Part 36: And BackFalling behind on maintaining the OP. I'll try to do it sometime tomorrow, but I'm hoping for 3 updates tomorrow to get back on schedule.
… And Back
After waking, I walked around the castle a bit. I spotted the blacksmith's assistant, but something seemed to be bothering him.
"Hey, how are you?" I asked.
"How do you think I'm doing? I spend the whole day at the grindstone, sharpening blades and yesterday Engor shortened our rations again. If it goes on like this, we're all going to starve or we'll all be killed by orcs. Not a pleasant prospect."
"Who is Engor?"
"Engor manages the provisions and shares out the rations and they get smaller every week. Sure you can bargain with him, but only for cold, hard cash."
"And you can't afford that?"
"The most I can get for the lousy pay we collect is a couple of turnips!"
"Where can I find this Engor?" Supplies were something I was always in need of.
"In the Knights' house. Just go through the open entryway next to the smithy."
I went and found Engor in Knights' barracks.
"Ah, so you're the guy who made it across the pass." he said. "Great. I'm Engor. I manage this expedition. Just don't get the idea that I give anything away for free! But if there's gold in your pockets, I'm always willing to cut a little deal."
"You're the one who deals out the rations, or so I heard."
"That's right. Why? Should I feed you now, too?"
"If there's anything you want, you'll pay for it - just like everyone else."
"Maybe I can help you with your work."
"Hmm... sure, why not? I could use some help."
"So, what needs to be done?"
"Our food supplies are low. Above all, we're almost out of meat. If you could get us some meat, raw or cooked, ham or sausages, that would be much appreciated. How about it, will you help us?"
"Don't worry, I'll get you some meat." As it just so happened, I'd been practically hording the stuff since my trip to Jharkendar.
"About two dozen chunks of meat would help me feed quite a few hungry mouths. Come back when you have the meat. I need to get back to my work now."
I withdrew the two dozen cuts of raw meat. "Here, I brought you something."
"Great! You brought enough meat. That'll do for awhile but don't get the idea that I'll give you anything for free now!"
"Have you got anything interesting for me?"
"I can get you better armor - heavy militia armor, if you're interested. It's not cheap, of course. So go get me the gold, and I'll give you the armor."
I happened to have the coin, and the armor looked more comfortable and stronger than anything I currently had. I paid the 2500 coins for it. Engor went into a side room to retrieve the armor.
Now that I was better equipped and supplied, it was time for me to once again break through the Orcs' siege lines.
I looked over the surrounding area.
The area I came through last night seemed to have the lowest concentration of orcs. I counted two warriors and a single warg. I took out the warg from a distance, then I drew the two orcs to me. I managed to separate them and take them out individual. The immediate area was now cleared so I was free to explore a small amount.
I found the same tower that I'd made my home for much of my time in the valley. Located near the southern gate of the Old Camp, it had contained a spare bed and storage but things had changed. The fall of the barrier, and the anarchy that followed, stripped the Old Camp of anything of value. Then the Orcs came. They broke down the wood of the old shacks that once lined the outer walkways of the old camp for use in their siege weapons. The tower itself was a burnt out mess.
Carefully, I snuck through the orcish lines.
I was spotted. Two warriors and their commander, an elite, gave chase. Orc Elites were formidable foes and there was no chance that I could take one alone, let alone alongside two warriors. I fled into the forest.
I circled around the elite's camp and made my way south of the castle.
The narrow pass had changed a lot since my last time here. An orcish camp was set up on the nearby hill, and the ground was worn and burnt. There were also new trees here. The orcs must have transplanted them, or perhaps used magic to aid in the growth of their soon-to-be supplies.
At the bottom of this pass was a small cave which contained a small, walled off area. I recalled it from my time as a prisoner. It seemed someone, or something, had recently died inside. I came across a small pack of wolves feasting upon the dead creatures' flesh. I cleared out the wolves and investigated.
A guard. Probably from the castle or from one of the mining crews. I looked through his things and took the bag he carried.
Once through the narrow pass, I climbed on a nearby hill to assess my surroundings. In the distance, Xardas' old tower still stood. Since my time here, the trees had become leafier, obscuring much of the area.
