Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Adventuring Party, Part 1: Beginnings

Sharai reached her arm out and plunged her staff into the darkness. She spoke a word, and suddenly the top of her staff flared to life with a fizz and a blue spark. After the initial flash, the blue light settled down and illuminated the steep cave entrance before Sharai and her companions. She watched each of them as they passed her down the hallway.

First was Del, the human warrior. He was tall, nearly six and a half feet, with dirty blond hair that he kept neck length. His jaw was set in a serious expression on his clean shaven face that showed off just how young he was, even for a human; barley out of his teens. He was wearing a heavy chainmaile shirt, with leather padding underneath. On his left arm was a heavy steel shield, and he had his long sword drawn in his right hand, prepared for any trouble they might encounter. It was a family heirloom, a gift from his father, something of a famous warrior among humans, and a source of pride for Del. Sharai had learned that Del contained a wisdom and a leadership skill behind those bright blue eyes that defied his age. The companions had all defaulted to him as their leader long ago, and he was determined to not let them down.

After Del marched Nor Silverbeard, the dwarven priestess. She had a dour look on her face, but Sharai was unclear what that meant, because Nor always had a dour look on her face. Like Del, she also carried a shield, emblazoned with a anvil and three hammers, the symbol of the Three Brothers, the gods dwarves believed forged the world. In her other hand was a heavy hammer that looked every bit as deadly as Del’s sword. She wore heavy chainmaile as well, and had a helmet on her head that included a mask covering her eyes. Her red bear was kept neat and trimmed, close to the jaw line, but with two braids that came down to her belly, which indicated she was unmarried in dwarven culture. Sharai knew that Nor was a formidable warrior, as most clerics of the Three Brothers were, but also that the stout dwarf was a capable healer, and had her own brand of magic that made her an invaluable part of the party.

Sharai got in line next, holding her staff high, the blue flair lighting their way into the earth. Her lithe form moved gracefully into step behind Nor. Though not as muscular as Del or as bulky as Nor, she had a great power stored inside of her. Her blond hair was cut short, to keep it out of her eyes, but the result was also that it showed off her long, elven ears. She was the only member of the party to not wear armor, finding that it constricted her movements and slowed her down, two things that a woman in her profession could ill afford. Her free hand was tracing arcane sigils in the air, preparing for the moment she would need to cast a spell as quickly as possible. Though she was no longer an apprentice, she was still a journeyman wizard, who only knew a handful of spells, and tried not to show her nervousness to her comrades.

Behind Sharai was Dash, the gnome. He was only slightly over three feet (three foot three, to hear him tell it), but he could defiantly pull his weight in the party. His real name was Balderdash, but Del refused to refer to an adventuring companion by such a patently ridiculous name, and so he nicknamed the diminutive party member Dash, and it stuck. Dash was what one would call a professional thief. He would prefer to say he was an expert lockpick and trap specialist, but that still equaled thief to Sharai, although she knew that thief was something of a misnomer. The gnome never actually robbed from people. Well, at least not since joining up with the party. No, he was an adventurer, which meant his thieving was left to tombs and abandoned castles, or at the very least to creatures polite society preferred to think of as monsters. But she still held tightly to her purse when he was around. She turned to look at him briefly. Dash was walking behind the party, two daggers drawn, one in each hand, keeping an eye out for someone or something that might be sneaking up behind them. He had full head of hair, which was a bright green color, like spring leaves. He also had a shock of green facial hair, which he kept trimmed in a Van Dyke. His face was split in a permanent grin, as if he were in on some joke that the rest of the universe was unaware of. His dark green dyed leather armor made practically no noise at all when he walked, and his movements were like that of a cat on the hunt.

Sharai shook herself out of her musings and focused on the task at hand. They were here on a mission, to take down a dangerous beast that lived in this cave. After about twenty yards, the slope they were on stopped, and the cave eased out to a more flat hallway. However, they corridor also bent and twisted in different directions. Del motioned with his left hand, and a few seconds later, Dash was up front, nodding his head. The gnome then took the lead, carefully checking the ground and walls a head of them. Del must have thought a trap was near by, or perhaps just felt that they were close to the monster. Whatever, Sharai was glad for the extra precaution.

