Rusty plucked another mushroom from the skillet and rolled it in his hand. Dirt, he thought. Where the hell could this have come from? He lifted the skillet from the small cooking fore, and turned to face his companions.
While Rusty was cooking, the other adventurers had been busy. Bilth, his brother, was fixing a feather fletching to his final arrow, the others laying in neat rows between his feet. Neirah played a soft tune, stopping every so often to check her fingers and replay a section. Upon being spotted, Nurak quickly shoved his hands in his pockets.
“What’s for breakfast, Rusty?” he asked, with a grin.
“It would have been herb roasted mushrooms,” Rusty said. “I don’t know how, but it looks like a handful of dirt fell into the skillet. Maybe from the trees?”
“Can’t you pick it out?” Nurak asked.
“Nope, any dirt is too much dirt,” Rusty said, dumping the mushrooms on the ground and crushing them with his boots. “It’s raw potatoes or nothing from me today.”
The group groaned.
“Don’t you have anything you can heat up fast? Maybe just cook some meat,” Neirah suggested.
“The venison’s turned by now,” Bilth said. “I killed that deer days ago.”
Rusty gathered his cooking supplies and brought them to the river to wash them. The group’s camp was at the base of a mountain, in the southwest of Elianor. A large, dark plume of smoke billowed from the peak, much like a volcano, but the group suspected otherwise.
Neirah smiled at the sound of small feet pattering the ground behind her. She turned slightly, and saw a small group of animals following well behind the group, attracted to her walking song. She heard Rusty tapping on his chest while he listened, but also noticed Bilth’s hands lingering over his ears a little longer each time he reached up to ‘itch’ his head.
She ended her song as they reached a clearing at the mountain top, and the animals scampered back into the woods. They could see rows of corn stalks growing next to a gaping pit, black smoke spilling into the sky.
Rusty and Bilth exchanged glances. Bilth drew his bow, scanning, while Rusty snuck over to the corn field, carefully cutting six ears from their stalks and placing them in his bag.
“Can you pop corn, Rusty?” Nurak said, startling the dwarf. “Woah, what’s with those stalks?”
The corn grew from holes in the ground, about ten inches wide. Nurak yanked a stalk from the ground, then waved his fingers and the group peered down, following the light he produced and the stalks to a man-made floor with a square hole in the back corner.
“Looks like we found a hideout,” Neirah said.
Before leaving for Elianor they were warned of places like this. People of magic ability but ill repute were known to inhabit the cave systems under Elianor’s boundary mountains, and they were to be exterminated on discovery.
After a little searching the group found a small alcove on the side of the mountain opposite the smoking chasm. A pit with a few rotting animal corpses, clearly a crude ‘trap’, separated the balcony from a moss and vine coated area cut into the mountain; a basin stood in the center of the clearing.
“I’d like to see that basin,” Rusty said. “Younger brother, grab hold of this rope.”
“Nonsense,” Nurak said. “The drop can’t be ten feet. I’ll lower you down with my arms.”
“You’ll be fine, little brother,” Bilth said, standing on his toes.
After a moment of hesitation, Rusty agreed. Holding each other by the forearm, Nurak lowered Rusty past the edge of the pit. A grin spread across Nurak as he loosened his grip ever so slightly.
“Uh-oh!” he called playfully, attempting to tighten his grip once again. Surprised at the sudden weight of the dwarf, Nurak felt Rusty slip from his grasp and watched him fall to the pit floor.
“Oomph, not funny!” Rusty called.
Bilth was lowered without incident. Crossing the pit, Bilth climbed onto Rusty’s shoulders and peered over the lip of the opposite edge. I’m going to be sick, he thought at the sight of a small trail of blood leaving the pit and running into the vine wall.
“What do you see?” Rusty asked.
“Bl-” Bilth started, interrupted by unavoidable vomiting. Tiny drops fell on Rusty. “Bleaugh!”
“Quit puking or pull yourself up!” he called from below, hitting Bilth’s legs.
All across the pit, Nurak and Neirah inspected the basin. They noted waving horizontal lines etched into it above the water line. Neirah tried to cup some of the water in her hands, but it would not rise from the basin, nor even cause a ripple. She pulled down moss from the wall and placed it in the water, pulling it out not any more wet than before it was dipped.
