There is a long moment of silence as the stony oread ponders these words. When he speaks, his words are low and slow, 'And why should I believe you? I can see the evil about you, your ally clutches old treasures that deserve to rest, and your other accomplice was caught sneaking around in my woods. Perhaps I should simply destroy you now and stop your other plots. Tell me what I should not."
"That old treasure was binding an unwilling spirit to the world, keeping it trapped here until the staff was removed from the vault," Sevak replies, evenly. "As for why you should not destroy me, would that not be to commit the same error the naga do--to judge one's worth by their race? Yes, I am nagaji, and yes, the evil I touched still stains me in spite of the hatred for it I now have... but is it not the desire of evil that there be no space for repentance? No room to change once one has erred? Then it would seem to me that we are all condemned."
"As for why you should believe me, belief is rarely won with words. Try me and see if I act as I speak. I doubt anything I could say would convince you, but my actions will speak true."
The oread druid merely stares at Sevak for a long time again, weighing these words. Hyo Soon shivers next to him, quailing under that hard gaze. On the ground Paq murmurs something against the gag in his mouth.
Then without warning the figure says, 'Very well. Then let your actions speak." Abruptly the chameleon begins climbing up the walls, quickly blending into the fallen stones. out of the mass Sevak hears the parting words, 'And mind the trees, nagaji..." In a moment the strange druid is gone.
As soon as he is out of sight, Sevak rushes over to Paq and begins to free him.
"Are you okay, Paq?" he asks as he checks over his friend's wounds.
As Sevak leans over Paq, the ratfolk is covered in slime and dirt. Looking through, the wounds look mostly superficial, little more then scrapes.
Once the gag is removed the ratfolk launches into a tirade. "He snuck up on me! Damn gravel head. I never heard him coming, the son of a..." he glances at Hyo Soon and elevates his language, "How can he be so quiet?You aren't, Sevak. I can usually hear you blundering around a mile off."
As the bonds are removed he clenches his feet and hands, pushing life back into the constricted limbs.
He rolls his neck and says, "Made me look like am amatuer. And I had had a fairly productive day before that, although getting tied up like a holiday ham isn't the grand finale I had in mind." Grumbling he starts cleaning out his fur, using his small claws.
Sevak is glad to see Paq is mostly unharmed.
"I was never very skilled in stealth, it is true," Sevak admits, "But some druids can move as soundlessly as the great jungle cats."
He pauses a moment, then adds, "Regardless, I am glad you are not badly injured. We faced considerable danger, but we were able to find the staff Hyo Soon sought. And I... now have a most unusual blade."
For some reason Sevak was hesitant to fully explain his experience with Zhèngyì to Paq... perhaps because he knows the two likely will not agree on some subjects.
"For now, we should find somewhere sheltered to rest and discuss our plan of approach for the bandits," he says aloud.
Paq's eyes light up on Zhengyi, 'That is quite the knife, Sevak. Looks like even you could do some damage with that one." Then he looks at the simple staff and narrows his eyes, "I imagine it is far deadlier then it appears?" Then the theif sighs, "I have been outdone by a wizard and a druid in stealing. My ancestors are shamed."
Still shaking his head, they find a crumbling old amphitheater to take cover. The woods are thick here and the stonework solid enough to create a barrier to any passerby.
"So, all went well on your end?" Paq says, sitting down on a mossy stone.
Hyo Soon sits as well, still gazing at the staff.
"I almost died a couple of times, but did not," Sevak replies, with a hint of a grin. "We freed a spirit from eternal servitude, as well."
He frowns slightly, realizing how long Hyo Soon has been silent. He looks over at her. "Is all well with you?" he asks, concerned.
Hyo Soon blinks and looks up, "Oh, sorry. I am fine. It is just...this object has many layers of magical properties. It is like a very intricate puzzle. The old Imperial wizards were masters beyond compare. I merely lost myself contemplating it." She lays the staff at hr side, reverentially and focuses on the conversation.
