After a minute, Gorx checks his surviving bees again. They're both still together, and still in motion—through a copse of trees.
Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold
Gorx nods. "Southwest is safe. East is death."
Oni nods. "East it is, then?"
"Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats." - H.L. Mencken
Gorx nods. "Today is a good day for unity."
Grimvaalk shakes his head, "Wait, wait... Weren't we going to camp outside and wait to see if the dragon comes out? We could be heading into a den of who knows what while the dragon is somewhere else entirely."
"That's possible," adds Zathrus. "It's also possible that if it was a dragon that ate your bees, it's on high alert. They didn't exactly look like normal residents of a local hive."
"I can go," offers Fanax.
"Scout around and report back. The bees were nice but it would be great to get some more useful information."
Fanax turns to Gorx, "Unless you can whip up something that can tell us more than life or death?"
Gorx leans back in his saddle. "I can speak with them just fine. They're dead now, so I can't speak with them well. I'm no necromancer. I can speak with the survivors when they return."
He looks up at the sun, then back toward his companions.
"We can camp outside the lair and wait for signs of the dragon to pass, but we run the risk of being seen. I'm no woodsblin either - if you think camping outside the lair is effective, we'll do that. If we should enter so that we don't get ambushed outside, we'll do that."
Grimvaalk frowns at the plan, "Fanax, you're a ranger, not dragon bait. If this cave is a dragon's den, I'm sure we can find evidence of it out here or just inside. If its a den for something else, then they'll be tracks or traces for that too. Let's spread out and see what we can find."
Grimvaalk stalks around the cave entrance, examining the ground and rock. "There's something living in that cave." He points at the tracks leading down, "There are tracks on the ground, leading down there. No small animals around, it's likely a predator."
He nudges some of the ground, poking a cluster of dead plants with a stick, "But this is odd. The plants around the cave are all dead. It should be green around the cave, but everything looks like it was killed off. Posion maybe? They could have been killed in a cold snap, but its been warm. And why didn't anything else grow back?"
Gorx shakes his head. "Not poison. Not disease. Not natural." Gorx looks around.
"Probably whatever is in the cave."
"You think?" asks Zathrus sarcastically. He eyes the entrance warily. "Is it home?" he asks, no trace of sarcasm left.
Grimvaalk shrugs, "We should be able to camp some distance from here, camouflage our camp and wait. Worse case it comes to us and we will it. Fighting it on our own terrain may be the difference between us slaying it and us being its next meal. Maybe even we can set some bait." Grimvaalk eyes the ponies and horses with the group.
"I don't like the idea of it being able to just fly up. How do you prevent a dragon from doing that? Do you insult it?"
Gorx scratches under his chin.
Fanax offers, "I think I will just go in now. Lets just get this done."
The goblin looks to the group and continues, "We're facing an enemy we're not prepared to fight and we have no field control. Let's just go and see what killed the bees. If we die at least we do it on our terms."
"Controlling the battlefield, no, I don't suppose we have any immediate plan for that. But Yonah and I may be able to keep our quarry from taking flight. We brought rope," he shrugs the coils down from his shoulder and hefts them for emphasis. "I even have a hook. Maybe we can ensnare the beast's wings? Standing on opposite sides of the cave mouth, we can surprise it and try to keep it on the ground and in one place. Until..." Oni shrugs. "That's as far as I got."
"It may be all we have if Fanax continues with his pinkskin plan. We should be ready in case he draws it out."
Gorx's eyes go wide at Grimvaalk's pinkskin comment. He turns to Fanax to see his cousin's reaction.
Zathrus seems in his own head for a while. Finally, he speaks. "It seems rash to want to walk in there as bold as can be. No animal follows a weasel into its den, for good reason. That is, assuming this is even where we want to be. Big as they were, anything could have killed those bees."
He looks around at the surrounding terrain. "On the other hand, we don't know much about what it is we're hunting. We could benefit from watching it a while. But do we know enough to not get caught? Even if we keep out of sight, how good is its sense of smell? Or can it see through cover? If it's in there, it's possible it could be listening to us right now, if it has good hearing." His tone has a ring of 'do you get what I'm saying?'.
"As for baiting it... I suppose it's not the worst idea. But by all accounts, dragons aren't dull animals to simply take the meal and never consider what horses this close to its home might mean."
Fanax bristles at Grimvaalks comment and appears to begin a retort when Oni pipes up. Instead Fanax shakes his head refusing to bite at the simplistic barb.
"Look, I dont plan to walk in there singing the hymnss of Ekar. I just want to go in there and peek around. A few minutes. You girls can sit out here and wait for me."
Yonah can be heard sniffing the air a bit, trying to discern what is around. "If I can smell you, a larger predator surely can," he remarks to Fanax. "Be wary."
"You do that," Zathrus tells Fanax. "I'll be over there." Giving truth to his statement, Zathrus moves to some cover an appropriate distance away.
Fanax eyes Yonah and nods, "Thanks. If my scent gives me away then I assume it will wherever thus fight occurs."
Fanax moves to the opening and looks back and winks, "Get that rope ready."
With that the goblin enters the cave.
