The party broke their fast early the next morning with their new companion Furnok. As they set out from The Inn of the Welcome Wench, it began to rain.
“Another rainy Planting month,” Besilana opined. She was wearing her hooded gray cloak, which had been in her pack before.
“This is wonderful!” exclaimed Felicity. “I love the rain! It brings so much life to the area, it’s perfect for seedlings! Oh! Perfect time to plant!” She knelt at the roadside, scooped some mud aside, and dropped a small seed from a pouch and covers it.
“My boots are all squishy!” said Furnok cheerfully.
“Water is required to cleanse negativity in the world and allow a space of clarity,” intoned Taliesin. “It is through the rain that the earth is cleansed from the stagnant, negative energy of yesterday.”
Felicity looked up from her planting. “Yesterday was negative? I thought it was a nice day! There was so much fun had and so many people to meet!” The halfling skipped up and rebounded off of Furnok playfully before huddling back over to Besi to pull the cloak over her own. “No good to catch cold!” She grinned from ear to ear.
The sight finally brought a smile to Besilana’s face. “I was hoping it’d wait until we’d arrived at the Moathouse, but I suppose it isn’t so bad.”
“At the least it will discourage anyone or anything that preys on travelers,” said Taliesin.
Felicity skipped out into the rain again ahead of the group then turned to skip backward facing them. “Oh, it’s very not so bad at all! We’re off to find out what the problems are!” She pulled a holy symbol from her cloak “May Ehlonna bless us with her gifts.” She then clasped the symbol and tucked it back away, allowing the others to catch up. Once they had, she took refuge in Besilana’s cloak again, her grin undiminished.
“Well spoken, Felicity,” said the half-elf.
It was not a heavy rain, but it was steady. “Should cover our approach once we arrive, if there’s anyone there to see our arrival,” said Furnok. “Do you know anything about this place?”
“I do not,” Taliesin admitted.
Felicity looked up at him. “Furnok? Are you a scout? I would assume that advance secret information would be best. If you are comfortable with it.”
“Ha ha, what?” he replied to the halfling.
Besilana’s eyebrows knitted. “You know, Felicity and I went to ask the followers of Cuthbert about it, and then we … got sidetracked.”
“Oh they were nice!” said Felicity, nodding.
Furnok nodded sagely. “By the sermon or the fundraising?”
“The latter, mostly,” said Besilana.
Furnok smiled knowingly. “They are persistent, are they not? And yet I have seen very few of the poor and downtrodden in Hommlet, it seems.”
“We rarely got visitors from the outside, so we didn’t see much … fundraising back home,” said the paladin.
“I asked one of the local birds about the area last night,” said Taliesin. “I confirmed that people are coming in and out of the place.”
“Oh? Which of the young ladies had such knowledge?” Furnok asked Taliesin, fully sincere. Besilana bit down on a giggle, and the rogue spared her a curious glance.
“Oh was it a robin? Or a finch? I love finches!” said Felicity.
Taliesin smiled. “The little one with all the red plumage.”
“Huh,” Furnok said, looking surprised and thoughtful.
“CARDINAL!” exclaimed the halfling. After a beat, she muttered, “I think?”
Taliesin nodded at her. “Very good, Felicity. I had to bribe her to warm up to me. But before long I had her eating out of my hands.”
Furnok scratched the back of his head absently. “Well, she does see a lot of people come and go, and likely chats them up as … forcefully as she did you … and me.” The rogue gave Taliesin an appraising look, clearly more impressed than he had been the night before, completely oblivious to the truth. The moment passed, and the human said, “I’ve heard some of the tale. Would you like to hear it?”
“Please,” said Taliesin.
“Very much so,” said Besilana.
“OH, I love stories!” said Felicity.
Furnok nodded and began his tale. "The Moathouse is said to have once been the outpost of the Temple of Elemental Evil, its watchtower and an advance base for raids, looting, and destruction. From this area, servants of the Temple were to bring the Village of Hommlet and all the lands around it into subjection. The conquered folk were then to be used as slaves to construct yet another fortress farther west, spreading the evil power of the Temple in ever-growing rings to encompass all of the land around its base.
