Drake coughed up blood. “Ugh… Could really use some assistance,” he said from the rock pile.
“Coming,” said Mom. He moved over to the alchemist and began prodding him with the healing wand.
“Thanks,” the big man rumbled. “Don’t think I’ve ever needed this much rescuin’ before.”
Sam grunted as she sheathed her bloodless greatsword. Seeing the rogue slumped against the wall, bleeding from pretty much every limb, she called down to the cleric. "Xan’s gonna need you to poke him some, too." After a beat she added, “You can even pick your favorite hole.”
“Remind me to have a witty response to that when I’m not about to pass out,” said Xan. Sam nodded at him sympathetically. Liberty shook her head and laughed.
“Hey!” Mom complained about the innuendo. “If I could climb, I’d be right there.”
Sam fished around in her backpack for a rope. She tossed one end down to Mom then tied the other end off to the bridge. “Getcher green ass up here,” she said pleasantly.
“It’s grey-green. And I’m on my way.”
While Mom tended to Xan’s injuries, Drake searched through the chokers’ rock pile. He uncovered the gnawed bones of two grimlocks along with a broken morningstar, a leather necklace set with four rubies, and a longsword that appeared to be forged of cold iron. He clutched the necklace and the sword and called out to the others. “Found somethin’ that could be helpful. I’m comin’ up.”
“I sure do like Kord these days,” Xan said after Mom finished healing him. “I might actually start meaning it when I thank him in the future.” The half-orc grunted.
They efficiently looted the corpse of the savage grimlock, and Xan was happy to relieve it of a suit of enchanted studded leather. The rogue wasted no time donning it. Liberty smiled as she identified yet another healing wand found in a bloody burlap sack in the narrow tunnel occupied by the grimlock barbarian.
Sam cast her gaze up the bridge. “Wonder where the others ran off to.”
“They probably went to get reinforcements,” said Mom.
“Oh, right,” said Liberty. “Maybe we shouldn’t dawdle.”
“Let’s loot those archers from the ledge first,” said Xan. “I think this tunnel leads back to that entrance Mom saw…”
* * *
The rope bridge swayed slightly, stirred by the almost imperceptible movement of air in the cavern. It consisted of three lengths of rope arranged in a V-shape. The lower point of the V served as a foothold, while the upper arms allowed one to hold steady as they crossed. Liberty groaned at the sight, and Drake grumbled.
“They just like this to be difficult,” he said, taking a swig from his flask. “What happened to good old-fashioned wooden planks?”
“It’s a sobriety check,” said Mom. “If you can’t make it across, you’re too drunk to fight.” He pulled a bow and nocked an arrow to cover the others’ crossing.
Xan went first and had little trouble navigating the rope bridge. He made it most of the way across before the ambush was sprung. The grimlocks that he’d seen earlier appeared from their hiding places and lobbed javelins at the rogue, but he managed to evade all of them. Liberty’s magic missile caught one in the face, and Xan took advantage of the distraction to leap over the creature. He spun around and stabbed it in the back of the neck, ending its life. Mom’s shot went wide.
Seeing Xan alone against two opponents, Sam attempted to rush across the bridge. Unfortunately, her balance was not as good as the rogue’s, and she lost her footing, falling thirty feet to the floor of the cavernous shaft. She regained her feet with a curse. Drake lobbed a firebomb at the melee, intending to angle it such that Xan would not be burned. Unfortunately, his aim was off, and the rogue was in the burning splash, but he managed to evade the flames anyway. The grimlocks were not so fortunate, but they fought through the pain, flanking the rogue and smashing him in the ribs with a morningstar.
Liberty switched to her wand of magic missile and sent another bolt of force streaking into the nearer of the two grimlocks. Xan ran one of the remaining foes through, but Mom was still not having any luck with the archery. “Bows suck!” he complained.
Drake picked up one of the javelin that had flown wide and chucked it at the remaining Grimlock, impaling it. “Yep,” he said as it fell.
“That was pretty good, Drake,” said Liberty.
He shrugged. “Didn’t want to waste a bomb on ‘im.”
Mom lowered a rope for Sam. She took hold of it and climbed back up to the ledge, looking somewhat chagrined. Xan bent down to search the bodies, while one by one, the rest of the adventurers carefully made their way across the span. The tunnel beyond wound upward along a narrow natural stair, until it opened on another chamber. The roof of the large cavern glistened twenty feet above and was traced with faint veins of iron ore. The quarters there were tight and cramped – barely ten feet to the east, the cavern floor rose up into a nearly vertical slope. The rest of the rough, uneven chamber consisted of a series of sharp slopes leading upward.
Xan noticed a pair of grimlocks sitting on the uppermost ledge of the chamber, apparently chatting. “Let me try and sneak up on them,” he whispered to the others. They nodded and waited as he crept up the slope. He positioned himself right behind one of them and put his sword through its neck before either even knew he was there. Sam charged in immediately after, climbing the slope with great pumping strides of her legs, and buried her greatsword in the other grimlock before it even had a chance to react to the first one’s death.
In the silence that followed, Drake cocked an eyebrow and said, “Well.”
