Fanax continues to follow his kinsman's runaway pony, and catches up to it. He grasps the beast's lead, and it flicks its ears in resignation at being caught.
Meanwhile, Running Bear hurries northeastward, passing up Zathrus's pet wolf. The bugbear readies a javelin as he goes.
Cha'nek, the aforesaid wolf, trots vaguely after Zathrus, tongue lolling out as he gets into the spirit of pursuing the fleeing boar, while behind Running Bear, a phalanx of earth elementals pops into being and looks to Gorx for instructions.
Yellow indicates the presence of light undergrowth. A space covered with light undergrowth costs 2 squares of movement to move into, and it provides concealment. Undergrowth increases the DC of Tumble and Move Silently checks by 2 because the leaves and branches get in the way.
Orange indicates the presence of heavy undergrowth. Heavy undergrowth costs 4 squares of movement to move into, and it provides concealment with a 30% miss chance (instead of the usual 20%). It increases the DC of Tumble and Move Silently checks by 5. Heavy undergrowth is easy to hide in, granting a +5 circumstance bonus on Hide checks. Running and charging are impossible.
Blue indicates water, which functions as a shallow bog. If a square is part of a shallow bog, it has deep mud or standing water of about 1 foot in depth. It costs 2 squares of movement to move into a square with a shallow bog, and the DC of Tumble checks in such a square increases by 2. Shallow bogs impose a -2 penalty to Move Silently checks.
Brown dots indicate normal trees. A creature standing in the same square as a tree gains a +2 bonus to Armor Class and a +1 bonus on Reflex saves (these bonuses don’t stack with cover bonuses from other sources). The presence of a tree doesn’t otherwise affect a creature’s fighting space, because it’s assumed that the creature is using the tree to its advantage when it can. A tree has AC 4, hardness 5, and 150 hp. A DC 15 Climb check is sufficient to climb a tree.
24 - Grimvaalk (Blue 1, mounted)
22 - Oni Unetsi (Blue 5)
20 - Grimvaalk's Pony (Black 1)
18 - Zathrus (Blue 3, mounted)
13 - Fanax (Blue 4)
08 - Yonah Adisi (Blue 6)
07 - Cha'nek (Black 3)
06a - Gorx (Blue 2, mounted)
06b - Gorx's Mule (Black 2)
06c - Earth Elementals (Yellow 1-6)
04 - Boar (Red)
It is currently Gorx's turn.
The boar has taken 27 points of damage.
Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold
Gorx smashes a fist into an open palm, then points in the general direction of where he thinks the boar is. He urges his spirits on with a brisk motion of his hand. The elementals head southwest, gliding effortlessly down beneath the surface of the ground as they go.
For its part, the boar splashes through the creek bed, then heaves its bulk up the opposite bank and through the undergrowth, bursting out the other side. Catching the beast is going to be a real chore if it isn't brought down fairly soon.
It is currently Grimvaalk's turn.
Grimvaalk urges his mount southward to close the distance between him and the fleeing boar, and looses another pair of arrows. The first slaps loudly into swineflesh, eliciting a long scream of distress that continues until it seems like it will never end, only to start up again as soon as the boar draws fresh breath. The second arrow misses, unfortunately.
And the boar is still on its feet.
Oni Unetsi hurries to catch up to Zathrus, crossbow at the ready.
It is currently Zathrus's turn.
The boar has taken 34 points of damage. It is bleeding.
Zathrus's brow tightens and his mouth turns down in a frown. He's clearly fed up. "Freeze, little piggy," he growls. A compact bundle of some kind of energy streaks from somewhere near him to slam into the porker. Afterward, it looks like the boar has stopped moving.
It is currently Fanax's turn.
The boar has taken 41 points of damage. It's dead.
Fanax, having captured Grimvaalk's not-very-motivated runaway pony, heads back toward the rest of the expedition with it in tow.
It is currently Yonah's turn.
Yonah infers that piggy is dead and asks Gorx, looking mildly concerned at
the earth elementals, "Do your friends know not to smash us next?"
Perhaps Cha'nek has seen Zathrus kill animals before. Perhaps he's just excited. Or perhaps he's hungry and wants to get a quick nibble before anyone can stop him. Regardless of his exact motivations, the wolf crashes rapidly through the undergrowth after the pig.
Gorx grunts. "Probably not."
He yells at his elementals. "Come back!" He points at the elementals and points at the ground next to himself.
Victory (and ham) is yours.
"Cha'nek, you idiot! You make off with that pig and we'll be eating you tonight instead!"
The wolf romps back out of the underbrush, tongue lolling happily and muzzle clean of any signs that he's been at the boar's carcass.
