Halls of the Minotaur – Session 1, Part 7

In which the dung hits the windmill.

While the majority of the villagers succumb to a mysterious sleep on the island in the Lake of Mists, Gareth, PierceHunwald, and Esma make their way into the stone spire by way of an underground watercourse. With Gareth leading, torch in hand and up to his armpits in icy water, the four intrepid souls make their way slowly upstream. At times, in order to negotiate parts of the tunnel with particularly low clearance, they find themselves crouching and half-swimming with their heads just above water. Esma’s pigs squeal unhappily about the dark and cold, but stay close to their mistress as they splash along.

After a seemingly interminable slog through on the cold current, the tunnel opens up into a cavern, with a black sandy beach coming down to the water on the right. The wet woodsman pauses briefly before proceeding a bit further, to get a better view. The light from his torch reveals that the beach slopes up to meet a flat, worked stone wall that forms the south side of the cavern, punctuated by a doorway that contains a set of steps leading up and away from the beach. Past the doorway, further along the beach, he sees a cluster of stalactites and stalagmites where the cavern ceiling dips down. And in the midst of the stream ahead, the light catches some sort of thick pole sticking up out of the water.

Pierce and Hunwald reach Gareth’s position, and as they take in the scene, Gareth starts to move ahead toward the pole, getting close enough to see that it’s some sort of totem, crowned by the carved head of a beast. Suddenly, they hear a guttural bark from the stalagmites, and a figure steps into view: four feet tall, covered with leathery skin that’s broken in places by a weird thorny growth, with a shriveled dog-like head that looks more like a bare skull. Its matted white hair is twisted into a freakish tangle, and human finger bones are thrust through its nose and earlobes. A ragged black cape, fringed with raven feathers, swirls behind the thing as it dances haltingly across the sand toward Gareth, barking a chant while it waves its clawlike hands, one of which clutches a primitive spiked mace.

Being our second ever adventure using the DCC RPG (the first of which ended in a TPK two sessions in), this is actually the very first time someone has tried to cast a spell. The players are petrified as the thing’s chant reaches a crescendo, and it gestures fiercely in Gareth’s direction. There’s a pregnant pause while I make the spell check.

Nothing happens.

Gareth seizes the day, howling, waving his torch and hand axe, rushing the beach as fast as his little legs will carry him. But the water is waist deep, and well, he’s really short, so I rule that he can only move 10′, which just barely gets him out of the water. Hunwald, Pierce, and Esma spend their turns splashing through the stream as fast as they can, but they’re back far enough that they aren’t able to make it to the beach either.

The thornling witch doctor matches Gareth’s howl with its own and lurches toward him across the sand, dancing a crooked dance and striking a different weird pose with each step, emitting wild-eyed barks and yips, until just within arm’s reach of our little hero. It jabs its left claw toward him with a final guttural intonation, and I roll another spell check. A white mist emerges from the flesh along the creature’s arm, starting at the elbow, and swirls toward Gareth, sending a chill down his spine before dissipating.

Nothing happens.

Gareth, surging with relief, swings hard and sinks the head of his hand axe into the enemy’s shoulder, eliciting a scream of agony. Pierce rushes up out of the water, moving around between the creature and the doorway to stab it from behind with his fish scaling knife, and manages to get in a 2-point hit. Hunwald dashes around to Gareth’s left, raising his shortsword over his head, and uses both hands to plunge the blade into the creature’s chest, forcing a foul cry from its lungs as its small body is driven into the sand. The creature bleeds red, and the red turns black in the icy water of the stream. Hunwald has never attacked another living thing in his life. Hunwald is ecstatic and terrified. Meanwhile, Esma herds her little piggies into one corner of the cavern.

Suddenly, there is a loud squawk and a flurry of black wings as the witch doctor’s familiar — a great raven — attacks Pierce from behind. It had been perched in the darkness above the doorway, unseen by the PCs. I roll a hit on Pierce, and 1d6 damage for 6 points; a violent whorl of claws and beak rips Pierce’s neck open, and he grasps frantically at the wound as he pitches forward, gurgling his last breath and pulse into the sand.

While Hunwald and Esma are still in the midst of mouthing “Oh, shit,” Gareth takes a step and sunders the bird with a single downward blow of his axe (1d6 damage for 6 points, the raven’s total hp).

Everyone stands around in shock, struggling to absorb the rapid series of events. The pigs are squealing in terror, so Esma goes to comfort them. Gareth notices a gold ring around one of the raven’s legs, yanks it off, and holds it up to examine it by the light of his torch. It’s set with a cat’s eye gem, which fades to white as he looks at it. He puzzles over this for a moment, then puts it on, hoping for the best. Nothing unusual occurs. He shrugs and moves to examine the witch doctor’s corpse.

