“What happened?” Sahl asked when Daluar appeared. It took him a moment to notice that blood stained the front of Daluar's right leg, and that something alive was clinging to the back. The ranger didn't seem aware of it.
“Daluar,” Sahl said. “There's something on your back. Turn around so we can get it off.” As Daluar turned his back to Sahl, Sahl sheathed his sword, grabbed Daluar with his left hand to steady them both while Daluar hung on to the rope, and smashed his other fist savagely into whatever was clinging to the back of Daluar's leg. Higher up, Ardith struggled to get closer with the staff she had enchanted on the way down. She was unable to help with Sahl in the way. Even higher, Kay searched for a flat area where she could stand to loose her bow, and a suitable nook in which to lodge the torch.
Neither woman could see the creature, with Sahlman's shadow covering it with darkness, but Sahl could see a few details himself, as his fist struck surprisingly tough and leathery skin. It was about three feet long, with short, clawed arms which were now digging into Daluar's skin. It was almost lizard-like in bearing, probably slow-moving most of the time and built for climbing. The creature's round head was buried in Daluar's leg, having torn right through his armor. Its only response to the blow was to pull its face out, move a couple inches away from Sahl, and gorge itself on a new part of the leg. It left behind a dangerous-looking bleeding gash, of which Daluar still seemed unaware.
With his back turned, Sahl couldn't see the look of surprise on the ranger's face when his blow landed. Daluar had taken 'something' to mean a cobweb, or a tangle of roots or the like. The ache in his leg flared sluggishly for a moment. Hadn't he gotten rid of that thing clinging to it? Starting to feel slightly lightheaded, Daluar shifted his grip on his rapier. Forgetting to warn Sahl, he swung the slender blade, aiming by feel at whatever it was Sahl had punched. The angle was awkward, however, and the creature had moved. He only managed to hit his own leg harmlessly.
Sahl pulled back as Daluar stabbed, and then punched again. How much damage he'd done was hard to tell in the shadows, but the beast let go and scurried away along the stone wall, not quickly, but faster than anyone could climb. Sahl called out, “Ardith, this creature has bitten Daluar badly. Come closer; you will have to heal him.”
When Ardith was low enough, she assessed the three gashes in Daluar's leg, and realized how serious his injuries were. And only now did it look like he was starting to feel any pain. Ardith cast her most powerful healing spell, putting herself in a precarious position against the stone to rest her hand on the injured leg. The wounds closed and what little pain there was went away.
“Interesting,” Sahlman said. “The creature bites but causes no pain, so the victim doesn't know it has been bitten. Therefore we must keep closer to each other, no more than 10 feet apart. We must keep a good look out, and every few minutes we will stop and check each other for wounds.”
The party proceeded cautiously in close order, Sahl, followed by Daluar, then Ardith, and finally Kay. The long, even ledges that Daluar had found soon became common. They were no more than a couple inches deep, but they made climbing far easier. Kay even believed that, if she wrapped the rope a couple times around one arm and got rid of the torch, she'd be able to aim and fire her bow with reasonable accuracy.
Checking themselves and their companions frequently, the next creature was noticed before it could do much damage. It showed up on the front of Sahl's leg, between him and the rock.
Sahl turned a little, exposing the creature to Daluar and making it accessible to himself. Holding onto a high ledge with one hand, he drew his sword with the other and, deliberately and without panic, brought the sword blade down on the creature's back, where he sliced using a rapid sawing motion. As soon as it felt the blade, however, it pulled its jaws free and scrambled a few inches away, back towards the stone wall where the shadows were deepest, and sunk its teeth into Sahl's leg once again. It was then when Ardith noticed a weight on her arm. Another creature was hanging from it with sharp claws, and was about to bite into Ardith's side. She swung awkwardly with her enhanced staff, only hitting the wall. The creature didn't seem to notice. It slowly sunk its teeth in, forcing its way through the leather armor. She felt no pressure at all.
With its body in the shadows and its mouth biting Sahl's leg, his creature had left its neck and shoulders badly exposed. Sahl shifted the sword only slightly to saw at the creature's neck. This time, his sword penetrated the thick hide and went at least an inch deep into its neck. Dark blood, possibly Sahl's own, spilled from the wound. By this time, Daluar was close enough to attack. He maneuvered his rapier to aim at the base of the creature's neck, muscles tensing in preparation for a quick, sudden thrust. Its hide was tough, but perhaps it wouldn't be so difficult to pierce it from the side. His thrust, however, fell short, and he grasped the ledge to regain his balance.
