By Brian Flood
Chapter 54 - Hazed and Confused
The Caves of Chaos
Near Kendall Keep, Kingdom of Cormyr
Early Afternoon, 21st Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
Moaning weakly, Kerielle looks feebly around for her companions and strives to take stock of her situation through her. Nearby to the battered elf, Helios groans in pain and brinks rapidly in an attempt clear his vision. “What…?” he manages. “Did we…?” he mumbles incoherently. He shakes his head, trying to clear his clouded mind and sits up to assess his situation.
It is soon evident to the trio of fallen adventures that things are not what they were when they fell. Their adversary, the fearsome troll – or at least what remains of it, smolders at the center of the rough semi-circle in which the three companions lie. Discarded or dropped weapons and nearly half a dozen empty flasks are scattered about on the cavern floor. Amiel’s opened pack sits near Helios and Malk’s lantern remains where he discarded it early in the fight.
Craning their necks, and wincing from the acrid smoke filling the air, the three adventures then notice Declan standing guard over the quartet of bound goblins, his quarterstaff and bulls-eye lantern in hand. The lamp’s beam illuminates the portcullis. Four adventurers – Alain, Nathan, Velgardrin, and Malk – stand on the western side of the heavy gate while Serethaniel remains trapped on its eastern side.
“Vel? Report.” Amiel groans. But the dwarf is apparently too preoccupied to immediately answer as Malk speaks to those gathered near the portcullis.
“Shall we all lift together on the count of three?” suggests the bard. Matching his actions to his words, he bends his back, grasps a bar, and waits to see the reactions of the others before risking injury and strain.
The other adventurers mirror Malk and then Velgardrin waits for a few heartbeats for Alain. But when the warrior does not speak, the dwarf seizes the initiative. “Ready? Lerft!” he commands as he strains to raise the portcullis. “Errrrraaaaarrrrrrggggghhh!!!”
The tortured sound of rusted iron grinding against stone fills the smoky cave complex. The combined effort of the five companions succeeds in raising the heavy barrier by about five or six hand widths – just enough for the slight elf on its far side to squirm underneath, if he chooses to do so.
Straining, Alain watches the elf silently. Velgardrin is not so silent, however. “Grrrtt outtt!” he grunts as he labors to hold up the portcullis.
With less than a moment’s hesitation, Seth releases his grip on the portcullis and executes a roll beneath the groaning metal. Despite his flair for the dramatic, the elf incorrectly estimates the available distance to pass between Nathan and Malk. Instead, his maneuver takes him into the legs of his companions who somehow manage to remain on their feet even as Seth’s roll leaves him in a rather undignified position on the floor, albeit clear of the imprisoning portcullis.
Thinking quickly, the elf tries to redirect the others’ attention from his miscue. “Why are they not dead?” he immediately questions Declan, apparently referring to the four captive goblins.
Seeing that Seth has escaped his temporary incarceration, Declan first re-orients his lantern toward the southeastern passage to provide early warning against another goblin threat. Then, his face showing almost no expression, he replies to the elf’s inquiry.
“Well, we were waitin’ fer ye t’ be show’n us yer fancy ways o’ slayin’ whole hordes o’ goblins with yer sword, but then me an’ Malk an’ th’ goblins go’ tired o’ waitin’ – an’ the goblins fell asleep – so, we jus’ tied ‘em up. ‘Figured it w’ be savin’ us a shiny copper er two if’n we din’ ha’e t’ be findin’ a necromancer t’ question their dead spirits – an’ someone t’ be pushin’ the cart.” The mage’s face breaks into a mischievous grin as he finishes adding good-natured insult to the elf’s already injured pride.
Meanwhile, the three fallen adventurers continue to come to full consciousness. “Rillifane! I hurt!” Kerielle moans, clutching at her abused left shoulder. Noticing that Helios and Amiel are also stirring, the archer attempts a half-hearted grin, which swiftly becomes a grimace as returning awareness brings with it the full agony of her injuries.
“Are all alive?” she calls out to the rest of the party.