"Freed a spirit?" Paq says, 'Is that a fancy way of saying you had to kill an undead with your fancy new sword? But I am glad you did not die. I would really hate to miss it. I have a feeling it would be very exciting."
The ratfolk stretches out, still cleaning his fur. 'Anyway, I found the bandits. They are holed up in a big former palace, of course. Place is falling down but still has that false sense of grandeur bandits like." he sniffs and Hyo Soon laughs adding, 'But you..."
'Are a thief, not a bandit." Paq says primly, 'Bandits live in dirty hovels and rob peasants. Thieves live in elegant homes and steal from the rich." He looks around the muddy stones and trees around them. 'Well, they should."
You travel with a thief? Zhengyi says sharply.
Paq goes on, still looking at the forest, 'Do you think your new friend is watching Sevak? How should we act?"
Sevak hesitates a moment at Zhèngyì's question, before mentally responding, Paq... is a friend, with flaws like the rest of us. I try to help him work on them, just as he has saved my life many times.
Aloud he answers, "Act as we always do. We have nothing to hide. Now, how much did you see of the bandits? Do they have many sentries?"
'Everyone has something to hide." Paq says but goes on, "There are quite a number of them. Too many to assault directly. maybe four dozen? However, I evened the odds a bit."
The little ratfolk pats a pouch, 'I managed to sneak into the kitchens. Or at least what passes for kitchens. I sprinkled a few herbs into their evening soup. A good many of them will be..otherwise occupied. At least I hope so."
A poisoner Zhengyi says again, This is not honorable
What is dishonorable about poison? Sevak mentally asks, genuinely surprised. I'd imagine there's no stigma against poison in Nagajor...
"If it is recognized as an attack, that will make diplomacy harder..." Sevak comments, then sighs. "Not that it was ever likely to succeed. Were you able to observe anything about what passes for their heirarchy?"
Sneaking around, attacking or even killing your foe without meeting him face to face, no chance to surrender. It is simply not done The sword says, displeased. Surely you know this?
Paq shrugs, "I don't think they will realize it is an attack. Bandits eat bad food and drink nasty water all the time. Frankly, it might have happened anyway, judging from the slop in the pots. Boiled tree roots." The ratfolk shudders then adds, 'Not that we eat much better."
At Sevak's question he says, "I didn't see the Boss. That Red Mouth, he stays inside all the time, as best as I can tell. Gives his orders through a few trusted henchmen who come and go to his inner room. They are very afraid of him, but that is common. Few bandit lords rule by love."
Hyo Soon breaks in, 'So what is the plan? Kill all the bandits?"
It is hard for Sevak to have two conversations at once--one in his mind and one aloud.
It is... good to give a chance to surrender, but if they are causing great harm and you cannot stand against them face to face? He mentally replies. He knows the discussion deserves considerable thought, but so does the conversation with Paq and Hyo Soon.
"The plan... I would still try to speak to their leaders and convince them that protection--real protection--of trade will reap them greater rewards than banditry," Sevak states, "But if it becomes clear that speaking is not an option, it would seem best to me to strike at the leaders. The common bandits will likely break and run if their leaders are slain. At the least it would reduce the problem, for it sounds as if this Red Mouth has been more effective at organizing them than most."
Sevak sighs. "I do not know... appealing to their greed seems most likely to work, speaking of how they could live like kings instead of squatting in rotting palaces. But how I would get into a position to even make that much of a proposal I know not, as they are as likely to rob or kill me as speak with me if I show myself."
Paq shrugs and turns back to cleaning out his fur. Hyo Soon is staring at Sevak as if waiting for him to expound some great plan? When nothing is forthcoming she says, "You..don't have a plan? After all of this time and effort, you don't even know what you are going to do? That's crazy!" She bursts out finally. 'You'll get us all killed."
