It wasn’t long before the group rounded a sharp corner on the sloping dirt path and before them was the Duttontun gorge, with the bridge of the same name spanning it.
"We’re a-crossing that?" Thorm asked with dismay upon seeing the old wooden bridge.
"It’s been used for years." Brother Darv tried to reassure the Dwarf.
"—and it looks like it too!" The Dwarf quipped, leaning back in the seat of the small wagon he was driving, "I have no desire to turn around, but I fear that bridge no longer is sound."
"It’s too late for that." Siris said from the back of the wagon where she and Lute – who was too large to ride a normal horse—were riding, "We don’t have room here to turn your wagon around and I don’t think you want to back all the way down."
The Dwarf shuttered, thinking of how nervous the sharp turns, several on the edges of long drops, had made him.
"Nay" He said with a grunt, "ye are right, Orcess, we’d all be killed backing down that blasted twisted goat trail they call a road."
"I’ll walk across." Lute said as he climbed out of the wagon, "that will lighten the load."
"We should lash ourselves together with rope before we cross that dilapidated thing." Thorm said to Siris.
The Orc lady grinned, "Don’t worry, boss, I’ll ride across with you. I’ll even hold your hand if you’re scared."
"Scared?" Thorm snorted as everyone laughed, "Never knew the meaning of the word! And I’ll be hanged if I need a green-skinned she-Orc holding my hand! Ye just sit back and watch me drive this cart across!"
Brother Darv leaned over across his horse, "Siris, it might not hurt to pray – you’ve wounded his pride so he’ll probably sail across at a gallop now."
Lute looked back at the three, "Not with me walking in front of them, he won’t. Slow is best, I think."
Thorm turned back to Siris, "There – ye see, your husband is even a bit nervous."
"Oh, I’m not nervous, just cautious." Lute glanced around at everyone in the group, "Who wants to go first?"
For a moment everyone just stared at each other until Aurei started her horse forward, "Well, this was my idea, so I’ll go first, I guess."
"Let us go first, Duchess." Sir Alvis brought his steed in front of hers and motioned to his knights. Eleazar and Aeric joined him, "A Paladin should lead, and not follow."
"Then Aurei and I should help you lead," Alis said, bringing her horse up next to her friend.
"We shouldn’t all ride across close together, let’s distribute the weight more." Sir Aeric suggested, "Eleazar, Sir Alvis and I will go first, then you and the Duchess can follow."
Alis nodded, smiling because she knew why the half-Elf knight had suggested the order – it was out of concern for her safety on the rickety old bridge.
Without further comment, the three knights led their horses across the old bridge, which creaked and groaned as if it was about to crumble into dust at any moment. Both Aurei and Alis unconsciously held their breath until the three knights had safely reached the other side.
"Take it slow and spread out some more." Aeric called back to them, "The wood is giving quite a bit, but I think it seems solid enough."
With a glance at each other, the two friends urged their mounts onto the bridge. They felt the wood give noticeably and halfway across something cracked and was heard falling onto the rocks far below.
"Oh boy!" Alis whispered to Aurei, "How in the world do they use this bridge all the time, Aurei?"
"I don’t know, maybe there’s a trick to it." Aurei glanced down, disturbed to see gaps from place to place in the wood.
"This bridge is far too rickety for frequent use." Alis breathed a sigh of relief as she and Aurei reached the other side.
"It does seem unlikely that this bridge is used on a daily basis." Sir Aeric agreed.
"There is no other way to get from Thurgood to… well, ANYWHERE – other than using this bridge. We see some of the residents in Westmark every few days, so they have to use this rotten nightmare of a bridge." Aurei watched the old boards of the bridge buckle slightly as Pectros, Neal and Brolen started across.
"I take back any comments I made about the residents of Thurgood." Neal said, looking heavenward, "I wish them all good health. Now just please let this bridge hold up."
Again there came the sound of crumbling wood and several rotten pieces from the supports below the bridge fell free of the structure.
All three guardsmen looked extremely relieved to see the other side.
"Thorm, I’m not sure about that wagon." Pectros called back to the dwarf.
"Wonderful!" Thorm grumbled, I hate riding horses, but falling to a certain death is an even grimmer end. We’ll unhitch the horses and lead them across, and leave the wagon here ‘til we return." He turned to Lute, "That’ll mean ye’ll have to ride as well or else walk."
The Half-Ogre shrugged, "I don’t mind walking."
