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Vaugend was a mess of rubble, corpses and now thrice looted dwellings. The remaining inhabitants found most of the valuables looted by the gnolls in their burrows. The clearing out of those burrows required an escort because despite the massacres that had taken place there were still pockets of gnolls that had escaped somehow and made their way back to the system of tunnels and underground dwellings.
The timing and organisation of all this activity was managed by Skandear and Bhar who had travelled down to Vaugend for this purpose and the one of organising the emigration. That was one thing Benzhi loved about the dwarves they were methodical and thorough. Enough to drive one crazy, but, he had quickly departed and left it with them, so it was someone else who was driven crazy by them and not him. So all good.
The Vanguard first ensured all the area between Vaugend and the Alpine Forest was clear of portal spawn. Encountering and dealing with a few roaming bands of gnolls, the remnants of the portal spawn which had been decimated and the portal closed.
“There will not be many left, and our warband can escort the men,” Benzhi said to the warrior women.
“It is a good thing you did,” Anastasia told Benzhi, she placed a hand on his shoulder, “I was not here before, so I cannot judge, but you have put things right now.”
Reyas and Gisael would disagree, there was no compassion from them regarding the inhabitants of Vaugend. But they remained silent, allowing Anastasia, her flight of fancy.
“We need to think about opening a trade route south, or east, perhaps we should find someone from the survivors with knowledge of how they used to trade,” Benzhi discussed with the group.
“Carney’s family were traders,” Reyas mentioned.
“Really? I must have missed that,” Benzhi replied.
“Probably too busy looking at her breasts,” Anastasia teased.
Benzhi rolled his eyes, “Anyway, before we head back to Vaugend, I want to head east, something was interesting I saw when I last shape changed with the Seer,” Benzhi informed the group. “There was a village, which did not seem bothered by the portal spawn and they were talented.”
“How far east?” Reyas asked.
“Um, probably a day, I was flying at least ten times faster than we can run,” Benzhi explained.
“You were flying?” Anastasia was gobsmacked, “and shape changed?”
“Hmm, its something the Seer showed me, you can do it next time,” Benzhi schemed. She could drink the gawd awful tonic. Benzhi still had no idea how the Seer did it, and now he knew he was actually Huineng, from earth, he should probably find out.
“Really!” Anastasia exclaimed excitedly.
Benzhi just laughed, “yes really.”
The Vanguard headed east, searching for the isolated village in the middle of the plains. The plains were generally flat with patches of rolling hills and bushland surrounding creeks or rivers.
After a day of searching, they found the village, Benzhi had a good idea where it was, the bird's eye view gave him knowledge of the surrounding landmarks they used as pointers and the group travelled quickly, using qi body techniques to enhance their speed and stamina.
When within a few hundred paces the Vanguard broke into a walk, stowing weapons to appear less threatening.
There were not many signs of life as they approached, the village itself was made up of twenty smaller dwellings and two larger. The streets were wide, and the buildings were spaced out. All the buildings seemed new and made out of mud brick and thatch, materials which were readily available on the plains.
“Hello,” Benzhi called when they entered the outskirts of the village, they proceeded to walk towards one of the large buildings, the one that housed the Land Core.
“Someone comes,” Gisael informed them.
They all turned to face the way Gisael had indicated through the connection. A man approached, he was older, perhaps seventy, and walked with a cane. He was well dressed, close to what the nobles had worn in Vaugend, he had a white tunic, he wore a buttoned-up waistcoat over the tunic with matching pants.
Notably, the old man wore no shoes. As did none of the Vanguard.
“Greetings strangers, what is the purpose of your visit?” The old man asked. He was well spoken, he was definitely out of place in this remote village.
“Ah, we are from the Alpine Forest to the Northwest, we represent the folk there, elves, dwarves and men. We wished to meet with the people of this village,” Benzhi stated.
“And do you have names?” the old man inquired.
“I am Benzhi, this is Gisael, Reyas and Anastasia,” Benzhi introduced everyone.
“I am Minoru, an elder of this village, as you can see everyone is away,” Minoru introduced himself and pointedly did not say where or why.
“Away, dealing with portal spawn?” Benzhi asked, “perhaps we can assist.”
“No and not necessary,” Minoru informed him, “I suppose we can talk and eat, but you must be on your way in the morning, I would not want to be accused of being a bad host.”
They walked with Minoru into the hall.
“Is everyone away except you, the children as well?” Benzhi asked thinking it was strange that everyone had left except one old man.
“I would prefer to ask questions of you, then the answer of my village, do not think me rude,” Minoru replied.
“Very well,” Benzhi replied.
“Do the beautiful women talk?” Minoru asked with casual insinuation.
“Yes we do, kind sir. Benzhi is our leader, and this is an important first meeting, so we are quiet unless necessary,” Anastasia said smoothly. She was much better at this than Gisael or Reyas, everyone had their own strengths and weaknesses. Benzhi placed a hand on her shoulder and sent feelings of well done through their link, he also sent a feeling that she was welcome to talk whenever she wanted.
“What other questions do you have Elder?” Anastasia continued.
“We should eat, sundown is upon us, do any of you cook?” he asked looking at the women. They could all cook. However Gisael would not touch meat, Reyas loved heavy foods, Benzhi and Anastasia were fairly agnostic. Benzhi still had his wood-elf bent of not eating much, and if he did eat meat, it would only be a morsel.
“I can cook, show me the kitchen,” Anastasia replied. Anastasia was a grandmother, almost a great-grandmother, of course, she could cook, however adapting to the technology was not necessarily easy.
