Into the Valley
Leaving the geldings, now comfortably watered, tethered in a narrow glade where a large tree had fallen and rolled downhill, the six companions shook out into a jungle-track order. First went Bardic, swinging his hatchet to cut back the tough scrub and vines, then Morath, Alleto, Edric, and finally Celo and Vorel. As Bardic tired he and Morath would swap positions with Celo and Vorel. It was by then about the ninth hour of day: perhaps seven more hours of daylight remained, but under the dense canopy, all was gloom. Bardic, Edric and Alleto all had a few torches tucked into their kit.
The forest was dense: more of a thick jungle. It seemed warm and humid compared with the exposed uplands. The tangle of tree-roots underfoot made the going doubly hard. Each few feet forward and down involved switching tack. Breathers were frequent: partly so that they could listen for any unexpected noise.
“Ow!” Morath slapped at a particularly vicious biting insect on his face, and examined the result. A metallic green bug, about as large as a ladybug, had taken a decent bite out of him and now lay curled up in his palm. Edric had no more than decided that he was unfamiliar with the bug, when a weird humming or buzzing noise swelled, then faded, then swelled again. Rising from brush nearby, a huge metallic green swarm formed and made towards the terrified six!
“Uh… back away… the way we came?” Bardic called, eyes rolling nervously.
“Quick! Torches! Fire will drive them off!” Morath responded.
As sprinting – or even running – was out of the question on the treacherous tangle, torches it was. Alleto swiftly struck flame to his, handing it to Morath and drawing another out. Bardic and Edric muffed their attempt as the swarm surrounded the mid-party. Immediately, communication became nigh impossible! Morath found that the flame and smoke were effective, and was soon joined in his efforts by Alleto, Bardic and Edric. The swarm dispersed, leaving the first four of the party feeling somewhat chewed-up. Celo muttered with disgust as he bent low over the bugs littering the ground: they were burrowing in, each fat and happy with its slice of flesh and blood.
Deadly Attack Apes
Pushing on in the next hour found them much further below the canopy. Here, mighty trees that could barely be spanned by three men around stood over a hundred feet tall, mighty branches spreading up. Thick, gnarled vines draped down, tangled into the dense brush on the forest floor. Parasitic ferns, bushes and even trees grew out of each branch and notch of the greater trees. Other, younger trees challenged their sires for a place in the canopy. All was shadowed gloom. Edric was constantly amazed at the rich variety of plant-life. It made the tales of rare herbs and poisons found in forests of northern Aquilonia more believable. He said as much to Celo, as Vorel paused for breath, and Celo looked and listened.
“Pliombo – the forester that taught me these wood-wise skills last winter – said much the same. I’m learning new stuff all the time,” Celo agreed.
Suddenly, dark massy shapes detached themselves from tree-forks around the group and dropped down upon them!
Morath ducked under a black-taloned paw and snarled back up at the bestially snarling face: “Vivo, you’ve really let yourself go!” – then winced as a second great ape landed a blow.
Celo and Bardic, who like Morath were not caught off guard, defended themselves from the first onslaught but Edric, Alleto and Vorel were slapped hard as great apes beat down on them with ham-like hands!
Dizzied by the stunning impacts, Edric managed to choke out a Mitran blessing. Alleto eventually got his hands free to draw his long bastard-sword and with a ringing battle-shout hurdled across the brush to join Bardic and Morath who were being belabored by apes as blacksmiths belabor an iron plate at the forge!
Vorel and Celo cut their way clear then circled back, driving the apes away from Edric: four of the apes fell writhing and six fled back up the trees.
Breathing hard and now keeping a very wary eye above, the six recovered, reversed party order again and forged on downward. After a further hour or so and another change of order, Celo heard a trickle of water: they traced it down under the matted roots to a narrow pond, illuminated feebly by the last stray trickle of daylight far above. A drumming could be heard, far off and fitful, snatched away by rogue air-currents.
The Wild Men use Poison
Bardic wrinkled his nose at an acrid stench that seemed to hang about the pool: then as they all tried to match it to their experience and Bardic stared round suspiciously under lowered brows, the undergrowth around the pool erupted as perhaps a dozen savages burst out, flinging stone axes and shrieking war-cries! Each near-naked wild man was a weird grey in color, faces crudely daubed with hideous patterns!
Edric sobbed with pain as poison burnt into him, robbing his limbs of their agility. He could see that Morath too was hard-hit. He desperately tried to summon a Mitran chant or prayer to mind, then sank back rigid, unable to move. From the corner of his eye he could see that Alleto was warding him from further harm as best he could, and that Celo was leaping about agilely. Then a menacing form stooped over him…
“We’ve gotten Edric dragged up to safety,” Bardic grunted, trying to massage life into his stiffening limbs, “but we may need to pull out and come back for those that can’t walk.”