Gorx dismounts and reaches down to the earth. He pulls up a clod of soil and forms it into a hollow ball using his spittle to wet the shape. Just as he's preparing to finish the sphere, he breathes into the middle of the amalgamation of local earth and his water and air. Once sealed, the shaman offers it to the Earth Elementals in thanks before releasing them from the pact.
The elementals disappear the moment Gorx releases them, without a sign of emotion. Pretty typical for elementals, if we're being frank about it.
Meanwhile, Cha'nek pees on a bush.
"Well, best someone should retrieve it," says Zathrus as he begins heading his mount back to the path. "We eat well tonight," he says without turning around.
"Good job," Fanax offers breathlessly and easily. Looking around cautiously the goblin finishes, "Make camp soon?"
Gorx grunts at Fanax's suggestion. "If any of you are halfway decent with cooking, camp would be good. I burn water, so I am happy to keep moving on."
Seeing no one else move to fetch the boar, Yonah grimaces and begins to head carefully through the brush to where the boar is. "Cover me in case something in the river has a taste for wild boar," he calls to the others.
The water turns out to be about knee deep on Yonah, and pleasantly cool rather than cold. No real chance of anything eating him here.
In short order, Oni has joined him, and the two bugbears make reasonably quick work dragging the boar over to a decent sized tree, where they can hoist him and make the ensuing tasks easier. By the time this is accomplished, the rest of the expedition has forded the creek. Grimvaalk and Fanax end up being nominated to handle the rest of the job, since they've spent most of their lives hunting for animals and helping to break down the carcasses into food and useful hides.
So soon enough, the boar's hanging head-downward, and it becomes evident that nobody has a pot in which to catch his blood. And if that's going to have to go to waste, there's little point in bleeding the animal all in one go (not to mention the time it would eat up). Better to just gut and quarter it. So the task moves immediately to disembowelment—a ticklish job, characterized by great care to avoid getting feces, urine, or other contaminants into the interior of the carcass. The two hunters manage it well, though, and even save the heart, liver and kidneys from the gut pile, stuffing them summarily back into the chest cavity to keep them clean, and then peeling the tenderloins off of the boar's spine and storing them in the same place.
A moment's work on the neck with Fanax's handaxe, and the head is off. A moment more, and the hams are separated from the rest of the carcass, skin on and ready to be slung across a pack pony's back, leaving the torso and shoulders, likewise covered in skin to protect the outside while you finish the day's march.
And after a moment of inattention on Zathrus's part, Cha'nek takes advantage of the opportunity to roll around in the boar's intestines.
After washing up Fanax mounts up and offers to take the lead.
Noticing Cha'nek's state, Zathrus sighs deeply and simply says "don't think you're sleeping under a tent tonight."
Cha'nek's tongue lolls out, as if to say, "We'll see about that later, my little blueberry."
But Cha'nek is downwind at the moment, and it's time to continue the march. So sleeping arrangements are a problem for future Zathrus, and not really within the scope of present Zathrus's concerns.
Even with the little bit of time you've lost to dressing your supper-to-be, you have plenty of daylight left (not that it REALLY matters, except that you can see a lot farther across the steppes when the sun is up). But about three hours later, you're looking for a good spot to camp, preferably someplace with access to water and plenty of fuel for a cookfire. In light of your impromptu hunt, you need both.
Grimvaalk recalls that the dragon's hunting preferences suggest that it is most active at night. He's concerned about the possibility that the light from a cooking fire will make it easier for the dragon to spot the expedition's campsite once the sun goes down. Cooking an entire pig is going to necessitate a low, slow fire burning all night, so this is a problem.
That's much less of a threat if there's no light to betray them. If there's no fire, the dragon would have to fly directly over your campsite, low enough to be able to see the ground clearly. Dragons purportedly have very keen senses, but the odds would be stacked decisively in the party's favor this way.
On the other hand, roasted pork is delicious, and the meat isn't going to keep very long if it isn't cooked soon. There are all manner of good campsites nearby, since the expedition's march has brought it up to the vicinity of another creek, with the usual attendant fringe of brush and small trees. Perhaps someone will be able to think of a way to hide the fire.
In the end, Gorx comes up with the solution that's going to get you safely through the night, as he conjures up a quartet of fire elementals who blaze merrily in the late afternoon sunlight as they inquire as to the shaman's bidding.
Fortunately, he speaks Ignan, and a discussion ensues as he explains, in detail, the limits of service—to keep watch for the next few hours. One of them to stand extremely close to the spitted portions of wild boar, to serve as a heat source for its cooking. And perhaps most importantly of all: to dim their natural illumination, burning sooty and dark as a well-banked fire beneath ash, so as not to betray the expedition's presence, and avoid burning things to alleviate their boredom. Knowing that fire elementals reflexively seek to spread flames to everything they can reach, Gorx takes great care to impress upon them how critical it is that they not indulge.
