Chapter Seven, Part Four
Looking out the cave exit, Orjulun and Arturus can see a ramp of ropey-looking strands of cooled lava leading down the rest of the mountain and into a large, black circular area where the lava had once pooled. They decide walking down the ramp would not be very dangerous. Steam is still rising from portions of the pool, but large boulders sitting atop the surface display that it can support the weight. They expect it to be hot, but not scolding. The surrounding forest is black and heavily burned from old fires. Arturus looks at the sky. It is getting very close to night, perhaps half-hour until sundown.
“I say we get ourselves out of this damnable deathtrap of a cave system and find a relatively safe place to camp for the night,” Orjulun says. “I, for one, could use some rest.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Melias says from right behind Orjulun, startling him.” Let’s get out of here before those Stirges come back yet again.” Breaking with tradition, Melias offers to go first. “I’m a nimble sort. Maybe I should climb down first and check for unsafe points.”
Deeper inside the cave, SeLiem tells Red, “I have but one healing spell left through the grace of my god. You’re a healthy sort and should bounce back from your injuries quickly enough, but Rastorn is a bit sickly and requires my help a little more. I hope you understand.” As he stands, he glances over his shoulder and says, “Not to mention, we could all stand a break from his bellyaching.”
“Ye can heal whoever ye wish, mae hearts pumping fine again. But, um, before we get moving on into the woods, do ye think Stirges have treasure? I’d love to collect some more gold or baubles before we get to the next city,” Red says.
SeLiem shrugs then approaches Rastorn and casts his last healing spell for the day.
“The cave is blocked behind us, isn’t this a safe place to stay the night?” Orjulun asks the group gathered at the mouth of the cave.
Rastorn chimes in. “I don’t mind dark places, but I’m not a fan of caves. Besides, this is a pretty large opening here to guard, don’t you think?” He considers his words for a moment, then adds, “Then again, in the woods, we could be attacked from every side, while here there is only one way in . . . and out.” He laughs. “I’m beginning to sound as indecisive as SeLiem! I’ll go with whichever choice the party makes. I’m too tired to think clearly right now.”
Percy listens to everyone’s suggestions, then makes his point. “I think we killed all the bat-things. Do you really think more will come? I doubt anything in the area visits this cave – what with all the bloodsuckers in here. However, the area outside the cave is likely crawling with Metavians.”
“Somebody decide, mae shapely body will need to get some rest before the sunrise!” Red grumbles.
“Alright, gentlemen, unless anything Red or Percy said has changed your minds, it sounds like the majority wants to leave now, right? Arturus? SeLiem? What say you?” Rastorn asks with more than a little weariness in his gravelly voice.
Arturus says, “Camping the night here sounds just as good as anywhere else does. We post a guard at the mouth of the cave and go from there. Although I say we probably shouldn’t make a fire and just dine on travel rations. Any more Stirges in the area and the fire will surely attract them.”
Melias agrees. “I’m in no big hurry. We’ll have to be on our guard for my loving sister. But maybe we should send a small group out to look for the Stirge nests, as Red suggested. Treasure is a bonus. I’m just more concerned with making sure there aren’t any more around.” He looks at Percy and SeLiem. “I’m somewhat injured, but I can tough it out and help look for their nest. Percy, you and SeLiem don’t look like you hardly got touched at all. Are you interested in helping me? Those who have been wounded can start securing a campsite for the night.”
SeLiem responds, “I’d be happy to, except I lost my weapon inside the acid cubes. If I could find a club or something, maybe.” He glances around for something he can use as a weapon.
“Well, the note referred to this as ‘The Stirge Cave,’ so I would assume they are here a lot. In fact, it said that they would leave here to go feed at night, so their nest must be inside the cave,” Percy surmises.
“Well, it’s just a straight tunnel from where we climbed down to here, with no branches off and the Elves only spotted one hidden hole the whole length of the cave, so there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance of them staying inside this cave. They sleep upside down like bats, so we’d have walked through their droppings by now,” Rastorn counters.
Red looked perturbed, as she corrected the men, “Fellas, either mae ears deceive mae or Dwarves are just smarter about caves. Ye saw where those Stirges came from. Think back to when they attacked.”
