It turned out that a simple spell was all that was needed to break the enchantments on the dragon egg. A few hundred gold bought the components necessary to identify the spells on the egg – a stasis spell mean to keep the egg from aging, and a lock spell that could only be opened with dragon’s breath. Lauretta was able to take care of that and the egg immediately hatched into a rather skinny looking white dragon.
Lauretta spent a couple of days nursing the dragon, feeding it raw meat and tavern soup and water, helping it get the strength needed to move about on its own. It seemed that the stasis spell had been wearing off, and the creature had been trapped in its own shell for some time, slowly starving to death but unable to break free.
Meanwhile Benny used the same identification spell on the altar cup and learned that the cup was the power source of the creep they’d discovered in Applethorn. It fed on the negative energy of rot and flesh and blood placed inside it and spread out the creep like a net to trap undead. It it ever entangled enough creatures, then it would pull them in and combine them into some sort of giant monstrosity.
A little while after they had made these discoveries a guard stopped by to inform them that a patrol was ready to leave. Thorn had still not recovered from his paralysis, so the party loaded him into one of their magically enchanted bags – bigger on the inside and always the same weight regardless of what was put inside – and set off towards the camp with Benny in the lead. It took a couple of days to get there, partly because of the distance and partly because Benny got turned around. Once Thorn came to, late in the night and with a certain amount of confusion, they got back on track and bee-lined for the camp.
There were 4 guards that were accompanying them, a dwarven captain and three less seasoned human fighters. Apparently the city was still a bit skeptical about whether Benny and Thorn actually knew where the camp was and had other patrols out in the region checking other likely areas.
When the came to the hill where the slavers were camped, they spotted lookout and hid among the trees. The camp itself seemed less busy than the week before, but more fortified. Horses were tied up, and there were several log towers with archers at the top, but little traffic otherwise. Barricade had been erected around the hill, circling the rather flat hilltop where tables and cooking fires were arranged.
Benny and Thorn had no problem getting close, and Lauretta decided that she would try to draw some of the bandits out of the camp barricades so that the guards could flank them from the trees. She drew her shield and mace, and stepped out of the forest onto a path cleared wide enough for ogres. And then she began shouting out insults and taunting the creatures.
The fell for it, drawing their weapons and running at her rather than picking her off from a distance. As an ogre and several bandits came within reach, the guards charged out of the forest and engaged them. Lauretta’s new pet dragon, strengthened by the few days of care, also joined the fray – breathing cones of icy wind and biting and clawing wildly.
The first group fell quickly, and then Ras, Lauretta and the guards charged up to the entrance to the camp – a small gap in the barricade. Other bandits were waiting on the other side, holding the entrance and funneling the attackers. Thorn was firing arrows from the forest, but Benny had snuck around the confrontation and up a steeper side of the hill that had no barricades. Once at the top he quickly dispatched a bandit and, having the high group behind the bandits at the entrance, began firing spells and arrows into the fray.
It took a few minutes for the party to force their way through the entrance. During that time the dwarf captain was felled twice by ogre clubs and revived by Lauretta. Several bandits turned tail and ran, disappearing into the side of the hill where a cave entrance had been concealed. The horses had scattered during the fight, and Benny took to the woods to catch them and lead them back to their posts.
The guards gathered up the bodies, field stripped them, and piled them up for burning. They took the time to examine each face, making sure none of the bandits were bounties the city had out, then light it up. Afterward, the party and the guards stepped into the cave.
There was a portcullis just inside the entryway, lowered, but with a crank on the outside as if the cave were designed to become one large cage. Benny opened the gate, wanting to bring up the rear, while everyone else filed inside. As Rashirel and Thorn – who had taken the lead – rounded a corner a dozen yards in a conversation was struck.
Down the hall around the corner stood the elven wolf master along with an armed ogre and a man in heavy plate. The elf smiled, welcoming Ras to her lair.
