Is'kel pulled out her lute and strummed a few bars. Faith felt a little more courageous, a little braver. Everyone checked their weapons and slowly, they moved forward past the caravan. The land beyond the caravan was forest land with large boulders and trees, making it hard to see very far ahead.
They had only gone ten steps down the road when several orcs attacked. The orcs came at them from both sides of the road. Malut's greataxe flashed as it reflected the sun, quickly cutting down one, then two of the orcs. Faith leaned into her attack, pounding one of the orcs with quick blows until it was subdued. Arrows and magic missles took down another orc and the team paused, breathing heavily, listening for another attack.
They could hear guttural voices to their left, beyond a natural pile of boulders. Is'kel crossed her hands in front of her and over her head several times, healing the wounds that Malut and Faith had gotten from the attackers. Faith gave her a quick smile. The group crouched behind a large boulder where they could see a band of orcs ahead in a clearing. A large tent had been set up with a fire in the center. Supplies in boxes and crates were scattered around the area and one of Nash's dogs was tied to a pole.
"I don't like dog, it's tough and stringy," complained one of the orcs.
"Then don't eat it," answered another. "More for us."
"It's Paiz," Ardan whispered.
The orcs outnumbered them. Faith could see fighters, rangers and healers.
"We need a plan. We'll need to be killin' the healers first."
Ardan turned to the group just in time to see Malut raise his greataxe and charge into the camp. There was nothing to do but follow him and fight. The orcs were well prepared for fighting and fought back with a vengeance. Malut and the rest of the team took heavy damage with wounds from arrows and swords. Faith, beating on a particularly nasty ranger, heard Is'kel's lute playing in the middle of the battle and suddenly, the fighting died down. When the orc she was fighting was dead, Faith turned to see the remaining orcs frozen in place with stupid looks on their faces and barely visible music notes shimmering over their heads.
"The fascination will break when you hit them, so be careful who you hit," Is'kel called out, backing out of the camp and casting healing spells as fast as she could.
Working together, they quickly killed the remaining orcs. Paiz the farm dog was still tied to a pole, barking wildly.
Twila looked at Malut, frowning. "You gotta stop doing that."
"Charging in to a group of enemies by yourself! You almost got us all killed."
"Sorry." Malut hung his head a little. "What am I supposed to do? I see enemies, I kill enemies."
"Wait til we've talked it out and everyone's knowin' what their job is. Beautiful work with the fascination," Ardan complimented Is'kel. She smiled and Twila, wiping blood from her shortsword and dagger on the grass, rolled her eyes.
"Paiz knows me, I'll take him back to Nash."
But the dog growled and leaped at him when he tried to approach. He was a big, tan mutt of a dog and stood as tall as the halfling.
"He's just overexcited by all the fighting," Is'kel said softly. "Who's a good doggie? You are! Yes, you are. Nice puppy."
She reached out and let the dog sniff her hand. Then she petted Paiz, who stopped fighting and stood panting. She stroked his back a few times, making sure he was calm, then untied his leash.
"I'll take him back to Nash," she offered. Then she clapped her hands. "Let's go Paiz!"
"How are ya gettin' 'im to do that?" asked Ardan, a little hurt that the dog had calmed down for her and not him. He usually had a way with animals.
She smiled and said over her shoulder, "I'm a pretty good diplomat, even with animals I guess."
As she led the dog down the path and then turned onto the road where the caravan waited, more orcs leapt from behind a nearby tree. She screamed and reached for her lute but before she could play it, she was down, unconscious. Paiz attacked with fury, leaping and biting the orcs but was seriously wounded by a falchion wielded by one of the orcs. The rest of the party responded quickly and the orcs were quickly dispatched. Paiz, wounded and near death, laid down heavily in the dirt, whimpering.
"What do we do?" cried Thysmac. "She'll bleed to death!"
Faith remembered her bracers of aid and quickly touched the leather band on her wrist, then the bleeding elf girl. Is'kel's eyes fluttered open.
"Are you ok?" Faith asked.
"I'm so sorry," Is'kel whispered weakly. "I didn't see them coming. Is Paiz ok?"
Thysmac touched his bracers, then the dog. Paiz's wounds stopped bleeding. "He'll be alright."
Is'kel struggled to her feet then started casting her cure light wounds spells on Paiz, then herself. "That's all I have, I'm out of spells."
