A dim red circle of light became apparent in the corner of the wagon as Jasmalus puffed on his pipe. For a brief moment, the faint light from the smoldering tobacco illuminated his face from below, giving the merchant's face a somber cast.
The look matched his mood. "Those were no ordinary orcs back there, you know."
Briar turned to face Jasmalus and gave him a hard stare, though his eyes were shielded by the hood of his cloak. "You speak the obvious, merchant. Most of my companions died back there."
Then the warrior softened, as she bit back despair and anger. "Forgive me, Jasmalus, I meant no disrespect. If it weren't for you and Emerald, Tarmiko and I would share the fate of our friends..." She turned her gaze towards the bundle of blankets in the back of the wagon, forcing herself to confront the truth.
"Thank you, young Briar, but there is no need to apologise," Jasmalus said in between puffs. "You also are not entirely correct, for Emerald is the one who plunged the dagger into that foul orc's back. I merely performed a few rituals."
"Rituals that give us hope, sir. You've done us a tremendous kindness," Tarmiko said, turning his thousand-mile stare into brief focus as he faced the enigmatic merchant. "Also, since we never had time to say it back there, I want to offer my condolences. Losing your brother must be a terrible blow, and you've borne your grief well."
Jasmalus sat frozen for a moment, regarding the monk-rogue from beneath his hood. He then gave a single nod. "I appreciate your sentiments, Tarmiko, you are kind to say so." The merchant sighed deeply and said, "But now is not the time for grieving. We have a mission to accomplish, and your sacrifices have made us all realise how fortunate we are to have you as guards."
Briar barked a short, bitter laugh. "Fortunate, man? I'd hardly call what we did back there fortunate. We couldn't even protect you, in the end. You had to save yourselves."
"Nonsense, Briar!" Jasmalus retorted, lowering his pipe. "Your drive for excellence and your self-discipline are admirable, but your stubbornness shrouds the truth from you. I know not what god you revere, but whoever they are they must be smiling upon you for the way you suddenly revived during the battle. Even though he vanquished you, you brought that priest of Gruumsh down almost single-handedly, and if nothing else you served to distract and worry him enough - just enough - for Emerald to slip her dagger in between his ribs and finish him off."
"And what of those beasts, the foul creatures that slew Alunys and Kevgold? What became of them?" Tarmiko asked, his voice cracking with emotion.
Jasmalus did not immediately reply, he only lowered his pipe and tapped out the tobacco on the side of the bench. Stowing the pipe, he drew back his hood and his dark brown eyes met the intent stares of Briar and Tarmiko. "They were losels," the merchant said in a low voice.
The warrior and monk-rogue exchanged glances, neither one knowing what manner of beast this was.
"Some say the Treaty of Greyhawk is a blessing, a sign that the tides are turning in the favour of good," Jasmalus said. "I think it more curse than blessing, as look what blasphemies the likes of Iuz are able to contrive, with abominations such as the losel. It is the result of in-breeding - orcs with baboons, of all things. That might sound preposterous - and it is - but I don't need tell you what effect such an experiment yields. You saw firsthand the kind of destruction those things can bring about."
"Losels," Tarmiko repeated, as he remembered the savagery with which they attacked, and how easily they finished off Alunys and Kevgold.
"But what happened to them? Surely they didn't just run off after I went down? Did Emerald kill those as well as the priest?" Briar asked.
Jasmalus looked at her and shrugged expansively. "Who knows? She says she didn't see anything after she took down the priest, and she was so intent on giving the rest of us the all clear once she surveyed the aftermath of the battle, why we all got caught up in stabilising the dying. As for me, I set about performing the rituals to give gentle repose to your dear priest and bard and your shifter friend."
"And there were other orcs, too - the archers. We heard their screams! Surely Emerald wasn't behind that was she? Did we have allies in the forest? Do elves live out here?" Tarmiko asked as he and Briar began to emerge from their funk, if only for a little while, as they tried to piece together what occurred after the battle.
Jasmalus looked at Tarmiko and said, "As I mentioned, my friend, there was no sign of anything or anyone else once we were all coaxed out of the wagons by Emerald. You can ask her yourself what she saw, if you like, but she is busy sleeping in her wagon." His eyes twinkled as he said, "Besides, did you not ever learn it is best to never look a gift horse in the mouth?"
Tarmiko chuckled softly at that, and Briar lit up at the mention of horses. "Yes, it is amazing that you found them all, we were so worried they had all run off for good. Especially since poor Betty was getting attacked by those brutish orcs." Her knuckles turned white as her hand tightened around the hilt of her longsword.
"Yes, that was lucky indeed. Again, you have the favour of your gods," Jasmalus stated. He produced a flask from within the folds of his robe, unscrewed the cap, and took a deep sip.
