Meanwhile at the Falcon's Rest

Meanwhile at the Falcon's Rest, Rurik, Michael, Lothar and Herger loafed around underfoot. Their host asked if they would be staying long or if they were waiting for someone or something.

The day passed slowly, although some might have enjoyed the rest, the enforced inaction was wearing. There were no visitors during the day; after the coaches had left, it was only the staff and the companions.

Herger and Michael finally went for a walk in the environs, and so they were the ones who first saw a lone halfing walking briskly up from the south, along the Thistletoe road, clearly heading toward the Falcon's Rest.

Michael hailed the halfling and wished him good evening.

Upon hearing Michael's hail, the halfling jumped nearly out of his skin, looking fearfully around him. On seeing Herger and Michael, he visibly relaxed. "Good afternoon, then," he called back. "Staying at the Inn are you?"

"Sorry to startle you, goodsir. In fact, we are at the Inn...just going to wal k back that way. Have you come far?"

"Not too far, no. From Thistletoe." The halfling looked up at them. "Are you ... staying long?" he asked carefully.

"Well, it depends on what strikes our fancy..we're not exactly on a schedule, yo u know..." Why do you ask? Do you have news from Thistletoe?"

"No, no! Just stopping by for ... a drink," said the halfling. "And some charcoal!"

Herger noted the caution and hesitancy in the halfling's manner and spoke to him in a soothing voice, "I am Herger, devotee of Sigmar, and this is my companion Michael. Walk with us, and we'll see you safely to the Inn."

"Ah, thank you," said the halfling.

"What brings a Halfling like yourself so far from Thistletoe on foot, my friend? You seem wary and agitated by something. Perhaps, as a man of the cloth, I might help you with your troubles," said Herger.

"No, thank you. I'm just tired. It's been a long walk," he said. "I just need charcoal and there's a charcoal burner near here. That's all."

Herger nodded in understanding, thinking it peculiar that the little man never offered to introduce himself.

The trio walked the last half-mile to the Inn, and entered the gate. One of the stableboys was in the courtyard and hailed them as they entered, "Welcome back, masters." He caught sight of the halfing. "Drogo?" he asked.

"Aye, Willem. I came to get some charcoal," the halfling, Drogo apparently, hurried to say. "Have you any to spare?"

"Ricardo's not been around for a few days, but we might have some," said Willem the stablehand.

"Then thankee, masters, for the escort," said Drogo. "Willem, might you show me what you've got?"

"Aye. This way then," said Willem and led Drogo off toward a storeroom.

Herger smiled in response to Drogo and waved a hand in farewell as the two sauntered off. Glancing at Michael, he said, "I'd hate to think that this fellow is here to pass word that someone is looking for my uncle."

"And he seems a little agitated for someone on a simple shopping trip..." added Michael.

With a nod, Herger turned to make his way towards the common room, saying, "I am not the type to try and eavesdrop either. Let us find the others and make plans for traveling to Thistletoe. I think that Marri and Tibbido may be in over their heads."

Herger related his unease to Rurik and Lothar and suggested that they gather their things and be on their way to Thistletoe.

For his part, upon hearing Herger's account of the lone halfling, Rurik decided to stealthily drop eaves in an attempt to find out what was really going on.

While Herger and the others packed their things and took their leave of mine host, Rurik, under the pretext of seeing to the horses slipped out to see if he could overhear Willem and the new arrival. He slipped up to the storeroom door and placed an ear against it. The voices were soft but he could make out some words.

" a problem," said Willem. "I'll let the others know."

"But ... do?" said another voice indistinctly.

"Go back ... find out ...will know ..." said Willem, his voice fading as he turned toward and away from the door, Rurik guessed.

A sound caught his attention and he moved quickly over to the stables just as the door opened and Ted, the other stableboy came out.

Compared with getting caught stark naked with the Captain of the Guard's daughter, this little near-miss was nothing. Still, a touch of adrenaline rang softly in his ears as he maintained his easy, casual demeanor.

It took Rurik a delayed beat to react to the halflings sudden appearance. Coming out of his thoughts, the Wastelander stepped out of Ted's path; granting him a warm, friendly - albeit somewhat sleepy smile.

