By Brian Flood
Chapter 62 - Limping Home
The Caves of Chaos
Near Kendall Keep, Kingdom of Cormyr
Late Night, 23rd Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
“Well fought, Claws!” Amiel declares, heaving herself up off the floor. She grimaces at the fact that, yet again, she's had to endure the pleasure of the troll's pool. She looks out the cave entrance for a long moment at the spot where Velgardrin disappeared into the brush. She shakes her head, obviously having made a decision.
“I'll not risk anyone's life to send out after Vel,” she states flatly. “I always knew his battle rage would one day overcome good sense. Chasing after routed hobgoblins in the dark! And I can't believe he actually came back for his pack first!” she exclaims incredulously.
“If he returns, I'll be the first to welcome him with a tight slap, but we must proceed now as if he's been lost.”
The ranger pulls her bloody sword from the mud by the pool, using the gesture to hide the mournful expression that crosses her face. She takes a deep breath and then begins to speak once more.
“Nathan, I liked your targeting of those sleep spells – a vast improvement. Dec, be wary of your targeting of those missiles! Waking up the goblins that Nathan slept wasn't your intent, I know – so be careful in the future.
“Helios, follow orders next time. You too, Malk. Extinguishing your magical light put us in serious jeopardy – most of us need light and most of our enemies don't.
“Alain, well done for moving forward and for falling back when ordered – and for not letting me drown. Kerielle, do you EVER miss with that bow?”
“Miss? I?” the elven woman cries, with a jubilant laugh. “ Vio ealle rucha slean !” she sings, grinning fiercely around at her companions.
Calming somewhat, she speaks in a more normal tone. “Truth be told, my aim was off somewhat. I shall do better next time! Well done to us all, I say. We fought much more as a pack, and less as lone wolves this time.”
After pausing for Kerielle's interjection, Amiel continues, “And finally, Seth – when we return to the Keep, I will consider it a privilege to give you swimming lessons,” she says with small grin to take the sting away. Then she returns to her persona as the company's leader as she begins to issue instructions.
“Kerielle, Helios and Malk – take positions at the cave entrance to guard. Seth, finish binding all the goblins that remain alive. Dec, stay where you are – they may figure away through that door. It'll be against all probabilities, but they may.
“Everyone stay frosty. We may get a second wave of ‘em any second,” she adds as she watches the Claws go about their orders.
Alain rises to his feet, his expression grim. “You have my apologies Amiel. I will make a better showing of myself in the next battle.” Stretching, the Cormyrian moves to his pack and begins rummaging for something with which to bandage his wounds.
Helios sniffs disdainfully. “Helios Thornfist follows Torm's orders above all. However, our goals are currently the same, to root out the evil from this foul place, so I will try to follow your wishes. In the heat of combat however, it is hard to tell where the enemy is coming from when everyone is shouting in different directions. This is why I relied on Torm to tell me from whence they came. I shall attempt to determine if a second wave is approaching.”
He looks at the comatose creature at his feet with its eyes rolled into its head and tongue lolling out. “While I do, can someone tie up this pitiful creature before I have to knock it out again?”
Unperturbed by the paladin's comments, Amiel resumes her verbal musings. “Given our wounded state – and the fact that we no longer may have any magical healing – we have to return to the Keep at first light. I can't move too quickly, and neither can Alain and Seth by the look of ‘em, but we'll retrieve the cart and do the best time we can to make use of the entire day's light to get home.”
She winces as she looks at the wound in her shoulder and then glances at the corpse of the hobgoblin leader. She winces again at the memory of his blow. “Dec, will you and Nathan be able to prepare spells – with all the interruptions and all?” she asks before going about searching each of the dead goblins and hobgoblins.
Realizing she still has a rope attached to her pot, Kerielle calls out, “Serethaniel!” and tosses it to him to assist in tying the remaining goblins. Seth catches the flying objects just as he regains his feet, still coughing and sputtering from his experience in the pool. Wordlessly, the elf goes about the task the Amiel directed.