Helios gets to his feet slowly, staggering somewhat as he regains his balance. The injured warrior spies his weapon on the floor nearby. “What was that thing” he asks.
Amiel also tries to get up – but fails. “Owwww… And... here we are AGAIN,” she grumbles disgustedly. Looking around, she notes that their foes have either been driven off or been slain. And none of the Claws are dead.
Well, at least that is something, she thinks to herself, although Kerielle and Helios look as bad she feels. And what on earth are they roasting? An odd time for a spot of dinner...
“Hey!” she calls out weakly. “Some help friends?” she asks still struggling to rise. “We either get out of here now or make camp here. Opinions?” she queries, forcing the words out and almost overcome with that simple effort.
Velgardrin responds by trying to quickly bring Amiel and the others up to date. “They be captives,” he says of the four goblins. “Ther be derd ones west and lerv ones further. That be where ther troll came. South be a door sized fer you long-leggerd ones. Nathan magicked ther troll since swords ern axe bouncered off. While he derd that, I healed yer three. Me healern be done fer this day.”
He continues in dwarvish, [May Clageddin’s alagh be upon us all; and I be thankern herm fer his aid in thers battle.]
Returning to the Common tongue, the dwarf finishes by saying, “The Father O’ Battles, Clangeddin Silverbeard Hisself allowed me to use his power ter save yer ferm dyern.”
“I was busy with greater concerns,” adjoins Seth as he rises from the floor and slips – on his feet this time – between Nathan and Malk. He heads past Declan and the goblins toward Amiel.
The elf finds distraction from Declan’s earlier riposte in helping the ranger to her feet. “I suggest we leave these caves,” he offers to his friend, holding her by the arm.
Trying to push his pain out of his mind, Helios’ face is that of calm composure, although a pained look remains in his eyes. “My thanks to you, Sir dwarf,” he says with a hint of a smile. “It’s true what they say – good things do come in small packages.”
He turns to the bruised and battered Amiel. “Not quite what I had in mind for my first fight. I think we should maybe camp outside, unless there’s a convenient place to hole up behind that door,” he says, gesturing to the south with a nod of his head. A look of pain flashes across his face as he realizes that he really should not be moving his head.
“Well, I certainly cannot fault your courage, Paladin!” Kerielle exclaims. “But the three of us are in no condition to fight. Much as it pains me to admit it, I think these caves are beyond us at present. Those little grunters might yet return, mayhap with another of those things!” The revulsion in her voice is very apparent. “What was it, anyway?”
Then, turning to Velgardrin with a warm smile, the archer adds softly, “As for you, my friend, that’s two I owe you now. I do not forget.”
Having said her piece, Kerielle realizes that she no longer holds her beloved bow. Thinking back to the nightmarish instant when the beast’s jaws closed on her shoulder, she remembers the bow dropping from her numbed fingers. She swiftly looks around and soon locates in nearby in the smoky haze.
A thought occurs to Helios as he glances over at the hogtied goblins. “So what are we going to do with those little green men, then?” he asks. “Anyone speak gobo?”
He muses for a moment and then turns to Amiel. “The thing we have to wonder is – did any of them get away to warn others? I must say I was a little surprised at your command to hold back unless attacked. The little worms don’t deserve Torm’s mercy.”
Amiel replies her voice and posture weary, but not her tone. “We’ll talk more about this when we have relative security around us. I promise.” she tells the paladin.
She nods to Seth as he steadies her to her feet. “Thank you, friend! Now, could you help find Kerielle find her weapon?”
Addressing the whole group, she speaks quickly and intently. “We still need to decide on how to get to safety. Here is the quandary. It will take us a long time to get back out of this valley and find a defensible campsite for the few days it will take us to recover – a very long time. I can barely hobble. Kerielle and Helios are the same. You’ll have to practically carry us. If we’re attacked in transit... well, not good,” she concludes.
