Missed Shots and Broken Arrows
The group huddled in the guard’s tower, looking out across the vast, dark cavern. Those without darkvision were completely lost but for their companion’s descriptions of their surroundings. Stirges hung from the rocky ceiling in thick clumps, rustling wings and scratching beaks against thick hides.
“Let’s not fight these things again,” Keyzana suggested, rubbing her shoulder in memory of their last attack.
“Agreed,” said Olara.
“What’s the plan, then?” Gundren asked in a growly voice, hoisting his hammer onto his shoulder.
“We distract them,” Lorskan told them, pulling an unlit torch from a sconce on the wall and shaking a good amount of dust free. Flavio coughed pointedly.
The Dragonborn raised the torch to Reidoth and said, “light this when it hits the ground?” The Druid nodded his assent and without another word, he cast the stick into the darkness. They heard it clatter against stone and waited for a reaction, wincing. There was none.
The Druid raised his hands and muttered under his breath. The torch burst into flames. Loud screeches filled the cavern and a group of Stirges dove towards the light, swooping over it in low dips. One got so close as to singe its fur and rolled away midair with renewed screeches.
“Blast it, I thought it would attract a few more,” Reidoth said. “Any other ideas?”
Lorskan took the stairs across the tower and descended.
“Right,” the Druid said to himself, and with a loud pop he transformed into a rabbit.
Falkrunn ran down the stairs after the Dragonborn, the rabbit bounding around her short legs. They rounded the corner and stepped into the main cavern. The floor was littered with bones, and Lorskan was up ahead, blindly seeking his way with one hand skimming the cave wall. Crunch. His massive foot landed on the ribcage of a gnome, crushing it. The sound echoed and Falkrunn stopped short, holding her breath. The rabbit sat back on its haunches and sniffed the air cautiously, tiny nose quivering in anticipation.
A few Stirges broke off from the ceiling and began circling the air but made no move to attack. Falkrunn let out her breath slowly, giving the rabbit a somewhat sheepish grin. Luck, it seemed, was with them finally.
The Dwarf came up behind Lorskan and put a hand on his shoulder as he bent down, “let me guide you, before we all die.” He nodded in agreement, and she lead the way. The others, she saw, had joined them without disagreement.
Across the cavern was a wide door, and Falkrunn eyed the scattered bones to find a safe route across for those who could not see. Behind her, she heard a loud curse. She spun and saw Gundren hopping on one foot, holding the end of his boot where he had just kicked a foot into a large orc skull. Olara held a firm hand over his mouth, quieting him. “For the love of Gorm, can we not all be a little more silent?” Falkrunn demanded in a whisper, arms out in annoyance at her following companions. Gundren set his foot down gingerly, his face displaying guilt, and Olara released him.
Falkrunn had spoke too soon, for as she turned to cross the cavern, she tripped over something unseen and crashed down into a littering of bones and heavy armour before Lorskan could grab and steady her. The crash was enough to wake anything within a mile.
The Stirges swarmed.
Falkrunn struggled against the massive flapping wings of a Stirge as its beak found flesh and began to drink through the crack in her armour. She cried out in rage and grabbed wildly at the creature, just barely crawling to her feet as she fought it off.
She could hear arrows flying from her Elven companions but had yet to notice a single Stirge fall to the ground. She dug into her belt and reached for a hand axe. It slipped from her grasp and fell to the ground.
The weight of the Stirge made her lose her balance, and she fell back on top of it. It made a noise of pain, but continued its furious feasting.
Lorskan raised two massive hands and reached out blindly towards the ceiling, casting a sleeping spell and praying for true aim. He heard the distinctive drop of several of the flying creatures, but it was impossible to determine how many.
These creatures could not be redeemed. They were born in darkness and could never be brought to the light. There were certain creatures, certain monstrosities, that could not be saved. Those were who Lorskan could kill. Those, and the followers of Tiamat.
He moved cautiously, seeking out the Druid. They needed light if they were to fight these flying beasts. “Reidoth!” he called out amidst the confusion.
Gundren ran up to Falkrunn and ripped the Stirge free from her shoulder, spraying out droplets of blood across the ground. It began to flap wildly in his grasp and yanked free as he ducked out of the way of two other Stirge’s attacks.
