21 March (Continued)
Crossing the bridge, the heroes returned through the narrow tunnel to the chamber of the one-eyed orc shaman. The bodies had been removed from the chamber, as evidenced by the bloodstained drag marks on the stone floor. Noting this, Bhavik said, “We should be cautious.” The key still jutted from the door to the north, and once they were all ready, the warden turned it and pushed open the stone portal.
The ceiling soared thirty feet high in the center of the impressive chamber beyond, and the walls were carved in images of dwarves at their forges. Another stone door on stood on the far north wall, opposite the one they’d just entered. Several old skeletons lay scattered near the northern door, and a gate of wrought iron stands in the western wall. They could see the straw of the mattresses and other detritus piled up against the opposite side of the iron gate.
In the center of the floor, a natural rift descended sharply, and dozens of stone steps led down into darkness. From far below they could hear the distant sound of running water and a curious buzzing sound.
“Yes,” Aramis said. “Cautious.”
“There’s something strange about this room,” Bhavik said. He moved in and began to scan the room for threats and opportunities. The others followed him in, walking very slowly. Alert as they were, they were not surprised when the buzzing from the rift grew louder. They were a little amazed by the appearance of the four large flying…things – birds, insects, bats…it was difficult to judge – that emerged from the stairwell and arrowed toward them.
“To arms!” Bhavik bellowed, defending himself from the stingers of two of the creatures. The others evaded the remaining stirges, then the warden shifted into a better position, drawing all of the creatures nearer to him. Azal tumbled around one of the advancing bat-winged mosquitoes and stabbed the one between she and Aramis, who then smashed it with his staff.
Bhavik and Aramis were stabbed by the stirges, and the creatures latched onto the heroes with their hooked appendages. They could feel the blood being sucked from their bodies by the oversized mosquito monsters. Azal managed to shove the one off of Bhavik, who then attacked the creature drawing the cleric’s lifeblood. He only managed to reposition it, and the creature held on tightly. Aramis swore enmity on the parasite and smashed it to death with his staff. They defeated the remaining stirges in short order, and paused to listen for any other approaching threats.
At the warden’s suggestion, Azal manipulated the rusted lock of the western gate until it clicked open. Aramis and Bhavik shoved it open, clearing a quick escape route for the group, should it prove necessary. Then, they turned their attention to the northern half of the chamber. The skeletons littering the floor were dressed in the rusted remnants of chain hauberks that showed signs of severe scorching. Rusted axe-heads lay near the bodies, with no sign of the weapons’ hafts. The stone door was carved in the image of a glowering dwarven face. Bhavik approached the door, and grimaced when he felt the click of a trapped tile below him.
The world exploded in violent flame which filled the entire northern half of the chamber, scorching Bhavik and sending flames licking at the other two adventurers. Chastened, the burning shifter pushed open the door to find that the room beyond housed only small metal tanks piping fuel to the tubes that made up the fire trap.
The group returned through the iron gate to the cavern with the murky well. They decided to investigate the door affixed by a skull before descending the stairs where they’d just battled the stirges. Returning to the western hallway, they made their way to the short flight of steps leading to the large ironbound door. The bloody adornment, driven into the door with an iron spike, seemed to smile grimly at them.
Hearing something stirring within, Bhavik warned the others, then tried to push open the door. He met with resistance and so Aramis moved up to assist. Several moments passed as they struggled with the door, but they finally managed to shove it open.
Beyond the door lay a small chamber covered in poorly cured animal hides and illuminated by smoking torches in bronze sconces. The smell was indescribable. A dire wolf stood atop one pile of hides and growled at the adventurers. They tensed, ready to dispatch the beast, when a voice boomed from the west. “Vak, heel!” The dire wolf whined and looked west, then the voice continued. “Who thinks to challenge the Great Ulfe?”
The three entered the antechamber as the great wolf retreated to the west, and when they rounded the corner they saw a larger chamber, similarly adorned. It was inhabited by yet another dire wolf and a monstrous creature about ten feet in height with warty, brown skin and greasy dark hair, a massive club in one hand. The ogre showed signs of great age, with numerous battle scars and rheumy eyes. The two huge wolves strained at chains held closely in the ogre’s other hand.
“Well?” demanded the Great Ulfe.
Bhavik exchanged a quick glance with the others before he replied, “We have no intention of challenging you old timer. Are you here of your own free will?” Aramis watched the exchange, ready to back the warden’s play.
“Hah!” the ogre crowed. “You kill my men and ‘have no intention of challenging me’! Little man, you are a fool!”
“All of your men are dead,” Bhavik said in a level tone. “Even defeating us would be a hollow victory, would it not? This complex supports you no longer.” Azal’s eyes flicked among the threats.
The ogre chuckled darkly, coughing a little. “Defeat or victory… What matter? The battle is the point!” Looking to the side, it sighed heavily. “It’s all that remains…”
“Then we can lead you to battle!” declared Bhavik. “Come with us.” The other two gave the warden a look that he didn’t see, then exchanged dubious glances with one another.
“Who are you, little fool?” asked the Great Ulfe. “Why have you come here?”
“I am Bhavik, and these are friends of mine,” the warden replied.
The ogre frowned. “Why do you have a Giant name, boy? You are so small…” In a lower tone, as though speaking to itself, “…and why does that sound familiar?”
Bhavik said, “It was my mother’s to give. I believe she had great plans for me, plans I’ve only recently begun to live up to.”
The Great Ulfe snorted derisively. “A boy should be named by his father. Or,” he spat, “a Seer.” Aramis glanced over his shoulder at Azal, who shrugged, before turning his attention back to Ulfe.
