"It's started! The terror… it's coming for Kellonville. We must evacuate!"
The scaled beast's lifeless body had barely reached the ground when Tarrow Sharn watched Ben Arons, the round middle-aged man push his way through the doorway of the tavern. The man's trembling voice rang out amid the silent crowd's terrified glances. "I know of a place we can hide- it will keep us safe! We must go! Now!"
The crowd, silent and fearful during the battle, was now beginning to rally together, voices yelling out proclamations of imminent doom and lost hope. Mothers were grabbing their children, men scrambling to secure belongings and gather weapons. Before long, the village voice was unanimous: Destruction was coming to Kellonville, and Ben Arons was their only hope.
Tarrow knew it was typical mob mentality. One minute the people are accusing him of witchcraft, and the next minute they were hailing him as their own savior in the face of a greater evil. If someone didn't step in soon, this was going to escalate.
Tarrow took a quick moment to wipe off his falchion, still gleaming with dragon's blood, on the inside lining of his cloak. Sheathing his sword, he quickly squeezed his way into the crowd next to Telstedler, the half-elf man that led the meeting, and put a red hand on his shoulder. "I suggest you take control," whispered the trystborn. "An excited crowd never makes wise decisions."
The man seemed taken aback by a stranger offering him advice at such a time, but he must have deemed it sound, because he stepped onto a nearby barrel, and cupped his hands around his mouth, shouting to the townspeople.
"People of Kellonville, listen to me!"
The noise died down, though did not subside entirely.
"We will reconvene the town meeting in ten minutes time. At that time we will decide our next course of action. We will make no action as a community until then. I repeat, we will make NO ACTION until then."
Telstedler stepped down from the barrel, and the crowd began to disperse, still talking amongst themselves.
Tarrow found the woman he had rescued from the beast's clutches kneeling at the edge of the square, eyes closed, holding on dearly to a pendant around her neck. He crouched next to her, extending his hand.
"Are you alright, madame?"
She opened her eyes, and met his. She nodded, taking a deep breath. "Thank you," she began. "I owe you my life. My name is Jael, priestess of Azimuth."
She took his hand and Tarrow helped her to his feet, and felt a tap on his shoulder. Behind him stood Tarrow, Fru’al, Grash, and Sanna, who were stowing their own weapons. "The beast is dead," began Grash. "We have just confirmed the kill. Sanna completed a quick circuit around the square, and there do not appear to be any reinforcements."
"Good work. I recommend we-" Tarrow was interrupted by another tap. Telstedler stood, with Ben Arons at his side, a stern look on his face.
"If I may have a moment of your time, I'd like to speak with you and your companions."
He led them back inside the Rusted Drake, and up the sturdy wooden stairs. A long hall extended from the top landing, with several doors on each side. The half-elf opened the first door on the right, behind which was a tidy, modestly-appointed office. An aged desk sat with stacks of neat papers, a quill lay next to a closed bottle of ink, and a hand-sized clay representation of the town's mill stood near the edge of the desk. Against the far end of the wall was a worn cot, neatly made, with a chest of drawers and a covered chamber pot beside it. One window looked out across the town square and the river beyond. Telstedler walked around and sat on the other side of the desk, and Ben Arons stood off to one side.
"I'd first like to thank you for saving my town and its people," he began. "My name is Charles Telstedler, and I am the owner of this tavern- and some call me the mayor of Kellonville. I'm sorry you had to pass through our town on such an occasion, but again, I earnestly thank you for risking your lives."
Ben shifted his balance, looking uncomfortable by the meeting. Telstedler continued.
"This is Ben Arons, a local handyman. As I'm sure you gathered, strange things have been happening as of late. There have been unexplained fires, ruined crops- under circumstances unlike anything we've ever seen. I'm sure most of the people in this town only had the vaguest idea of what a dragon was, let alone ever had to fight one off. If it weren't for you… well, I'd rather not think of what might have happened."
Telstedler paused. Tarrow, standing with the rest of the Horselords, studied his mannerisms. The man looked uncomfortable. Perhaps he was waiting for something, but it seemed even he didn't know what. After a moment, he continued.
"I guess my point is this: Something is behind all of this. Ben, here, has a plan for how to proceed, but to be perfectly blunt, I don't put any stock in dreams or prophecies."
