13 March (Continued)
“Shall we get to it then?” Bhavik asked of his new companions. Aramis nodded, slowly growing accustomed to the shifter.
“Since I quite failed at leading us through the other areas, I could possibly help us sneak into these doors,” suggested Azal glumly.
The warden patted her clumsily on the shoulder. “We should head south first. I’ll listen at the other door, just in case,” he said, indicating the eastern exit. Then he walked over to it and putting his ear to the wood. He heard something moving around, a kind of squelching noise, muted by distance and the door itself.
As the tiefling crossed the mulch chamber, Bhavik whispered, “A creature stirs within the chamber beyond.” Aramis and Azal looked back at him, the former pocketing the bright sunrod, and plunging the large chamber into the dimness of the violet light from the glowing fungus on the walls. The shifter continued, “I still say south first.”
Azal nodded and tried the stone door, finding it to be stuck fast. She frowned at the door and Bhavik asked, “Is it locked?” She shook her head, and stepped aside as the two men moved up to try to force it open by main strength. It gave after their first shove. “Be on your guard,” suggested the warden as they gazed into the darkness beyond.
The dim radiance of the glowing fungus only stretched so far into the gloomy chamber to the south. Aramis pulled the sunrod back out of his pouch, illuminating everything around, while Azal readied her dagger and prepared to follow. Faded mosaic tiles still covered parts of the wall, but most had fallen and shattered. A slim pedestal of rusted iron shaped like a rearing dragon stood at the center of the chamber. In the dragon’s mouth rested an empty tray. Seeing no immediate threats, the tiefling moved cautiously into the chamber and began to search the area for traps.
The room smells like old dust, like it hadn’t been opened for a long time before the trio had breached the door. After a few minutes had passed without incident, she nodded. “Nothing, guys. You can come in, too. Maybe you can tell more about this statue than I can.” Aramis approached the statue and looked it over with a curious eye.
Bhavik moved up behind the cleric and said, “This statue is a mystery to me. Do either of your know anything about it or the creature it depicts?”
“Not really,” replied Aramis. “We’ve seen similar statues in the ruins above.” He paused thoughtfully. “I don’t remember one with a tray in its mouth, though. This may have been a shrine, once.”
The warden nodded. “The other statues – did anything interesting occur with them?”
Azal answered, “Yes, they did. Some held keys, locks, and even a canister of gas that Aramis got to…experience.”
“Yes,” the cleric said drily. “At least one was trapped.”
“I wonder if this statue awaits some specific token. The thing does seem to be waiting for an offering,” Bhavik pondered aloud.
“That’d be my guess,” agreed the cleric as the warden placed a few gold pieces on the tray. They clinked on the rusted tray, but nothing more occurred. Shrugging, Bhavik retrieved his money.
“We do have the tiny statues that Meepo gave us,” commented Azal. Aramis produced the small jade statuette gifted to him by their kobold companion. The similarity of the small carving to the large rusted statue was undeniable. He placed the jade statue into the plate, and it sank about two inches, the eyes of the large statue alighting.
Both Bhavik and Azal flinched and took a couple of steps away. Then a secret panel opened in the dragon’s chest, revealing a small cache. Within the hollow, the cleric’s light reflected off a small pile of gold and two bright red gems. “Yes, yes. Just this sort of thing,” said the warden as though he had not been expecting flaming death only seconds before.
“Well, let’s grab it and move on,” said Azal. “We can figure out what to do with it later.”
Aramis nodded and scooped the treasure into his bag. Then he carefully returned his statuette to his pack. The panel closed and the dragon statue’s eyes went dim once more. “This isn’t the way to the Grove,” he said.
Azal turned to the shifter and said, “Bhavik, you said you heard movement at the eastern door?”
“Yes, a strange noise. Squelching of some kind.”
The tiefling nodded. “Well, it looks like our only option is to move forward that way. We can dim the light and try it.” Aramis stashed the light as the three crossed the large chamber once more and made their way quietly toward the eastern door. “So, who first?” she asked. “I could at least try to open the door quietly.”
The others agreed, and the rogue plied her trade on the eastern exit, noticing the dim violet luminescence coming from beneath the wooden door. After several seconds, she was satisfied and said, “Looks like we are good to go.”
“Follow my lead, if you don’t mind,” suggested Bhavik. The others nodded and let the warden take point. He pushed the door open, ready for combat only to discover an apparently uninhabited hall chamber.
