DESTINY'S REVIVAL: THE TALES OF THE MOUNTAINHIGH MARAUDERS
By Eric 'Erico' Lawson
I.E. Brindlehurst Forgelin
SONGS OF SUNNYVALE
On the outskirts of the ruined town just south of Darvar Manor, a massive welcoming sign sat. The years hadn't been good to it, and the paint was chipped and cracking off, but its message was legible enough.
"Welcome to Sunnyvale..." Foffo growled, arching his back after a long run and looking at the weather-worn sign. "A nice place to live." Unlike the rest of his companions, the Halfling had always been more attuned to the wilderness, having being raised in it, and now stood shaped as a wolf.
"You mean it used to be." Borren replied, rolling his eyes. He hefted his battle axe onto his shoulders and looked back. "Are we all accounted for?"
There were six of them; Foffo and Borren to begin with, but also Haddie and Rinala, an unlikely pair of arcane users who went with the pack. After them was Magidar, a Gnome Magician who carried the strongest array of spells that the Marauders had at their disposal. Finishing up the crew was Brindlehurst, the newest member of the Mountainhigh Marauders, and perhaps the most grizzled. Unlike his counterparts who came with few goods, the stoic Dwarven Cleric hefted a massive ten gallon keg of mead off of his shoulders and exhaled from the effort.
"If ye include me sacraments, then AYE!" Brindlehurst, or Brind as his companions more often called him, said with a slightly wearied smile.
Rinala pushed her pointed hat to the back of her head and rolled her eyes. "By Tunare, why did you have to bring that?"
The Dwarf rustled around in his satchel for a moment before removing a heavy cast iron tankard, turning back to his companions and grinning. "Well, ye didn't expect me to bless our little soiree without some o' Brell's very own nectar, did ye? Besides, this batch is blessed not only by me own hands, but those of me entire Church. It's potent, all right; as potent as Brell's farts themselves!"
The rest of the guild, quieter and more focused than the Dwarf most days, rolled their eyes.
"You know, I used to think that Clerics were all supposed to be chaste, polite and well groomed individuals." Magidar mused, rubbing at his white beard. Brindlehurst promptly let out a loud belch, causing the women to wrinkle their nose. "And then we met you, and you went and spoiled it."
"Bah, belching's the most offensive thing I do." Brind murmured. "So ease off, lad. We've got our work cut out for us."
"Listen up, Marauders." Foffo interjected, reappearing back into normal vision as he shifted into his usual padfooted self. "Brind, we'll have to save the sacraments until after we've concluded our business here. Now then, Sunnyvale used to be a fine and upstanding community in these parts; self-sufficient, well to do, and a stopover on the normal trade caravans out of Highpass."
"Then something turned the entire town into a frigging undead village, we know." Borren grumbled. "Popular rumor holds their mayor was a bit of a dabbler in the dark arts, and it blew up in his face."
"Whatever the cause, I know what's here now." Brindlehurst piped up again, his eye dimming. "The forces of the Plaguebringer."
"You see the Plaguebringer everywhere we go." Haddie said, arcing an eyebrow. "What makes Sunnyvale so different from other places? They're zombies now, but they don't actively go out to cause trouble."
"Until two days ago." Rinala chimed in, raising a finger. "Scouting patrols along the Highpass Highway reported that they were attacked by, and lost one member to, zombies that returned on the road going south. I caught the news at the Darvar bulletin. Nobody else was willing to make the trip out here...Which is why it was perfect for us." At that, the magician smiled.
Foffo nodded, ever the stern leader. "True enough, Rinala. So then, we've been hired. If we succeed at this, we've been promised 45,000 tunar by the Highpass patrol for making their roadways safe again. News of the attack hasn't gone without its consequences."
"So that makes it about 9,000 for the each of us then." Magidar mused. "Not bad money for slaughtering the undead."
"We'll divide into teams of three when we enter Sunnyvale." Foffo continued, ignoring the side comments. "Borren and Haddie are with me, and Brind?? You're with Magidar and Rinala."
"Aye, sirrah. Aye." Brind grumbled, pulling up his Runic Morningstar and beginning to focus his prayers through his protective spells. It took about a minute to bless each member of the Marauders with a thick shield of divine strength from Brell, but each member felt visibly relieved when the process was done.
"I don't need to remind you all that we're strolling into dangerous territory." Foffo began. "The zombies of Sunnyvale have always been a danger, and there's been more than a handful of adventurers who lost their lives to foolhardy visions of grandeur. Just keep to the mission, and stick together. We may be acting as two teams, but we came as a guild and we'll fight as one."
"You were always good at pep talks, Fof." Borren chuckled. "So what, we get in, figure out what's been causing them to get more edgy than usual, and try our damndest to get out before we get offed?"
"In effect." Foffo said, a weak smile on his face. "The smell of death may get to me before their attacks do. You would be similarly affected by their mere presence, eh Brind?"
"Aye." Brindlehurst murmured. "Dealing with the forces o' the unliving's never been a favorite pastime of mine, but I know how ta. More importantly, I carry me brudder Bramblehurst's wisdom with me. And ye know what he'd say in this situation?"
"What?" Rinala prompted.
"There's no true death but a dishonorable one!" Brind said, cracking a grin that stretched his flushed cheeks. "So we fight 'em tooth and nail if we have ta!"
Foffo uttered another incantation and shifted back into his wolf form. "Hopefully, it won't come to that."
If there was one thing that the Zombies held in great abundance, outside of their particular stench, it was sensitivity to the presence of the living. This much the Marauders figured out when two villagers and a pet, all half rotted but with unnatural strength, attacked them from 20 feet out. Borren was in the thick of the fray from the beginning, roaring like a maniac to get the zombies' attention and keep their efforts garnered solely at him. With Foffo and Brindlehurst pulling double duty keeping the foolhardy warrior alive with their restorative and disease reducing spells, they survived the conflict with the spellcasters lining up in a row at a distance and unleashing the most potent fire blasts they could offer.
"GRAUGH!" Brind shouted, as the dog seemed to finally take notice of him and jump up into his face. "It's nibbling on me beard, get it offa me!" Sure enough, his mace flailed about wildly as the creature's dripping gore got caught in the thick strands of his facial hair. From underneath the beast's hindquarters, a rising plume of divine strength arose and shot it backwards, followed shortly thereafter by the combined strength of two more fire streams. The creature yelped and collapsed, finally silenced.
Borren calmly wiped the gore from the zombies off of his axe and onto the grass. "Well, that was fast. You all right over there Brind?"
"I'll live." Brindlehurst grumbled, casting a light healing spell on himself as an afterthought. "I'm just glad I remember my undead smites."
"I thought you Clerics had the ability to turn the undead." Magidar said dolefully.
"Most do." Rinala smirked. "Then again, Brindlehurst is getting on in years. I don't think he remembers how."
The Dwarf's eye glimmered with the beginnings of a stormy rage, but he said nothing. Foffo glanced between the two of them and clucked his tongue. "No time for squabbles, people. More of the same zombies will be making an appearance here soon enough, so we'd best get in closer before the others get wise to our approach."
Moving carefully, and with Borren leading the charge, the Mountainhigh Marauders found that they could maneuver through the village with minimal difficulty. The undead, after the first few vigilant scouts and wandering beasts had been dealt with, seemed too preoccupied within the ruined houses and some semblance of routine to notice them. While Borren didn't particularly care what they did, provided they left them alone, Magidar took particular note of it as he narrowed his eyebrows.
"You would think they might have all tried to eat us by now...I mean, we're walking straight through their territory!" The team ducked from alleyway to alleyway, carefully peering in all directions as the zombified townspeople walked about in their jerky manner.
"They're not looking for intruders, though." Haddie murmured, adjusting her glasses. "No, the guards were outside, and they met us...these are too preoccupied by something."
Brindlehurst rubbed at his chin, eye squinted in serious thought. Rinala noticed the motion, being assigned to keeping watch over the Cleric. "What's wrong, Brind?"
"Bah, it's this town." Brindlehurst murmured. "Aye, it doesn't feel right, but it's not just these wee Sunnyvalians that ah'm feeling offed by. No, there's not enough...sentience, not even instinctive sentience to 'em. If they were regular undead, they'd be ravagin' the landscape entirely in search of living flesh ta eat...This town's beyond dead, and they'd be starving by now."
"What do undead typically do then?" Magidar mused, looking to the Cleric of Brell. "Are you saying that the Sunnyvale undead are unusual?"
"Aye." Brindlehurst murmured. "The undead congregate in strongholds, usually for protection during the burning hours of the day...but they all come out to feed at some point. Vampires moreso than these near fleshless beasts. Really, these zombies can withstand daylight to some point, and it'd be near noon they'd be most inactive. But it's getting towards sunset now, and they should be getting more riled up. Skeletons run around all the damn time..." Brind's voice began to trail off as his mind started making connections to the old lessons learned from his temple, but jarred himself back to focus after Borren coughed loudly. "Err...right. Suffice it to say, they're not acting like they should. And ye know why that unnerves me?"
In response, Brindlehurst got five blank stares from the rest of the guild. Brindlehurst furrowed his brow and raised his mace.
"That means someone's controlling them." Now faces turned dark with confusion and horror.
"But these creatures are tough for us...enough of 'em all at once and we wouldn't stand!" Borren sputtered. "And now ye're telling me there's something here STRONGER?"
"Well, that isn't good." Foffo growled, his fur bristling. "All right then, Brind. You just changed the nature of this mission."
"Not really changed it, Foffo." Haddie said absentmindedly. "He's just narrowed the focus. We came here to investigate why these zombies went wandering...after that, we didn't have much clarification."
"And I think I know why those zombies went wanderin' now." Brind grumbled. "Whatever's been controlling 'em musta lost its strength for a bit."
Borren chopped his axe into the ground. "Well, he's about to lose some more then!"
"We don't know if it's a he yet, Borren." Rinala chided the thick warrior.
"We don't know a lot of things." Foffo barked. "But we've got to figure it out soon; I'd like to try and resolve this situation before nightfall sets in and they grow antsy." He looked around at the team, then shook his head. "I hate to do this, but we'll need to split up to finish our search. Me, Haddie, and Borren; Brind, Magidar, and Rinala."
