By Brian Flood
Chapter 44 - The Ankheg Tunnels
Along the Dusk Road
North of Asbravn, The Sunset Vale
Late-Afternoon, 2nd Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
After their five companions have descended into the hole, Darius and Corax become the only members of the party to remain above ground. Standing near the hole, they scan the area warily, anxiously noting the lengthening shadows that denote the onset of nightfall.
* * * * *
Within the Ankheg Tunnels
North of Asbravn, The Sunset Vale
Late-Afternoon, 2nd Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
Within the tunnel system, the small band of adventurers makes way as each succeeding member of the band descends on the rope. They soon find themselves in a tunnel system that matches Dolak's earlier description.
The walls are roughly excavated from moist, loamy soil. The passage way is about five feet in height and about the same in width. While Cyzicus and Dolak find these dimensions to be satisfactory, the others - especially the two mages, who each stand almost six feet in height - find it to be rather uncomfortable to walk with the slight bend that the cramped conditions necessitate.
The small band begins moving in the order that Alani earlier suggested. At their fore, Dolak walks upright, his battle axe held in his gnarled hands.
Immediately behind the dwarf comes Alani, her short sword held ready. The scout soon finds that the slight jingle of Dolak's armor and the light from the lamp behind her are combining to hinder her well-tuned senses of hearing and sight.
Lucas travels in Alani's footsteps. The mage holds a piece of parchment and an ink-dipped quill in his hands. At every intersection, and every ten paces or so, the mage stops briefly to sketch the corridor's dimensions and directions - as relayed in whispers from Dolak - onto the parchment.
Kjira follows in Lucas' wake. The lady mage holds the burning lamp in her hands, providing almost ten paces or so of light in all directions around her.
Lastly, immediately behind Kjira, comes Cyzicus. The halfling travels with both of his short swords ready. At his whispered command, his enchanted weapon casts a pale blue light from its silversteel blade. Although the lamp's light is more than sufficient to illuminate the area to his front and for a score or more feet to his rear, the halfling finds that it provides him a slight degree of courage in the dank and twisting tunnels. Moving as the party's rear guard, Cy turns around every few paces or so, checking for foes that would try to set upon the band from that direction.
The tunnel at the base of the hole travels only ten or so feet to the south before it becomes a four-way intersection. Using Lucas' earlier system for dealing with intersections, Dolak turns left - or east - and continues. Lucas pauses at the intersection to note that the westward tunnel continues for thirty feet and more, continuing on past the lit area provided by the lamp. To the south, it proceeds for two score feet and more, with a branch leading west at the far extent of Lucas' view. Lucas marks the visible tunnels system on his map and then scribes a small rune into the moist soil near the floor of the intsection.
The party moves some thirty or so feet westward and finds itself at a "T" intersection - and in the remains of the cottage's cellar - in the same place where Dolak had his earlier descent. The ladder still lies on the floor of the tunnel, directly under the hole that, by Lucas' estimate, leads up into the house above. To the south, just as Dolak described, the tunnel runs some thirty or so feet and seemingly comes to a dead-end.
To the east, the remaining, undamaged, portion of the cellar stands a shelf that is five feet or so above the level of the tunnel system. Several wooden cabinets of jarred fruits and vegetables are in evidence, and many more lie broken on the tunnel floor where they likely fell as a result of this tunnel's undermining of the cellar's original floor.
Finally, to the north, a passageway runs off into the darkness, beyond the radius of Kjira's lamp.
The party searches the remains of the cellar for a few minutes but finds nothing of worth other than a few loaves of bread, a few wheels of cheese, and some jarred goods. Deciding to leave the rations for now, the adventurers employ their route selection procedure and choose the left-most exit - the tunnel running off to the northwest.
After travelling some three score or so feet, the tunnel angles off to the north. As that point, also, however, is a hole in the tunnel's roof. It leads about ten feet directly upward. The fading afternoon sun shines down the hole like some sort of giant eye. The adventurers pause while Lucas marks the map to indicate the turn and the hole and then they set off again.
Then tunnel curves to the right - or east, as Dolak confirms - after about thirty more feet. Rounding the corner, the party travels another thirty feet and comes to a 'T' intersection, where their current tunnel is met by a second tunnel from the north.
