Evrinel withdraws back towards the hobgoblins, making no particular effort to be stealthy, but also no particular effort to hurry. This is probably a good thing; at any rate, the dire badgers don't seem alarmed by his movement.
The same goes for Johten, who retreats like all who went before him. As he opens up more space between himself and the cete, their warning growls fall quiet, and they begin to drift away to the south. It doesn't look like you're going to have a fight this evening, and you finish your journey back to Rasnak's clan-cavern.
Another day of this, maybe two at the outside, and you can hurry back to civilization. But for now, it's time to eat, try to rest, and wait for another day of work.
11 Imogen, 973 IR
The next morning dawns warm and clear, with not a cloud in the sky, and you're able to get to work quickly. The heat and humidity is a little oppressive, but it's not even in the running for the worst thing you've experienced on this trip, and you work through the morning, break for a quick meal and a rest at noon, and then work a little more in the afternoon. Vexandi's magmin ally continues to show its value, charring girdles into tree after tree. By the time you're ready to quit for the evening, you're cautiously optimistic—tomorrow should be your last day out here. You hurry back to the cavern to eat and rest.
12 Imogen, 973 IR
Your big day starts out warm and clear as its predecessor, and you are in the fields early to get cracking on the last of your tree-killing duties. As before, the air is hot and still, and the smoke from the magmin's efforts doesn't really do anything to help. But you don't care; your ordeal is nearly over, and soon you'll be paid for your work. Paid well, at that. Enough for a hot bath, a soft bed, and a great deal of drinking-to-forget.
At noon, you're done. After a pause to retrieve the loot and supplies you collected from the necromancers' stores, and the wagon you seized as a means to carry them, you're at liberty to head back to civilization immediately, or to stay put in relative safety at the cavern until morning. Mbali and Uluwasi are discussing the matter back and forth between the two of them, seeming ambivalent about which option is the better approach. Now might be a good time to voice a preference, if you had one.
Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold
Vexandi has no preference, and states as much if asked.
"We've run into trouble on the road. I think we should spend the night in the cave and get as early a start as we can. It's more defensible than any camp we make, and if we're going to dig in for the night on the road, better to get an early start."
"He talks sense," agrees Uluwasi, and Mbali makes a gesture of grudging agreement. Looks like you're staying the night.
It took you most of a day's travel to get from Baronet Delavee's hall at Vine Grove to this general area, so you rest up for the afternoon—the better to push hard down the road tomorrow and avoid getting caught in the open. You post guards, and the day wears on into the afternoon, and then into full night, without incident. You have a waxing gibbous moon tonight, which is enough that your guards near the cavern's mouth can see, a little, by its light.
Things stay quiet up until a couple of hours after supper, at which point one of the hobs on guard calls out in warning. Before any of you can do more than get to your feet and clutch at a weapon, there's a loud shout of fear and anger from the same hob, "I CAN'T SEE!"
Henrik Standard and draws his axe. "Like as not he has been blooded by profane magic. Be Ready for a fight."
By the time Henrik gets to the mouth of the cave, the hob on guard bellows, "Sibu! SIBUSISO! Where are you?!? Where's the woman?" The dwarf finds him alone, spear and shield in hand, turning nervously in place as he shouts, "HELP! I'm blind and Sibu's not answering me!"
Perhaps feeling especially helpful or maybe just not wanting to be taken by surprise, Johten grabs up a burning brand from the fire in one hand (his weapon in the other) and rushes toward the mouth of the cave. "What's he yelling about? What woman?" he bellows.
When Vexandi and Johten arrive, the hob is just telling Henrik, "Sibusiso stepped over here to piss, and a-a beautiful woman came out of the forest! But she looked wrong, too. Slimy, like a newt. And her arms were misshapen. Like they were snakes. Still she was the most beautiful thing I've seen."
He takes in a great, ragged breath, and bursts out, "If he is gone, then she has taken him with her. Shit! I cannot point to the place where I last saw him, because I cannot see!"
Johten holds his brand high and does a slow spin, looking for any obvious signs pointing to Sibusiso's whereabouts.