“Gods. Damned. Right,” said Sam.
“Is there … anyone else up there?” asked Liberty. The rogue and the warrior-woman shook their heads no.
“Nicely skewered, Sam,” said Xan. She nodded, wiping her blade clean on the grimlock’s loincloth. “I guess you took your own advice there and put in any hole you wanted, eh?”
She grinned at him. “When in doubt, make your own hole.”
“Gah!” said Mom, and Sam winked maliciously at him. Liberty giggled until her face started to redden, and she turned away. Xan smirked and searched the bodies, but he found nothing.
Three additional tunnels exited the chamber. “Which way?” asked Liberty.
“Let’s go left,” said Xan. Mom grunted affirmatively, and they made their way up the short tunnel left of the stair.
The scent of rotting meat and offal filled the air in the chamber that opened up to the northeast. Moldering furs, crude bedrolls and other signs of a campsite covered the floor of the large natural cave. Spears and crude axes were piled near the entrance to the left, along with a disorganized stack of shields. Half a dozen grimlocks loitered in the cave, and two appeared to be … rutting.
“Oh, gross,” said Liberty.
The amorous grimlocks grunted in equal parts pleasure and surprise at the sound of Liberty’s judgmental voice then cried out an alarm, which the other grimlocks were slow to heed.
“Ugh, gotta put a stop to that!” said Drake, lobbing a firebomb at the coupling grimlocks. The one on top was flash-fried, becoming dead weight atop his partner.
“I can hardly believe it, but that’s even more disgusting,” said Liberty, flinging an elemental ray at one of the other grimlocks.
“Remind me to find that alchemical compound for ‘forgetting things’,” said Drake.
“Save me some when you do!” she said.
“Isn’t that what you are always drinking anyhow, Drake?” asked Xan.
“Not strong enough for that!” he insisted.
Mom’s rage-cry cut through the banter as he rushed the nearest grimlock. Sam waded in after him and rushed to cut down another. The grimlocks rallied, but they could not get through the adventurers’ defenses. The naked crispy one just managed to shove the burned corpse of her dead lover off and stagger to her feet.
“Okay, I’ve got to mercy kill this one,” said Drake, charging feet first. His boot connected solidly, and her neck snapped audibly. She slumped to the floor, no longer feeling the pain of the burns … or the shame. “First time I regret the bomb,” rumbled the alchemist.
Xan tumbled into a flank with Sam, but the grimlock knocked aside his thrusting blade. “You should totally think about that the next time you are in the sack, Drake,” he said.
The big man scowled at the rogue. “My sack-activities are not your concern.”
Liberty rayed the unattended grimlock. “Seeing something like that could keep someone out of the sack … forever.”
Mom ended the freshly burned grimlock, and Sam cut the last one in half. “Thanks for the diversion,” she said to Xan.
He smiled. “Diversion is kind of a hobby of mine.”
“I never want to see anything like that … ever again,” said Mom.
“Me neither,” said Liberty. “Gods, I hope we’re close to the end of this place.”
“I don’t know,” said Xan. “Twenty minutes ago I had the privilege of seeing my muscle and bone in both legs. Somehow, this wasn’t so bad to me.”
Liberty’s face turned a little green. “Please, let’s talk about something else.” Mom grunted affirmatively.
“Bah, now they can’t make more,” said Drake.
“For the love of Kord, please stop,” begged Mom.
The adventurers began combing the cavern for loot, and Xan found a cache containing a jade figurine of Erythnul. Satisfied with that, and wanting to get far away from the carnal carnage, they returned to the antechamber.
The next tunnel to the left opened up in a chamber that presented a(nother) macabre sight. A bewildering variety of humanoid and monstrous skulls were mounted on the tunnel walls just outside with crude iron spikes. The cave beyond was a small cramped space that smelled strongly of damp earth. A great pile of furs and blankets lay in the center of the room, and a large grimlock sat atop it, shoving fistfuls of mushrooms into his mouth, jabbering and howling in an alien tongue as he did so. His body was covered with ritual scars and tattoos, forming the pattern of a holy symbol of Erythnul on his chest. His head was shaved bare, and his ears were studded with crude bone piercings.
Xan suggested that he sneak closer once more, but this time, his approach was noticed. The tripping grimlock’s head jerked around when the rogue closed to ten feet from the bedding. It wailed in confusion/anger/glee as it reached for a wicked-looking greataxe.
Mom’s raging war cry drew the grimlock’s attention a second time, but not as much as the vicious slash that the half-orc inflicted upon it. Xan moved in to flank, but he stumbled over the bedding, and his stab was easily batted aside. Drake ingested his mutagen capsule and approached the grimlock warlord. The beastman roared out to his god as his eyes went red, and he brought his greataxe down on Mom – hard. Liberty burned the grimlock with a ray and Sam charged in, slashing with her greatsword. Mom’s next hit ended the fight.
“Those mushrooms are sure to be worth something to … somebody,” said Liberty.
“Uhh…” said Drake.
“Ow,” said Mom.
