Huddled in the dark, far back from the wall ahead, the band of adventurers plot their next move. After several plans are put forth and discarded, they finally decide upon a stealthy advance by Rory and Grog, who will quietly dispatch the two Daagar guards and open the gates for the others.
Casting Levitate on himself, and then Invisibility on them both, Rory keeps hold of Grog, takes a good leap and glides toward the wall. Once at it’s base they levitate to the top and crouch between the crenellations. As the Daagar approach, Grog smells the “first” wrinkle in their plan, namely a dog. Hoping for the best, they continue on.
With a deft throw, Rory tosses his light stone onto the walkway and he and Grog skewer the two Daagar before they have a chance to react to their now visible attackers.
The enemy warriors barely make a squeak.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the black furred, attack trained mastiff that begins baying, snarling, and barking as it charges the two heroes from further down the parapet.
Undaunted, Grog’s quick mind comes up with a solution. With a deft chop he loosens an arm from the dead Daagar before him and tosses it to the dog, one must assume in hopes of befriending, or at least quieting the pooch. “Who’s a good doggy?” is thrown out their in Grog’s version of puppy-talk along with the appendage. The severed arm bounces off the dog’s chest, barely slowing it’s maddened charge. Grog’s word’s might actually have made it angrier.
Not to be provoked to deadly action against such a friendly, innocent pooch, Grog catches the snarling creature and proceeds to hog-tie it quite handily, without getting bitten even once. Meanwhile a loud gong begins sounding from behind the wall.
Rory wastes no time chastising Grog but instead casts another invisibility on himself and heads off in search of the mechanisms to open the doors. Soon crossbow bolts are flying through the dark as Tristan and the others rush toward the wall.
As battle-ready Daagar rush the wall from one side and our heroes rush it from the other side, Rory searches desperately for a passage that leads to the massive doors. Huddled at the base of the wall, Tristan, Gerty, Ewald and Shujen try to avoid crossbow bolts as Grog cleaves through Daagar nearly (but not quite) as fast as they come at him.
Displaying the craftiness of their race, the Daagar’s fortification proves too difficult for Rory to navigate, since the gate house is actually lower than the inner courtyard. Grog jumps from the wall to the courtyard and continues to butcher Daagar as Gerty moves to the gates and begins to formulate an idea.
Something tentacular reaches for Grog out of the darkness but he avoids it and continues killing.
Gerty’s arm begins to glow and her companions take a step back. With a mighty THWACK she hits the fortified doors. The reverberations from her blow stop everyone but Grog, who is now in a true and epic rage. A partial opening can now be seen through the reinforced doors. After a moment of awed silence, Ewald and Tristan widen the hole with their weapons. Gerty sits down as Rory joins them with a “hi” to announce his invisible presence.
Once through the door, the group faces off against a Daagar greeting party. Thanks to Shujen’s Spiritual weapon spell and Ewald’s holy protections, they actually fair well against the enemy.
Grog is still separated. And still killing.
Then a Daagar captain appears bearing a strange weapon. It appears to be a globe-like mass that is hurled without delay into the heroes midst where it detonates with a hiss and a puff, sending tiny spores floating through the air and into everyone’s lungs. Though they try desperately to resist, it’s no use and each succumbs to sleep and unconsciousness accept for Tristan. Faced with the choice of giving up his friends and fleeing, or surrendering, he chooses surrender.
Which leaves Grog, in another area of the fortress, still in a killing rage, chopping through Daagar like kindling. The Daagar are now truly frightened of the towering half-hodra. They do their best to hem the giant warrior in and stay alive and succeed in at least half of that plan. When a particularly stout Daagar appears on the walls above Grog, he is in the process of killing too many others to notice. When the Daagar champion’s axe sails through the air and takes Grog in the back, he drops in a haze of pain and anger, not to rise again.
When next we visit our heroes, things look grim. Each eventually wakes presumably in the fortress dungeons. All is blackness, leaving only Ewald and Gerty able to see their surroundings, a narrow stone room separated by stout, cramped, iron cells, into which each hero has been thrown. On top of this, they have each been outfitted with thick, leather and iron collars that appear to have been glued to their skin. When investigated, the collars are found, to everyone’s horror, to have some sort of creepy crawly insect inside them, endlessly circling the hero’s throats.
