By Brian Flood
Chapter 50 - The Third Foray Begins
Within the Hullack Forest
Near Kendall Keep, Kingdom of Cormyr
Early Morning, 21st Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
As the group moves along the East Way, Amiel takes charge in directing the method of the march. She places Kerielle and Alain at the fore of the small caravan. Instructing the group to maintain a brisk yet comfortable pace, governed by Velgardrin’s short stride and Alain’s burden of the hand cart, the ranger moves off into the woods along the north side of the road, taking Seth with her. Those in the main body note with some amazement the agility with which the elf and the woman seem to glide through the light vegetation at the edge of the forest.
They cover two miles in about half an hour, bringing them to a spot situated in a natural saddle formed by rising ground to the north and south of the road. To the north, the ground rises gently toward the forest; the zombie-infested shallow graves are to the north by northwest. To the south lies a grass-covered hill crowned by the apparently abandoned shell of an old watchtower.
A sharp whistle turns all heads to the north. There, at the edge of the wood line, Amiel is gesturing for the group to come to her. Breaking from the trail, the main body heads north up the long grassy slope toward the woods. When all the adventurers are within the shaded confines of the trees and underbrush, Amiel informs them matter-of-factly that the caves lie to their due north – provided Jadale’s map is correct.
The ranger instructs everyone to remain alert and turns without another word to head deeper into the forest with Seth trailing behind and to her left. A few minutes later, those familiar with the events of the second foray note that the group’s route crosses over perpendicular to the trail that runs from the graves to the bramble-filled clearing and the mysterious stone door.
Continuing on, the group covers over half a mile of increasingly heavy forest before being brought to a halt by Amiel once more. This time, the elf Serethaniel is not with her. The ranger gestures with a finger to her lips for all to remain silent. Then, after a wordless gesture for Alain to leave the cart, she motions for them all to follow her.
Alain and the others follow in Amiel’s wake as the ranger slowly creeps northward. After a few dozen paces, she drops to her knees and motions for the others to do the same. The adventurers crawl another stone’s throw or so before noticing Seth lying on his stomach keeping watch from behind a line of brush.
Slowly, Amiel gets all of her companions on a line that is roughly even with her and looking northward. What they see is astounding.
The group is poised at the top of what appears to be either a small gorge or large gully that is more than a hundred yards wide and at least three hundred yards long. The huge depression is shaped like an inverted ‘U’ with the open end pointing off to the southeast and the rounded apex – or end of the ravine – to the northwest. Amiel’s chosen vantage point looks northeast over the ravine, perpendicular to its axis and is set about midway along its southern margin at a point that is equal to the area’s highest elevations.
The floor of the ravine is about fifty yards wide. The steep sides and base of the ravine are covered with patches of vegetation of varied size and density. A trickling stream – perhaps the sculpting cause of this terrain feature over several centuries – flows from the southeast and disappears into a particularly thick cluster of trees and underbrush near the point of the defile.
A number of dark, shadowy depressions scattered at varied elevations along the slopes of the gorge hint at a complex of limestone caves or tunnels bored by erosion. Faint trails, barely a few feet wide, from the base of the ravine and along some of the contours suggest that some of the excavation was done by the labor of intelligent creatures. While the walls of ravine appear to contain sufficient hand and footholds for an exercise in scaling, the trails from the ravine’s floor offer the most convenient and relatively hazard-free route to each entrance. The nearest opening in the ravine’s face is about twenty yards down slope and to the northeast of the line of prone companions.
Time seems to stand still and silence reigns as the small band of adventurers takes in the panorama before them. Then, the hair on the backs of their necks seems to stand on end for a moment before a brief unexplained chill rushes through their veins. Surely, this must be the famous – or more aptly, infamous – Caves of Chaos.
With almost imperceptible motions, Amiel regains the attention of those around her. Again gesturing for all to remain quiet, the ranger slithers on her belly back from the vantage point. The others follow her example and a few tense minutes later, the entire group rendezvoused at the spot in the forest where Alain left the cart – about fifty yards back from the ravine’s crest.
