The Next Threat
[Narration]

Contrary to probably everyone's expectation, the night passed quietly. No new attacks, no scrying--nothing but the peaceful chirp of crickets and the hooting of owls. After some pre-dawn packing and a quick breakfast, they were ready to go.
Ceri had spent part of her night's watch grazing, gathering her strength for her magical endeavor. Now, eyes closed and head pointing down the path, she linked to the source of magical power they were approaching, using herself as a channel between it and the horses, giving them the energy they'd need for the swift travel they had to make today. Finally, she opened her eyes. ::We're ready.::
Her magic definitely had an effect. Even the horses drawing the cart kept up a good canter through most of the day, drawing them ever upward toward the mountains. Clouds started building up in the sky, though no rain yet fell. As the light started to fade, Ceri looked around.
::We should look for a place to stop soon. The horses are going to need a good feed to replenish themselves.::
[Sherwood]
Sherwood, though back late from dealing with the wolves, appreciated Ceri's efforts as much as anyone. "Thank you, dear Ceri!" he shouted, smiling. "I ALMOST feel like I was a-bed at a reasonable hour."
[Hathor]
He broke his connection with the stone, pleased at his progress. He'd done in less than a day what would have taken four or five days at his previous pace. And no sign so far that he was pushing too hard--though he would have to continue to be on alert for such a danger.
Hathor turned his attention to his scrying bowl, searching the road for the unicorn. Starting at their last camp, he quickly scanned the road--but there was no sign of them, not even before the pass that led to Abydos.
'They can't have gotten there already,' he thought, frowning. He intensified his search, scanning the road and clearings to either side. Finally, he thought he saw a shadow of their presence.
'Aha...well done, elf-maid. Not a bad block.' He was startled, though, to see how far they'd gotten. That turned to delight, though, when he saw where they were. 'Near the Sleestak caves, eh? Perfect.' Hathor fed energy into the clouds above the party, fueling them for a magnificent hailstorm. With the caves so invitingly visible from the road, they'd not be likely to turn down that shelter...
[Garber]
Garber looked up at the sudden crack of thunder. Another peal accompanied a flash that lit up the surrounding forest. A reservoir's worth of water was quickly dumped on them...and that rain soon turned to hail. He soon had his hands full trying to keep the horses from bolting.
"We've got to take shelter from this," he yelled above more thunder.
Linna and Ceri, who were leading the group, suddenly turned around. ::There are some caves up ahead,:: Ceri sent to them all. ::Looks like they'll be big enough for us.::
[Elwynn]
"This is no ordinary storm!" Elwynn shouted. "There's a purpose behind it I think, but what it is exactly I cannot tell." Raising her staff, she uttered a word of power and erected a magic shield over the party. The hailstones plinked off the shimmering energy field as she spoke. "I'm not sure if stopping is the right thing, but I can't keep the hail off of us indefinitely. I don't like the looks of those caves though."
[Sherwood]
Sherwood shouted above the storm as well, "We better make for shelter of SOME sort! If it be those caves, we'll just have to be careful of any critters that shelter there!" As he adjusted the reins for Shadow, he reached inside his shield-hand pocket and retrieved his 'hearing pebble'. Waiting for the next peal of thunder to subside, he then placed it in his left ear before following the group up the trail.
[Garber]
"Bad-looking or not, we'd better head for the caves," Garber yelled. "The horses won't stand for much more of this. Lead on, Linna."
[Dwynn]
Dwynn nods to himself once. "If we are going to go, then let's go."
[Garber]
Linna and Ceridon led the party off the road, barely visible in the dark and stormy conditions. Even the cliff they were heading to could hardly be seen until they nearly ran into it. The limestone cliff had a large opening in its side, with just enough room in it for the horses and cart, as well as Ceridon. A smaller opening formed a bay that offered shelter for the others. The sandy floor, once lit by torchlight, yielded the tracks of usual animals that would shelter there--foxes, wildcats, snakes--but nothing that seemed out of the ordinary, and certainly nothing that seemed overly dangerous.
