I. Explorations in Arden Vul
The cast of characters:
Jasper – dwarven ‘locksmith’ (?)
Adric – human cleric
Luna Moonshadow – elf ranger
Ugh – human fighter
Wicktrimmer – goblin thief
Lobelia – halfling druid
Perrin – human fighter. Deceased! Killed by spider venom.
All was not well at the Sign of the Broken Head. Jasper looked at Wicktrimmer and Lobelia and cursed softly. “The flu, eh?,” he muttered. “I wonder. Are you sure you’re not worried about more spiders? Or trying to get out of helping me dig Perrin’s grave?” “Go soak yourself, Jasper,” the goblin replied, with a touch more asperity than usual. “You know we all underestimated the venom of those spiders. Bullweasels! They were bigger than both of us! It’s a lucky thing any of us escaped. I honor Perrin for his sacrifice … and for my continued existence, flu or not.” Lobelia looked up from her gruel: “That cellar was pretty dank and moldy, my friend. It’s no wonder we caught something. You are fortunate you enjoy such fine health, Jasper.” The shameless flattery soothed the dwarf, and he stomped away to find Adric. “Well, it looks like it’s just the three of us today, cleric. At least it will be three if we can only find that elf. Where is she anyway?” Adric did not look up from his gruel, and merely grunted. “Dunno. And I’m not asking Thor for you. She’s probably outside, scouting the area.” A soft voice drifted from the corner, “No need to invoke any of the Powers, Adric. I’m here and ready to go.” Luna glided forward, dressed in well-worn leathers, her raven hair tied back with a thong. Seeing her, the tall Skandik rose to his feet, stretched, and looked at his comrades. “Summon your hound, Jasper, and let’s go. No use waiting for the sick. Odin rewards those who make their own thunder. Back to the cellar, is it? I think we ought to investigate that staircase we found yesterday.” The three heroes opened the door and stepped into a blindingly bright, crisp May morning.
Sparing not even a glance at the wrapped corpse of their lost comrade resting against the outer wall of the block-house-like Inn, the trio strode north towards the broken ruins of the ancient city of Arden Vul. The roar of the Long Falls echoed comfortingly in the background as they took their bearings on the impressive Pyramid of Thoth and began clambering through the wreckage. To their right the Swift River ran north to the Falls, while to their left the stumps of watch towers rose from the rubble of the shattered walls. Nodding at the trio of archers posted by the landlord in one of the few remaining towers, the adventurers skirted the Pyramid and headed towards the forgotten cellar of that they had located just yesterday. No birds circled, no grunting noises emerged from the fallen buildings, and barely a whisper of a breeze touched their faces. Luna brought them to a halt: “Do you hear it? No animal activity. That means that something is not quite right …” Sure enough, as they paused and listened they heard the tell-tale sounds of an intruder: boots stumbling over broken masonry, the sigh of loose debris sliding to one side, and even the faint hint of a muttered song. Inching forward the friends spied a strange sight: an enormous human, close to 7’ in height, dressed as an adventurer but carrying a box wrapped in colored paper. The fellow looked up, seemed to mutter ‘Where is that party?’ and shambled onward. Adric hailed the figure, who broke out into an enormous grin. “New friends? Yes! New friends! Look … I brought a gift for the party.” Stopped short by the fellow’s apparent simplicity, but desperately in need of another sword arm, Adric nodded in agreement. “Sure, we’re your friends. Would you like to come with us?” “Okay,” said the man, “we can go to the party together. My name is Ugh.” Jasper muttered something indecipherable about moronic humans, and the four set out.
