Whoever had done it had come and gone quickly, that was clear enough to the four riders as they rode into the small village.
Haj had never been much of a place. There was a single Inn that was also the town tavern, stable, black smithy, and the local store. It would be gone shortly; a massive conflagration generated copious smoke as it burned down to the ground.
The few houses in the town were also burning, but they seemed to be closer to being burned out than the Inn. Either it was taking the Inn much longer to burn to the ground than the houses, or whoever had fired the town had waited to burn the Inn last.
Just as they pulled up to look around the town the rain started. As if the smoke and soot wasn’t enough, now, there was wet ash raining down around them.
Chase considered searching around the town for survivors but quickly discarded the idea and decided to find a place to get out of the rain.
“There’s a farmstead just south of here,” Jin yelled out over the thunder and cracking timbers of the burning Inn.
“Where?” Chase shouted back.
Jin spurred her horse and rode through the tiny village to the south. Haj’s claim to fame was that it sat on the crossroads of four roads. They followed the main road south, toward Lagondale for just a few moments.
Jin then cut down a tiny alley hidden by a thick hedgerow. Nunzio turned with her but SoQue went past the turn and had to stop and make his way back. Chase stopped at the entrance to the alley to wait for him.
The rain was pouring now, snuffing out the burning town, but it was also soaking the four travelers to the bone. Such was the rain of the north, rarely a light drizzle, generally thick, cold rain.
SoQue finally got his horse stopped and turned around and he and Chase made their way down the alley. It went on for a couple minutes and then opened up onto a small farm. Chase briefly considered what they could grow on a farm this far north, but didn’t spend much time on the thought.
Chase road into the barn where Nunzio and Jin had dismounted. SoQue rode in behind him.
“Nice,” Chase commented as he got down from the horse. “How did you know about this place?”
“I spent some time in Haj before I made my way up to HillRock,” Jin replied as she shoved her horse into one of the empty stalls.
Chase noticed that all the stalls were empty, but there appeared to be plenty of hay in the loft. The tack room was open too and there was a saddle and some other gear inside of it.
“Let’s check out the house,” Chase said as they all got their horses unsaddled and into the empty stalls of the barn.
They headed out into the rain again toward the house, which, Chase could already tell, was eerily empty.
The storm thundered on throughout the afternoon and into the evening. It was a nasty storm from the south. They had searched the house and were settling in when SoQue went off on one of his rants, this one, about the nature of local storms.
“They form over the ocean,” SoQue explained. “And then come inland dumping most of their contents well south of here. But they tend to pick up steam again over the Sea of the Dead and the Finger lakes to the south of here and then explode when they reach the high hills and settle down in the midlands, dumping rain, ice and sleet onto the few communities that set above the hills but below the mountains.”
Chase barely listened as Nunzio paced into and out of the living room again. After they had reached the house they’d quickly discovered that no one was at home. The house seemed to have been evacuated rather quickly. There was plenty of food, firewood, various clothing, and the kitchen was pretty much intact. But there were only a few valuables that had apparently been forgotten.
SoQue was standing with his back to the fire in the fireplace. Jin was sprawled out on a large rug in the corner of the room. Chase sat on a chair near a window overlooking the courtyard. He could see the barn and the entrance to the farm from the hedgerow.
Chase could hear Nunzio thumping up the stairs while SoQue continued on about local wind conditions and weather patterns.
‘Maybe he’s nervous’, Chase thought. SoQue tended to ramble on when he got nervous.
Glancing out the window again Chase decided the storm wasn’t going to let up anytime soon and that they should probably get settled in for the night.
“Nunzio!” Chase yelled. “Come down here.”
SoQue jumped a little at the unexpected shout.
Jin rolled over and rubbed her eyes. Chase couldn’t help but stare at her for a moment as she pushed her long brown hair back and stretched. That movement served to show off her midriff where her leather armor and shirt was lifted above her belt. She was lying on her side which prominently displayed her trim body and feminine curves. A picture of her without any armor or traveling cloths formed in Chase’s mind causing him to smirk. His eyes wandered back up to her face, and he took in her soft features. She had deep brown eyes surrounded by soft rounded features, a small nose and mouth that turned down at the corners.
Chase debated saying something to her but changed his mind when she looked over at him and her soft features hardened. Chase shook his head to try to clear the imagery and forced himself to look away.
Nunzio thumped down the stairs and came into the room.
“I’ll take first watch,” Nunzio said as he walked in, anticipating what Chase was about to say.
“Fine,” Chase said. “Where do you suggest we sleep?”
“In the barn,” Nunzio replied.
“Fuck that,” Jin said quickly.
“Close to the horses; we can get out the back door if we need to, watch the road from the loft. It’s a no-brainer,” Nunzio explained.
“The roof leaks, there are no beds, and it smells like horse shit.” Jin countered.
