Of Stone and Shadow

High Impact Ecology Lessons

It was early October, and it was snowing. It was not a heavy, blinding, driving, deep winter snow just a dreary, pathetic, barely worthy of the name kind of snow. But still, it was snowing, in October. The party should have taken that as a sign and stayed at the inn spending money on drinks instead of marching out to investigate some old abandoned ruins. That’s what they should have done, but not what they did. Plans had been made and broken so many times now that everyone was determined to finally see this thing through. This time around Malleus was busy with other matters but an acquaintance of his, a gnome with an arcane bent, was available in his stead. The poor little guy had no idea what was about to happen. At least he had an interesting cat to keep him company, for a while anyway.

The trip to the ruins was cold and uneventful. Apparently the bandits and animals were smarter than the group and decided to bow to the unusual weather by staying indoors. After a few hours of easy hiking the group was met with the now familiar decrepit gatehouse. Previously Malleus and the drow had explored an odd cavern but had been firmly rebuffed by a force of skeletons. Interested in the area and wanting to flex her liturgical muscles, Liryl pushed for the drow to reinvestigate the cave. Since she was willing to lead the fray everyone else was willing to stand behind her for support.

When the group entered the cave the only thing they found was a gloomy atmosphere and a dusty floor. The drow was quick to defend his assertions that this area had once been full of skeletons and marched past Liryl to investigate. The group waited while he went off down one of the corners to investigate. It didn’t take very long before they heard a girlish scream and saw him fleeing back toward the entrance to cower behind his diminutive companions. Behind him marched a small platoon of armed skeletons, veritable giants compared to the defiant figure standing between then and the drow who had awoken them. Everyone except for Liryl gripped their weapons a little tighter and prepared for the worst should she fail. Liryl stood short and held out the crossed cog of her faith and began chanting. The skeletons’ bones rattled and their feet made scratching sounds as they charged across the worked stone floor. Suddenly the gloomy aura in the cave lifted some and a faint sound like clockwork seemed to emanate from the all points in the room and the skeletons stopped charging and turned to flee from the little cleric. The drow stood and straightened his robes before accompanying Sturbin and the panther in dismantling the terrorized undead.

The rest of the cave was a disappointment compared to the brief encounter with the skeletons. It was a small three room complex with nothing but dusty floors and cobwebs in the central and east rooms and a ransacked, and much graffitied altar, in the west room. When Sturbin was sent to investigate the relic they found a small hidden panel. After much checking and debating it was decided to open the panel from a safe distance. The smoke and dark tendrils that erupted from the small panel proved this to be a wise choice, but the empty compartment also proved that it had been a pointless risk. Disappointed with their find the group briefly debated the possibility of removing the trapped altar so they could sell it to some nefarious group as a decretive temple adornment and hidey-hole, but the weight of the altar and the logistics of transporting it proved to be too daunting. A brief investigation of the rest of the gatehouse ruins proved that this region had already been visited by grave robbers and bandits.

The group continued on through the ravine toward the abandoned ruins. As the walls rose around them some of the party became apprehensive about continuing blindly through a box canyon . It only took a few minutes to locate a small trail leading up the canyon wall back toward the west. The group followed the trail up the wall hoping to gain enough vantage to scout out the ruins before proceeding, but like everything else that day this ended with disappointment. Not even the towering drow was able to see past the next bend and no one felt it would be worth the time and effort to try to scramble up the sides to get a better vantage. Resigned to whatever fate would bring, the group trudged back to the canyon floor and continued on in the directions of the ruins. Their progress through the ravine was unimpeded, though whether this was due to the snow or the location no one could say. As the party exited the ravine they were met with a rather magnificent, if dilapidated, sight. The entrance to the abandoned ruins was a large carved dwarven face complete with a helmet and windows for eyes. The open area in front of the huge head was no less impressive with large stalagmite like structures bursting from the ground. Wary of the prospect of an ambush the now paranoid group scouted the area thoroughly, even going so far as to have Sturbin and the drow examine the rooms behind the eye windows. Like the rest of the trip this area was devoid of both life and loot. One glimmer of hope for the trip was that the rooms behind the eyes seemed to be undisturbed, hinting at a potential for rescuing priceless artifacts before any despicable thieves were able to abscond with them.