Garber squeezed his way to the back bay area after tending the cart horses. "Seems like a fine shelter to me," he commented, peering at the back of the bay. A tunnel, high-ceilinged and not too narrow, led further back into the cliff. "If I wasn't so tired, I'd be up for some exploring."
[Breannyn]
Brea looked warily into the cave. Caves and dark places, such as they were in now, made her leery. She'd visited one too many theives' dens with her father and many of them had looked similar to where they now stood...at least from the outside looking in. She shuddered slightly and realized the sudden storm had brought a slight chill with it. "Whate'er we do, we'll need a fire and we're gettin' low on wood. I think I'll go try an' find us some before this storm makes everythin' too wet to burn." With a quick glance towards the back of the cave, she quickly fled back into the storm before anyone could try to stop her.
[Dwynn]
Dwynn looks to the back of the cave where Garber is and rubs his chin a moment. "I'm not the outdoors type, but I really don't like open doors at my back when we are about to rest." Stepping back to get his equipment from the wagon, he loosens his axe as he looks around at the rest of company. "It tends to get you killed. Who's up for some exploring?"
[Elwynn]
"In actual fact, Dwynn," Elwynn said, "It's more the kind of thing that gets the Wizard in the party killed. One of my thesis advisors had this same situation happen to him. Twice."
She stood up from where she had been sitting, taking a moment to brush a few errant hailstones from her robes. Taking up her staff, she tapped it twice on the cavern floor, causing a blue glow to emanate from the upper tip.
"The first time he had to improvise an escape from a horde of angry goblins. And the second time...well, let's just say he had good health insurance."
The elf maid pulled a sheathed short sword from her hat and fixed it to her belt. "Well, if you all are set on exploring, I suppose I'll go along too. But if I may quote another of my teachers, I have a bad feeling about this."
[Narration]
"I've never seen the inside of a cave system before," Linna said. "I wouldn't mind seeing at least some of it."
"I'll stay here with the horses and keep watch," Garber said.
::As will I,:: Ceridon added. ::I can't fit in there as a unicorn, after all.::
The rest of the group followed Dwynn and Elwynn through the tunnel, following the blue light from her staff. It was as exciting as Linna had always imagined cave exploring to be--ducking beneath ledges, crawling through small tunnels, finding large rooms filled with amazing formations of stalactites and stalagmites, no two alike.
It wasn't long, though, before they started seeing a change. Tunnels were now more uniform in nature, and caves were distinctly less scenic, serving mainly as junctions for tunnels. Tunnels and caves were all the same height and width, and easy to move through for even the tallest in the group.
[DeMorte]
The storm had caught the masked priest down a bit. In his confusion, he had momentarily lost those about him as he kept silent for the most part... not really wanting to release too much of himself as of yet. These people had as of thus far been a part of each other's lives for so long...how could they actually allow one of the so called Heretic Clans to travel with them?
A piece of hail to the front of his mask quickly darted those thoughts away from his mind as he finally made his way in the manner of the footsteps his superior hearing knew to be his travelmates. He had already attempted to stop the winds that carried the storm here...but there was something mystical about it. Almost as if someone willed it to them. But who?
Soon, he reached the inside of the cave to find the others within the safety of this abode. Though drenched, the priest did seem to feel cold. After a while, he watched them as they prattled on over which path to take. He remained silent...and awaited their way.
[Sherwood]
Although not the first to notice, he was the first to comment, in a loud whisper, "It looks like this cave isn't QUITE all natural. And we _may_ have company, too." He gestured to marks ahead of them on the floor, then looked behind them at the layered dust in the caverns... and their own telltale tracks. He addressed Elwynn with, "Best beat a hasty retreat, and try to erase or disguise our footprints!"
