Furnok pushed the secret door in the blackened chamber open, revealing a darkened stairway that led downward. At Besilana’s request, the rogue lit a torch. The paladin took point and headed down the stairs.
A few torn sacks, broken barrels, and shattered weapons racks showed that the large chamber at the foot of the steps had once been a storage place and armory for the fortress. Great heaps of worthless rubble and broken containers and furniture lay at the western end of the room, all obviously junk.
“Ooohh! Stuff!” said Felicity.
Besilana made to move from the stairs into the room when a blob of wet, sticky green slime dropped off the ceiling onto her shoulder! “Gak!” she cried, as the acidic ooze burned her.
“It’s green slime!” Taliesin declared. “Burn it or remove it magically, like you would cure diseases.”
Besilana grited her teeth and laid healing hands on herself to “cure the disease” of the slime. It melted away, but not before savaging the shoulder of her scavenged scale armor. The paladin looked up at the ceiling and saw another patch of the slime above the other half of the stair. “Another one. There,” she said, pointing.
Taliesin and Furnok moved around the space below the other patch of slime. “Felicity, can you blast it with your sun ray?” asked the rogue.
“I can try!” said the halfling. She prayed for sacred flame and was rewarded. The other patch of slime shriveled and died, if such a word could be said to apply. “WHOOO!” Felicity yelped, jumping into the air.
“Nice one,” said Besilana.
“Let’s take a look at your back, Lana,” said Furnok.
“I’m fine,” she said automatically, then took a knee anyway.
“I’m not sure we can say the same of your armor,” said Taliesin.
Furnok picked at the melted scales on the shoulder. “We can probably lace this up for now, but I don’t know how long it’ll hold.”
Besilana frowned. “I’ll have to get it mended when we get back to Hommlet, if I can.”
“The leather weathered whatever that stuff was a bit better than the metal,” said the rogue. His deft fingers laced the shoulder back together with no small amount of skill.
Felicity startled and rushed over to check on the paladin’s state. “Are you okay? Other than the armor, of course. I got too excited about actually hurting that thing…”
Besilana nodded. “I can keep going, thanks.”
After he finished, Furnok slapped the paladin on the shoulder. “So. First dungeon experience for me. You?” He addressed the question to the group.
“Same,” said Taliesin.
“The same,” echoed Besilana. “I went into an owlbear’s cave once, but she wasn’t home.”
“This is a dungeon?” said Felicity.
“Underground. Killer slime on the ceiling. Unknown inhabitants and other dangers. What would you call it, Lis?” Furnok grinned.
“Well, I don’t know what to call something I’ve never encountered before. How about ‘Dark-stranger-danger-place?’” the halfling suggested.
“Doesn’t really roll off the tongue, now, does it?” said the rogue.
“Well, now I know it’s a dungeon because you said so… But isn’t a dungeon where you keep criminals?” asked Felicity.
“Or where criminals keep themselves,” Furnok countered. “I’m thinking we may need to keep a sharper eye out than usual. Especially since we’re bounded by our light.” As they considered his words, it occurred to them that other than the torchlight, there was no other illumination evident.
“You’re right, Furnok,” said Besilana.
“It seems more dangerous than the toad and other things, because it’s dark…” admitted Felicity.
The rogue nodded. “Do we want to sort through the wreckage to see if there is anything worth salvaging?”
“Might be worth it,” said Taliesin.
“Agreed. Let’s be thorough,” said Besilana, heading to the west side of the room. “Over here,” she called. “I see doors behind all this junk.”
Felicity skipped over. “Oh, where?”
The paladin pointed. Upon inspection, Furnok reported that the locks on each of the doors were obviously new and well-oiled.
“Interesting,” said Taliesin.
Felicity gasped and in a stage-whispered, “Criminals!”
“Just so,” Besilana said, smirking.
“It seems a new beast has taken up dwelling in this old nest,” said the druid.
Felicity nodded emphatically. “Yep, criminals! We’re the adventurers looking for their ill-gotten gains! For glory! I’msoexcited!” Taliesin laughed.
“Shall we start here, then?” asked Besilana. “Would you mind, Furnok?” she added, indicating the locked doors.
“Well, I suppose.” He withdrew his oddly-shaped tools and set to work. After a moment and another bent metal bar he said, “Okay. These are not peasant locks.”
Felicity whispered to herself, “Peasant locks?” Louder, she said, “Furnok? Do you unlock peasant’s locks?”
“Figure of speech,” he mumbled unconvincingly. “Let me try the other one,” he added uncertainly.
