Wednesday, August 9, 2017

To Hearth-Home and Back: Chapter 3

Frodo set off and rounded the corner back the way they had come and started towards the double doors. As he approached it became clear that there was another hallway facing the doors that they could not see from their cells. He peered down it and saw the flicker of a torch on a wall some thirty to fourty feet away where the hallway joined another perpendicular to it.

Behind the halfling, Malion looked at the double doors. They were solid oak and once belonged to an ancient tree he noted with sadness. They were immensely heavy, and the hinges will well wrought out an equally heavy looking iron. They were designed to swing in towards the party, and there were multiple means of barring them on the wall to his left. No cracks were visible along their seem, lintel, jams or sill, such was the quality of their construction but the half-elf's keen hearing was able to pick out muffled voices from their other side.

Jones stepped passed both Malion and Frodo to peer down the new hallway. "I'm going to take a look down this hall, just to see what lies down that way," he said quietly. He started making his way towards the torch on the far wall, intending to pick it up and see what else was lying around the corner. Jones advanced cautiously, listening for sounds of any additional orcs. Kuhlbert watched as Jones walked down the corridor and decided to follow the man, club at the ready. The wizard caused too many problems last time to be left alone, he thought.

Thorek saw the two move off as he looked around at the doors. He was increasingly curious about who had built this place and would have wagered it was his kin. The prison cell of silver had him wondering what else of value might lie beyond the double doors. Yet, splitting the party would not be a good idea; they barely had any weapons. Hopefully their kit was here somewhere. Perhaps, he thought, looking at the doors and their fastenings, it would be better to secure the doors behind them and explore the hall? "Malion, ye hear anything over there," he asked as the half-elf stood ear to the door.

"Just voices," Mal returned. "I cannot make out the words though."

Jones and Kuhlbert had reached the end of the hall and stood with their backs to the wall as they peered around the corners. The way left ended abruptly, barely five feet from the corner. Refuse was left to rot here and it smelled foul. To the right the adjoining hallway went some ten feet before turning quickly left and then right again, neither of the two men could see much past that however. More interestingly, another hallway doubled back the way they had come sharing a wall with their hallway. It ended in a single closed door, but there was another door on the left wall just before that which was left ajar. A low light emanated from that door and Kuhlbert thought he heard voices there.

Thorek looked to Jones and Kuhlbert as Malion answered his question. He thought briefly before responding, "'Ere, Mal, let's see if we can't bar this door quietly and catch up with the others. We shouldn't separate." The half-elf nodded and assisted Thorek with barring the door. They attempted to move as silently as possible as to not alert the voices in the room beyond. There was a heart stopping moment, however, when one of the retaining bars slid across the door with what sounded like a thunderous scrape. Thorek grimaced, and drew his dagger once more.

Well, that could have gone better, the dwarf thought to himself. He put his ear up to the door, straining to hear whether the voices in the other room had changed. He played with his blade absently, betraying his stress level, and looked at Malion. The half-elf had an ear pressed to the door as well. After a moment he relaxed and shook his head. Thorek nodded and he, Frodo and Merritt moved to join the others at the end of the hallway.

Jones turned at the sound of the others approaching and motioned for them to do so quietly. He shared a look with Kuhlbert, they might have had the element of surprise at the moment but the last thing they needed was to alert the orcs that they had broken out of their cells. Jones whispered to the man a moment later, "Do you think we should bother to see what's in there? That's a long way where we could be caught out in the open," he noted.

Kuhlbert shook his head and whispered back to Jones, "we shouldn't go further alone, you should stay with the others." Jones shot him a glare but the cleric ignored him, or just didn't notice the look, as he peered around the corner again down the adjacent hall. He could make out what sounded like three orcs. They were arguing about something he thought, as their voices were raised and their tones sharp. When the others arrived he explained what he had heard and saw as plainly as he could.

Thorek and Malion looked right and down towards the open door for themselves, while Merritt looked over the little alcove to the left. He motioned to Frodo to come closer as he prodded the trash with his dagger. "Let's just make sure we don't get caught flat-footed," he said.

