20 March (Continued)
The heroes returned to the orc commons, where haphazard stacks of crates, barrels, sacks, and bundles littered a long, narrow cavern. The moved cautiously south toward the old well filled of murky water. Finding the space unoccupied, they began to poke around the orcs’ loot. Bhavik found a small locked strongbox wedged between a couple of boxes containing a vial of holy water and some gold coins. Aramis discovered that the crates stacked in the northeast corner seemed to be blocking a passage. Nodding to Aramis, Bhavik said, “We should head to the passage beyond those boxes, see what the orcs are hiding.”
The passage led another twenty feet to the east, ending in an iron gate stuffed with straw pallets. The adventurers paused to consider this oddity.
“Azal, you think that door has a catch somewhere accessible?” asked Bhavik.
The tiefling shrugged, “Maybe, but why the straw?” She moved up to examine the gate more closely.
“That is a fine question,” replied the shifter.
In a low voice, Aramis suggested, “To keep us from seeing through, I’d guess.”
“There’s a rusted lock, but I think I could get it anyway,” reported Azal.
Bhavik shook his head. “Let’s find another way around, see if there is an easier route.”
“All right, then,” intoned the cleric.
Heading south, the three found a narrow tunnel that curved south and seemed to come to an abrupt dead end. Bhavik directed Aramis and the light forward, revealing graffiti that had been painted on the end of the hall. They could see the outline of a hidden door there, and the cleric – having learned his lesson – said, “Azal, would you check it for traps, please?” She smirked and patted him on the back as she moved forward and declared it clear and safe.
Bhavik exchanged places with the tiefling and nodded to his companions. “Here we go,” he said as he opened the secret door.
The portal pivoted on a central hinge, revealing a chamber of finished stonework about thirty feet deep and fifteen feet wide. The room was cluttered with crude furnishings, and the air was hazy with the smoke of a small cooking fire. Dozens of yellowed skulls were suspended from the ceiling by fraying ropes strung through holes punched in the bone. A single door sat in an alcove on the north wall, a key jutting from the keyhole. Three orcs occupied the chamber, and the nearer two reached for spears as they heard the door open unexpectedly. A one-eyed orc in a ragged black robe looked up from her work, her face twisted in an expression of irritation. She gasped at the sight of the warden and screamed “Bhavik Devanta! The herald has come!”
Bhavik blinked in shock, but trying to keep it together retorted boldly, “Yes! Yes, I am!”
The spear-wielding orcs charged in, and one jabbed Bhavik in the thigh. The warden stepped forward, leaned into one of the orcs and swung his shield wide to bring threat upon his companion. Azal launched her dagger over Bhavik’s head, but misjudged the distance and failed the blade clanged off the wall to the left of the one-eyed orc before returning to her hand. She cursed as Aramis stepped forward and manifested a beam of daunting light that seared into the one-eyed orc. For her part, she stood and cried out to Gruumsh, summoning a spectral green fist that slammed down on top of the heroes and crushed them all to the ground. She fixed Bhavik with an evil glare that manifested in a distracting curse.
The harriers shifted to flank the fallen shifter and stabbed at him with their spears, but only one of the points came away blooded. Bhavik stood and channeled his pain into strength, unleashing his fury and bloodying the orc warrior he’d struck before. Azal picked herself up off the ground and charged forward between the harriers in a handspring, hoping to take advantage of the shaman’s distraction. However, the pain of the spear wounds she suffered at the hands of the one-eyed orc’s underlings threw her aim off and the creature avoided the necrotic blade. She staggered from the pain, and Aramis scraped past the harriers to envelop all in the fight with a beacon of hope. His allies’ wounds began to knit closed, but the orcs were weakened by the holy light. He prayed a healing word over the tiefling, whose wounds were the worst, and resettled the grip on his crook. The one-eye fixed Azal with her wrathful eye, then stabbed the red-skinned young woman with her spear.
