A few things quickly became apparent about the hut.
One: Felegum could not leave it or else the spell would fade and we would have a hut no more. Two: it was really nice inside, but unfortunately this also made a lot of the snow in the hut with us no longer want to be snow, and the ground around our feet was becoming mud. And three: the horses would not fit inside.
The walls were clear, like a frosty snow globe where we could see outside, and watch the night slink in over the mountains. No one had to be on watch, either; the tiny hut wouldn’t let anyone through except the people Felegum allowed, so we were safe for the night. All in all, it was pretty clutch.
I got to work shoveling snow out of the hut– stuff could pass through the walls if we wanted it to– and it made a small difference. Awk also tried to help but he just got dirt and mud all over Harry, who left to go meditate somewhere outside. Zeno went out for a walk in the wilderness too, I guess, and successfully got out of helping with things. We had rations for dinner, but it was at least nicer eating the bread in the warmth of the hut.
We fell asleep warm and cozy and then woke up to a sudden drop in temperature.
The tiny hut, we discovered, only lasted for eight hours, and once that time was up it vanished, leaving us back in the cold. The horses were still alive, surprisingly, just a bit cold under the blankets. Awk fed them, we got ready to go, and then realized that we didn’t have a direction. Zeno pulled out his ten-foot pole, something he’d picked up in Paripas before Letitia teleported us out, and poked it into the ground.
I took out the Broom of Flying and spoke the command word for flight. “I can show you the gold, shining, shimmering, splendid. Tell me, broomstick, now when did you last give your rogue a ride?”
I was able to scout a little bit ahead and discovered two spots where smoke was coming out of the earth, one from the side of the shark tooth crag and the other from a slit in the ground near some other rocks, but not part of the mountain. There was a path on the south side of the mountain, and from what I could tell, it seemed like we were to the west.
It definitely helped, being up high and actually being able to see a line from one point to the other. When I landed and dispensed this information, Felegum started talking about switchbacks and then got into an argument with Awk about cairns. The matter of what to do with the horses and Sovereign Dungeoneering Cart loomed; we could either take the horses and the cart with us all the way through the cave, or we could leave them outside to the extreme cold and elements.
Both Awk and Felegum were for leaving them, the disagreement was more a matter of where– near the entrance or farther from it?– and then how we would know where the horses were once we’d gotten the aegis and needed the cart to travel back to Paripas and deliver it. Felegum was making a compelling case for markings cut into trees, and Awk, taking the side of plant life, supported cairns. The two argued about it for a while, but we made it onto the path and I flew ahead once more to look for an entrance.
This time, I found a large stone door at the end of the path. When I arrived back, the horse debate was once again in session, this time with Zeno.
“The horses are gonna die,” I said. I didn’t like the cold, it didn’t look like the horses liked the cold, and the closer we got to the door, the more footprints we could see of humanoid creatures. Someone was going to find them and eat them, or they were just going to starve or freeze or whatever. Not being the bad guy, just pointing out the obvious.
Felegum sighed. “I’m just doing this to make Zeno happy.”
The bard held up his hands. “Okay, okay. Maybe we’ll need them to carry stuff.”
Thus convinced, we took the horses with us until we reached the door, which was ajar.
“I got this,” Zeno said, pushing forward. He cleared his throat. “Friend.”
Nothing happened. Not unusual for us and doors, but still. Zeno yoohoo’d into the cave and there was some scraping and rustling around from inside. Harry went up to the door, testing its weight and finding that it was quiet heavy, and managed to wedge it open a few more inches. And he’d just turned around to walk back to the rest of us when an arrow hit him in the back.
It being Harry, he was fine, but this was definitely an unwelcome development. I cast Light on a rock and threw into into the cave so we could see what was going on in there better, and two more arrows hit the cave floor around the rock. Two with weapons then.
Zeno stuck the ten-foot pole in there and they laughed, also confirming that there were two creatures.