"But it's true," interrupted Ben. "I swear, Charles, I had dreams that predicted all of this. The fire. The frozen crops. And now, this dragon attack. Lyria told me what was going to happen, and she told me that everyone will be safe if they follow me!"
Telstedler looked tired, and frustrated with Ben's words. "Please, Ben, tell us what your dream told you to do."
Ben nodded and stood up straight, as if feeling like he was finally getting the proper recognition for his position. "Lyria took me once to a cabin in the woods to the north, where she lived. It was small, but she told me in my dream that I was to lead the townspeople there. If I led them there, they would all be safe."
Telstedler rubbed his temples, once again looking weary. He turned to Tarrow, his brow furrowed. "I have a request to make of the five of you. If I don't tell the people that we're going to evacuate the town, I'm likely to be facing an angry lynch mob. I'll understand if you want nothing to do with us and be on your way, but… would the five of you be willing to go on ahead of us, and make sure that we aren't simply walking blindly into some sort of a trap?"
The Horselords looked amongst themselves. Sanna, Grash, Fru’al, and Artemis looked to Tarrow, following his lead. Seeing the knights' hesitance, Telstedler began again. "I only ask this of you because of your prowess in saving us from that dragon. We get few outsiders here in Kellonville, and what few we do get are almost always adventurers, looking for fame and fortune. If you are willing to do this for us, I am sure I would be able to open the town coffers to reward-"
Tarrow cut him off.
"Mr. Telstedler, sir, if I may," he held up a hand, stepping forward. "As much as we would love to accept a reward for aiding your town, I am afraid we will do no such thing. My men and I are not mercenaries, whose services can be bought or sold, nor are we looking for fame or fortune. We are simply a group of travelers who happened to be in the right place at the right time."
Telstedler's and Arons' faces fell as Tarrow spoke. But he continued.
"We will do you this service, but not for coin. We will do you this service because it is in the best interest of your town, and of your people. And, most importantly, because it is the right thing to do."
Within minutes, the Horselords were on their way, riding atop five of the town's best horses. They were frail, slow, and difficult to control compared to the steeds to which they were accustomed, but considering the circumstances there was little to be done. Ben Arons had given them directions on where to go, and they were asked to go and search for anything that might indicate that this was a trap. Telstedler said that he would try and delay the townsfolk from leaving town for as long as possible, but it was unlikely that he would be able to hold them for long.
They rode their horses along the road to the north, following it for as long as it stayed beside the Kellon river. With the river to the west, Tarrow looked across the waters to the expanse of forest, and beyond the mountains that threatened to pierce the sky. They had been traveling through forest and passing mountains and preparing for ambush and battle for so long, it had become difficult to see their surroundings as anything but obstacles and difficult terrain. For the first time in perhaps two years, he was able to set aside thoughts of tactical positioning and combat advantage.
It was, perhaps, not the best time to do so, given that their very destination could be a trap. But riding this unresponsive horse, watching the waves of the river and hearing birds swooping by with the wind in his face, reminded Tarrow of his childhood in Gilead. He remembered his mother, young and beautiful, tending to her orchards, and his father, strong and respectable, teaching him to ride a horse across the countryside.
And, just like that, he was brought back to the present.
"I was wondering… why did you tell Telstedler that we didn't want anything in return for all of this? Why didn't you tell him that we were looking for a place to live?"
Ah, young Artemis. He still had so much to learn.
"Several reasons, lad," he began, bringing his horse alongside Artemis'. It was difficult to keep these horses from weaving slightly as they trotted, but he was able to manage. "First, we don't want to seem too eager. Just because this town needs our help doesn't mean that they're not in league with Galex, or even simply unsympathetic towards our cause. Second, I spoke the truth. We are doing this because it is in the town's best interest, which, in turn, is in our best interest. If the town were to get destroyed, it would do little to help us find a new headquarters."
Artemis nodded, and said nothing in return.
"Plus," added Tarrow with a grin, "I never said we didn't want a reward. I just said no coin. We can work out the specifics of that once we're regarded as heroes."
After about an hour of riding, the road began to veer off towards the east. Taking their horses off the road, continuing north brought them to a steep incline, with the river rushing down on one side and the landscape plateauing off on the other. As they reached the top of the bluff, they continued along the river, and found very soon that it became densely-forested swampland. Certainly a strange combination of terrain.
