't counting on – and should have, perhaps – is that he is Ameno Nagata and if he didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have any luck at all.
First, he vaulted over the palisade and nearly fell neatly into an inner wall of spikes that served as added security for the fort. Fortunately, and like his namesake, Nagata is quick on his feet and in his thoughts – he managed to grab on and climb to safety inside the fort. Coming out of the spiked pit, he landed right next to the watcher that by the grace of Shizuru, had had a slight weapon malfunction, and with a swift crisscross of wakizashi, he was out. Nagata clambered down the watch tower and went into a crouch, blending with the shadows, and trying to locate the shortest route to the gate. Through an old building, he could spot the front yard, and, of course, thought that's where the gate might be. Crossing the building was faster than going around it, so Nagata stepped in…
And at once regretted his thoughtless decision. At his right, a man in armor was sharpening his sword, and seemed not to notice Monkey's approach. And at his left, another man lying on a bed roused up as if from drunken stupor. He wore a stag-head shaped helm and looked around, apparently confused.
Monkey froze where he stood, turned on his heels and vacated the building again on the very tips of his toes. He had found our quarry, true enough. Only he had found it with close reinforcements, and Monkey was isolated from the rest of us. When he told me about this, I was reminded of how he found Tuskgutter. I've made a mental note: whenever we're looking for something or someone in the future, send Nagata out to scout. He seems very likely to run into them by mistake.
So Nagata stepped back and instead of crossing the building, followed the outer wall of the fort, looking for the gate and wanting to keep as far ahead of the Stag Lord as he could. At this point, according to him, Nagata was pretty sure the monster hadn't seen him. But as he took the turn at the end of the building, Nagata hesitated for a second, and it cost him dearly. Atop another watchtower, he saw the man from the wanted poster, Falgrim Smeeg. Monkey stopped to memorize the place, and it took him just a hearbeat – but it was enough for the roused Stag Lord to rush out of the building, look right, and spot him.
Nagata rushed along the wall, trying to stay out of the Stag Lord's reach – the man was sturdier than he looked and faster than we assumed, I can tell you that, and his sword bit Nagata once. The commotion attracted the attention of the watchers, who began raining down failing arrows on Monkey. I learned, then, why we managed to go around the fort so neatly and without opposition: every archer in the place was now focused inward, and Monkey was in a world of trouble, dodging arrows and slashes of the Stag Lord's sword, trying to reach the gate without even knowing how he was going to get it open…
And then he saw Bear drop in. Quite literally.
Outside the gates, we weren't willing to wait any longer: for some reason we didn't understand, the archers were not firing at us, but the zombies were still on our tail, and Monkey surely was in serious trouble. Takeshi began to climb the palisade, slowly and with limited success because of his heavy armor and inwieldy weapon. He would have never made it had the archers been doing their jobs properly. Once at the top, he simply fell inside – I heard him drop on the other side of the palisade, and immediately the naginata began whooshing. I couldn't see Bear, but I could guess what was going on: dropping inside the yard of a bandit fort? Every thug in the place must have gone after him.
By now the noise was unbelievable: men cursing, arrows whistling through the air, grunts and sword-clashing and barked commands. I kept on playing. My options now were nonexistent: I could stay close by where I was sure Takeshi could hear me, and wait until someone opened the gate… if not for the undead. I could see them then, stumbling around the edge of the fort, coming after Oksana and me. An image of the two of us running around the fort in front of them, like the clowns in the Minkaian opera, came to me… and in the meantime, where were my brothers? What was happening to them?
Oksana then did something amazing. She chanted a spell, and grabbed me by the waist, telling me to keep on playing. I did, an eye on the zombies, without knowing what her plan was. And suddenly, we were being lifted up in the air as if floating, in a straight line, away from the claws of the zombies and getting closed and closer to the top of the palisade! As soon as we cleared it, Oksana quickly recognized Smeeg atop one of the watchtowers, and snapped her fingers at him – he dropped asleep, and wasn't going anywhere until it was over.