Once the door cleared, Rurik made his way through the stalls to quietly tend to his mount.

The stableboy followed Rurik in. "Is summat wrong with your mount, sir?" he asked. "They all seem in good shape to me."

Rurik glanced briefly at the halfling; Though cheerful, a hint of melancholy touched his eyes. "Indeed, good master. They are well." Slipping a hand into his pocket, he produces a sweet treat for his mount and whispers soothingly tones into the large equine's ear.

"We've been together for quite some time, he and I." Rurik spoke softly to nobody in particular while he collected a handy brush and ran it down the horse's powerful flanks. "Early tomorrow we ride once again. - Aren't we, boy? Yes... that's right..." soothing words spoken with hints of a Wastelander accent.

To the stableboy he offered a final explanation before focusing his full attention on grooming; "It is my way."

"Aye sir," said the stableboy before taking his leave.

Upon finishing grooming his horse, Rurik returned and discretely reported what he heard to the others. More than ever, Herger thought they should seek the halflings and so they informed their host."

"So, you'll be leaving us in the morning then?" said their host bustling about. "Well, we'll certainly miss you. You're welcome back anytime." Any further talk was cut off by the clatter of an arriving coach, outbound from Moot Crossing. Soon the place was merry and bustling. The halfling from the south came into the common room and sat in a corner drinking, somewhat remote from the general good cheer.

The companions retired in good order.

After the common room had quieted and all the guests had drifted into slumber, the door to Rurik's room cracked softly open. He looked out and then slipped across the room, pausing once as a floorboard creaked but reaching the door without incident. Again, he carefully cracked the door and examined the exterior. Finding it to his satisfaction, he moved quickly across the courtyard. A dark corner had suggested itself to him earlier as a suitable place to hide and soon he was tucked away in it, cloak around his body both for warmth and to hide any glints of moonlight on sword hilt or buckle.

In his room, Herger slept fitfully; dreams of falsey, tricksey Halflings running through his mind.

Silence descended on the courtyard. An hour passed, then another half of one as Rurik began to curse himself for being on a fool's errand. Then the door to the brewhouse opened just a crack. Four figures crept out of the now open door; three of them were obviously halflings and the fourth was clearly not, the size was that of a human or elf, but wrapped as it was in a cloak, little beyond the size was observable. One of the halflings opened the postern gate near the brewhouse, on the opposite side of the courtyard from Rurik's hiding place, and the other three passed through it like ghosts. The remaining halfling closed the gate and entered the door that Rurik knew led to the servants' quarters.

Outnumbered and lacking any form of backup, Rurik considered his options. He hadn't anticipated the involvement of this many people; and who was that tall person, anyway? Could it be who they're looking for?

Rurik watched and waited a moment to make sure the way was clear, then carefully maneuvered to follow the trio; winding a path he estimated was least likely to expose himself.

He reached the gate without being observed, at least as far as he could tell. Then he found himself presented with a conundrum. The gate was bolted on the inside. He could open it and go out, but had no way to bolt it behind him.

Rurik cast about looking for a way up to the top of the wall and realized the wall itself provided enough foot- and hand-holds. He quickly scaled the wall and sought for his prey. A hint of motion to the south caught his eye, there they were heading down the path toward Thistletoe.

"The hunt begins" Rurik thought as he stole himself to the task. Any further and he's fully committed; alone and without his mount. He looked longingly back at the wall and considered returning to the warmth and comfort of his bed. The others will have to explain his absence and abandonment of his mount.

Pulling his mind back to the task at hand, Rurik encircled his cloak more tightly about him and stalked after his quarry.

The three were clearly not expecting any pursuit, and Rurik's experiences had left him with just the skills he needed to keep out of sight and out of hearing range.

The pursuit lengthened. The three were apparently on their way back to Thistletoe, which would take all night - and a long night at that, it was thirty miles to the village.

For the long night, the three figures kept up their trek, and behind them Rurik slipped after. Justas dawn was beginning to break, Rurik's prey turned west, following a trail a short distance to what seemed to be an abandoned halfling house of some grandeur. Built into the side of a hill, it faced south but was blocked from the view of the village by a rise in the land. Behind it, on the other side of the hill, was a tidy little halfling graveyard. The man and one of the halflings entered the abandoned halfling hole, and the other turned back along the track and headed toward Thistletoe. Rurik had to scramble to get under cover.

