Euven hammered his fist down in one last defiant act, the strength and desperation behind the blow born more of anger than an attempt at saving a life. The goliath’s eyes flew open and blood spluttered out of his mouth as he gasped air. The elf called for water and Gregg hurried over, unfastening his water-skin and trickling it into Tarkus’ mouth as the other two mercenaries looked on, relief on Greil’s face, vague boredom on Grimlock’s.
“How many fingers to you see?” Euven asked the goliath, holding three digits up in front of his face.
“…three” Tarkus replied.
The elf lashed out and back-handed the revived warrior across the face. No one questioned this.
The group rested for almost ten minutes, catching their breath and tending to wounds whilst their eyes wandered around the surrounding area. Both Grimlock and Euven scanned for footprints, finding none, while Greil sat in an almost meditative state, reading the arcane energy flowing around the area. He detected a wealth of it around the dragon bones and his mind conjured up a plethora of pages from within the Necronomicon, detailing rituals involving the desecration of mystical beasts. As well as this, he could feel emanations pulsating from the nearby cave mouth as if the opening itself was taking shallow breaths.
The wizard announced his findings as he got to his feet and began looking for footprints himself. Though he could see a multitude of animal tracks, he spotted nothing out of the ordinary until he explored the ground closer to the dragon; a huge gouge in the earth ran from the beast’s hind quarters into the nearby woodland. It appeared as if the creature had been dragged to its current resting place. Following the trail, the group found a small, unnatural clearing only a few minutes walk into the trees. Entire tree trunks had been uprooted or snapped in two like fire wood, the earth piled up into a mound where some huge falling object had smashed into it. They had discovered the dragon’s crash site.
Yet finding it answered no questions. How had the dragon died? Why had it died? Where was its rider? They trudged back to the bone site and again considered the cave. Its dark mouth loomed before them, a large opening at the base of one of the many sky-high spires of the Gol mountains. Light penetrated only a few feet into the entrance-way, blocked out almost entirely by a large, rocky slab coated in gnarled, green tendrils of moss and lichen that jutted from the the rock-face above. After a few words of discussion, the mercenaries filed inside.
There was a stagnant smell – the stench of mould, rotting wood and bacteria-coated water. As they proceeded further inside it clawed up their nostrils, strong enough even to be tasted. When the darkness became complete, a dim light began to shine from the tip of Greil’s staff, illuminating the cave for several feet in all directions. Some way ahead of them they could see another light – small, flickering, cutting through the inky darkness; though what lay between them and it could not yet be seen, hidden in the oppressive black.
Each pace took more nerves than the last, slowing the group down until they were advancing one short step at a time, their eyes staring alertly in all directions, their eyelids tightened instinctively against the cloying vapours. Grimlock roared, attempting to intimidate the cave. A guttural gasp replied from somewhere deeper inside. Progressing still, an increasing sound of running water yielded a stream cut across the group’s path. Greil checked its depth with his staff: merely shin deep. Tarkus eyed the water with an air of mistrust.
Gregg, peering into the darkness, realised that the flickering light was in fact a candle. Euven took aim at it and asked Greil for orders. The wizard told him to watch and wait, then directed the light from his staff to fly forward towards the candle. Its passage illuminated nothing and illicited no reaction from any hidden presences. Grimlock, after fumbling a memory check (what was he trying to remember?!), jumped into the water. Gregg followed, gasping slightly at its coldness.
Back on the stream’s banks, Greil decided that he and Euven should remain where they were to cover the others and keep clear the way to the exit. He pointed to a spot above Tarkus and the light reset itself above his head. The goliath looked up and moved to one side, only to see the light move with him in a fixed position. Nodding with satisfaction, he long jumped over most of the stream, landing near Gregg with a large, icy, unwelcome splash. A wavering voice rang out from somewhere beyond the candle, “Stay back… you fucking bastards, I can still… kill you all”.
Followed by Gregg, Tarkus walked the last few feet into the light of the candle. A pair of legs were slumped in a shadowy corner, the rest of the body shrouded by the dark. Grimlock brought up the rear and replied, “Get fucked and bring it”.
“Very well (cough)”. Bolts of bright green arcane energy streaked from the slumped figure, briefly illuminating the area as they rocketed past the adventurers in different directions and exploded against several sections of earthen wall thoughout the cavern. Clods of dirt and small stones were heard showering down a split second later before silence once again fell.
The silence, however, was short lived. Strange echoes reverberated around the cavern, rapidly increasing in volume and intensity – a cacophony of alien clicks and screeches, underlined by the steady thrum and vibrations of scuttling legs hurtling across the ground at an impressive pace.
Encounter: Colonial Marines
Grimlock charged into daylight and slammed the bitch onto the ground. He was followed by Tarkus, supporting Gregg, then Euven and a human stranger. Last of all came Greil, walking backwards with eyes fixed on the darkness. The party exchanged glances, glad to all be alive, then gazed upon the newcomer, seeing her properly for the first time.
Adorned in leather armour and a dark green cloak, her slender frame seemed bulkier then it was at first glance. Long blonde hair was tied in a ponytail behind her head, showing off the angular features of her face, making her appear almost elven in origin, though it was clear from her stature that she was in fact human. The woman was well armed – a longbow could be seen slung over her back, a short sword hung by her side and finally an assortment of daggers were arrayed in a belt across her armour.
