21st day of Flamerule. Morning. Milbourne.
Garth set his fork down as Marlay spooned another helping of gravy on the large biscuits in the middle of his plate. The dwarf had already eaten two helpings more than he should have but he understood Marlay's desire to keep putting food on his plate. They both knew that today was the day the Company was heading back to the Garlstone Mines and the Underdark. Marlay said that she understood Garth's having to leave but the priest wondered just how much she truly did? He had spent a fair amount of time every day for the past twelve rides with her and he wondered what kind of effect his abrupt departure would have on her. Not for the first time, he considered remaining behind as the others left. But of course, he knew he couldn't do that, he not only had an obligation to his companions but also to all those who had been kidnapped and were suffering below the mines. Marlay would have to be alright, Semheis had promised he would continue to look after her and she had her kitchen.
Garth took another couple of bites before pushing the plate away from him, "The gravy is delicious, o'course, but I must be leaving now. The others are waiting for me."
Marlay nodded from before the stove as she continued stirring a large pot of the meaty gravy before her. Morning prayers would be ending soon and the regular priests of the temple would be coming in to break their morning fast soon.
"I will cook for you again when you return."
"Yes, of course. You let Semheis know if you need anything."
Resting his hand on that of Marlay as she stirred the gravy, Garth offered up a blessing to her, "May Selune guide your steps in the night, and bring them to the new dawn."
"And to you, my friend."
With that, Garth stopped off to say his goodbyes to the priest Semheis before finding his pony and riding out to meet his comrades.
Beleg checked the straps on the saddle of Asfalof for the hundredth time as he impatiently waited for the others to ready themselves. Although he felt that he and the others had put the time away from the Underdark to good use, he was anxious to resume the quest and find the missing citizens of Milbourne. They were now better equipped, better trained mostly and they even had some useful gifts for the Svirfneblin but the downtime had been tough. He and the others had returned from Shadowdale the evening before last and he had wanted to set out first thing the next morning. But Talimar had cautioned against that. Beleg and the others were slightly tired from the ride over and the equipment needed to be checked again and distributed. A day spent handing that out and now they were ready to ride out.
The thoughts of Beleg were interrupted by the arrival of Garth on his pony from the direction of the temple to Tyr and now they were ready to leave. Quickly mounting Asfalof, Beleg looked to Talimar for orders to depart. The elf smiled to his companion and motioned for the company to set out. It was early morning but the day was already starting out with the promise of being a hot one but a few townsfolk came out to see the RFC off. Andrenn and Barthelew were there of course, Andrenn once again imploring the company to find his lost love. As they set out north toward the mines, Talimar and Dain noticed a number of rough-looking individuals who appeared quite happy to be seeing the rear of the company's horses heading out of town.
Talimar rode forward to speak with Garyld about the matter, as the retired Ranger had once again promised to ride with the company and bring their mounts safely back to Milbourne.
"Will things be safe around here after we leave?"
"Oh, safe 'nuff I s'pose. With yer reputation thar's a few ruffians that Ah'm sure are glad ta see ye leavin', but thar's plenty o'others that are of good nature such as yerselves that have ridden inta town lately. I don't spect no trouble really. Count Parlfray and good ole Darius Carman seem pretty happy 'bout the new arrivals. Taxes are up, ye know..." Garyld chuckled at his own joke as they road on. Talimar nodded but remained quiet.
"Sides, Ah hired me some additional hands ta help keep the peace."
"I'm sure the town is in good hands then," replied Talimar.
Up ahead on the road, the company met up with Kersath and Rasmussen who had both ridden out earlier to scout ahead of the company. Following along the well-used trail to the mines, the scouts fall in with the rest of their companions.
Following a short stop for the noonfeast, Beleg reigns in next to Kersath to ask a question of his companions, "Can one of you please explain to me what illithids, or spongies, or whatever you want to call them, are? If we're planning to confront these creatures, I'd like to know a bit about them, especially after our poor fortune with the trolls."
With the mention of the Trolls, everyone's thoughts touch on the loss of Kre to the foul creatures and the desire for nothing like that to happen again.
