The Henchmen Part I
by Graphite Prime
"If you do not find yourself drawn to newly discovered dark places, then you and I are not of the same."
Naruj of Dussk,
The Passage of Avidian
There is a time when war subsides.
Yet war never truly ends, but follows a rhythm, not unlike the tide or a brief respite in between the pulsing of pain. Such is the nature of that God. This is the time of exploits. Territories change hands. Aside from obvious resources, one kingdom sees value where another did not. The vanquished often let slip treasures that existed in the shadows of their ignorance. Sometimes this was the very reason for the war, along with of course, the usual suspects of hunger, land, and hate.
And with the conclusion of one such war, a vast expanse of wilderness, not settled since ancient times, was now once again in civilized hands. Scouting missions unearthed evidence of places forgotten to all but the eldest sage, and soon, rumors spread of gold. Maps were made, bought and sold. Many were fake, but a few.....
Keeps along the borderlands saw growing activity from traders, trappers, and adventurers for hire. Numerous expeditions set forth to explore a land once considered the pinnacle of civilization. One such expedition was thirteen strong. They ventured long and far before they found their mark and after resting for several days, seven of them, including the expedition leaders, descended in what was supposed to be a preliminary probe. Two days later, four of the remaining six, decided to follow.....
They were: Ohn, Pettr, Talin, and Chade, all veterans of the Duke's last war. All with just enough honor to seek the fate of their companions. All eager to get paid.
Ohn and Pettr were brawny men with Pettr the larger of the two. Ohn, would lead with shield and torch, both long and short swords on his belt. He was clad in a brown, brigandine cuirass over mail, complete with coif. Pettr, wore a mixture of plate and mail, also with coif, a poleaxe his weapon of choice.
Pointy-eared Talin, was also clad in chain mail, but a much finer weave than his companions. He was cloaked in green and ready with his short-bow and tomahawk, among other things..... He had thirty arrows to lose. Chade, a scout and sapper, wore a gambeson modified with boiled leather, lined with various belts and pouches containing the secrets of his trade. He was quick and would fight with a short blade if necessary.
All, but Pettr, wore backpacks and were well equipped with things like crowbars, daggers, rope, hooks, spikes, oil, torches, chalk, rations, and water for two days. Pettr carried his own rations, but not much else. They had very little room for loot.
The entrance to the underworld lay at the bottom of a rugged ravine. The area was thick with woods and the scattered remains of glories long past. There were megaliths bearing grimaced faces, fragments of wild chimeras, rows of broken columns, stairs ascending to nowhere, and monuments to things unknown. Given the treacherous slope, it was hard to imagine how it all once looked, but presently, the four veterans were more concerned with not breaking their necks. If this expedition did manage to find any treasure, extracting it would be a pain.
Rain pelted the vegetation as the four stood before the hole -- a doorway carved from rock, lined with faded hieroglyphs that days earlier, even their mage couldn't read. Beyond, rough-hewn steps descended into foreboding darkness.
There was a final consideration, an inventory of supplies, the lighting of a torch, a collective breath, and a lead taken by the scarred warrior named Ohn.
They entered a realm of torch light, trickling water, echoes, and stone. Soon, the sounds of rain faded along with the surface light as the steps wound this way and that. They moved slowly, ever vigilant for messages from the first party in the form of chalk. For close to twenty minutes they descended the damp stairs before coming to their first scene of interest. Here, the stairs split in two directions. Here also, was the first sign of their companions: A simple "x" on the right and an arrow pointing back up to the surface. The four paused and agreed to scout the left passage first, just to see what the others didn't choose.
Another while they descended until Ohn halted their progress. They had come to a chasm. It stretched in all directions as if the rock had simply been pried apart like a block of cheese. The stairs continued about a eight feet away, a bit lower, on the other side. A faint amount of water, coming all the way down the steps from the surface, trickled down the face of the rock and out of range of their light. No sounds could be heard but their own shuffling as they took turns examining the situation.
Chade dislodged a loose bit of stone and dropped it in the gorge as straight as he could and counted silently. After four or five seconds he heard it bounce several times off solid rock before it's echoes fell silent. They discussed their options. Chade wanted to explore.
The sapper was confident he could make the jump across, but not necessarily back. He took off his backpack and tied knotted rope around his waist. They had plenty of length, 50 feet to be precise. Pettr would serve as an anchor by tying the other end around himself while Ohn and Talin held firm in front. Chade spent a few moments gaging the jump and how much of a running start he could get, and then with a nod, he was off.
The jump was true. He even managed to stay on his feet when he landed. After untying his rope and catching a fresh torch from Ohn, the sapper disappeared from their view.
