by Tom K. Loney and Christina Lea

Chapter 1, by Tom K. Loney

The beast opened its near-human mouth to reveal that it was full of razor-sharp hair-thin teeth and let out a screech that could have melted tin. The cavern surrounding it didn't help the adventurers' ears either. Some things need to be dead, Cutter was thinking. The slime-coated, dodo-bodied thing with its serpent-like neck, oddly humanoid head, and fold-filled white-as-the-driven-snow colored skin, in front of the warrior, was one of those things.

What did not need to be dead was the dwarf axe-man hanging limply from a jagged outcrop onto which he had been tossed, not too far from the monster that had just ambushed the party of four. The rock's tip protruded from his stout chest. It had only taken a second for the axe-wielder to stop trying to raise his head and move his fingers, before he let go and started his journey into the afterlife.

"Farewell in the Stone Halls, Ragnark." Cutter said as he quickly stepped backwards, trying to get out of the horrible beast's striking range.

"Cutter, get down!" A female voice called from behind him.

Cutter, the swordsman, dropped to one knee to get lower but wanted to be ready to jump aside in case of another attack from the beast. A half-elf female, wearing a green robe over her padded-silk armor and carrying an ornately carved staff, leaned slightly forward over his shoulder.

"Oaksbake!" She cried out in the Voice used by wizards and sorcerers through out the world of Elder.

A stream of flame shot out, almost like a stream of water splashing along the monster's shoulders. This diminished the momentum of its ambush attack, forcing it to take a couple of startled steps backwards. With great speed and agility the white creature moved, showing how the dwarf Ragnark had been so totally stunned when it had leapt out from the shadows in front of the party. The flame wasn't hurting the beast though, because of the thick slime covering it.

Given a second of pause, Cutter moved his lithe, powerful body in a duck-walk placing a stalagmite between him and the beast. "Looks like we are going to have to do this the hard way!" he called out to the sorceress.

She looked at the stream of flame and willed it a little stronger than before, with a concerned look.

"You're too slow to go up against that thing, Cut." the half-elf answered.

"I was hoping you'd help me out there, Sash." Cutter straightened and peeked out from the slippery rock, meekly.

"Mousehide!" the woman, Sash, called out. "You alive?"

From behind the dwarf's body, an elf raised his head. His black-leather armor and dark wool hood almost hid his dark complexion. He would have been invisible were it not for the two torches lying on the floor and the stream of fire illuminating the cavern so brightly.

"I'm here!" The rogue called out over the crackling of the fire and loud grunting of the beast.

"Thank the gods." Sash said. "I didn't see if the creature had gotten both you and Ragnark. I need you to cover when I drop this spell and drum up something for Cutter."

With out replying Mousehide slipped from behind the outcrop and picked up one of the dropped torches in a crouching run. He stood beside the green-robed wizard with his glowing short-sword, torch in one hand and the sword in the other.

"There," He said. "A nice big target for Mister Slimy to lunge at, so we can keep your pretty red hair all neat."

"My stylist will thank you, Mousey." Sash replied. "Cut, you going to be able to get over here?"

The swordsman looked at the distance between him and the two delvers, and then at him and the monster. The beast was starting to get over its initial fear of fire as it realized that it was only a mild irritation on its skin. It started scanning between the dead dwarf and the stalagmite, every now and then stopping where Mousehide and Sash were standing. It was blind to normal light, but had some sort of heat vision because the flames, the stream and the torches, were confusing it.

"No." Cutter answered after a moment. "I'll buy some time. I hope you can hit a moving target, witch."

The tall, dark-haired warrior stepped out. His bare pale arms were bright in the firelight against the black leather tunic and chain-mail hood he wore.

"Yoo-Hoo, Pearly!" He called out to the monster.

Surely enough, the serpent-like neck snapped in his direction, just as fast and as just silent as in its initial attack. Cutter, already taking a step back behind the stalagmite, leapt upwards. This bought him a second as neck and head whipped around the corner low seeking his ankle as it had earlier in the successful attack on the dwarf. The swordsman directed his boots directly onto the beast's neck and swung his broadsword in downward arc. The slime prevented an effective attack, though.