It proved to be a good idea when just a few moments later, Dash stopped the whole party, and began to look at a particular patch of dirt covered floor with serious intent. He then reached out with his dagger, and began to draw in the dirt. He was outlining a square, about three feet across on a side. Sharai realized at once what it was. A pit, probably with a fake covering of some kind that had dirt thrown across it to give it the appearance of a solid floor. Had Del still been in front, the heavily armored warrior would have fallen in, creating such a racket that any creatures deeper into the cave would surely know they were here.

Carefully, the four all crept around the edges of the pit. On the other side, they continued to make their way down the corridor. With the exception of the soft jangling of the chainmaile worn by Del and Nor, the four remained quiet. Their footsteps echoed off the walls, and Sharai wondered if the creature they hunted had ears as sharp as hers. If so, it had heard them by now for sure. She kept her staff held high, and the blue light flickered off the cavern walls and stalagmites, casting shadows everywhere. It had Sharai on edge, and she traced the patterns with her fingers faster and faster.

Then, she heard something that made her stop marching.

It was a series of noises, actually, a shuffling and snorting, like you would hear from a large, hoofed animal. Maybe a horse, or a bull. It was faint, not close, but it was clear to her sharp hearing. What was this beast they were sent to kill? She waved her staff to get the other’s attention. They all stopped at the sudden shift in lighting, and turned to look at her. Del had a look of frustration on his face. She pointed to her ears and then down the corridor. His look quickly changed, a smirk spreading across his face as he realized what she meant. He nodded, and every one re-gripped their weapons, ready for what was about to come.

Their pace as they moved through the cave picked up; the excitement growing as they neared their prey. By the time they reached the fork in the tunnels, everyone could hear the noises. A loud snort indicated that the right hand passage was the one to take, and the party headed down that direction. Del re-took the lead and Dash moved back to the rear, replacing his daggers with the small, gnome bow that was previously slung over his shoulders. Despite its minuscule size, Sharai had seen the fae weapon in battle before, and knew how deadly it truly was.

The cave they were following came to a large bend, around which could be heard the pacing of the creature. They were here. Del stopped everyone and turned to make sure everyone was ready. In turn, Nor and Dash nodded. Sharai hesitated, made a few quick symbols with her hand, and nodded. Before they headed in, however, the creature spoke.

“I smell you, adventurers,” it said. Its voice was deep, and gravely, like it had been gargling with rocks. “I can smell your fear. Did your king send you after me? I will send your heads back to him as a message! Come, face me!”

The then let out a roar that caused even Del to take a step back. Just what was it they were about to face? After but a moment’s hesitation, Del stood fully erect, raised his sword, and let out his battle cry, a ululation that had no real meaning to anyone but him. Everyone followed. The tunnel opened up into a large circular cavern. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, but like the rest of the cave, the floor was kept clear of stalagmites. Scattered about the room were torches, bolted to the wall in crude metal sconces, casting more shadow than light about the place. Off on one side of the room was a pile of straw and a dirty blanket, obviously a rough sleeping mat. Next to it was a foot locker, which Dash eyed quickly before returning to the battle at hand. The rest of the room was somewhat spartan, though there were decorations of a sort. Skulls, of all different races, were hanging from the walls and stalactites. Trophies, Sharai realized, of past kills.

Then she saw the creature itself. It was huge, approximately 8 feet tall, and covered in rock hard muscle and black fur. Its feet were those of a massive bull, black hoofs scraping at the floor in anticipation, a small cow-like tail twitching behind it. Its head was that of a bull as well, two large, curved horns protruding from its head. Sharai noticed that they were sharp, and cold probably pierce a person with no problem. In its hands was a massive axe, like an exaggerated lumberjack axe. Dried blood could be seen on the blade’s very sharp edge. A minotaur, she thought. Oh, Gods, a minotaur! We’re dead, we can’t take on a minotaur!

Before she could say anything, though, Del charged right at the beast. Del realized a long time ago that while he was very good at distracting enemies from the rest of the party, getting them to focus on him and his deadly sword while his allies maneuvered into better positions, or cast spells. It was obvious that this was his plan this time, too.

“Come on, minotaur,” he cried as he charged, “let’s see who takes who’s head first!”

The creature threw its head back, and a strange, gurgling sound came from its throat. Was it choking? No, Sharai realized, it’s laughing!

