Xar’eth is dead.
As the others moved and made space, I could see that his body lay on the ground between them. “His wounds are closing”, one of them said. Hershel went into action again, his blade rising up and falling quickly. A white-haired head was sent into the air and rolled unevenly down the Rise road. A wet, peeling sound drew my gaze back to the group as they pulled something off of Xar’eth. I was dark and flapped softly in the breeze. For a moment, it seemed that that they had flayed him until they gathered to examine the item and his body remained in place, headless, but otherwise intact. This seemed to satisfy those gathered and they began to break apart.
Nathaniel conjured magical doorway and stepped through it. Seifer gave Hershel a last, disapproving look and began down the path to Lochaid. Exelar stood in thought for a moment and turned toward Temple Rise. Deciding that the threat to the tower was now laid to rest, I walked out toward Hershel, Wulfgar, and the body. Glancing down, there were what appeared to be dark tentacles extended from the stump of Xar’eth’s neck, now motionless. Hershel noticed my interest and informed me that while the dark skin was still on the drow, those tentacles had emerged after the beheading, searching for the lost body part. Standing back up, I told him that we needed to burn the body, the entire body, and I glanced meaningfully down the path. He seemed reluctant, but Wulfgar shrugged and went after the head. Once he returned, he helped me fashion a pyre and we set light to the corrupted form of the drow.
Once the fire had burned own sufficiently, and the remaining flames were tended by another, I set toward Lochaid, looking for Gruendok. As the new spymaster, there were things I would need and the quartermaster of the Watchmen was the one to help me get them.
Arriving in the town proper, I found that the dwarf’s time was in high demand. He was speaking to some of Ault’s craftsmen, at least one town elder, from Hemlock Field I think, and a family of villagers inquiring about housing. I stood back and waited my turn. As I did, I noticed Seifer moving among those from Angler’s Cove and the Ironclad. They were heading out in the morning. Because we were unable to locate Trask in transit, he was taking the suggestion of the new arrivals and would be assaulting remaining Bowmen camps at this edge of the basin. It was a better plan than assaulting the Cascades, to be sure.
Seeing my chance, I walked up to Gruendok with my inquiries. As always there was the slightest bit of shock that crossed his face as I came up from the side. I can’t blame him, my people and his have had storied conflicts over the centuries and I can only imagine his personal experience. They were a warrior’s instincts, and not to be blamed. Everyone has scars. Besides, he recovered almost instantly and was always unfailingly polite in the gruff way of dwarves.
We talked for a bit and I made known my needs. Hershel had paid for messenger birds while we were in Carrion Hill and we needed to have some here at the rise, as well. They proved to be a quick and cheap way to send a message and this was something we were desperately in need of. We also needed housing built and caretakers found for them. He nodded his agreement and mentioned that he would check among the refugees, as we already may have people that had taken care of such animals before. I also told him that we needed to have scouts start mapping and gathering information about the land around us and writing it down. Spite the dark, we didn’t even have a reliable map of our surroundings. And finally, I needed his own knowledge of the Cascades. Anything that he could remember about the area would be helpful and if he could start documenting it, I’d be grateful. He took down my requests, nodded, and said that he’d get started on them.
In the Air
Before daybreak, Seifer had rallied the troops. The Ironclad were going to take the merchants to Angler’s Cove directly so that they could avoid the long trip and begin gathering information and materials as soon as possible. Hershel was also going with them to scout the Bowmen camps in advance of Seifer and his men. Speaking of whom, Seifer would be leading them out on ground, heading first to Hemlock Field and then on to the camp location that the Covemen and merchants had provided. The idea behind the attacks were to winnow Bowmen troops and supplies, but also to possibly draw out some of their forces from the Cascades. Even if they did not sortie out, we would taking resources from them. As the village still slept, the air skiff was loaded up with merchants and Hershel. Seifer had gathered his men and they beginning to move down the road toward the remains of Three Cedars and Hemlock Field. As the skiff powered up and the militia headed out, Seifer turned back and yelled to ask if I was coming or not? I realized that I hadn’t actually said that I was going before now. I nodded and darted toward the air skiff, grabbed onto the trailing rope ladder and vaulted aboard.
The rain caught us before we reached out destination. Only having been on the surface a short time, and half of that spent in the wastes of A’rahas, I still wasn’t accustomed to rain. Being up in the air, the rain was heavy and in large drops whose every impact you could feel. The winds moved faster here, unrestricted by trees and the like, and the skiff was tossed around a bit more than was comfortable. Needless to say, as the deck of the skiff had little protection, we were instantly soaked to the bone. Fortunately, the drop off point for Hershel and I was near. The skiff drew close to the ground and we leapt off to head to the Bowmen camp.
After an hour or so of moving through the trees, we found it. In a stroke of good fortune, it was an ideal setup for our intentions. The camp was in a circular clearing and had only a single entrance that was free of growth. In the center were two long tables set under under awnings where meals were consumed. Around the edges of the clearing sat large tents that could hold several people each. One of them was set next to the lone tree that stood just inside the circle of the clearing. I made a note of that one, it would be my entry point when we returned.
While we surveyed the area, I also stopped to listen in on the Bowmen conversations. Most were fairly mundane, until I overheard the murder plot. Taking a risk, I pulled the grey shadows and rain of the day around me and moved forward into the camp. As I found a nook to settle into, I listened more intently. There was a plan to eliminate Kroenen and his entire faction. Apparently he’d done enough arguing and counterwork that his fellows had decided it was time for him to go. For a moment, I wondered if any of it had to do with us.