Of course, while we found a way to clear the palisade (Oksana later explained that the spell only allowed her to move up and down, so she had to kick the top of the palisade as leverage to drag us in, and it took some effort), my brothers weren't exactly having tea.
As I had easily predicted, Takeshi was nearly overwhelmed with armed thugs who came down from the watchtowers to fight the intruders, and Nagata was clashing (or should I say, dodging?) the Stag Lord. Fortunately, not every man was loyal to the monster. Instead, the man in armor Nagata had spotted inside the building had taken up his sword, but not to come after my brothers. He buried it in the Stag Lord's back at the first opportunity, and began fighting alongside Monkey to meet the threat, effectively drawing all of the Stag Lord's attention and dropping a few more bandits along the way. I was ready to aid with one of my spells, especially because another one joined the fray – a rogue fell on Monkey knives first, falling from one of the watchtowers. Unfortunately for the rogue, Monkey knows that trick all too well and dodged the slash. Yet when I looked toward Takeshi…
I saw a rabid owlbear coming fast in my direction!
(sidenote: on contemplating this battle later, we came to the conclusion the owlbear was likely kept in the fort's jail as something the gang could unleash to defend their fort if push came to shove. The rogue likely opened its cage door, and fled the area to deal with Monkey, leaving the owlbear to pursue the closest target, which was Takeshi).
Our position floating in the air was not the best one, and since we could only move up or down, Oksana tried to get out of the owlbear's reach by lifting us again – yet I would've had a piece bitten out of me if Takeshi hadn't cleared his adversaries and came to my aid. He placed himself between the owlbear and us, landing a strike with the naginata as the creature approached, but getting the terrible bite that had been meant for me.
My scream went to the owlbear instead, but the creature ignored it, and due to its proximity, Takeshi was having a hard time hitting it. Oksana also began taking fire, from whatever men armed with bows remained in the midst. I remember that a man holding a club came running behind the owlbear, making for Takeshi, only the owlbear didn't like competition, and slammed him into the palisade beside us. The man with the club fell down and never moved again, and Takeshi took the opportunity to land a hit. The second slam went for Takeshi, who also fell down and stopped moving. My heart sank – Oksana's too, probably, as she sent a snowball flying towards the weakened owlbear, finally dropping him, and bringing us to the floor.
At once I searched my bag for a healing potion, and forced Takeshi to drink it. I lifted my eyes only briefly to see Nagata had fallen the rogue, and the man in armor had the Stag Lord down, with his sword held at the monster's neck. He lifted an open palm and quickly looked us over, signaling peace. Nagata nodded at him, and glanced at me and Bear. The potion wasn't enough to bring him back to consciousness, but it did stabilize him enough to keep him alive, while Oksana cast one of her own spells to revive him.
With a massacre around us, after lifting Takeshi off the floor, I was ready to question the man in armor about his betrayal of his Lord – not that I mind at all that he betrayed his Lord. If not for his change of heart, we would likely have been killed here. But before Takeshi or I could ask anything, Nagata stopped us. He told us he had seen Smeeg up a watchtower, and Oksana confirmed it, claiming she had put him to sleep. The man in armor said he'd seen him running towards the back of the fort, so probably he woke up again in the middle of the chaos and made a run for it. There was no time to lick our wounds yet – one of our quarries was escaping!
Limping slightly from his injuries, Takeshi gave chase in the direction pointed out by our new friend, and we followed. We quickly looked over the inside of one of the fort's buildings, but there was no sign of him. Monkey then called from the very back – "Trapdoor!" he said, and Oksana and I rushed to go after him. Knowing Nagata, he would probably give chase, and I wasn't going to let him go alone.
