After an extensive resupply at Xodet's shop, Tabea, Emilio and Tibicus left their home town through the east gate. It was late in the afternoon and Suon had already chased his sister Fafnar far over the firmament. The last rays of the two setting suns transformed the slowly waving vines of the wheat fields into a crimson sea. Palomino was about to stable his horses and waved friendly at the three passing adventurers and Mount Sternum towered over the surrounding countryside of Thais, casting long shadows that heralded the falling darkness.
There was an awkward atmosphere between the three friends. Not only was it very unpleasant for Tibicus that his comrades had to pay for his supplies due to his financial misery, no, it was seeing Tabea regaining hope that really tug at his heartstrings. Her gullible hope that everything would clear up and that Fridolin would turn out to be one of the good guys after all.
Under normal circumstances, he would not beat around the bushes, but in the present situation he considered it best just to keep quiet. So he was quite relieved when Emilio broke the silence and started to swear and curse about Beefo and his people. Focusing the anger at a common enemy was exactly the right thing to shorten the traveling time to Venore.
Losing themselves in a whole tirade of explicit rants, it did not take long before the foul smell of the Green Claw swamps crawled into their nostrils. Bilious green water soaked the mouldy roots of scraggy bushes and musty trees. Alongside the narrow, paved path, muddy soil and moist moss spread as far as the eye could see. Only the big stone bridge that rose over the swamp testified that this marshy area was once developed by ambitious merchants.
Tibicus immediately realised that something was off. He remembered the area being crowded by hundreds of traders from Kazardoon and Ab'Dendriel. The hustle and bustle of local residents and tourists, the air being filled with loud noises from market criers and merchants, right now, the only thing he could hear was the plopping noise of toxic bubbles coming from the swamp. Everything else was quiet. Too quiet.
"It's been some time since you've been here, hasn't it?" asked Tabea, who seemed to have interpreted his questioning facial expression correctly.
"Since Beefo took over, the merchants have moved to other cities. No honourable businessman wanted to be associated with these dubious types, let alone do business. At least not officially."
Tibicus answered with a nod and made the sorceress understand that this information was sufficient for him.
When they passed by the massive stone towers and entered the city through the west gate, the musty smell of the swamps slowly faded and instead dark clouds of smoke and the biting stench of burnt wood and metal began to pervade the air.
"What happened here?" asked Tabea. "Half the city seems to be on fire!"
"I don't know. Maybe the firestarters paid Pyro Peter a visit after all?" Emilio dead-panned. Ignoring the superfluous comment, Tibicus said "I think we can go deeper, the source of the fire seems to be further east. I'm sure Beefo is responsible. Take these cloths and cover your faces, it is not much, but better than nothing."
With their rather poorly breathing protection they moved forward towards the city's centre. However, with every step, the black fume became more and more aggressive and soon started to infest their lungs. The further they followed the deserted streets, the worse it got.
The condensing smoke brought tears to their eyes but Tibicus knew only one destination
Tabea and Emilio had been held hostage in this house. Here was the headquarters of Beefo and his scoundrels. If there were answers, this would be the place to find them.
Even though the soot in his lungs made breathing increasingly unbearable, Tibicus stomped single-minded through the incoming walls of black smoke. The drive for revenge and the hope to regain his beloved hat pushed him forward.
The closer they got to the shelter, however, the more they realized that the origin of the fire seemed to come from there. From the west gate, they had started to the east and when burning beams blocked their way at the south gate they turned north into Lucky Lane. After they had made their way to the intersection of Lucky Lane and Salvation Street to the right of Hugo's Dress for Success warehouse to get back down to the guildhall, they were presented with a picture of terror.An enormous ball of flames must have blasted through the street. The walls of the house were covered with a thick layer of soot and ashes while the road's surface was painted carbon black.
The wooden coffins which Ashtamor usually displayed in the street were charred and burnt to cinders and once heavy, massive beams were glowing and gradually dissolving into fine grey dust. The heat radiating from the surrounding stone walls was hardly bearable and dead bodies burned beyond recognition, paved the ground.
The further down the road they walked towards the guildhall, the louder the painful moaning and groaning of those, who had survived the fire and were now lying immobilised in the ditch with severe burnings, became.
Tibicus remembered some of their faces, they were all henchmen of Beefo.
Although they were bitter enemies, Emilio felt obligated to help the wounded. As best he could, he provided the suffering with small healing spells. Enough to take the edge of the pain but insufficient to get them back at their feet.
As a knight, Tibicus had little understanding for such behaviour but after endless discussions he had given up questioning this do-gooder syndrome of druids. As long as those warriors remained unable to move and attack, he could not care less.
He was rather interested in the entrance of the guildhall. The fireball must had already lost most of its power when it hit the house wall, yet it had been strong enough to scorch the pretentious hall's facade. In front of the guildhall was a heap of meat lying motionless on the ground. With a despising look, Tibicus slowly bent over the unconscious man.
"Oh Beefo, good to see you," he started sneering but when he saw the man's face, he recoiled.Not a single bone was left in its original place. Burst lips covered the few remaining teeth in his mouth while the rest was spread around the floor. Stringy wisps of hair stuck in deep, pulsating flesh wounds and the unshapely facial traits were nothing but a green and blue coloured pulp.
It was at this sight when Tibicus had to suppress an urge to gag. Questioningly, he turned around looking at his companions, who also disgustedly screwed up their faces.
Emilio became dizzy and miserable, holding his hands in front of his mouth to avoid the worst, he staggered as fast as he could to the next corner to say goodbye to the contents of his stomach. When Tabea wanted to follow him, she recognised a shiny thing which had been hidden under the thick layer of ash and was revealed by the druid's quick footsteps.
"Tibicus, I think I know who is behind this" she said in a broken voice. In her hand a golden feather.