The work would be done while they were in the Cascades. They would attempt to keep Meiko occupied, either out of the Cascades or by getting her company assigned to a specific watch, away from Kroenen, and with the other Bowmen between them. Then, Kroenen and his men would be coming off watch, gathered in a specific location to take a meal and it would be then that the others would fall upon them as a group. As the one faction that wasn’t directly our for our blood, it would be in our interest to foil this plot. Maybe this information would help to smooth over the rough first contact with Meiko’s troupe. Making a mental note on of the number of men here, I snuck back out to meet Hershel and we withdrew to meet up with Seifer.
Seifer made better time than I expected and our journey to meet him was brief. When we encountered them, they had a wagon, for some reason, and were loitering around it. We made our presence known to the perimeter guards and they took us in. The wagon had been taken from Bowmen that were sacking the abandoned village of Hemlock Field. They were dealt with swiftly. In turn, Hershel and I informed him as to the makeup and arrangement of the Bowmen encampment we’d scouted. I could see him grip his blade in anticipation of the fight to come. To be honest, I felt a bit of that, as well. After Three Cedars and after so many encounters where we had to hold back, this would be a different fight.
We told him how far he should advance his group and that he should them wait for the signal. When he asked what it would be, I simply told him that he couldn’t miss it. He still looked curious, but nodded and rose to ready the troops from the Cove. Hershel and I likewise rose and set out to return to the camp. As we did, Seifer signaled us to wait. He explained that a group of his men were archers, not melee fighters and that he was sending them with Hershel and I took take positions around the camp and pick off Bowmen from the trees. I could only hope that they had some ability to move with stealth. Now that were were minor a’ni, we were on our way.
What I hadn’t told anyone was that I brought something with me from the Watchmen stocks: two purple gems. Nathaniel had identified them some weeks ago as weapons that would detonate like wizard’s fire when properly commanded. I decided that they would be the perfect signal. Handing one to Hershel, I quietly passed on the command word and impressed upon him that he need to get out of the way quickly once he triggered it. I think we both enjoyed the anticipation of what was to come.
Once we arrived, Hershel and his men set up on the near side of the camp, hidden in the treeline, while I took my detachment around the other side. As we separated, Hershel and I began a silent count, timing each other for when to set the gems to explode. Making for the tent near the tree that I had targeted earlier, I snuck up to the back of it and placed the gem in the folds of canvas on the ground. As I reached the agreed upon count, I whispered the command word. The gem began to pulse with a soft lavender light as I retreated back to my archers. I signaled them to put their heads down and tried to spot Hershel across the camp. At first, I could see nothing, but then at the last second, I spotted a familiar soft glow under the meal tables in the camp center. Then they went up.
Tents and men were in flames, though the ever-present rains were quickly damping them down. The archers loosed their arrows at nearly the same time that I heard Seifer and his footmen charging up the path into the camp. Bowmen were falling to our arrows and none of them had yet made it to our lines. In fact, many were stumbling out of tents and being cut down. I kept an eye out for my own opportunity when suddenly it stumbled out. Throwing off the smoking remains of the tent when I set my gem, a Bowman stumbled out, sword in hand, coughing trying to gather his bearings. As he swung around, I struck. Duplicating my attack against the dragon in the spire, I hurled spun shadows at him that passed around his blade and constricted when they contacted his throat. As he grasped at his neck, I burst forward, preparing to put my fist through him. As he caught sight of me, he shook his head and went to drop his sword. Catching sight of the marks of rank at his shoulder, I altered my angle of attack from a killing blow to a disabling one and knocked him unconscious.
Looking back to the line of my archers, I saw one of the Bowmen attempting to flank them. Drawing the gray light of the day around myself, I vanished from sight and charged toward him. Invisible as I was, he stood no chance and I struck him down before he could threaten our lines. My job done, I returned to the unconscious officer, bound his wrists, and leaned against the tree to watch the battle end.
At this point, Seifer had arrived in the center of the camp and bellowed a challenge to every Bowman there. He had cut down two men already and put two more to the sword after his challenge. Remembering the rank markings that he wore, I’m sure that his intent was to battle the man that was currently bound at my feet in the mud. I found a wry amusement in it, though not as his expense. Though this wasn’t the first time that this had happened, it also wasn’t intentional on my part. He stamped over and gestured at the officer, asking if that was him. I nodded a confirmation and kicked him over so that Seifer could see the insignia on his arm. He sighed, a frown creasing his brow, then sheathed his sword and dragged the man, whose name was apparently Maz, over to a few other Bowmen that had survived the attack.
As Seifer interrogated them, I helped recover the supplies that would be useful to us and moved them to the wagon that was now being pulled into the clearing. Anything that wasn’t of use was destroyed or put to the torch. Hearing a clatter, I looked over in time to see the Bowmen officer cave in his own head on a rock. Not a behavior I would have expected. It made me think of the abomination and the corrupted goblins of the caves. Did they have some influence on the Bowmen or their leadership? Was this why they were scouring the swamp for relics? And does this hint at the hidden overlords they now had? All questions for another time. Now, it was time for decision: head to the Cove to warn Meiko about the conspiracy at the Cascades, or march on to assault the next Bowmen camp?