"One last thing then." Brindlehurst grunted, clasping his hands together and reciting a short incantation that placed a light mark of Brell upon each of his teammates' hand. He opened his eye and exhaled. "A variation of the Brand spell we Clerics learn; I made it meself. It'll allow me to keep a mental tag on yer various states."
If Foffo was impressed, the brusque Druid made no point to let that fact be noticed. He merely grunted and took off running, leaving Haddie and Borren to trail behind him.
Rinala clucked her tongue for a moment, then folded her arms and looked to her two associates. "Well, I suppose we'd best get started then, eh?"
Magidar shrugged. "We're not on my time now. But lead the way then Brind...you're a little hardier than we are."
Brind shook his head at the comment and started trudging in the opposite direction of the second half of the guild, the Magician and Enchanter at his heels.
"You didn't happen to catch what we're supposed to be looking for?" Borren grunted, lifting his foot up and planting the sole of his boot squarely into the zombie's face, sending it sprawling backwards into a heap. Inside of the second house they'd checked, the warrior crawled over the now unmoving corpse and glanced around warily. Haddie walked in after him, still adjusting her glasses and wrinkling her nose. "Ugh, tell me this one was trying to clean this heap when you attacked it."
"To answer your question, Borren, I'm not too sure myself what we're after." Foffo chuffed, stepping into the structure with a light step and casting a heal spell on the roughed up warrior. "Brind's never too clear on things. All I know is that we're looking for whatever's controlling these things. Mebbe it's a stronger zombie...or a servant of Brindlehurst's famous nemesis, the Plaguebringer."
"You sound awful grouchy about that last option." Haddie mused, ruffling through the zombie's remains and pulling out a crumpled envelope bearing the sigil of Sunnyvale. "Any particular reason?"
"I think our newfound associate's a little paranoid about the state of Norrath at times." Foffo replied simply. "I hate to say it, but I'm beginning to think he's prone to crying Bertoxxulous, to modify an old saying."
"Aww, you didn't say wolf." Haddie teased him, rubbing the Druid behind his animalian ears. Despite himself, Foffo craned his neck towards the attention. Borren chuffed and rolled his eyes.
"Geez, you two. Get a room, would you?" Haddie blushed at the comment, and even Foffo's fur seemed to bristle in slight embarrassment. "Besides, we're not out of this mess yet. Ye'd best stay vigilant."
The three Marauders turned about to head out of the door, but Foffo, closest to the exit, froze midstep and tensed on his haunches.
"We've got company." The Druid growled, his fur standing on end. Borren barreled in front of his friend, and Haddie cowered behind the two sturdier adventurers and began to mutter a spell.
Outside of the hut, a line of zombies stood about the entrance, preventing escape. But they did not move to attack, merely swaying back and forth while uttering a low moan of hunger.
Borren gripped his battle axe tighter and narrowed his eyes. "They're not moving towards us; they know we're here, why aren't they attacking?"
"Brin...Brindlehurst was right!" Haddie piped up, her voice frightened and trembling. "Something is controlling them, something has to be!"
"Settle down, Had." Foffo chided the Gnome. "We won't make it out of this on blind panic!"
The zombies, the walking, rotting corpses of the men, women, and animals of Sunnyvale hovered about the hut as if paying no attention to the frantic discussion. They stared towards the three with the hollow sockets and rotting jelly that was once eyes, seeming to look for one particular thing that they had not yet seen.
Foffo felt an incredible sense of dread as ten gazes fell directly onto his elongated snout. "Damnit..." He growled. "It's me they're after!"
As if to validate the Druid's statement, the first of the shambling horde jerked towards the hut, and towards Foffo. Borren let out a roar of frustration and charged towards the beast, unleashing a furious barrage of blows and a loud yell. "Well then, they'll have to get through ME!" Reluctantly, the zombie shifted its focus towards Borren and began to swipe with its super powerful limbs, smashing hard into Borren's protective armor and holy barrier. It groaned when it touched the invisible field of protection that Brindlehurst had placed on the warrior, and responding to the zombie's cries, the rest of the pack lunged forward all at once towards the hut and Borren.
Haddie's scream came loud and piercing, even as she unleashed the potent blast she'd been storing up into the hulking frame of Borren's first attacker. Foffo steeled himself for the onslaught and cast a staying heal on Borren, guarding the door and planting himself firmly between Haddie and the zombies.
"This won't end well..." Foffo said curtly, tilting back towards Haddie with a dismayed look. Borren let out another angry cry and continued to swing, even as the zombies swarmed him and began to attack him from all sides. Despite Foffo's continued healing influence, the blows became too many, too fast, and Borren too busy to block them all.
It was one final solid blow to the back of his head that knocked the Halfling warrior out, sending him sprawling forward surrounded by the zombies. Briefly, he registered in his dulling mind Haddie crying out and Foffo screaming in anger as the zombies turned their attentions towards them.
Then everything faded, and Borren knew only the blissful darkness of unconsciousness.
Rinala, Magidar, and Brindlehurst found their own explorations of the town of Sunnyvale far less traumatizing, moving from hut to hut and dispatching a few shambling zombies at a time. Brindlehurst, while not as rugged as Borren, proved himself capable of surviving the zombies' attention with his defensive spells and healing capabilities, trusting his own survival in the offensive capabilities of the magician and enchanter. Thankfully, with Rinala's magical peon and Magidar's elemental, their effectiveness was greater than Brindlehurst had thought it would have been.
"You lads aren't half bad, ye know that?" Brind muttered, wiping more spattered zombie goo off of his now sad looking Rallosian studded robe. Rinala snorted, and Magidar rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, sure. Like we'd just let you die on us." Magidar grumbled. "Right now, you're the closest thing to a wall of protection we have."
Brindlehurst had a retort ready to fly at that, but found that it got caught in his throat as a sudden blaringly nauseating feeling began to swell up in him.
He knew what it was, too; The others were getting swamped.
"Blast it all!" Brindlehurst spat out, turning his head about and pointing in a direction before tearing off running. Rinala and Magidar shared a set of puzzled glances, but went chasing after their comrade in very short order, their magical associates trailing behind them.
"Brind, what's going on?!" Rinala called out after the enraged Cleric, who stubbornly barreled on.
"It's the others...they're in trouble!" Brind shouted curtly. "And we may already be too late!"
Their dash through the town went largely interrupted, but as they came closer and closer towards Brindlehurst's mental tags, the Cleric's pace slowed to a jog, and then barely a walk.
"No..." Brind murmured quietly, shaking his head. "No!!" He said again, angrier now. Magidar came up to his shoulder, taking a moment to catch his breath.
"What now, Brindlehurst?" He said after regaining his composure.
The Dwarf's rugged pallor was shaking in barely hidden fury and disappointment, but he found his ability to speak.
"Foffo and Haddie...I've lost track of 'em. I don't know whether they're alive or dead."
Rinala went silent, but Magidar spoke for them both. "And...Borren?"
Brind chewed on his lower lip and pressed on, gripping his Runic Morningstar tighter.
"With any luck, we can still save him."
The first thing Borren felt as he began to stir out of his brief nap was an incredibly soothing sensation, like liquid warmth poured over him with a revitalizing breath. It gave him the sensation that he was reawakening after a long nap in the sunshine, and he let out a contented muffled sigh as he rolled over.
The next sensation was one having a torrential downpour suddenly cracked over his head. Coughing and sputtering as he snapped up to his feet, the warrior felt a sense of weakness permeate through him...as well as dripping, tangy liquid dripping off of his forehead.
"Well, we know that works now." Came the tinny voice of Rinala, bringing the confused Borren to his feet. "How do you feel, Borren?"
"Like a train hit me." The warrior grumbled, shaking his head back and forth before noticing he was feeling his hair. "Where's my helmet?!"
"We had to take it offa ye, Bor." Came the voice of Brindlehurst, grumbling and dour for a change. "Wasn't any sense in wasting a more powerful spell on ye, so I gave ye a minor patchup and dunked yer sodden head with some of me own blessed mead." Borren blinked his eyes, watching as the Cleric of Brell finally snapped into focus. The elder Forgelin was dourly shaking an empty flagon, which Borren rightly assumed had once been filled with the aforementioned beverage.
Then Borren remembered what had happened to him, and a sense of panic set in. "By the shire! Foffo and Haddie!"
"Aye, I know." Brindlehurst muttered. He tapped the side of his head. "That spell I cast on ye all gave me an awful feelin' about the three of ye, but they're gone...and you're still here. What happened?"
"Zombies...lots of 'em." Borren muttered. "We got stuck inside of a house looking for clues to this place, and when we came back out, they were all just hanging around like it was some sort of shivaree. Only in this wedding night soiree, they thought it'd be lots of fun to go after Foffo...I took as many as I could, but they were...They were..."
"Enough, Borren." Magidar consoled his friend with a soft voice. "You tried...but did you see which direction they were taken?"
Borren numbly shook his head. "Naw. I got clonked over the head...last thing I remember hearing is Haddie screaming."
"It doesn't make any sense...When you get going full steam, NOTHING ignores you."
Brindlehurst rubbed at his chin. "No. Most things acting on their own certainly wouldn't."
"Again with your conspiracy theories." Rinala scoffed. "Brind, you're being paranoid."
"Clerics don't know paranoia." Brindlehurst growled.
"Oh, so now you're telling me you don't know fear, is that it?" She accused. Brindlehurst's cheeks flushed a darker tone, and he turned to face his companion.
"I thought that any trainer's guild would beat fear out of a person before sending them off into a world of adventure, but I suppose that your little school of magic was too busy showing you how to measure cheap parlor tricks!"
"They're zombies, you longhaired dolt!" Rinala shouted back.
"Who are obviously bein' controlled by somebody FAR MORE INTELLIGENT THAN YOU!" Brindlehurst roared, rearing onto his haunches and slamming his face almost into Rinala's, spittle flying from his mouth into the female Gnome's face.
At that rude display, what little self-control she had vanished in a blink, and with a feral scream she lunged on top of Brindlehurst, pounding the ruddy flesh of his face every direction but sideways. The Cleric was stunned for a moment, disbelieving that the weak arcanist would slip to such a loss of self control. After having his sore nose punched again, he responded in similar fashion, jarring Rinala's hat off of her head from the flat palmed strike against her temple. It took Borren prying them apart and roaring angrily before the two stopped and began to pay attention to the outside world again.