Meanwhile, Kerielle spends a moment retrieving all of her spent shafts that have remained in the cave, and checking them for straightness. After recovering only two usable missiles, the archer returns to her pack where she keeps a third quiver and conducts some cross-leveling to ensure that the two quivers on her person are refilled with deadly shafts. She also takes the opportunity to don her cloak – which she had abandoned in her sleeping place at the first sign of danger.
Finally, she moves to the cave mouth to take up guard duty, muttering good-naturedly that she did not really need any sleep tonight anyway. As she goes, she says over her shoulder, “One of you who enjoys heavy armor may wish to take that of the leader – it looks to be better than anything we possess. Perhaps you, Helios? If it fits!”
But the paladin is not listening. Instead, a distant look crosses Helios' face as his eyes glaze over with his decorated gauntlet outstretched. The gauntlet emits a faint golden glow as he moves it left and right over the cavern mouth.
The warm golden glow slowly fades from around the paladin's gauntlet and his eyes re-focus on the real world. “It appears that the evil has departed... for now. Maybe our angry friend has chased them away?”
Suddenly realizing that Kerielle was talking to him whilst he was searching for evil, he turns to look at the bloodied hobgoblin and its banded armor. Poking at it with his foot, he shakes his head with a look of pure disgust on his face.
“I'd rather face the enemy naked than wear that! I'd never get rid of the smell or the taint of evil. I feel unclean even thinking about wearing something that has touched that foul being's flesh. I only regret that I wasn't in the front line to dispatch him myself,” he says wistfully.
Helios turns to Amiel and bows slowly. “I salute you on Torm's behalf. It was a fine battle you led.”
“Then you are a fool,” Kerielle announces bluntly to Helios, persistently criticizing the paladin before Amiel can respond to his gesture of respect. “The previous owner is slain, what matter whether he were fair or foul? The armor is but metal and leather, not tainted by its wearer. I would wear it myself, but I fear it would restrict my movements too much.
“Of course, the kill was our Captain's,” she nods to Amiel, “so first right of the spoils is hers. For myself, I will take those arrows that Malk brought back earlier, if none other needs them – a full third of mine are spent already. I shall look over the bow too, though I cannot imagine it compares to my own!” She lovingly caresses the great black bow, which never leaves her side.
Helios looks at Kerielle with a look of gentle pity, as if explaining a concept to a child. “Evil's taint is not something that is tangible to most people in this land, but it is there I assure you. It matters not if the creature is dead or alive, I can still feel its putrid presence.” He shivers at the thought.
“Besides, my own armor is adequate enough for the time being,” he says, buffing the breastplate up to a golden shine. “And it matches the rest of my kit to boot!”
Meanwhile, following Amiel's instructions, and continuing on during the extended exchange between Helios and Kerielle, the other Company members see to various tasks at hand – some directed, and some self-initiated. Deciding that there are enough Claws at the entrance, Malk wipes himself, his equipment, and his sword clean, before returning to his sleeping spot to don his leather jerkin and his sword belt. Serethaniel cuts three more lengths of rope from the pot-and-rope dredging device and, aided by Nathan, uses them to bound the final the other goblin captives. Declan remains at the back door to the sleeping chamber, guarding against intruders from that approach. And while Alain uses strips of a spare cotton tunic to bandage his wounds, Amiel strips the captives and corpses of valuables, producing several small piles of armor, weapons, and coins. Under the hobgoblin captain's armored hauberk, the ranger also discovers a rolled piece of tanned skin.
Soon enough, Malk returns to his position by Helios and Kerielle and picks up the polearm again. He grounds the blunt end on the floor and puts his foot on it. The sharp end he supports pointing out to the entrance at about human groin height.
As the bard readies to defend the cave entrance with the pole-axe, Alain moves slowly around the cavern, gathering all the glittering coins that Amiel's looting produced. He piles them in one central location next to his bedding and finally settles them into the bottom of his pack.
“Is there any more rope?” he asks the group at large as the Kerielle-Helios exchange reaches a lull. “I'd like to make a sling to carry some of the extra loot.” He motions about, gesturing at the assortment of weapons and armor strewn about the cavern.
