So much commerce was being done in Poleton and Fort Standish. Gar Osgood the bard and Rudy Redkettle the halfling sorceror were haggling with Bindlesmith the leather worker about fashioning the plates from the ankheg's shell into armor, and had finally settled on a price. Finding himself short of funds, the halfling decided to take out a loan from the Commonwealth Prosperity Bank, and withdrew fifteen gold merits at ten percent interest. This he used to purchase a breastplate fashioned out of two of the chitinous plates of the ankheg, which he would later sell at considerable profit to an elven cleric of the Skull named Celenor.
From there the pair hied themselves to the Red Acorn, and fell into conversation with Kaylee Hawkins, the ranger, and a newcomer to the Fort in the person of a golden haired halfling druidess who had recently ridden into town on a hulking mastiff who gave her name as Marigold, but preferred to be called Goldy. They talked a while about the various rumors that were floating around the tap room, and once again the terrible Bark Eatin' Ted's name was spoken in hushed tones among the patrons.
The foursome decided to go on a short bounty hunting jaunt south of the Pilgrim's highway, although they were nervous about such an undertaking because all they had heard about the southern lands was tales of doom and terror. Then again, the same could be said for the northern woods, so the group braced up their courage, visited Captain Costigan to obtain a letter of marque, and set out. They had heard of a hunting trail leading into the misty hills between the Kalt and Saft rivers. By late morning, they had stepped off of the highway and onto the the overgrown path leading across the grasslands.
As they drew near the ford over the Kalt river, the group's ears pricked up at a wailing cry some hundred yards distant. An etherial female figure clad in white appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and lurched toward the group, her hands clasped over her face. At first, Osgood the bard called out to her, but recieved no answer. Others in the group saw something uncanny in the approaching creature, and decided to drop flat in the tall grass and let her past. As the apparition stumbled across the path, she let out another mournful, chilling howl. All of the adventurers, save Goldie, were stricken with an uncanny terror that sent them fleeing pell mell over the grasslands. Seeing no better option, the halfling female climbed onto her faithful dog Thistle and rode after her panicked companions. By the time she caught up with them, they had run half a mile, blinking in consternation at the unnatural fear that had posessed them. The lady in white was nowhere to be seen.
Taking this as a bad omen of the dangers to the south lands, the group decided they should probably head back to the Fort soon, but agreed to strike East for a few leagues toward the peat bogs, perhaps to chance across a lizard man or giant rat so that they could collect a bounty.
Presently, as the sun was beginning to turn the Western horizon a surly red, they chanced across a hollow in the grasslands with an ominous looking cave at one end. The ground was damp and muddy, and the grass was brown and stunted around the black maw in the earth. Kaylee the ranger searched around for tracks, and found the footprints of many animals, especially those of large rodents. One disturbing bit of evidence the young woodswoman found was the footprints of a black bear that seemed to have been dragged backwards in the direction of the cave. Perhaps against their better judgement, the group decided to investigate further. As they milled around the mouth of the cave, Goldy found a plank on the ground that had apparently once been a sign nailed to a nearby tree stump. None of the four were educated in letters, so they didn't know what the faded chalk writing on the plank said, but the crudely drawn skull and crossbones was clear enough. Redkettle decided to send his familiar, a toad that he kept in his pocket, into the cave to scout a bit. This he did, and got back the empathic impression that there were many bugs to eat on the cave floor, but they were a little off in taste. Kaylee climbed up on the hillock overshadowing the cave mouth to try to get a better look inside. She saw a litter of animal bones and debris in the dim light afforded by the setting sun. Finally, Goldy decided to use one of her druidic enchantments, causing a pebble plucked from the ground to glow with the light of a torch, which she threw into the black maw of the cave.
The sudden light startled a trio of giant rats that had been gnawing on bones in the cave, and they bolted for the opening. In her rush to drop down and intercept them, Kaylee slipped on the slick grass and tumbled down the hillside and into the cave, dropping her bow as she fell. She landed prone in front of the slavering monsters and was set upon by the gnashing, foam flecked jaws of the huge rodents, receiving some nasty bites from their jagged, chisel like teeth. At once Goldy and her dog sprang to her aid. The halfling druidess leapt into the cave and brought her club down on one of the beasts, caving in it's skull, as her mastiff pounced on a second, snapping the creatures neck and shaking it like a terrier would shake a normal sized rat. As Kaylee attempted to regain her feet, Osgood the bard fired his crossbow at the final beast, but only succeeded in adorning a nearby deer skull with an arrow shaft. Finally, Thistle the dog turned and bit into the neck of the final rat, ending it.