Ahead, the passageway continues for about ten feet and then turns southward. At that point, also, is another hole in the ceiling through which the light of day can be seen shining downward. To the left, the northward tunnel extends some thirty feet and then angles off to the northeast, with yet another hole to the surface marking the turn.
Choosing the left-most path, the party elects to take the northern tunnel, with Lucas pausing to mark the intersection by rune and by map as he passes. They pass under the hole in the roof and follow the tunnel as it turns northeast.
They quickly come to a halt when they see that the passageway ahead is a dead-end. Reversing their direction - no small feat in the cramped confines of the tunnel system, the party heads back to the 'T' and turns left (or east), resuming their original course.
Passing under the hole in the ceiling - the fifth they have noted thus far, including the one in the cottage and the one through which they descended, the adventures follow the tunnel as it turns toward the southeast. Then, they are immediately confronted by yet another 'T' intersection, formed by a eastward tunnel that intersects with the current tunnel. Further on past the intersection, the southeastern tunnel continues well beyond the extent of the lamp' light.
Turning left, the party heads down the eastward tunnel. They continue on for about three score yards and come to a four-way intersection formed by two passages - one headed northeast, and the other southeast - that bisect the current west-east tunnel.
Lucas marks the intersection and the party chooses the left-most path once more. The five companions travel northeasterly for a few paces and then abruptly take a sharp right turn that sends them angling toward the southeast.
Coming to another 'T", Dolak turns left, leading the others northward. The party travels some thirty of so feet when suddenly Dolak stops just short of a small sie tunnel that leads off to the northeast. Then he backs into Alani, his dense, armored bulk urgently pushing her back southward. Those behind the elven scout also back-up for a few paces.
The party comes to a halt back at the 'T' intersection that they just passed. Then, Dolak whispers to the others, "Chamber ahead - 'bout ten feet 'r so past that side tunnel. It looked to stretch off to the north and west - that's 'ow I noticed it. The lamp wasn't showin' any walls in those direction fer a few feet 'r so - that's differn't than the 'ow the rest o' these twistin' tunnels 'ave been layed out."
When Dolak mentions a chamber ahead, Lucas whispers ahead to the dwarf and Alani. "As we enter the chamber, Dolak you take the left side, Alani the right I will stay in the center with Kjira. Cy, you also move up to aid Dolak and Alani if need be. I will ready a spell like I used above and use it should the opportunity arise."
Dolak nods at Lucas acknowledging the plan for him to move along the left side of the wall. Dolak grunts at the others, "Ready, then?" The dwarf then turns back to the direction of the opening with his axe ready waiting for Lucas to give an audible "go" signal.
Kjira falls into place as Lucas outlined, trying her best to hold the lantern high enough to project some useful light. She seems eager to get into the chamber Dolak described, and tired of the narrow walls closing in.
The small band creeps forward toward the entrance of the chamber. As they cross the threshold to the room, they deploy into the formation earlier prescribed by Lucas.
The light from Kjira's lamp reveals a large, earthen cavern. It looks to be thirty feet or so in width and its length surpasses the illuminated area provided by the lamp.
On the verge of the lamp's light, near the southern wall, is some sort of insectile larva. It resembles a caterpillar, two feet in length and covered with green scales. Seemingly attracted by the light, it slowly edges forward toward the adventurers.
Upon entering the room and seeing the worm-like critter crawling towards the party, Lucas quickly makes an arcane gesture in the direction of the approaching creature. He whispers a word that the others struggle to hear yet it slips away from their conscious thoughts before they can grasp it.
Motes of light shimmer over the larva's body and then it suddenly drops to the floor, motionless. As it does, Cyzicus moves past Lucas, headed toward the still insect.
"Chakka shok! Chakka cor!" Before Cyzicus can reach the bug-like critter, Dolak bellows a dwarven battle cry and charges forward, his axe grasped in both hands.
In the dwarf's wake, Kjira darts over to a position closer to the center of the room in order to spread the light further into the dark recesses of the chamber, anxious to see if any more of these varmints lurk.