Cutter slipped backwards and the sword's tip only nicked the fold-filled skin to release a splash of green ochre. The cavern's illumination suddenly dimmed as Sash's flame attack ceased. She had drawn her staff to her side and placed her free hand on her brow.

Cutter was scrambling backwards over a pile of loose rocks and soil, kicking madly with his feet into the beast's "face" to keep it from biting at his boots. A harsh, disgusted grimace had snuck over his features as the scent of the monster filled his nostrils.

"Hurry Up!" Sash said in Spellspeak and gestured in the swordsman's direction with her casting hand .

Cutter was not sure if the spell was taking effect or not, but everything around him began to slow down. Pebbles kicked up from his flailing kicks seemed to get lost on their way back down to the ground and meander slowly downward as other pebbles struck them almost casually. And the grunts of the beast became tangible comments.

"...eat your mother and father and all of your kins' eyeballs in a bowl of blood and intestines," The beast was saying, "for that little scrape, you slow, ugly ape!"

Rolling from his shoulders into a crouched fighting stance, the swordsman was able to get his sword in between him and the beast.

"You had to bring my mother into this, didn't you?" Cutter said. "Hell-spoor, you are going to regret that."

It was the human's turn to strike. He slashed upwards in the direction of the beast's neck. The thing was able move its neck away but its dodo torso was now within reach. With only a slight change in his grasp of the sword, Cutter was able to change the sword's angle for a jabbing motion outward and downward. And, to his glee, two hits were scored. The first, just above where the wish-bone would be in a chicken, caused a sudden buckling of the creature's knees. The second, inspired by the visible pain of its target to the sword blade, which had a mind of its own when the swordsman got rolling, went just below the beast's collar bone, directly where a heart might be, Cutter felt the sword slip just past a hard bone, probably a rib, and ease its way in delightfully deep.

Cutter was buckled sideways by the thick slimy neck, and though he could neither hold on to the broadsword nor stop his own sideways momentum, he could watch his step and dance deftly to avoid tripping on the rocks and gravel below him. He came up abruptly against a wall of the cavern, knocking some of the wind out of his chest. Even while he was recovering, he was able to watch the beast crumple onto the floor.

"Acccck!" The monster squawked. "Help me Asmotle... gag... splurt..."

The beast was drowning in its own ichor when the world around Cutter started to speed up again. Mousehide was supporting Sash from what appeared to be a faint caused by the exertion of the spell. A wave of weariness was beginning to come over him as well.

A quick glance reassured him that the beast had indeed been dispatched. With a final sputtering and, luckily, now-incomprehensible noise, it suddenly relaxed and began decomposing in front of them. A green mist began to rise.

"Oh, Firecrumbs!" Sash called out, almost reflexively. A gentle nimbus of flame coated the beast and sped its decomposition along, also vaporizing the slime and ichor that had begun to turn into a mist.

"Damn it witch!" Cutter called out. "My sword is still in there."

"Take it easy ruffian," Sash responded. "Unless your little pear-slicer is worth all of us breathing poison."

Still mildly annoyed, the swordsman navigated a wide circle towards the sorceress and the rogue. Sash composed herself, but sat down to gather her breath. Mousehide opened a rucksack that she had on her back and pulled out a miner's lamp. Though the area was once again well-lit, he started to light it. Cutter decided that sitting down was a good idea and plopped down next to his companion.

"I might as well get to work, seeing how you two are taking a break." Mousehide said, moving towards the walls and outcrops.

"You might want to check over there." Cutter nodded. "There's an off-colored area on that wall."

As Mousehide headed in that direction, Cutter opened a pouch on his belt, pulled out a small water bladder, and took a swig before handing it to Sash. "This will help, just don't over-exert yourself for about a day."

"Ah, a little boosting potion." She accepted the skin and took a gulp. After a second, both of them had brightened visibly. "Quite a little healing elixir there, Cut." Sash said.