Sahl continued sawing grimly. “Daluar,” he said, “I suggest you help Ardith; this one is already badly hurt. Kay, I suggest you burn Ardith's attacker with your torch.”
Daluar nodded and climbed toward Ardith, while Sahl nearly severed the creature's head. That got its attention enough to send it scrambling downward, leaving an open but painless wound in Sahlman's leg. Higher up, Ardith swung the end of her staff again, this time connecting with a cracking sound that Ardith never could have produced with an unenchanted weapon. The creature, stunned and injured, fell a few feet before it caught itself and hurried back up. By the time it reached Ardith, however, Kay had arrived with the torch. As soon as it was full in the light, it made a quiet, high-pitched squealing noise and raised its small claws to its face. The creature was scrambling away as fast as it could before Kay could get close enough to burn it.
Sahlman called up. “Ardith, can you look at my leg? If it looks bad then please use your powers to heal me, otherwise just put a bandage on it. Everyone else keep a lookout. Kay, could you please light more torches? I think we should carry a torch each. That's the best way to drive the creatures away.”
Daluar simply hung on with grim determination and did what was asked of him, trying not to think about the unnatural “powers” Ardith seemed to command and which Sahl so blithely requested from her, not to mention how far from his experience these hungry, dark-loving creatures were.
Sahl's wounds were much more grievous than they had felt, though not nearly so bad as Daluar's had been. Sahlman held Ardith steady while she wrapped his leg in bandages that he fished out of her pack. Ardith checked her own wounds, and found them to be negligible, though she would have to get her armor repaired when she returned to the city.
“Well done everyone,” Sahlman said. “We have survived an encounter that could have killed us all. Ardith, my wound looks bad. I think it should be healed if you can do that. Also I am worried about the torches. They keep us safe but we will need them for many hours. Can your powers create light, or maybe make the torches burn longer?”
Ardith healed Sahlman once again, but warned him that there was a limit to how much she could heal in a day, and she was rapidly reaching it. The light, she said, she could manage. Perhaps for an hour and a half.
By the time Ardith was done, Kay had enough torches lit for everyone. While they had taken more torches than they'd thought they would need, their supply was running short, and, if Sahl's guess about the creatures turned out to be wrong, none of them would have a hand free with which to defend themselves.
His guess did seem right, however. During the next twenty minutes of the slow descent, they weren't bothered. Then, for a brief period, the sun shone directly into the rift, illuminating the area and removing any doubt that they were now climbing old, worked stone. The walls weren't perfectly even, but the regularly-spaced ledges, of which there were dozens at least, couldn't possibly have formed naturally. The sun also revealed dozens, possibly hundreds, of little holes pockmarking the walls. Most looked to be only a foot or two wide, but there were a few, mostly on the other side of the rift, that could have been wider.
“Does anyone have keen eyes?” Sahl asked. “Now that we have sunlight, can anyone see if there is a destination? Do these ledges end in a cave?” Although the sun was already retreating up the wall in a great jagged ellipse, Daluar spotted a few potentials on this side of the rift – caves that might be large enough for them to enter. They approached the nearest one, covering as large an area as possible with the light of their torches.
This sideways climbing posed a new kind of danger. Although the ledges made the climb easy, ropes could no longer be secured high enough to make them very useful. A fall would hurt now, and there was the further risk that if one of them fell, the other three would be dragged along down. Who knew if these ropes would even hold with that kind of weight trying to jerk them free?
They crept along, foot by foot, toward the first of Daluar's caves, passing a few smaller caves on the way. Kay shined a torch into one of them, and saw a creature scurry away. It was another twenty minutes before they reached the point where Daluar's cave was supposed to be, and it wasn't there. When Daluar insisted he'd seen the cave, they searched further, and found it two levels down.
The cave wasn't as large as they'd thought. Its entrance was only five and a half feet tall – Sahl and Daluar had to duck – and four feet wide, and those dimensions did not remain consistent. As they progressed further into the cave, they had to walk single-file, sometimes sideways. There were times they could stand, and times they had to crawl on their hands and knees, holding the torches carefully at an angle. At its narrowest, the cave looked worked, like whatever lived here needed at least a two and a half foot circle to move around comfortably. Back in Tchu'dan, Sahlman had seen many animals that could fit through this cave, but which he would not want to meet down here, especially not while crawling on his hands and knees.
Finally, the cave opened up into a room of sorts, nearly six feet high and eight wide. The ground was loose gravel, and a flat pile of finer stuff, almost sand, filled one side. A tiny trickle of water flowed silently out of a crack in the wall and into another tunnel, narrower than the one through which they'd entered.
