Passed the yawning entrance to the mighty highways below, the Rangers made their departure, trekking hours through the dark and cold. When finally a distant light illuminated passage, the sound of speaking orcs met their ears, and Skuthropos alone could make out the words. In the grand intersection, four orcs in varying regalia spoke of alliance under the dragon, yet when the half-orc pressed in to fell one of the envoys, they dispersed to their various holds. Resting for a time, interrupted by a strange desiccated creature weaving psychic command over spiders aiming to block off the tunnel, the Rangers regained some stamina and pressed deeper into the dark, toward Castle Ironblood as the orcs had named it. Pressing after the spider-riding messenger, the Rangers learned just what lay ahead of them: a hold with over seventy armed orcs, allies of the black dragon they sought to cripple, in a castle that pierced the surface to emerge somewhere above.
While returning from their interrogation of the forward scout, Koboros and Skuthropos teamed up to implicate the Ironblood Castle in the murder of the diplomat of another tribe, hurling the body painted with insults outside the gates. Their rush ensured the massing army of angered warriors was behind them a ways, but the blaring of brass horns echoed far into the caverns. While the two were busy engaging in the finer points of orcish diplomacy, Rika, Artesia, and Bubocrates heard the approach of a creature the likes of which they had never seen. With reddish, discolored skin, warped arms, and stunted legs, this creature was vaguely human, dragging the chain attached to its collar. Though its thoughts were disjointed, the patience of Artesia prevailed as some semblance of a coherent story emerged from it. Once human, or something like human, this Log-Carrier had been warped by the magic and alchemy of one of the orc tribes, made to serve a single purpose; carrying logs. With one stout arm of incredible strength and a longer, thinner arm that could wrap over a hoisted bundle to secure them, and legs that moved surely but not quickly, the mutated creature considered itself a living tool, yet described itself as a bad tool, because it sought to escape.
It bore even more dire news; the orcish castle held a prisoner of great importance, a woman described only as the God-Bearer. Hoping to use her to create a god of their own, the orcs of the castle held her as a slave, a woman of great enough interest to draw the attention of the dragon, the other orc tribes, and even a contingent of Zorwans bringing offerings to purchase her. Yet she remained in the castle, where other slaves were being used to sire half-orc children that the castle’s ruler called his “Day-Walker Army” and that he hoped would elevate his clan above all other orcs. Barely containing his rage, it was Skuthropos who had no patience for delays as he heard the tale, and the group made all haste to the castle.
Breaking in through the main tunnels, the Rangers engaged with an initial contingent of guards with several giant spiders. Though they fell quickly, their inborn ferocity made the orcs difficult foes, as wounds grievous enough to fell most others enraged them to a bestial fury. In their second skirmish deeper in the castle, the Rangers would use this unthinking rage to their advantage, tricking many orcs into attempting to leap a refuse pit, only to let them fall short, dying of their wounds while struggling to swim in decaying waste. But this fight at the castle’s great intersection would prove the toughest yet for the group, as Bubocrates was quickly targeted at the command of one of the leading orcs, and several more deadly warriors joined the javelin-hurling grunt soldiers they were now accustomed to slaying. It took nearly everything within their power just to stay alive. Exhausted, bleeding, but unbowed before their enemies, the Rangers stood triumphant over one surviving foe clad in plate armor.
While Koboros ensured the most valuable items were taken from the bodies, Skuthropos pressed the lieutenant for information in the language only the two of them spoke. When the interrogation was complete, the prisoner was tossed into the pit with the rest of the waste. Pressing on, with the former pit-fighter telling the group the path to the God-Bearer was clear, they descended into the pit where forty slaves stood in wretched conditions. Armed with javelins from their captors and roused by the promise of fighting for freedom or death, the slaves stood and prepared themselves.
Among them, as mentioned by the Log-Carrier, was a pregnant human woman, the one the orcs called God-Bearer. Words were not spared here, but Artesia went to help support her as the group made their plans. Slaves who had been higher up in the castle reported that there were two ways out; to the west there were fewer guards, but only forest as far as the eye could see. To the east were more guards, and the mines where the slaves were worked in shifts, but on a clear day, the edge of the forest could be seen. Despite Koboros’s misgivings, Skuthropos and Rika were eager for the chance to liberate the mine workers as well, and the promise of the edge of the forest held the chance to return to Calopius. They were, as far as they could tell, off the map.
In the distant tunnels, the clatter of hooves echoed down the great highway. A massive orc with gray skin and wearing a crested helm taken from a Pittacan king long ago, straddled a boar at least twelve feet tall at the shoulder. In his hand, he carried the standard of his clan. Before him was a column of fifty armed warriors, led by a dozen armored cavalry. Behind him, on two smaller boars, were his two sons, each with a brass trumpet. The orc smelled the air, that sickly, sweet smell of air with no ceiling was growing closer now. The Spider-Clan had helpfully disposed of a weak warrior, but insulted the whole clan by his failure. Such a challenge could not go unpunished. He looked down to the side of his boar, where the three priests of the Wild Mother stood ready to empower him and his steed. But it was the small trinket hanging from his belt he was most excited to use. The Zorwans had, long ago, learned the trick to binding elementals in vessels. They knew not the power of the creature in the lamp he took from them, only that it burned with intense heat when rubbed. If there was ever a time to test the power he had stolen from the horned merchants…