Wil pored over the sheet of parchment spread out across a large flat rock, trying to make sense of the lines of stick-figures that covered it. He’d been given the letter in Altaruk to deliver to the elf Toramund, lord of the Silver Springs Oasis, and the fact that it was written in this curious cipher only made him more curious as to its content. Perhaps there was a little paranoia motivating him too, but in Athas suspicion was considered more of a survival trait than a character flaw. Eventually every one of the adventurers hired to guard Rhotan Var had had a look at the letter, even the thri-kreen Ku-ki’cha, who inadvertently poked a hole in the parchment. Slowly, patterns were identified and the document’s overall meaning became clear: Toramund’s son Ravi had been taken by some group called the ‘Toothcutters’ in Tyr and had been killed by them.
As the expedition was readying itself to move on, a woman, crowned with long flowing golden hair, appeared over the crest of a dune opposite the party and started to run towards them. Shortly after three more individuals, bearing drawn weapons, also came over the dune at a run, following the female. The adventurers looked at each other. Ku-ki’cha placed a dart in his blowpipe and took aim at the approaching figures, while Wil, Naivara and Graven spread out, preparing to receive the assault. As the first runner came closer, those watching noticed she would glance backwards. The three individuals following her were clad in bandit garb and wore scarlet sashes. “Do you think they’re chasing her?” Naivara asked. No one answered. The woman was now about twenty yards away and was shouting, “Help me!” Ku-ki’cha, who had been training his weapon on the newcomer, abruptly changed his mind and fired a dart at one of the following bandits; it struck home, though the man continued to advance. Wil sent a surge of psychic energy at this bandit across the space that divided them, staggering him further. Naivara joined the attack, and a darting thrust of mental energy struck him.
A few paces from the party the woman, now clearly identifiable as an eladrin, stopped, turned, and raised a wooden flute to her lips. She began to play a curious tune, unlike any the party had heard before. As the notes filled the air they seemed to have an adverse effect on the bandits, making them stumble clumsily and occasionally clap a hand to their heads as the melody rose to a sudden shriek. Wil and Ku-ki’cha moved to engage the bandits directly. The thri-kreen scuttled forward, sprang at the one he had struck earlier, disembowelling the man in a flurry of claw strokes. The second bandit, distracted, went down as Wil’s sword clove him from behind. Graven’s familiar, again in its sandstorm shape, lashed at the last bandit as Naivara’s mental attack filled his head with searing pain. Soon after he fell dead.
The four of them gathered around the blonde eladrin as she lowered her flute. “My thanks to you all, truly. My name is Althaea.” “Well met, sister,” replied Naivara. “You are far from home, as am I. How came you to be here?” “ I’m heading for Silver Springs – those men ambushed me. Not that I can’t defend myself,” she added defensively, “but three against one is a bit more than I can manage at the moment.” At that moment Rhotan Var came trotting over. “What’s this? What’s this all about? Who is she?” Althaea, recognising the dwarf’s status, bowed gracefully. “Honoured sir, I am Althaea, a travelling minstrel. I am indebted to your servants for my rescue.” “I pay them to rescue me, miss,” grumbled Rhotan, The trade of minstrel had a reputation as being a common front for spies and assassins, though etiquette commonly forbade them being treated as such until proven otherwise. He considered a moment, then spoke again. “I am travelling to Silver Springs Oasis on business. Since we shall be travelling together, would you be interested in serving as a caravan guard until then? These four – he indicated Naivara, Ku-ki’cha, Graven and Wil – are so employed, and a fifth sword would be useful.” Althaea smiled brightly, and accepted the offer. The bandits’ bodies yielded nothing of worth beyond a few bone spears and dagger, although Ku-ki’cha took one of the red sashes as a trophy. Wil dissuaded him from tying it around his spear, saying “People will think you’re one of those bandits.” Ku-ki’cha reluctantly complied.
The sun beat down as they tramped north. Naivara felt tired and drained, and even Ku-ki’cha found it a struggle to keep up his position as scout. As the caravan approached a gap between two rocks they noticed a figure mounted on a crodlu, flanked by three more on foot. One raised a bow and Ku-ki’cha felt an arrow pierce his hide. “Danger! Bandits!” he screeched and started forward at a run, hoping to engage the bowman before he could fire again. The thri-kreen’s speed and agility meant he was in front of the two bandits to the crodlu rider’s right in a matter of seconds. They were elves, and wielded an obsidian bladed sword in either hand. The crodlu rider, a human and clearly the leader, began to speak and gesture; the ground around his mount blackened in the unmistakeable fashion of defiling magic. Whatever wickedness he was attempting to conjure failed to appear, and Ku-ki’cha’s comrades joined the counterattack. Wil raced around from the rear of the group, heading for the leader, and Graven ran with him, his spirit companion scudding over the sand ahead of them. As they ran they heard the rider call to his elves, “Kill them all, except for the eladrin!”