Sevak shakes his head. "How was I to plan without information? I had hoped to find some clue, some hint as to how to best approach them, but..."
He sighs. "Do not worry, if I cannot think of something better, I will not ask you to charge in blindly. I am just... struggling to think of a good way to approach this."
He pauses, then shakes his head slightly again. "Perhaps I could have sought to find a way to convince them by joining them, but... I do not think that would have worked. I would not commit the horrible acts they do, and so any such attempt would have ended badly."
Hyo Soon merely throws up her hands and stands up, shaking her head. But Sevak can tells he is thinking, although the woman is more then a little disgusted at Sevak's lack of planning.
Paq looks up, 'Well, I overheard some of them talking. I don't think it was of any import, but what were you hoping to discover? I mean, they are the usual bandits. Dirty, hungry people too violent, stupid or poor to make it in the towns. The boss being so reclusive and organized is slightly unusual but not very."
Slay them all Zhengyi suggests.
"I am not certain... some crack, some hint of a person to approach who would listen, I suppose." He barks a sharp laugh. "I suppose I had been holding on to the hope of finding another disloyal subordinate or something of that sort."
He shakes his head. "Perhaps it is just a vain hope on my part. If bandits respected anything but force, they would not be bandits, yes?"
"This was your plan, after all." Paq says shrugging.
Hyo Soon turns and says quickly, 'We should capture a bandit. Interrogate him! Maybe he knows something, some weakness, some factional issue."
Paq frowns, "I don't know, it could be risky. I say we just leave, take the Staff, and let bandits be bandits."
Zhengyi, not easily ignored repeats, Kill them all and let the Gods sort them out
Sevak shakes his head. "And leave the people here to suffer after all they have suffered from my kind? No."
Silently, he replies, Only as a last resort. I would rather turn someone from evil than kill them.
"Capturing one... we do need more information. Perhaps that would be the best way to acquire such. Of course, we shall need to find a bandit who will not be missed for a while."
He looks to Paq. "Is there somewhere we could watch their comings and goings unobserved for such an opportunity?"
The ratfolk rubs his small, narrow chin.
"I think we could find a place. They have some of the trees cut down but it is a haphazard job and there are a few areas of thick underbrush. Do we go tonight or do we want to camp out someplace?" he asks, looking around. It is late afternoon, judging by the sun, hidden above the green canopy.
"We rest tonight," Sevak answers. "I have expended what magic I have, and Hyo Soon has cast many spells, as well. We will likely need all we can get when we make this attempt."
Nothing else at present.
The next morning, Paq leads Hyo Soon and Sevak through the forested ruins. The ratfolk is in his element, although he does remark her prefers sneaking through city streets to wooded glades. Still, he is quiet and sure of himself, guiding them past tumbled down buildings, through deer paths and past a few deep pools of water. Even so, Sevak has a feeling they are being watched by the oread, hidden somewhere in the trees around them.
They start to see signs of habitation. Piles of garbage and refuse, muddy tracks hacked through the undergrowth, markings on piles of stones, guideposts. Paq puts his fingers to his narrow muzzle and gesture for silence. They crawl, carefully through a thick bramble bush.
When they stop, Sevak is astonished at how close Paq has got them. The ruined place, a vast jumble of stones intertwined with tree roots, lays just off to the right. Dead ahead is large area of packed earth, covered with cook fires and piles of goods. Obviously this is the main camp, where the bandits spend their days. Sevak sees a full dozen of so idling about, drinking wine or gambling over dice.
To the left is a rough path leading out, the main access to and from. Guarding it are two bandits, both sitting on crudely cut tree stumps.
They are talking, quite loudly.
"No potatoes left." One complains, picking his dirty fingernails with a knife.
The other grunts but says nothing else.
The first bandit goes on, "Damn food is always running out. Been days since I've have a bit of meat other then muddy fish hauled out of the river."
The other grunts again and points to the path.
