Temple of the Frog: Part 2. Scary Monsters, Super Creeps
Should there have been any there to see it, from the air, a curious phenomenon would be observed. Normally, the progress of a venturing party can be tracked by the stealthy movements towards them, the journey often ending abruptly and messily. This time, every predator in the swamp seems to be heading away from one particular point...
"Do try and keep up." The acerbic tones float back.
"I should have killed him in his sleep." Shlaym mutters.
"And that would leave us lost in the middle of the dangerous swamp without the scary sorcerer with the big sharp sword." Taru very sensibly points out.
"Hey, I can do sorcery, too." Dranel is defensive.
"Yeah, but crab-faced monsters don't jump out of trees at you, waving their mandibles, and then say 'oh, sorry, thought you were somebody else, is that the time, I really must be going...'"
(Dranel hasn't quite perfected the 'flaming sword' trick. There's something very disconcerting about watching his blade soften and droop.)
He trails grumpily after the others, scuffing at the sides of the trail. When Sheldor had suggested a quest, he had been ready to agree. Maybe he would manage to acquire some powerful artifact, or precious item, some shiny gift that would finally win Penelope's favour. After all, it can only be a matter of time before she realises that she would much rather be devoted to him... Lost in a happy daydream, he takes another step, and disappears abruptly from view.
Sheldor peers down the hole.
"Oh, well done," he says, completely without irony. "I think you found the lost temple."
The geometries of the temple have a subtle wrongness, even in the meagre light from the flickering lanterns. The walls run with water, and there is a slick film to the stones beneath Dranel's feet. He shudders. There are carvings on the wall, of fish-squid...things. Whether they are feasting, fighting or fornicating, or any combination thereof, is a bit unclear. Shlaym raises his lantern, tilts his head.
"Maybe it's a menu." He brightens. "Or a sex manual."
Taru and Dranel grab an elbow each and haul him onwards.
The temple is from the same malevolent school of architecture as the Dark Keep. But nobody gets flattened, impaled or dropped down a hole. Though there is one nasty moment with a trick floor, and an argument over some obscure translation from the Glaakian.
The tunnel opens out into a great chamber, and the light of their lanterns is lost in the darkness. Sheldor tosses a small werelight up, and with a soft exhalation, sconces around the walls light up, burning with an odd greenish flame.
It isn't a floor in front of them, but a pool, built, perhaps by hands not human, but shaped by design, not nature. The rocky sides step down to the lapping black waters. And reflected in it, the vast statue of the Frog God, squatting in bloated majesty. The dancing flames cause the shadows to move, as if the great stone beast simply breathes in slumber, and may open those bulbous eyes at any moment, gape that vast maw. Between the splayed front feet, there is an altar, carved in the likeness of some great lily pad, and seated upon it, an idol, a tiny replica of the looming monster above it, but carved from one single emerald.
"Oh, how unimaginative." Sheldor sniffs. Dranel is already measuring dirt into a small bag.
Their usual rivalry is forgotten now, as they pass the bag, weigh it, estimate and calculate, by eye and by arcane means. Sheldor tips a dribble from the bag, hands it back. Dranel looks up at him, and Sheldor nods, once, decisive.
Dranel takes a deep breath, and with a swift movement, removes the statue, replaces it with the bag of dirt.
There is a breathless, terrified moment.
But the altar doesn't move, and they both exhale with relief.
Shlaym has been levering the top out of one of the large jars before the altar, and now he recoils slightly.
"I do hope these are pickled walnuts."
Taru peers in.
"No, I think they took 'gathering their thoughts' pretty literally."
"Some of these look a bit...fresh." Shlaym looks around nervously. "How lost is this temple again?"
"Well, we found it."
"I don't want my brains in a jar."
"I doubt anybody else would, either." Sheldor has found a pile of scrolls, which he is dextrously unrolling and scanning.
"Er...I think you may be wrong about that..." Shlaym says, eyes fixed on the doorway.
The worshippers flop and shamble across the stones, and there is something about the slap of their bare feet which is...unpleasant. There are glimpses within the hoods of protuberant eyes, wide, wet mouths. There is an angry croaking and muttering amongst them, and several broad pale hands clutch spears.
Asenath Ph'ra Ph'la'h, High Priestess of the Great Frog God Mrrep, fixes unblinking eyes on Sheldor. With her lank hair and glum features, she contrives to look slightly clammy. Sheldor is more interested in the sharp ceremonial knife she has in one webbed hand.
"Would you care for a beverage before I sacrifice you to Mrrep?"
"Thank you, but I really must decline."
She does not smile, but looks faintly perplexed.
"It is an honour to contribute to the store of knowledge."
"Well, I did not come all this way to partake in some batrachian bacchanal." Sheldor says, firmly. "I don't think that Penelope would appreciate it."