“We could get bold and make camp in these caves right here – if we find a defensible spot. And that’s the crucial element - defensible. I believe that monster,” she nods in the direction of the smoking remains, “must have a lair very close by here. It heard the ruckus and came looking for a meal. There is no way that it ‘served’ the goblins. Look at its size compared with theirs. Find its lair and we find a defensible position. Defensible,” she stresses that word with all the feeble strength she can muster. “With our current numbers that means it has to have a maximum of two entries or exits.”
“Give me opinions,” the ranger urges tiredly.
“Well, let none fault our courage!” declares Kerielle, smiling inwardly as she surveys the company’s battered condition. She wobbles slightly on her feet.
“That thing may well not have served the goblins – but mayhap they worshipped it, for all we know. There may be many more goblins. It may even have had a mate, or young. But why not? None have ever called Kerielle, daughter of Arathas, coward!”
The elf’s brave words are marred slightly as her eyes cloud once more with pain. Her face pales as she clutches once more at her shoulder.
With a nod and a wince in a southern direction, Helios voices his suggestion. “How about that door? Chances are it will be a room rather than a corridor, and should hopefully have two exits – or one, if we’re lucky.”
Looking about and noting the poor state that the company is in, Nathan ventures an observation. “Some of the goblins escaped, did they not? If that is the case, we are in no condition to face another assault. We should retreat a good distance from the cave and make camp. Once our wounds are healed, we can explore further. If there is anything behind the door, I for one am in no position to fight.”
“Goblerns fled west,” answers Velgardrin. Quietly he adds, “Seth, could yer check ther south door ter see if yer hear anything? Mehaps Malk could aid yer. Do ert quietly.”
He pauses and a thoughtful expression crosses his face. “Thers cave entrance would be ther death trap if it be guarded ferm inside with archers. If we abandern it, we die comern back – else we enter another way. Even thern enemies be behind us here. And ther troll? It be called by ther goblerns west.
“But one last thing be important ter some of ye. How much lamp oil remains? What be down ther southeast passage?”
Listening to everyone, Alain goes over and looks to retrieve his lost dagger. Breaking his silence, he speaks to the group. “I do not think we can find safe shelter in these caves. My suggestion would be to load you three,” he motions to the heavily wounded companions, “into the cart and get as far back to the keep as we can. Maybe we can even use the goblins to help pull the cart.” Shrugging, the big warrior continues to look for his dagger.
“We canna’ be stayin’ in this spot,” Declan then opines, “and I dinna think the cart’ll be handlin’ everyone’s weight. We fought six o’ the beasties ‘ere,” he says as he points to the four bound goblins, “capturin’ these four, woundin’ a fifth afore ‘e and a sixth scampered off down the southeast tunnel.
“I used up four o’ yer bottles o’ oil, Amiel, and I’m thinkin’ we ha’e only three t’ four days o’ food. If’n we kin use the troll’s lair fer a day to let ye rest, and then head back t’ the keep, we’ll be alright. The goblin’s will likely attack again if we stay ‘ere much longer. We need t’ move to its lair – or outside – soon.”
Malk looks back at the portcullis and asks his newest companion. “Seth, what was beyond that barred gate? Could that area be made defensible if we all managed to get through?”
He continues by offering, “The gate should protect our rear and provide an emergency exit if attacked from beyond.”
Still taken aback by Declan’s comments, Alain looks past the bard to the fiery mage, his face screwing up in disgust. “Stay in the troll’s lair? You must be out of your mind! I can’t even begin to imagine how filthy that would be. I for one would only stay in the troll lair as a last resort!”
The warrior pauses for a moment to shift his hat back and look at Declan to make sure he was serious. “Surely if we can’t use the cart to carry everyone, we should be able to use it to carry their gear. Letting them move at their best possible pace?”
“I dinna know much about these trolls,” Declan retorts. “I surely dinna know what their lair is like, but I’m thinkin’ not much else around ‘ere will be wantin’ t’ come visit it either – and tha’ may keep us safe fer a day er two. If’n yer not keen on stayin’ in its lair – and ye may ha’e the right o’ things there – then we need t’ be movin’ t’ close a hidey spot soon. Goblins are easily startled, but they’ll soon be back – and in greater numbers.”