Bhavik bristled at that and said, “My mother was brave and powerful in her own right. Without my father at her side she had to do many things that were outside her normal duties. As to our purpose, we search these halls for a magical apple and the gray dwarves that likely stole it.”
“Bah!” cursed the ogre. “The gray ones lurk below. They are the favored now.”
“What do you mean, ‘the favored’?” Bhavik asked.
“Favored by whom?” Aramis followed up, suddenly interested.
The Great Ulfe snorted and waved the question away. “It is of no consequence.” His eyes narrowed as he considered the warden again. “You look like one of those wretched shifters that I slaughtered in number so many years ago. Tell me, shifter pup… What was the name of this ‘heroic’ mother of yours?”
With pride, Bhavik declared, “Her name was Akuti, and she was indeed heroic.”
The ogre chuckled bitterly. “That woman. She ruined my greatest captain. Corrupted him and turned him against me. Sharakim, you fool! That a mere woman could so pierce your warrior’s heart. And for what? She killed by my hand, he exiled or dead himself, and I cast aside after the farce-war for those thrice-damned gray-skinned devils. And now the bastard get of Akuti and Sharakim comes to see me dead for my crimes. Hah! Come then, whelp! Let’s see if you can finish what your sires started!”
The Great Ulfe dropped the chains, the dire wolves spring forward, and the ogre roared in challenge! It lobbed a javelin at the heroes, but the missile flew just over Bhavik’s head. Aramis conjured a spiritual weapon on one of the dire wolves, and Azal threw her blade into the distracted creature. The other beast lunged forward and tried to shove Bhavik back and to the ground, but the warden held his ground. In response, he evoked the form of Winter’s Herald and lashed out with his sword at the dire wolf threatening him. “You’ll rue this day, old creature!” he cried out.
Aramis concentrated on sustaining the spiritual weapon and chased it with a prayer for daunting light, keeping the wolf distracted so that Azal could keep targeting its vitals. The ogre lobbed another javelin past Bhavik – his vision must have been greatly diminished with his great age – and cursed. Azal stabbed the dire wolf with her dagger, then shoved it off the blade and back a step. Then she retreated behind her companions. The bloodied wolf surged forward at the warden, but he dodged its snapping jaws. Then he pivoted to take cover at the edge of the open passageway, slashing the dire wolf’s paws to slow it.
“Hide, then whelp!” shouted the ogre, as it lobbed the next javelin into Aramis. “Vak, heel!” When the injured wolf tried to retreat, slowed and slipping on the ice coating the ground from Bhavik’s aura, it fell to his and Azal’s blades.
“Vak, play dead,” intoned Aramis. Azal stifled a laugh at the dark joke.
“Thrag, heel,” growled the ogre, restraining his remaining pet from entering the narrow space.
Seeing the combat change directions, Bhavik moved in for a closer assault. Over his shoulder he called, “Follow my lead.”
“Right behind you,” Aramis assured him.
Bhavik circled the entrance then lashed out with a thorn strike, pulling the remaining dire wolf toward him. Thrag bit him in response, and though Ulfe’s next javelin likewise missed Bhavik, the ogre charged in right behind it and smacked him with its massive club. Azal’s dagger dug deeply into Thrag, and Aramis hammered the creature with his spiritual weapon.
The warden performed the killing stroke on the dire wolf, and Ulfe retreated to the rear of the chamber rearing back hard and launching his remaining javelin through Bhavik. The shifter staggered from the impact, but Aramis was quick with a healing word, restoring much of Bhavik’s vitality.
The rest of the combat did not take long, and though the Great Ulfe managed to land another blow on Bhavik with its great club, its injuries were too many, its foes too skilled. The ogre stumbled to its hands and knees, dropping its weapon as it fell. With the last of its strength, it turned to face Bhavik. “Thank you for this…an honorable death. Your…I think your father would be proud. May you live to meet him.” Then, the Great Ulfe slowly lowered its shaggy head to the cold stone floor and breathed its last ragged breath.
After a moment, Aramis asked, “Are you all right, Bhavik?”
The warden stared down at the body, breathing heavily for a few seconds. Then he shook himself and replied, “Knowledge at the end of a blade. The life of an adventurer is neither boring nor long.” He turned to face his companions. “I’ll live,” the shifter chuckled bitterly.
The ogre had apparently kept all of the best swag for himself, and the heroes found quite a bit of coin, a jeweled mask, a couple of healing draughts, and a set of enchanted elven armor made of cured leather. Azal happily donned the battle suit and once they had recovered from their encounter with the leader of the orcs who’d been harassing Blasingdell, they left the stinking chamber behind them.
Returning to the stirge stairs, they considered the gloom below. “Shall we?” asked Aramis. The others nodded, and they began their descent. The narrow crevasse wound down quite a long way, twisting and turning. The floor had been cut into hundreds of shallow steps, but the walls and ceiling were still natural rock.
About sixty feet down, a rushing stream spilled down from a narrow crack to your right and crossed the stairway, disappearing into a narrow, winding tunnel to their left. The rill was only about two or three feet wide. Continuing along the main path, they found that the descending fissure opened up abruptly into a very high cavern, with a ceiling easily forty feet or more overhead. The stairway continued to wind down, descending a ledge along the north wall of the chamber. A fast-moving stream about five feet wide ran across the floor of the chamber and disappeared under a low stone overhang to the south, while larger passageways exited to the southeast and the northeast.
Intent upon the northeastern exit, the adventurers did not notice the stirges clinging to the stalactites until they were descending upon them. Half a dozen of the creatures swarmed down and each of the heroes were impaled by at least one of the stingers. They had a little more trouble with the winged beasts, but despite some additional blood loss, they prevailed and stopped on the stairs to consider their remaining resources and options.