Seeing that her dwarven and halfling companions will most likely take care of the slumbering creature, Alani remains where she stands. Her short sword is held ready in her hands as she waits to see if another creature will emerge from the darkness beyond the lantern's edge.
When he comes within striking distance of the larva, Dolak swings his axe with both hands. Unfortunately, the weapon glances off the thing's hardened carapace, saving the sleeping insect from harm.
Skidding to a stop a few paces behind and to the right of Dolak, Cyzicus pauses to listen. His ears strain to hear the sounds of any more enemies that may lie deeper within the chamber.
Then, as Kjira nears the center of the chamber, the light from her lantern reaches into the far, shadowed corners and finally illuminates the entire chamber. She and her companions find that they are in a large underground chamber that stretches some fifty feet from east to west and thirty feet from north to south. A passageway leading off to the northwest is located near the far western end of the northern wall.
They are also started to discover that they are not alone with the sleeping larva. A large ankheg, stretching almost twelve feet in length lies in the southwest corner of chamber. Between it and the small band of adventurers are five more larvae in addition to the slumbering creature that Dolak is attempting to finish off.
A heartbeat later, their anxiety lessens somewhat when they realize that the adult ankheg in the corner is merely the gutted and dried out husk of one of the insects. Three of the larvae, including the one with which Dolak is engaged, lie motionless on the chamber floor, apparent victims of Lucas' magical slumber. The remaining three, however, are still very much awake and are inching slowly forward, seemingly attracted to Kjira's lamp.
Still standing in the same place, Lucas readies himself for further spell assistance should the need arise if the fight drags out. His hands dip into his belt pouches and finger the needed components for his remaining arcane arsenal. He then looks for a safe opening through which to cast a spell, but is frustrated to see that the placement of the three forward companions - Dolak, Cyzicus, and Kjira - hinders his line of sight.
Behind and to the right of Lucas, Alani quickly sheathes her short sword and then voices a brief incantation as she points at the larva closest to Kjira. A heartbeat later, a glowing green dart flies from her outstretched finger and streaks past Kjira to strike the insect.
When the magical missile impacts the larva, it bursts apart in a spray of blackish-green ichor. The shower covers an area several feet in diameter, but fails to reach any of the companions within the chamber.
Unaware of the violent destruction of the second larva, Dolak recovers from his first - and unsuccessful - attack, grips his double-bitted axe with both hands and brings it down on the sleeping larva. As the blade pierces the thing's immature carapace, the creature explodes in a sudden gush of blackish-green ichor.
Dolak bellows in rage as the substance splashes over his exposed facial areas. Fortunately, the warrior's dwarven-crafted armor protects him from much of the acid.
Just behind Dolak, Cyzicus also cries out in surprise and pain as he too is sprinkled with the acidic residue.
Seeing her companions' plight, Kjira carefully sets the lantern on the floor of the cavern. Her hands now free to cast spells, she waits anxiously as, ever so slowly, the remaining two larvae close in on the party.
Lucas yells to all, "Let's try and kill them from a distance so they cannot hurt us when they explode! Alani, your magic missile works well...hit them again! Kjira, back away from the light and let them come closer." After he finishes speaking, the mage moves a little forward and to the right so that he has a better vantage.
Cy shouts, "Aye, I'll go for that!" The halfling then pauses where he is at to sheath his twin swords.
Alani responds to Lucas' instructions by repeating her incantation. Again, a glowing dart streaks toward the larvae. A heartbeat later, the nearest awakened larva explodes in a shower of acid. The slumbering insect immediately next to the shattered creature appears unharmed by the caustic bile, however.
Kjira leaves the lamp on the floor and runs back toward the eastern wall, heeding Lucas' advice to get out of the way. Having no useful spells memorized for this situation, she looks on in prayerful contemplation.
Still muttering dwarvish curses over his facial burns, Dolak hears Lucas' instructions as well. For his part, the dwarf stays in place, letting the spellcasters do their work.
Across the chamber, the sole remaining active larva turns itself northward. It slowly slithers toward the exit way on the north side of the chamber.
Having reached his new position, Lucas gestures at the escaping worm-critter and utters the same mystical word that eludes the others' mental grasp. Shimmering motes of light dance over the larva and then it slumps motionless on the chamber floor.
