Part 3: Caverns, Crystals & Cranberries

Ben Dryker assists the group with his canoe. The children sit on Tor's lap in the center of the vessel. Rikkard oars from the back, with Ardesco watching for dangers and calling out instruction from the front. The party manage to navigate the rapids without too many calamities, but most of the party fall out into the river at least once. Following the entire length of the river downhill, the canoe eventually reaches the dam above the cranberry bog.

Here, Uusi has been waiting for the party, sunning herself on the bank and reclining on a cranberry-patterned blanket. She waves them over with a mage hand spell. Stavroula explains that they followed a cow up the mountain. Tor informs her that, because of the lack of Uusi's destructive magic, they were forced to watch Ardesco court a spider. Rikkard exclaims he can still feel the baby spider's poison flowing through his body. It appears that Ida isn't acclimated to spider meat, as she fell ill and slept through the whole spider encounter.

Ardesco brings the rescued children to Mayor Mouse, who demands an explanation. He provides a slightly exaggerated version of events centered on himself, claiming he ventured up into the mountains, chasing a lead about kidnapped children. When he arrived there, he was confronted with a mutant wolf spider "twenty times larger than any bog spider" who challenged him to a dance off, which he won. He punctuates his statement with two flaming hand crossbows. He belatedly adds that "his friends" helped.

The Golden Team soon arrive for the practice session. Taya and Ryker explain the rules: the bog is filled with cranberries and also nuts painted red. The objective of the game is to row around the bog and pick up as many nuts as possible, placing them in a basket. Accidentally placing cranberries or other non-nut objects in the basket is a detriment and placing more than five non-nut objects in the basket counts as a failure. Somewhere in the bog, there is also a golden nut that will automatically qualify whatever team picks it up for finals. The teams are free to distribute the roles (rowers, grabbing objects, handling the basket) however they wish. The round will persist for 10 frog croaks (about 30 minutes).

The skiff has four oars. Rikkard takes up the rear, controlling both back oars. Stavroula and Uusi take the left and right front oars respectively. Being the most perceptive, Tor holds the basket and is in charge of sorting the nuts from the cranberries. Ida transforms into an octopus, using her eight limbs to scoop things into the skiff from the bog.

With this setup, Stavroula finds that she doesn't quite understand the rowing mechanics and causes the skiff to travel with a right lean. Rikkard notices and compensates. During practice, Tor and Ida collect 141 nuts.

The other teams arrive and the real event begins with Taya and Ryker announcing all of the competitors: The Golden Team, Roses, Warfathers, Feetsors, Sidaxers, Feather Scales and Milkers. Rikkard, Uusi and Stavroula all row competently enough during the first round. Tor and Ida gather 184 nuts. On the second round, Uusi's strength begins flagging and Rikkard must compensate significantly on her side. Ida and Tor gather another 74 nuts. With time running out and only a few nuts remaining to the target of 300, Ida rushes to fling what she thinks are nuts directly into the basket. Tor notices some are non-nuts and tries to intercept her, but fails. The party reach their target of 300 nuts but with 3 fakes in their basket.

Taya and Ryker announce the results: Team COKECAN Diamond Silver Passionfruit Dragonfruit Bog Spiders met the 300 nut threshold and also found the golden nut at the bottom of their boat. Milkers place second, with 300 nuts and 2 fakes. The Sidaxers place third, with 3 fakes. The Feetsors place fourth, with 4.1 fakes. Roses and Warfathers are eliminated, with the Warfathers basket almost entirely consisting of nothing but fakes.  

Before they return to town for rest, Rikkard decides to sample some of the cranberries from the bog. He instead receives a mouthful of walnut shells painted red and cuts his mouth on them, chipping a tooth. Stavroula dunks her head in the bog and is immediately covered in wolf spiders. They rest until nightfall.

The party dance along with the lively drums by firelight on the beach. Rikkard and Stavroula are terrible dancers, but seem to be having fun. Ardesco proves himself to have an excellent sense of rhythm and Uusi dances flawlessly as usual. Ida takes out her viola and joins in with the other musicians, who accommodate her and begin an impromptu jam session. When she's done dancing, Stavroula asks if they should go into the cave with the "NO ENTRY" sign. Rikkard thinks that they should, seeing the sign's state of disrepair and reasoning that it must be "an old warning and no longer relevant". Tor seems to agree with this rationale. Stavroula notices it has moss growing on it.

Rikkard encourages Ardesco to lead the way into the cave with his illuminating firey head. This feels very nostalgic for Stavroula. Bikini Crab notices the party considering a jaunt into the cave and offers her lantern for additional light. She scuttles to the cave mouth and blocks sight of it with her large crab body, encouraging the party to go in before they're discovered (while chewing on mouthfuls of sand).

Once inside the cave, it's difficult to see far ahead even with Ardesco's hair and the lantern. Tor can smell mildew and moss and hears water dripping further within the caverns. A chill creeps up his neck and a disembodied voice seems to whisper to him: "you are not alone". Stavroula experiences a similar sensation: the palpable heartache of the souls clinging to this location. Ida and Ardesco don't sense the souls of the dead like Tor and Stavroula do, but notice that past the light, the rock formations at the back of the cave appear see-through.

Rikkard and Uusi are oblivious to any other presences and study the cave walls, discussing the properties of the cave with one another. Rikkard observes that it's mostly limestone and sandstone. Uusi agrees and gestures to the calcareous deposits, indicating a cave of sedimentary origin. Rikkard is thrilled that his identification is correct.

Meanwhile, Ardesco realizes that there's something strange about the semi-transparent rocks and wonders if light will effect the object. He notices a rusty metal bucket nearby and places it over his head, blocking the light cast by his fire-hair. He requests Uusi to smother the light of her staff and Rikkard to blow out the lantern. They hesitate and Stavroula fires a guiding bolt into the back of the cave. Frustrated, he tries to explain that the answer to this riddle is darkness, not light.