Watching the halfling make his way back down the path, Rurik suddenly wished there was two of him. After a moment of contemplation, he decided the bigger mystery was the man in the cloak. Making sure the area was clear, Rurik cautiously angled his way toward the halfling hole in the hope of a view.

By the time he got in position, the man and halfling had entered the dwelling and closed the door. From his new vantage it was clear that the structure was clearly the halfling equivalent of a fairly impressive manor house, and that it had been abandoned for some time.

Once he deemed the door to be clear, Rurik made a cursory look and listen at the manor hole entrance.

Satisfied that there was no more immediate information to be learned from this site, the wastelander considered his options. He could stake out this site for the Gods only knew how long, follow the other halfling into town and expose himself to greater risk of detection, or go back and collect his horse which may or may not be there.

He decided returning to the inn was the least risky course of action and reversed the lengthy trek he had but just barely completed. Careful to not be seen on the road, Rurik took down available small game in an effort to have at least some sort of explanation for his absence.

The company at the Inn rose with the sun and made ready to leave. It was imediately obvious that Rurik was not among their number.

As the company stood around waiting for Rurik to make an appearance Herger muttered under his breath, then said, "We can't keep waiting for him. He knows where we're headed and is capable enough to catch up. If you'd like to wait a bit longer and look around for him, Michael, you could catch up with us."

As they prepared, they realized that Rurik's horse was still in the stables.

Leaving Michael behind to wait for Rurik, the remaining companions set off down the road toward Thistletoe. The trail was pleasant enough, they made good time. An hour or so after noon, they were hailed from the side of the road and looked up to see Rurik, tired looking but otherwise healthy, leaning against a tree.

Herger smiled to see his friend and chuckled amiably, "You look like you could use a bit of rest. How did you manage to get all the way out here without your horse? We left Michael back at the inn to await your appearance."

Rurik winked at Herger; delivering a tired yet mischeivous grin. "Why, with my own two legs, of course. A condition you've failed to remedy, it appears." He looked back up the path towards the inn and frowned resignedly.

Detaching himself from the tree, Rurik walked casually to his fellow travelers. "A party of 3 fellows spirited away during the night. Two of the usually stature for this part of the world, but one was conspicuously taller; shrouded in long cloth. Man or Elf - or worse - I could not tell."

The Wastelander looked up and down the path before continuing, "The Manling and one Halfling stopped at an abandoned manor by a cemetery; where they split company and the other Halfling continued into town." He shrugged. "That was as much information as I was able to gather without risking discovery."

With a speculative look, Herger asked, "Do you think it is related to my uncle's disappearance?" He reached down to give Rurik a hand up onto his horse.

"We shall head back to collect your mount, and Michael, then we must find our late-coming Halfling friends. These travelers in the night bear further investigation, I think," he said.

"I believe it does have something to do with the disappearance, though what I cannot say," Rurik said as he accepted Herger's hand and mounted up behind him.

"This departure was the result of a conversation held between the halfling that walked in from town yesterday and some other. The discussion focused on a pair of halflings who were asking too many questions about your missing uncle."

Herger said, "It seems as if haste is required. Lothar, maybe you could ride on ahead and collect the Halflings while we return for Michael and Rurik's mount. We could meet here along the road and investigate this manor Rurik uncovered."

"Try to stay out of sight of the manor. I'm pretty sure they're convinced their secret is safe. It'd be a pity to squander that advantage," Rurik called back as Herger turned back toward the Inn.

Meanwhile at Back at the Falcon's Rest

Michael waited. The tavern-keeper and the two wenches went about their business checking in with him as usual to provide the occasional drink and to set out lunch.

It was after lunch that he began to feel weary, unusually so. He slipped down into unconsciousness.

Michael awoke in darkness. His head throbbed from what he assumed was the drug he had been given. The place he was in was completely dark, but it smelled of earth and wood. He was collared and chained, and the chain was fixed to a stone wall. The limit of the chain let him reach a corner in the room. The floor was earthen. His sharp ears perked up, there was someone else in the room, someone whose breathing was labored. The person did not appear to be doing anything but breathing, perhaps they were asleep. The sound came from somewhere out away from the corner of the room, beyond where he could reach.