After a moment, he notices Amiel's injuries. “Come here Amiel, let me see to your wounds,” the warrior offers.
The ranger moves over to the warrior, issuing orders as she does. “We'll not be able to bring all the spoils with us,” she says, raising her arm up so that Alain could examine the gash in her shoulder. “OUCH,” she gasps as he touches the wound, which is sticky with dried blood.
She grits her teeth and then continues, trying to keep her voice even. “We have to keep ourselves light to move as fast as we can. We must minimize the trek back to the Keep. I do not like our chances of beating off another attack like that. We've no healer,” she shakes her head sadly, “and our mages have almost no spells left. Giving them a chance to rest – to get more spells – will see us spending another half-day's worth in here. And that's too long – we'll be attacked again, for sure. The treasure in the pool and all this,” she waves to the piles of goblin and hobgoblin gear, “isn't worth that level of risk to any one of our lives,” she concludes firmly.
“As we all have weapons and armor that is still in good shape, we don't have need any of the hobgoblins' gear – so we'd be bringing it for resale only. But we should keep the arrows and longbow from Malk's victory. Kerielle, would you carry the arrows? Malk, take the bow. Now, if any of you feel you need an extra weapon or more armor, feel free to take whatever you need – but nothing for resale. Not today, anyway. Clear?”
With a nod to the ranger, Malk moves over to the fallen bow, tests the weight of the draw, and hooks it across his back. Despite his wounds, he is feeling quite satisfied with himself and the group. He returns to his post with the polearm with a warm smile on his face and humming a bright little tune.
Amiel continues relentlessly, “We leave at first light. We are going to leave these creatures here – gagged and bound. No doubt the rest of their tribe will eventually summon up enough courage to come get them before they die of starvation.
“Once again, well fought all. We need to decide what we do with the remaining hours of darkness. I for one would like some rest – but there's two things I want to highlight. First, there's a lot more coin in the troll's ‘bath'; second, we've now just enough light to get us to daylight.”
Taking Amiel at her word, Kerielle retrieves the quiver of arrows and stows it. “I suppose I shall take a sword,” the archer opines. “Though I am not skilled in their use, my bow is a poor substitute in close quarters.” So saying, she takes the hobgoblin captain's broadsword and slings it from her belt.
“Now, as for this pool. I am no dwarf, to seek avariciously for gold – but if you wish it, I will assist in searching its stagnant depths. Perhaps if we enrich ourselves sufficiently, we may afford some healing magic when we return to the Keep.”
Alain watches Kerielle strap the sword on while he gently wraps strips of cloth over Amiel's wounds. “If you teach me to use a bow, I will show you how to use that sword.”
Kerielle responds by saying, “I fear it is too clumsy a weapon for me to take any joy in, and I am already as skilled as I think I shall ever be with more delicate swords. Perhaps you could teach me of the dagger though? Some instruction in the archer's art seems fair payment.”
Meanwhile, Nathan bends over and picks up the piece of rolled-up leather found on the hobgoblin captain. He carefully unrolls it, saying, “I have heard of such things holding maps and the like. I wonder if this is one such item.”
His eyes widen for a moment and then he passes the tanned skin to Amiel. “That indeed seems to be the case, here.”
Amiel grins appreciatively at Alain' s work on her shoulder, and blows him a kiss. Alain simply blushes and smiles back.
“I recognize the chamber and tunnels here,” the ranger says with a nod to Nathan. “It's where we entered. It even shows the hidden door into this cave. There's a lot more to this cave complex than I thought, we've barely scratched the surface... it's well worth further exploration.”
She hands the map back to the mage. “Keep it safe, my friend.”
“What do you wish us to do between now and first light Amiel?” asks Malk from his guard post. “I suggest that we don't advertise our activities and plans too clearly to those outside.” The bard speaks in a hoarse whisper, trying to keep his voice from carrying out into the darkness and the enemy.
Amiel replies, saying, “It seems that you all agree with me so far? We return to the Keep at first light? Good.
