[Game time: Tuesday, a little bit after lunch]
Ilian held the two bottles of alchemical silver as if weighing them, then looked up and addressed the players:
"Whoever caused this chest to be packed seems to be extraordinarily well-informed about the conditions down here. This silver liquid in particular is hard to come by – there are probably only one or two alchemists in the city who could make it. I wonder if I might impose on you – some sort of – neh. Let me speak plainly first. You have a stoat loose in the sewers, and I have rat-catchers. My own hidden enemy is proving difficult to uncover as well. We are united in our desire to see the undead wiped from the sewers which is perhaps just a convenience. So far, both of our rodents have remained hidden, but my patrols are covering more and more ground each day. Now that I have heard about this map room's secret door, I wonder if perhaps that ocean quarter catacomb might be a more defensible position than this one… it bears some consideration. My people guard all three sets of stairs from the upper catacombs, so I can tell you for certain that Tarin and the orcs did not come from there. That leaves only a few other possibilities – if you suspect smuggling, the sewer outflow seems like a logical place to look. You are as formidable as any patrol that I have sent out, but you do not know the sewers like we do. So, if you do not find his help objectionable, I will be happy to assign Shard to you for as long as you need a guide down here. If you find Grigory, please do not draw him into a fight… he is ferocious and refuses fair combat, and I would worry for your safety. Also, I have promised that I will look into his eyes one last time before I gouge them out and kill him, so… hm. You can help me keep that promise, I hope? In the same vein, if my patrols find Tarin, we will do our best to capture him rather than kill him… it sounds like there are many questions you would like to ask him.
So how can I tell you the latest news? Is simple. I offer you my hospitality here, and you may come by the sentries to get the latest information whenever it suits you. I must warn you that Shard's last patrol found some evidence that our location is known, so the risk that Grigory will strike before we can find him grows with every sunset. But until we find somewhere better, this is our home and you're welcome here. I would urge you to stay out of sight after sundown for your own sake and for Shard's, but if you must move at night, I can't think of anyone I'd rather have scouting for me. What do you say?"
The party assented quickly, and the new allies began to talk strategy. Bree asked if there were other animals in the sewers – animals that don't get killed on sight – and Ilian scratched his beard and thought… no, not really. He allowed as how pretty much anything with legs and protein gets eaten as soon as it scampers, slithers, or squirms past a trap. But how would the messenger animals find Ilian? Simply because Bree knows him? Bree opened her mouth to answer, paused, and buried her nose in her ritual book for a moment. Scanning the words, she noted several ambiguous phrases. "A location." Well that could be Baerstun, or the kingdom of Galena, or even the mortal realm! Strange. Bree asked if Ilian happened to know anyone who could help with the ritual, and he mentioned Zlata and led the players up the stairs and through a concealed door.
The wing of the catacombs was packed with poor starving refugees from the Stone Quarter who looked up briefly at Ilian's new guests. He stopped to ask one woman about her hurt ankle, tousled the hair of a little boy, and then took the players over to the campfire where everyone was eating. Zlata sat comfortably on a pile of rat hides and straw, stirring the stew, and introduced herself. She handed out stew to everybody – a big bowl for Rache, so the poor dear wouldn't waste away, and a normal serving for Thea, who took it in the spirit it was offered and politely ate up. Zlata and Bree got down to business very quickly, talking about which of her spell components might be useful for the animal messenger ritual. She took out some peppercorns and a dimly-glowing crystal, sniffed the peppercorns, and handed them to Terciel for the stew. She held the crystal out to Bree, and then snatched it back into her fist for a moment, a little uncertain. She mumbled something in another language to Ilian, and he answered back… and she mentioned that such crystals are quite dear, and that this was her last one, and perhaps those silver bottles would be a fair trade? Bree paused (that's strange!) and considered the offer, and admitted that she couldn't really negotiate with the party's loot in good faith because it wasn't hers. Everyone put their heads together and discussed it; Shard mentioned to Lenora that it seemed like two bottles of silver was a cheap price to pay for finding Tarin, and Ilian's folks needed the bottles pretty badly. The party's hesitation was evident, though, and Zlata clarified her offer – one bottle for the crystal, surely that would be fair! Relieved smiles all around, and everyone agreed to the trade happily. Zlata reached into the fire and cleared a space in the coals to begin working the spell.