“Indeed, little one,” it said to Del as it easily blocked his sword swing with it’s axe. “Let us see, indeed.”

And with that, it swung the great axe in a wide arc. The creature was surprisingly quick for something so bulky and large. Del barely had time to raise his shield. Sharai watched as the massive weapons slammed into the circular piece of steel strapped to Del’s arm, and winced as the shield, arm and body of her companion were forced back, three full steps, from the blow. She could tell that hurt Del, but he bravely stood his ground as best he could.

And in doing so, gave Nor all the time she needed to position herself behind the Minotaur. She smashed down hard with her hammer, striking the minotaur on the back of his reversed legs. The creature cried out in pain, a primal sound that reverberated across the chamber, and dropped down on one knee. Del took the opportunity caused by the blow and stepped close to the monster, penetrating its right shoulder with his blade, and causing more cries from the creature. Sharai and Dash also took their opportunity to strike. Sharai let loose with a bolt of pure magical energy, a pulsing green ball that flew across the chamber and struck home on the creatures chest. Dash let loose with his arrow, which followed Sharai’s bolt, and buried itself in the creatures other shoulder.

Everything seemed to be going in the teams favor. All the training they had been doing was paying off. At least, that’s what Sharai thought before the minotaur struck back. Del and Nor were readying for a simultaneous strike when, with blinding speed, the monster swung it’s great axe in a wide circle, first striking Del hard in the chest. The blow sent the warrior flying across the room, to land hard against a hanging stalactite, and then slump to the floor below, unconscious. The swing continued around, the creature twisting its torso around, and hit Nor in her head. Though the tough dwarf did not fall, she did move back a step or two, and was obviously dazed.

Standing, the monster completed its turn to face the dwarf. Before it could do any further damage, Sharai let loose with a spell, one of her more powerful ones. She traced the symbols in the air and muttered a few words of power. She pointed her staff dramatically at the monster and spoke the final word loudly, gaining the creatures attention for a moment. As it looked at her, the air around it grew cold, specifically around its feet. Looking down, the minotaur watched as, in mere seconds, ice formed in a square around its hoofs. With no more dirt floor to grip, he started to slip. Only his great strength kept him standing upright, but Nor was able to take advantage of the momentarily distracted beast, and slammed into it with her hammer once more. The blow combined with the ice and caused the creature to fall flat on its back.

A bellow of anger rose from the creatures throat. It kicked out with one of it’s powerful feet, striking Nor in the stomach and sending the otherwise sturdy dwarf stumbling backwards, though she still refused to fall down. Not bothering to get up on the slippery ice, the creature swung it’s axe once more, this time one handed, and struck hard into Nor’s shield. The blade penetrated and struck the dwarf’s arm. Sharai could see blood seep through the crack in the metal, but the dwarf only bit her lip, not letting out a cry of pain. The minotaur pulled his axe back, and Nor’s arm fell useless to her side, the shield dropping to the ground. It was obvious at this point that she was out of the fight.

Dash, meanwhile, let loose arrow after arrow, most of which hit the creature on its back and shoulders, but none of them seemed to penetrate through the monster’s anger. Deciding that enough was enough, he dropped his bow and drew his two daggers, charging forward.

“Cover me,” he said, not looking at Sharai as he ran straight towards death itself.

Sharai didn’t hesitate, but let loose two magic bolts in quick succession, allowing the magic of her staff to enhance the power of the bolts. They struck true, but seemed to have about as much affect as the arrows. Dash ran straight up to the beast, who was climbing its way out of the ice back to the dirt. He did something completely foolhardy then, and leaped on the minotaur’s back. The creature stood up just as Dash started to jab downwards with both blades, penetrating through the tough skin of his shoulders and into the muscle benieth.

Though obviously in pain, bleeding from several small wounds, the creature didn’t seem to be slowed in the least. He reached up behind him with one arm, grabbed the gnome, and slammed him hard into the floor. Sharai heard a sickening thud as Dash’s head connected with a rock, and he passed out. Breathing heavy, the minotaur looked up and straight at her. A sneer crossed its lips, and it started marching across the room. Sharai was paralyzed in fear. She was the only party member left standing, but her only remaining spells would not be enough to defeat the creature. She couldn’t do this, and as a result, she was about to die.