"Look at you two!" Borren screamed, his face fuming smoke. "Haddie and Foffo have been taken who knows where, and the two of you are squabbling like gruntlings over a lost ball!!"
Brindlehurst rubbed at his sore chin, while Rinala collected her hat with a furious gaze on her face.
"We're the Mountainhigh Marauders, damnit!" Borren continued, in full swing as he glowered at them all. "Not the squabbling Marauders! Rinala, at this point anything's possible, and Brind?! For once, shut that awful GOB OF YERS!! While the both of you persist in carryin' out this mindless squall, we're wasting time we should be spending TRYIN' TO SAVE OUR FRIENDS!"
The two bickering Marauders properly cowed by his shouting response, Borren took a long breath of air, inhaling and exhaling it just as quickly. "Blast you all...blast ye."
He sat down onto his posterior, his hands lying on his knees as he stared out over the now seemingly empty village. "Blast it all..."
Magidar shook his head. "They can't be dead...we'd know if they were. Or at least, Brind would."
The Cleric grunted. "They're beyond my reach somehow. For all I know, they could be dying, or dead...I can't tell." He stood up, pulling his mace free from its lanyard. "But Borren's right in one regard. If we're to save Foffo and Haddie, then we have to keep moving."
"Always the unappointed leader." Rinala groused. Brindlehurst paused at that, then turned and shook his head.
"I'll tell ye what, Rin. We'll worry about our missing comrades first, and then if there's some time left over to see to hurt feelins' n everything else, you and I will have it out. Meantime, we'd best listen to Borren." Brindlehurst started off walking, shaking his head. "He always knows what to do."
Rinala rolled her eyes and stood next to Borren, while Magidar strolled off with Brindlehurst, casting a spell of invisibility upon them both.
Borren set his jaw, then started walking back towards the outskirts of town, with Rinala clipping at his heels.
"Why are you letting those two wander on ahead by themselves??" Rinala queried, shaking her head. "They'll get themselves killed!"
"Brindlehurst may be paranoid from time to time, but he's not stupid. And besides, Magidar's got that invisibility thing you magickers use all the frigging time." Borren responded easily. "Otherwise, there's something we left back outside of town that I think we may need."
Rinala mumbled a slow response, then sighed. "I swear, that man is so...so..."
"INFURIATING!" Rinala fumed. "How can you put up with him?"
"He trusts me." Borren shrugged. "I don't suppose we ever bothered sharing Brindlehurst's story with you all, did we?"
Rinala blinked, then waved her wand, casting spells of invisibility on them both as they strolled out of Sunnyvale.
"It goes something like this." Borren muttered. "Brindlehurst Forgelin had a younger brother by the name of Bramblehurst...both of them served Brell in their own way, Brind as a Cleric, and Bramble as a Doomseeker. Well...a pretty serious orc raid occurred about a year back. Brind and Bramb were in the thick of that, and when all was said and done, Brind was found half dead and completely drained of his power, and Bramblehurst was nowhere in sight. Brindlehurst had a hard time forgiving himself for that loss...he always figured he could have saved his brother, and shame sent him to the bottle."
"He's never said that before." Rinala mused.
Borren smiled. "No, I don't imagine he would. It's a painful memory, after all. But...I think he sees Bramblehurst in me some days, and to him, working with us is his penance for his past failures. He's rusty, he's a little old, and he's half crazed, but he's not a bad guy, Rinala."
Borren ventured the last few steps to his objective and stretched his arms, looking back to the space which his invisible friend stood in. "Still, I'd ask you not to push his buttons next time. For my sake...I hate getting angry at my allies."
"Especially when two of them are in danger." Rinala added quietly. "But...do you think Brind is right? I mean, he couldn't be right...it's just insane, zombies being controlled...the Sunnyvale zombies being controlled, even!"
Borren shrugged. "In this world, anything's possible. Let's just hope there's room for a miracle or two."
Haddie's first cognizant thought when she woke up was how much her head was pounding, a realization that caused her to groan as her eyelids fluttered open. Thankfully, there was nothing but dim light about her, so she didn't have to face the piercing gaze of sunlight.
Her next thought was how terrible it smelled in her environment, wherever she was...followed shortly thereafter by the realization that she could not move her arms...and that her legs were not even touching the ground. Letting out a gasp of surprise, she focused her vision, clearing her sight to suddenly discover that she was shackled to the wall, her short stature preventing her feet from reaching the ground.
A shambling creature, smelling of the grave and rotting as if he had just emerged from one, slowly shuffled across the floor in front of her, turning its head with a horrifying crack to moan at her. Haddie screamed.
"Aah, finally awake I see." Came a bemused voice from beyond the dim light of the flickering candles dangling beside her. Haddie recovered her composure with a few deep breaths and turned her head towards the sound. She could make out a dim figure, human sized, hovering as a shadow beyond her sight. "I'm sorry about the accommodations, though...we don't usually get children coming to these parts."
"Who are you?! Where am I?!" Haddie demanded, ignoring her pounding heart. "And where's Foffo?!"
The figure seemed to think for a moment, then stepped out into the candlelight to reveal himself.
Haddie tried her best not to let her shock show. Standing there was a man with a silvery mane and burning red eyes, a continuous malevolent smile adorning his lips. He calmly smoothed out his robes—vestments, Haddie realized—and shrugged.
"I am but a humble servant of the powers that be. You are located beneath Sunnyvale, in the caverns of the well. And Foffo? Well, if you're referring to your little friend of the wild, we're keeping him chained up as well. There's little sense in having him cause further trouble for us."
A loud growl and angry barking came from across the room, and Haddie shifted her vision to see Foffo, still in his wolf form, straining against the thick iron chains that kept him tied back like an animal.
A dread thought hit Haddie, as her recovering mind hit upon Brindlehurst's dialogue. "You...You're controlling the zombies!"
The man smiled and bowed, pleased by the recognition. "Guilty as charged, magician. I have been for some time. Normally, they would wander about with no goal in life but to feed...under my guidance, they are a formidable force indeed, defending their former hometown with far more life than they ever did before they fell to the wrath of Bertoxxulous."
"You're a Necromancer, admit it!" Foffo rasped from his side of the room. The man rolled his eyes.
"You truly are a master of the obvious, mutt." He turned towards Foffo and shook his head. "Through the eyes and senses of my minions, I detected the undeniable presence of living creatures above...but more imposing was a certain potency to it, if not holiness..." He frowned, peering at Foffo. "You stink of life."
"And you stink of death. So what's it to you, monster?" Foffo countered bitterly. The man shrugged and got back up, wandering back to his original position.
"Why come here? What is there in this ruined town that's of any worth to a demon such as yourself?" Haddie asked guardedly.
The man stared at his hand, clacking his long fingernails together. "It is not what I am after, milady, but what my master desires." He stopped his motions and turned towards them with cold eyes. "Lord Felstar has been looking to expand his domain from his current abode...and Sunnyvale, with its prominently ignored position in Norrath, proximity to major trade routes, and ignored status, is all too promising a gem to pass up. This is why I have been sent here; to make way for his coming, and to turn this wrecked hamlet into a bastion for my master's use."
"You won't get away with it, monster!!" Foffo snarled, lunging against his chains as a light blue and red aura began to surround him. Seeing the action, Haddie also began to slowly begin the incantations for her own destructive fire blast.
The Necromancer seemed nonplussed as he folded his arms, hidden behind the thick cloak he wore. "You really don't want to do that." He said calmly. Neither Marauder listened to him, but shortly before their spells of destruction would have taken flight, they fizzled and the metal restraints shackling them glowed with a blood red fury, causing them both to scream. For their troubles, they earned a glistening smile from the dabbler of death.
Foffo slumped wearily to the floor, and Haddie fell limply in her wall chains, both wearing a painful grimace that threatened to throw them into unconsciousness.
"Chains of mystical binding." He explained, shaking his head. "Made special by Lord Felstar himself for crazy adventurers like you who'd get in the way. I'd advise you not to try that again...they REALLY don't like repeat offenders."
"So what are you going to do with us?" Foffo whined, as best as he could in his wolf form. "Keep us here until we die? Have yer minions eat us alive?"
"Oh, nothing so dramatic." The man murmured appreciatively. "And I'm certainly not going to leave you in some overdeveloped and easily escapable device of death. No, I am afraid that we need the both of you alive until the ceremony. Then we'll kill you."
Haddie's blood ran cold in her veins. "What ceremony?" She whispered.
The Necromancer smiled, his malevolence highlighted by his glimmering red eyes. "The one where we take the blood of the living to enforge the undead with protection from the banes of fire and sunlight." He waved a cloaked hand at them and vanished back into the dark recesses of his lair, leaving Haddie to stare with dismay at her wildshaped love.
"We've gotten ourselves into something really terrible here." Haddie whispered.
Foffo blinked his dull yellow eyes and chuffed an affirmative. "And all we can do now...is hope that the others can find us..."
"Before it's too late."
"Not only for us, but for Tunaria." Foffo growled. "If this ritual that Necromancer just told us about is true...The entire continent will fall into peril."
Haddie fell silent at that.
Neither felt like continuing to ponder that thought.
Kept invisible by the focused efforts of Rinala and Magidar, the remains of the Marauders pushed on through the town, still looking for some item or another that would lead them to solving the mystery of Sunnyvale's recent activity and rescuing their friends. A newly grimfaced Borren led them step by step through the unexplored territory of the hamlet, lugging Brindlehurst's ten gallon keg of blessed brew on one shoulder, his battle axe nestled on the other. Nervously, Brindlehurst kept looking up to the sky, watching as the sun dipped lower and lower on the horizon. "Blast it all, they're going to be far more active when night comes." He muttered.
Rinala pursed her lips, but said nothing. Borren seemed little fazed by the extra weight outside of his slowness of speed, and had little trouble talking. "Aye, and if ye've any bright ideas about where we need to be, I'm all ears." Magidar scratched at the side of his head absentmindedly, peering about.
"Who's there?!" Came a sudden and surprised voice from around the corner. The Marauders froze in their tracks, not sure what was nearby. "Come on, I can hear your voices, I'm not deaf! Come out already!!" Came the voice, irritably persistent and scratchy.
Borren looked back to Brindlehurst, who in turn looked to Magidar, who shrugged his shoulders and narrowed his eyebrows. Borren nodded his head and set down the keg, pulling his battle axe in both hands. Brindlehurst pulled his mace closer to bear and began to utter the first few syllables of his prayer that would summon Brell's healing, and the mages dropped the invisibility fields surrounding their party, preparing their own offensive magics.
