Xoniuqé explained that a blanket counterspell lay over the entire town. His magic was useless until the party either escaped or the source of the counterspell was destroyed.
That source lay directly ahead, up the street before them.
The imperial horse got on the road, and the wizard's own household and friends formed up around him. Xoniuqé stayed on the back of his horse, Cinderfoot. Myrdagyn and Ahnxst were acutely aware that he was now the most vulnerable member of their party.
Leading the way, the Imperial Knight captain and his three comrades in arms walked their horses slowly forward. Ahead of them they could see townspeople pausing in their routine to look at them. The townspeople slowly got off the street and lined the sides of it, and paused in alleys and side streets, watching silently. Something in the intensity of their faces made the Knight and men-at-arms wary and they gripped their lances tightly, ready to charge.
Behind them walked Horgand and Nouvzé. And behind father and son came the wizard's sword and crossbow. Xoniuqé was flanked on his right by the three Drulathim, and on his left by Myrdagyn and the girl Sehlinah, who led the string of pack mules. With the trio of great war hounds, Bruno the handler screened his lord. In the rear came the axmen, the rearmost turning to walk backward, facing the street that increasingly filled with a throng of the town's denizens, silently shuffling in their wake, pressing slowly closer as the party of adventurers moved deeper into the town.
Soon the horsemen came to an arched way that led on the other side into a spacious square. That open place was filled with a gathering, many of whom faced a tall column in the center of the square. And they were in the attitude of chanting or hymning, their faces lifted to gaze upon a huge carving of a plague fly set on the top of the column.
The Knight and men-at-arms passed beneath the archway and walked their horses to the right of the column. They pushed slowly into the loose crowd before them. Behind the horses came the father and son duo, taking care to keep close. On either hand the denizens of the place watched them from a short distance. The first of the swordsmen and crossbows entered the square. Progress forward began to slow down, as more townspeople were encountered forward. Hands began to reach for bridles and to tug on stirrup leathers.
"Pilgrims!" said the nearest men and women, "welcome to the worship services. Please dismount and you can put your fine horses over there." Hands indicated a place to one side where the horses would go. Rather than submit to this, the four horsemen brushed at the hands that reached for them and kneed their steeds into the throng, which was bumped and jostled aside but continued to implore them to dismount and join the prayers going on nearby.
Xoniuqé, Myrdagyn and the others had by then reached the square. Myrdagyn took in the situation at once and shouted to the captain of the horsemen to clear the square ahead. "Do not stop!" he added with emphasis.
It was done immediately. There was no room to charge, but the lances went down and the first casualties were crushed under hoof.
"Sacrilege!" screamed those who saw this. "They are not of the body!" shouted others. The shouts were taken up all around the square and in the street behind. The side streets began to disgorge blazing eyed defenders of the faith. From the crowds issued armed men intent on eradicating this band of imposters posing as "pilgrims."
Xoniuqé pointed up at the statue of the plague fly squatting on its column. "There is the source of all our troubles," he said to his nearby companions. "It must come down, or we will likely never see another day."
Myrdagyn took the grapnel and rope from his belt and swung it high. The grapnel hooked up there and he gave it a stout tug. The hook came down, narrowly missing his own head. He cursed under his breath and swung again. The result was the same. A third try was fouled by the press of combatting men on either side of him, and the grapnel soared clean over the column, carrying the rope with it into the milling, shouting crowd on the far side of the square.
Ahnxst and Sehlinah and the rest had faced outward, left and right and went at it, hewing and thrusting and clearing a space up to the houses on the right, and around the base of the column. Howling like demons the fanatics gesticulated and cursed them. Many did not seem inclined to follow up their imprecations with action. But a sizeable number did just that and the entire party was either engaged in the melee or were standing in a line, shoulder to shoulder, facing the threatening mob.
A sudden disturbance in the mob occurred as a large, squat form pushed everyone out of the way. And then the armed person stood there breathing heavily, pausing in some confusion. It was Auhxalys. She had been intent on following the sound of fighting and screaming. Sensing the fear and anger of the townspeople she had naturally leaped to their defense. But instead of seeing enemies here she saw before her the familiar forms and faces of her almost forgotten friends.
Xoniuqé moved his horse toward her. "Alys!" he shouted. "We are here to take you away. Fight for us woman!" He exerted all the persuasion and affection he could muster, tinged with an even more powerful desperation. If the "moving mountain" went into action against them it would not go well!
Their situation was even more acute at that moment. The horsemen were flanked in the press ahead. And one of them panicked and wheeled about, fecklessly striving for more "fighting room." He was dragged from the back of his mount to the cobbled ground and pummeled mercilessly. Bruno the handler snatched a glance over his shoulder at his master, wondering if now was the time to loose the hounds. But Xoniuqé wasn't watching. His whole attention was on Auhxalys, locking eyes with the feverish woman over the heads of the men between them. Bruno backed out of the way of the riderless, plunging horse and the surge of irate defenders, until his arm was bumped by the wizard's right stirrup. The dogs were straining and snapping at those townsmen who drew near, practically driven mad by the shouts and screams, the scent of fresh gore, all around them. Into the breach turned Horgand, and Ahnxst suddenly appeared at his left side. The pair of them pushed into the crowd, slaying, and the space around the wizard was cleared of enemies. He had hardly noticed the growing danger, so focused was he upon the fighting woman from his village.