Velgardrin then seeks some clarification. “Alain, Kerielle, ter be sure, did ther troll com from ther west er ther south? I thert west.”
“Is that thing a troll then?” asks Malk before restating his opinion. “I still suggest that we camp on the far side of the gate unless Seth has good reason why not. We are in no condition to move far.”
Seth frowns at Amiel, but is satisfied that she is standing competently on her own. “I fear that the room I was imprisoned behind was frightfully small. I was so cramped I had room to bare swing a sword.” He shakes his head. “And exploring further could expose us to all manner of new threat. The woods would be my choice, but I cannot make that decision for all of us!”
Somewhat distractedly, the elf makes to move toward the exit to establish how much light the party have remaining. He notes that it is still afternoon – there are perhaps three hours or so before sunset.
Amiel picks that moment to summarize the discussion and reach a decision. “Kerielle, Helios, Vel, Declan, Malk and Amiel are for; Nathan, Alain and Seth against staying here. Six to three. Fortune favors the brave, my friends. We stay here. But I will make this condition – if we don’t find a defensible position in about two candlemarks, we are leaving.”
The ranger issues orders quickly. “Seth, get back here and check out that door. I don’t like the look of it. So be careful this time. Malk, stamp out the fire. Dec, Alain, guard for goblins coming from the southeastern passage. Nathan, Vel do the same for the west passage. Kerielle where did the troll come from?”
While she waits for the elf to reply, Amiel examines the muddy cavern floor to determine the troll’s direction of origin for herself. She quickly discovers, however, that the chaos of the melee has made tracking nearly impossible – at least within the area of light provided by the discarded hooded lantern.
“The… troll,” Kerielle hesitates slightly, tasting the unfamiliar word, “came from the west – not long after the surviving goblins fled from my shafts and Velgardrin’s axe. The western tunnel splits perhaps ten or fifteen paces west of here – running north-south. The goblins fled to the north, and then I heard a grating sound, as that of stone on stone. Perhaps the goblins kept the… troll… captive, and released it upon us when they saw they were overmatched?”
Another thought strikes the archer. “We have prisoners, do we not? Why do we not wake one? It could no doubt tell us much of what we need to know – the layout of these caves beyond that which we’ve seen, and how many reinforcements we are likely to face.
“I do not think we are in a fit state to survive a full-scale assault. This is not a defensible position, unless we could somehow barricade the door and maybe one of the tunnels. I do not see how, however. Add to that, this foul smoke is choking me!” Suiting actions to words, Kerielle gags as another wave of smoke mixed with charred troll flesh washes over her.
Meanwhile, Malk stomps on the smoldering troll, as instructed. The bard winces in disgust as his foot crunches through the crisped torso and limbs, grinding them to ashes as he puts out the remaining flickers of flame. The action causes a brief increase in the thickness of the smoke as the force of the stomping propels ash and dust into the immediate vicinity.
The other adventurers shift their positions and orientation to comply with the ranger’s instructions. A minute or so later, all are ready – or as ready as they can be, considering the condition of some. The smoke from the troll’s demise still lingers in the air, causing minor tearing of eyes and burning sensations in the backs of throats.
“Er they searched?” Velgardrin asks, pointing at the goblins.
“Checkern west,” the dwarf then announces without waiting for an answer to his question. He moves post Kerielle and then around Nathan as he leaves the lighted section of the four-way intersection and heads into the western corridor.
“One more thing,” Kerielle suggests. “Just before the troll attacked, I thought of making a pool of oil in the western intersection which could be lit should attackers come that way. I wish to Rillifane that I had done so! But could we not do that now? A pool of burning oil would be a great deterrent to an attacker. I know our supplies are limited, but we are right by the cave entrance, so running out would not in itself be catastrophic.”
“A novel suggestion, Kerielle,” replies Seth. “However, those flasks of oil were rather disappointing and I’m sure if we used one, Declan would be unable to stop helping himself to torching the remainder.”