Michael listened and then gently called out, but the person if person it was, did not reply. Michael tested his bonds again, and then unable to do anything else, settled in to wait.

That evening at Thistletoe

Tibbo and Marri looked up as the tall(well, tall by halfling standards) figure of Lothar ducked his head and entered the Three Poles. The pair had spend a pleasant, but not particularly fruitful day, enjoying the Inn and its wares and learned a little more about the rythym of life in Thistletoe. Lothar recognized them and came to sit down.

Tibbo, naturally, thought this called for another round and after Lothar had slaked his thirst, he spoke, "I looked for you at Hayfoot's first and they said you were here." He leaned in close, "The others should be along sometime tomorrow, but there is something a little strange going on. A halfling came up the road from Thistletoe last night, but left in the middle of the night with another halfling and a man. Well, Rurik said it was man sized and man shaped, but it could have been an elf. He followed them to an empty house outside of Thistletoe, where they went to ground. Rurik and Herger went back to the Inn to get Michael and Rurik's horse and I came here. Is the food good? I'm starved!"

"Ah yes, though the service is not as good as Hayfoot's," he said with a knowing wink. Tibbiddo glanced over to Marri and felt summarily disciplined for his innuendo. The halfling called allowed for some food to fight off Lothar's hunger and then he asked in hushed tones. "Two halflings and a long-ear, you say. Do you think we are in any danger?"

"Herger does, that's why I'm here. He and Rurik think you may have stirred up a hornet's nest," said Lothar.

Tibbiddo held a hand out to calm Marri down, even though she did not react, "Everything will be ok." The act was purely for Lothar's benefit since Tibbiddo's insides turned ice cold at the thought of there being someone who intended to cause him harm. He leaned in to Lothar nodding, "We should probably go into hiding until the others arrive, right?"

"Whatever you think is best; you know the lay of the land," he replied.

"Excellent," said the halfling patting the table in joy. He looked to Marri for support.

Tibbo. Mari and Lothar remained at the Three Poles, hoping Dopey would should up. By closing time, he had not and so they returned to Hayfoot's and their lodging. Hayfoot found a place for Lothar and so to bed.

And at The Falcon's Rest

Herger and Rurik, riding double, reined in at the Inn. The innkeeper bustled out to meet them, and Rurik thought he saw an odd expression flit across the halfling's face before being replaced with a mask of good humour. "Good evening, good evening!" he said. "I had not thought to see you again so soon. The coach has just come in so all the rooms are taken, I'm afraid," this last was directed to Rurik.

The friends looked around, "Where is our companion?" asked Herger, since Michael was nowhere to be seen.

"You didn't meet him on the road, then?" asked their host. "He set off around noon with both horses and I assumed he was going to meet you."

Tired from travel and lack of sleep, Rurik's anger rose unchecked to the fore. "DAMN his hide!" he swore at the thought of Michael abandoning them and stealing his horse. Suspicion quickly followed anger as he seriously doubted Michael would do such a thing.

"If you'll excuse me," Rurik stated icily as he put a hand on the hilt of his sword and shouldered past the innkeep into the inn.

Inside, the room bustled with activity as the wait staff tended to five visible guests, one short of a full coach load. Of Michael, there was no sign.

Rurik stood a moment looking around the common area for anything that might be amiss; bits of broken glass, recently replaced tables, hastily cleaned-up blood, out-of-place travelers. Anger still burning, he marched resolutely to their old rooms to look for much the same.

Nothing caught his eye in the common room, so he bustled to the stables. Nothing seemed amiss there, except ... only one stableboy was in evidence. Willem (he thought it was Willem) was dealing with the horses but Ted (if this one was Willem) was not in evidence.

The Northlander caught up with the one stable boy; eyes burning. "Where's the other stableboy?" he asked in a dangerous tone; hand menacingly on the pommel of his sword. "If you wish to see the morning you'll either take me to him, or my missing companion and horses!"

Willem looked at the enraged Wastelander and decided he wasn't bluffing. "Don't hurt me, master," he pled. "Your friend is safe! Ted is gone, but your friend is here."