Johten finds nothing of note, but his light is enough for Vexandi to note the traces of someone's passage through the underbrush, heading southeastward away from the narrow dirt track that passes for the royal highway in this area.
As the elf, dwarf, and human are trying to make sense of why Sibusiso would head AWAY from civilization, Mbali and the other hobs erupt from the cavern, spears and shields at the ready. They almost look disappointed when there's no sign of danger, but this is overshadowed immediately when they see that there's a missing hobgoblin.
"Where is Sibusiso?" Mbali asks, blankly. "He would not leave his post."
"There are tracks here, headed southeast", Vex points out. "That is all I have discovered so far."
"It appears he may have been lured out with sorcery. And sorcery may be responsible for the sudden loss of sight."
"Ya think?" grumbles Johten rhetorically.
After some back-and-forth between the hobs, all in rapid Goblin, a couple of them lead Fanyana back into the cavern to show him to Rasnak and Leland in hopes that they can do something for his blindness. Uluwasi goes to consult with the druid, as well.
Meanwhile, Mbali goes over to inspect the traces Vexandi has found, presumably from Sibusiso's departure. Aside to the, she muses, "Too much to hope we could leave without any further trouble, eh, Joe?" But then she gets down to business and asks the shaman, "Vexandi Iwu, what do you think about umfundisi Henrik 's explanation for this. Sorcery? A wicked spirit? You know more of such things than I."
Amid the confusion, Vandersrike frowns.
"This feels like a trap. Our distressed colleagues are drawing our attention away from what?"
Vandersrike peers around inquisitively.
"Oy, I think you're right. Whatever took him will probably be satisfied with a single victim. We could lose more lives if we try to mount a rescue. Mbali, these are your people. Will you risk the rest of their lives to save one? If you will, I'll go too, but I wouldn't dare go without you to track and Johten to frighten off anything smaller than a dwarf." Henrik's dour exterior momentarily softens. "These are the kinds of decisions leaders are tasked with. They're the kind that makes me feel more comfortable with strangers. It's hard to live with yourself if your decisions cost the lives of your kin, especially if that's true no matter what you choose." It's obvious that Henrik doesn't envy the hobgoblin leader's choice, but he's ready to charge into the darkness if she feels she must.
"Though the situation is what I could expect from a fey, blinding one victim and luring the other away, I don't know of any reason they would choose to attack us. We have not set up camp in any of their territory, and the destruction we have caused over the past days has been in the interest of the fey. Also, I do not know how this woman with snake-like arms fits with any fey I know of. It could be something particular to this region, though. Rasnak might be a better source of information on this than I."
From her looks, Mbali is badly upset just by the thought of abandoning one of her kinsmen to whatever has taken Sibusiso. But the chieftain doesn't take it out on Henrik or Vandersrike, and listens more or less patiently to Vexandi before she says, "I should check on Fanyana. We shall see what the kobold priest has to tell us. And I also will consult Leland Spark."
She marches into the cave, tossing over her shoulder, "Please bring out more lights. Continue to look around for traces, but stay in shouting distance of the cavern."
When M'bali consults him, Leland observes, "His eyes are doing what they usually do; they should be working, but they. . .aren't." He grimaces. "It sounds like one of the fey's doings, and possibly one of the more unsavory types." The druid briefly shudders. "It may have...ah...Had Sibusiso over for dinner. I want you all to be prepared for the worst outcomes, and I don't recommend splitting our party if there are dangerous beings out and about."
"I'm not against killing this thing for revenge. Killing it won't bring back anyone it killed, but it'll make sure it never preys on sentient life again. We can't have monsters getting a taste for our kinds."
Mbali doesn't really acknowledge Henrik; she's busy staring at the cavern ceiling, agonizing over what to do about this latest development. After a minute, she asks Leland, "You are telling me that you think Sibusiso already is dead, Leland Spark? I wish for there to be no misunderstanding."
Leland grimaces and hesitates a moment before answering, "I'm saying it's a strong possibility, and if it did kill him, we should be careful in how we pursue his captor." He waves over toward the entrance of the cave. "Whatever it is that abducted him is quite likely very dangerous."
