By Bryant Alexander
Ups and Downs
While we were resting up, Nanoc surprised us by showing up again. It would've been funny if he'd gone right past the first illusionary wall and wandered down into the uncharted depths, mistakenly thinking we were in front of him. Luckily for him, A) he's a dwarf, and B) we're loud. He found us.
We didn't interest him as much as the barrels did. We'd figured out for ourselves that they contained meat. What kind of meat was the question we didn't want answered. Whatever it was, Nanoc seemed to be enjoying it.
“Gut shaker, anyone?” he asked.
“Me and Dreya will take first watch,” Armand said. “I want enough time out of my armor to get some sleep.”
I could understand that. Dreya had the second most complicated set of armor in the group, so his reasoning extended to her, as well.
Nanoc was wrestling with Pain and Suffering. They wanted their share of the meat.
“What the hell is that?” Aeryn asked.
“Pickled rothé,” Nanoc said, as if that told us anything.
“I'm not familiar with that,” Aeryn said.
“Eat,” Nanoc suggested, pointing a sausage at her.
“The drow eat that,” Aeryn said.
“So do my brethren under the ground,” Nanoc said.
He actually sounded proud of this fact. Aeryn looked dubious, but she took an experimental bite. Better her than me.
“I've had better,” she decided. “On the other hand, it's more nutritious than spitting it out.”
Nanoc decided to hug the barrels, lest anyone else get his spoils. I was just as glad to let him have them. Granted, he was probably going to go on another straining and squirting binge afterwards, but if Pain and Suffering got their paws on those things… They didn't exactly deliver rose scented packages, either.
And while Nanoc had finished his… business before joining us, we did have to do a little more cleaning up to do before we settled in for the ‘night'.
“Who wants to sleep with the dead bodies?” Aeryn asked. “Not me.”
We dragged the dead bodies into the second hidden chamber. Anyone trying to get to us, in the third chamber, might think twice once they saw the bodies. Aeryn dumped the excess ears, too. Our bags of holding were getting a little cramped, and there was better stuff to be had down here than redundant ears.
I was woken up during first watch. There were pale tentacles sticking out of the wall and something in the next room was crunching . I watched Armand hit a tentacle. Something shrieked and the tentacle retreated. A head poked into our chamber and Aeryn killed the critter with her rapier.
Crunching. These things were eating our warning pile of bodies!
“So much for mounting the heads,” I muttered.
“Cover the sausages!” Aeryn said.
“It's attracting bugs,” Armand said.
Our dwarves identified the critters as carrion crawlers, just the pets that every cave dweller should have to clean up those unsightly corpses sprawled everywhere. Hopefully, once we sealed up the meat and killed the few crawlers that poked their heads into our chamber, they'd wise up and quit waving their tentacles at us.
“Maybe they won't learn,” Nanoc said.
“As long as they're doing such a good job cleaning up after our jihad,” Aeryn shrugged, “let them.”
That sounded like a good idea. I went back to sleep. Looking at big tentacle-bugs and then going to sleep wasn't the way I would've chosen to do things, but I was tired enough for it to work. The bugs were still crunching when I was woken up for my turn on watch. About halfway through my shift they knocked it off finally. I was able to sleep without interruption through third watch.
In the ‘morning' we headed back towards the passageway we'd left behind. The carrion crawlers were gone, but they'd left behind small bits of crunched bones and some small poops.
“Step away from that one,” Nanoc warned. “That's where I used the toilet.”
We made it back to the passageway without stepping in anything. Aeryn poked her head out first, then sent Silvorglim swooping on ahead. The squeak ! was presumably the death cry of some unfortunate mouse. If it was safe for the owl to be snacking, it was safe for us to step through.
In our absence, that tentacled stalagmite thing had devolved into something with a truly horrific stench. Apparently, even the carrion crawlers weren't going to try digesting this mess.
“Oh, poo!” Aeryn gagged.
The two of us were scrambling for scented hankies. I could feel my nose attempting retreat.
“Nanoc!” Armand exclaimed. “Do you have to go again?”
“I hope there's a back way out of these caverns,” I gasped.
Aeryn scuttled on ahead, but it wasn't long before she came back.
“Something new and novel,” she announced. “More graves. Ten or twelve of the skeletons are apparently the self-dusting type.”
