Thom wasn't sure what to expect when he was commissioned. The wider kingdom tended to avoid Damala's old holdings, leaving the salvage and scavenging to the smaller communities and outfits that inevitably sprung up in the aftermath of dungeons falling. He rode at the lead wagon as they left Sancrest. Most there took his party for just another peddler's caravan. His pride was wounded, but not to the point he wouldn't accept the pay from the oddly slim dwarven lass.

Plus there was the matter of the city planner that had joined along with the more usual wagon loads of sundries and supplies, and the entourage that went along with. Everything made sense save for that one detail. Even the dungeoneer guild representative wasn't wholly unexpected, even if they tended to keep to their own when cavorting with these things.

The travel was quiet. Mostly. The road between Sancrest and the Storadsborg enclave was used just often enough that one would think bandits might find profit. Maybe it was the size of the caravan that scared them off?

On the third day rumors started reaching his ears of something in one of the supply wagons. The reason that they hadn't been approached and there hadn't been any sort of tolls to be paid. He paid these rumors no mind until the fifth day when he saw the remains of what had been a fairly elaborate barricade. Hinged gates and sharpened palisades framing the road complete with a gate house and storage for whoever had been posted there. For a moment he thought maybe this had been Royal, but a quick consultation of his maps showed no such taxman.

Which left only highwaymen as the former owners of the bodies nailed arms spread to the palisade walls.

While gruesome, Thom had to admire both the brigand's ingenuity in tying their structure into the existing fence work of local farmland, and of whomever had decided that no more coin was to be paid out. He could only pray to the Rider that they were dead before crucifixion.

After that there had been other, less grandiose, signs of some unseen guardian. A dropped dagger here. wide patches of flattened grasses as if something had been drug into the fields of some unfortunate farmer there, and at one point they saw a makeshift scarecrow made of a patchwork and mismatch of clothing.

He was almost relieved to come into sight of the first of the simi-permenent settlements that buffered the road proper to Stroadsborg. If nothing else he was glad the community had built itself around a building large enough to have lodging for the animals, and close enough to water that he and everyone else could get a hot bath.

As he lay soaking in one of the large brass tubs he saw the dungineer lass strip and settle in the empty tub beside him. The lady gave him a small smile when she glanced his way. Neither really caring at the nudity of the other.

For a time he soaked, looking at the rafters as the lady scrubbed, letting the almost too hot water soak away the aches of travel. "Much as I enjoy the road, this has to be my favorite part of the trip."

"Oh? I thought getting paid was your favorite part, judging by your reputation anyway." There was an almost musical alto to the dwarven lady's voice.

This got laughter from Thom. He spoke as it was his turn to scrub, paying neither the dwarf nor the quartet of kobald that had come into the room with buckets of sand and stone and the brushes their kind used, seemingly only wanting the room for its humid and warm air. "Aye lady Stone Soup. I do like getting paid, but a long soak is appreciated just that little bit more."

Stone Soup looked to the Kobald with interest. "I trust the travel hasn't been too hard on you four?"

One of them spoke as two of his kin took turns with sand and brush scrubbing each other. "It's been rather peaceful actually. Dion's been happy to have a chance to explore Damala's heart."

Then the kobald being scrubbed spoke up. "Did you know Stroadsborg is only the name Damala chose for this place? Going by old Leifalin texts it was once called Totah'jemena'yasipa'andi'don."

Stone Soup sat up, looking Dion over, lips moving, forming words as her eyes flicked about as if reading a book.

Only for Thom to interrupt. "The Stone of Far Farmer's Rest?"

Five sets of eyes turned towards the man who gave a level look back to Dion. "I have to deal with enough nobles who think rattling off some old receipts of Old Imperial's grocery list makes them somehow more cultured than the rest of us. Lets me know when I'm dealing with an idiot or someone who genuinely knows the worth of what they're selling."

"I see, that's very f- Hey! Little warning Raiph?" Dion was cut off by a brush being shoved at him.

His fellow merely grunted, "You can knock it off Professor. Scrubbing time now. Book time later."

Stone soup merely chuckled. "Perhaps I should have words with ye some time sir." She got out of the tub and wrapped a towel 'round herself. "However that will have to wait til morning. I am tired."

Thom smirked at the dwarf as she left. "Hey can you get someone to bring hot water for an old man?"

Dion snorted at Stone Soup's mutterings before focusing most of his attention on the scales in front of him. "Uuugh, seriously? It's been a month and you still have patches from your last shed."

Thom merely shook his head and let himself enjoy the hot soak for as long as he could get away with. The next day was going to be long, and he wanted no part of being around any of the local dungeons after nightfall unless and until he saw that this Lonely Hill was as the guild said.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Lonely Hill was a buzz of activity. Not just the dungeon by that name, but the trio were all a buzz of activity. Imps and goblins here. Stone creatures that. All as Bonehead watched.

