By Brian Flood
Chapter 45 - The Tunnel Rats Return
Along the Dusk Road
North of Asbravn, The Sunset Vale
Early Evening , 2nd Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
It has been nearly two hours since the five companions descended that the light of their lamp plays against the vertical walls of the ankheg hole. Looking up, the five tunnel-delvers see the concerned faces of Corax and Darius looking down at them.
Following the plan, Corax coaxes Doom into slowly bringing each of the five members of the search party back to the surface of the abandoned farmstead. When all have been retrieved, Kjira's sputtering lamp casts shadows across the anxious looks that the adventurers exchange in the dim light of the twilit landscape. In the flickering light, Corax and Darius notice the bleak look that blankets Cyzicus' face as well as the blisters and missing patches of beard that have been added to Dolak's visage.
Lucas holds up his hand to forestall any questions from the two adventurers that remained on the surface. "Let me quickly tell you what we found. Then we can discuss our options. I imagine, however that Tomar is getting anxious."
Clearing his throat, Lucas begins, "After we descending down the shaft, we headed southward through the tunnels " The mage's story continues for a handful of minutes as he relates what occurred below in the tunnels.
" and that brought us back here to this hole," he says in conclusion. Then, as if to punctuate the end to the grim tale, the light from the lamp is extinguished with a final 'poof' as the oil reservoir finally runs dry.
Darius nods while Lucas completes his tale of the underground. When the mage describes the part with the larva and the other dead ankheg, it seems as if the druid wants to say something but he waits until Lucas is done.
When Lucas finishes Darius says, "I remember now that last bit of information at the farmer's bane creatures. Autumn is the gestation period for ankheg females. When they are about to give birth, they slay their mate and lay the eggs inside the freshly killed carcass to aid in their incubation. That's why the farmer and his family were attacked. It is part of this creatures cycle of life," the druid tells the group.
Looking around in the darkness at his comrades, Lucas absorbs Darius' information and then says, "Well let's get back to Tomar and the wagons. We need to set up camp and prepare for tomorrow."
Turning to look at Cy the mage adds, "I don't envy your job to let our little lad know about his family. I hope he has some relatives near that we may be able to drop him off with if it's not too far.
"My job is bigger than you know," Cy responds glumly, "as he has already told us he has no kin in the area. His family moved from far away."
Lucas nods in sympathy for the halfling's grim responsibilty. "Let's form back up in our original marching order when we started this mission and head back to set up camp."
"I'll be takin' me lamp back now," Dolak says to Kjira. The lady mage hands over the extinguished lamp as well as the one remaining oil flask of the two that he lent to her.
Lucas remains silent for a few more heartbeats, listening to hear if anyone has anything to say. After a few silent moments pass, he nods and gestures for the party lead members to start back to Tomar and the wagons.
The small band retraces their footsteps along the path and back toward where Tomar, Ori and the wagons still wait. As they near the cluster of mounts and such, they see Ori anxiously pacing around the small pack train. The light from the nearly full moon reflects off the metal parts of his loaded crossbow and plays across the scowl that covers his face.
Tomar is standing next to his own wagon, his quarterstaff in hand. Behind him, Simon is sprawled out sleeping on the bench seat of the wagon.
The merchant holds his finger to his lips gesturing for low voices around the slumbering child. He takes a few steps away from the wagon to meet the returning band.
"Well?" he asks in a whisper. "What have you found? You were gone for quite some time - Ori and I were getting worried!"
Speaking softly so as not to wake up Simon, Lucas addresses Tomar, "Alas Master Tomar, we were not able to discover any sign of the boy's family. We did slay a few more of the big worm's spawn while underground searching. I propose we set up camp here, if you are not opposed to this spot. I believe it is safe from further worm-critters - as Darius informed us that this was probably a breeding pair that had tried to make this farm their home for the spring brood."
Turning to the assembled others, Lucas adds, "Does anyone have any opposition to camping here?"
He waits for any suggestions or concerns before continuing. After a few seconds of silence, which Lucas takes as agreement for his suggestion, he continues.
"I propose we set our watches as we have in the past for this eve and then get a early start off in the morning. We can see if the next village or town has an orphanage or some such place where we can leave Simon. I don't fancy taking him with us and subjecting him to the hazards of the road for long. Cy, can you watch after him and break the sad news to him in the morn?"
"I will do what must be done," Cy responds. He then goes off to sit by himself.
"I think I'll see if he wants any company in the meantime," Alani says with a gentle shrug. "And I'll try and find out whether he has any relatives at all."
Cy says, "Shh, Alani he is asleep. I will try to break the news to him in the morning."
The elven scout nods in assent. She then moves to start preparing her gear for the evening's rest.
After all are settling down for the evening, Lucas walks to the edge of camp and appears to stare off into the darkness for a brief time in some kind of intense concentration. After a while, Lucas returns to the camp and settles down for the evening, making sure that his things are in order and then rolling up in his heavy cloak and settling down for some rest before his shift for watch.
After rolling in his cloak, but before he drifts off to sleep, Lucas sits up and addresses his fellow adventurers, "I sensed nothing in the immediate area when I went to the edge of the camp. I say we divide up the treasure we found when we were underground when we next get to our next town. Dolak, in the morning I will give you the sack I found so you can carry it on your cart." With that said, Lucas listens for any comments from the group before settling down for some rest.
Dolak nods to Lucas. "We'll be needin' t' figure out what t' do with the young one, as well. The next town wit' a temple t' take him in may not be 'til the end o' this leg o' travellin'. Th' small farmer's villages hereabouts are near sparse. Apprenticin' him to a local farmer may be no more than puttin' him int' slave labor fer the rest o' his childhood. Could be the same at a temple, too, though. Any ideas?" Dolak looks around at the other tired, drawn faces for an answer.
The other companions merely shrug. Either they do not have an opinion or they are simply too tired to voice it.
Eventually, while Kjira and Cyzicus stand the first watch, the adventurers drift off into slumber. As Simon and the others sleep, Cyzicus prays silently to his god, asking for strength for the duties that he will have to perform in the morning.
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