Besilana considered her odds of knocking the door down while Furnok looked over the second. However, a moment later, the tale-tell click of tumblers announced his success. The rogue made way for her to open the door. “Make ready,” she advised, opening the door.
The room behind held dozens of spears, ten glaives, six guisarmes, three battle axes, approximately three score black capes (each with a yellow eye of fire sewed on the center) more containers of provisions, a crate of arrows, and a crate of crossbow bolts.
“Anyone recognize that emblem?” asked Taliesin.
“I do,” said Besilana. “The men who raided Myhalas wore it.”
Felicity followed the others in and started grabbing some extra arrows. “Oh, more stuff. This is sharps and capes. These guys are pretty organized for criminals.”
“A veritable arsenal,” said Furnok.
“Massing for more than simple banditry, maybe,” said Taliesin.
Besilana nodded. “Right, cousin. If there aren’t a lot of them, they mean to recruit a lot.”
“I know none of you is inherently … well … greedy, but anything we can take away from this cult has got to count as a blow against them, even in some small way,” said the rogue.
“Fair point,” said Taliesin.
“We could give it to a better cause like the churches!” said Felicity.
“I concur,” said Besilana.
They searched the room, but found nothing more than was readily apparent. After Felicity finished collecting arrows, they exited back to the stairway arch. “I think I have the knack of it now,” said Furnok. “Shall I give the other door a second look?”
“Please,” said Taliesin.
A few moments later, the rogue sighed in defeat. “Then again. You may need to use your boot,” he told Besilana.
She rolled her neck until it popped and promptly kicked the door. The lock held, but the wood did not. It opened with a loud CRACK! Inside the room were thirty shields, a dozen suits of leather armor, and several barrels.
“Man, these guys are very proficient in organization,” said Felicity.
“Indeed,” said Besilana. “They’ve been here longer than I would have guessed.” She moved in to take a closer look. Most of the barrels were full of salted meat, but two five-gallon kegs in the back appeared to contain decent brandy. “Oh, HEY,” she said. “Look at this, Felicity.”
“Look at what?” The halfling scampered over. “What? Ew! Brandy? That would pickle a man!” said Felicity.
“Braaandy?” said Furnok, coming to look. He found a stray mug and poured a quick sample. After a taste, he said, “Oh, wow. This is the good stuff.”
Felicity muttered, “Now I want pickles…”
Ignoring the halfling’s muttering, he said, “Between the two barrels, this would probably fetch a little over thirty gold. Heavy, though.” He frowned.
“Lots to carry out when we are done, but I suggest we deal with the current owners first,” said Taliesin.
“Right. They should be all right in here, for now,” said Besilana.
“Yuck, I can smell it from here. Like the cleaning solution we used on the dais at the temple,” said Felicity. She shook her head and took in all of the other items the room contained. “This is … We should do something about their equipment. It can only be used for wicked acts in their hands. Arm the town? Burn it all down?” Furnok raised an eyebrow at the halfling’s suddenly arsonist suggestion.
“Arming the town isn’t a bad idea,” said Taliesin. “I’m sure the mercs in the keep would be very appreciative.”
The others nodded agreement, then Furnok said, “All right. Door or hallway?”
“I vote door,” said the druid.
“Dungeons and doors…” Felicity said quietly.
“All right,” said Besilana, leading the party to the door on the north wall in the eastern half of the stair chamber. She readied Starsong and opened the portal. The door made no noise as Besilana pushed it open. The mess of filth and broken junk within the room beyond was utterly unremarkable.
The paladin took a few careful steps inside, and when nothing happened she crossed to the door on the eastern wall. Pausing a moment to make sure the others were ready, she pushed it open.
The next chamber was approximately forty-feet-square. Against the far eastern wall, directly in front of the door in which they stood, an ogre sat on a pile of old clothing and skins that must serve as a bed. A large wooden chest rested at the foot of the heap. The ogre looked up as the door opened. He squinted at the adventurers and spoke in broken Common. “You no wear new master symbol.” He grinned. “Lubash kill you now.”
“Ohhh, Hells,” said Besilana. She charges at the ogre to attack, and her magic blade sang discordantly as she advanced. Lubash kicked some junk from the foot of the pile at her, startling the paladin and disrupting her charge.
Felicity tried to stifle her surprised, “Nope.” She uttered a quick prayer to bless the party.
Taliesin let out a bellowing growl that changed in pitch and power as he shifted into a brown bear. He then ran around the pillars and attacked the ogre, savaging the giant’s arm and midsection with tooth and claw.
