PART X – HUNTED
The giant was dead, and his orc rider was captured. Victory, however, had almost cost the party dearly. Isael lay broken and near death, the last victim of the mangled giant. Quick thinking by Eliza had been all that saved the cleric from joining his deity in the beyond, and it would take time for one of the groups strongest combatants to be fit for action again. He could heal himself, but needed rest before it was possible. Rest which would be hard to come by so far out in the wilds, surrounded by hostile enemies. The cave, as yet, had not been cleared. A’Sharad and Hamnarabi, leaving Eliza to guard their fallen comrade, set out into the remaining unexplored passages. A rhythmic tapping, almost musical in nature, began to echo off of the rough stone walls. Preparing themselves for battle, the two strode bravely into an adjacent cavern.
It was the sleeping quarters of the goblin force. Bed rolls lay strewn haphazardly around the cave, with crude torches shoved into cracks in the walls. There were no foes, but the rhythmic tapping continued, emanating from a sunken pit at the back end of the room. Peering over the edge they find the source of the strange tapping, a filthy and starved halfling using an old bone to tap out a call for help. Pulling the distraught prisoner free of the pit, they give her water and bring her back to Eliza. She thanked them with a cracked and hoarse voice, her advanced dehydration had left her almost voiceless. Questions about how she had come to be captured would have to wait, there was still one chamber which needed to be cleared before they could breath easy.
In the last chamber, the orc lieutenant’s quarters, A’Sharad and Hamnarabi finally found what they had sought. On a rough wooden table were rolled piles of skins with rough maps and orcish writing scrawled across them. They bound these together in a sack to bring back to Newcayne. On the opposite side of the chamber a pile of sacks and crates, booty from the orc’s expeditions, beckoned. Most of it was food stuffs or other provisions, but some armor and weapons of hapless victims was also found. One item in particular, a locked chest, drew Hamnarabi’s attention. He flipped it open, but in his haste did not check to see if the wily orc had take precautions to ensure his greedy servants did not nose where they were not welcome. A small dart sprung out from within the chest and pierced the side of the knight’s neck, flooding his system with burning poison which left him fevered and weak.
His fever clouding his judgement, he cast his eyes upon a small alter built against the last wall of the cavern. A rough hewn pedestal atop of which a small totem of bone was built, topped with a human skull. At its base, like the crypt of the Lansing family, a brass bowl with charred blood and burnt offerings sat grimly. Anger flooded the noble knight, and before consulting their cleric he lashed out with his mace and shattered the totem, knocking the sacrificial bowl to the ground and spilling its nauseating contents across the floor. A deep growl, felt more than heard, crept through the tunnels of the cavern. Something knew that Hamnarabi had defiled the altar, and it was not happy.
Come what may from the altar, there were more immediate concerns. They needed shelter and rest after their battle, and they were far from the timber walls of Newcayne. Isael was clinging to life, but his magic was spent and he needed rest in order to commune with his god and be capable of healing himself. And then there was the orc, it was still unclear if the information they sought was contained within the collected skins or within the mind of their captive. An argument arose between the members of the party, centered squarely upon the fate of invader. Eliza, fearing that the orc would be too much for them to handle if he broke his bonds while the party was weak, and Winifred, still outraged at her treatment at the orcs hands, were in favor of executing him and being finished with the affair. Hamnarabi, bound by his code, and A’Sharad were more concerned that they ensure that the needed intelligence about the orc’s leader was retrieved. Isael, weak and pained, could scarcely decide.
They argued for hours, and the morning dawn had fled before the bright sky of high noon. Time was short, a decision needed to be made. Eliza attempted to force the orc to talk, slamming he staff down upon his bound form. Hamnrabi pushed her away, and demanded he answer their questions. The orc, in the halting manner of creatures unused to the common tongue, laughed and derisively asked about the stains upon Hamnarabi’s mace. When the Khinasi noble admitted he had destroyed the altar, the orc told them that they were all dead already. A’Sharad, furious at the delay and the intransigent prisoner, lashed out. He struck harder than he intended; the orc, already weakened from their battle, breathed his last. Isael’s discontent at staying at the cave, as well as Winifred’s refusal to stay any longer at the site of her imprisonment, finally decided the matter. They would strike north and find a place to rest.
