They hear a story of two warriors – New recruits – They set out
Though, yes, a blazing light had been seen falling to the south and the Jarl of Aski was in a froth of excitement at the prospect of new star-metal for his forge, a mud-spattered fungus-picker had in the meantime trooped into the freehol and in between slurps of hot, honeyed gin he told of a strange sight: a tireless pair of warriors, full-armoured to conceal all flesh, were doing battle in a mushroom patch a day's hike away west. The adventurers sidled closer to the fire to listen but there was nothing more to hear. The tale was too plain, the teller too dull to be a liar.
The freehold's apriarists would not set out on their great journey until the moons' shapes augured better, so with a half-score of empty days ahead the party decided to set out for the mushroom patch to see what could be seen.
They were six now: the grim ursar and Dr. Pilsner the therapist had entrained Tuskilla, the mercenary janissary (pleased with the gift of a suit of chainmail), as well as a half-mad seer, and a cheerful young apiarist with time on his hands. At the last minute they were joined by the jarl's own skald who went by the outlandish name of Manzanita – a fistfighting harpist with a bow and a single turnip to his name. There was also the bat-winged hound the ursar kept tied to a stick, but this creature was proving difficult to tame and so it did not enter into the party's official muster.
They took bearings from the fungus-picker, provisioned themselves for four days and headed west at next sunrise. None of them would ever return.
ADVENTURE BEGUN: FIRST DAY
Man-hounds of the frogoid strangers –Ambush, bloodshed and misfire – Ambiguous messages from the bird gods
They left Aski's meagre tarnich fields and entered a broken land of lichen and stone. At noon the ursar was in the party's head when he saw movement in the gully below. Two tall figures leading a brace of leashed and snuffling hounds. The strangers stopped and the hounds scented the air then reared and yelped, and at this the ursar saw that the hounds were not hounds in fact but hairless and dirty men who trotted brokenly on all fours. Their handlers looked for all the world like man-sized frogs. Wordlessly, the ursar drew back and gestured. They hid.
They saw the frogoid creatures brake their hounds and then make up out of the gulley towards their position. Three bolts found the first handler and it fell heavily to the earth, but its dead claw dropped the leash and its three hounds leapt. The janissary laughed and swung his blunderbuss toward the naked, charging creatures and depressed the trigger. The blast exploded the gunbarrel and threw the fighter backwards into a heap as the snarling things leapt through the smoke into the adventurers' front line. Blood splashed the stone as the first was halved with the ursar's sword. Dr. Pilsner beat off the next with his flail but the third butted Manzanita to the ground and then bit down hard on the skald's exposed belly. The back-rank apiarist was enjoined to make a counter-charge but the youth did not hear the order for he was already running from the fray as fast as he could.
Meanwhile the seer had nocked another arrow and let fly at the second frog-man now hopping away from the scene and the extreme range of the shot proved no impediment for the shaft pierced the creature's inflated gizzard-sack and stuck fast in its spine and it toppled. The man-hounds danced away and then bolted and were gone.
The skald's attacker was finally bludgeoned to stillness. Dead, the creatures looked simply like shorn men and women in repose, albeit ones whose thumbs had been removed roughly with clippers, and whose limbs were twisted strangely by their manner of moving. The janissary was roused – charred and in a foul mood but otherwise unhurt. The seer washed and bound the skald's wounds. The frogoids carried cubes of dried vegetable matter in pouches and wore bands of silver and copper on their limbs and these the adventurers sliced free of the corpses with their knives. As they did they saw the brown blood sizzle in the air. The skald drained his clay bottle of whatever spirit it contained and then, variously drunk and bloodied, they all took the ursar's hook and chain and hung up one of the frogoid corpses on the rockspire and put the empty bottle underneath and let it fill with the juice that dripped slowly out. Of the apiarist there was no sign. They ate lunch and set out again.
