19 March (Continued)
Bhavik found Azal back at the Griffon’s Nest, absorbed in one of Belak’s Journals again. As he sat at her table, she passed a pair of parchments across to him and he looked them over. They appeared to be requests for help with rewards attached. The first was from a Baron Althon, offering a reward for weapons with the mark of Durgeddin the Black – crudely depicted on the bottom of the page. Perhaps, mused the shifter, this was why Sister Alonsa had seemed hesitant to help them find the Stone Tooth. The other bill was a bounty from Sir Miles Berrick – the mayor of Blasingdell – for the orcs harassing the populace. The creatures were thought to be holing up in the hills north of the town, and hearsay placed them in the Stone Tooth itself. The warden sighed and tucked the pages away, ordering a meal and a drink to wash it down.
After a few minutes, two middle-aged men – a pair of shifters – eyed Bhavik appraisingly from a nearby table. “Thought I knew everyone around here,” said the older one. “Are you not of the tribe? Tell me, boy. Who is your father?”
“I am Bhavik,” the warden said, avoiding the question. “Who are the two of you?”
“Akar,” answered the same man. “This is my brother Wanza.” The other man nodded in acknowledgement.
“Well met then. It is my mother through whom I would be known, and her name is Akuti,” said Bhavik, not without pride.
The men scowled and looked at the young man skeptically. “Really,” Wanza said. “Never heard that traitor shat out any brats ‘fore Karma caught her up and the Great Ulfe had his revenge.” Akar frowned at his brother’s choice of words, but he didn’t say anything more.
In a cold voice Bhavik said, “This establishment, I fear, is not fit for the conversation we should be having now. Is there somewhere less crowded the two of you would like to continue this?” He stood slowly, staring down his new acquaintances.
From beside him Azal said softly, “Call if you need assistance.”
Wanza snorted and shook his head, but Akar fixed Bhavik with a level stare. “Got nothin’ more to say. Your mother didn’t leave this world with many friends.”
Heat entering his voice, the warden said, “Then let’s continue the tradition. Would you like to step outside or be thrown outside? I can’t see as you would be wandering up to me for any other reason with such a tongue in your mouth.”
The other patrons in the bar watched the exchange with undisguised interest, but Akar only shook his head slowly. “I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But I wouldn’t start trouble here were I you, young’n.” Wanza appeared ready to oblige the warden, but his brother slowly held out his arm to bar him from standing and stared him down. Bhavik’s hand reached toward the shield resting near his chair.
The half-elven woman behind the bar nodded to a dragonborn who sighed and stood. The big man walked slowly toward the pair of tables and said, “We got a problem here, Akar?”
The old shifter turned to look at the new arrival and replied, “Just unfriendly words, Kaashk.” He turned to look between Bhavik and Wanza. “And hot tempers.”
The dragonborn then faced the warden. “What about you?”
“Sir,” Bhavik looked to Kaashk, “I appreciate what you’re here to do and you shouldn’t have to deal with our troubles. You’ll get no issue from me.” Turning back to the older shifters he said, “I’ll be available in town for at least a day or two. Please, come find me when you have more than ill conceived threats to bandy about. If I don’t hear from you by the time the sun sets again, I’ll consider that an invitation to come find you.”
“I don’t recall any threats,” said Akar mildly, unconcerned.
“Something I’ll be happy to remind you about under different circumstances,” said Bhavik as he turned toward the door with his gear in hand.
The situation apparently resolved for the time being, Kaashk nodded and turned back for his table. Akar and Wanza shook their heads as Bhavik walked out of the tavern, returning to their ale and whispered conversation. The half-elf comes over to where Azal sat at her table and suggested, “Might keep an eye on your friend there. He’s like to bite off more’n he can chew.” The tiefling nodded her thanks and then followed Bhavik out into the rainy evening.
When she caught him up she asked, “You okay?”