They journeyed until an hour before dusk, desperately seeking some feature of the terrain which they could use to camp. They found in a niche carved into the side of the cliff wall they had followed, just across the river and up a winding crack in the cliff face. It was just spacious enough to suit their need, and allowed them a high vantage from which they could keep watch. They made camp, allowing Eliza and Isael to rest in order to ensure the mystics could call upon their abilities sooner than later. As Winifred kept watch, however, her heart sank. Through the darkness of night, along the same path they had traveled, she made out a group of torches winding through the trees. They were being hunted, and they had less than half an hour before their pursuers would reach the point where they branched off to their shelter.
PART XI – A DESPERATE DIVERSION
Isael and Eliza’s magic was still exhausted, and cleric clung to life by the barest of margins. Hamnarabi, though willing to draw off their pursuers, was weak from injury and poison. A head-on defense against the orcs seemed to offer slim chances. After briefly discussing their options the party settled on a different tactic: diversion. A’Sharad and their new companion, Winifred, would try to draw the orcs off by planting a false trail. Though he was loathe to part with his steed, Hamnarabi consented to allow the pair to bring his steed. The orcs may not take the bait if they did not see the hoof prints that marked the trail upon until that point. Winifred was hesitant to put herself at such peril, but her so far out in the wilds was dependent upon these people. They had freed her from her captivity, and they needed her help now. The pair led the Khinasi steed down from the their hidden camp and back across the river, and led the horse up a ridge line away from the path to the cliff where the remainder of the party stayed. They took care to disturb the ground and branches as much as possible in an effort to make the diversion believable.
The pair were not hunters or rangers, their skill at laying and disguising trails was limited. They watched from just below the crown of a hilltop where the ride ended as the rocs came across their trail. Though they could make out little from this distance, the huddled group of torches seemed clustered around a central figure. They stayed there, for what seemed an eternity, arguing over which trail to follow. Eventually, the orc group split. Four of them began to follow the false trail west, while the others continued upon the party’s original path towards the cliff. Hope faded, as the four orcs headed for the cliff side would be an impossible challenge for Hamnarabi as he stood a solemn vigil over his exhausted and wounded friends. A’Sharad and Winifred settled upon a more direct plan of action, they would ambush the orcs heading their way and draw the rest off directly. If they could draw out the confrontation it would buy their companions time.
They set the horse galloping off into the woods, and when the party tracking them came within range the pair began to loose a steady stream of arrows down the hill towards them. The dark of night complicated their aim, and few of the missiles struck home, but it was enough to launch the first group into a headlong charge up the hill. The clash came quickly, but the fight drew out at an uncomfortable length. These were not the lower order soldiers of the orc invasion that they had faced until now. These were hardened veterans from the mountain, members of the elite who had been sent hastily to the cave when the altar to their black god had been disturbed. By the time A’Sharad had struck the final blow against their leader he was drenched in blood, and his clothing and armor hung in tatters. Winifred had fared better, using her diminutive size to evade blows and turtle herself under her shield, but she too would bear scars of the orcs savage proficiency. The diversion was successful though, the remaining orcs were quickly scrambling back up the ridge, drawn by the sounds of their comrades engaged in battle. Their plan had worked, but they would not likely survive a second skirmish if it played out as the first had. They set out as fast as they could run through the woods, blindly hoping to lose their hunters in the rugged brush and trees.
From their camp within the cliff face Hamnarabi watched as the torches dwindled into the distance, the faint shouts and clamor of battle faded into an eerie silence. For long hours he stood watch, hoping against hope that his friends would reappear. They didn’t. When dawn finally arrived, creeping slowly over the treeline, he woke Eliza and Isael. The rest had been fitful, but sufficient for them to regain their abilities. Eliza meditated and Isael prayed, both now capable of employing their arcane skills. Isael’s magic sealed his wounds, and forced broken bones back into place. As soon as they were able the trio set out on the trail left by the orcs chasing their friends, the haste with which the vile brigands had cut through the forest made their path clear even to the most unskilled of trackers. An hour passed, and then two, but still there was no sign. In a large clearing they found Hamnarabi’s horse, exhausted and covered in a lather of sweat. A single orcish arrow protruded from the leather of the saddle, but there was still no sign of A’Sharad or Winifred. A deep apprehension filled them, which deepened into despair when they found the chasm.