Though injured and woozy from the effects of the spore bomb, everyone but Grog seems to be in passable condition. Though it’s a relief to see Grog at all, from his position in the cell across from Grog, Ewald can easily see that the wound in the Half-Hodra’s back has been poorly bandaged and has leaked a great deal of blood. Grog seems mostly unconscious, only occasionally moaning in his painful slumber.
For her part, Gerty seems incredibly tired. Whatever power she used to smash the fortress doors she is slow in recovering from. With some effort, she is able to cast a dim blue glow on the room from her rune-covered fleshed, which she notices with some alarm has now spread to her shoulder as well.
As the group is taking stock of their situation, the Daagar captain appears through the dungeon door. Luckily, Gerty is able to extinguish her glow just in time. Smiling wickedly, though only Ewald and Gerty can see it, the captain explains their situation in broken common.
“I am Captain Raakar, her majesty’s servant and war leader of the Izil-Mahr Clan. You are worthless, top-dwelling scum who have invaded our home and killed our comrades for no apparent reason. It is only Her Majesty’s command that keeps your soft hides from being flayed from your bodies. The collars you wear each contain an Ebon Death centipede, a creature that’s venom will kill you instantly should it bite you. Fortunately for you, the creatures are generally peaceful. It is only loud shrill noises that anger them. Noises such as this whistle makes.” Here the captain produces bone carved whistle hanging from a leather thong around his neck. “Make any attempt at escape, or cause us any further trouble, and you will all die quickly.”
With this warning, Captain Raakar leaves them again.
In the silence of their imprisonment, the group waits and rests. Ewald and Shujen, with some difficulty due to their lack of holy symbols, begin healing what wounds they can. Between Shujen’s paladin healing and Ewald’s priestly ministrations they bring Grog back from the brink of death, but still leave him in a bad way. Time passes and the magic wielders in the group begin to regain a little of their essence. The guards bring them food and water.
Once rested, Rory wastes no time in “Knocking” his collar off with a spell and scraping the bug quickly from his neck. Though it taxes him greatly, he next opens his cell door with another spell and moves to open Ewald’s cell next. Further plans of escape are interrupted as the guards approach. Rory casts invisibility on himself as two guards enter. Ewald just barely pushes his door closed, though it remains unlocked.
“The Queen demands to speak with your leader. Who amongst you is that?”
Grog takes the opening to mutter, “I will kill you just as I killed all your friends little dwarf.”
As reward for his troubles, Grog is stabbed in the foot by the second guard.
Thinking quickly, Ewald says, “I will speak as the leader... I suppose.”
Things happen very quickly after these words. The guard moves to open Ewald’s cell. As he finds it already open Ewald rushes the door, knocking it heavily into the guards nose. Ewald jumps on him as the other guard pulls his axe. Wrestling for possession of the whistle Ewald barely manages to prevent from being skewered by the other guard. As Rory rushes to aid his Durin friend, the first guard gets hold of his whistle and blows the death knell for them all...
There is a little pain as the bugs respond by biting the necks of all but Rory, who long since got rid of that pest. Everyone bitten succumbs to the poison. Rory stays hidden, partly in shock of what has just happened, and partly at a loss as to what to do next.
The guards quickly take stock of the situation. Realizing almost at once that Rory’s cell is empty and he is not only not dead, but not present they flee the room, perhaps rightly fearing magic. With a clank, the main dungeon door closes, leaving Rory in the room with his dead or dying friends, some of which are weakly thrashing in the throws of the poison.
Moments later the guards return, with plenty of backup. Entering the room quickly they shut the door just as fast. Along with Captain Raakar is a Daagar in black Wicalic robes. Rory crouches in the corner, invisible but lacking a good plan.
Raakar speaks, “We know you are about Syvani sorcerer! Show yourself and surrender now and my friend here can save your companions. But the poison works fast, and in moments not even the antidote will save them. Decide now!”
Rory only has to think a moment before surrendering. Though he hates the idea of once again putting himself in the Daagar’s hands, he really has no choice.