(His usual genius for understatement. The last time a snake-hipped succubus had attempted to ensnare them all in her wiles, Penelope's response had been swift and brutal. It's very hard to cast spells of seduction when someone is punching you in the face. Sheldor hadn't taken much notice of her, but he had come out of his workroom to see what the noise was all about. Shlaym had been taking bets.)
Sheldor tilts his head, as if listening for something, and the others feel that little surge, smell of hot tin and tingle across the skin that is spellcraft. The little bag of sand flies off the altar and strikes a worshipper in the face. And somewhere, there is a heavy ground-shaking thump, the gritty sound of stone, moving very fast. Sheldor smiles, and the shadows make him look sinister.
"But you know, I've always been fond of bowling."
The maw of the Frog God drops open with a grating suddenness, and a great stone sphere cannons down the revealed passage, striking shards from the walls, sweeping all before it. You did not need to be a genius to work out what was going to happen when that hit the water. Everybody grabs something or someone, and holds on.
Taru opens his eyes, glad that he has landed on something soft. (Shalym groans.) What the great ball had not carried before it, the backwash from the pool had taken. Sheldor is wringing out the ends of his cloak, and Dranel is hauling himself out of the edge of the pool.
They leave such worshippers as remain in dazed and croaking heaps against the walls. Getting out of the temple is a far easier process than getting in; they simply climb up the revealed passage way behind the statue, towards the weak patch of sunlight.
"Ah." Sheldor exhales, happily. "The final goal is accomplished."
Dranel hugs the bag tightly.
"I carried the treasure out of there, it's mine."
"I'm looking for a greater prize than that trumpery gem." Sheldor dismisses a king's ransom with an airy wave of his fingers, gestures towards the clearing before them. "Gentlemen, behold the bloodflower."
The other three stare at him.
"You dragged us through mud, muck and monsters for a bunch of flowers?" Dranel manages.
The rich, deep colours of the blooms are muted in the gloom, but the intoxicating fragrance sweeps over them. A heavy drowsy sweetness, bringing with it the memory of languid warmth, soft, secret laughter...
"I thought Penelope would like them." Sheldor says, as if that explains everything. (For him, it does.)
"Oh, in that case..." Dranel reaches out eagerly. "...argh."
The flowers are now suddenly ringed around with narrow black barbs, springing out from beneath the soft petals, the slender stem. The pretty little blossom has become a spiky nightmare. Sheldor tuts, as Dranel clutches his bleeding hand to his chest. But all his attention is focused on the savage plant, long fingers stroking over the petals.
"There, there, Sheldor's here. I won't let him grab at you again."
Before their startled eyes, the rattling thorns retreat, but there is still a sense of watchfulness about the plant. Sheldor begins carefully loosening the roots. The bloodflower is already coiling small soft tendrils round his wrist, more of the flowers turning towards him.
"So...it's pretty and smells good, but annoy it, and it will slice you to ribbons?" Taru and Shlaym exchange glances, and Shlaym nods. "Yeah...Penelope's going to love it."
"Because nothing says you care like a vampire rose-bush." Dranel grumbles, examining his fingers. "Oooh, there's blood..."
"Somebody catch him...oh, too late." Sheldor sighs, and continues to loosen the roots. "Really, I don't know why he chose a life of venturing."
"He thought it would be a good way to meet women."
"Oh, really." Sheldor snorts. "What a lack of ambition."
Shlaym and Taru look at him.
"Hey, you had a beautiful warrior queen just drop out of the sky. The rest of us have to try a bit harder."
"Indeed. Perhaps you should give some thought to taking some of that Biting Bogweed back for Amanita?"
Sheldor sketches decisively in the air, sharp, glowing lines that hurt the eye, bending space around them.
"Oh, now you can open a portal?" Shlaym grumbles. He's muddy and scratched, and holding a struggling bundle of cloak. The Biting Bogweed is somewhat lively.
"Well, now I've found the bloodflowers." Sheldor raises his eyebrows, his own plant coiled complacently. "Why, did you want to walk home again?"
"Absolutely not." Shlaym trots towards the light with alacrity. Taru follows.
Sheldor sighs, hefts the bloodflower into the crook of one arm, and reaches down to haul Dranel up.
"Come along. I like to think that we have established a comfortable status quo at the Dark Keep, and I really would hate to have to go to the bother of rescuing you from brain-stealing frog-people."
The portal snaps closed behind them, a jagged bolt of light hangs in the air for a moment, then fades.
Three weeks later, the conservatory at the Dark Keep is a lush and humid jungle, and they've already lost two orcs in there. But Penelope has taken to wearing the bloodflowers in her hair – a girl who grew up wrangling dragons has no qualms about feral foliage.
The frog statue is really rather ugly, so they use it as a doorstop.