It was the remains of a tributary which had branched from the river, and for centuries it had gouged a deep rift into the forest floor. It ran for miles in each direction, a full fifty feet in width and more in depth. A huge spruce tree was toppled across the gap, directly over a yawning black pit, a portal into an underground cavern into which the creek had cut. A’Sharad’s distinctive broadsword, it’s spine fixed with multiple rings of bronze, was buried in the trunk of the fallen giant midway down its length. Blood stained the trunk, but on the other side the trail continued. Leading Hamanrabi’s steed carefully over, they took their comrade’s weapon and pressed on. They did not have far to go, they had made better time by daylight following the clear trail by daylight than the orcs had in their wanton pursuit. They came upon the edge of a wide clearing, in the center of which a lone oak stood, gigantic and towering. Around the base of this old sentinel three orcs were busy stacking wood for a fire whose smoked curled through the branches above. And in those branches a small figure could be seen, desperately struggling to reach a branch where the noxious smoke did not fill her lungs. It was Winifred.
The three advanced quickly across the clearing, fighting the urge not to charge headlong recklessly. The orcs, occupied with their fire and the meal they anticipated soon, did not notice the solemn advance upon their rear until it was too late. Led by Hamnarabi upon his horse, the charge took them completely unawares. The first orc died instantly as the steel tip of the knight’s spear pierced him through both lungs. The second feel beneath the cold steel of the enraged cleric, even as one of Eliza’s darts took in the throat. The last, sensing the disadvantage he was in, attempted to take flight. Hamnarabi ran him down and pinning his leg to the ground with a well placed spear thrust. Eliza gestured articulately, and with a murmured incantation the flames around the base of the tree dwindled and died. A much relieved Winifred dropped down into Isael’s arms, the and the party gathered around their new captive. Winifred quickly explained how she and A’Sharad had vainly tried to elude their captors, but as night wore on towards dawn they knew their wounds were slowing them too much. A’Sharad, upon finding the fallen tree across the pit, had told Winifred to run and and hide. She was loathe to do so, but had pressed on until she found the tree. The orcs had found her, though there was one less in their party than had been previously hunting them.
Through broken common and gestures they tried to question the orc, who mimed a figure plummeting down into a hole. A’Sharad had fallen; though the orc could not, or would not, say if he had been dead before his fall. The orc knew it’s chance at escape had been in vain, and now, facing death, he gestured for his sword. If he was to die, he wanted it to be in battle. Eliza and Winifred wanted to finish the creature and be done with it, but Isael was a servant to the god of war. If battle was what the orc desired, battle would be what the orc got. He pulled the spear out of its leg and tossed it back to Hamnarabi, dropping down onto one knee to make the fight fair for the orc. It wasted little time, lunging and slashing desperately in an effort to kill the Anuirean. Isael granted it the death by combat it so desired, thrusting the tip of his blade through the orc’s chest as it wildly swung. The hunt was over, but the question of their monk companion remained. They hastily trekked back to the fallen tree and contemplated how they would search for sign of their friend in the yawning darkness below.
PART XII – WATER AND STONE
After making a hasty camp, the group probed the length of the chasm for sign of their friend, but slowly came to the resigned realization that the pit was the only place he could have fallen. If they wanted to find sign of their friend, they would have to explore its depths. The mouth of the pit was twenty feet in circumference, and it’s depth could not been seen by the sunlight filtering through the trees above them. Hamnarabi dropped a stone from the middle of the fallen tree into the pit, and after several uncomfortably long seconds heard the faintest of splashes. With careful enough focus the sound of rushing water could be detected emanating from within.
They opted to send one of the party down by rope to scout. Winifred, despite her misgivings about the situation, was the obvious choice given her small size and natural ability to see within the darkness. They tied the base of the rope off around the trunk of the fallen tree, and slowly dropped her down into the darkness. The walls of the pit were slick, and the sunlight played off of the slick surface. When she had passed beyond the pit and into the narrow cavern below it she saw that it was a rapidly flowing river cutting through a tunnel a mere ten feet in diameter in the stone beneath the forest floor. A series of rocks and boulders provided a viable, if difficult, path which she and her friends could use to make their way further into the dark. If A’Sharad had fallen into this river it would have swept him down into the black beyond.