The choicest, most delicate portions of the boar are the first to cook, so that supper is a heavy repast of tenderloin, loin, and organ meats. By the time it's beginning to get really dark, everyone is fed, the ponies are hobbled, and the wolves are bedded down for the night. Your expedition isn't freed of the necessity to set watches—if nothing else, you'll need to designate someone to keep an eye on the elementals in case they forget their orders and start burning things. And sometime in the night, the elementals are going to disappear anyway, since Gorx's will can only hold them in the mortal world for so long.
But at least you get a hot meal tonight, and that without running the risk of betraying yourselves to the dragon.
Dawn, 28 Urthan, 973 IRSomewhere on the Steppes, West of the Adrag Plateau
It's Yonah's watch as the sky begins to light up to the east, silhouetting the mountains of the Adrag Plateau. They looked deceptively close, even when you were a day's hard travel west of here, but you've got another busy day ahead of you just to get into their foothills. But first, it's time to get people awake.
The bugbear is saved this duty, as Cha'nek, Zathrus's pet wolf, takes it upon himself to wake the blue-skinned goblin. With kisses. Sloppy ones, flavored with the well-gnawed boar skin that he dragged out of the hole that you dug last night to dispose of camp trash.
Gorx rolls over and witnesses Cha'nek's affection for Zathrus. Through bleary eyes, the shaman teases his companion.
"If you'd like to be wed, Blueberry, I can ask the spirits to sanction your matrimony. You'll need a ring of course. I'm sure we would all be happy to give you space to consummate your union. Fanax might want to watch, but Grimvaalk is a believer in propriety and will defend your honor and that of your wife."
Gorx gets out of his sleeping bag and begins packing up camp.
Grimdark stirs and squints at the growing light, "Grimvaalk could care less what you do with furry wife."
After pushing away Cha'nek's morning affections, Zathrus scowls at Gorx for a moment, regretting not putting up his tent last night. "Jealousy is an ugly thing," he says finally.
Fanax, who was up with the sun, decides to not add to the conversation. Instead he finishes his morning routine of stretching and preparing for another day on the move.
Gorx shakes his head as he rolls up his bedding. "I wouldn't know. I'm dating the prettiest goat in all the land."
The shaman continues getting ready for the day without further comment.
After a breakfast of leftover boar, the day proceeds uneventfully. No more boar. No signs of danger, even. Just the open steppe, stretching gently but mercilessly uphill into the foothills of the Adrags. The weather is clear and cloudless, and warm almost to the point of being uncomfortable. Fortunately, there are plenty of creeks and streams running out of the mountains, and they make it easy for you to replenish your waterskins and water your mounts.
The last of the boar makes for a quick lunch, and you continue. An hour's travel has you looking upward into the first real hills. If the horde's intelligence from Lwazi is correct, the dragon's lair must be somewhere not too far off. It's hard to conduct an effective search in broken country like this because you have to crest a hill or go around it to see what's on its backside—line of sight is constantly interrupted. The dragon, being able to fly, is much less constrained.
It's dry on this side of the Adrags, but not really a desert. Trees on the higher slopes are small and sparse, but you can see that this is less true as you travel east into the mountains themselves. It may be worthwhile for you to press ahead in search of a place with better cover, and then conduct the beginnings of your search for the dragon in the morning.
In aid of your search for a place to camp, Gorx calls a brief halt so that he can drag a sextet of little air elementals out of the Spirit World. The creatures materialize like puffs of living cloud, and after a short exchange of breathy-sounding words in Auran, they rocket off into the sky, searching for a sheltered place where you can make camp for the night.
Whatever they find should be adequate as shelter against the dragon, if it flies overhead in the night, since the elementals are seeing things from the same point of view.
While you wait, you'll have to decide whether to stay put or continue to travel higher into the Adrag hills.
Gorx watches the elementals depart. He looks at his colleagues.
"Let us proceed, yes?"
"I assume your elementals will be able to track us then?" is all Fanax offers as a reply.
Gorx nods at his cousin. "Yes, they can. If for some reason they cannot, then we can rest assured that neither can the dragon."
Gorx nods and smiles.
"A nifty trick you have," comments Zathrus almost absently, "your affinity for bringing elemental creatures to this plane. Lots of potential uses there. Are the elemental languages overly complicated?"