Bhavik sighed. “I’ve a good mind to murder those men in their beds,” he said. Turning to face her briefly he continued, “But this is not a wise and sound plan.”
Azal’s lips twisted. “We…might…want to be careful. I understand what they said can get under your skin, but its no reason to break laws and endanger our quest to find the cure for Talgen."
“Perhaps we can do both," Bhavik suggested half-heartedly.
“Let’s at least think it through," Azal said, considering.
The warden shook his head ruefully. “I fear, however, that what they speak could be based in truths I’ve not heard. My mother and I were…not close. The people in this town, however, seems to know her well.”
Under her breath Azal muttered, “At least you knew your mother.”
“Perhaps,” Bhavik replied cryptically.
“Well, I cannot speak for Aramis, but whatever you need, I will help you as much as possible. So long as it does not interfere with getting Talgen well again.”
“If only I knew the truth of her life with any certainty,” the shifter continued as though he had not really heard her. “Maybe that would calm these nerves. At least then I’d know.”
Azal nodded, understanding his single-mindedness. “Maybe you can find someone a bit more…understanding. Someone who could help you find that knowledge.”
“I fear that delving into such matters might lead to the kind of trouble we don’t need,” said Bhavik. “Is that something you would be willing to help with?” he asked, proving that he’d heard after all. “I know this issue is of no direct concern to you, but for me unearthing the truth would be of great value.”
“I feel your pain keenly,” said Azal sincerely, thinking of Belak’s last words concerning her mother. “I would be willing. Let me know what I can do to help. Maybe after all of this is over, we might find out more about my own mother.”
“A trade more fair could not be made,” Bhavik said, smiling gratefully.
20 March, 103 CY
With a map in hand and directions to their destination from Sister Alonsa, it was time to pick their way through the wooded hills north of Blasingdell in search of the Stone Tooth – the rumored entrance to Khundrukar. As they left the Griffon’s Nest after breakfast, they noted the spring rains beginning again in earnest.
“This day does not seem to favor us,” commented Bhavik. “Let me see the map, if you don’t mind. Perhaps I can get us started in the right direction.” Azal plucked the map from her cleavage and handed it over to the warden. The two men coughed into their hands, failing to cover their reaction. Bhavik then began looking over the map, trying to commit as much to memory as possible. Returning the map to Azal with Aramis’s admonition to keep it dry, the warden led the others out of Blasingdell.
They traveled along the road as long as seemed prudent until Bhavik spotted a game trail he believed they could follow. “Perhaps we can find a way through over here,” he said, pointing the path out to the others. “The weather will be bad, but this way should be free from the worst of the soggy ground.”
They followed the trail for about an hour, plodding along slowly but surely. Aramis identified one of the landmarks the priestess had told them about, and then he and Bhavik coordinated it with the map to reorient the group. They were forced to leave the game trail, but they crossed higher ground with fewer puddles and far less deep mud. Maneuvering across the hills in the rain proved taxing, but all three proved up to the task and continued on for another hour.
Bhavik, feeling the weight of his heavy gear, looked for an easier path still heading in the proper direction, and found evidence of an old cobbled road that still had some of the stones intact. After another half hour, they entered a clearing. The rain slowed and they caught sight of a hill with a jagged rock jutting from its peak. They had found the Stone Tooth. They pressed forward the last couple hundred yards to the base of the steep hill.
The old dwarven path wound up to a cleft in the hill in the hillside, and as they picked their way up the way, Bhavik searched for tracks that might give them some clue as to what they could expect to face. He found evidence of many iron-shod boots worn, he surmised, by heavy humanoids. He shared his findings with the others.
Aramis knelt beside the tracks. “Orcs?” he asked.
Bhavik nodded. “We’ll face heavily armored resistance ahead. Be prepared,” Bhavik warned as he began to follow the tracks up the hill. The others came after.