Mbali's lips tremble, and for a horrible moment Leland, Henrik, and the other onlookers think they're about to see the hob woman break down and cry. But she manages to pull herself together, and forces out, "Then we will wait until dawn to search for Sibusiso."
Uluwasi looks grim at this decision, but bows to the chaka and goes off to reorganize the sentries.
Dawn, 13 Imogen, 973 IR
Rasnak's Clanhold, Enteria
It's difficult to rest the night with eight very anxious, unhappy hobgoblins fidgeting more or less constantly, but you manage to get at least some sleep by the time sunrise rolls around. At that point, Mbali and Uluwasi lead their kinsmen in boiling out of the cavern into the pink light of dawn, hardly even pausing to wolf down some dried fruit and salt beef as a hasty breakfast.
Already there are purple mare's tails of cloud streaking the western sky, but the goblinoids are heedless of this promise of coming rain. They set about looking for Sibusiso's trail, and shortly they find it. At this juncture, they seem greatly concerned with tracking him, to such a great degree that nobody really even troubles to tell the rest of you whether to stay or go; Fanyana is the only one who remains behind, and he seems untroubled at the possibility that he might be left alone if you decide to accompany the other hobs. Truth be told, he's bearing up fairly well under his sudden blindness—obviously he's not happy, but at the moment his manner suggests that he's more concerned about becoming a burden to the expedition than he is with the long-term difficulties that will face him without his vision.
Evrinel stays behind with Fanyana, while the rest of the expedition follows after Mbali and the other hobs. It turns out that following Sibusiso's trail must not be that difficult; Mbali and Uluwasi together seem to have no difficulties, and before very long the search party has penetrated deep into the forests to the east of Rasnak's old clanhold.
You continue for about an hour; if Sibusiso wasn't struck blind like Fanyana, then he and the mysterious snake-armed woman must have covered this same distance in half the time, since you're badly slowed by the need to keep an eye out for their trail. In that time the sun climbs in the sky, improving general visibility despite the dense forest canopy overhead. Finally, you break into a clearing where a spring bubbles out of a cleft between two rocks. And it's there that you find Sibusiso. Or what's left of him.
He's lying face-up on the ground with his leather armor off and his breeches around his ankles, which would be rather undignified if he still had genitals to expose (which he doesn't). The incredible amount of gore pooled between his thighs suggests that he was alive when his meat-and-two-veg was taken off. Groin wounds tend to bleed, and the poor hob has been lopped clean down to his pubic mound.
Aside from this injury, which Leland immediately pegs as the likely cause of death, Sibusiso looks as if he's basically intact. His torso, neck, and especially his hips and thighs are swathed with strange round bruises—dozens of them, like hickeys, all about the size of an Aureshan silver penny, in sinuous rows. Vexandi and Leland both immediately recognize sucker marks like those which might be left behind by an octopus.
Sibusiso's visage is fixed in an expression of horrified, agonized surprise.
After a moment, Mbali stumbles over to one side and begins vomiting noisily into a clump of weeds. Uluwasi remains impassive, but several of the other hobs look like they're on the verge of joining their chaka.
Rasnak examines the injuries impassively. The little kobold hops around, scrambling to see all the marks and the final, lethal wound.
"Thissss isssss not natural. It'sssss a bad thing. Very badsss. A bothrian, a mix up of partsssss, made by wizardssss doing what they ssssshould not," the cleric hisses. "Perhapssss one of the wizardssss here."
"Good thing they're dead, then. I think we should move off and at speed. It doesn't look like it ate enough to avoid getting hungry again unless hobgoblins are significantly better endowed than I am. And if this thing only eats those bits, I'll probably be the next target." Henrik knows this isn't the right time for these types of jokes, but he just can't help himself. There is no smile in his play.
Unsure of what a bothrian is, Leland concurs with Henrik, at least in part. "I suggest we retrieve our fellows and make haste out of here." To the hobgoblins, he says, "I regret your loss, but in all likelihood, our comrade here would have bled out long before we stumbled on him in the dark. I don't want any more of us meeting a similar fate chasing after wicked creatures."
