They rested in the Quickfoot hideout that night and arose extra early the next morning to hunt for the orc's prison. Ardan wanted to get back to finding his brother as soon as possible and Thaalan wanted them out of his hideway before the light of day. They thanked Thaalan and his men and Thaalan warned them not to come back to his cave.
"I don't want the Grul tribe or the Sharn Syndicate finding me. I don't mind helping you out, Ardan, but I can't put my men in danger."
Ardan understood and apologized for putting him in harm's way. They set off up the hill, towards the plaza where Faith had met Lotigath. He was not there this morning and none of the stone gargoyles even so much as twitched. From their high vantage point, they surveyed the countryside. The scene looked idyllic- the sun just rising, butterflies hovering over green crops, the river flowing peacefully through the valley. It was hard to believe this serene valley was under the thumb of crimelords and dangerous orcs.
"Look, there," Malut pointed to the vineyard. Just beyond it, a caravan lay smashed and ransacked.
"Is that Nash's caravan?"
Quickly they headed for the wrecked carriage, keeping an eye out for roaming guards. As they passed the vineyards, Faith noticed they were falling into disrepair and looked overgrown. The orc occupation was taking its toll as the farmers could no longer work with their crops.
Ardan studied the caravan. It was not a walking caravan, like Nash's. It was a more expensive model, one with small air elementals bound into the wheels to propel it along. The wheels had all been smashed to release the elementals and the caravan top was slashed to pieces.
"Tis Lady Azdel's caravan, sure enough."
Footsteps in the mud, orcish footsteps, led away from the caravan to a gap in the nearby wall. The road continued beyond the wall into a shadowy, forested area.
"Is'kel, might we have a song? That's lovely, lass. Everyone now, ready your weapons."
Beyond the wall that enclosed the Hills, the road went up then overlooked a deep, flat valley. The Cerulean River widened through the lowlands, cutting out a series of rocky islands in the slow moving water. Huge tropical plants that looked like water lily bushes grew out of the swampy areas, offering ample cover for guards to hide in.
They crossed a high stone bridge, taking the orc guards who were waiting there head on in combat. There was no place to hide. The road circled back around to a lower bridge and they passed in front of a high waterfall where the river crossed from the Cerulean Hills into the wetlands. As they ventured into the shallow water they were attacked by archers and spellcasters. They were nearly impossible to see in the heavy vegetation and the team took heavy injuries tracking down the ambushers as they dodged ray spells, bolts and arrows.
"Stay close," warned Ardan. "Don't get out of Is'kel's range or she can't heal you."
Is'kel was indeed staying busy, casting heals as fast as she could on nearly every member of the party. They hacked and fought their way down the river, taking out not only orcs but wolves as well. Ardan hypnotized as many of the wolves as he could, trying not to kill them. Soon he was out of his wild empathy spells though and with a sad heart, he killed the wolves who were attacking.
On one of the small islands, they found a chest.
"Loot! Come get it," Twila called as she opened the chest. They found various armors and wepons and a small amount of coins.
"Faith, I'm giving these to you," Twila said as she held up a pair of tattered cloth strips, printed with sigils but stained with blood and other things Faith didn't want to think about.
"Um, thanks." She took them gingerly.
"Faith, how many creatures have you killed so far? A little blood and gore shouldn't scare you. Try them on," Twila urged, teasing her friend over her repulsion.
Faith, not wanting Twila to think she was weak, took off her flame touched handwraps and wound the stained ones around her hands. They felt... powerful. It was odd, but she could almost "hear" them humming. Kal passed by and noticed her examining her hands.
"Looks like those do sonic damage, nice find."
They reached a high gate made from crude poles lashed together, the entrance to the Grul tribe's stronghold. A huge lever made from a bone operated the gate, swinging it out of the way when Malut pulled on it.
"What's that from, a minotaur?" wondered Thysmac.
Ardan looked at it more closely.
"Tis a thigh bone from an orc. They use their own."
Faith looked shocked. "All those skulls they use on their staffs and posts..."
Ardan nodded. "Orc skulls. Only the bravest and most ferocious warriors have their skulls used. 'Tis a sign of honor."
He waved a hand at the crude fences around them. "Ye' see all the shields they hang, here on their fences? Those won't be orc shields. Orcs hold that shields are for the weak. Those are trophies, taken from the people they have killed."
They rounded another bend and came to another gate, this one more heavily defended than the first. Fighting in pairs as they had at Nash's farm, they managed to kill all the guards and open the gate. Faith felt her hands doing much more damage with the new wraps, she could feel a small vibration on each hit. Is'kel warned them that she was nearly out of healing spells as they neared the main gate. Beyond it they could see several enclosures, cells holding prisoners. There was nothing to do but fight- no cover, no way to surprise the enemy who'd obviously heard the fighting as they came around the island.
"Stay together, stay close," Ardan called out and one by one, they eliminated the orcs and wolves roaming about on the small island. A large enclosed tent stood in the center and three crude cells made from poles lashed together contained figures lying flat on the ground.
"Are they dead?" asked Is'kel as they approached the first cell. Malut pulled the bone lever and the gate swung open. Twila knelt down and shook the purple and yellow robed figure.
"Wake up," she said urgently. "Come on, get up."
The man opened his eyes and sat up unsteadily. He looked at the group around him and asked, "Lady Azdel? Where is she?"
"We haven't found her yet," answered Faith.
He jumped to his feet. "We must hurry!"
"Can you walk?"
"I'm fine, they've been making us drink sleeping potions to keep us from escaping. We must hurry!"
