I’m the wizard now. It’s been two long months since Master Enloe was called to fight in the war and help drive back the Red Horde. He refused to take me with him, even though I’ve been his apprentice ever since I was five. I’m taller than him now, maybe not as strong as other half-orcs, but he’s getting old and isn’t so strong either.
“Bitterwater doesn’t have any other wizards,” he told me, “You’re needed here.” But all I’ve done for two months is clean the tower, practice, and study. Same as always, except my master isn’t around to teach me anything new. The war is far to the east, and all of the soldiers and sorcerers and clerics are all going to fight. There wasn’t anything exciting going on in Bitterwater. Until today.
I was sleeping in after studying late at night, and heard shouting outside. Some of the younger children were saying that some livestock got sick and died, then people started getting sick, too. By the time I learned about it everyone was sure that the well had been poisoned, the one in the center of town.
Mayor Mongmolt called a meeting in the Inn that evening. It was crowded by the time I arrived with familiar faces and visitors.
I found one of the few tables with open chairs and joined Popper, a little gnome cleric who lived in the woods west of town. His master went off to war, too, and if he felt as frustrated as me he hid it well. Maybe it’s different for clerics. His teacher may have left but Pan isn’t off at war, so Popper wasn’t really left behind. Pan isn’t the warring kind of god, what with the dancing and music.
Two strangers joined us. Maybe one of them poisoned the well. One was even smaller than Popper, a halfling with curly red hair all over his face and a short walking stick. He said he was a sailor, but I wasn’t so sure. The river had been dried out for longer than I’ve been apprenticed. He might be looking for work on an airship, but the cargo ships picking up fire-rocks from the Illfang mines don’t stop in town and the mail-ship only comes twice a year. The other stranger was an elf woman almost as tall as me. She had a very pretty red dress and looked like she had come a long way. Her eyes were red, too, which was a little sinister. She wore a silver broach of Helune, like the big one in the Church. She was very mysterious, but I didn’t think she was the poisoner. You can’t sneak around in bright colors like that.
There was a Chitrik at one of the tables. I had read about them, but hadn’t seen one in person. He wasn’t red or twenty feet tall like those in the Red Horde, and my master said some of them are traders, so I decided he was alright. Not everyone agreed, though, and no one sat with him.
I tried to learn what I could from the children, then shared what I learned with Popper. The strangers shared some of what they heard, too. A lot had happened in a few days: the Tafeld monastery in the west had a robbery and a farm in the north caught fire last night. The Veltan who ran it disappeared. I don’t know those tree-folk very well, though my master did. I hope they’re alright. Fire is really destructive to them.
Everyone was most worried about the well. The sick people hadn’t been cured yet, and only the monks at the monastery would be able to test the water to figure out what poison was used. That’s a day’s travel west through the forest. Also, a shipment of water had been sent up to the Illfang mine today before everyone realized the water was poisoned. Someone will have to travel up there to waylay them.
Jethram, the innkeeper’s son, told me that he saw someone in a cloak outside by the well last night. He said he told the mayor. That might not do a lot of good, though. The mayor says a lot, but not a whole lot gets done. Normally that’s okay, because Bitterwater runs itself for the most part, but this is important. Jethram said the person wasn’t short so the halfling, Rigel, hadn’t done it. And since the elf, Zara, would have been immediately recognized because of her clothing, it meant everyone at the table was okay. Obviously Popper wouldn’t have done it.
The mayor was still dithering about what to do and who to send where, so we started deciding ourselves. Popper wanted to take a sample of the well-water to the monastery, and even the two strangers wanted to help. Zara seemed interested in the monastery and Rigel just wanted a job.
As we were talking Stephanus, the blacksmith, collapsed. The monk from the monastery who told us about the theft ran to help him. I thought it was time I take a look at the well and see if there was any magic involved, but then there was a big commotion outside. We four ran out, along with the mayor’s assistant Florkmott, the monk, and Philip Fulsham, a veteran who had just got back from the war to visit his family.
One of the hill giants had come into town. It was too early in autumn for their usual trading visits. He had brought a stone with him to trade, but it was smaller than usual. Bringing it along might have been just habit, because he wasn’t looking to trade. He was all blue in the face and distressed, yelling “FIX!” at anyone he could see. Then he sat down and picked up Philip like he was a toy soldier – armor and everything.