I took out my map to get an idea of where I was. I was nearest to the southeast mining location so I decided that that would be my first destination.
I found the path that would take me to the camp and continued down it. In the distance, I could see the wooden palisades that Garond's men had put up.
Everyone in the camp was dead. Bodies of Paladins and scraper alike littered the entrance.
Garond had sent me here to find out how much ore they'd collected, if any, and that was going to do.
It quickly became apparent as to what had happened.
It seemed that while digging, their scrapers must have broken into a minecrawler nest. Understandably peeved, the minecrawlers burst forth and slaughtered them. To make matters worse, they had broken through into a minecrawler hatching area. I dealt with what crawlers I could, but I didn't see any sign of survivors or magic ore.
I left the mine and went to search out the next camp. According to the map, it should have opposite the first mine.
I could see another set of palisades in the distance, this one seemingly had campfires burning. I approached, hoping for the best.
They were alive! I greeted the first person I met.
"What are you doing here?'
"I'm a scout. I roam the country. But all those snappers haven't made it easy for me. It's a good time to land a few trophies, provided you know what you're doing."
"Can you teach me how to do that?"
"I can show you how to pull the claws off those things once they're dead."
"Show me how to pull claws."
"The important thing is to remove the claws with a jerk. Don't be too hesitant and don't go poking with a blade. You don't only pull the claws from snappers that way, but also from lizards and shadowbeasts."
I approached the mine guard next.
"May Innos be with you! Do you bring news from the castle? Are reinforcements coming soon?" the guard asked.
"I haven't come to bring news but to get news. Then speak to Fajeth. He's in command here. But if you have news from the castle then let me know."
"About the news..." I said.
"Yes - what's the situation in the castle?"
"It is still besieged by the orcs and also still open to the dragons' attacks."
"Damn. I hope the boys will hold out. Listen, a friend of mine is in the castle. His name is Udar. We've known each other a long time and fought a lot of battles side by side. I want you to take him this ring. He is to keep it safe for me. Tell him I'll get it when I come back."
I took the ring and pocketed it. "No problem. When I get to the castle, I will give the ring to Udar."
"Good. The magic of the ring will give Udar new strength. Tell him that I'll get it back from him."
A militiaman by the fire caught my eye. He'd been grumbling to himself ever since I arrived.
"What are you doing here anyway?"
"I'm the general dogsbody here. Schlep stuff around, keep an eye on the snappers, Bilgot here, Bilgot there. I should have just stayed home with my old lady. It wasn't any different there but at least there was something decent to eat. Now I'm all that reminds of the men-at-arms that were assigned to Fajeth. How was I to know that this expedition wasn't going to make it back? My pal Olav made himself scarce. Maybe HE pulled it off."
I recalled the body I'd found in the pass. "I found Olav."
"And what's he up to?"
"He's dead. The wolves ate him."
"Oh, damn. I hope that at least I will manage to get out of here."
I left the man and went to find this Fajeth.
Fajeth was standing guard at the northern side of the camp. "Where do you come from?" he asked.
"I am here on behalf of Garond."
"Very good. I can certainly use new men."
"I am not here to assist you."
"No? Then why did you come?"
"My mission is to find out how much ore you have mined so far." I told the paladin.
"And my mission is to do everything I deem necessary in order to mine the ore and protect it. That includes the requisitioning of men. You are in the service of Innos - therefore you will follow my orders."
I didn't have a choice. My mission necessitated getting the evidence. "What can I do for you?"
"For days, a horde of snappers has been roaming around our camp. Looks like they're just waiting for a good opportunity to attack. I don't know what they're waiting for - but as long as they're here, there's no peace to be had in the camp. That Fed above all the rest is scared out of his mind - and driving the other convicts crazy. And who should I send? Bilgot? Ha - he's a wreck too. And Tengron? Sure he can fight, but he lacks the necessary guile. The only one who can do it is you. I want you to hunt down those damn beasts and kill them.
At the top of the hill above the camp, I found my first set of snappers. They waited above like vultures just waiting for the camp's strength to weaken. I dealt with the three snappers above and then returned to the camp.
The remaining snappers were in two more groups of three just outside of the camp. After dealing with the snappers, I returned to Fajeth. I hoped it would please him.