“Let me see,” Nurak said, dipping his face in the pool. Water went in his mouth and up his nose, but upon straightening back up it all remained in the pool. “I understand,” he said, pointing at the symbols. “If we find a special object and place it in the water, it would blow away the vines revealing the opening!”
“This opening?” Rusty asked, holding aside the vines at the end of the blood trail. He and Bilth had been inspecting the walls, to keep Bilth’s eyes off the blood.
“Exactly,” Nurak said.
“The corn,” Bilth said, snatching an ear from Rusty’s pack. He pried off the kernels and threw them all in the water, with no effect. “Erm, sorry,” he said, handing them back to Rusty.
“I’ll go first into the tunnels,” Neirah said. She led the group forward as Rusty stomped the corn into the stone with his boot.
She felt a slight breeze on her cheek when they reached an end to the hall. Left or right? She thought. Another small breeze came from the right. That might be a second opening, and I don’t want any surprises.
She led the group along the blood drip trail, passing grime crusted butcher blocks with pitted cleavers stuck in them. The passage ended in a circular room with holes high up in the walls with light barely peaking through, tables pushed against one side and two animal corpses at the end of the blood trail to their left. Another gentle breeze whispered through the holes.
“It’s a curing room!” Rusty said excitedly. He ran to the tables and began shoveling dried herbs into his pack. “I can’t believe it! Lavender! They have lavender!”
Bilth shook his head and began checking the walls for anything, switches, traps, and Nurak checked the corpses. Neirah stood watching down the hall, alert.
“Well I’ll be…” Rusty mumbled, reaching slowly into his bag for a jar. He approached the piles slowly, ceremoniously, as if coming upon two heaps of gold. At the far end of the room were two enormous, ten foot piles of salt. “It’s beautiful,” he said, scooping a jar full and turning it in his hands. “Perfectly clean, I can preserve so much with this.” He stood and faced his companions, salt jar in hand.
“Look what I found!” he called.
“Rusty…” Nurak said, eyes beginning to widen.
“I know!” Rusty replied, holding the jar above his head. “Salt!”
“Rusty!” Nurak yelled. He widened one hand and a blue light flashed over his body, he drew his sword, and leapt forward.
From beneath the salt pile a creature rose; seven feet tall a spider stood on crab claw-like legs, mandibles opening and closing in rage.
“Brother!” Bilth called, loosing an arrow in surprise, missing the beast. The spider bit down on Rusty’s shoulders and swung him violently, dropping him back on the ground. Shaken, Rusty stowed his salt in his bag and drew his sword, slashed at the spider’s face, and darted to the side.
Bilth knocked another arrow and took careful aim at the spider’s crab legs. He released a breath, focused, and let free an arrow seemingly full of his own hatred and anger for the creature that grabbed his brother. The tip screamed through the air, punching through a front leg at the top knee-joint then continuing to plunge into the leg behind it, rendering each useless.
Nurak charged from the opposite side, dragging his sword through the salt and arcing it from underneath, throwing crystals directly into the spider’s eight eyes. The sword itself barely missed the creature, as it jerked it’s head back and chirped furiously at the sudden pain and blindness.
Neirah seized this opportunity, darting and rolling under the spider’s hulking body making quick work of two of his remaining legs. Stopping her roll on her knees, she rose to her feet and flicked spider goo from her rapier. The monster swung wildly, blind and badly crippled, striking none in the group.
“Now!” she called.
Rusty jumped from the top of the salt pile and landed on the spider’s head, sinking his cooking knife through it’s exoskeletal skull. A small spurt of dank and moldy air wafted from the head with a sigh, and the creature fell to the floor, dead.
“All that for some salt, little brother?” Bilth huffed.
“Yes, younger brother, salt,” Rusty replied, to the group’s shaking heads.
After a short rest, the adventurers returned to the fork and continued into the darkness, Rusty followed by Bilth with a magically glowing head, then Nurak and Neirah. They came upon a ledge overhanging a one hundred foot chasm, a large fire burned producing large amounts of black smoke. A basin stood next to the fire, a red and orange ball sitting in the water with vertical lines engraved above the water line.
“Well, that’s the cause of the smoke,” Nurak said, looking into the basin. “Rusty, get your skillet.”
Nurak drew his sword and dipped it into the water. He pushed the ball out and it fell into the skillet, the fire dying immediately. He carefully plucked the ball from the skillet and inspected it, red and orange glow from within swirled around.