Towards sunset they were trudging through a low forest when they observed a great murder of black birds circling a spot some ways off their path. They went until they found a tree full of the creatures though there was no obvious reason for this. The ursar, strangely moved, called aloud to the bird god to show a sign. One of the black things dropped from the branches and pecked at the ground. There the ursar began to dig. The others slowly joined in this labour and after some time their fingers met something hard. It was a shiny cylinder a forearm-long, warm to the touch. Dr. Pilsner remarked that they would all be likely dead or hideously changed within the week for touching such a thing. Again the ursar asked the bird god for a sign but if the bird god gave an answer this time it was not intelligible. The flock dispersed. By now it was near dark and none of them relished the thought of staying in that place so they pressed on to the edge of the forest and there they camped. In the night they heard a deep animal moaning sound.
There is a thunder lizard – What thunder lizards cannot abide – They encounter the duellists – Rabbuck hunting
They heard the sound again the next day. It came from a four-legged thunder-lizard that stood by a muddy stream, bellowing. It wore a kind of broken harness on its leathern hide and its flank was streaked with blood that ran from a half-dozen broken arrows stuck there. For a moment they all stood rooted to the stone and then the ursar regained himself and stepped out low to the ground towards the creature whispering the invocations of his craft. As he drew close the monster sighed and shook its horned head and lolled its tongue. At this pathetic sight Manzanita felt moved to play upon his harp but no sooner was the first string plucked than the lizard grunted and charged at the sound and bucked at the lot of them so the song was never learned for when the dust cleared the beast was gone and Dr. Pilsner lay with broken ribs and the skald himself had been kicked or trampled and his harp crushed too but his misfortune did not earn the man any pity from his companions who merely cursed his harp and all other harping besides – and what fool did not know that thunder lizards hate the sound of the plucked cat-gut?
Dr. Pilsner could barely walk unaided let alone carry his pack so they rigged a kind of sled for him and went on.
Finally they came to the mushroom field and there were many kinds of mushroom here, many tall, drooping and pink-canopied with thick, woody stalks. The also could hear the clanging of metal on metal, and in their eagerness they forgot their aches and raced through the maze towards the sound.
They found a clearing. Two men – garbed alike in fluted, all-covering, ceramic armour – swung swords at each other with awful strength. For all their might however, the fighters were evenly matched, and each blow glanced away or missed and struck the earth in time so regular that it seemed the adventurers were watching less a duel than a dance. And never did either fighter turn to them or give sign of having seen them, nor respond to their hails.
The party watched this display for some time, then circled round the battle till they came upon the tracks that showed the way these strange combatants had come. One set of tracks went due south and this they elected to follow.
Provisions were now running low, but their trail led to a higher, southerly plain and the seer and the skald both anticipated game could be had. So, of the afternoon, when their trail passed by a little stream they split up and set to wait in the grass. They were almost dozing off under the sun when a small herd of rabbuck trotted up to drink. The wind was right, and in the hail of spear and arrow they felled a slender doe which soon was dressed and quartered and set to roasting over coals. Dr. Pilsner flayed the rabbuck's head thinking that the resultant long-eared furry face would make a warm and pleasing hat. And with such sartorial imaginings the party ate and camped and went to sleep under the stars.
ADVENTURES CONCLUDED: THIRD DAY
The trail goes on straight – A strange aperture – Into the ground – The helmet of the ancients – Spiderbites – An underground river – The name of the ursar – Darkness and death
Next day they were much refreshed, though Manzanita's wound was not closing yet. They went along for a long time and never once did the easy trail they followed deviate or show any sign of its maker having once paused or slowed or given heed to any care of the body or spirit. At last the tracks passed over a strange circle patch in the ground that was crusted as with a net of ancient, dead and questing weed roots – none of which had ever found purchase on its smoothness. Nearby, another, smaller aperture, wide as a simple mineshaft, marked the end of their trail. They hacked and pried at the pearl metal or whatever it was and at last it opened with a pop and showed a way down by a helix of stairs into darkness.
