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The strange events of late have raised alarm in many quarters. Nobility and commoner alike are talking about the impending breakdown of peace. War seems to be looming over everything. Perhaps the foreboding doom has caused you to answer the recruitment fliers that have been passed out across the entire country of Alina. It is requesting the aid of any skilled mercenaries willing to drive off or kill the bandits troubling the forests of Kilmarr.
When you arrive in Astanik, one of the larger cities in Alina, it is downpouring. By luck, you stumble upon the Drunken Unicorn, a moderately successful inn in the merchant's quarter of the city. Stumbling in out of the rain, you ask after Bernand, the contact the flier mentions. You are directed to a table in the back of the room, unfortunately far from the fire. Several others are seated at the table, a very diverse group raised for the task. A human male, presumably Bernand, approaches with a pitcher of ale and a barmaid behind him with several mugs. As he pours ale for the group, he begins to speak.
"The contract is a simple one: Kill or scatter the bandits in the Kilmarr forest. The Merchant Council is offering a prize of one thousand gold crowns for the contract, and an additional one hundred crowns for every pair of ears. Matching ears, mind you, and we have good estimates of the number of bandits there are, so it'll do you no good to kill some poor villagers and lop off their ears. Are you interested?"
Remnus considered the man's offer for a moment. He quickly decided it was well worth it to help deal with the nearby bandits. "I will definitely take you up on your offer. Bandits are not good for anyone."
The large man takes up a considerable amount of room at the table, though he tries to take no more than his share. A large hammer is propped against the wall near his chair while a shield is strapped to his back. His blue-grey skin reminds one of granite, and his basso rumbling evoke similar thoughts as he speaks.
"I think that we can easily handle this task, though I have a question. Do we share the spoils? Say, if I earn one dozen ears for myself, but another earns only half that - do we get paid individually or does it go to the group?"
The Sharmind's crystalline structure pulses softly with energy as it sits impassively listening to the offer and the questions. Dark emerald green and deep amber quartz give its body a spotted, leopard-like quality. It is human shaped without much detail, musculature, or facial features, wearing only a basic tabard belted at what must be its waist. Its hands are crossed in front of it on the table, thumbs fidgeting, exchanging digits back and forth between hands as if in imperfect imitation of twiddling thumbs. The head turns slowly to point towards each speaker in turn. When it speaks, the voice is monotone with a slight resonance, not unlike the ringing of a muffled cast iron bell.
"I, Manishtu, accept your terms. More information is requested: numbers, races, strategies, locations. First hand accounts are preferred."
Silhouetted in a worn black robe, a taciturn figure looks on in silence from his(?) seat at the table. The man's eyes are hidden within the cavernous recesses of his hood, the uncertain trajectory of their gaze impossible to discern as the others speak and make their various inquiries. Though nothing can be seen beneath his bleak shroud of weathered cloth, he is unmistakably humanoid. The stranger is almost perfectly motionless, with even the assumed crest of his breath failing to register and distend through these loose garments. A simple shaft of steel, heavily scarred and pitted leans against the table by his seat, unmistakably a veteran of many battles. As Manishtu furnishes his questions, the strange figure remains cloistered in his anomalous quietude, perfectly inert like some looming sentinel.
Bernand drains his cup and fills it again from the pitcher before answering. As much as he talks about the Merchant Council, he certainly is not a member of it, or if he is he is deeply under cover. His clothing is well maintained, but of wool and leather, not of the fine silk most merchants covet. His cloak, however, is richly colored in purples and blues, dyes that are rather expensive in this region. As he sets his cup on the table, a pair of swordhilts peak out from under that cloak. "These bandits leave none alive, so accounts of their tactics are very difficult to come by. They are numerous enough that they don't bother with ambushes, or the like, just demand the valuables and weapons of whoever they can stop, and kill them once their weapons are out of the picture. They shouldn't be hard to find, but finding their central camp will be a little more difficult. I recommend travelling down one of the roads until they find and stop you, then beating the location of their camp out of one of them. "
"Hmph" the Goliath snorts. "We're not exactly inconspicious here. I mean, between me and him," he thumbs at the monk's direction, "we kind of stand out a bit."
Standing to his full height of nearly 8 ft, Kavaki extends his hand toward Bernand. "I'm in. Things haven't been the same between my people and the dwarves since these thefts have started, and as skyspeaker it falls to me to make things right."
Looking to the others, he asks, "Shall we?" as he reaches for his hammer, slinging it across his shoulder.
As Kavaki singles him out with a thrust of his thumb, Ironfist remains implacably quiescent, appearing to stare straight ahead beneath the darkness of his cowl.