It wasn't long before the steps terminated at an old door. It was constructed of wood, heavily reinforced with rusted iron. Chade gave it a thorough examination. It didn't seem locked, but stuck, or perhaps, well braced on the other side. There were no signs of recent activity or tampering. He was confident the others didn't cross the chasm. But before he left, something curious. His heel clipped a loose stone near the wall.
Not every loose stone contains a secret, but this one did. Underneath, Chade found a piece of leather folded over several times and within the leather, a necklace. Silver. A chain of silver, the charm of which was a marble-sized crystal ball caged in delicate gold. At first he thought it was glowing, but dismissed it as light reflecting from the torch. It was definitely worth something. He stored it in one of his pouches.
"No go," said Chade, when he returned to the chasm. He tossed back the torch and retied the rope. They held firm as he let himself drop and swing to the their side. With his climbing skills, pulling him up was a breeze. They extinguished the second torch to conserve their lumens as Chade filled them in on the details of the door.
"And I found this," he said, taking out the necklace. "Under a rock."
"Eh," smiled Pettr. "That should fetch us some gold. Don't tell the others, if we find them I mean, this is our treasure."
Talin took the necklace and studied it in the torchlight. He always seemed to know things. The elf looked at Chade and carefully handed it back.
"Alright then," said Ohn.
Back they went, up the winding stairs to the fork. They took a moment to adjust their gear into more comfortable configurations. Once set, Ohn led the way down the x-marked steps, torch and shield. Chade followed, then Talin, with Pettr last. The stairs wound less on this side and eventually widened, ultimately coming to a dead end. A single stone on the right wall was circled in chalk. Chade gave it a look, then pressed, and with a low rumble, the dead end wall slid sideways.....
To say they got into battle formation is an understatement.
A rush of air swept down from the surface behind, otherwise....silence. Peering in, they discerned a mostly circular chamber extending to their right, maybe twelve feet across with a wide well in the center; no other exits. The ceiling came to a dome and four empty sconces the only décor.
They entered. Pettr, an iron spike already in hand, skeptically eyed the door. It stayed open. It was well engineered with nowhere to wedge, so he placed the spike long ways on the ground, hopefully creating a six inch gap if the door slid shut. The elf signaled, there was evidence of chalk smeared on the wall to the left. He found another loose stone and pushed. The door closed, stopping at the spike. He pressed again and the door slid back open.
They pondered their options, wondering what the first party had done, then turned to the room. More chalk, smeared on the side of the well and next to the far sconce. Instructions, obviously tampered with. This didn't bode well. Not necessarily that the first party was doomed, but that someone else had been here since. Chade and Talin took a moment to examine the marked sconce determining only that it was loose. Everyone turned to the well.
About five feet across, the well was filled with water to about a foot from the rim. The liquid was still and in the torchlight looked more like a mirror. They gazed down at themselves. Chade wandered back to the loose sconce, and then the other sconces, and then circled the entire room. The others studied the well. Ohn set down his shield, pulled out a copper coin and flicked it in. The coin disappeared in a small splash of dark water, but the splash was silent. Pettr dipped the bottom of his poleaxe in and showed everyone -- dry.
"An illusion," spoke the elf. He took the torch from Ohn and dipped it in. It still burned. He pressed it lower, revealing iron rungs hammered into the rock, descending much farther than even he could see.
Pettr knelt by the well and considered the smeared chalk. What had they written? It was impossible to tell. Chade wandered back, "Give me the torch," he said. The elf complied and the sapper placed the now waning torch into the loose sconce. Nothing. He shrugged. Decision time.
"Talin?" Ohn said more than asked.
"Of course," said the elf. He would descend, for his vision was the best and they weren't about to drop a torch. Ohn now regretted throwing the coin.
If the elf knew fear, you would never know. When Talin passed through the surface, the water rippled as it should. It was skillful sorcery, but for the lack of sound. Ohn lit a new torch with the flame from the old. Chade paced the room. Pettr considered the open door.
"Leave it," said Ohn.
Shortly, the fair-haired elf resurfaced with a signal to follow. So down they went, one by one, experiencing the strangeness of submerging in dry water, and to a man, they held their breath as they went under, but once there, they were simply in a dry well with the illusion of liquid only a ripple above, reflecting the fading light of a dying torch.
Down they climbed for close to a hundred feet to an archway that opened onto a stone bridge. The expanse was some fifty feet, crossing a chasm that oppressed in all directions. Amazingly, the black wasn't pitch, but an eerie blue that threatened to play tricks on their eyes. Off in the distance was the sound of falling water and on the opposite landing stood a pair of double wooden doors.
The elf handed Ohn his copper.
Chade scouted the structure. Not natural, but built. When he gave the go ahead, they skeptically crossed.
