As the orcs pushed through the narrow gate, Is'kel nonchalantly pulled out her lute.
"What are you doing?" Armnok roared. "Don't let her play that!"
The orcs moved in to attack just as she finished playing the chords of her fascinate song.
"Run!" she yelled as the orcs around them froze into position, weapons raised. They squeezed out between the orcs and ran around to the back of the house.
The orcs outside the fence had not been affected by the song but couldn't get past the mass of fascinated orcs. They could hear the orcs running around the far side of the house.
"Teamwork!" called Ardan as the first of the orcs came barreling towards them. The enemy could not flank them and had to attack them head on since Nash's front yard was now blocked. The back yard was a tiny strip of land, bordered on one side by the house and on the other side by a high, sheer rock face that towered over the ramshackle house. There was just enough room for two of them to swing their weapons freely.
Malut stayed out front with Faith and Is'kel healed them as fast as she could. Ardan and Twila carefully aimed their arrows at the charging orcs, wounding them before they got to Malut and Faith. Soon, there was a pile of bodies and the charge stopped, but not for long. The orcs in the front yard had broken their fascination and were coming around the house to attack. Using the same tactics, they turned and whittled down the enemies that outnumbered them by three to one.
They heard Armnok shout from the front of the house, "This cannot be! I will finish you pesky adventurers off myself. Grul will not be stopped!"
Then they heard him curse and swear.
As they dashed around the pile of orc bodies towards the front yard, they saw Glin with his teeth firmly planted in Armnok's rear. While the orc commander struggled to swat the dog off of his posterior, the team surrounded and attacked him. Twila finished him off with a stab into his back. With a final yell of outrage, he fell to the ground, dead.
As they stood catching their breath, they heard the creak of wheels and a caravan walked into the yard. Magical caravans take on several forms and this one had wheels in the back with a set of enchanted legs on the front, looking like some sort of weird mutant spider. The caravan stopped in front of the house and Nash leaped out.
"You're alive! Thank Arawai you are alive," he cried out. Paiz and Dupuy jumped out of the back of the caravan, happy to see their pal, Glin.
"I was afraid I was too late. The big orc and his men came across the Hills, I heard them coming and moved the caravan off to the side, then hid in the woods with the dogs. They didn't even slow down. I know you told me to stay behind and watch out for reinforcements, but I didn't have any way to warn you. I decided it was time to go down fighting or maybe get here in time to get a few of you into the caravan and run..."
"You've got some roof damage and a whole mess of dead orcs on your property, Nash, but I think we got 'em all."
"And you saved my dogs! My crops are still in decent shape too. I owe you my life."
"Listen Nash, we heard them talk about building a bridge here where your house is. Do you know why?"
"A bridge? Here? Well, this property backs up to Searing Heights but it's quite a ways down on the other side," Braza mused. "Can't imagine why anyone would want to go there- it's a wild place full of those Sulatar Drow. I think they worship the lava from the volcano or something. So that's what they wanted? To get into Searing Heights?"
"I never knew orcs to be so very all-fired clever, if you know what I mean. They mostly just charge into fights, win battles by having more soldiers to waste than anyone else. I wouldn't think this is a plan they thought of..."
"They mentioned the Sharn Syndicate was giving the orders. Does that ring any bells?"
Nash scratched his head.
"Sharn's a city in Khorvaire. That one with all the floating buildings. That's all I know about Sharn," he answered. "Look, I owe you all a reward for saving my dogs and my house. I don't have much but I have a few magical items over here..."
He ducked into the house and came out with a small chest.
"You all take whatever you want out of there," he insisted.
Malut pulled out a dusty, dark blue tricone leather hat. He placed it on his head.
"Arr, matey," Thysmac jibed. "You be lookin' like a proper pirate now!"
Nash laughed. "Go ahead, take the hat, half-orc. It looks good on you. It'll help you avoid some attacks too- it has magical dodge properties. Helps to deflect lighting attacks too! It'll serve you well. That there hat brings back a lot of memories... listen, how about I fix you all some food before you go?"
"We have to find Lady Azdel and my brother," Ardan declined. "If they are being held by the orcs, every minute counts."
"Well, load up in the caravan then and I'll at least take you back to the Hills proper."
They stopped briefly on the way out to go through a few chests left by the orcs, gather some weapons and armor that could be used or sold and then Nash dropped them off just past the entrance to his farm.
"If you need anything Ardan, you come see me. And tell Talloak I expect we need a game of chess right soon. I know you'll find him safe. He has to be! Good luck, I'm going to start cleaning up and rebuilding my fences. Thanks again!"
The group was tired and the sun was low in the sky. It had been a long day.
"Where to, boss?" asked Malut of the halfling.
"I need some answers. Follow me," he said leading them up a steep hill to the right.
They wandered in and out of several ancient ruins until they came to a crack in the wall. It was the well-hidden mouth of a cave and they could hear voices inside. Ardan led them in, sneaking quietly through a chamber that had been outfitted as a dormitory. All was quiet as they crept around a corner. A orange-haired man wearing dark, embroidered robes was sitting at a table near a fire with his back to them, cleaning some weapons. Ardan motioned for the rest of them to stay put in the entry passage.
He crept up to the man, dagger in hand. The man did not appear to hear him coming. Ardan swiftly grabbed the man's head with one hand and placed the dagger to his throat with the other hand.
"What do you have to say for yourself, Thaalan?"
"I'd say you're surrounded," the man answered easily. Ten men leaped from the chambers behind them, grabbing the party. Three of them held Malut. "I'd suggest you drop your weapons."
"I'd suggest you try wearing pants," Ardan replied.
