III

Session 13: The Gardener

Or "Pruning Shears of Doom"

13 March (Continued)

Nodules of luminescent fungus hung from the ceiling and walls, and grew in clumps upon the flagged floor. The vaguely nauseous light illuminated the portions of grand bas-relief carvings on the stone walls that were not covered with the self-same fungus. The carvings all consisted of dragons in various stages of raining fire down upon terrified humans, elves, dwarves, and other people. Soil and compost covered half of the chamber’s floor, which allowed a variety of wan grasses to grow. A bench containing simple gardening implements stood along the west wall.

Bhavik moved cautiously into the room and listened at the nearby northern door with Azal close behind. Aramis watched the room to the south while the scouts did their thing. “Seems clear,” the warden said softly. He then stepped over to the bench to examine the tools. Noticing another door on the eastern wall of the gallery where the hallway widened considerably. “Azal, try the door?”

“East or south?” she asked, indicating another door at the far end of the gallery.

“The nearer, I think,” he replied.

The tiefling stepped up and examined the door closely. “There is a noise coming from the other side, but it isn’t locked or trapped. Want me to try and sneak in?”

Bhavik looked over to Aramis, who held the sunrod. The cleric nodded to them both and pocketed the bright alchemical light. With the sunrod stowed, the only light came from the dimly glowing fungus. The warden moved up in preparation to charge any threats when the door opened, then Azal slowly opened the door with nary a creak.

Luminescen mists blurred the edges of the octagonal chamber beyond. Nodules of the glowing fungus dotted the stone walls and the ceiling, as well as the caps of toadstools and mushrooms, small polyps, puffballs, lichens, and less identifiable growths. The humid air reeked of rot, and the reason was clear. Three skeletons worked with gardening implements, stirring compost from wheelbarrows into the soil of this strange subterranean arboretum. One of the undead humanoids had a long spike lashed through the bones of one arm, and a blade secured to the other. None of the three so much as looked up at the open door.

Aramis led the way, striding into the arboretum with his crook at the ready. Bhavik charged in right on his heels, icy blade held high. His downward slice shattered a couple of ribs of one of the “normal” skeletons. Azal held her position in the doorway and sent her dagger flying hilt over blade at the other normal skeleton. The weapon broke through one if the animate’s ribs, and all three undead workers turned to deal with the interruption to their work.

Both skeletons standing beside Bhavik turned and swung their gardening tools at him.

Both skeletons standing beside Bhavik turn and swing their tools at him, but the warden easily deflected their strikes with his heavy shield. Aramis moved closer to the melee and called upon the Raven Queen to turn the undead foes. He forced the lashed skeleton back against the eastern wall and the nearer of the normal skeletons past the other. The holy energy tore at the dark magic binding and animating them. The skeleton with the lashed on implements writhed impotently against the cleric’s will made manifest but could not take so much as a single step forward. Bhavik followed the other skeleton that Aramis had driven back and launched his sword farther than his normal reach would allow, his arm extending like a thorny whip. The blade impaled the skeleton, and when he jerked his arm back the animate came with him. With both skeletons adjacent, he stomped the ground and drew their attention to him. Azal finally entered the room and drove her dagger into the nearest skeleton’s eye. Bone shattered at the impact, but the undead still stood.

Both skeletons marked by the warden focused their attacks on him, and both managed to get past his wide shield and slice deeply into his sides. Seeing Bhavik’s predicament, Aramis tried to cover him with a lance of faith, but in the dim light he couldn’t quite make out his target. Cursing under his breath, he uttered a quick healing word, taking away most of the shifter’s pain. The fleeting magic binding the skeletons faded and the lashed one stalked over to Aramis and failed to impale him on the vicious spike. With two frenzied slashes, Bhavik destroyed one of his opponents and turned his focus on the other. Azal somersaulted past the skeleton and into a flank in the thick soil. Reversing her momentum, she put the blade hard through the animate’s sternum, leaving a gaping hole.

Seeming to suddenly shift focus to the lashed one’s target, the skeleton walked toward Aramis, so startling Azal and Bhavik that neither could capitalize on the opportunity. However, even with the flank provided by its undead ally, the cleric was able to avoid the skeleton’s clumsy swing. Bhavik growled and the earth beneath the skeleton seemed to tremor, pulling the skeleton back away from Aramis. Seeing the new threat was being handled, he turned and swore an Oath against the lashed one and struck it hard with his crook.