“The outpost was ignored during the destruction of the Temple, for the army of good which came against the wicked hordes was so strong as to be totally immune to any pinpricking from the garrison of the Moathouse. Only after the end of the battle which destroyed the main armies of the Temple of Elemental Evil was attention turned to this place. A detachment of horse and foot with a small siege train then came to the marshlands, to lay the castle low. The common folk from miles around came to help, and the Moathouse was surrounded, cut off, and battered into extinction.
“The place is now shunned by the people of Hommlet, who hate its former evil and the memory of the terror brought to them by the black lord of the fortress – a vile cleric of damnation – and his evil men and humanoid troops.”
“But some say that evil has returned,” said Besilana.
Furnok nodded. “Rumor has it.”
“OoooOOOOooooohhhhhhhhhhh,” said Felicity.
“We’ll know soon enough,” Taliesin gazed at the little cleric pensively. “Felicity, have you ever seen combat?”
The halfling’s expression grew slightly worried. “No, not as such. I’ve kind of been stuck within the temple walls with the sisters until a few days ago. I’m not very knowledgeable about causing pain but I am rather adept at relieving it.”
“And I have only practiced,” Besilana added. “Though I have practiced a lot.”
“Stay behind me,” Furnok told Felicity. “I’ll be behind ‘Lana’.”
Besilana blinked. “Who? Oh.”
“I’ll try to keep back and keep us healthy and under divine blessing,” said Felicity. “I would hate to get in the way, but that’s why I brought this.” She patted a shortbow slung over her shoulder.
Taliesin nodded. “Well, then. If it comes to it, I recommend that we all be snakes today. It’s necessary to shed your own skin and personality to allow an improved and better version of ourselves to emerge.”
Felicity cocked an eyebrow at the druid. “Snakes eat birds…”
Besilana nodded. “Felicity and I had a conversation along those lines last night.”
“Oh yeah!” said the halfling. “Gotta get serious sometimes.” She put on a stern face; it was comical.
“You like nature metaphors, huh,” said Furnok to Taliesin.
“It’s what I know, yes,” said the druid. “I’ve spent a hundred years walking these forests and learned many lessons.”
The rogue whistled appreciatively. “It’s easy to forget how long elves live, when they look young for so long.”
* * *
A couple of hours passed as the group traveled through the wet. The rain slacked off from time to time, but as they neared their destination, it was as steady as when they had started the journey.
A scrub of thorns, thistles, weeds, and shrubs grew thickly along the edge of the track that led to the ruins. Even the track was mostly overgrown and cluttered with fallen branches and trees. Here and there it was washed out, in other places a mire.
Some game evidently still followed the pathway, however, for after a mile or so, faint traces could be seen. But even considering this, going was slow, and it had taken them almost four hours to trudge along on foot, with considerable hacking and clearing necessary to make the way passable. After two miles, as the track turned more northerly, the land began to sink and became boggy. Tall marsh plants grew thickly where cattails and tamaracks did not. Off to the left they finally saw the jagged silhouette of the Moathouse.
A side path banked high to cross over the wetland to either side, just north to the entrance of the ruin. The track there was only about fifteen-feet wide or so, with crumbling embankments making travel near the edge dangerous. The bogs stank. The vegetation appeared dense and prolific, but somehow sickly and unhealthy, creepers and vines throwing their strangling loops over the skeletons of dead saplings and living bushes alike. The rushes and cattails rustled and bent even to a slight zephyr, and weird birdcalls, croakings, and other unwholesome sounds came faintly across the fen.
“It’s like a forest,” Besilana said, mostly trying to reassure herself.
“A spOOky forest,” added Felicity, shivering at her own words.
Taliesin looked around for signs of traffic in the area, and noticed some of the puddles resembled boot prints. “There … footprints. And fairly recent.”
“Stay close to me, Felicity,” said Besilana, heaving over to see what Taliesin had found. The halfling stayed under the cloak trying to keep pace.
“They look like boots,” explained the druid. “Felicity, would it be less spooky if it had some of your flowers in it?”
Felicity whispered “Everything is less spooky with flowers.” She began to pull out the seed pouch and sprinkled a couple on the boot print.
“Is that the rose seeds?” asked Besilana. “I’ve always liked those.”
“Let’s find out,” said Taliesin. He waved his hand over the seeds and they quickly sprouted, grew, and bloomed.
“Oooooooooooohhhhhhhh… That’s cheating!” Felicity said cheerfully.
“It is, yes,” agreed the druid. “Which is why I don’t do it often. But I thought at this time you might like to see them.”
