"That would have woken it up," Martin agreed.
"We'll have to hang out in the area for several days and rob the corpses of its victims," Terzin suggested serenely. "It doesn't seem to eat gold."
Robin whacked him lightly on the back of his head. "There's a reason for that, I'm sure."
"That thing's probably been sitting there eating people since the Djann left," Harrick continued, still amazed. "That thing needs to be marked. And signs. We want signs around the base of the hill."
"I guess I had a reason for not liking the place," the Brother remarked.
"I'd say so."
"Could someone give me a hand making a grave for this gentleman?"
"Do we want to bury him, or just cremate him?" the elementalist inquired.
"Cremation would probably be safest."
"Rather than dumping him in the earth after he was killed by an Earth elemental...."
"I'll get the fire going," Terzin volunteered.
They held a brief, perfunctory funeral service in the still-falling rain, and Harrick lit the pyre of wood the others gathered in the meantime.
Harrick and Terzin were for heading back to the Keep right away to warn them, but were reminded that the people there already knew to avoid the hill, because sometimes people who went there didn't return. The unfortunate victim had three gold marks and two pennies in his pouch. The pack yielded a crushed medical kit, a pulped book, some spare clothes beyond any hope of being cleaned, and nothing of value.
They returned to camp and debated their next move, huddled around their crudely drawn map. The mysterious torch in the night could wait a bit. They all agreed on the need to handle their problems one at a time, but disagreed on which order to follow. Robin wanted to scout around in the woods for the bandits, then return to the caves once they had been dealt with. Otherwise every time they went back to the Keep with some loot, they were going to get robbed, which would get tiresome pretty quickly. Harrick wanted to clear out one of the cavesperhaps the one they had begun exploring last timeand make it into an alternate base of operations.
"This is more your show than mine," Martin sighed, though it was plain he considered the bandits the more important issue.
"The real point to cleaning it out isn't so much to continue investigating the caves from there, as to have some point to fall back to and perform healing before returning to the Keep, so the next time we get jumped by bandits on the road we're not complete cripples," Harrick explained.
"There's something to be said for the thoroughness of the situation," the Brother admitted. "If there's a threat inside that cave, and we deal with it completely, no more threat will be forthcoming from that quarter."
"Maybe we can recruit them to help us hunt bandits," Robin suggested with a smile, resigned to following Harrick's plan, at least for the time being. It didn't really matter all that much to her, as long as they were making progress on something.
"That's not impossible, actually," Harrick said. "Isolate one problem, handle it completely, move on to the next."
"You're a very methodical thinker."
"If more orcs thought like that, there'd be less humans."
She gave him a rather bemused look. "I can't actually argue with that statement...." Sometimes you had to wonder about Harrick. They packed up camp and got moving.
"I'm almost willing to bet good money that they're not going to jump us for a period of time," he continued theorizing on bandit behavior.
"Unless we look like we're carrying something cool," Robin pointed out.
"Only if we look like we're carrying something cool, and really damaged," he amended.
"Because they know that we're going to be paying attention, at least for a while."
"And much as I find a certain gross level of amusement in the idea of tipping the entire forest over, it really would be bad. Doable, but bad." Lots and lots of Shifting Sands, and a good wind would blow the whole thing over.
They paused at the mouth of the box canyon and saw that nothing had changed in their absence, then proceeded up through the brush, to the cave where the Goblinwater issued forth.
"Martin, do you have any armor on under that?" Robin asked.
Reassured on that score, they pitched rocks in to scare the sturges out, and splashed through the water to the first fork. Again they took the leftward branch, toward the room where Harrick had found the stones. No more head fungus had grown there, although the walls were still coated with greenish spores and a wide variety of other mushrooms.
"Those spores that are there, they're probably already dead," Martin said. "They need to be inside lungs in order to grow. The only thing that would be a threat right now would be if any of the sturges happened to inhale them."
"We chased most of the sturges out on our way in," Harrick recalled.
"Then it shouldn't be that bad."
Terzin beamed the lantern's light around the room, saw nothing threatening beyond general damp and slime. They kept moving down the tunnel in their usual order, Brother Martin before Jared. Harrick sensed elemental forces moving in the area, Wood and Water, but nothing localized enough to pinpoint. Unlike the cavern where they had run into the Winterkin, this one seemed untouched by sentient hands. It meandered for a brief distance before an opening appeared to their right, while in front of them the cave widened out to about fifteen feet in a sort of chamber. They continued forward.
The room was full of more huge mushrooms, six feet tall, a sickly grey with fluted caps. More of them grew down from the ceiling like stalactites, sometimes meeting the ones below to form soft pillars. A smaller, squat species grew among them, their caps a virulent, unnatural purple that almost seemed to glow in the darkness. No head fungus, at least.
Something was whistling, a quiet, steady sound, not like a live thing. Perhaps an air current passing over a crevice in the rock.
"Martin, have you ever seen anything that color?" Harrick asked.
"No." He had his spear ready.
"I don't really like it."
"I suggest we don't fry some up for dinner," Robin murmured. The whistling continued as Terzin shone the lantern light into the room. It seemed to go back pretty far. There was a narrow opening far in the back right.
Martin reversed his spear and prodded a grey mushroom with the blunt end. Nothing happened. Tapped again. Nothing. "It doesn't seem to be attacking." He tried one of the purple ones. Nothing. "I wouldn't recommend eating anything, but barring that...."
Harrick discerned a rustling noise under the soft whistling. Circling around the edges of the room, towards them. "Something's moving in there, folks," he announced, spells ready to meet whatever it was.
"Bring it on!" Terzin announced. He tried to climb one of the grey mushrooms; it squelched hideously under his fingers. The whistling changed pitch. He poked the mushroom with his sword and it began to deflate quickly. The whistling increased greatly as the air left the fungus, covering him with a light layer of grey gunk as he returned to the ground.
"Whatever lives in here has deflated one of these on the other side to make the whistling, cover its approach."
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Copyright © 2000 Brian Rogers et al