Falkrunn dove as two more came after her, screeching, and managed to raise her shield in defense. Their beaks smashed wood and they retreated angrily. She looked over and saw Flavio had fallen to an attack. The Druid was back to his human form and was crouching over the man and casting a spell of healing. A second later an arrow zoomed by, narrowly missing Flavio. It had been shot from Olara’s bow.
Something was off with the Elves. Their aim was terrible.
Falkrunn growled. This needs to end, she thought angrily, holding her bleeding shoulder and looking around the cavern. She turned and was hit with another Stirge as it beat its wings at her and dug into flesh with its large beak. Gundren tried to pull this one out as well, and was hit by three others.
There were three stones rotating magically in midair next to Flavio. He stood and released two of them. The first hit a Stirge square in the chest and left a gaping hole where its insides had been. The second careened off wildly into the darkness, leaving him open for an attack. The Stirge caught him in the collarbone and Lorskan ran up to free him.
“Reidoth!” Lorskan was shouting again. “Light a torch before we start killing each other!”
The Druid nodded, and the cavern was suddenly bathed in orange light. The instantaneous change in light forced Olara to raise her bow at the last seconds, and her arrow whizzed past another flying beast.
The Stirge attacking Flavio nearly pushed him over as it avoided Lorskan’s grasp, and Flavio’s final magic stone whipped out of its circular motion and hit Lorskan in the temple, knocking him clean off his feet.
We are all a bunch of floundering idiots, Falkrunn realized, not for the first time.
The chaos didn’t end there. Falkrunn was free of Stirges for the moment, so she withdrew her longsword and cut at the Stirges circling Gundren. Her uncle was frantically waving his hammer through the air, but the creatures were faster.
Lorskan roared in annoyance and, from where he lay on the ground, he released a bout of fire from his open maw. Gundren fell back out of the way just in time, but Falkrunn was too slow. The surging flames filled the cavern, turning the Stirges to ash and scorching Falkrunn in her armour.
The heat was immense as she crouched down, and when the flames ceased, she felt overwhelming pain. Looking down, her sleeve had caught on fire and she quickly batted at the flames, ignoring the pain and the smell of burnt flesh. She held her uninjured hand over the wound as soon as the flames were out and released the white light of a healing spell.
Gundren got to his feet and tiredly smashed down a creature with his hammer. He was soaked in his own blood and looked exhausted, but called out to Olara, “shoot it!”, pointing up at the Stirge that was just out of his reach. She nodded and, with a look of nervousness, released another arrow.
The arrow hit Reidoth from behind as he was turning away from Flavio. It struck his shoulder, and he cursed, spinning around to face the Elf, “what the—” then smacked a Stirge out of the air with his quarterstaff as it came diving towards him.
Keyzana and Olara released another bout of arrows, and they all missed. Seriously, what was wrong with these Elves today? Had they been cursed, unbeknownst by them or their companions?
Despite having two Stirges sticking from himself, Flavio raised both hands, one directed to Gundren and the other held over his own chest and cast healing. Falkrunn ran towards Flavio with her sword in the air, jumping to reach the flying creatures.
Gundren took down enemies left and right with his ferocious hammer swings. Reidoth’s magically-imbued quarterstaff danced through the air. Finally, they were down to one final Stirge, which circled cautiously when seeing its defeated allies. It screeched.
With a huge sigh, Olara set her feet, took aim slowly, and released her arrow. Finally, she hit her target. The last Stirge landed on the ground with an echoing screech of death.
After drinking some healing potions and otherwise bandaging up wounds, the ragged companions stumbled over the rest of the skeletons and fresh corpses of Stirges and moved towards the sound of running water. There was a narrow stone bridge that reached over a chasm, and beneath that flowed a dark river. Falkrunn strained her ears and could hear low grunting echoing from a distance.
“I hear a noise,” Flavio whispered to them. “Creatures of some kind, speaking in a goblin tongue.”
Soon the sound of heavy footfalls and low voices conversing was evident to all. There was a door to their right, and Falkrunn gestured to it with a tilt of her neck. Everyone nodded, looking exhausted, and she opened the door a crack. She stuck her nose through, listening.