The path climbed up one last steep switchback toward a bare shoulder of rock. The hillside climbed steeply on their right and dropped away precipitously to the left. Debris and rubbish lie scattered over the last hundred yards or so of the path – discarded waterskins, bits of charred bone, and splintered casks or kegs discarded carelessly from the path. Up ahead, the path opened up onto a wide ledge and then doubled back sharply into the mountainside. Two bestial humanoids in leather armor and holding massive axes stood watch on the ledge, but they appeared to be inattentive – bored with their duty.
“Shall we move up quietly until they notice, then charge?” suggested Bhavik. The others agreed and the three crept up the last stretch of the path. When they had moved up to the switchback, they launched their attack.
Azal whipped her dagger at the nearest orc, but she misjudged the distance and the blade flew over its head. Aramis made up for it by striking the hulking warrior with an ephemeral stream of daunting light. Bhavik released a bit of his pent up rage as he surged forward and slammed into the orc, trying to force it bodily from the perilous cliff edge, but only managed to knock the heavy brute from its feet.
Before the startled creatures could react, Azal dashed forward and slashed the prone one across its ugly, porcine face. It squealed as blood and ooze from its ruined eye stained the wet stone path. Aramis advanced and seared the bloodied orc’s partner with a lance of faith. Bhavik pivoted and slammed into the lanced orc, failing to force it over the side of the cliff. Finally recovering from the adventurers’ blitz, the downed orc rose and swung its massive axe just over the tiefling’s head. The effort seemed to revitalize the one-eyed orc – perhaps a blessing from its maimed god. The other orc took a step away from the edge and brought its own heavy blade down on Bhavik – hard. Then it shouted up the tunnel stairs in a tongue none of the heroes understood.
Azal continued slashing at her foe’s face and chest, digging deep furrows in its flesh. Aramis positioned himself for a better view of the staired entrance and engulfed the one-eyed orc with sacred flame. The warden shifted away from his opponent and dragged the second orc away from Azal with barbed tendrils from his blade. The bloodied orc sidled to the tiefling’s side and shoved her bodily over the side of the cliff. Her companions gasped as she fell out of sight, and Bhavik’s opponent managed to distract him enough for a hidden archer to plant an arrow in his chest, though the missile slid harmlessly off the protection of Aramis’s prayer. Two more arrows flew over the cleric’s head from unseen murderholes high on the eastern wall. The warden growled in the direction of the tiny death spears.
Though sliding down the wet and stony side of the path had hurt her, Azal’s physical training allowed her to arrest her slide before it became a free fall down the side of the steep hill. She scrambled to her feet and kicked up the slope to engage the one-eyed orc, her wrathful stroke making an end of him. Aramis spotted the arrow slits high on the east wall, and moved adjacent to the wall to deny the hidden archers another target and scorched the berserker with sacred flame. Bhavik unleashed more rage on the remaining orc warrior, providing a flank for the tiefling. The staggered creature fought defensively while more arrows flew, one impaling Azal.
After Bhavik laid the berserker low, he moved next to Aramis against the wall and called out to Azal. “Move out of the way, and quickly. We have to storm these stairs and fell those archers!” As if in answer, two more arrows struck the tiefling before she could join her companions against the wall.
Aramis and Bhavik continued to hug the wall as they moved up the broad, shallow steps leading up to a steep fissure to the south. The steps turned east into the mountainside where a broad entrance had been carved out of the stone. Marble steps cracked with age and veined with green moss led up to a strong double-door of carved stone, 8 feet wide and almost 10 feet tall.
The cleric narrowly avoiding arrows from more arrow slits high on the north and south walls. The warden made double time up to the stone doors and called back to warn Azal of the danger. “More murder holes! Approach carefully, and for the love of your gods stay out of the line of fire!” The tiefling made her way forward, narrowly dodging an arrow from behind. Just as she rounded the corner, the partially opened doors slammed closed in Bhavik’s face, and all three heroes heard a heavy bar fall into place.