“I’d rather sleep in a bed,” SoQue chimed in.
“A hay loft is a lot better than sleeping on the ground, which is where we have been the past week,” Nunzio said.
“A hay loft is stupid when there are beds in a deserted house a hundred paces away from the hay loft,” Jin replied.
“A house that was recently deserted for some unknown reason, just down the road from a town that was still burning as we road into it a few hours ago.”
Lighting flashed outside helping to accentuate Nunzio’s point. The accompanying thunder rolled in quickly behind it preventing any further conversation for a moment.
“I don’t think we need to worry about any visitors in this storm,” Chase concluded. It was against his better judgment, as Nunzio was as solid as they came when it had anything to do with survival or tactics. But the fact was Chase didn’t really feel like sleeping in a smelly barn when there were beds available either. He’d spent too long sleeping on the ground.
“Where should we sleep,” Chase asked. “Assuming we are staying in the house?”
“There’s a small bedroom upstairs. Move another couple of beds into it, everyone gets a bed and whoever is on watch won’t have to go into the room to keep an eye on things outside,” Nunzio explained immediately as if he’d run through all the contingencies already. “If we have to get out, we can get out onto the roof over the first floor porch and get to the barn.”
“Fine. Jin, take second watch, Que third,” Chase told them. “When you’re done, wake me up and I’ll take the morning watch. Now, let’s eat something, get those beds moved, and get to it.”
The storm lingered and lagged through the night and then raged on into the second day. The four travelers found themselves stranded in the farmhouse. During the day they tended to seek their own space to avoid getting on each other nerves.
During a lull in the storm Nunzio ran out to the barn and checked on the horses. He found some old clothes and had put them on to try to keep his traveling cloths clean and dry. When he returned he reported that the horses were in good condition and he that he had fed them some oats and hay. He was soaked and muddy, in a foul mood, and cursed the weather.
SoQue discovered a cache in the basement behind an old workbench. He yelped out when he found it and everyone else raced down, but it didn’t turn out to be much. There were just some strange bottles and vials. SoQue found it interesting but everyone else retreated back to their self appointed spot of solitude.
And the storm lingered on into a second night.
Again, in a little more than a week’s time, Chase’s eyes snapped open and he knew something wasn’t right. It took him a moment to remember where he was sleeping. He glanced around the room hastily.
Jin was asleep directly across the room from him. SoQue was in the bed on the other side of him. That meant it was still early in the watch cycle, Nunzio’s watch.
Chase sat up quietly and waited, wondering what it was that woke him up. He realized that the storm must have finally passed. A light drizzle could be heard taping on the widows. Occasional louder strikes of water sounded as the wind gusted, knocking larger drops off the leaves and onto the house. Chase listened more intently and then heard what must have woken him up. Someone was moving up the stairs.
‘Someone is very carefully moving up the stairs,’ Chase corrected himself. The stairway in this old farmhouse was old and creaky and Chase had gotten used to its noises. It was audibly obvious whenever someone was going up or down the stairs, and the fact that someone was coming up them attempting to be quiet was cause for alarm.
Chase considered his options. He could not hear Nunzio, or whoever it was, anymore, so he had either quieted down or was already on the landing.
‘Here we go again,’ Chase thought.
Chase got up quietly and moved to the lump in the corner that was his equipment. He pulled out two shorter blades and took a step toward the door when it swung slowly in towards him. Chase crouched down and then froze as the door swung fully open.
A figure stepped in and Chase stood up. Nunzio stopped and turned, quickly leveling his blade at Chase.
“You heard me?” Nunzio whispered.
“Something like that,” Chase replied.
Nunzio lowered his sword and started to turn but stopped. Chase was on edge, something wasn’t right and he kept his two short blades up and in combat position. Nunzio turned back toward him and raised his sword a bit.
“What’s up?” Nunzio asked as his eyes furrowed.
Chase just shook his head and nodded toward the doorway.
“What’s going on?” Chase inquired. His heart was still pounding and he wondered what had set him on edge.
With a nod, Nunzio indicated a room across the hall. They both moved quickly into the room and Nunzio huddled down looking out the window. Chase joined him.
“Something’s moving out there,” Nunzio said.
Chase stared out the window as his heart rate subsided a bit. The storm had definitely passed but there was still a great bit of moisture in the air creating a haze that just seemed thicker with two almost full moons glaring down.
They both stared out the window for several moments. Chase was just about to ask Nunzio to be more specific about what he saw when Nunzio nudged his shoulder.
“Behind the barn, moving in from the fields, see them?” he whispered.
The fields were filled with grass and weeds about three to four feet tall. The fog and mist hanging in the air didn’t make spotting them any easier either, but Chase finally located the movement. Something small and dark moved quickly from the fields to the barn. A moment later another one darted along the same path.
“I think there are groups,” Nunzio whispered. “I saw two groups of eight or twelve of them.”