Winifred swung to a wide ledge beside the river and tugged twice to inform her comrades above that it was safe to descend. When they had all managed to wind their way down they lit torches and prepared to follow the water’s flow. Winifred, again elected for her light weight and dextrous nature, leaped from stone to stone and created a series of rope bridges the others could tie off to and safely traverse the slick stone. After several hundred feet they found that the river emptied into a huge cavern filled with a cold lake. Dimly lit by bioluminescent fungi growing across the ceiling of the cavern, they could see the faint outline of a small island of stone in the center of the lake. Unless A’Sharad’s body sunk in the black depths, it would have washed onto the island’s shore. It would be a long swim though, one which they would never make in armor without benefit of a raft they currently did not possess.
They stripped to their bare necessities, each only opting to take a single weapon and whatever other items could be strapped to them. The water was frigid, born of the glacial snows of the mountains, and it shocked the breath from them as they entered. The swim was brisk, their pace quick to fight off the cold. Struggling to keep their muscles moving as they stood upon the shore, they drew weapons and fanned out to search the island. Only a few steps in, they heard a sound which froze them in their tracks. A deep, rumbling croak which echoed off of the ceiling above them. A gigantic toad, easily the size of a horse, lept atop one of the outcroppings of rock on the island. A leg hung from its mouth, which quickly disappeared down the gullet of the abomination. It was joined by first one, and then another giant toad.
The group sprung into action as the toads crawled forward. Their massive tongues, the ends of which were barbed and as thick as the head of a club, lashed out but found no purchase. At least, not initially. As the the first toad was brought low beneath Winifred’s arrows and Hamanrabi’s mace, a second managed to tangle Isael’s legs in its tongue and begin to drag him inexorably towards its gaping maw. Eliza’s magic kept the third from joining in the feast, but before he could finally drive his sword home into its mouth the toad had swallowed him from the waste down. It’s bile burned him, but a quick roll into the lake washed the ichor from him before it could lasting harm. The last fell under a flurry of missile and magic, even as it attempted to flee into the dark depths of the lake.
They slit the belly of the first dead toad open, but within its grisly bowels they did not find A’Sharad’s remains. It was the orc which had fallen with him off of the tree and down into the chasm. A brief reconnoiter of the island yielded interesting results, but no sign of their friend. The toads had taken residence here due to the same pit that had them down here. Passing animals, even people, attempting to cross the chasm would often fall. The river would wash them into the lake, and they would feast on easy prey killed in the fall or too weak to fight them off. The island was littered with bones and refuse of such unfortunates. There were some items of value found in the remains, but only one truly stood out. A reliquary! In a palm sized disc of silver a bright golden sun was inlaid. Within the sun a finger bone, wrapped in silver that was shaped to resemble a sword. It was a symbol of Haelyn, the righteous god of kings and justice, and father of Isael’s chosen deity Cuiracean. Its gold value was substantial, its religious value was incalculable.
There were no options left for finding their companion, the lake ended in stone walls with no visible outlets. If their monk had been carried further, it had been by another tunnel beneath the surface of the lake. If that were the case, the chances of his survival were slim to none. The group swam back to the shore, hastily donned their clothing, and made their way back to the surface. Despondent, cold, and hurt, the group made camp for the night to discuss their options and plans. They wanted to keep looking for their friend, but had no idea where to start if he was not in the caverns below. They needed to get their collected intelligence back to Newcayne, but had promised Kelbor they would try to investigate his mine. No matter where their path took them, they needed sleep.
PART XIII – A BALANCE OF RISK AND REWARD
The mine. The conversation kept coming back to the mine as the party stretched their tired muscles and gingerly winced at their healing wounds. Would they chance the mine? The monetary reward promised to be substantial, but the gold was not the most important thing that had brought them into the wild. Should they keep looking for A’Sharad? He was lost somewhere in the darkness below, but they had no idea where to even begin looking. If he was dead they would run a graver risk stumbling in black tunnels than braving the solitary mine. Should they return to Newcayne? The intelligence they had gathered from the orc’s cave could be vital to the town’s survival, but if it proved less than hoped for they would need the assistance of the trade guilds or they would not survive the next wave of goblinoid attacks. Ultimately, after hours of debate, they settled on striking north for the mine. It was a day’s hard travel, but it promised the best chance for both profit and security for the town.