He continues speaking to his fellow elf in a barely-audible tone. “Let me check this door. If there’s anything behind it, I’ll demonstrate to you all how to kill a troll in several easy steps,” the elf boasts most effortlessly, drawing his long sword and advancing coolly toward the southern passage. In so doing, he soon steps beyond the portion of the southern tunnel illuminated by Malk’s discarded lantern and disappears from sight.
Alain looks over his shoulder from where he is guarding the southern corridor. “Amiel, I think you are making a big mistake. We are in no condition to be exploring further into the cave, and this intersection is indefensible. Plus, the smoke is going to be attracting attention from the monsters in this cave – and may well attract attention from the other caves, if they are not all joined together.”
Thinking the pitons may be useful to wedge shut the southern door, Kerielle hobbles slowly in that direction.
Back near the portcullis, Malk moves swiftly to pick up the still lit torch in his left hand. The bard lifts it and swings it around to help clarify his surroundings. He then returns to the gateway and peers through the bars. The bard discerns about three paces worth of a ten-foot wide passage or chamber on the other side of the barrier. The tunnel or room extends beyond the extent of the torch’s light.
Tired and weary, Helios leans on his sword for support. He waits for the group to decide which direction its going to go before he wastes his remaining energy walking anywhere.
Amiel takes the opportunity to respond to Alain’s forthright comments. “We are not going to try and defend this intersection. If Vel and Seth don’t find anything promising, we’ll leave in a little less than two candlemarks. And then we’ll hobble along at that pace,” she points to where Kerielle walked off, “and take our chances in the wilds.”
The ranger lowers her head tiredly. She bends to recover her sword, and then painfully stands.
“By the way,” she says to Alain, “thank you for your part in defeating the troll. That was bravely done.”
* * * * *
On the other side of the illuminated area, Seth’s eyes slowly take in his surroundings as they adjust to the lack of visible light. He sees that the ten-foot wide passageway stretches some ten or so paces southward before ending at a door.
Not pausing to consider the situation or the warning tones in his head, Seth only has mind for moving as silently as possible to the portal in front of him. He creeps slowly to the door.
Upon arriving at his destination, the elven warrior-rogue notes that the door is apparently made of wood. There is no key hole, which suggests that the locking mechanism – if one exists – may be a bar on the far side. Running his hands over the door, he finds that the hinges face him – indicating that door opens outward. He puts his ear to the door as he attunes his elven senses to the slightest hint of noise or movement but he hears nothing from the far side.
Seth’s ear is still toward the door when he hears a thump on the ground behind him, as if someone has dropped a pack. There is a brief rustle and then Kerielle’s voice breaks the silence.
“Serethaniel! See if you can use these to hold the door shut!” she calls.
Seth turns around and looks back toward the lantern light, his eyes wincing at the distant heat source. As his vision clears, he discerns Kerielle standing some five paces or so behind him, backlit by the lantern’s light but within the darkened corridor. Her extended hands proffer a hammer and pitons.
Seth accepts the items but pauses. “Did Amiel not request that I explore what was beyond the door?” he asks his companion.
“I believe the objective is to secure the location – so that we may rest and heal in peace. If we could prevent this door from being opened, we have one less approach to worry about. Beyond that, I think it most unlikely that the area beyond is entirely unpopulated,” the elf maiden responds.
“Very well,” answers Seth shortly, obviously disappointed.
“My thanks, Serethaniel,” the elf woman replies with a grateful smile. She then turns, holding her shoulder in obvious pain and walks slowly back toward the main group.
Behind her, Seth returns to the door. He kneels in front of it, places a piton in the space between the door and the stone wall, and raises the hammer to begin setting the piton into place.
* * * * *
Beyond the western edge of the lantern’s light, Velgardrin waits for the few seconds it takes for his eyes to adjust. When his heat-sensitive vision has returned, he sees that the five slain goblins remain where they fell. By the residual thermal energy they emit, the dwarf can tell that their bodies are slowly cooling and returning to the ambient temperature of the cave complex. The priest neither sees nor hears anything threatening in the nearby tunnels.