'I have no idea what we're doing.' Bonehead's words weren't audible, not to most. Being a bag of bones it cost him to speak, and thus he rarely vocalized in a way the visiting delvers could hear.

Case in point. A slender goblin girl peeked out of the memorial exit to Lonely Hill. Her steps were light. No crunch of grass nor shift of gravel. She was silent in her approach even as her hand moved towards the canvas messenger bag slung across Bonehead's left shoulder. Her gaze intent as she started to pull the rolled up document sticking out from the top flap.

Bonehead shifted, causing her to freeze. Then a step. Causing the document to slide just that little bit more from the shoulder bag. Then another. The goblin suppressed the urge to cheer as she tucked it into her own bag, right as her left foot twisted. It wasn't by much, but it was enough to make sound.

Which caused Bonehead to slowly turn just as she was straightening herself. He gave the goblin thief a level look. Some trick of shadow and posture lending a degree of expression uncommon to something without flesh or feature. A soft whispered word, something between exasperation and pride said in spite of the difficulties speaking. "Jen..."

The goblin merely smiled. "Stone Soup didn't say anything about getting caught after." There was a cheerful smugness as she looked at Bonehead's face, "You.... didn't let me. Did you?"

Bonehead shrugged, cocked his head, then turned away from Jen to resume watching the road leading to the now former cemetery.

"C'mon you know it doesn't count if you let me pass." Jen unrolled the paper and looked from it then to Bonehead in confusion before throwing it to the ground in exasperation, revealing to anyone else that might have been looking a note in flowing script. 'Try Again.'

"Really?!" She fumed. "I pulled that off perfectly you can't just keep shuffling what I'm supposed to get around."

Bonehead remained standing where he was. There was a moment when he seemed as if he were going to again talk. Then slumped and remained silent.

Jen frowned as she gathered the parchment and re-rolled it to put in her own shoulder bag, "No hints? Fine. I'll-"

Keystone raised his right hand, snapping his fingers twice before pointing to a caravan approaching. Three wooden wagons, and a gaggle of horses. The mounted members of the party caused Bonehead to straighten, some part of himself curious that there would even be horses in this world. He put two fingers to just in front of his teeth, and there was a shrill whistle not just around him, but from within Lonely Hill itself.

As the caravan approached a double dozen skeletons marched out of the main entryway. Bonehead would jog to the front of the procession as they marched along what used to be the cemetery's main path that lead past the iron fence, through another flatter section that ringed that initial hill, all the way to chest high outer walls. As the troop marched several of the skeletons produced drums from somewhere. Bonehead's head shook at that, never quite getting used to the continual abuse of 'pockets as big as they need to be' in this place. Yet he appreciated the drums, and then the strings breaking the silence of their march.

It was so much more than drums and strings. There were tamborines, small harps, a few squared four string things that looked sort of like guitars, and while many were similar, no two were exactly alike. Bonehead smiled at this. Lonely Hill might or might not be his next life, he had no idea. Nor did he really care. His men? His Bone guard? They were every inch and ounce the friends he had in life. Shinji, Junpei, Drake, Jeff. All of them played and moved as he remembered

Which caused him to observe, 'Bad enough that Lonely Hill wanted us as the welcoming party instead of the goblins. It'd be infinitely worse if we just marched like the dead at them.'

As they marched Ishida fell in step with him with a bag slung across one shoulder. "Oh I dunno. Remember that entrance you and your boys made When Verin was doing her recruiting drive for Samhain?"

The memory caused Bonehead to chuckle, 'I'm still surprised that didn't lead to a bloody massacre.'

"Well, could you blame Vren if she had given the order?" Ishida snorted as the pair continued their long march to the outer walls of the alliance's new border. "You lot came in pitch black a phalanx of motorcycles with your food truck in the middle blaring music right as she was about to make her big pitch to the unaligned. It was madness and I was Furious with you."

Bonehead laughed soft at the memory. 'It made made its point and we looked damned good doing it. You lot stopped treating us like cattle after that.' Though both understood the unsaid 'for a time' in that and instead walked on as Bonehead's skeletal band played.

Then, after a quiet minute or so, he looked to the merchant caravan, head tilting down and his shoulders slumping, 'They're early.'

"I know." Ishida's voice was casual, but the set of her shoulders, straightness in her back, and a dozen other hints in posture and walk told Bonehead she was worried.

His empty eye sockets then spied the pendant necklace she wore over the leather of her armor. 'Oh I see now what's got your back up.'

Which got a playful shove as her response, "Oh Hush."

Then the pipes started in place of vocals and Ishida fixed Bonehead with a level look. "Seriously? At this point I think you're just hoping someone will get the joke."


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