"C'mon, let's get Paiz back to Nash before we go any further."
They were close to the caravan and the dog was returned to Nash without further incident. Nash, looking at how pale Is'kel was and seeing the wounds healing on the other members of the party told them to look for rest shrines. He'd seen the orcs bring in a set of rest shrines for each of their camps. The group headed back up the road towards the farmstead.
Suddenly, they were engulfed in a thick fog. It was hard to see anything. Orcs attacked them from behind and the fight was quick and brutal. They took down three fighters and the wizard who had cast the fog on them, but they were all hurt and damaged before it was over. As the fog cleared away, Faith saw a faint glow of blue flames up the hill to the right.
"I think the shrine is up here."
They did find a shrine and a wagon of supplies. Thysmac busted the crates and boxes with his quarterstaff while Ardan stealthily scouted the area for more orcs. Malut found the chest of ham and helped himself to one while Twila and Faith each put a ham in their backpacks for the other dogs. When Ardan gave them the all-clear, they all sat down at the shrine.
"OK, let's be talkin' about some basics," Ardan said, kneeling on one knee and sounding more forceful than usual. "Always kill casters first, healers, wizards or sorcerers. Identify 'em and get 'em out of the combat. Protect our healer at all costs. We need 'er to keep us alive."
Twila sniffed loudly and made a "hmph" sound.
"I'll be stayin' near Is'kel and usin' ranged damage whenever possible, usin' my longbow. Is'kel, be healin' and crowd controlin', hypnotizin' and fascinatin'. Try to stay out of the combat. Twila, I want you to flank whoever Malut is fightin' and sneak attack from behind or use your bow and attack from a distance. You two work as a team. Thysmac and Faith, you two work together to kill enemies. Faith picks the target, Thysmac help her kill it fast. Stay back if you can but if you need to use a touch spell, try to stay behind the enemy. No one just be runnin' in and startin' a fight alone, but if we are surprise attacked, work together in teams. Everyone understand?"
"I don't need help," Malut said. "I kill fast."
"Who put you in charge, Ardan?" Twila was feeling surly again.
"Someone has to be in charge or we're not going to make it through this job. I organized this group. I have the most at stake here, Cerulean Hills is my home. But I've also studied fightin' tactics and if we keep just racin' into these fights and hittin' whoever we feel like, we're goin' to die. They'll pick us off one by one."
"We've done pretty good so far," Thysmac said.
"No, we haven't. We've been lucky. These past two fights have hurt pretty bad, dontcha' think? I don't want to take anymore cuts, bruises or arrows than I absolutely have to, do you?"
They all shook their heads. Everyone was healed up from the rest shrine but the fight had hurt them all badly. Faith realized she hardly felt the injuries while she was in the heat of the battle but once she slowed down, the pain was intense. And the thought of dying, even a "temporary" death where she could be resurrected, scared her very much.
"OK, let's go. Stay together, right? Can we have a courage song, Is'kel?"
Back on the road, they saw their way forward was blocked. The orcs had erected a temporary barrier with crates, barrels and lumber and had archers on top of the makeshift wall, looking out for intruders. Crude banners of the Grul tribe hung on poles cut from small trees. They were topped with skulls and several more posts had skulls on them- a warning to would-be attackers.
"Bows, crossbows and shurikins out, if you've got 'em," whispered Ardan as they got within range of the orcs. "Take out the orcs first, then destroy the barrier. We don't know how many more are behind that wall."
The two orcs on top of the wall saw them and shouted to alert the rest. Twila, Malut and Ardan shot at them with bows while Thysmac aimed magic missles at the guards. Several arrows fell short and hit the lumber. Quickly the entire blockade crumbled and several more angry orcs joined the fight. Malut switched back to his greataxe and he and Faith rushed in. Malut headed for the wizard in the back and Faith chased down one of the archers who backed up to get better aim at them. Faith saw the purple flash of a magic missle surround the archer and he fell over, dead. She turned to the fighter who was taking a swing at her back and kicked with all her might. As she pounded him, he suddenly spasmed then stopped moving. She looked up to see Thysmac on the other side of the body, grinning.
"Shocking grasp. He looked pretty shocked, didn't he?"
Faith laughed. The teaming up had worked well; they were surrounded with dead orcs, but they could hear more orcs yelling somewhere close by. Ardan motioned them over to a thick hedge of tall plants; the voices were coming from behind it. Malut quickly picked a mushroom growing in front of the hedge and stashed it in his bag. Ardan pointed and motioned for them to go in.