I don’t know if I mentioned this, but at some point Harry had gone on a massive shopping spree and bought all sorts of small but probably useful items and hadn’t gotten much of a chance to use them yet. Thus provoked, he took out the steel mirror he’d purchased from that trip and used it to look around the door at the lit stone.
He must have seen something, because a few seconds later the mirror was shot out of his hand by one of the things inside.
Naturally, though, our bard had evolved a plan.
“Do you have any ale?” he called into the cave.
There was a contemplative pause. Then a gruff, low voice replied: “Are you offering?”
“No,” Zeno said, “I’m thirsty.”
“Don’t you, though?” Felegum whispered to Zeno.
“Oh, that’s right.” Zeno took out the okay stout that he’d shared with us the night before. “I have ale,” he said to the occupants of the foyer.
“Zuul says no guests. But,” the voice paused, “we haven’t had good drink in so long.”
Oh man. I shook my head, not believing this was actually happening.
“It’s a stout!” Zeno called back. Persuasively.
“Dark beer best beer.” More murmuring from beyond the door. “Bring beer in.”
I shook my head again. Were we actually going to be able to negotiate our way inside and not incite fights with everything we met? Zeno gave us a salute, took the keg, and headed in. “Oh, orcs!” His deliberately loud voice carried outside the cave with ease. “Thank the gods, I was expecting dwarves. I can’t stand the smell of their beards.”
The orcs maybe said something in reply, maybe not, it was hard to hear.
“You work for Zuul, you said?” Zeno again, hamming it up. “How long?”
“Oh,” an orc said, “we’ve been here for many months.”
Zeno sighed, wistful. “I was friends with a dwarf once. I was hoping to find his shield and pee on it.”
Wow. This was the charisma approach? Peeing on everything?
There was a lot about the world I just did not understand.
Still, while Zeno’s stout may not have tasted the best to us, the orcs loved it. “Dark beer best beer” was repeated several times and then Zeno’s welcome was at an end. “Leave the keg,” one of the orcs said.
“Ooh, I don’t know about that.” Zeno said and then one of the orcs screamed in surprise.
And that’s when all hope of diplomacy went out the window.
We raced in just as Zeno made an “oof” noise as one of the orc’s longbow arrows struck him. Harry got in a few slaps before one orc ran off down the hallway bellowing “INTRUDERS!” and the other stared at Zeno’s stout keg like it was about to blow up or something and then also turned and ran.
Seeing everything going to hell in a hand basket, I caught up with the snitch and stabbed him. I didn’t think that would be enough to take him out, but it was and he fell silent on the ground. The other orc, though, was also yelling at this point, just things like “IT’S GONNA BLOW” or “EVERYONE GET OUT” which was also not helping our stealth.
Awk did that weird blast thing he does that the ghost dragon taught him or whatever and Zeno, per usual, mocked the orc the rest of the way to death.
Felegum entered moments later. “Wow,” he said, surveying the carnage. “I didn’t even get to go.”
Zeno plopped down by the orc that I’d stabbed and played a melancholy dirge for him. Again, not super conducive to our sneaking around, but I was curious and also a bit distracted by Harry somehow concentrating on his wounds and then closing them up as if by force of will.
It was at this point that the bagpipe music got super creepy. The pipes themselves smoked more than usual and as the song reached its peak of longing and sadness, the smoke hovered for a moment, then was sucked into the orc’s chest, as the once-dead creature sat up and began to stand.
My fingers crept to my holy symbol underneath my cloak and tunic, remembering a sailor by the docks.
They say even the dead are walking.
“Zeno,” I said, my voice deadly calm, “what the hell are you doing?”
“Everyone, I’d like you to meet my new friend,” Zeno said, directing the zombie orc to drink. Beer spilled down his face as he attempted to follow this order. “Glorc.”
“Did you–did you name him after Glorg?” I spluttered.
“Glorc.” Zeno corrected. “Glorc the orc. And maybe, I didn’t know his name and that was just the first thing that popped into my head.”