“This looks like a good place to defend,” Sahlman said. “There are only two small entrances, enough space for us to wield our weapons, and there is water. We can use it as a base. But first let's check if it's safe.” Sahl took a cautious sip of the water, and found it crisp and clean. Then he poked cautiously at the flat fine sandy area to see how solid it was, or if there was anything hidden there. It did seem solid. The sand only went an inch or so down, and rested on gravel, which in turn rested on rock. His search turned up a few white fragments that turned out to be shards of bone.
Sahl then looked through the second exit. The tunnel was narrow, almost too narrow for the party to get through, though they could make it if they wanted to, pulling themselves forward on their elbows. The torches would be difficult but not impossible to carry. However, the tunnel sloped gently downward, and soon turned to the left, making it impossible to see whether it widened further down. If it had many more turns like that, Kay's bow and possibly Ardith's staff would have to be left behind.
“I'm worried that we don't have the right equipment to do a long search. We really need lanterns and enough oil for several days of light. Let's count the torches and estimate how many hours of light we have got. How many torches do we have and how many hours light does that give us if we have four lit continuously? Also how long have we been traveling to get to this hole? We can then estimate how many hours we have left to explore. We'll leave Ardith's magic as a backup in case things go wrong.”
A quick inventory was taken, and it was found that only five torches were left unused. When they'd thought that they needed only one torch burning at a time, that number had seemed like overkill. They estimated that each torch could last about an hour, maybe a little more, and the four that were burning now would hold for twenty more minutes.
“Hm…” Sahl continued. “We can go no further or we will have no light and be at the mercy of those creatures. I suggest we put out all the torches except one and head back. When our torches run out, then Ardith will provide light. We should have enough to get back. I would dearly like to explore more, maybe take one of those creatures back to show the Baron, but there is little time. We need to come back better prepared. If anyone sees a chance to kill or capture one of those creatures on the way back, then please suggest it.”
At once, Daluar grunted and snorted. The other three turned to look at him. In the torchlight, his eyes looked eerily bright in his dark features, glancing from face to face with a small half-smile. “It occurs something to me,” he admitted at length, “but you are not going to like it at all.” They seemed to be willing to hear him out. “With only one torch we will be in the darkness, so without doubt will come those creatures to bite. Unless we meet one in the tunnel, suppose the easiest would be let one bite one of us, and so catch it. We must watch one another very attentive, of course.”
Bowing in respect towards Daluar, Sahlman said, “I misjudged you sir; you are a man of daring and audacity. There still remains the problem, that we have tried to capture them in the past, but they take some wounds and escape before they are captured. They seem too tough to kill in a single blow, and we are too spread out and slow on the cliffs to surround and capture one. Do you have a plan to overcome this?”
Daluar nodded and explained, as best he could, how he thought they could stake out the cave entrance where it opened onto the chasm – enough room to maneuver, while still in the creatures' territory. Catching one of the creatures would be easier if they weren't obviously trying to kill it. He demonstrated, with a length of the party's climbing rope, a sort of impromptu noose that could be dropped onto one of the creature's limbs, if not its main body, that should draw tight enough to prevent escape – or, if squeezed to death, well, that was that, but at least they'd have a specimen to show. He also explained that with himself as the bait, and the other three watching him, they had a win-win situation. “If I grab and we catch, already have something for showing the Baron. If I grab and it escapes, then at least it is not eating me,” he said wryly.
Everyone agreed, though the idea of using Daluar as bait was disturbing to some. With Daluar in the lead, the four of them made their way once more through the narrow tunnel until the entrance was in sight. Then, one by one, they put out their torches, mounting the last torch in a crack in the wall, far enough back that it wouldn't scare the creatures away. Kay drew her bow, ready for a precise shot if only she could accustom her eyes to the darkness, while Sahl got ready with the noose and Ardith held her staff. Daluar kept his eyes on his own body, facing outward so the others could watch his back.
They waited for ten nervous minutes, and then Daluar spotted a creature as it was biting into his leg. Suppressing the urge to swat at it, he forced himself instead to take a deep breath and pivot, slowly, on the balls of his feet. Everything was becoming surreal again, nightmarish – the creature stubbornly kept its snout buried in the flesh of Daluar's thigh as he turned, a few inches of its scaly body spooling out of the darkness.
