"Neither have I, but beastmaster isn't really my magic," Harrick admitted.
"Whatever those things were, this dwarf has been dead for some time, and virtually untouched. For some reason the rats didn't eat him."
"What killed him?"
"I think poison. Come here and look." He showed Harrick the livid scratch on the corpse's arm. "I think the poison entered his body through that, he lasted for time until he keeled over. Perhaps the rats didn't eat him because he was poisonous. He's been dead for at least a month." The body had not decayed much at all; dwarves were different that way. "It's difficult for me to make a guess, my knowledge of dwarvish anatomy is very small. Might be six months, might be a year, but the rats didn't kill him and didn't eat him. And he was obviously a hardened adventurer, look at the scars across his body."
"Could be one of the fungi."
"There's no way for us to tell," Martin shrugged. "Although I would like to take a look at everyone's wounds, but not here." He did bandage up Jared's bite, and Harrick gave him the stone, though it seemed to do its best work over a night of rest.
Meanwhile, Terzin continued to poke through the stinking mess, and the others watched, although they were pretty sure that without the beastmaster's influence the smaller rats would have run away. He spent an hour at it, working his way methodically through the grotesque pile.
In the end, it was worth it. He uncovered a suit of dwarf-sized chain mail; like the other mail they had found, it seemed undamaged by its poor storage. Some long-gone leather armor. A crossbow and dwarven war hammer, also untouched by rot. A silver choker, with gold and tiny emeralds gleaming through the muck. Eleven marks, all in dwarvish coin. There appeared to have been a good-sized contingent through this cave at some point.
There was no tunnel, just a hollow behind the nest. He checked around for any secret doors, and had just given up when Harrick's wind spell ran out. He turned around and felt a breeze on the back of his neck. Terzin began searching more carefully and discovered a circular crack in the wall.
"Guys, come here!"
"You've got to be kidding me," Robin muttered. They all squelched through the oozing mass to join him, except for Martin.
"What've you got?" Harrick asked as they squeezed into the small space. Terzin showed them the crack.
It had Earth elemental magic all over it. "Somebody made that," Harrick told them. They spent a few minutes prying and pushing and pounding at the stone, but it clearly wasn't moving. Probably one of those things where you needed to know the word, the orc thought, visualizing the canyon's layout. They'd have to try to find the other side, which was probably in another cavern somewhere.
"Why don't we go back and look at the fork that went off before we got to the mushroom room?" Robin suggested, hoping that it would lead deeper and perhaps give them another avenue to try.
As long as they were there and already covered in slime, everyone decided that they might as well pitch in and search the rest of the pile thoroughly. That turned out to be a good idea; they found a couple of hand axes and 89 more marks of dwarvish mint, entirely dissolving any monetary worries for the foreseeable future. By then there were tired enough that even this staggering amount of money made little impression.
"Somebody sent a professional party up here," Harrick came to the inescapable conclusion, looking at the bodies and thinking of the other one the head fungus had gotten to. "Two suits of enchanted armor, at least two enchanted weapons, the stones we found... these are some serious folks."
"And we made it farther than they did," Jared said in a satisfied tone.
"There's something in here someone wants, and they were sending someone to get it. Like whatever's behind that damn plug."
"That would make sense, but may I venture an alternate suggestion?" Brother Martin said.
"They came out through that plug."
"That's possible," Harrick admitted readily.
"They went in and came back...."
"And were on their way back when they ran into this giant rat beastmaster?"
"We don't know what the circumstances are, other than the fact that at least two members of this adventuring party were infected with something. That dwarf dropped dead, from poison or disease of some sort. The gentleman two caves up died from head fungus. They ran into something down there, or alternately before they got in."
"You're such a killjoy," Robin sighed, knowing that he was probably right.
"I just find it hard to believe that people are well-equipped as they are failed to make it past what we have encountered so far."
"Probably true," Harrick agreed.
"Especially since without them the head fungus wouldn't have been there in the first place, unless they got infected before they came here. They might have been doing the same thing, trying to hole up here and heal."
"That's a cheery thought," Terzin muttered.
"There's a fair amount of elemental magic just around here," Harrick commented. "Water and Wood. Which could be in the caves themselves, or could be edges of something below us. There could be a nexus down below, that I'm just feeling the edges of. Water and Wood will be pretty well poisonous."
"Yes," Martin agreed.
When they finished searching, they all agreed that the best thing to do would be to burn the lot of it, and the mushrooms while they were at it, still not liking the look of those purple ones. The rat nest was horridly damp, but once Harrick got it to catch with repeated Flame Gouts it burned rather nicely. He used Favorable Winds to bring air into the room and keep it going, then repeated the process with the outer room. The grey mushrooms caught fire easily. The squat purple ones exploded in the heat, but the spell blew their spores back, away from the party watching in some awe as the caves rapidly became a contained firestorm.
Robin, Terzin and Jared left the others to it and backtracked to see where the branch they'd passed by led. It opened into another chamber almost immediately; at least this one appeared clean of fungus. Maybe it was invisible fungus. They stood just inside, looking around, not trusting its apparent harmlessness.
It was Jared who noticed the patch of green slime on the ceiling. He also noticed that there was a bubble of water covering the northern wall, almost invisible to the eye, but lending the stone that faint shimmering sheen.
"Uh, guys...." He pointed both out to the others.
"I think it's magical," Terzin whispered.
"What gave it away?"
"Bite me," he hissed back.
"Terzin, does green slime have anything that you would want to steal from it?" Robin inquired a bit sarcastically.
"On the contrary, kind of the other way around, it eats the stuff I do want to steal."
"Well then. Let's leave this room alone."
As they were leaving, the wall of water bulged out a little bit in their direction.
"Faster," Jared suggested. They backed out quickly.
"What's down there?" Harrick wanted to know, meeting them with Martin.
"Green slime," Robin said briefly.
"Wall of water," Jared added. "The usual."
"Wall of water?" the elementalist repeated. "What sort of a wall of water?"
"Wall of water," he shrugged.
"What's a wall of water doing in the middle of a room?!"
"We didn't stop to ask it."
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