Thorm patted one of his horses as he unhitched their yokes from the wagon hitch, "I think Ol’ Maggie could carry ye. She’s a strong one and we shouldn’t be travelling further than a couple of miles. I’ll ride with Siris if she won’t nibble on my ears with those dainty little tusks of hers."
He grinned at the Orc who of course replied by showing off the long lower canine teeth common to the race, that non-Orcs commonly called tusks. In spite of her race, Siris was actually a rather pretty woman, her Orc features delicate and not unpleasant. Mixed with her very friendly personality, she surprised everyone that met her with her good-natured humor and she quickly would win over even the most prejudiced human or dwarf. Thorm had grown extremely fond of her, as well as her large, equally good-natured husband, both of whom were among his very best armorers.
Lute rolled his eyes at his wife and the dwarf, "I’ll lead Maggie and Popcorn across."
He took the reins of both horses from Thorm and slowly started across the bridge, following Brother Darv who was testing the placement of each step he took with a tap on the wood with a long branch he’d found.
"This wood isn’t really rotten." He said as they were halfway across, "It’s odd that the lower parts seem to be crumbling – you’d think the part exposed to all the rain would be in the worst shape."
"That’s what I thought too." Aurei commented, very nervously watching the huge Half-Ogre leading the two heavy horses across the span, "It just doesn’t make sense why the bridge would be so messed up. But you can hear things falling off of it below."
Brother Darv stopped about three-fourths the way across and knelt slightly, looking closely at a piece of the bridge, "These gaps in the wood – I don’t think they are due to being worn. They almost look like someone has been chipping away at the wood with an axe or an awl. You can see scratches where some sort of tool chipped at it, and it looks very fresh."
"Wonderful!" Thorm commented again, as he and Siris followed Lute and the horses over the bridge, "Someone is trying to kill us."
"Or maybe just trying to keep us from visiting." Siris suggested as they walked.
Each step the Half-Ogre took seemed to cause more cracking and crumbling sounds to come from underneath the bridge. Brother Darv had just reached solid ground when Ol’ Maggie’s hoof slipped through a board, causing her to stumble slightly in a panic and then pull forward, startling Popcorn, who also rushed forward, pulling Lute along with them.
"Whoa! Easy, girls!" Lute was pulling on their reins to calm them down, but they wanted off the bridge and he was half-dragged along with them to the opposite side, their speed and weight now causing boards to snap and crack.
"It’s going down!" Thorm yelled to Siris and both of them, now closer to the opposite side, raced forward, as the bridge began to give way.
They were nearly there when with a massive *POP*, the whole support structure of the bridge collapsed and the bridge buckled then fell straight down.
Aurei and Alis screamed in horror as they saw the Orc and Dwarf, their eyes wide in terror, suddenly pinwheel wildly as they rode the bridge down. But somehow Thorm’s wildly flailing hand found a solid piece of railing on the very edge of the bridge and he grabbed it tightly as his feet found nothing remaining but air. But he wasn’t finished, for in a flash he had somehow managed to entwine his legs around one of the Orc woman’s arms and she latched onto his ankles. There was a harsh jolt as the Dwarf’s handhold stopped both of them from falling, but they lay hanging from the support of the very last handrail on the Thurgood end of the bridge.
Before anyone could say anything, Lute had moved in, going to his knees at the end of the gorge and grabbing the Dwarf’s other hand in his own huge hand.
"Hold on!" he called past Thorm to his wife, who hung from the dwarf’s right ankle with one hand.
With a deep breath, the half-Ogre flexed his massive muscles and with an amazing show of strength pulled the dwarf straight up out of the pit, even getting to his feet as he pulled, until both the dwarf and Siris had cleared the chasm. Gently he moved backwards until both were on firm ground.
Lute rushed past Thorm to his wife, who lay on the grass, breathing in relief from the rescue.
"Are you alright?" he asked, scooping her up in his arms like a parent would a small child.
"Of course she’s alright!" Thorm said, also sprawled out on the grass, catching his breath, "She’s got a grip like a pair of pliers! An armorer has a grip like no other. I feel like a piece of dough pulled too far."
Siris glanced up at her husband and leaned in to kiss him, "You saved us!"
"Of course I did. I didn’t want to lose you. You know how hard it is to find a pretty Orc wife that everyone in town likes?" Siris just hugged her husband in response to his kidding.
