The sun rose on the second day of the intrepid group’s adventures to see them on their way to recovering Dirk’s missing cargo. They left the city’s southern gate and it was not long before they detected a well-worn dirt path veering east off the main road. Mognyr led the way, Ugarth’s tracking skills helping them stick to the path, and as the party followed its northeast trajectory around the edge of Ambercrest they came to a bend in the road nestled between trees and boulders.
Ugarth continued his scouting and ducked into a cluster of trees. If not for his keen eyes, he would have tripped right over a goblin hiding there.
“Aaarrgh! They found me!” the goblin squealed.
A brief moment of dead silence followed. If he expected any listening companions to come to his aid, he was sorely mistaken. Ugarth drew his bow and held it ready to strike the goblin.
Before he had the chance to attack, Idria called out from the other side of the trees, “What do you want?”
“Uhh, food!” he squeaked hoarsely. “Give us your food!”
Ugarth raised an eyebrow; the goblin was hardly in any position to make demands.
“What for?” Idria asked.
The conversation was going nowhere, a fact made even clearer by the emergence of a large, club-wielding bugbear from behind a boulder. He was quickly joined by several smaller goblins. The bugbear charged, wearing a fiendish grin that suggested that he could make a meal of the party whether they were carrying rations or not.
Mognyr met the bugbear, deflecting his attacks from the smaller and weaker members of the group. While Gdom and Maruk came to his aid, Idria and Ugarth concentrated fire on the attacking goblins.
Then, out of nowhere, a projectile crashed into the middle of the group and burst into flames, followed by a second rain of shot: two hostile kobolds and a halfling revealed their positions hiding amongst the tree branches above.
Thia summoned her spirit companion in the form of a koala. It battled viciously, striking one of the kobolds and knocking its corpse from the tree. The second fell with a swift arrow loosed from Ugarth’s bow.
“Leave them alive, we may need to question them!” Idria said.
“Useless vermin,” said Ugarth shortly, watching with satisfaction as his quarry fell to earth. “No point.”
As Gdom watched the mighty bugbear fall to the ground, Mognyr turned his gaze on the halfling hiding in the tree branches.
“I’ll crush the tiny pest,” he growled confidently, striding up to the tree. His hulking form slowly lumbered up and he flailed at the halfling above. His flail fell short.
“I’ve got it!” Maruk cried. The mul charged at the tree, knocking both Mognyr and the halfling to the ground. A loud thud resonated as the huge gnoll hit the ground.
“Uhhn,” Mognyr grunted.
The group moved in to attack the halfling, the sole survivor of the bandit group. After suffering a few blows, he scrambled to his feet and, in the proud tradition of halflings everywhere, made a break for it.
A small orb of pure arcane energy shot after him like an arrow and brought him down with a sizzle.
Ugarth made a quick round of the battlefield, dispatching any of his enemies that had not already met their maker. Idria glowered, but Ugarth’s search yielded a very primitive map — property of the late bugbear.
Labeled “MAPPe”, the crumpled and apparently chewed piece of paper illustrated a path along the northeast dirt road they had been following. It included landmarks such as “fud/ FOODe”, “ciddy”, “stompss”, “bigge raak”, “caev”, and at the end of a marked trail there was an illustration of a humaniod holding dining utensils, labeled “me” and “HONGRY”. The “bigge raak” was accompanied by a picture of what was presumably a boulder with an angry face drawn on it.
The other side of the paper was adorned with writing of a much neater and more eloquent style, though it had since been heavily smudged and wrinkled. A keen eye could make out simple script detailing what seemed like droll training exercises and guard patrols.
The group gathered around the bizarre map and pondered its implications.
“Maybe we should go take a look,” Gdom said, thinking back to Daggerpalm’s warnings about bandit activity outside the city. But then, he thought, Daggerpalm had never mentioned anything about the area to the northeast, only the southern route between Ambercrest and Moorhaven.
“We need to go find the ore carts, right now,” Ugarth insisted.
“There could be a connection, though,” Thia argued.
“That’s what we’re getting paid for. The map is irrelevant.”
“Dirk did ask us to find the source of the problem,” Thia continued, “and to stop anything dangerous from attacking his shipments.” Her voice carried a tone of disapproval for Dirk’s unsafe shipping practices, but she figured that if he was going to carry on with them anyway they may as well try to prevent anyone else from getting hurt on this path.
“We can always go back and look after we find the ore,” Maruk offered. This compromise seemed to settle the debate, at least for the moment.
“Mognyr, what are you doing?” Idria asked, suddenly noticing that the huge gnoll was leaning over the fallen bugbear’s corpse.
“Saving for later,” Mognyr answered as he stoppered a flask freshly filled with blood.
The party decided it was time set out again along the worn dirt path.
They walked in relative peace for a few hours, and the only sounds they heard were those of nature: the rustle of a small animal dashing for leafy cover or an occasional murmuring brook. The grass grew thinner, and the sparse hills began to give way to rockier and ever greater and more frequent mounds. Finally, as the afternoon was wearing on into evening and the howls of larger animals began to resonate across the land, they followed a bend in the cracked dirt pathway and came upon an eerie sight.