Gorx sighs. "Terran is ridiculous. The conjugation changes based on relative depth below ground and it completely lacks a subjunctive. Also, it hurts my throat. Auran is a much better language and probably worth your time."
He considers for a moment.
"Does anyone speak Draconic?"
Fanax nods silently and responds, "I do."
You trek further east into the Adrags, wending your way over and between the foothills for another hour or so before one of Gorx's air elementals returns from the southwest, whistling of a stand of pine trees in a valley, and of the entryway to a cavern beneath them.
The spirit's distaste for the cave is palpable; it prefers to dwell instead on the excellent rustling of the pine boughs.
Even as it concludes its report, a second elemental surges down from just above the hilltop to your east to deliver news of another cavern, this one located at the base of a cliff where the hillside has sheared away from itself to create a rubble field with a tunnel leading into the earth. The second spirit doesn't have anything positive to say about the site, but that may just be an expression of its natural prejudices against confined spaces and stone.
Oni perks up. "A cave. I wonder how deep it goes," he says aloud, mostly to himself.
Gorx listens to the reports from his air elementals. He turns to Fanax. "What sounds less pleasant in Draconic? Cave or cavern?"
Offering a wry smile, "Depends on the listeners feelings about each word, I suppose."
Looking at the elementals, and then back to Gorx, Fanax offers levelly, "Cavern. Giving specificity to the word cave some study of those who speak the language believe that it's a bit blunt."
Shrugging, "However, some like the specifity and not the general use of the word cave. Me? I would want to know if other animals were seen around either area. If the dragon truly is hungry then I imagine the area around it's home is relatively barren. If not for death then for fear of the beast."
Finishing the goblin looks to the group, "But what do I know about dragons?"
Gorx shrugs. "No idea. Where should we go?"
"Would taking a peek in both caves mean splitting up? I am not opposed to doing so. The beast may make its nest in one of them, or they could go so deep they actually connect. If they are shallow, dry and uninhabited, either might make a good place to stop and rest the next time we need to make camp."
Gorx considers. "I can ask more from the spirits. I'm sure there are vermin who would explore the caves for us. I think I would rather stick together than split up. The Horde's strength is in unity. I think."
Grimvaalk elbows Fanax and jests, "Heh, that was a very un-Gorx-like comment."
Gorx rolls his eyes at his cousin. "If the dragon shows up, I obviously want you to fight it instead of me. You, instead, of me. U-ni-me, unity, whatever."
Fanax just shakes his head and asks, "Are there spirits that you can send into both sites and report back to us? If vermin work, then send vermin."
The goblin finishes, "I would prefer to go to the right area the first time."
Gorx inquires: "Is the right area the one that lets us hide from the dragon, or the one where the dragon is? Either way, I will see what is here."
Gorx dismisses his air elementals, and quickly replaces them by conjuring forth a quartet of hellish-looking giant bees. All of the members of the expedition, with the possible exception of Zathrus, are familiar with the version of this creature as it appears in the mortal world: glittering black compound eyes, chitinous brown or black thorax, an abdomen striped in yellow and black, and plenty of fuzz and hair. Not really that different from an ordinary honey bee, except that the giant species are about the size of a wolf.
These bees are similarly sized, but their chitin is hooked and spiked, and there's a bloody tinge to the black of their stripes. The leading edges of their wings look sharp, and their fuzz is coarse and wiry. They look like something that might very well kill a honey-robber, and then hunt down his next of kin.
But they speak a debased version of the Infernal tongue, and Gorx can talk to them well enough to give them orders. The buzzing horrors depart on their prescribed reconnaissance missions, one pair heading southwest to check out the cave under the pines, and the other winging its way east to inspect the cavern under the cliff. They seem to understand that the objective is to find, explore, and return without getting into a fight.
About a half-hour after dispatching his scouts, Gorx is startled when he suddenly feels a lightening on the burden of holding spirits in the mortal world. Half of his bees are just . . . gone.
Gorx shudders. "One of the locations is extremely deadly. When my scouts return, we will know which one."
Fanax gives the side eye to Gorx.
"That's disconcerting. And helpful," replies the woodsman wryly. "When do you estimate the secret will be revealed?"
Gorx reaches out to each of his remaining scouts in turn, checking in to see what they're experiencing—in both cases, they're crawling around a small cave that looks empty to them—and then directing them to return to him.
The complete absence where Gorx used to "feel" the other two bees in his mind suggests that they are either dead, or banished back to the Spirit World. He suspects that the former is more likely, just because the sort of magic that would be required to banish a spirit is sufficiently advanced that death is more plausible. Lots of things might be able to kill a bee the size of a mastiff.
Not many could account for two such creatures, more or less simultaneously.