"Damn you, Willem," came the voice of mine host from behind Rurik. "You weakling."

Rurik spun to see Raymond Cheesewind with an unpleasant look on his face. A moment later, a fireball leapt from his hand towards the man and the halfling.

Rurik dove for cover, but the unlucky Willem took the full brunt of the exploding flame and screamed falling to the ground and batting wildly at his charred flesh.

Cheesewind cursed, lobbing a fireball at Herger who screamed and fell back as the fireball burst directly in his face. Cheesewind smiled and drew a dagger, seemingly unconcerned that his stable was on fire and the common room was about to go up.

For Rurik, time slowed to a stop. The flames stood as spectral towers organically buttressing the stable walls, but the only heat he felt was that from his own white rage. Pulling his enchanted Elvin blade, he awoke the prodigious well of fiery death that beckon to be released - but he held it at bay; not from any rational concern for the additive effect on the already dangerous blaze, but from the raw visceral desire to see this stunted monster's lifeblood spilled by his own steel.

Reflected flame danced lasciviously across the surface of the polished steel as Rurik charged the Halfling with murderous intent; leaving in his wake an indecipherable battlecry that sounded vaguely Elvish.

A vicious blow across the halflings head drove the innkeeper to his knees. Cheesewind raised his left-hand, the one in the hawking glove high as if to ward off another blow, then thrust upward with his dagger, Rurik stepped away noting in passing that the blade had a dark, sticky look. His riposte spitted the innkeeper like a chicken. Blood erupted around the wound and from his mouth and he slumped forward.

The guests began to spill out of the common room, and the two coachmen came out of the coach-house. For a moment, cries of "murder" and "fire" hung in the air, then they died out as a figure staggered out of the burning stable. Still aflame, the halfling stableboy lurched toward Rurik. Dead eyes stared at nothingness, and yet the body came at Rurik with terrible purpose.

"That's not right..." Rurik thought to himself as the erratic fireball once known as Willem ambled toward him. "To the trough, Willem! Put yourself out!" he yelled, but judging by the halfling's vacant eyes and general lack of concern for his incendiary condition, Rurik doubted there was much left of what was once Willem anyway. Given the urgency of the situation, the Marienberger decided to extend the unfortunate lad a courtesy - a quick death.

Taking a side-step to insure the burning mass of flesh was actually intent on his demise and not just in the way, Rurik stole himself for the task at hand.

The dead, or undead, stableboy was intending him harm, there was no doubt. Behind him, Rurik heard Herger beseeching Sigmar in a loud voice to aid his servant, that he might be able to smite the chaos around him. Then Rurik was too busy to listen, as he turned to face the creature, his nerve broke and he began to wildly try to keep the creature at bay.

Steeling his nerve a second time, he struck and lopped the head off the creature in one stroke. The body stumbled another step then collapsed.

Herger stepped up next to him, warhammer in hand. He looked terrible, but with each movement burned skin flaked off and fell to the ground showing pink skin beneath. Clearly Sigmar had heard his prayer.

Breathing hard from the exertion, Rurik couldn't help but smile at his cindered Sigmarin friend. "Nice trick," he quipped before getting back to the task at hand. "Find Michael, I'll get the horses."

Running back into the stables, the Wastelander was heard yelling "Water! Bring me Water!"

He had only taken a few steps when a scream returned his attention to the stable. The dead innkeeper, like his stableboy before him was rising from where he had fallen dead.

Herger felt the holy power of his patron filling him with vigor as Rurik ran back into the blazing stables, calling for water. He touched his holy symbol with his left hand and gave appropriate thanks to Sigmar for his aid.

Sudden movement caught his eye as he saw the dead innkeeper begin to rise from the ground which had begun to steam from the growing conflagration. The civilians began to scream and yell as Herger steeled himself to charge, both hands ready to bring his warhammer to bear.

Having faced such creatures befoe and with the Holy Power of Sigmar filling him, he did not hesitate to slam his weapon into the chest of the unholy thing. The chest collapsed under the force of the blow and the thing folded over and fell, where Herger's second blow crushed it's skull like an eggshell. Like the stableboy the body twitched a few times, but whatever malign force has animated it had fled.

