[March 23] The next morning is marred by a damp and chilly breeze. To shake off the cold, the party gets off to a fast start and reaches Needle Spire fairly early in the day. There are no signs of activity, but Durego reminds everyone of the tracks seen last fall around the spires. The party halts half a mile away, and the scouts move forward to check out the area. The new hirelings are obviously curious about the strange fang-like structure, so Strom provides a basic explanation of what the thing does. This news goes over... poorly. "So we go through this, this, thing, and you all get snuffed. How do we get back?" asks Saxet. Skorri nods along.
"If we're all dead, you'll have plenty of supplies. Just head east," answers Strom.
"I don't like it," grumbles Frakki as he watches the scouts circle the distant structure. "How far is it to get back?"
"It's about 85 miles from here," chimes in Ohwatoo. "Here, this is the map. As you can see, there's an old roadway, well, it's really just some rock markers, that connect the spire there, with the spire here." His fingers trace the route as he speaks.
The three guards remain... skeptical. Maro speaks up. "Look, we've made this trip, three or four times, both through the spire and walking. Is it risky? Yes. But remember, you'll have almost all the supplies, so we're not going to leave you behind. We couldn't get back without you. This is a team effort and you're part of the team."
"Besides, you're in for a cut of the take," adds Raúguey. "That could be several hundred gold, enough to live like a lord for years. You only gain that kind of wealth through risk."
Strom claps Skorri on the shoulder. "Time to put up or shut up lads, are ye in or out?"
The three hirelings look at each other, then Frakki nods, "Aye, we're in. Just... It'd be nice to know about magical trips before we set out, right?"
"They're coming back," calls Durego, who's been watching the scouts. "Fast too." Indeed, Rawon, Ingvild and Mordikarr are double-timing it. As they approach Durego calls out, "Trouble?"
Mordikarr shrugs and Rawon says, "Not sure. There are tracks around the spire. Some old, but some fresh, too."
"Pits, like we saw before?" asks Grendor.
Ingvild nods, "Those, and new ones. Long and thin, with three splayed toes. Almost like bird prints, but really big, a foot and a half long."
"Our friends from Nest Tower?" asks Dagmarten.
Rawon shakes his head. "I don't think so. Those creatures looked human-sized. These were made by something bigger and heavier I think, and they lead into and out of the spire door."
Raúguey asks "How old were the tracks?"
"A day, maybe two."
"Then let's move. They're not here now, so we don't have to deal with them."
"I don't like leaving unknown forces behind us," says Durego. "Maybe we should stay here a day and keep watch. See what we're dealing with."
"If we can meet them here, we can meet them near Blackpool too. I don't see any reason to wait around for whoever they are," says Grendor.
Most of the party agrees with the half-elf, so they head for the spire and make use of its magical transport, emerging in the damp woods near Blackpool Maze. Before everyone exits the spire, the scouts poke around outside. "Old tracks here," calls Ingvild, "none fresh."
"Which kind?" asks Dagmarten.
"Guess we'll need to figure out who else is using these things, eventually," mutters Durego.
The party heads southwest from the spire, moving slowly so they can keep an eye out for camp sites or signs of hostile forces. The forest near the spire, Hex_14_54, is boggy and thick with undergrowth. Cut stone, fragments of wall, an old fireplace, rise from the soggy soil, but there is little to recommend this area as a camp site other than its proximity to the escape route.
Further west Hex_13_54 the ground is drier, but not by much. The party finds the temporary camp they used last fall, but little remains of their crude fortifications. The thorn bushes they'd cut and piled have been burned, the fire ring scattered. "Someone found this," mutters Mordikarr. There are no tracks to be seen. The rest of the area is lacking in any sort of defensible position though the party does cross the old roadway. Ohwatoo points out the marker stones to the hirelings, just in case.
By the time the group has explored the area directly south of Blackpool, daylight is starting to fade. They decide to hike along the old roadway for a couple hours and make camp at the next likely location. Nightfall finds them camped in a small clearing next to a tiny stream (Hex_13_54).
[March 24] The night passes quietly, and the next morning is hazy and still. The group continues with their planned route and spends most of the day exploring southwest of the Maze, Hex_12_54. They come across their old campsite, still tainted by the stench from the burned and blackened abomination that rose from Locky's grave. The woods here are drier, but the ground is flat, the trees are scrubby, and the undergrowth thick. There is cover, of a sort, but no particularly good campsites for fourteen people and five mules. The party does stumble across the scattered remains of a fire pit near the west edge of this area, but it is old and cold.
As the afternoon wanes, the group pushes north (Hex_12_53) into more open terrain. As they clear the trees, they can see the glimmer from the lake to the east and a herd of deer or antelope on the northern horizon. They have plenty of water, so they press north for a mile or two before calling a halt near one of the many boggy pools that dot this plain. "Plenty of grass for the mules," observes Durego.
"But no cover for us," answers Grendor.
As darkness falls on the camp and the group settles in to eat and rest, the night's quiet is broken by faint noises: yipping, barking calls and cries of panicked distress from some animal. The sounds are almost directionless, but Mordikarr things they come from the northwest. "Wolves, or something like that, hunting?" asks Saxet.
"Maybe," says Mordikarr. "Maybe not. Keep sharp watch tonight."