At the bottom of the chasm a river ran strong from one side to another, across which was a small plot of land and another basin. On one wall laid a giant, motionless slug.
“So that ball activates the basin?” Rusty asked.
“Yes,” Nurak said.
“Then you’re going to have to lower me. I want to try it down there,” Rusty said, pointing to the lower basin and tying rope around his waist.
The adventurers combined their rope and lowered the dwarf down slowly, softly touching him on the ground one hundred feet down. Under the ledge Rusty could see an opening, presumably where the path could have led had they followed it further into darkness. He approached the water and considered a way to cross, although the current was far too strong to swim, and jumping could risk pulling down his other companions.
“We’re going to swing you,” a voice whispered in his ear. Startled, Rusty looked around until he saw Nurak waving from the ledge. “We’re going to swing you and let you down on the other side, just let us know when you’re ready.”
Images of the ten foot pit drop ran through Rusty’s mind. He better not drop me, he thought.
“Don’t mess this up!” he called from the bottom.
With a loud squelch, the ten foot slug awoke and turned to Rusty. Slowly, but with determination it began to slide toward him.
“Pull me up! Pull me up!” Rusty called, waving his arms above his head.
Nurak and Bilth scrambled to start pulling on the rope, Rusty rising little by little from the ground. The slug reared its slimy head and opened its mouth, revealing rows and rows of sharp, greedy teeth. It was directly under him, reaching just two feet from Rusty’s boots.
“Wait, stop!” Neirah called. Nurak and Bilth, puzzled, stopped lifting to look at her, Rusty’s cries of, “Keep going! He’s going to eat me!” echoing off the walls. She poked her head over the ledge.
“Rusty, the salt!” she called.
He ripped his bag open and began furiously digging for the salt jar, keeping an eye on the slug as slimed teeth gnashed at him from two feet below. He felt a sudden drop as the rope gave two inches.
“Not funny!” he yelled. He drew the salt from his bag, and with a small tinge of regret upended the jar over the slug’s head. In a mess of hissing and slurps, the slug’s head liquified and melted, leaving a heap of goo and slug on the floor.
Bilth tested the strength of his knot once more, just to make sure. He stood at the edge of the chasm ready to make the same descent his brother had, this time sticking to the wall in an attempt to climb over the rushing river.
“Everyone ready?” he said, and upon receiving smiles and thumbs ups, he turned to the wall and stepped off the ledge into the air. He fell for a foot or two before the rope grew taught.
“Mind trying that one again?” Nurak grunted, pulling up on the rope.
“Maybe with a little more grabbing the wall,” Rusty said.
Bilth took his time making the climb over the river, trying not to think of how hard and fast the water would pull him away if he fell in. Barely past the water, he placed a boot on a patch of moss and slipped from his position, falling twenty feet. Slowed on account of the rope, his pride hurt a little more than anything else. He patted his pocket to make sure he hadn’t lost the glowing ball, and made his way over to the basin. In the basin were more engravings, this time a series of X’s on top of one another. He dropped the ball in and braced for a change, a burst of flame or perhaps a spout of water, but nothing happened.
“Hmm…” he said, as he dipped his hand in to retrieve the ball. Though not moving or steaming, the water had increased well past boiling temperatures. “Aah!” he yelled, yanking his hand back and looking at the already reddening skin.
“What’s wrong, younger brother?” Rusty called from the ledge.
Bilth wrapped his hand in a slip of cloth and drew two arrows from his quiver, using the tips to carefully scoop the ball from the water. He held a finger over the basin and carefully dipped it back in, already cold once again. He stowed the ball back in his pocket, and waved his arm in a circle to signal the group. “Pull me up.”
The group waited for him at the top.
“Brother, your hand,” Rusty said.
“It’s fine, I didn’t want to wake up any more slugs by yelling,” Bilth replied. “Also, the ball did nothing but turn the water hot.”
“I can fix that up,” Neirah said, and whispered a tune while untying the wraps. Bilth’s skin underneath was no longer red, nor painful. “Good as new.”
Nurak was already satisfied to consider his time with the two dwarves as ‘good fun’. He knew most of his tricks were harmless enough; fireballs tossed at the salt pile to ‘make sure’ Rusty didn’t get bit again wouldn’t hurt the salt (despite Rusty’s protestations and mutterings of “pure salt taste”), and he hadn’t truly meant to drop the little man into the pit. It had been a trial for him to keep from laughing at the looks of surprise when he made Bilth’s head glow rather than simply suspend a ball of light to continue down the dark tunnel.