Looking at the fire that had been the beast, Cutter saw the outline of his sword. "Quite an expensive one, too." He stated. "I am glad to see it was worth the silver."

There was a clunking sound and a whoosh of air. "Wahoo!" Mousehide's exclamation brought the two to their feet, if a little shakily. "Good eye, man." Mousehide called to Cutter. "The beast had its loot in this little hidey hole."

The other two began moving past the burning creature to see the plunder they had won. The three delvers looked at their loot in the light of the rogue's lamp, a collection of brass and iron slug-coins, some jewelry and pearl necklaces, a few tin chalices, and six silver coins kept in a pile. An occasional silk scarf could be seen.

"Those farmers weren't kidding when they said that they were poor." Sash said flatly. "We hack our way through a band of kobalds, fight a jabberwocky, and this is our reward. What a way to make a living."

"Barely more than thirty talents worth of junk there." Mousehide continued examining the pile. "Unless we come across a drunken bugbear on his way home from the marketplace, I am going to have to live in a flop house over the winter."

Cutter moved back and looked back to the fire. "We should give the scarves to the village's priest as proof of the creature's demise." He said. "They have lost four people and more than a few sheep to it. And we need to pay for the dwarf's funeral."

Sash and Mousehide nodded. The rogue began to divide the treasure into roughly even piles, setting the scarves aside. Cutter placed a leather glove on his sword-arm and moved toward the burning heap where his sword was sticking out. He picked it up, examined it and tried a couple of test swings.

"I am going to have to clean this thing for a week." He said.

"Maybe you ought to keep it like that, Cut." Sash said, helping the rogue place the divided loot into burlap sacks from her pouch. "We can call you Cutter, the Burnt Sword. Or maybe Cut, the Dingy Blade."

"I prefer Culthwaite the Ugly, White Thingy Slayer." Mousehide chimed in.

Cutter put his sword into its sheath, acting like he was ignoring them. He was quietly amused and irked at the same time. It was his sword, after all, and he was a swordsman. "Mousehide you're going to have to carry the rucksack and the treasure." He said instead of responding. "Sash and I are going to have to drag the dwarf on our shoulders. If we try to do too much right now, you'll end up having to carry us."

"Hades!" Mousehide exclaimed. "I should just run off with the loot and live big."

"Yeah with all those big bucks there." Sash punched his shoulder. "The way you spend, that stuff wouldn't last a week in a slummy pub."

The three laughed a little, then the fire of the beast's corpse began to die down. They all looked at the body of Ragnark the dwarf without thinking. A quiet, unsettled feeling in their guts went unspoken.

"Let's get out of this grotto and back out into the fresh air." Cutter said, finally.

It was evening by the time the three made their way out of the cave. Though Mousehide was rather tired from carrying the loot a quarter of a league - at least - up from the depths of the jabberwocky's lair, he was first to smell the campfire. "We've got company out here." he said, looking around as his eyes adjusted from the torchlight on the cavern walls to the dimming shadows of the glade in front of them.

"Probably not bandits." Cutter said looking around also.

"There they are." Sash saw the fire on the hill just past the glade they were walking into, but could not see anything else.

"Big enough fire." Mousehide said. "I don't smell oxen or a team of horses, so it's probably just one or two travelers."

"And they're cooking!" Sash added, putting some perk in her voice. "I hope they don't mind company."

"I bet they are looking for us." Cutter replied. "Who else would be hanging out next to a cave full of kobalds... and a jabberwocky."

"You have a point, Cut." Sash agreed.

The three adventurers moved through the glade to find that the fire was made by just one person, a knight or man-at-arms from the looks of it, and he was expecting them. A large pheasant was roasting on a spit over the fire and a pot of potatoes was steaming on the stones next to it. They did not try to conceal their approach. The knight stood when he saw them emerge from the dusky tree line. He saw the limp body of the dwarf being carried and made the sign of the Yeshan One God on his chest.

"Great, a single-minder." Sash whispered to her two companions.