That was… odd. At a guess, twelve of the skeletons had been moved recently. Or, given the odd bloodstains on their fingertips, twelve of the skeletons had been moving.
“Nanoc, would you like to crush them to powder?” Aeryn suggested.
“Wait,” I said. “We have to pass Jergal again on our way out. Maybe we should leave the graves alone.”
“Jergal dislikes undead,” Nanoc said.
“There's no evidence that they're undead,” I said.
“Blood on hands is not normal,” Nanoc reasoned.
He smashed the skeletons. I said some prayers for the departed. Nanoc might be right, but I also had a feeling he enjoyed smashing things. If Jergal asked for an accounting on our way out, I'd point to Nanoc. But maybe the statue was just a statue.
We advanced. The cavern narrowed for a bit, but then flared out again.
“The road forks,” Aeryn reported. “We can go straight towards the sound of running water or bear left.”
“Left,” Nanoc voted.
The rest of us were without opinions, so we bore to the left. The reek of death hung thick in the air, replacing the dry odor of the ancient graves with a more pungent and nauseating stench. Aeryn spotted something glistening in the distance… and she found a pile of poop.
“I've been here!” Nanoc said.
Once inside the chamber, we found five piles of assorted gear. Aeryn picked through the piles carefully, just in case there was a nasty surprise hidden in one. One pile contained a suit of studded leather armor, a rapier and a buckler. In the next pile, she found another mithral shirt, a steel shield, and a rapier.
“Doesn't anyone in this cavern know how to use a real sword?” Armand asked.
The next pile contained a breastplate and a great axe. The fourth pile contained a rather large suit of leather armor, a battle axe, a hand axe, and a composite longbow. Armand liked the bow. It came with a quiver of twenty arrows. Oddly enough, they weren't drow arrows.
The final pile contained a suit of elven chain mail, a steel shield, a dagger, and a gray cloak.
“The demon shapeshifter,” Armand said. “Could it become anything it ate?”
Yuck. That would explain that thing we killed in the yellow mold chamber…
Aeryn was hugging the chain mail.
“No spider!” she cheered.
At least someone was happy. I wanted to see the running water we'd heard down the other passageway. Nanoc may've emptied himself yesterday, but those sausages were producing quite the bouquet.
“When we get to the cavern with the running water,” I suggested to Aeryn, “use your ten foot pole to push Nanoc in.”
“You can use my ten foot pole,” Nanoc offered.
“I'm not going near your ten foot pole,” I said.
We backtracked. The original passage led to a cavern with a hole in the floor, leading down. Aeryn's stealthy scouting revealed a drow crouched in the shadows.
“Be ready to take ambush positions,” Aeryn said.
“Could be a spotter,” Armand warned. “There could be more of them.”
Aeryn snuck off and snuck back. She'd discovered one more drow, with a crossbow, and a spider on the ceiling.
“I'll kill the runner,” she said. “Then the rest of you rush in to get the crossbow guy and the spider.”
“I'll take the crossbow if I can see him,” Armand offered.
It sounded vaguely like a plan. Aeryn disappeared, but we recognized her attack when we saw the flash of fire in the chamber. Unfortunately… That was about all we could see. A crossbow bolt thunked into Armand. Grolsch wandered forward aimlessly. Nanoc charged, screaming at nothing.
“They know we're here,” I remarked.
“I sprouted an arrow,” Armand pointed out. “They know.”
In the distance, I heard something that sounded almost like the elven for ‘Intruders!' Elven is supposed to be flowing and liquid. The way the drow corrupted the language with hisses and guttural noises was just one more reason to exterminate them all.
Killing them would be easier if I could find them. I trusted Aeryn when she said they were here, especially since Armand had sprouted that bolt. I switched to bat form. If my eyes weren't sufficient, I had an alternative.
A spider dropped onto Nanoc's head. Grolsch changed into bear, charged, and tripped over his own paws. I'd never seen a bear with four left feet before…
“Grolsch!” Nanoc shouted.
It looked like Nanoc was getting the better of the spider, which was fascinating since it was dancing on his head. But Pain and Suffering were probably trying to laugh and run at the same time, which would explain why they went tumbling into their sprawled master.