Joe doesn't react to the sight at first. He looks to Mbali with compassion, then to Uluwasi, giving the latter a stiff nod before he steps forward and quietly attempts to restore some of Sibusiso's dignity by covering the most egregious of his wounds before picking the dead man up in both arms to carry back to the relative safety of the cave.
Once Mbali has finished being sick into the bushes, you make your way back to the cavern. There's a short delay while Uluwasi and a couple of other hobs tend to the simple funerary rites that prevail among their little group, and then you pack up your loot, strap it to Horace the Mule's back, and take enough food for a couple of days from the stores you liberated from the necromancers.
This done, you get the hell out of the jungle, starting by making your way back to the dirt track that passes for the royal highway in these parts. Once you've found it, you head southwest, making the best possible speed towards Baronet Delavee's manor. The hobs are understandably withdrawn, given recent events. But on the bright side, every step you take improves the chances that you'll live to get paid and spend your takings. By any reasonable standard other than an adventurer's, you'll all be . . . eh, not wealthy. But comfortably middle-class.
The prospect of civilization, proper food, and eventual wealth helps to lighten your step, and before long it's noon, and you think you must be halfway to the Baronet's hall. There are a couple of tense moments about then, as Leland spots a couple of black bears that he thinks must be a mother and one of her grown cubs, foraging a short distance from the road. But it's soon evident that the bears heard you almost as soon as you knew about them, and you're far enough away that nobody really has cause to feel threatened. The encounter passes peacefully, and you continue down the road for another couple of hours.
But there are still (you think) around four more hours of travel remaining when you begin to hear the sounds of thunder from the west, and a look at the sky suggests that cloud cover is thickening overhead. Mbali and Uluwasi talk quietly in Goblin, obviously deciding whether it'd be best to seek shelter, or to just press through the storm to Vine Grove.
After a fairly intense discussion, the hob leadership announces that the march back to civilization will continue despite the possibility of inclement weather. This is a hard decision to dislike, at least for the next half-hour or so, but then large, fat raindrops begin to come down. They're sporadic at first, but the increasing strength of the west wind and frequency and volume of thunder suggest that a storm is rapidly drawing nearer, and soon the afternoon sunlight is eclipsed by cloud cover in the deep purple of a fresh bruise.
Shortly thereafter, a downpour begins, and the combined noise of the wind and rain impairs your vision and hearing. On the bright side, tracking you through this slop will be next to impossible, even for things that rely on scent. And if you can't see or hear clearly, neither can anything that might be looking for you.
You plod onward for another hour or so, and pass through a narrow, shallow creek that flows out of what looks like a small pond. Its immediate surroundings are beautifully kept, although you cannot see any evidence of nearby habitation. In better weather it would make an idyllic spot to pitch a camp or stop to rest and eat a meal. But today you're in a hurry to get to what passes for civilization in Enteria.
After a little more than another hour, the rain finally lets up, and you continue (soggily) through lands that you now recognize as part of the outskirts of Baronet Delavee's estates. A half-hour later, you're heading downhill into the rolling vinyards that surround his manor house, and can finally consider yourself relatively safe. It's nearly dark, so as a matter of courtesy to your host (and perhaps more importantly, his kitchen staff) you should step lively.
Sunset, 13 Imogen, 973 IRDelavee HallVine Grove, Enteria
By the time you reach the baronet's hall, you've been spotted; the household steward is waiting for you on the steps outside the main entry, and greets Mbali. He says nothing, but it's clear that he's counted your membership and noticed that you're short several hobgoblins and a dwarf. Inviting you inside, he notes that supper will be another couple of hours, and that it will be simple fare because they weren't sure when—or if—to expect you back. In the meantime, the hall's at your disposal, and hot water will be available shortly to allow you to wash. A groom shows up to take Horace the Mule off to the stables, and for the first time in over a week you are in a fortified building that is guarded by people other than yourselves.