“Well, the cave is a defensible position,” Orjulun nods. “Perhaps it would be best to camp here, by the entrance. Those Stirges came from the holes in the ceiling back there, so if someone with dark vision could look up in there and make sure there are no more, I’d be willing to sleep here. I have a location spell that might work on finding some gold,” he says, “if you think Stirges might have any treasure. It seems unlikely, but I’d be willing to cast it for the good of the party. I’d need you all to stand behind me and stay behind me as I turn, so I don’t center on your personal treasures. I believe the range is about one hundred yards.”
Orjulun casts the spell, while turning slowly in a circle, scanning the area with his spell, then looks up and instantly senses something in the ceiling of the cave. The honeycombed ceiling near the exit has many holes, but it must have some sort of pocket of empty space as well. Most of the holes are large enough for a smaller person to crawl through, but they are all thirteen feet up. Once Orjulun indicates the result of his spell, Percy volunteers to boost Melias up there to look.
“They are like birds. I bet they have gold and other shiny treasures!” Red says, rubbing her hands together.
Melias doesn’t like the idea of going up there alone but he imagines if there are any left, they’ll be babies. “Anyone have a torch?” he asks before being hoisted up into one of the holes. SeLiem hands over his glowing rock of eternal light. Melias frees his dagger and holds it in his other hand. “Well, wish me luck.”
Percy lifts the small Elf as if he is weightless and Melias wiggles his way up into the largest hole. He climbs a short way through a tunnel-like section with little problem. About five feet up, the hole opens into a relatively large area with an extremely low ceiling. The floor is covered in Stirge guano, but no monsters are present. He is able to move freely and search the entire area, although his knees and feet and hands are coated with Stirge feces by the time he is done.
Melias is up in the “nest” for a long time, but the party can clearly hear his voice and movements the whole time. They set up camp and finish off their trail rations, while he is busy searching.
“I hope there is a sword up there,” Percy says sadly. “I’ll need to borrow someone’s weapon during my watch. All I have is my bow.”
“Perhaps we can study the book by the light of that rock tonight, Orjulun,” Rastorn suggests, pointing back toward the cave-in. That portion of the cave is deep enough to block any small light.
“Was anything else we already collected magical?” Red asks Orjulun.
“I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to scan the items for magic,” Orjulun answers. “My spells are depleted right now. Besides, if Melias finds anything up there in the nest we can scan it as well, using only the one spell.”
Orjulun stays close to the Stirge holes, waiting for Melias, hoping no harm comes to him, but ready to help if something does. He nods to Rastorn in agreement about the book but adds “I’d rather not get too far away from everyone, however, as we are all tired and injured. We should stay close together, if possible.”
Percy follows Arturus outside the cave to check the local area for immediate dangers. After five minutes they return to the rest of the group, certain nothing is amiss.
Melias climbs back out and drops down in front of a waiting Orjulun.
Red rushes over immediately, “Gold? Silver? Jewelry?” she asks excitedly.
Percy is busy cleaning his armor, but he asks, “Any magical long swords?”
“Come on, Elf, there had to be something up there,” Rastorn says yawning. Then, he looks at Orjulun. “Say, young Mage, perhaps we could investigate that tome up in the ceiling. We would have sufficient privacy and light, while still being close to the rest of our brethren. What say you?”
“Keep your skirt on, Red,” Melias smirks, holding aloft two bags that jingle promisingly. “Plenty for everyone. That was a good call though, looking for treasure. There was more than I expected.” He takes a few deep breaths, enjoying the smell of sulfur from the volcano over the smell of Stirge guano. “I’m going to need a place to wash up . . . and some water. I don’t suppose there’s a pool nearby.” He walks to where the group intends to camp for the night and spills his findings on the floor:
thousands of gold pieces
1 silver bracelet
1 silver hollow tube
3 plain metal buttons
1 metal spoon
“Sorry, Percy, no sword, but you can use mine whenever you like. It’s not nearly as fancy as yours was, but it hasn’t failed me yet,” Melias says, patting Percy on the shoulder.