That’s when she hear another voice, a strong male voice.

“Okay, that’s enough,” it said, and the minotaur paused it’s relentless march and stopped. It turned its head to view the speaker and Sharai followed its gaze.

At the opposite side of the cave, from an entrance that she didn’t remember seeing before, stood an old human man. He was about the same height as her, a little over five feet, with a shock of bright white hair on his head. His face was covered in a short cropped white beard, which could not cover the scars that indicated years of battle. His eyes were hard, a dark gray color, like steel, and they were narrowed, glaring about the room. He wore comfortable robes that were not religious in any way, but the sword at his hip and the stance he held indicated that he was no wizard, either. He looked around the room, and shook his head at the fallen.

“Tisk, what a mess,” he said, clicking his toung across the top of his mouth, a particularly human mannerism that Sharai never got used to, even though she had heard it hundreds of times before. “Barr, thanks for participating. You’re free to go home, now.”

The minotaur suddenly took a far more relaxed stance, and nodded its head. “Until next time, old friend,” it rumbled in its deep voice that, even at this softer volume, still sounded like thunder. Then it marched out the newly arrived passage in the cave. Where did that come from, anyway? Illusion, maybe?

“Sharai,” the old human said, turning his attention to her. “Would you help me revive your teammates, here?”

He opened up his cloak, and pulled out several small potions, hold out two for her to take. She nodded.

“Yes, Master Landau,” she said, and moved to take the potions from the man that had been her mentor for the past two years. The two of them administered the potions to Sharai’s fallen party members, and the three were quickly revived.

“Master Landau?” Del said, looking his teacher in the eye with a somewhat groggy look on his face. “Damn, does this mean we failed?”

Landau laughed. “To defeat the minotaur? Yes, of course.”

“Of course?” Del said, obviously confused. “This was to be our final exam, before we went out into the world to make our fortunes. Why is it ‘of course’ that we failed?”

“Calm down, Del,” the old man said in a gentle, fatherly tone. “You were never meant to defeat Barr. The test was more about how you would handle yourselves in a no win situation.”

“I knew there was more to this than simply the minotaur,” Sharai said.

“What do you mean?” Del asked.

“Well,” Sharai explained, “the simple truth is, we’re just not powerful enough to take down a minotaur. Not on our own, at any rate. This had to be a test of something other than our combat prowess.”

“Very good, Sharai,” Landau said, “But not entirely correct. I wasn’t testing your abilities in combat. I know those already. What I was testing, however, was your teamwork.”

“Yeah?” Del asked. “So, how’d we do?”

Landau took a deep breath, as if contemplating the answer. He looked from Del to Sharai and then over to Nor and Dash.

“You did,” he paused for dramatic effect, which caused Dash to roll his eyes. “Excellent!”

“We did?” Nor asked. “But, we lost.”

“Yes,” Landau said, “but you used teamwork to try and overcome. You each used your strengths to work with and cover your teammates. Del, you distracted the beast while Nor took position behind it. Sharai used her ice spell to help Nor drop Barr on his butt. And later, Sharai helped Dash by covering him with her magic bolts. You even used teamwork getting through the tunnels. Dash found that trap, and Sharai’s hearing let you know to be ready for the monster.”

“So, we passed?” Nor asked, still looking confused.

“Ha,” Landau laughed, “Yes, Nor. You passed! That means you have learned all I can teach you. You are ready to go out into the world and become world famous adventurers.”

“All right!” Del said. “I knew it! Come on guys, let’s go get packed! Tomorrow, we go out into the world and adventure!”

Sharai shook her head. She just couldn’t believe she was really ready. Still, Landau was an experienced adventurer himself, and had trained several adventurers after his retirement. If he said they were ready, she had to believe him. He knew what he was talking about. She just didn’t feel ready.

The next morning, the four friends were all set to go. They had their backpacks with spare clothes, equipment and, most importantly, bedrolls and tents for camping during their travels. Landau told them that there was a small town near the borders of civilized lands to the north, called Oak Hollow. If anyplace would lead them to adventure, it would lie there.

So, they headed north. It took them several days to get there, though the journey itself was uneventful, much to Del’s chagrin. He was hoping for a random monster attack, or at least bandits. But the followed a well-used merchant’s road, and bandits tended to avoid it due simply to the large amount of traffic it saw.