"Hail and well-met." The man said loudly. "You are Culthwaite, the swordsman; Salisha the Sorceress; and the rogue Hidden Mouse I assume. I also see that Ragnark of the Axe Clan has fallen."

Following Cutter's lead, the party continued forward a few steps more. The swordsman laid the dwarf down and whistled loudly.

"I would rather be called Sash, the Green, sir paladin." Sash replied after a moment, with more than a little haughtiness in her voice. "It seems you know us, but we do not know you. I suppose the villagers of East Vale told you who we are and that we would be here."

"I'm Mousehide, dammit!" the rogue chimed in before the holy-warrior could reply.

Not taken aback at either Sash's cold tone or Mousehide's correction, the paladin merely nodded.

"The villagers did tell me where you were, but I have been looking for you four, excuse me, three, for a week now." He said. "I am Nemodes Arcturus of Pholus. A servant of the Lord and an agent of the Citadel of Tinkerology of the city of Agrip."

Three horses appeared on the rise in response to Cutter's whistle, and began to trot towards the campfire and their owners. A donkey appeared a few moments later, looking more lost than the other equines.

"Now that is a trick, sir Culthwaite." Nemodes Arcturus of Pholus said.

"I go by Cutter." The swordsman said, nodding at the other warrior. "Do you have a shorter nickname? I have been out east too long to be so formal."

"I go by Nemo." The paladin answered.

The horses came to the fire and the party began to draw some gear from the bags that were on them. Cutter took a couple of blankets and twine to dress the dwarf's body. Sash decided to act like she was ignoring Nemo and began gathering fresh clothes from her packs, as well as oats for her mount. Mousehide found a wineskin and took a swig, once he had the booty on the ground and out of casual reach of the newcomer.

"So what do the wizards of the Citadel of Tinkerology in Agrip want with us?" Cutter asked, still busy with the body.

"That I can not tell you, but I am to offer you sixty silvers each to attend a meeting at the College of Stargazers." Nemo said. "

Mousehide had started feeding his horse some oats that he had carried. "A dozen talents to come and visit a bunch of magi?"

"I could get fourteen talents for visiting my aunt in Casgos." Sash stated.

Cutter had to smile to himself. Sash obviously did not like the paladin, but she never could resist a negotiation.

"Lady sorceress," Nemo said with a blunt tone. "The wizards that sent me to retrieve you gave me one hundred and eighty silvers total to bring you to the Citadel. I was supposed to bargain with you and pay only eight talents to each of you tops. Nine was only as a last resort."

He paused for effect. "As I am a man of action and not much talk, I see only I can afford to pay you better to sweeten the deal. I, my lady, cannot afford to pay you any more for your time. Twelve talents. Take it or leave it."

Sash did not know the man well enough to pout, but she did show a little irritation at his crude lack of finesse. Mousehide looked at Cutter. "I'll take ten talents, if you put the other two into Ragnark's funeral." Cutter said, tying the twine now that the dwarf was fully wrapped.

"Damn it, Cut!" Sash quipped. "Now I suppose I am to accept the twelve and disrespect our fallen comrade's sacrifice?"

The swordsman shrugged. Sash and Mousehide looked irritated but agreed to fifty slivers each. The rest of the money would go into the funeral for the ax-wielding dwarf.

"You going to eat all that food by yourself?" Cutter asked, once he had the remains tucked next to the loot bags.

The paladin smiled broadly at the swordsman. Though of very different ilks, they had some thoughts and priorities in common. "I could use some help with it." Nemo answered.

"Have anything besides meat and potatoes?" Sash asked.

"I have some lighter bread, only three days old." Nemo offered, surprised.

"Great. Greasy meat and pasty taters with pasty bread." Sash said, to no one in particular. "Not a thought for a green vegetable."

"I..." Nemo started.

"I know." She cut him off. "I know you are a holy warrior, not a cook. Wouldn't know how to avoid scurvy if a green bit you on the nose."

Once again, the paladin showed amazing patience. Probably making up for the disappointing haggle he had provided, he smiled graciously and shrugged his shoulders. The sorceress huffed again and sat down by the fire. Cutter and Mousehide smiled at each other. The group sat down to dinner.