“And Boss here,” the woman said indicating the man at her side, “had almost convinced me there would be a full battalion sent out after us. But I see my luck panned out and it was merely the whelps who escaped me out by the ponds. And,” she continued noticing Thorn, “the men who stumbled upon our camp and ran away in fright. How convenient that we can tie up all the loose ends in one go.”
“We got your message,” Ras said, her voice echoing back from the depths of the cave. “All your little trick did was make me angry.”
“Oh dear,” the elf replied, still smiling, “I was really hoping that would be the case. To kill from a distance can be such a bore. I wanted you to come to me, my sweet, and now that you are here I have a present to prepare.” She began casting a spell, and before Ras or Thorn could react the cave began to fill with a thick, magical fog. Thorn launched an arrow hoping to catch the elf but he could barely see a few feet in front of him and he heard the sound of the projectile clattering off stone. The bandits were too far away to see anymore, but they could hear the footsteps as the elf woman disappeared into the cave, laughing.
Ras and Thorn braced themselves, but the ogre and the armored man didn’t charge in. They seemed to be waiting for the battle to come to them.
Lauretta, who was near the back of the line, had used the time to look around the cave. Just inside the portculis she notice some unusual stonework, and when she looked closer found a hidden crevice. Inside was a switch, and she flipped it.
A portion of cave wall slid open, a concealed door that opened to a short hallway where a number of bandits – weapons out – had been waiting to charge out behind the party, flanking them and pinning them against the ogre around the corner. Lauretta smiled at the look on their faces as they realized the trap had, once again, failed. She sucked in a deep breath and blew out a cone of cold dragon’s breath that filled the hallway just as the magical fog rolled down the tunnel. Ice formed in the air as the mist froze, clicking to the floor.
There was the sound or rattling chain as the portcullis they’d entered through dropped. Benny, however, managed to dive to the outside before the gate completely closed and immediately started raising it again.
The sound of clashing metal and grunts of pain began to echo through the tunnel and the guards and Lauretta engaged the would-be ambushers in their short tunnel. The fog only seeped in a few feet from the entrance, and the bandits quickly fell having been taken by surprise and hit hard by the initial wave of dragon breath.
Thorn continued to fire arrows blindly into the fog hoping to hit the ogre which blocked the way to the elf woman. A few of the arrows struck metal, but most hit stone. As he and Ras advanced, slowly and cautiously, they readied their melee weapons.
A club as large as a tree swung out of the fog, a shadow that became death. Thorn managed to dodge it, but the ogre was too far away to even be an outline in the fog. Ras, by his side, was little more than shadow. She suddenly dodged to the side as the man in armor stepped forward, himself only a vaguely humanoid shape in the mist, and the two began exchanging blows – most of which missed their mark.
Then there was the sound of sliding stone, and a wave of cold shot through the tunnel. Mist turned to snow and fell to the ground, clearing Thorn’s vision just long enough for him to see Lauretta and Benny – their armor coated with blood – step out of a hidden passage in the wall and attack the flank of the ogre.
Before the fog rolled back in, Thorn stepped forward and swung his sword into the ogre as well, and he heard the grunts of pain as Ras and Boss finally managed to hit each other. The battle lasted only a few seconds longer before the two bandits fell, overwhelmed and outnumbered.
It was then that the party realized that the guards had stopped fighting. They split up to search through the fog and found them unconscious and snoring. They all realized that their adrenaline had masked the headaches they were all feeling, and Thorn was beginning to feel light-headed and drowsy. Realizing there was some sort of poison hidden by the fog, the party scrambled out of the cave, dragging the guards with them. Thorn collapsed shortly afterward, snoring contentedly outside the cave surrounded by blood splatter and burning bodies.
Benny, Lauretta, and Rashirel decided they were going to head back into the cave as soon as one of the guards regained consciousness. They were worried that there might be another exit to the cave considering how the entrance trap had been arranged, but they didn’t want to leave all of their companions helpless. The dwarf captain was the first to come back around, and they explained their plan to him. Having already had three near-death experiences in the last hour, he agreed to stay outside the cave.