Bhavik and Aramis slammed into the heavy door, but it would not budge. As she continued to dodge arrows from the murder holes, Azal slipped forward and said, “Need help?” They waved the rogue forward and she slipped an impossibly narrow tool into the invisible space between the doors. With a quick upward jerk, the way was unbarred, and Bhavik kicked the doors back open.
The great doors opened into a large hall, half illuminated by two copper braziers burning in the near corners of the chamber. They found themselves on a narrow ledge overlooking a crevasse that cut the room in two, completely obstructing passage to the opposite side which was shrouded in darkness. A dangerous looking rope bridge, frayed and thin, spanned the gap. Water gurgled twenty feet below. A door opened into the north wall.
The orc who must have closed the stone doors stood in shock as Bhavik circled the creature and then put it to the sword. When another orc pulled the north door closed, it blended seamlessly with the wall. However, having seen it open, Aramis swiftly crossed the distance, found the hidden catch, and pulled it back open. Another arrow struck Azal from the north, and the cleric narrowly avoided a scimitar slash. The tiefling was only too happy to end the threat to the cleric, and the orc fell with a dagger through its eye.
Arrows flew from the darkness across the chasm and narrowly missed the adventurers. Aramis quickly dug out and lit one of his sunrods, brightly illuminating the entire hall. Three more orcs were revealed on the far side, two archers lurking behind the cover of carved pillars, and another hulking creature bearing a glaive. Not liking the thought of having to cross the bridge to get to these new threats, Bhavik entered the secret passage to the north and rounded the corner to find another archer. The orc dropped his bow and pulled a scimitar, engaging the warden and slashing him across the ribs. Azal moved in to support Bhavik and cut the orc’s throat efficiently. Aramis brought up the rear and pulled the secret door closed behind him.
Seeing the peril of their path, Bhavik moved back into the secret passage and held the door – literally. Azal took the sunrod from Aramis and the two ventured farther into the archers’ chamber, finding a long, narrow hallway that ended in a small guard room. There were no other doors or passageways leading from the chamber. They were trapped.
The secret door was torn from Bhavik’s grip by the glaive wielding orc warrior. An arrow ricocheted off the wall near the shifter’s head, and the orc grinned wickedly, exhaling its foul breath in Bhavik’s face. Azal and Aramis rushed back to the warden’s defense, the tiefling throwing her dagger into the brute’s shoulder. Bhavik’s reaction was slightly less subtle. He launched himself forward and pushed the creature over the side of the chasm. It fell the twenty feet and landed heavily below. Then the shifter swiftly crossed the room to engage an archer that had emerged from another secret door on the south wall of the bridge chamber. The startled creature pulled out a scimitar, but it was clearly not as adept with the blade as it was the bow.
The sergeant grunted and picked himself up from the dry stone of the underground riverbed, then began to climb back toward the surface. He never made it. Azal came out of the secret passage and glared down at the climbing warrior. The orc saw its doom in the tiefling’s eyes a second before her dagger pierced his brain. The lifeless body fell back down beside the creek with a sickening crunch. The tiefling smirked at her handiwork and made a rude gesture at the two archers still lurking on the landing across the chasm. In response, they each tagged her with an arrow. Her smile faded.
Bhavik made an end of his foe, and then he and Azal began to cross the bridge to the remaining two orcs. With a sly grin, one of the archers moved forward and grabbed hold of the rope on his side, giving the bridge a vicious shake that knocked both adventurers from their feet. Still, they persevered, regaining their feet and crossing the rest of the distance to engage the orcs while Aramis brought up the rear and fired off his attack prayers. When only one orc remained, it stumbled to the doors in the back and tossed them open, revealing a long natural hallway beyond. It cried out for aid that was not quick enough in coming and died with Azal’s dagger in its heart. They held their breath for a moment, listening for any signs of reinforcements. When none came, they slowly closed the door and retreated to one of the secret rooms to catch their breath.