The double doors were sturdy, reinforced with iron. A tiny, twisted pick was barely sticking out of a keyhole center-right. Ohn looked at the sapper...
"Boze," said Chade, "An old trick of his to ensure it can't be locked from either side. At least we know they didn't fall to their deaths."
"If anyone deserves to fall to his death, it's Boze," piped Pettr. Ohn gave him a look. Pettr shrugged.
Talin had been scanning the chasm, bow ready. When he turned to the others, his eyes locked above.
"There is an opening above us," he informed in his strange accent.
Stepping back, the others could hardly make it out, but indeed, some forty feet up there was a sizable hole in the rock. After a brief discussion they agreed that the first party would have seen the hole, but there was no chalk here, not even smeared. They would focus on the doors.
Chade knelt and put his ear to the keyhole. The others knew to be still. Shaking his head, "Nothi..."
Suddenly, a loud buzzing from above pierced their ears! Something big swooped close, causing them all to duck. Their eyes widened as they watched a wasp-like thing, the size of a hound, land on the far side of the bridge. They were all transfixed by the enormous insect and it triggered in them a sort of primal fear. It was grotesque. The elf trained his bow and the lot of them kept glancing up at the hole in case there were more. And there were. Three more buzzed out and landed on the bridge, this time much closer.
"Shit," said Pettr.
"Chade, open the door," said Ohn, and the sapper complied by shoving both doors forward and fading beyond. The others backed in quickly, with all caution focused on the bridge. They slammed the doors shut and pressed against them while Chade went to work. It took longer than they liked, but he was able to undue the work of Boze and reset the the lock.
There was a collective sigh followed by the sober realization that they were now stuck.
They found themselves in a long corridor constructed of various sized stones. Light emanated faintly from a pair of braziers set on either side of a door at the far end. Every few feet on both walls, were carved reliefs depicting astrological phenomenon and odd looking life-forms. There were scenes of enslaved masses and human sacrifice along with the construction of bizarre things like upside-down pyramids and side-ways towers.
As the four proceeded, they became less of a tight unit, each stopping to examine this or that. Ohn had progressed the farthest when he turned to the others, "Do you smell that? Something's rotten."
"A hidden chamber or hallway, most likely below us," said Chade. "Watch your step."
"Right," said Ohn just as he stepped on a stone that gave a little.....
The floor fell beneath Pettr and the big man went down. He caught the corner of the open square with his arms, but struggled to hold on and would have plunged if not for quick help from the others. Just as they pulled him out, the floor closed.
"I'm okay," he said bending over.
Eager to see what was inside, they re-triggered the trap and braced it open with a crowbar. The stench was almost unbearable and they couldn't quite make out the contents, but the elf insisted he could see a body. They rigged the torch to hang horizontally in a grappling hook and lowered it in. The pit dropped some thirty feet onto jagged rocks and there was indeed the remains of a man mostly covered now by some kind of dark mold. Enough of him was left for recognition.
"Sweet Mercy.....Rinder," stated Pettr as he made the Sign of Redemption. Rinder, who was called, the mule, was a short, stocky youth whose sole duty was to carry supplies. A good, loyal soul that didn't deserve this, but the universe didn't care.
"He still has his gear, the others will be short," stated Talin.
"Why not retrieve it?" asked Ohn.
"That mold is alive," replied the elf.
"Should we burn it?" asked Pettr.
"No, you'll smoke us out and alert everything down here. We have to leave poor Rinder as he is," said Chade.
"Hmm," wondered Pettr looking back at the double doors. "We could smoke out those wasps."
"Maybe," said Chade.
Ohn pondered aloud as they moved on, "Why didn't they mark it? Do you see chalk, anywhere?" None of them did, but for their own purposes, they used their own chalk to mark the triggering stone and pit.
They proceeded to the door, the images on the walls almost forgotten. As Chade examined the portal, Ohn motioned to the elf, "Do you understand any of that?"
Talin shook his head in the negative as he examined the braziers. "Ordinary and well maintained," he said. They knew now that they were infiltrators as opposed to explorers.
The door turned out to be locked, another bad sign, and a frustrated Chade couldn't pick it. It would have to be forced. So out came the crowbars and shoulder thrusts and kicks, and after all too much ruckus, the door flew open, splintering wood beyond. This passage was now irreversibly, unlock-able.
"So much for stealth," said Pettr.
The door opened to a landing amidst a spiral staircase. They now had a choice: up or down. Once again, a disturbing lack of chalk.
They chose down.
The stairs descended just one flight directly into a small, square room with a single plain door to the right. In the room's center sat an open sarcophagus, the lid of which lay in pieces on the floor. Such a sight instantly raised the hairs on the back of their necks..... they had all heard of things. Needless to say, they walked on eggshells. Chade, however was curious. He took a careful glance inside the grave but saw only tattered scraps of ancient rags. He felt compelled to poke further.....