When the goliath moves to leave, the monk shrugs a silent reply, seeming to rise in assent with the giant's words, a deathly pale hand darting from his blackened robes to seize his own weapon, tightly grasping the worn shaft of steel. He then nods at Bernand before heading for the exit, his pace relaxed and measured, feet moving with a quiet calm to mirror his evidently reserved disposition.
The five of you leave the inn, eagerly looking for adventure, and to stop the bandits. You head down the road that leads into the Kilmarr Forest. Once this path was a frequently used trade artery, guarded and maintained by wise druids, and kept safe for the prosperity of all the nations.
The brief time the bandits have controlled the area shows on the path. Leading from the town, the road was paved with stone, and signage showed the distances to various cities and towns. As you enter the edges of the forest, the stones start to show disrepair. Several are missing, and make the going harder. It would be difficult to keep a cart or wagon travelling on this path. The signs, where they haven't been destroyed completely, now are turned, or marked through. Graffiti litters those signs that are still standing. To the side of the road, saplings have taken root, starting to reclaim the area that has been cleared to make passage easier, and anything but the middle path is exhausting and hard going.
After a half hour of travelling in the forest, you spot something glittering in the distance. As you get nearer, you see a wagon engulfed in flames. Except for the crackling of the wood, you hear no other sounds. The wildlife of the area seems to have left when the fire started.
Having had his fill to drink, Hrodebert stumbles out with the group, looking to avoid paying his tab. As they walk, he starts to fall behind, and stumbles over the uneven ground. In his inebriated state, he mumbles something less than respectful about the previous guardians of the road.
Tripping over his own feet, he drunkenly rolls, his furry cloak enveloping his body, and as he emerges from the dive, he does so as a large cat, with huge paws and long tail to help him from falling over, his bright red hair sullened into a browner shade. While not exactly graceful, he saunters behind the group as he catches up.
When the group stops to look at the burning cart, The cat plops down, titling his head, ears swiveling for the sound of any animals. Hearing none, he rolls his head back, returning to his half-elf form, and falling over as he does so, before finding his two feet again and standing next to the cloaked figure, somewhat oblivious to him as Hrodebert looks at the woods around him, while pointing behind him at the fire. "Those, those aren't supposed to be there. Who put three burning carts in the road! I demand a-hic-answer."
Perception for anything in the woods that's making noise or moving. (1d20+11)
Ironfist deftly slips into the foliage where he quickly finds a hiding spot amidst the bushes and undergrowth. There, hunched low to the ground, blended in with his surroundings, he looks cautiously over the path ahead, eyes primed and alert for any foes similarly lurking in the concealment afforded by the woods.
Stealth:(1d20+15) (+2 from Camouflaged Clothing)
Hrodebert notices a small human trying to hide in the overgrown brush at the side of the road, not far from the wagon. It appears to be a small boy, maybe 8 or 9, with black hair and sharp blue eyes. His clothes are torn and he has a bad cut across his scalp.
Meanwhile Ironfist deftly hides on the opposite side of the road from the small boy.
Seeing the boy, he turns to face him, arm swinging in the other direction."Hey yall. Boys. I said HEY! I CAN SEE YALL! Get out here! Is this your cart? 'cause it's on fire, and that's not right!" he bellows, and if anyone could smell his breath, they'd swear he'd just taken a drink. He starts to lean slightly to the left, trying to stand still seems to be a problem for him at the moment.
With a powerful grip the Goliath steadies the young druid, setting him on his feet. Crouching down to be eye level with the boy, he says, in a soothing voice that is low enough it rumbles deep in his chest, "Boy, are you hurt? Come here, we mean you no harm." He glares at the fiery man with that last statement, then softens his expression and turns back to the boy.
"Really though, let's fix you up and get you to town. It's not far."
Kavaki glances around, checking to see that the boy isn't bait, and looking for signs of how many bandits or other travelers there were.
The boy seems terrified, but stands up where you can see him. The gash on his head is bad, but not life-threatening at the moment. He doesn't seem to have any other injuries, besides being dirty and tear-stained. He is still sobbing softly.
Kavaki reaches into his belt pouch, pulling out a few herbs and a small bandage. "Come here. Chew on these for a bit, that will help with any infection. These" he gestures with the bandages, "should help you until you can get back to town."
As he starts his work, he asks the boy, "So what exactly happened here?"
