The sun is setting when I crawl out of the bandit lair. Sara Oakheart is nowhere to be seen, which means she swam across this lake and vanished into the woods in the time it took me to riffle through Toradan’s pockets, step over his corpse, and then walk ten paces to the front door of the cave and shove it open.
I kind of feel like I need to report this mess to the proper authorities. But who? Ellie? She’s only interested in poaching. She’d have me hunt down a band of chattering brigand squirrels or something. Jon Brackenbrook? Nah. He doesn’t even care about his own town. Ah! I can go to constable Underhill.
I give Underhill the story: Amdir has turned into some sort of super-powerful wizard / wraith / swordsman / hunter / nutjob. He’s got magic, fighting prowess, a sword, and is more crazy than a dozen Bilbos. (Bilbi?) All told, my efforts around this city killed a bunch of animals, poisoned the local woods, and released an evil wraith. The only thing I accomplished was that I killed a bandit leader with a hilarious name and saved the life of an old lady who deserves to die.
He’s a bit put out when I explain about the poison and how I stole the ingredients, but he calms down once I explain about Skunkwood.
“The only thing I don’t understand,” I tell him, “Is why Toradan came so late. I mean, he said he’d be right behind me, but I was in there most of the day before he showed up.
“Ah. Perhaps I can shed some light on that,” Underhill says. “Toradan did indeed leave just a few minutes after you, but he was sneaking.”
“Yes. All crouched over and walking on tip-toe.”
“But you saw him anyway, I take it?”
“Well, it was midday and he went right down the middle of the street, so yes. I doubt anyone missed him. Turned quite a few heads with all the stumbling.”
“He fell over?”
“It’s that long cloak of his. Kept getting underfoot. And he couldn’t see where he was going on account of that hood. He kept bumping into people. Then he’d do this little somersault to one side, land in the bushes, then tumble out and keep right on creeping.”
“I guess that explains why he wasn’t around when he was needed.”
“Took him the better part of the afternoon just to get to the end of the street.”
“Well, he’s dead now,” I say with as much tact as I can muster.
“Alas. Lizbeth at the Comb and Wattle Inn won’t have to decode any more secret messages when he wants some food sent up to his room. I think she really liked those. At any rate, you should let his people know that he’s gone and that Amdir is loose. You should go see Constable Tanglerush in Staddle, she’ll know how to get in touch with the rangers.”
Off to Staddle then. It’s a long hike.
“You’ll find the rangers at the mustering cave on the other side of the marshes,” Tanglerush tells me once I manage to track her down.
“And the rangers hang out there?”
She nods, “I’d deliver the message myself but I’m on duty.”
“And clearly standing in the town square where you have four guards to watch over six people is more important than helping out with an ancient evil that threatens everyone.”
“Pay’s the same for me either way,” she says with a shrug. “The marshes are yonder west.”
“Marshes?” I say uneasily. “Are they dangerous?”
“Not really. Mostly knee high. Watch out for spiders, though.”
Ugh. I’m not crazy about more spiders, but off we go. Let’s head through the marsh.
Damn it, woman. You should have specified that it was knee-high TO A HUMAN.
As promised, there is a cave on the edge of the marsh. On the opposite edge of the marsh.
Inside, we find a familiar scene.
There are only two kinds of rangers in the world:
1) Rangers who have just been in a fight.
2) Rangers who are alive.
The ranger cave is a lot like the bandit cave I raided earlier, except smaller, smellier, and with fewer lights and provisions.
Mundol chokes out his message, “Amdir came here. Please. There is but one ranger left alive here in the marshes. He’s studying the ruins at the center. Warn him. Stop Amdir.”
He lets out a long, ragged breath, pays me a silver and a half, and dies.
Off we go to the ruins then.
Q: What does an entire nest of spiders – including a spider queen – have in common with my will to live?
A: They both had to die for me to reach this door.
I wipe the spider goop off my shoes and head inside.
As promised, a ranger is here. I give him a polite wave, “So, ranger Renil… Renon… Reeno… Look, can I just call you Ren?”
“What is your business here?” he says warily.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” I lie. “But why is it that the ruins you’re studying are so much nicer than the cave where you live?”
“Is that what you came here to ask me?”
“Oh right. The message,” I say. “The other rangers are dead, Admir’s a wraith and trying to kill you, and I’m only helping you because I need the money.”
“This is dire news indeed! We must go at once to the chieftain of my kindred. The Bree-man call him Strider.”
“Neither of us are Bree-men. What are we supposed to call him?”
“Come, I will lead you back to town through the caves.”
“That sounds like a huge pain in the ass. Why would we go through the caves?”
“It’s a shortcut!” Ren exclaims.
“It’s a straight shot from these ruins to the edge of the marsh. How can this way be shorter than that?”
“The caves go under the marsh,” he explains.
“They do… what?”
Tunnels. Going under mud and water. I don’t think you need a degree in physics with a minor in common sensology to spot the flaw in this.
“Come,” Ren says. “This way! We must hurry.”
“Woah. Come? As in with you? Are you saying you want an escort through your own nonsense tunnels?”
Game developers: HAVE THE NPC FOLLOW THE PLAYER, INSTEAD OF THE OTHER WAY AROUND!
Ren leads me down into a tunnel, then suddenly stops to remark that one of the torches has gone out.
“So? Are we moving in? You’ve got a torch already. Let’s get going.”
Down, down he leads us on the twisting staircase, stopping to light a torch every ten paces.