Almost immediately thereafter, Alani's third magical dart slams into the creature. Like its brethren, the larva violently erupts, spraying acid in all directions.
Cyzicus removes his sling from one of his belt pouches and then loads a sling bullet. He takes a few steps forward, bringing him closer to the foe. Seeing that the remaining larvae are asleep, however, he holds his fire.
Her magical abilities expended, Alani reaches for her short bow. With fluid movements, the elven scout nocks an arrow to the string and waits for an open shot.
Lucas removes three darts from his belt quiver and hurls one at the closest of the sleeping larvae. Although the cramped quarters of the chamber effect his ability to throw properly, Lucas manages to strike the closes of the sleeping foe on his first attempt. With the now familiar eruption of acidic fluid, the creature is destroyed.
Still holding his remaining two darts, Lucas shifts his attention to the sole surviving larva. He unable to attack his new target, however, because Cyzicus stands in his line of fire.
Tired of looking helpless, Cyzicus casts a healing spell on himself. After a brief glimmer of bluish-silver light, his acid burns are completely healed.
Seeing that his darts are effective, Lucas smiles. Realizing that he will need to move to get a shot at the last worm critter, the red-robed mage runs to up close to the lamp for a better shot.
Meanwhile, Alani yells to the others, "Get away from the last slug!" She waits impatiently for the few seconds that it takes Lucas to cross her line of fire.
Once the mage is clear, Alani fires her first arrow, taking care to avoid Cyzicus who partially blocks her line of sight. Without waiting to see its result, she immediately sends a second missile along the same path.
The larva bursts apart in a spray of acidic gore as the first arrow hits home. The second arrow simply plunges into the dirt in the location where the larva lay moments ago.
Skidding to a stop, Lucas turns, takes aim, and then holds his fire when he sees that the worm critter has been destroyed.
Behind Lucas, Kjira waits until Alani has fired her second arrow and she slips behind the elf, staying close to the eastern wall. She then follows the southern wall while moving to Dolak to see if she can offer him any assistance.
The lady mage dampens a bit of bandage and offers it up to the dwarf to cleanse his face. Dolak grudgingly accepts the offered cloth and carefully wipes the burned and blistered portions of his face.
In the aftermath of the small battle, Cyzicus' voice breaks the silence. "I say again, just WHY am I here?" he asks, feeling like a fifth wheel.
Seeing that Cyzicus has healed himself and that Kjira is taking care of Dolak's wounds, Lucas moves over to examine the corpses of the worm critters. It takes only a few moments of searching area around the large ankheg corpse until the mage discovers several shards of bone. His search also turns up a large burlap sack. Something metallic inside the bag makes a clanking noise when it is moved.
Turning to address the rest of the party, Lucas announces as he holds his find up, "I found a sack. Alani and Cy, search the rest of the room for any sign of the farmers above while I check out the sack.
"Dolak and Kjira," he continues, "go check out the tunnel opening where the worm critters were heading but don't go down it yet til we have finished with the searching of this room."
Cy says, "Aye I'm on it," and searches the room for survivors, farmers or not. He is soon joined by Alani.
Dolak and Kjira also move to follow Lucas' suggestions. The two comrades move cautiously to the small passageway that heads northwest and peer down it.
* * * * *
At the Holes Edge
North of Asbravn, The Sunset Vale
Late-Afternoon, 2nd Day of Marpenoth; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
Darius and Corax anxiously await for their companions' return. As they wait, the sun slowly sets on the horizon and the shadows lengthen across the abandoned farmstead. After the passing of two candlemarks, there is no sign of their comrades.
* * * * *
Lucas moves over to the lamp with the sack and opens it to see what it holds. The light from the lamp reveals a silver teapot, a silver necklace, a small turquoise jewel, and several handfuls of silver and copper coins.
From across the earthen chamber, Alani gives a short exclamation. Looking to the elf, the others see that she holds a gold ring in her hand.
Soon after Alani's discovery, Dolak and Kjira report that the northwest tunnel proceeds for only three or four paces before it turns sharply eastward and continues out of sight. Lucas takes a moment to scribe that new information onto his map.
Cyzicus then informs the others that he has found only small shards of bone. No human survivors or corpses have been discovered in the chamber.