"Marauders onward!" Borren roared, tearing about the corner and swinging his axe wildly, with Magidar, Rinala, and Brindlehurst right behind him. As the first of the arcanist's spells struck home with fiery effect into the formerly unknown target, the creature let out a scream of pain and backpedaled, still having a part of his shoulder hacked off by the mighty swing of Borren.
"Wait, wait! Don't attack...GAH!" The zombie screamed as another shot sank into him. He jumped away from them all and curled into a ball, his rotting skin growing taut across his bony frame. "Stop! I'm not trying to hurt you!"
Borren's axe stopped halfway through to severing his head, just as Brindlehurst's radiant healing aura settled onto his shoulders. The Marauder narrowed his eyes and growled. "Speak then, monster."
The zombie turned his head up, one eye dangling loosely from its socket. "You...You'd all have to be adventurers." He surmised, his voice shaky and thick from his state of rigormortis.
"Aye." Borren clucked, gently hovering the axe to remind the undead abnormality of his situation.
Brindlehurst shook his head. "This one's nothing like any other zombie I've ever run across..."
"I'd imagine not." The creature replied, slowly standing back up and putting an arm to his injured shoulder. The smoking marks where the Marauders' spells had hit, he ignored.
The zombie glanced around, running a hand through his thinning and nearly fallen out hair. "Night's coming...it won't be safe for you all soon."
"We know that." Brindlehurst groused, keeping one hand raised skyward, ready to summon down the explosive wrath of Brell if need be. "But my question is what the devil a zombie like you is doing walking about and not trying to eat us all."
The zombie cleared his throat, somehow relieved they'd all stopped attacking. "I...Was the Bard of Sunnyvale, back before we were all changed. Somehow, I don't know how...I ended up still having my mind about me." He reached behind him and pulled out an aged mandolin. "I'll be the first to admit being a zombie does have its benefits." Deftly, he moved his rotting, skeletal fingers across the strings, plucking out a swift and rhythmic melody. He stopped and looked over, his face caught in a mix between a decomposed grimace and a living smile. "Bony fingers remove the need for a pick."
"So what happened here?" Rinala queried. "What changed this place into the town of the dead?"
The Undead Bard's eye darkened. "Our leadership happened. Today, I walk about, cursed to sing of his misdeeds and our misfortunes. I'll spare you the song, but it went something like this. Our mayor, right before the night of woe, was a man by the name of Hesper Figger. He wasn't the kindest fellow, and he certainly wasn't the most honest. We discovered too late he had his hand dabbling in the necromantic arts...Not well enough, apparently, because one of his rituals went horribly awry. Instead of summoning the undead to him, he turned the entire town into zombies."
"So the rumors were true." Magidar exclaimed.
The Bard smiled. "Sometimes, they are." He shook his head, his loose eye swinging about disturbingly. "But that's of little consequence now. None of the others know I still have my mind, and I prefer to keep it that way. All I can do nowadays is simply tell wandering adventurers of our plight...and warn you to keep away from our villa."
"We can't." Borren countered firmly. "We're the Mountainhigh Marauders, and we came here because some of yer fellow townsfolk got to wandering and started attacking caravans and guards on the trade routes. There were six of us when we got here...two of our comrades have gone missing, either dead or taken, and we've still yet to find them."
The Bard shook his head. "I'm sorry for your loss, but if they've been taken, then there's no help for them."
"What makes you say that?" Brindlehurst growled.
"All of us...even me, to a degree...are controlled. And if he's taken them, then I know exactly what he's planning."
"Who? What?" Magidar pressed.
The Bard pointedly ignored the first question. "I've heard the musings through the undead empathic link he forces on us all...tonight, he will complete the ritual of strengthening upon we shambling hordes, and make us stronger and deadlier than we could have ever been normally. But the reason he hadn't done that ritual before is because it comes with a cost; the living blood of a person possessed with the spirit of lifegiving, and one other of any sort."
"Foffo and Haddie." Rinala snapped tersely. "Damn it all!"
The Bard shook his head. "It may already be too late for them...I am sorry I could not be more help. For now, all you can do is honor their memory and leave before this town claims you as well."
The Marauders all glanced at one another, but Borren finally bit his lip and shook his head. "My father didn't die for the Shire so I'd turn into a weakling, and I'm not about to start running now."
Brindlehurst nodded. "Aye, I'm with Borren...we stand together, or we die alone. I'm sorry, master Bard, but we're not leaving without our friends."
"The Marauders are based on unity." Magidar sympathized. "Each one of us is important to the whole."
"Besides, Haddie still owes me a new sewing needle." Rinala grumbled.
The Undead Bard slowly pushed his decrepit eye back into its socket, waiting until he heard a noisy pop to pull his hand away before chuckling. "Some days...You living people are so unusual. Fine." His face grew more serious. "But if you intend on rescuing them, be forewarned...it won't be easy."
"It never is." Borren said, grinning.
"Aye, now if we just knew where to look." Brindlehurst groused. "This town's simple enough, but where would a madman put two of our own so I couldn't sense them any longer?"
The Bard looked between them all and clucked his half-rotted tongue. "Geez, tell me you're not that clueless. Haven't you ever thought of examining the underground caverns underneath Sunnyvale?"
The Marauders turned to face him, their faces deadpan. "The underground what?" Magidar queried, lifting an eyebrow.
The Bard shook his head. "Man, you really ARE all crazy." He turned and pointed to the center of the town. "You want a cavern...look for water and caves."
The Marauders all stared along the line his finger pointed.
Slowly, each of them began to smile at the simplicity of it.
"A well." Brindlehurst mumbled, shaking his head for a moment. "A Brelldamned WELL." Etched into the cobblestone circle, hidden barely from sight as they all approached it without interference, they could make out the beginnings of a ladder leading down.
"You're on your own now, fellas." The Bard warned. "Just...be careful. If you think there were a lot of zombies up here?? Below is his main defense force."
Borren tied a rope to his waist, then wrapped the other end carefully around Brindlehurst's alcohol filled keg. He swung one leg over the lip of the well and looked towards their unusual tour guide.
"Nothing's going to stop us, Bard." Borren said tersely. "Not anymore."
The ladder leading down the well went on for about one hundred feet; long enough that Borren, leading the charge, began to feel a change in air pressure and smell a musty stank that made the rotting town of Sunnyvale seem like rose petals.
"If this doesn't lead to some underground lair, I'll be an Elf." Brindlehurst grumbled, second down after Borren. "Be careful with that ale, lad! That's all I have to rejuvenate my spirits on this journey."
"I'm less concerned with your ale than I am the state of your undergarments." Borren countered, wincing as Brindlehurst's posterior bumbled uncomfortably close to his face. "It's getting harder to see daylight...tell me that one of you knows of a way to bring some illumination into this once we hit the floor."
In response, a floating bauble of light that the Warrior recognized immediately as a wisp, this one calm and incapable of attack, dropped down next to his forehead. "Will that suffice?" Magidar asked, in a smirk that only Rinala could see.
"Showoff." Brindlehurst muttered. "How much farther do ye have to go, Borren?"
Before Borren could respond, Brindlehurst's footing slipped on the thin rail of the completely vertical ladder, and wailing a short cry of surprise, the Cleric slammed down on top of the helmeted head of his Halfling comrade, sending them both sprawling downwards without control for a few desperate seconds.
Thankfully, the two impacted on roughly flattened dirt before they could pick up too much velocity, leaving them badly bruised but mostly unharmed.
Amid the groans, and shoving Brindlehurst's gaunt form off of his back, Borren finally replied. "About one Cleric's mistake, that's how far." Borren got up and winced, rubbing at his back. "By Brell, you made me throw something out." Borren glanced over to the keg of blessed mead still tied to him, lying on its side and seemingly unharmed. "Luck would have it, your mead made it without a scratch."
"That's our Brindlehurst." Rinala groused, stepping down the rest of the ladder and jumping off softly to shake her head at the two. Magidar followed soon after, rolling his eyes as the wisp came down to float beside them all. "Always brewing up some sort of trouble."
"Aye, but at least I can repair the damage I do." Brindlehurst grumbled, putting a hand to Borren. "This'll just be a moment lad, and we'll have ye right as rain again."
Concluding his sentence, the Cleric brought up a small healing aura that pushed away the last vestiges of Borren's pain.
Foffo had been forced to transform back into his regular state upon threat of pain to Haddie, and now lay strapped to a ceremonial platform, staring up at an empty ceiling while oil filled lamps burned in a circle around him. In consolation, at least Haddie was tied down with him.
"I should have stayed a wolf." Foffo grumbled, once again reminded of the frailty that came with his normal Halfling form. Haddie, her glasses knocked askew from her face, but unable to adjust them, gently petted the Druid's hand.
"What, and have him destroy me for your insolence?"
"He's going to kill us either way." Foffo replied, shutting his eyes. "The time doesn't really matter anymore."
Haddie's hand came to rest on his, and the Halfling looked over into the Gnome female's teary eyes. "At least we'll die together then."
"Yeh." Foffo said quietly, smiling with the last bits of his good humor.
From across the room, the shuffling of pages stopped, and the Necromancer turned to stare at them with a morose look. "Would you kindly mind shutting up while I'm looking through my tomes? It's difficult enough as it is without your yammering."
"If we're so much of a problem for you, you could just kill us both right now." Foffo shouted back. "And that'd wreck your plans something awful, wouldn't it?"
The Necromancer seemed nonplussed, keeping a hand on the tome as he turned to stare at the two calmly. "True, I can't kill you. But I could certainly snap your jaws off...it's not like you need those to survive." He replied. "Or perhaps I could just cut your tongues out. That'd work just as well...a little less messy to boot."
The color drained out of the two Marauders' faces, and the Necromancer smiled at their silence. "I thought as much." He began to turn about to continue reading, but he suddenly stopped cold in his tracks, face caught in an expression of surprise.
"Wha..." He began, blinking a bit before concentrating a bit more. After a few moments, his eyes flew wide open in horror and rage. "NO!!" Dark light began to circle about his fingers, and in moments three shambling zombies came lurching into the room in low moans. "Go out and find them, and DESTROY THEM!" The Necromancer bellowed, waving his hand at the exit. The zombies wasted little time in consideration, shambling out at a clipped pace, their rotting scent fading from the room.
