Father Nate treated the squad to a good lunch at Callic’s pleasant little tavern. The atmosphere was relaxed and they ate leisurely, enjoying some banter with the local folk. Unlike the worshipers that had followed Peep to and from the church in Spitzer, the people here kept their esteem of her within reasonable bounds. Even so, as polite as they were about not bothering her, it was clear that Peep was deeply respected by them, if not revered.
After lunch, Father Nate adopted a more serious tone. Still in his chainmail, with his helmet on the table, and sword and shield propped against the wall behind him, he looked every bit the seasoned veteran he was. They were seated at the best table near the hearth. The tavernkeeper, Arlen, was now over at the bar talking quietly with two older men who were nursing the ales that Father Nate had bought them. Otherwise, the tavern was empty.
“So, about the Desolate One,” Father Nate said to Peep and the others. “Take that ring he sent ye and put it to good use. There is no harm in that. But as for visiting him, I would not take that on for now. We’ll think more on it later, once your more pressing concerns are settled.”
“That seems reasonable,” Choke said. His fellows all nodded their agreement.
“So about these Strana goons: I’d like to hear what Arlen and his lot think of it. Hey Arlen!” Father Nate called to the tavernkeeper.
“Our friends here have a bit of trouble coming their way. I’d like to bend your ear about it.”
“Don’t mind if ye do,” Arlen said pleasantly. He moved down the bar to get a little closer to the squad. The two men he had been conversing with turned around in their barstools to listen intently.
“It seems these young men got into a scrape with some nasty Outfit boys in Strana. They’ve sent the Chisel out here to hunt them down and punish them for it,” Father Nate said.
“Well, that’s what we’ve been hearing,” Arlen said neutrally. “Was Otilla any part of it?”
“No, I don’t believe so. Ye weren’t involved in that Strana mess, were ye Otilla?” Father Nate asked Peep.
Peep shook her head.
“No. She wasn’t,” Father Nate declared. “But, it would seem that she has decided to stand with the three young men. Is that so, Otilla?”
“That’s just as I reckoned,” Father Nate said. “So they are as one in this matter.”
Arlen nodded thoughtfully before again speaking: “And the Chisel, does he bear with him a legal warrant for the arrest of these men? For any crimes committed against people in Strana, good or otherwise?”
“Good question, Arlen. Good question, indeed. I do not believe he does,” Father Nate said.
“I’m pretty sure he doesn’t come legally correct,” Pinch said. “We spoke to Sheriff Waters in Spitzer about the matter, and he expected that the injured parties in Strana would be keeping the details of the incident quiet. On account of it being damaging for their reputation as tough nuts. To come at things legally would require giving evidence to the law. That’s not their style.”
“Uh-huh,” Arlen said meaningfully. “So, lads, if ye don’t mind me asking: just what is it ye done in Strana to rile up these bad boys so?”
Pinch looked to Choke to check if it was okay to divulge more. Choke nodded.
“Well, we got ourselves in a bit of trouble in Bridgetown,” Pinch said. “And not the sort of trouble that was the kinda fun ye might be imagining, neither.”
All four men in the tavern, Father Nate included, laughed expectantly at this.
“Yeah, we were just wandering around, trying to spend a nice night taking in the sights and sounds over a few drinks. A pair of lovely young lasses, who seemed like normal, decent people, invited us to a bar they knew for drinks. Turns out that was a scam. Without informing us, the proprietor charged us a silver each just for sitting down in the joint and eating some little snack. For us and the women, too. Five silver total, and then all the copper for the drinks.”
“Five silver?” Arlen and the men laughed. “Oh, they got ye good! So, did ye have the coin to pay it?” Arlen asked.
“Of course not. So, one thing led to another, and a gangster that seems to run Bridgetown made us an offer. Go and get a package for him from some bad teamster boys who were withholding delivery of it, and he’d clear the debt. Not knowing what else to do, we went ahead and did that.”
“And thems were the Outfit boys,” Arlen said.
“Exactly so,” said Pinch.
“And what happened? Did ye kill them?”
“No, nothing like that. We talked our way into their joint on a bluff and beat the crap out of the two bosses and one of their goons. Then we brought the package back to the gangster and went on our way. We only learned of the contracts out on us when we got into town here after dealing with the bandits out by Splitrock.”
“Huh,” Arlen said, going silent for a while then while he mulled over the story. “Five silver!” he shook his head, chuckling. “Well, live and learn, I guess. Just one more question, if ye don’t mind.”
“Of course,” Pinch said.
“That package that ye went and got. Was that legitimately owed to the Bridgetown boss? Or were ye engaged in some kind of larceny for him there?”
“Good question, sir. Of course, with all the characters involved, it is impossible to know the truth exactly. But, at every step, it seemed that they were withholding goods that the Bridgetown boss had paid for and had legitimate claim to. We were specifically instructed by his people to bring only his package, and not to kill anyone. And, when pressed, the Outfit bosses knew exactly what we were after and did not argue the claim. They fought, and we responded accordingly. Finally, just so ye all know: we repented of all our sin to Father Morrenthall in Spitzer after the incident, so the matter has been settled under the eyes of Stron.”