Red’s eyes bulge excitedly. “Oh – look at that,” she says, in a much higher voice than usual. She grabs the silver tube saying, “Pure mithril – I’m certain of it!” She rolls it around in her hands mumbling, “But what in the Nine Hells is it?”
“May I see that a moment, Red?” Orjulun asks. “It could be a scroll tube of some sort, perhaps concealing a parchment that holds value to one of our spellcasters.” Then he looks through it and realizes it could not possibly hold anything.
“I didn’t spot any water sources when I searched outside. Sorry,” Arturus tells Melias.
SeLiem has already drifted off to sleep. The excitement of possible treasure wasn’t nearly as important to him as sleep.
“I could use a broach such as that for my cloak,” Rastorn says, pointing at the item. He sniffs in Melias’ general direction. Looking at the manure Melias is covered in, he comments to Orjulun, “Alright, we are definitely not going up there.” Turning back, he snatches up the bracelet and puts it on his wrist saying, “I can appraise this tomorrow when we have better light. Oh, and those gems, too. Do you want to hold on to them for me, Arturus?”
The pearl looks exactly like the ones Orjulun used for Identify spells in the past.
Noting Orjulun looking at the pearl, Rastorn says, “That looks like an Identify pearl – you should take that, Orjulun.”
Red begins counting out the gold and separating it into little stacks.
“I appreciate you offering me your sword, friend Melias, but what will you use?” Percy asks Melias. His nose wrinkles and he adds, “You really should get cleaned off. Perhaps a few of us could travel a little further and look for a pool of some sort for you. It is dark now and my eyes are not as attuned to the dark as yours. Perhaps SeLiem and Arturus could go with you. I think Red will be too caught up sorting for a while. I could stand watch until you return.”
Melias shows his dagger, as well as the one he hoisted from the dead body earlier. “I’m not completely harmless. You’re better with the sword than I am. It only makes sense you should use it.”
Orjulun nods at Rastorn, as he too caught a whiff of Melias. “I say we wait until morning to divvy up the treasures. That way we can appraise the items more clearly and ensure everyone gets a fair share.” He tells Rastorn. “I will leave the book with you if you choose to read it now. I, however, am following SeLiem’s example and closing my eyes.” He locates a smooth patch of rock and lays down.
“Normally, I’d get right at it, but I’m tired and I’d rather someone use an Unseen Servant to open it from a distance, just in case. I don’t want a repeat of what happened on the way to Darkuth,” Rastorn says as he collects the book from Orjulun. “Right now, I’m going to sleep.”
After sniffing himself, Melias says, “You’re right. I should do something about my odor before it sinks beneath my skin.” He kneels down beside SeLiem and shakes him awake, “Sorry to bother you, but do you think you could come with Arturus and I to find a place I can wash this gunk off of me?”
SeLiem agrees to go.
Melias then turns to Arturus, “Are you game?”
Melias snatches up his bow and quiver and heads for the exit of the cave. “You all be careful. Oh . . . wait.” He walks back to Percy and whispers in his ear and then does the same to Aruturus and SeLiem. “We’ll be back soon, hopefully,” Melias says aloud, before turning back toward the exit.
“Thank you very much, Melias. I should tell you, though, that I think your skill with a sword is much greater than you are giving yourself credit for. I should be good for three or four hours of guard duty. More if you need me,” Percy says.
Arturus, Melias, and SeLiem carefully climb down the hardened lava fall and onto the cooling lava lake. The ground is warm to their feet, but the ground is hard as stone. Other than the occasional steaming fissure, the area is smooth and easy to traverse. They reach the forest within a few minutes and began searching.
After five minutes, Melias hears nearby voices. He believes it is six to eight Orcs speaking normal volume in the Goblinoid language. He can make out a word here and there, common words that most people know, like “killed,” “Sorcerer,” and “water.”
SeLiem speaks quietly to the two Elves, “Look, you two are very quiet. My armor is a bit noisy. I’ll stay here and let you go snoop. If you need help, I’ll be there shortly.” He frees his mace and eyes his surroundings for a place to hide.
Notching an arrow, Melias crouches and glides away silently toward the Orcs.
Arturus follows in his footsteps, nearly as quietly.