Oak Hollow itself was pretty much what Sharai imagined from such a name. It was built by the edge of a forest of oak trees and featured a large lumber industry, as well as the outlying farms. It was a walled town, and featured mostly small, one story buildings. On top of the hill the town was built on stood a small castle, home of the knight that ruled over this land. The town acted as a way stop for merchant caravans on their way to other northern cities, and as such had a larger than normal number of taverns and inns.

It was also the last truly civilized stop for miles before entering what most called the Wild Lands. Once upon a time, the Wild Lands were part of some unknown empire, as evidenced by the numerous ruins that were spread about. But today, it was filled with monsters and evil races like goblins. There were even legends of armies of undead, zombies and skeletons, but no one had seen these to prove if they were true.

As a result of this, the town also played host to several groups of adventurers, those members of society that wished to gain gold and fame through danger and adventure. They often used Oak Hollow as a staging ground for expeditions into the ruins of the Wild Lands. Those that returned came back with wealth beyond their wildest dreams.

This was exactly what Del was hoping to do, and most of the rest of the party was with him. Sharai wasn’t so much interested in the treasure as she was any ancient magic they might find along the way. The old empires had powers unknown by current wizards, and so the chance to learn from the ancients drew her to follow her friends into the Wild Lands.

They came up to the town gates, where a bored looking guard with a long pole arm in his hand stood.

“State your name and business,” he said, not really looking at them.

“We are Del, Nor, Sharai and Balderdash,” Del said, pointing to everyone in turn. “We’re adventurers, come to find our fame and fortune.”

“Adventurers, eh?” the guard said, “Paperwork?”

Del pulled out a scroll from his belt pouch. It was an official paper recognizing the group as members of the Adventurer’s Guild, and gave them permission to carry around their weapons legally. The guard looked it over, nodded, and handed it back to them.

“Right then,” the guard said, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb. “You’ll be wanting the Laughing Tankard. It’s just down the main road a bit, you can’t miss it.”

“The Laughing Tankard?” Del asked.

“Aye,” the guard said, bored again. “It’s where most adventurers goes. Lots of rumors there, as well as caravan masters looking for sell swords. Great place to find work, eh?”

“Right,” Del said, nodding. He waved everyone on, and they all headed into town.

The guard was right; it didn’t take much to find the tavern. It had a sign hanging over its door depicting a tankard, complete with foamy head, with a large, laughing mouth on it. They entered. The place was not nearly as busy as Sharai expected. Though the common’s room wasn’t empty, it only had a few patrons in it, mostly small groups like theirs sitting in tables going over maps. There were a few patrons at the bar that resembled local farmers, probably regulars that enjoyed hearing the tales of the adventurers that frequented the place. Behind the bard was a small, thin man, with a scraggly beard that was larger than his face. If it wasn’t for the fact that he wasn’t quite that short, Sharai might have thought he was a dwarf.

“Take a seat,” the man said, “I’ll be with you in a moment.”

The four took seats at a round table near the fireplace, though no fire currently burned. True to his word, a few moments later, the bartender arrived at their table.

“Adventurers, yes?” he asked, and all four of them nodded. “I recognize your type. New to the business, too, if I ain’t mistaken.” Again, all four of them nodded, though this time they all looked at each other before doing so.

“Don’t worry,” the bartender said. “I only know because I used to be one meself. Well, that and because I run this place. Names Marc, owner and proprietor of this fine establishment. So, besides drinks, what is it you be looking for?”

“Well,” Del said, settling into his role of group spokesman. “We’re hoping to get into the Wild Lands and find some ancient ruin we can loot.”

“Honest,” Marc said, “I likes that. I take it, though, that you don’t have the money to pay for such an expedition?”

“Pay? What would we need to do to prepare beyond what we already have?” Del asked. He was honestly confused.

“Well, I’m only guessing mind you, but I don’t believe that you’ve got a week or two of rations. And believe you me, that’s about how far you’ll need to go to avoid all the well traveled and well looted ruins nearer to the town. Horses probably wouldn’t be a bad idea. And I’m guessing that you can’t afford any of that.”

The four friends looked at each other, a silent conversation on weather or not it was okay to trust this man before them. Finally, Nor gave a subtle nod of her head, and Del returned his attention to the bartender.