The hall is mostly empty of people at this hour, but you can hear the clatter of pots and dishes from the kitchen, and the sounds of a game of horseshoes ongoing in the stableyard behind the manor. From the cursing and occasional shouts, it seems likely that there's money trading hands over the outcome of the match.
Before you have time to investigate, though, a couple of servants rush in with a wooden basins, and a couple more arrive with buckets of cold water. The senior maid pauses to announce, "There's the cold. Wait a spell longer and we'll have some hot to go with, and soap so's you can wash proper."
She adds, to Mbali, "There's a bit of privacy in the scullery, m'lady, if you'd care for it. I believe you know the way."
Henrik begins stripping. "Cold first, then hot to finish up in. I want to wash off the dirty sweat and finish with a clean sweat."
Leland stares at the tubs for a moment or two and observes, "It's probably just the last few days' events talking -- by heaven, it feels like years, now, but..." He shrugs. "I'm content to take turns."
"You're afraid to be naked in a pool of water but you trust these companions to stand with you in a fight? Humans!"
"Not all of 'em," grunts Johten as he sets aside his remaining gear and prepares for the luxury of a bath. He'd been casting greedy eyes on the tubs since the moment the arrived.
Mbali watches the servants leave, glances around, and then says quietly, "No one is to speak of the goods we confiscated from the plantation, is that clear? If anyone asks, we found little of note except for the wine and trees, which we destroyed after killing the necromancers and their slaves."
"Not my place to bring anything like that up. I was afraid you might feel it was yours. Glad to hear we're on the same page."
Johten considers quietly and then nods.
Rasnak looks doubtfully at the cold water tubs, "Rasssnak will wait. Cold water makesss Rasssnak ssssleep."
"Not that it bothers me one way or the other, but are all you kobolds male? I haven't seen anyone lay an egg, but I gather only chickens lay them all the time."
Rasnak answers without hesitation, "We are malessss, yesssss. Femalessss lay clutchesss every ssssixth or ssssseventh fortnight. Mated eggssss hatch, otherssss we eatsss."
Mbali disappears into the scullery to get her own bathing done, even as buckets of hot water are being trundled out by servants. Henrik's partial nudity makes several of them look a little nervous, but they make it out of the room without saying anything.
Meanwhile, one of the hobgoblins, Kakaka, queries, "How do you tell a female kobold from a male kobold?" He elaborates, apparently without any hint of self-consciousness, "I'm getting so that I can tell apart you and Lord Vandersrike, because he's taller and wears jewelry. But mostly, you all look alike to me."
Rasnak looks to Vandersrike for a moment, trying to decern why the hobgoblin has so much trouble telling them apart, "We don't need to look. We ssssmell the difference. Ssssmellsss change when needssss to mate. But for ssspeciesss with lesser sssensesss... Malessss are taller, heavier... but femalesss have longer middle..." He pauses, indicating his torso with a scaly claw, but seems to be struggling with the common word for it, "Thissss part."
"There are subtle distinctions for the untrained eye, but the most pronounced differences are the ridges on the tail, the curvature of the beak, and, as the Holy One points out, a prolonged torso."
Vandersrike removes his motley clothing and his tarnished jewelry.
"The female aroma is intoxicating, if your olfactory senses are sufficiently attenuated. It reminds me of warm dust settling on freshly melted aurum."
The taller kobold slips into the chilled water.
Rasnak hisses in agreement, "Yesssss, torsssso."
"I've heard humans make the claim that everyone looks the same in the dark, but it never made much sense to me. Seems like a bad excuse to justify unseemly behavior."
Vandersrike sighs. As he flicks his hand, water droplets spray across the room.
"Humans cannot see in the dark. That is the joke."
"Also, there is the unintentional joke that humans will fuck anything," adds Kakaka, forthrightly, disrobing happily now that the hall is once again relatively private. He continues, "Which appears to be true, since there are so many kinds of half-human."
"It is known," agrees another hobgoblin, named (you think) Kgabu.
"No offense, Johten Ward," comments the first hob, after a moment's reflection, during which he begins to soap himself down, "You are alright."