The two bandits to his right closed with the thri-kreen and hacked him to the ground. As Ku-ki’cha’s vision faded, he heard Althaea’s flute shrilling through the dry air, and the music seemed to fill him with energy and lift him. How can this be, he thought, I am too weak to stand, then he looked down and saw himself floating gently away from the surprised bandits. The bard set him down at a safe distance from them, then lowered her flute and concentrated on the rider. Her keen eyes had spotted a spell book poking from the top of one saddlebag, and with a flick of her mind, she grasped it and pulled it towards her. The book flew through the air and fell close by with a soft thump.
The rider, momentarily disconcerted by this, recovered and began chanting and gesturing again. This time Wil and Naivara shuddered as something unwholesome touched them, cold as the desert night and foul as a rotting corpse. Wil reached the crodlu and struck two blows – one at the giant bird and one at its rider. A flash of lightning blinded the sorcerer. Graven, close by, was hit by an arrow. The third elf had climbed on top of one of the rocks and was shooting down at them. He called upon the spirits of the land to heal him and his companions, and they answered, though only he could hear them. A few yards away, the thri-kreen stood up, leapt forward and sliced one bandit open with his gythka, then slashed hard at the other with his second set of claws. The first elf fell, spurting blood. Ku-ki’cha noticed that Althaea had appeared behind the bandits, playing her flute as he charged forwards; he had an odd feeling that the tune had helped him, although he couldn’t say why. The eladrin flashed him a smile and began to clap out a rhythm. Ta, ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta, ta-ta, ta-ta-ta it went, and the second bandit cursed as something pushed him away from the bard. He turned on Ku-ki’cha, twin swords whirling, and the weakened insect-man fell once again. Althaea saw the archer on the rock nock an arrow, and once again stretched her mind forth, unhooking the string from one end of the bow, causing it to spring straight. Smiling, she raised her flute and began her healing melody.
Naivara and the sorcerer were locked in a deadly mental duel, though they were at least fifteen yards apart. The eladrin could taste blood in her mouth and knew her opponent was wounded too. Sensing his concentration waver, she drove forward again. Wil climbed on the rock and drove his sword through the bowman’s body as he fumbled with his useless weapon. Graven called upon the spirit of winter and sent a chill blast towards the last, wounded bandit, which was enough to finish him off. Althaea finished her song of healing and addressed the sorcerer directly, mocking him. What’s she up to? Wil asked himself, then chuckled as he sensed the meaning of the bard’s satirical diatribe. He tried to note what she was saying, thinking this was the best insult he hade ever heard, but somehow the words ran too quickly and eluded his memory. Althaea finished her speech and stood looking, hand on hips, one foot forward in a pose of dramatic contempt. As a final stroke, she reached out mentally and grabbed the bandit leader’s hood, pulling it down over his eyes. Slowly, her enemy toppled sideways from his mount and landed face down in the sand. He did not move. The crodlu cried out sharply and hooked its beak into the fallen figure’s clothes, trying to drag it away. Ku-ki’cha, now revived, and Wil ran forward and grasped its bridle. Naivara, not quite on the same page, thrust at the bird’s mind with hers, maddening it. It ran a few steps, dragging the man and thri-kreen with it. Wil shrugged, raised his blade again and drove it through the beast’s heart. Ku-ki’cha was a little disappointed to have lost a beast of burden but consoled himself with fresh meat from the carcass.
The bodies yielded a few weapons, the defiler’s spellbook, a diamond, some gold coins and a peculiar gem – a badly cut emerald pulsing with what Althaea guessed to be arcane energy. As she turned it in her hands, Wil brusquely knocked it to the ground. “Vile thing”, he spat, “Look at it – it stinks of defilement.” Before the bard could argue he had raised his weapon and brought it down hard on the emerald. Those clustered around the little pile of loot saw dark tendrils of magic pour out and turn the diamond, the coins, the late sorcerer and his mount to a dark stain on the sand.
(more to follow)