Meanwhile, Helli had snuck off down the left fork of the hallway ahead and Felegum sent Dronie down the right. Harry was with us, looking equally un-okay with what was going down.
But it wasn’t as simple as it seemed on the surface. Death was more a permeable membrane than a firm barrier and sometimes that was good. Not everything deserved to be dead when it died; Meepo was just one example of many. There were so many different gods with different views on what was okay regarding death and what wasn’t that I felt like you just had to judge it for yourself on a case by case basis.
Like, that crab spirit that inhabited Chip? Definitely bad news, not a good non-dead thing. That dog that that necromancer had brought back in Paripas and was able to return to its grateful and loving family? That wasn’t hurting anyone.
Zeno had made an effort to get to know me and gotten me breakfast from Csipherus. The same city that was under siege by things that he, apparently, could now create too.
So where did that leave us? Somewhere between kindness and cruelty, which was too much gray area to navigate now.
I rubbed my temples. “Look, my feelings on this are complicated, but I also don’t want to die having this argument.”
“Oh darling,” Zeno replied with a wink. “I’m just getting started.”
Well. I clicked my tongue. I killed that thing once, I could always kill it again. Daggers didn’t run out of spell slots.
Zeno put a beer mug in the dead orc’s hand to signify the start of a beautiful partnership and then commanded the zombie to drink. It upturned beer all over its face.
Helli, when she got back from her expedition down the hall, pulled out her venom dagger and made toward Glorc the Dead Orc. Zeno talked her down and came up with an idea to sneak us down the right hallway by pretending to be Glorc’s prisoners. Felegum (also strongly anti-zombie) had explored using Dronie, but arrows had taken the little monodrone out again.
Helli told me about the hallway to the left ending in a tunnel going directly up and mentioned that it might be a good place to fly through. So, she hopped on the broom with me and we took off to explore, and maybe find a way to avoid the corridor of projectile doom.
The tunnel went up for a bit and then curved around to the left, which seemed to make sense, since that was back where the entrance to the outside was. Above us, a little sliver of light shone through, meaning that this was likely a ventilation shaft. Just out of curiosity, I cast Light on the tip of the broom to see what was below us.
A rope bridge loomed out over a chasm. I squinted, but couldn’t tell if there was anyone else around so I dismissed the light and flew us back.
Once we reunited with the group, we talked over a plan. Felegum wasn’t all that keen on taking the corridor that had killed Dronie, but the broom could only handle 400 pounds of person on it at one time, which meant that Harry for sure would need to fly solo (maybe with a gnome) and that Zeno’s new companion couldn’t join us. That sealed the deal for Zeno taking the right corridor, so we all clasped our hands together and pretended to be prisoners as Zeno threw his voice to make it sound like Glorc was talking. “We have prisoners!”
He jerked his head at the rest of us. “Quick, everyone, follow me!”
And somehow that actually worked. We made it past the arrow corridor without any more of us getting shot. Then, we came to a door.
It was of dwarven make and the walls around it borne finely crafted, intricate stonework and insignia. Beyond was a glimmer of firelight and the door itself was closed and barred, made of heavy wooden timbers.
I cracked my knuckles. Seeing the Qoivula and Klein use magic to flick the little paper triangle through cups had given me a few ideas for remote lockpicking with Mage Hand and I was ready to get to put them to the test.
However, Zeno wanted to continue the bluff since it seemed to be working, so I swallowed my feelings and skulked back to go hide in a shadow. As one does.
“Open up,” Zeno said in an approximation of Glorc’s voice. “We find music man. Very good.”
No response. I rolled my eyes in the darkness, tempted to just cast something but determined to wait it out.
Zeno thought for a moment and then tried again. “He play music on bagpipes.”
“He brings beer too.” Pause. “Good beer.”
And then, arrows shot out of the arrow slits in this danger-riddled hallway at Helli and Felegum.
Zeno sighed. “Glorc, break down the door.”