Lubash was more than a little surprised by this development, but to his credit, he lifted the sapling beside his pallet that served as a greatclub and brought it down heavily on the bear’s back.
Furnok cursed under his breath and ducked around the door frame for a moment. As busy as the ogre was with the melee combatants, it lost track of the rogue. Furnok loosed an arrow, which sank heavily into one of the ogre’s meaty thews!
Besilana muttered an Elvish curse and redoubled her efforts to wound Lubash. The sword sang in tune as it arced into the ogre’s side. Felicity prayed for sacred flame and let out a little whoop when it struck true. Taliesin’s next bite tore Lubash’s arm out of the socket at the shoulder. The ogre fell heavily onto the bedding and knew no more.
With the foe defeated, everyone’s gaze settled on the bear. Felicity and Besilana stared in awe. “WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?" the halfling cried.
“A freaking BEAR?!” Furnok added incredulously.
Taliesin spat out the arm in manner most unnatural for a bear. Shifting back in to elven form, he continued to spit out blood. “Ok that wasn’t the most pleasant taste”
“Well, that’s downright unsettling,” said the rogue.
“Right? That’s something I never thought I’d see,” said Besilana. She wiped the blood off her blade before sheathing it.
Felicity took a step back from Taliesin. “That was NO squirrel!”
“I don’t think a squirrel would have been much help there, Felicity,” said the druid.
“Well, we saw the wolf form last night, but this was something else entirely,” said Furnok.
“Can you become any animal?” asked Besilana.
“I can shift into most any animal that I have seen in my life,” Taliesin explained. “So, really any forest dwelling creature is an option. I plan to try out the giant spider form that we fought yesterday too.”
“Wait, you were big as a bear…” said Felicity. “Could I … could I ride you?”
“Yes, I’m sure you could. I can’t stay in that form for any longer than an hour or so, and I can’t speak while doing it either.”
“Oh! What about a pony!?!”
Furnok chuckled and shook his head helplessly. “I do have to admit, that went much smoother than it seemed like it was going to.”
“C-can I… When we get out of here?” said the halfling.
“I think we should see what’s in the chest first, Felicity,” said Besilana.
“Right. Let’s see what’s in the box,” said Taliesin.
“I’ll bet it’s no pony…” said Felicity.
“Furnok?” the paladin prompted the rogue.
“Is it locked?” he asked, walking over.
“I’m not sure. I was worried to even touch it.”
“Ah. Well, then. Allow me to allay your fears.” He grinned. That made her smile, as well.
After a brief inspection, Furnok said, “Looks fine to me. And not locked.” He lifted the lid. The chest contained a handful of coins, some worthless glass beads, brass candlesticks and other trash, and an eerie set of bone pipes with bird skulls.
“OH SHINY!” cried Felicity.
Furnok looked up at the druid. “Don’t you play the pipes, Sin?”
“I do. Those are interesting.” Taliesin took the pipes and attempted to play them. They were well-tuned, and only appeared capable of creating minor chords, resulting in a haunting tune.
“Ew, bone pipes… are… DON’T PUT YOUR MOUTH ON THAT!” Felicity said too late. “They were in the ogre’s hoard, that’s how you get sick … or pink-eye.” She tut-tutted him.
Taliesin grinned at her. “They are well made! Anyone mind if I add them to my pack?”
“Be my guest,” said Besilana.
“Thank you.” He pocketed the pipes and sat down to rest a bit.
Furnok nodded and settled onto the floor, leaning against a pillar. “Who taught you to play?” he asked. Besilana kept an ear on the conversation as she walked the perimeter of the room.
“My mother,” said the Taliesin. “She always said it was important to add melody to a quiet forest night.”
“Is she also a druid?” asked the rogue.
“She is. Both of my parents. And my brother. My family has wandered the Gnarley for generations. My sister preferred the city life in Myhalas.”
“Only a city compared to a druid’s grove,” Besilana called playfully. Taliesin nodded in agreement.
“And you said you’re over a hundred years old?” Furnok sighed wistfully. “I can’t even imagine getting to spend so much time with one’s family.” He looked down at the floor, his expression somber. Felicity walked over to Furnok and sat next to him, leaning her head on his arm. He tilted his head to the side to rest on hers briefly.
“Our family has a duty to protect the forest,” said Taliesin. “That keeps us together.” Taking note of the rogue’s expression, he asked, “Are you not close to your family?” Besilana wandered back to where the conversation was happening.