Dirk’s two wagons of ore stood pristine and untouched in the shade of a large, rocky hill. Thousands of gold worth of materials, but not a guard (or the corpse of one) in sight. Even the horses had vanished without a trace; the reins hung empty and completely intact from the spotless wagons.
The group agreed quickly that the ore was too valuable to leave out in the open. They dragged them off the road and under the cover of hills and shrubs. During this process Thia and Ugarth noticed some worn paths going away from the carts. They seemed to follow the pattern of one or two sets of footprints alongside a long, steady streak, like one left by a body being dragged. All of them made for hidden spots behind ditches or shrubs, where the fate of the guards became gruesomely clear.
Several armored bodies had been beaten and mangled, their armor torn away to clear a path to the now rotted remnants of their flesh. A few seemed to have been gnawed on, and most were missing limbs and meaty chunks.
Thia backed away, disturbed, while Ugarth’s gaze followed the footprints leading away from all of the rotting bodies, or what was left of them. All converged and led northeast along the roadside. More noticeably, there were hoofprints leading from the area along the same basic pathway.
Considering that the missing horses would play a very significant role in returning the ore carts to Ambercrest, the group set out immediately to track them. Maybe, in the process, they could discover who had attacked the caravan… or what had attacked the caravan.
As they walked north the terrain grew slightly rockier still — they were now clearly in the mountainous terrain of the remote Dwarvenlands, though the grassy hills and pastures native to Ambercrest were still in sight on the horizon.
Passing a particularly large boulder, Idria thought to herself that its lines and indentations gave it the appearance of a very angry humanoid face. She mentioned this to the group, and when they referred to the map it seemed that the hoofprints followed along the path marked on it. It seemed that they would soon meet the “hongry” man, whether they were looking for him or not.
Not long after passing a clearing of tree stumps (presumably marked “stompss” on the map), they began to hear distant wailing. As they drew nearer, it grew louder and more distinct. Soon they could distinguish the words.
“HOOOOOONGRY,” it whined, “Hungrrrryy! Hongry, hongry…. but, but hoooongry!”
Stealthily they crept up to a clearing in the forest and peered out from their hidden spots behind the trees. The clearing was mostly natural, but several trees had been recently knocked down or uprooted. The trees now formed a crude blockade in the mouth of a nearby cave, which was drawn on the map and marked with an “X” where the trees barred its entrance. There was a large boulder to the side of the clearing which had left a trail of unsettled earth and plant remains that indicated it was being dragged slowly towards the cave mouth, perhaps as a more permanent blockade.
Gnawed and rotting corpses lay strewn about the edges of the clearing, along with bags and crates that had been ripped apart, leaving fragments of foodstuffs on the ground. The corpses were primarily humanoid, some armored, some in plain peasant clothing, and some unclaimed limbs. However, there were a number of animal corpses about: rabbits, foxes, small wolves, one rotted goat, and, to the party’s dismay, four horses.
The clearing’s living inhabitants were a motley crew indeed. A small number of goblins milled about the area, looking on edge. One man and one half-elf, each clad in respectable armor and wielding a fine longbow, stood on either side of the blocked cave entrance as though guarding it. Their attention was set on the source of the wailing — a large orc with a terribly disfiguring injury.
The orc’s armor, or what was left of it, was very fine, well-crafted, and battle-worn, but more noticeable than anything was a large crack in his skull. The wound exposed the orc’s brain, which was swollen, bruised, and painted with glistening red blood.
“Hungryyyyy,” he moaned pathetically. “Where food?”
A small spiretop drake looked up from its perch on one of the horse carcasses. It rooted desperately through the remains and picked off a small fragment of raw meat, taking flight to carry it over to the orc, who nibbled at it desperately.
“The hunting party should return soon, sir,” the half-elf replied.
“And, sir, Raptilian can scavenge if they are kept away too long,” the human added.
“Rapty!” the orc cried joyfully, stroking the drake’s beak with overzealous affection. Rapty nuzzled his hand with a screech that sounded happy, though it was hard to tell with drakes.
The goblins seemed to regard the wounded orc with a careful awe that posed a constant struggle between their desire to stay close enough to warrant his protection while keeping enough distance to avoid unexpected rage and flailing. The humanoid guards, however, did not seem at all bothered by his injury or strange behavior, and treated him with great respect.
The tender moment between the orc and his pet lasted all of about two seconds before he seemed to suddenly remember that he was still very hungry.
“But, but food! But HOOOONGRY!” he wailed angrily. The goblins took a wary step back.
The adventurers exchanged glances. They had seen just about enough of this. The horses were dead and it was clear that, directly or indirectly, this group was responsible for both the attack on Dirk’s cargo and the poorly executed ambush they had routed earlier that day.
A blast of arcane energy engulfed the cave mouth as Idria took aim at the guards from behind a tree. Mognyr charged the enraged orc, followed shortly by an arrow from Ugarth’s bow and the onslaught of Maruk’s longsword. Rapty screeched furiously and flew up into the sky, descending again in a quick divebomb that slashed through the gnoll’s defenses and left him flanked between the drake and his master.
