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A bird. A bird????
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It's... a bird.

Not just any bird, one of those real big ones you came across earlier. You wonder if it's the same one, but surely it would have gone back to the nest by now?

And as you get a bit closer, you see that the plumage is slightly different. So maybe it's not the same one. You don't know if that means it's a different kind of bird entirely, or just looks a little different.

The bird's crying out weakly, and you can see the crossbow bolt has hit its wing. Doesn't seem seriously hurt, and a bird this big surely can't fly, but it definitely doesn't seem happy.

You almost wish Rider had gone this way instead. He's the one with the knack for animals. But, on the other hand, it's probably better than dealing with the crossbow.

You're not really equipped to handle this. It'd probably best to just go back and tell the others about it.

But the bird's stumbling around awkwardly. It might hurt itself further if you leave it alone. Maybe there's some way you can convince it to stay put for a while, at least?
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Talk reassuringly to it in case it's one of them talking critters.
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Well. Based on you recent experiences, just talking seems worth a shot. At least it probably won't leave you any worse off. Besides, dealing with these Protectors has improved your skills at communicating with someone who won't answer you back.

You get a little bit closer, until the bird takes notice of you. It makes a strange noise - you think it's angry, but it's not very loud.

"Easy now," you say. "I'm going to help you, but I can't right now. Just stay right where you are, and I'll be back with help. Okay?"

The bird just makes its strange shriek at you again. You don't think it was paying attention.

But on the other hand, now that you've gotten it on the defensive, it's not wandering any more. So it sort of worked. You should at least be able to keep it still while it can see you.

So you back away, keeping your eyes on it. That seems to keep it fixated on you. You manage to get to the crates while keeping it in sight, at which point one of the Protectors comes out and stares at you.

"There's a wounded bird," you start to explain. "Real big. Got hit by the bolt that went past us."

Suddenly, the Protector looks very upset.

"It's, um, it's a bit agitated. I might have scared it a bit without meaning to. But at least it's staying still now."

The Protector steps away, and returns with his cohort.

"Keep filling the barrels," he says, with no further explanation. Well, that's a bit rude, but also not out of character at this point.

You suppose it would be good to keep the water going, but you're also a bit curious as to just what the Protectors are going to do. Do you get back to work, or do you watch?
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Oh you're definitely going to watch. You're sick and tired of being out of the loop, especially as it concerns the protectors.
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You're a little tired of these guys doing whatever they want with barely a word of explanation. You're going to see what they're doing.

"Are you sure about that?" a voice says suddenly. You turn around and see Ember. It takes you a moment to remember his little trick.

"You know, it's real unsettling when you do that without warning."

"Sorry," he says, and you think he means it. "Had it on because it's about the only way to get anything out of those two. But the point is, what if you get them upset? Your little arrangement here is rather precarious, and I'm the one who's out something if it goes wrong."

"I'm just going to watch. I doubt they'll hurt the bird, and that's the only reason I'd have to interfere."

"They may not like being watched."

"Is that something your spell told you? Or just a guess?"

He sighs.

"Fine, go ahead. But if it costs me my whistle, I'll expect you to make up for it somehow."

You suppose he's got a point. But you're still going to watch.

You do keep your distance, though. You only get close enough to take a look at what they're doing.

One of them seems to be standing guard. The other is tending to the bird's wound - the bolt's already been removed. The bird seems about as agitated as it did when you got near, but it's not hostile. More... annoyed, if you had to guess?

The Protector on guard suddenly catches sight of you.

"Everything's fine here. Get back to work," he says.

Well. He's not really hostile, so hopefully Ember's worries were overblown. It does seem you've soured the relationship slightly, but maybe it would be better in the first place if they'd just open up a little...

Wait. What's the other Protector doing now? That seems a little odd.
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She's... Stabbing herself with the crossbow bolt?
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It's so strange it takes you a moment to realize what even happened. The Protector tending to the bird stabbed the crossbow bolt into her own arm.

And the bird... stretches its wounded wing and it looks just fine? Is this some kind of magic?

The Protector on guard looks at you, probably sees your startled expression, and just grunts. Doesn't seem like he's going to explain it, either.

The bird starts walking off, and the Protectors turn to you. The one with the bolt in her arm gives you a glance, which you think is somehow trying to convey both "don't ask" and "it's fine".

You have a lot of questions, and you don't think you're going to get much of a chance to have them answered. So you just head back.

By the time you return, so has Rider, along with... someone familiar. They're both moving barrels of water. The crates are looking nearly full now.

"That's the bounty hunter I ran into earlier!" you exclaim.

"I thought I would put them to work before questioning them," Rider says. "Especially since it seems that the rest of you were preoccupied. You've met them before?"