Though the group, most vocally Cutter and Sash, wanted to stay overnight at the campfire that Nemo had built, the bands of kobalds that were still prevalent in the area, despite their warren's defilement by the adventurers just that day, made the site rather impractical as a rest spot. They decided to ride the day-long journey back to the village of East Vale because the moons Mulro and Afy were both visible, and provided enough illumination for the party and their horses to avoid pitfalls.

In the morning, the villagers awoke to find the adventurers watering at the well outside of their Shrine To Many Gods. Quickly, the holy man within the shrine arose to find out what was causing such commotion outside and, seeing them with proof of their victory over the dreaded horror that had plagued their county for nearly two seasons, declared that the afternoon would be one of celebration, feasting, and reflective prayers to commemorate the group's victory over the jabberwocky.

To his credit, the paladin moved himself away from the center of attention and merely pointed to Cutter, or Sash, or Mousehide - whomever was closest - whenever a local would inquire about the heroics involved. Mousehide stayed awake to elaborate the ordeal for the villagers while Cutter and Sash slipped into the Shrine to find a quieter spot to sleep until the afternoon. Before her nap, Sash and the priest conducted the negotiations for the dwarf's funeral, which was not a hard thing as the priest had not expected the group's return, let alone any profit from their endeavors.

When the afternoon came, Cutter, Sash, and Mousehide were the guests of honor at a village-wide feast table after the dwarf's body was laid to rest in the ground, as all followers of Drurl, the First Stone, were. The villagers, a mixture of pale-skinned Sea Peoples and olive-skinned Western kindred that made up the emerging Isun human population, thought the burial quite exotic. Both Sea Peoples and the Western cultures found cremation more to their liking.

Nemo busied himself with his horse and provisions but did not sulk or remain conspicuously absent from the proceedings. He was present at Ragnark's funeral and showed up as a regular guest at the early supper feast afterwards. Cutter had to grudgingly acknowledge that the pale easterner's demonstrated patience uncharacteristic of his people and religion. He was half-easterner himself and knew something of the brusque mannerisms that were typical of the city-state of Pholus, often called the West Colony, and its growing sphere of influence. He credited it to Nemo's long-term affiliation with the wizard citadel in Agrip, the largest city-state of the area known to the rest of the world as Vast Barbaria, or the Wilder East Lands, as the rest of the Known World called this edge of its map.

In the afternoon sun of the Springtime, the festive dancing and discrete alcoholic drinking of the village of East Vale (and more than a few farming families scattered not too far away) wound itself chastely to conclusion at the rise of the first moon. Nemo could not have asked for better tidings. They would be able to get an early start on their ride to Agrip some four days' ride to the south. He posed the suggestion as unobtrusively as he could as the group started to make camp in a travelers' hovel, a roofed-over area with a water pump where horses and people alike could rest out of the rain or harsh sun but still not inside the homes and temple.

"Why can't we just rest a full day here?" Sash declared loudly.

"There is a sense of urgency as to when we get to Agrip." The paladin answered smoothly.

"Easy for you too say." Sash continued undeterred. "You haven't been facing the fierce monsters that have been terrorizing your precious Citadel's taxpayers."

Nemo, obviously a seasoned warrior and probably an adventurer at some time, almost snapped but caught himself. "What about you two?" He asked Mousehide and Cutter, deciding not to let his temper be fully hidden by ignoring the obstinate magus.

Mousehide looked at Cutter for a second. The warrior barely nodded. "I am a bit bored myself." The rogue said. "I am with Nemo about leaving tomorrow."

Sash huffed and wrapped herself in her wool poncho and laid down a blanket.

"You bastards." She took a drink of wine from a nearby skin, left over from the party. "Men! Always in a hurry." With that she rolled over.

Sunrise found the four on their horses. Most travelers waited until the sun was high enough to remove the chill of the night before having a breakfast of porridge at the side of the road. Sash and Cutter rode in front. Mousehide kept his horse at a slower pace and coughed to catch Nemo's attention. Though the paladin's proud mount did not like the slower pace, she obliged her rider just the same.