"Are you implying that a man can't look good in a robe?" Thaalan answered.
"I'm saying you look like a girl with that ponytail and a dress on."
"You're just jealous," Thaalan replied, then standing, in one swift move he pulled Ardan over his head and pinned him to the floor. "And you lose."
Ardan started laughing and the man smiled.
"OK boys, at ease. Let our guests go."
"What the heck..." asked Thysmac, rubbing his neck where the thug detaining him had been holding a shortsword.
"I'd like for you all to meet Thaalan, minor brigand in the Quickfoot gang. And an old childhood friend."
"Hello adventurers," Thaalan addressed them with a bow. "My apologies for your weak leadership. Hopefully you'll find someone better to follow around than a gimped halfling ranger. Talk to any wolves lately, nature boy?"
Ardan placed a foot behind Thaalan's ankle and gave him a sudden push. The man sat down hard.
"OK big guy, you've made your point. To what do I owe the honor of a visit from Mr High-and-Mighty? I thought you didn't approve of my lifestyle."
"I still don't, but I need information. Thaalan, Talloak has been taken by the orcs. Nash Braza's farm was nearly set on fire and some visiting noblewoman has been kidnapped. What the heck is going on around here? There are orcs and bugbears everywhere I look."
Thaalan breathed a heavy sigh.
"They have Talloak, do they? That's bad. That's real bad. Look Ardan, something big has been going on. The Grul tribe just showed up out here one day like they owned the place. They set up an outpost over on the river and started working over the farmers, killing people, taking their crops. Last I heard, Talloak was fighting back and doing a decent job of it. But it's not just the Grul tribe out here running around, some guys from Sharn seem to be running the show.
They've moved into town, taken over all our business. Word on the street is that they are part of the Boromar clan, a big time gang in Sharn. They have lots of power behind them. Benny the Hand is in charge of the Quickfoot these days. He says the Sharn guys have offered him a deal to have us work with them. When I say offered, I mean threatened, you know?"
Ardan nodded. The rest of the party had gathered around Thaalan and Ardan to listen, taking seats in the chairs surrounding the fire.
"They don't know about my troop out here in the Hills; they haven't come across this safe house yet. I may break off from the Quickfoot if Benny caves in. Not even Benny knows how to find me. Only you and Talloak and all of these people you've so thoughtfully led into my home."
"They're alright," Ardan vouched for his friends. "They'll not be telling anyone about your little hidey-hole cave here. They're helping me to find Talloak."
"Yes, I can see why you'd need help, being such a tiny little thing and all."
'Yeah, what I be needin' is a big strong girly man like you to help me pick out boots to match my outfit."
"Obviously, you do need my help with your fashion sense. This whole dirt-and-blood thing you have going on is pretty foul. What have you been doing?"
"Killing orcs on Nash Braza's farm. Thaalan, they want to build a bridge from his property into Searing Heights. Why, do you think?"
"Hmnph. Nash Braza. Meddling do-gooder, he tried to turn some of my boys in to the Stormreach Guard. Like he's so saintly... farmer, my fat behind. Ex-pirate is more like it. Do you know what he's growing up there? Let's just say he switched crops after the devils invaded and my boys have seen a guy with the head of a jackal on his property. A jackal! What do you think that is all about?
Let's see...passage into Searing Heights. Well, you know what's on the other side of Searing Heights, don't you? The Twelve enclave. And a gate into the Stormreach market. Searing Heights also has it's own small harbor too, out at the Bargain Bazaar. Only small boats, but it would be ideal for smuggling, which I think is already a thriving business out there. I've been trying to get a piece of that action but well...
Actually, seems like a pretty good strategic base of operations if you wanted to attack Stormreach. Nash wiped out and direct access for me and my boys to the Bazaar wouldn't be so bad for me. But... since when does a gang of street criminals go after an entire city? Gangs thrive on rich people, a strong economy, you know? Things have been rough enough since the Merchant's Guild fell apart."
Thysmac shifted uneasily in his seat and a look of sadness came over his face. Thaalan went on without noticing.
"I mean with Baudry Cartamon as the top importer now, there's just junk coming in. Low quality stuff, people making less money, spending less... well, let's just say there is less for everyone, even folks in my line of business. It's like this Sharn Syndicate is wrecking everything and the Coin Lords are just letting it happen. They set up Admitus Essory and everything's just gone downhill since then. Now that everyone is scrambling to get by, they are trying to make all the gangs into one big gang."
"What do you mean, 'set up Admitus Essory'?" Thysmac's face was very red and his voice sounded choked up.
"Well, the way I heard it, Talon Darsin, the Boromar guy in charge, put all that stolen artwork in the Essory warehouses then tipped off Cartamon. It didn't take much for Cartamon to go straight to the guard and before you know it, Essory's in jail and his business is all seized by the Coin Lords. Then he dies but no one has seen the body... it's all been chaos since then in the marketplace. Without the Guild, it made it easier for the gangs to start threatening the business owners and prices went up but supplies went down because Cartamon's got the business sense of a troglodyte."
"Talon Darsin, you say? That's his name?" Thysmac's lips were narrow and his voice carefully controlled.
"Yeah, that's his name. He's been making all the gangs in Stormreach 'prove' themselves by stealing famous pieces of artwork for him. The same stuff he used to frame Essory. Now he's holding it over their heads that he can turn them in too if they don't join him."
"I need some air," Thysmac left the group, headed out of the cave.
"Hey, it's not safe out there," Thaalan called.
"I'll go with him," Twila jumped up and followed.
"Me too," said Faith and as she left the warm glow of the fireplace she heard Thaalan offering to feed them and let them stay the night in the hideout.