“I guess it’s an okay kind of cheating. Because there is always room for more beauty.” She stepped over to the little flowers. “Hello! Aren’t you pretty!” Then she turned her bright eyes back to Taliesin and smile widely. “Thank you!”
The druid smiled back at her. “Let’s head in. Ehlonna guides us.” Felicity looked mildly panicked at his words, but mustered herself and swallowed, pulling out her bow. Besilana took a moment to adjust the angle of the empty wooden scabbard hanging from her belt before drawing her sword from the other scabbard. Furnok rested his hands on the hilts of his blades.
The adventurers began their approach to the gates. A small muddy pool was partially hidden by tall weeds between the moat and the path leading to the drawbridge. A splash from the nearby pool alerted them to the giant toad laying there, poised to strike out at a not-so-hapless meal!
The giant toad leapt mightily out of its pool, eyeing Felicity hungrily! She was caught by its sticky tongue and felt its sharp teeth bite into her tender flesh! The halfling shrieked and shouted, “Gross!”
Furnok leapt gallantly to Felicity’s aid, brandishing a rapier in one hand and a dagger in the other. The sword sank deep into the amphibian’s flank, and the stiletto made a shallow wound in the amphibian’s thick hide.
“Felicity!” cried Besilana, as she ducked around the druid and hacks at the toad with her longsword. The blade struck true, drawing the creature’s foul blood.
The cleric muttered a prayer and a radiant flame leaps from her hand and into the toad’s mouth
“I don’t want to be eaten!” she screamed. Taliesin sprayed the giant toad with poison conjured from his outstretched hands, but the creature seemed to barely even notice.
The toad opened its mouth wide, drawing the halfling down its throat! A moment later, Felicity was swallowed!
“NO!” screamed Besilana.
“Felicity!” cried Furnok, pulling back on the rapier, too concerned about impaling the cleric as well as the toad. However, he drove his dagger right into the creature’s brainpan. It twitched once and expired.
Felicity began crawling out of the mouth and said, “Guys? Little help?” The paladin wrenched the gaping maw open to ease the halfling’s escape. Taliesin took hold of her arms and “birthed” her from the giant toad.
“It thought I was a snack!” she exclaimed, covered in goop. “But look! I found something hard and smooth in its stomach!” She held up her hands over her head, presenting a small, slick moonstone gem.
Besilana’s nostrils flared at the stink. “Oh. Oh! You truly have a halfling’s luck.”
“At least there was some reward for that unexpected risk,” said Furnok, wiping the toad’s blood off his blades in the nearby tall grass before sheathing them once more. “Are you all right?”
The cleric checked herself over then after realizing everyone was staring at her. “OH! Ow … Okay, that did hurt a little.” She lifted her blouse and leathers aside and looked at some of the new redness that would surely bruise.
“I’m glad you are okay, Felicitiy,” said Taliesin. “I would prefer that one of us tend to that wound though.”
“I have a kit of poultices and ointments, I can take care of it,” said the halfling.
Besilana caught Felicity in a very sudden hug. “I’m okay, Besi,” said the halfling. “It’ll be okay.” Her smile was more cheerful than should have been after her ordeal.
The paladin seemed reassured. “All right. Just warn me next time you plan to scare me like that.” Besilana released her friend … reluctantly.
“Sorry you were scared. It was scary, but exciting, but scary, and gross … really gross. I’m glad you were here to help.” Felicity paused for a second. “All of you were here. Thank you all.”
The rogue smiled down at the halfling and nodded. Then he glanced at the stone walls of the Moathouse. “I would imagine anyone within would have heard our exclamations….”
“Furnok’s right,” said Besilana.
“Should we proceed or withdraw?” he asked.
“I think we should enter,” said Taliesin. “We have overcome our first challenge. That toad was a competent predator.”
“I agree,” said Besilana. “They’ll be waiting for us now, no matter how long we make them wait.” She looked to the top of the parapets. “If there is anyone inside.”
“Very well,” said Furnok.
The chains of the battered drawbridge were broken, shattered when the Moathouse was taken. A number of aging planks lay across it, granting precarious access to the inner gates.
“Thaaat looks unsafe,” said Besilana.
“Yes,” Furnok concurred.
She regarded the rogue. “One at a time?”