Despite the earlier threat, Foffo couldn't help himself. "Now what's the matter?"
"I knew you had accomplices while you were going through Sunnyvale...I had thought they would have the good sense to turn about and write off your loss. Still, they persist, even going so far as uncovering the entrance to my underground lair." He turned and glared at them. "No matter. Your friends...even the one brimming with the energy of divine life, shall fail."
Haddie and Foffo exchanged looks before the Druid offered a wry smile to their captor. "Yeh. You can just take that up with our Cleric when he gets down here."
The Necromancer had always had a pale look about him, so if he had even more blood flee from his face, the two couldn't tell. Instead, they looked at how his jaw clenched. He offered no tart reply, no further threats. He simply turned about and continued his work, at a far more feverish pace.
Haddie's hand somehow freed itself enough of the restraints that she was able to grip Foffo's hand in hers. The Druid shut his eyes and squeezed back, acknowledging her message.
The others were coming...
But they had to hurry, or it would be too late.
Not long after he had finished repairing Borren's injuries, Brindlehurst had cast the most powerful protection spells he could muster on each of the Marauders. Shortly after that, as the drained Cleric reached for a hidden flask of drink to revitalize himself, a sudden, overwhelming stench of pungent decay fell on them all.
Shortly after Rinala began to wrinkle her nose came the first agonizing groans that they had all come to be alerted to. Borren's axe was in his hands in a flash, and Magidar wasted no time in uttering the elongated summoning incantation, bringing an Air Elementaling out of thin air to his side.
"Trouble." Borren growled.
"I just hope that fool of a zombified Bard was wrong when he said it was worse down here." Rinala growled, casting a potent enchantment on them all that left them feeling energized.
"Tell me you're starting to remember how to Turn Undead, Brind." Magidar pleaded.
"Smiting I kin remember." Brind replied, pulling his Runic Morningstar to bear. "But Turning Undead's another thing all together."
"I'd suggest you work on it then." Borren snapped tersely, "It may be the only thing that gets us through this!"
"Well, it's not like I had much practice to begin with!" Brindlehurst shouted back.
The roar of the zombies grew louder, and they could begin to make out footsteps approaching from one direction.
Borren's grip tightened around his axe and he shook his head. "Keep me alive, Brind."
"Aye, sirrah." Brindlehurst murmured, waving his free hand about to begin the spell. "Aye."
The first wave of zombies, three of them, crashed into the Halfling warrior, who wasted no time in hacking, swinging, and yelling wildly to get their attention. Just as their strengthened limbs began to pound away at Borren, the healing spell settled onto his shoulders, bringing visible relief to his face. But he had no time to spare; roaring again, he enraged them even further, forcing them to ignore the first of the magical spells that blasted into their rotting hides. Soon afterwards, the Air Elementaling, wispy and female in shape, rushed up next to him, swinging away at the zombies and firing its own array of lightning blasts. The lead zombie grunted under the strain of the combined attack, but stubbornly held onto its fury, pressing back against Borren and leaving a deep gash along the side of his face...thankfully, the healing aura Brindlehurst had placed on him took effect, and the cut sealed itself a few moments later.
Borren and the Elementaling kept the zombies tied back, while Rinala and Magidar furiously cast spell after spell. Brindlehurst's brow shook from his concentration, switching between casting continuous heals on the two blockers and blasting away furiously with his smiting magics.
One zombie fell; shortly after, another. But as the harried Marauders turned their focus towards the last remaining zombie, more shambling feet, more of the same putrid stench began to approach them. "Blast it all!!" Borren bellowed, he too beginning to feel weakened by the continued strikes he plowed into the undead hordes. "There's more coming!"
From down the same dark corridor, more of the zombies, a lot of almost nine of them emerged and charged straight towards the struggling Marauders.
In a bull rush, ten zombies began to swing, crash into, and bite towards the Elementaling and Borren. Borren swung angrily with his axe, severing the head of his current target in one mighty swing, only to have his hand bitten into by another for his troubles. The Elementaling was even less lucky, letting out a soft sigh of defeat as the protective energies keeping it whole were dissipated by the furious attack and it faded into nothingness, drawn back into its home realm. Even as Brindlehurst's healing magics fought a losing battle against the zombie's attacks for Borren's life, four of the shambling undead meandered easily around the struggling Warrior and headed straight for the casters. Rinala let out an anguished cry as two of the zombies surrounded her, pulling her up into the air by her arms. One headed for Magidar, looming and swinging wildly in the hopes of bashing the magician into unconsciousness, giving the Gnome no time at all to summon back his elemental assistant, or even cast a spell in his defense.
"My father died for the shire, and you will too zombie!" Borren roared, a pitiful and pathetic warcry that held no weight or meaning for the braindead creatures controlled by the single thought of destroy. The Halfling felt Brindlehurst's healing magics slowly peter out, then fade away, the last vestiges of his rejuvenation fading.
One zombie moved towards Brindlehurst and slammed him roughly against the wall, jarring the Cleric's concentration away from healing Borren, away from his comrades...away from everything but the sight of the shambling monstrosity lurching towards him with thoughts of food and destruction on its long dead brain.
Eye glazed and slowly seeping with blood from a rough cut on his temple, Brindlehurst felt something within him begin to well up...
Something he had forgotten for a very long time, drugged underneath the long drunken mourning he had held for his brother Bramblehurst.
"Not like this..." Brindlehurst slurred, slouching to his feet and raising his right hand up, mace held aloft. "Ye blasted bastardly zombies kin all to ta Hell...Ye're not taking another life, NEVER AGAIN..."
Rinala let out a loud screech as the two zombies, each holding an arm, delighted in the prospect of trying to rip her arms out of their sockets for a light snack. Magidar darted and weaved about his own lurking foe, beleaguered by countless scratches and bruises, and Borren slowly felt the dull and familiar sensation of blackness begin to claim him as the weight of the zombie hordes and their attacks became too much to handle.
In the midst of that horrific dim, Brindlehurst tapped into the final portion of his forgotten abilities...
A bright, brilliant light began to emanate from his skin, seeping through his robes and focusing in his mace, beckoned by Brindlehurst but no longer controlled in his wearied state. The zombies began to slow at their murderous task, entranced by the beacon beginning to shine in the dim cavern tunnel...
In a flash, the collected light turned a bright white and golden yellow, blasting up and out of his mace and scatterbursting throughout the room as a shower of brilliant hued beams of light. Each beam flew about of its own intent, the cloistered power of Brindlehurst's venomous rage and Brell's divine might.
"Farewell to ye, zombies of Sunnyvale..." Brindlehurst began, his voice rising to a crescendo in the maelstrom of noise and light. "Brell commands me to SMITEY MIGHTY!!"
In one massive sweep, the beams joined together in a thick wave and rolled through the battle, piercing every last zombie with devastating force, vaporizing and severing limbs and disembodied spirits from long dead corpses. The combined screams of the zombies filled the hall in a dim so loud, the sound of the massive blast was drowned out.
And then, almost as soon as it had begun, the massive wave of blinding holy light faded, letting darkness reclaim the hallway. What body parts remained of the now utterly obliterated zombie hordes fell to the ground with a sick thud, and Brindlehurst collapsed to his knees, exhausted and drained by the effort. For a moment, he lost his focus and vanished beyond his senses.
He didn't know how much later it was, but he soon felt the strong and sturdy hands of Borren lift him back to his feet and hold him steady, even as a smaller pair of hands reached up and roughly began to pour the remains of his flask of ale down his throat, almost choking him as the alcohol brought him back to his senses and enervated him.
"Brindle, that was..." Magidar began, his tiny hands fidgeting beyond the Cleric's blurry vision,
"Not bad, Cleric. Not bad." Rinala begrudgingly admitted, straightening her robe out and then setting to clearing zombified pus from her hair with squeamish fingers.
"And you said you didn't know how to Turn Undead." Borren chuckled, his eyes glowing in a rare moment of mirth as he clasped a hand on the Dwarf's shoulder.
Brindlehurst felt his vision begin to restore itself, though his weakness continued. "I didn't." He acknowledged in a fatigued tone. "But...There are some things that faith restores, in our most desperate hours of need."
Magidar moved closer, a newly forged Air Elementaling clipping at his heels. "Brindle, you look a little worn out...are you going to be all right?"
"Nothing that the alcohol Rinala just made me drank won't fix...just give me a few seconds to collect meself." Brindlehurst replied, chuckling a bit.
Borren glanced around the room, shaking his head and whistling at the awesome sight of Brell's divine wrath. "So tell me, Brindle...do ya think you can manage that trick again?"
Brindle positively glowed from the euphoria he felt.
"Aye, master Borren." Brindlehurst said, pulling himself to his feet. "Aye."
The corridors of the Sunnyvale caverns seemed to run on for an eternity; at every turn, more zombies came, sometimes only three, and sometimes more. But with Rinala's energizing presence, Borren's steadfast guard, and Brindlehurst's two pronged efforts of healing and vengeance upon the Plaguebringer's children, they rushed on, unafraid, determined...
And fearless. The corpses of Sunnyvale's altered populace left a trail that even a novice ranger would have little difficulty following at their speed, even with Magidar's Elementaling being delegated the task of dragging about Brindlehurst's keg of mead.
At every step they took, the Necromancer became more and more agitated, something that left Foffo and Haddie hopeful as they gripped each other's hands. "Blast it!!" The ruler of the undead finally bellowed, angrily pounding his fist against the table with his tome.
"Something the matter, sir?" Haddie asked, reaching for mirth even in their most desperate hour.
"Your friends are persistent..." The Necromancer growled. "But even if they do make it past my defenses, they will be too late."
He shut his book and glanced at a clock that hung on the wall. "In three minutes...the moon will be at its apex, and I will begin my ritual." From the folds of his cloak he removed a twisted dagger with an ornately carved bone handle. Madness gleamed in his eyes as he turned about, staring at the two.
"Lord Felstar's will shall be done...And I will stand by his side on the Sun's Loss, and the army of Sunnyvale's wretched shall be MINE to command!!"
A glazed look took over his manic features, and with focused intensity the Necromancer began to utter a potent incantation.
"In al nomen ab Bertoxxulous, mortifer ego addo cas prodigum robur..."
Foffo and Haddie exchanged worried glances...