Gagged and bound, with a sack over his head for extra measure, Rory has no idea if Captain Raakar kept his word. Pushed through the halls of the dungeon, he is herded into the great throne hall of the mysterious Queen of the Daagar clan. When the hood is removed, he sees before him a massive, bejeweled throne of ivory, gold and onyx.
Trussed like the dangerous prisoners they have proven to be, Rory sees Ewald, Grog and Tristan chained to massive iron poles in the floor, still unconscious. Rory is likewise bound but fully conscious, and so has a clear view of the large sedan being hauled into the room by muscle-bound Daagar warriors. When the curtains of the sedan part, Rory has his first view of the Queen.
She is massively proportioned and slug-like in her corpulence. Strange growths warp her face, setting the shining crown upon her head at an angle. Fingers like overstuffed sausages are bedecked in sparkling jewels and gold and silver. Her dress is stately and expensive, but strains at the seams in an attempt to keep her bulk from spilling out. And she is not Daagar.
Coming to only perhaps three and half feet in height she is far too short to be of the Daagar. Instead, she appears to be something like the Dinari tinkers, but with much whiter skin and stringy hair so thin that it’s easy to see her scalp beneath. Her voice is high and piercing when she speaks, eyeing Rory with an evilly sweat look that promises torture.
“I am sorely vexed with thee, little man. You and yours have caused much strife and sadness in my happy home. I am hard pressed to deny my captain the pleasure of crucifying you in this very hall.” She looks to her captain. “Where are the others Raakar? Where is the purple paladin and the old Durin hag?”
“They are dead my queen. Victims of your slave collars,” Raakar answers with some pleasure while motioning to two lifeless corpses stacked at the rear of the chamber.
Rory’s heart sinks at Raakar’s words and sight of his dead friends.
Grog, Ewald and Tristan slowly come around, finally benefiting from the antidote given them.
She continues speaking to Rory, “There is but one hope for you murderer. Tell me how to work the pretty rod you brought me. Tell me all you know of it and I may be more lenient on you and your companions.”
Grog, ever the helpful negotiator again chimes in here with, “Tell the fat one nothing Rory! I will kill you all when I am free!”
At a nod from the Queen, Grog’s tirade is cut short, along with one of his fingers as Raakar quickly and deftly slices the digit off at the knuckle. His shriek is loud and long, and if possible, even more hate fills his eyes..but he does hold his tongue.
Rory goes on to tell the queen the unfortunate news that he has no idea how to work the rod. She doesn’t believe him at first, but is eventually convinced. He does take a chance and make mention of their dragon mistress, Tashea, and that the rod is the dragons, and this news does give the Queen pause. But eventually, she makes a decision.
Obviously disappointed she pouts a little before extending grotesque, tentacles from the folds of her flesh that wrap about the heads of the prisoners. “It is MY DECREE, that the murderers be fed to the Grove as punishment for their crimes against the Izil-Mahr clan!”
As they reel in horror, the tentacles swell and spit forth more spores, sending each of the prisoners once again into a torpor, with the exception of Ewald, who has the forethought and willpower to hold his breath for a ridiculously long time, even in his weakened condition.
Thus it is only Ewald who feels the guards unfasten them from the poles and drag them bound and shackled down stairs and through passages. It is Ewald who witnesses through slatted eyes his friends being unshackled one at a time and dumped unceremoniously over the lip of a hole in the floor. Ewald who briefly considers standing, fighting and likely dying on his own two feet, but instead lets himself be unshackled and rolled into the pit too, trusting to his god, that the fall won’t kill him.
He rolls and slides down a long passage before free falling for at least four or five seconds. A fall that he fears will indeed kill him. Instead he lands partly on Grog on a mass of spongy, smelly matter that gives quite nicely and keeps him alive.
Gingerly rising, he is first surprised to see that the cavern in which they landed is lit by a phosphorescent glow given off by hundreds of mushrooms, some taller than Grog. His companions are all splayed in the spongy remains of long since destroyed mushrooms. Ewald is weaponless, spore-addled and sore from his fall, and on top of all that, he’s pretty sure the room is spinning and wobbling unnaturally.
Thinking that all the group’s luck is perhaps gone, he decides the only hope is to find an escape from the cavern. After briefly attempting to wake the others, he sets off on careful path through the mushroom forest, attempting to map the cavern and see what can be seen.
