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."