|Stir the hornet's nest. Go ahead, I dare you!|
During a brief rest, the debate about what to do next continued. "I'm telling you, back to town for a week or two is the best thing we could do," says Durego. It's clear the cleric is worried about the forces arrayed against the group.
"We have little to show for our efforts here," says Dagmarten. "I agree we need to get out for a short time, but trekking all the way back to town? I don't know that it's worth it."
"Me either," mutters Ingvild.
"I'd rather stay and get the necromancer. He needs to die," says Maro. "What really bothers me is that trog. What was following it around? Where were they hiding? How many are there?"
"Good questions," says Rawon, swallowing a healthy slug from his flask. "Maybe there's another entrance to the Maze, or another part of the Maze, nearby?"
"Maybe out on that island. Trogs swim don't they?" asks Raúguey.
"The ones we killed didn't appear particularly adapted to swimming, but that doesn't mean they don't." Ohwatoo shrugs. "Humans aren't well-adapted to swimming, but we can. You're thinking of the island?" Raúguey nods. "If they're out there, they might not even need to swim. They might have a small boat or two hidden on the far side. They may have been watching us as we went in and out, maybe coordinating with others in the Maze." The mage shivers. "I don't like that idea."
"Mordikarr think we talk later. Move now." The beastmaster rises and slings his pack on. The others groan and grumble, but follow suit.
Two more hours of careful marching and the party reaches camp, where they find the hirelings on alert. Gorvil nearly fires a crossbow at Rawon before he recognizes him. "Back so soon?" queries Saurabh.
"Trouble. Pack up. We're leaving."
"Civilization at last!" says Jonquil, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
"Yes," says Durego.
"Maybe. Maybe not. But things are too hot for us here," says Raúguey.
"Two of those gnolls went past a couple hours ago," says Gorvil, gesturing at the open ground beyond the ravine. "Looked like they were following the back trail of last night's group."
"Definitely trouble," mutters Durego.
Working as quickly as they can, the party breaks camp, scattering fire-blackened stones, covering ashes, and hiding their traces as best they can. "We got too comfortable here," says Dagmarten. "This is taking too long."
"City men bring many things. Should carry only what you need," says Mordikarr.
"The treasure is loaded, and we reburied the chest," says Ingvild, tucking a small sack into the mule's pack saddle. He looks around camp, then at the sun, that's already headed west. "That it?"
The others nod. Without further discussion, they head south, hoping to strike the old roadway. Underway, they quickly recall the annoyance of traveling with laden mules through rough terrain. Though sure-footed, the stubborn creatures have been idle for several days. They're balky and slow at first, and it takes a good hour to get them settled and moving without complaint. Then it's a matter of one foot in front of the other: south to the roadway, east and southeast until Rawon and Mordikarr agree that the spire must be straight east, then cross-country until they strike the stream that flows past the spire.
It's a long hike, especially when the party stops to listen every time they hear something in the brush or see movement in the distance. The light is long gone when the party finds the stream, and the less rugged members of the party are staggering. Mordikarr sends Ava, who's spent the day riding a mule, out to look for the spire while the group breaks for a quick meal, along with a round of kettle broth to revive the flagging party members.
Neither Rawon or Mordikarr are sure which way the spire lies from here, so the party heads north along the stream first. There's a fat moon up there somewhere, but it provides little light beneath the trees, and as the night progresses, clouds pile up, obscuring even that faint light. The party is forced to use their light sources to keep moving. After an hour's stumbling progress, Ava drops onto Mordikarr's shoulder. A hooting, churping conversation follows, and then Mordikarr sighs. "Spire other way," he says.
There are groans all around. Everyone is dead on their feet, but everyone wants to get through the spire. Turn around. Curse at the mules. Start moving. March.
An hour and a half later, Rawon spots the spire off to the right. After a last pause by the stream to fill water flasks and barrels, Ingvild applies the key and opens the door. Raúguey, Ohwatoo, and Durego do a quick check inside. Clear. Everyone piles in, Ingvild seals the door, and then hands the key to Ohwatoo, who is already placing the green sphere, red cube, and brown pyramid. A quick look around to make sure everyone's ready, then he twists the key. After Ingvild opens the door again, everyone staggers out into the night air. Clouds scud across the open sky and moonlight illuminates the scrubby plain.
"Honey, we're home," mutters Gorvil.
The mules are done in, so the party makes a hasty camp near the spire, the same spot they'd used previously. The least tired take first watch, but everyone spent. There is no talk before people pass out from exhaustion. Rest. Rest is good.