It’s not long before he notices the first of the Grove’s hazards, as several of the larger, darker mushrooms spit spore clouds at him, and others collapse their huge mushroom caps in attempts to entrap him. He evades and dodges the mushrooms, but finds it more and more difficult as the differences between reality and his quickly growing, mushroom induced hallucinations become harder to tell.
Meanwhile, the others begin to stir, but are already feeling the effects of the “special” Grove mushrooms. As Rory watches Tristan’s face change colors, Tristan is fascinated by his feet, which have grown to huge dimensions, making it impossible to stand at first. Grog is busy tasting the colors of skin and clothes when a light rain of small, purple worms starts covering the trio.
Then Grog makes his final mistake. Perhaps due to the hallucinations, or perhaps just due to his unique, soon-to-be-missed Grogness, he reaches out to the nearest mushroom, breaks off a fistful, eats it, then smiles at his friends. Rory and Tristan both watch in disbelief, as Grog’s eyes roll up in his head and he keels over backwards.
When they rush to their friend’s side, they can see that the fungus has already started to grow out of his mouth, unnaturally quick. With a squirm of uneasiness, Tristan bravely attempts to grab hold of the growth and pull it free, bringing out a wet mass of fungus and blood, but Grog barely shakes before lying still once more, his face now half covered by the speedy growth. If nothing else, their companion’s demise may have cleared their heads for a moment. With an anguished sigh, Tristan turns and calls out to Ewald, but Ewald is busy.
Making his way around a particularly dense patch of man-eating mushrooms, Ewald comes face to stalk with his first ambulatory mushroom. As he runs, screaming a warning to the others, more man-sized mushrooms join the chase, ambling slowly but surely after him on fat, spongy legs.
From his perch in a shallow cave above the grove, a new face watches Ewald’s pursuit. Gruff, the Trulla warrior does not like Durinfolk, and while it is clear that this one is different from the Daagar that killed his people and threw him in this cursed hole, it’s still a Durin. On the other hand, these newcomers might help him escape. With a weary sigh, Gruff makes up his mind to help.
Tristan and Rory are attacked by new mushroom men. Tristan desperately resorts to fisticuffs, punching a mushroom man with little effect. Rory lets fly with a barrage of magic missiles which drops both mushroom men, at least temporarily back into the thick grove.
With the slight reprieve, Tristan and Rory quickly fashion crude masks from the remnants of their shirts and begin heading into the grove, Ewald comes up against the cavern wall with four mushroom men in hot pursuit. Just as he’s about to be caught, a furry, heavily muscled arm reaches down from above and hauls the burly Durin upward, along the cavern wall and into the perilous sanctuary above.
“Shush Dwarf, sound draws their attention.”
Unclear of this new being’s intentions, but quite sure he was just saved, Ewald does what he’s told. At least until he spots Rory and Tristan in the grove, and sees Tristan pulled in by one of the large, black mushrooms.
Ewald shouts, “TRISTAN!” and is then glared at by the seven foot, horned goatman beside him.
Rory manages to pull Tristan from the mushroom, but the ranger is out for the count. As mushroom men approach, Rory pulls Tristan onto his shoulders and attempts a staggering run toward the sound of Ewald’s voice. With another frustrated sigh, Gruff descends the cavern wall with true, Trulla-hooved ease and is ready at the wall’s base as the two weary adventurers arrive. None too soon, he pulls Tristan up the wall as Rory leads the mushroom men away before casting invisibility and climbing carefully to the cave. Dozens of mushroom men gather at the base, before retreating a short distance and milling about.
The small cave space is barely large enough to fit Gruff, Ewald, Tristan and Rory, who is stepped on by Gruff before he can announce his presence and become visible once more. Quick introductions are made before both Ewald and Gruff attend to the unconscious Tristan.
From Gruff they learn that healing spells will keep at bay the hallucinations caused by the grove. That and small bits of less-deadly fungus and water purified by Gruff’s spells has kept him alive for the several days he’s been trapped here. When everyone is healed of the mushroom’s effects Gruff goes on to tell them what he has learned in his few forays into the grove. Mushroom men are attracted by sound and movement. He has found no way out, but he did find an old pitted sword and a wood axe.
