Hargus Hurryhouse Adventures - Book 1, Chapter 9

Morning came with the sunlight over the hills, fighting to make its way through the thick fog. The adventurers had prepared to explore the Dead Hills mine the night before and were sleeping soundly.   Whining pierced the silence. Beivalur awoke, turning toward the sound. It came from Courtenay, who was talking in her sleep. The whine was followed by gibberish and something about ale. Beivalur shook his head with a chuckle. He stretched his massive frame and began to pack up his kit quietly. He stoked the fire before anyone else awoke and prepared hot water to soak some oats for breakfast. Oats were one of the few things that his tribe could keep over the long, brutal winters, and they provided comfort to him. As they rehydrated, he added some raw pine nuts for a bit of crunch and waited.   He considered today's task with apprehension. They did not know what they would be walking into. Obviously, there was something in that mine that Umbra wanted, and he was willing to decimate an entire village over it. He may have taken it over at this point. And if he had, what would be waiting for them? Would he have posted some type of guards? Would he have set traps? It was impossible to know. Beivalur stopped himself and took a deep breath. Running this over in his mind would only distract him from his tasks.   As the scent of breakfast began to waft through the room, the others slowly aroused from their slumber. A bleary-eyed Agnese asked, "Oatmeal?"   "Good morning, Oatspell. Yes, I have made enough for all. Would you care for some?"   "Yes, thanks," replied Agnese. "Did I hear someone talking a while ago?"   Beivalur chuckled. "That was Nightglade."   "She doesn't shut up even when she is sleeping," Agnese joked.   "You're insulting me in my sleep?" a drowsy Courtenay asked. "It can't be morning already. I was having such a wonderful dream. There were unicorns and tasty stew, some beautiful people and ale. But I'm not sure about the giant monkey..." Her voice trailed off, accompanied by a confused look on her face. Beivalur glanced at each other and, after a moment, burst out laughing.   "Giant monkey?" asked Agnese.   "It was a dream, ok? Leave me alone. What's for breakfast? Oatmeal? Ok, I guess". Courtenay picked herself up off the floor and stared into the bubbling pot of oatmeal. "Almost ready? I'm starving. When are we leaving? Where's Ninette?"   Beivalur and Agnese hadn't noticed that Ninette was gone. They likely hadn't gone far, as their pack and sleep mat were still in the room. Their blanket was tossed on the mat in such a way that it appeared they were curled up,   "I don't know... they couldn't have gone far. All their things are here." Agnese seemed unconcerned. "I'm sure they can handle themselves fine." Agnese tied the last strap on his pack. "We need to get going soon. We want to get to the mine by midday, so we have the best chance for sunlight there."   "Don't rush me," pleaded Courtenay. "You don't want to see me when I'm hungry. You wouldn't like me when I'm hungry."   "Who said I like you now?" teased Agnese, bringing a howl of laughter from Beivalur.   The door to the outside opened, and Ninette walked in. "I'm sorry, give me a moment to pack my gear."   "Do not worry. We will have some oatmeal first. One should not travel on an empty stomach." Beivalur removed the pot from the fire and looked for bowls. "Anything of interest outside?"   "Just devastation. We need to help these people. They won't survive for very much longer like this." Ninette seemed moved by the village's plight, much more than the group would have imagined, given Ninette's usual stoic demeanor. "Are we ready to head to the mine?"   "Can I juft finif eatinghh?" asked Courtenay, a spoonful of oatmeal shoved in her mouth.   Beivalur let out another guffaw. "Yes, Nightglade, by all means. We wouldn't want to deprive you and your monkey of sustenance."   Ninette looked puzzled. "Monkey?"   Beivalur and Agnese glanced at each other and roared with laughter. "We'll explain as we go. Let's get the monkey tamer going," said Agnese, still chuckling.   Even Courtenay was laughing now. "Careful, or I'll send him after the both of you!"   Ninette looked more confused than before but simply shook their head and grabbed their gear. In a few minutes, the group had readied and headed out the door. Ulrin was walking toward them. "I figured someone better show you the way. That road is so overgrown that you'd waste time figuring it out." The kid was beginning to grow on Agnese. He had courage and showed initiative. If he ever decided to leave the village, he might be a promising recruit for the Royal Guard.   