Helios opens the hushed discussion. “Maybe these caves link up with the stone door that you mentioned earlier?” he suggests to Amiel. “I think they would be an easier way to penetrate the enemy defenses. However, they did not name these the ‘Caves of Chaos’ for nothing, I presume.
“We should make a map,” the knight continues. “Who here feels himself worthy of the task?”
“I have no skill with maps – another must carry that burden,” replies Kerielle. “I am more concerned with what we may find than with drawing pretty pictures of it.
“Do we know what foes we are likely to meet in these caves?” the elf asks of the group. “Do we have a plan of action?” Her last question is directed at Amiel.
Without waiting for an answer, the archer continues, “I have no great desire to enter these dank earthen tombs swiftly, especially with this glorious forest singing to me all around! But if it must be done, better to do it swiftly. Unless anyone knows a reason otherwise, I suggest we may as well simply enter the nearest cave and see what may be found.
“Do we intend to post a watchman to cover our exit, or shall we all proceed together?” she then asks, adding to her veritable volley of queries. “I believe I would advise the latter – we can fight our way out if need be, and it would be a poor adventure for the hapless soul left behind!”
“Perhaps I could keep the map,” Nathan suggests softly, asserting himself. “I have some small skill in this area.”
“Thank you, Nathan,” Amiel responds, adding a nod and a quick smile. “Just tell us – or indicate in some fashion if we’re trying to be quiet – when you want us to stop to allow you a moment to get out your parchment and ink to sketch the details of the map.”
Gathering her hair into a single business-like ponytail, she continues. “Seeing as we’re in a dangerous situation, keep the map simple, alright?” Then she turns to address Kerielle.
“The nearest cave?” Amiel repeats. “Hmmm… well, yes you are probably right – given there’s simply no way of telling what we’re likely to find in each from here. I could, however, skulk around the entrances for a bit – so as to ascertain what tracks I can find,” she suggests. “Remember – no matter what else these caves are crawling with, we’re only after whomever – or whatever – has been attacking merchants.
“We’re going to try that cave first,” the ranger announces, indicating the first cave from the valley’s entrance along the south wall. “If there are tracks there that are a reasonable match to the tracks we saw at the ambush site, we’re going in. Same as before, Seth and I scout the entrance while the rest of you stand ready to come a-running or loose those shafts!
“There’s no point in placing anyone at the cave entrance whilst the rest of us go in. In for a copper, in for a crown, as they say. Any objections?” The ranger’s words and manner are calm and measured, but her green eyes give away her excitement.
Grinning, Nathan takes the parchment out of his backpack and prepares his writing tool. “No time like the present, I guess. Could somebody keep a light source close to me when we enter the cave? At least until I finish my research on Bigby’s Prehensile Tail,” he adds in jest.
“Er we movern around ter that cave thern?” Velgardrin asks. “Yer need ter be scoutern a new path fer us since thert dern’t seem ter be ther closest cave ter where we be now. Searchern thert cave first won’t be leavern unexplored area behindern us – which be good.”
“Our dwarven friend is correct, Amiel,” Kerielle opines. “I meant the cave just down the hill – perhaps thirty or forty yards away to the northeast.
“I agree though, that those attacking the caravans are our first priority – they and the animated dead!” A martial note has crept into her voice. She sounds most eager to loose her green-and-silver fletched woe upon the enemy.
The elf looks briefly toward Helios, expecting his agreement. In this, at least the archer and the Sword of Torm are united in devout resolve.
“Look,” argues Amiel, “if I was a lazy bandit – and let’s face it, if they weren’t lazy the wouldn’t be bandits – I’d set up my camp where I wouldn’t have to climb up and down this hill, and have to drag my loot up, every time I had to leave to conduct my criminal business. I know this isn’t a particularly good reason for starting with that lower cave, but that’s my thinking,” she adds with a rueful grunt.
“I may be of help selecting a route,” interjects Helios. “I have an affinity with these foul undead wretches – and indeed all evil,” he spits out with distaste. “I can determine if evil lurks within a cave, given a little time to concentrate.