Yonah's eyes narrow, and his ears fold back. "This is our spot." He examines the exterior of the cave and laments, "A pity we cannot seal the entrance and starve or suffocate the beast."
As Fanax begins to skulk through the cavern, outside the rest of your expedition hastily takes up positions in readiness to deal with whatever it is he finds inside. Yonah and Oni confer hastily, and decide that if they can entangle the dragon with something, they stand a much better chance of keeping the scaled terror from gaining the skies. Oni prepares a grappling hook and rope that he's carrying with him, and Yonah begins trying to fashion a sort of lariat out of the rope he has. Meanwhile, Grimvaalk, Gorx and Zathrus retire to the east, taking up position in a line of underbrush that extends south from the base of the cliff. Gorx and Zathrus dismount, and the shaman immediately seeks allies from the Spirit World—air elementals, just in case the dragon does manage to take off.
Meanwhile, Fanax can see that the cave immediately branches, one side heading south and the other north. He takes the south tunnel. It's quickly evident that if he wants to move quietly (and despite his willingness to hurry into a dragon's possible lair, he decides that he really does), he's going to have to really creep along because the floor of the cavern is so uneven. Still, it takes him less than a minute to proceed far enough down the tunnel to find that it branches again.
Blue 1 - Fanax
Black 1 - Fanax's pony
Blue 2 - Gorx (mounted)
Black 2 - Gorx's mule
Blue 3 - Grimvaalk (mounted)
Black 3 - Grimvaalk's pony
Blue 4 - Oni Unetsi
Blue 5 - Yonah Adisi
Blue 6 - Zathrus
Black 6 - Zathrus's horse (tethered to tree)
Grey stippling represents boulders and rocks of size significant enough to affect movement. They are "dense rubble." It costs 2 squares of movement to enter a square with dense rubble. The DC of Balance and Tumble checks on dense rubble increases by 5, and the DC of Move Silently checks increases by +2. As a result of the movement penalty, dense rubble counts as difficult terrain; you can't run or charge through it.
Orange squares and yellow squares are light undergrowth. A space covered with light undergrowth costs 2 squares of movement to move into, and it provides 20% concealment. Undergrowth increases the DC of Tumble and Move Silently checks by 2 because the leaves and branches get in the way, but the concealment enables Hide checks.
Dark grey squares represent the hillside. At all times, you may assume that the hillside represents a "steep slope," on which the downhill side is toward the nearest white square. Characters moving uphill (to an adjacent square of higher elevation) must spend 2 squares of movement to enter each square of steep slope; as a result, you cannot run or charge uphill. Characters running or charging downhill (moving to an adjacent square of lower elevation) must succeed on a DC 10 Balance check upon entering the first steep slope square. Mounted characters make a DC 10 Ride check instead. Characters who fail this check stumble and must end their movement 1d2×5 feet later. Characters who fail by 5 or more fall prone in the square where they end their movement. A steep slope increases the DC of Tumble checks by 2.
Dots on the hillside are also trees, with mechanical effects identical to those already described.
The darkest area of the hillside represents a cliff, roughly 40 feet high. A cliff typically requires a DC 15 Climb check to scale. This cliff is not perfectly vertical. For every 20 feet you ascend, you will automatically move 5 feet into its area. If you fail your Climb check by 4 or less, you make no progress. If you fail by 5 or more, you fall from whatever height you have already attained.
The interior of the cavern has natural stone floors. It takes 2 squares of movement to enter a square with a natural stone floor, and the DC of Balance and Tumble checks increases by 5. Running and charging are impossible, except along paths. The walls and ceiling of the cavern are unworked stone. It takes a DC 15 Climb check to move along an unworked stone wall.
Fanax sees some odd shapes on the floor in the branch of the cavern that lies directly west of him (area #2). He can't tell for sure what they are, but it's chilly in the cave. A current of cool air wafts across his feet and shins from the west.
As he gets closer to the odd shapes, it's clearer to Fanax what he's looking at. The goblin skulks up to the nearest of the things on the ground, and after some squinting is able to determine that it's the carcass of a wild goat, well rimed with frost. This part of the cave forms a sort of cul-de-sac, and its floor is covered with what looks like dry evergreen branches. Atop the branches, something has laid slain animals.
Everything is coated with a layer of frost, even the rocks of the cavern.
Fanax sees nothing to explain how it got so cold in there, but the whole arrangement looks suspiciously like food storage to him. His own tribe sometimes uses the same methods to preserve fresh meat in the winter, albeit in a tent instead of a cave.
Fanax looks about the entire cavern as best as possible, taking a mental picture of everything. Nodding to himself as an acceptance the goblin backs out to go down the other branch.
Having examined the larder of frozen animal carcasses, Fanax sneaks northward to explore the next closest branch of the cavern complex. Easing his way northward, he finds no evidence of a dragon's presence quite yet. Instead, the passageway forks again. One branch leads east, and one northwest.
Silently hoping that it doesn't take him too deep into the cave, Fanax heads northwest.
Fanax continues to plumb the depths of the cavern. How deep is too deep? Well.
Probably the best indication he'll have is if he sees an enraged dragon come rushing out of the darkness to try to devour him for invading its home. That may not be very actionable, so perhaps he should try to look for subtler, less certain cues.
