Furnok burst out laughing at the halfling’s exclamation, and Besilana joined in. Taliesin opened his mouth like he wanted to correct her, but he decided against it. Felicity was confused by the reaction and said, “MOTHER EHLONNA! I pray I never meet a REAL zebra!”
“And may that prayer be answered,” Besilana said, catching her breath.
Furnok wiped away a tear. “Thanks, Lis. I needed that.” He glanced at the grisly corpses laying savaged on the floor. “Oh, hey. They’ve got belt pouches,” he said, helping himself to the belongings of the fallen. The rogue found dozens of copper and silver coins, as well as a handful of gold and a lump of blue quartz.
“So. Is anyone else hurt?” the paladin asked.
Still looking around at her companions dumbfounded, Felicity said, “I’m… okay?”
“I wonder if these were the creatures that took the poor gnome captive,” said Furnok.
“These were gnolls. I assume they were the ones,” said Taliesin. Looking around the oddly-shaped room, he noted several more pallets than the four bodies would account for and revised his opinion. “At least some of them. It’s too bad we couldn’t speak their language. It makes these cloaks much less useful.”
“So I guess there are more where they came from. Much more.”
“We must remain cautious,” said Besilana, as the party settled in to rest.
The halfling muttered, “I wonder what a tiger looks like now.”
“Cat-sized horses, Felicity,” said Taliesin. “Cat-sized horses.”
After a few minutes, they regained their feet, and the paladin moved to inspect the narrow northern section of the gnolls’ quarters for a secret door or anything else of note. The rogue scoops up the torch and offers it to Felicity then moved to look over Besilana’s shoulder. “Anything over there?” he asked dubiously.
She glanced back at him. “Doesn’t look like it.”
He shrugged. “One fewer path.”
The party returned to the hub room, and confirmed that the third door on the south wall went nowhere, opening into an empty room. Besilana then led them up the northern hall, which curved crookedly, depositing them in another hall. A portcullis blocked the northern part of the hall, and the party searched for any mechanism to raise it but found nothing.
Besilana rolled her shoulders and stretched a bit before she attempting to lift the portcullis. She almost felt it start to move, but the weight proved too much for even her prodigious strength. She released it with a heavy grunt.
“Maybe the switch is around the corner,” suggested Taliesin. “I’ll go check.” The druid transformed into a mouse, and slipped easily between the bars of the portcullis. Finding no mechanism for the portcullis on the other side, he continued down the hall. Around the bend in the corridor, a short flight of stone steps ascended, only to terminate in a wall. He examined it more closely and noticed a not-terribly-well-concealed lever at about waist height for a humanoid.
While Taliesin explored, Felicity told the others, “You know, I really, really like when he does that. I get to see so many new creatures! I love it!”
“Become a druid!” said Furnok. “Turn into new and interesting creatures! And kill people as them!”
Besilana giggled. “I got the wrong calling.” The rogue smirked at her.
Taliesin returned and changed back to his normal form. “There is a staircase going up that leads to a blank wall. I found a lever at that wall. Don’t think that lever open the gate here though.”
“Hmm. I suppose we should try another way, then,” said Besilana.
They headed around a dogleg to the east and entered another large chamber with three doors on the east wall and another hallway to the north. “This looks familiar,” said Taliesin. “Who wants to check for false doors?”
“I will,” said the paladin. “Not sure that I want to…”
She led the others across the room to the northernmost door. As predicted, it opened up into an empty square room. Taliesin abruptly cast his eyes to the northern hallway and shouted, “More enemies!” His companions were surprised to see two bugbears decked out in hide armor and bearing shields painted with a yellow eye of fire. The druid shifted into a giant spider, and bit one of the bugbears creeping up on the party.
The bitten bugbear attacked Taliesin, while its companion circled around the giant spider to get to the surprised Felicity! His spiked morningstar crashed heavily into her side, and she cried out in pain. “OUCH! By Ehlonna,” she chanted a healing prayer and knit the puncture wounds and bruises she’d just sustained.
Taliesin tried to bite his target again, but the bugbear caught the spider’s fangs on its shield. Furnok pulled his rapier on the move, flanking with Felicity. He managed to get his blade under the bugbear’s shield, thrusting up into the meat of its arm. The rogue parried the bugbear’s morningstar, but Taliesin failed to move his leg out of the way of his opponent’s weapon and it got crushed. Fortunately, he had seven more.
Besilana charged up to the bugbear threatening Furnok and introduced it to Starsong. Felicity evoked her holy light, but the wounded creature evaded. Taliesin managed to penetrate his target’s defenses a second time, and the bugbear died, overcome by the poisoned fangs impaling its chest. Furnok pulled his dagger and flurried against the remaining – heavily wounded – bugbear. The creature desperately blocked the rogue’s blades. Taliesin appeared to be the most wounded, so it tries to go through him. The druid had learned when to move his remaining legs, and the morningstar ricocheted off the stone floor.