“This will enable us to find the heart of the evil and eradicate the filth from these lands.” The paladin’s normally friendly eyes flash with the fury of pure holy rage as he talks about his sworn enemy.
Velgardrin smiles blankly – as if in thought and only half-listening to the group. Then he comments, “Mehaps the scouts should do a bit more er checking ther cave areas ter see how much erv a trail there be at the first ones. Thern we can be decidern which cave ter start on. What think the rest of yer?”
But before anyone can answer, the dwarf drives on with his line of thought. “And I be thinkern thert we do not want ter try ther place with lerts of traffic erf one is found. Lert us learn more by enteren a less busy way ter scout in force.”
“That makes a great deal of sense, to my way of thinking,” Kerielle opines, in response to Velgardrin’s suggestion. “Shall our scouts then observe those caves nearest to the ravine entrance – as these may be most easily reached – and find those that appear to be abandoned or at least rarely used” she asks.
Amiel shakes her head gently at this. “Without any knowledge of the cave system, we must enter the cave where there are tracks that most closely match those that we’ve observed at ambush sites. Therein lays our prey. If there are a few cave mouths that exhibit these tracks, then we’ll begin with the one that is least tracked, or most abandoned. Fair enough?” she asks in a bland, mild voice.
The ranger continues carefully, “Now, if we can’t find any tracks that match, then we’re going to start with the theory that the caves lower down are the most likely to house bandits. I forgot to add earlier that those down below were closer to the water supply, too! Alright?”
* * * * *
Leaving the others to stand watch near the cart, Amiel and Seth slip off into the forest. The ranger and the elf move stealthily southeast, following the contours of the terrain and gradually moving downhill toward the mouth of the gully. When they reach the valley floor, they begin to creep into back into the area of the caves, keeping as close as possible to the left – or south – face of the gully, and headed for the first cave on that side.
Both of the adventurers move with arrows nocked to the strings of their short bows. Amiel’s focus is primarily on the ground in front of her, studying it for tracks or other signs of passage. Seth, meanwhile, scans the other cave mouths and the clusters of bushes, searching for threats.
Two paths or trails – both apparently made by the repeated traversal of creatures rather than natural causes – are immediately evident, even to Seth’s untrained eye. One trail connects the streambed to a cave along the north wall of the ravine, about a third of the way up its slope and near the entrance to the small valley. The second trail leads from the streambed to the first cave opening in the south wall, this one at ground level and also near the entrance to the vale.
Amiel nudges Seth and nods her head in the direction of the trail that leads to the cave on the south. She then leads him along it, keeping a wary on the cave mouth for any possible attackers. At the cave mouth she pauses and examines the tracks while her elven companion, feeling bold and wanting to prove his roguish worth, sidles up to the mouth of the cave, trying to gauge the threat offered from the little opening.
The lady ranger notes that the trail appears to be made from bare feet. Some of the prints point toward the cave entrance, while an almost equal number angle in the direction of the streambed. She is unable to identify what sort of creature made the tracks, but Amiel is certain that they were human or humanoid in nature and probably slightly smaller in stature her own nearly six-foot frame.
Meanwhile, Serethaniel sees that the opening leads to a southward-bound passageway wide enough for two humans or elves to easily walk shoulder to shoulder. From his angled vantage point, he can see only the first few paces of the tunnel.
Amiel touches Seth on his shoulder. She jerks her thumb in the direction of the main party before leading the way back the others – taking the same route as they did to get to the vale.
* * * * *
Nearly two hours after they departed, Amiel and Serethaniel return to where they left the other adventurers in the forest above the gulley. A low birdcall signals the scouts’ approach to the hiding place.
“Be yer findern what looks like ther right place or not?” Velgardrin asks once the pair is within whispering distance.
Amiel shrugs. “Not sure, Vel,” she answers softly. “We found tracks a-plenty leading to the first caves on the north and south sides. We only checked the first cave on the south side. The tracks that lead to that cave were of a small human, or humanoid. And they were made by bare feet.
