A few turns have passed, and not without incident. After discovering the skull on a stick and some other signs of activity, the party decided to attempt contact with whoever / whatever was encamped in the fortified cave they'd found. Leaving the bulk of the group at the camp near the little clearing, Maro, Mordikarr, Ingvild, and Dagmarten retraced the trail north to spy out the cave and see who they were dealing with, hopefully without being seen...
A few miles further on the group slows further. "We're close now. Half a mile to the cave site. It should be visible just beyond that clump of trees. We can use those for cover -"
A sudden trilling whistle sounds from high in the trees to the south of the trail, a whistle that's greeted by fierce howls and baying! A pack of shaggy hounds bursts from the very trees Ingvild was talking about! The creatures charge forward in a broad line growling and snarling. Tearing his eyes from the approaching fangs, Maro frantically scans the woods and spots movement to the south, a human-sized figure well up in a tree, bow at the ready.
"Someone in the trees, behind the hounds!" hisses Dagmarten.
Mordikarr focuses on the beasts, trying to calm the charging pack. Though he is unable to stop them he does pick up the single thought pulsing through each creature's mind, protect, protect, PROTECT!
As the hounds close Mordikarr attempts to calm and stop them, while Maro holds his hands wide and open and calls out that you come in peace. Dagmarten and Ingvild follow Maro's lead and show empty hands. The pack closes to ten feet, and almost as one, stops, growling and snapping.
"There's at least one more in the woods south, and one behind our friend with the dogs," whispers Ingvild.
The man in the trees strides out into the open. He wears a deer hide tunic and breeches and a close-fitting cap and carries a thick club of polished wood studded with flint. Back in the trees you see the second person, a woman maybe, shifting to the right, a bow in her hand. "Stand where you are or the hounds will feast on your flesh! Who are you and what are you doing on our lands?!"
"Maro Revane, this is the land of the Jago clan. I am Vukota, leader." He gestures toward the woman behind him. "My wife Branis. The others, my brother and eldest son, andoni and Naum." He gives a low whistle, and the dogs cease their growling, but remain where they are. "It has been many years since elf-kind has passed through these woods. Or anyone else for that matter." He advances slowly toward the group, his wife moving up behind him, bow still at the ready. Vukota stops just behind the hounds. "Why are you here?"
As Maro explains, Mordikarr continues to try and make headway with the dogs. They're well trained, but finally one edges forward and sniffs his hand, then gives a half-hearted wag of its tail. Seeing this Vukota relaxes a bit further. He accepts the gifts and samples the cheese with Maro and his wife, who finally slings her bow and advances. Branis shares a loaf of tough, nutty bread, and Mordikarr notes she has a wicked looking axe slung at her side, much like those used by gnoll warriors. The other two remain in the woods, but seem to relax.
When Maro mentions the ruins, Vukota shakes his head. "You seek death if you go there. The old places are full of foul creatures, kobolds, ogres, and worse."
"Then you know where they are?" asks Dagmarten, who has remained quiet until now.
Vukota nods. "Toward the setting sun, on the south shores of the great lake. There is a great pile of stone, and beneath it a tunnel, often half-flooded, that leads into the maze below."
Maro smiles. "Never fear Vukota, we survived the Cold Caves, we'll survive the maze." Seeing the man's puzzled expression, Maro goes on to explain what the Cold Caves are and where the group is from. When he mentions the spires, Branis exclaims, "You came from the great stone?! None but the demons come from there!" her hand falls to her axe, and one of the hounds begins to growl.
Maro tries to calm things down, explaining how the group found the vault, fought the creatures within, at great loss, and discovered the secret of the spires. The Jago seem mollified, but still wary, clearly they've had some sort of bad experience with the spire, but even Maro's most charming words can't get a further explanation. Sensing the impasse, he changes the subject to others in the area. Vukota explains that they are the only people nearby, though there are roaming packs of kobolds, ogres and other creatures in the woods, especially further west. He also mentions the great lizards that swim in the swamps and lakes, huge creatures that can consume a man whole.
Realizing the rest of the group will be starting to worry and sensing that Vukota is not going to invite them back to their camp — he's still wary, despite Maro's best efforts — Maro asks leave for the group to pass through Jago territory, so they might reach the lake and the ruins. Vukota withdraws a few yards and holds a whispered conversation with Branis. When he returns, he nods, "You may pass our lands, provided you do not disturb our traps or crops, or hunt more than you need. But be warned Maro Revane, if you bring trouble to my people, you will regret it."