The group headed back in, their faces covered with bandannas from the field stripped loot of the bandits. The fog was beginning to dissipate, and as it cleared they could see a faintly yellow mist filtering through a myriad of tiny holes in the ceiling. They made their way down the tunnel quickly, stepping over the bloody ogre, and coming to another closed gate. There was a crank in the cave wall on the other side of the door, but the elf woman was leaning against it.
“I see you see the poison now,” she said with delight. “It’s a favorite of mine. Knocks you out without any physical harm, gives me plenty of time to tie you up so that when you wake up the real fun can begin.” She walked over to the gate, taking care to stay out of sword thrust range. “I’m not just going to kill you. I’m going to torture you. I’m going to cut you apart inch by inch, feed you your own flesh, make you bathe in your own fluids, fill your guts with maggots, and let you squirm and scream as you die a thousand, thousand times. I’ll balance you on the cusp of death, healing you just enough that you can continue begging to die. I’m going to…”
Her words were cut short as Lauretta and her dragon simultaneously let out their dragon breath through the gaps in the portcullis. The elf-woman screamed as the bitter cold froze her skin. She staggered backwards against the wall, clutching at her eyes and screaming curses and threats. She began casting another spell, her fingers showing signs of frostbite and moving clumsily throught he motions of the spell.
Ras and Lauretta began straining to pick up the gate high enough that Benny or the dragon could crawl under and get to the crank on the other side.
The elf woman finished her spell and her skin glowed as magic healed the wounds. She forced herself to her feet, shivering and still looking near death, and her face was nothing but rage. Unable to find words strong enough, she simply screamed a primal fury as she ran down the hall and into the darkness.
She was gone by the time the dragon had reached the portcullis crank and managed to get the gate opened. Ras and Lauretta wasted no time in charging down the tunnel in the way the elf had fled. They found her in a room filled with cages and chains. Embalming tools and torture devices were arranged on tables, and the smell of blood and excrement was strong. Many of the cages held people, huddled together in on corner while bones and bodies were stacked along the opposite sides.
The elf was fumbling with a set of keys, attempting to unlock a cage which contained an ogre-sized zombie. It had the head of a bull and large horns, and it strained against the chains that kept it pinned inside the cage.
Ras and Benny stepped forward. The elf managed to dodge the mace swung by the orc, but Benny tumbled around to the bandit’s back and sunk his dagger into her kidneys. She coughed up blood, and grasped at the key as she lost her balance and collapsed to the ground.
Out of the shadows stepped another bandit, swinging torture tools at Benny and turning the key in the lock. He had time to open the door and step inside the cage before Ras clubbed him in the head. The zombie creature, splashed by blood and brains, strained against the chains that kept it bound. The party wasted no time in slaying the creature, stabbing at it through the bars of the cage until it stopped moving.
They freed everyone in the cages and escorted them, quietly, out of the cave to where the guards were waiting. Most of the guards, and Thorn, had regained consciousness. They gathered up the captives, calmed them down, and began asking questions. Ras, Benny, and Lauretta made another pass through the cave system, finding the storage rooms, outhouse holes, and living quarters. There were a few bandits who had managed to sleep through the excitement in a cavern deep in the caves, but they woke to slit throats and died quietly and with little fuss.
If there was a second entrance to the caves, it was too well hidden. There was plenty of supplies and money left, and the party helped themselves to it before returning to the guards outside.
According to the captives, members of a merchant caravan that had been ambushed on the highway, the bandits had begun packing up the outpost several days ago. They had been worried about being discovered, and had eventually received orders to relocate to somewhere in the northern kingdom of Lagernia. Barb, the elven torturer, and Boss, the man in armor, had argued over taking care of the interlopers. Boss wanted to secure their exit quickly, but Barb was fixated on revenge. They eventually agreed to just clear out slowly, waiting to see if they could bait their enemy into a trap. They’d almost given up the wait before the guards had arrived.
The party returned to Harveston carrying the spoils of their victory and news that the Syndicate had been chased away from the area.