Two rows of dragon-carved marble columns marched the length of the hall, though most were completely smothered in the luminescent violet fungus. The cobbled floor was cracked and stained with much use, and it held many small wooden tables. Table contents included mortars and pestles, bowls filled with crushed leaves, chopped fungus stalks, and other plant specimens. The many doors leading off of the hall were all partly opened and sounds were audible from beyond them. The squelching noise Bhavik described seemed to be coming from around the corner to the south.
The warden advanced slowly and began to scan for threats. He could hear evidence of several smallish creatures from beyond the closest four doors, two each on the north and south walls. He whispered over his shoulder, reporting what he’d heard.
“Any plan to take them on?” Azal whispered back.
“Assault the first chamber fast and hold our ground as the others empty,” he said. “Don’t get left in the hallway. Ready?” The other two nodded and started to follow as Bhavik stalked forward.
Aramis kicked a loose stone and sent it skittering across the hall. At this noise, the squelching noise abruptly stopped, and a voice called out in Goblin. “Balsag? Dat you?” They heard sound like someone plodding through a wading pool toward them from the squelching room to the south.
“I hate sneaking,” Aramis groaned.
“We’re announced,” grumbled Bhavik as he moved his shield to a low guard position.
Thinking quickly, Azal blurted out in Goblin, lowering the pitch of her voice, “Yea.”
“Oh, okay. You gotta cold or somethin’?”
Eyes wide, she said, “Yea, I do.” Then she faked a snort for good measure.
Another voice from the room commented, “I always knew he was faking that gnoll accent.” Then the squelching noise resumed.
Sighing audibly, Bhavik gestured to the north door, then walked over and opened it. The room beyond was dark, piled with what appeared to be filthy pallets. Soft, rhythmic breathing could be heard from somewhere in the darkness.
The warden pushed the door closed quietly and said, “They slumber. I can’t do it. They’re helpless.”
Azal nodded and whispered, “Do we continue on?”
He shook his head and said, “To the south. Eliminate the wakeful.” Aramis and Azal nodded agreement, and Bhavik crossed the hall and pushed the door fully open.
The small chamber was lit by a lantern atop one of the many barrels in the southwest corner. Two goblins stood barefoot in a mashing tun, squashing potato-like roots into pulp. A dirty straining bin stood nearby, as well as ten 2-gallon casks of the end product. “Huh?” they said in unison, completely surprised.
Aramis smote one of the goblins with a lance of faith, lighting up Azal’s target for her. She moved into the room deftly and flung her dagger in the same motion. Her dagger buried in its chest briefly before vanishing to reappear in her waiting hand. Then Bhavik lunged around the corner, took a bead on the injured goblin and leapt over the edge of the tun with a hefty thrust, impaling the unfortunate creature. The poor wretch didn’t even have time to scream before Bhavik’s charge brought it down. It slid off Bhavik’s sword and splashed limply into the tub, clutching at the frost-rimed mortal wound in its chest. Cutting wild, crazed eyes at the other goblin, the shifter said cruelly, “You’re next, friend.”
The survivor screamed in Goblin, “We’re under attack!” then shifted over its dead friend and reached down beside the tub to recover its short sword. It spun around and stabbed Bhavik in the leg. Aramis stepped into the room and pushed the door closed behind him before turning and lancing the goblin a second after its blade drew first blood from the warden. They adventurers could all hear doors slamming open from the hallway, and then Aramis felt a tug on the door as someone tried to pull it open. The handle slipped out of his hand at the sudden pressure and a foursome of goblins in leather, armed with short swords, was visible in the hall, one of which charged and stabbed the priest. Two more bleary-eyed goblins stumbled from the sleeping chamber. Azal held her ground and jabbed one of the goblin gang through its eye, ending its life. Bhavik took advantage of his foes distraction with the priest’s radiant assault and attacked again, opening a large gash in the goblin’s chest.
Realizing it was outmatched as the warden easily parried its next thrust, the goblin tried to flee and was eviscerated on Bhavik’s backswing. Aramis tried to bring his crook down like a club on a goblin head, but his target ducked behind the doorframe. Reluctant to give up the choke point, Aramis stood his ground beside Azal as the goblins advanced. Azal took a spear to the arm, but the rest of the creatures’ attacks could find no adventurer flesh. The tiefling’s next target dodged her counterattack, and she frowned, shifting behind Aramis to allow Bhavik her place at the door. The warden left the goblins floating in the tun and moved up beside Aramis, ending another enemy.