[Narration]
At that moment, with uncanny timing, the tunnel behind them began collapsing with a roar. Dust cloaked itself around Elwynn's light, almost completely obscuring it. The group made a mad dash down the tunnel, trying to stay ahead of the tumbling rocks and boulders. They reeled, coughing and choking on dust, into a cave; behind them, the tunnel filled up with rocks and pebbles, making a nearly solid wall behind them.
The cave they were in had only two other outlet channels, both faintly lit in red. As the echo of the last clattering pebble died away, they all heard a sound above their coughing--a sound that was getting slowly but steadily louder. It was a hideous hissing sound, like a hundred angry snakes.
"Ummm...Elwynn..." Linna ventured. "I thought you said the Sleestak were only a story."
[Elwynn]
The elf maid stood silently, listening to the unnerving hissing noises for a moment. It seemed as if the hissing was touching a silent fear somewhere within her memory. "Well," she began, "I hate to mention it, but most stories have some basis in fact. At any rate, I have no intention of standing here while a bunch of big-eyed green lizard guys come lumbering down on us. We've got to go forward and find a junction somewhere."
[Linna/Ceridon]
Linna nodded. "For what it's worth, I'll definitely listen to you the next time you have a bad feeling about something." She followed closely as Elwynn led them into the left-hand tunnel, trying to follow the diminished light of her staff.
::Ceri, we've got trouble,:: she sent.
::Let me guess,:: came the reply. ::A bunch of big-eyed, green lizard guys?::
::How--::
::They're after us, too. Garber and I are getting the horses out--they don't seem particularly keen on following us outside. At least the hail has stopped, if not the rain. Can you get back to us?::
::No--they set off a rockfall that blocked the tunnel back.::
::Terrific,:: Ceri replied in a sarcastic tone. ::We'll search around--if we find another outlet, I'll try and guide you to it. Be careful!::
At the end of Ceri's last sending to her, Linna followed Elwynn into another tunnel junction. The sudden start of particularly loud hissing told her the bad news, even as groups of Sleestak emerged from each of the other tunnels. ::Careful is no longer an option,:: she sent.
[Elwynn]
The elf maid looked from one junction to the next, even as she freed her wand from her belt. Taking her staff in her left hand, she pointed it towards the Sleestak coming from that tunnel and cried "Illuminatus!" Instantly the small light on her staff burst into an incandescent ball of white light. The Sleestak in that tunnel recoiled from the light, hissing in anger.
Elwynn was already pointing the wand in her right hand towards the other tunnel. She cried out another magic word, "Tesla!" and a bolt of lightning shot down the right hand tunnel. More hissing erupted as the crackling electricity seared most of the Sleestak in that direction.
"Go!" Elwynn cried to her companions, indicating the right hand tunnel. "I can hold them off with the light on my staff for a few moments. You'll have to get the ones my lightning missed. Hurry!"
[Sherwood]
Glad he had moved forward through the group, he bellowed a cavalier, "Follow me!" and headed down the tunnel so indicated. As he moved, he drew both broadsword and knife, knowing that any enemy met in this tunnel would be too close for his bow to be effective. He barely paused as he neared the first turn, straining to listen at least slightly before stepping around its bend -- listening for sounds from ahead, AND behind!
[Dwynn]
Dwynn felt a dull ache from where a small boulder nearly crushed his leg. In the panic he had almost lost Linna, but following Elwynn's voice he soon found her again. And, holding the axe in his right end higher up than normal and adding a huge knife in his left, he decided to remain silent and watch her back until one of them was dead or they both made it out safely. He blinked a couple of times trying to clear the afterimages reveled by the flashes of light, thinking these lizards must be doing the same thing.
[Ceridon/Garber]
Once Garber had gotten all of the horses, and the cart, out of the cave, Ceridon stood guard as he hitched the cart horses up. She then followed him back to the road, helping to drive the horses with him, getting them away from the horrible Sleestaks. ::Will you be all right here?:: she sent to him.