“And it’s temporary, right?” Bilth asked again, touching his nose.
The hallway curved to the left, the right corner revealing a small hollow big enough for a table, a few piles of vegetables, and a book.
“A prep table!” Rusty gasped, and ran toward the vegetables. As suddenly as he had started running he slowed, grabbed his neck, and fell flat on his face.
Nurak had to bite his tongue, literally, to stop himself from bursting into laughter. Honestly? He thought. A rogue who can’t see traps, maybe he IS better off a chef. He leaned casually against the table and watched Neirah try to wake the little fella up. She shook him, slapped him, then slapped him harder, kneeling over his chest and getting a full arc swing in.
“It’ll be no use hitting him, lass,” Bilth said. He had been looking close at the needle that had fired into his brother’s neck. “The tips are dipped in snakeweed oil, he’ll be out for a couple hours, at least.”
“So should we pull him the rest of the way?” Nurak asked. “Or will we just wait for him to wake up?”
“Best we wait,” Neirah said, kneeling down next to Rusty.
And so they waited. Bilth took to setting off the trap over and over, collecting the darts and inspecting their tips for poison. Neirah kept watch for a while, then took a small nap when Bilth took over watch.
Nurak posted up once again at the table, glancing at the contents. A pile of potatoes, a stack of carrots, nothing to get too excited over and forget about checking for traps. His gaze fell on a book laying in the center of the table. He looked around to see if he was being watched, then cracked the cover to look inside.
The long flowing script was unmistakeable, it was ancient elvish handwriting. He didn’t necessarily understand every word on the pages he flipped past, but he did get the gist of it: this was a cookbook. He closed the cover silently and slid the book into his bag, without raising any notice. He folded his arms and leaned back onto the table. Rusty hadn’t so much as moved, they still had hours to wait. A smile spread across Nurak’s face as he turned to the potato pile.
Rusty sat up and rubbed his eyes, groggy from the dart’s poison, he struggled to his feet and stretched his arms. Blinking a few times, his eyes came to rest on a pile of potatoes sitting in a circle of ash.
“You’ve done it now, wizard,” Rusty said, gathering up his bag.
“Oh, you’re up!” Nurak said. He held out a plate with a steaming potato on it. “Hungry? I cooked us all some food.”
“Cooked it? You cooked it?” Rusty stammered. His eyes spun around the room, burnt spots on the stone left potato shaped scores. “You blasted them like a child with fireworks!”
“Oh, come on and try it,” Nurak said. Rusty took the plate, then without breaking eye contact dumped the potatoes on the floor and stamped them with his boot.
“I won’t eat this ruined trash. What a waste,” he said.
“Can you fix some of them for me?” Bilth said, holding out his plate.
No, Rusty thought. You can’t un-burn a perfectly innocent potato. He reached into his bag and pulled out a sprig of lavender, sprinkled it on top and stirred it around.
“That should at least give it some flavor,” he said. He sifted through his bag some more, and turned to Nurak. “Did you use my utensils?”
“No,” Nurak said. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Then what do you call this?” he asked, revealing a jar of lard with two deep finger scoops missing. A smile crept across Nurak’s lips, then vanished.
“I only borrowed it,” he insisted. Rusty’s eyes narrowed as he began to yell, but his brother interrupted.
“These are a little better, thanks, brother,” Bilth said, finishing his potatoes.
“So what else was in here? Just potatoes and carrots?” Rusty asked, sighing and lowering his hands. “I thought there was more here.”
“Nope, just food and the trap,” Nurak said. Rusty turned to the others.
“I didn’t see anything more,” Neirah said, and Bilth agreed.
“It must be the dart talking,” Rusty said, and packed his bag.
They continued down the hall and found a room with a stairwell, a pile of bread loaves in the corner. Nurak drew his sword, and began stabbing them.
“Stop!” Rusty called, just as one of the loaves screamed in agony and rolled onto its back. A mimic. Wide-eyed, Rusty flipped over the final loaf to verify its bakery, and placed it in his bag.
The room widened to reveal a private dining area, two plates set on a table across from one another separated by a candelabra. Rusty picked up a plate and ran a thumb across it, revealing an intricate design. A fireball blasted between his face and the plate, lighting the three candles on the candelabra.