Time was running out.
"Hurry, Marauders..." Foffo muttered quietly, finding his voice dampened by the potent thickness of the Necromancer's incantation. "We've not much longer."
"We're getting closer!" Brindlehurst shouted over the dim of the zombies, throwing out another surging bolt of divine wrath. It struck home alongside Magidar's own fiery burst and Rinala's weaker lightning blast, stunning the zombie enough for Borren to swing through with his mighty axe and cleave its head clean off.
"How do ye figure that, Brindle?" Magidar queried, taking a brief breather from the seemingly endless task of summoning elemental blast after blast.
The Cleric's eye flared wildly as his grin pierced through his thick beard, bringing down another healing spell down upon the Marauders. "They're coming faster now!"
Borren shook his head as Rinala refreshed her rejuvenating hold on them. "Always seeing the bright side of things, aren't you..."
Four more zombies piled down the hallway, jumping into the fray and bringing the total number of their aggressors to twelve as Borren slammed the horde back into a circular waiting room. "Do it now, Brindle!" Rinala cried out, lifting her wand high and spiraling out another wave of fiery incineration.
"Ye've got it, lass!" Brindlehurst roared, clenching about his Morningstar tightly and focusing his strength through his divine connection. "Begone, ye denizens of the Plaguebringer; I SMITEY MIGHTY!!" The same wave of holy light washed over the arena, sending the zombies screaming into their death throes as they collapsed into ruined piles of rotting flesh and bone.
The Marauders paused for a moment, all drawing in deep breaths trying to collect themselves. Brindlehurst recovered faster from his efforts, looking about with haggard eyes before shaking his head. "I'm not sensing any more coming...Surely that can't have been the last of 'em."
The Air Elementaling walked calmly beside Magidar, nudging him in the shoulder to get his attention before lifting the keg it carried. "Brind, I'm usually one to trust your judgement...but I have to ask, just why in the devil are we dragging around ten gallons of mead from your church's cellar?"
Brindlehurst shrugged his shoulders. "Ye never know when we'll need a drink."
"I thought you gave up the bottle, Brind." Borren said warningly. "You know the road that leads down."
"Oh, come off it, Borren." Brindlehurst snorted. "I couldn't rightly do my job if I was drunk now, could I? Nay, sirrah. I just need a boost on occasion, and that's what the keg be fer. Besides, ye'll never know good mead until ye taste the stuff made by the high priests of Brell!"
Rinala rolled her eyes. "Whatever, Brindle." She turned towards Borren. "If nothing's coming then...let's press our advantage."
"Yeh, let's do so." Borren growled. "We've still yet to find Foffo and Haddie in this mess." Gripping his axe tightly, he ran on ahead with the three others following him; the Elementaling struggled with the keg, but still kept up a decent clip as it trailed behind them.
The hallways were finally quiet of zombies, and the rest of their trip along the hallways moved at a pace that only highlighted their tension. The floating wisp of summoned light that Magidar had brought forth bobbed eagerly alongside Borren, but seemed to dim the farther they went. Most noticeable, the Marauders all felt, was the sudden impression of heaviness in the air that rested on their shoulders.
After a seemingly endless trek, the hallway at last blossomed out into a massive circular room with torches burning along the walls. What caused the Marauders to freeze up in dismay was the sight of Foffo and Haddie strapped to a ceremonial table in the middle of the room, and a black shrouded figure standing above them, uttering an incantation with a jagged dagger above their chests. Magidar, riding in the back of the pack, quickly took a step back into the hallway, venturing out of sight.
"No!!" Rinala screamed, quickly hurling a bolt of lightning that clanged fiercely off of the dagger, sending it sliding to the wall. The figure glanced up, the hood of his shroud slipping back a bit to reveal two angrily burning red eyes and a firm jawline.
"I was hoping that you would not make it this far." The man said, growling as he turned to address them.
"Foffo! Haddie! Are you all right?!" Rinala cried out quickly.
"Don't just stand there Marauders, take him down!" Foffo snapped, swiveling his head towards the sound of Rinala's voice.
"You can't let him complete the ritual!" Haddie voiced, just as quickly.
"Enough of this." The figure growled, raising his long sleeved arms and quickly muttering a shorter incantation. The dirt floor of the room shook for a moment, and shortly after exploded outwards as a massive hulk of bone and almost totally decayed flesh erupted into existence from their grave. The Marauders paled for a moment as they realized that it was a Necromancer standing in front of them, one strong enough to summon an undead that left them surprised.
"Well, that's not a beastie I've ever run across before." Brindlehurst growled, gripping his mace tighter and beginning to focus his power into the palm of the hand gripping his shield.
"Play with my watchdog, if you like." The Necromancer said, visibly irate. "You will not interrupt my work again."
Rinala began to open her mouth to shout a retort as the Necromancer turned about and walked calmly towards his dagger, but stopped short as she felt a familiar and scrawny hand rest on her shoulder for a moment. "Keep them distracted." Came the gruff and bodiless voice of Magidar, whispering quietly into her ear. "I'll see to Foffo and Haddie." Rinala nodded her head once, then settled back into an offensive pose and began incanting. Magidar, invisible by his quick thinking and even quicker skills, quietly stepped around the conflagration as Borren rushed in towards the enormous beast of bone and motheaten flesh, roaring and flailing away.
To Borren, it looked like somebody had taken one of the village dogs from above, enlarged it four times over, and then added sharper teeth and bone ridges along its snout that made it perfect for goring. Grunting from the first scraping blows of its snarling wrath, the Halfling Warrior pushed in deeper, slamming his battle axe up and through the thin skin of its lower jaw, prompting a yelp.
"Burn, ye buggerly thing, ye!!" Brindlehurst cried, thrusting his glowing shield hand forward and hurling the divine mark of Brell upon its forehead. The beast yelped in pain, the mark causing an explosion of hindering energy as it tried to mash its teeth at the warrior. "Don't worry, Borren, help's on its way!" The Cleric shouted, drawing upon even more of his power to begin a healing spell. Magidar's Air Elementaling dropped the keg of mead and charged past the Cleric, swinging away wildly with spell and concentrated fist to aid Borren.
Behind them, Rinala finished her incantation, and from thin air a suit of half-plate armor exploded into vivacious life, running forward and attacking the undead behemoth as well. "Never let up!" Rinala cried to bodiless armor. The shoulder greaves plowed into the side of the beast in response, and Rinala turned her focus back to Foffo and Haddie. "Come on, you bearded little freak..." She whispered quietly, beginning to charge a bolt of lightning in her hand again.
It didn't take the Necromancer long to reclaim his ceremonial dagger. He turned back around, his red eyes flaring at the interruption and moved resolutely back towards his two captives, continuing his chant where he had left off, lifting the dagger high above his head as he prepared to strike them down and complete his ignoble ritual.
His breath caught in his throat as suddenly a gleam of metal, striking out from the empty space beside the sacrificial mount, slashed Foffo's bonds holding his arms; another flash severed the ones at his feet.
"What the..." He began with a snarl, confused at the sudden vision, but knowing he had to act quickly if he was to succeed. Angrily, he drove his dagger downwards, preparing himself for the gush of blood that would erupt from the Halfling's lifegiving form.
Halfway down, the glint of steel he had seen was replaced by the sudden and flashing appearance of another meddlesome kneedweller of Norrath; a Gnome with large glasses, a lush but trimmed beard, and behind the flickering aura of his crackling hand, a grim stare.
"Not today!" Magidar cried out, unleashing the stored spell of ice he had been preparing for the Necromancer. It flew out, enveloping the dagger and the Necromancer's hands, freezing them solidly together and throwing him backwards and off balance. Foffo snapped onto all fours, letting out a long growl that slipped into a feral howl as he transformed back into his wolf form once more. Quickly, he ran his claws across Haddie's own bonds, licking her forehead affectionately before leaping towards the Necromancer with a roar of angry vengeance.
Magidar helped Haddie get back to her feet, shaking his head. "Thank Tunare we made it here in time."
Haddie gave her Magician comrade a brief smile of thanks before summoning forth her own elemental ally; a massive hulking brute of fire with thick carbonized shoulder armor. "Mountainhigh Marauders, WE FIGHT!!" Haddie cried out at the top of her lungs, waving her hand about and hurling a fireball into the side of the massive undead beast the others were struggling against.
The beast let out a roar, running its jaw scraping across the ground as it drew Borren into its maw, its powerful teeth scraping against the Warrior's thick body armor. Borren grimaced, thankful that as the teeth made dotted puncture marks along his suit's protection, Brindlehurst's healing aura was still keeping him from becoming too much of a snack.
"What do ye think I am, some sorta energy bar?!" Borren roared, swinging his axe up and smashing it clean through the beast's nose cavity. "Get offa me, you mean thing!"
The beast was obviously being worn down; even with its great size and strength, it could not seem to eliminate the one in its jaws, and so distracted by that flailing axe, it barely had time to register the peppering blows of the Air Elementaling and enchanted armor. It whined anxiously, feeling that somehow it was losing its strength and cohesion.
"That's it, ye wee beastie." Brindlehurst growled, unloading another bolt of divine wrath against the horrific amalgam. "Yer master designed ye with raw destructive power in mind, but I donnae think he meant ye to face the entire horde of the Mountainhigh Marauders now, did he?" The creature yelped from the blow, and Borren sensed its growing weakness. "Rinala!" He cried out, looking back to the Gnome Enchanter while swinging his axe about and blasting a massive hole in the side of the beast's cheekbone. "Go help Foffo and Haddie!"
Rinala grunted in reply, taking off running and whistling for her suit of armor to follow her. That left Borren and Brindlehurst to take on the beast, with Magidar's Elementaling continuing to pummel away with punch and lightning blast.
The Necromancer could see all his well made plans beginning to drain down the proverbial tubes; his captives were free, the ritual had gone uncompleted, and now without the protection of the countless Sunnyvale zombies that had once been under his control, and his last line of defense quickly failing, he faced an infuriated pack of Gnomes, Halflings, and one stubborn Dwarf who were making it seem all too likely that his bid for power in the ranks of Lord Felstar would come to a screeching halt.