He hugs the walls to afford himself whatever cover their pitted, uneven surfaces might grant him, and spelunks northwestward until his darkvision reveals that the passage takes a sharp turn to the right, so that it runs eastward back toward the cliff face. He switches to the opposite wall of the passage and continues to follow it, feeling his way through the chill darkness of the cavern until he sees that a bottleneck waits ahead. It's narrow up there. Not so narrow that he would have trouble, or that a pony or wolf couldn't pass. But his cousin's mule or Zathrus's stupid gigantic horse would have some difficulty.
Unless he's missed a side passage further to the front of the cavern, he thinks that either there's no dragon here at all, or it must be smaller than he and his companions initially feared. Or so he hopes. Because if it's not up ahead of him, it's outside with his kinsmen and allies. Or . . . maybe behind him somewhere. Possibly between him and the exit.
Yes, better to hope that it's up ahead. Far better.
Satisfied, Fanax begins to quietly retrace his steps backwards. For the sake of completeness he will quickly, but quietly check the north east tunnel behind him.
Fanax's diligence and concern proves unnecessary. His check reveals that the possible side tunnel closer to the cavern entrance was not a side tunnel after all. It's just an alternative pathway into the deeper parts of the cave. This is confirmed when he eases a little closer and sees the daylight filtering in from the mouth of the cave system.
Taking his time Fanax makes his way to the cave entrance.
"Put the rope away boys, I am coming out."
The call isn't loud but should be enough for the others to hear. Pausing momentarily Fanax exits the cave. The sun makes him squint for a few moments but the small woodsman finishes the climb out.
"It's a big cave. Deeper than I could safely explore with hope of calling for help or running out if I needed to. Floor is too rough. But I found dead and frosted animals."
Fanax looks back at the cave. "Gorx, can you send some more spirits in there? I think this is the place."
Oni looks disappointed, but only for a moment. He puts the rope away and gets ready to go spelunking, but thinks it is perhaps better to lie in wait until the goblins decide what to do next. Mindful of the dragon's deadly breath, he trots away a little to the south of where the others are hiding, not wanting everyone to get caught together in one blast.
Zathrus visibly relaxes as Fanax reappears. "I guess no one's home," he comments. Eagerly, he moves toward the mouth of the cave, obviously looking forward to a little exploration.
"I wouldn't say that," Fanax offers easily to Zathrus.
"I may have simply no travelled far enough. Do you have some ability to see what lies deeper into the cave? I think we're safe to go where I left off if that helps."
Gorx turns to his air elementals. In their language, he asks them: "Would you be so kind as to find all the passages where the air twists and turns and swirls in this cave? There may be danger within so please do be careful. If you are endangered, please return to me immediately. Do not allow yourself to come to harm."
"I have some small knowledge of caves," replies Zathrus, "but no special ability to dowse where our dragon might be in this one. Not really my thing. I mainly specialize in destruction."
"In the meantime, let's find a place to hide in case this dragon is out and comes back." Grimvaalk starts to head back to the trees.
Gorx's air elementals whistle and hiss unhappily to each other at the notion of going underground, but they obey the shaman's order. While they float deeper into the cavern, the men of your expedition take advantage of the delay to find places to hide, just in case an angry dragon comes roaring out of the cave.
A minute or so passes, and suddenly the air elementals come boiling out of the mouth of the cave, warbling in dismay concerning the danger lurking below the earth. A moment of concentration is sufficient to see why: they're a man (or an elemental) short—six went in, and five came out. Gorx understands the tale a second later, as he feels the burden of holding spirits in the mortal world lessen a touch. Another spirit dead, working his bidding.
In their native tongue, Gorx inquires hastily "What did you find!?"
The elementals gabble wildly about frost, and icy wind, and roaring like a vast gale.
A couple of them are so agitated that it looks like they might spin up into tiny little whirlwinds as they try to watch in every direction at once.
Evidently something is at home.
Gorx nods. He turns to his companions.
"Frost, icy wind, vast gale. Do we go in or try to collapse the cave on it?"
"It has to be expecting something by now," says Zathrus, stating the obvious. "Did your friends find other exits while they poked around down there?"
The air elementals are still yammering and whistling in agitation (Gorx and anyone else who understands Auran can tell that they're actually debating with one another whether the shaman will release them from service if they ask). They spread out slightly and rise into the air as they argue with each other, until they're about forty feet above the valley floor, putting them nearly level with the tops of the nearest trees.
Gorx releases them from service with a deep bow.
Fanax watches the show with a mix of amusement and agitation.
Shaking that off the goblin looks to the group, "So we have no new information." The woodsman side eyes Gorx, "And no way to drop the cave on top of whatever lurks below."
"Does anyone here have a way to magically link to me? I have heard its possible. I'll happily go back in and look rather than sit out here and wait."
Gorx scratches his chin. "We know it is in there and we know it didn't come rushing out to face us. That's new. I'm persuaded if we want to try talking to it."
Grimvaalk is content to let the others argue it out and partially relaxes, leaning against the tree he's using for cover while he passively listens to the discussion.