"Knew you were really a Marshguard," the hunter grumbles, grabbing another barrel and lugging it over to the pool.

"Hush, you." You turn to Rider. "They were trying to turn me in. Only got them to leave me alone once I implied I was in trouble with the priests. They were trying to shoot a big bird, apparently. The Protectors here helped it, though, so it seems fine now."

You notice Rider has three bolts in his armor, right over his heart.

"You, uh. You going to be okay?"

"They didn't pierce the inner layer," he says. "It should still be sufficiently waterproof."

He finishes pouring both of his barrels, just as the hunter comes by and dumps another one in. Then two from Ember fill up the crates.

"We're just about ready to go now," Ember says. "Of course, first we've got to figure out what to do about our new friend here."

"I was planning on an interrogation," Rider says. "After that, well, that depends on what answers we get."

"Fine, let's get it over with quickly," the hunter grumbles. "Go on ahead."

"Corvus, why don't you start." Rider says.

Well, you definitely have some questions. But which ones are the most pressing?
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Does the bounty hunter know anything about our mysterious foes?
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Well. First off, might as well see what they know about your main problem.

"We've been having some troubles with a wizard lately. Real powerful one. You know anything about him?"

"Ain't seen a bounty on any wizards. So, nope. I don't pay attention to things that don't matter for bounties."

"How about his lackeys, then? They've got cloaks that conceal them perfectly in the sand."

The hunter seems to pause at this.

"Wish I had one of those," they say after a moment. "That'd make jobs out here a lot easier."

"And just what sort of jobs do you do out here?" Rider asks suddenly. He sounds lot more intimidating than you do, and you don't think he's even trying.

"Sometimes people run into the desert to get away. Which I imagine you Marshguards know all about, it's just these folk ain't quite desperate or nutty enough to hide in the swamp. So I chase 'em down. It ain't easy, but that's also why it pays good. Plus I don't get much competition from other hunters."

"So when I ran into you earlier, you were chasing someone?" you ask.

"Not quite. I'd just confirmed the desert got to 'em before I could. Was returning with proof. Client was going to pay triple for bringing 'em in alive, so I was looking for ways to make up for the loss. Then you came along." They chuckle. "That would've paid for good dinners for at least a week. Bah, but there was no way I could juggle a captive and bird-hunting. Well, lesson learned - next time, stick with the bounty in hand, even if it seems troublesome."

"There's a bounty on birds now?" you ask.

"On that specific one. You saw its feathers, right? How they're a little bit thicker and more yellowish at the end?"

"Why's that matter?"

"Because that bird is sacred," Rider says. "Blessed by Reth herself. That's why Hool despises it so much, isn't it?"

"I don't pay much attention to divine politics," says the hunter. "I just know my church is offering a fortune for its head. I could almost retire on that kind of money."

Well. You think that covers most of your questions, but maybe you've overlooked something.

Either way, you're getting real disgusted with this greedy hunter. You're going to have to think about how to deal with them soon.
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Kick! Their! Butt!!
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Pretend to be nice to them for now, might come in handy to have them on your side later.
[Image: iqVkAVO.gif]
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At this point, your instincts are telling you to give the hunter a good solid pounding. But you're out in the middle of nowhere, you've only got the Protectors around to hand them off to, and you've got something important to take care of that you've already been putting off.

More than that, though, something's been bothering you, and you think you finally realized what it is.

"How did you get away so fast last time?"

The hunter doesn't respond.

"Come to think of it, how have you been getting around? I didn't see a mount when we met before."

"And I didn't see one here," Rider adds. "It's a rather large desert to be crossing on foot."

"I come from a family of fast runners," they finally say. "Sure, even at top speed it's a little slower than riding a desert-horse, but I find it way more comfortable."

If that was it, why'd they clam up so suddenly? Seems more like they were coming up with an excuse. Now you really want to know what the deal is.

So how are you going to approach this?
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Maybe the camp could check the bounty hunter for traces of ether, see if they've been using portals
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Hmm. If you had time, you could take this creep back to camp and have them check for ether traces or whatever. But you're already delaying this trip more than you'd like, and you're not sure the Protectors would be willing to cooperate, given their apparent distrust for the camp.

Hang on a minute. Did Ember ever give back their equipment? Maybe you just weren't paying attention, but maybe he still has something that could be useful here. And even if he doesn't, well, he's still a wizard.

You turn to him while Rider continues questioning.

"I'm not detecting any ether, but that only tells me they're not a wizard," Ember says. "They could have some sort of magic item that only gives off ether when it's in use."

"I wouldn't mind if you waited for me to ask the question first, you know," you grumble.

"I thought you were in a hurry," Ember replies. You can't deny he has a point.

"Okay, so... what about the stuff from..."

"I do still have that. Since I still need the object to trace, and I might need the equipment if that runs into unexpected complications. So there is one thing that might help."