While the bugbear reeled from the shock of its missed attack, Besilana cut him down.
“Well that hurt!” said the halfling.
“Are you okay, Felicity?” asked Taliesin. “I tried to block the hallway but they got around me.”
“Oh, my poor Felicity,” said Besilana. “Do you need healing?”
“I’m okay!” the halfling insisted cheerily. “The blessings of Ehlonna left me unscathed in the end!” She spun around to show showcase her health, only teetering a bit before catching her balance.
“Lady of the Forests be praised.”
“How are such big creatures so sneaky?” Furnok complained. “Maybe I should just keep my weapons out,” he mused. He set to work looting the bodies again, finding a handful of gold coins and a silver necklace set with a tiger eye being worn as a bracelet by one of the bugbears.
“Pretty!” exclaimed Felicity.
“You should wear it,” said Besilana.
The party proceeded to the north, where they found a couple of pallets in a roughly octagonal chamber. Apparently, the bugbears were simply quartered there. Their search of the room failed to turn up anything of interest, so they returned to the hub and the remaining two doors. The middle door hid only another blank wall. Taliesin looked closely at it, trying to understand its purpose. There was a small chain linked to the door that went into the wall, and he surmised that – like the other door with only a blank wall behind – it was likely linked to the portcullis.
The southernmost door concealed another empty square room, so the party backtracked to the hallway near the crypt with a branch leading to another door and the stairs leading down. “Open hallway before door?” suggested Furnok. The others agreed, and the party headed south.
At the bottom of the southern steps, the party came into another rectangular chamber with no other apparent exits. Bones and litter were scattered in and around the pool in the chamber. Besilana approached the pool and attempted to guess at the depth of the water. In the torchlight, it was difficult to say, but from how dark it is, she’d guess it’s at least ten feet deep. As she was estimating, a giant crayfish surfaced, splashing water as it raised massive claws.
“WOOOOWWWW!!!” cried Felicity. “What is it- Oh, it wants to eat us!” She prayed for sacred flame, and Ehlonna answered, lancing the creature with radiant energy. The crustacean squealed wetly.
Besilana held her attack and waited for the creature to come to her. It accommodated the paladin, snapping with its claws even as she swung her sword. Her wooden sword erupted in holy light as she brought it down hard, slicing a rent in the crayfish’s shell.
Unfortunately, her attack left her defenses down, and the creature took hold of her in one of its pincers! The paladin nearly roared in frustration. Taliesin created a thundering crash against the crustacean, shoving it into the far corner of the pool and jolting it enough to drop Besilana.
Furnok said, “Well, I’m not chasing it.” He pulled his bow and took aim, but his arrow deflected off the creature’s carapace. Felicity evoked more holy light, but the wounded crayfish juked aside.
“Get back here!” Besilana shouted, diving in after the creature and stabbing it. Its bulbous eyes rolled wildly, and it dove under the water swimming down out of sight. Furnok readied another shot, looking uncertain. Taliesin and Felicity took up defensive stances, the halfling glancing anxiously at the half-elf.
Besilana swam down and out of sight in pursuit of the creature. After a tense couple of moments, bloody bubbles erupted on the surface of the pool. A beat after that, the paladin resurfaced an emerged from the pool, soaked to the skin. "Got it,” she announced, sheathing her enchanted blade.
Furnok looked at her askance. “Yeah, you did. The why eludes me, I confess.”
“There’s some loot down there,” Besilana added between breaths. “Give me a minute and I’ll go back down for it.”
“Huh. Well, hey. Loot is loot.”
After catching her breath, the paladin dove back into the water. The others settled in, with Furnok keeping an eye on the stairs. When she surfaced, Besilana had a couple dozen gold coins, a longsword, a platinum pin, and two blue potions.
“Oh, wow!” said Furnok. “Maybe you should act crazy more often!”
“It hurt me,” said Besilana, as if no further explanation should be necessary.
The rogue quirked an eyebrow. “Well, sure, but I doubt it was personal. It’s a … well, not a fish exactly, but an animal, anyway.” He looked to Taliesin for backup.
“It was like a big scorpion lobster thing!” said Felicity.
“It felt threatened,” said the druid. “We came into its lair. It had nowhere to run so it chose to try and fight. It’s nature at its simplest. And like nature, it is brutal … and not often fair.”
“Awww, poor craw-daddy,” said the halfling.
“All right, then,” said Furnok, turning away and muttering something under his breath about a hawk.
“Anything that hurts us is going to get hurt back until it can’t hurt anyone again,” said Besilana.
“Hell of an oath,” said the rogue. His tone communicated clearly that he was ready to bow out of the conversation. Felicity’s expression showed her discomfort with the exchange.
