Chapter 12: Reconnaissance
"It is said that whoever can gather the six orbs can travel anywhere they wish without a ship," said the man at the shrine. "It's a Portogan legend that has faded from the minds of our people since the Second Great War."
After the group had their first, short voyage on the Mad Hound, the ship that King Saldor of Portoga had given them, the group had stopped by a shrine to the south of the castle town. The ship's captain, Captain Marbeley, had insisted on stopping by the shrine as it was custom to pray there for a day before a long voyage.
Besides that, Alice had wanted to conduct some advanced magical spells that would make their journey with the ship easier. Alice managed forge a link between herself and the ship so that if she cast a teleportation spell, she could take the ship along with her and drop it in the nearest spot of water connected to the ocean. This proved to be her first act as a sage as this was apparently a common incantation for sages to make in ancient times.
"Kind of strange for a nation so focused on the sea and on ships to have a legend encouraging other means of transportation, isn't it?" asked Alice.
"In ancient times, our culture was not so focused on ships as it was on exploration. Because of the Second Great War, our people turned from the old ways and have since favored more militaristic views," the man said sadly. "We have forgotten our legends and traditions and instead focus on building warships and improving our navy. Don't get me wrong, it's important that we protect our land from threats. But it depresses me that we have sacrificed some of our culture to do so."
"Tell me more about this legend," pressed Suzanne. "How does one travel anywhere without a ship?"
"I'm afraid that that piece of information was either never known or lost," apologized the man. "Nor do we know what these six orbs are or how they are used. I'm sorry I cannot tell you."
"Hey!" called a high-pitched voice from the back of the room. "We're all ready to depart when you are!"
The call came from Captain Marbeley. The man did not look like your typical ship captain. He was slight of build and short of stature. His voice sounded less like the tough voice of a seasoned explorer and more like a whining teenager. The group had heard that he was ridiculed among other sailors and was said to have been given his name because he "lost his marbles."
"Indeed," Ron had laughed. "It'd take a sailor without all his marbles to offer to follow us around on a journey like ours!"
That had been one of the strange things about the captain. The group had come to find out that he had volunteered for the job when the king had been forced to make good on his promise. When asked about it, the captain had answered much the same way as the man the group now talked to, "We used to be a nation of exploration. Now we focus more on weaponry and armor. I don't mind fighting, but it's not my favorite thing to do. I want to see things. I want to hear things. I want to go where no man has gone before."
"Of all the unprofitable excursions. I know I'm being paid to do this, but you guys could still make it easier on me. That, or you could increase my salary," came a familiar voice as the group approached the Mad Hound.
The group found that they were in need of someone to handle their finances. They needed someone to keep track of inventory, including what they acquired from slain monsters that could be sold, and someone to pay the crew of the Mad Hound. The group had hired their old friend Bill to not only handle their finances but to also give them financial advice. They hoped that in doing so the cost of paying him would be outweighed by the money he saved them. Besides that, everyone but Thomas was glad to have the merchant on board.
"It wasn't completely unprofitable," said Suzanne with a smile. "We heard some interesting stories and may have found the answer we're looking for."
The question that Suzanne was referring to was how to pick up intelligence on the Archfiend's doings. The group thought that they could get Portoga to join the Romalian Empire and Isis if they could show King Saldor the Archfiend's forces. However, the eastern side of Tarasia was almost completely surrounded by the Necrogond Mountains. The small portion that was not blocked off by the mountains was cut off from the rest of the region by a river. The only way to get eyes on the Archfiend was to climb the mountains and none who had made the attempt had returned to tell the tale.
"In some old legend?" asked Thomas skeptically. "That legend was probably nothing but a nursery rhyme."
"That's funny because that nursery rhyme we heard in Isis ended up helping out. People can store important pieces of information in the most innocent places. You just need to have your eyes, ears, and mind open," Alice replied.
"I'm sorry to break up your interesting conversation," cut in Bill with a hint of sarcasm, "but time is money. Shouldn't we be on our way?"
"You're quite right Bill," said Suzanne. "Give them the signal Ron."
"Hey Captain!" shouted Ron. "Time to head out!"
The group had decided to take a look at Tarasia right away. If they got attacked and things went south, they'd only need to hold their own long enough to separate themselves from the monsters and teleport away. Of course, if they were set upon by an army of monsters, it would be impossible to escape once they had been engaged. Thus, the group would need to be careful to watch for large groups of monsters.