And right now, nothing annoyed him more than the infuriated Druid who wildshaped as a wolf tried to knock him to the ground, biting angrily at the folds of his cloak, aiming for some precious area of his form to snap off. "Enough with you!!" He roared, a crackling darkness encircling the hidden fist within his robes before he slammed it into the beast's side, sending Foffo stumbling backwards with a yelp as the thick miasma encircled and began to choke him. "As for the rest of you..." The Necromancer slurred, waving his hands about in several circles, ignoring the arcane bolts and even the fireballs as they impacted against his thick cloak, "You can all just SHUT UP!!"
Borren and Brindlehurst gritted their teeth against the last grinding effort as Borren slammed his axe into the side of the beast's head one last time, severing the jawbone and releasing the Warrior from its grasp just as the Cleric sent out the smite that made it collapse into a pile of fetid pus and rotting bones, now devoid of whatever unnatural life it had once held. It was just then that the Cleric noticed the roiling energies the infuriated Necromancer was collecting, and his eye widened at the sight of it. "Get down!" He screamed, lunging at Borren and tackling his ally to the ground.
Not a moment too soon, for as the other enraged Marauders continued to pummel away with only mildly successful results at the super powerful servant of Bertoxxulous, the Necromancer slammed his hands together and let out a roar as a perfectly circular wave streaked across the entirety of the room, bristling with a funk even more poisonous than the cloud that kept Foffo pinned to the ground, whining as it continued to strangle him and make him cough from the penetrating stench of death.
The Air Elementaling, all too permeable, absorbed the full wave of the rotting infection wave and collapsed apart in moments, long after its brilliant blue hue had been tainted a horrendous black and putrid green. Likewise, the flaming entity that Haddie had summoned also fell, overwhelmed by the crippling particles that soon snuffed out its fire. The suit of armor Rinala had brought forth reacted differently, the paint on its parts bubbling and warping as the corrosive wave ate clean through it, soon dissolving the arcane bonds that tied it together. It collapsed in a pile of clattering, rusted metal, too far gone to save.
As for the Marauders themselves, it filled their tiny lungs and nostrils with an overwhelming funk, making their heads spin as they fell to their knees, coughing and hacking, clutching desperately at clean oxygen as their watering eyes and ruined concentration immobilized their efforts.
The wave had passed directly above the heads of the huddling Borren and Brindlehurst, and the Cleric lifted his head up to look in dismay as the Necromancer's eyes burned again. "Foul little monsters." The Necromancer hissed, kicking out with his foot and burying the toe deep in Foffo's exposed underbelly, prompting a yelp of pain from the transformed Druid. "You delay my plans for the last time."
Brindlehurst stirred a bit more, his mind racing. The combined efforts of the most powerful arcanists that the Marauders had at their disposal and the utterly infuriated Foffo had not been enough to even stagger the servant of Bertoxxulous. His eyes scanned about the room, searching, praying, reaching for any possible way to end the nightmare and bring the madness of Sunnyvale to its final end.
His eyes came to rest behind him; on the ten gallon keg of mead that he and the Marauders had been lugging along for the entire trip.
His divinely blessed keg of mead.
Brindlehurst's eye glimmered with renewed hope and a moment of sadness. That had cost him a fair penny, and it was a spectacular waste of Brell's best...but it might prove to be their only saving grace. Especially with Foffo having the stuffings kicked out of him and the others writhing in agony as their lungs fought for survival.
He tapped Borren on the shoulder, getting the Warrior's attention as he motioned back to the keg. "There." He hissed quietly, making sure his voice didn't rise above the groaning cries of his allies. "Borren, we hafta use it."
"You fool, Brind!" Borren hissed back, beginning to rise to his feet. "What good will mead be against a Necromancer?"
"Blessed mead." Brindlehurst corrected, shaking his head.
It took a moment for that thought to echo about in Borren's head, then disbelief gave way to the same shining hope the Cleric held.
"I'll keep him distracted." Brindlehurst grunted, shaking his head. "The rest is up to ye."
"You're crazy." Borren said, shaking his head. "He'll tear you apart, you're nowhere near as experienced as Foffo was."
"Aye, but Foffo wasn't a Cleric." Brindlehurst grumbled, standing up and giving his mace a test swing. "And it's not like I can really lob a ten gallon keg o' mead...So deal with it."
Borren muttered a nonsensical curse under his breath, but finally turned around and starting moving towards the keg. Brindlehurst closed his eye for a moment in concentration, then sighed.
"Brell, if I've ever meant anything to ye as a servant, a little of yer divine favor'd be much appreciated." He tapped his mace on his shoulder blades one time through, then began to walk steadfastly towards the Necromancer.
"Pitiful." The Necromancer growled, kicking Foffo again as the Druid yelped. "You and your friends have made for a powerful nuisance, I assure you...but in the end, all your attempts have done nothing!" The Necromancer lifted his dagger up into the air again, his eyes burning. "I have completed the arcane prayers to Bertoxxulous for strength...all that is left now is the sacrifice." Foffo was still paralyzed from the choking pain of the Necromancer's gaseous cloud, but tried to move away nonetheless. Still, he knew it was useless.
It was just then a massive leg bone whirled through the air and impacted with a sickening thud on the Necromancer's head, jarring him forward for a moment as he turned with a dumbstruck look.
Brindlehurst glowered resolutely at him, gripping tighter on his mace as he took his first good look at the villain.
"Now be reasonable, monster." Brindlehurst growled, summoning the beginnings of his branding spell. "Don't tell me ye thought you'd done away with us all."
"You." The Necromancer spat out, the dagger quivering in his hand from rage. "Were it not for you, this would have been over long ago!"
"Yar, I know." Brindlehurst chuckled, hurling the divine mark across the room. "I have a habit of messing things up."
The Necromancer dodged it, even as it scoured into the wall with a glowing blue light. "Then allow me the honor of removing your gremlinish presence out of this world for all eternity, Cleric." A wave of his hand sent out another powerful wave of miasma that flew across the room. Brindlehurst took in a deep breath and cowered behind his shield, and the thick substance blasted around him, parted by the glowing presence of Brell's light. Still, enough came by the sides that his nostrils burned even from being touched by it, and Brindlehurst charged in with a fearsome roar.
Time...I got to buy them all time...
His Mace slammed harshly into the Necromancer's side, promoting a grunt followed by a harsh laugh. "You pathetic little fool, you think you can overwhelm me??"
"You're one of the Plaguebringer's own, aye!" Brind snarled, wincing from the dagger slash that drew a thin line of blood along his arm. "And as I've pledged my life to defending life itself against the forces of the Plaguebringer, that makes you dead!"
The Necromancer seemed to guffaw for a moment at that, then shook his head and slammed his hand palm open into Brindlehurst's forehead. A mighty explosion of tensile wrath, the same energy that still hung loosely around Foffo, clung to the Cleric and sent him falling backwards, coughing for his life and wheezing against the tightening grip of the darkness. He fell back to his knees, managing to utter enough syllables to concentrate his healing focus, balancing out the wrath of the Necromancer's blast with his most well known ability.
Still, he struggled to not pass out from the pain.
Hurry it up, Borren...
Behind them all, the Halfling Warrior cursed again as he hefted the keg onto his shoulders, wincing at the weight. Lobbing it, he decided, was within his power. If he pushed himself. As he maneuvered back towards the entrance to the ceremonial room, he saw the Necromancer's attention focused fully on Brindlehurst. "Stubborn, stupid Clerics." Borren growled bitterly. The fool was getting the life beaten out of him and he didn't care...He'd put his faith entirely into the ability of Borren to fulfill a task that was ludicrous and rash all at the same time.
Then again, Borren thought again, Clerics would have to have a lot of faith in the first place. So Brindlehurst was just a normal fellow.
A dead fellow, if this didn't work.
The Necromancer hefted Brindlehurst up into the air by the scruff of his collar, staring for the first time at the eyepatch that ran over the Cleric's left eyesocket. "Well, well...what happened here?" He mused drily. "Got your eye poked out, did you?"
"Aye." Brindlehurst growled back. "Me eye was taken from me, that's true enough...but it's made it all the easier to see in a different light."
The Necromancer laughed, a shallow and mirthless chuckle. "Tell me then, what does that eye of yours see?"
Brindlehurst's head lolled back and forth a few times before bobbing down to the right, his gaze going dull as he seemed to stare off into space beyond the Necromancer. What the master of the undead did not know was that Brindlehurst had locked his one eyed gaze onto Rinala, who still shivering, had recovered a little quicker than any of the other Marauders after the Necromancer's miasma blast. "I see your worthless carcass being washed free of this world...Broken apart by the spell of the Mountainhigh Marauders."
The Necromancer laughed again, oblivious in his own egomaniacal fury to the hidden meaning behind it. Even Rinala blinked in confusion at the middle aged Dwarf for a few moments, wondering if the Cleric truly had lost it.
And then she looked beyond Brind and the Necromancer, and her gaze widened for a moment in sudden realization. Brind kept his own expression pale and deathly stricken, giving nothing away. But he knew she had seen it.
Borren was ready to throw the keg; Rinala was the key to undoing the seals.
The Necromancer clenched his wiry hand about Brindlehurst's neck, beginning to squeeze the life out of him with strength belied by his emaciated frame. "A wonderful horoscope...but I make my own luck in this world, Cleric." His other hand drew back the dagger, preparing for the killing stab that would end Brindlehurst's life.
Brindlehurst closed his eyes, tuning out his visual senses and listening carefully as he heard the mighty grunt of Borren, throwing the massive weight free of his shoulders.
"So do I." Brindlehurst whispered, finally smiling. The Necromancer paused at that, glancing up as a sudden movement of brown blur caught his eye. He stared up with a puzzled expression as a barrel arced through the air towards him, not knowing what the Marauders were trying to do.
Rinala's enchantment of breaking flew through the air by his ear and connected solidly with the barrel, and in an instant, the metallic bonds and sealant keeping the barrel whole collapsed from the arcane command. In an instant, the barrel was disintegrated, and it was not a solid object flying straight for Brindlehurst and the Necromancer...but a massive wave of sweet smelling red liquid.
It washed over them both with a thick gushing noise, prompting two wholly different responses.
Brindlehurst fell to the ground, lifting his head as the divine energies present within the liquid renewed his vigor and anesthetized his wounds.
The Necromancer screamed like a wounded animal, writhing as his clothes and very skin began to burn from its touch. And soaked as he was, his entire body began to be eaten away.