A short debate about exactly what to do with the rat followed, with everyone suggesting variations on following the rat without allowing it to escape. Terciel hit upon the idea of putting the rat in a small mahogany box and only checking on it when the party was unsure about how to proceed. Everyone agreed that this seemed worth a shot, and so Bree sat down with Zlata, Terciel, Darg, and Lenora to mutter the incantations over the rat that Ilian had brought them from the pantry. Inspiration and Avandra's own luck were with Bree as she whispered the party's message to the rat:
"The Doctor wants to meet you in the Map Room at midnight."
...and the rat climbed over her hands and settled into the box, apparently eager to be ferried to its destination if that was the plan. Darg dusted off his knees and stood up from his prayers, walked over to the group, and smiled at their ingenious contraption. The rat pointed the way, and the party headed out past the warm clear waters of the Artisans' catacombs, past the gaslights that the dwarven architects installed here centuries ago, and down to the T-Joint where the filthy Ocean Quarter outflow met the Artisans' Quarter runoff.
The rat indicated that they should move downstream. Shard cautioned the party to stick to the right, and pointed out the ragged hole in the wall that leads up to the rats' nest he had cleared out earlier that morning. They walked along the rocky path to one side, and came to a shallow slow-moving pool that looked out over a spillway. The face of the spillway was steep and slick with algae and moss; a thin current of murky water ran down it to a deep and mostly still runoff pond below. Even with the murkiness of the water, it was clear that the water was too deep to wade through. Shard considered rappelling down the slope on the boulders at the top, but faced the unpleasant prospect of sliding down into the unknown one at a time. He noticed a small tunnel leading off to one side, and scouted ahead – success! It opened up at the bottom of the spillway.
The way ahead made everyone a little nervous – a narrow ledge where they would only be able to walk single file, a large wrought-iron grating covering the entire diameter of the sewer pipe, and the filthy murky water on their left. Thea approached the grating, eyed it for a moment, and then stepped aside to let Bree take a look. Bree considered the door. On the one hand, it was an iron fence. It was locked from this side, but it might yield to a hand reached through the bars. Bree considered the large barrel springs by the wall, the ornamental ironwork that protruded dangerously and asymmetrically… those were wicked big springs. And why does a door need springs that big anyway? The hinges are perfectly balanced. Why, if you prodded the handle ever so slightly, the whole thing would snap open like a … like some kind of a… well, okay, EXACTLY like a trap.
Bree turned to tell the party that there was a trap, and that they needed to back up, and noticed a shadow on the water, moving faster than a charging horse. She opened her mouth to shout a warning just as the shadow punched through the scum and opened its mouth. Bree hadn't seen this many teeth in one place since the Smiling Triplets came to her village when she was a girl. The mouth was broad, long, gaping, full of teeth, and very very big, and… like that, it had grabbed Darg and snapped back into the water. The box with the rat in it slipped from Darg's hands and bounced once, twice on the ledge, and Bree stooped down calmly, tucked it under her arm, and said "There's a THING. In the WATER! It has Darg." Bree had the advantage of having seen its whole body for a split second, and while the others tried to wrap their minds around the fact that they were only looking at part of its head, Bree fired off a magic missile indicating its true position. Terciel fumbled with his arrows, staring at the huge beast,
trying to reconcile its shape – which he recognized – with its size, which was far larger than any feymire crocodile she'd ever seen. Darg writhed and pushed, trying to spread the jaws apart, but this thing was tough.
Thea's mouth spread into a broad smile. She was not burdened by any curiosity about where it had come from; it had bitten Darg, and it was something very big and clearly hostile, and she knew exactly how to fix that. She leaped through the air and hit the water swimming full out, did a double scissor kick to bring her body up out of the water, and brought her axe down fiercely on its head. The impact from its thick skull rattled her arms. A lesser warrior might have reconsidered the odds, but she pressed on. Rache reached a hand towards the beast, clenching her fist and trying to pull it away from Darg by force of will; she could feel her mind clenched around the gator but it simply wouldn't move, and finally the infernal magic began to burn her eyes and mouth… she let go, exasperated, shaking her head. Lenora watched in horror and followed Thea's lead, jumping in while shouting to Darg and trying to take stock of everyone's position. She got close enough that he could hear her over the thrashing, and suggested that he twist away instead of trying to open the jaws. He finally got free and splashed clear of the gator.