Heading down the stairs of the cellar, they made a beeline for the chamber occupied by the strange hermit, Lankios. Jasper knocked on the door, held back his war dog, and waited as the ancient hermit opened the door and peered out at them. “Oh, it’s you. Have you found my Guivrel yet? She’s still missing, and in desperate danger from that arch-traitor, Kaitor.” Beginning to whine, the hermit continued, ‘You said you would find her. I even shared my stew with you!” Smooth-talking Adric stepped forward: “Yes, and that is why we came back. Our new friend here has a present for you, and we loved your stew so much that we returned to see if we could share it once again.” The hermit brightened, and welcomed them to his chamber. Ugh, who had not met the hermit previously, was taken aback by the incongruities he presented: the room was scrupulously clean of the usual dust and debris found in the cellar, but it smelled foully of rotting vegetable and animal matter. The source of the reek was apparently the stew, which bubbled merrily in a pot hanging from a tripod … without any visible source of heat. Indeed, the hermit shared the reek of his chamber, for he wore a braid of roots, bulbs, and other plant matter that seemed to have been liberally doused in the foul stew. Ugh bowed, and, wishing Lankios a happy birthday, presented him with the wrapped gift. The hermit seemed delighted, and ripped it open. To the incredulity of Jasper, Luna and Adric, the box was empty. “I spent all my silver on this gift, back at the Welcome Wench in Thorham,” said Ugh proudly. Lankios looked carefully at the box: “Well, it is …. it is … it is … WONDERFUL! I have not seen such a beautiful specimen of cephalopod plasm in many years.” [Had he said ‘centuries’? Jasper could not be sure.] “It is a fine gift, and I am most grateful. Come! Share my stew. It is delightful.” All accepted a bowlful of the material; Adric, Jasper and Luna expertly managed to ‘spill’ it onto their armor, so as to make best use of its repellent qualities … for they had learned that the foul mixture served to repel many forms of verminous creatures. After a few more pleasantries, the adventurers headed south down the hallway to the room from which they had dislodged the stirge colony. Opening the north door, they assumed a cautious formation and headed down the spiral staircase.
At the foot of the long, stone staircase was … well, nothing: four walls and no egress. Adric was looking disappointed when Luna piped up “There’s something about that wall that doesn’t look right.” Nodding in agreement, Jasper growled “That’s because it isn’t a wall. See?” With that he punched his hand through the illusionary wall. Ugh was impressed. The heroes proceeded cautiously to examine several dusty rooms which appeared not to have been disturbed in a very long time. In one, they were surprised by a pair of skeletal baboons which rushed them, snapping their teeth angrily. These were easily handled, however. Another chamber, thick with dust was covered in still-vibrant frescoes of an enormous ibis-headed figure; it also held the first treasure of the expedition, some gold gilt-work which they scraped off a rotting table and chair. Pressing on to the west, they entered a larger chamber. As they paused to inspect a strange brazen halberd, a dust eddy started to swirl near the center of the room. Jasper began muttering indecipherable curses as the eddy grew into a vortex, within which two fists could be seen. “Run!” shouted the dwarf. And so they did, slamming the door behind them. A few experiments later proved that the eddy was no fluke, so the party turned back to the staircase room to see what lay behind one more door. A twisting corridor beckoned. After one ‘z’ turn, Jasper stopped and whispered: “Look! Arrow slits in the wall. Move quietly and slowly!” Hoping their light would not alert whoever was inside, they rounded the corner, found a door, and pulled it open. Entering, they found a ruined barracks room, with twelve lumps of ruined furniture and one decrepit chest. As they began prodding the lumps, two of them lumbered to their feet. Zombies! Fortunately the adventurers were ready, and the two undead creatures fell easily. Jasper opened the chest, which revealed some rotting orange clothing and a nice gem made of, well, jasper!