Sturbin and the drow were in favor of entering from the top and looking around in the seemingly unexplored sections of the ruins rather than enter through the, obviously, well-traveled front entrance. After a brief deliberation, the newest member of the party pointed out the difficulty in lofting a 200 pound struggling feline 100 feet up a sheer cliff with a rope. When faced with the option of entering through the eyes at three quarter force or entering through the door at full force the choice was clear and the group cautiously approached the giant stone mouth. Two of the three portcullises were rusted but intact; the third had been bent and broken so that it looked like the stone dwarf was missing a tooth. It was through that black and twisted portal that the party entered and quickly discovered that abandoned is a relative term.

Though it was possible for all of the adventures to see without light, Liryl was not comfortable with how limited her field of view was. Considering both her performance against the undead horde and her oddly persuasive mien, the group decided to forgo the possible benefits of not carrying a light source and allowed her to light a torch. Unfortunately the misshapen creatures standing sentry did not have a similar photophilic member among them. Upon their entrance the brave amateur archeologists were met not with warm words and welcomes but instead with cold steel and mangled gibberish. It wasn’t clear what exactly was attacking them, but that had never given anyone in this particular group any reason to pause. Arrows were responded to with arrows but no mortal wounds were inflicted to either side. While the two sides were exchanging steel words the cat decided to sample the local cuisine and raced straight into the middle of the fray, taking a few hits on the way. With little damage inflicted on them from the back ranks the creatures turned their bows and swords toward the snarling beast in their midst, well, all but the one that had been disemboweled. Sturbin, Liryl, and the gnome used the snarling distraction to move into better positions for laying down covering fire, while the drow led his henchmen into battle. From this closer range it became apparent that that the three remaining creatures, as well as the pieces of the dead one, were some form of mutated or mutilated goblins. The dead one must have been a particular favorite among the group because the response to his death was swift and decisive. All of the goblins turned on the cat and though two of them missed rather spectacularly the third proved his mettle and dropped the poor beast with an arrow straight to the heart. To almost everyone’s surprise instead of falling down in a pool of quivering fur and blood the cat yowled in pain then disappeared in a puff of smoke. This gave the triumphant goblin the perfect vantage to see his fellows cut down in a rain of arrows and slashes. Goblins are not well known for bravery and this one proved no exception. The monstrous little beast ran for one of the many doors that lined the main hallway and began banging on it and shouting. The last things to go through his mind were hope that his companions would get there in time, and the arrow that proved that they would not, in fact, do so. The gnome had revenged his fallen cat friend.

The group had less than a minute to enjoy their victory before the door burst open and two large bug-like creatures charge through swinging crudely made morning stars. Reagan took a glancing blow to his armor but was otherwise unfazed. Romil would also have taken a glancing blow to the armor, if anyone had thought to outfit him. Instead he took a glancing blow to the torso, but managed to keep his weapons up and facing the proper direction. The new gnome on the block proved to have quite a few tricks up his sleeve when five armed and armored elves suddenly appeared behind the two bugbears and began laying into them. One of the elves fell to friendly fire, but the remaining four were able to distract the bug bears long enough to allow Sturbin to execute his signature move, the leap and execute. The sudden and bloody end of his ally distracted the second bugbear long enough to Reagan to deliver a stunning blow, while Romil’s wound, or native incompetence, caused his swings to be ineffective. Being injured and vastly outnumbered the bugbear wisely decided to surrender. With nothing left to murder Sturbin and the gnome set about searching the room and looting the corpses while Liryl and the drow questioned the bug bear. They were able to find out that the bugbears had a hive in the ruins and had collected much food, hinting at other humanoids, but when questioned about the location of the hive the bugbear began to let out a high pitch keening noise. Worried about the possibility of an ambush Sturbin quickly cut off both the keening, and the bugbears head.