I flew over the mass of tangled fur. Dreya tossed an axe across the room. Armand pointed his ring at a dark corner, and a drow was knocked out into the (relatively) brighter room. I swooped down and killed him.
In the end, we gained two more ears, a mithral shirt, a buckler, a rapier, 3 small vials of drow poison, 2 potions of Spider Climbing, a Jump potion, a Cure Light, a mithral breastplate, a glaive, a short sword, a dagger, a hand crossbow with twenty bolts, a light crossbow with nineteen bolts (plus one in Armand), assorted coinage, and a bloodstone.
“We need to head back and get some of this identified,” Aeryn said.
“We might be chased out soon,” Armand figured.
That passage downward was still tempting…
“Do you want to wait here while I slither down?” Aeryn asked.
“That might be bad,” Nanoc said. “Their alarm person is no longer alarming.”
That would depend on how far down the passage alarm-boy had gotten before Aeryn permanently silenced him. Had they heard him or hadn't they?
“Let's take up ambush positions and wait a few minutes,” Armand suggested.
We did that. We waited ten minutes.
“I say give them half an hour,” Aeryn decided.
Half an hour later… No screaming hordes of drow appeared. Spiders were amazingly conspicuous in their absence, and I felt like I was posing to have my portrait painted.
“Sneak down,” Armand said. “But take the bat with you.”
That made sense. Maybe I couldn't sneak as well as Aeryn, but this was a cavern. A bat might not surprise the drow. Even if they realized what a big bat I am, there might be ordinary dire bats down here. Assuming one could use the terms ‘dire' and ‘ordinary' in the same sentence.
“Hang back a little,” Aeryn suggested to me.
That made sense, too. If I was spotted, I might be ignored, but if they looked at me and spotted the elf under me, we'd be in trouble. As it turned out, there was no room for me to fly down there. I can walk as a bat, but it's not something I do often. I crept along about fifty feet behind Aeryn. I caught up to her when she stopped.
The tunnel ended abruptly in a wall of granite. A hole gaped in the tunnel floor in front of the wall, and a large iron ring was set securely in the floor a couple of feet from the lip of the hole. The sound of running water was coming from somewhere down the hole.
“No wonder no one came after us,” Aeryn said.
“Squeak,” I agreed.
“Time to bring down the rest of the troops,” Aeryn decided.
We did so. The granite wall certainly impressed the dwarves.
“I'll knock it down!” Nanoc said.
“Will you be quiet and let me see what's in the hole?” Aeryn asked.
Dreya didn't like the granite wall, either. Granite walls didn't belong in limestone caverns. Dreya's guess was that it was created by a spell. I couldn't get too worked up over it, but I'm not a dwarf.
Aeryn flew down the hole and a few moments later came back up.
“Two drow, a male and a female,” she reported. “A robed drow… and a flayed elf. Who here can fly?”
“I will fall with style!” Nanoc declared.
That might be amusing to watch, but it wasn't necessary. We had a Rope of Climbing with us and a handy ring to anchor it. Aeryn had a flying cloak, we had potions, and I had wings. The real problem was that the hole wasn't that big. We were going to have to go down in pairs unless we wanted to get jammed.
“Don't close with them until I throw my spell,” Armand warned.
Something about the snowstorm that mage had tossed at Aeryn had fascinated Armand. If he'd figured out how to throw one at the drow, he was welcome to try it. We just had to keep out of the way.
Aeryn and Dreya were the first ones down. Once they were out of sight, it sounded like a thunderstorm went off down there.
“I'm diving into a lightning storm?” Nanoc asked. “Cool!”
When I finally had the chance to fly down there, I saw Nanoc facing what did appear to be a skinless elf… who was vomiting blood all over him. Aeryn was hovering near the ceiling. She tossed a lightning bolt that knocked a spider off the wall.
Then the ice storm hit us. That hurt. I was going to have to hurt that mage back. Nanoc charged the skinless bitch. Armand stepped in front of Dreya, which was kind of like hiding her behind a wall. I swooped down at the mage. Aeryn ran him through with her rapier.
The other two drow backed up against the wall. Armand splatted the spider. With the mage dead, the most dangerous thing was Nanoc's girlfriend. As long as what there was of her face was facing him, the better to vomit at him, I decided to take a bite out of her backside.