Kersath nods, agreeing with the mighty Paladin, "Indeed, knowledge is power. Especially down below, and you will find few who are more powerful than the illithids. They are a race of humanoids who have heads similar to those of octopuses, with four tentacles and a taste for humanoid brains. They are powerful sorcerers and have control over great powers of the mind, able to bend reality and even travel between planes of existence on a whim. My race," Kersath pauses as he refers to the Drow even though he has shunned them himself, he still knows he is one of them, "...my race and the illithids are always at war, each always seeking an advantage that will be the other's undoing. Indeed, if we have to face them, we should make all the tactical planning we can, since they are one of the most powerful enemies we can face down below." Kersath's usually cheerful look rests heavily on each of the companions listening to him, making sure they all understand the seriousness of what he has just said.
When Kersath finishes, Ortho nudges Druckner, "Hey Druck, wha'ts one o' these 'octeepusk' things? Do they bite?"
"Nah, ya didn' hear right Ortho, ta elf said Aka Pussys, tar a kind of ugly cat that them dark elves like ta eat. Ah hear that they have them things delivered ta their caverns by orc slaves."
Ortho turns and stares hard at Kersath. "Druck, do ye think...? Yick. 'Ow could 'e?" The dwarven priest then closes his eyes and shakes his head vigorously. "Eh, Druck, Ah think Ah need an ale now ta wash the taste oot o' me mouth. Care ta join me?"
"Ah just will at that!" replies Druckner with a grin, taking the offered ale from Ortho.
"Don' ferget me!" exclaims Snagger as he moves forward to get a drink.
Despite himself and the seriousness of the matter, Kersath bursts into laughter. "Oh boy...well let me calm down your suspicions, friend Ortho. I do NOT eat, nor have I ever eaten, a cat. I adore the small creatures and would never think of harming one, much less eat them." With a mischievous smile on his face, he mutters to himself, but just loud enough for Ortho and Druckner to hear, "Couldn't say much for dwarven cuisine though..."
The dwarves ignore the remark of the elf as they concentrate more on the ale before them.
"Powerful sorcerers with great powers of the mind, you say?" Beleg asks Kersath in astonishment. "How does one defeat such fearsome creatures?" concern clearly in his voice despite the jovial mood of the dwarves.
At Beleg's words Ortho pulls forth his axe and feels with his thumb the keen edge it took the last two nights worth of sharpening to develop, "Wal, Ah got one idee."
"Sounds like we'll have ta ambush 'em and get in amongst 'em. Keep 'em too busy ta concentrate much," he finally says in all seriousness.
The remainder of the afternoon passes much this way as the company discusses tactical planning when fighting below the ground as well as a need for cool heads to prevail and no blind charging into battle. This last remark from Talimar even receives a grunt of agreement from the dwarves.
Evening passes uneventfully as the company easily settles back into their routine of posting watches and going about their nightly tasks. Despite the unusually warm summer evening, everyone sleeps soundly as all were happy to be back upon the trail, sleeping under the evening sky. It also didn't hurt that they all were well aware that it could be the last evening sky they ever see.
Early the next morning as the companions are setting out on the trail, Kersath rides back to speak with Talimar.
"Can't say for sure, but I think we're being followed."
Talimar nods slowly as he turns in his saddle to take a look at the surrounding hillside, all under the facade of handing a waterskin to Dain. Seeing nothing, he raises an eyebrow to the dark elf.
"Nothing I've seen, just a feeling. Felt it during the night, like someone or something was watching us."
"You and Ras ride ahead and scout it out, try and get a visual on this eavesdropper. Don't attack unless you have to."
The charger of the elf and the halfling's pony start off up the trail at a trot as they head on to try and double back and take a look around them for the unseen follower. Talimar turns to the others saying, "Be sharp. Kersath thinks we're being followed."
"Not surprising," mutters Rannigan as his hand goes beneath his cloak to grasp one of his daggers there. "You saw the way we were watched leaving town, plenty of ruffians there who might be wanting a piece of the RFC. Besides, it's common knowledge how much loot you all have acquired recently."
"That so?" rumbles Snagger as his hand moves to his great axe. "An' ye would'n be in with some o' these louts leadin' us out here ta ambush us and take that loot now would ye?" He turns an accusing eye toward the mage, having not acquired a trust in the newest company member just yet.