"Devious stuff, this orc shit," the halfling asked the man as he stooped over the debris. Merritt shook his head and continued in his search. After a few seconds more it was clear that the pile held nothing of interest or cleanliness about it. He ignored the halfling's sly smile and continued to search out of spite.

Thorek had just been about to suggest they move past the adjacent hallway to the darker one beyond when Mal stepped around the corner and set off for the voices. He made a grab for the half-elf but missed and watched as he moved down the hall. His fear gave way to anger and then bewilderment in quick order. The scene sat oddly with the dwarf, but he couldn't put his finger on why until Malion hopped over a stray broken crate. The half-elf wasn't making a sound. How in the blazes, he asked himself.

Malion reached the open door quickly, stepped to the opposite wall as to not frame himself in its light and slowly edged sidewise to see what was in the room. He need not have been so cautious, as three orcs stood with their backs to him bickering over what looked like Kuhlbert's huge maul. Mal looked back to Thorek, held up three fingers and motioned for him to approach. It took a few tries to get the dwarf's attention as he kept on looking at Malion's feet. He gave Thorek a questioning look along with the single finger sign the dwarf had given him back on the trail. That seemed only to confuse the dwarf more.

Jones had peered around the corner to watch Malion sneak down the hallway. When the half-elf first signalled, he turned around to get Merritt and Frodo only to find them amongst the orc filth. "When you have finished with your discovery session," Jones quipped, "it looks as though the half-elf found some more of our captors." Jones stepped in front of Thorek and slipped down the hallway while the dwarf and Malion gestured back and forth with their hands. He would be damned if missed out on a chance for some revenge.

Kuhlbert followed the magic-user, sparing a glance to Frodo and Merritt as well. He prayed that they could surprise this group of orcs like the last, and that he could kill one of the foul creatures himself. Exasperated, Thorek joined him and quietly approached Malion.

Mal watched as part of the group approached. When they arrived, he looked at them and silently mouthed, "three orcs." He pointed to the others, then to the doorway, and finally mimed a punch into his hand, hoping they would understand his intention. Mal was especially concerned about the dwarf, since hand signals seemed to be beyond his understanding. Mal showed his hand to the others and raised his fingers while mouthing, "three, two, one." He rushed into the room, knife in hand, hoping to surprise the arguing orcs.

Jones followed on Mal's heels, stepping to his left upon passing through the doorway in order to allow his companions clear access to the room. He took a second to focus on the furthest orc as he fell into the throes of magic. Mal charged the closest orc and thrust the dagger into its lower back as what sounded like a group of angry hornets rushed past his head. The orc mouthed a silent scream, the dagger finding its way into its right lung and stealing its breath. The orc, for its part, did not fall to the floor.

Able to focus without any distractions, Jones had condensed the magical energy into a concentrated bullet as he fixed his vision on the back of the furthest orc's head. With a flick of his wrist and a point of his finger the missile had whizzed past Malion and slammed into the orc, snapping its head forward and killing it instantly. Jones' eyes widened at his success as Malion pulled his blade from the closest orc.

Kuhlbert followed the others into the room and saw as they began to attack. He charged the unengaged orc with his club above his head, the holy ones willing he would bash its head in. The last orc had turned at the sound of the other attacks and managed to step aside as the priest brought his club down.

Not far away, Merritt and Frodo froze as they heard the scuffle begin. "Shit," the archer said. They both had assumed that the others would have waited for them to finish their search and catch up. They turned quickly down the hallway towards the others, rushing to help their comrades.

Thorek was the last to step into the room, flipping to a throwing grip on his dagger as he did but hesitating to let fly. As tempting as "accidentally" hitting Malion might be, it wasn't something he really wanted to do. Instead, he stepped to the left with Jones, trying to clear the way for the other two and possibly get a cleaner line of sight to one of the damned orcs.

Mal grabbed the orc he had stabbed as it attempted to step away and thrust his dagger once more into its back. He was rewarded with a gurgle as the beast fell from the blade and slumped lifelessly to the stone floor.

