The party returned to crossroads and had Liliana raised without incident. Liliana was quiet and reluctant to talk about her ordeal, but was willing to stay with the party even though they wanted to set out immediately instead of waiting a week for the priest to remove the second negative level and have her back to full strength. "You have to protect me this time," she insisted. Everyone promised.
The priest recognized some of the jewelry they paid him with as being from an orcish scout team -- the sort of scout team that didn't operate inside the empire. Then again, it wasn't usual for Leucrotta to be on this side of the canyon. They were supposed to stay in gnoll territory, since they were allies of the gnolls and the orcs and gnolls, while not at war, were not on very good terms.
At any rate, they headed back down the same road, figuring that the former leucrotta lair would be a good place to stop since the local monsters were gone. Unfortunately, scavenging wolverines had already taken over, so they pressed on to an ordinary campsite a few miles down the road. Nothing attacked them during the night, although they heard the howls of wolves all night long, which didn't do good things for Liliana's nerves.
Around midday the next day, they saw the canyon approaching, with the silhouette of an orcish fortress they'd been told to expect. When they got closer, however, they discovered that the walls were manned and patrolled by zombies and skeletons -- had someone taken over the fort? They discussed strategy, had Liliana prepare a knock spell to open the gate, and cautiously approached, with the signal to rush forwards and attack being when the zombies and skeletons took notice of them.
...which didn't happen, even though they walked all the way up to the gate. Liliana spotted someone watching them from a third-floor window of the inner tower, so they challenged the gate, and managed to negotiate entrance with the 'mysterious voice' booming back at them from the air. It turned out that the 'orc fortress' was actually manned by an orcish necromancer who watched the ruins of the bridge in return for being left alone with his work. He wasn't a *good* person, but he was allied with the empire and was happy enough to give a 'warband' what aid and comfort they were willing to accept. He didn't have much news about the canyon -- the troubles were mainly far to the south, and hadn't made any assault on his keep -- but he did warn them to be on the lookout for fire drakes, since one had buzzed his tower a while back.
Since it was only midday, and he was a creepy necromancer, they headed on for a while. They had a run-in with an angry goat, but Samuel was able to calm it down for long enough for them to get through its territory. They spotted a gnoll fortress watching the other side of the canyon, and used a spyglass to take a look -- it looked pretty normal except for a weird blue cast to the metal bits of the soldiers' armor, and while the archers there kept a bead on the party, they were able to pass without incident. Then, a drake approached.
They had plenty of warning it was coming, but despite knowing what it was called, thanks to the necromancer, they didn't know what a 'fire drake' *did*. They spread out somewhat, at least, but not quite far enough to avoid three of them getting fireballed. It had to come in fairly close to fireball, however, and Liliana spotted straps that looked like it was wearing a saddle. Thus warned, Samuel and Dawnfire were able to cast spells on the rider -- in particular, a spiritual weapon that kept attacking while the drake and rider tried to circle around for another pass with the fireball breath, and managed to take the rider down. Without guidance, the drake angrily swooped down to try to eat the gnome who'd killed his rider, and Liliana and Samuel color-sprayed him long enough for Hef and 'Hobbes' [the summoner's eidolon; the summoner was summarily renamed 'Calvin' after thinking up that name] to kill him.
The body fell into the canyon, since it had been perched on the very edge, but only about twenty feet down before it landed on a ledge. Dawnfire immediately stabilized the rider, who was only 'dying' and not yet 'dead', and they pulled him up to interrogate him. This involved a bit of diplomacy, a bit of violence, and more than one charm person spell, but they eventually got him to talk by convincing him that they were new recruits for his organization who'd been mugged and lost their letters of introduction and passes. He offered to escort them in -- or fly them in one by one on his fire drake, once it came back for him (since he didn't know it was dead) -- but they pressed him for directions instead and he told them where to find a hidden path that the 'foot' scouts used to watch the canyon, which would take them right to the mine, avoiding most of the goats.
He didn't know what was up with the goats, but since they were mining some weird blue metal, all the scouts figured it was something to do with that.