Congratulations were in short order, however, as Adric hissed a warning: “Someone’s coming!” The group chose the fateful decision to shut the door, closing themselves in the room. Just as they did so the sounds of a voice echoed through the arrow slits: “No, I’m bloody sure I ‘eard somefing up here, Roskelly. Sounded like blades, dinnit?” The adventurers elected to parlay: “Who goes there?” called Adric. “Oi! ’Oo’s that, then? Don’t you know that this you’re trespassin’ in the territory of Phlebotomas Plumthorn?,” came the reply. “Ahh, no, we didn’t,” shouted Adric. “Well, then, this is how it goes, see? Any fine adventurin’ folk such as yerselves ‘as got to pay the license to Phlebotomas, right? That’d be 100 o’ the yellow up front, plus 10 more per visit. Oh yeah, and Phlebotomas gets his slice of any loot. You ready to pay up, friend?” Frantic whispering ensued amongst the friends as they contemplated this offer. “Are they new friends?,” Ugh wanted to know. “No,” was the curt reply, “they are no friends of ours.” In the end the decision was simple, since heroes, particularly broke heroes, don’t succumb to extortion. Adric crept to the arrow slit, produce his cherished holy symbol of Odin, muttered a few words, and then, in a booming voice, shouted words of power: “Roskelly, Odin commands you to KILL your friends.” At the same moment Ugh threw open the door and charged out, weapon in hand. In the torchlight they saw a halfling crouching by the door rise up and with a single blow slice the throat of another halfling, who had been standing by with spear and sword pointed at the door. “Gar! Roskelly, what’ve you done!,” shouted two more of the small folk. Bellowing one-word war cries, Ugh waded into the action, and Jasper was not far behind. Seeing the determined foe, two of the halflings immediately broke and ran down the northern corridor. Roskelly, for so he seemed to be named, took a few swings at Ugh before he, too, fled in retreat. As Luna tried to bring him down with arrows, Jasper took control. “Quick, bring down that last one!” The dwarf, followed by his trusty war dog, flung himself at the last halfling, and managed to clothesline the unfortunate thug.
Quickly binding the halfling’s hands, Jasper and Adric attempted some interrogation. “Tell us everything you know,” they began. The halfling, named Fredly (Fred for short), spat on their feet and looked obdurate: “Phlebotomas and Roskelly will get you. I’m not sayin’ nuthin.” Various forms of persuasion got them nothing more than the fact that Phlebotomas led a gang of rogues and thugs whose headquarters lay to the north; that they expected ‘tribute’ from all passing through their domain, and that they didn’t take kindly to ‘welchers’. Jasper finally grew exasperated, and suggested a new strategy. Bundling Fred along with them, they retreated to the chamber with the vortext of dust. “Do you know what’s in there,” asked Jasper. “Nah,” was the insolent reply. “Well, you will soon find out.” And with that, they tossed the halfling into the room and held the door shut. Listening intently they heard Fred gasp, then curse softly, then curse loudly. The patter of large bare feet emerged next, and then the sound of frantic tugging at another door. Then came the shouts and cries. “No! Not this ‘un! Help! Help! Get me outta here! I’ll tell you what you need to know! Pleeeaaase!” Adric threw open the door and Jasper ran inside, avoiding the whirling dust column. He tackled the panicked Fred, threw him over his shoulder, and sprinted back to the door. Once the door was safely slammed shut, Fred proved a lot more talkative. They learned that Phlebotomas’ domain was centered in the chamber directly under the great pyramid of Thoth, that the halflings were opposed to the goblins and beastmen, and that the halflings had never discovered the dust-creature’s room. Deciding that they didn’t wish to face the now-angered Roskelly and company to the north, but acknowledging that the dust-creature blocked the route to the west, the heroes spent some time coming up with a plan, one in which Fred would feature prominently. Returning to the site of his fears, the group again tossed Fred into the room with the dust vortex. Adric, Jasper, and Ugh immediately fled back to a side room, while Luna held the door until the sounds of terror emerged. Then the elf shouted to Fred: “The door is open now, Fred. I’d run if I were you.” With her elfin speed, Luna was able to outpace both the terrified halfling and the dust vortex, and she joined her companions. Once their foes had passed by to the north, the friends emerged from the side-chamber, spiked to the door to the south, and moved on to the west.
The chamber of the dust monster was, unfortunately, rather uninteresting, save for the mysterious brazen halberd. A set of huge bronze double-doors to the north were locked, but peep-holes on the adjoining wall let the friends look into the northern chamber, which boasted walls painted with huge ibis-heads; the ibis’ piercing blue eyes all focused on a spot at the exact center of the room. Shrugging at the oddity of it, the group proceeded to an openable door to the west. It led to the most impressive, and deadly, of the chambers visited on this expedition!