Frodo and Merritt arrived at the doorway as Malion finished his opponent. Seeing Kuhlbert squaring up with the other orc holding the man's large maul Frodo took two quick steps, hopped up onto a barrel and launched himself at the sole survivor. The orc turned just in time to meet the flaming end of the torch the halfling swung at its skull. Solid oak met bone and both broke in a shower of sparks. The orc hit the ground hard with Frodo on top of it, his celebration was short lived as his bare feet met with the hot coals of wood. He hopped off the orc with a "hot, hot!"

Merritt entered the room with a frown, disappointed in not having had the chance to cross blades with an orc yet. He took a look around. The room was nearly fifteen feet long and ten feet wide. The orcs lay slumped on its far end amidst what looked like the goods from the wagons while a door lay shut in the middle of the wall to his left.

"Let's get moving," he said, the tinge of regret apparent in his voice for having missed the action, as he walked to the wagon goods. "We should not stay here too long. Someone's gonna' come back looking for these oafs." His practiced eye swept the pile and landed on his bow and quiver in short order. He picked up both and tested the bow's string, it was still tight. He found his backpack further off behind a crate wrapped in his leather armor, his daggers and sword were where he had tied them to it the night before. He opened the bag to ensure all was as it should be and pulled the armor over his shoulders.

Jones began searching for his kit as well in the repossessed pile of goods. While he was thrilled at the prospect of having killed an orc with his magic, he needed his spear back now that his magic was used up. He could feel the mental exhaustion, a dullness at having stretched his abilities to their limit. He found the spear and his backpack next to a pile of apples, but as he lifted it up it was clear that the ink within had leaked. Fearing for his spellbook he opened the bag to find the bottom and a large sack completely covered in the black ink. Its vial had broken, along with another he had carried with him. Luckily, his spellbook had been spared. Mopping up the rest of the ink as best he could he turned to the others. "Someone check that door," he said gruffly, gesturing to the closed door on the wall to their left. "We need to figure out a way to get out of this filthy burrow."

Kuhlbert ignored the talk of the others as he stared at the orc. Not only did he not kill the foul beast, it was using his weapon. He picked up his maul and gave the creature's corpse a swift kick purely out of spite. He slowly walked over to the loot and found his gear. As he donned his armor, the priest wondered how much prayer and blessing it would take to remove the orc filth from the maul and the symbol of his holy order. Satisfied with the familiar weight of his equipment, he distractedly looked over the group and watched as they gathered their gear. He was deep in thought. Three times he had met with orcs and none yet had died by his hands. It was a poor record in the eyes of the holy ones.

As Mal put on his armor and retrieved his belongings, he looked at both the mage and cleric and flatly stated "You two seem like very angry people." He cocked his head, unsure as to why everyone was so taciturn while the others ignored him. They were on an adventure! Sure, the orcs had beaten and kidnapped them, but they had escaped from their cells and taken revenge upon their captors. He had even got a pair of sure to be magical boots out of the deal.

Stepping lightly and avoiding the bodies and blood pooling on the floor the half-elf leaned against the closed door in the room, attempting to hear anything on the other side. Silence greeted him as the others finished equipping themselves.

Thorek's eyes had lit up as he spied his gear and pulled it out of the pile. He donned his armor, orc-stink or otherwise. There would be time later, hopefully, to clean things. He checked his pouches for their contents and practically kissed his axes as the two hand weapons found their way back into their belt loops alongside his quiver. His dagger disappeared back under his beard as he turned to address his bow. He restrung it and tested its draw, satisfied he drew an arrow to hold it ready in his bow hand.

That addressed, he spared a moment to see how the others were getting on, and then turned his attention to the closed door and the half-elf listening there. His scowl returned, "you know, lad, I think we need to work on your hand signals," he said.

Mal looked at him with a raised eyebrow. "I'm not hearing anything behind the door this time, friends. Shall we proceed," he asked. The others looked at each other, waiting for someone to speak up. Frodo was still digging around the trade goods looking for his extensive kit. He was muttering to himself about a tent and a winter blanket. Privately, Thorek wondered why the halfling bothered to buy a tent if he was just going to sleep in the back of the wagon or at the bottom of a latrine pit.

