The group rested for a moment in the underground caverns beneath Xylon. They had barely managed to break into Krumb’s hideout, outrun the guards, and find a small cavern to regain their breath. Juniper had taken a moment to pull a crossbow bolt from Tak’s shoulder and patch him up while both Grace and Sigthyme stood at the entrance of the small cavity and kept an eye out. They knew there were guards searching for Krumb and Riffen and now they suspected the guards were looking for them as well.
“All done,” Juniper said as she stitched up the crossbow wound. “Do you feel better, Tak?”
“Feel good. Find Riffen now,” Tak said.
Juniper turned to Grace and Sigthyme.
“Any sign of guards?” She asked.
“None that I can see,” Grace said.
“It looks like the hour or so we’ve spent hiding made things calm down a bit out there,” Sigthyme said. “There’s no guarantee that we won’t run into guards, but I’m afraid that the longer we wait, the less likely we will be able to catch up to Krumb.”
“Plus Krumb has a major head start on us,” Juniper said.
“Do you think you’ll be able to track him down?” Sigthyme asked.
“It will be difficult to track footprints when there have been so many other people walking around in these caverns, but I’ll do my best,” Juniper said.
“You’re the best tracker we know. I’m sure you’ll be able to do it,” He said with a smile, his words had a touch of magic to them.
“Smash Guards. Find Riffen,” Tak said as he picked up his war hammer.
“Woah, big guy. Remember, we are looking for Riffen. And so are the guards. Our plan is to skirt around the guards without engaging so we can find Riffen quicker,” Sigthyme said.
“Ok,” Tak said, a little deflated.
“And Grace,” Sigthyme turned to Grace. “You’re definitely the sneakiest of our group. Why don’t you take point and keep an eye on things.”
“You want me to lead?” Grace asked.
“You and Juniper will be up front. Keep an eye out while she does her best to track down Krumb and Riffen. I’ll stay back with Tak making sure he doesn’t give away our location. His size tends to give me away.”
“Alright,” Grace said.
“Now let’s hurry, but in a stealthy way,” Sigthyme said.
The group left their small alcove and made their way back into the larger tunnels of the underground cavern. Grace was on high alert as she constantly looked around and kept her ears open for any guards approaching. Juniper’s eyes were trained on the cave’s floors which were a mix of sand, dirt, and stone, looking for any signs of footprints. She quickly noted that some looked like small groups of organized people she suspected belonged to guards searching. They were slower and more deliberate like they were taking their time to search.
“Look here,” Juniper whispered as she pointed to a grouping of bootprints.
“What about them?” Sigthyme examined them but they didn’t look like anything special to him.
“These footprints are from a group moving a lot faster than the others. Definitely someone in a hurry. And you can tell that there are some uneven footprints. Maybe someone was injured and was having trouble walking,” Juniper explained.
“Riffen?” Grace asked.
“I can’t tell, but I bet this is the group we need to find,” Juniper said.
“Great job,” Sigthyme said.
As they knelt down to examine these footprints, Grace’s ears picked up on some voices from people approaching them.
“We need to move,” Grace said.
“This way, hurry,” Juniper said as the group moved forward and followed the trail of bootprints.
As they moved deeper into the caverns, they eventually heard droplets of water that were falling from small stalactites.
“Be careful no to slip,” Sigthyme said.
Tak let out a small growl as he squeezed through this more narrow passageway. He placed his hands against the walls to steady himself.
“Too big,” Tak grumbled.
“It’s ok, big man. You’re doing great,” Sigthyme patted his friend on the arm as they moved forward.
Once on the other side of the narrow corridor, they found a small creek which seemed to flow deeper underground.
“Guys, we have a problem,” Juniper said as they all stopped at the creek.
“What is it?” Grace asked.
“Footprints stop,” Juniper said, glancing around to search for more.
“Do you think they used the creek to hide their path?” Sigthyme asked.
“It’s very possible,” Juniper said. “But maybe a bit too smart.”
“What do you mean?” Sigthyme asked.
“We were able to follow their footsteps so far and they made no effort to hide their tracks. But now they use the creek to hide. To me it makes no sense,” Juniper said.