"The snappers are done for." I told the Paladin.
"Good job. We should be able to handle all the other beasts out there."
"Tell me how much ore you have mined so far."
"Report to Garond that so far we've only been able to mine TWO chests of ore. I've already taken too many losses thanks to the constant attacks. If Garond can send me more men, then we can mine more ore."
"I see. I'll let him know." I made a note of the ore collected.
"Good. Then the rest is up to you. We'll hold position here as long as we can."
From the second camp I went north. Instead of doubling back the way I came, I was going to leave this area through the west.
As I neared the western pass, I noticed something peculiar. Two paladins lay dead on a path leading toward a cave. I readied my weapon and crept forward.
It was Diego!
"Hey, I thought you were dead." He said.
"Yes. So I was. Now I'm back and looking for proof of the arrival of the dragons."
"Who are you doing that for?"
"I work for Lord Hagen. With the help of the paladins, the dragons can be stopped."
"The paladins? Let me tell you something. After I managed to flee from here, I went to Khorinis. I wanted to warn the paladins about the dragons. Heaven knows why I even tried. That puffed-up Lothar didn't even listen to me and certainly didn't let me talk to Lord Hagen. Instead they sent me back here with the expedition. So don't talk to me about paladins."
I could understand that. It took a lot to gain their trust enough to even be sent here. "The important thing is to stop the dragons as long as there's still time - no matter who helps us achieve that."
"Stop them? We should get our asses out of this valley as long as we still have time for THAT. Say - how did you manage to get across the pass. I thought it was swarming with orcs."
"There is a path through the abandoned mine which isn't held by orcs."
"That's good to know. Then I will head for Khorinis before long - I've got a few old accounts to settle there."
Diego began packing these things. "Listen, I need this proof." I said.
"All right, I'll help you out if I can. But I'm not going to stick my neck out for anyone."
"I'm traveling on behalf of Garond. He needs to know how much ore has been mined so far."
"Then he will give you the proof you want?"
"That's right. So - can you tell me anything about it?"
"There are FOUR chests of ore here in the back of the cave. Silvestros people mine them. Garond is welcome to come and get them - but I won't be here then."
"How did you come by the ore?"
"I was with Silvestro's group. We had been prospecting for several days when Silvestro suddenly became nervous. He said that we should take the ore to a safe place. Well, since I was planning to skedaddle anyway, I volunteered to hide the ore. That was lucky for me. Because the scrapers met with a few minecrawlers and none of them survived."
I trusted Diego would make it safely through the valley pass so I let him be. I returned to the road.
Three orcs guarded the way out. There was no way I'd be able to get through alone. I returned to Diego to enlist his help in getting through.
I fired a few arrows to cover Diego's charge. Once he'd entered melee I followed after him. The attention of the orcs was divided now. Together we were easily to defeat the orcs.
Diego didn't want to continue past the gate so we said our farewells and agreed to meet up once again in Khorinis.
I snuck by the Orcish siege lines and made my way to the northwest of the castle. The bridge across the river seemed relatively clear, save for a few field raiders.
The forest across the river, however, was a different story. Orcs patrolled the area, no doubt readying the forest to fuel the orcish war effort.
Fortunately, I knew a way around. The forest was wider than it was tall. I could walk around the forest and not encounter any orcs, just the odd snapper.
I did, however, come across the body of a fallen militiaman. I hoped that this camp hadn't suffered a fate similar to the first camp.
Finally, I could see the camp in the distance and it seemed like campfires were burning!
Two paladins were standing guard, one at each gate. They weren't too talkative and the only one willing to talk to me was Grimes, a digger I'd encountered as a convict.
He, understandably, was shocked to see me.
"You? Who would have thought we'd see each other again. So it looks like we both know how to stay alive and as you can see I've stuck with prospecting."
"How much ore have you already mined?"
"A few chests. But there's nothing of that left here. Paladin Marcos decided to take the ore to the castle, because we were constantly being attacked by orcs."
"Don't you want to leave the valley?"
He shook his head. "No, I'll keep on mining ore. I'm not going to let a few orcs stop me - I've been through a lot more than that. Back then when we were digging in the old mine and suddenly the water broken in... but those are old stories."
