“Why do they make… everything so… far apart… on the surface?” Oghren said in between his labored breathing.
“Are you small legs getting tired my dwarven friend?” Zevran answered already knowing the answer since Oghren had been steadily complaining for most of the day. “You know, if you trimmed that beard of yours, it would lessen your weight by a stone at least.”
“You’re just… jealous.” Oghren said.
“Of the mass of hair stuck to your face? Yes, insanely. I cry myself to sleep because I do not have a similar one. Alas!” Zevran said.
“I’m just saying… we’ve been walking for… days now?” Then he stopped and looked to the warden “Wait, are you lost? We aren’t walking around in circles, are we?”
“Can’t be.” Kathryn Cousland answered. “We’ve been following the tract of the sun. So unless the sun suddenly decided to rise in the west, we are traveling in a straight line.”
Orghren started walking and then stoppped “It doesn’t really do that right?”
Kathryn smiled. “No, it doesn’t.”
“Good.” Oghren said. “I was just checking. There was a story that in the days of the old empire someone sent their spouse to another thaig and told them to just keep turning left. Finally he ran out of supplies and died out there.” Oghren stopped when realized that most of the party had stopped walking and were looking at him with disbelief. “Well, he wasn’t exactly a paragon of intelligence.”
Kathryn shook her head and looked up to the sky. Mostly bright and clear but could see clouds, dark and thick, approaching and the wind was picking up. Looked like it might be bad. “Next town or tavern, we’ll stop get some supplies and make camp.” She said.
“Finally… someone sees reason.” Oghren said, greatly relieved.
“Well,” Morrigan said “’Tis so very hard to see from your point of view since ’tis so close to the ground.”
“Is that supposed to be an insult?” Oghren said. “In case you haven’t noticed… I’m a dwarf. Pretty much immune to ‘short’ jokes. Besides who cares how tall you are. The only size that matters for a man is the size of your...”
“Oh look!” Lelianan said very loudly, “...a village up ahead.”
“None too soon.” Alistair said low enough for Kathryn to hear.
As they looked over from the vantage point of the highway, they could nearly see the entire village. A tavern was just off the highway, chantry far off to the right, market square in the center of town. Off the square was what appeared to be a general store and just past that the blacksmith. In the distance on the hill there seemed to be the remnants of an old watchtower.
“Hmmm...” Alistair was looking curiously at the village as the others exited the highway.
“What is it?” Kathryn said.
“No smoke... with as cold as it is, should be fires, well... everywhere. At the very least from the tavern and blacksmith.” He said. They followed the rest into the square.
All was still except for the rising wind.
“How odd?” Morrigan said.
“You are no doubt referring to the apparently lack of... anything going on?” Zevran said.
“No people, no animals, no smoke, no noise, no... nothing.” Wynne said.
“Could the place be abandoned?” Leliana said.
“Maybe.” Kathryn said. “But why?”
“No sign of any attack. There are no bodies or blood and none of the normal damage you would expect to see, if you know… something had… happened.” Alistair said.
“Well, we still need supplies, hopefully they left something useful behind. Alistair, Leliana, Wynne, Oghren, check out the tavern but be quick. I don’t think we should stay here any longer than we have to.” Kathryn said.
As they walked out of earshot, Morrigan said.“Do you really think it wise to send Oghren to a tavern?”
“If there is anything worth finding there, he’ll find it.” Kathryn said.
“Fair point.” Morrigan said.
“Come, let’s take a look in the store and the blacksmith’s shop.” Kathryn said.
Alistair pushed on the door to the tavern. It wasn’t locked and gave begrudgingly at his touch. He pushed the door with force and it swung open, protesting all the way.
“Hello!?” He called out to the darkened room.
“Do you think it is a good idea to announce our presence? Leliana asked in little more than a whisper. “If something hostile is in there, we just let it know we are here.”
“Well, we don’t want to sneak up on someone. We aren’t bandits.” Alistair responded in a likewise low voice.
“No? We are just planning on stealing anything of use without the owner’s permission. Huge difference.” She said.
“No, not stealing...” as he peered into the dark “...simply taking forced contributions for ending the Blight. No doubt the owners would find that a worthy goal.”
“What I can’t figure...” Oghren said loudly “...is why you yell into the room and then whisper to each other about the fact that you already yelled. Believe me as much as you two yap, if anyone is inside they know we are here and if they don’t they will by the time we ransack the place.”