One of the men in the shrine had also mentioned the city-state of Jipang far to the southeast. The city was almost directly east of Baharata, but would require the team to sail around Tarasia and then around the southern side of Dalmath, the continent to the east of the Romalian Empire on which was Baharata. The team planned to spend about a day or so checking out Tarasia and then would continue on to Jipang. If their maps and information were accurate, the city was about 11 days away.
Captain Marbeley had warned the team that they still had to be ready for battle even on the ship. Monster activity had dramatically increased on the seas, making sea travel difficult. The captain assured the team that between the archers and the wizard they had on board they could definitely keep the monsters from damaging the ship. But the monsters tended to take to the ship's deck after taking a few shots and the crew was not skilled in melee combat. If boarded, it would be up to the four to defend the Mad Hound and her crew.
"Captain! We have squishies!" called one of the crew. The other men did not need to wait for the captain's order. All the men on deck quickly grabbed their bows, arrows, and throwing weapons and went to the sides of the ship. The ship's wizard came up from his cabin with a spell on his lips.
"What are squishies?" asked Suzanne to the captain as he readied his own bow and arrows.
"Groups of marine slimes and men o' war," answered Captain Marbeley. "The marine slimes are mere distractions. They do little damage on their own but their tough shells and resistance to magic make them difficult to kill. The men o' war are the true threats in such a group. They're white slimes with tentacles. Their touch can numb a man, though they can't deal much pain."
"Just like those giant bees around Kanave," remembered Ron.
"The group tries to overwhelm crews with numbers and the men o' wars numbing abilities," continued Marbeley. "Or they show up with more powerful foes."
The group took out their weapons and waited to be called upon. Alice offered to help the men defend the ship, but Suzanne called her back, saying that they'd need her magic to bring a quick end to any fight on deck should the monsters manage to board. After a few minutes, it did not seem as though the four would need to fight when a call came from one of the crew.
"Help! They're crowding this side!" called the man. Then they heard him groan, more in frustration then in pain, as he dropped his bow and one of his arrows overboard, his arms having gone numb. The man had been overwhelmed by three men o' wars while four marine slimes, probably having blocked some of the arrows shot at the less armored men o' wars, were already going after a nearby crew member as he started to retreat.
"Alice, you heard the captain. Take out the men o' wars!" called Suzanne.
Alice sent a stream of fire at the men o' wars and sent two of them to their fiery deaths. One had managed to resist the attack and was rounding on the group. The four marine slimes also took notice of the group. Suzanne charged the remaining man o' war and sliced the creature in half, but not before taking a shocking touch to her sword arm. She felt the arm trying to go numb but succeeded in fighting the numbness off.
Ron and Thomas, seeing the men o' wars taken care of, went at the four marine slimes. They found that the marine slimes were indeed well armored. The four all ganged up on Thomas. Although they could not deal much pain individually, Thomas ended up taking many scratches to his legs and sides and he realized they could be dangerous in numbers. Suzanne joined the melee and the three were able to take care of the remaining enemies, though Thomas took some more wounds. It was nothing life threatening however.
"That went really well," remarked Ron after the battle.
"Don't get too cocky," said the captain as he walked over to the four. "I've seen groups of six men o' war make their way on deck. That can lead to a sticky situation. Then again, your wizard seems to do a good job of taking care of them. Maybe you'd handle such a group handily as well. Either way, I'm glad you guys are capable of defending the deck."
After four days of sailing the group decided to dock in southern Tarasia. The group had the ship sail down a river in order to get deeper into the region and they disembarked into a forest.
"Maybe it's because I was expecting to be fighting the moment we set down, but everything seems quiet," pointed out Ron.
"Too quiet," replied Suzanne. "Do you guys hear that?"
The rest of the group shook their heads. "That's just it," said Suzanne. "No animals. Whether it is animals or monsters, you can usually hear something, especially in a forest like this. The only sounds I hear are the ones we're making."
"Nonetheless, this won't help our case for a proving that there's a huge monster army gathering," noted Thomas.
The group proceeded south through the forest and it was then they heard a noise.
"Yesterday's meal was lacking. We need more explorers out here. I haven't had good meat in a long time," said a voice from out of the forest.
"Have the hags found anything? I swear, I wonder why we keep them around," said another voice.
"Calm yourself. They can't find anything if there's nothing to be found. It'll be a while before we need them for dinner," replied the first voice.
Suzanne motioned for the group to keep their own voices down and said, "Did you hear that, it sounds like people!"
"Apparently King Saldor was right, humans haven't been eradicated from this region," said Thomas.