“Good to know. Good to know,” Arlen said, nodding his head reasonably. “Well, I should say, to my mind at least, that sending someone like the Chisel out here to kill ye over this business aint right. And that if Father Morrenthall has laid the matter to rest, and Otilla here has declared herself with ye, then that’s good enough for me. Nope, I don’t like the sound of paid thugs coming here to do ye harm over it. Not one bit.”
“Well, thank you, sir. That’s good to hear,” Pinch said. Choke, Knuckle, and Peep all nodded deeply as well.
Father Nate then raised a finger to draw everyone’s attention back to him.
“Now, having said all that, yar still in a sticky spot with this,” he said. “The Chisel and his men haven’t attacked any of you. Nor made any explicit threats that they will. Have they?”
“No, they have not,” Pinch conceded.
“That’s what I thought. So, what that means is, when The Chisel and his boys come here looking for ye, we, the law-abiding folk of this good community, aren’t going to be in a position to interfere with them on your behalf,” Father Nate said.
“That’s so. Nor would we expect anyone to do so,” Choke said.
“But, Father,” Arlen said, looking concerned now, “if that Chisel comes here and starts asking after them, we know that they aint gonna be up to no good.”
“That’s true, Arlen,” Father Nate answered. “Once they declare their intention to find these lads, we all may safely assume that they mean them harm. But that is no crime, in of itself. And as the magistrate in these parts, and the Church’s designated shepherd for the flock here, I would not feel comfortable interceding in such worldly matters on such thin pretext.”
“Understood, Father. Understood. But, surely, we cannot expect these young lads to sit idly while these evil men, come to do them harm, make their moves against them unimpeded. Surely that is not right or just!” Arlen said, getting heated up now and pounding his fist on his bar with a solid thump.
“Well said, Arlen. No, I should think that once these evil men come here and declare their intentions for all the world to know, whether they express them in explicit terms or not, that when they do so, these lads shall certainly be within their rights to defend themselves by any means necessary. I would surely say that!” Father Nate returned emphatically.
“Just so, Father! Just so!” Arlen thumped his bar again.
“Now, if I may,” Choke interjected. “I appreciate all the support you are showing us here. But whatever The Chisel and his men declare or get up to, I do not want any of the good people in Callic putting themselves in any danger on our account. This is our problem, and we shall handle it ourselves.”
“Well said, Bartholomew. Well said!” Father Nate said. “I think we shall all be able to plot a middle course in this. So, may I ask, then: what are your plans for dealing with these interlopers?”
“Well, Father, we thought we would move around the valley, getting the lay of the land as we spread the good word of Otilla’s baptism and holy possession. Word of this is sure to reach The Chisel, who is likely searching for us around Bristlehump presently. When he arrives looking for us, we will see how things play out and plan accordingly.”
“Seems a sound play,” Arlen the tavernkeeper said. “When on the hunt, his sort will come to a place and start throwing their money around. Offering even more for reliable word of where their quarry might be.”
“Seems likely that this very place will be their first stop, fine establishment that it is, and being central to the community,” Pinch said.
“Aye. This is most likely so,” Arlen agreed.
“I wonder then, Arlen, if we could rely on yar help in the matter. To just a small degree,” Pinch went on.
“Of course!” Arlen said with a mischievous gleam in his eye.
“I think if you and your patrons here could appear more neutral in this matter than ye truly are, that would be most helpful,” said Pinch.
Arlen nodded at this. “No doubt. Why, I expect The Chisel will find us to be as cautious and guarded as we always are to outsiders. But, I think, open to being helpful with whatever information about ye might come our way. Assuming we’re properly motivated by his coin, that is.”
“That is just what I was thinking, sir. His coin will spend. So, the question is, where do ye think a good place for him to find us might be?” Pinch asked.
Father Nate leaned in to answer this: “I think that if ye move around the countryside a bit to get them chasing their tails, opportunities might present themselves to thin his pack a little.”
“That they might,” Choke said. “And we’ll be keeping our eye open for that. But I think we still need a suitable venue for a final confrontation. As a fallback position, if nothing else.”
“What about the Old Mill?” Peep interjected.
Father Nate blinked in surprise as Arlen and his two older patrons hissed in alarm and hurriedly traced the Stronian Wheel over their breasts.
“An evil place. Haunted by the terrors that drove the Dwarves from it so many years ago. It has claimed many a good soul since!” Arlen said.
Father Nate held his hand up in a placating gesture. “I think there is room for some debate as to all that. Suffice to say, for now, that it is unquestionably a dangerous place. Why d’ye bring it up, Otilla? How did ye hear of it?”
“Earl told us about it. Said he saw in a vision that we would fight there,” Peep said.
“Earl! Shane’s brother? That Earl? The fool! Well no wonder then!” Arlen exploded. “He’s crazier than a shithouse rat, that one, pardon my language. And I’ve met smarter village idiots!”
“There’s no doubt he is a character,” Pinch said.
“A character! That’s one way to put it. It’s a wonder that him and Shane were born of the same mother! And what a burden he has proved to be for Shane, who’s as good a man as ye could hope to find, living rough as he does.”