"Well standing around staring at each other isn't going to do us any good," said Jones. "Let's see if we can't get out of this prison. With a bit of luck, we may even have chance to liberate our benefactor and his generosity with him." He didn't like the feeling of exhaustion and mental fog that was creeping on the edge of his thoughts and craved an opportunity to rest and recharge but didn't expect that would be a luxury they would be able to afford anytime soon.

The magic user walked over to the door and stepped between the half-elf and dwarf. With a glance at his companions to ensure they were ready he gave the door a push with his off hand. It opened easily and Jones stepped through, Kuhbert following with his maul at the ready. Thorek grimaced, drew and knocked a second arrow as they went through. If we're exploring like this, best to have a backup ready. He looked around at the remaining members of the group saying, "last one through watches our backs," before moving to follow Kuhlbert and Jones. He stepped to the side as he entered to keep the other two out of his sight lines. Aggression, not planning, had kept them alive this far; hopefully that streak would hold up.

Mal watched as the others went and replied, "I'll guard the rear." Merritt had beaten him to the punch however and was quietly closing the door back to the hallway. He shuffled backwards slowly towards the door and Malion. They both drew an arrow and nocked it in their shortbows while Frodo continued with his search and swearing.

The room Jones stepped into was fifteen feet long, extended ten feet to his left and utterly reeked. Looking down, it wasn't hard to see why. The orcs had filled the floor with refuse to the point where there was only a very narrow path to another door in the right wall at the far end of the room.

Backing into the room, Malion fought back a dry heave. "These orcs are filthy," he said upon turning to gaze at the room, the disgust evident in his tone. "I think we should push on and see what's behind that far door, unless anyone wants to search through this dung heap."

Jones smirked as his thoughts landed on Merritt and Frodo. "There may be a few of us who wish to," he said as he began to work his way across the room to the next door. He picked his way carefully through the mounds, using his spear to prod piles and test them before getting too close. Kuhlbert followed Jones as he made his way through the trash. He listened to see if he could hear anything on the other side of the door but couldn't make out anything in particular.

Thorek had no interest in rooting around in orc offal, but continued in his trek through it anyway to keep a clear line of sight. He stepped carefully through the room, keeping to the far left-hand wall, bow ready and eyes on the far door. As the dwarf edged through the trash it became clear that they were not alone in the room. He saw a large pile towards the far left corner of the room shift as he approached. A quick glance to his right told him that Malion and Merritt had seen it too in the flickering light from the wall torch in the room where they found their kit. Whatever it was, it was big. At least five feet long and leaving an oily film over everything. Thorek drew back an arrow and prepared to let fly when the another creature rose up not five feet in front of him. A large, pale green lump of glistening flesh rushed at him tentacles first.

"Shite!" Theorek spun to face the lunging monster and cursed as his arrow went wide. He'd seen the farther beast moving, but hadn't spotted the nearer one. Thorek tried to backpedal furiously through the trash, trying to open up some range between himself and the lunging mass of tentacles. Malion saw the creature as it rose up from the trash and in one smooth motion dropped to a knee and let loose with an arrow. The shot struck home with a wet "thunk," lodging in the monster's greasy body.

Merritt had been trying to get a good bead on the first creature but every time he leaned one way or another his shot was blocked by his companions. Damnit, he thought, this is why I like to work solo. Failing to read his companions ducks, dips and dives, and not wanting to skewer one of them with an arrow he was slowly losing his patience. As Malion took a knee it finally gave him the opening he needed. He swung his bow towards the closer of the two, sighted the creature and let loose with an arrow of his own at the hideous thing. He swore loudly when it missed.

The thing closest to Thorek closed the rest of the distance between them and took a wild swing at the dwarf with its tentacles. Thorek was too quick for it though and hopped sideways into the wall of the room to dodge it. It turned towards him again just as Kuhlbert moved behind it. Silently, but with rage filling his eyes, the priest brought his maul down in a mighty arc right on its bulbous head. The force of the blow drove the creature's head to the ground and, with a wet popping sound, covered Thorek in a greenish-grey slimy mess.

Initially startled by the unidentified creatures, Jones tried to recover and attack the one that remained. As he pulled his spear from the refuse he had been prodding however the weapon's point caught an old tunic. The sharp blade sliced through the rotten cloth, but the delay was enough to throw off the spellcaster's timing, he only caught the air with an upwards sweep.