It staggered back a step, and the cleric said, “I will send you back to the grave, Orcus-spawn.” The animate recovered quickly, scuttling along the wall and struck him in the side with its blade. A dry rasping sound that might have been a laugh issued forth.

The warden cried out, “You okay over there, Aramis?”

“Fine!”

“Good man!” Bhavik crowed. “Now, let’s see about putting you down, Boney,” he taunted his skeletal foe. He lifted his sword high and then brought it down as though pulled by the weight of the entire world, smashing the skeleton down into the ground where it stopped moving. With a swagger, the warden stalked up beside the cleric and said, “How about some help anyway?” Then he locked eyes to eye sockets with the lashed one.

“Always welcomed,” Aramis intoned as the warden took a swipe at the remaining skeleton, which was summarily dodged.

“Now, you guys can’t have all the fun and glory,” said Azal, drawing looks of surprise from her companions. She threw her dagger hard into the skeleton before jogging forward and past the animate. The undead lashed out at her as she came past, which cost it as Bhavik’s sword came crashing down and smashing more bones. This had the unfortunate side effect of sending a spray of bone shards erupting in all directions, impaling both shifter and tiefling.

Blinking away his surprise, Aramis struck the skeleton with his staff and the magic of the prayer restored some of Azal’s health. The boneshard skeleton turned on Aramis and failed again to impale him on its spike. Bhavik took a step away from the undead and extended his sword arm in that unnatural way again, stabbing into the animate and pulling it toward him. Most of its bones were on the verge of splinters, and necrotic energy swirled in its chest cavity. “I think it’ll explode again when we destroy it!” cried out Aramis.

Bhavik simply nodded. “I’ll take it, then. You two back away.” Azal swiftly complied, dodging a swipe of the skelton’s blade and then waiting on Aramis to be clear of the blast radius.

“If you’re sure,” the cleric said, before moving to stand beside Azal, ducking another slash.

The warden nodded again. “I can take it, though a heal would not be amiss.” The priest spoke his remaining healing word, completely healing his injuries. Then he and Azal both leveled their attacks at the skeleton. Ray and dagger impacted at the same time, triggering the explosion of bone and dark energy that Aramis had predicted. Bhavik grimaced as the blast tore into his flesh, but he grinned when he saw the skeleton unmoving at his feet. “Heh,” he said. “Not bad.”

After they’d rested, Bhavik sighed. “I’m about at my limit for one day,” he admitted.

“Really?” asked Aramis. “What about you, Azal?”

She nodded, “I’m about spent, too.”

“Maybe no one comes to check on the undead workers all that often?” Bhavik said, though the doubt was evident in his tone.

Aramis frowned. “We found a safe place to rest above, once we’d destroyed the undead there…” It was decided to shore up the door, and once they’d confirmed that there were no other secret entrances to the best of their ability, they settled in to rest in the earthy arboretum.

. . .

Several hours passed uneventfully, until they all heard a door opening from out in the gallery corridor. Several creatures stomped in, chatting in Goblin. They all tensed and Azal hushed them so she could listen in. After a minute, she reported to the others that it sounded like they were some sort of gardening patrol. She counted three voices, a much deeper one ordering the other two to start on some pruning and weeding of certain areas of the fungus.

“Do you think they will come in here?” she whispered nervously.

Bhavik replied softly, “Hard to say.”

“We’ll have to keep a watch,” suggested Aramis.

Another hour passed before they all heard shouting from the gallery. One of the higher pitched voices was squealing in Goblin, “They’re…They’re dead! They’re all dead!

What???” roared the deep voice. The adventurers heard the goblinoids’ footsteps departing and distant shouting for another several moments before they heard flat feet approaching then fading once more to the north.

Bhavik murmured, “The alarm is raised. Do you think they’ll search each chamber?” Without waiting for an answer he continued, “If so, we’re in trouble.”

“Most likely they will,” said Azal.

“Then we should make haste before they bring the rest of the tribe down on our heads,” the warden suggested.

“Where else can we really go?” asked Aramis. “Try to make our way back up to the secret room?”

Bhavik looked thoughtful for a moment then said, “It sounded like there were only the three. And one headed north.”

Catching on, Aramis said, “Perhaps we can silence them before things get out of hand?” He looked over to Azal, who shook her head helplessly.

“Perhaps,” answered Bhavik. Let us see what we see.” He removed the makeshift barricade and quietly opened the door. The gallery stood empty, the northern door and the one leading back to the goblin common area were both open.