“I … was,” said Furnok. “They died a few years back.”
“Oh, no…” said the paladin.
Felicity gently hugged his arm. “Sorry, friend,” she said softly.
“Not like I was going to get a century with them, but … a couple more decades would have been nice,” said Furnok.
Taliesin nodded. “I’m sorry to hear that, Furnok. You will see them again, don’t worry.”
The rogue exhaled sharply through his nose at the druid’s comment. “What, in the afterlife? I’m not sure I believe in all that.”
“I do believe in it, yet I find little comfort in it,” said Besilana. Felicity stared off into space, a very solemn look on her face.
“Many things happen whether we believe in them or not,” said Taliesin. “I’m sure this ogre didn’t believe he’d be dying today.”
“I confess, I do not see the correlation, my good man,” said Furnok.
“All souls end up somewhere. And family tends to follow each other into the afterlife”
The rogue shrugged. “That’s as may be. Anyway, I’ve no desire to bring you down with my maudlin.” His smile was brittle, and then a moment later – believable.
“We can be your family in the meantime,” said Besilana.
“All a man can ask for, really.”
“Just don’t go to see them any time soon. We have work to do yet.” Taliesin smiled and rose from the floor.
“Yes. Back to work,” said the paladin.
“Aye, we’ve a cult to bilk,” said Furnok.
Felicity smiled faintly and stood again, still staring off.
“Felicity? Everything all right?” asked Besilana.
“Hmm? Yeah, good to go! Gotta kick some cult!” cried the halfling.
“Excellent.” The paladin led the others toward the southern door.
The portal was heavily barred – from their side. Besilana shoved the bar out of the way and pushed the door open. The room beyond housed a pair of bruised humans and a badly beaten gnome. They whimpered as the door opened, then cried out in relief to see non-ogres.
“Hail,” Besilana called to them. “You’re free now; your jailer is dead.” The prisoners praised various gods.
“Oh my gosh!” Felicity ran over with her healing kit to administer treatment to the prisoners. The humans babbled about being merchants and offered promises to reward the adventurers for their heroism. “Thank you kindly, but you don’t have to,” she told them.
“That’s very kind. Perhaps such a reward can be passed along to the needy,” the paladin suggested.
The gnome handed her an iron ring. “Bless, you, mum.”
“You’re very welcome.” She took it gratefully and found a finger that it fit.
“The road back to Hommlet should be okay to travel,” said Taliesin. “I suggest you get clear of here quickly.”
In response, the humans begged to be escorted, having been caught alone on the roads in the first place. The gnome nodded in agreement, though he confessed that he was caught spying on the Moathouse by gnolls.
“Interesting,” said Besilana. “We haven’t seen any gnolls yet. Should we head back so soon?” she asked her friends.
“I think we should press on, while these men find a place to wait for us,” said Taliesin. “There may be more prisoners farther in.” The merchants continued to insist that the party escort them back to civilization. They seemed very desperate about it.
“They could hole up in the storeroom,” said the paladin. “The one whose door is still on its hinges,” she clarified. She turned to the prisoners and said, “It’s stockpiled with weapons. You’d be safe in there until we’re ready to go back to Hommlet.” They found her suggestion to be acceptable. The gnome saw fit to stick with his fellow ex-captives. Besilana grinned at them. “Very good. Here, follow me.”
Felicity continued to pester the gnome about his wounds. “You’re small like me! It’s easy to get hurt, I know, please take care of yourself.”
“That’s … good advice, lass,” the gnome said uncertainly. “I’ll try, of course.”
When they returned to the storage room, the paladin collected some of the symbol-marked cloaks. “Do you think that’s what the ogre was talking about?” asked Furnok.
“I think it’s worth a try,” said Besilana. The rogue shrugged and nodded.
“Good thinking,” said Taliesin.
The paladin handed a cloak to each of the others. “We are going to have to hem yours, Felicity. Rather aggressively.”
The halfling smiled. “We’re playing dress up now!?!”
Furnok donned one of the cloaks and set about modifying one for Felicity. He was actually quite skilled at it. “Is there no end to your hidden talents?” Besilana asked him.
“Oh, there’s an end.” He smirked.
Once they each had a cult cloak, the party headed to the southern hall. Pillars were spaced twenty-feet apart down the center of the corridor. Five doors lined the western wall, and there was an opening in the center of the eastern wall.
Besilana made her way toward the opening but stopped short with a startled yelp when she noticed a figure lurking behind the southernmost pillar. Her elven eyes made out the shambling form of a walking corpse, and she charged the undead without hesitation. Her blade sliced it across the chest, but the dead man remained standing.
