With heavy hearts, we left Forlond behind. Our party moved out in silence, still reeling from the events that unfolded in the Hearthall and with poor Aelith’s family. The young girl, devastated by what happened, decided to stay with her people and help rebuild. My colleagues vowed to find Aelith’s abducted sister and return her to her family. How we are going to accomplish this feat, especially against those ghastly undead creatures is beyond me. However, my compatriots would not be deterred, and so we followed the trail north.
The road we were on soon dwindled to a trail, and then into a small animal track as the thick forest closed in around us. I was starting to have my doubts about the group deciding to undertake this endeavour (and was somewhat puzzled about how this became a democracy), as the trail grew cold. It was late in the afternoon when we came across the most curious scene. Standing in the middle of a small creek bisecting the animal track was a rather frightened pony, wide-eyed and breathing heavy. The creature, while not exactly the type of exotic animal I had come to these remote parts for, was in itself and oddity. How did it get here? Why was it so skittish as we neared? The answers soon became apparent, for when we approached the animal, we saw that it was covered in its own blood. The poor beast had circular wounds covering its body, similar in size to a platinum crown. My companions were almost as frightened as the pony upon seeing the blood, perhaps expecting another undead ambush. Berrian especially gripped his dagger tight. I knew from reading Edguario Menenheide’s Treatise on the Mating Habits of the Common Snork that what we were witnessing was the end result of an attack by cave stirges. Having not seen them in person myself, and not expecting them to have spread so far north, I figured it wouldn’t hurt if we were to delay our trek to investigate these creatures a little closer.
Berrian volunteered to scout ahead to see if the “attackers” were still lurking about. As he crept off into the woods, my companions tried to soothe the pony and dress its wounds. Gyna volunteered to remove and donate her loincloth to the cause, but the group shouted a deft NO! This may have been the first time we had agreed on anything! Upon his return, Berrian reported a grisly scene. Apparently, the pony had belonged to a family of settlers, who made the calamitous decision to set up camp beside the mouth of a cave. The very cave, no doubt, from which the stirges emerged. It looked as if they had been set upon as they had finished their evening meal the night previous. Their skin was a most pallid complexion, having been exsanguinated in mere minutes. Luthien discovered a diary of the mother, mid-entry that gave us a clue that there was a young child missing from among the deceased. Upon further investigation, Püff detected tracks leading into the cave. Perhaps they were feeling ashamed about Aelith’s sister’s abscondtion that my companions decided to search out the poor young boy named Eustace. What Luck! We were going to be entering the cave. I had to, of course, hide my jubilance, the situation being as it was, but it meant that I might be finally able to do some Science!
The decent into the cave’s depth soon led us to a clue that we were on the right path to find the lost child. On one rocky step, there was a stuffed owlbear. Puff must have had a run-in with an owlbear in the past, because upon seeing the child’s toy, she did her best to slay the stuffing out of it, war pick swinging wildly (finally, a foe she could handle). Our path took us through narrow squeezes, winding passages, and sulphur filled rooms (although there was some debate in the party as to whether the smell was naturally occurring or some vile Gyna-esque emanation). After a long decent through the dark, we came upon a large cavern. The guano covered floor, and the distant sound of leathery wings flapping against each other let me know that we had reached the nesting spot of the cave stirges. No sooner have we stepped into the chamber than had the grotesque bat-like creatures started dropping from the ceiling to look for their next meal, us! Fortunately for me, my companions stayed huddled together and were able to beat back the swarm of sharp talons and long proboscises. Their battle formation proved less useful when a giant fire beetle emerged from the far side of the cavern and bathed them all in a gout of sticky flames (I will have to lend Püff my copy of Grondigal’s Guide to Phalanx and Phalanx dispersal).
After a few breathless moments, my colleagues soon proved the better of the situation. And with their usual heavy-handedness, bashed, bludgeoned and bombarded all our would-be samples into submission. While the stirges themselves warranted a closer inspection, Vavara seemed aghast when I suggested that she should collect a few choice guano samples for later study. Surely she knows that one occasionally needs to get one’s toes in the proverbial muck to properly forward their field of knowledge! Berrian and Luthien found and removed the fire beetle’s fuel glands, and saved the viscous liquid contained within, no doubt to examine later. They at least seem to have gleaned some fascination with the scientific process (I knew that my more refined and inquisitorial attitudes would eventual rub off on them).
With all of our specimens collected, I was satisfied to return to the Tumbledown and examine them under the proper scientific controls. My intrepid companions wanted to push forward, however. And by push I mean literally that; a small crevice led out from the opposite side of the chamber. With the young lad’s tracks leading that way Gyna decided to rush headlong (or perhaps belly-long) into the crack. Her blood rage must have still been boiling, because she soon got herself wedged into the tight space, not realising the simple volumetric problems of her substantial girth. I only hope once we get her unstuck what we find on the other side proves fruitful to our scientific endeavours.