The loot from the grimlock chieftain was pretty great – Xan upgraded his armor for the second time that day. The rest of the treasure was stuffed into the Heward’s Handy Haversack that they found in the bedding. Once Mom had healed himself, and the goods were stashed, the adventurers made their way toward the last tunnel.
The long passage through the rocks wound down and down, deeper into the ground. It curved ahead like a spiral, and the air grew musty and sickening with the scent of rotting flesh – somehow even viler than they’d experienced in the grimlock common room. Eventually, the passage opened into a wide cavern, where it ended at the top of a short cliff that stood teen feet above the cave floor below. From ahead, the dim glow of a small fire cast a dull, red glow.
Four grimlocks inhabited the final chamber, three on the bowl-like floor, and the last atop a stone ledge on the far side that rose ten feet above the floor. The latter tossed strange powders and mushrooms onto the fire. He appeared to have sewn the preserved eyes of some foul beast into his empty eye sockets, giving him the strange, wide-eyed look of a madman. His hair was cut short and dyed red, and his teeth appeared to be filed into fang-like points. A holy symbol of Erythnul was branded into the chest of his banded mail.
They had found Grallak Kur.
The other three grimlock warriors watched over the mad Ebon Triad prophet and tended to the fire. They wore bronze masks that resembled holy symbols of Erythnul, while their flesh was studded in dozens of places with small sharp bone piercings. One kept watch on the entrance to the temple, and that one seemed to hear Mom’s misstep as the adventurers approached the ledge on the near side of the wide cavern.
Liberty started things off, aiming her magic missile wand at the vigilant one. It roared in pain and shouted a warning to the others, inciting the other two spearmen to advance, forming a small pike wall between the adventurers and the prophet. Xan and Sam advanced on the spearmen, but did not immediately engage. On the far side of the chamber, Grallak Kur created a single mirror image of himself, then cast an entropic shield spell, while Mom drank a potion, girding himself in a shield of faith. Drake followed Mom’s lead, quaffing a potion of bull’s strength and moving up with Xan and Sam.
The sorcerer fired off another magic missile and the spearmen advanced, but only managed to stab Sam. In retaliation, she stepped up to him and brought her sword across in a wide arc that cut him and the nearest other one down. The Ebon Triad prophet attempted to subsume Sam’s will, with a hold person spell, but she shook it off. Xan wounded the remaining spearman, and Drake put him down after drinking his growth infusion and punting him across the room into the fire.
Only Grallak Kur remained, but he would not be so easily defeated. Liberty’s next magic missiles caused a brooch on the prophet’s shoulder to light up, and the force bolts themselves were absorbed by it. Sam and Xan ran after Mom, crossing the chamber in moments. The grimlock leader stared down the short cliff at the rogue and drew out a primal terror in him. The enlarged Drake advanced next, coming up. Then Mom charged ragingly, shattering the mirror image mightily. He grunted in great frustration.
Liberty cursed and moved up with the others so that she would be in range to use her better spells. Sam followed Mom’s lead in charging up the cliff, but she also missed the priest. “RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!” cried Xan, fleeing across the room to the entrance of the cavern in a blind panic.
Grallak Kur created another mirror image, then cast invisibility and disappeared from sight. Drake snarled and reached into the space from which the prophet had just disappeared and was gratified when his large hands closed on the invisible grimlock. “GOTCHA!” he crowed, pulling the priest into a grapple. Mom dropped out of his rage and gifted Drake with the boon of Kord’s luck.
Targeting based on Drake’s struggling movements with the invisible foe, Liberty managed an astonishing shot, scorching Grallak Kur with an elemental ray. Sam did not have as much luck targeting the invisible grappler. “Never mind! I was just hexed!” shouted Xan as he re-crossed the chamber to rejoin the fight.
Even grappled, the prophet was not out of the fight. He channeled negative energy, sending out a wave of pain that touched all of the adventurers. This, in turn, caused him to reappear. Drake squeezed with all his might, hearing the satisfying pop of cracking bones. “Let’s hear that snap!” he cried.
The others attempted to bring the pain, but bad luck and the grimlock’s protective spells foiled their efforts for several moments, and another wave of negative energy washed over the group. “Hold still!” shouted Drake, pinning Grallak Kur to make him an easier target. Xan stabbed him in the kidneys, Liberty wiped out the latest mirror image and Sam finally made an end of the freakish grimlock prophet.
“Thank all the gods,” sighed Liberty.
Drake bellowed, tearing the corpse in half. Sam cocked an eyebrow at the alchemist’s brutality, but the sorcerer turned to one side and willed herself not to puke. As the prophet’s blood splashed across the stone floor, a dull rumble echoed throughout the cavern…
“Damn it,” said Liberty. “Is it the Threefold Spawn?”
“I would imagine so,” said Xan warily.
“So, we’re going to stop this thing?” said Drake, pacing irritably as his body shrank back down to normal size. Mom grunted affirmatively.
If it’s in that pool, we’ll have to face it to get out of here,” said Liberty.
Sam snorted. “And if we don’t do it soon, it might get out of the mines and start tearing apart Diamond Lake…”