“Should we escape in an unexplored direction?” asked Aramis.

“I advise against it,” said the warden. “Best to take the paths we know.”

Azal protested, “But if we retreat, we’ll lose valuable time to get to the others.”

Bhavik replied softly, “And if we die..?”

The tiefling persisted, “I don’t think it will be that difficult, and our friends do not have much time. We know the goblins are to the west and north. I say we go south.”

“I won’t argue with you, Azal. South it is,” said Aramis.

“So be it,” Bhavik conceded. He led them into the hallway, heading slowly to the south, trying to make as little noise as possible. Azal cleared the door and they all slipped through, and into another enclosed arboretum. Several of the growths in the southern chamber appeared scorched and dead. It was otherwise empty and did not appear to have been used in some time.

Cringing at the dead end, Azal said, “Well, at least no one has been in here in awhile. I think it will be the best place for us to hide and rest.”

Aramis nodded, “We can take turns keeping watch and get some full rest. I’ll take the first watch.”

Azal fell asleep quickly and the priest heard her talking incoherently in her sleep, occasionally uttering Talgen’s name. He frowned and knelt beside his friend, stroking her hair softly until she quieted and slept into a more peaceful slumber.

That night was hardly the most restful any of the three had ever experienced. There were several hours of goblins coming back and forth to the north and another outburst when the destroyed skeletons were found. Fortunately, none of the creatures seemed to think it was a good idea to venture south.

14 March, 103 CY

Aramis stirred and rubbed the back of his neck as he sat up. Azal stretched and yawned, pulling her cloak up around her horns. Bhavik, who’d had the last watch, stared vigilantly with red-rimmed eyes at the blocked door. “Is everything alright?” the cleric asked in a low voice.

“It seems that we’ve weathered the night,” confirmed the warden.

“Did you sleep at all, Bhavik?” asked Azal, concerned.

He shrugged and pulled some rations out of his pack, placing the group’s last sunrod on the ground beside him. “I’m fine,” he said, turning to smile wanly at the tiefling. “Thank you.” She offered a light smile in return and set to her own breakfast.

Bhavik patted the alchemical light and said, “We have to make sure this one counts.”

“Certainly,” intoned Aramis. “Hopefully this place isn’t too much larger.”

Azal said, “At least we are getting the dim light from this fungus. That helps some.”

Bhavik glanced over at Aramis with some pity for his human eyes. Finishing his breakfast, he moved to the door and listened intently. “I hear creatures stirring outside,” he reported.

The adventurers all readied themselves for combat, then Bhavik looked to Azal and said, “Open it quietly? We may need all the advantage we can get.” She nodded and moved to push the door open quietly.

The gallery was much as they remembered it, except that there were two goblins standing near the work bench watching the door to the goblin common. The northern door appeared to be cracked open, and the sentinels did not seem to notice the adventurers’ entrance.

Aramis, Azal, and Bhavik stalked together toward the unwary goblins, closing the distance so that they could take the greatest advantage of the guards’ surprise. They paused next to a patch of moss and Aramis led things off with a lance of faith. In the dim light, his aim was a bit off and he missed his mark. Bhavik grimaced as the beam flew wide, then charged in, stumbling over some plant growth and allowing the goblin a split second to move to the side.

Suddenly, a pair of twig blights stirred from the moss clump beside Aramis and Azal. One of them scratched the tiefling with poisoned claws, and the other charged Bhavik’s back but failed to penetrated his thick hide armor. The twiggy creature cursed in a sibilant tongue that none of the adventurers could understand. Azal reacted to her attacker with appropriate violence, cutting the plant-man down. Aramis stared down at the twig blight in wonder as his friend destroyed it.

The goblins cried out in surprise, “They’re here! We’re under attack!” One maneuvered south and lobbed a javelin over Bhavik’s head. The other stabbed the warden with its spear then pivoted back a step and repeated the warning, yelling to the north. The door was pulled open fully to reveal a hairy goblinoid standing about six and a half feet tall. It carried a gardening scythe and growled at the intruders to its garden. A moment later it charged Bhavik, slashing him cruelly and drooling happily as the shifter’s blood splashed the floor. Aramis prayed for sacred flames to light the twig blight threatening the warden and the Raven Queen answered, reducing the abomination to merry cinders in seconds. Another pair of the plant-men came in from the north and flanked Bhavik. He laid about with his blade, striking down one of the twig blights in his frenzy. Then he stomp-marked the bugbear and remaining plant-man. Then Azal engaged the nearer goblin and introduced it to her dagger.