The journey through the woods drug on for an abysmally long stretch of time. Sore, bruised, and exhausted the group seemed to run afoul of every thorn, bush, and low hanging branch on the trail. By the time they finally came within view of the mining camp they were as tired as they had been after pitched battle with their mountain-born foes. The camp was a small thing, but well built. Before selling the mine to Kelbor the mine’s owner had constructed a small stone and thatch cabin, the dwarf’s overseer had hastily reinforced it and added a rough timber watchtower to the side. Two more buildings, a barracks and a smithy to smelt and process the mined ore, had been built inside of a hasty wooden palisade. The miner’s had taken some precautions for security, and from the look of things the wall and buildings were in perfect condition. If something had befallen the miners, it did not come from outside of the camp. After clearing the area, the party gathered near the mouth of the mine itself.
It yawned darkly before them, and a grisly sign spoke darkly of the miner’s fate. An orcish spear had been thrust into the ground, and an orc’s skull had been driven partly down the shaft. No other sign of orcish attack was found. The cabins were unburnt, the wall was intact, and there had been no looting of the belongings inside the camp. It was as if the entire camp had gone in to work and simply vanished. Only this solitary sign stood testament that something was dreadfully wrong in the mine. Winifred stared long at the skull, the sight of it had brought the melody of an old dwarven drinking song into her head. Something she had heard years ago, but had forgotten. The lyrics danced just outside of her grasp. The placement of this spear was no accident, but she could not remember what it meant. They rested briefly, ate, and left their horse and gear in the camp, carefully hiding the orcish plans inside the cabin in case anything stumbled across them while they were in the depths of the mine. Steeling themselves for anything they might find, they set out into the mine.
The main entrance had been dug out from between the massive boulders of the tor which crowned the hill the camp had been built on. It crept back and down a hundred feet before the hewn rock gave way to a natural cave. In the center of this chamber a timber crane and winch had been built over a natural pit. A thick length of chain hung down the wide mouth of the pit, but no sound came up from the depths. Hamnarabi worked the winch and the gears clanged and rattled loudly as the elevator car at the other end of the chain came back toward the surface. Climbing aboard, they found another winch inside the iron elevator to reverse the car’s direction. Slowly, they descended down into the black of the mine. It was difficult to tell how deep they had gone, but it took several moments before the first access tunnel off of the main shaft was found. They pressed inwards, but at first could not find anything of note. The miners had obviously been working in this section of the tunnels, but their tools were strewn about as if they had dropped them suddenly and left. Winifred, her eyes keen in the darkness, noticed something strange about one of the pits beside the tunnel.
A miner’s pick was near the bottom of the shallow pit, which was as broad and deep as she was tall and filled with still water. Her eye had initially been drawn by the reflected light from the gold vein the miner had been toiling over, but it was the pick that puzzled her. It seemed to hang motionless a foot above the stone floor. The others gathered around her, perplexed by the strange sight. Winifred reached out for the pick, and the thing that been the doom of the miner sensed a fresh meal at hand. The “water” was not liquid at all, it was a gelatinous cube! A thick tendril of ooze snapped out and tried to drag her down into the mass of the cube. Its acidic touch ate her clothing away, and set her flesh to burning. Isael encircled a broad arm around her waist and heaved backwards, tearing her away from its grasp and flat onto their backs at the other side of the tunnel as her companions scrambled away from the pits edge. The cube swelled and lurched up from its hiding place, thick tendrils probing out hungrily. A torrent of arcane power and mace blows seemed to slow the mindless predator, but it wasn’t until it had almost claimed Hamnarabi as well that their assault brought it low. Their blows at first seemed ineffectual, but each one degraded the consistency of the cube little by little. When it died, it slumped into itself and liquified.