She heard crunching and gnawing, followed by sickening moans. Ghouls, she cursed to herself. She looked back at everyone, who waited expectantly, and with a shrug she pushed the door open all the way and stepped through, unsheathing her longsword. This fight, she promised to herself, will be better than the last.
Three hunched, grey-skinned creatures turned at the noise, dropping cracked bones from their salivating, sharp-teethed mouths. As they stood, Falkrunn raised her free hand and cast a blinding spell over all three of the creatures, then hopped away from the doorway and moved to flank.
Olara redeemed herself immediately. She took out her short bow and shot the nearest Ghoul directly between the eyes. It fell back, definitely dead. She kicked it in the head for good measure, smiling to herself as the other two Ghouls blindly sniffed the air, unsure of which direction to move and afraid of attacking each other.
Reidoth cast a spell over his staff so it glowed blue. He lightly twisted it in his hands and almost playfully smacked a Ghoul over the head, then danced back. It hissed and raised its jagged claws in his direction. Lorskan took the opening to move around the Druid and slash his sword across the Ghoul’s abdomen, leaving a thick, bleeding gash.
Keyzana came out of the doorway, hands alight with flames, and incinerated the nearest Ghoul in a matter of seconds, but not before its screeches echoed loud enough to draw any nearby enemies. The second Ghoul slashed in the direction of Keyzana, but she blocked it with the staff she had taken from Glasstaff himself. It created a glowing shield around her person, and the Ghoul continued to claw ineffectually at it, gnawing and biting, drool escaping its cracked lips. Keyzana laughed in its face.
“Look out!” Gundren shouted at three hulking shapes that were approaching from the bridge. He still stood in the doorway, with Flavio at his side. The creatures might have spotted them, but they definitely heard them.
There were gruff shouts and a massive, spiked club suddenly appeared, baring down on the Dwarf. Gundren blocked the attack and came back with a blow of his own, which landed on the swelled chest of a towering Bugbear.
Flavio drew up his hand and three stones began to circle around him, held up by a magical force. He shot one, but it clanked off the Bugbear’s armour. The human backed up into the room, avoiding the retaliating swing. Gundren used the distraction to slam another hammer swing into the Bugbear.
The remaining Ghoul, still blind from Falkrunn’s spell, began to thrash violently, confused by all the noise. As Falkrunn ran past, Olara put an arrow between its eyes.
Falkrunn brought her sword up against the Bugbear assaulting Gundren as the Druid transformed into an auburn-furred, yellow-eyed direwolf. He hunched down, then pounced on one of the Bugbears and ripped out his throat in one vicious tear. He stood in the doorway and growled.
Keyzana stepped behind the wolf and released magical missiles at one of the remaining Bugbears, and all three found their target, one sticking through the end of his long nose. He howled in fury and Lorskan reached up and pulled Gundren out of the way, then struck the Bugbear. The creature didn’t fall back but swung his club and hit Lorskan square in the chest with incredible force.
Lorskan crumpled, unconscious. Flavio dove to him immediately and began tending to his wounds. The Bugbear’s hit had crushed the front of his armour and the spikes had driven through his scales. He was losing blood quickly.
Flavio picked up his head and dropped it back on the stone with a sickening thump. “Oops! Sorry,” he muttered, assessing the damage.
Gundren had stumbled back from the fight holding his arm and bleeding a fair amount. “I’m not sure,” he said between breaths, “I’ll be much help in this fight.” He threw one of his handaxes, but it sailed over both Bugbear’s heads.
“Get back, uncle,” Falkrunn said, slashing the nearest Bugbear’s arm with her longsword.
The direwolf had somehow managed to take out a healing potion—from where, Falkrunn was glad she didn’t know—and Flavio administered it to the Dragonborn. Lorskan shook himself and, with a booming voice, said “STOP!”
The Bugbears stopped fighting, and everyone lowered their weapons slightly. “Give it to me,” he said, gesturing to the Bugbear’s spiked club. Confused, the beast handed his weapon to the prostrate Dragonborn.