Silence is difficult, considering the scorched undergrowth breaks with a crisp sound each time they are not wary of where they step. However, they are able to sneak up to the Orc’s position without incident. They see seven Orcs surrounding a stone well. Many are drinking water as though they are very thirsty and two are perched on top of the remnants of some sort of stone building that appears to have been about twenty feet from the well at one time. All that is left of the structure is two walls, each with two window holes. The well and buildings are all blackened, like the forest that encircles them. The two Orcs atop the walls appear to be standing watch, although not very well since they keep glancing down to listen to the conversation of those sitting below them. They are discussing something they all find very humorous. Melias listens carefully to the Orc’s conversation, translating it from their language to his own in his mind, as he slowly advances to a covered area within clear bow range. He points out another strategic location for Arturus to post himself.
“Ha! Stupid Humans did not know what hit them!” the Orc on top of the south wall says with a wicked laugh. “You are a smart leader, Thug-gar, waiting for them to kill bears. Then we kill them when they’re hurt!” an Orc near the well says, as he slaps the largest of the Orcs on the back. “Much treasure we get and they get much-hurt heads from our clubs!” another Orc adds to uproarious laughter. “Water good. Drink much. We go way round Metava now. We be ready to run if they see us,” the leader announces in a loud and deep voice. “We kill lava people! Lava people stupid, too,” the Orc on the wall says proudly. “No,” the leader shouts harshly, “Lava people have many strong men and powerful magic. We don’t fight them. We run. Three hundred Orcs die fighting Metava not long ago. We run.” He looks around, then says, “We see young ones or females – we smash their heads in, then run!” The other Orcs all cheer at this.
In a low whisper, Arturus says to Melias in Elvish, “Should we make a surprise attack? I think raining a few volleys of arrows would be a nice start.”
Melias smirks. “Stupid Humans . . . smarter Elves,” he says quietly as he picks up a stone. “Get ready to take out the Orcs on the wall.” He throws the stone to the far side of the clearing, hoping to make some distracting noise, then readies his bow again.
When the rock thunks into the trunk of a tree twenty yards from the well, all the Orcs go silent and quietly pull their weapons.
Arturus smiles a wicked grin and takes aim with his bow as well. When Melias releases his arrow, Arturus will do the same. He says, “You and I make a good team. What say when these Human companions of ours die out you and I keep traveling together? There are all sorts of things two young Elven men can do in this world.”
Melias holds his shot, waiting for most of the Orcs to travel away from the well to check out the sound before letting loose his arrow. “Sure,” he whispers to Arturus, “sounds like a plan. Get the one on the right wall.”
This time Arturus’ smile is warm and genuine and he shifts his aim to the Orc on the right. He is glad that out of Melias and his sister, he had befriended Melias. Arturus knows he would enjoy hunting her down and killing her or helping Melias do whatever he has planned to do with her.
The leader of the Orcs waves his huge rune-covered war-hammer to point out where he wants each of the others to go, then turns back the opposite direction, toward the two Elves. The Orcs on the walls pull darts and jump to the tips of their toes attempting to see through the trees where the rock hit. The other four follow the silent commands and split into two groups following diagonal paths into the woods to the west, away from the Elves.
Melias’ first arrow goes right through the Orc on the left wall’s neck and his second pierces its heart from behind.
Arturus is not quite as accurate, as neither of his arrows strikes vital organs, but the shots do cause the off-balance Orc to stumble forward and fall off the wall, loudly breaking its neck.
The leader reacts quickly and dives behind the well.
The other Orcs all turn around and charge toward the Elves, although they don’t know exactly where they are.
Melias knows the Orc leader hiding behind the well likely knows where the shots came from and will be able to tell them.
Arturus stays as hidden as possible and draws his magical longsword. He smiles at Melias and whispers in Elven, “Let the show begin.”
Melias, still smiling at his own excellent marksmanship, whispers back, “You’re off your mark, my friend. I thought you were better at this than I.” He takes aim at the next Orc in sight.
SeLiem was unaware of what was transpiring until the one Orc noisily fell off the wall. He hadn’t heard much of anything before then. The battle must be taking place; I wish they’d include me in their plans, he thinks, as he runs toward the well. His armor is as loud as he feared, but at this point, that doesn’t matter.