As they headed through the village, the scenes of despair and decimation were everywhere. There was a slightly sweet aroma in the air, like that of funereal flower arrangements. Of death. As they walked through the village, the near-silence was occasionally broken by the moan of someone in pain or the crying of a child. Ulrin seemed unmoved. Likely, he had become desensitized to the signs of decay and suffering.   As they reached the edge of the dead forest, trees began to encroach on the path. It would not be long before they would have to break dead branches and cut their way through dried-up bushes to move forward along the road. The further they traveled, the trees began to show more signs of life. Leaves began to appear on branches, thickening to where they started to block the sun. Passage on the road became more and more difficult as overgrowth thickened, and the condition of the road deteriorated.   Ulrin shook his head. "It's been a long time since I've been on this road. We used to keep it maintained when we were mining blackglass. But since Umbra showed up, we haven't been up here. This could take a while." He slashed away at the underbrush with a knife, hoping to cut it away. Courtenay watched him for a moment, then gently laid a hand on his shoulder. "Hang on a second," she said. She reached into her waist pouch and retrieved a small green stone. With a quick incantation, she clasped her hands together in front of her, spreading her arms wide. The= underbrush parted before her.   Agnese simply shook his head. "You couldn't have done that an hour ago?"   "Sorry, got caught up in the hacking and slashing. I was pretending the bushes were you, Aggie."   Ulrin and Beivalur chuckled. Ninette, however, did not share in the levity. "Whatever affected the village, it hasn't reached here. It is localized, and it doesn't feel like magic. There is something else at work here. What could have killed so much and made people sick in such a distinct area?"   The brief joking came to an end. Ninette was right. Courtenay didn't mention sensing any magic. And given her penchant for chat, she would have said something if she had sensed it. The group continued along the road, now more able to distinguish it, and Courtenay occasionally stopped to clear more ahead. The terrain became hilly, and the road passed between the hills, twisting its way further. Suddenly, Agnese raised a hand. They stopped, and Agnese put a finger to his lips.   He slowly drew his sword from its scabbard. Seeing this, the others prepared as well, drawing knives and staves. They could faintly hear sounds like hissing but with a structure. Kobolds, Agnese thought to himself. They liked the hills because they provided excellent nesting locations in the crags and cliffs. They generally weren't that dangerous, but they could still be nasty little buggers if they came in numbers. He motioned for them to move behind a large rock off the road.   This turned out to be a bad choice.   From above, they began to have rocks rained down upon them. Nothing too large to begin with, but enough to sting. They moved back toward the road, only to see a pair of Kobolds running towards them. But there was something different about them. They were bigger than most Kobolds and more muscular. And they looked more intimidating.   The first Kobold on the road leaped toward Agnese with a small dagger in its hand. Somehow, the dagger managed to find a seam in his armor, giving Agnese a nasty cut on the shoulder. The second Kobold also leaped but missed Agnese and fell at Beivalur's feet. From the rocks above, the Kobolds continued to hurl rocks at Ulrin and Courtenay but missing completely. The stones fell harmlessly at their feet, and Courtenay just glared.   Agnese grabbed hold of the Kobold that leaped at him, and with a push, shoved it off. One slash with his sword, and the Kobold lay bleeding on the ground, trying to crawl away. Meanwhile, Beivalur raised his staff, and with a mighty swing...missed entirely. He was a healer, after all.   Courtenay's annoyance manifested itself as she mimicked holding a ball in her hands. The ball instantly became real, a flaming orb, which she flung at the kobolds above. The ball burst as it hit the first Kobold, knocking the second one off the rock. The first screamed and ran as fire consumed it. Courtenay grinned in satisfaction. Ulrin, meanwhile, struck out at the fallen Kobold, dispatching it with a ferocity that was unexpected in this young man. "I hate Kobolds!' he said.   