Rurik was in the fire now, trying to bring the animals out to safety. The coach horses were so panicked that to approach them put him in fear of his life, but he returned with Herger's horse. The coachmen, seeing their animals in danger ran into the flames and returned, one leading the charges and the other behind urging them on. A collapsing beam dumped a load of flaming straw onto the rear man who staggered out, aflame, and fell to the ground where a few of the coach passengers beat the flames out. He was badly burned and barely conscious.

With the horses clear of the stables, the immediate danger was past. It was up to fate and the wind if and how fast the fire would spread to the other structures. Still, there was some urgency. The uninjured coachman knew his priorities and after calling to the passengers to gather their things, he led his team to the coach house, threw open the doors and began to hitch his team to the coach.

The passengers were happy to defer to any authority, and though the initiate of Sigmar seemed competant, he and his warlike companion also seemed busy, so they were content to follow the coachman's lead.

Rurik and Herger began a systematic search, starting with the storeroom. In the storeroom, they saw only such supplies as they exepcted to find, but also a door in the left wall. They began to move their seach in that direction, when Rurik stopped. Something about the room was wrong. It wasn't deep enough. There was no door into the storeroom from the coach house, and door in the left wall led in a courtyard of some kind with no door back. Drawing on his years as a "recoverer of ancient artifacts" Rurik coordinated a quick search of the back wall with Herger, and was rewarded with the discovering of a large concealed door. Opening it, the pair found themselves facing a speedy looking small coach, painted deep black. Nearby was a sealed cask, addressed to Reiner Schon in Nuln. Of their friends, there was no sign.

Moving on to the courtyard, they saw a number of odd depressions that reminded Herger, at least, of graves. There was a door in the left side which they took and which led into the brewhouse. There was nothing unusual to be seen there, but there was a trapdoor leading down, so they assumed to a root, wine and beer cellar. A moment's work lit a candle, and they descended the wooden staircase. The cellar had the usual complement of hanging hams, casks of beer and so on, but Herger caught sight of a small door in one wall. It was locked but as they banged on it to test, they heard a faint voice beyond call out - a voice that sounded perhaps like Michael's.

The lock yielded to Herger and his hammer, and a horrific site met their eyes.

The room beyond was some type of foul temple or chapel. To their right as they stepped in, they saw Michael chained to the wall in a corner, but seemingly unharmed. On the far wall was a locked chest, on which they could see Michael's possessions stacked untidily, as if in haste. The room was dominated, however, by a large stone altar on which Herger and Rurik recognized the symbol of the Chaos God Barsnarg. Chained to the top of the altar was a figure that even Herger had difficulty recognizing as Greywolf, his uncle Theobald.

Greywolf had been starved and tortured, of that there was no doubt. His body was a mass of scars and partly healed wounds. He stank, for he was lying in a pool of his own filth. Horribly, his right arm was missing entirely, the shoulder joint rudely cauterized with the flesh still blackened and cracked. His breathing was labored and irregular, and he looked up with wild eyes as Rurik and Herger entered.

"Gods preserve us!" Herger cried upon seeing his uncle. He began to rush across the room to the man's aid, when a sudden doubt tugged at the back of his mind and he came up short. He closed his eyes and took a calming breath, whispering words to Sigmar. He had to be sure that this was, indeed, his uncle Theo, and not some horrible vision of Chaos attempting to lure him and Rurik within reach of the altar.

He said, "Rurik, see to Michael. I must make sure that what we see is Sigmar's truth."

"All I can tell you, Herger, is that he hasn't spoken since I've been in here. Just laid there and snored a little bit..." Michael groaned from his corner.

Blinking, Rurik discovered he had been staring slack-jawed at the grisly scene. Bringing himself back to the moment, Rurik moved quickly to Michael to free him of his predicament.

In a strong voice, Herger began to pray. First he asked Sigmar to aid him to recognize Sigmar's own. Seeming unsatisfied with the result, he held his shield forth and called on Sigmar to exalt it, and then to bless his warhammer. So armed and armoured he approached the figure on the altar. The power of Sigmar wavered as he approached and he felt the righteousness of his blessed token fade. The altar was actually consecrated, presumably to Barsnarg, and as such the power of his Bless Token prayer could not penetrate it.