Oghren stepped inside. The rest followed. As they looked around could see that while everything seemed in order, it was clearly deserted and had been so for a while.
Wynne ran her fingers along the bar and examined the collection of dust on her fingertips. “No one has been here for a while, or else they are not paying their housekeeper enough.”
“Or too much.” Leliana said.
“Whoever it was didn’t leave in a hurry. All glasses were put away.” Alistair said. “It really looks like the place was closed for the night and never reopened. So whatever did happen… happened then. We should check out the upstairs rooms.”
“I’ll go.” Leliana said.
“I’ll check out the bar.” said Oghren.
“I’ll check out the kitchen but I don’t expect there is much left.” Wynne said.
“’Tis not much left, at least not anything of any use to us.” Morrigan said as she looked through the shelves inside the general store. The place was intact but oddly empty.
“Not so fast, my dear.” Zevran called out from the back room. “I seem to have hit the jackpot, as it were.” He had removed a few of the floor boards and was now reaching into the hole left. With some difficulty, he pulled out a strongbox.
“Now, either it is full or the owner has an impressive rock collection.” Zevran examined the lock, pulled out a pick and within moments had the lock sprung. He opened the chest to reveal several stacks of gold coins, a few gems and various pieces of jewelry.”
“Lovely.” Morrigan said as she fingered over several of the nicer pieces.
“Now, why would the owner not take this with them?” Zevern wondered as he counted the coins.
Kathryn considered. “He may not have had time to collect it, but… it doesn’t seem like the place was left in a hurry.” She looked around. “Maybe they planned to come back for it? Didn’t think they would need it wherever they were going?” She then shook her head, there were few places coin and valuables would not be at least helpful. “It’s very odd.”
“Even more odd,” Zevran said as he looked up from the coins “...any bandit worth his wage would have found this. I did and burglary not my forte. With the place empty as long as it must have been, I have to wonder why they did not.”
Alistair pushed open the door on the last of the tavern rooms. Leliana had her bow drawn but it was like the rest of the rooms, neat but empty.
After they went through the drawers Alistair suddenly turned to Leliana.
“You and her weren’t really talking about my... you know... performance, were you? You were just kidding me, right? I’m getting used to it... but if you were... actually talking about that... I mean, she didn’t really say anything... giggle-worthy, did she? If she did, you’d tell me, right?” He said.
Leliana took a moment so as to not laugh. His concern and embarrassment was simply adorable. When she was sure she was composed, she looked towards him “I...”
“Not that I’m worried... really...” Alistair said although not sounding sure of that fact. “...just if she did say something... I’d want to know... I think, I would.” He looked away and rubbed the back of his neck. He turned back to Leliana “I just want her to be... happy… with... me.”
Leliana smiled. “She ‘is’ very happy with you. Especially that part.”
“Oh, good... not that I was worried or anything... we should get downstairs.” He started to walk out of the room and then stopped. “And if she asks... I... so much… I mean more than I…”
Leliana smiled and touched his arm. “If she asks, I’ll tell her.”
“The forge is out.” Zevran said to everyone and no one. “A blacksmith never lets the forge go out. This is not a good sign.”
“Not that we’ve seen any of those.” Morrigan said.
Sten looked over the armory.“No useable weapons or armor.”
Kathryn looked at the forge. “It burnt itself out. The ashes are even cold.” Kathryn looked thoughtful. “There’s nothing here. We… we need to go.”
They stepped outside and started back the square. Morrigan looked around and then stopped when something caught her eye.
“Curious.” Morrigan said.
“What?” Kathryn said sounding impatient. The place was making her uneasy and she was now convinced that they needed to get out of here and quickly.
“I know that at some point I shall regret mentioning this but, it appears that there are lights in the chantry.” They all looked in that direction and saw small points of lights through the chantry windows.
“If those are candles and really they must be, they had to have been lit in the last couple days, and well after the village was abandoned.” Kathryn said.
“I think I was mistaken.” Morrigan said.
“I shall alert the town crier, figuratively speaking, of course.” Zevran said.
“I already regret saying anything.” Morrigan said.
Oghren finished going through the bar, nothing there but empty bottles. Not even a drop of watered-down ale in the kegs. He could barely contain his disappointment.
He looked up as Wynne came back from the kitchen. “Anything? Really hoping for a spit roasted nug with hot sauce or at least the owner’s secret stash of whiskey.” He said.
