"Something obviously is a predator here, there is a bullette in the area, or any one of a number of other things," their new companion said. "Perhaps some form of water elemental might be able to generate this dessication, could it not?"
"It could," Harrick said doubtfully, looking for signs of elemental magic. He saw nothing.
"I think a bullette would have eaten the bones, too," Robin remarked.
"Perhaps," Dubricus conceded. "There doesn't seem to be any scat, either. This is most peculiar."
"I suppose we'll have to try again later," the orc shrugged.
"If at first you don't succeed," Robin agreed.
"Perhaps it's some kind of magical occurrence?" Dubricus wondered. "The thing only appears at certain phases of the moon or times of the day."
"Or whenever whatever's living in it is hungry," Harrick's usual optimism suggested.
"That's a distinct possibility," she winced.
"Don't mind me, I'm just a ray of sunshine."
They returned to the road and continued northwest, staying in a tight group. The woods grew more thickly and closer to the road. A new river, the Goblinwater, traveled along the east side of the road, flowing down from the north.
A short distance off the road Harrick spotted freshly turned earth.
"Have you found anything?" Dubricus asked in a whisper that could have been heard a mile away.
"Maybe." He headed into the woods to investigate.
"These look like they might be... graves."
"Might be. Might also be bullette track. Somebody hand me a shovel?"
"We don't have one," Robin said. Something they'd forgotten to get.
"Don't worry." Dubricus went back to his horse and returned with a shovel.
Harrick dug while the others watched for any suspicious activity in the woods.
"They're graves," he announced after a few minutes. Probably bandits.
And no priests of Gabriel for miles. Robin was nervous about the prospect of unblessed dead in the area, after their experiences with the zombies, but there wasn't really anything they could do. Judging from the area of disturbed ground, there might be as many as twenty bodies. Harrick covered the body again, just in case the dead were restless; no sense making it easy for them to get up.
After another hour of travel, they reached a small bridge. The road crossed the river there, and the latter veered straight north, into the heavy woods. Perfect spot for an ambush.
"You think?" Harrick asked rhetorically.
"Those woods seem awfully deep," Dubricus admitted.
"As opposed to...?" Robin wondered.
"Well, forest woodlands. I'm merely concerned about my... horse."
"I don't blame you in the slightest."
"Most likely site, I'm thinking, though," Harrick said, eyeing the dense shadows.
Nothing moved. After some whispered debate, they sent Terzin to scout up along the river. He returned in a short while and informed them that there was a valley nearby, with cave entrances in the walls. The river ran through the valley.
The others followed him up the river through the heavy brush, and soon found themselves at the entrance to a shallow box valley. Around the walls they could make out entrances to caves dotting the walls, some low down, others higher up the fairly steep wall. Trails criss-crossed the valley bottom. There were a lot of tracks, from beings that wore boots.
"We could light the trees on fire and see what comes boiling out of the caves."
"I'm not sure that would be wise, Harrick," Dubricus said earnestly.
"Hm. I'm afraid I'm going to have to agree with Dubricus," Robin admitted.
"Well, this has been a bonding moment for you. How about we head for that nearest cave?"
"You mean the nearest cave on the left, or the nearest cave on the right?" Dubricus inquired.
"The nearest cave."
"So you mean the one on the left?"
"The one over there?"
Beyond their chosen point lay a dense tangle of brush that might conceal a second entrance to whatever lay beyond. Farther along the valley were a scattering of others at ground level. They tethered the animals, readied their weapons, lit the lantern, and approached the rough earthen maw cautiously.
Robin went first; Terzin followed with an arrow nocked, then Harrick, Dubricus, and Jared at the rear. After only a few paces the cave split off in three directions and showed clear evidence of having been shaped by intelligent hands. The muddy floor held more of the booted tracks. They went left. The cave was about ten feet wide and seven feet high; a bit cramped. They could see a branching a short distance down, and moved as quietly as they could toward it, not at all sure what they might run into.
They found that the branching was a short dead-end with a chest on the floor at the far end. This was Terzin's specialty, and he edged forward to examine it from a distance. He borrowed Harrick's quarterstaff and inched forward.
"There are holes in the roof," Jared said suddenly, spotting what was almost certainly a trap of some kind, a row of round holes in the ceiling, perhaps three feet down the tunnel. "Run."
Terzin did a standing jump back into the clear. Nothing happened. He poked at a hole with the staff. About a half inch up the hole was blocked by something. He tried to shine the lantern up into a hole, but learned nothing that way, either. A few tracks did go down this way and returned. He guessed that it was a row of bars that would crash down and trap an intruder in the side tunnel. While he deliberated on how to avoid it, and whether the possible reward was even worth the riskit might be nothing but a trap, after allthe others kept watch.
Without warning, from the deep end of the tunnel came rushing a half dozen orcs lobbing spears, each holding a second spear ready for use as soon as they reached the intruders. Dubricus took a spear in the shoulder and fell; Harrick was hit. No one else was badly hurt in the first wave, and then the orcs were upon them.
Harrick gauged the opposition and cast Leaf Armor; vines grew out from beneath his clothes and wrapped around him protectively. Jared charged through the group and slashed with his spear at the lead orc, who jerked to a halt in time for the blow to be deflected by his armor. Three of the orc's companions kept charging the rest of the group, three surrounding Jared.
Robin charged down the tunnel with a yell and hit her picked orc at full speed, delivering a gaping wound, but he stayed on his feet. The other two moved past her towards Terzin and Harrick. A seventh, apparently rather cowardly orc, had moved into view at the far end of the hall, beyond Jared, and joined those attacking the fisherman. Terzin drew his short sword and exchanged blows with the orc before him, neither of them inflicting any wounds.
Harrick ducked around the orc in front of him and sent a fierce gout of flame toward one of the four attacking his surrounded comrade. With a hole burned clear through his chest, the cowardly orc staggered back away from the battle and fell. Terzin continued his battle, evenly matched against this opponent. Jared dropped his spear and lashed out against the nearest startled orc, who ducked out of the way. Despite the tight confines of the tunnel, Robin swung a mighty blow that cut off her opponent's head. It bounced down the corridor after the remains of the one on fire. Jared continued to dodge and weave and throw the occasional punch, regretting his impulsive charge but still largely unhurt.
That left five, and no doubt reinforcements were on the way. Harrick took another spear wound; not too bad, although painful, and breathed a gout of flame at the orc attacking him. An instant later there was a screaming, flailing, burning orc rolling around on the ground. Robin took two steps back to give herself room for another charge, moved past Jared and his three enemies and spun to hack one of the surprised orcs in the side. She could see the outlines of a fairly large room, with one candle on a small table and stairs leading up and out in the far corner.
| Top |
Copyright © 2000 Brian Rogers et al