And lo, Glorc did, hammering his increasingly beaten on beer mug into the wood until the beautifully crafted door gave way. What awaited us beyond was a rickety-ass rope bridge, vaguely familiar, but in the wrong direction from the one I’d seen. There probably were a lot of bridges here, the place being full of crevasses and whatever. I’m not a geologist. There’s big dark holes in mountains. That’s what I know.
There were also braziers on either side of the door, and Zeno took the opportunity to spit in one. “I thought you were gold,” he said to it disparagingly.
I sighed, raising my hands to cast Light again for Harry, who super would not be able to see much going past the braziers, but the monk had other plans. Harry, who had not gotten the chance to perform any stunning feats of acrobatics recently, counted out ten precises steps from the chasm’s edge and took a running leap over it. He landed without a problem.
What he didn’t see, probably at least since he had no darkvision, were the two shapes moving around on the other side of the rope bridge. I grabbed a few rose petals and switched spells mid-cast to be Sleep instead. One of the orcs fell in a heap, but the other was unaffected. Can’t have everything, I guess.
Awk did his weird magic blast at the not-asleep orc menacing Harry and that was about the point where, sensing a fight, the orcs started pouring out of the walls from where they’d been shooting at us. Zeno directed Glorc around him like a big meaty dead shield, and another hit Felegum with a bolt.
Meanwhile, Harry was swinging around in the dark at the now-antagonized orc that my spell hadn’t affected.
Once again, diplomacy had failed us.
An orc clad in superior armor came into the fray as Harry’s strikes went too wide. Frustrated, the monk lit a torch as Helli ran across the bridge and I flew over the chasm after her, not trusting the bridge to carry my weight. I had to fumble the broom back out from where it’d been slung over my back and that took some time, but I was able to land right next to the tough guy. Then I regretted it, because he looked a lot more intimidating when I could actually see him better.
Little did I know that Felegum was about to summon a Tidal Wave on the orc’s leader and the other orc near us. He’s done this before in battle, but it’s just an obscene amount of water to just come out of nowhere. To complicate matters, it also doused Harry’s torch and cast us back into the dark.
Which Harry could not see in again, at all.
The hair on the back of my neck prickled and sure enough, a moonbeam scythed through the orcs back by the rest of the group. Harry couldn’t see it, but I was throwing him a knowing smile because he and I both knew how much it sucked to get caught in one of Awk’s spells. Especially that one.
More orcs continued to issue forth from the hallway, in seemingly never-ending supply. One was about to hit Felegum when Zeno shouted out, “Felegum, you’re saved!” and the mage’s attacker was so startled that they missed. Glorc, to his undead credit, seemed to be holding his own in the fight, blocking Zeno from attacks and punching other orcs with his beer mug.
Harry swung out in the darkness again and I once again went through my components pouch for some moss so I could get this guy some light. Personally, I preferred using fireflies for this over glowy moss, but the hard truth was that moss had a longer shelf life in frigid temperatures. Harry did manage to land a hit on the larger orc, who must have been their chieftain, so that was good.
Then the chieftain tried attacking me, saying something about wanting my shiny broom, but I managed to dodge. Figured, the first magical item I had and someone was already after it.
At least it showed I had good taste.
True to form, Helli’s Danger Dagger was out and the orc chieftain winced after one of her swipes, like he’d felt something not good at work in him, as one might feel perhaps after eating too much breakfast burrito.
I had the Light moss ready to go when Zeno did something to make the orc chieftain run away– it seemed like some bagpipe whisper thing, but it could also have been Glorc charging toward the last remaining orc on the other side of the bridge.
I got off a quick slice on the fly as the chieftain booked it down a new hallway, but then an idea struck me. For the second time, I swapped the moss for rose petals and cast Sleep in the distance on the fleeing orc chieftain.
He paused, then shook it off. I instantly felt bad about not helping Harry more, but I was not about to play the let’s-get-reinforcements game on this side of the bridge too. The others seemed to be having trouble enough over there.
