After the escapade with the drunks at Hawksbridge, the heroes were standing at the entrance of the city plotting their next move. “Should we ask counsel of Eth’s elders at Thorlian Crest, or march directly for the ruins of the dwarven fortress?” was the question, and the fortress proved to be the answer.
After some last minute discussion of resupplying, the heroes headed out towards the Redstone Hills and their mysterious ruins. With Shivra scouting in the lead, the party made haste with their usual speed, thanks to Stravo’s motivating tunes. Sometimes on a long hike like this one, the heroes tended to get a little anxious when one party member was not in sight for long stretches of time. Midway through the second day’s march, Shivra had not been seen for quite a while. The impulse to break silence and speculate on her location was on the minds of several as Shivra stepped out from the shadows with news.
“I have spotted a band of orcs ahead. They have not yet seen us. It seems they are discussing something, but I cannot understand their brutish language.” With some discussion about how to proceed, the group decided to use their favorite tactic, to sneak close, then strike with the ferocity of a hungry wolfpack.
The party managed to get within fifty paces before one of the orcs sensed their presence and gave alarm, upon which Shivra faded back into the shadows and circled around the enemy’s right flank. Malroc led the charge, goring one of the orcs and knocking him to the ground for the rest of the party to chew on. Seeing this impressive display, Crono felt he had to add his abilities to the fight, and jumped ahead of Malroc to lead two of the orcs snarling after him. Eth and Stravo struck from the rear, bringing all the might of a raging storm down on any number of orcs that dared gather too closely to each other. Luak tried to hold the steady rhythm of the fight, but within minutes the excitement of battle overcame the goliath, and he let out a mammoth roar.
Swinging his greatsword clean through one orc’s head and charging heedlessly toward another, he struck utter fear into the hearts of the monsters, and even into some of his companions. The orcs gnashed their teeth at the heroes and tried several times to gain control of the altercation, but to no avail. Each time one of the several enemies fighting Malroc and Crono tried to attack someone else, they would be wracked with pain as the mighty defenders’ spells and earthen might took their toll. When they focused on the minotaur and the swordmage, the barbarian and the rogue would rain terror on their exposed flanks. Through it all, the druid and the bard continued to stir and rearrange the battlefield to their own liking with their deadly spells and mysterious words. Fate was with the heroes this fight and held their sway till the last of the orcs felt his last breath come too late.
After searching the bodies of the fallen orcs, Stravo went around singing a song of healing to aid his companions while everyone gathered their strength for the miles yet ahead. With everyone ready, Stravo introduced his new familiar, a black crow named Guybird, who sported an unusually bright streak of silver runing down his back. Guybird could help the party by acting as a messenger from Shivra when her only other companions were shadows. Shivra shrugged and it appeared that, as usual in his dealings with the humorless drow, the bard would have to prove that his words bore more than an idle promise.
The party traveled for several hours more throughout the night, with Shivra and Guybird scouting for any susprises that might be awaiting them in the darkness ahead. As the first glimmers of light began to show in the east, Shivra spotted a tower and two smaller buildings, with torches outlining the profiles of at least eight orcs standing watch. With her report, Guybird confirmed the count and the the group began discussing strategy.
“Should we rush into them, or somehow make them come out to us?” asked Eth.
Ambush sounded better to all than their usual direct route, and a plan was quickly agreed on. Pacing before them, Stravo volunteered, “You know that I have some talent with disguise. After we kill off the scouting party, we could use their armor and weapons to disguise ourselves as orcs and perhaps get into one of the buildings before any alarm is sounded.”
So it was agreed. They would wait until dusk, then Malroc would build a fire and wait for a scouting party to arrive. The rest of the party would wait in ambush until the minotaur drew the orcs into the firelight. They would kill the orcs, take their armor and weapons for disguises, and approach the fortress outbuildings as if they were the scouting party returning victorious. At that point, they would have to play it by ear, as Stravo put it.
Twilight found the party well rested, with Malroc sitting beside a small blaze reciting the advice Stravo had given him on diplomacy. Guybird returned from patrol and reported a small group of orcs, accompanied by wolves, coming their way, and the party had just time to retreat to the ambush positions they had selected.
