The patrons of the Dancing Basilisk were absorbed in conversation or having their lunch when the door opened and a ragged figure walked in.
“Food!” he bellowed, and slammed a meaty fist on the counter. The stranger was a half-orc in torn black leather clothes, a mail shirt, a flail in his belt. He sneered as he looked around, but was pacified as the innkeeper brought him a plate of mutton, brined radishes, and a mug of beer. The half-orc ate ravenously, finishing his meal with a contented burp. He became more attentive as he heard bits of a conversation from one of the tables.
“And I am telling you, there really is a vampire tree up in them mountains. It’s got golden apples too, if you can get them.”
“Not bad. We saw a midnight goatsucker and a bush that shot arrows.”
“There sure are some weird things up them valleys.”
“We should sell the sceptre and horn we got in the abandoned mines” Drolhaf Haffnarskørung suggested to the assembled company. “Huberic could be a good buyer, and for now, he is favourably disposed towards us.”
They followed the Northman’s advice and went to see Lord Huberic in his tower. They were well received, and the fat autocrat not only bought the items, he had his own tale to tell:
“In truth, now that I have a son, I am also looking for a bride, and have heard news of someone suitable. It is told there is a sleeping elven princess in an enchanted field somewhere in the mountains. If she was woken, I am sure she would immediately fall in love with me. As for you, you would be handsomely rewarded.”
“A wise idea!” nodded Drolhaf. “We will look into the matter.”
“Until then,” Sir Huberic nodded to the dour, tall old man next to the throne. “He will escort you to the mint and ensure you are paid for these items”.
“Yes, Sir, he is that bad. Could you please take him off of of my back? I beg of you—“ the innkeeper pleaded with Gadur Yir when the next day rose. “He is of your kind; maybe you can talk sense to him?”
“Just because we are both half-orcs? Well... let’s see. We have to investigate that kidnapped merchant… he must still be held by the bandits in the caves.”
“Yeah, let’s go to the dungeon! This guy croaks, and we bring the merchant back.”
Phil the Terror of Turkeys strode up to the morose newcomer, and tugged on his clothes.
“You! You there! My name is Karl, Keeper of the Flower, and you will come with us to the dungeon!”
The half-orc looked back at the group, and spat.
“I may come with you if the money is good. My name is Buck.”
“I bet you have relatives in Bucklin” sniggered Gadur Yir.
“Sooner or later, I will have relatives everywhere” grunted Buck. “Care to guess where I got this cool leather getup?”
“From a corpse?” guessed Drolhaf, but Buck would neither confirm nor deny it.
They prepared for the next expedition. Some took a hot bath, and some (namely Buck) wallowed in the mud a little. Karl took the fish-shaped piece of metal to the armourer, who examined it, and said he could fashion a haft for it to make it work as a spear. At last, they were ready, and approached the three cave entrances to the northwest of Haghill. There was a little trouble arranging the marching order (“I don’t want this fucker behind my back”, someone grumbled), but at last, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung and Gadur Yir agreed to go first, followed by Buck, and finally Karl, Keeper of the Flower. Unlike the last time, they chose the rightmost entrance. The passage lead to a small niche with a font of water fed by a grotesque stone head. Wind was blowing from a passage descending downwards, and stairs glistened with water. Gadur Yir shrugged, and started to descend, triggering a tripwire. There was a crack overhead as a pole gave way and an avalanche of rocks tumbled down – fortunately, everyone could avoid it.
More careful now, they continued, but halted in their tracks just as soon as they proceeded a little. A deep buzzing sound came from downwards, and swarms of bees filled the passage. In the middle of the thick clouds, there was a ragged man clad in what seemed like dirty, resin-reinforced birchbark clothes, his limbs caked with a black filth and his face covered with a thick veil. He advanced towards the company.
“May the gods grant you sweet honey, Beekeeper!”