Kuhlbert attempted to carry on his attack on the remaining monster as well by pivoting on his right heel and bringing the maul back around in a downward diagonal swing. He had misjudged the distance however and the swing did not reach the creature's body.

Sparing a brief nod of thanks to Kuhlbert, Thorek knocked another arrow, focused on his original target as it began to rise up out of the trash and let fly. The arrow flew straight and true, striking the creature squarely in its left eye. It was dead before it hit the floor. More satisfied with his second shot the dwarf muttered, "much better," as he started towards the thing to see if he could retrieve the arrow. He thought better of it as he drew close, writing it off as a loss. He pulled out another arrow and trudged through the trash to join Jones at the door, slipping every few feet thanks to the slime that covered him.

Kuhlbert returned the nod of thanks to the dwarf and offered up a quick apology for the slime that covered him as he cleaned his maul. Eyeing the room cautiously, the cleric made his way to the door as well, stood and waited for the rest of the party to join them.

"Well you don't see something like that in a hedge wizard's garden," said Jones. Turning, he gave a listen at the door as Kuhlbert and Thorek joined him there.

Mal walked over to the creature he had shot and pulled the arrow from its rubbery hide. "Waste not, want not," he said as he wiped the ichor onto a piece of rubbish. The half-elf renocked the arrow and continued to cover the rear as the rest of the group advanced.

After a moment, Jones shook his head. "I don't hear anything," he said as he pulled his ear away from the door they were gathered at. He looked around at the others in the gloom, the only light came from the torch in the room where the three orcs lay dead. "Where is our torch bearing halfling," the man asked?

Merritt, still stood in the doorway between the two rooms, turned and looked behind him. The halfling was nowhere to be seen.

"Maybe he went to take another nap in the latrine trench," Kulhbert said as he looked around. The last time the cleric saw the halfling was in the battle with the orcs. "We should go find him and make sure he doesn't get hurt or bring more orcs down on our heads." He looked at the door they stood next to and continued, "He couldn't have gone through this door in the battle. Jones, can we bar the door so nothing surprises us while we look for our friend?"

Jones leaned in to examine the door to see if there were any brackets or handles that could be used to jam the door. Glancing along the frame he noted that the door swung inward but there didn't look like there was anything about to keep it from being pulled open. "Not with anything here," he responded.

Thorek had been looking around the trash-filled room, wondering if perhaps the halfling had gotten stuck in or under the refuse. "How did we lose Stinkfinger," he asked. Someone as loud-mouthed and foul-smelling as Frodo didn't just go missing. "We'd better find him." With a sinking feeling in his gut, Thorek readied an arrow and squeezed past Merritt back into the room where they had found their gear hoping to spot some hints to the halfling's whereabouts.

The goods from the wagon were where they had been left after the party had rummaged around for their kits. The orcs they had slain lay amongst them, blood pooling atop the cut stone floor and still glistening in the light of the room's torch. The dwarf noticed what looked like the weapons and various sundries of their other companions that had accompanied them out of Kleine: Griswold, Alard, and the sword and spearmen. They were likely here then, and hopefully alive. Of the halfling though, Thorek saw no sign.

Merritt watched as Kuhlbert filed past him as well, following the dwarf into the previous room. As Thorek searched the priest made his way to the far door. He remembered there was yet another in the hallway and planned to move quietly to it for a listen. He stopped when he reached the hall and peered cautiously out and to his left. He saw the door in the flickering light cast from the torch far down the hall to his right. The door itself looked undisturbed but the broken crate they had all stepped around had been moved and placed in front of it.

Jones followed behind his companions, retracing their steps. He couldn't believe that on top of trying to escape this filthy network of caves, they now needed to hunt down the halfling. "Looks like someone has been sneaking around behind us," he said when he saw the crate that had been repositioned. "Do you suppose it was our little friend?" Kuhlbert nodded, in agreement.