"Aye, I should be," he replied. "Someone's got to stay with the wagon, and it's not going to get far in those woods."
::Let's hope I can find another entrance,:: she replied, retracing her steps back to the cliff. Once she caught sight of the cave they'd originally sheltered in, she turned to the west, following the cliff face in the general direction she'd sensed Linna take.
[Breannyn]
She was on her way back to the cave with an armload of partially dry firewood when she noticed that the wagon was moving back out of the cave and towards the road. Her brow furrowed slightly in puzzlement. 'Why are they leaving so soon?' Then her eyes widened as she realized they must have found something to send them running. This of course sent her running as quickly as she could towards the wagon, arms still gripping the wood she'd gathered.
"Waaait!! I'm comin'!" she yelled into the storm, not even thinking about whether they could hear her or not. All she knew was that she had not the slightest idea where in the heavens they were...there was a group of mercenaries and orcs following them...and all her things were on the wagon that was currently moving as quickly as possible back to the road. They were not going to leave without her if she had to keep running until she caught up. She just hoped that wouldn't be too long, her legs were already getting sore.
[Garber]
Garber pulled up, faintly hearing a sound from behind him. He leapt off of the wagon, drawing his sword as he did so, ready to yell for Ceridon if need be. The sight of a wet, bedraggled Breannyn let him give vent to a quick sigh of relief.
"Breannyn!" he called, gesturing her over to the wagon. As soon as she was within easy speaking range, he continued, "The others went exploring in the cave, and were trapped by rockfalls and those damn Sleestaks Elwynn told us about. Ceri's gone to try and guide them out. We'd best stay here and protect the horses--once they get out to us, we're riding straight for Abydos!"
[Linna]
Linna followed Sherwood's run through the tunnels, passing other junctions before he finally paused in a larger cave. A moment later, Elwynn came pounding up the tunnel to them. There was still some hissing echoing around them, but it was difficult to tell where it was coming from, especially in the disorienting glow that seemed to come from everywhere.
Linna suddenly held up a hand as Ceridon's call came to her. ::I've found another entrance. Can you tell what direction to take?::
::Yes, I can,:: Linna replied, orienting herself to the direction the mental call came from, and seeing herself standing before a tunnel. A tunnel from which a pebble suddenly rolled--perhaps a prelude to another rockfall!
"This way! Hurry!" Linna yelled as she dove down the tunnel. She heard the scrambling steps of the others a moment before the crashing of rocks drowned that sound out, rolling chunks of rock sweeping them along.
She paused at a point where the tunnel widened a bit, panting. Dragging footsteps marked the approach of the others, even as her eyes widened to see three Sleestak approaching from ahead, hissing angrily, eyes winking malevolently in the red light.
[Sherwood]
He paused, unsure whether to stay out of the way of Elwynn's magic or to rush right in. He gathered himself (with a prayer to the Forest Goddess and an extra LARGE dose of air) and decided at the last minute to charge. "AAAAaaaaarrrrr", he yelled as he ran, at the Sleestak on the left.
[Linna]
Linna spared a second to wish that Garber and his shortsword were with them, even as she drew her knife. She paused, watching the Sleestak carefully, looking for an opening that would give her an opportunity to dive in without getting trapped.
[Dwynn]
"Oh, no, you don't." Dwynn thought as he saw her prepare to enter the fray. He stepped in front of her and whispered, "We need you whole for your magic." He quickly joined Sherwood before these damned lizards could flank him, wielding the huge axe close to the blade in a way that should have seemed next to useless in these enclosed spaces but somehow wasn't.
[Narration]
The Sleestaks quickly found out that the group's fighting abilities were just as good as their magical abilities--and that their slow movements were entirely unsuited to fighting. It wasn't long before one was down, slashed fatally by Sherwood's broadsword. The other two fell back, both wounded, and disappeared into a side tunnel. Linna, following Ceri's insistent mental calls, was able to lead the others to the outside in quick order.