"And you!" Siris suddenly turned to Thorm, who was rubbing his legs, "If you hadn’t stuck your little stubby legs right in my face, I’d be talking to Yesh right now. You move pretty fast for a dwarf. Thank you, Thorm, I owe you my life."
The dwarf just snorted, "I’ll take it out of your pay next week. Is anything broken or out of place?"
Lute helped his wife stand and she took a few steps and shook her head.
"How about you?" Brother Darv asked as he came up to the dwarf.
"Naw, we dwarves are used to roughhousing around." To prove his point, he stood up and dusted himself off. Aurei came forward and took his hand and then grasped Siris’ as well, "I am so sorry, you two! If I hadn’t had the brilliant idea to come here, none of this would have happened. I could have got both of you killed!"
"Duchess, we don’t hold ye responsible for the bridge a-breaking up. Ye heard Brother Darv, it looks like it may have been sabotaged."
Siris looked up at the Cleric, "Why would they do that, Brother Darv?"
"I don’t know, Siris, but it may not have been the villagers that did it. I think we need to get to the village and see if they can give us some answers. That is, as soon as the two of you and our heroic half-Ogre have regained your composure."
All three quickly stated their readiness and a few minutes later the group was travelling across the flat summit of the small mountain through somewhat heavy foliage.
"Duchess, I thought you said the people of this town that we are heading toward were sheep-farmers?" Sir Alvis asked as they rode along.
"Yes, they are."
"It doesn’t really seem too suitable for grazing sheep – it is mostly trees and rocks."
"Near the village it is flat and more open with some fields, but many of them take their sheep off the mount to graze on the flatlands to the southeast."
"They'd take their sheep over the bridge that just collapsed?"
"I know what you are thinking – it seems unlikely they would have left their bridge in that condition. I can tell you that the few times I have visited the village, the bridge seemed in far better condition then how we found it. And none of the people coming into the tavern after visiting Thurgood mentioned the bridge deteriorating."
"Something is amiss" The Paladin commander said grimly, looking up at the clouds, "Look at the sky, Duchess, it seems like the skies are growing darker the nearer we get to our destination. I don’t recall the sky looking so threatening in this direction when we left Westmark. It was overcast, but it was a consistent grey, not like it is now, and the darker skies seem to be hovering over this mountain."
"What do you think it means? Could the Necromancer’s Guild be behind this?"
"I’d say it was extremely likely they are. We see an Airship last night somewhere around this location. What would we do the next day but send someone out to check on it? We journey up the tallest mountain in the general vicinity of the sighting, which would be logical for anyone to do for two reasons, first, to better see the surrounding area, and secondly, to see if any of the people of Thurgood had seen anything. When we go over the only bridge on this mountain -which, you tell me, has sides with sheer cliffs- the old bridge, used by many people for years, suddenly collapses. Now we are in effect trapped here, and suddenly the sky above us seems very, very dark."
Aurei swallowed hard, "You think we are going into a trap, don’t you?"
The Paladin commander looked at her, "Yes, I do."
Sir Eleazar, who had listened to the conversation riding quietly at his commander’s side, leaned in and softly said, "We are being followed. Well, tracked, actually; about 6 humanoid figures, moving very silently through the trees to either side of us. Probably Ghouls or Ghasts, I’d guess."
Aurei glanced at the half-Drow knight, who seemed so calm and nonchalant about it, as did Sir Alvis, "Aren’t you both unsettled by this?"
Sir Alvis shrugged, "There is not much we can do but handle what comes our way right now, Duchess, and nervousness is very much like fear in how it affects you, which the Necromancer’s Guild always uses to its advantage. Calmness is your greatest tool when dealing with the Guild."
Aurei scanned the forest to either side for an instant, but did not see anything. Still, the hair on the back of her neck was standing up and she could somehow feel their presence.
"You feel them, don’t you?" Alvis asked her as he watched her reaction.
She nodded, still glancing about.
The Knight Commander turned to Eleazar with a grim smile and said, "I told you."
"What did you tell him?" Aurei asked.
"It is another ability of a Paladin; sensing evil."
"Oh. Well, you’ll be thrilled to know that it's all around us."
"We know." Eleazar and Alvis replied at the same time.
"I’m not sure we can get off this mountain with the bridge out." Aurei tried to calm herself with a deep breath, "This was a mistake."
"Perhaps not." Alvis replied, still glancing up at the sky from time to time, "I suspect they were anticipating a smaller force to be sent out to investigate, not the company we have assembled. We just may be able to counter their attack."