As if understanding, the first one says, "True, tribute coming in today. I hope they bring potatoes or a nice loads of hams." His ugly face grows wistful before he frowns, "But they haven't been bringing much lately. None of them have. Farmers are growing too canny and they are poor anyway."
Perception: 1d20 + 15 ⇒ (9) + 15 = 24
Beyond the speakers, Sevak looks harder at the area. He sees a few features of interest.
Alongside the old, crumbling walls of the palace he can see a rickety lattice of scaffolding, along with piles of rocks, buckets of lime and rough-hewn timbers. Apparently there is some sort of repair work going on, although no bandits are currently at work.
Farther back, hidden in the shadows of some trees, Sevak can see the dim outline of a large cage. The ex-druid can't see what is being held there, but he has the sense it is some sort of large creature.
Lastly, he notes among the bandits a few others either in manacles or with legs tied. They are chopping wood, stoking fires and other mundane tasks. Slaves, or at least captives taken from the surrounding countryside.
A certain detatched corner of his mind notes that Sevak is angrier about the slavery than the banditry... which as he thinks about it, is somewhat hypocritical. Nonetheless, he finds his thoughts turning more towards violence as he takes in the sights here, possibilities of a slave revolt or the like to both free the slaves and slay the bandits.
He pushes the thought aside for the moment, still uncomfortable with the idea of mass slaughter. There is dissatisfaction here... there may well be hope to turn at least some of the bandits to a better course. But he would know more if he could.
He settles in to listen a little longer.
If nothing interesting happens after a while, fall back and talk.
Sevak waits a bit longer, to see if anything else transpires. The two guards grumble some more about food and other things until one holds up a hand.
"I think I hear something." For a moment Sevak worries they have been detected but both men are looking down the path.
Peering, Sevak can see a small squad of men approaching, circled around a small wheeled cart. The cart is being pulled by a slight young man, wearing ragged clothes that used to be very fine and colorful. He looks tired, sick and despairing.
The cart itself looks fairly empty, and from his angle, Sevak can't see anything in it.
The guards wave the new group into the main area, past the cookfires, to the stairs in front of the palace. Sevak can tell the newcomers are nervous, and hands constantly drift to the assorted weapons. One of the bandits heads inside the palace, probably to get the leader.
The others wait, awkwardly in the silence.
This might be an opportunity to see the 'Red Mouth', or at least a lieutenant... as much as the sight of the poor farmers sickens him, Sevak still waits, watching.
While he waits, a thought occurs to him--a freed slave could likely give them as much information as a captured bandit, and would do so more willingly. He will have to speak with the others about how they might do this.
Sevak waits, curious what will happen next.
Suddenly, a few bandits run out of the palace doors, like leaves being blown by a storm. They run down the stairs and form a rude honor guard around the massive opening.
Into it strides a tall, powerful figure, moving with easy grace. With a shock, Sevak realizes the person is scaled and glints in the morning light. It is a nagaji.
The scales are covered with paint from head to foot, swirls of colorful designs. Even at this distance Sevak can see white skulls, broken chains, and a roaring fires. Around the massive mouth is red, painted like dripping blood. Red Mouth, indeed.
He is tall and powerfully built, at least as formidable as Sevak. One eye is missing, the empty socket worked into the intricate paint scheme as the black pit of despair. In one hand he holds a long glaive, with a polished bone handle.
'I welcome my tribute." he booms, the voice carrying easily to all corners of the clearing. Everyone looks terrified. 'What gifts do you bring to slake our lust for destruction?"
The visitors quaver and one says, "This cart, the goods inside and this slave." he prods the thing man pulling the cart.
The Red Mouth glares at them, "This is all?" he gesture to one of his bandits, a rangy man with a dirty beard.
The bearded bandits goes forward, looks intot he cart and says, "Five bags of rice."
'Five bags of rice?" Red Mouth says quietly, although his voice fills the air. 'That is all they bring to us?"
