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Tavern Squad - Origins

Chapter Three

They awoke in the dark. Brunthar squinted and checked his internal clock, confirming that he was well-rested. There was no sound of crickets, animals, or any other of the normal woodland noises that normally come with a night in the woods. There was no moon or stars either.

“Crop! What happened, you were on lookout,” Aanmar’s voice whispered from somewhere to Brunthar’s left.

There was a snort and the rustle of moving cloth. “Wha– Where are we? What happened?” came Crop’s reply.

“Damn, well I guess this is it,” Aanmar said, and somewhere in the dark, a torch flared to light.

The corridor they were in was surprisingly dry for an underground passage. The walls were made of rough-hewn stone and had plenty of lichen and moss growing in the cracks. The plants seemed to suck at the light coming off the torch, emitting an ethereal glow as the party looked about. The floor was dirt, as was the low ceiling. The path stretched forward, nothing but rock behind. Without a word, Brunthar shouldered his ax, hefted his shield, and set out down the long dark corridor.

A hundred yards down the corridor the path hit a T section, a branch going right and a branch going left. Brunthar started right without pausing but Aanmar laid a hand on his shoulder.

“If we go right now, we must go right at every intersection. I’ve gotten stuck in mazes like this before, the trick is to pick one side of the wall and follow it all the way. Even if we hit a dead-end we’ll eventually find the right path,” she said.

“What? That’s stupid, that’ll take forever. Besides, who’s to say this is a maze and not a straightforward lair, with everything funneling down towards some horrifying creature?” Hinky butted in.

“Then my method would work just as well!” Aanmar snapped back.

“Wait so, we’re in the Dungeon?” Crop asked, still rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

Three taps sounded from the front of the group and they all turned. Brunthar stood with shield and ax raised, staring into the dark. Silence reigned. And then, from somewhere in the gloom a ragged breath was drawn in.

“Fuck,” whispered Greck’lil.

Lightning quick, a shadowy creature struck from the dark. Just as fast Brunthar and Aanmar raise their weapons to strike, aiming carefully for the head. Unfortunately, both moved at the same time, the point of Aanmar’s sword tangling with the heel of Brunthar’s ax. The two weapons twisted and as their owners pulled desperately to free them the shadow plunged into the group. Crop fled desperately. Greck’lil stepped into a rocky alcove and Hinky tried to roll beneath the dark creature’s six legs, but tripped over Brunthar’s foot and only managed to slide face first beneath its stomach. Aanmar got her sword free, but before she could swing, a tail materialized behind the shadowy monster and smacked her back, her head cracking against the ground. Brunthar raised his shield just in time to catch the second blow, but a claw whipped out around the side of the shield and crushed him against the wall. Hinky crawled his way under the creature to the far side, fingers bloody against the stoney earth, and rolled to his feet, short bow raised, but with Brunthar stunned the creature spun and shouldered Hinky straight up into the ceiling. The monster surveyed the downed and groaning group. It bent its head down to Brunthar, and the shadows surrounding it parted enough to see a gaping, toothy mouth, pink within. Just before the teeth could sink into Brunthar’s neck, a dagger flashed out of the dark and plunged into the mouth. The creature gave a groan, staggered for a moment, and then fell. Greck’lil stepped out of the shadows and let out a long breath.

Aanmar dragged herself up and gave her head a gentle shake, groaning at the results. Brunthar freed himself from the stone that he had been wedged in and poked gingerly at his ribs. Hinky used the wall to pull himself to his feet, at a loss for words. They all coughed and looked about. Aanmar opened her mouth to speak but Greck’lil laid a finger against her lips, listening intently. The corridor was silent.

“Where’d Crop go?” Hinky whispered, wiping his bloody, torn fingers on his shirtfront.

Greck’lil frowned and disappeared backwards into the dark. They emerged a moment later with Crop slung over one shoulder. “Knocked herself out back that way,” Greck’lil said quietly, laying Crop down and shaking her awake.

“This was a mistake. We’re doomed, we’ve barely survived our first brush with our first threat down here,” Aanmar whispered, knuckles white against her sword.

“Too late,” Brunthar said and shoulder his ax once more, wincing. Then he smiled. “Forward is all we have. We figure out how to be a team or die. Communicate, right?”

Aanmar nodded, slowly but said nothing. She twirled her sword gently and sheathed it in a smooth motion. Hinky tested his bow and shrugged. They set off once more.

The psychological makeup of an adventurer is a curious thing, which many consider to be next-door neighbors, metaphorically speaking, with a suicidal maniac. There is a range of course, with the logical level-headed types like Aanmar on one end and the ones that survive upon pure luck and an inability to consider failure like Hinky on the other. But more important than any other part of an adventurer’s mental landscape is their unyielding self-confidence. With a belief in self that strong, few adventurers believe that any other individual can be of any help at all.