The answer to Drolhaf’s greeting was only a sibilant buzzing sound, like a man imitating his bee companions. The strange apparition stared at them for an uncomfortable moment, but at last, he made another buzzing sound, and passed them on his way up, followed by the thick clouds of his bees.
|The Singing Caverns: Upper Level|
The passage descended deeper and deeper, until it arrived in a garbage-strewn chamber. Two sets of stairs descended further, while to the northeast, a wooden board hung next to a tall ledge: “TRUGLAG’S TAVERN: RING FOR ADMITTANCE.” Up the ledge, dark passages disappeared in two directions.
Gadur Yir ringed the bell by the sign. A snarling great lynx came forward from one of the passages, followed by two yawning orc guards carrying a ladder. Cautious at first, they became more relaxed as they saw the two half-orcs in the group.
“Come on up if good food or drink is your wish – we are open!”
The company followed the two orcs through tunnels smelling of smoke and sweat, by a guard room and what looked like a barracks. At last they arrived in a dimly lit tap room, where a burly orc was cleaning the counter with a rag, and a group of hooded men conversed by a round table.
Truglag – the orc by the counter – served up a row of foaming mugs, followed by platters of roast ham with honey, a ragout with mushrooms, and honey cake.
“Any trail rations to sell?” asked Drolhaf.
Truglag rubbed his belly “There be more hearty fare if you want it – I’ve got a leg of prime wild boar ham, cured and mossy. It will be six gold pieces, but it’ll last. The boars be munching their food down in the caverns, makes them real tasty.”
Drolhaf counted out the coins, and they settled around an empty table.
“To whom shall we raise our mugs?” asked Gadur Yir.
“To Agak!” bellowed Buck.
“To Agak indeed!” laughed Truglag, returning with a heavy leg of ham for Drolhaf.
They talked some, and the barkeeper told them a few stories about the caves – there was the crazed beekeeper, a garden further within the labyrinth, a treacherous well which multiple drunken guests have fallen into, and a dangerous magic-user lived down the stairs from the tavern. When asked about the kidnapped merchant, Truglag only shrugged – he had seen or heard of nobody by that description.
Taking their farewells, the company delved deeper, climbing down rough-hewn stairs to a lower section of the caverns. Another set of stairs climbed back up, a collapsed barricade constructed of old barrels and crates stood to the west, and the statue of a smiling, jovial monk stood in a niche to the east. The statue was smeared with all kinds of foulness, a bottle had been smashed on its head, and someone had written “LIES!” in charcoal on the wall. Karl, Keeper of the Flower read the plaque below the statue: “BELIEVE MY WORDS, OH MY TRUE FRIEND, HERE YOU SHALL FIND YOUR HEART’S CONTENT.”
“Let’s just not go this way” he suggested, and the others followed him up the stairs.
Natural caverns followed, the flagstones blackened by old smoke. In a corner, the remains of a bonfire was littered with animal bones. The cavern twisted and turned, and while one passage lead to a downward stairway, the other emerged into a larger space illuminated by... rays of sunlight?
The light shone from a great hole in the ceiling where the hill had caved in. Dark earth covered the floor, and lush plants exhaled a misty fragrance. A great oak tree encircled by berry-laden vines stood in the middle of this wondrous glade, and mossy old statues stood guard at multiple points around it. Bees were buzzing among the blooming flowers. To the north, the cavern opened into a chasm, spanned by a rickety wooden bridge – deep down, there was a cavern with more plants. The place seemed beautiful and serene… perhaps too serene.
The buzzing of the bees started to grow louder and louder, until they collected into large black swarms and hurled themselves at the company. Drolhaf Haffnarskørung quickly retreated to the adjoining cavern to the west. The bees proved very resistant to swords, but torches and smoke worked fine, and a dust devil spell by Buck eventually scattered them. Meanwhile, Drolhaf was also in trouble: in the other cavern, he was quickly ambushed by a horde of rats, while the rest of the company had to face a swarm of vampire bats coming from the lower cavern, attracted to the warm bodies in the meadow. Drained and tired, at last they were standing over a mound of slain enemies.
“Anything else?” Gadur Yir asked as he beheaded a green serpent which tried to climb up his leg.