“Who are you and why are you here?! Explain yourself, minotaur!” said the largest orc.
“The goblins you drove away from here have been seen in our territory. My chieftain sent me to escort a search party to find and destroy the rest of them.” Malroc spoke calmly, although his hand rested easily on the haft of his axe.
“We have our own orders. Why would we send a search party from here?” the orc captain asked, suspiciously. An archer behind him readied an arrow, aiming it straight at the minotaur’s massive chest.
“How large is the party you have with you in the fortress? I was led to believe I would be rewarded for my assistance if I were to rid the place of goblins.” Malroc eased his other hand close to his shield, ready to bring it to bear in a moment’s notice.
“If you are who you say you are, you would have no need of that information! Surrender your weapons and we will escort you into the fortress you are so interested in. If you are who you say, all will be well.” The orc captain pointed his sword at Malroc meaningfully.
A menacing silence filled the pause. The orcs were just within the edge of the firelight. If Malroc could lure them even a few steps closer, they would be within range of a charge by the hidden heroes. As he racked his brain desperately for the words that might have graced the bard’s tongue, however, a smaller orc near the rear of the scouting party caught a scent that was not the minotaur and began jabbering excitedly in the orc tongue.
“I see you have friends with you. They will die alongside you! None of you will live to see the dawn!” the larger orc roared.
With that, the party was thrown into another battle where their lives would hang in the balance. Malroc again charged the orc captain, knocking him prone with a wicked upper thrust of his horns. The orc archer beyond, overwhelmed by the sheer power of the attack, released his arrow wildly, missing completely, and retreated several paces for a better field of fire. Brandishing a whirling green circle of electrical energy that drew one of the orcs toward him, Crono took a chunk from his enemy’s hide with his longsword. Eth showed himself from the tree he was hiding behind and struck out with grappling vines that pulled the orcs feet to the ground and held them, while Luak dashed in and showed the orc the business end of his mighty greatsword. Stravo launched into a song of battle that drove the party on, dashing in and out with his sword. Shivra appeared suddenly as if from the darkness itself, stabbing an orc in the back with her deadly blade.
In the wink of a young maiden’s eye the battle was raging, with the orc captain calling for help from his comrades, and the heroes calling upon each other. Shivra recognized that the orc archer, retreating steadily, might make an escape back to the fortress and dash their hopes of a surpise attack there. She called out softly to Malroc, and she and the minotaur both gave chase. As the drow charged, she positioned her daggers ready for a quick kill, but the orc got an arrow into her as she closed, and she staggered, wounded to near unconsciousness. Malroc rushed in between the orc archer and Shivra, and the orc knew he could not retreat with a seven foot minotaur in his way.
Stravo knew he had to help, so he sang out a few words of healing to her, just as the orc captain attacked him viciously, and two of the wolves closed in on either side. Stravo went down in a heap. This brought Luak’s temper to a full boil, and he dashed into the fray, chopping down one orc and severely injuring another one. Crono, the fight still centered around him, deflected blow after blow as the rest of the party cut the orcs down from the rear, and just minutes after it had started, no enemy remained standing.
The victorious party equipped themselves to resemble the defeated orcs. Eth wildshaped into a wolf, while Stravo and Crono took the orcs’ armor and weapons. Luak attempted to look the part of a prisoner, while Shivra simply melded into the shadowy night.
They approached the outlying buildings, and were able to get close before the archers on the tower parapets shouted out a challenge. In a flurry of movement, the party charged forward, trying to limit the archers’ shots. Orcs swarmed them, coming from the tower and the neighboring buildings, and one of the archers on the tower blew a warning blast on a horn. It was a tough and dangerous fight, but the party emerged victorious. Stravo intimidated one of the orc archers into submission, and was able to find a series of notes on the horn to call off the alarm. The party decided to rest, and waited out the rest of the night in the enemy tower. In the distance, the two massive steel doors to the fortress gleamed in the moonlight, accentuating the shadowed entrance to the dwarven ruins.