Her opponent took a cautious step back then lobbed a javelin back over its shoulder as it continued moving, but she easily avoided the missile. The goblin farthest from the fray boldly charged into flank Bhavik, but his skill with a spear was no match for the warden’s defenses. The bugbear maneuvered for better position, but its blade only met the shifter’s wide shield. The remaining twig blight dodged two more flaming prayers from Aramis, before the cleric gave up and prayed for the Queen to heal Bhavik’s wounds. Surrounded now, Bhavik fought a desperate melee against his collected enemies, but neither side gained any ground. Azal broke the stalemate by bloodying the unwounded goblin with a single stab.

The other goblin finally managed to get another spear jab in on Bhavik, and in the second that he turned his attention away, the bugbear tried a new tack. Grinning wickedly, the bulky goblinoid dropped its scythe on the bench and pulled out its rope belt. Fixing the warden with a predatory eye, it whipped the rope around his neck and pulled it tight. Bhavik struggled uselessly as one of the goblins avoided Aramis’s next blow. Azal moved past a goblin, and when it tried to gut her for her trouble it was killed by the warden’s wild swing. Azal stabbed at the bugbear, but at the last second it yanked Bhavik into the blade’s path, and her eyes went wide as she saw her companion’s blood staining her blade. She pulled out and managed to wrest the warden from the bugbear’s grip, sending him staggering south to stand beside Aramis, bloodied but free. The hulking goblinoid laughed heartily.

The remaining goblin ran back to the north and lobbed another javelin over Bhavik’s head. Shrugging at the loss of its strangulation victim, the bugbear picked up its scythe and pursued the warden, who barely avoided the strike. Aramis then called upon the healing magic of his armor, which empowered the healing word, magically knitting his wounds back together. Bhavik’s next swing ended the remaining twig blight, while Azal failed to stick her blade in the bugbear’s thick hide.

The melee continued, and Bhavik shouted, “Azal, kill the goblin! We cannot give the bugbear the advantage again!” Then he followed his own voice, slashing the goblin across its torso, then trying to draw the bugbear’s attention away from the tiefling. Unfortunately, Azal panicked and flung her dagger at the goblin while within the larger goblinoid’s reach and caught its scythe in her side for the mistake. This also had the unfortunate side effect of sending her blade off target to clang into the wall before it reappeared in her hand. She cried out in pain as the bugbear barked at its subordinate in Goblin, “Flank him, you fool!

The goblin complied, and though it failed to stab the warden again, the distraction was all that the bugbear needed to loop its rope around Bhavik’s neck a second time. “Oh, not aga-!” the shifter cursed. Aramis failed to burn the goblin, and then the warden assumed the guardian form of Winter’s herald. His skin turned blue and his body began to mist in the relative heat of the cool dungeon. Despite his precarious position, he brought his sword around in a wide arc, scoring minor slashes on each of the goblinoids. The floor around him was coated in ice, except beneath his feet and those of his companions. Forgetting herself in the chaotic melee, Azal tried once more to stab the bugbear, only to have it use Bhavik as a shield. Her blade stabbed deeply into the shifter a second time and her mouth hung open in quiet disbelief.

The goblin stabbed Bhavik deep in the side, and the bugbear squeezed the tight rope around his throat, rendering him senseless. As the warden went limp, the hulking goblinoid dropped him and picked up its scythe, sneering at the remaining two. Aramis nodded at the bugbear as if in acknowledgement, and then prayed to the goddess for a beacon of hope. Bhavik’s eyes fluttered open as the holy energy sapped the goblinoid’s strength. Then the priest moved up to the goblin and declared an Oath against the small creature. Bhavik stood groggily and growled once as his features became more bestial, his wounds beginning to heal on their own. Then he took a steadying breath and swiftly moved to stand beside Aramis and the goblin. “Azal!” he cried out, “Take the flank! Finish the goblin!” Wracked with guilt over the damage she had already done, she rapidly complied with Bhavik’s order, stabbing the doomed creature through the heart.

Taking a moment to consider their situation, they realized that the bugbear only had a shallow cut, while they were almost at their limit already. With no enemies between them and the path out of the grove level, they cut and run, Bhavik using his icy aura to slow the taunting bugbear’s pursuit. As they climbed to safety, the goblinoid’s echoing laughter followed them…


Chapter 1 – The Sunless Citadel

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