"Is everyone all right?" she asked, panting.
[Sherwood]
Chest heaving, Sherwood waved a "thumbs up" in Linna's general direction, as he began to check their immediate surroundings. Trees, boulders, and the wind all get a bit of his immediate attention as he walked their perimeter.
[Dwynn]
Dwynn stepped out of the opening. He quickly scans outside but seeing Sherwood covering that he yells, "Dwynn here. All is well with me. As they better be with you." Wiping lizard blood from his axe, he peeks back in, looking for their friends to follow them out.
[Linna/Ceridon]
Linna looked around the group, even as yet another rockfall, undoubtedly caused by the two Sleestak they'd left wounded, blocked the entrance tunnel. Blinking suddenly, she counted again, looking at each member of the group. "Where's Takayoshi?" she asked worriedly. "Has anyone seen him?"
::If he's not here, he must still be inside,:: Ceridon replied. ::Unfortunately, I don't think we can wait for him. We don't know where another entrance might be, and I'd certainly rather not end up surrounded by hundreds of those things.:: Ceridon did her best to return the stares of the others with as calm and reasonable a look as she could. ::Besides, with that ring of invisibility he has, he's better equipped to survive in there than the rest of you are.::
Linna sighed. "That's true," she said. "But you'll have to be the one to explain it to Breannyn."
::He knows where Abydos is from here,:: Ceri sent. ::When he can, I'm sure he'll rejoin us.::
[Sherwood]
He nodded in agreement with Ceri, and commented, "The ol' fakir's got too much good sense to go & get chopped in some foul tunnel!" Though the look on his face, as he thought of his oriental friend, belied the light-heartedness he tried to instill in his voice.
[Elwynn]
"I'm sure he'll turn up," Elwynn said, "he's very resourceful, you know. In the meantime, we should try to press onward. I have a feeling things are going to get more difficult as we get closer to our goal."
[DeMorte]
The priest had not fought the likes of the fierce creatures in some time. He knew the fight was hard on him as he could hear his breath coming in a ragged pace. He took a good look over himself to see if there was any damage.
It was then that he began to hate himself silently for the situation he was in. Not for the reasons of this crusade and the danger it befalled upon him. Nor for the reasons that his heretic clans were so hated that in ways he feared speaking of his beliefs ...
No ... the jagged rock that protruded from his stomach was the reason. He had not felt the sudden impalement that had happened to him. Fighting the green scaly lizard men would normally do that to a person. Though in his case ... the reason was far more disturbing.
He looked out through the smoke and debris and remembered how the one called Ceri could pick up thoughts. He did not know if she knew of his former condition all that much ... or if he should even tell her of it. But he needed to trust someone. He was a healer of sorts ... but knew the wound in his belly was too much for herbal remedies. He needed magick.
Which meant he needed to trust.
::Ceri ... I ... am in need of thine aide. I hath been harmed ... and greatly.::
He knew when she came ... if she came to him that she would surely see that though he should be in pain ... he was not. It did not matter at this time. He would have to tell someone soon. For now ... he merely waited.
[Ceridon]
Ceri looked over at DeMorte's call, and quickly took in his peril. ::Worry not,:: was all she sent back as she quickly trotted to his side. Reaching out with her mind, she took in energy from the magic source they were finally nearing, letting it flow into her, transmuting it into healing energy, and directing that at DeMorte. She also carefully withdrew the stone from his body. In an even shorter time than she could have imagined, the wound was completely healed.
::Well,:: she sent to everyone, with a tinge of surprised satisfaction in her tone, ::let's get back to Garber and Breannyn.::
They quickly found the two on the road. Ceri directed more energy at the riding horses, as well as the two wagon horses, hoping to give them the strength they needed for the prolonged ride they had ahead of them. As the rain finally began to slacken, the group started off again into the night, hoping they'd be leaving those hissing creatures far behind.

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