The room was huge, being some 60’ square and 30’ high, and was bisected by an enormous chasm. Here the chasm was only 20’ wide, but it widened as it extended to the north beyond the room’s walls, and a hint of light shone from that direction. A graceful, 3’ wide stone bridge crossed the chasm, on the other side of which was a most impressive site: walls painted with strange hermetic symbols (moons, ibises, pentagrams, baboons, and numbers), no less than six doors, and the pièce de resistance, a colossal (15’) statue of a squatting baboon-headed human, with knees drawn up to its chest. The statue’s arms were outstretched, with its hands/paws resting on its knees. Torchlight glinted off the sparkling blue stones which formed the statue’s eyes. “Ahhh,” purred Jasper with satisfaction, “now we’re getting somewhere. I can practically smell the treasure!” Gravitating to the statue, Jasper climbed onto its lap and soon discovered that its arms were manipulatable. As his friends looked on in anticipation, Jasper moved the right arm from the knee to the next ‘stop’, where it was pointing outward at a 45-degree angle. A grinding sound echoed forth as the south-eastern-most door slid open! Out strode a creature most bizarre: a spindly-limbed humanoid clad only in a girdle, but with the head of an ibis. The creature advanced a stop and then uttered a soul-rending shriek! All but Adric cringed in terror, feeling as if cosmic powers beyond their comprehension were searching their souls with a fine-toothed comb, ripping forth the most secret of flaws and desires and instilling in them with the reality of their own insignificance! As Jasper, Luna, and Ugh huddled around the statue, brave Adric strode forth. Instilled with the fury of the all-Father, he brandished the holy symbol of Odin. The ibis-creature hesitated, and tried to side-step the cleric. Sensing an advantage, Adric followed it, and it began to slowly retreat. Eventually Adric maneuvered it back into its cell, and slammed the door!
Relief was palpable, and Jasper suggested that they inspect the other doors before returning to the statue. So they tried the door next to the ibis-creature’s cell. Although it was locked, Jasper revealed why he modestly billed himself as a locksmith. Peering inside, the friends noted walls painted with a string of orange-robed priests genuflecting before a baboon-headed figure, whose raised left arm was pointing straight ahead. Three ornate sarcophagi occupied the chamber. Showing appropriate reverence for the dead, the party retreated to the central chamber and the statue of Thoth (for so it was!). Confident from their viewing of the iconography of the sarcophagus chamber, Jasper climbed up into the statue’s lap and raised the left arm to the middle position. An audible click echoed through the hall, but no new danger emerged. “Hmmm,” mused Jasper, “that did something. But what?” Growing impatient, Ugh urged Jasper to raise the other arm, too. When the dwarf did so, another grinding sound emerged from the west wall, and a second ibis-creature strode forth! Once again the thing uttered its soul-rending shriek, and again most of the party were struck by psychic terror. Luna fled for the bridge, while Jasper and Adric (for the fickleness of the All-Father is well-known!) cowered by the statue. Only Ugh seemed unaffected. As the creature advanced, however, it pointed a clawed hand and darkness fell over the statue. A desperate combat ensued, as Ugh tried to hew the surprisingly agile creature with his weapon, and the monster slashed at him with its claws. Eventually Luna paused, over the worst of her terrors, and unslung her bow. Adric attempted to use the power of Odin to repel the beast, but Thoth’s immanence prevented a repeat of this feat. Instead, the cleric moved to aid Ugh with curative magics. Jasper moved toward the bridge, winding his crossbow and shouting for a general retreat as he did. Afraid that Ugh would go down, Luna launched a veritable flurry of arrows at the creature and, just as it looked as if the warrior would fall, one of her missiles caught the ibis in the shoulder. It staggered, and then Axe, the war-dog, leapt into action and brought it to the ground. The creature moved no longer! Shocked at their victory, Jasper took charge. “Right! We were lucky there. I think it’s time to head back to the Broken Head.” Amid nods of chastened assent, the band retraced their steps, emerging into the bright sunlight of a beautiful May day.