It takes only a couple of days to locate the entrance to the long abandoned mine. Even to their untrained eyes, with minimal skill at tracking, it is obvious the rumors of abandonment have been exaggerated. Booted feet, both the races of Men and those of Goblin, have traversed this entrance recently. And frequently. They cannot identify with certainty the timing, but Old Grizz had said the last attempt to open the mine had been decades ago. The tracks they find are days and weeks old, not tens of years. Setting up tethers for their pack horses, they move their supplies into recently purchased enchanted satchels. These can holds a couple hundred pounds of weight and yet feel as light as an empty pack. Water, food, rope, and climbing gears is distributed among them, and no one is remotely burdened. Thus provisioned, they head into the mine.
It is clear that this was once a natural passageway, carved into the soft limestone by the flow of water. The miners, a century ago, had simply followed water, widening and shoring up the passage as they dug. The cave winds slowly downward until the light is a memory behind them, and they are navigating by the muted torch-light glow of Ezio’s Sunblade. On point, Nithauk does not seem to need the light. Ever since the battle with death cultist Rechander, and more specifically with the Goliath zombie serving the priest, the rogue has demonstrated an increasing affinity for darkness. It does not seem to impede his sight, at least nearby. Around a sharp bend the floor drops down a short, steeper slope at the same time the walls and ceiling arc away, into a larger chamber. Nithauk takes only a single stride forward and halts in surprise, the hairs on his neck rising.
A ghostly shape takes form in the air before him, its faint luminescence blinding to his darkvision. Squinting against the glare even has he crouches in preparation for a defensive maneuver, he can just make out the contours of a deadly wyvern. The ghostly reptile beats is wings once, twice, three times. There is no buffet of downdraft, no sound at all. The apparition’s tail lashes forward, and the stinger passes right through the rogue’s torso. A numbing chill enters his veins, slowing his heart and breathing despite his attempts to resist. A sort of paralysis takes over his body, though it does not cause him to fall over or fully stop his vital functions. He stands, rigid, helpless, but alive. The apparition fades as quickly as it formed, its last light vanishing as the rest of our heroes catch up to their comrade.
By Ezio’s light, they can see the ritual circle on the cavern floor, arcane reagents mixed into the mud and staining the limestone. The circle has been inscribed many, many times. And it is not a cheap ritual. Moreover, its true purpose is not the paralysis, which is merely a side effect. Its true purpose is to alert its caster. Discretion may be the better part of valor, but surprise is the better part of military victory. While Nithauk recovers from the grip of the wyvern’s illusory venom, Kane sets about deciphering what he can about the caster of the ritual from their work. The others begin preparing an ambush for whoever comes running to check on the triggered spell. If they had indeed just rung a bell in the enemy fortress, the next step seemed clearly to capture or kill the doorman. It is in the midst of these preparations that an unexpected visitor finds them.
Alar had parted ways from them three months prior, taking up a vigil near the shard of the shattered god in Splitrock Dale. They did not expect to see him again, save for on a return to that place. If indeed the ranger could hope to survive the steady onslaught of goblins eager to take back control of the benevolent and helpful aura the shard emits. Now he is here, after a fashion. Something is clearly different about the elf. He is more poised, more certain of himself. Greener. Kane senses none of the darkness in the elf’s aura, as if his blood was somehow purified of its old taint. The reunion is hurried, and hushed, as they are all waiting for their ambush to be sprung. None the less, they press their former traveling companion for an explanation. And he provides it.
Camping day after day in the healing aura of the god-shard seems to have purged all that might have been unclean from his body and blood. The darkness of his memories as well. And with this, the last of his wilding youth, the genetic indecision that plagues elves when they have not chosen a course for their life. Embracing his Green Elven heretige, the ranger has accepted the guidance of a new goddess. Visions from a Saint of Akadi, Lady of the Winds, warned him of a dire need. His own former companions were nearby and headed into danger. With fresh purpose, he abandoned the Splitrock Dale once more to its natural course, and set out for the place his visions showed him. This place. In accepting his heritage, he also informs them that he is taking back the name he first chose upon reaching adulthood. Faral, as he wishes to be known, is back. And perhaps not a moment too soon.
As his whispered tale draws to a close, Nithauk gestures for quiet. Somewhere off in the darkness, beyond his sight, a footfall. Many footfalls… booted feet… approaching at a brisk, militaristic march. No attempt at stealth, but not a headlong rush either. He counts maybe a half-dozen. Ezio dims the light of his sword, and readies himself. Cuts takes up a defensive stance for his comrades to rally around. Kane stands to the back, the energy of a spell already gathering along the length of his wand. Scir grips his axe, the first stirrings of a battle rage already worming their way through his blood. Nithauk steps off to the flank and conceals himself in the shadows. Out in the dark, a tangle of trip-lines and noise-makers waits to advertise the approaching foe, and he is ready to put a well thrown blade into the first to reach his traps. Faral lays an arrow across his bow, nocking it snugly. A second arrow is gripped in his teeth, readied to following closely on the first. In tense silence they wait, ready to greet their welcoming committee most harshly.