Michael was shackled to the wall, but fortunately the keys were hanging from a peg just inside the door. Within moments, Michael was free.

Near the altar, Herger was beginning to curse Barsnarg in Sigmar's name and beat at the altar with his hammer; neither of which seemed to bother the figure on the altar, although they did serve to focus him somewhat. Through bleary eyes, the figure looked at the Initiate, "Herger?" he gasped through dry and swollen lips.

Herger stopped his defiling of the altar and peered at Theo. On faith, he reached his left hand out to his uncle, "Yes, uncle. It is Herger."

"Herger," said Theobald. "Sigmar be praised! Hurry, the innkeeper," he broke down in a series of coughs, "a sorceror."

"Yes, we've been acquainted," Rurik put in lightly as he assisted Michael with his gear. "A generous man to a fault, that one. Selflessly allowing Herger and I turns at killing him."

Turning his attention to the locked box, Rurik continued, "His sorrow for any fault in hospitality was visible by all, for he set his own inn aflame. We have little time a'fore 'Cheesewind's Anguish' claims us as well."

Old habits die hard, however. Rurik ignored his own call for urgency as he studied the chest to determine the quickest, safest method to get at its contents.

Rurik tossed the keyring to Herger and picked up the chest. "We may as well use that carriage we found. Herg, your horse is fit to bear that burden I trust."

As Herger unlocked Greywolf, Rurik climb the stairs. Trudging out into the yard, he called to any available hand to assist him hitch the horse to the black coach. That completed, Rurik and his fellows also loaded the locked box, the cask to Nuln, any handy tools he may find, and his preferred vintage of ale into the readied carriage. '

In the yard, he was relieved to see that the fire had not spread beyond the stable, although it was clearly threatening to jump the gap to the common room and bar. The coach, the coachmen and the passengers were a safe distance out on the road, along with Herger's horse. When Rurik called him, the coachman, who was proving a stalwart sort as coachmen often do, came to join him and brought the horse. On entering the hidden room, he gasped, "The Black Coach!"

Unaware that their prize had its own notoriety, Rurik was intrigued. "I have heard no stories of this coach. Enlighten me, my good fellow," he requested amiably.

As they worked, Hans told him of the Black Coach, bandits who preyed on the travellers from Moot Crossing all the way to Nuln. They were thieves and killers who rarely left any of their victims alive.

The horse was hitched and the coachman, Hans Rudevin, even went to fetch one from his team to aid in the extraction of the infamous Black Coach. The chest, the cask and a few tools were quickly loaded, as was the injured wizard. A quick foray saved a cask or two of ale, as well.

A quick search of the the stableman's body proved uninteresting, but the innkeeper's corpse was a different story. In addition to the dagger, which did appear to be poisoned, there was a key-ring and one of the keys looked like it might well fit the locked chest now resting in the coach. The shock came when the falconer's glove was removed, revealing that from the elbow down the arm was not halfing at all, but furred and clawed like a beast.

There was little enough in the servant's quarters and Cheesewind's quarters. A box with the day's receipts, of course, and one exceptional item. In Cheesewind's quarters, under a cover was a glass jar filled with brandy in which floated the mostly preserved head of a halfling woman.

Having found everything they were likely to find before the place goes up completely, Rurik turned his attention toward finding his horse outside the compound. "Has anyone seen where the other stableboy or those serving girls got off to?"

In the heat (so to speak) of the moment, no one noticed where the serving girls went, but they pretty clearly didn't go out with the general crew through and ar ound the front gate. The only other exit the company was aware of was the small exit in the rear.

Giving up for the moment on the girls, they decided to move out. Splitting the horses evenly among the two coaches, the three companions, Greywolf, and the passengers and crew of the other coach set off for the Stone Pony, with tales to tell. Rurik was soon asleep in the black coach, despite the banging and bumping. Greywolf, too, was soon asleep again, recuperating as best he could. Shortly before dawn, the miniature caravan pulled up at the Stone Pony to the amazement and consternation of the innkeepers. They had no coach nor roadwarden in residence at the moment, but were expecting a road warden within a few days. Rooms were provided and the Black Coach marvelled at as the exhausted and distrait travellers took to their beds.

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