"When will that come?"
"When it is dark enough – either tonight or else when their magic makes it so."
"How do we prepare?"
"Well, we see what is going on at the village – if there are enough villagers, we may be able to fortify a building where we can make a stand."
All at once, Aurei felt as if she was going to faint. She blinked, trying to clear the feeling, but it was sweeping over her, making her feel as if she were drifting or dreaming of floating away.
"Aurei?" Eleazar asked in alarm at the vacant look in her eyes. The knight brought his horse around to the other side of her.
He reached out to touch her shoulder and she turned toward him, her mind still experiencing the out-of-body state.
"There’s no-one there." she heard herself tell him in a flat, emotionless voice, "In Thurgood; they are all gone."
Both Paladins looked at her in alarm. Eleazar leaned in closer to look in her eyes, "Aurei, how do you know?"
"I can see the village – it is empty." Her voice came from her lips but she had no conscious thought of having spoken the words. In her mind she could see Thurgood, sitting quietly in the grey overcast light, empty of all animals and residents.
"Where are they?" Sir Alvis grasped her other arm. She turned to him, still vacant in her expression.
"They are on one end of the mountain, closer to the ruins of Duttontun. All of them are dead. The Necromancer’s Guild has reanimated them. They wait for us to arrive before they'll attack."
"What other forces are against us?" Alvis asked.
"Ghouls, ghasts, wizards, a sorceress and a ghost."
"Why are they here?"
"They seek you and your knights." Aurei said with a dreamlike voice, "They seek new Death Knights. Their master is familiar to you, he seeks to destroy you."
"In the name of Yesh the Holy, I command you to tell me who you are that speaks through Duchess Bugley," The Knight Commander leaned in close, his face resolved to know the truth.
"Be at peace, servant of Yesh, for he that you serve has sent this warning to you. Great danger awaits you if you allow yourself to be trapped in the village after dark or in the ruins of Duttontun. Airships are quite near and wait for the attack. The Dark One is master of one vessel and his goal is to take you and your Paladins, force all of you to submit and create more of his Death Knights. The others will be killed and reanimated as well, but as zombies."
"How do we get off this mountain without a bridge?"
"There is a small cave on the far edge of the village, toward the ruins of Duttontun; its entrance has been concealed by the townspeople with a large barn built up against the side of a large rocky mound. There you will find a winding path of many steps that will lead you through the mountain to an exit at the base. It is narrow and twisting, yet you will be able to walk your mounts through it. But beware because it is heavily guarded, for that is where they await for you. The light of Yesh be upon you."
Aurei closed her eyes and swayed slightly in the saddle. Both Eleazar and Alvis grabbed her and steadied her until she opened her eyes with a deep breath.
"It’s a trap" she announced to both of them, but with her own voice now.
"We know; we heard the message."
"What happened to me?" Aurei asked nervously.
"It was a message from Yesh; you were used as the vessel. Are you okay?"
"Yes, it was very weird, like dreaming a dream and watching yourself dream at the same time. But I felt…" she stopped, shaking her head.
"You felt him." Eleazar finished her thought, "Yesh the merciful, speaking through you."
She nodded, "I felt like… he was there with me. I know it sounds crazy or maybe blasphemous, but I felt like he was in my mind with me! Have you ever had such an experience?"
Eleazar shook his head and glanced askingly to his commander, who also shook his head and commented, "Duchess, very few experience that – only Saint Kinnis and several others. I’ve never actually seen a manifestation of Yesh before now."
"What does it mean?" She asked the Blood Knight.
"It means our situation is so grave it warranted a warning."
"They’re all dead -seventy or so people— all killed by the Necromancer’s Guild!" Aurei began weeping, for the vision had included images of the villagers’ bodies.
Alis rode up from behind them and leaned across the saddle to comfort her friend. The Drow girl cried for a few minutes as the others sat solemnly on their horses waiting.
She finally regained her composure and wiped her eyes bleakly, turning to the others, "I guess we have no option but to try to find that cave hidden by the barn."
"I think that is what Yesh wants us to do." Eleazar said tenderly, feeling pain at the Duchess’ grief.
They looked around at the group, all of whom had witnessed the whole manifestation. They sat quietly, waiting to continue on their journey.
"We need to prepare ourselves for battle." Sir Alvis told the group and without another word, each member of the party followed his suggestion -- checking armor, weapons and shields before they faced the challenge ahead of them.