Minoru showed Anastasia to the back of the hall where there was a kitchen that was well stocked and stayed with her as she cooked. Benzhi could sense the entire conversation he had with Anastasia through the link. Anastasia was not good at interpreting, but she didn’t need to be for Benzhi to interpret what she sensed.
Reyas leaned her head on Benzhi’s shoulder, “we’ve been running all day, I am just going to nap here,” she said as she snuggled into Benzhi. Gisael merely sat straight, like a queen, probably listening to Anastasia’s conversation as well.
Reyas rubbed Benzhi’s leg, his inner thigh, stroking him gently like he was her pet.
“Not now,” Benzhi whispered.
“Oh, sorry, habit,” Reyas replied and left her hand resting on his leg. Her eyes were closed as she relaxed.
The elder was a wily old bastard, he had separated one on purpose and was peppering Anastasia with questions. It was fortunate that they had nothing to hide, Anastasia’s good nature shone through, she just answered honestly as if there was nothing to hide, which was the case, fortunately.
By the time the meal was ready, the Elder knew much about the Alpine Forest, and about Benzhi. Anastasia had described him as the leader or ruler, which was not entirely accurate, but Benzhi could see how she thought that.
As the food arrived, Reyas became immediately alert. Anastasia had been thoughtful and made a vegetable dish with some meat on the side, Reyas could add as much as she liked, Benzhi a tiny amount and Gisael would have none,
“This is really good,” Benzhi sounded surprised, teasing Anastasia.
The partook in minor chit-chat as they ate and then Benzhi explained what happened at Vaugend.
“The question closest to my heart, after hearing all about you, is why are you here?” the Elder queried.
“We are here to see how you are faring, it does seem like you have no issues with portal spawn, which is interesting as Vaugend a city of then thousand people were brought low.” Benzhi began.
“We are faring fine, as you can see, so if that is everything we can retire for the evening it has been a pleasure,” Minoru attempted to close the discussion.
Benzhi was about to push the conversation when Anastasia sent a caution, and patience through the link. She stretched, yawning, “yes, it has been a long day. We can make camp outside unless you have other plans Minoru?” She asked.
Minoru nodded, “I would never want to be deemed a bad host, you will stay in the back hall here, there are plenty of rugs, benches and a fireplace. But I will insist if you do stay the night, you do not leave this hall, that would be discourteous.”
Benzhi nodded, “it is your home, we will abide by your wishes.”
Benzhi had been studying the elder with qi sight ever since dinner, and he was still none the wiser to his powers. Minoru had an excellent core, almost the equal to Gisael and Reyas, he also had excellent circulation throughout his body, showing he was a practitioner and not a talented layperson.
What he could not discern was if Minoru used any techniques, Benzhi sensed nothing. Not once did Minoru send out a stream or manipulate qi.
The Vanguard woke early and awaited the Elder Minoru. He had requested they wait in the hall and they did, waiting for another opportunity perhaps. Benzhi did not need these people as an ally, he didn’t even know who or what they were. In fact, other than indirect clues from Minoru, they had learned nothing.
The fact Minoru was well dressed and spoken, the fact that the entire village was off on some mysterious event, were just clues that could be speculated on, nothing concrete.
Minoru wandered in not long after dawn, “Ah you are awake. I must thank you for adhering to my wishes and by not leaving the hall during the night,” he smiled. How did he know for sure? Did he watch them?
Benzhi had sent a qi stream, pushing his skill to the limit in an attempt to connect with the Land Core. It was almost out of his reach, but he did touch on it. Only to find it was, closed off, or locked. Something he had never experienced before.
The vanguard were packed, ready to depart, Minoru spoke, “I would like to ask you one more thing. Please do not mention this place to anyone, particularly those to the south. I am not surprised you found us, with your abilities and how close you live, but, there are those that wish us harm. And if you talk loosely about what you have seen, although it is minor, that could be… bad.”
“That is awfully vague. Rest assured we have no intention of talking about your village with anyone, there is no need. But if you are afraid of those to the south, perhaps you may need our aid one day. Perhaps you should open up to us, and we become friendly neighbours, for I can see that you too have abilities,” Benzhi attempted to establish something with the mysterious village.
Minoru looked thoughtful and then spoke after a minute “no, we are fine, I would ask you to respect our wishes to remain isolated from the world.”
Anastasia stepped in, “but if we were in the area we could visit you, no?” she asked sweetly.
Minoru looked tortured, Anastasia was beautiful, she was tall, long-legged with dark hair and striking eyes, lips and cheekbones. Her long neck was appealing all on its own, where. Minoru may have been an old man, but he was still a man.
“Only if you are in the area,” he relented.
“And you must come visit us at the dwarven stronghold,” she added, “if you are travel west at all.
Minoru nodded defeated, “of course, of course, but we rarely travel that way. I warn you not to wait, pining my presence in your stronghold.” He was actually flirting with her!
“If you are in need of aid and change your mind, you know where to find us, or at least, where to send us a message,” Benzhi finished. He was going to offer to open a trade route here, but based on the Elder’s request for secrecy, he assumed that would be the last thing they wanted. A rumour mongering trader in their village.
Anastasia leaned over to the Elder and gave him a kiss on the cheek as a farewell. His eyes widened in surprise, but he smiled until they left.
The Vanguard left the mysterious village, none the wiser. Benzhi had no reason to steal their core, in fact, he had many reasons not to.