Hunwald moves back out into the water toward the totem, at the edge of the illumination cast by Gareth’s torch. Up close he can see that the top of the totem is a carved dragon’s head, jaws agape, while the wooden pole supporting it is carved to resemble scales. As he sloshes near, he feels a deep cold radiating from it, and with that cold a deep sense of unease. He stops about 5′ away, then walks around it, keeping his distance and examining it for anything of note. All he notices is that some ice has formed where the base of the totem meets the water. Sufficiently put off by the cold aura and bad feelings emanating from this object of worship, he decides to leave dark things to the dark, and returns to the beach. He and his companions will never find the three pressure plates concealed as scales along the dragon totem’s spine, or the secret cache that would be revealed by pressing the second plate. On the other hand, they’ll never suffer the ill effects of the poison needle trap that would be sprung by pressing the third plate.

Gareth unties the waterskin tied to the witch doctor’s crude belt, opens it, and sniffs the contents. It smells like rotting vegetation. He decides to keep it, then examines the stitched-together hides that constitute the thornling’s bodily protection. Is this armor intact? According to the rules, there’s a 25% chance of it being useless. I let him make the roll: 56. Gareth is about the same size as the creature, so he takes 5 minutes to strip off and don the hide armor (+3 AC, raising his AC from 11 to 14).

Hunwald returns, and leans down to relieve the witch doctor’s neck of the jade dragon charm tied around it with a dried animal tendon. He picks up the spiked mace and hands it to Esma. She takes it, dropping her swineherd’s staff to the sand. She looks over at Pierce’s corpse. She tests the sharp points of the mace with one finger.

Gareth says he’s going to check out the stalagmites where the witch doctor had been hiding. There, behind the limestone formations, he discovers the carcass of a strange beast, resembling a giant armadillo with two long tentacle-like appendages. It’s been dissected, and some internal organs have obviously been removed. This is a rust monster, but I don’t name it, I only describe its anatomy. The woodsman has never seen anything like it before, but he wastes no time speculating on its history, because his eye is immediately caught by a gleam of gold to one side of the thing. There, lying in the sand, is a golden scepter.

Gareth snatches it up excitedly, and sees that the head of the scepter has six faces, each of which is inscribed with a pictogram of an animal: dragon, lion, horse, hawk, snake, and spider. He waves the scepter about, pressing and testing the different pictograms, trying to trigger some kind of effect, but to no avail. It appears to be just a golden scepter.

The three remaining companions regroup in front of the portal and gird themselves for their next step. They’re all shivering and dripping wet. I think to myself, Guys, this would be a good time to maybe go back out through the tunnel and find those other ten friends of yours. But I say nothing. They have the dungeon bug.

We’ve been using one of Kiznit’s cool torch cards to track the time limit on Gareth’s one and only torch, and he has two checkboxes left, so they feel pressed for time. Gareth cedes the lead to Hunwald, taking the rear so that Esma and her pigs will be between them. They climb the stairs out of the cavern with hearts pounding.

At the top of the stairs, a passage leads to the right (west) about 20′, before disappearing into darkness out of the torch’s light radius. The stone of this passage is expertly worked, the corners are filled with cobwebs, and grit and grime coat the floor. Hunwald presses cautiously on, clutching his shortsword, mind still spinning with the thrill of slaying that twisted terror in the cavern.

Ahead, the passage leads into small chamber. What Hunwald can see of the floor of the chamber is littered with small clay figurines, crudely shaped to resemble dragons. Hunwald cautiously approaches the corner, concerned that the room may be occupied. He crouches down and peers around into the room. I ask him to make an initiative roll. I do the same.

Esma, close behind Hunwald, sees the business end of a serrated spear pop suddenly out of the back of the hapless herald’s head, and his instantly lifeless body is yanked around the corner to the floor, leaving only his twitching legs visible. A cacaphony of triumphant yips and snarling barks erupts from the darkness beyond, and Gareth and Esma realize that these bloodthirsty foes had been lying in wait, no doubt (no doubt) alerted by the light of Gareth’s torch!

Close to panic and not knowing how many fiends lurk in wait, Esma kicks one of her pigs forward into the room and waits a beat. The pig’s terrified squeal is met by another chorus of yelps, and Esma chooses that moment to step around the corner, with the mace of the witch doctor raised to strike.

The three thornlings in the room failed their Will save to resist the piggy ploy, and are in the midst of attacking the poor animal when Esma steps out over Hunwald’s body. She swings immediately at the thornling right in front of her — Hunwald’s killer — and bashes its head fatally against the stone wall. The other two thornlings turn from the pig they have just speared to death (grimaces all around the table) and freeze for a split second as I roll their morale check.

The thornlings cut and run, bounding down the far passageway, their howls echoing after them. Esma, sweating, stares down in disbelief at Hunwald’s punctured skull. And then at the bloody remains of her pig. Gareth steps to one side as the other pig runs squealing back into the cavern.

May Arimar bless Pierce the Fisherman and Hunwald the Herald, two poor souls who got only a taste of adventure before adventure tasted them. Pierce, rendered unfit for the world by a murderous raven on the black beach of the dragon totem; Hunwald, speared by a member of the thornlings’ honor guard.

Here ends the first session.