He then carefully moves toward the intersection and stops just short of it. Slowly, the dwarf peeks to the south and then north. To the south, he sees that the ten-foot wide passageway proceeds south for about six or seven paces before turning sharply to the east. To the north, the angle of sight allows the dwarf to discern a hole – perhaps a passage or a doorway – in the northwestern wall of the chamber that lies to the north of the ‘T’ intersection. Flanking the opening is the same inanimate, short, squat object that he noticed previously.
Velgardrin says a silent prayer to Clangeddin Silverbeard as he waits until the pounding of his heart stops ringing in his ears. Then he listens for any noise from the south or the northwest.
Rather than hearing anything from his front, the dwarf is surprised to hear unexpected sounds coming from behind him in the direction of the main body. Ping, Ping, Ping… the sound such as that of a hammer striking iron emanates from the east.
He turns and says, “Amiel? What be ther noise?” He belts his axe and grabs a hand of the nearest corpse.
* * * * *
Shortly after Amiel finishes speaking, Kerielle walks slowly back into the light. She speaks to Amiel. “Serethaniel is attempting to wedge the door shut.” As the elf resumes her previous position near the cavern entrance, the distinctive and repetitive ringing tones of iron striking iron sound from the southern corridor.
Helios looks at the bruised and battered elf quizzically. Distorted somewhat by his head injury, the look the paladin gives is a strange one indeed. “He’s wedging the door shut? Why? I thought the idea was to take refuge beyond?”
“Forgive me,” the archer replies slowly. “I believed we sought to create a safe haven for ourselves. I did not think that venturing further into unknown territory – where there are certainly more foes – was the plan. My apologies if I have erred – my head is none too clear, I fear.”
As Kerielle speaks, the pounding noises continue to resonate through the tunnels. Ping… Ping…. Ping…
To the group in general, Malk calls through the smoke. “Is that noise anything to do with us? If so, I suggest that we stop it. That almost rhythmic beat will attract a lot of unwanted attention. It also offends my musical ear.”
The torch in the bard’s hand sizzles once before expiring. He throws the burnt out torch through the bars of the gate and then moves over to keep watch down the tunnels towards the south and east. As he concentrates his attention in that direction, he unwittingly starts quietly humming a low somber tune.
Next, Velgardrin’s voice comes from beyond the western boundary of the lighted area. “Amiel? What be ther noise?”
“It’s Seth,” the ranger replies tersely. “Seth! Stop that right now,” she says with a wincing look in Helios’ direction. The paladin was right.
Adding emphasis, Helios cries, “Someone run and stop him, for Torm’s sake! That ringing will make my head explode.”
At the end of the southern corridor, Seth hears Amiel’s voice as he is finishing pounding in the third of the five pitons that he was given by Kerielle. The elf pulls his next strike with the hammer up short and sighs. He wanders back to join the main body of the company, questioning with some humor whether the Silver Claws can ever unanimously decide upon anything.
With a sigh of relief, Malk continues his watch. “Thank Milil for that awful noise ceasing,” he mutters under his breath.
“What was on the other side of the door?” Amiel asks Seth.
“I heard nothing,” answers Seth. “And I had little time to do more because of people telling me to do things otherwise,” he adds, shrugging his shoulders.
“We’re wastin’ what precious little time we ‘ave and drawin’ the vermin o’ this area down on ourselves. We should be leavin’ now, and headed t’ safer ground,” Declan says in a mildly irritated voice.
“Can someone who is in a condition to fight open that door and see what’s beyond?” asks Helios.
“Foolishness!” hisses Kerielle. “It is hardly likely to be a secure, unoccupied room so close to the cave entrance! It is more likely a guard room or corridor – any may well have foes within. Even those who can fight are wounded. With the door sealed, at least there are only two avenues of threat. If you must explore further – and I do not advise it – the southeast would be a better choice, as we cannot seal it.”
Helios looks at the wounded elf with a pained look halfway between pity and sorrow. “Do you really think there are foes in that room after the racket that Seth made hammering on it? You must have been hit in the head harder than I was!” he exclaims as he gingerly explores his head wound.
