When we again join Emerik, his temporary party has entered through the gates of Biru Kutha, where the streets lie deserted.
"Gods be merciful! Where could everybody be?" Miklos the merchant exclaimed.
"There is no blood or signs of struggle, do not dispair yet." the Slayer resonds as he takes in the scene around him.
The small town looks like it was taken by some surprise, goods and details of daily life sit where they dropped, but there is little to reveal what spooked the townsfolk so.
Suddenly a voice calls out across the small square: "Miklos, praise the gods you are spared!" The door to the temple fly open as a priest steps out onto the stair.
"Aggas, it warms my heart to see you, but what has happened here?" Miklos move to meet the priest at the well in the center of the town.
"A foul omen, a sign of the gods displeasure!"
"I think I can explain it Miklos, and it has little to do with the gods!" Suddenly, a brawny man comes around the back of the temple. His garb, coupled with his thick muscle and weapons tell Emerik that this man is likely a guard, probably the even captain of the guard given his familiarity with the merchant and priest.
Ever the diplomat, Miklos quickly grab the attention of the captain to forestall any bickering: "Captain Farkh, where is the rest of your guards and the rest of the town?"
"Some nights ago we started hearing strange calls and goings on after dark.
At first we thought it was wild dogs, but last night we saw them for the first time on a patrol of the streets. They were some hellish mix of lizard and man!" The captain relayed what he had seen to the newcomers, growing animated as he went along.
"Gods shield us from such creatures, what do they want?" Miklos sat down in the sand, clearly shocked.
"And what of our people?" Miklos pleaded, looking to the captain.
"Most are safe, some seek sanctuary with Aggas under the eyes of the gods in the temple, the rest are holed up in their homes on my order until my men return." Farkh stated. "They followed the scavengers as they left before sunrise, to drive the fiends from our lands." He added.
"Now I have duties to attend to, and I am sure that our people need your guidance Aggas." He gives the priest a pointed look. "I'm sorry you have come to us at a dire time traveller, our hospitality is usually not this poor. You have my thanks for bringing our treasurer and valued merchant Miklos back to us." With these words, both Aggas and Farkh turn and go their separate ways.
"What would you ask of me master merchant?" Emerik eyes Miklos with some apprehension.
"Would you consider a contract? I would have you go after the guardsmen the captain sent to drive off these creatures that have found themselves in our neighborhood. The captain is a proud man and his guards are well trained, but I fear that such fiends might prove too much for them. Would you aid them, and all of us?" Miklos looks at the Slayer with worry in his eyes.
"How do you propose to pay me, you who have yet to settle your previous debt?" our hero asks bemused.
"I will speak to the priest and captain Farkh, we I will convince them to pay you from the town coffers. I will also have something else from my own collection to gift you, as thanks for saving my life, and that of my bodyguards." Miklos speaks confidently, like a man already sure of the outcome.
"Very well, merchant Miklos, you have struck a deal." Emerik offer up his hand and the men shake on the agreement.
"Now I will go find the good captain and inquire to the direction I am to find his guardsmen." The Slayer stalks off to find Farkh, leaving Miklos to his business and his brother-guards to see to the goods they saved from the bandits.
"Come master Slayer, I will show you where to start." Farkh puts down the loaf he had been devouring, motioning for Emerik to follow.
They soon reach the gates of the town.
"Follow this route to the west, the winds have been calm, so I am sure you will pick up my men's track with little difficulty." The captain points to a landmark in the distance: "There is a few small pools just past those twin hills over there, I would imagine that is where the fiends have made camp."
After thanking the guard captain, Emerik soon picks up the tracks, just like Farkh had predicted.
..He soon spots the guardsmen as he enters the depression between the two rocky hillsides.
"I have come from Biru Kutha to aid you, courtesy of the merchant Miklos." Emerik announces with a call that booms across small oasis.
"Welcome stranger, we are greatful for any help! These fiends have corrupted the pools with their filth, but we will see them off yet!" One of the guardsmen responds, indicating the scummy pools with his blade.
They quickly surround a guardsman, but his skill and luck is greater than theirs this day and he manages to keep the stabbing spears at bay. When the chief tries to gut him, he instead receives a pair of vicious stabs from the guardsman's spear for his trouble.
Caught by surprise, the shot throws the guardsman to the ground bleeding and crying out in pain!
Emerik quickly skewers the reptilian, ending the fight as it slides off his spear.