After some contemplation of their situation, and uneasy awareness of the mushroom men who are now congregating in numbers larger than Gruff has seen, and starting to form into one massive, writhing pile, it is decided that they must escape now. Gruff summons his spirit companion, Loki, a large raven, and commands it to scout the cavern for a way out, hoping the bird will find a way he could not.
A short while later the bird returns. When asked if it found anything, it bobs it head in the affirmative before flying upward and pecking at the ceiling. From this the group gathers that the way out is on the cavern ceiling.
Gathering themselves for a run, the group descends to the floor of the cavern and sets off following Loki. The massive pile of mushroom men seems to squirm even more violently but doesn’t give chase. Rory tries to burn it with a flaming sphere but only gets the smell of singed yuck for his troubles.
When the bird stops and rises high toward the cavern ceiling, the group realizes it has brought them back to the hole from which they fell. Apparently the only exit from the cavern is the same way they got in. After a moment of frustration, Rory casts another spell, this time Levitation, and carries Tristan upward toward at least temporary safety.
As Gruff and Ewald watch for approaching Mushroom men Rory drops Tristan into the pitch black chamber above, hoping desperately that it is unoccupied, which it shortly becomes apparent that it is. As he floats back down into the grove, Ewald and Gruff both point at a massive, twenty-five foot tall mushroom creature approaching with large, ponderous steps.
Seeing that time is at a premium, Rory grabs hold of Ewald, promising to return shortly and rising once more to the exit. Gruff huffs something about gratitude before preparing a spell. As the giant mushroom creature comes near, he lets loose with a blast of Searing light that takes the creature directly in the torso and knocks it backward and onto it’s spongy ass. As it begins to rise again, Gruff is unceremoniously grabbed by Rory and levitated to safety as well.
In the chamber above the group quickly situates themselves. Unfortunately, it seems obvious they are going to have to sneak through at least a portion of the fortress to escape. On top of this, Tristan, Rory and Ewald need to get the rod back for their dragon mistress, Tashea. Getting their weapons, armor and Rory’s spellbook would be nice too. Gruff has no desire but to escape, or maybe kill all the Daagar in the fortress... or maybe both. Regardless, all agree that their best chances at survival are together as a group.
Sneaking from the chamber they make their way down a hall and find a small shrine room with a gold mushroom statue which they all leave alone. Making their way up some stairs they make some random direction choices before surprising a Daagar carrying a sack of coins and relieving him of his coins, his armor, his battleaxe, a ring of keys and his life, not necessarily in that order.
A little further on, after using the found keys on some intervening doors, they surprise two more Daagar sitting down to eat and again kill them quickly before raiding a small armory of Daagar weapons. Outfitted now with battleaxes, shields, a halberd or two and a crossbow they are feeling a little more secure in their chances.
Ewald then discovers a notice on a small service cart. Reading it to the group, they learn that most of the fortress will be attending a Memorial Service for the fallen warriors. Good luck for them since it means the fortress halls might be relatively empty for a short while.
A few minutes of sneaking and skulking later, they hear Daagar voices somewhere ahead. Ewald translates. “What’s the fuss man. Hurry and get yerself ready. We can’t put things off forever now.” This is followed by laughter from another Daagar and mumbled words from a third.
With the aid of Rory’s invisibility spell, Ewald sneaks toward the enemy. A well placed axe swing and small scuffle later, two dead Daagar warriors lay in the hall and the group stands before a closed door.
A push from Ewald opens the door and as Tristan covers them with the crossbow the group rushes inside, surprising a plump but well muscled Daagar kneeling before a raised dais. On the dais stands an armor tree holding a very, very fine suit of Durin made field plate. The Daagar wears a bulky gambison. With raised pleading hands he begs not to be killed and grovels, trying desperately to keep out line of fire from Tristan’s crossbow.
“Do not kill me! Please!” He begs in Daagarian. In the next few moments the group learns through Ewald’s translations that the Daagar’s name is Pede Halfhelm, a smith of the Izil-Mahr clan. He has been chosen by the Queen to be her husband, a fate that he looks upon with understandable horror. Pronouncing himself a follower of the true Izil-Mahr King, who unfortunately was killed by Queen Meevey, Pede offers his services in leading the group to the surface in return for their help in escaping from his Groom-to-be fate.