“Seth,” the paladin then asks turning to the other elf, “did you actually seal that door or will it still open?”
Rubbing some caked blood of her face, Amiel recognizes that the tension brought by trying for the ‘bold’ option is likely to undermine it. The Claws simply haven’t gelled as a group.
“Alright, that’s enough,” the tall ranger says. “We are becoming a rabble. So let’s make a decision to stay or go before we become a dead rabble.”
She raises her voice slightly, and says with a croak. “Vel, found anything suitable, yet?”
* * * * *
Satisfied that the goblin is dead, Velgardrin drops the goblin’s hand and draws his axe. Then he carefully peeks around the corner to the north. Seeing no danger, he moves forward a few paces and looks around.
The dwarf discerns that he is in a small chamber about thirty feet east-west by twenty feet north-south. A squat table sits against the eastern wall. An opening in the northwestern wall appears to lead to another chamber or corridor. A long corridor stretches out to the west, as far as the dwarf can see. Two intersections are visible, both caused by passages that veer off to the south.
Velgardrin is relieved to notice that the noise of the hammering has stopped. But he quickly becomes somewhat concerned when it is shortly replaced by a growing collection of voices in heated discussion.
Noting nothing in the chamber that presents a threat, Velgardrin walks across the room toward the passage that heads to the northwest. He finds that the squat object next to the opening is a wooden barrel. Several wooden spears protrude from the container’s open top. Glancing past the barrel, the dwarf notes that there is a pile of refuse of some sort just past the opening and within the chamber beyond.
Voices carrying the sounds of argument and discontent continue to drift through the tunnel. Finally, Amiel’s voice rises above the din and carries clearly to the dwarf’s ears.
“Vel, Found anything suitable yet?”
“Yer sent me ter guard,” the dwarf calls back. “Yer want me ter search?”
* * * * *
Even as the dwarf’s voice sounds from the western passage, Kerielle visibly swallows a tart retort to the paladin at the party’s leader speaks. Clearly the pain and stress are taking their toll on her.
“A vote, then” she asks rhetorically. “I say let us get out of these thrice-damned caves while we may. We can only be safer amongst the trees than in this stone tomb. I was for staying in a defensible area, but not for tempting fate by pushing further in our weakened condition.” Apparently, the pain and delayed shock have reduced the archer’s bravado somewhat.
“I think my position is clear,” declares Nathan whilst continuing to watch the western corridor. “I am for leaving the caves and returning when we are in better shape. My spells are depleted and my abilities in combat are slight.”
“At present, you’re stronger than at least three of us,” Kerielle grimly retorts.
“I too am on guard at the southwestern, I think, edge of our light,” adds Malk. “I, Nathan, Velgardrin, Seth and Declan are unharmed. If you’re asking for opinion – mine is as before. To hole up beyond the gateway, nurse our wounded quietly, and use the darksight skills of those in our party thus-blessed to warn of approaches. We can always douse any light source and learn from any coming and goings along this corridor while we heal.”
The bard tries to see through the smoke toward Kerielle. He then continues with an unusual sharpness in his tone. “Mistress Kerielle, I am greatly saddened that you feel that those I mentioned as unharmed are unable to fight. Maybe we should discuss it further on our return to Kendal Keep!”
Seeing she has been misunderstood, Kerielle replies, “Forgive me – no slight was intended to any. Some of our party I have not yet seen since regaining consciousness, and I had assumed that all were in a similar state to those here.” She indicates the badly wounded Alain, Amiel, and Helios.
“The mages have few spells left,” she continues, “if any. As a group, we are hardly ready for battle – even if some are unhurt.” She smiles briefly, indicating she is glad that at least some of the Claws are well.
Seth takes that opportunity to make an announcement. “As I can’t see this discussion moving any further, I’m going to go and get those pitons that I left at the foot of the door.” He turns, leaving a less-than-helpful contribution hanging in the air.
Less than a minute later, the elf returns holding two pitons and a smith’s hammer in his hands. “Whose tools were these?” he asks of his companions.