Finding no more opposition, the half-orc climbed the tree and tried to go higher on the vines clinging to the side of the hole in the ceiling, but found them too loose to continue.
Instead of lingering longer, they explored the western cave. A stream was running through the place, feeding a pool filled with blind albino cave newts, but there was also something else. Someone had excavated a hole in the ground, and scattered pickaxes and shovels were still laying around the place. On the bottom, they found a curious relic: a life-sized, red clay statue of a naked woman. There were scraps of ancient sacks, and five ancient, crude electrum pieces left in the depression. Lifting the statue from its resting place and restoring it to an upright position, they heard a resonant sound, silent in the caverns but clear and loud within their heads:
“BURIED DEEP AND PLUNDERED THE WORLD LIES FRAYED AND DEFILED / A NEW SPRING IT BRINGS AND RESTORED TO STRENGTH IT ADMIRES ITS OWN SIGHT”
…then, the primitive image was silent once more. Finding nothing more of value here, the company continued to the north, and descended another stairway into the lower caverns.
The stairs lead to a larger, long chamber branching off into multiple smaller tunnels. Steps and lights came from the south, and a group of a dozen men came into view. Dressed in buckskin and green, they bore bows and long swords. Their leader hailed the company and inquired about their purpose here. Hearing they were explorers, the men became less tense, and told they were in the same business – they were investigating a series of old burial sites, but had found no valuables so far except the statues of olden kings. At last – while Buck was trying to estimate their numbers and strength – they left towards the north, while the company stayed around and investigated the side caverns. Each of the chambers lead to a small room, decorated with bas-reliefs of old warriors, and the standing statues of warriors. Runic incriptions told of forgotten names. ILLONAR, RADERGUND and KAZZODORIC. Illonar’s statue had an empty niche in its base, long looted; Radergund’s statue was toppled, and Kazzodoric’s bore a rusty helmet. The end of the hall to the west was collapsed, but a pile of rubble to the east hid a small crawlway.
Considering their chances, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung and Karl the Keeper of the Flower crawled inside with a lantern, while the two half-orcs waited outside. While the others were exploring, footsteps came from the east, and Gadur Yir and Buck found themselves in a ring of drawn scimitars.
“Agak is the greatest!” grinned Buck as he held up the symbol of the orc god, a satanic star encircling a clawed hand – the newcomers were a company of ten orcs.
“Agak is the greatest!” the orcs shouted in greeting. “What do you seek here? We came to search these caverns for treasures.”
Buck looked over them and snarled: “There are human worms in these passages – they will be easy prey if you just go north.”
“Lead us, and we shall take them together” came the answer.
“So be it! Come and be quick!”
Gadur Yir stayed behind as Buck and the orcs raced through the narrow passages, emerging into a vast cavern filled with mounds of rubble and teeming plant life – the bottom of the chasm seen from the underground glade, right under the bridge.
“Forward! To victoryyyy!” Buck urged the orcs, who thundered through the cavern, while the shadowy cleric ducked into a shadow and returned to the hall of the kings.
|The Singing Caverns: Lower Level|
...meanwhile, Drolhaf and Karl emerged into a small round chamber like the others. Water had collected on the muddy floor, and thick roots hung from the wet ceiling. The statue of king ADALRIC held an old spear in its hands, the head stuck among the roots and green stalks of the low ceiling. Drolhaf imagined he had heard a faint chanting, but wasn’t sure about it.
“This is just a spear” shrugged the hobbit.
Drolhaf was not so sure. “No… it would have rotted if it was a common weapon. Stay back if you want.”
Karl retreated to the tunnel as the Northman applied soap to the spear’s haft, and with one move, pulled it from the statue’s hands. “Yes... this looks extraordinarily well balanced.”
Gadur Yir and Buck were still in a heated discussion when they returned, but eventually, Gadur Yir shrugged, and they continued cautiously to the large cavern. There were sounds of battle coming from the north, and observing from a safe place, they saw the few remaining orcs scatter and flee in panic.
“Cowards!” Buck growled, mostly to himself.
“Do you know them?” asked Drolhaf.
“It was a passing acquaintance.”