"Do you know which way Marcos went?"
"He didn't take the direct route - instead he wanted to cross the river where it was frozen. He wanted to cut around and approach the castle from the west."
There was nothing else here for me. Marcos, and the ore, had gone north. I had to find it and get a report. I headed north.
Passing the bridge, I realized that the frozen river had been the one that was fed by the large lake that the New Camp had used. That lake, too, was now completely frozen. Something about this cold struck me as odd, but I paid little attention to it. I had a paladin to find.
A bit further ahead, I found a small pack of rats feeding on the body of a scraper. It seemed I was on the right path.
Ahead I saw the smoke from a campfire. Anticipating Marcos' party, I rushed ahead.
Instead of a paladin, I found bandits. They seemed to be convicts that had stayed behind in order to rob passing shipments. I dealt with them and continued to the west.
I saw a hut, and fire, in the distance and realized where I was. This cabin had been cavalorn's and I'd spent a good deal of time around here to hunt molerats and other assorted creatures.
Despite the campfire, I couldn't find any other sign of recent habitation. Field raiders and rats roamed the area, feeding on things left behind when Cavalorn had left. I found a bag embroidered with Cavalorn's name, but the house contained nothing else of any importance.
I was ready to give up my search when I heard the jangling of metal armor. I recalled the cave behind the hut and set out to investigate.
"HALT - in the name of Innos! I am Marcos, paladin of the king. Say what you want, and speak the truth!"
"Relax - I am in the service of Lord Hagen."
"You're one of the troops. What orders bring you here?"
"I come from Garond - he needs to know how much ore is ready for transport."
"Tell Garond that I had to leave the mining site because the orc attacks became too intense. I tried to reach the castle with a few people, but I am the only survivor. I have stored the ore safely. There are FOUR chests. Go to Garond and report that to him. Tell him that I will guard the ore with my life but I don't know how long it will be before the orcs find me here. Tell him to send me some support."
I dug around in a pouch for my castle rune. "I'll let him know." I told the Paladin, moments before teleporting away.
The castle returned me to the second level of the chapel. I made a quick stop to give Udar the ring that Tengron had entrusted me with. The crossbowman seemed honored.
From there it was a quick trip to the throne room of the castle.
"About Silvestro's mining site..." I said.
"Did you go see him? Did you talk to him?"
"Everyone's dead there. They were surprised by minecrawlers."
"What about the ore? Do you know how much they have mined?"
"They managed to secure a few chests first. They're in a cave - along the path from the castle to the mining site."
Garond punched the armrest. "Damn! Those were a lot of good men. May Innos have mercy on their souls."
"I've met Marcos."
"And? What does he have to report? How much ore does he have for us?"
"Four chests. He has left the mining site to take the ore to safety. Now he is guarding the chests in a small valley behind the lines of orcs. He's asking for reinforcements, however."
"What? Only four chests? And he left his mining site? Damn.. that isn't good. And he wants more men? Well, fine, I'll send him two people."
"I talked to Fajeth."
"What has he got to tell me?"
"His people have mined two chests of ore."
"Hmm... two chests? I don't need two chests - I need TWO HUNDRED!"
"He wants me to tell you that he needs more men."
"What? I'm supposed to send even more men to certain death? He can forget it. Damn! What's going on out there? Has Beliar himself come to wipe us out? My men are almost all dead and with the bit of ore we have, we CAN'T EVEN STOP ONE ORC LET ALONE AN ARMY!" Garond said, raising his voice in obvious anger and distress. "This expedition is doomed to failure."
"What about the letter to Lord Hagen?" I'd done as I asked and now I needed to get back.
"We have ten crates of ore on the whole - and we've lost twice as many good men. You shall have your letter. Lord Hagen must hear of this. The valley is cursed - evil abides here."
"What are you planning to do now?"
"I've tried everything. You're my only hope now - and that Lord Hagen will send me reinforcements. We'll continue to stand firm and pray to Innos that he won't leave us despondent in this dark hour."
I had the letter and things were deteriorating in the valley. Using the rune I'd found earlier, I returned to the pass and once again traveled through the mine back to the other side.
Some pictures to illustrate the castle area.