"The farmers are poor, sir." The visitor squeaks, his voice frail and weak compared to the confident baritone of the nagaji. "And they fight like demons for their food. It is becoming increasingly difficult.."
The nagaji cuts him off mockingly, 'Increasingly difficult.." Then he smiles, showing a mouth full of sharp, filed teeth. "Farmers are too much for you? Or perhaps you are more scared of them then myself?"
"No,no, of course not.."
"or maybe you keep the cream of your success to yourself and hope to fool me with this prattle about farmers!" Red Mouth thunders and the man falls to the ground
Ignoring him, the hulking nagaji waves to the crowd, 'A lesson must be taught here..." With a jerk he points the glaive to the wooded clearing.
'Bring forth the lesson." he says, voice cold and calm, carefully controlled. It occurs to Sevak that this is not a raving madman, but someone who can carefully control a crowd.
There is a loud clanking of metal from the wooded area. Then, a number of bandits appear, pulling on heavy chains, guiding a dark shape from the cage.
The figure steps into the sunlight and Sevak is startled. It is a large humanoid shape, over twenty feet tall. Resembling a bestial ogre with great tusks and thick, bristly hair, the brute seems quite nimble despite its cloven hooves. It growls something like a threat to one of the bandits but comes along, looking cowed.
They bring it tot he edge of the clearing. When it stops walking, it seems to liven up, expecting something. It stands straighter, the black eyes darting around. The creature lifts its head and lets loose a bellow that shakes the very stones and makes the leaves quake. As the roar slowly dies away, Red Mouth points his glaive at one of the bandits.
With a scream the man tries to run for it, sword forgotten, but bandits pile on him. They manhandle him toward the imposing creature, forcing him to fake it. The monster becomes more excited, feet stamping, muscles twitching and Sevak can see drool forming from the lopsided mouth.
Finally, with a great push, they heave the man at the feet of the creature. The man screams int error as a massive, gnarled hands reach down and pick him up bodily. With a swift motion the man is heaved up and brought to the maw. It opens, and the tusks glisten with spit. Then, with a sickening crunch, it bites off the man's head. Blood gushes everywhere and Sevak can hear Hyo Soon gasp beside him, while Paq curses.
While his companions react with disgust, Sevak reacts with barely-contained rage.
This Red Mouth must die. He is cruel to the farmers, cruel to his slaves, and cruel to his men. There would be no negotiation until he was dead. It would not be easy... but they would find a way.
He motions to his friends to back away. He doubted there would be anything more to see for a time, and they needed to speak.
With Paq leading, they withdraw from the scene, followed by the sounds of crunching bone. They find themselves out of earshot around a small spring, surrounded by old tumbled stones. The stones are covered in delicate purple flowers growing on thin vines, entwining new and old. The water bubbles, fresh and clear.
It seems contradictory somehow, that such a quiet, beautiful place could be near to such cruelty and evil. But so it is.
"It seems clear to me that we shall get nowhere until the Red Mouth is dead," Sevak states to his companions. "Such cruelty to his own men... how could we negotiate with such a one? But it will not be easy."
He looks at Hyo Soon. "Do you know anything of that creature he has cowed?"
He turns to Paq. "How difficult would it be to free one of the slaves? Preferably one who has been here for some time and therefore seen much."
Hyo Soon frowns, tapping the Staff with her long fingers, "I think it was a nependis. They are a strange type of ogre, as best as I can recall. Very dangerous and not very smart. Not much above the level of a animal. I'm surprised they are trying to keep one in captivity."
Paq ponders his own question, 'Well....It isn't impossible. I didn't get a good look if they keep the slaves penned up at night, but I doubt it. Bandits like that tend to lack the discipline. In any case, we'd have to sneak in to the camp at night....If we took one during the day they'd notice when they didn't come back with the firewood or whatever. Do you think a slave would know anything?"