As the last of the lizardmen has fallen, the remaining guardsmen see to their wounds and the fallen, how are regrettably beyond their aid. As they pick through the dead, one off them cries out in fright!
"What is it man, that has you so unraveled?" Emerik challenges the guard.
"The leader of these fiends, he yet lives! The blow must have only knocked him senseless!" He replies exitedly.
As Emerik comes to deliver a killing blow, the reptilian suddenly stuns them by croaking: "Stay your hand, I beg of you. I shall reward you if you spare my life!"
The lizardman spoke! Not any gibbering tongue known only to his kind, but the common tongue!
"I have journeyed further than many of my kind and while they find little use for your tongue and customs, I saw litte harm in learning it. As to why you should spare me, I would ask you hear me out: My tribe lived many days and nights from here, in a system of caves. We kept to ourselves and rarely had cause to cross paths with men.
Some moons ago, our shaman saw bad omens in his dreams, and soon calamity befell us. A plague hit our people and in our weakened state we could not keep the sand worms at bay and they drove us from our ancestral home."
"I see, but why claim these pools, and foul the waters? This is one of the few sources of water around here and now it stinks of rot!" Cried one of the guards.
"When we found this place, we were coming close to the time of the spawning. Our young need the waters to be born. With the pools of our caves lost to us, we had to take what was at hand. We hunters watch the pools and the young ones. The smell you remark on is the food we dump into the pools for the hatchlings. In another moon, they will be big enough to leave the pool. But without it they will perish, and so might our entire tribe be doomed!"
The guards looked to the Slayer with unease, not sure if they shouldn't kill the reptile and his kin.
Emerik broods for another few moments and then speak:
"I see you plight chief, but I know not if there is anything I can do. These pools are needed by travelers and the town nearby."
The lizardman sighs and nods: "You have bested many of our hunters and I cannot stop you from slaughtering the rest of us. But I have been your prowess. If you would travel with me to the caves and drive the worms away, we would have no more need of these pools.
We would clean them up and offer trade with the towns you speak of. For you personally I can offer some of the things we have found exploring the ancient ruins deep in the caves, of little value to us but it might be of use to you. These is also precious rocks that you might take."
The lizardman chief takes a small gemstone out from a small satchel in his belt. The red stone glitters in the sunlight. It's a bloodstone, a gem worth a moderate sum, but he seems to indicate that there are more of them to be had.
"I would know your name, chief of the tribe, if we are to strike a deal. I am Emerik, Slayer from the western kingdoms."
"Master Slayer, I thank thee, my name is not one pronouncable by most, but you may call me Skizz."
The guardmen look on in confusion at the exchange, not sure how to feel about the latest developments.
Before any more can be said, a low rumbling, like that of a quake can be felt.
The sand blows up in two places, revealing the armored heads of a pair of sand worms.
"Stay together. don't let them separate us!" Emerik cautioned.
As it reaches the Slayer and one of the guards, Emerik manages to slam his shield into the head to the creature. With the worm momentarily stunned, the guard wastes no time slashing it's exposed throat, covering himself and the ground in a thick, dark ichor.
"Might I have a word chief Skizz?" Emerik asks as the worm stills.
The guardsmen take the hint with some reluctancy, stepping away to leave the Slayer alone with the lizardman.
"I have only a few more, but you are welcome to them. I learned long ago that men value these highly, sometimes too much so.." Skizz fetches the last of the stones from another pouch and hands them to the Slayer.
"Thank you chief Skizz, I shall return shortly." With that, Emerik walked off to the waiting guardsmen.
He hand the guard the pair of bloodstone. "And that you let the town council know that I will return in some time. Until then, stay away from the pools and leave the lizardmen be and I shall see that they do the same." Seeing their eyes drawn to the gems, Emerik makes the guard repeat it back to him, before sending them on their way.
As they start the long walk back, one says to the other. "That Slayer is either mad or fearless, either way, I'm glad he didn't try to drag us along!"
Emerik returns to the waiting chief and relay the terms of their contract. With little choice but ruin and doom, Skizz readily agrees to keep his people away from town and leave as soon as they are able.
The agreement struck, Skizz and Emerik wander off into the desert, towards the faraway mountains..
What will happen on their journey? Why did the sand worms suddenly attack, and what are the ancient ruins hidden in the caverns of the lizardmen?
Til next time!