“Aye. Shall I, or..?” He looked dubiously between his leathers and her chain shirt.
“If it can support your … your armor’s weight, then it can support any of us.”
Felicity eyed Furnok for a second. “That armor is heavy.”
Besilana arched an eyebrow, but nodded and proceeded carefully over the planks. They creaked and groaned as she crossed, but they held. Taliesin was next to cross, followed by Furnok and finally Felicity.
One wooden gate hung open on one great hinge. The other was splintered and holed but still in position, wedged and shored closed from the inside. Beyond these gates, a wide courtyard sat desolate, strewn with stone from the broken walls.
A staircase led to the stone house portion of the fortress. The doors at the head of the stairs were broken – one flat on the floor, the other sundered. Two men with light crossbows trained on the gates lurked in the doorways, out of the rain. “Who goes there?” called one.
“Travelers from Hommlet,” Besilana answered back. She sheathed her blade and began to approach the steps, glancing for any signs of movement behind the arrow slits.
“Hold there, miss!” the man demanded. The paladin stopped short. “Suggest ye get yerselves back to Hommlet.”
“I’m unable to do that, for I’ve been told that there are bandits in the area,” Besilana said, unable to keep the defiance out of her tone.
The man grinned. “Seems to me ye’d want to be even more careful wanderin’ into abandoned ruins. Prime bandit lairs, them.” His companion laughed.
Besilana was surprised to find herself laughing along. Furnok, hiding beside Felicity in the shadows of the ruined wooden gates, quietly pulled and strung his short bow.
“Why are they laaaaughing?” the halfling asked him in a whisper. He held one finger up to his lips as he scowled at Felicity.
“I would peacefully ask you to cease your attacks, but I expect I know what you’ll say,” said the paladin.
“Last chance, luv.” The speaker’s smile disappeared.
“So be it.” She raised her shield and charged the steps.
The two bandits emerged into the rain, and four more came out behind them. They all leveled crossbows at Besilana and fired. Three crossbow bolts pierced her chainmail to impale the young paladin, and she dropped at the foot of the steps.
Furnok’s eyes were wide as he took aim at the nearest bandit. The rogue’s arrow took its target through the heart. Taliesin ran forward to heal Besilana, his healing prayers reviving the Ehlonna’s holy warrior. Felicity made a gesture and asked the goddess for a blessing of protection around the exposed druid, wrapping him in a shield of faith. Besilana drew her sword as she regained her feet, strode toward one of the bandits, and slashed him across the chest, wounding him but not taking him out of the fight.
Two of the bandits rushed along the north wall of the courtyard to get away from Besilana. They took aim at Taliesin, but only one of them managed to graze him with a bolt. The three remaining bandits engaged with Besilana dropped their crossbows and drew scimitars, but she fended them all off.
Furnok rushed forward at the exposed bandits, but took aim at one of the unwounded bandits attacking Besilana. His arrow struck deeply, but not precisely enough to drop the man. Taliesin sprayed poison at one of the wounded men, but he survived. Another dodged Felicity’s sacred flame. The paladin made short work of the man she’d injured, but one of his compatriots struck her a solid blow with his scimitar and she fell once more.
“NO! YOU ARE BAD MEN!” shouted Felicity.
The crossbowmen failed to hit Furnok, and Taliesin evaded the flashing scimitar of the remaining melee combatant. The rogue chased one of the crossbowmen into the corner, dropping his shortbow and drawing the rapier to strike. At the end of his charge, he ran the man through. Taliesin poured poison down the throat of the bandit attacking him, and he fell.
Felicity looked shaken as she stalked into view. “BESI! YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO FALL!” She pronounced a healing word and the paladin’s eyes fluttered open again. She glowered at the other bandit beyond her friend and evoked another more holy light, which scorched the ground beside him as he narrowly dodged aside.
Besilana groaned and picked herself up off the stairs again, lunging at the nearest bandit. Her swordplay overcame his meager defenses, and the bandit crumpled. With a scowl, the paladin strode toward the last remaining bandit. Fear in his eyes, the man took a shot at Besilana, who blocked his way to the entrance, but it shattered on her shield. He tried to flee past her anyway, but it did not work out for him. Her sword flashed once and he fell senseless to the steps.
Once the bandit fell, Felicity ran to Besilana and began fretting over her. “I’m fine, Felicity,” insisted the paladin. “Thanks to you I am,” she amended.