Nurak collected the silverware and grabbed the stem, heading to the stairs. Upstairs the group found a wider living area, still yet abandoned but seemingly set for function rather than form. Torches lit around the room upon their entrance, tables and chairs littering the room and three doors on the walls leading to smaller living quarters. Nurak grabbed two ivory chalices and stuck them in his bag, lifting an ivory pitcher to match, and two jade dice.
“Now hold on a moment,” Rusty said, stepping up to the table. “I don’t want to start anything, but I don’t think I trust you holding all of our loot.”
Nurak rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, really now?”
“Well you dropped me in a pit, stole my lard, I’ve seen more flaws in character than I’d like. How do I know you’re not nicking it all?”
“I’d like it all to be in one place,” Bilth said.
“Well I wouldn’t,” Rusty continued. “I’d like to see the dice for starters, we didn’t even look at those before you stashed them away.”
Nurak handed the jade dice to Rusty, who rolled them on the table. Seven.
“Satisfied now?” Nurak asked, grabbing them again.
“I’ll hold them,” Neirah said, placing them in her bag.
“The dice aren’t the point,” Rusty continued, but he was interrupted by Bilth opening a door and slipping into a room. “Brother, wait.”
Bilth entered the dark room and noticed a dresser, walk in closet, and a hall off to the right. He slowly opened a drawer and found some red garnets and an emerald bracelet as the others came into the room.
“Does anyone mind me carrying these, or should we split them?” he quietly asked. Bilth recognized his brother’s pout as Rusty folded his arms, and leaned on the wall.
He continued to search the room, finding three cloaks in the closet. The adventurers’ eyes widened as they took in the sights of them: one a deep forest green, one black with intricate red trim, and one naught but brown tatters. The group donned them; Bilth in green for his love of the forest, Nurak in red for his fireball tendencies, and Neirah in tatters, because she liked the feel. They stood and admires one another, waiting to feel a magic change of any sort.
“Do you feel anything?” Bilth whispered.
“No,” the other two replied, exiting the closet.
Bilth stopped and raised a hand. He looked at the small hallway, drawing his bow and knocking an arrow. He peered around the corner to see the end, spying a hulking, blue creature hunched over something, too busy rummaging to have noticed the adventurers. His heart began to pound as he recognized the creature, the muscular, hunched back, the clawed feet and hands, the deep breaths and snorts it let out as it dug. This beast was a quaggoth.
Where the hell could this have come from? he thought. He turned back to the group and motioned to them.
“What is it?” Rusty asked, but Bilth’s hand closed over his mouth.
“Quaggoth,” Bilth said.
“In here? How?” Neirah whispered.
“I don’t know, but it’s big,” Bilth said. He turned to Rusty, fanning the poison darts between his fingers. “Are you thinking what I am, little brother?”
“Yes, younger brother,” Rusty said, laying down his pack.
Rusty took a deep breath before scattering the ball bearings. The party readied their weapons and watched in anticipation, the quaggoth scratching at its find. Rusty threw the bearings, and ducked back around the corner, feeling the floor shake as the quaggoth turned to face the noise. The beast roared as it began to run down the hall, but let out a growl of confusion as it slid on the tiny metal balls. It scrambled for a moment, then came crashing down on the three upturned darts.
Grunts subsided to shallow breaths, and Rusty let out a sigh of relief. The plan worked, the quaggoth was asleep.
Bilth sat at the quaggoth’s head, contemplating and watching it draw breath after breath. Its arms and legs were bound tight, the menacing claws safely held back by rope. Every moment or so a muscle would twitch, but Bilth knew it had enough poison to keep a man down for over two days then some. Hours, for the muscular creature. Nurak popped up from behind the hulking beast.
“Well, he had ten gold in a chamber pot,” Nurak said, holding up soiled coins with dirty hands.
“That’s disgusting,” Neirah said.
Rusty knelt down next to Bilth and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Can we eat it?” he asked.
“We could,” Bilth said. “But I’ve got other plans for this quaggoth.”
“Other plans?” Rusty asked.
Bilth sighed and dusted off his hands as he stood up. He tested the draw on his bow and slung it over his shoulder, then ran one hand over his bald head, drying sweat from his brow.
“I intend to ride it.”