"Chade," said Ohn, shaking his head no. "Check out the door."
The sapper blinked as if coming out of a trance, "Right," he said.
It was locked, but Chade made short work of this one. The other side was a well constructed, yet tight corridor lined with empty sconces. Halfway down, the corridor widened briefly featuring a dry fountain built into the wall on the left. Farther down, the hallway turned ninety degrees to the right.
The fountainhead was that of a serpent, its length coiled around an orb of red marble. Chade examined the hell out of it, convinced something wasn't right. On a whim, Talin uncorked his water-skin and poured some water into the basin. The liquid never landed but instead flowed up into the serpent's mouth. They all quickly stepped back and waited for something to happen. Nothing. He poured a little more. Again it flowed up.
"Stop wasting your water," said Ohn.
"It's magic," said Pettr.
"Clearly," said Talin.
"Well, can you find out why it does that?" asked Pettr.
"I'm not wasting a spell on this," replied the elf. "Remember, upside-down pyramids and side-ways towers. Reality is warped here."
"Forget it," said Ohn. "Let's take a quick break."
Setting their torch into a sconce, they unpacked rations and sat strategically with eyes on both directions. They were mostly silent as they fueled. Chade was the first ready to go. He lit a fresh torch and said, "I'm going to scout ahead."
"Not too far," said Ohn. Chade nodded, covered his face with cloth, and disappeared quietly around the far corner.
Several moments passed when Pettr looked at Ohn, "Do you think they're still alive?"
"No," said Talin.
Ohn glanced at the elf then addressed them both. "It certainly doesn't look good."
"How much longer do you want to stay down here?" Pettr asked him.
"I don't know," said Ohn. "But we may need to find a different way back to the surf....."
"Orcs!" shot Chade, as he flew back around the corner.
The others jumped to their feet and grabbed their weapons. Chade swiftly sconced the torch before he and Talin took positions behind the two bigger men. Within seconds orcs poured into the corridor. The pale, pig-faced abominations were covered in scavenged scraps, a mixture of leathers, plate, and chain. Mostly armed with spears and axes, the orcs came close, but paused to assess the invaders. They let out viscous squeals and snorts in an attempt to taunt. Then more arrived, pressing upon the others, pushing the line forward dangerously close.
"Swine!" spat Pettr.
A crossbow appeared between two orcs and fired it's bolt directly into Pettr's breast-plate, knocking him to the ground. Talin immediately fed one of the orcs an arrow through the face.
Time froze for a micro-second.....
"Fucking orcs with crossbows!" Pettr exhaled incredulously as he snapped the bolt and bounced to his feet. He lurched forward, taking such a wide swing with his poleaxe that, Ohn, had to throw up his shield and fall back against the wall. Just as the orcs rushed, Pettr crushed one their skulls.
And then it was on.
Both sides clashed. Talin loosed another arrow. Ohn pressed forward with his shield while thrusting repeatedly with his sword. With no room to swing, Pettr pushed against the orcs with his poleaxe, stabbing with it's point and punching when he could. An orc grabbed hold of his weapon while spears probed his armor and face. They spat at him. He spat at them. He threw his shoulder into the mob and regained control of his weapon while something clobbered him upside the head.
Chade pressed against his two companions stabbing through and grabbing at spears. Talin continued to fire anytime he found a gap. It was his arrows that were doing the most damage, but spears, axes and rancid orc breath began to push them back beyond the light. The cramped hallway was a barrage of cursing, snorts, and steel.
On they battled. The orcs outnumbered them at least three to one. The four were being overwhelmed by a mob filled with a blood-lust that smelled, not only victory, but dinner. Several orcs had fallen, yet the swine pushed on, crushing their fallen brethren under their cloven feet. Ohn had taken a wound to his leg and Pettr had blood blinding his vision. They had been shoved far past their gear and their collective strength was waning fast in the growing darkness.
Talin knew they would lose. He threw back his bow and began chanting. Bright gold dust swirled through his fingers and all around his arms. Cupping his hands he blew forward and sent a cloud of glittering particles over the entirety of the skirmish. Both friend and foe alike collapsed into a deep magical slumber, lost in a place where normal dreams were not allowed.
To be continued.....
- Ohn -- sounds like "own"
- Pettr -- rhymes with "setter"
- Talin -- similar to "talon"
- Chade -- the "ch" like Chad, but rhymes with "shade"
There is a serious dearth of fiction (including official D&D fiction) that actually resembles the dungeon crawl experience. This has always bothered me. What I've written here is merely an attempt to create something that I wish already existed.