The group then picked themselves up and looked around in the steady light of the druidess' light spell as she used one of her healing spells to mend the bites Kaylee had taken. The bard and sorceror drew their knives and cut off the tails of the rats as proof for the bounty. They then looked around the chamber, aware of the palpable foul stench in the air, that seemed to be more than just from the carcass' and decaying vegetation that littered the muck slick floor. As they investigated the dead animals, they noted that some had been gnawed on, as made sense with dire rats about, but some had also been curiously worn away. Skin and flesh and meat and even bone just tapered off to nothing, with nary a sign of bite or claw, and also not the sign of natural decay. The group was unsettled by this, and was deciding to leave when a scrabbling of clawed feet and a chittering filled the tunnel, and they turned to see an undulating wave of matted pelts and red, beady eyes as a large pack of dire rats came bounding up out of the darkness toward them.
In an instant, Redkettle summoned his sorcerous power and hit the tide of dog sized rodents with a spell that sent forth a glittering, rainbow corona of coruscating light. The lead two dire rats fell dazed, but the other seven kept coming. Goldy and Thistle charged into the pack, laying about with club and fangs, but soon found themselved overwhelmed by the raveous, frenzied rodents. Kaylee drew her longsword and stepped forward to fight, as the bard struck up a song of courage that bolstered his friends fighting spirit, while plinking ineffective accompaniment on his crossbow. Redkettle stepped up and slit the throat of one of the dazed rats, so that it might not rise from it's stupor and attack. Meanwhile, the savagery of the rodents was beginning to overwhelm the halfling druidess and her hound. The pair withdrew, each nursing several painful bites, as the ranger and sorceror attempted to cover their withdrawl. Redkettle managed to fire another color spray, maintaining the concentration to cast in the face of the gnashing teeth of the rats, dropping three more of the brutes into a daze, but their savage packmates climbed over the inert bodies of their bretheren to bite at the interlopers. Goldy looked in to the cave and saw that Kaylee was weaving on her feet, about to fall to the rats, and rushes back in, bestowing another healing spell upon her ranger companion, as her dog, full of fury, again charged the huge rats, killing one with a bite to the throat. Redkettle backed toward the cave mouth, readying one more color spray, which sadly fizzled as he cast it, his mind distracted by the tumult around him. Meanwhile, the rats finally overwhelmed Thistle with their cruel bites, and the valiant dog fell to the ground, bleeding out.
The group hasn't long to mourn, however, as they saw something new and alarming snaking out of the dark depths of the cave from whence the mob of savage dire rats came. A thick tentacle, perhaps as thick around as a strong man's leg, with a flat, spade shaped pad at the end, reached into the light, and grasped one of the magically stunned rats with barbed suckers set along the bottom surface. The creature awoke and started sqealing and clawing, but was dragged into the darkness, it's cries cut off by the sound of something huge and unnatural devouring the rodent with messy gusto. The adventurers glanced at one another and came to an instant consensus that it was indeed time to leave. Kaylee limped for the exit, followed by Osgood, as Redkettle summoned one more blast of color, which felled all but one of the rats, which darted in and bit him savagely on the thigh. It was more than the halfling could take, and he fainted, falling face down in the muck and litter of the cave.
By this time, Kaylee had retrieved her bow, which she had dropped when she fell down into the cave. Thinking quickly, she fired an arrow at the remaining dire rat, dropping it. Osgood the bard rushed into the cave and grasped Redkettle by the ankle, hurriedly dragging him out effectively, if not gently nor with dignity. The group bound the stricken halfling's wounds and fled into the night, away from the horrible cave.
After a night of camping on the grassy plains, the halfling sorceror had recovered enough to awaken, and the group trudged back toward the Fort. Goldie was philosophical about the loss of her dog. Being a druid, she saw it as part of the natural order that animals die. Battered and filthy, the adventurers made for home.
As they made their way back the trail and onto the Pilgrim's highway, one final impediment awaited them as they made their way through the farmlands. Near a delapidated barn, the ragged band found themselves confronted by a trio of men wearing burlap sack masks over their heads, and levelling crossbows at them. The tallest of the bandits spoke.
"Ye look like ye've had some trouble. If ye don't want any more lay yer gold and yer weapons on the ground and be off with ye." The adventurers sighed and looked wearily at each other, preparing to teach these brigands a lessen, when suddenly Osgood the bard stepped forward, a look of exaggerated terror contorting his features.
"You fools! Don't you know there are savage ankhegs about? We barely got away from them just now! Flee! Flee for your lives!" Such was the bard's sincerity that the bandits took him at his word and fled in panic, fading into the thickets around the ruined barn. With a wink and a chuckle, the bard motioned his companions onward, and they made it the rest of the way to Fort Standish, mostly intact.
Their adventure netted them all of three gold merits for their troubles, as well as a terrible case of shivering fever that overtook all that had suffered bites from the giant rats' filthy jaws. That soon passed, however, and the group counted themselves wiser and more experienced for the journey.