The clearing contained the orc's sleeping tents. Faith looked for anyone that looked like a caster and quickly noticed a tall orc with a horned helmet waving a staff with a skull on it. That had to be a spellcaster. She charged for him, quickly throwing blows and aiming a graceful, powerful kick to his midsection. The wizard orc ran backwards out of her range and she chased him but Thysmac got him first. She watched the wizard fall in a spiral of purple light. With no time to stop and think, she turned to the next nearest orc, then the next. With Thysmac helping her, the orcs were killed in no time. Soon, all were dead and the only thing left alive in the campsite was a scruffy, tan dog.
"Are you ok, Dupuy?" Ardan asked the dog affectionately, approaching slowly. The dog wagged his tail and panted. Ardan pulled out a ham for him and he ate happily while Ardan untied the rope that secured him to a set of poles driven into the ground. Ardan rubbed the dog's head and Dupuy licked him across the face.
"I'm going to take Dupuy back to the caravan while you folk take a rest," Ardan said, disappearing through the hedge with Dupuy happily zigzagging behind him.
"I don't think I even need to rest," Twila said, looking at another set of rest shrines installed in the campground.
"I never turn down more spells," Thysmac grinned and sat in front of the statue of the lady holding the blue moon. Is'kel sat down as well and Malut shrugged, then plopped down on the ground to rest. Soon, Ardan reappeared through the hedge.
"Aye, we've got trouble ahead. There's a bridge over the swampy area and their archers are lined up on it, guarding it. Looks to be several spellcasters there too. We have to go under or around that bridge to get to the other side. This is going to be tough- they have the high ground."
"Let's see if we can separate them, make them come to us," suggested Thysmac.
"That's using your noggin," Ardan was enthusiastic. "Alright, either Twila or myself will sneak up and shoot a few arrows at the ones closest to us and try to bring em back here. Everyone stay behind the plants."
Twila was gone before he finished speaking, crouched down with her longbow in hand. Soon they heard her running back.
The plan worked brilliantly. One by one, the orcs came to attack them and were quickly dispatched. Malut dragged the bodies behind the plants. When no one else came around the corner, Twila snuck out to take a look. She returned with a report.
"Looks like we've got all the ground troops. Two archers and a wizard haven't left the bridge though."
"Ranged weapons everyone. Don't get any closer than you need to and if you get hurt, fall back here." Faith felt bad that she had no ranged weapons and made a mental note to ask her trainer what she could use to attack from a distance.
As quietly as they could, they crept out of the protected area and back onto the road, hugging the wall of rock on their left. Faith hung back with Is'kel.
"Wizard first," Ardan whispered and they all opened fire.
The wizard took several arrows to the chest and head, falling dramatically off the bridge into the swampy muck below. One archer met the same fate but while they were targeting the other archer, more orcs came running at them from under the bridge.
"Back up!" yelled Ardan and walking backwards while shooting they managed to get to the relative safety of the sleeping camp. Quickly they switched to melee weapons and when the orcs came blasting through the tall plants, Is'kel was already halfway through her fascinate song. The orcs froze in place as she played the last note. One by one, their bodies were added to the pile which was starting to attract flies.
"Let's go," said Ardan and quietly, they went back out to the swampy clearing. The last archer lay dead on the bridge and no live orcs could be seen. Ardan led the way through the swamp, under the bridge and as they got close to the opposite bank, barking could be heard. There was no plant cover and they could see up the hill into a large, open tent where an important-looking orc was lecturing a group. They quietly moved to the sheer face of the hill where they could still hear the orcs above.
"Construction on the bridge will begin in two days. The house is being burned now so it will be out of the way. Either you will work on the bridge, or you will contribute enough able-bodied slaves to do your work. Either way, it must get done."
"But Zaramang," whined one of the orcs, "where will we find slaves here? There are only a few farmers left and they are mostly old."
"I don't care where you find them or even IF you find them," Zaramang barked. "The objective is to get the bridge into Searing Heights built before the high tide season. We must have a passage into Stormreach, it has been ordered."
"I don't know why we are taking orders from those Sharn slugs anyway," the whiner complained.
Zaramang raised his greataxe and in a flash, the dissenting orc was lying dead on the ground.