She introduced herself as Ellana. Gregg decided she looked badass. Grimlock didn’t pay her a second’s glance, instead turning to the Sunspeaker and demanding that she tell him about the dragon. Nala grimaced at him and gestured towards the exposed bones lying nearby, “It is dead.” But Skullfucker was adamant, “Bring it back to life.” She laughed at him and was punched extremely hard in the face. Before anything else could happen, Greil stepped in and redirected the interrogation onto a rather more rational path, “What were you doing here, Nala?”
She was surprisingly direct: “Seeking power. My kin, they do not respect me, they outcast me because of my looks.” As she said this, she raised a hand and created a small orb of light on her finger tip that revealed her face to be scarred hideously down the entirety of one side, “For a man to have a scar, it is a mark of respect and honour, for a woman, one who is not involved in the military anyway, it is a sign of weakness. I was only able to survive by plying my trade as a whore, and even then, only a cheap one. My looks are not worth the coin. This…this ritual. I should have received power. Respect. Instead (cough) I lie here dying. The beast was tainted with foul magic!”
Despite her unfortunate circumstances, the group did not particularly respond to this speech. Greil pressed on – “Have you seen the dragon’s rider?” She shook her head, coughing badly now, “I saw no rider, only an ancient lizard breathing its last.” Gregg had a question of his own, “Why did you fight us?” At this she frowned, as if even she were not quite sure. “The dragon’s blood, it, twisted me. I no longer thought or acted as myself. I saw only danger and sought a means to defend myself. But as the days went on, my power dwindled. Why the others did not return to take me on again I do not know, but had they, they likely would have succeeded… as it seems you have.”
The next few minutes threw up a few more details. The sunspeaker claimed to have gained the dragon’s blood ritual from “unorthodox texts”, reminding Greil that perhaps he had once read of this ritual himself. She knew nothing of the seeing stones carried by Gregg and Euven. At this she began to beg for death, when a screech followed by rushed clicking sounds suddenly rang out from inside the cave. Ellana spoke up, “Kruthik! Perhaps a scout of sorts!” Her tone held significant alarm, “That was likely only a first wave, Kruthik hives can be ten times the size! We must hurry. Kill her or leave her, I don’t care which, but we must go!”
Greil permitted Grimlock to finish Nala and the dragonborn decapitated her without hesitation. As he claimed the large skull for his collection, an army of screeching Kruthik marched from the cave. Euven shot the first and Gregg killed several more with a short blast of magic but, seeing that the enemy force was indeed of great number, Greil ordered a fighting retreat, organising the party into a solid line that could back away with minimum molestation. As the first insects reached the group, soil was blasted skyward as two huge Kruthik guardians emerged from beneath the ground.
To escape these new opponents, Ellana blew up six members of the horde and teleported into line with Euven. Grimlock made the opposite decision, charging from the line into one of the huge creatures and hacking off two of its legs with his greataxe. The dragonborn roared violently to make the guardian feel suitably intimidated, but his fearless, brainless, instinct-driven opponent instead took a bloody, ragged bite into his arm. Gregg and Euven attacked at range from Greil’s defensive line, killing another three between them. The commander himself set a cloud of daggers at the centre of the cave entrance, killing enough Kruthik to cause a small pileup.
Having decided not to join the fighting retreat, Tarkus was swarmed by the great bugs, taking attacks on every side, but bellowing like a drunken hell fiend, managed to kill all of his attackers. Now dangerously far from the others, the goliath stood his ground, stubbornly ignoring the order to retreat. Close by, the second Kruthik guardian fired poisoned spikes long-range at the party. Greil tele-dodged out of the way but Grimlock was hit in the back. The now queasy-looking dragonborn resumed smashing in the other guardian’s face. Tens of Kruthik reinforcements charged out of the cave and swarmed Tarkus a second time. The bold giant tried to escape but was caught up amidst his attackers, even then killing assailants as he fell.
Ellana took up her bow and fired magic-flame arrows into the roiling mass. Euven scored a solid hit on the thus-far uninjured second guardian with an arrow of his own. Greil set another cloud of daggers in a different area of the cave mouth, causing another pile up and reducing the flow of new enemies to a comparative trickle. However, there was still a massive horde of Kruthik in the fray, many of whom had begun chowing down on the downed Tarkus. Gregg and Ellana blew up several more in his defence, then Grimlock killed his targeted guardian with a full-body axe swing, heaved Tarkus off the floor and started to leg it with the goliath a floppy mess in his arms.
Euven scored another deadly hit on the remaining guardian while Greil laid a final cloud of daggers to complete the blockade. Seconds later, the resulting pileup left the cave mouth fully blocked. Pursued by the remaining Kruthik, Grimlock was protected by his armour, also shrugging off the poison, but Tarkus, now slung over his shoulder, was savaged even further. Ellana destroyed two of these pursuers and the dragonborn turned around to cleave the last. The injured guardian tunnelled away, leaving the adventurers alone on the ground, shaking with adrenaline. Piles of dead bugs twitched and leaked for thirty feet beyond the cave’s entrance.
The Mercenaries fled to a safe distance. Greil saw to Tarkus’ wounds, wrapping the deep cuts and jagged gashes as best he could. When the goliath opened his eyes, his features creased with great pain. He jumped to his feet and began gasping for air as would a man drowning, swaying unsteadily, revolving drunkenly across several paces. His hands flew up to his head, fingers digging into his scalp as he let out a guttural roar, which faltered after only a few seconds. His legs failed beneath him. Tarkus pitched forward and collapsed into the dirt.