Without Malleus to help absorb some of the impact, the group felt that a frontal assault on a hive of unknown size was probably a mistake. Instead they decided to head up the stairs to investigate the seemingly untraveled upper reaches of the ruins. It was clear that things were odd in this area when they entered the landing at the top of the first set of stairs. The tile floor was damaged and there was a faint musty rotting smell. After a careful search the room proved empty and uninteresting aside from the damaged floor. The next room was full of damaged shelves, broken pottery, and a stronger musty smell. Having already pushed their luck with one undead army the group decided to head further upstairs and into cleaner smelling air. At the top of the stairs the group was surprised by a pair of bug bears standing guard at a door on the opposite side of a long room. With two bug bears yelling battle cries and rushing across the floor the party reacted quickly and began peppering them with arrows and bolts. This time the gnome surprised everyone by calling forth giant rats to distract the two foes and aid in combat. With the help of the sudden vermin the bugbears were brought down, one dead and the other alive. When questioned this bugbear also started to make a loud keening noise and was also quickly beheaded. A search of the room turned up some old dwarven weapons, a few shields and some barrels full of arrows. Not wanting the weather and neglect to cause further harm to these potentially priceless cultural artifacts the group decided that it was best if they took them into custody until they could find their rightful owners. Satisfied that there were no further relics to be rescued the group opened the newly unguarded door. This proved to be one the rooms behind the dwarven eyes. After checking the ruins entrance for any sign of potential looters the group took a moment to enjoy the view of the valley. Of special note to the drow was the close proximity of a small town to the Hammer rock. Immediately he and Sturbin began to try to calculate how much effort it would take to cause the hammer to fall upon the town in such a way that it would look like some great titan had decided to smash it like a nail. Their discussion was not entirely appreciated. Satisfied that all of the relics and antiques in this area had been accounted for and collected the group headed back down to the stairs and into the room with the smell. Worried about what might creep up behind them the group decided to open the door and figure out where the odor was originating.

Beyond the door was a small room with a similarly small stair case leading upward. As the group cautiously ascended the stair case two things became clear. The musty smell was getting worse, and there was an odd buzzing sound beginning. The drow stopped the group’s ascent and explained that the sound was familiar. He was pretty sure it was a bunch of large bloodsucking creatures known as stirges. The group stopped and listened trying to figure out how many might be up there and if there might be anything else around. Sturbin concluded that there were probably 12 of the creatures and everyone agreed that if prepared that was probably not beyond their abilities to handle. After all if this area were ever to be restored to its proper cultural glory these pests would need to be excavated. A plan was hatched in which the gnome would call forth another small group of elves to enter the room and act as a phalanx for the drow who would attempt to knock out as many o the beasts as he could with his disorienting magic. Things seemed to be going well for a few seconds, then suddenly the entire hallway became black as pitch. The torch was no longer shedding light and even the various night vision abilities among the group seemed to not be working. From the darkness came a loud girlish scream and a lot of agitated buzzing. The group quickly stumbled down the steps and moved instantly from pure darkness to visibility and light. This only lasted a few seconds though, long enough to see that the drow had two hideous creatures attached to either side of his neck that appeared to be draining his blood.

As soon as another of the creatures flew into the room darkness once again enveloped the party this time the gnome was set upon by a pair of the creatures. Quick to move to a tactically advantaged position Sturbin and Liryl lept through the open door back into the room with the smashed tiles and started to slam the door shut on the devilish things that brought the darkness with them. Fate smiled on the fallen drown and gnome though because just before he was able to slam the door shut the two summoned elves pulled the body of their creator and his companion through the rapidly dwindling opening. With the rest of the Stirges locked behind a stout slab of oak Stirbin and Liryl set about stabilizing their companions and removing the stirges. When the dust had settled and the fiends had fled with bellies full of blood Liryl looked over the two fallen mages and found that the drow had suffered little more than heavy loss of blood and pride, while the gnome had received a grievous injury. One of the stirges had pierced a major artery and without proper aid the gnome would have bled to death in minutes. Even with her holy powers, Liryl was unable to fully repair the damage to the arm. With two companions near death’s door and a large force of demonic entities to contend with the group decided to head back to their bar of operations and see about recruiting some further aid before completing any more community rehabilitation projects in this area. On a more positive note, when they made it back to town they were quickly able to find the rightful owner of the dwarven relics, a nice Halfling arms merchant with enough gold to prove his rightful claim to his lost family heirlooms. Everyone resolved to test themselves against these new and interesting stirge specimen again after recuperating from this last wilderness foray, though this time with a little help from some ecology experts possibly.

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