“See,” he said, pointing near where the first two had crossed. Another three were moving out from the fields.
“They aren’t going into the barn are they?” Chase asked.
“No, none have yet. They’re going into the brush on the other side. Seems like they are just migrating or something.”
“Can you make out what they are?”
Nunzio just shook his head as another group appeared. These seemed to stop and survey the whole of the barn before running to the brush. Several more followed a few moments after.
“I don’t like this,” Chase said to himself.
“Shouldn’t be anything to worry about if they stay out of the barn,” Nunzio said having heard him.
“Wake up the others. Quietly,” Chase told him.
Nunzio drifted out of the room while Chase continued to monitor the dark little creatures. They definitely weren’t human, something small, smaller than most Gnomes and Halflings.
After a couple of minutes Nunzio returned.
“They are getting their gear together. What’s the plan?” he asked.
“I don’t know, I just don’t want to get caught flat-footed if something happens,” Chase replied.
They both quieted down as another group appeared from the vegetation. This group appeared larger than the others, totaling up to twenty or so. They made their way out and then gathered in a rough circle. Some of them were gesturing toward the house and barn.
“I don’t like the looks of this,” Chase mumbled. Just then the horses in the barn started to kick and neigh, apparently catching a whiff of the creatures. This set the rest of the horses off and they started whinnying and kicking too.
“Oh, shit.” Nunzio said.
A group of the small things moved toward the barn and was opening the large doors.
“Let’s go,” Chase said. “Out the back and into the. . .”
At that moment Chase and Nunzio both heard a crash downstairs. The front door had been smashed in and most likely the creatures were coming into the house.
Chase and Nunzio both knew what they had heard. They moved as one to the back bedroom and found Jin and SoQue geared up and ready to go. Chase moved to the corner and grabbed the rest of his gear as Nunzio opened the window.
“Across the roof and straight into the fields,” he commanded as Jin went out through window.
SoQue followed behind quickly, tripping slightly over the windowsill.
Chase turned toward the door when he heard leathery feet climbing up the stairs. He put his hands on his weapons to draw them but Nunzio pushed him toward the window.
“Out. Come on,” Nunzio told Chase.
Chase knew Nunzio was right and jumped through the window onto the roof.
Nunzio followed behind and they both ended up at the edge of the roof together. There was a log pile gathered below them on the porch and they were both able to jump on top of it. It looked like there had been quite a displacement of logs before them.
Quickly jumping off the roof they sprinted toward the overgrown field ahead of them.
Chase felt something sharp cut across his left calf halfway to the field. He let out a muffled yelp as he tumbled and turned to face the beast.
As he gained his feet he saw that it was indeed a small thing, maybe three feet tall.
‘Nasty little bastard,’ he thought as he drew his blades and the thing moved toward him.
It slashed at him with long sharp claws and Chase danced backwards.
Nunzio loomed up behind the thing and Chase quit his retreat. Chase feigned an attack, just enough to stop the forward movement of the creature. It barely worked as the creature was attacking wildly. But it stopped for just a moment.
It was enough, as Nunzio moved in and with a powerful swipe, sliced the head off the creature.
Chase took a quick moment to study it. Its head and face had sharp angular features. The body, which was several feet from the head, was powerfully built, if small. It had thick muscles and bones.
Chase, caught up in the discovery, was slightly surprised when Nunzio plowed into him, pushing him toward the field.
The two of them ran on. Just as they reached the field they heard two terrible screams from the barn, then two more, and they knew that the horses were dead.
They stumbled into the field and slowed down to a walk. Jin signaled with a hiss and the four of them joined together again.
“Move,” Chase said, pointing deeper into the field.
Nunzio trudged out in front and Jin and SoQue followed behind. Chase waited a moment and tried to gather his thoughts, but the sight of the barn, and moments later the house, going up in flames sent him quickly following his companions.
They had walked for only a couple of minutes when Nunzio stopped them. All four crouched down in the overgrown field and waited. Then Chase heard what Nunzio must have already perceived. There was movement, a rustling in the overgrown weeds, moving toward them.
Chase could see SoQue in front of him a few feet and was trying to pick out Jin and Nunzio in the growth. SoQue was facing away from him, looking toward the front of the group, apparently waiting to see what Nunzio would do.
Keeping hunched down Chase quietly positioned himself next to SoQue. A moment later Nunzio appeared and signaled for them to move forward again.
Nunzio started walking away when he stopped again and an instant later disappeared. Chase heard a muffled crunch, which sounded like a body hitting a clump of vegetation. SoQue and Chase both moved up quickly.
As they approached Chase saw a figure with a grey cloak, hunched over something on the ground. Another couple of steps and Chase saw that Nunzio was on the ground but he had his long left arm extended out and his hand secured around the grey-clocked figure’s neck.
