18 Elient, The Stanipavel Range and the Ankheg Lair
The "war party" moves out, the Stanipavel team consisting of Tagen, his three sons and the hired hands, guards and wranglers and the 'Stoners making up the rest of the team. A returned Anahita and Connor are excited about the scope of the animal hospital and dairy that they saw, but they are more excited about the approaching mission.
On horses from the House stables the part rides from the Manor House to the last known whereabouts of the Ankheg, the site of Izzy's prayer tent.
The plan is put into action with the 'Stoners given the mission of tracking down the Queen while Tagen leads his team in collapsing tunnels so as to limit the chances for the Ankheg to escape, and to break their "lines of communication". Tagen tells the PCs that his demolition team will give them a one-hour head-start before starting to collapse tunnels.
The team heads into the labyrinth trying to move quickly but also trying not to telegraph their presence through vibrations that they know all to well can be easily detected by Ankheg. After some time travelling through the system, with J'Wi leading the way alongside a now tiger-form Anahita, the team comes across a grisly discovery. In a chamber, a little distance off from the main passageway they discover an Ankheg larder. This small cavern is filled with the corpses of various humanoids mixed with other creatures too, the bodies are in varying states of decay. Sitting on top of this macabre pile are two soldier-Ankheg and these monstrosities are using their powerful pincers to strip the flesh from the bones, rather as one might strip a piece of wire ...
Overcoming the disgust they feel, the fear that this scene generates and the powerful stench of death that fils the chamber, the team launch into an assault. At first, the cramped quarters and lack of lighting seem to hamper their attacks, but after a few seconds and some judicious use of magic on the part of Maena, they get their collective act together with Jonathon taking up a ranged position allowing him to provide cover and support to the others and Remy discovering that, given the space and the opportunity, he can enter an affray in a very effective way!
The battle is actually over in seconds, but those are long and perilous seconds and the team learns a lot from this brief encounter. They learn not to leave Rembrandt trapped at the back of the group because his fists are very effective weapons against Ankheg armour. They learn that while Connor might not be anywhere near Remy in physical stature he is on par with Remy when it comes to delivering death blows, in his case with a battle-axe rather than fists. They learn that together they present a formidable force.
Once the to creatures are dispatched (leaving several members of the team with bug juice dripping from their person) the team attempts to search for possible survivors, but to no avail. They do retrieve some small amount of coin from amongst the dead and J'Wi discovers a set of cards wrapped in a piece of oiled leather. These she passes to Remy, knowing that his love for all things game related will make them a valuable find. The PCs then push on, deeper into the warren.
Eventually, they come to a point where the acoustics change subtly, indicating a large, open space dead ahead. Cautiously they advance and, with the help of J'Wi's excellent Darkvision they determine that this major excavation is almost certainly the central chamber of the Queen! They call on the experience of their previous battle and go to work!
The fight is brutal and all of the 'Stoners pull together to overcome a full range of the Ankheg species; vicious soldier-Ankheg, odious nurse-Ankheg which are less tough than the soldiers but which can project a far more potent acid than their martial compatriots over a greater distance and even another bull-Ankheg, the over sized variation of the creature, evolved into a massive brute with two purposes in life, to fertilise and protect the Queen. And in the middle of this great cavern, there she sits, her horrific form looming up from the centre of a mound, her body apparently partially submerged in the recesses below the main space. This is no time for complexity and the friends turn to their offensive capacities, J'Wi throwing sorceries across the cavern to take out advancing nurses, Remy and Connor doing what they do best and using their sheer strength and brutal physical force to go head-to-head with the abhorrent insectoids. Jonathon again takes up a position that allows him to use his increasingly impressive bowmanship to devastating effect and Maena uses her faith to summon a spiritual weapon with which she engages the Queen herself while also administering timely first aid through healing prayers and incantations, allowing her compatriots to keep fighting, keep killing and ultimately keep their lives.
For a brief moment things look dark for the team as more Ankheg, soldiers, in this case, come rushing into the cavern from the northern part, and it seems as though the brave adventurers might simply be overcome by sheer numbers, but then the Queen falls and the previous coordination and shared intelligence with which the Ankheg had acted seems to melt away and they become confused, acting in random ways. The newcomers retreat, back the way they came, and with their spirits renewed by this good fortune, the PCs finish off the remaining monstrosities.