“Na. Na.” Morath grunted stiffly, jaw barely working. “Cewo. C’n y’ l’k f’ rem’dy?”
Celo, unscathed and slightly more annoying because of it, agreed to search for herbs. Vorel briefed him as best he could, and the new-fledged ranger searched around the area until he found a promising herb. Returning with it, he helped Vorel’s clumsy fingers fashion a bark pot and went to fetch water while a fire was built.
By the time Edric was swathed in poultice and the others had plastered it on as well, Celo had more bad news: he could hear more wild men, down at the pool. Spying cautiously on them, he realized they were recovering their dead. Then one, sharp-eyed amongst them and following the trail of dragged Edric, caught sight of Alleto standing ready with his crossbow! Again, savage cries erupted and wild men began running up through the brush from all around!
The fight was brief: these wild men had seemingly not prepared any poison, and the four able to fight were in a good defensive position. Once Alleto unleashed his whirling death-dealing blade they broke and ran.
The Flashing Blade Again
The faint sound of drums could be heard anew as the six, now much-rested after what was probably the night and into the next dawn, broke their new, better-hidden camp and began following the faint traces of fleeing wild men along the valley floor. Trees ever more mighty loomed around them, and torches were needed to light the trail among the thick, springy brush.
“The good news is, if we have suffered, our opposition must have been whittled down still further,” Bardic growled optimistically.
“If Cala got taken down, I call dibs on her gear,” Morath jested.
“That’s a very cynical thing to say,” Cala commented, stepping out of hiding next to him.
“I was just about to say, ‘don’t say things about people behind their back – you never know who’s listening!’” exclaimed Celo.
The six viewed Cala with a mixture of suspicion and admiration. Her helm, of some eastern origin, was still in place, and her long grey mail hauberk seemed undamaged. As in the Hieratgate Hall, she wore her broadsword and shortsword high and crossed in the small of her back, and her Hyrkanian bowcase below them – in a left-hand draw – and ready to seize or drop if need be. Little could be seen of her face: everything below her eyes was muffled with gauzy silk, smeared over with generous helpings of chitinous bug carapace. Still, her poise and élan were undeniable.
“Where are your men?” Bardic rumbled.
“Taken by great apes, most of them,” Cala explained in a murmur.
“What of Vivo?”
“He’s on the other side of the village yonder – he’s agreed to a rescue. He lost most of his men too.”
“What about his two uglies – the Hyperborean and the Zingaran?”
“They both live.”
“What about his scholar – what’s his name – the bearded one?”
“Clampus also lives. He used some kind of deadly mist to get them away from the natives. Now, douse those torches: we need to get close.”
“Just a minute: what’s in this ‘rescue’ for us?” Bardic asked coldly. He caught a glint of white teeth behind her veil before Cala answered:
“The treasure’s in the village: if we join forces we can get it out. But we can’t delay much longer.”
“You were offering your men shares: let’s revisit that,” argued the mercenary Cimmerian.
“I was, yes. How about even shares: a third share for each party?”
Taking care not to make sudden moves or step behind Cala, the six crept up through the undergrowth to a crude village: crude save for a raised platform, on which throbbed a great crystal, twice or thrice a man’s size, pinkish in hue. Over a hundred wild men surrounded the platform, chanting and swaying to the drums. A wooden scaffold had been erected above the great crystal, so as to look down on it. A feathered shaman-like figure led proceedings atop it. Next to him, a crude crane allowed objects to be hoisted up next to the scaffold, over the crystal.
A robed man, crouched over in hiding at the verge, turned with rolling eye at their arrival. It was Pras Rooduir: somehow Cala had kept him safe through the destruction of her party. “Keep the money man safe at all costs,” thought Bardic, “just what I would do.”
The drums paused: a naked prisoner was swung up, to dangle over the crystal. Before any could decide what this meant or what to do, a stone knife scythed out, and the life-blood gouted down over the crystal. The drums rolled louder: the crystal pulsed a deeper, redder hue.
“What’s treasure here?” protested Bardic in a low mutter, savage instincts recoiling at the uncanny forces at work here. In reply, a slim brown finger extended, pointed to one end of the platform. There, heaped up like discarded trash, lay a mound of gear, glittering gold-scale armor and gold-plate helms obvious among it.
Celo’s sharp eyes widened in surprise. The platform was well-lit by torches, the mound of treasure quite clear to his vantage. There among it lay a fine parchment-case, adorned in such a fashion as might belong to a royal Envoy!