Drawing his sword Chase stepped in closer. The unknown figure was drawing a dagger and it looked like he was going to skewer Nunzio with it.
“Get. Down,” Nunzio growled through clenched teeth.
Chase didn’t hesitate and dove to his left. SoQue either didn’t hear him or didn’t realize what was going on and simply stood there looking around confused.
A arrow whizzed by SoQue, then another.
“Oh,” SoQue said and then Chase heard him began to incant something.
SoQue finished the spell with a loud snap of his fingers. Around him a large orb of bluish light expanded rapidly until everyone in the area was engulfed in it, including the grey cloaked figure.
“There,” SoQue stated. “That should keep out the arrows.”
Chase didn’t really like the sound of that, but assumed it was alright to stand up. As he regained his feet he saw that the stranger had been able to draw his dagger but didn’t seem to be able to do anything with it. Nunzio’s large fingers were quickly rendering the man unconscious.
Another arrow sped in but “thunked” into SoQue’s mystical shield and hung there motionless.
Looking around, Chase wondered where Jin had disappeared to, but then he quickly decided to turn his attention to the situation at hand.
“Let him go, Nunzio,” SoQue said.
“Unlikely,” Nunzio grunted. He was still on the ground but was getting his feet underneath him and preparing to stand as the stranger had lost strength and was no longer able to keep him pinned down.
“He’s a Feral Tracker, I’m sure he meant you no harm,” SoQue said.
“What’s a Feral Tracker?” Jin asked, showing herself.
“A Ranger,” said another voice from nearby.
Jin spun and pointed her bow in the direction of the voice.
“And as I was going to say,” SoQue said, turning more slowly. “They rarely travel alone.”
“Okay, Nunzio, drop him,” Chase said, regaining his bearing and taking control of the situation.
Nunzio gave the Ranger’s neck one extra squeeze and then tossed the man to the ground. He dropped his blade and rubbed his neck gasping for air.
“Can they walk through your shield?” Chase asked SoQue.
“Should be able to,” SoQue responded.
“Whoever is out there show yourself,” Chase called out in a quiet voice. He didn’t want to yell or draw undue attention to the group from anyone else.
Another grey-cloaked figure immerged from the vicinity of the voice they had heard a moment ago. He was of average height and build, most of his other features were hard to distinguish in the low light. He took a couple of steps toward them and Chase could see his longbow was in his hands and had an arrow nocked and aimed toward them.
“The God’s damn you you’re strong,” the other one coughed as he stood up. Nunzio was still standing near him and had his long sword drawn, but was not directly threatening the ranger with anything other than a scowl on his face.
“There are no gods,” Nunzio spat at him.
“If I recall correctly,” SoQue said quietly to Chase, close to his ear. “They usually travel in groups of three.”
“Who are you people?” the ranger next to Nunzio asked. He was much bigger than the one that was still outside SoQue’s shield, but still not quite as big as Nunzio. His hood was tossed back revealing dark hair gone almost completely grey and an almost gentle face.
“Who we are is our business,” Nunzio growled quickly.
The ranger looked at him and appeared to be considering his next action. Nunzio continued to scowl back at him and flexed his shoulders as if to dare the ranger to try him again.
“This is ridiculous,” SoQue said. “We are simple travelers caught up in some unfortunate situation. We mean no harm to you Trackers or to the wood.”
This seemed to put the larger ranger at ease. At the same moment SoQue’s spell ended with a quiet popping sound and the arrow suspended in the spell fell quietly to the ground.
Chase wondered if there was a third ranger and where he was. He was fairly certain there was at least two more out there even before SoQue had told him they usually travel in groups of threes. The two arrows that sped in before SoQue got his shield up had to come from two different bowmen or one incredibly fast one.
“Fine,” the ranger said gathering up his bow. “Then I suggest you find your way down to the road and well away from here.”
“What’s going on?” Chase asked him.
“There a massive migration of dres-garni. They’re moving from their caves in the south through this area.”
“And you are tracking them?” Chase queried.
“At the moment, I’m talking with you,” the Ranger responded. His gentle faced showed signs that he was losing his patience. “But we have been tracking them for several days. They are leaving quite a swath of destruction in their path. Now if you don’t mind, I’ll be on my way.”
Nunzio walked back over and stood next to Chase as the Ranger whistled a low tone and began to walk away.
“Which way to the road?” Chase asked quickly.
“About a mile,” The Ranger said, pointed to the east. He then quickly disappeared into the misty darkness.
“Shoulda’ broken his fucking neck,” Nunzio mumbled.
Chase smiled to himself, as Jin returned to the party.
“Everyone here?” Chase asked. “In one piece?”
No one replied. Chase knew that SoQue had injured his ankle at some point this evening but he didn’t complain so Chase turned to Nunzio.
“Let’s go,” he said and Nunzio led them through the field to the east