Gruff is at first having none of it. By the Ancestral Spirits this is one of the enemy! They can not trust him, he must die, etc. etc. Seeing that his fate is still somewhat in question, Pede offers up more information. When he overhears Rory say something about needing to retrieve the rod he quickly interjects. “I know where that is. Master Laxis has the rod. He is studying it for the Queen. He will be attending the ceremony with the others. The staff is in his room.”
This information seems to be enough to keep Pede alive, at least for awhile, though Gruff is none too happy to be travelling with the hated enemy. Leaving the room, with Ewald now wearing the very nice field plate of his ancestors and Pede wearing the leather armor of his slain comrades, the Daagar seems true to his word, leading the group carefully to Master Laxis’s chambers. On the way, they learn to their chagrin, that their other items are kept in the main armory, which abuts the great hall where the ceremony is taking place.
At Master Laxis doors, Pede is about to enter when Gruff shoves him back, having just noticed through the use of a Detect Magic spell that the door is warded. Careful inspection by Rory, reveals explosive runes and an alarm spell which cannot be circumvented.
After first suggesting the fireplace flu, which might or might not be accessible by Rory, Pede seems to remember a story told by one of his apprentices about Laxis being seen emerging from the Moorback cavern. When they ask why this is strange, they learn that the Moorback cavern has no known exits beside the main doors and it seems unlikely that Master Laxis would have any business there in the first place. Pede believes Laxis may have a secret entrance to his rooms there. Thinking this a better chance then the fireplace, the group heads toward the Moorback cavern, with Pede Halfhelm still in the lead.
They soon learn exactly what a Moorback is, as they step into the smelly cavern and see a large herd of white, six-legged, hairy beasts that somewhat resemble extra wide pigs with milky, sightless eyes. Seeing that they are alone in the cavern, with the exception of the beasts, they begin exploring the cavern in earnest, hoping to find a secret passage.
When all seems hopeless, Ewald decides to ask his God’s blessing on the endeavor at just about the time that Rory discovers shallow grooves in the cavern wall that might be a ladder. Sure enough Rory finds a narrow passage at the top of the wall that eventually leads the group to Laxis’ unwarded back door.
Entering the chambers quietly, Rory goes ahead to scout. The lavish chambers are separated by curtains. In Laxis’s study, they find the rod on a small wooden table with a stone bowl of liquid and a half scribed scroll next to it. They also discover that a pile of clothing on a nearby couch is actually an ancient looking Daagar, apparently dead or deep asleep. As Gruff explores the workshop for valuables, Rory also finds the rod’s case and his beloved spellbook.
As Rory is putting the rod back in the case, and scooping up a bit of the unknown reagent from the bowl into a clay phial, the ancient Daagar falls from the couch and cries out in a feeble voice. “Please, help me.” Though Pede at first doesn’t recognize the figure, he comes to realize that this is a warrior he knows, but that has somehow been unnaturally aged extremely.
The Daagar goes on to tell the group that he was ordered by Laxis to use the staff, and this was the result of that use. Rory looks over Laxis’s notes with some translation help from Ewald, and learns what Laxis apparently learned. The rod is for controlling the potent flow of time. The activation word so far discovered is “Shadros”. Though the Daagar is desperate for them to fix him, they decide it’s far too dangerous to use the rod and leave the pitiful man to his fate.
Gruff meanwhile, has found a small altar with a valuable looking, if somewhat sinister statue, encrusted with gems. After only a moment’s hesitation he takes the treasure and scoops out a handful of loose jewels in a recess beneath it. There may or may not have been a slight feeling of greasy warmth as he picks up the statue, but whatever the feeling, it soon passes, and he’s a great deal richer than he was.
He also turns up a very sturdy looking, iron safe behind a wall hanging. The others are now anxious to leave but Gruff takes a moment more to ask the ancient Daagar what the statue represents and what Laxis keeps in the safe. To the first question the Daagar responds, “It is Laxis’ dark god of deep magick and Black Places.” He professes no knowledge of the contents of the safe, or for that matter even it’s existence. Rory hurriedly scoops up a great many ingredients to replace his lost spell components before the group hastily exits the room.