When all the lights are extinguished the cave erupts with bright, multicolored light. The walls of the cave are set with a multitude of faceted gems in all shades and hues. The skeletons of the past are perceptible beneath the colossal structures, perfectly crystallized.

There are six small openings leading to a tiny chamber each. Stinky is quick to notice there are six chambers and six of them. She feels like the second chamber is "made for her" and walks into it without a second thought, disappearing. Ardesco lunges to stop her but his foot catches in the bucket and he stumbles straight into one of the other chambers, disappearing also. Rikkard attempts to place his sling into the first chamber, but interacting with it in this way still causes him to vanish.

Tor, Uusi and Ida shuffle into the remaining chambers for lack of any other options. The cave glows brighter. Individually sealed, all enter a meditative state and feel the vague sense that something is being taken from them. While they feel mentally weakened, their chests fill with warmth, bodies feeling stronger. A magical item appears before each of them - a colorful gem about the size of a pebble.

The chambers release them and they stumble forth. The air smells sweeter and seems to tempt them to venture further, gems humming with emotion. They arrive at a massive open chamber with a pool of deep water. Sensing their approach, a creature half fish and half human leaps from the water and tries to greet them. Its pitch is too high and Ida can't help but wince. The creature lowers their voice when they talk again, speaking slow and haltingly:

"I am... still like stone... my brethren are stone also. They... linger. You should leave... before you... turn to stone."

They look toward an aperture in the cave wall behind them where light from outside is streaming through. Rikkard recognizes the creature as a mermaid, a being depicted in story and myth but which has never been seen living, presumed extinct long ago. He asks if the gems are people. The mermaid nods and answers that the memories of those who died in this cave became the colorful crystals the party see before them. Similarly, while they were in their chambers, some of their memories were taken to form the gems in their possession. The mermaid advises that some day, those gems will take the form of something they desire. Deciding his curiosity is satiated enough, Rikkard excuses himself and exits the cave briskly, recalling his previously petrified face and not wishing to replicate the experience.

All the while, Stavroula has been praying, seeking some solution to the souls trapped here (note: a nat 20 on a religion roll, totaling 28). She suddenly feels a multitude of hands on her arms and body, offering wordless reassurance they are not in pain. Their memories are sealed here and can be accessed by their descendants. They are moved by Stavroula's concern for them. Replying to the assurance outloud, Stavroula apologizes for not knowing how to deal with "crystal ghosts" - she's performed funerals and exploded zombies, but doesn't know how to make things like them move on to the afterlife. Learning that they're content absolves her of her guilt, and so she thanks the mermaid and follows the way Rikkard left, finding him compulsively checking his body for any signs of petrification. The others soon follow.

When their eyes adjust to daylight, they realize they're on the edge of the cranberry bog and that it's well into the next day already. Taya and Ryker's booming voices announce the commencement of the final match of the Saecoto Games, signalling that the teams should all prepare and mount their boats.

Suddenly overcome with emotion, Stinky whirls around and takes Ardesco's hands in her own, speaking passionately about how the time has finally come to fulfill their dreams - they need to collect the nuts, and not collect the not nuts, and take home the Saecoto Cup. It is revealed that the memory the chamber took from Stavroula is the memory of "how she didn't want to do this". Consequently, Stavroula has developed the belief that she has been training for this for years and that Ardesco has been her faithful coach all along. Ardesco's fire hair bursts and in an attempt to reply to her, he chokes out something about not nutting. He answers her passionate speech with one of his own:

"I've watched you grow so much over the past few years, and not just in the chest... erm, chestnut region, but all sorts of nuts. Including not. I believe you're finally ready to grab them. Bofa dem."

Stavroula replies:

"Alright! I'm going to grab these nuts with both hands! Wish me luck, Ardesco! I have to do it, for the both of us! Please watch!"

She flings herself into the bog and doggy paddles at a glacial pace toward the skiff. Rikkard fishes her out by the collar when she draws close enough. Ardesco salutes them from the bank while at full mast and calls out encouragement.

The final game begins in earnest with Rikkard too exhausted to row properly. Octopus Ida and Tor gather the first round of cranberries without too much trouble. Ardesco's constant encouragement from the sidelines and Uusi's summoned fey embolden the party and maintain the stamina of the rowers. However, Stavroula is so energized she's rowing more frenetically than either Rikkard or Uusi and the result is that the skiff is steered in a wide circle, which seems to be creating a convenient whirlpool of nuts and not-nuts. Ida and Tor gather up two more lots but are still 7 short of their goal of 500. In a bid to race against the clock Rikkard abandons his rowing duties and scoops an armful of objects from the bog. After almost shattering his teeth on these objects earlier, Rikkard doesn't trust himself to discern the nuts from the not-nuts. He passes them to Tor to sift, who manages to pick out exactly 7 nuts. They row to the finish line, followed by The Golden Team.

After a quick count Taya announces that the Golden Team are the not-winners, with Ryker following up that COKECAN Diamond Silver Passionfruit Dragonfruit Bog Spiders Featuring Ardesco emerged victorious, adding a "fuck yeah". Rikkard immediately stands and gloats, telling the Golden Team that they suck before immediately apologizing. Stavroula says it's OK and he was just encouraged to act out because the announcer said a bad word. Taking the complete opposite tact, Ardesco runs over and singles out Eamon of the Golden Team, telling him that now it's three years in a row he's "beaten (him) off the sloppy top spot" and that "(he) and Sid can suck on his great balls of fire".

While Mayor Mouse and Rat Wife offer their condolences to the runners-up, the party pose for a commemorative painting.