"Now the rest of you will have to make up for his share of the work." He stared menacingly at the faces of the remaining orcs, daring them to defy him. The look on his face changed to confusion as three arrows pierced his chest and he fell. The adventurers had moved to a point on the hill where they had a clean shot at the orcs. More arrows whooshed into the camp as the party unleashed their ranged weapons on the unprepared orcs. Several were hit in the back as they reached for their weapons. Malut and Faith took them down as they charged down the hill, looking for their attackers. The fight was over quickly and Glin barked happily as Ardan approached the dog.
"You're not stew yet," he told the dog. Glin's tail wagged happily. Faith fed the dog a ham but Ardan stopped her as she went to untie him from his post.
"It's a long walk back from here, let's leave him here until we save the house. That big one said they were getting ready to burn it."
"Should we just take him with us?" Faith asked, worried.
"I don't want him to get hurt. I think he'll be safe here."
"But what if the other orcs come get him for their dinner?" Is'kel didn't want to leave the dog behind either.
"He's sure to be in danger if we take him with us and he will alert the orcs that we're coming. We can't take him with us."
With that decided, they gave Glin an extra chunk of ham to keep him quiet. He hunkered down with the meat between his paws and gnawed happily on it. The group went back to the road. It twisted out of the swamp, up a hill and around a corner. A dry riverbed left the swamp in the other direction; both appeared to lead towards the house.
"Which way?" asked Malut. "Stay on the road or climb the rocks?"
"Wolves have a den in that riverbed, the noise would draw attention if they see us. Let's stick to the road."
Moving slowly and quietly in a single file line, they followed the road as it twisted and turned on it's way to Nash's house. They encountered a few more orcs along the way, hidden in the bushes and made short work of them. Finally, they could see the wooden gate that enclosed Nash's fields and house. In front of it, a human was yelling at several orcs.
"We aren't paying you to play in the forest out here, construction should have started last week!"
They couldn't hear the orc's response, but the man yelled again.
"I don't think you want me telling the boss you haven't even started on the bridge yet, do you? Where's your commander? The Sharn Syndicate doesn't deal with underlings."
While the man and the orcs were arguing, the adventurers knocked their bows and readied their spells.
The orc let slip that his commander was on his way. The human wanted to be let inside the gate to confirm that the house was being removed. When a scuffle broke out as the man tried to push past the orcs, the party made their move. Arrows flew and Malut and Faith were right behind them, tearing through the group with lightning speed. Hardly stopping, Malut swung at the old wooden fence and it broke apart. They ran through, towards the smoke rising in the distance. As they passed through a small field of low-growing plants, Faith thought she could make out on the horizon a... a... giant barrel of ale.
She blinked. The giant barrel was still there and growing larger as they neared the house. It was mounted to the roof of Braza's house. She thought about making a joke that Kalvenor would be sorry he missed this job but there was no time. The roof was already burning. They ran into the yard and Faith had a brief impression of lots of small buildings clustered together... barns and coops and storage sheds and outhouses... but it was the main house that was on fire.
"Nash has running water, that barrel holds it," Ardan called out, looking from right to left for more orcs. "We have to turn the valve that releases it."
Faith saw the valve he must be talking about- it was mounted just under the roof section that held the giant barrel. She raced over and turned it, pulling hard on the rusty metal. With a creak, it spun up and water gushed out from the barrel above, extinguishing the blaze.
"Good work," said Ardan but before he could say anything else, an arrow pierced his shoulder. They were surrounded. A whole contingent of orcs had come in behind them, led by a powerful-looking cleric. The small gated yard they were standing in had two exits- one to the front and one around the back of the house. Both were now blocked by laughing orcs. Malut helped Ardan to his feet and without a word, yanked the arrow from his shoulder. Ardan cried out in pain but stifled it as quickly as he could. As the adventurers formed a semi-circle with their back to the house, Is'kel quietly murmured and gestured from behind Ardan, healing the wound.
"Did you really think you, a pathetic bunch of do-gooding adventurers, could outsmart Armnok of the Grul tribe? All you've managed to do is thin out the weaker of my soliders and save a couple of dogs. Luckily, I still have one here for my dinner." Armnok waved a thick hand at an orc behind him who was leading the struggling dog into the yard.
"This is so much bigger than you know," he sneered. "And when I'm finished killing you, I'm going to go finish off the old man hiding out front and get tomorrow's dinner back. It's all been for nothing."