Mal ignore the others as they backtracked, he was curious as to what was behind the door that still lay before them in the trash filled room. "I'm checking the door in here," he whispered loudly, confident that Merritt would hear him. As the half-elf trudged up to the door, he slung his bow and pulled out his short sword. Upon reaching the door, he leaned in and attempted to hear if anything was on the other side. Merritt looked around, shook his head and followed the elf through the trash.

Though he was paying more attention to Jones and Kuhlbert, and trying to work out where Frodo had disappeared to, Thorek did catch Mal's whisper. Thorek's eyes widened as he worked out where this was going, and spun around rapidly to move back towards Mal.

In a louder voice, pitched so Jones and Kuhlbert ought to hear and laced with no small amount of urgency, Thorek tried to catch the half-elf's attention, "hold up, Mal! Are ye daft, lad? The halfling's missing, and we're strung out 'ere. No sense splitting up further! Hold up for a sec there."

He then turned towards Kuhlbert and Jones and continued, "Lads, I ain't no scholar, but I know enough to know we need a bit more plannin' 'ere. Let's circle up a sec and think about how we tackle this. I'd love to go gut some orcs, but we've been lucky so far here and still don't know what we're up against." He hadn't set out on this venture to play shepherd, but Uncle Arrek would've given him a good whipping for letting the flock split up and wander off like this.

"Oh good, you heard me," Mal said as Thorek appeared in the doorway between their two rooms. "This door looks promising, and I don't hear anyone on the other side." With a smile on his face, he opened the door and stepped into the room beyond as Thorek's eyes widened in disbelief. The stench intensified as Malion open the door and both he and Merritt dry heaved as their senses were assaulted by a nauseating fetor. Through tear-filled, blurry eyes the half-elf made out a room that stretch fifteen feet long with three privies arrayed on the wall to his right. Malion had found the garderobe, and the stench that emanated from it was unbearable.

Thorek gagged and spat to clear his mouth. Even from across the room he could taste the smell the half-elf had unleashed. "Are ye happy now, ye git? If'n yer done with the shitters let's get back to finding that halfling!" The Dwarf turned and walked back to the hallway where Kuhlbert and Jones waited, Merritt stumbled after him, gagging. Hawking and spitting again Thorek grimaced, damn, the smell just wouldn't clear. As he passed Jones he muttered, "Next time he does something like that, I might accidentally let an arrow slip."

Thorek eyed the broken crate. Clearly somebody wanted to know if anybody was mucking around on this side of the door. Now how to budge it without attracting attention? Merritt saw it as well and came to a different conclusion. "I wouldn't move that, more than likely Frodo propped it there to impede whatever he found behind that door."

Jones shook his head as the dwarf walked passed encased in a wave of a pungent odor. He truly didn't understand his companions' obsession with the orcs' waste. Focusing back on finding the illustrious Stinkfinger, the mage looked the crate and door as well. Without all the armor that everyone else had, he stood the best chance of quietly approaching the door and moving the remains of the crate without notice. On the other hand, the archer had a point.

Mal stumbled out of the room and closed the door. In between gasps for fresh air he responded to the surly dwarf, "leave no... ungh stone urk unturned...", unsure if Thorek had heard him. He bent over, hands on his knees, in an effort to catch his breath. After a moment, when he was able to breathe again, he regained his composure. No treasure was worth going back into that room again. He shook his head to clear the odor, but something told him that it would be some time before that stench left his nose. He followed the others from the room to the doorway in the hall.

Kuhlbert had heard the chaos behind him, but was content to ignore it with no sounds of battle forthcoming. He approved of the party coming together again and forming a single group. As Thorek appeared the priest said, "I did not hear anything on the other side of that door," before turning to watch the hallway. With the other branch up there, who knew what lurked behind them. Without breaking his gaze he said, "So, now what's the plan?"

Jones shouldered his way into the hallway, having reached a decision. "Why, we need to go and find the Stinkfinger. Judging from the crate, it looks like he might have gone through this door and is covering his tracks. Hopefully the silence you heard, Kuhlbert, means he is light on his feet. Thorek, make that bulk useful and get ready to bottleneck the door when I open it just in case orcs have somehow managed to be as silent has Mal's new boots." With that, Jones reached for the door in front of him, and pushed it open.