The harriers continued their fight with Bhavik, although one peeled off and made its way past Aramis to stand near the north door, though it seemed to have no notions of going through it. Out of caution, Bhavik yelled out, “Azal, take that door! Don’t let him through!” Azal stepped into the flank with the warden and stabbed the orc with a flamboyant strike before shifting a step away to clear the flank for Aramis. The cleric nodded grimly and took the flank, executing a pass at arms and healing Bhavik. The one-eyed orc made a fair attempt at murdering Aramis. He staggered from the wounds, gasping for breath as both of the harriers shifted focus to the servant of the Raven Queen.
Azal stabbed the heavily wounded harrier and shoved it into the southwest corner of the room before tumbling after it. Seeing their desperate situation, Bhavik adopted the form of Winter’s Herald, growling coldly as ice coated his flesh and the floor around him. He lashed out with his blade, scoring chilling blows on two of the three orcs. The frost from his evocation snared the orcs’ feet, freezing them in place. The one-eyed orc, denied escape by the warden, cowered in fear. Her shaking hands defeated her attempts to make an end of him.
Azal traded blows with the cornered harrier, and Aramis burned the one-eyed orc with a prayer of sacred flame. Bhavik continued to spar with with the shaman, and in the end the warden proved the stronger. As she died on Bhavik’s sword, she rapsed, “You’ve far…to go…to live up…to that name…”
In a rage at the loss of the shaman, the harrier broke free of the ice and stabbed Aramis brutally. The cleric’s eyes rolled back in his head and he sank to the floor in the corner. The orc warrior’s eyes flashed defiance at Winter’s Herald, but Azal and Bhavik were up to the task of finishing off the bloodied orcs.
As the last foe fell, Bhavik moved to Aramis’s side and poured a healing draught carefully into his friend’s mouth. The cleric began to cough as he regained consciousness, and blearily looked around at the aftermath of the fight. Azal gave him a thumbs up from where she’d slumped against the wall.
“Once you’ve regained enough strength for it, it’s probably best we get out of here,” said Bhavik. “Town isn’t far, and I don’t like the idea of camping when a warm bed could be had.” Aramis nodded weakly in agreement, and the warden clapped him lightly on the shoulder before he stood and searched the chamber. Among the clutter of the orcs’ ritual chamber, he discovered a pair of sacks containing more gold coins, a beautiful red gem, and a pair of gleaming metal armbands engraved with runes of power. Bhavik smiled to himself as he donned the enchanted bracers.
21 March, 103 CY
The heroes returned to the orcish stronghold in the morning, and deciding that caution was the better part of valor, they picked their way quietly around the bend. They approached the great dwarven door along the wall beneath the arrow slits, and when they came to the entry, they found the stone doors barred once more.
“They’re ready for us,” said Bhavik. “Prepare yourselves.”
Azal flexed her door cracking skills once more and when she had the tools in place she nodded to the others. When they were ready, she flipped the bar, Bhavik shoved open the doors and Aramis strode boldly into the bridge chamber, illuminating it with a sunrod and revealing three orcs lurking within. One archer stood on the far side of the bridge behind the natural pillars there, but two more – wielding greataxes – stood near the closed secret doors.
With a flourish, Azal threw her dagger into the side of the nearest orc, and seeing the orcs flanking the entry as they entered, Bhavik followed her lead and rushed the same creature, forcing it over the side of the ravine. It fell heavily, but the groan from below told the heroes that the orc had not been killed by the fall. It picked itself up and lobbed a throwing axe up at Bhavik, though the missile bounced off the side of the ledge. The other raider threw open the secret door on the north wall and called out, and though they did not know the words it spoke, the intent was clear – it was calling for backup. Then it stepped up to the cleric and brought its greataxe to bear, narrowly missing the cleric. In response, Aramis slid around the side of the orc and smashed it with his enchanted quarterstaff. An arrow appeared in the cleric’s side for his trouble.
Azal moved forward to support the cleric, and stabbed the orc with her dagger. Shoving it off her blade with a well-placed kick, she forced it far over the ravine and into the stream below. Seeing the situation well in hand on the near side, Bhavik ran as fast as he could across the bridge and engaged the archer in melee. The first raider to fall into the ravine climbed back to the top, and a third appeared in the hall past the secret door. Though they were hard pressed at every turn, and though Aramis was wounded to the point of unconsciousness again, the heroes prevailed against the orc guards, and paused to consider the path before them.