Just then a dog-sized ball of fur leaped out from between two mushrooms, shrieking as it came for Harrick. It slammed into him, knocking him a step back and giving him a look at the thing; it was a very large rat. A moment later it was a very large rat on fire, still on top of him. All around them he could see a dozen sets of eyes gleaming in the lantern-light.
Jared wound up with his axe and chopped at the rat on Harrick, but merely nicked it in the poor light. Robin tried to grab its tail to haul it off of Harrick, but missed her grip. In a remarkably smooth, fluid movement Martin swung his spear up and around, caught the underside of the rat's head, and flung it halfway across the room, into the deflating mushroom; the four decided they wouldn't need to worry about him.
Now that the rats had tested their defenses, four of them poured in, targeting Harrick. They appeared far more organized than rats had any right to be. Farther into the room than the rest of them, Terzin saw something moving in the backanother rat, this one the size of a pony. He drew and fired at it, and a horrible squeal echoed from the back of the chamber as it retreated.
"Guys, there's a bigger one back here!" he warned.
Harrick blended into the walls with a quick spell and took a couple steps back. Jared waded into the four rats where Harrick had been, but they continued to elude him, while Robin wounded one with a quick sword thrust.
Two came for Terzin from the front, one from behind. He ducked and twisted madly, avoiding them all. Another group of rats swarmed in at Brother Martin. He stepped aside gracefully, caught one on one his spear, flicked it backward, and resumed a defensive pose. Then the other three were on him. Jared lashed out twice with fist and foot and flattened one. Harrick set one more on fire while rats seethed and squealed around them. Robin hacked a leg off one.
"Bring it on, boys!" Terzin taunted the three surrounding him. They did their best, one actually gnawing through his armor and hanging on with clenched teeth. He drew his shortsword and stabbed it fatally. Brother Martin's spear slipped from his hands and punctured another of the grey mushrooms. Another rat leaped at Robin, but merely blunted its teeth on her armor; now that the first shock at the grotesque and unnatural creatures had worn off, the explorers were finding that the animals were not terribly dangerous. Jared dealt another a bone-breaking blow. Terzin stabbed at another rat; Robin killed a wounded one; Jared obliterated a third.
Then the light flickered madly as the pony-sized rat appeared behind them and charged in, jaws gnashing and slavering. It seized Jared by the leg and bit down, shaking him like a toy. Harrick threw a Flame Gout spell at the monstrous thing, and it smoldered badly but did not catch the way the smaller ones had. The room already smelled of scorched fur and flesh, and this just made it worse. Martin's blow at it was entirely ignored.
The rats mobbed Robin again, to little avail, as others attacked Martin and Terzin. Jared slammed his joined hands down at the giant rat's head and convinced it to let go of him. Terzin switched back to his bow and let another arrow fly at the huge beast, but it bounced off the hide leaving only a small wound. Harrick singed it again; it staggered back unsteadily but remained standing as Jared regained his feet and picked up the axe.
The smaller rats suddenly abandoned their attack strategies and charged the lantern, oversetting it and plunging the room into near-total darkness, lit only by two burning rat corpses. Robin charged blindly at where she remembered the rat to be, only to find that it was no longer there as she slammed painfully into the wall before Harrick could warn herhis eyes had already adjusted, well before the humans' could.
They lit a torch from one of the rats and looked around. The smaller rats were scattering into the darkness; no sign of the big one. They relit the lantern and finished off the wounded animals.
Three had gotten away, along with the big one. Terzin took it upon himself to deflate a few more of the big mushrooms, creating a slowly dying chorus of whistles as he cleared a path through to the back of the room.
Robin examined the scuffed and tracked-up floor and found a blood trail and prints. Tiny little normal-rat-sized footprints, and enough blood to have come from a normal, six-inch rat.
"Harrick, what the hell is this thing?"
"Not elemental. Maybe it's some sort of bizarre wizard-rat."
They didn't see much option other than to finish the thing off. The trail led toward the back of the room; it had scampered directly through the melee in the darkness.
"We've got to come up with something that makes us some damn money," Harrick remarked, apropos of nothing as they eased through the fungal forest.
"Yeah, we keep killing poor monsters," Terzin agreed readily.
"Unfortunately we're a self-sustaining little group, and we're about to run out of cash soon."
"We found that guy in the tower," Robin pointed out, unconcerned.
"That's true, it'll keep us from starvation for a couple of weeks."
"I'm sure something will come up," Martin assured him. "And if not, there's certainly work that can be done at the Keep on a day to day basis."
"Work?" Terzin sounded scandalized. "We still have the bandits to go after, if worst comes to worst."
"Which I feel should probably be our top priority once we've cleared this room out," Martin replied. "I agree with the tactical decision, but we need to start dealing with what could be a threat to the Keep."
"We'll cross that rat when we come to it," Robin said, squinting to see the trail; it led into the narrow passage in the back of the chamber. Jared had some trouble squeezing through the three-foot opening. After ten or fifteen feet it opened out into a roughly egg-shaped room. They were standing at the small end. The left-hand wall of the egg opened out into what might be another wide corridor, but if so it was all but entirely blocked by a huge pile of... stuff. Brush, debris, bones and rotting meat, branches, rat waste, stacked eight feet high with a smell that almost knocked them off their feet.
"Powerful big rats, gentlemen," Harrick remarked, looking at what was left of a cow carcass.
"Let's look for money!" Terzin announced, his avarice rising at the sight of a dwarven corpse at the edge of the nest.
"Give me a moment." He spent several minutes casting Favorable Winds to blow the stench back away from them. The whistling in the chamber behind them ceased; maybe they only did it when the wind blew in a certain direction? As usual, the unknown fascinated him.
As soon as Harrick was finished with the spell, Terzin picked up a branch and began poking through the rat nest, drawn sword in his other hand. Martin went forward as well, to examine the dwarf's body, while the others covered them, just in case a hundred rats boiled out of the hideous mass. Harrick looked for evidence of elemental magic, aside from his own, and didn't find anything.
Terzin gingerly poked into the nest, drawing globs of... stuff aside and exposing warrens the size of the smaller rats leading back into the mass. He pushed another chunk away and saw a small rat nose sticking out from one of the tunnels. Immediately he was caught in the midst of its transformation back to its largest size. Trapped under the expanding body, he stabbed frantically at the thing as Harrick threw a Flame Gout.
It had obviously been near death, and his stabbing finished it off. Terzin climbed out from underneath it, covered in blood and panting a little from the shock. By the time he got free, it was a naked human body, apparently in his early thirties, covered with wounds and burns.
"Well, that's different," Harrick remarked, now worried about the bites they had all taken. "He could be a beastmaster. Controlling rats would be easy if he had a rat totem, I've never heard of one who could turn into a giant rat, but...."
"Well, if he was a human, that means he's got stuff around here. I'll keep looking."
"You're as dependable as the sunrise," Robin sighed as her cousin went to his search.
"The best I can say is a beastmaster as well," Martin agreed. "Although I've never heard one assuming an animal shape of that size."
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Copyright © 2000 Brian Rogers et al