"All that silver," Kjira muses at the viewed the contents of the sack. "How odd "
Seeing that all are finished searching room, Lucas secures the sack with the valuables in his pack. Retrieving the lamp, he then walks over and checks over the large dead worm critter one more time before walking back over to where Kjira and Dolak are waiting for the rest of the party.
"I shall hold the sack 'til we can divide it up top. Alani, you hold the ring you found. Let's continue our search in our previous marching order. It appears that there are no humans here.
"I shall continue mapping as we go. Let us know, Dolak, if we are travelling too far in one direction or going too far underground as we are not as knowledgable as you are being underground."
Cy says, "Yes, let's do get this done," as he moves into position at the rear of the party.
With a nod to Lucas, Alani holds up the ring and carefully examines it first for any inscriptions or carvings. Finding a small engraving of an entwined "A" and "M", she puts it into a pouch strapped to her belt.
The elven scout looks uncomfortable as she follows Dolak into the tunnel. The closeness of the walls is clearly starting to affect her. She puts her bow away and unsheathes her short sword, its blade emerging from its sheath with a metallic rasp.
Lucas hands Kjira the lamp, waits for Alani to pass, and then follows behind her.
Taking the Lamp from Lucas, Kjira falls into her place behind her fellow mage as the group once more to marches single file out of the room.
Following the northwest passage, the company turns sharply eastward after only a few feet - much as Dolak reported. The tunnel takes the companions eastward and then turns southeast for a handful of paces before turning once more, this time to the southwest, and rejoining the tunnel by which the party entered the ankheg lair. Chagrined, the small band turns southward to resume their exploring the ankheg tunnels.
Soon after leaving the ankheg lair, the companions come across a scythe - of the type used by farmers for cutting grain - lying on the tunnel floor. A closer inspection reveals that the handle is smeared with a dried, brownish-red substance. Cyzicus grimly confirms that the substance is indeed dried blood, most likely human or the like.
A brief search of that particular tunnel lends no further clues to the unfortunate missing owner of the scythe. After inspecting yet another hole that leads to the darkening evening sky above, the party members grimly resume their exploration of the ankhegs' passageways.
The tunnels continue to twist and turn for a seemingly endless distance. If were not for Dolak's skills in subterranean navigation coupled with Lucas' route marking and mapping, the companions would surely have lost their way in the maze of passages.
The journey proceeds for several candlemarks. During that time, the party manages to locate the lower portion of the ankheg that they first slew. They also discover that the ankhegs' burrowing apparently intersected the farm's well. The well shaft, replete with its rope, leads not only toward the surface but further into the earth, as well.
Finally, having exhausted all the possible passageways and having found no further clues of survivors or victims, the companions find themselves back in the ruins of the collapsed cellar. By this time, Kjira's lamp is sputtering as it nears the end of its oil reservoir. Recalling Dolak's instructions to Darius back in the farmhouse above, the adventurers realize that they have been underground for nearly two hours!
Kjira looks briefly concerned as the lantern starts to sputter before she remembers the candles in her pack. Relief washes over her face.
Frowning as they come to a halt, Lucas realizes that the party has made a complete circle with no other options but down through the well the party has discovered or to give up the seemingly futile search. Turning to address his fellow party members the red-robed mage starts, "Well, it doesn't look good. I think we may wanna give up and move back topside and rejoin our companions and our employer. What do the rest of you think?" Lucas pauses to wait for a reply from the others.
"We should probably return to the surface," she said to the others. "I don't think there's anything else down here for us."
"Just to breathe fresh air would be enough," mutters Alani, wiping the dust of her tired face.
Nodding at the two women, Lucas next addresses Cyzicus. "Cy, I think you may wanna break the sad news to our young friend that his family may be lost."
Sighing with remorse Lucas continues, "It must be dark or almost dark outside by now, so we should head back and tell those waiting for us what we have discovered at least. Let us move to where we entered the tunnels, if no one has any objections, so we may exit there where we have assistance waiting to pull us out."
The five adventurers start moving the thirty or so feet that will take them back to the bottom of the hole through which the entered. At the rear of the small band, Cy follows the others out looking and feeling very morose.
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