“I understand the sentiment,” said Taliesin. “I just ask that we at least try not to force every creatures hand so it feels it has to hurt us.”
“Agreed,” said the paladin. She removed one boot to pour water out of it, then the other. Then she shrugged out of her tunic and started wringing it out. Felicity sputtered a little bit, coughing to cover it, then grinning like the cat that ate the canary.
After they managed to catch their collective breath, Furnok asked, “We’re good to continue? You all still have spells in case things go south?”
“I do!” said the cleric.
“I’m out, but I just mastered casting spells this morning, so I didn’t have much to begin with,” said Besilana.
“I’m out of spells for the day, but I can still transform,” said Taliesin.
“A very potent gift,” Furnok said.
“We are learning that together. Neither of my parents use the wild shape all that often. They favor magic. I definitely seem to have a knack for the beast forms.”
“It’s been very helpful so far!” said Felicity.
“Then let’s press on,” said Besilana.
“Onward into danger!” Felicity cried, casting a hopeful/worried glance at her allies.
The paladin opened the door. There was another door immediately to the north. The corridor there began to slant gradually upwards. “This door first?” Besilana asked.
“Yes, I think it’s best to start at the beginning,” said Felicity. The other two nodded.
Behind the second door, a long hallway extended to the north, with a chamber opening off the west side at the end. Human men-at-arms stood guard, garbed in black scale mail with gold eyes of fire embroidered upon tunic and cloak. The nearest guard eyed you suspiciously, particularly the soggy paladin. “Sergeant, we have company!” he called back over his shoulder.
“Hail!” Besilana called with as much cheer she could muster.
A fourth man in chain came into view from the chamber to the north. “We were not expecting … recruits,” he drawled while his men finger their crossbows. “Offer up the sign or be shot down.”
The paladin formed an OK symbol with the circle around her eye and moved it toward the men. “Be seeing you?” she said. Felicity face-palmed.
The sergeant rolled his eyes and said, “Kill them.”
The three crossbowmen opened fire, but all their quarrels flew wide of Besilana and Taliesin. The men withdrew while the sergeant barked out, “Intruders!” to the north. Then the man moved boldly forward with a spear in one hand and a shield in the other.
Felicity began a powerful chant and launched a holy bolt of light at the sergeant, piercing through him as he hefted the spear. She was a little surprised when the man cried out in shock and pain, dropping his spear and covering his eyes only to find they had been burned out of his head. He crumpled to the floor and the other men pale.
Taliesin shifted into a giant spider again, moved forward onto the ceiling, and shot a mass of web at the nearest guard. Besilana dashed up to the entangled guard and Furnok followed in her wake. The webbed guard struggled with his entanglement, and his two companions tried to kill its source. One of the bolts sank into the spider’s carapace. Another sergeant advanced from somewhere to the north, barking out questions. He took the situation in the hallway, and his eyes narrowed.
Felicity murmured another prayer striking the webbed man with sacred flame. Taliesin skittered forward along the ceiling and took a bite out of the webbed guard, who stopped struggling. Besilana tacked around the webbed guard to engage the sergeant, her blade slicing into his side. Furnok joined her. His rapier slid off the man’s shield, but he brought his dagger up underneath his arm. The rogue jerked the blade out as the man’s eyes widened in death.
“Get the lieutenant! Warn the master!” one of the crossbowmen called to the rearmost spearmen that had entered the chamber. Then he and his companion took aim at Furnok and Taliesin. The druid-spider flattened himself along the ceiling, dodging the bolt, but the rogue was grazed along the cheek. Ducking another burst of light from the halfling cleric, the nearest cult guard threw a spear at Furnok. The rogue sank to the stone floor, bleeding out from a spear wound to the guts!
Taliesin ducked a thrown spear and advanced to claim another victim. Besilana pressed forward as well, flanking the cultist between her and the druid, and heavily wounding the man. The crossbowmen continued to retreat, firing at Taliesin, but missing. A human in splint mail emerged from a door on the east wall to the north. He wielded a longsword in one hand and a short sword in the other. He frowned deeply, and took up a defensive position.
“No-no-no!” cried Felicity, scrambling toward Furnok while pulling out her healer’s kit. She pulled out the spear, shoved a wadded up handful of unguent-drenched gauze into the wound, and waved smelling salts under his nose. The rogue’s eyes fluttered open as he regained consciousness. Felicity saw his terror give way to deep relief, a sentiment she surely shared.
The nearer cult guard tried to kill Besilana with a longsword, but she parried the swing adroitly. The guard who had warned the Master lobbed a spear at Taliesin, and his missile found its mark.
Then a dark-skinned, white haired and absolutely gorgeous elf emerged from the side chamber, her dark-metal chainmail only accentuating her sex appeal. “Ahhh. Finally,” she purred, casting a spell.