With effort, Lorskan stood and blocked a punch once Bugbear regained his wits. As the Bugbear went in for another punch, Keyzana attacked the one behind him. Flavio sent another magic stone whistling through the air, but it pinged off plated armour.
Gundren ignored his niece’s warnings and stepped in to swing his large hammer with a two-handed grip at the unarmed Bugbear currently engaged with Lorskan.
The still-armed Bugbear dodged attacks from the Elves and Falkrunn, and the Dwarf tried her best to get closer, but the beast’s reach was incredibly long. Finally, an arrow shot by Olara finished the Bugbear, catching him through his armour on his ribcage. He peered down at the bolt in his side in shock, then collapsed, unmoving.
The direwolf roared and everyone jumped out of his way as he pounced a second time and ripped the final, unarmed Bugbear to bloody, furry shreds.
“I’m curious,” Falkrunn said casually to the Druid as they scanned the room the Ghouls had been occupying. It was an abandoned smithy filled with barrels, unfinished tools and empty shelves. She found a rusted fire poker and picked it up to examine. “When you, say, tear apart a foe with your fangs while you’re a direwolf, and then turn back into a human… can you still taste blood?”
“Interesting question,” Reidoth said as way of answer, then walked away.
Once everyone had been given the proper amount of healing, Lorskan and Gundren stacked barrels in front of the door, barricading it from intruders.
There was a trapdoor in the far corner of the room in the ceiling. Keyzana helped Olara up and she pushed open the rusted hinges and crawled through to investigate.
“We don’t have time for this,” Gundren said in frustration, pacing the stone floor.
“Uncle, we’re all exhausted, including you. We need rest,” Falkrunn told him quietly.
“I must find my brother. I must know that he’s alive.”
“He will be fine,” she said, placing a hand on his broad shoulder. “He can handle himself.”
He shook his head and looked down at his feet, and she knew he was thinking about his middle brother.
Olara returned a short time later and said the trapdoor took a tunnel back to the guard’s tower. Gundren tried again to pry open the lockbox he had found earlier, but even with Olara’s help, it still wouldn’t budge. Annoyed, he threw it back into his pack and looked around helplessly.
“We must sleep and regain our strength,” Reidoth advised, and they (mostly) all agreed.
Lorskan curled up in a cocoon made of his own wings. Olara took up watch, seating herself primly on a barrel as though it were a fine chair, and Falkrunn lay back on the hard floor and draped an arm over her face. They all fell asleep to the sound of waves crashing in the deep.
Screams. Horrible, terrible screams. A child crying out. Someone cutting, slashing into flesh, leaving a trail of bodies. No discrimination. All, dead. They killed my family. Now, I destroy their kingdom.
Falkrunn raised her sword again and put an end to the weeping. A slight wind blew, and suddenly the scent of death was fresh in her nose. She looked around in horror at the bodies left in her wake. She bent over and wretched.
“Wake up,” Keyzana said gently, and Falkrunn’s eyes popped open immediately. “It’s time to go, everyone.”
They all packed up quietly and removed the barricade from the doors, listening for enemies.
Just before the bridge was a tunnel to their right, twisting out of sight. The air shimmered with green light, and they moved past it. Falkrunn led the way across the stone bridge, admiring, once again, the stonework of the Dwarves. Across the bridge was a raised plateau with abandoned square buildings scattered on three separate levels. To the right was a portion of sunken stone tempted to collapse into the river below.
“We should split up,” Keyzana said, gesturing to all the buildings.
Falkrunn followed Gundren up the raised terrace. Keyzana and Olara took to searching the nearest buildings. Lorskan, Reidoth and Flavio went to investigate the sunken area, using a lit torch to guide their way. The Elves and Dwarves had no need of such a thing.
Gundren and Falkrunn came across a wide set of stairs leading down, and a short distance from there was a rougher path also leading downhill. They took the stairs and found two huge sets of doors inlaid with silver designs. The walls were carved with thick, geometric designs.
“Let’s go back and tell the others,” said Gundren, turning to the abandoned buildings.
Falkrunn nodded, then stopped short. They could hear the distinct growling, gnawing sound of—“Ghouls,” her uncle said it as a curse.
They ran to find their friends.