Shard took cover in the maintenance stairwell and assessed the situation coldly: Ilian had put him in charge of their safe conduct through the sewers, but Ilian had not mentioned giant lizards trying to devour them, or any of them attempting to get devoured. What was Thea doing? It was one thing to stand up to a bully… quite another to take on something four times your size on its own turf. Well, she'd need all the help she could get! He drew his hand crossbow, steadied his arm, and looked for anything that resembled a soft spot. He loosed a bolt in its direction and hit it near the throat, and was rewarded with a strange belching noise. He had either wounded it,
angered it, or tickled it.
Terciel saw the bolt go in and smiled – of course they were softer at the waterline. He wondered briefly how many arrows it would take to convince it not to bite Thea. As he fired – one! – he shouted a warning to Thea – two! – that the bite is only the prelude – three! – and that once they grab you they – four! – like to drag you off and try to drown you. His fifth arrow stuck in the thick armored ridges along the top of its head, protruding at a jaunty angle but not damaging it. Everyone on the ledge glanced over at Terciel for a moment… they saw all five arrows sticking out, but had only heard a sound like a knife slipped under a lute's strings: five twangs and a little whistling.
The gator roared in pain, clamped its jaws around Thea, and plunged under the water to escape the bite of the arrows. Darg paddled back to the ledge, trying to gauge whether Thea was going to make it. Lenora closed in, trying to get down to where Thea was and help her out. Bree set a light in the water near Thea, illuminating the murky dark green water into a slightly-less-murky bright green water. The gator was conveniently backlit, and Shard, Terciel, and Rache continued to punish it with ranged attacks. Rache's and Bree's spells seemed to have trouble penetrating the water, and so Bree resorted to trickery – strange noises behind and around the gator, echoing in the
water. The gator was nonplussed: anything that noisy would make a delicious dessert, but it had a real live wriggling bleeding meal. Lenora got closer, still holding her breath, scored one ferocious hit on the snout, and then the world was bubbles and claws and scales. The gator angrily thrashed into a barrel roll, churning the water, rolling Thea, and washing Lenora back away. Thea recovered from the attack and broke loose, swimming around and planting a foot at the base of its neck so she wouldn't lose track of where the head was. She wound up and dealt it another stunning blow, and the blood flowed freely.
Terciel, Rache, Shard, and Bree all continued peppering it with attacks, but in the deep water their spells and arrows seemed to have lost their sting. Darg was a little closer, and had a clear look into its eyes. It had grabbed Thea again and was trying to keep her on the bottom. Darg called on Moradin to help him save Thea, and he channeled a bolt of white light that seared the crocodile's eyes. It spasmed and thrashed, bit down hard, but it was dead. The party held their breath. Lenora surfaced first, looking around for Thea… a long moment passed, and everyone feared the worst. Then Thea's head broke the surface, she took a big gulp of air, shook the water out of her hair, and gestured to the giant corpse that she was carrying in a headlock – "you guys mind helping me get this thing out of the water? I've been through a lot here… and I want some new boots."
Shard's knife was by far the best suited for skinning, and after a few jabs that were more passionate than effective, Thea grudgingly handed Terciel the knife and let him skin it. As the skin peeled back, Bree and Darg both recognized body parts that could be useful in some of their rituals. Once they were done flaying the corpse, Thea had a twenty-pound gator hide, and Bree and Darg had some extraordinarily potent – or at least pungent – reagents for their spells. Bree cautioned everyone to step away from the spring-loaded door and gingerly probed at the mechanism with an invisible hand, and it snapped open with a terribly loud CLANG that echoed up and down the tunnel. Their victorious chatter stopped for a moment as they listened to hear if anything else had heard them.