He must have been poisoned, too. The monk who had helped the blacksmith said that he didn’t have enough supplies to make a difference, because of the giant’s enormous physiology. Zara said she could conjure water, so she and Rigel found a barrel and filled it with fresh, poison-free water. The giant finally put down Philip and drank it all, but he was still blue.
Then Zara said that the giant’s stomach was moving. I took a closer look and it was – his stomach was lumpy and moved like there was something alive inside. Popper started a ritual spell, but before he got past the first incantation, Rigel said he knew exactly what to do and started to roll up his sleeves. We were confused then horrified as he climbed up to the giant’s face and told him to open wide. Rigel stuck his entire arm down the giant’s throat.
I ran to the side as the giant puked out his lunch: six disembodied hands, each larger than both of mine together and rotten. Troll hands? And they were still alive, or at least animated. They scuttled across the ground like crabs and attacked us.
I conjured acid to eat at their skin and bones. Zara beat them down with her quarterstaff while Popper called on Pan’s magic to help him. The hands dodged the columns of white light and one leapt onto the monk’s neck. Rigel let out a furious bellow and started wrestling with one of the hands, dragged it to the ground and pinned it, then split it in half lengthwise with his axe.
The giant kept choking and coughing up more hands, until he groaned and gaped wide as something even larger started to crawl out. It was a zombie, hands, legs, and head all intact. Popper got his act together, or finally convinced Pan that this was actually serious, and blasted the zombie to bits with a pillar of light.
When all of the giant’s former meal had stopped moving, I took a closer look at one of the more intact hands. I racked my brain, but couldn’t identify what this was. It wasn’t any kind of magic I had learned about, though maybe my master would know. I stuck it in my backpack so I could study it later.
The giant seemed much happier now that his stomach was empty of undead. He traded the rock for two barrels of beer in the warehouse. Popper tried to ask him where he had found the hands, but none of us spoke giant and the giant only knew how to say “FIX!” Since we had already “FIX”ed, he didn’t have much to say anymore. He did say something like “Wruclug” a few times before carrying the barrels away. Maybe that was his name?
Others had come out of the tavern to help, but too late to help us. Rather than listening to us about the giant and the hands, they were distracted by the general store owner, Ethram, said that this Chitrik had visited Bitterwater every ten years for nearly a century. I had no idea they lived that long. Popper said he thought he recognized him from before, so we decided he was alright., trying to convince everyone that the Chitrik had poisoned the well, even though he didn’t look like the enemy Chitrik. We defended him against her. The innkeeper,
The innkeeper’s wife, Anekina, insisted we stay the night, even me. She wanted us to rest before heading to the monastery the next morning. I was glad to spend a night away from the tower. I spent the evening writing a letter to my master about the giant and the zombie and the hands, but I knew it would be six months – three there and three back if nothing happened to the caravans – until he could tell me what it was. Maybe if I read through the books he kept in that locked chest I could figure it out on my own.
In the middle of the night we heard a scream and came running to find Anekina looking for Jethram, her son. He wasn’t in his room.
Popper spoke to the cat, and it actually talked back. After making a lot of unintelligible sounds and gestures to it, Popper told us that a woman had come and taken Jethram away, and the woman smelled like dried fish. It wasn’t a great help, but cats have simple minds. Popper and I both knew that there’s only two places to get dried fish here: the general store and the trading post.
We went to the general store first, but even when we knocked there was no answer. We found some tracks leading south, but it’s hard to tell because the store is a popular establishment. Popper sent out his finch to look, but it didn’t find anything. If Mindim wasn’t at home, where would she have gone? It was very suspicious.
We visited the mayor’s cottage and the trader’s hut. The mayor started a search party, and the trader said he had sold his fish to the general store, confirming my suspicions that we needed to talk to her about Jethram, and about the well, too. But it was late and we were exhausted after the fight, so we went back to sleep. If the search party hadn’t found Jethram by morning we’ll go looking for him. I wish my master were here to divine his location or contact him, but I can’t cast that kind of powerful magic. I just have to figure this out for myself.