Rannigan simply laughs at the tone from the dwarf. "I do believe that I am intelligent enough to know that you would not be carrying it with you now. Had that been my purpose I could have taken what I wanted several times during the last tendays..."
"Everyone relax," ordered Talimar from the front. "Were it simple brigands they would have attacked us during the night I'm sure. I doubt any thief would attempt an attack in broad daylight. Let's wait on the return of Kersath and Ras before we jump to any conclusions."
The others mumble their acquiesance as they turn their eyes toward the hillside around them, each looking for some tale-tell sign of their being followed. After perhaps an hour of riding this way with no sign of anyone else along their trail, Kersath and Ras meet up from opposite sides of the road behind the company and ride forward to catch them. The others turn expectantly, hands on weapons in an almost pleading manner before they realize it is the return of their companions.
"Nothing," responds Kersath as the two reign up beside the others. "We split up and both searched a hundred yards or so to either side of us and more than that before and aft. I saw some tracks behind us, a solitary rider but I soon lost it among all of our tracks." He shrugs his shoulder and frowns at Talimar. "If they are out there, I can't find them. But I still have that twitch in the middle of my back."
"Well, let's hope that twitch doesn't become an incoming arrow," answers Talimar. "Let's move on then, everyone keep your eyes open and be ready."
Another four hours of travel and the companions finally reach the Garlstone mines with no sign of anyone following them and no attacks. As they reach the mines, Garyld once again takes the mounts of the company and says his farewell.
"I'll see ya in a month or so."
"Aye, that's how much food we have," replies Talimar as he waves the Ranger away.
"Watch yer back!" yells Kersath to the waving Ranger of Milbourne.
A gleam glints off the eyes of the dwarves as the company begins to move once again into the mines. Kersath points out several varrying marks of tracks as they walk through the tunnels, most of them old however.
"Looks like others following along to see what we left behind..."
"I just hope none o' them got far enough to endanger the gnomes," ponders Garth as they walk along.
"They'll pay if'n they did," rumbles Snagger.
An hour or so of traveling through the mines and the group reaches the hole that leads down to the second level. Checking for anyone or anything else around first, the dwarves then set about setting up the pulley to drop the mules to the second level. After a few hours of strenuous work, everyone is down and the group continues on before stopping at the ramsackle shack once again to rest for the evening.
Walking around the rickety building, Kersath thinks back once again on his battle with Ramor here and his near death. Gritting his teeth in frustration, he vows once again to pay his respects should the two ever meet again.
Another quiet evening passes and the Company sets out early the next day to finish out the mines. Around mid-day the group reaches the end of the mines and the room where they initially met the Deep Gnomes. Unsurprisingly, there is no one there and they quickly head into the darkened tunnels, following the map given to them to find the home of the gnomes again.
29th day of Flamerule. Morning. Underdark.
After five days of quiet travel through the darkened tunnels, everyone is almost a bit edgy from the lack of contact with other creatures. After being away for almost three months, some in the group had wanted a chance to bloody their axes before now. Still, the group has managed to maneuver several miles into the tunnels and are now only a day and a half from the entrance to the gnome city. Three times now they have passed the tunnels heading south marked on the gnome map, each time having to have a debate on the merits of heading south right away over reaching the gnomes first. In the end, the gifts for the gnomes is what wins out and keeps the group moving forward.
This morning, as everyone is making their preparations to break camp and going about their business, Ras rushes back up the tunnel quickly and as quietly as possible. There is a mixed look of dread and excitement on his face.
"Everyone be quiet," he says as quietly and forcefully as possible. "There's a band of ogres on their way here right now. Five or six of 'em about five minutes behind me!"
"Wal, awright!" exclaims Ortho as he takes up his axe. "Wat ye bein' so quiet fer then, they've gotta know where we are if'n we're ta kill 'em!"
"Planning. Remember that, Ortho?" asks Beleg as he takes up his shield and draws his sword.
"Wat planning? They're only ogres," mumbles Ortho as he looks to Gnore and Druckner.
"Tal, what say you?" asks Dain as he looks to Talimar for direction.