Then Samuel tried to kill him, since they had all the information they needed. Liliana took offense at that, and tried to stop him, and there was a brief tussle that ended with the scout dead and Liliana and Samuel angrily arguing about the proper treatment of prisoners. Dawnfire suggested that in the future, they treat prisoners as the orcs would, since they were an 'orcish warband' -- the orcish method was to give the prisoners a crappy weapon and then fight them to the death. Generally the prisoners' death.
At any rate, no one had gotten lethal on other party members or anything, so they were able to calm down and go to sleep. There was a cave on the ledge the fire drake had fallen on which looked like a good place to rest, although they skinned the drake and shoved it off the ledge and down into the stream at the bottom of the canyon to avoid having a HUGE beacon saying where they were resting.
In the morning, they prepared spells to fight more drake-riders, and headed for the secret path the gnoll had mentioned. It was under an overhang and had a good view of the canyon, but a bad view of the sky -- which in turn meant that they couldn't really see or be seen by flying drakes easily as long as they were on it. They did eventually run into the foot-scouts, though.
Liliana's fox was able to spot the scouts in time not to be surprised and warn her, so while they took pot shots, she glitterdusted them to try to prevent their attack. One was blinded and, not realizing he was glitterdusted, tried to stay hidden, the other took a shot with a flaming arrow and missed. Then Samuel plopped a web behind them keeping them from running away, and Hobbes and Hef slaughtered them without further ado. Once they'd looted them and cleared away the web, though, the fox smelled the scent trails of two more scouts who'd been hidden farther down the path, past the web, and had run off -- so they gave chase!
They chased the scouts along the path for a good long way. They weren't very far behind, but never got closer than 'long' range and Samuel didn't have enough magic missiles to make random potshots a good idea. They finally caught up only when the scouts reached the next encampment and paused to warn the scouts there about the attack. When the party showed up around the corner, one of them continued running down the path while the other joined the four scouts on duty to try to block the path to keep them from chasing him down.
Calvin popped a haste that let the party close the distance much more quickly than the gnolls expected, though. Hobbes ran through their formation, shrugging off attacks of opportunity and readied bull-rush attempts with ease, and continued on to menace the fleeing scout, while Samuel followed quick on his heels to color-spray most of the gnolls, knocking them unconscious. One of the ones he didn't spray managed to bull-rush him off the path after that, though, taking him out of the fight, but Liliana summoned some wolves to coup-de-grace the unconscious gnolls, and Hef was able to easily slaughter the ones who weren't lying down. And Hobbes did, in fact, manage to pounce and kill the gnoll trying to make a run for it, so no word got to any further outposts.
Samuel was almost unhurt from his fall -- he'd fallen thirty feet but landed well -- and they found a large cache of healing potions and antidotes in the scouts' cave. As well as a map of all the trails the scouts used -- this was apparently their central staging area for the north approach to the mine. There wasn't a really good way to sneak past the last scout outpost in their way to the mine, though -- there weren't any trails from the edge of the canyon to the bottom anywhere near the mine itself, the south approach was also guarded, and any other route would leave them visible to the remaining scouts. So they decided they'd turn Liliana invisible and have her sneak past the scouts and cast a web behind them to keep them from running, then just take them out like they had the others.
Unfortunately, they'd only gotten about a quarter mile when they saw a drake swoop down and land at the outpost they'd just looted. Thinking quickly, they left the path and hid in a cave, and used an illusion spell to make a fake orcish warband appear, positioned so that it could 'run away' from the drake when it approached and get caught by the fireball breath on one of the rope bridges that made up about half the path, allowing the fake orcs to 'fall to their deaths'. The plan mostly went off as planned, although the fireball didn't actually take out the rope bridge and the orcs had to all stumble clumsily in order to fall. Which made the drake-rider not entirely convinced -- he landed and looked around for clues, but at least they'd covered their path well enough not to be tracked down. Eventually, he got back on his drake and flew off.
Still, the cave they were using was way too close to the path. They wanted to rest the night and give the gnolls time to get off of high alert and accept that the invaders had actually been killed, so they... got attacked by goats. What? Apparently only the path itself was safe, and the caves near the path...
The goats weren't very effective at driving off the intruders, though, although they did manage to send a couple people tumbling down the hillside a ways, and were also quite tasty.
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