Felegum unleashed a ringing sound of thunder. I don’t know, I wasn’t paying that much attention– one, because I was mad about Sleep and two, because Awk had just launched an axe-billed turkey bird at the orcs from gods-know-where.
Maybe I should have been cognizant of my own surroundings, because that’s when the orc chieftain rushed in and attempted to push me and Helli into the crevasse. Luckily, Helli is a badass and she managed to grabbed onto the broken-down bridge and not fall, and I was on the broom still. This guy apparently either really wanted my broom or was really upset with my spell.
The chieftain, annoyed and mad, let out a howl that emboldened the other orcs and they attacked with renewed vigor. I grimaced. This was not taking the stealthy way to the dragon.
One orc had the bright idea to cut one of the supports on the rope bridge– it was still technically a bridge, but it looked very near collapse at this point and it was probably a good thing that Helli was so light.
Harry did this massive kick which nearly got me, but fortunately did not, and it left an opening for Zeno and I to hit. Zeno had chosen his normal, regular person rapier this time, and I dashed in while the chieftain was busy parrying Zeno and used my shortsword to cleave right through his collarbone. I didn’t expect to keep going, but I did and when I finished the strike his entire arm was shorn off and he was very dead.
A quick glance over to the other side of the bridge revealed our mage in orc-y peril, so I flew back over the crevasse and motioned for Felegum to hop on the broom so I could get him out of there.
Another Tidal Wave issued forth and rolled through the mass of orcs from the wall across from us and Felegum made it to the broom. He sat side-saddle for some reason, but whatever. Different styles, I guess.
Awk’s moonbeam swung around to soaked orcs and they turned to ash and silver fire. Yikes. And to think that could have been me and Harry.
I didn’t see what happened to the cutlery fowl, so I could only assume it perished nobly in combat.
As I turned the broom to peace out of this mess, Zeno ran back across the dilapidated bridge for his zombie. “I can’t leave Glorc!” he shouted.
“Yes you can!” I called back. “You can leave him right in the chasm!”
Helli was already searching all the chieftain’s pockets as Harry, once more, fished out a torch from his pack and lit it. Glorc punched an enemy orc with the beer mug he’d been holding his whole time (no more beer sloshed out, since it was empty after all that melee action), the punched orc ran away in fear, and Zeno coaxed his zombie over the bridge.
“Glorc,” the bard said, “come to me!”
Zeno made it back across the bridge and held his hands out, as if waiting for Glorc to bound into his arms.
The zombie took pounding steps over the very injured bridge, but just as he was almost done crossing, its frail construction gave out, Glorc’s hand reached for the post, missed, and another of our companions fell into an abyss.
Strangely, I felt much less bad about this one than I had about Meepo.
Zeno was momentarily distraught over the loss of Glorc, so he expressed his feelings with song. Specifically, with the flute. Which, I remembered later, was called Nightcaller. And, which I remembered as it happened, also reanimated things.
The orc chieftain stood once more. I went for my dagger. “I just–” I was so angry I was in danger of swallowing my tongue– “I just killed that.”
“Everyone,” Zeno announced, “I’d like you to meet Blorc. I named him after an old friend. And also because he is blue.”
“Too bad he only has one arm,” I said, my anger getting the best of me.
“Yeah,” the bard mused, “that’s a small problem.”
As we walked down the hallway the orc chieftain had been trying to flee down back when he’d been alive, I wondered if I was going to have to render all future corpses useless. I didn’t have long to wonder about that, though, because the hallway ended and opened up into what looked like the chieftain’s lair.
There were weapons, various broken things, and farther back, two people: one, the mutilated body of a human with a nice tunic and blade, and the other an elf with a big hammer next to them. Still alive, but not looking good.
What they’d been doing here was anyone’s guess. It clearly hadn’t gone well for them. This place was dangerous– we didn’t need more people to look after and more families to be the bearers of bad news for, and we had a mission that involved getting a shield and getting out, hopefully without upsetting a dragon. There was only one thing to do.
We reached out.