Sevak nods, thinking things over. "Servants--and slaves, I would think--hear all kinds of things that their masters never think about them hearing. And they would likely be more willing to share what they had heard with their savior than would a captive bandit to their captor. Not to mention if they have been tasked with repairs and cleaning they will be familiar with the weakest and least-seen areas of the camp and the palace. Still, I would rather not wait until night if we could help it..."
He thinks a little longer, then turns to Hyo Soon. "What do you think it would take to scare a nependis? I feel this is a clue about the Red Mouth, but I cannot quite divine what. Would simple strength or martial skill suffice, or does this suggest magic?"
He looks back over to Paq. "How much of the perimeter of the fallen palace he dwells in did you investigate?"
Hyo Soon ponders this, "Well, they are not much more then animals. Physical force would probably work, if applied enough. You would have to be cruel and cunning about it, I suppose." she spreads her hands, "But I'm not sure. I was never really good with animals."
Paq grins, teeth showing slightly, "It is a big place. There is a reason he is trying to repair it. Right now it is security nightmare with lots of broken walls and corridors. You planning on sneaking in? Shouldn't be too hard although we may have to traverse some wild areas of the ruins."
"So he is strong and cruel, but not necessarily more than that," Sevak murmurs. More loudly he says, "A frontal assault would be folly, and if my impression is right, slaying the Red Mouth will go a long way towards getting the other bandits to listen. The best way to accomplish this would be to catch him alone--and it seems likely that within his 'palace' would be the best opportunity to do so. Even then I am not certain attacking him directly would be successful... though three on one we could likely defeat him. Still I would prefer to seek more advantages if we could..."
He trails off, thinking.
It's late for me so I'm stopping here but if no one would interject here I can post more Monday.
"We would have to present ourselves after the deed was done... with proof," Sevak says, grimmacing slightly in distaste at the thought. "With evidence that we have slain him, they would have a great incentive to listen to my words."
Paq shrugs, apparently unconcerned about such grisly ideas. 'Well, he is a nagaji. A arm or leg would probably work, unlikely to be confused with anyone else. Still, a head is traditional, doubly so because of the whole 'Red Mouth thing'. More powerful symbol."
"Paq!" Hyo Soon says sharply, looking green herself.
"He is correct, as distasteful as it is," Sevak says. "Still, if you have an idea as to how to beat him in front of his men, I would prefer that. But it seems to me that our best chance is to catch him alone and show evidence of the results."
"Ideas?" Paq says blandly, "I thought you were the heroic one. Aren't the plans of epic derring-do your department?"
Hyo Soon rolls her eyes and says, 'I still like the idea of capturing one of them, myself."
Zhengyo breaks in then and intones, Challange him to a fight. Warlords such as him thrive on such bloody spectacles.
"I'd like to think we were partners in this," Sevak replies to Paq with a bit of a grin.
He pauses a moment at Zhèngyì's suggestion. That would work well, likely... if we could defeat him. But I do not think I as I am could beat him one-on-one, even with your aid. Do you see a reason it would be otherwise?
Sevak could not help but wonder why justice had not strengthened his arm when fighting the Sahkil. Surely that battle had been just?
Is it not more honorable to free the farmers here from the oppression of the bandits? Sevak questions. Who would save them if I got myself killed?
"Perhaps we might look for an opportunity to capture one of the bandits within the palace while we infiltrate it," Sevak suggests. "They would be more likley to know something of value for facing the Red Mouth."
Sevak thinks the question over for a moment.
"If we grab someone close to the Red Mouth, they will be missed. The question is, would that be a problem or an opportunity? If they start a search and it passes us by, the Red Mouth might be more lightly guarded. If they do not search, he might instead call for more guards..."
He thinks a bit longer. "He does not seem the sort to care for a missing man. I think we will be better off questioning our captive and then trying to slay the Red Mouth. Which means I would like Hyo Soon to come with us."
He looks over at her. "If you would be willing, of course. Your magic would likely turn the tide of battle when we face the Red Mouth."