“Maybe the creek is a distraction,” Grace said.
“Check around here,” Juniper said. “But don’t go too far.”
The group split up a bit and began looking for any signs of Krumb or Riffen. Tak and Sigthyme scoured the walls and ground, but they were both very much out of their element. Juniper looked over the footprints and at the edges of the creek, but found no signs of them.
Grace looked around at the stone walls and her eyes narrowed on a spot on the other side of the creek. She leapt across and examined it closer. At first they looked like small, natural carvings into the wall. But Grace recognized them as purposeful markings that were carved by some sort of thieves or bandits.
“Hidden,” She read the markings.
She turned toward the rest of the group.
“Guys I found -” She began before she heard the sound of a crossbow unloading. A crossbow bolt passed through the stone wall in font of her, making it shimmer, striking her in the gut.
“Grace!” Juniper yelled out as Grace stumbled back a bit.
The stone wall in front of Grace began to dissolve revealing a hallway and a group of people wielding weapons, preparing to attack.
For a moment, time seemed to slow down. Grace stood in front of a doorway which was once a part of the stone wall. Now on the other side she saw four individuals all ready to attack. She had found the hideout for Krumb and his bandit allies, but she thought that it might cost her her life.
Grace heard Juniper yell out for her as a human woman charged forward, raising her fists to attack.
“Little brat,” The woman yelled as she attacked Grace with her fists. The first one struck Grace in the shoulder and the other hit into Grace’s chest, knocking her backwards.
Grace fell back and fell into the shallow creek, the cold water shooting a chill up her spine and she snapped back into it.
Juniper ran forward and shot an arrow at the female monk she had encountered before.
“Stay away from her,” Juniper shouted as the arrow struck the monk in her ribs.
The human archer raised his crossbow and pointed it at Grace. He fired, but this time, Grace was able to roll to the side and the arrow struck against the rocky floor.
“Kill them all,” Krumb yelled while standing behind the archer.
Grace pulled herself to her feet, kind of unsteady, and pulled her daggers from her belt. She tossed one toward the archer, striking him near his left collarbone. The archer let out a small scream as he reloaded his crossbow.
An elven woman stepped out of the shadows and raised her hands. Her fingers glowed with a dark green energy. Then the magical energy shot forward and struck Grace in her chest. Grace immediately felt sick to her stomach as the poison attacked her body, and she fell onto her knees coughing up bile and blood.
Tak ran forward with his war hammer raised, letting out a battle cry which echoed down the corridors of the cavern. Stealth was no longer an option. Tak ran up to engage with the monk, swinging the hammer. It struck the monk, knocking her into the stone wall.
“Sigthyme! Get to Grace,” Juniper yelled.
“Got it!” Sigthyme yelled as he ran toward Grace.
“Grace, you are a powerful warrior and I know you don’t give up easily. Get up and put a blade in them,” Sigthyme said in a singsong voice giving Grace some magical healing. She was still poisoned, but she felt some strength return.
Sigthyme then glanced over at Krumb.
“I thought after we defeated you on the road, I wouldn’t have to see you ever again,” Sigthyme said, recognizing the Air Genasi.
“I should have murdered you all when I had a chance,” Krumb said with a sly smile. “Of course if I did that, I wouldn’t have gotten my hands on your royal friend.”
“Where is Riffen?” Sigthyme asked.
“That’s none of your concern. This is,” Krumb raised a hand and a blast of blue energy shot forward, slamming into Sigthyme and coated him with a lawyer of frost and ice.
Seeing this Juniper turned her attention to Krumb. She shot an arrow which just missed Krumb and struck the wall behind him.
The human monk stood up and engaged with Tak. She punched him twice, but in his enraged state, the punches seemed to just glance off of him harmlessly.
Tak smiled and swung his war hammer again, striking the monk in the chest. She slammed hard against the stone wall with a crack and she slumped to the ground.
The human archer raised his crossbow and shot toward Sigthyme, missing his tiny frame. He let out a small curse before reloading the crossbow. The Elven woman then raised her hands again, and blackened flame shot forward, striking Sigthyme. The flames did not burn like traditional fire, but it possessed a demonic heat which still burned.
