The creature was tearing at its own net with its razorlike claws, gritting at Jokotai's leg. The nomad stabbed futilely, trying to fend it off. The thing was about to bite the kicking leg when Cord's dagger sunk to its hilt in the monster's side. As had its fellow, the creature gave a hissing howl; then it chattered and sprang sideways upon the young thief, bowling him over and preventing him from using his sword. Its claws pierced leather, but the mesh of elfin mail beneath stopped them from causing further damage.
The monster was intent upon closing its jaws upon its victim, though, despite the inability of its raking to inflict harm. As it sought to bite Gord's face, the desperate young adventurer managed to gather both of his feet together. Kicking with all his might, Gord drove the foul form away. The creature flew a few feet backward from the force of the combined boot heels, then leaped toward his prey again, jaws working, fangs dripping poison.
Gord cut wildly with his shortsword as he rolled, back-flipped, and did his best to gain fighting distance between himself and the bristly thing. The slashing blade had inflicted a minor cut. more by accident than design, and this kept the monster at bay sufficiently for the young thief to gain a defensive stance. The thing crouched on all fours, bunched itself, and sprang, once more, sailing straight toward Gord at incredible velocity.
This firm: he was ready; Gord's sword took the thing full in the chest. "I hen both combatants were down and rolling in an entangled hall. Venom burned his bare flesh, but it was merely from splatter, not fangs. Gord tore free and leaped up. The spider-man was unmoving. A pair of feathered shafts protruded from its back. Jokotai nodded unsmilingly at his comrade. They were now even. While Gord had engaged the creature, the nomad had cut through the entangling net and plied his horn bow. Both men were still examining the eight-digited limbs and multi-pupiled eyes when their associates trotted back to where the life-and-death struggle had occurred.
"So you've met an ettercap," was all that Gellor said.
Although they had to traverse only some forty miles of the Suss Forest, it took them almost five days to do so, even with the skills of druids and ranger to assist their progress. The forest was a dark, tangled place of huge trees, fallen logs, thorns, and tangled undergrowth. Using game trails helped, but it exposed the party to attacks such as that which Gord and Jokotai had undergone.
Worse, the place abounded with much more dangerous adversaries. Gord still shuddered when he remembered the battle between a migrating tribe of kobolds and a group of gibberlings. The more intelligent and better-armed kobolds had outnumbered the subhuman gibberlings by nearly two to one – perhaps three hundred of the scaly little humanoids had fought against one hundred seventy-five of the howling, naked gibberlings armed with crude swords and billets of wood. The kobolds had skewered many of the attackers with spears and javelins, then fought in a swirling melee of swords and axes, spears and clubs. Fully half of their number were slain before the kobolds broke and fled, leaving the chattering and howling gibberlings to drag off their feast to some lair deep within the tangled woods.
The group of adventurers had watched the battle from a ridge above the glen where the two forces met. They were careful to avoid both the direction of the routed remnants of the kobolds and the path of the hundred or so surviving gibberlings as well. Although the creatures were individually weak, either of these groups would certainly wipe them out in these close quarters.
On the afternoon of their fifth day of travel through the Suss, the nine finally left the trees behind. Men and horses were tired, dirty, sweaty, scratched, and bitten, thoroughly in need of rest and cleaning. By pressing themselves and their mounts, the little band of adventurers made miles fall behind throughout the late afternoon and evening, and just after darkness fell, a collection of warm, glowing lights signaled the end of their immediate quest.
Within an hour all were bathed, fed, and abed. The place was too small for them to actually refurbish their clothing and such, but when they rode off late the next morning, men and horses were in far better condition than when they had come into the hamlet the previous night. Although they had almost another hundred miles to go before they reached the town of Badwall, the going would be easy compared to their forest passage. With roads to follow and wayside hostels at the end of each day's journey, the adventurers were confident and cheerful as they urged their mounts along.