We get near the bottom and I can’t contain my curiosity any longer, “Just so I’m clear on this… have we gotten to the shortcut part yet?”
At the bottom of the staircase is a pool of stagnant water. And some spiders.
“Is this the shortcut part?” I ask as I hammer away at the slippery spider carapace.
“Quickly, follow me! Through the water! Don’t worry. It’s only knee deep!”
I hate human beings so very much.
The corridor twists and turns through spider webs and nests. At the end of a long trek and much bug smashing we at last come to an open chamber. Amdir is waiting for us.
“Whew. This is a huge time saver,” I say with relief to Amdir. “I thought we were going to have to track you down.” It’s not going to be fun to fight a magical wraith, but at least we’re done with the damn spiders.
I step forward with my sword, “Now come here and take your medicine.”
But Ren walks closer and tells him, “Amdir, my friend. I know it is not really you that does these things.”
“I am not what you once believed,” Amdir replies.
“Yes. Yes you are,” Ren says, stepping closer.
“No he isn’t!” I growl.
“Let me help you,” Ren says.
Amdir gives Ren a poke in the guts with his sword. Ren stops trying to be helpful.
“Are you idiots done?” I ask impatiently. I point my sword at Amdir, “Why don’t you try that move on me you chickenshit team-killing clodpole?”
“Morin will take care of you!” he cries as he dashes for the door.
“Who?” I say with a shrug, “I don’t see any…”
WHAT IS IT WITH YOU GUYS AND YOUR SPIDERS! I WAS FIGHTING SPIDERS THE DAY I LEFT THE SHIRE! I’VE BEEN FIGHTING SPIDERS EVER SINCE! IT’S NOTHING BUT SPIDERS WITH YOU GUYS! GIVE IT A REST ALREADY.
Well, that went about as well as expected. With the house-sized spider dispatched, I turn my attention to Ren.
“Amdir runs free,” he gasps. “You must get word to Strider!”
“Ren,” I ask him. “Are we to the shortcut part yet?”
He doesn’t answer.
So… off to Bree then?
Bree is the main human city. Places like Archet, Combe, and Staddle are just tiny villages compared to Bree, with its wide paved streets and imposing two-story buildings.
Rumor has it that this Strider character is hanging out at an inn called The Prancing Pony.
This is screwed up. All of the other rangers I’ve met were at least pretending to be useful. They were out in the field, losing battles and wasting time like real champs. Let’s review the ones we’ve met so far:
Amdir: Turned evil
Halros: Creepy goblin taxidermist
I guess Halros wins by default, with his amazing three-goblin killing streak.
But now I’m going to meet their leader. The king of the dipshits. I have to wonder what sort of loser would command a force like this. From inside a tavern.
Amazingly, he’s not passed out at the bar. I ask the barkeep and he directs me to Strider’s room. I’m not looking forward to talking to another dull-witted poser, but I am looking forward to getting this over with.
As promised, Strider is in his room.
He has the face of an angel. A rugged, bad-boy angel with broad shoulders and strong hands. And long dark hair. And a roguish, unshaven look. And… is it hot in here?
“Can I help you, young Hobbit?” he asks.
He’s already noticed that I’m young. What a flirt. He’s got a deep, confident voice.
“Oh I hope so,” I giggle.
“I am on an urgent errand and I dare not tarry here for too long. What is it you need?” he says.
I’m so excited. He’s actually here on business and not just sitting around slurping ale and bribing strangers to do his job for him. I’ll bet he’s seen all sorts of exotic places and defeated great beasts with his big strong muscles and his longsword…
Strider clears his throat and I remember he asked me a question a second ago. He gestures for me to come closer, “You’ve come from Midgewater swamps, I take it? What news do you bring?”
Oh my! He’s not a mouth-breathing dunce, either. His eyes tell me that he’s the kind of man who knows more than he lets on. “You are a clever one! How did you know?” I ask.
He nods, “I’ve been in those lands in many seasons, and I know the scent of them.”
Horrified, I look down and realize I’ve spent most of the evening soaking in bog water. I’ve still got bits of spider sticking to my shirt, and mossy bits are clinging to me all over.
“Excuse me,” I say in a terrified voice before dashing out of the room.
I charge out of the inn, knocking down a few patrons who are too self-important to dive out of the way. I kick open the door and out into the night air. The sun has gone down. I’m worried I’m going to be too late.
Frantically I search around for a town guard. Eventually I find one guarding some stupid fountain.
“THE AUCTION HOUSE!” I scream, grabbing the bottom of his shirt and pulling him over.
“W-what?” he asks with bewilderment as he struggles to back away from me.
“TELL ME WHERE IT IS OR DIE!”
He points down the street and I release him with a shove, sending him backwards into the fountain.
“DRESSES. NOW,” I scream at the auction lady a few minutes later. Stunned, she blinks at me a few times. Finally I feel the need to add, “OR DIE!”
I have just barely enough. I strip off my old clothes and fling them over my shoulder. If the people running the auction house didn’t want me doing this, they should have put up a sign forbidding it.
I slip into my new dress. It’s a tight fit but it was still easier to wear than to pay for. Panic sets in again when I realize that none of the 32 pair of shoes I have with me will go with this outfit.
This is okay. I can do this. Hobbits can get away with going barefoot. Hopefully Strider likes the traditional look.
With my last few coins I get some dye and color my hat to match.
Right. Now I’m off to get my man.
Next time: The THRILLING CONCLUSION to the ADVENTURES OF LULZY![folder_nav]
Shamus Young is the guy behind Reset Button, Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, and Stolen Pixels.