The last leg of their journey passes uneventfully, and our heroes arrive at Greenest on a chilly evening in early winter. As they enter the town, they notice something unnerving…
“That’s weird,” Cyd frowns. She is sitting beside Erern at the front of the cart as it rolls along the road into Greenest. The top of the keep is just visible, the little town spread out beneath it. Lanterns illuminate the narrow streets, and the cheerful light of candles and braziers can be seen flickering in the windows of houses and taverns as the sun sets.
But it is none of these things that have caught Cyd’s attention. On the road immediately in front of them stands a wooden barricade, about three feet high and topped with spiked stakes. It looks to have been hastily constructed from logs, crates, and the occasional empty barrel. A couple of militiamen step out from behind it as the cart slows to a halt.
“You can come through, but you’ll have to leave the cart here, I’m afraid,” one calls. “You’re welcome to Greenest, though you’ve chosen an odd enough time to visit.”
“This is most concerning,” Aleph rumbles. “We came to aid Greenest against the Dragon Cultists, but we had no idea that their threat was such that you had been forced to blockade the town.”
“We’re grateful to you,” the other man replies, “but I’m not sure how much help six adventurers will be against a siege.”
Cyd pauses in her unloading of the wagon. “A siege? That’s not what I signed up for.”
The second man nods unhappily. “There’s a huge force of cultists massing south of the town,” he continues. “They’ve been raiding the villages and townships round these parts for weeks. It’s only a matter of time before they come for Greenest, too. We aim to be ready for them, as you can see.”
The party exchange uneasy glances as they thread their way around the barricade and into the town. Clearly, things in Greenest are worse than they thought.
It’s a short walk from the barricade to the town square, where the sound of chatter and the smell of cooking draws Nubbins’ eyes longingly towards a comfortable-looking tavern. An image of a squirrel throwing acorns at a fleeing cat, bearing the legend: ‘The Cat & Squirrel’, hangs from a post at the front.
“First round is on me!” Nubbins calls.
“Hold on a second.” Minerva is squinting at a tree on the other side of the square. She marches over to it, tailed reluctantly by the rest of the party.
“Writing,” she says, pointing out the symbols carved into the tree’s broad trunk. “Hmm. Could this tree carry a clue to the cultists’ nefarious intentions? Does anyone know the meaning of these signs?”
Gerard’s eyes light up. “This carving here appears to be in dwarven,” he mutters, peering at it. “I happen to be familiar with the language, and I believe it says… oh.” He breaks off, blushing furiously.
“What? What is it?” Minerva presses.
“It says—oh, dear—it says… Governor Nighthill is a goatfucker.”
“Ah. Not a secret code, then?”
“It would appear not.”
“Well, in that case,” Minerva says, with an expansive gesture towards Nubbins, “I believe this fine gnome said something about getting us all drunk!”
Nubbins needs no further encouragement. He makes a beeline for the tavern, quickly followed by Minerva and then Gerard, still red as a beetroot.
Keothi hangs back. “There is business I must attend to before I retire to the inn,” he announces. “I have contacts here and I would ask them some questions.”
“Oooh, sounds exciting. I’ll come too!” Cyd grins.
Keothi opens his mouth as if to protest, then shuts it again. “Very well. Though it may be best if I do most of the talking.”
“For myself, I intend to assist with the building of the barricades,” Aleph says. “Let us reconvene in the morning.”
Nubbins, Gerard and Minerva burst gratefully into the warm common room of the Cat & Squirrel.
“To the bar!” Nubbins yells. The bartender looks up and smiles at their approach.
“Evening,” he says. “I’m Eled. Welcome to the Cat & Squirrel. What can I get you?”
“Do you have anything special on today?” Nubbins asks, eagerly eyeing the shelves behind the bar. Eled takes down an ornately decorated bottle filled with golden liquid.
“Well, if by ‘special’ you mean ‘pricey’, you’ll want our Elvish Battle Spirit,” he replies. He uncorks the bottle and holds it out for Nubbins to sniff. “It’s potent, but great for these cold nights.”
“Ooh, it’s gingery, and… lemony?” Nubbins says. “I like it! Three glasses for me and my friends, please!”
“Um, just two, thank you,” Gerard interjects. “I won’t partake this time, Nubbins.”
Eled pours out two careful measures of the liquor, which shimmers slightly in the glass. Nubbins sniffs his again, then takes a draught. He coughs.
“It’s got… quite a kick to it, that!”
He pays, then wanders off, swaying slightly, to find a table.
Minerva leans over the bar, unrolling her bounty poster.
“Know anything about these fellows?” she asks Eled.
Eled sucks on his teeth as he looks at the poster. “I’ve heard of them. They’ve been attacking merchant caravans on the trade routes to the south. People have been going miles out of their way to avoid them. Rumour has it they’re holed up in an old farmhouse out that way.”
“Thank you, good sir. And I’ll have an ale, please.” She regards him with a thoughtful expression while he pours it out.
“Your town is terribly unlucky,” she observes. “Besieged by cultists, bedevilled by bandits. I don’t envy you.”