The first room they came to was longer than it was wide, but they could all stand shoulder to shoulder comfortably, staring at the far wall. Set deep into the wall was a door of sorts, circular with strange runic symbols around the outside, spiraling inwards towards a single deeply carved keyhole. The runes glowed softly. Without slowing, Burnthar strode across the room and struck the door with his ax. The blow was hard enough to separate a giant’s head from his shoulders, the room itself quaking with the strength of the dwarf’s swing as the mighty ax connected with the door. The ax shattered from blade to hilt, and the room exploded with the orange light of a massive fireball. Brunthar was blown back across the room, beard smoldering and too concussed to be angry.

“Well, we’ve explored one of our options for proceeding,” said Aanmar drily. “Can anyone read those runes?”

Greck’lil shook his head. Hinky laughed and told them he couldn’t read anything. Crop nodded.

“Oh. Really?”

“Yeah,” Crop said softly, “they look the same as normal letters. Don’t they?”

Everyone else shook their heads, except Brunthar who was staring into the middle distance.

“Oh. Well, it says: Ignore the lock that’s just a ruse, and whatever you do, do not abuse, the physical form of the door itself, all the way forward needs is a spell of health. What does that mean?”

“Seems like we need someone to cast a spell of healing or health or something on the door,” replied Aanmar. “Do… do any of you know how to cast spells?”

The group shook their heads again, although Brunthar seemed just to be trying to clear his.

“I mean I’ve seen it done,” said Hinky, “the nerd just kind of waves his hand like this and mumbles a bunch of strange words.” Hinky mimicked the strange motions of a sorcerer.

Greck’lil looked at his hands. Aanmar waved hers unenthusiastically. Crop did the same and spoke the word health, reading it from the door. Her hands glowed a faint blue and the door cracked open.

“You can cast magic?” Aanmar asked, shocked.

“Oh, I guess so. I’ve never done that before,” Crop replied.

“Well try it on Brunthar, he doesn’t look so good,” Aanmar said.

“Alright,” Crop turned to the dazed Brunthar and repeated the motions and words. Her hands glowed gently and a huge smile came over Brunthar’s pallid face. He blinked and shook his head again, eyes clearing. “Opened it,” he said and stood up.

As the others were talking, Greck’lil squinted into the corridor beyond. Something had moved when the door opened, something dark and intangible. It had disappeared as the light touched it.

“Well onward then I suppose,” Aanmar said, and pushed forward through the open door.

The passage tilted downwards deeper into the earth. It was straight and narrow, the stone walls pressing in on the sides and top, forcing the tall Aanmar to hunch as she led. She removed a fresh torch and lit it up, illuminating the way forward. Somewhere deep in the dark, something glittered. The passage evened out and ended, opening up into a circular room with passages branching off in every direction, some lined with metal, others simply hewn stone. Sitting in the middle of the round room was a jagged piece of rock, brittle looking and sharp on the sides. Under the light of the torch, flecks of light sparkled with the same strange color as the door that Crop had opened. The rock floated gently off the floor.

“What is it?” Hinky asked.

Nobody seemed to have an answer.

Finally, Brunthar stepped forward, face in deep shadow. His hand now empty of any weapon, the little dwarf reached out to touch the floating rock.

The light was sucked out of Aanmar’s torch, along with every other glint and gleam that had found its way beneath the forest. It rushed and sucked its way into the rock until the little shard was glowing as bright as a bonfire, and then it was snuffed out. Brunthar felt the weight of the stone as it dropped into his hand, no longer eerily suspended above the floor. Aanmar relit her torch and they all gazed upon the strange, fractal stone that Brunthar held. The moment didn’t last long.

From the ceiling dropped a shadow, similar only in coloring to the scouts Hinky had killed outside. It was eight times the size, goopy and oozing, and where it wasn’t a dark mass of shadow, claws gleaming silver sprung out in odd places, razor-sharp. It wasted no time in attacking, lashing out at Brunthar. The claw cleanly severed Brunthar’s hand at the wrist, throwing the hand along with the stone in a wide arc towards the back of the room.

Aanmar reacted nearly as fast as the shadow had dropped, leaping forward to plunge her sword deep into the center of the shadow. It sank nearly to the hilt before it stopped. She yanked it free, and the gaping wound hissed and spat for a moment before closing itself up. The creature moved again, slicing towards Aanmar, but before it could reach her, Greck’lil dashed forward, knives whirling, and cut the claw free from the dark mass before it could hit Aanmar. The ooze skittered back, seeming smaller, towards the far end of the chamber where it spread itself thin and began to split. Aanmar and Greck’lil stood shoulder to shoulder over the hunkered form of Brunthar clutching the stump of his arm. Hinky stepped up next to them. Crop looked behind, gazing at the passage that led back the way they came, back toward relative safety. She sighed, and then stepped forward next to the rest.