They crossed the yard to the next cell. Inside was Lady Azdel's other guard. She sat up when shaken slightly, and like her counterpart was only worried for the safety of Lady Azdell. The third cell did indeed hold the noblewoman, a young blond human woman. While they were reviving her, Ardan finished a sweep of the rest of the small island.
"Talloak's not here," he said, returning to the group. "I'm checking in the tent."
Inside the tent, they awoke half a dozen sleeping orcs. Lady Azdel's guards, both wizards, helped the team wipe out the remaining orcs. Talloak was not in the tent, but there was a rest shrine. Everyone sat down to rest while Lady Azdel told her story.
"Thank you for rescuing me. I am Lady Azdel and I am in Xen'drik for a meeting with the Twelve. We arrived a few days early so that I could pay my respects at the ancient temple of Arawai. We were attacked and brought here and they have been keeping us asleep since we arrived. However, I have pretended to be asleep for much of the time, listening to them to find out what they planned to do with us."
"What were ye' hearing?" asked Ardan. "Any news of other prisoners?"
"Yes, in fact," Lady Azdell replied. "They have established a prison somewhere close by in a cave behind a waterfall. They considered taking me and my guards there, but this Gravnok who's in charge wanted us kept close. They have a halfling in their prison, a Stoutfield. They are trying to figure out how to use him to get the Coin Lords to open up a dock on the other side of a dam somewhere."
"That's Talloak! Sounds like he's still kicking!" Ardan was relieved.
"Gravnok and his guards have their own private island adjoining this one- they'll be waking up soon," warned Lady Azdel. "If everyone is ready, we should leave this place."
"Lady Azdel," advised one of the wizards, "we should kill him while we have the chance. If we flee, he will follow."
"Yes, kill the bad guy," Malut agreed. "Where is he?"
They followed Lady Azdel and her party out of the tent and around the corner to another gate, this one protecting a bridge to an adjoining small island. Malut pushed the bone-lever and the gate rattled open just as a huge orc and several normal ones came out of the tent along with a human man.
"The prisoners! Get them!" shouted the huge orc. His face was covered in war paint, half white and half dark red. Huge loops hung from his ears and his tusks were long and whittled to sharp points.
"Wait on the bridge, they'll be coming to us," Ardan said. "We don't want them behind us. Twila, see if you can slip past them once the fighting starts and flank them."
Is'kel played her fascinate song as they approached but Lady Azdel's wizard guards were casting snowball storm and electric loop spells and the fascinate didn't take effect. They swung and shot and cast and soon, the only one left was Gravnok. He wasn't going down without a fight. He managed to knock out Lady Azdel's wizard guards but one of Ardan's arrows pierced through his dark chain mail, then another. With a flying kick, Faith knocked him down for the last time. Gravnok groaned, and then was quiet.
Is'kel revived Milni and Termon, Lady Azdel's wizards and the rest of the party went through Gravok's tent and the other tents, looking for supplies or loot. Lady Azdel related the rest of her ordeal while they got organized.
"Apparently, my capture was ordered by their human commanders. They were supposed to kill me. Gravnok though, saw an opportunity to get rich by offering me for a ransom. Once it was paid, he would kill me then. That human you saw was here warning Gravnok not to cross them. I must get to the Twelve as soon as possible, the message I am carrying to them must be more important than I realized."
Ardan found a crude map showing the location of the orc's prison in Gravnok's tent. They gathered up anything useful they could carry, destroyed anything left and walked Lady Azdel and her guards back to the Stormreach city gate without incident.
Pearl Drumling was pacing just inside the gate to the harbor, nervous and worried. She shrieked and cried when she saw the party approaching and ran out to hug them all.
"I'm so very thankful, I thought I'd never see you all again!" she cried. "Let's get you to a healer, Lady Azdel and make sure everything is OK."
"I'm happy to see you alive too, Pearl. I'm not resting until I get to the Twelve. I'm headed there now."
Pearl offered them each a small reward and promised to update the job as completed so they would get credit with the Union. The adventurers said their goodbyes and headed back to the Hills to save Talloak. Ardan was desperate to get to his brother.
Lady Azdel's party walked through the harbor, heading through the warehouse district towards the market gate.
"Have you eaten? Are you hungry?" Pearl asked the weary travelers. They were in fact, starving. "Let's take a minute and eat something here in the Wayward Lobster."
Lady Azdel did not like the thought of pausing but looking into Milni and Termon's faces, she realized it would be cruel to expect them to go on without food. She agreed to stop. They found a private table surrounded by low walls and seated themselves while Pearl brought them food and drinks. They ate hungrily, having eaten nothing but bread crusts and water while in the orc's prison. The cornmeal porridge was warm and filling, but tasted a little... odd. Lady Azdel assumed her tastebuds were just off after her ordeal... but there was an unfamiliar earthy taste to the porridge. Suddenly, her stomach felt like someone had grabbed and twisted it and her throat felt like it was on fire.
Milni and Termon were already clutching their throats, panicked looks on their faces.
"Pearl, why?" Lady Azdel choked out as her throat and stomach started to burn intensely.
Pearl looked at her suffering tablemates and laughed quietly.
"Stupid orcs didn't do their job, so now I have to finish it off. So much messier, and yet much more fun than playing the doting servant girl."
Milni was grasping about in her bag, her face turning purple and pulled out a small glass bottle of green liquid. She thrust it across the table at Lady Azdel but Pearl intercepted it, uncapped and drank it.
"Thanks. Poison removal potions are so handy," she said. "It's so pathetic that you could have saved yourself and yet your first instinct was to save her. Now you both die. I have to go see about that Essory kid. It would have been so much easier if you had all died out in the Hills like you were supposed to."
With that, she glanced around at the nearly empty tavern and left them to their doom.