“Oh, you don’t know the half of it,” Eled replies, passing Minerva a brimming tankard. “Our local temple is infested with undead, too, though the priests are trying to keep it quiet. And don’t even get me started about the fey…”
Keothi leads Cyd, Feathers and Impy to a butcher’s shop near the edge of town. It’s closing up for the day as they approach. The goliath crouches down at the side of the premises, inspecting a small sigil painted on the side of the wall, close to the ground.
“Good. This would appear to be my contact’s place of work,” he says.
“Haven’t you visited him before?” Cyd asks. Keothi avoids her gaze.
“He is… a friend of a friend,” he replies.
At this moment, a large, red-faced man in a stained apron emerges from the shop and notices them.
“We’re still open, you know,” he calls. “What can I do you for this evening? Beef? Pork? Chicken? More beef?”
Keothi sidles over to the man, glancing left and right before leaning in. The butcher copies him.
“I am looking not for meat but for information,” the goliath says, in a carrying whisper. He flashes a small badge secured to the inside of his robes, one that bears the dragon insignia of the Zhentarim.
The butcher grins. “Ah. Say no more, say no more.” He holds out a pudgy hand, which Keothi shakes. “The name’s Thenrey, and I’ve got what you need.” He jerks a thumb at Cyd. “Can we speak in front of your friend there?”
Keothi is about to nod when Cyd pushes in front of him. “I am here on behalf of the Emerald Enclave,” she says, holding up a green hart pendant.
Thenrey looks at Keothi, dismay etched on his features. “Oh, what? We’re working with the tree huggers now?”
Keothi shuffles his feet. “I do not believe so…”
“In that case,” Thenrey says firmly, “if you’re not here to buy meat, miss, then I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.” He pauses, then looks at Cyd hopefully. “Are you here to buy meat?”
Cyd glares at him. “You can take your meat and shove it up your—” Something butts up against her leg, and she glances down to see Feathers staring at her intently.
Buy some meat, she says in Cyd’s head.
“—I’ll take two chicken legs, please,” Cyd finishes.
Once Feathers has settled down to eat her prize in a corner of the shop, Cyd hands over a few coins, shoots Thenrey a final glower, and heads outside.
After she has left, Thenrey turns back to Keothi. “Now, what do you want to know?”
“I am looking for someone with whom I have some… personal business,” Keothi replies.
“Is the business murder?” Thenrey asks. “In my experience, when people say ‘personal business’ like that, they pretty much always mean murder.”
“It may or may not involve murder.”
“Yeah, thought so,” Thenrey muses. “It’s always murder. Who’re you looking for?”
“A wizard named Glassstaff—I have reason to believe that he is in the area.”
“Hmm. The only wizard I know of is the Governor’s magic adviser over at the keep. Maybe she’ll know where he is?” The butcher shrugs. “Sorry I can’t be of more help there, friend. Anything else you need?”
“My companion outside is investigating reports that some fey have gone missing from the nearby forest,” Keothi says. “Do you know anything about that?”
This time, Thenrey nods. “Whole town’s talking about that. The local fey usually bless our harvest in exchange for offerings of food—mostly cakes and sweet buns. Well, the harvest has been poor this year, and the fey have stopped collecting the offerings. Couldn’t tell you why, though—as a butcher, it doesn’t have much to do with me.”
Keothi makes a quick note. “Thank you. Is there anything I can do for you in exchange for this information?”
“Just put in a good word for old Thenrey whenever you get the chance,” the butcher says. “Let people know about my business, sort of thing—this Glass Stick guy, or anyone else you happen to meet.”
“But I intend to kill Glassstaff,” Keothi points out.
Thenrey shrugs. “Who stays dead nowadays? Word of mouth is important for businesses in these trying economic times.”
“That is true,” Keothi concedes. “Goodnight, Mr Thenrey.”
Keothi walks back out into the cold evening air, and he and Feathers fill Cyd in on what she missed as they make their way back to the inn.
By the time Keothi and Cyd reach the Cat & Squirrel, the laughter and chatter coming from inside has taken on a decidedly raucous character. They spot Minerva leaning heavily on the bar as they walk in. She gets up as they approach, knocking over her stool in the process. “I’m going exploring,” she announces to no one in particular, staggering towards the door.
There’s a yell from the back of the tavern, and Cyd turns to see Nubbins and Gerard waving at her from a table in the corner.
“KEOTHI! CYD!” Nubbins shouts. “I GOT YOU FANCY ELF DRINKS!”
Keothi pulls up a chair, looks with interest at the glass that Nubbins hands him, then empties it in a single swallow. He blinks and sways, his eyes momentarily losing their focus. Nubbins waves at Eled to bring more liquor over.
Cyd nudges Keothi. “I think the others might have gotten a bit of a head start on the drinking, Keithy,” she says, flashing him a grin.
“So it would appear,” Keothi replies. “I, of course, have too strong a constitution to ever become inebriated myself. This ‘fancy elf drink’ does not affect me at all.”