Glancing into the cave, he saw Sahlman crouched and ready to pounce. Daluar realized there was something he'd forgotten to warn them about. Trapping the creature would be a matter of slow, deliberate motion. It was something few people seemed to realize about animals: Their reflexes tended to be faster than most humans could manage. A sudden movement, and the startled creature could be back in the shadows and away before Sahl even reached him. True, Daluar had admitted the possibility of it escaping; but he would rather it slither out of his grasp than vanish before he even made the attempt.
Taking another deep breath, Daluar hissed through his teeth, “S-l-o-w!” At the same time, his hand inched toward the creature, maneuvering toward its midsection.
Sahl moved forward slowly. Trying not to disturb the animal, he gently lifted its short tail in order to ease the loop over it. He then tried to do the same for the creature's hind legs, but found them digging into Daluar. He gently pried the first claw loose, toe by toe, and let them resume their grasp once the rope was in place. Then he did the same with the second claw. At one point, it stopped feeding, and Sahl stopped as well. It decided that the threat was no great enough, however, and it did not run away. By this time, the creature's head was half-buried in its meal. Daluar was barely able to stand with so much of the muscle gone, but he still felt no pain. Sahlman noticed that his fingers were numb as well from handling the creature.
Sahl finished his work and whispered to Daluar, “When I pull this loop closed the creature's hind legs will be held. I guess it will then loose you and try to get away. Have your hand ready to hold the snout and slip your loop over the snout to stop it biting again. Everyone else should jump on it and use their weight to subdue it and grapple it. We will tie the front limbs, the back limbs, the tail and the snout, and also a bandage over the eyes to keep it calm like a hawk. We'll carry it back in someone's backpack. Now!” Sahl pulled his loop tight and jumped on the beast.
It reacted immediately, pulling free of Daluar's leg and struggling to get away. The time it took to withdraw was more than enough for Daluar to grab it, but no sooner did he have it in his grasp than his hands became numb up to his elbows, and he no longer had enough control to hold on. The rope, however, was not subject to the creature's poison, and it bound the beast despite its struggles. While Sahlman reeled it in, Ardith approached to attack, and saw that another creature was already buried in Sahman's lower back.
Sahl dropped his knees, hard, on the creature once he'd pulled it close enough. It was surprisingly strong in its struggles to get away, but Sahl's knees still jolted it. Then he tried to loop the rope around its forelimbs – it didn't have much of a neck – but it squirmed away and Sahl had to reel it in again. Sahl felt a thud on his back as Ardith's staff connected with the creature that was eating him. It released its grab and moved over to the front to bite again. Sahl yelled an instruction. “Use torches to drive the beasts away! Once that's done, we can heal Daluar!”
No sooner had he said it than Kay was there with her bow in one hand and the torch in the other. Sahl's creature immediately darted away, while Daluar's struggled helplessly at the end of the rope, dragging Sahl a couple inches towards the entrance to the cave. It squealed quietly in that high-pitched voice, fighting to keep away from the light.
While Ardith tended to Daluar, Sahl was able to tie the creature securely and subdue it. His hands were scratched and numb by the end, but at least they'd finally captured one of these things. And finally, in the light, they could get a good look at it.
Stretched out, it was three feet long, but incredibly light, no more than ten pounds. Its weight was difficult to believe when one considered the large spherical head, which was mostly mouth, and its stomach, bloated from having gorged on Daluar. Its arms and legs were short and narrow, jointed in the middle and ending in sharp but small- nailed claws, intended for utility rather than defense. The fingers, of which there were five on each limb, were a little sticky, though the rest of the skin was rough and leathery like a snake's. The head had two large, lidless white eyes. What it could see in its pitch-black home was a mystery, but clearly the eyes were functional, since another of the creatures had tried to cover them when the torch was near. Even now, the eyes rippled and twitched in the light as though trying to close. It had ears and nose as well, Sahl discovered. The nostrils were nothing more than tiny holes in the head, and the ears were slight indentations with holes in the center. The mouth, the most notable feature of the creature's face, stretched almost to the ears, and was full of rows and rows of sharp teeth. A forked tongue was currently resting way in the back of the mouth.
With the creature's forelimbs and muzzle secured, Sahl heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Well done, Kay.” He bound a bandage around the creature's eyes to calm it, stuffed it into his backpack and firmly fastened it shut. “Let's waste no time and head straight for the surface,” he said, and prepared for the climb. A dull pain shot through his chest and back as he spoke. The anesthetizing poison of the creatures was wearing off.
Back to the old plans, I guess: Reporting to the baron about the rift, talking to him about the Zioth, and finding _something_ to do with that creature. +100XP for combat.
Ardith went up a level! She gains 6HP. New spells will be gained sometime next turn.