“Kerielle, I'm glad you can swim! We will take you up on your offer to bathe in the troll's pool – but we'll need light to work by. And light may attract unwanted attention. It'll be harder for attackers to sneak up on us with the brush gone, but on the other hand, the light will be more obvious and noticeable. Bottom line, if we want to get more coins tonight, we increase risk our lives. What say you all?”
Alain answers first. “I think we have probably given the monsters in the area a good lesson in not charging in here. My vote is that if we can get some more coinage, that we should try.” He pauses and looks around to all the wounded. “We probably will have to pay a hefty tithe to the priest for healing us.
“Speaking of healing,” the warrior moves over to Seth, a bandage in hand. “Do you want me to bind those wounds?”
Looking at Alain, Kerielle agrees. “You speak truth – on both counts.”
Then turning back to Amiel, she adds, “Another will have to take over guard duty, if I am to swim in that. As for being raided, we have a small arsenal of spears and polearms – and some nice muddy ground facing the entrance. Why not plant a few – or a lot – and make a spear hedge of sorts? That should discourage anything charging in, even if they are not still cowering in defeat from the beating we gave them.”
Just then another consideration becomes evident. With a final defiant sputter, the torch that lights the sleeping chamber fades and then dies completely. One half of the troll's lair is plunged once again into darkness. Only Malk's magically enchanged sling bullet – still located near the cave entrance – remains as a light source for the Company.
Declan quietly curses as the torch is extinguished. Pausing a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the new darkness, he reaches to his right and secures his staff. “I'm o' no bloody use ‘ere now,” he mutters to no one in particular.
Addressing Amiel in a slightly louder voice he announces, “I'm comin' yer way.” He moves toward his backpack. Althought still in the dark for the moment, he is atleast out of everyone's way.
“Unless you people who can see in the dark fancy a midnight swim pretty damn quickly,” Helios says to the group at large, “I suggest we do not dwell here too long. Those hobgoblins that escaped will bring more soon. How much gold do you value your lives at?”
The paladin returns to face the entrance with his arm outstretched. “I cannot see very well, but I will attempt to detect any incoming evil. If you're going to swim do it soon! I have an uneasy feeling that we haven't seen the worst of what these caves have to offer.”
Helios resolutely stands guard at the entrance to the dank cave. He points his gauntlet northwards and his eyes glaze over, staring into the distance. “Can you hurry up and take your midnight swim if that's what you're going to do?” he asks the group writ large. “I want to leave this place as soon as humanly possible, I feel unclean I've been here so long!”
Malk releases the polearm and stoops forward to pick up his lit bullet. Turning, he tosses it to Amiel. “You had better have this for as long as it lasts,” he says before returning to his en-guarde position.
“We need light for swimming!” Amiel states bringing, Malk's stone up to give the mage the necessary light.
“Dec, light a fire using branches and rags from the troll's bed. Use a bit of Kerielle's oil to get it burning. Place it in the middle of the sleeping cave so that we've enough light to work here.
“Helios, Malk, Alain and Seth – position yourselves for guard duty at the door. Try and remain behind as much cover as you can. The last guard shift was to be Malk, Seth, Dec and ...Vel, was it not? You'll all be on until morning. Guards, you MUST stay alert – that light may prove our undoing! Take some spears with you to set against a charge, that's always a good tactic.
“But I fear that the hobgob's that got away will bring tales of how we slaughtered their last charge and we may face an arrow barrage next time. In that case, and if you can't see them for the darkness, Alain light the lantern. Keep those spare oil flasks close by to you. We may need them to break up an attack,” she says grimly.
“Nathan, Dec – go back to your bedrolls and try and get some rest. I'm not sure if you'll not be able to prepare spells with all these interruptions, but rested bodies and minds are better than tired ones.”
Finally the ranger turns to Kerrielle and smiles wryly. “Get swimming, world's-deadliest-archer. The bottom is muddy and eight to nine feet down. Don't forget the dredging device. If an attack comes, I will pull you out before doing anything else. Leave your bow and arrows next to me. ‘Notice how it's the girls that have to do the dirty work in this crew?” she adds cheekily. “I'll help you sort through the dredgings up here,” she concludes, shoving her sword into the mud as far as it will go next to the pool.