Ninette moved in on the Kobold at Beivalur's feet. This one was more slippery than the others and dodged Ninette's attack as well, getting to its feet and preparing to attack. That's when the party saw the other two Kobolds running towards them down the road. "Great," thought Agnese, "more. Where are they coming from?"   The Kobold in front of Beivalur grabbed at his leg, but in the process, managed only to get under Beivalur's feet. Now trapped under the big Mosae's weight, the Kobold was left to suffer the blow from Beivalur's staff. A quick strike on the head knocked the Kobold out, and Ninette finished the job with a deft dagger plunge into the Kobold's heart. "Why do these Kobolds look different" they mused out loud.   "I was just asking myself that," answered Agnese. "But we've got more company." He prepared to meet the two coming at him. Suddenly, roaring past his shoulder, went another of Courtenay's fireballs. He instinctively ducked as it whizzed past his head, just missing the Kobolds but causing them to split up. Ulrin tried to charge at the Kobolds but tripped, hitting his head on a large rock in the process. One of the Kobolds ran towards him but met Agnese's sword first. The wound was significant, and the Kobold began to crawl away. Ninette threw her dagger at the second Kobold, hitting it, but the knife had not rotated sufficiently, and the hilt bounced off the Kobold's scales harmlessly. Beivalur closed the distance between him and this Kobold and took a swing with his staff. The Kobold ducked, dodging Beivalur's staff easily. The Kobold retaliated, slashing at Beivalur's leg and opening a vicious gash across his shin, right through the boot! Beivalur staggered back in pain.   Ninette gave up their usual stoicism and drew another dagger from their robes, but not before the Kobold could move again. As they tried to get in a quick slash, the Kobold struck them as well, tearing their outer robes.   Agnese, now enraged by the attack, swung his sword round to hit the remaining Kobold, but his wild swing caught Beivalur by accident. Fortunately, the blade hit flatly and only staggered the big man back but left him stunned. Courtenay jumped into the fray and plunged a dagger deep into the chest of the last Kobold, killing it quickly.   A shaken Beivalur looked at his wounds, then saw young Ulrin laying on the ground. The rock had gashed his head, and Ulrin lay on the ground motionless. The sight of this caused Beivalur to gather his composure and rush to treat Ulrin. He closed his eyes and quietly recited a prayer, laying his hands on Ulrin's head. The wound closed, stopping the bleeding. "Young Ulrin will be alright, but I do not envy him the headache he will have upon waking."   Courtenay looked at him, incredulous. "You're bleeding, man! Why didn't you heal yourself?"   "Because, NIghtglade, I did not leave my people to learn to act upon my interests. I left to learn to help them and any others in need. I will be healed soon enough." Beivalur looked down at this injury. "'Tis but a scratch."   Agnese had recaptured his breath, but his anger was still present. "Where in the name of the gods did these Kobolds come from? They're huge. And aggressive, more than most Kobolds."   Ninette added, "I don't think this is a coincidence. These Kobolds have been altered somehow. I've never seen a Kobold this big and this aggressive."   Courtenay had kneeled next to Ulrin, who was waking. He tried to stand up and fell right back onto his rear end. "Whoa there, fella. Go easy. You had a pretty good knock to the noggin'." She looked up at Agnese. "So...what's the plan, chief?"   "We keep going after everyone has had a rest. We need to have our strength. We may have just stumbled onto these guys, but if they are roaming around, more will come. We need to be ready." Agnese scanned the area for defensible space. "See that small outcropping over there? Let's take advantage of it. We'll use the space underneath to rest, and we can post watches on the top of the rocks".   The group assembled underneath the overhang, and tended to wounds. A short rest would let them regroup and let Beivalur work more of his healing arts on Ulrin. Ninette was still thinking about the Kobolds. "What would cause the kobolds to have changed so? Their musculature was more pronounced and dense. As if the kobolds had been enhanced in some way. What would cause that?"   "It's not magic," added Courtenay. "I'd have at least sensed something. But nothing. None at all. These guys are just bigger." The group discussed possible causes for the change in the Kobolds, but none seemed likely. Yet, there they were. The day wore on, and before they knew it, the tree shadows had grown long. Continuing at night would be foolhardy. They would have to camp the night. Agnese organized a rotation for everyone to stand guard, except for Ulrin, still recovering from his wounds. As they got a fire going and put together food for a meal, they all glanced toward the sky simultaneously. There, they all saw it: the same dark shape in the sky. And this time, there was no mistaking it; it was a dragon. The sight left them awestruck. Ulrin was the first to speak up. "Did you see that? Do you see it?" The young man was excited and perhaps a little scared. There was no denying what they had all seen. A dragon had flown overhead, just as it had multiple times before on this journey. "We saw it, young Ulrin. We saw it," Beivalur assured him. While in the past, they had only seen a fleeting shadow, this time was different. There was no mistaking that the silhouette was the same, and it certainly was a dragon. But instead of a shadowy vision, this time, it circled overhead. In the past, it disappeared almost immediately. "We are being watched, or perhaps, watched over." "Watched over? Why?" asked Courtenay. "What interest would a dragon have in us?" "I do not know, Nightglade. But we continue to see that dragon. It has an interest in our activities. It could have made itself known to us at any time, but only now has it allowed us to see it fully. And this was the first time we were in any significant danger. It did not intervene, but it also did not immediately leave." "I... I've never seen a dragon before." Ulrin seemed both amazed and frightened. "I don't know much about them, but I was always taught they were scary." "There's no need to fear this one, young man." Ninette sensed the apprehension in Ulrin. "If this one had meant to harm us, it has had ample opportunity. As a rule, dragons don't interfere in the matters of humanoids. And if it was going to defend the kobolds, the outcome of this little skirmish would have been far different. It is watching, though I cannot understand why. You say that you have never seen a dragon before?" "Never." "Then its appearance is likely unrelated to your village and more likely about us." Agnese looked puzzled. "So you and the Mosae believe we're being surveilled by a dragon? I'm not sure that's comforting." "Nor should it be, Oatspell," replied Beivalur. "If a dragon has chosen to watch over us, there is something of great import in what we are doing. This adventure may have repercussions we have yet to understand." He saw Ulrin's questioning face. "In the Mosae culture, dragons are revered and honored. And yes, in some cases, feared. But the ones we fear are rarely seen, and certainly not in this region. You have no need to fear it, young Ulrin."   "I... I'm not afraid..." the young man stammered. "I was... concerned."   "Good thinking, Ulrin." Agnese was less comfortable with the idea of a dragon keeping an eye on them. "We don't know why we're being followed or why this dragon has an interest in us. I wouldn't go trusting a giant flying lizard without some proof."   Ninette and Beivalur both shot Agnese a look that let him know he had stepped over a line. "You may not believe Oatspell, but I and my people do. I will not stand idly by and hear these disparaging and insulting comments. I demand you retract the immediately." Beivalur, for perhaps the first time, had shown anger, bordering on rage. It surprised Agnese, who took a step back and raised his hands in apology.   "I apologize. I do not have the history with them that you do. I..."   Before Agnese could finish his sentence, the dragon reappeared. It circled above, then swooped down and landed on the road that led to the mine. It spread its wings and stared at the group. But to Agnese, it felt as if the focus of the stare was on him exclusively.   "Kneel..." said Beivalur as he did the same. Ninette and Courtenay followed suit, but Agnese did not. "I kneel to no one but the King."   In a whisper, Beivalur spoke to Agnese. "You cannot win alone against a dragon. Kneel, or we all die." Agnese reluctantly kneeled. The dragon's gaze remained affixed to Agnese. Did the dragon nod?   As suddenly as it had appeared, the dragon rose into flight, circled once above, and vanished. There was no question, the group was being watched.
All Images created BY Kahuna the Elder, with source materials from Pixabay, Pexels, Unsplash, Artbreeder and public domain sources.

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