"They sound like nomads. By the sounds of it, it must be hard to find food out here. Maybe the Archfiend has killed many of the animals as well as killing many humans," suggested Alice. "That would explain why we haven't heard any animals around here."
"Let's talk to them," said Suzanne. "We can figure out what has been happening around here."
The group approached the voices and found that the voices came from two oddly dressed people. The two were wearing green fur and blue masks that covered all but their eyes. The group approached with their hands raised to show that they meant no harm. However, the two men took battle stances.
"Look! Food!" said one. "See, we don't need those hags to help us! Food has come to us!"
"They're armed, we still need their help," said the other. He threw a strange stone into the air which began to emit a bright red glow. At the glow, two of the ugliest women the group had ever seen approached, flying on broomsticks. The women were dressed in a little less strange a manner, in gray cloaks with straw hats.
The women cackled as they approached and cried out in unison, "May the Archfiend bless this hunt!"
The group, realizing that they had accidentally approached some of the enemy, quickly put their hands to their weapons. However, since they had come out with their hands up, the enemies were able to act quickly. The two women flew at the group and clawed at them with their hands. Their nails were inhumanly sharp and gave some decent scratches to Ron and Suzanne. One of the men ran at the group and punched Thomas with inhuman strength in the stomach, sending him falling backwards. The other man cast a spell and the group was engulfed in a stream of fire, the stronger version that Alice was so fond of.
Alice quickly reacted to the attacks and cast her own stream of fire spell back at the men. They were badly burned, but nowhere near out. Ron and Suzanne both focused on one of the women and sent her flying off her broomstick with two horrible slash wounds to her midsection. The other witch broke off and cast a healing spell, the stronger version that Thomas now used, at one of the men.
Thomas and his opponent traded blows as Thomas took a hard hit to his leg but returned with a stab to the man's shoulder. Meanwhile, the spellcasting man that was still hanging back cast another spell. Bright yellow light, seemingly coming from the sky, shone down on the mortally wounded woman. Before the group's eyes, her wound closed up enough and her bleeding stopped enough for her to get back up, grab her broomstick, and start flying around again.
"That's a powerful healing spell!" warned Thomas. "Take out the men or they'll be able to heal almost any wound the others take!"
Heeding Thomas' advice, Alice sent another stream of fire at the men. The one Thomas had been fighting with finally succumbed to his wounds. Seeing the man in the back preparing a spell to bring him back, Suzanne sprinted over to the man and ran him through. The non-wounded woman cast a healing spell on the other witch. Although the other witch had made a remarkable recovery thanks to the spell of one of the men, she was still bleeding and noticeably wounded. However, with the other woman's spell, she looked as though she had not been fighting at all.
The now fully-recovered woman flew at Alice and gave her some scratches across the face. Thomas took advantage of the attacking woman's low flight and stabbed at the woman's back, catching her ribs. Suzanne came over and cut one of the woman's legs off, while also cutting her broom stick in half. The woman fell to the ground with a chilling scream. Ron managed a good slash to the last remaining enemy, almost taking her arm off. The woman tried to put up one last bit of resistance, but the group took her down.
As Thomas began to make his healing rounds, Ron and Suzanne went up to the still-living one-legged woman.
"Why did you attack us?" demanded Suzanne, as Ron held his axe to her neck. "What did we do to anger you?"
The woman returned Suzanne's question with a spiteful glare, and began trying to cast a spell. At the sign of magic being used, Ron put the woman out of her misery.
"Did you hear what they said as they started attacking us?" asked Ron. "They looked at us and cried out, 'Food!'" Ron looked at their fallen enemies in utter disgust. "They must be cannibals."
"Not only that, but the women cried out, 'May the Archfiend bless this hunt,'" recalled Suzanne. "Besides being cannibals, they must be serving the Archfiend."
"And yet they were in command of advanced healing spells. That one spell the man used was the kind of magic that could have saved Susie's arm on the spot back in the pyramid," said Thomas grimly.
"Maybe their service to the Archfiend has caused it to gift them with great magical power," suggested Alice.
As night approached, the group continued their investigation. Thankfully, they did not run into any more cannibals, though they did meet some monsters about. As the forest grew darker, the group was about to set up camp when they spotted some lights just outside the forest. The group went forward to investigate and found a strange town just outside the forest.
"Be careful guys," warned Suzanne. "We could be walking into a village of those cannibals."
The group went forward to investigate and found a town in bad shape. All the buildings were damaged, if not completely destroyed. However, the people went about their business as though their homes were not in such a state and as though it were not the middle of the night. The people were dressed normally and did not react violently to the group's approach. They were warmly greeted by people as they entered the town.