And like night follows the day, sure enough, I reached the back of the fort to find Monkey gone and an open trapdoor leading to a tunnel. No time to waste: down I went. Thanks to my dark vision I managed to see two bandits, one of them Falgrim Smeeg, trying to open some sort of secret passage that would lead them out of the fort. Nagata grabbed the other one by the collar and put a wakizashi to his face, saying that if everyone would cooperate, nobody would get hurt. In a panic, Smeeg kept trying to open the passage. So I reinforced what Moneky had said… with a twist. Again – sometimes, I can put ideas in people's heads without them realizing it wasn't their idea. So when I said that listening to Nagata was probably a good idea, Smeeg likely thought it was his own notion. He stopped trying to open the passage, lifted both hands in a sign of surrender, and gave up.
Now with the two scoundrels captured, I was about to turn back through the tunnel… when I heard rushing steps and clanking armor.
I hugged the wall right in time not to be bowled over by a sprinting Takeshi. He tried to halt in time, but ended up smashing into Monkey, for a cavalcade of Minkaian curses and insults. Outside, I could hear Oksana giggling.
We slowly pulled out of the tunnel, with the two prisoners in tow, brothers still cursing, Oksana still laughing. I promised Smeeg, on our way out, we would not kill him – and we won't. After all, Lord Garress bid us capture him alive, and we planned to deliver him that way. Once he had been delivered, it was very much out of our hands, but that's a detail I chose to leave out. No use telling him we were hunting his sorry hide for Lord Garress. However, promising not to kill him doesn't mean we will let him sit about. Nagata hogtied him, as well as the other bandit, and we tossed them inside a jail that, judging by the smell and the look, had once housed an owlbear.
By then, the zombies were slamming hard on the gate, so we had to address that as well – between both of my brothers, it didn't take long, and finally we were rid of the bloody walking dead.
Once that was dealt with, we sought out the man in armor that had helped us in the battle. We had a thousand questions for him. We found him inside one of the buildings, both hands on the handle of his resting sword, like a man guarding a passage. (and likely waiting for us to be done faffing about with the fleeing bandits and come talk to him)
He told us his name was Akiros Ismort, and he was once a priest of Erastil from Taldor. Looking at his weapon and armor, I could not see him as a priest at all, but he quickly explained what strange tidings had brought him to be in this fort this evening. He was in the service of Erastil, but like in the old ballads, he fell in love with a woman. A married woman. In fact, a married NOBLE woman. From Akiros' own say, they had a thrist for a while, but then the husband found out. And the aforementioned woman decided to claim Akiros had raped her to keep her marriage and the perks that came with it intact.
Akiros had to flee before the nobleman and his guards reached him (and while he didn't mention it, I suppose his messing around with a married lady also didn't sit right with the church of Erastil). There was nothing left for him to do but start roaming around, evading pursuit and trying to make a living for himself. He ended up in this place as another bandit under the Stag Lord's command. He'd been meaning to leave for some time now, but asked us to understand that one does not simply pack up and leave a gang of bandits just like that – when we attacked the fort, he saw his chance for backup, and decided to act. Takeshi told him the influence of Erastil had returned to these lands in the form of father Kavken and the Temple of the Elk. Akiros smiled and nodded, saying he knew – he had spotted the White Grimstag (sidenote: I had to ask Takeshi why he looked so impressed later: the White Grimstag is the main herald of Erastil – a very large albino stag) recently, and that's when he had decided he had to leave for good. The life of banditry was never what he intended to do with himself.
Takeshi digested the tale for a few moments, and then presented Akiros with two choices, as there is still a very harsh penalty for banditry in these lands. His first option was to take a letter of commendation from us and make for the Temple of the Elk, where he would present himself to father Kavken and work to redeem himself… or keep his sword, and work for us by helping pacify and eradicate the forces of evil from the Greenbelt. Akiros grinned at this and said he was all for seeking redemption for a series of poor choices and mistakes, but not at the temple. Not after he left the priesthood the way he did, and not after taking up the sword. For better or worse he was a warrior now. But if we intended to do something good here, he was willing to be a part of it.