Dry, cold and dustless it was and they lit torches and went down, seeing portals that reflected the light but gave glimpse through of something pale and soft like a web or a moth's cloak on the other side in the parallel shaft. The stairs took them to another great door that opened with a clank and showed a wide room lined with glinting black obsidian and another window – wide this time – with a view onto a jungle of spiderweb.
On the floor in the room was, it seemed, a third sibling of the warriors they'd seen fighting among the mushrooms. It did not move. They spread about the room and prodded the walls ineffectually and all was still and nothing was found so at last they fell upon the body of the armoured fighter and they turned it over – it was very heavy and as much statuary as corpse – but there was a catch upon its helmet and this they removed. There was the skull of a man inside, the flesh as dust. A circlet or wrapping of a strange light and flexible metal came away in their hands.
The ursar placed the helmet on his head. He looked at his companions through a visor or beaver of orange crystal. This is a space ship or a missile silo, he said. Was the helmet giving him ideas?
We should return to the surface, they said as one. But they did not. Let's go down further first. Let's see what's at the bottom of this shaft.
Their torches still held. On the steps the ursar trod on a spider big enough to nearly make him lose his footing. He scraped his boot clean and on they went. At the base of the shaft they heard a sound as of running water. Branching paths of smooth-hewn rock showed sharp grooves cut in the floor each way. They turned towards the water-sound. Let's go back, they said.
But not yet. They went on.
Dr. Pilsner suddenly fell to his knees beating at his neck. Above them was a canopy of white web. They screamed under a sudden rain of spiderlings.
This way. The ursar pointed away from the densest strands of web and further down into the tunnel. A cloud of fluttering legs descended onto the heads of the trespassers. Stomping the thickening mass Manzanita and the seer covered the others who hurled lit torches that flashed and failed to set anything alight. Manzanita threw his clay jar but the surge of tiny bodies broke the throw and the vessel did not break. The ursar tore a strip of cloth and wrapped it deftly round a crossbow bolt and doused it in their last spirits and the seer locked it in place. The ursar touched a flame to the bolt and it fired and and arced into the the darkness and was gone – a wave of tiny spiders hit them bodily and the Dr. rasped out a groan like a strangled man so swollen were his lips from venom and the party turned as one and stumbled into the dark.
They only stopped when they splashed into the freezing water. It was a river eight spans wide where the tunnel met a larger natural cavern that rushed hissing through a savage cleft in the stone. One torch still burned. They looked back and then they looked across.
The ursar looped his hooked chain around his waist and said, each of you – loop this through your belt or your skirtflap, and they all did so and then the ursar made to wade into the water. Then he stopped still and turned back to them and said, my name is Taul. What this declaration meant, whether a sign of trust or omen of doom, none could say. And then the last torch guttered and Taul the ursar waded slow into the water. It iced up to his throat and he groaned but made the other bank. He shook the chain in both hands and bellowed in the darkness, come across.
First came Tuskilla the mercenary, and then the seer and then Manzanita the skald, and last of all the trembling Dr. Pilsner. Tuskilla made the centre of the water but then gave a cry as he swung away into the current. The chain shuddered and skittered and the seer slipped and came down hard, striking his face on the stone and slipping in. The ursar whose name was Taul slipped too and splashed into the water on the far side and then the darkness was absolute and all of them were in the cold, a score of dumb appendages thrashing for a hold but to each hand the stone was icy smooth and purchaseless and each of them was insensible and so envenomed besides that in a moment all impressions of touch and feeling were as one. They heard Dr. Pilsner try to shout, save yourselves friends – I'm done for! as though with his knife he meant to cut himself off the chain and so lessen the weight on his companions. But his words were lost in the river sound and his numb hands insensible to the knife and the task of cutting. Thus twisting like a drowned centipede the whole string of them were swept away.
In the dark there was a whimper. It was the winged hound that had been left on the bank still trussed to the ursar's catchpole, and which had never successfully been broken.
HERE ENDS THEIR ADVENTURE, IN DEATH