Minerva pulls her cloak tight against the bitter chill of the night air. Going exploring had seemed like a better idea when she was inside the tavern, but she’s not one to give up on a course of action to which she has committed herself. Besides, the moon is bright tonight, making it as good a time as any to get the lay of the land.
She crosses the bridge by the inn, the bubbling of the little stream a gentle murmur beneath her feet. She decides to start with the forest just beyond the edge of town. It’s a pleasant walk of less than an hour, following a small path that winds up and into the treeline for a few meters before stopping at an enormous oak tree.
Minerva halts before this tree, blinking in the dim light as she takes in the scene. At the bottom of the tree there’s a small pile of what she at first took to be stones, but are actually cakes and buns.
“Odd,” Minerva mutters. She picks up a bun and sniffs it. It’s slightly hard, but it smells wonderful. It is only now that the elf realises how ravenously hungry she is. She takes a small bite and is delighted to find that the inside of the bun is filled with blueberry jam. Amazed at her good fortune, she gathers up the entire pile, tips them into her pack, and turns her steps back towards Greenest, quickening her pace as an icy wind picks up from the south.
Back in the Cat & Squirrel, the party have moved from Elvish Battle Spirit to less expensive drinks, and are beginning to run out of toasts.
“To impy,” Keothi says solemnly, emptying his glass. Nubbins peers over at the table next to them, where a man and a woman wearing white robes are talking quietly. The gnome waves at them. “Come drink! It’s free!” he says, holding up a glass.
The two look at him sceptically for a moment, but rise and join him all the same.
“Good evening,” the woman says. “I’m Dwali, and this is Brem.”
Nubbins leans in very close and squints at the rose embossed on their robes.
“I like your robes! Are you cultists?” he asks, passing them both a drink.
Brem and Dwali chuckle. Dwali shakes her head. “We work at the temple at the edge of town.” She points to the rose on her robe. “We’re brothers of Chauntea.”
Keothi leans across Nubbins, focusing on Dwali and Brem with obvious difficulty.
“I’m a spy!” he announces loudly, “and I’m on a secret mission.” He takes another drink.
“The mission is murder,” he adds, nodding sagely.
“If I were a spy, I think I’d keep a bit quieter about it,” Dwali says, with a wry smile.
Keothi taps the side of his nose unsteadily. “Secret mission,” he says again.
Gerard and Cyd exchange glances. Then Gerard stands up and yawns loudly.
“Well, I think it is time I retired for the night! Wordweaver, would you care to accompany me upstairs?”
Keothi frowns. “Yes, you are very small,” he says thoughtfully. “I will protect you as you make your way to bed.” He stands up and immediately falls over, landing with a dull thud on the tavern floor. Gerard rubs his temples.
“Might I borrow your Gauntlets of Ogre Strength, Nubbins?” he asks, flexing his arms.
“Sure! They’re great! Enjoy!” Nubbins replies, throwing the gloves across the table.
Gerard slides them on, hoists Keothi onto his back, and begins to climb the stairs to the tavern’s rooms, walking carefully to avoid knocking his friend’s head against the wall. At the top, Keothi begins to wriggle and mutter. Then his eyes fly open.
“YOU WON’T CATCH ME!” he yells. “MISTY STEP!” He disappears from Gerard’s back and rematerialises at the bottom of the stairs, where he promptly falls asleep. Gerard turns, looking wearily at the huge form slumped at the foot of the staircase. Then he heads back down to try again.
Aleph looks up at the sky as he walks back to the edge of town. It’s a cold night, but clear and crisp, and the stars shine brightly overhead. It is odd, Aleph thinks, that even though he can barely remember the stars in the sky of his homeland, the constellations here still feel unfamiliar to him.
He starts with the barricade on the road by which the party entered the town, where a small group of militiamen are still hauling logs and sharpening staves.
“Well met,” Aleph calls out as he approaches. “Do you require assistance?”
The men turn, a few of them taking an involuntary step backwards as they see Aleph’s enormous, metal-bound form coming towards them. Aleph recognises two of the men from earlier in the evening. “Well met,” one of them says. “We wouldn’t say no to a helping hand on a night this cold.”
Aleph nods, then hoists two of the larger logs onto his shoulders, heaving them over to the barricade and mounting them in place before turning back to the pile. The soldiers look on, speechless. Within an hour the barricade has doubled in height, and the men are struggling to build it up any further. The first guard claps Aleph on the back and chuckles. “I think we’re done for the night. I don’t know what you are, but I’m glad you’re on our side—I didn’t think we’d be finished till daybreak!”
“I am glad I could help,” Aleph replies. “I intend to patrol each entrance to the town tonight and render aid where I can.”
“You’ll be seeing a lot of happy faces on your rounds, then, metal-man,” the guard replies. “We’ll raise a glass to you before we turn in.”
Aleph watches the militiamen depart. After they have vanished from sight, he places a hand on the barricade, feeling the rough wood beneath his fingers.
“May the souls of the eighth give you the strength to hold back the tide,” he says. Then he heads south towards the next barricade. There is much still to be done, after all.
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