Suzanne warned the group to keep ready, in case the friendly act was just a ruse. The group approached a man inside the local inn and asked him what had happened to the town.
"Excuse me sir," approached Suzanne. "What happened to this town?"
"Whatever do you mean, young missy?" asked the man.
"I'm sorry, maybe I shouldn't have said anything. But I was curious to know what attacked this town? Was it the Archfiend?" asked Suzanne.
"What makes you think this town was attacked?" asked the man, who seemed genuinely confused.
"The destroyed buildings all over the place," said Suzanne with a voice of sympathy.
"Where are these destroyed buildings?" asked the man, now starting to chuckle. "I know this isn't the most glamorous town, but I'd hardly say anything has been destroyed."
"The man must be in denial or something," whispered Ron. "Let's ask someone else."
However, as the group questioned more people, they found much of the same thing. Nobody seemed to think their town was in such a state of disrepair. The group decided to split up in order to investigate the town.
As Suzanne wandered the town, she found a house on the outskirts surrounded by a large puddle of purple liquid. This liquid was known to be found in some areas. It was incredibly hot and had a vile magic about it that caused it to burn a person with even the most reinforced boot. There was not too much of it, however, so Suzanne carefully walked across the vile liquid. She found an old man inside the house.
"Excuse me, sir, but why do you stay here surrounded by this vile liquid? Or are you unable to get out because of it?" Suzanne asked. No sooner had she finished her sentence that she realized that, like the destruction of the buildings, the man was probably unaware of the liquid outside his doorstep.
"You must be strong to come here, young traveler," said the man. "We don't see many travelers around here anymore. Could I give you a suggestion?"
Suzanne was surprised to find the man seemed aware of the liquid, "Um, sure."
"To continue your travels, you'll need the Final Key. About two days' journey south of Baharata is the town of Lancel. You will find more information and resources there," explained the man.
"How do you know I'll need this key?" asked Suzanne.
"They call it the Final Key for a reason," chuckled the old man. "It is the final key you will ever need. It can open any door. And I mean any door. It can break even the most powerful magical enhancements. You could be in the most guarded prison on the planet and this key would get the door open for you."
"I'll think about this. Thank you for the information," said Suzanne.
The group met back at the inn. They were afraid to enter the building as it was so damaged it looked as though it would fall over at any moment. Ron and Alice were in great spirits as they told the group what they found.
"You should see the equipment they have for sale here!" said Ron. "It's some of the finest craftsmanship I've ever seen! I never thought I'd see anything like it!"
"It's not just the craftsmanship," said Alice, just as excitedly. "Some of the equipment is enchanted! They sell swords blessed to destroy undead! The armor will grant its wearer resistance to offensive magic!"
"Are you serious?" asked Suzanne. "With all the magic we've come up against recently, that would be of great help."
The group decided to buy some of the equipment before turning in. Due to its great craftsmanship and enhancements, the equipment had understandably high prices. Although the group had procured quite a bit of money, they found they still could not afford everything. Everyone got a set of the magic armor. Since Alice still needed an adequate weapon, they bought one of the swords, which the store keeper called zombie slashers, for her.
Finally, the group decided it was time to get some rest. Their curiosity over the town had kept them from waiting until the morning to check the town out, but now the group had to succumb to sleep. Not trusting the damaged inn, the group set up camp just outside of town. In the morning, the group reentered the town and found an eerie scene.
"They're all gone!" said Suzanne, completely amazed. "Where are they!"
"I think I might know," said Alice, with a grim voice that did not often come from her. "Those people we saw were not just people. They were ghosts. This town must actually have been destroyed by the Archfiend. Somehow, the spirits of the people remained here, living as though it had never happened."
"At least our equipment was real," said Ron. The armor and sword the group had just purchased remained tangible.
However, when the group investigated the town, they found no sign of the money they had paid for the gear. It had vanished along with its shopkeeper. There was no sign of the shopkeeper's stock either.
"Truly remarkable," mused Alice. "The ghostly shopkeeper has taken his money with him. He must be related to Bill."
Wondering why the ghosts had been there when they had arrived, the group waited until nightfall. Sure enough, when the sun ceased to shine on the land, the ghosts reappeared in the town, carrying about their business as though they had just awoken in the morning.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Alice. "What keeps these ghosts here, to show up every night?"
"It's sad is what it is," said Thomas. "Souls that cannot find rest, even in death."
"I have a feeling we shall return here," said Suzanne. "Not only to buy more of that equipment, but to unravel the mystery that surrounds this place."