As promised, Curley Greenleaf was awaiting them when they arrived in Badwall. The nine rode into the courtyard of the Brass Ball, a large inn situated at the western end of town. As typical of all metropolitan communities, Badwall's officials took count of their citizens periodically, and according to what Gord had been told, there were some five thousand souls all told. Yet, from what the young thief observed, and he had practiced such estimation often in judging a place with an eye toward the possibilities of successful application of his profession, Badwall should boast a population nearer eight or ten thousand inside its walls, and perhaps another quarter of that number dwelling in its outskirts. It was a poor place, relying on local crafts, some mercantile exchange, export of honey and wax, and the employment and return of its mercenary company to bolster its economy periodically. Barter was common, for hard money was scarce. This pleased Gord and the others, since a copper common was as valuable in Badwall as a silver noble would be in Greyhawk. No wonder its soldiers returned home after serving elsewhere! A few gold orbs virtually made a man a prince in this place.
The druid had reserved all of the better rooms in the Brass Ball, and the group was swarmed with attendants eager to provide services in return for a few iron drabs, brass bits, or bronze zees. The adventurers spent the next few days re-equipping themselves, resting, and planning an expedition into the forest once again, this time in search of the fabled lost city supposedly abandoned by the Suloise centuries ago. Greenleaf told them that he had given full intelligence of the matter to his superiors, who, in turn, would spread it to all the others concerned. He had then been given leave to go back to his friends and tell them that they would be receiving a further reinforcement to round out their party.
"In any event," Curley told them, "we must not appear to be anything more than a band of adventurers seeking some treasure and excitement. If our true mission is suspected, agents and spies serving the Scarlet Sign will surely be alerted!"
"Then we are not here to recruit a company?" asked the one-eyed bard.
"No, old friend, we are not," Greenleaf" replied. "I know that had been our plan, but events move too swiftly. A small, strong party will be more useful than a large one now… I am certain you realize this."
As Gellor nodded agreement, Gord asked, "For whom do we tarry, then? If the Brotherhood knows that the object of their search is near here, and that this information might have been discovered by their enemies when Strandkeep Castle fell, then they too must be mounting an expedition."
"There are two servants of the Circle of Eight here, agents who have no little skill and power in human terms. One is a dweomercrafter of high standing, the other a knight of renown who left his clerical studies to take up sword and lance against Evil," the druid explained. "This, and that the two are sworn foes of the Suloise cause and the dark Tharizdun, is all I have been told. We are to meet them here, not later than day after tomorrow. They will be recognized by their holy symbols, the silver unicorn horn and green tree. If they do not come by the time appointed, we are to push on without them. That could prove difficult, however, for the cavalier is the one who possesses knowledge of that region of the Suss which we must explore."
"How comes a cavalier," Jokotai inquired, "to have rede of such a tangle as that forest? It is not chivalrous to trek in woods."
Greenleaf shrugged. "Who knows what purpose she has been serving here along the Wild Coast?" He paused in thought for a moment, and his one-eyed friend suggested a possible reason.
"The Circle of Eight is known to me, Curley. Those who sit on its uppermost tier are always seeking after treasure… for whatever purposes they might have. Could it be that these two were after the legendary city and its fabled hill of gem-stones?" Gellor smiled at the group. "That, my comrades, would explain their purported knowledge of the Suss."
"Speculation leads us nowhere," the normally taciturn Incosee said. "We will find out soon enough – or else we will not. I think we should find another guide just in case these two fail to materialize."
After agreement from Jokotai, Moon, Patrick, and even Gord, the druid consented to a cautious search on the morrow for a possible guide. The problem took care of itself, however, when they descended to the inn's common room. A nondescript fellow arrayed in the garb of a mercenary – plain clothing, leather, and well-worn weapons – stood up and approached them.
"Your pardon, Good Folk," he began with a slight bow, "but I could not help noticing your determined nature and capable appearance. I am Blonk, a fighter and explorer for hire. There is little employment here in Badwall at this time, and if you are mounting an expedition which could use services such as my own, I am available… and would be most grateful."
"A sell-sword is no rare commodity," Gellor said flatly. "What makes you preferable to any of the dozens of others available?"
