"You go first, and casually throw the dagger up there," Terzin told Arpad.
"I go first?!"
"It knows you, right?" Robin said.
"You want to get out of here?" Jared remarked. "Don't argue."
The girl hesitated. "Okay, give me the dagger." She went up and tossed the knife up to the thing's lair. It looked more like a weird kind of pig than a puppy. Arpad motioned for them to go on while it was occupied in the corner with its snack.
Dubricus nodded. "Oh. Class 2. Got it."
"Slowly," Arpad warned them in a whisper, pointing toward the next turn. "Fluffy's right there."
So it was, chained to the wall with a long length of rattling iron. Quite impressive to look at, too.
"Hi, Fluffy," Arpad chirped tremulously. "Derek said it's okay for us to leave?"
"That was a 'no,' right?" Robin sighed.
"I don't think he's going to let us go."
Right. Jared was too badly hurt for this; Robin set herself and charged, taking its attention for a few moments. Soon it was surrounded on three sides. A claw caught hold of Robin and drew her within reach of the deadly beak, which her armor thankfully blunted the force of. Dubricus launched a Flame Gout into its side, to no effect, and Terzin's sword did not appear to penetrate the thick fur. They convinced it to release Robin, but Dubricus got bitten badly. Arpad actually managed to cut it. A few harried, frantic moments later they had all worked their way around it and ran for the door.
Late afternoon sunlight greeted them, caring nothing their troubles. They got beyond "Fluffy's" chain reach and stopped to orient themselves. They were near the cave the gnolls had once inhabited, with an excellent view. A charnel scent wafted over the valley.
A cluster of dead zombies and one dead ettin lay near the bugbear cave. They saw many human bodies being systematically stripped by a group of gnolls and a trio of wounded male bugbears. With them was Hruggek's daughter.
The four headed in that direction, for lack of anything better to do. They didn't see any of the Keepfolk. Dubricus remarked, "Without Harrick, none of us can speak to any of them."
"Basically, what we're gonna say is 'Hruggek.'" Terzin shrugged.
The gnolls spotted them.
"Hruggek?" Terzin said. The shaman's daughter turned. Her ribs were still heavily bandaged. She turned to a gnoll and had a brief conversation, then limped up toward the adventurers with her bodyguards.
"I really don't like the look of this," Dubricus murmured. "I have the feeling that they're the only bugbears still alive."
"And she hates me," Jared sighed.
"I wasn't going to bring that up."
"You mean you rescued me to hand me over to bugbears?" Arpad looked indignant.
"Shut up." It was a chorus.
They met the bugbears halfway. She said something, and Harrick's name.
They shook their heads sorrowfully.
"Hruggek?" Terzin asked.
She made the universally known cutting gesture across her throat and said something else no one understood, then repeated it, apparently frustrated. She pointed out of the valley.
"She wants us to leave, now," Jared guessed. That seemed to be it.
There didn't seem to be any reason to argue with her, although they noticed one of the gnolls running off during the discussion. As they walked slowly along the valley floor, the gnoll returned with Brother Martin, of all people.
"My friends, you made it out."
"Barely. Most of us," Terzin replied somberly.
Martin's expression saddened. "I was hoping when I didn't see him among you, that he was off being diplomatic."
"Unfortunately, we're not sure what happened. He turned into a snake, helped us get out, and disappeared."
Martin's eyebrows rose and he nodded, apparently seeing some significance to these events that they had missed. "Well, if that is the case, then you can take comfort in the fact that he is with his god."
"What happened?" Robin asked.
"Did we win?" her cousin seconded.
"Bottom line, it's hard to say." He sighed. "The nethermancers' army, the bandits, the nether dead, are gone. The goblins have been decimated, very few survive. However, they made the bandits pay steeply for their lives. Of the bugbears, only three men yet live, they have already sworn their allegiance to the shaman's daughter. Fortunately, since the women and children seem to have been moved to a different cave, all of them are safe."
Terzin felt a bit of pride on that score, at least. "Hruggek died, too?"
"Cut down by the zombies."
"And they killed the ettin, too."
Martin shook his head. "Something else killed the ettin. We don't know. As the fight was going on...." He decided to start from the beginning.
"Before you reached the Keep, I had in my earlier explorations been captured by some of the gnolls. I have some passing familiarity with their tongue, and was able to communicate with them. One of their leaders was wounded, I was able to heal him, and that gave me some clout with them. After you had revealed everything that had happened at the Keep, I had spoken to the Armiger briefly and let him know of my relationship with the gnolls. He sent me off to contact them with all speed. I was able to explain to them the situation, and the gnoll leadership had already been at odds among themselves as to whether they should strike now, try and ally with people from the Keep or the other orc tribes, or continue what they had been doing, which was launching assaults on the bandits whenever they left.
"So I brought the thirty gnoll warriors with me, and we moved through the valley. The surviving bandits were moving out of the goblins caves at that point, they were wiped out. The zombies that remained, the gnolls killed. The ettin was already dead, something had killed it."
"But not the zombies?"
"There are marks on his body, I've looked it over, but from the way Sabine described it, he suddenly just jerked, startled flailing his arms around and collapsed. I think it may have been a heart attack."
"What were the casualties on the Keep side?"
Martin resumed his tale. "Eventually, someone started directing the zombies more fully, and more of them came out, plus two wizards who started animating the corpses after they had fallen. They directed them up towards the people from the Keep. Sabine was able to organize them for retreat, but Third gave her life in order to make sure that they made it out. Sabine is slightly wounded, Reese seriously, but they managed to fall back to the clearing. To the best of my knowledge, they're back at the Keep already. After the battle was over the gnolls launched an assault on the central cave, only to find it virtually empty."
Robin nodded. "That's what we found."
"It's not empty if you go down far enough, but there's nothing down there that you'd want to talk to," Terzin declared.
"What happened to you?" Martin asked. "Sabine said she saw you entering into the nethermancers' cave."
"Various things, some of which we don't want to talk about ever. We found Mendel's goons, but not him."
Martin looked startled. "Mendel?"
"His two guards were there, we killed them, no sign of him," Robin explained.
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