Auhxalys stood there facing them for a small moment that seemed far longer, then shook her head is if to clear it, turned about, and with a shriek of joyous release laid about herself with her cudgel. Bodies dropped left and right and she moved back the way she had come, hewing a path as wide as her reach. More bodies went down, desperately falling to get out of her way.
Sehlinah found herself facing a narrow street, and alongside a swordsman the two of them cleared the opening and held it against the pressing throng that filled it as far back as they could see.
As if the appearance of Auhxalys had swung the balance, the pressure on them eased. Now most of the milling, shouting throng were keeping their distance. Only a few belligerents still crossed weapons with them. So far, casualties had been slight, only a single horseman, crossbow and swordsman had gone down. Horgand, Nouvzé and Ahnxst had ranged ahead in support of their horsemen. The son had carved his way deeply into the mob and back again. He saw Myrdagyn trying to get his grapnel to stick, and he decided he'd like to try his hand at it too. But reaching down to his belt he discovered that he was unequipped. He went to the pack animals and rummaged for a rope and grapnel, but had no luck. An axman kept a fanatic off the heedless Nouvzé while he sought what he failed to find.
Now Ahnxst was freed up and saw the situation at once. The "greatest swordsman who ever lived" was having difficulties even getting his second grapnel to stick up there. In a moment the Drulath youth was at the base of the column, had swung his own grapnel to the top of it, tugged on it, and pulled himself hand over hand up until he stood atop the grotesque image of "the god of flies and plagues". As he straddled the carven legs and wings he wondered aloud what he should do: "Use my ax and chop this thing up?" He gestured to the backup weapon opposite his sheathed sword. "Or rip it off and toss it?"
"Cast it down! Cast it down!" shouted the wizard.
Without another moment of hesitation, Ahnxst did exactly that. As he seized upon the angled legs of the statue and ripped up on it, he felt a powerful shock course up his arms. He shouted in pain and anger as his muscles bulged with the effort. The statue of the gross fly tilted and then toppled in ruin on the cobbles below.
"That did it!" shouted Xoniuqé exultantly. "I am a wizard again!"
The Drulath swiftly descended his rope beside the captain of their band. He tried not to look smug.
Stung in his pride, Myrdagyn put a humorous face on it. "I never claimed to be the greatest climber who ever lived, you know." Ahnxst let it go and looked around. A transformation in the crowd dynamics was taking place.
The instant that the totem protecting, and deluding, the town had fallen to destruction, the illusion of "glorious ones" had shattered. Those who were already fully enthralled under the effect of the plague flies were now seen in their true guise: nothing more or less than foegim without wills of their own. Those as yet uncorrupted and among the living, at least half of the denizens of that place, drew back in horror for the most part. Then in the next instant, the first of them began to join the adventurers in hacking the undead to bits. Soon, all over the square, and out in the streets that led to it, undead in the midst of the living were being dismembered with alacrity.
The party of adventurers left the townspeople to their task as the good work of violence against the evil sorcery in their midst spread throughout the entire place. Xoniuqé tended to the wounded who had fallen. No one had perished. Auhxalys's malady was not as far advanced as the wizard had feared, given the passage of time since her having been bitten at Tarn Chasm well over a moon ago. Such was the strength of her natural goodness that she had fought the illusion of "glorious ones" tenaciously. She could not deny its apparent reality. But she would not willingly join herself to it, being repelled by how those afflicted with it caused her to feel. So Xoniuqé was able to administer the healing balm to her bites and after a healing nights sleep she was fully restored to her right mind.
Into the midst of these proceedings came an unlooked for encounter. The brigand host besieging the west gate was driven off by a much larger force of imperial troops. And soon these were admitted into the town. Lorinkh had found them at last. And with him were the Drulath captain Khrohm and a good sized force from the Drulathim Legion. A battalion of Imperial Knights and men-at-arms there was also.
The townsmen of Uhrbum Mhortuorum, now eager for vengeance upon Ahkrysyohs the Apostle for his lies and exploitation, armed themselves and joined the imperial host. Together with the adventurers, this determined army proceeded without delay to the outskirts of Melinarth the Dead.
There, drawn up before its ruined gates, walls and towers, and in the shadow of Mount Khuzgaudh, lay apparently the whole force of Ahkrysyohs the Apostle of Qurosh'g. The imperial army, with its auxiliaries of former followers of the Apostle, was possibly in greater numbers. But the outcome would be uncertain, for the main strength of Ahkrysyohs's army lay in the fearless masses of undead....