The cleric cracked another goblin over the head and it sank to the floor senseless. “Ah, a fine showing, Aramis!” cheered Bhavik. His momentary distraction cost him as the last cutter stabbed him in the leg. The rear guards kept mobile and launched javelins at the adventurers in the doorway, but they could not hit their marks. Azal tossed her dagger at the goblin who’d stabbed Bhavik, but it ducked the blade – which brought it in line with the warden’s knee. As it staggered back from the impact, he put it to the sword. Shifting out into the hallway, he challenged the nearby javelineer.
Aramis declared an Oath of Enmity upon one of the creatures, but it evaded his attack. The goblins continued their mobile assault, one narrowly avoiding Bhavik’s sword only to be clocked hard by the cleric’s crook. For all their mobility, they still could not hit the warden with their javelins. They cursed their ineptitude and licked their thin lips anxiously. Azal advanced on one of the goblins, unleashing a flurry of slashes at her foe. Only one of the attacks connected, but it distracted the goblin long enough for Bhavik’s assault to bring it down.
Aramis strode forward, locking eyes with the remaining goblin before striking out with another lance of faith. The goblin snarled as it ducked the beam and shouted angrily in Common, “You killed Oznob! DIEEE!!!” It flung another javelin at Aramis, who sidestepped the missile. Cursing impotently its distraction cost it in blood as Azal’s dagger appeared in its chest as if by magic. The tiefling smirked as the dagger reappeared in her hand. Bhavik launched his sword arm out like a thorny vine and impaled the goblin, pulling the creature closer to the party and its doom. Aramis’s final radiant lance makes an end of it.
“Everyone all right?” asked Aramis.
Azal sniffed dismissively. “We used to fear these creatures?”
Bhavik said, “Azal, mind taking a look to see what these bodies contain? Aramis and I will hold the hallway.
The tiefling nodded and got to work, muttering “Gore and viscera, I imagine. Ew.”
Aramis shrugged. “Guts are nothing to a servant of the Queen.”
“It’s a disgusting job, but somebody has to do it. Thankfully, that someone isn’t me.” The aloof wildman let out a strange snort-laugh and Aramis tilted his head a little at Bhavik’s “joke,” but only for a moment.
When Azal’s search was complete, she handed the gold she’d found over to Aramis, and the group sat down among the strange tables to rest. Up closer, they could see that the small tables in the hall contained mashed leaves, fungus of a variety of types, bark, and powdered roots.
When they’d recovered their breath, Aramis moved to investigate the northern middle door, Bhavik and Azal in tow. The room contained a table covered by what appeared to be dirty goblin armor, cord, iron needles, leather patches and other crude tailoring implements. A couple of stools lay overturned nearby. The cleric gave the room a cursory once-over before returning to the hall, while Bhavik moved to investigate the room opposite.
The warden found a dire rat strapped spread-eagled onto a wooden bench. The creature appeared to be suffering from horrible tumors that looked vaguely woody and fruitlike. As Aramis came in behind Bhavik and hissed a breath through his teeth at the sight. It was clear from the door that the rodent still drew ragged breaths. “I wonder if this was one of Belak’s experiments,” he murmured.
Bhavik shrugged and crossed the small room to a stand in the corner which held an elixir in a fancy crystal vial. Lifting it up to the light, he asked, “Any idea what might be in here?” Aramis stepped closer and examined the flask. A few moments later he shook his head, at a loss.
“Oh gods,” breathed Azal from the door where she stood aghast. “What…would do that?” she asked shakily.
“Likely the twisted mind of those with less morals than the rest of us. Should I put the thing out of its misery?” Bhavik asked quietly.
“Yes,” Aramis said, an odd light dancing in his eyes. “It shouldn’t be alive. Its very existence defies my Queen.”
Azal turned away and fled to be sick outside in the hall, as Bhavik approached the dying rat and granted it peace. It squealed weakly and breathed its last torturous breath. Aramis snapped out of his brief reverie and frowned as he followed Azal. “Are you all right?” he asked.
She nodded, wiping at her mouth. “I just…Yea, I’m alright.”
“To the rest of the chambers, then?” Bhavik asked as he exited the rat room and crossed the hall to the next southern door. Finding the room to be completely bare, the warden led the group to the last remaining northern door. He listened at it briefly before opening it up. Extra weapon stores, including five battered short swords and thirty or so javelins lay beyond. Another door sat in the east wall, and after Azal cleared it, she opened the door to reveal a short and narrow hallway with another door at the opposite end. A small sliver of the violet light was visible beneath the door.
Bhavik scooped up a few javelins from the barrel, then said to Azal, “Traps?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t see any.”
“Good enough for me,” the warden replied as he strolled to the waiting door. “Ready?” he whispered to his companions. Aramis and Azal both nodded, and Bhavik opened the door…