Second of the Tavistock Expeditions
The party was briefed about the next adventure, in which they would go to Italy and persuade an antiquarian Count to loan his copy of Tacitus' Germania to the Foundation for a new translation to be made. After the appropriate amount of preparation, they took the Boat Train to Paris, the Orient Express to Venice, and the Simplon Express towards Venice.
Of course, this being a world of adventure, they did not reach there. High in the Alps, the train braked suddenly, coming to a halt in front of a landslip which had blocked the track. No danger: the train had plenty of notice to stop thanks to the elderly dwarf-women who were waving red flags to warn of the danger.
The party dismounted and, thanks to a conductor acting as interpreter, discovered that the landslip had been caused by a minor earthquake which had also trapped the miners in the copper mine where they lived. Worryingly, though, before the quake they heard a noise like a monster roaring. The people of their village were working to dig out the miners, but they were scared. The village is a peaceful place, their weapons limited to a few shotguns and small-calibre rifles for hunting small game. If the monster in the depths was big enough to cause a quake with its roar, how could they possibly fight it?
Naturally, Our Heroes volunteered to help them out. Donald scaled the telegraph poles which ran beside the track to hook into the wires and send a message back to warn the nearest town about the blockage while the Italian train crew unloaded their baggage and the train puffed away in reverse, with the promise that they would send help. Eventually.
The party marvelled at the construction of the dwarven village, with natural light from the sunpipes which covered the hillside above it, each pipe equipped with a clockwork turning mechanism to keep the mirrors facing the sun as it drew across the sky. Some hours later, the breakthrough came, but there were no miners waiting to be rescued. None of the party are particularly good trackers, but Haggart thought he detected scuffmarks in the dust like large footpads, while Albert believed he'd seen claw-marks.
They armed up and, in company with two dwarf volunteers holding the lights, they worked their way cautiously down the large, spooky mine gallery till they found their first miner. The dwarf-corpse had been horribly killed: eviscerated, and with the muscle scraped off the ribs as if by a pair of mini snow-ploughs.
While they were still getting over the shock of this, a giant centipede charged to the attack. It was thirty feet long and as high at the shoulder as a mastiff. With room to spread out, and visibility far enough for them to get in a couple of rounds of fire before the monster arrived, the party gunned it down before it could do any damage, though its horrid mandibles came close to Haggart as it twitched in its death-throes.
They delivered the corpse back to the villagers and received a briefing about giant centipedes. They have a nasty venom, as well as a huge bite from those mandibles, and tough carapaces. Suitably warned, they proceeded. Just beyond where the miners had broken through into a natural cave-system was another battleground, three dwarves and two centipedes dead. They followed the trail of the dwarves, now clearly marked with waymarks, and in the narrow natural cave-system two centipedes were on them before they had time to react.
Haggart, their best tracker (though that doesn't mean he's very good), was leading, automatic pistol in hand. Blasting away with the pistol did nothing – the .45 calibre bullets barely dented the leading creature's armour. (Though to be fair, that's because Matt's die rolls did really badly – he never exceeded the creatures' 4 points of armour on his 2d rolls!)
As the leading centipede bit savagely at Haggart, the others found vantage points and began blasting away with their rifles. Albert and Mrs. Stanley's .303 Lee Enfields were much more difficult to manoeuvre in the close spaces, but once aimed they did real damage to the second centipede, who bypassed his comrade to go for Albert. But the real noisemaker was Donald's Browning Automatic Rifle – in the confined spaces the burst-fire 30.06 ripped Haggart's attacker into sprays of ichor.
It was a few frantic seconds of activity, ending in Haggart near-death from a combination of wounds and venom, Albert badly wounded but still conscious and resisting the poison, and everyone else splattered liberally with centipede ichor as they thrashed around in their death-throes.
Kohath stepped forward, overruling Mrs. Stanley's suggestion that they take the injured back to the village to treat them in a safe place, and working on Haggart where he lay even before Albert's centipede was quite dead. Using the powerstone supplied by the Foundation to augment his own strength, Kohath managed to bring Haggart back from the brink and also neutralised the venom in both casualties before they carried the wounded back to the village.
The village had a couple of capable magical healers, and before long the party returned to the trail, this time with the heaviest guns front and rear.
The trail continued to a side-cavern where the dwarves had obviously holed-up for a time. Two more dead miners were left there, but these were decently covered by cairns of stones, their flesh undisturbed because the dead centipedes at the entrance had been cannibalised by others of their kind. Sufficient flesh lay there to satisfy even their monstrous appetites. Clearly by this point the miners had mastered the art of killing centipedes with mining tools – two or three picks impaling the head to hold it still while a third hacked the head off with a spade.
A faint smell began permeating the air. Their dwarf guides announced that they could smell gold, and tried to lead them out into the caves to track it down, becoming more agitated as they were prevented from going. Kohath managed to cast a spell on one to neutralise the illusion, and the miner came to his senses immediately. No, dwarves are no more capable of smelling gold than anything else, but something about that smell had convinced him that it was gold. Given the description of his own symptoms, he deduced that it might be a Lurker Below, a huge arachnid that could send out pheromones that particularly appealed to subterranean races – humans seem to be immune – which the victims were convinced was the scent of the most desirable thing they could imagine. Down in a mine, that would be gold.
Even as he was talking to them, the dwarf was falling under the influence again. Rather than spend all his strength repeatedly neutralising the effect, Kohath advised that they should let the dwarves lead them into the trap. They should be able to deal with whatever it was.
Once again, they marched on, this time following the dwarves in their rush to the 'gold'. Knowing what to expect when they arrived still didn't make it easy: two Lurkers Below rushed out of a side-chamber as the party saw the seam of gold glinting in the light for the first time. Still, Donald's 'noisemaker' and the Lee Enfields blasted the monsters with no more trouble than the usual massive damage to Haggart.
The remaining dwarves were found in the side-caves, wrapped in webbing and sedated by the Lurkers' venom, each with a Lurker egg growing in their bellies. The party carried them out, knowing that till the Lurkers' pheromones had a couple of days to disperse they could never get dwarf stretcher-bearers out of there, and took them back to the village for operations to remove the eggs.
The exploration of the cave-system proceeded in a more leisurely fashion after that – it turned out that it was created by a fault plane which meant that the hard copper-bearing rock suddenly intersected limestone. Further down, they discovered a Roman mine working on that same copper seam, the small shrine to its owner denuded of its gold-leaf by the Lurkers, who had enough cunning to scrape the gold off and attach it to the wall of their trap to hold the attention of the dwarves while the Lurkers stung them.
Mrs Stanley came up with the great idea that, after recording it properly of course, they could take the shrine and its inscription away with them and offer it to the antiquarian Count as a bribe to let the Foundation use his manuscript. So she performed a full archaeological survey of the little area around the monument, under heavy guard in case any more centipedes turned up, and then had the dwarves carefully cut out the bust and plaque.
And so, on to Italy...