Gdom bowled into the lesser goblins, his falchion cutting into them as his imposing figure blocked their path to aiding their orcish leader. Thia’s spirit companion took shape beside Mognyr and Maruk as a great, shining bear. While her companion guarded the melee combatants an arrow flew from the half-elf guard’s bow, striking Idria, and Thia moved quickly to aid the wounded wizard.
Maruk took a swing at a nearby goblin and cut him down neatly. The orc raged, ramming Mognyr painfully with his club while Ugarth tried again to strike him down with an arrow. It sank into the orc’s shoulder, and he battled on unfazed. Mognyr suffered another divebomb from the drake, who this time plucked Mognyr’s flask away from him.
The remaining goblin struck Gdom, who retaliated swiftly but inaccurately as he attempted to shift closer to the agile archers attacking Idria. She struck back with another burst of arcane energy. Thia shouted an order, and the glowing bear struck the orc. A small burst of energy flowed out of its paw as it made contact, and Mognyr and Maruk felt reinvigorated.
Mognyr took a powerful strike at the drake as it passed. His flail connected, damaging it brutally, but Rapty managed to struggle to his master’s side and deposit the flask in his hand with a weak cry.
“Rapty! Yay!” cried the orc. He undid the stopper and poured the warm liquid down his throat. His eyes widened at the putrid taste and he spat vehemently. The blood sprayed over Mognyr, who looked livid.
“Bleeghhh! Ugh,” he said. Rapty sank sadly.
As the last goblin fell, Gdom rushed to strike at the bowmen. Free at last from the archers’ gaze, Idria lashed out at the drake with a glowing bolt of energy. It struck his wing, singeing it painfully, and he spiraled down to the ground.
“RAPTYYYY! NOOOOOOOOOO!” the orc raged, his cries turning to grotesque roars of bloodlust and revenge. He lashed out at his assailants, striking Mognyr powerfully.
The bloodied adventurers battled desperately, and while Gdom struggled to keep the bowmen’s fire off Thia and Idria they drew shortswords and struck him down. When the last archer finally fell, the orc still fought furiously to avenge his pet. Ugarth drew his bowstring and took careful aim, then loosed a final arrow. It struck true in the orc’s exposed brain, and he crumpled to the ground, dead.
As Ugarth made his usual rounds to dispatch the fallen goblins, Thia rushed to tend to Gdom’s wounds. The two guards were left alive and bound for questioning when they awoke. Ugarth advanced upon the fallen drake.
“Do you have to? I feel bad for the poor thing,” Thia pleaded.
“His master is dead,” Maruk said, ending Rapty’s life with a swift chop. “He’d only wish he were dead, or worse, wake up and attack us.”
“Better to save it the misery,” Ugarth agreed.
The group turned to the bound half-elf, who was beginning to come to.
“Uhh… what… what happen… uhh,” he mumbled, in a daze. Mognyr slapped him across the face.
“Uff! Y-you monsters! What have you done to the captain?” the half-elf demanded.
“Captain?” Maruk asked. “The orc?”
“Yes! Captain Magruk is an orc of honor! Where is he?” he asked defiantly.
“Dead,” Ugarth stated shortly.
The half-elf looked shocked. “How? What have you done to him, you monsters!”
“What have we done?” Thia asked. “Did you see his head?”
“There is nothing wrong with the captain’s head,” the half-elf recited. Thia and Idria exchanged worried glances, noticing that his eyes seemed unfocused and slightly glazed. He stated the phrase with precision, as though he had worked to memorize it, and seemed to believe it as absolute truth.
His response unsettled the group, but their questioning pressed on.
“Did you attack a caravan carrying metal ores southwest of here?” Gdom asked.
“Hunting parties went all over… found some humanoids, what looked like ore,” he admitted, suddenly sounding less distant. “The captain did not approve. Said, ‘Big shiny rocks not tasty.’ But he loved the horses….”
The man trailed off, the thoughts of his former captain spurring him to shake with silent fury. He was dispatched before he had a chance to retaliate.
“There was something not right with him,” Idria said.
“Magic?” Ugarth growled superstitiously.
“I’m not quite sure… there was something unnatural about him, though.”
They woke the human guard, but upon questioning him he responded exactly as the half-elf had: with fierce loyalty to his fallen captain, outrage, and the vague and distant statement that “There is nothing wrong with the captain’s head.”
As Mognyr cheerfully caved in the addled guard’s skull, Ugarth noticed tattered pieces of cloth hanging off his armor. They matched similar scraps on the half-elf and Captain Magruk, and all seemed to have been ripped much more precisely than any beast in the wilderness could have managed.
It had been a busy day indeed, and night began to fall as the adventurers ended their questioning. The weary travelers decided to wait until the morning to investigate the cave and decide what to do about transporting Dirk’s cargo. They set up a small campfire in the cover of the trees and lay out their bedrolls for a sleep well earned.
However, it was not long into the first watch that a loud crash interrupted their rest. Idria and Mognyr stood and swung around to look for the source of the noise. The trees blocking the cave entrance had been splintered and scattered.
There, in the shadow of the cave, stood an enormous, frenzied troll. And he looked very hungry.