As we return to the action…
The orcs still had no idea that the party were stalking them until the distance had closed to barely a hundred feet. Taking advantage of the surprise, a Sleep spell and a volley of arrows crossed the distance between the two foes. This was quickly followed by another Sleep spell, a Stinking Cloud, an angry pirate, an even angrier Anti-Paladin and a vexed dwarf. The Bladedancer cast Swift Sword and then entered combat with one of the orc champions. In the end the combat was brutally one sided. More than three quarters of the orc warriors were incapacitated by magic, almost every champion was dead or engaged in mortal combat and the chieftain had ran off with a few picked orcs. In a brief parlay, involving intense negotiation, the remaining orcs were brought round to the Ashen Blades way of life with promises of feasting, regular pay and much pillaging.
Having brought 50 orcs to heel, the party continued on their way, following the directions of the Nightblade, who was navigating using the ancient elven techniques of pothluc and vollomi. By nightfall, it became apparent that the party were lost, because the Nightblade’s directions and the remaining senior orc’s tale of their travels simply led them back to the river. While the orc’s did come through the hills into the forest, it wasn’t through the hills the party were searching for, and in the Nightblade’s case he couldn’t tell his arse from his elbow.
The next day dawned and once more the party strode out, following the directions of the Nightblade yet again. Before long, sounds of guttural language and a snarling argument could be heard up ahead. The Nightblade approached using intense stealth to discover a pair of cyclops towering twenty feet tall arguing over the remains of five or six men and horses. After a brief, and hushed, debate the party elected to ambush the cyclops and perhaps earn a reputation as giant killers. The plan almost immediately went awry. The Nightblade’s best shot appeared not to faze the first cyclops while the ensuing Stinking Cloud had absolutely no effect. The cyclops couldn’t pick the party out in the undergrowth but hurled the horses they had to hand towards their attackers. One landed mere inches from the Anti-Paladin, while the other sailed far over the Nightblade’s head deep into the forest cover. At this point the party started withdrawing back to their orc lines, but fortunately the two giant-kin were keener on feasting on man- and horse-flesh than in pursuing hidden ghosts through the forest.
As the day lengthened it became apparent that once again, the party were lost. The river was discovered yet again. After one more nights camping, an orc was sent up a tree to determine the direction of sunrise. Although he managed to communicate a general easterly direction to his compatriots on the ground, he also lost his footing on the way down and managed to kill himself in a twenty foot fall. Pausing briefly to butcher and cook breakfast of orc and fried mushrooms, the warband set out north and before long broke out of the forest into a more contoured terrain. After some brief cheering, congratulations and recriminations on taking three days to effectively travel four miles, the party set about looking for signs of the burial mound. With considerably more luck than judgement they came across the site late in the afternoon.
The orc warband were encouraged to set up a camp a half mile from the mound, while the Blades approached. The hill had a monumental processional with menhir and dressed granite slabs leading towards a dark entrance into the hillside. The ground immediately before the processional was dotted with small hillocks of dirt as if large moles had been at work. It became readily apparent that they had. Walking across the area, the Blades were set upon from below. Seven giant shrews burst from the ground seeking to capture something more filling than worms. The fight was short and one sided, with each of the party getting in a blow or two and despatching at least one of the shrews.
At the end of the processional, just at the entrance proper six golden spikes of significant size were embedded, three on each side of the entrance. While the spikes appeared to have writings on them, the script was difficult to discern without removing the spikes and the Blades seemed reluctant to do this. Having the Anti-Paladin commune with Asmodeus and determine the presence of good. The spikes radiate powerful good magic and the Blades definitely decide to leave well alone.
Moving into the darkness, a damp chill can be felt. A large pool lies at a crossroads. The Nightblade took to scouting the left hand passage and while so engaged he disturbed a carrion crawler. The foul creature made to drop onto the unaware elf before his compatriots could yell a warning but fortune, if it could be described as such, came to the rescue. The hyperdontic jaws of a
great white sharkipede skittering maw snapped around the dangling crawler cutting it in half. With some degree of care, but an understanding that killing a sharkipede skittering maw would do wonders for the party’s reputation, they set about killing it with relish. The plan was to “cockatrice” the aberration hoping to kill it before it did too much damage to the party. The plan was concise, but first the Nightblade was bitten and buffeted by the creature’s bulk just before the Corsair was taken by the head and shoulder and thrown like a rag doll across the cavern floor. The Nightblade didn’t succumb to the burning poison but was grievously wounded, while the Corsair succumbed to both poison and the massive raking bite across his head and left shoulder. The Bladedancer took a moment from the fight to cast healing magic on the Corsair, while the Nightblade pulled him aside to use some neutralising herbs to dull the worst effects of the poison. In the ensuing seconds, which seemed to slow to an eternity, the Bladedancer distracted by her magical efforts barely avoided being bitten herself. The Spellsword, Craftpriest and Anti-Paladin hacked at the abominable creature and although a telling blow was landed by the Paladin’s magical great sword, the beast didn’t give up. It snapped at the Paladin and while not injuring him as dreadfully as the others who had been bitten already, the burning poison coursed in the bite and the Paladin could fell its grip on his metabolism as it began to take effect. Finally, the Craftpriest dealt a blow two handed which crushed the abnormal fiend’s skull and killed it outright.
The party recovered a partly devoured body that had become wedged by the entrance to the skittering maw’s underwater lair and recovered some armour and a long sword. The party then retired to the orc camp to set up tents to salve their wounds. Even with divine magic the scars left by the bite of the maw had left the Corsair with gruesome scars that would win him few admirers but would probably leave others thinking twice about crossing a man who could take such scars and survive to tell of it. Two whole days passed in resting and healing, before the Ashen Blades steeled themselves to enter the burial mound once more.