I should've changed back to elf-form and Turned her. Instead, she turned my stomach. Ugh. She not only tasted foul, my mouth actually burned. I'd never tried to vomit in bat-form before. Bleah.
Nanoc was doing an interesting dance of retreat-and-whack, retreat-and-whack while I was spitting on the floor. The skinless drow disintegrated in a pile of goo.
There was one fighter still alive. Armand took a nice slice out of him. I bit him. Dreya whacked him with a war hammer. Aeryn stabbed him. He went down. He stayed down. The battle was over.
It was time to collect our spoils.
“No ear from that one,” I said, pointing at the slop that used to be the skinless elf.
“We can take some goo,” Aeryn said.
Nanoc was eager to collect some. Maybe he'd enjoyed dancing with her more than I thought. He was currently wearing a large portion of her insides. From the smell of things, while he was getting her insides on his front, some of his own insides had squirted out his rear during their dance.
We also found a table off to one side. Apparently, our dead hosts had been playing cards when we dropped in to visit. They also had a Rope of Climbing (big surprise). So now we had two. We also collected another pair of mithral shirts, a buckler, a rapier, a cloak, a cloak of elven kind, and short sword, a dagger, a hand crossbow with eighteen bolts, a mighty short bow with twenty three glowing arrows, two more vials of drow poison, a wand, an amulet, a pouch of diamond dust, a potion of Cure Serious, various coins, and four bloodstones.
“We should go topside,” Aeryn said. “We need more info, like what kills undead skinless drow.”
“I have goo!” Nanoc announced.
That goo might help us identify what that thing had been.
We also found a precipice. A cold, strong breeze blew up from the unknown depths. It looked to be about thirty feet wide, hundreds of yards long, and an unguessable depth. Large webs stretched away into the darkness, and from far below we heard the sound of rushing water. So much for tossing Nanoc into the water… and he really needed a bath now.
“Let's camp here tonight,” Armand suggested. “We might have to fight our way out.”
That was easy for us to agree to. The thing we had difficulty agreeing on was the disposition of the cloak of elven kind. Dreya would find it useful, but it just seemed wrong to have a dwarf wear an elven cloak. I liked Dreya well enough, but… I guess I thought of her as a cleric first and a dwarf second, but she was a dwarf. It just wasn't right.
Armand could use it, too, even if it would be only a half cloak on him. He was still a growing boy, though. And besides, even if Aeryn was the elf, since I'm sometimes a bat, I was still an elf. Elves should get dibs on elf items, even part-time elves such as myself.
Grolsch and Nanoc settled down to play cards while we discussed the issue.
“I suggest Nanoc go down and wash,” I said.
“He can't swim,” Aeryn said. “Give me a sun rod and I'll tie it to a ten foot pole.”
I'd only meant that I was getting tired of breathing exclusively through my mouth.
“If we're going in blind,” I said, “send me.”
“Dire bats are normal,” Armand agreed. “Flying elf is hostile.”
“We can put blackface on her,” Grolsch suggested.
“Or we can not go looking for trouble,” Armand said.
“Let's do that,” Aeryn said.
We decided to hammer out a watch schedule and get some sleep. If we didn't stop debating minor details, we'd be up all ‘night' and we'd be very tired when the locals finally came up to chase us out.
“Why do I always get balls to two?” Nanoc complained.
“You want first?” Armand asked. “You have first.”
Armand proceeded to bang his head against the wall with a resounding clang. Aeryn shot him a look. Armand removed his helmet and resumed banging, now with only a mild thudding.
I seemed to have gotten stuck with Nanoc as my watch partner. I would've preferred to be with Aeryn, but I suppose one shouldn't put all of one's elves in one basket. Or something like that. My shift seemed to be going uneventfully at first. Then, at the edge of hearing, I caught whispers.
I nudged Nanoc.
“Do you hear that?” I asked.
I was lucky he heard me asking. I switched to bat-form and squeaked down the chasm. The mass of webbing was interfering with my squeaks. I changed back and woke up Aeryn.
“There's something whispering in the chasm,” I said.
Aeryn and Silvorglim discovered four figures climbing up the webbing… and something huge on the wall, about two hundred feet down.