Instead of going north and confronting whatever it was the orcs had run into, they went south, and found a long stairway down and another up. Figuring the latter would return them near the underground glade, they descended until they heard murmuring and chanting. A dirty leather curtain closed off an opening in the wall of the passage before a new set of stairs descended even further. An unclean and repulsive smell came from behind, and only Gadur Yir was brave enough to step inside. In a small chamber with roots hanging from the ceiling, a filthy old hermit was sitting cross-legged and murmuring its chants. The man was a wreck, his wild hair and unkempt beard shot through with fungi and moss, his nails encrusted with revolting filth, his eyes replaced by sightless gemstones. In a croaking sound, the hermit spoke.
“Welcome, foolish interloper. Twenty gold coins you shall count out before me, and you shall go freely, avoiding the weight of my curse.”
Gadur Yir opened his purse and paid his dues. “Here you are, old man. Now can you tell me where these stairs lead?”
“It is a forbidden place, yes... it is said the Beekeper had been down there, once, before he was the Beekeeper… and I had looked when I had eyes to see… The mysteries of the old world are buried underneath – stay away!”
Thanking the hermit and sharing the information with his companions, Gadur Yir was interested in continuing, while Karl seemed more cautious.
“The Beekeeper was also there, and he is cuckoo insane like this guy. Let’s just follow the warning and get the hell out. We are looking for the kidnapped merchant, not any ‘old world’ foolishness.”
But Drolhaf’s interest was picqued. “The old world? Sounds like something worth investigating.”
Gadur Yir made his decision “I follow the god of heroism – stay if you want, but we are going.”
The neverending stairs descended downwards and downwards, deep into the silent depths of the earth. The half-orc and the Northman passed multiple rests with crude stone benches, until at last they arrived at a stone arch held by the statues of two dwarves. They peered through the opening into a vast underground cavern, dark but shining with a weird non-light that allowed them to see in odd and unnatural hues. There were plants in the cavern, and the great stone blocks of an upside-down stone circle on the ceiling. This was the seat of something strange and powerful, and there was a feeling of tension in the air.
Drolhaf’s voice broke the heavy silence: “If we go through the arch – the Beekeper had been here, and lost his mind.”
Gadur Yir countered: “He survived.”
Dolhaf, again: “This is not a civilised place. Not the right kind of civilisation, anyway.”
Gadur Yir thought for a while, looking at the arch, but didn’t step through. At last he sighed, and they turned back to return to their companions.
Once again in the large cavern, the coast seemed clear, so they went north to investigate the battle site. Broken orc bodies lie everywhere, mangled and smashed by something strong. Looting the corpses resulted in some loot, but it was all slim pickings. Continuing to the northwest, then north, they entered a passage which lead to a cavern filled filled with tall man-sized mushrooms. Something lumbered among the fleshy pods and caps. A living statue, its hands still bloodied, came at them, but went down under a series of strikes. Drolhaf Haffnarskørung tried out his new spear, and it seemed to pierce stone as well as it would pierce a man. A magical weapon! With the stone guardian slain, Karl the Keeper of the Flower investigated the mushroom patches, collecting a handful of edible specimens, and a few more which carried a strong poison. Meanwhile, the others had discovered another passage to the north, leading out of the cave system and into the dense woods around Haghill. Noting its location, they turned back to the south, bypassing a pool of water to return to the battle site with the dead orcs.
…only to run into the band of nine green-clad men again, who were now busy stripping the dead orcs of their remaining valuables. They hailed each other, and the men turned back to their tasks, but Buck, who had spotted a fat purse on one of the men, had a different idea. He started to chant, speaking the words of a hold person spell. Three men froze in motion, while someone cried --
Blades were drawn and blows were exchanged, and in a quick, one-sided and terrible massacre, most of the men were cut down where they stood, except two slingers, who dropped their weapons and begged for mercy.
“Kneel!” barked Buck as he rifled the corpses. He led the two unfortunates to a side cavern, taking out his rage and evil nature on the hapless robbers while the rest of the company waited uneasily outside. When the broken robbers emerged, they begged to be left alive, and promised to tell anything just to escape with their lives.