Having the majority of what they came for, the group decides it is past time for their departure. After briefly discussing the possibility of funneling a stampede of Moorback’s into the great hall, they decide a quiet exit will better suit their escape.
One inattentive, and now very dead guard later, the group exits the fortress through a postern door and makes all haste toward a place that Pede calls the Sunstair. Each of them realizes their escape may be discovered any time, so they rest little and travel until they are bone tired and more hungry then they have been in a great while.
The hunger is at least assuaged slightly as Pede and Gruff both scrounge up some non-deadly varieties of mushrooms. Nearly ten hours of forced march through winding, maze-like caverns finally bring them to a large, vertical shaft with an impressive set of stone stairs winding upward. The detailed carving of a sun with waving rays announces even better than Pede can, that they have reached the Sunstair.
After a careful meeting with a group of Ingen-Dinari, or Deep Gnomes, who in exchange for a bribe of one of Gruff’s jewels and some stolen Daagar coins promise not to mention the groups passage, they continue climbing the stair. Pede is even able to bargain for a small stash of dried meat and some water skins.
If they felt themselves tired before, the continued, seemingly endless climb toward the surface world shows them all new levels of weariness. Pede tells them they will not make the surface before they must rest. In a cavern with a many-tiered waterfall, the group decides to rest. Pede recommends climbing the falls themselves and taking refuge in another cavern less known, not far back along the waterway’s course.
After eating the rest of their food, they sleep on the shores of a small water-filled chamber, taking shifts of watch. The rest-period is uneventful.
Somewhat rested, but still weary, they all continue their trek toward the surface. While climbing a particular bit of stairs, they all hear the rushing of wings and at Pede’s cry of warning they flatten themselves against the wall. Though most can’t see them clearly, Ewald and Gruff watch five horse-sized bats fly past them and down into the depths of the Darkurth. Pede says they are Dire Cave Bats, and counts them all lucky the beasts weren’t hungry.
Hours later, they finally smell the surface and feel the fresh air. Soon they are standing in the mouth of a cave looking out on overcast skies. It is apparent that they have travelled from the deepest depths to the highest peaks, since nothing but craggy mountain tops and snow covered slopes can be seen. It’s somewhat depressing to the group since they have no warm-weather clothing to speak of, have no food and are looking at a hellish hike through deep snow.
Pede announces that their pact has been fulfilled now, but suggests that they travel together a short ways more, or at least until the trail splits in the valley below them. He tells them that he will travel to a nearby tribe of Hodra and offer his services as a smith. These Hodra would not look kindly on the others however. In fact, he suggests that the group get out this area with all the haste they can, since this cave and the surrounding valleys are the territory of a ruthless tribe of Hodra called the Blackbacks.
The going is about as hellish as they imagined it would be. Tristan says when they reach treeline, he can fashion some snowshoes to help, but they have to survive that long. In the snow-choked valley below, Pede says his good-byes, and offers to join them some day in the future if they ever want to go back and rid the world of his spurned bride, Queen Meevey.
The rest of the day is spent in slow, aching travel through deep snow drifts. Pede’s parting words promised that a pass was not far below them, with a better marked trail, but the group is having it’s doubts that they will survive long enough to find it. At Ewald’s suggestion, Gruff once again summons Loki and asks the bird to fly and find them a food source. The bird returns and begins to lead them towards something, but disappears when the spell expires without having led them to anything edible.
As night approaches, Tristan and Gruff set about attempting to make a snow shelter. Each and every one of them is cold from the bones out and so hungry that they are considering eating their boots. The shelter protects them from the worst of the wind and cold, but all wonder if they will be alive come the morning.
Gruff again summons one of his totem animals, This time his Wolf-friend, and practically begs the beast to bring them something to eat. They try to make their shelter as weather-proof and warm as possible.
None to soon, the wolf returns, satisfyingly with a big, juicy hair in it’s jaws. Unfortunately, it’s also severely injured, having been mauled by something obviously more dangerous than it. As it whimpers in pain Gruff thanks it and sends it back to the spirit-planes from whence it came. Though they all are thankful for the food, Tristan points toward the achingly clear blood trail the wounded animal left. In the distance, above the sound of the howling winds, they all hear the roar of some large beast on the hunt...