It seemed as though everything had been settled, but Akiros refused to depart for Oleg's right away. Instead, he glanced at a trapdoor under a barrel by his side, and it dawned on me – this was what he had set himself to guard. He looked back at us, and informed us that the Stag Lord may well be finished, but this place wasn't pacified yet.
BEAR'S TITLE – Ideas
note: if Bear is going to be a king in these lands, I think I should fit him with a proper title. Something that reflects his endeavours and makes him known throughout the lands.
another note: that probably means his inner circle will need titles as well……
His Magnificent Majesty, Ameno Takeshi (I could probably do better than this.)
His Most Magnificent Majesty, Ameno Takeshi (I understand the word "majesty" is used with royalty but somehow I don't see it applied to Bear.)
His Most Highest (honestly, Uzume!?)
His Highest Majesty, Ameno Takeshi (truly, like a kite in a windy afternoon)
His Most Fetching Majesty, Ameno Takeshi (aff…)
His Noblest of All Majesties, Ameno Takeshi (ugh!)
The Most Majestic of Majesties that Ever Majested – the Bear!! (this is not working. I have to keep it simple at the start, and maybe I can add some descriptives after)
His Majesty, Ameno Takeshi (I… still don't like it. But we'll work on it later)
His Majesty, Ameno Takeshi – Lord of the Gnarled Marshes, the Stolen Lands and the Greenbelt (okay, I know the Stolen Lands and the Greenbelt are much of the same thing, but it sure makes it sound like Bear rules a lot of things!)
His Majesty, Ameno Takeshi – Lord of Fumidai and Surrounding Provinces (so maybe we don't have provinces quite yet, but I'm sure they'll form without much of our intervention…)
His Majesty, Ameno Takeshi – Lord of Fumidai and Surrounding Territories (good) – Fey-friend, bandit-bane (and berry-picker, spider-squasher, armor-clanker, the hyphenization is not working)
His Majesty, Ameno Takeshi – Lord of Fumidai and Surrounding Territories. Friend to the Fey. The Bandits' Bane. Razor of the Vermin. The Wolfsbane-Edge. The Sharpest Knife in the Drawer (what…?)
His Majesty, Ameno Takeshi – Lord of Fumidai and Surrounding Territories. Friend to the Fey. The Bandits' Bane. Bug-Squasher Extraordinaire. (alright forget the bugs)
His Majesty, Ameno Takeshi – Lord of Fumidai and Surrounding Territories. Friend to the Fey. The Bandits' Bane. Edge of the Golden Dragon. (he might like that) Peacemaker of the Greenbelt. (that's not bad either) Watcher on the Walls (well it would reflect the penitence he does every once in a while – BAKA!)
His Noble Majesty, Ameno Takeshi – Lord of Fumidai and Surrounding Territories. Friend to the Fey. The Bandits' Bane. Edge of the Golden Dragon. Peacemaker of the Greenbelt.
His Cuddliness, Brother Bear, Safekeeper of the Most Gracious and Serene Ameno Uzume.
(alright, enough – but I've got mine down!)
(which makes me think what I could call Monkey – he doesn't really wanna be known, but perhaps we can find some kind of nickname for him, without giving away his identity)
The Skulker in the Shade (because the Sun is really hot and skulking on sunshine is probably pretty hard)
The Great Oh Shi- (at least that's what I've heard people say when he shows up out of nowhere)
The Monkey From Hell (yuck)
Doom of All Yum-Yums (well…)
Live Bag of Holding (accurate)
The Ghost (creepy)
Ghost Monkey (and his band, everybody!)
(what about Oksana…?)
Oksana Zima, The Pale Lady from Ancertors-Know-Where
Oksana Zima (Okzima? Oksanima?)
Oksana Zima, Thrower of Snowballs (doesn't sound exactly ominous… she's a witch)
The White Witch of the South (meeh…)
The Bleached Witch (has a sort of a ring to it…)
The Most Gracious Lotus Flower, Ameno Uzume – Song of the Greenbelt and Enchantress of the South
(pff, that was the easiest)