“Are you all right?” asked the cleric. “This is bad. I’m coming up short of blessings.”
Besilana took a knee and looked her friend in the eye. “I’m fine. Really. Or, at least, I will be.”
“Watching someone get hurt is far worse than being eaten. I don’t like this at all.” Felicity continued to fuss over the paladin, and Besilana let her.
Taliesin moved to the top of the stairs and looked for more signs of bandits, but thankfully found no other immediate threats. Furnok looted the bandits’ bodies and distributed the silver he found in their pouches.
“Oh those men were terrible!” said Felicity.
“Ehlonna is watching over us, Felicity,” said Taliesin. “Don’t lose faith on our first test. We have the means to heal because of Her blessing.”
“Quite a bit of excitement for the first ten minutes of this venture,” Furnok commented. “I seem to have come out unscathed, thus far. I do not expect my luck to last.” He winced sympathetically.
Felicity startled for a moment, coming to her senses “Are we all okay?”
“I think so,” said Besilana. “Sadly, I doubt these six were responsible for all the attacks…”
While they rested on the steps and recovered from their efforts, Furnok seemed to be considering Taliesin. “You’re a druid unless I miss my guess. Am I right?”
“I am, yes. It’s a family profession.”
The rogue nodded. “I have heard stories, of course, but never seen one of your talents in action. What are you … spitting on those men?”
“It’s magical in nature, but not much unlike snake or spider venom.”
“A frightening skill, surely.” Furnok turned to Besilana. “I am sorry you were overwhelmed. Your actions were very bold.” He sounded sincere, but there was probably a double meaning.
“Thank you,” she said. “I … didn’t quite think it through, but I had faith that you would back me up.”
Felicity tsked. “Bold and dangerous … and brave … and dangerous … But courageous!”
Furnok smirked a little at the halfling’s conflicted muttering. “So long as I have a distraction, I can usually find an opening to exploit.”
“Besi takes after her mom,” said Taliesin. “I can definitely see that now.” A bit of color found the half-elf’s cheeks.
“Oh, aye? Another bold warrior?” asked Furnok.
“Bold and fierce, she takes after all her good points,” Felicity said with a smile.
Besilana nodded. “Yes. She fell at the Battle of Emridy Meadows. I … she lost her sword, there. Some part of me hopes to find it.” She held up the empty scabbard.
Furnok examined the scabbard. “A work of art that. Priceless to you, I’m sure.”
“You’re very kind. Yes, it is. Few things are more precious to me.” She gives a little smile to Felicity. The halfling took up the hobby of nodding knowingly with her eyes closed.
Realization dawns on the rogue’s face. “Emridy Meadows. Investigating the cult is not just a passing fancy for you, is it. It’s personal.”
Besilana nodded again. “Yes, quite. For both Felicity and myself, now.”
“I see. It is good to know one’s companions better. And their motivations. I shall endeavor to keep you safe … even from yourselves.”
“You didn’t seem unfamiliar to battle like this, Furnok,” said Taliesin. “Your experience will be a big help. I have seen plenty of death in my day, but I am also new to this.”
The human nodded. “I have had some training and blooded myself on the road to Hommlet against bandits. Our caravan prevailed, but not without cost.” His expression is neutral, but it appears somewhat forced.
Taliesin did not press. “I imagine we will see plenty more of this before we are done.”
“I expect you’re right.”
“Where do you hail from, Furnok? Originally?” asked Besilana.
“Ferd, in the Duchy of Geoff. Have you heard of it?”
“Only that it’s a place.” Her tone is part apology.
Furnok shrugged. “It’s not much bigger than Hommlet, really. Too small by half for a man of my tastes.” He grinned. “But before we tarry overlong, perhaps we should explore further?” He looked across the courtyard at the rickety tower to the southwest. “There, perhaps?”
Unable to keep quiet any more, Felicity blurted, “Is it full of nice people like Hommlet? What did you do there? How far are you from home?”
The rogue smiles at her. “Later, luv.”
The halfling sighed a little. “Okaaaaaay,” she said faux-petulantly. Then she smiled back at Furnok and said, “Promise!”
“Of course.” The rogue’s tone was merry.
Besilana patted Felicity on the shoulder. “There’ll be time enough. I think I’ve got my second wind now.”
“Let’s be about it then,” said Taliesin.