Helios groans at the pain of it all – the pain in his head as well as the situation. “Seth, you heard nothing from beyond that door, right? And you hammered into it, making that cursed ringing that could be heard throughout the whole cavern?”
The paladin then addresses the whole group. “Who honestly thinks there is a foe behind that door? Huh? I vote we open that blasted door, hope it’s a room – which incidentally seems much more likely than a corridor seeing as we’re in a cave – and hole up. Alternatively, we can sit here debating and voting until those goblins that escaped bring back reinforcements.”
He turns to Amiel, his eyes hardening in urgency. “Amiel, we must act now one way or the other – or hesitation will be the death of us all. We don’t have too much time. You are the Claws’ leader – so lead us!”
“I heard nothing at all,” replies Seth before Amiel can answer the paladin. He looks to Amiel and asks, “Do you want me to open it and investigate? If you hear my battle cry, we’ll know to leave,” he finishes with a dry smile.
Amidst the continuing debate and discussion, the smoke from the immolated troll remains has continued to spread. It now covers the entire area that is illuminated by the company’s lamps. It is not nearly as chokingly thick and opaque as it once was – it is now more of a haze – but it continues to slowly spread nonetheless. Even the four goblin captives – who have apparently been forgotten amidst the party’s heated debate, are showing discomfort.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, Velgardrin slowly moves to look first south down the long passage, past the ‘T’ intersection. Seeing nothing, he looks west down the passageway leading away from the small guard room – and again discerns no threat.
Next, he moves carefully to the entrance of the trashy room but does not enter. He sheathes his axe and removes his right glove. He licks his right index finger and holds it up towards the room to see if he can feel air movement. He detects a very slight draft of air coming from the filthy chamber or somewhere beyond it to the north and west.
The priest turns and heads back to the ‘T’ intersection, still watching for any sign of foes in the halls. When he reaches the junction, he calls, “Amiel, there be air movement from ther troll cave, so ther may be another way out.”
* * * * *
Kerielle ignores Velgardrin’s announcement for the moment and instead answers the earlier query of Seth. “They are Velgardrin’s,” she says, “but I carry them.” She takes the hammer and pitons from the other elf and stows them in her pack.
Then, looking from Seth to Helios and back again, the elven archer shakes her head, and mutters a curse in her native elven under her breath. “You will find naught but death beyond that door, and I am too weak to help you. However, the decision lies not with me.” She looks questioningly to Amiel.
What a rabble we have become, thinks Amiel. The ranger takes a deep breath, coughs on the smoke and announces, “We move. We investigate the troll cave. Vel seems to think there’s a way out from it anyways, so we shouldn’t be trapped there. If there’s nothing in the cave and it’s not defensible, we’re quitting the cave complex.
“All of you head to the Vel’s voice now. Seth, Declan, and Nathan go first. Kerri, Helios and I will hobble as best we can while Alain and Malk bring up the rear. Don’t forget all the lanterns.” Another cough fit takes her but she begins to stumble west, leading the way.
“As you wish, Amiel,” says Helios. “Action is always preferred to inactions – whatever the result. I’d sooner dies investigating a cave than be caught unawares having a debate.” Bruised and battered, the paladin manages a wry grin as he stumbles toward the troll cave, trying not to move his head too much in the process.
Kerielle nods to Amiel in respect, glad that the leader is taking charge and making a decision. She even chooses to ignore the shortening of her name. “I will carry the lantern,” she states. “Let those who can fight keep their hands free.” Matching action to work, she retrieves Malk’s discarded lantern and then slowly heads west.
Holding his weapons ready, Alain looks over to Malk. “I guess it’s up to us to guard the party from the rear.” Grinning slightly, the warrior watches the party forming up.
Returning the warrior’s grin, Malk retorts, “Well, we protect the Claws again as usual. I trust your training of my fighting skills was adequate – else the Claws may lose their sharpness.” The bard moves to walk alongside Alain at the tail end of the procession. Keeping his senses peeled for any following presence, he starts again to hum a gentle tune now that positive action is afoot.
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