“But I could not find tracks that were familiar to me – those from the ambush sites in particular,” the ranger reports. “A quick look into the cave revealed nothing special. Mind you, we didn’t actually go into it.”
In a whisper, Seth asks the leader what he was unable to while scouting. “Were you able to perceive how recently the tracks were made, Amiel?”
“Recently,” Amiel replies. “Since the last rains here – which weren’t too long ago.”
“Be they goblern-sized er so? And how many derd it look like?” Velgardrin asks quietly. “This be a big place. We may need ter whittle down whatever we find ter clear the way ter the maker erv the livern dead ter stop that. And I say we stop it even if it dern’t be in our contract. I be likern therm ter be dead dead.”
The day’s exercise of stealth obviously excites Serethaniel. “Well, I cannot see any reason for waiting any longer,” the warrior elf declares. “I’m going to explore this cave and I’ll bring you out whatever evil is inside on the point of my sword!” he exclaims, perhaps a little too loudly, while shouldering his bow and unsheathing his sword perhaps a little too quickly. He picks the line he traversed with Amiel but only takes several steps to turn and wait for his company.
“Hold a moment, Serethaniel,” Kerielle speaks up swiftly. “I am as eager as any here to do battle, but I have yet heard no evidence that those we seek are within. We seek a fat merchant and living bones – not ‘small bare-foot humanoids’.
“What of the other caves? Know we ought of them?” The eager light in her eyes suggests that Kerielle’s comment is provoked not by caution, but rather by a desire not to waste time on those who are not her true prey.
Amiel cannot help but grin at Seth’s enthusiasm as she replies to Kerrielle’s question. “Nothing, I’m afraid. Given how long it took for us to scout the first cave, I decided it best to confer with the rest of you before spending what may well be a day of scouting to cover every cave in yonder valley. I will happily do so. And I presume, so will Seth – but it’ll take awhile.
“And just to be clear, we do not only seek a fat merchant. There are others involved in the caravan raids.” Amiel’s green eyes become slits. “We just haven’t found the same tracks that we sighted at the ambush site... yet.
“I’m glad to see we share the same strict focus on the goal, Kerielle. However, to be absolutely certain that we don’t waste time, we need to scout the caves until we find a familiar set of tracks, first,” the ranger concludes.
Seth groans, his boredom quite audible. The disgruntled elf sheaths his sword and reluctantly returns the few steps to the join the party.
“True enough,” Kerielle says, abruptly, acknowledging the leader’s point – and her right to make it. “Let us be about it, then! Direct us.” Her companions can see that the elven woman is eager for action.
“I be thinkern that ther idea erv the first cave still be good,” opines Velgardrin. “I dern’t be likern unknown caves between me ernd the road ter the Keep when it be likely that we be carryern woundered.”
“Me neither,” Amiel concedes cooly. She has not missed the obvious signs from Kerielle and Seth to ‘get on with it’ - but there may be price to be paid for such enthusiasm.
She ponders for a moment. “Alright. We may be on a hiding to nothing in looking for the right tracks. We may never find them. Hell, a good bandit would do something to ensure that they didn’t leave tracks right outside their front door, wouldn’t they?
“The cave tunnels, despite different entrances, may all be linked within. In which case, there’s no point in making a big deal about which entrance to enter.”
She takes a deep breadth, and says, “So, let’s go in via the one closest to the entrance to the valley... now.”
Watching as the Claws ready themselves to move out, Amiel says, “Same marching order as before – Seth and I out on point. We are going to be moving slowly, so try and remain as unobtrusive as possible. When we get to the cave mouth, remember the marching line we discussed earlier and wait for the light bearers to get themselves ready before entering.”
With that, the companions set about preparing for an excursion into the mysterious Caves of Chaos. Armor and shield straps are tightened, and weapons gripped in anxious hands. Lastly, before leaving the hiding spot, Amiel directs the concealment of the party’s hand cart. With one last look to ensure that their presence has been erased as fully as possible, the ranger leads the group into the woods.
The content of Company of the Silver Claws is the property and copyright of Brian Flood, and are not to be published or redistributed without permission.
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