The Queens now-dead body starts to slip slowly backwards, being drawn back into the hole through which it protrudes and Connor, realising that an Ankheg Queen mandible would be excellent proof-of-death and would also make a very cool trophy, rushes forward to grab onto the beast and stop it from slipping away. Remy joins him, determined to relieve the chitinous carcass of its head plate, the tough armoured section of the carapace that covers the hideous cranium of the bug-monarch; he has a mind to use it as a surface for riding the waves, should he ever reach the ocean again.
Together Connor and Remy manage to remove a mandible and the head plate, and then they watch as the upper portion of the Queens corpse slides, almost majestically, into the hole. It is then that J'Wi gets a very tangible, unsettling feeling, not necessarily of danger, but certainly of something, and she starts to wonder if hanging around in this place is actually the best idea. Simultaneously the group become aware of a glow, a hint of reddish light emanating from the death-chamber of the Queen.
Edging towards the hole through which she has disappeared they see that the head and thorax of the Ankheg ruler where large by any measure, they are in fact just the tip of the iceberg, and that in a substantial cavern below them rests the abdomen of the beast, a massive mound of fleshy body covered with fine hairs and with a ridged pattern that circles the tapering form of this massive egg-machine down into the darkness. The glow is even more obvious.
J'Wi, increasingly uneasy about some sort of encroaching presence urges the group to leave, but Maena is fascinated by what might be causing the unlikely radiance. She uses her connection to the Goddess to feel through the weave, the magical energy that suffuses reality, and senses strong, ancient magic. Too far from her to be identified accurately, but clearly, of immense power, the source of the magic calls to her.
After some discussion the group agrees, against J'Wi's better judgement, to descend into the sub-subterranean space and they do so by using Remy's newly acquired Ankheg shell as a sledge. J'Wi and Jonathan are the first two to be lowered down by Remy and the sledge delivers them safely and effectively down, along the length of the carcass until it reaches the end where they are tipped forwards and into a mass of Ankheg eggs. They fall forwards and into these eggs, their arms and knees smashing through the soft shells and their hands pushing through semi-developed larvae. This disgusting event is somehow rendered even more distasteful by the aroma that is expelled by the defunct ova, a smell which is, in a very counter-intuitive way, very pleasant.
Maena is next down, and sensing the great displeasure of Jonathon and J'Wi, she uses her magic to clean them up as best she can. She then pushes on into what is evidently a significant space filled with eggs in various stages of maturity. J'Wi counsels that these must be destroyed, that the very point of their mission is to rid the land of the Ankheg threat, and that if they can destroy the eggs then they will increase the chances of success for their endeavour significantly. Maena agrees, but she explains that whatever is sending the glow, and the very real magical energies out from the depths of this cave system is too important to risk losing, she simply must press on and at least get close enough to again cast a scrying spell which will allow her to learn something more substantial about the source.
Maena launches herself forwards. It is at this point that Anahita, still in tiger form, climbs into the hole and runs down the abdomen in an attempt to join the others, and this goes smoothly until she slips, not having taken into account the slippery, friction less surface created by those super-fine body hairs. She tumbles to the bottom, slamming into Jonathon and J'Wi, causing them both to be propelled face-first back into the sludge they had only just liberated themselves from.
Jonathon decides to follow Maena across the eggs and towards the light while J'Wi and Anahita, now joined by Connor and Remy, set about destroying the eggs, either through the careful and effective use of lightning or through simple, brutal crushing. The four friends make their way slowly but surely through the morass of eggs, following Maena and Jonathon towards the light.
Eventually, the eggs are destroyed, any escaping larvae also dispatched and the team are able to congregate at yet another hole which seems to lead into an even deeper cavern, a cavern from which the red light is clearly emanating. While the others destroyed eggs Maena had taken the opportunity to again perform a ritual to investigate the provenance of the magical power she was sensing. This time she got a very clear sense of the power that was sitting somewhere beneath her feet, and a sense of real antiquity. More than that she also got a feeling that this thing was an item of some sort, rather than being any living thing, and that there was some sort of interference, a barrier so-to-speak, between her and the thing.
It was at this point, with the thing, whatever it might be, so close, and yet still out of reach, that the team began to ponder. How could they get into the cavern? The drop was too great to just slip through the hole, the fall would certainly injure and possibly even kill. They needed a plan. Maena needed to get to this thing, it was necessary, she could feel that in her very soul.