“No such luck, my firend.” She said. “Pots and pans but no food at all, not even a stray spoiled apple or piece of moldy bread. The cellar door is locked however, so not all hope is lost.”
“If locked, must be a reason.” He said. “If there is anything good, it will be there.”
“Yes, I agree but we shall have to wait for Leliana to return to unlock the door.” Wynne said. “I wonder… should we check on them. They have been gone a while.”
“If it was anyone else I’d figure they were up there bucking the bronto, but not the boy, he’s... a good one...” Oghren smiled with real fondness. “It just figures, don’t it?”
“What does?” Wynne said.
“The one he claims does little more than find himself on the wrong end of a sword and the one he won’t have anything to do with is helping save the whole sodding country... the whole sodding world.” Oghren shook his head. “He’s the type to be proud of. If I had a...”
“Nothing up there.” Alistair said as he bounded down the stairs. “Neat but empty, not even blankets on the beds. They took everything.”
“Do you think they might have abandoned the village because of the Blight?” Wynne asked.
“I guess but this is much farther north than the horde is even now, much less when they left.” Alistair said.
“Fear does make people do stupid things.” Oghren said.
“Kitchen is empty too but there is a locked cellar, if anything useful is here, figure that is where it would be.” Wynne said.
“That’s me!” Leliana said with fake cheeriness and proceeded to the back. The rest followed. She looked at the lock, took out a pick and started to work.
Alistair looked around and then stopped and tilted his head to the side and closed his eyes.
“What is it?” Wynne asked him.
“Nothing...” He said but didn’t seem convinced. “…but... do you... hear that?”
“Damn! Almost got it.” Leliana took out a different pick and attacked the lock.
“What?” Wynne said.
“Got it!” There was a loud click. Leliana stood in triumph and with effort opened the door. There was a rush of humid, musty air.
“It sounds...” Alistair said. “...almost like... singing.”
The great chantry doors opened. They stood and looked into the main hall of the chantry.
The place was quiet and still, except for the dozens of candles in the front of the hall that fluttered slightly in the rising wind whipping in from outside. They walked down the main hall, peering into the shadows and looking into each side room and corner but the place was empty.
They continued up the stairs and examined the candles. “These will burn for a couple days at most.” Morrigan said. “They must have been lit earlier today or yesterday at the earliest.”
“Whoever did it was not interested in coin.” Zevran said. “The chantry treasure is untouched. No one has even tried to open it. There are still coins in donation box. Now the strongbox in the store might have been overlooked but not this.”
“But…but why didn’t the revered mother or some of the others take it all with them when they left?” Kathryn said. “Unless...”
“Unless what, my dear?” Zevran said.
“Well,” Kathryn said. “…unless, they didn’t leave.”
Alistair picked up the lantern hanging by the cellar door. It still had some oil in it.
“Here, let me, dear.” Wynne said. She flicked her finger and the lantern came to life.
Alistair adjusted the flame and stepped down to the first stair. The creak it gave echoed. As it died out, there was another noise.
“I do hear something,” Wynne said. “It’s a… hum.”
“You two are just hearing things.” Oghren said.
“Well, yes but even if you do not hear it, that doesn’t mean the noise isn’t real and if it is real then something is making it and… that could be a problem.” Wynne said.
“Wait, I hear it too.” Leliana said.
“Probably just rats.” Oghren said.
“Rats?” Alistair said.
“Not afraid of rats are you, son?” Oghren said.
“No, not at all. In fact, I had a rat for a pet once. He could do this trick... not my point.” Alistair said. “My point is rats don’t hum. They scurry and squeak but not hum. Whatever it is, it isn’t a rat or even a lot of rats. It’s something else.”
Alistair started down the stairs. The cellar was about the same size as the main floor of the tavern. There were rows of shelves and racks along each side of the main room. They peered down each aisle.
They made their way to the end of the room and found nothing. The room was empty. “It seems rather anti-climactic, doesn’t it?”
“Climactic, huh?” Oghren said.
Alistair shook his head. “I still hear humming.” He looked around. “It’s coming from over there.” He started walking to the far corner, as he approached the corner stayed dark.
“Doorway. It’s a doorway. There is another room on the other side.” Alistair unsheathed his sword. Leliana drew her bow. Oghren got a better grip on his axe.
He took a step closer and then with the lantern leading the way turned the corner.