Gasping with satisfaction, he proferred the flask to Briar.
Taking the flask, she asked "What is it?" as she went to drink.
"Irongate Ore," Jasmalus said with a grin.
Briar spluttered as she tossed back a swig from the flask. "Dwarven whiskey! You should have warned me."
The merchant laughed as Briar offered the flask to Tarmiko, who declined with a polite shake of his head. "You should have asked before you took a drink!" Jasmalus pointed out. "All the same, it is an acquired taste, to be sure, and it keeps us merchants warm on those many cold nights out on the road."
Briar nodded in affirmation as she handed the flask back to the merchant. She winced as she wiped her mouth clean of any residue of the potent dwarven liquor, and then her serious look returned.
"Jasmalus, I hesitate to ask, because I wish we could have been there in time to save your brother," Briar began, "but I must know: Will there be a healer who can raise our friends in Fort Belvor?"
Jasmalus regarded Briar for a moment and then favoured her with a kindly smile. "Warrior, you truly travel in a blessed light, for the one stop along the entire Flare Line that is known to keep a steady regiment of healers is the keep at Fort Belvor." His smile melted away as a look of faint alarm crossed his face. "This is in no small part due to the fact that the Fort sits directly across the river from Molag."
"What is Molag?" Tarmiko asked.
"It is forever the seat of evil power in the blasted Horned Lands. For many a year, the decadent Hierarchs held sway over the city. But almost overnight, Iuz's fiends slew them to a man - save for one, who made his escape to the Fellreev Forest, it is said."
"The Fellreev?" Briar said blankly. "Wasn't there something in the Fellreev Forest we were supposed to do?" she asked, turning to Tarmiko, who shrugged in reply.
"Should you wish to venture to the Fellreev one day, I wish you well on that journey, my lady, for it will not be an easy one," Jasmalus said with a sardonic note.
"But I digress, your question was about your friends," Jasmalus went on, "and the chance to raise them. Believe me, Briar, when I say that it is my fervent hope that we find such healing in Belvor. For without you, we never would have been able to come this far. And we certainly won't make it very much further, each of your vast talents notwithstanding."
"Yes, about that," Tarmiko began. "You said those were no ordinary orcs back there - and, clearly, they weren't. But what do you know of them?"
The merchant nodded at the monk-rogue's question, and answered, "They were almost certainly Celbit orcs. The largest and proudest tribe of orcs in all of Iuz's lands. They comport themselves as if they are his favoured orcs - which they are, and he fosters their pride. This, of course, makes all of the other tribes seeking Iuz's favour hate the Celbits." Jasmalus then gave a wry grin. "But there's nothing Iuz the Evil enjoys more than fomenting chaos, especially amongst his underlings. He sets them all against each other and promotes a cutthroat culture, ensuring only the strongest survive to serve him. Many and more die in the process of trying to gain his favour, and he thrives on the chaos."
"They seemed different from the first orcs we encountered, just out of Mursten," Briar said.
Jasmalus gave a curt nod. "Yes, you are right to notice that, and those were most likely Jebli orcs. Their tribes have long plagued along the Veng and the fringes of the Vesve Forest, so they gleefully conduct border raids whenever and wherever they can in the aftermath of the Wars." The merchant chuckled. "They do so hate the Celbits, as territory is a big thing with orcs - perhaps the biggest. So seeing them come down here and steal their glory and plunder really boils their blood. But they dare not act against the other tribes - not yet. For now, it is enough for them all to thrive on the chaos that exists in the border territory, and bide their time until the next push from Iuz. And push he will, that is a certainty upon which you can bet your life."
There was a long and pensive silence as the trio meditated upon this and the recent battle.
"Jasmalus, you must let us pay you back for your components," Briar said finally, breaking the minutes-long silence. "One ritual alone is very dear to perform, but you've done three! Please don't refuse me this time. You make a terrible merchant if you will not accept coin willingly," Briar finished with a slight grin.
"You flatter me, my lady, but as I said it was my humble honour to preserve your friends as I have," Jasmalus replied in a quiet but firm voice. "And again, you are mistaken, for it was not three rituals that I performed, but four."
Briar's face contorted in a confused expression, while Tarmiko raised one eyebrow and tilted his head to one side as he looked at the merchant, baffled.
Jasmalus smiled kindly as he tapped the end of his staff into a box that had been tucked under the bench and near his feet. It was a tiny thing, and certainly could not have held any of their companions. It looked more suited to holding jewellery, and it was constructed of a fine and deeply polished roanwood.
Briar and Tarmiko looked down at the box, then up again at Jasmalus, their faces still a study in bewilderment.
Then, all at once, it hit them...