“Protect each other’s backs, preserve life and limb rather than attack. Got it?” Aanmar said, not taking her eyes off the bubbling piles of shadow.e

A moment later five shadows erupted from the pools of darkness that the original creature had split into. They attacked with speed and ferocity. Crop immediately ducked and rolled, seizing the loose hand of Brunthar and jamming it against the dwarf’s stump. He roared in agony. Crop stuttered out the word of health and as a glow began to reattach the severed limb a shadow threw itself at the two of them. An arrow came out of nowhere and struck it dead center, throwing it off balance and its leap went wide. Aanmar stepped into the gap it left and swung a wide blow at the two shadows that were rushing forwards in its wake. They were forced back a step, but only for a moment.

The two shadows converged back into one, driving forwards in a single shadowy spike straight towards Aanmar’s unprotected face with no one close enough to get to her in time to stop the mortal blow. Except for Brunthar. The dwarf’s hand was clearly not working properly, but with a grim look and firm grasp on his shield with his off-hand, he met the coming blow and held. From behind his mighty shield, Aanmar swung down with her sword and sheared the shadow in the middle. It oozed to the floor and retreated again, splitting into more puddles of darkness.

“It’s not dying, it’s just splitting!” Hinky yelled from his crouched position near the back of the room, bow loaded and drawn. “How do we stop it?”

“Crop, any chance you know any spells that hurt… things?” Aanmar cried, watching as the shadows continued to multiply and grow.

“I hardly know the one,” Crop replied with a shaking voice. “Besides, there’s no way to know it would do anything different.”

Hinky slunk up next to the rest of the group.

They faced the growing pool of shadow creatures as one, unified in the hopelessness of their situation. The shadows moved as one, and while the group met them valiantly, it was clear they were outmatched, both in number and speed. Aanmar’s sword split two shadows asunder before a third shattered it with a terrible claw. Hinky ran out of arrows, the entirety of his quiver lodged uselessly within the depths of the shadows. Brunthar’s shield took so many blows it was soon reduced to a loose collection of splinters. Crop tried desperately to fuel the group with energy and health, but in a matter of minutes, even Greck’lil’s lightning-fast blows were slowed by fatigue.

Brunthar had faced death before. It was common in his trade, and he did not fear whatever was on the other side. But he was disappointed. Disappointed that they had hardly scraped the surface of the mysterious Dungeon, disappointed that he had dragged so many others to their deaths, disappointed that he didn’t have the chance to swill one last ale with friends. The shadow had merged back into one terrifying black mass, and as it coalesced Brunthar took to his feet one last time. He had always promised himself he’d go out with a fight. As the shadow lunged, with no ax or shield, Brunthar brought his newly attached fist up in the most powerful uppercut he could muster. Where he was expecting to hit the strange, gooey flesh that the shadows had been made up of before, instead his fist passed through the creature as if it was in fact a simple shadow. The beast recoiled and shrieked, beginning to split itself once again. Brunthar looked down at his fist.

Inside his hand, the strange stone had begun to pulse.

He didn’t have time to think. One of the shadow offspring lunged at the unarmed Aanmar, and Brunthar threw the stone, calling her name as he did so. Aanmar reacted on instinct, first dropping her shattered hilt to catch the stone, then, with no other alternatives, swinging the stone at the lunging shadow. It was sucked into the pulsing rock, and the glow grew brighter.

“Eyes up!” Aanmar shouted, grasping what was going on in an instant, “if you get attacked, call for the stone. We’ve got to get them all.” And with that, for the first time, she stepped into the offensive. The shadows evaded her first two blows, and one of them split off to attack Crop who was trying to give energy back to the exhausted Greck’lil. Aanmar threw the stone, and Greck’lil caught it just in time to absorb the attacking shadow, whipping it back towards Aanmar as the rest of the shadows closed in around her. She swept a wide arc, forcing them back.

“Stone!” called Hinky suddenly, hand raised from near the back of the room. Right behind the shadows. He had managed to stay quiet and silent long enough to flank them. Without hesitation, Aanmar threw the rock, and Hinky caught it in a fist already moving towards the nearest enemy. Three shadows fell within the space of a single breath. The remaining two reabsorbed into a single, intimidating creature, that lost its terrifying presence when it retreated into a small alcove at the far end of the room.

The group stepped forward, forming a semi-circle around the dark scoop in the wall. They stood for a moment, silent and still.

“Stone,” Brunthar said and held out his hand to Hinky. Hinky handed over the strange rock, now pulsing with a bright light. Brunthar stepped forward and drove his fist deep into the darkness in front of them. Something screamed. There was a bright flash and a gust of air. And then there was daylight.

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