“I am definitely a better shot than you,” Arturus says. “I’m just trying to make you feel better about your own shooting.” His magical longsword in hand, Arturus peeks around the tree in front of him. When the closest Orc comes into view, he stands his ground and waits to take the first strike.
An Orc charges Melias and he shoots two arrows at it. The first arrow ricochets off its armor and the second strikes a small branch that hung in the way and travels harmlessly off course. Melias swings his bow over his shoulder and grabs his daggers as the Orc closes in on him.
A second Orc runs in from the side toward Arturus, but the sly Elf Fighter keeps his shoulder against the tree and listens for its footfalls to get within striking distance. As the Orc passes, Arturus slashes out from behind the tree slicing deep into the Orc’s throat. As it collapses, Melias steps onto its back and squares off with the first Orc.
Entering into the area between the two Elves, SeLiem is targeted by the Orcish leader, who only then runs out from behind the well.
“Look Tor, dis Elfie got all shit on. We shit on him, too, once he dead,” the Orc Melias shot at says to the second as they surround Melias. The first wears a shiny new pair of wrist bands, swings wide with its weapon, but the second strikes Melias hard in the chest with its club.
SeLiem ducks under the hammer blow as he and the Orc leader make an initial running pass. They each stop and turn to face each other, but SeLiem is quicker and is the first to strike as they spin around.
A short sword whistles over Arturus’ head, as he steps off the fallen Orc. “Oooo, a tall Elfie! Dungo make Elfie wish he never leave Nation! Dungo kill big – ” the Orc begins to say, but his speech is cut short as his throat is cut by two lightning-quick slashes from Arturus. Before the Orc hits the ground, Arturus is already running to the aid of Melias and SeLiem. He sees SeLiem is going toe-to-toe with Thug-gar and Melias is getting double teamed by two of the foot soldiers. Thug-gar is using a huge hammer in battle and the other two are using clubs. Melias is coughing up blood and looks as though he is more injured than when they left the cave. Arturus heads toward Melias.
Back at the cave, everyone is already asleep, except Percy, who slowly sharpens Melias’ blade as he looks out into the darkness.
Rastorn awakes and sits straight up. He tucks the new book under his arm, pulls on his backpack, and heads deeper into the cave.
Percy watches him out of the corner of his eye but says nothing.
Once he is far enough in that he believes light cannot be seen from outside, he stops, lights a torch, and tosses the book ahead. It opens without blowing up, so he runs forward to retrieve it. He quickly scans the pages, then goes back to the beginning and slowly reads each page, occasionally making notes in his own spellbook. Within half an hour he is fast asleep, slouched over the book, with his back leaned against cave rubble and the torch slowly burning away.
Sleep is deep and reinvigorating for Orjulun, even though he sleeps on the uneven and jagged cave floor. All the worries of the day drift away as he enters dream sleep. Were his dreams placed in his mind by a powerful Wizard or were they messages from the Lord of Light or were they merely meaningless meanderings of a Mage’s murky mind? Regardless, they seem very real and, this time, much less subtle.
Orjulun sees himself wandering through a cave, like the one in which he now sleeps. The one in his dream differs in that it has multiple passages. His dream-self is deciding which passage to take. Spinning, he counts six different tunnels, all of them dark. Stopping in front of one, he pulls a light rock from his pocket and journeys inside. The tunnel transforms into a room with an unseen light source. The room is familiar to him. It is where he practiced his magical art for most of his life. He steps to the wooden door at the far end of the study but stops short of opening it when he hears voices on the other side. The first voice belongs to his master, but the other he does not recognize.
His master says, “We can only assume she failed. Should we actually go looking for a bounty hunter?”
“No,” the second voice says, “I think you should hunt him down yourself.”
“What? My place is here, by your side, not trekking through the woods.”
“Your place is wherever I place you! Ha, ha, ha! Be glad I don’t decide to place you on a stick and roast you for dinner.”
“But, my lord, why?”
“Why would I eat you?”
“No, why are you so obsessed with Orjulun? He is totally unimportant. I have already found his replacement.”
