The party moved quickly through the Hills, having killed most of the orc and bugbear patrols in the area. They followed the river deeper and deeper into the Hills until they reached a spot where they could go no further. The Cerulean River entered the Hills at a steep drop from the volcanic mountains, creating a natural waterfall. Ardan walked straight up to the waterfall, took a deep breath and walked right into it.
The others looked at each other for a moment, then followed him. Surprisingly, they found themselves in the mouth of a cave on the other side of the falls. It was an ideal place to hide. Ardan made a note to tell Thaalan about the cave when he saw him again.
They were immediately attacked by orc guards. Ardan, frantic to find his brother, pulled out his steel and led the charge, completely forgetting his mantra about teamwork and staying together and going slow. He tore into the cave, racing around each turn and slashing at the orcs he encountered. The rest of the party did their best to keep up with him, finishing off the wounded orcs left in his wake. The cavern ended at a large, dark hole, surrounded by beds and more orc guards.
"Talloak? Are you there?" Ardan called out.
"Help!" came a weak reply from the hole. "Ardan? Help..."
Without a word, Ardan jumped into the cavern below. Thysmac shocked an orc who started to get back up from the floor and the orc fell still again. An orc cleric appeared from the tunnel behind them, apparently having followed them in. Malut took a mighty swing and down the orc went. They all climbed down into the dimly illuminated cavern where Ardan was untying a halfling that looked like an older version of himself.
"How are you? Are you hurt?" Ardan asked.
"Ardan, I can't believe it's you," the halfling said weakly. He sat up on the cot, rubbing his wrists where the rope had bound him. "I didn't think I was going to make it out of here alive."
Is'kel cast a healing spell on him, then another. Then she pulled out her lute and played a few chords.
"Oh, that's nice, thank you so much," Talloak smiled at her.
"Let's get you out of here." Ardan helped him to his feet. One by one they climbed back up the ladder. Malut was checking out the giant mushrooms growing over their heads. He reached up to break off a piece and Ardan stopped him.
"You don't want those, Malut. Poison mushrooms."
"Oh, my grapes are going to be in bad shape," worried Talloak. "And I guess the Phoenix Tavern is completely out of greens by now, I'll need to check in with all my customers..."
"Forget the produce," Ardan exclaimed. "What did the orcs want with you? Why didn't they kill you?"
They talked as they headed out of the cave, back into the sunlight of the Hills.
"It was real weird, Ardan. They wanted me to take down my dam and go get the Coin Lords to approve a dock at the mouth of the river. I mean, orcs! Asking me about civil engineering of all things."
"Well, it's not like that dam is holding any water," Ardan teased him.
"It will when Essie Falshor quits sabotaging it! She doesn't want that little field over in the low area flooded but I told her it had to be done. The crops need more water. It's my field anyway- I gave her a choice of the other fields that aren't being worked right now and she refuses to move. Instead, she keeps moving rocks out of my dam..." he shook his head in disbelief over the sabotage tactics of the sharecropper. "Anyway, they wanted an official dock there so it didn't raise any eyebrows. Ardan, I think they are planning on moving more orcs into Cerulean Hills! There's no way I was going to help them."
Ardan filled his brother in on what they had learned from the other Cerulean Hills residents and agreed that his conclusion was probably correct.
"Nash's farm sounds like a real mess, I'll go check on him and see if I can help," Talloak decided.
"I'm going with you," Ardan insisted. "And tomorrow, we'll check the crops and the customers and get everything organized."
Talloak's face lit up. "That sounds great."
Talloak and Ardan parted ways with the rest of the group near the harbor gate. Faith was exhausted and looking forward to a hot meal and resting for the remainder of the day. She was mildly curious when she saw a group of people at the harbor gate. As they drew near, people started pointing at them and yelling.
"That's them, they're the ones who were with Lady Azdel earlier."