“Frankly, no,” Del said.

“Excellent!” The bartender said, “then I have a job for you!”

“Rats?” Balderdash was saying as the four descended the tavern’s stairs. “He wants us to kill rats? In the tavern basement? This is really undignified for a group of adventurers, don’t you think?”

“Come on, Dash,” Del said, not looking back at the gnome. They had been having this argument for the past hour or so. “I know it’s not glamorous. It’s nothing I want sung in a song about me. But, still… he’s offering us one hundred gold to do this. One hundred! It’s easy money that we can’t afford to ignore.”

Dash grumbled, but stopped arguing with the human. One hundred gold was a lot of money. More, Sharai thought, than killing a few rats was worth. Still, she was with Del completely on this one. They did need the money, and this was difficult to turn down.

“Okay, everyone, spread out and keep your eyes open,” Del said as they reached the bottom of the stairs. He drew his sword, but Sharai noticed that he did not ready his shield. “Marc seemed to think they hung out mostly by the grain sacks, I’ll check there.”

They each took a different corner of the large cellar. It was appeared to be at least as large as the whole tavern above, and was littered with crates, sacks and barrels of foods, ales and wines. Sharai held her staff at the ready and searched her corner very carefully with her eyes. It contained boxes that smelled like cheese, something she considered a tempting target for rats. It didn’t take long for her to spot something moving out of the corner of her eye.

She turned to look, but before she could poke it with her staff, something large jumped out at her. It was about the size of a small dog, and was all snout and teeth. Sharai screamed and backed off, swinging her staff wildly. Everyone turned to rush towards her side. The four lined up next to each other, and then got a good look at the creature.

“That’s not a rat,” Dash was saying.

But it was. It had the long snout, ringed tail and ears of a rat. It was also about three feet long, no counting the tail, and had a very unhappy look in its eyes. Del only hesitated that in that initial moment, then stepped forward, shield raised, and stabbed the rat. It was a solid blow that quickly killed the vermin.

“That was a big rat,” he said. Then they heard more noises coming from behind the cheese.

Nor moved up and shoved the cheese aside, revealing a large hole in the wall. Rushing out of the hole was three more large rats, chittering in anger at being disturbed. The four friend sprang into action quickly.

Del once again stabbed at the nearest rat, getting in a blow, but not a fatal one. Sharai followed up with a blast of her magic bolt, felling the creature. Dash had better luck, ducking under the charging rat and gutting it as it sailed overhead. Nor wasn’t quite as quick, and the rat got in a bite. Thankfully, it hit her shoulder on the chainmaile, and didn’t break skin. Nor returned the attack, smashing the rat in the head with her hammer. The battle was over in a matter of seconds, and the four looked at each other in shock.

“Man,” Dash said, “when he said he had a rat problem, he wasn’t kidding. No wonder he wanted adventurers to help out.”

Del looked at the hole in the wall. It seemed to go down at a pretty sharp angle, into some tunnels below the tavern. He got a grim look on his face.

“They came from here,” he said, pointing to the hole. “Think there’s more?”

Sharai came up and listened, straining her ears to hear anything down the tunnels. “I don’t hear anything. But, if they’re like any other kind of rat, there most likely are more, in a warren or den down there. Hundreds is likely.”

“Hundreds?” Del said, a look of horror on his face. “Hundreds,” he said again, this time more thoughtfully.

“Uh oh,” Dash said, winking at Nor. “I know that look. He’s got an idea.”

A few hours later, they were pushing their way into the hole and to the tunnels beyond. Dash was shaking his head.

“I can’t believe you managed to convince him to pay us another three hundred gold to clear out this warren,” he said.

Del laughed, leading the way down the tunnel. “Well, once we showed him the four dead ones, and that there might be hundreds more below, it was easy. I think one hundred gold each is a fair price, don’t you?”

Everyone laughed.

“Maybe there is something about this adventure to sing a song about,” Sharai said. “The story of Del, the Rat Slayer and Tavern Swindler.”

The End

1 comment:

  1. Chris, have read all the posts. There's some good stuff here. Only one thing, in this on 'Adventuring Party', take out the 'suddenly' in the first paragraph...kinda ruins the whole opening (show, don't tell - as all the advice says). Other than that, Nice :-)