With this the groups went their separate ways. When everyone was back together, the group decided to head southwest hoping to find the spire, reorient, and then turn north to the area mentioned by Vukota. They spend the night where they are, then...
Ava reports no sign of trouble to the southwest, and indicates there is water ahead, welcome news, as the camp has been dry for the last couple days. The group heads out with scouts well to the front. It's slow going for the first couple hours, then, good news everyone! The trees thin out. Unfortunately they thin out because it's getting soggy. An hour later the party crosses paths with a stream that flows east to west. Luckily it's fairly small and easily crossed. The next one is slightly larger, flowing more southeast to northwest. Rawon wonders if this is the same stream you followed previously, but there are no blazes, so the group presses on southwest after a break for an early lunch.
Two hours later they find ANOTHER stream, and Locky spots a blaze on one of the trees. Mordikarr recognizes the spot, and by late afternoon the group is back at the second spire. A quick check around the site and within the obelisk shows everything is just as the group left it. With daylight left to burn, the party heads out to the north, reasoning that these streams must all lead to the lake Vukota mentioned. It continues to be soggy going, but the group presses on, noting occasional low mounds that are drier amid the generally wet lower ground. It is from the top of one of these that the group first spots the lake, dull greenish-brown water reflecting the hazy sunset. It's... BIG. Miles long.
Rather than risk an evening foray, and mindful of Vukota's words concerning lizards large enough to swallow someone whole, you decide to make camp on the relatively dry ground of the mound. As Jonquil, Mordikarr, and Locky tend the mules, Raúguey and several others cut down several small locust trees, and fashion their thorn-covered branches into a crude barricade around the perimeter of the mound. Maro, feeling strangely tired and listless, rests near the soon to be fire pit.
Just after dark the watch rouses everyone. "What is it?" whispers Durego, groping for his armor.
"Listen!" says Mordikarr. Everyone pauses, ears straining. From the direction of the lake there is a sudden flurry of splashing water, followed by the cry of some beast. There's a short silence, then a faint crunching and dragging sound, another slithering splash, and then... nothing.
"Now I'm really glad we camped away from the water," whispers Locky nervously.
With no imminent threat, the off-watch folk go back to sleep, and Mordikarr sends Ava toward the lake, instructing her to fly very high. She returns with nothing to report, and the rest of the first watch passes quietly.
During the second watch, the wind rises, and clouds roll in from the west. Just before dawn the rain begins, light showers interspersed with heavier downpours. "Great weather for exploring a swamp," mutters Ohwatoo as he packs his gear in preparation for heading out.
With the rain and the noises from last night in mind, the group decides to maintain a fair distance from the edge of the lake. Hopefully they'll avoid the worst of the wet ground too. They set out westward, following the shoreline but about 100-150 yards back. The pace is slow, hindered by rain, mist, and boggy ground. As they progress the ground gets soggier, and not just from the rain. Briars and low-growing trees give way to clusters of reedy grasses and cattails, and open pools appear here and there.
Leaving the others to establish a hasty temporary camp, Durego, Raúguey, Ingvild, Ohwatoo, and Maro head out to investigate the potential site. They plan on being gone no more than two hours, and, in fact, return much sooner. "I think we found something!" calls out Raúguey excitedly as the scouts approach the camp.
"First something warm to eat," groans Ohwatoo as he plunks himself on a stone next to the low-burning fire.
By fits and starts the scouts describe what they found. Big stones, like those the group had seen before, but a lot more of them, stacked ten or twenty feet high in a confusing maze of walls. At least one big heap that has to have been a collapsed structure. A nearly-intact wall of stone that runs out into the lake to what looks like a ruined tower or towers on a half-sunken island.
"We should definitely explore this more," says Durego, "but we need a secure base of operations, and we need to go in as a group. After some food, let's move away from the lake and see if we can find a better defensible camp site."
The group agrees, and after a brief rest for the explorers, the group packs up and heads generally southwest, away from the lake and toward hopefully drier ground. They spend several hours zigging and zagging through a mix of marshy ground and light woods, before stumbling across their old friend, the road! "I told you we should have followed the road," mutters Rawon to no one in particular.
As the afternoon wears on the party finds no obviously good campsite, and eventually they settle for a hill with one face chewed away by a muddy stream, leaving a slick and unclimbable slope. Not ideal but at least one side is protected from ground attack. The group spends the rest of the day gathering wood, checking the trees for giant arthropods, clearing brush and building some crude barricades, and generally preparing as best they can in the rain. It's a hot, wet, and irritable group that finally settles in for the evening meal that night...