It was no longer a mystery why there had been no other sign of the miners; the cube had eaten away every bit of flesh, bone, and clothing on them. Yet, this was only one side tunnel; where were the rest of the miners? Returning to the elevator, they descended to the bottom the mine. A tunnel led to either side of the elevator when it came to rest, they took the first and found further evidence of a hasty retreat by the miners. They also found a large steel and wood chest, filled to the brim with gold ore and rough gems, at the end of the access tunnel. It was the ore shipment that Kelbor had been anticipating, the product of his overseer’s initial prospecting run at the mine. The vital deed to the mine, what Kelbor had truly sent them to find, was missing. Wherever the overseer was, they would likely find the deed. They left the chest where it was, for now, and pressed back down the other tunnel entrance. Fifty feet further and the tunnel split; one branch lead upwards, the other down. They followed the upper branch and found the original mine shaft. The mine’s first own had stumbled into a natural drop shaft, and a faint stream of light trickled down from above. The wooden platforms and ladders at the base had all been rotted out, or digested, and there was no longer a way back up. From the scattered fragments of bone and cloth scattered about it was obvious that a few miners had tried this route and found, to their doom, that this was the case.
Only one tunnel remained, but halfway down they found that it had been blocked by a hasty barricade of stones. It took time to dismantle the heavy blocks, and they feared the noise would bring the attention of anything else that may be stalking the tunnels. What they had to fear was not from without, it was from within. Once they had cleared the stones away and pushed onward they beheld the grisly fate of the mining company. Close to twenty men had taken shelter in this last tunnel shaft, throwing up the stones in a desperate bid to keep the gelatinous horrors at bay. It had been in vain; such beasts, given enough time, can seep through even the slightest of cracks. The end of the tunnel was a carnival of terror, suspended corpses in various stages of digestion hung limply in a gelatinous blob whose mass filled the entire tunnel. It was easily four times the size of the first cube they had encountered, and it still hungered for more flesh. It lurched towards them, and they soon found themselves fighting for their lives.
No matter how many times they struck, the cube kept coming. It had grown enormous by feasting on the bounty that had conveniently cornered itself in the mine tunnel. Scorched by magic and bit by steel, it still crept forward. Such creatures had no sense of self regard beside the inexorable hunger which drove them with pitiless momentum. It was pained by their assault, but whatever damage they did could be repaired after digesting their soft flesh. Its touch did not just burn, it paralyzed. Soon both Hamnarabi and Isael were struggling to keep on their feet after the beast’s poison began to sap their strength. Desperation set in, for if twenty fit miners could not best this creature, what hope did they have? Isael fell, and the creature began to drag his limp body into itself to appease its hunger. Hamnarabi, holding his friend with one hand even as he lashed out with his mace in the other, struggled to keep the noble cleric from such a ghastly fate. It was Eliza that finally struck the fatal blow. With her last spell she sent a lance of azure light deep into the center of the gelatinous evil, and the last vestige of its strength faded. The tunnel floor flooded with liquifying gel and digested corpses, Isael was pulled free and back into the main mine tunnel.
He lived, but just barely. As in the orc’s cavern he had been brought to the edge of death, the weight of the injuries he had accumulated over days protracted fighting had finally overcome his prodigious strength. While he was not at risk of dying without medical care, it would take more than a night of rest to restore his strength. While Eliza and Winifred drug the cleric back towards the elevator, Hamnarabi quickly scoured the fetid mass of corpses looking for the deed. He found it within a sealed bronze tube tangled in the ragged remnants of a cloak, and quickly made his way back to his friends. They drug the heavy chest over, and the knight cranked the elevator towards the surface. Safely back under the light of the sun, they washed the ichor from the cube off in the water sluice the miners had erected and then retreated into the overseer’s cabin. They placed Isael, still unconscious and breathing shallowly, onto the narrow bed within. They bolted the doors and windows, and Hamnarabi took first watch in the wooden tower as the sun set over the horizon. Winifred finally recalled the lyrics of the old dwarven song, and was humming it faintly as she wet Isael’s lips with a damp cloth. Orcs place the skulls of their enemies on spears to warn other races to keep away, they place the skulls of their OWN on spears to warn other orcs to keep away.
They had survived the mine, but it was again an uncomfortably close encounter which had almost cost a member of their party dearly. They would rest as long as they could, but it was vital that they return to Newcayne to deliver the chest and orc’s missives. Burdened and wounded, it was promising to be a difficult journey.