In a thick cloud of steam from the attack, Brindlehurst stood, shaking his head for a moment as the other Marauders came to and began to unsteadily get back to their feet.
Moaning and writhing, the Necromancer cradled his injured hand against his chest...
"By Brell!" Borren suddenly exulted, his eyes bugging out. "He's...He's..."
The Necromancer glanced down at himself, realizing that his thick robes had all melted away...and that underneath was the pale and decomposing form of a body long since dead, kept alive only by sheer will and arcane influence. His red eyes glowed dimly, and his silvery hair now hung limply to his head in clumps.
"No..." He whispered, horror seeping into his voice.
"He's a Zombie." Rinala said, her voice coming clear again as she limped next to Foffo and helped the wolf back to its feet.
"He always has been...Haven't ye, Hesper Figger?" Brindlehurst stated, emphasizing the name with particular distaste.
Hesper Figger, the former mayor of Sunnyvale and still ruler, looked up with pained incredulity in his eyes. "I...I can't be...no..."
"Your ancient ritual claimed the entire town." Borren filled in darkly, stepping beside Brindlehurst. "And that included you with it."
"It ends here." Magidar echoed, helping Haddie to her feet.
"Aye, it does." Brindlehurst muttered darkly, handing his mace to Borren and holding his free hand down palm out to the zombified remains of Hesper Figger's forehead.
The former mayor made no motions to stop him, his last moments filled with nothing but racing thoughts and quiet doubts.
"Farewell to ye, Hesper Figger." Brindlehurst said dourly. "Brell commands me..."
"To...Smitey mighty." Hesper said haltingly, glancing up to look into the face of the man who would destroy him.
Brindlehurst's eye glimmered. "Aye."
A blinding whiteness began to surround the Cleric for a few moments, and then the world of Hesper Figger went completely white as well.
The last thing he felt was warmth.
Wincing at every step, the Marauders emerged into the darkness of night ten minutes later, climbing up and out of the well which had almost cost them their lives.
"I need a homecooked meal." Borren groused, pulling himself free of the well and collapsing on the soft grass and pebble strewn ground of the town courtyard. He glanced back behind him as Rinala came up next, her robes primly tucked between her legs as she climbed the last few steps.
"Pervert." She muttered dourly, climbing free of the well and kicking backwards as an afterthought. Borren looked back with a puzzled stare as Brindlehurst came up next, nursing a heavy bruise to his jawline.
"Brindle, what did you do?" Borren asked as Rinala huffed and sat down on her knees with her hands in her lap.
"I didn't do nothing!" Brindlehurst yawped in his defense, swinging himself free of the well and landing onto his belly in the grass.
"He was looking up my dress, that's what he was doing!"
"There ain't nobody on this Brellforsaken continent who'd want to peer up yer petticoats, lass." Brindle snapped back wearily.
"Oh, cut it out, you two." Magidar groaned, shaking his head as he popped above ground. "Come on, we just ended the existence of a crazed Necromancer, stopped a ritual that may well have endangered the known world, and to top it off, we saved Foffo and Haddie. Can't we all just get along for a change?"
"Haddie and I thank you for that, truly." Foffo added, climbing up and out of the well in his Halfling form before transforming back into a wolf the moment he met solid ground. "Not only did you save us...but what we've done tonight did more than solve the mystery of Sunnyvale. Somewhere in all his nonsensical ramblings about power and completing his ritual, he made mention that he was to form an alliance with Lord Felstar."
"You mean the monster that runs Castle Felstar over by..." Borren began, lifting an eyebrow.
"One and the same." Haddie interrupted with a weary smile.
"Heh. Chances are he won't be too happy to lose such a 'valuable resource'." Rinala said with a grin.
"Ye see, I KNEW you Gnomes had an impish sense of humor about ye." Brindle grumbled, lifting a hand up as his muffled voice echoed into the ground. "Thanks for not disappointing my stereotype."
"Oh, so going off that logic then, all Dwarves are dullwitted, oafish, sexist pigs who spend half the day drinking and the other half getting in fights." Rinala countered calmly.
Brindlehurst sat up, still holding a finger in the air. "Now just a bleeding minute! That isn't true!" He reached a hand into his robe and pulled out yet another flask, taking a quick swig before resuming his stony stare. "We only drink a quarter of the day."
"You know Brind, that reminds me..." Magidar mused, stroking his beard. "You've been with us now for some time...and in all that, you've never bothered explaining how you got that eyepatch."
"Heh...asking me to recount old war stories now, are ye?" Brindle said, smiling. "Aye, it'd seem a good end to a rough day...but really, it was a stupid mistake. Me and Bramble, when we were little, used to fight each other with sticks. And one day, he ended up poking me left eye out...By that time, I'd already begun to learn some of the minor tricks of Brell's trade, but somehow it didn't seem right. So I kept the wound, and I think out of guilt, and mebbe to see that he'd protect innocents from then on instead o' harming them, Bramblehurst took up the road of the Doomseeker."
"Sounds like you really cared about each other." Haddie said, giggling. Brindlehurst laughed at the joke.
A familiar voice interrupted the cheerful resting conversation, humming merrily as a soft and swaying melody strummed over a well kept mandolin brushed by in the breeze. One last zombie strolled around the corner, smiling at them all. Haddie and Foffo reacted with a start, but Brindlehurst merely waved a hand. "Aah, isn't that just like a Bard...ye show up AFTER the fight."
"Now, now." The Bard smiled, stopping his melody. "I told you I couldn't get involved. But...I thank you. From the depths of my soul, I thank you."
"For doing what nobody else has ever been able to...what nobody else could. You have destroyed Hesper Figger, and without his guiding presence, the menace of Sunnyvale will slowly lessen...mayhaps one day, even fade into oblivion." The Bard glanced about, smiling. "Even now, my former townspeople enter into a period of deep rest; far too long has our dark mayor kept them active, and they're weakened by the efforts."
"Yeh. At least they'll stop causing trouble on the Highpass Highway caravans." Borren said, waving his hand. "That's why we came here in the first place."
"Speaking of which..." Foffo yawned, stretching out his sinewed and fur covered legs, "We have a reward to collect at Darvar Manor for our efforts."
"They'll want proof of our deed, or have you forgotten that little detail?" Magidar pressed.
The Bard thought for a moment, then reached inside of his tattered garments and pulled out a tarnished, but well kept golden pendant.
"This was mine..." He said. "It was given to me in a ceremony many years ago at Highpass during the triennial storytelling contest. I won first prize, I did."
Rinala took it gently into her hands, folding it from one side to the other in appreciation as she read the engravings. "He's right." She said softly. She glanced up at him, shaking her head. "Thank you...Kiernin."
"Oh, pah, don't mention it." Seamus Kiernin said, smiling softly. "Consider it my own personal thanks...you've given me back my freedom as well." He looked about and shook his head. "Still...for as tired as my Sunnyvale counterparts are, and for as many as you've destroyed, those left won't be dormant forever. You would do well to push off and venture back to civilization before that time comes. Besides, I have a feeling you'd appreciate a warm bed and a hot meal more than bedrolls and trail rations."
"Thoughtful of you." Magidar said, smiling.
Foffo got up to his feet and motioned with his nose. "All right then. Marauders, we've a home to get back to, a reward to collect..."
"And another victory to chalk up on our mantle." Borren finished with a grin. "Oh, Rivervale isn't going to believe this tale..."
"Not the way ye tell it, master Borren." Brindlehurst scoffed. "But turn me loose on them, and we'll see how believable we make this adventure! Who indeed would accuse a Cleric in the service of Brell of being a liar??"
"Somebody who knew you." Rinala said, smiling.
"Admit it, Rinala." Brindlehurst said as they began to walk off back towards Darvar Manor. "I was right."
"Right about what?"
"They were the forces of the Plaguebringer here, and I wasn't just being paranoid." The Cleric said, his face a massive grin.
"I...Oh, blast you."
"Just say it."
"Fine! You were right about the dark forces of Bertoxxulous!"
Silence hung over the party for a few moments before Brindlehurst spoke up.
"Yes?" She asked with a sigh.
"I was right." He laughed one last time, even as she ran next to him and began to beat him in the back of the head.
The Marauders strolled off into the darkness of night, laughing and cajoling each other in their victory. Behind them, the Bard of Sunnyvale, the zombified form of Seamus Kiernin, smiled and waved them on.
And above in the high hills surrounding the tiny hamlet, a figure with glowing red eyes and dark ichor armor watched the entire procession before clicking his horse to move down closer to the abandoned village of Sunnyvale.
The emissary could not believe what he saw. The village of Sunnyvale; empty, almost devoid of zombies. Hesper Figger, that worthless speck of a man caught in his visions of grandeur nowhere in sight, gone.
The only zombie in sight appeared to be some sort of minstrel, who strummed out a tune as he drew closer.
"Come join me my fellows, and sit on down, and I'll sing of how six saved this old town...They fought a great battle, and won it with ale, The Mountainhigh Marauders, I'll sing ye a tale..."
The figure's jaw twitched in the moonlight, and his grip on the reins tightened.
There was nothing left here; it was all gone. He searched out with his empathic senses, and found nothing but death in the place of undeath, and Hesper Figger's corpse destroyed.
And he knew the cause of it.
"The Mountainhigh Marauders..." He hissed, pulling back on the reins and charging off into the night with his horse whinnying.
His master would not be pleased.
Come join me my fellows, and sit on down, and I'll sing of how six saved this old town...
They fought a great battle, and won it with ale, the Mountainhigh Marauders, I'll sing ye a tale...
Long ago, Hesper Figger toyed in dark arts, the kind faced only by cruel, wicked hearts,
He sought control over death and those left undead, but he failed in that goal, and made far worse instead,
Sunnyvale village, the pride of the vale, wiped away in a sorrowful Bertoxxulan gale
Where we all walked in joy, and carried life's breath, we now groaned in stupor, we now roamed in death.
For years it was so, zombies we stayed, but I with my mind still sang and still prayed,
And hope came late one day, when six shorties arrived, with gold on the brain and a plan badly contrived
But succeed they did, where no others would be, and Hesper Figger was no more, and at last we were free!
Dead I may stay, for that is my place, but now I keep a true smile on my face.
The Mountainhigh Marauders shall forever be heard,
And their tales will live on in my kind's song and their word.
When you hear their approach, rally forth with a shout,
The Marauders are in town, and they won't be kicked out!!