"Looks like decent weather will be with us for most of the day." Nemo said, awkwardly starting the conversation.

"The only storms we'll have will be among us, I suppose." Mousehide replied.

Nemo was relieved by the elf's directness. He looked at the dark-skinned, somewhat flappy-eared other's silver eyes. "I do not know how not to get the sorceress angry." He said.

"It's not really you, sir paladin." Mousehide's casual veneer dropped to reveal some of his race's maturity about things, as their longevity aged them much slower than humans. "It's what you are and what she is."

"She is an elf, like you." Nemo stated. "I know that the elves do not take to the One God's religion but I have never known them to be averse to it."

Mousehide smiled at that. "Close but not accurate in your reasoning."

"Then what is the problem?" The human asked.

"She is a half-elf, and I doubt that your religion is half of what she doesn't like about you." the rogue answered. "Her father was of the Sea People and her mother an elf from the southern lands of Athebes. Specifically, her father was Gisgos Hamilarch"

"Oh my." Nemo said, surprise showing.

Gisgos Hamilarch of Atyr, the Queen of Cities of the Salima-worshipping countries, was the admiral of that city-state's naval forces, versus the Yeshan forces of the One God that besieged her for nearly five years when expanding Pholus's merchant routes into the ancient west. One of the Yeshans' sworn enemies from a war almost a century ago, Gisgos capitulated when the city had lost almost all of its fleet and the ground forces were smitten by the Black Death in numbers no physicians or magi could treat effectively. The city's citizens were happy at the end of the siege but Sea People tradition demanded the execution of their armies' top commanders. Admiral Gisgos was aware of this as he negotiated Atyr's surrender and, though he saw to it that most of his subordinates fled into the far east and south, he himself stayed behind and faced his city's wrath.

"Our Lord's knights had nothing to do the war though." Nemo pointed out. "It was the dictates of the unenlightened King Marius that drove Pholus's might into the west. She cannot hold where I am born against me."

"But the Singulars," Mousehide answered, using the not too flattering term for the followers of the Yeshan One God. "Did almost burn Atyr down to the ground a generation later establishing their religion as her new official religion. And the Holy Order were the shook troops of that movement."

"My dead father was a young man when that occurred." Nemo retorted more than a bit defensively. "And the Latter Church of Pholus has never condoned violence."

"And Salisha of Atyr was only thirty summers old, barely a teenager by my kin's standards." The elf spoke evenly. "Her travels to the Wilder East were to get away from all traces of Pholus and its new religion."

Nemo was silent.

"Now, I don't expect you to make amends for the wrongs of the past." Mousehide continued. "But I thought that you might like to know."

Nemo rode for a time without speaking then asked, "So she is over a century old?"

"An adult in her summer years as I reckon most half-elves." Mousehide said.

"And you are?"

"Just under a century."

"Which explains your youthful appearance but wise take on things." Nemo observed.

"Humans can be just as wise and full of experience regardless of age." The elf brought his horse's pace up a touch. "Elves just have had a few more conversations."

Nemo thought on this.

"She is not very elf-like." He added. "I mean she doesn't seem very patient."

"Perhaps that's because she spent most of her time learning the ways of magic and not watching the world." Mousehide shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe it's the human half of her."

Nemo smiled at the humor and let his horse walk at a pace more pleasing to her. His own thoughts were a bit confused, so he felt the discussion could be ended. The pace of his horse would soon overtake the swordsman's and sorceress's and he almost held in the bit. Damn the witch, he thought, catching his uncharacteristic timidness. Let her get over it while staring at my back.

"Chah." he said to his horse.

* * *

The gnolls laying in the meadow were arrayed as they had fallen. From the dropped weapons and tracks, it seemed that they had been in a circle, defensively, when whatever attacked them started to dispatch them without too much effort. Nemo and Mousehide read the tracks while Cutter and Sash scanned the nearby tree lines for the signs of the culprits. The swordsman and the magus stayed mounted in case a quick retreat was needed, while the other two examined the field next to the road.