“Very well,” Kerielle agrees. She removes her cloak and lays it on the ground near the pool, then places her bow and quivers atop it, carefully arranging them to prevent them rolling into the filthy water. Unselfconsciously she strips and then takes up the dredging device as she prepares to slip into the stagnant pool.
Alain nods and gathers up the spare oil and lantern, motioning to Malk, Seth, and Helios. “Let's get into positions gentlemen. Helios you and Seth take point on the entrance. Malk and I will back you two up.” Moving over to the entrance, Alain sets the lantern and extra oil on the ground, taking care to arrange them so that they can quickly be used.
Malk looks around in astonishment as he already is – and has been for some time – on guard at the entrance with a grounded halberd. In doing so he catches sight of the disrobing figure of Kerielle. His attention is well and truly NOT on the entrance. Without averting his eyes, he nudges Alain and nods in the direction of the pool.
* * * * *
Early Morning, 23 rd Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
A few hours later, the first hint of dawn begins to creep into the cave. The remainder of the evening passed uneventfully as far as unwanted visitors are concerned, but it was rather unexpectedly profitable for the Company. Nearly five score dives by Kerielle produced almost two thousand gold coins and a few precious stones. As an added bonus, Declan came across a blackened, iron-shod quarterstaff during the course of dismantling the troll's rubbish heap in order to feed the small campfire in the sleeping chamber.
Now, all that remains is for the Company to divvy up these new discoveries – and any remaining desirables looted from the defeated humanoids – repack rucksacks, break the fast, and head out into the wilds to return to the Keep. And it is about time. After staying awake to perform their various tasks and chores until now, there are many exhausted faces, bloodshot eyes, and worn out, wounded bodies among the Silver Claw ranks.
As well, there remains one missing face from those that started out from the Keep on this latest foray. Velgardrin, the fiery dwarven priest, has not returned from his blood-boiling venture. But there is no time to look for the wayward champion of Clangeddin. And his absence creates yet another problem – there is now no longer any divine means of healing available to the Company. Given its brief but violent past, the Company can ill afford to continue its expedition in its current state of health.
After drying herself off with her cloak, Kerielle retrieves her spare from her pack and quickly dresses, glad to be at least somewhat free at last from the much of the troll's pool. Once dressed and properly equipped, she stows as much of the coinage as will fit – and that she can carry – in her pack, rolled up safely inside the soiled cloak. The gems go in her belt pouch and she discards the shortened rope and pot.
Meanwhile, Declan eyes the new quarterstaff and decides he will take it with him. He looks at his pack and the empty space created by the lack of rations, oil and torches and decides he can take some of the coin, even if it will encumber him some. To the others he asks, “Do any ye know if the goblinoids swim?”
Malk gives a high pitched whistle to attract the attention of the Claws. When he has attention, in a voice that can only be heard in the cave, he continues. “Our priority is to get back to the Keep alive to re-group. We've lost Vel. I wouldn't like to lose any more comrades. When we get there with the information about these cave systems, we can return better prepared. Let's take what we can, hide or destroy the rest, and leave.”
The others are more than willing to agree with the bard, and so the adventurers go about its business preparing to leave the Caves for the safety of the Keep. After a brief breakfast, the captured weapons are arranged in a pile at the center of the sleeping cave. The hobgoblins' armor is tossed into the dark pool, where the various metal pieces quickly sink out of sight.
Weary from lack of sleep, weakened by numerous unhealed wounds, and encumbered with recently-accumulated plunder, the Company of the Silver Claw – its ranks now depleted by one – creeps from the cave, with Seth in the fore as an advance scout and the battered Amiel at the head of the main body. As the last to leave the troll's lair, Kerielle empties her remaining lamp oil on the discarded weapons and sets the pile alight before picking up two heavy sacks full of coins. With a final glance at the four bound and frightened goblins, the elven archer follows in the wake of her companions as they make their way to the cached handcart and the long road back to Kendall Keep.
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