“Nanoc, empty your chamber pot into the chasm,” I suggested.
“No!” Aeryn exclaimed before he could actually do it. “Time to be quiet and stealthy and kill these four.”
I was going to have to be more careful what I said to Nanoc. On the other hand, if the contents of Nanoc's chamber pot landed on them, they might commit suicide to escape the stench.
“What's the big thing?” Nanoc asked.
“What spun the web,” Aeryn said. “Ideally, we'll have no explosions. Let's go to ambush positions.”
Aeryn tossed back a potion of Dark Vision and found that there were ten visitors approaching. There was a robey guy in the second wave.
“We have two potions of Spider Climbing,” she reminded us.
An interesting possibility, but personally, I'd rather fly in a case like this, especially since I'd used most of my spells for the day healing the aftermath of that last fight.
“Quigley?” a voice called out from the chasm. “Quigley!”
“What do you want?” Armand called back, in elven.
“They're started back down,” Aeryn said.
Then she flew over the edge. I flew after her. The most noticeable of the drow, to me, was the female standing on the wall, perpendicular to gravity, with a double bladed sword. I swooped over and bit her. Some arrows bounced off of me, but that was okay.
Aeryn, as expected, killed their mage. My target fired off a crossbow bolt at Aeryn, then tossed the bow over her shoulder and pulled that double blade. Nanoc came hurtling, screaming, over the edge and landed on a drow. That drow was knocked off the wall, but Nanoc stuck in his place.
I bit at the female again. I didn't really get my fangs into her… and then a falling bottle landed on her chest and set her tits on fire. For a drow, I suppose she wasn't over-endowed, but the drow females in general needed to get some of the fat off their chests.
Aeryn swooped down past us and a lightning bolt crackled upwards, zorching three drow off the wall.
Burning drow, instead of trying to put her chest out, hacked at me with that double sword she was carrying. She was doing a good job of hacking, too. My wings wouldn't take much more of this.
Something made a loud bang. My guess was Nanoc had pulled himself free of the web and planted himself in the opposite wall. He did make an impression. On solid objects. With his head.
Flames started crawling down the webbing…
“Hey, you!” Armand yelled from above. “Pick on someone your own size!”
It was nice to know he cared, but I was bigger than the drow currently. In elf-form, we were about equal… unless he was looking at her blazing chest. Note to bra-burners: Remove bra first. I ripped the drow off the wall and dropped her.
Aeryn shot out a web of her own and snagged a pair of drow. Nanoc, wherever he was, was singing what had to be a dwarven battle hymn. I watched burning drow fall. She was slowing down. Armand flew past me. I hoped he wanted her for questioning, not for… Then again, if he wanted her for any more primal reasons, he was welcome to her.
Looking over the drow scuttling about on the wall, there were two descending towards a cave opening near the center of the wall, and another two heading off to another opening on the left. I knocked off one of the center pair, but he caught himself on the lip of the cave opening. His friend stabbed my wing. While Aeryn killed the fallen one, I bit Mr. Stabby.
Armand went flying back up, with Miss Charred Chest's ankles firmly gripped in his fists.
“Dreya!” Armand shouted.
Mr. Stabby stabbed me again. I was really in a world of pain. This had to be what Grolsch felt like after doing the tango with that giant spider. Aeryn flew up and killed the drow. I was glad she did, since I was in no condition to finish him off. I headed back topside. I was going to change out of bat-form the second I had something to land on and use up my healing spells. I hurt .
I found Armand tossing Miss Charred Chest over to Dreya.
“Heal this drow!” he said. “She's about to expire!”
I collapsed on the cliff top. I was tempted to just be a very flat bat for a while, but I knew better than to lie there. I switched back to elf-form and started casting. Once I could get up again, we needed to scoop up all our stuff and retreat.
Nanoc returned with a big green sore on his arm.
“Holy…!” Nanoc complained. “That thing hits hard!”
He'd actually attacked the super humongous giant spider? Now I knew he was crazy.
“What possessed you to take that on?” Aeryn asked.
“Let's just say,” Nanoc said, “sometimes the voice of the berserker takes over.”
“Voice of the idiot,” Aeryn muttered under her breath in elven.
It was time for all of us to make like bats out of hell.
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