"Bugbears." Nemo said after a few moments. "Looks like two of them.

"Three." Mousehide added. "One was hiding in the ditch over here. It took a dump while waiting."

"Must've been carrying a large prize from a hunt." Nemo picked up a long stick from one of the gnolls with torn rope on either end. "A really big stag or cow, I'm betting." he continued. "And their hunger got the better of them, as they didn't drop it and run."

"What is getting me," Mousehide was thinking aloud. "Is that there are none of the bones of the game. Bugbears wouldn't think to carry their prize off to eat it. It's not like them."

"Or the fact that there isn't a bite taken out of one or two of the gnolls. Just to taste test you know." Nemo agreed. "Unless, of course, they caught our scent before they had a chance to get down to eating."

By the end of this statement, both the rogue and the paladin were in a semi-crouch and looking over their shoulders. Before they could warn the other two, a large stick, or smaller tree trunk, flew from the trees end over end, right at Cutter and Sash. Sash, ever the lucky one, saw it first and mouthed a surprised gasp before the wooden projectile took Cutter on his left abdominal flank, knocking him from his horse and into the sorceress. Both of them ended up on the ground on the far side of their horses, who had decided that someplace about a league up the road would be better for their equine interests. In classic bugbear ambush pattern, two shapes emerged from the tree line after the hurled trunk, and another appeared at the far edge of the clearing where Nemo and Mousehide were crouching. The battle was ensued.

Despite their weakened conditions, Cutter and Sash did not dally too long on the ground. The swordsman drew his long-bladed sword and presented as threatening a stance as he could muster for the two advancing bugbears. The sorceress moved quickly behind him and started mentally researching a spell that would be helpful without spending too much essential strength. The bugbears instinctively moved to the left and right of the swordsman.

"Do you have your dagger, Sash?" Cutter asked quickly.

"You don't expect me to get into a knife fight with an ogre, do you?" Sash asked, fumbling along her belt for her dagger.

"Dammit witch! Just give it to me!" He waved his empty left hand impatiently.

In that moment of hesitation, the bugbear to the swordsman's left swung his taloned hand, and the one to the right moved forward, just shy of the long steel blade. Cutter did not leap forward as the carrion-eating hulks were hoping for, because that would have separated the two, leaving Sash easy pickings. Instead, he moved his left shoulder into the woman, knocking her backwards and the dagger from her uncertain hands onto the ground by the bugbear on the left's feet. Before the customary indignation could issue from Sash's mouth, Cutter's long-blade moved in a semi-circle and caught the bugbear on the right in his forearm.

Mister Right-Bugbear growled a loud snarl as he retreated two steps, holding his left arm. Sash hurrumphed but decided to leave the insult to her pride unspoken as she got up, quickly. Cutter moved his left leg backwards, brushing the sorceress to assess her proximity to him as well as give him some leverage for the right-handed swing of his sword, which he brought around at Lefty the Bugbear. This sent the ogre-kin reeling backwards and into a tree, causing a fatal stumble. Cutter dared two steps away from Sash to go for a strike at the off-balance beast. The blade moved for a vital area just below its thick neck and bulging shoulder, but the swordsman's weakened condition made the blow superficial, causing a rush of dark blood but not the hoped-for bright red spout. A whine-snarl and an over-balanced swat at his sword, which set him busy regaining his fighting stance, were Cutter's reward for his efforts. On top of that, the swordsman had to regain his bearings as to where Sash was. That would require him to look over his shoulder, away from the two bugbears.

Mousehide and Nemo were not having nearly as hard of a time as their companions. The paladin and thief-warrior moved to the left and right of their single opponent. The bugbear's martial instinct brought on the species's uncanny knack for survival and sent him ducking back into the shrubbery. Nemo could tell in an instant that this bugbear wished to disengage from the on-going melee, which meant he should turn his attention to Cutter and Sash and their opponents. A movement from the dun-skinned elf next to him caught his attention, though.