Sigthyme brushed the flames aside, but kept his focus on Krumb.
“You might as well give up now, cloud head,” Sigthyme said. “The more you fight, the more I’m going to enjoy killing you.”
Sigthyme’s magic-laced words stung Krumb’s mind, and he brought a hand up to his head like he had a bad headache. Grace took advantage of that moment and she charged forward and slashed out with her other blade. Krumb was able to dodge out of the way due to Grace’s poison induced slowness.
“I could use some help out here,” Krumb shouted.
The human archer took the imitative and ran forward to give Krumb some backup, but as soon as he stepped into the hallway, Juniper unleashed an arrow. The arrow struck the archer in the neck and he crumpled to the ground.
“Jace!” The elven woman yelled as ran forward toward the archer, but Tak moved forward to try and cut her off.
Krumb examined the situation and raised a hand, the water of the nearby creek rose up and then erupted into a thick fog cloud, obscuring the entire group from the bandits.
“Don’t let them get away!” Juniper shouted. She thought about shooting an arrow, but she didn’t want to accidently strike one of her friends.
Tak tried to swipe at the elven cleric in front of him, but she was able to dodge his blow as the war hammer struck the stone wall. The cleric then charged Grace and knocked her to the ground. She then pressed her palm against the bruise the monk had left on Grace’s shoulder. Dark, necrotic energy took root as it sent shockwaves through Grace’s body. Grace went limp as her conciseness slipped.
Sigthyme pulled his blade and and swung wildly in the fog cloud. he felt some resistance as the blade managed to cut across Krumb’s arm as Krumb tried his best to run away. Krumb was sliced, but he ran from the fog cloud, following the creek’s flow deeper into the cavern.
Juniper turned and shot an arrow, which struck Krumb in his back, but Krumb kept on running, not slowing down.
“He’s getting away!” Juniper yelled.
“Tak, get her!” Sigthyme yelled.
Juniper turned back to se the fog cloud was gone and an Elven woman was kneeling on Grace’s chest, who was not moving or fighting back.
“Grace!” Juniper yelled as she ran toward Grace.
Tak grabbed the Elf and pulled her off of Grace, slamming the elf against the stone wall. The Elf retaliated by grabbing Tak’s bicep. Again, dark energy was unleashed from her fingertips and it seemed to spread across his entire body. Tak went to one knee as the dark tattoos across his back seemed to glow. Sigthyme then struck out with his blade, slicing her across the throat. Her hands went to her neck but became quickly stained with blood as it poured down her front. She stumbled for a moment before falling to the ground, dead.
“Grace! Grace!” Juniper ran to Grace’s side and knelt down beside her. “Stay with me, Grace.”
As Juniper pulled Grace up into her lap, she placed a hand on Grace’s shoulder where Juniper still saw signs of necrotic energy. Nature magic flowed from Juniper into the wound, healing Grace.
For a moment the group just sat there in silence as Grace’s chest began to rise once gain and her eyes slowly opened.
“Did we get them?” Grace asked weakly.
Sigthyme glanced around at the dead bodies of the monk, the archer, and the elven cleric.
“Krumb got away but we got his cronies,” Sigthyme said.
“No. Did we get Riffen?” Grace asked.
Juniper helped Grace to her feet, but she was still very weak.
“Tak, can you take here?” Juniper asked.
Tak nodded as he lifted Grace over his shoulder.
“Be careful. I believe she is still poisoned by whatever that elf woman did to her,” Juniper said.
“Protect Grace,” Tak said with a nod.
“Riffen is not here,” Sigthyme said as he examined the inside of this hidden passageway. “Maybe he is further in.”
“Ok, let’s go,” Juniper said as she lead with Sigthyme deeper inside the hideout.
They quickly made their way deeper into the secret cavern which seemed to be set up as a smuggler post/safe house. As they approached the back, they saw two figures. One was a beaten and bloodied Riffen tied up and gagged. The other was a man who held a short sword to Riffen’s neck.
“Take one more step and I’ll slash his throat,” The man said.
Header Photo Credit to Famalchow on DeviantArt