“Why? Why. Why! Why? Why are there birds in the sky? Why did I give 1,000 gold pieces to a milkmaid this morning? Why, why, why!”
The voice pauses for a while, just as Orjulun recognizes it.
“Because I am the king!”
“Yes, King Zane.”
“You will seek out the renegade Wizard and bring him back to me for punishment – or for reward – I haven’t decided yet. You will leave . . . in two days . . . and five hours. I have spoken. Now, let us go into his study. I wish to have sexual relations with the glass tubes I saw in there . . . while you watch.”
Dream Orjulun turns and runs back out of the tunnel, which was still on the opposite wall. Once back, he sees the other tunnels are now all showing their hidden scenarios.
One shows a group of adventurers, perhaps the one’s from the wanted poster, getting blasted by some sort of magical ray as they stand in front of the door of a mansion. The Elf shouts, “No, we are so close!” Then they shrink down and disappear.
Another shows a thin, pale Sage reading a large metal-bound book. The book is entitled “The History of the Sentient Relics.” The Sage’s ring is emblazoned with the letters “ASUSG.” He places that book aside and picks up another with the title “The Undead Wars.” A number two magically appears at the end of the title. The ‘2’ is white and glows as if light is shining from within.
The third tunnel shows an epic battle between Orjulun’s party and the whole of Metava! The party is doing well until four dark Wizards appear in the corners of the field and blast the party to pieces with a barrage of spells. He watches the horrible demise of each of his companions in gory detail.
Sickened, he turns away and dares to investigate the final tunnel. He sees what he assumes is a birds-eye view of the great swamps south-west of ASU. A blackness appears in the swamps and spreads in a straight line toward ASU. The darkness then spreads out from ASU in all directions threatening to blacken the entire continent.
While this happens he hears loud cheering and someone says, “And as your elected Guildmaster and leader of this great union, I promise to improve upon the work of my predecessor by eliminating any of the multitudes of threats to free and profitable trade! Firstly, we will end the corrupting influence of the Thieves Guild – by disbanding it!”
There is more cheering and some grumbling.
“I will bring back the honor and dignity of this office!”
There is even louder cheering, then the whole of the map goes black and two evil-looking eyes blink open in the center.
This shocks Orjulun into reality and he wakes with a start. Glancing around, he spots Red and Percy and panics when he does not see the rest of their group. Remembering that Melias, Arturus, and SeLiem had left the cave, he calms slightly, then tenses once more as he wonders how long they have been gone and worries about what might have happened to them.
SeLiem discovers slamming his mace down on Thug-gar’s shoulder does nothing, except slightly dent the armor and he is soon on the defensive again.
Keeping in mind the direction in which help might arrive, Melias twirls gracefully around and around forcing Tor back, but only slicing the Orc once. That one hit, however, is with the dagger he took from the corpse in the cave. The dagger is incredibly sharp, light, well-balanced, and it glows. The Orc drops dead.
The Orc with the bracers gets a lucky shot in on Melias.
Melias pulls his elbow tight to his side, to stem the blood flow.
SeLiem is also struck, but by the large war hammer Thug-gar wields. The contact drops SeLiem to his knees.
Arturus enters the scene and notes SeLiem looks in fair physical condition, but looks to be outmatched and Melias is almost ready to collapse as he faces an unharmed adversary. His intention was to assist Melias, but now he is not certain. He fears by saving one of his companions he may doom the other.
Back at the cave, Percy uses the moon to track the passage of time. They have not been gone long, but he believes he heard combat in the darkness not too far away. He kneels and prays for their safe return.
Red wakes at the sound of Percy’s prayers and herself prays, though silently. She looks at Orjulun as he falls back asleep and admires his handsome face. More importantly, she admires his honesty, goodness, and integrity. These Humans aren’t all bad, she decides.
Percy knows Rastorn has been gone a while but chooses to leave the Wizard alone. Occasionally he glances down the passage. In the back of his mind, he is not certain he is looking out of concern for Rastorn or himself and those surrounding him.
With a smile at Percy, Red drifts back to sleep, comforted by the large man’s guarding presence.
To be continued in Chapter Seven, Part Five next week!
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