Rather than take their horses into the swamp, the Horselords tied them up at the edge of the marsh, and continued on foot. Following Ben's directions, they trudged through the swamp for another hour. The air became thick and foggy, and the sounds of gas bubbling and all manner or creatures rousing could be heard coming from all around. Every so often, off in the distance, there would be a brief flash of light, like the glow of a lantern. On more than one occasion, Artemis expressed interest in following it, only to be pulled back on course by Fru’al.
Before long, they came to a large mound of dry earth in the middle of the marsh, and atop it sat a tiny, sagging cottage beside a massive gnarled willow that looked almost like an aged hag weeping. The hut looked molding, and waterlogged, and void of any meaningful human presence for years. But, it was their destination.
"Alright. We're going to be in close quarters, so Artemis, you and I will go in first, and Sanna and Grash, secure the entrance behind us. Fru’al, can you supply a light source?"
Fru’al nodded and held out his hand, in which appeared a tiny ball of flame. With a slight push, the ball floated in front of Artemis, who approached the door, sword in hand. Using his shield arm, he pushed the door open, and immediately stepped inside into a defensive stance, followed closely by Tarrow.
The tiny hut was surprisingly spacious inside, and was still furnished, but showed no signs of recent habitation. An old tattered rug of the floor sat in front of a fireplace filled to capacity with dirt, ashes, and other refuse. A small table and chair, both looking too moldy and rotted-out to bear weight, stood against one wall. A chest of drawers, the drawers having fallen apart years ago, kept watch over the main room like a sagging, sleeping sentry. A thick layer of dust covered everything.
Artemis' stance began to relax, and Tarrow sheathed his falchion. Behind him, Fru’al, Sanna, and Grash followed inside, after ensuring that they were not being followed. Fru’al's floating torchlight danced around the room, casting eerie shadows everywhere they looked.
"Well… let's start looking for clues," said the trystborn.
They spread out around the small structure, picking up pieces of refuse and examining them for anything out of the ordinary. Something wasn't right about all of this. There was hardly enough room here to house the five Horselords, let alone an entire village. And how is it that this structure was still standing, considering its clearly long span of disuse in such a fetid environment?
"Wait," said Fru’al, gesturing the others away. "Stand back."
He held his staff close, and chanted some arcane words under his breath. His eyes closed, and when he opened them, they glowed momentarily in the dim flickering light. He looked everywhere- the floor, the walls, the ceiling- in a deep trance, his lips moving silently as his eyes scanned his field of vision. After about a minute, he closed his eyes, then opened them again.
"It's a ruse. All of it."
The others looked startled, and suspicious of their surroundings.
"Everything is an illusion," Fru’al continued. "The dust, the debris, the furniture, everything. As hard as it may be to believe, I think we are standing in an empty room in the middle of a swamp. The building itself may even be an illusion- it's difficult to be certain."
"But…" began Artemis, "How can it be an illusion? I can touch it with my own hands."
Fru’al picked up a broken piece of one of the drawers from the ground, examining it as he spoke. "Some illusions are simply visual, and have no material effect. If that were the case, my hand would pass through this piece of wood. However, more powerful illusions are able to incorporate more of the senses. In this case, our sense of touch is being fooled as well. Depending on the complexity of this magic, I might not even be sure you and I are seeing or feeling the same thing."
Artemis appeared confused, and opened his mouth to ask another question, but Tarrow interrupted him. "The townspeople are likely on their way here already. When they get here, what do you think is supposed to happen?"
Sanna spoke up. "They're being led into a trap. My guess is that somewhere, here, is some sort of a holding cell, capable of keeping them until their malefactor has all he needs."
The Horselords all glanced at each other, and then looked down. Tarrow bent down suddenly and snatched up the tattered rug on the floor, behind which was simply a bare, moldy wooden floor. Fru’al reached to his belt, pulling out his waterskin. Uncorking the stopper, he bent down, and poured it onto the floor. The water splashed around on the moldy floorboards, and then began trickle across the room as gravity guided it. When it reached the center of the room, it split into two separate streams, perpendicular to one another, following some sort of invisible seam in the floor.
A few moments later, the water formed a large square on the floor, remaining for a moment or two until the liquid seeped between the cracks. Grash knelt down, feeling along the invisible square, until he found what he was looking for. Grabbing onto the invisible handhold, he pulled the trap door open, revealing a dark expanse below.
"It looks like we've found our trap."