Ember hands you a small, thin tube with a strange container on the end.

"This is an ether activator. Squeeze the end for just a moment and it releases a trace amount of ether through the tube. If you touch the opening to an enchanted item, the item will glow for a moment. On its own, though, it's not enough to tell you what the item does. You can, in theory, squeeze it for an extended period of time and release more ether to force the item to use a spell, but it's safer to use it strictly for identification."

Well. Seems Ember is leaving it to you. So what specifically are you going to test?
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Check if the hunter has any fancy jewelry.
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You start by looking for something fancy and metal, since your concern is less a matter of if they're using magic and more a matter of if they're involved with this wizard. If they're just some scoundrel who's gotten ahold of some magic boots or something, well, that's not as pressing. Or at least, it requires a different response.

The first thing you notice is that, for someone who's supposedly bringing in big bounties, their outfit is rather shoddy. Then again, you probably wouldn't wear anything fancy to the desert if you had a choice in the matter, and it probably keeps them from sticking out too much. Still, it strikes you as odd considering the rest of their story.

You don't see anything metal at all, except their belt buckle and a few buttons. None of which looks like it might be particularly valuable. You also spot an empty holster on their belt, and the torn remnants of a bag... probably Rider's doing. Maybe the back had crossbow bolts in it?

And that gives you a thought. They haven't tried to escape yet, despite clearly not wanting to cooperate more than necessary. If they had a magic item on them to run faster, surely they'd just need a minor distraction to get a good distance away. But they don't even seem to be trying.

So what if that's because they don't have the thing any more? Maybe it was the crossbow.

Well, then you'd have to go all the way out to wherever Rider found them to investigate... unless there's magic in the bolts. And you do have one of those right here.

You head over to the Protectors.

"I'd like to see if that bolt in your arm has any magic," you say. "Is that all right?"

The only response you get is the female Protector pulling her arm back. So, no then.

Now what?
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Doesn't Rider have like three crossbow bolts in his armor?
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You suddenly realize you're getting too used to Rider's way of doing things. You barely even remembered he was struck.

Well, that's one awkward negotiation you can skip, at least. Rider's likely to be cooperative, but you don't want to make too much of a show of things. So you just walk up to him when he finishes asking a question.

"You should probably get rid of those bolts you were hit by," you say, quietly. "Hand them to me and I'll take care of them."

"Ah, good thinking, Corvus," Rider says. "Now, as for you, I'd like to know if you've ever worked directly for anyone..."

He hands them over as he keeps talking. Probably for the best. You take one of the bolts and, standing behind Rider, touch the device to it and give it a mild squeeze.

The bolt starts glowing. But it doesn't stop when you pull the tube away.

You don't waste time. You run over to Ember and don't even complain about the knowing-what-you're-going-to-ask thing this time.

"It's not directly dangerous," he says. "But I wouldn't recommend holding onto it for long."

"Why not? What's the glowing actually mean?"

Ember barely stifles a groan.

"It's complicated to explain, and doesn't make much of a difference. The important thing is you should get it away from you."

"Okay, what bad thing might happen if I hold onto it. That can't be that complicated to explain."

"I suppose I can explain that without getting into the details of the ether involved," Ember agrees. "Just give me a moment while I think of exactly where to start."
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Increased risk of developing tumors, plus you might go sterile.
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"Essentially, if you keep holding onto that, it's going to slowly leak magic. At first it won't do much, but over time it builds up, and you could find yourself very sick, transformed into something else, or unable to touch the ground. The exact effects are unpredictable."

"That does sound dangerous," you agree. "But won't it keep doing that if I let go?"

"No. It's linked itself to your aura," Ember says. "So once it gets far enough away from you, it won't be active. In fact, you've made it less dangerous for anyone else, since there's no chance of stray magic causing it to link to them any more - you should either hold onto the others, or activate them now so they can be dealt with."

You give him a skeptical look.

"Look. I know you're the wizard, and you know all this weird stuff like what an aura actually is, and I don't have the expertise. But what could something like that possibly be used for, whether this person is a real bounty hunter or not?"

"Well, it's just a side effect. You suspected the bolts have something to do with a magic crossbow - that means the bolts themselves have a minor enchantment. It just happens to be one that's highly susceptible to disruption, which... no, hold on, that's not important right now. What you really want to know is what the bolts actually do, isn't it."

"That would be nice, yes," you sigh. "And what it means that our guest had them in the first place."

"Well... I can't actually tell the effect for sure. It seems to be one part of a spell and the crossbow itself supplies the rest. That said, I do have a guess. And it might even go some ways to explaining where this so-called hunter got them."
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There's a group of desert nomads called the Dune Wanderers... You've probably never heard of them.