Gord was surprised at first, for the one-eyed bard had made no denial of their purpose. On second thought, though, Gord supposed that their appearance was such that no denial would have been effective and would only have drawn suspicion rather than avoided it. As a party of adventurers, they could have any of a score of reasons to be here. The young thief observed the mercenary as he replied.
"I fight well. I am familiar with this area, too, knowing the land from Highport to Warwell, Suss Forest to Woolly Bay. Having been raised in the woodlands, I hunt and track with some skill. As a man of professional ability, I am independent and need no advance payments… other than equipage suitable for whatever mission is to be undertaken, for I seek aught save a fair share of any gain I have assisted the company in attaining."
Curley Greenleaf was studying this man, Blonk he said his name was, as he spoke. Gord noted this careful scrutiny. There didn't seem much to see, actually, the young thief thought. Being used to observation of this sort himself, Gord had assessed Blonk immediately as a capable chap. The eyes were hard, although his face was seemingly mild. He had light brown wavy hair, hazel eyes, skin tanned by sun and wind as one would expect from a mercenary who spent much time in the field. His clothing and light armor were old but cared for properly and in good shape. Longsword and dag showed signs of having seen much employment but were likewise clean and polished. He was not without funds, Gord estimated, although his purse would be lean, with more drabs than nobles within it.
"Blonk, isn't it?" the druid said rhetorically. "Well, sir, we just might have need of your services in a day or three. Our party has yet to make up its mind, so to speak, as to whether or not we go to seek our fortunes where Lord Elredd assails the foemen in the Pomarj, or to make for Fax and the seaborne raiders who trouble it of late. If we are looking -for another sword, and guide as well, where shall we find you?"
"Thank you, druid. I shall be found easily enough, for I stay here at the Brass Ball, for a time at least. The ostler will direct you to me if you seek my services. I am the man if you face danger and want staunch fighters at your back." So saying, Blonk the mercenary nodded, bade them a good day, and strode to the hall beyond.
"What think you?" Curley asked Gellor.
"Fortuitous for us he should be here and volunteer… perhaps too fortuitous," the one-eyed adventurer replied.
"He is not as fine a swordsman as I," Jokotai said, "but he has a steel to him which tells me he is a tough adversary worthy of the contest."
Still discussing the pros and cons of accepting Blonk into their party should the need arise, they trooped out of the inn to go on their various errands. Many small details needed to be taken care of before they departed the walled town for their dangerous quest into the fastness of the wild Suss Forest.
It took only a little time for Gord to feel something wrong. Eyes were watching him. Having put many a prospective mark under surveillance himself, the young thief instinctively knew when others were marking him. Gord had separated from the others, intending to look for a few things particular to his own wants. The marketplace in Badwall was strung out along three axes that met in the open square. His watchers had certainly picked him up at the plaza and followed him to his present location along one of the side streets.
Gord tarried, peering into windows, spending time inside shops, and generally doing nothing that a casually browsing shopper would not have done. Meanwhile, he tried to discover the identity of those who were observing him. No success. Whoever they were, they were skilled at their art.
After spending about an hour at this game, Gord decided to return to the square and rendezvous with his associates. By doing this he finally managed to discover that there were two, possibly three, men following him. One was ahead now, so that meant that another was somewhere behind him. Another inconspicuous figure moved back and forth across the narrow street, occasionally coming quite near to Gord. Because he had not done so before, Gord supposed that his followers were becoming overconfident and careless – playing a game among themselves for their private amusement. The young thief decided that he would do his best to make them regret it.
Evening shadows were falling across the small plaza, and stalls and carts were closing. Incosee, Moon, and Patrick had just joined Gellor and Jokotai. The latter pair were munching on some confection purchased from ajust-closed booth, washing the honey and nut cake down with a crock of wine, which the Chakyik never seemed to be without. Where Curley and his satellites were, Gord didn't know, but he hoped that they'd arrive soon. The young thief wished to inform his friends of the situation quickly, so that they could be prepared for whatever might happen… and Gord was beginning to feel that something was going to transpire soon. He nonchalantly waved to his comrades as he strolled near. There was no doubt in his mind that Gellor had caught the flickering of his fingers and the set of his motion – signals that demanded immediate attention and conveyed warning.