Mousehide was following the monster, his silver-red eyes angry. Nemo saw why the elf was indeed a dungeon delver and not a part of a regular adventurer guild: he embodied the racial hatred of monster-kin that elves were privately mocked for by more pragmatic humans and humanoids. He held his step for a breath to observe the rogue pursuing his passion.

As Mousehide moved into the brush, not bothering to avoid the thorns and tangling vines, the bugbear had no choice but to lunge at him. With gravity-defying agility, the elf moved with the magical grace of his species and leapt upwards, slightly hindered by the shrubbery around him. The bugbear ended up in a tumbling mass which Mousehide landed atop with his two long daggers landing after the balls of his feet. This sent the dying monster and the elf into a tangle.

Despite the messiness of the rogue's combat style, Nemo decided it best not to piss off Mousehide in the future. With that he moved his attention back to Cuter and Sash some hundred paces away.

The swordsman was having a time of it, Nemo saw. The excursion against the jabberwocky must have taken a lot out of him. Cutter's chest was heaving as he scooped up a dagger from the ground, but to his credit the two bugbears were injured and acting very wary. The half-elf looked as useless as any magic-wielder, busy primming herself into a more attractive pose while seemingly distracted from the urgent chaos around her. She did look good with a bit of dust on her purple-clad rump though. Nemo heard Mousehide begin to disentangle himself from the vines and the dead bugbear behind him. He began moving forward.

The scene ahead of the paladin began to play itself out again. Both bugbears were on their feet, while Cutter and Sash moved close to each other again. The two monsters could sense the swordsman's weariness and were somewhat heartened. Their feints and swoops became more aggressive as they saw the swordsman noticeably slow. Nemo began running, fearing that Cutter or Sash would end up in a bugbear's grasp and carried off in a hasty retreat that the unhorsed pursuers could not hope to follow.

Sash suddenly looked energized with purpose and struck a pose as she spoke loudly in a language that Nemo did not recognize. With a hand gesture one of the bugbears stopped his probing lunges to claw at the bright lights and mist that had appeared in front of his dog-like eyes. Distracted by his partner's dilemma, the unaffected bugbear paused to look. That was all Cutter needed. With a war cry, energized but still somewhat wavering, the swordsman drove his long blade into the bugbear's torso – just below the first injury.

If at first you don't succeed... Nemo thought dryly.

He was about change his direction to charge at the glamor'ed beast, but two arrows appeared suddenly in its throat. Halting his run immediately, Nemo turned to see Mousehide holding a small bow. The elf spat as he put down the weapon to pull his waterskin from his belt. The paladin could see why this group of mere delvers was so successful. Talents they had in handfuls, and somehow they worked together well despite their weaknesses, more so than half a brigade of men-at-arms. And all necessary in the up-coming mission. Probably just lucky, Nemo reminded himself.

The four adventurers came together where Cutter was busy rifling over the bugbears' bodies. "There isn't anything." Mousehide told the swordsman. "I already checked the smart one of the batch."

Cutter continued to search. "I didn't get knocked off a horse and have my butt busted for nothing." he replied stubbornly.

"Hope you like fetid cheese and moldy bread." The rogue replied matter-of-factly.

Sash was looking pale.

"You okay sorceress?" Nemo asked her as he replaced his broad sword in its sheath.

Sash looked at the man and almost griped, but thankfully decided to be patient. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay." She gathered herself and some fallen items. "I really should not have cast that last spell."

Cutter stood up, finally giving up his search. "No you should not have." He said with some strength in his voice.

"Oh stop being the hero, you jerk." the Red Sorceress replied quickly. "You had played out your tricks, the brutes had the upper hand."

The swordsman's pride was not put aside so lightly. "I am not sure if killing two giants is harder than breathing into your lungs for half a day after one of your little magical tantrums." he answered.

"Oh don't do me any favors hack-master." Sash replied shortly, then addressed no one in particular. "Damn barbarians think they know something every now and then."

Nemo looked at Mousehide who was quietly amused by the argument. "Sooo, we should gather our horses before it gets to be dark." He said. "We're not too far from the Citadel."

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