The boy chews on the bitter herbs, and stops crying for a few moments at least. "Mommy and Daddy and me were going to Newsport to trade our wool and tabac because the peddlers won't come through our village anymore. We stopped to rest the horses, and I was playing near the woods. The dog men saw me, and cam after us. They took mommy and daddy away, but thought I was dead. They shot an arrow that cut my head." He looks up at you and starts sobbing again. "Can you save my mommy and daddy? I miss them so much, and if I hadn't been playing in the woods like mommy told me not to, the dog men never would have come. Its all my fault they took mommy and daddy away. "
Ironfist remains crouched and alert from his perch in the bushes, darkened cowl making periodic sweeps of the area as he stands guard while his companions speak with the child and gather information. Swiftly darting a hand beneath his robes, his arm surfaces to produce a strange metal disc, clutched opposite the shaft of weathered steel to his right. The weapon's edges are razor sharp, glinting with the promise of quick severance. Its frame on one end features a leather clad handle his pale fingers have fastened tightly about, finding stable purchase on that faded strip of black.
Seeing the burning wagon, Manishtu reasons this must be a distraction/blockade/trap by the bandits. It scans the area for most likely locations of assault. Stepping to the center of the road, orb in one hand, dagger in the other, the stones making up the psion's head slowly rotate a full turn taking in the scene. The fate of the boy interests it little, but maintains aural attention in case of pertinent facts. At the mention of "dog men", Manishtu tries to extrapolate what might appear as dog men to a young human.
"Druid, can any of your woodland friends send a message to the town? I have seen our skywatchers communicate with squirrels, birds and the like. I am sure you can do something similar, even in your" he gestures at the disheveled man's unkempt state, "situation."
Turning back to the boy, the Warden once again tries to soothe him. "We must continue on to find these bandits. We have to make sure they do not hurt anyone else. Do you understand? Hrodebert here will send a message to the town so that they can help you."
With a more concerned look on his face, Kavaki asks, "Did you see how many there were, or what direction they went?"
"There were four or five of them, I think they went further up the road, but I was hiding so I don't know. Please don't leave me here....they might come back and eat me." The boy seems truly terrified at the thought of being alone.
Surveying the land around him, and gauging his companions interest, Kavaki says, "I could probably carry him back to town and get back here within a half hour. Are you willing to wait, or would you like to continue and I will catch up?"
"Dog men, like this?" he says, to no one in particular, as he shifts himself into a form similar to a large black hound. With large ears and sagging jowls, he appears particularly comical as he quickly falls onto his back. He rolls around on his back, seeming scratching an itch, before he rolls over, before digging up a weasel hole, and pulling the small creature out. Drop the dazed and confused mammal, he again reverts to his half-elf form, hairy cloak surrounding both of them.
He chitters and chatters to the small creature, before pointing at the nearby village, and wagging his finger until the creature runs away. Standing up wobbly, he turns to the group.
"You know, I think I'd like to not go back there right now. I might have upset a number of store owners there, and I don't really think I should be there so soon. So, yeah... Oh, I know!" With that exclamation, he turns himself into a sheep, that stares blankly town the road.
Shaking his head at the Druid's actions, he turns back to the boy. Extending his hand, he says, "C'mon, lets get this over with." He hoists the boy up on his shoulders. "Hold on tight!" he shouts up to the boy, who settles himself across the Goliath's wide shoulders.
Resting his hammer against the sheep-that-is-Hrodebert, he says, "Send a message to the town that we have an injured child, and that another caravan has been ransacked by Gnolls. I will be back as soon as I can."
Looking to where the monk is hidden, then to the the shardmind, Kavaki suggests, "Why don't you all make yourselves useful and search for tracks, assess how many Gnolls there were, etc. I want to start the hunt as soon as I return."
With that, Kavaki turns back down the road and starts running back to town, the boy bouncing on his shoulders the entire way.
As Kavaki returns the boy to the villagee, the wagon continues to burn. After a few minutes, there is an explosion, and a large cloud of steam goes up from the wagon. The explosion puts out most of the flames, leaving the smoldering wreck. A closer examination of the wreck shows several piles of glass and a badly burned scroll case, the contents of which have been reduced to ash.
A search for footprints finds several. At least four distinct sets of markings that seem to be from the bandits, and two more made with the soft leather shoes many farmers around the area wear (and of course, yours and the small boys). The prints lead down the road before heading off into the forest, where the trail is lost.
Observing the transformation of the half-elf and the departure of the goliath, it stands down from strict vigilance and turns its attention to the exploded wagon. Following the tracks where they leave the road, Manishtu notes the direction they left then returns to the sight of the attack. It searches the immediate area, trying to reconstruct what happened: where were the gnolls hiding, what was their number, how long ago did the attack occur. Traveling in ever widening circles, the Shardmind takes care to stay within ten yards of the road and not step on the hidden monk when passing by. It pauses every five minutes, looking around to take inventory of its companions, as a craftsman might keep track of his tools.