“That he is,” agreed Father Nate. “I think that’s enough on that for now. The time has come for us to head back to the church.”
Choke nodded and he and the others stood up.
“Thank you, Arlen, for your thoughts and the hospitality and support. We do appreciate it,” Choke said as he moved to the bar.
Choke hesitated as he did, feeling as though he should offer the tavernkeeper his hand, but unsure whether, being a Scythan, this would put the man in an awkward position. Arlen settled the matter for him as he thrust his own hand at Choke across the bar.
“It’s my pleasure, son!” He then shook Pinch and Knuckle’s hands in turn before bowing deeply to Peep. “Three good lads from the Holy Stoners shall always have help and support from me and mine. Rest assured of that!”
Back in the church, Father Nate sat down with the squad once more in the pews.
“Pardon me, Otilla,” he said. “But, what exactly was it that Earl said to ye about the Old Mill?”
“No problem. It wasn’t much. He just said that the colored mists told him that I had to do some killing up at the Old Mill. That’s all,” Peep said.
“It wasn’t ‘some’ killing,” Pinch interjected. “It was ‘the’ killing.”
“Okay. Whatever,” Peep scowled.
“It could be a significant distinction,” Father Nate said. “Even from one as touched as Earl. It makes it seem like more of an important event than some random occurrence. As well, it means he spoke of it as though it has already happened, which is how prophetic visions are often first understood by those who have them.”
“And we’re meant to be taking that guy seriously, Father?” Pinch asked.
“Perhaps,” Father Nate answered seriously. “Listen, I did not want to get into it at the tavern. The last thing Earl needs is being tied up into prophesy and holy visitations so folk start giving credence to his foolishness. But. Father Morrenthall himself did receive a prophetic vision in a dream of Otilla’s holy possession, as well as images of what’s to come. Even being the fool that he is, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Earl was shown something as well.”
“So what’s up with the Old Mill, then?” Peep asked.
“Well, that is something else that I did not feel it prudent to delve into fully at Arlen’s,” said Father Nate. “The Old Mill is an old Dwarven tower with a small underground complex. It was abandoned by the stumps hundreds of years ago.”
“Because they dug too deep and awoke some nameless horror?” Choke asked sarcastically.
“Of course. That, or they shut the enterprise down for their usual mercantile reasons. Not enough minerals around here, I’d suppose. Anyways, the secret doors have long since been cracked, and the place has become a natural habitat for monsters of one type or another. So it is dangerous,” Father Nate said.
“So why not go and deal with it, Father?” Knuckle asked.
“When I was first here I would have liked nothing better than to do that. But, I have eight men-at-arms here in Callic to protect the entire valley. Them, plus I can call up another few dozen in an emergency. But, being simple folk, they are all convinced that the place will destroy their immortal souls. And I can’t very well go and risk getting what men I have killed in a mission that terrifies them for the sake of hunting some random monsters that aren’t doing anyone a bit of harm.”
“Seems like sound thinking, Father. But how can you be sure there isn’t something very serious there, like the smallfolk think?” Choke asked.
“Because the tower and all its underground chambers were thoroughly cleansed about fifty years ago by a squad of adventurers,” Father Nate said. “An evil druid and her animal companions had set up residence and were terrorizing the entire valley. The adventurers that took them out even mapped the whole place. My predecessor, Father Jeb told me all about it. He went along in support of them.”
“So, Father, if that’s so, and if you know the truth, then why did the folk around here go back to believing the old nonsense from before?” Choke asked.
“Why indeed? Because they are smallfolk and prone to all manner of stupid flights of fancy. At every turn they will reject sound information and proven facts for any humbuggery that is even slightly more entertaining. And, to tell you the truth, I haven’t exactly discouraged them of that. The Old Mill is an ideal hideout for anyone that might want to get up to shenanigans out of my sight. If they want to believe that the place is cursed, then who am I to argue with them?”
“Understood, Father. But how do you even know there’s something up there?” Choke asked.
“Well, I don’t. But how could there not be? The place is too ideal a monster lair for it not to be occupied by something after all these years.”
“So, Father, if another group of fearless adventurers were to come along and clean the place out again, is that something that would be upsetting to ye?” Peep asked with a wide grin.
“No, I don’t reckon it would, Otilla,” Father Nate said with a big grin of his own. “That would be all to the good, I should say. And for the folk in these parts, such an exploit would certainly raise the reputation of those that done it. There’s no doubt of that.”
“And an old Dwarven tower, with an underground complex; ye couldn’t ask for a much better place to have as a fallback position in a scrape with some evil bounty hunters, now could ye?” Peep went on.
“I don’t reckon ye could, Otilla.”
“Well, boys,” Peep said, turning to her squad with a grin. “It seems to me like Stron’s agents were speaking good sense to our smelly friend, Earl. What say we get on up there to that Old Mill and see what’s kicking around for us to kill?”
“I suppose that’s a good idea. If we scout it carefully, that is,” Choke said.
“Agreed,” Pinch said. He then turned to Father Nate: “So, Father, you say those last adventurers mapped the place. I don’t suppose you still have that map kicking around, do ye?”
“Why, I just might, my lad. I just might.”