Spectral spiders appeared in a protective ring around her and the cultists to the north.
Taliesin bit the nearby guard, lifted the body in the air, and then dropped him to the floor before advancing on the drow. Besilana surged toward the nearest guard and struck him a vicious blow that nearly ended him. Furnok regained his feet, scooping up his weapons as he followed Besilana’s lead, and struck at her target. The cult guard was not fast enough to parry the rogue’s attacks, and fell dead a moment later.
The crossbowmen continued firing at the spider, managing to score a pair of hits against the shapeshifted druid. The lieutenant saluted with his blades, approaching the faux-spider. His longsword took two of the spider’s legs, and his shortsword stabbed out an eye. Taliesin’s fell to the floor, reverting to his natural elven form as he smacked into the stone floor, bleeding out. The swordsman flicked the blood off his blades, and glanced over at Besilana expectantly for a moment before closing the distance. Besilana offered a salute of her own as the lieutenant approached.
Felicity rushed to Taliesin’s side, rapidly patching him up and bringing him back around. In response, the drow whispered a harsh syllable and gestured at the druid. Taliesin felt his vision starts to fade, but he reached deep within and shook off the blindness. Frowning petulantly, the dark elf advanced, and her spider escort came with her. They enveloped the party, biting and hanging onto them.
Taliesin stumbles north through the spider cloud and shifted into a large bear. He then attacked the drow priestess, biting and clawing. The spiders dissipated and she turned to face the bear. “That wasn’t very nice,” she pouted maliciously.
Besilana offered a brief prayer to Ehlonna as she crosses blades with the lieutenant and tried to force an opening. Her blade struck true, and his expression changed to one of grudging respect. Furnok joined the melee, and though the swordsman parried his rapier, the rogue’s dagger found an opening. The crossbowmen drew longswords and advanced on the bear to protect the drow, but the druid avoided their hesitant opening attacks.
The cult lieutenant methodically targeted the weakened Furnok first. It took two swings of his longsword, but he dropped the rogue, before pivoting over and taking aim at the more lightly armored Felicity with his short sword. He stabbed the halfling deeply, and favored her with an appraising gaze. “You are a troublesome little peck, aren’t you?” he uttered dispassionately. Felicity ignored the insult, instead focusing on her prayers for healing. Waves of restorative light washed over herself and Furnok, reviving the rogue again and knitting part of her own wound.
The drow smiled cruelly and with a gesture the room was enveloped in darkness. Taliesin growled and advanced, trying to strike blindly in the dark. Cursing, Besilana lashed out in the direction she last saw the lieutenant. Starsong scraped across the man’s splint mail, but she didn’t think it had hurt him. She gritted her teeth and stood her ground. “We should go,” said Furnok insistently, tugging Besilana’s arm.
In the darkness, the lieutenant’s blades struck out at the bear, slashing him once and stabbing him with the short sword. The druid roared in pain, and the adventurers heard the sound of the swordsman shifting position in the murk.
“This is a failing battle now, we need to regroup,” said Felicity, agreeing with Furnok. She reached out for the wall beside her and followed it south until she emerged from the magical darkness. “I found the light again,” she cried. “The way south is clear! Come to the sound of my voice!”
The heroes heard chanting form the northeast corner, then they heard the spectral spiders reappear. Taliesin tore himself out of the spiders, making his way south, then getting next to Felicity. Besilana felt the spiders’ bites, as well, emerging into the hall just south of her companions. Furnok cried out in pain, and the adventurers heard his body thump to the floor in the darkness.
“I’ll get him!” said Besilana.
They heard the drow priestess’s laughter from the darkness. “What makes you think he doesn’t wish to stay, my sweet? Perhaps he wishes to taste the rewards offered by Lareth the Beautiful. Gods know he wouldn’t be the first human tempted by elven flesh.” Her cruel laughter was musical.
Felicity looked indecisively between the darkness and Besilana before taking a step down the hall. “Bring him back or I’m going in after you both,” she told the paladin with worry in her eyes.
Taliesin held up a paw, gritted his teeth, and stepped into the darkness. The druid’s hairy body weathered the pain of the spiritual guardian spiders, and he followed his nose to Furnok’s prone form. The bear gingerly took the rogue’s boot in his mouth and began to pull him out of the darkness and the drow priestess’s murderous spell. Once they were back in the light, the druid moved at full speed down the southern hall.
Felicity cast a healing spell on Furnok as they passed, and the rogue snapped awake again. “Okay. I’m okay. Put me down. Let’s go!”
The party fled the dark elf priestess and her warrior bodyguards. Lareth’s laughter echoed once again before she offered one final taunt. “Don’t stay away long, sweets. Mother Eiravain won’t wait forever…”