Considering the tight quarters, Taliesin shifted into a wolf and flanked the zombie behind the pillar. The druid-wolf took the zombie’s leg in his jaws and yanked, sending the undead sprawling to the floor. It regained its feet a moment later and swung a fist into Besilana’s armor.
Felicity prayed to the zombie0killing goddess of life and wishes a ray of divine light upon its head, but by a quirk of luck, it stumbled out of the way. Fortunately, it did not evade Besilana’s sword, which cut it down.
Furnok shook off his surprise and glanced at the nearest western door nervously. “Do you hear it too?” Besilana asked him.
“Yeah. I don’t think we’re in the clear yet…” he said. The paladin moved toward him, ready to attack anything that came through the door. Taliesin’s wolf ears pinned back as he sniffed the air for a new threat behind the doors.
“What are we doing?” Felicity asked softly.
Her question was answered a moment later when the northernmost door opened. Another zombie stepped out and bore down on Furnok, but the rogue managed to avoid the clumsy blow. With a little squeak, the halfling singed the undead with her sacred flame.
Furnok pulled his rapier and stabbed the walking dead man. Then, he stutter-stepped and disengaged from the creature, retreating behind the pillar. Besilana nodded her appreciation to him and waded in to cut down the zombie. She cast her glance into the small chamber from which the undead creature had emerged, but it lay empty.
Taliesin tripped the next zombie to open a cell door, but it got right back up and tried to crush the druid’s head. Felicity prayed for more holy light, but the slow wave of zombies had rattled the halfling, throwing off her aim.
Furnok dropped the torch beside the central pillar and drew his dagger, moving up to attack. The zombie still stood after being impaled by the rapier, so the rogue tried to stab it in the head with his dagger, as well. He got it in the neck instead, which caused the undead creature’s head to flop weirdly to the side. But still it stood. The rogue blinked, clenches his teeth, and stepped away, opening himself up to attack! The zombie narrowly missed the fleeing rogue. Besilana stepped into the void left behind by Furnok and lashes out at the zombie, finishing it off.
Repeating the very recent past, the next zombie was bit and tripped by Taliesin the wolf, then got up and bashed the wild-shaped druid in the head. The pain of the strike caused Taliesin to revert back into elven form, blood trickling down his forehead. Felicity continued her prayers but could not seem to focus. Furnok advanced to assist, stabbing the zombie twice, but not dropping it. He retreated again but was unable to avoid the seeking fist of the undead creature a second time.
Besilana once more swooped in and delivered the coup de grace. As it fell, she continued south and opened the next door, revealing yet another zombie. “Got another one,” she announced.
Taliesin shifted into a giant tick and scuttled in to attack the zombie, but the oddity of the new form threw him off balance. The undead bashed the druid in his fleshy carapace. Felicity rallied, scooping up the torch and moving to get a bead on the zombie. Her sacred flame burned down on the walking dead man. Furnok waded in after and managed to hit the sweet spot in the zombie’s brain. It crumpled to the floor.
Besilana made her way to the last door and flung it open to reveal yet another zombie. Her sword sliced it heavily, but she did not manage to end it in one shot. Taliesin still couldn’t get a handle on having so many legs, so the zombie ignored him to uselessly smash at Besilana’s armor. Felicity’s next prayer did little more than distract the zombie, but Furnok’s blades sent the undead to its final rest.
The rogue looked askance at the giant tick. “Really?” He cleaned the zombie ick off his blades and sheathed them as he walked away, shaking his head.
“Ew, just… ew,” Felicity agreed.
Taliesin shifted back into his elven form. “I needed to see in the dark. Made sense in the heat of battle. Not sure I’d do it again though. Those legs don’t move very fast at all.”
Besilana sighed relief, for many reasons, and started poking around the zombie rooms. Several moments later, she moved a loose stone in the southernmost cell and found a small green gem – a tourmaline. “Ohh, this is lovely,” she said.
“Shiny!” said Felicity.
“Nice!” said Furnok. “Probably get a hundred gold for that. Okay. Ogre. Zombies, and if the gnome is right, gnolls? What the hell is a gnoll?”
“Do they take gnoll-tolls?” asked the halfling.
Besilana shook her head, her expression serious. “Savages. Cannibal humanoids with hyena features. Worshipers of a demon prince.” Besilana pocketed the gem. “If there are any down here, we’ll have to be very careful…”