“Where are the captives? Where is the kidnapped merchant?” cried Buck.
“They…” the men whimpered.
“Answer or die, dogs!”
“Please no! They are... they are at Truglag’s! Please let us go!”
Buck suggested using them as human shields, but nobody liked the idea, and the others were still shaken by the revelation of his debased nature. In the end, Drolhaf untied their ropes, and pointed to the north--
“Go along this passage until you reach an exit. I don’t want to see you again near Haghill!”
The two survivors, still shocked, left as quickly as they could, leaving the company to their dark thoughts.
After exploring more of the nearby caverns – trying to solve the mystery of a weird statue and pacifying a group of wild boars with Karl’s freshly picked mushrooms – they decided to return to the upper level. Tired, they climbed up the stairs and made for the underground glade, but again found themselves in company. A group of dejected and tired orcs were sitting around the tree, some nursing wounds, some just staring morosely. They looked up, and one shouted, pointing at Buck: “There he is! The traitor!”
A melee developed around the tree and near the ledge, everyone against multiple enemies. At last, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung, who had kept his orcs away easily, had enough.
“Go for the cleric and we will leave you alive!” he snapped at the pitiful orcs, pointing at Buck. The orcs turned and fell on Buck, who was now fighting for his life as Drolhaf watched.
“Him! Take him!” he shrieked and pointed, and as if compelled by magic, the orcs turned away from him and fell on Gadur Yir. They had almost brought him down, but the half-orc was too tough, and eventually slew his assailants.
In the end, they were standing wounded and panting over a pile of orc bodies. Buck and Gadur Yir were heavily wounded, and Drolhaf and Karl were also close to being spent. They glared at each other, while fat bats started descending on the slain orcs to drink their blood. Buck spat. Drolhaf, his weapon still raised, broke the silence.
“Buck, we did not know you yet properly this morning, only that the innkeeper asked us to bring you with us just to get rid of you. We did you no harm, but you seem to have an orc army here, and you had first send them to their death, and then against Gadur Yir to save your skin. We still don’t know you, but we don’t like what we are seeing. What do you have to say about this?”
“I almost died!” protested Gadur Yir.
Buck only shrugged. “We are all pretty worn down. What use is it? Let’s get going, and if you want, we can discuss it outside. It is getting dark outside anyway.”
Returning to the forest exit, they made for Haghill to raise the militia and have them surround and smoke out the bandits’ nest in Truglag’s Tavern. Armed men with torches gathered to prepare for the assault on the caverns, and riders were dispatched to block off the alternate exit. Meanwhile, Buck was gorging himself with the Dancing Basilisk’s mushroom salad, and enjoying the attentions of the cooking lady, whom he had invited upstairs for a quick romp. But something was broken between him and the other members of the company, who had all come back in a foul mood. The next morning, Buck was gone with unpaid bills, and he was never seen in Haghill again.
(Session date 1 May 2017).
Drolhaf: “You let them die for nothing – they were your own kin.”
Drolhaf: “But you are a follower of Agak, not Ayn Rand!”
Drolhaf: “We can go home now – mission accomplished, we got the half-orc out of the pub.”
GM: “The orcs have some treasure on them.”
Buck, satisfied: “They didn’t die in vain.”
Referee’s notes: That escalated quickly. After a long and mostly enjoyable dungeon expedition, the conclusion had kind of a bitter tinge to it. Buck had not just angered the rest of the company and wasted orc lives, he had also screwed up the main goal: the confessions he had extracted from the bandits were false. As things go with torture, captives tend to say whatever they think will get them released, and the men, shocked by what they had just gone through and afraid for their lives, lied. Bramerlic the mineral dealer was never found; not by the party and not by Huberic’s men – by the time they assaulted the dungeon, the bandits and their captive were long gone.
After the game, everyone in the group agreed that Buck would just have to go. He had passed the dividing line between adorable rascal and loathsome fuckwit. Nobody liked him (actually, not even his player), and he will not be missed.