Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Circles Turn

This is the five parts of Circles Turn gathered up, the whole adventure in one location.

The cycle was a write-up of a journey through Zilgor's Repose, a complete adventure location set in the Kalaramar Drifts, one of the weird places created by Hereticwerks.

There's supplementary material at Hereticwerks too, for elements like Lone Survivors and Low-End Loot. Look closely and you can see marks left by the following events...

Part One

The three of them were jumped within sight of the great rockface by a lone grey worm, either young or sickly, or both, but bold enough. It hauled itself heavily out of the scrub onto the dust of the trail and bore down on their equally lazy line, three men and a mule.

Despite bringing up the rear, the aches in his weak legs and the pain in the arm holding the mule's lead rope, the boy wyrd, the party's nominal leader - or the moneyspender at least - finally sensed something amiss, but not quite with the whole venture, even if the few days since he'd met the warrior had been a real initiation, and an expensive one.

He called out, and the older men further ahead looked alive at last, stopping dead.

Gruff, the tough old robber, was feeling the pinch, having spent almost all he'd stolen for one last shot at notoriety; he wasn't about to fire off any quarrels uncalled for, and held back, crossbow shouldered, motioning for the boy leading the mule to do likewise.

The shrewd, younger warrior, who styled himself the Cleave, saw the obvious chance and made clear with a dismissive look back he was doing the aged rogue a favour. In a measured retreat he arced bow and string and stuck the worm with a pair of arrows, enough that it turned tail and slipped off bloody among the undulations. A third shaft had whistled into the dunes, but maybe the others hadn't noticed; he wasn't going in after it.

The party moved off again, stepping with circumspection over the churned, wet earth.

Grumpily and rather cautiously, however, out in the long grass, the worm turned again, and stayed close, assuming correctly they were headed the same way as all the others.

The group too moved cautiously, ever closer to the rock, dark against a forbidding sky.

Part Two

Dust whirled in eddies in the hollow of the mighty rockface. The entranceway gaped.

As the flustered boy Wilt hammered in the general direction of a spike and a fissure, striving to fix the mule's lead rope, he wondered how the problem had been resolved in the arcane lore. He had no such magic, but perhaps some master would instruct him, and cheaply; the costs of these expeditions were higher than he'd supposed. But then he hadn't had time to suppose much under the friendly but firm arm of the Cleave.

The Cleave toed the churned sands, following Gruff's lead with discreet glances. He could do anything that worn-out thief could do, and just as well, but if the old man was going to come into his own now that the breaking and entering was getting underway, this could be the last chance to show it. They both kept clear of the discomfiting sights in the shadowed niches - the decomposed body of who knew what beast and some damned, webbed seed - and turned up nothing but detritus. Scraps and splinters.

As the hammering continued weakly under the impassive nose of the mule, the stout robber and the towering warrior moved their heavier tools from the saddle-bags to the backpacks, then doused and lit torches.The spike went in and the boy rose to join them, legs aching the more. But they were gone, the Cleave striding into the lead.

This is it, Gruff thought unheeding - the fortune. And, as he moved between the alcoves where statues once stood, he saw a burst skull and its skeleton lying on the stone. One living man and then the other picked their way over the crumbling plaster rubble of the knocked-in entrance, passing into cooler and more humid air. Flames sputtered and ears popped ever so slightly as the pressure changed. Eyes struggled to see at all.

Bringing up the rear, struggling with the straps of the pack, and not quite sure whether he was in fact supposed to be following, Wilt saw Gruff's gaze wander, and as he drew level shuddered. How must it be to lie for an age and wear down to dust, or be cracked open by wild birds - or worse - for your marrow? Then there were the restless dead... 

At that point the warrior let out a cry from just within. His crunching footfall ceased and in the sudden silence he threw his torch to the plaster-strewn floor and pulled for his shield. Gruff almost fell over and the boy saw past him into the gloom. Two pink worms were writhing out from under shards of wax and dust, and they coiled back and sprang.

Part Three

The Cleave very nearly dropped his sword on the first swing as the pair of creatures struck. One clung to a leg, wrapping with intent up under the swinging mail skirt in search of flesh, while the other sprang this way and that looking for its own opening.

Gruff inched nearer over the rubble, fixed on the frantic dance of the fighter and hoping he was doing better than he looked to be, that his training might soon flood back in.

It did. The Cleave roared through a grimace as the worm found its mark, and Gruff saw him come over cold and focused fast. With efficient, deliberate moves he retreated into the dark, cutting the first worm off his calf, easing its red mouth out where it fed, then drawing the second on and chopping it in two, kicking the pieces off quick into a corner.

Gruff untensed, lowered his stubby sword and dropped down off the plaster to one side, watching the warrior from a safe distance. The youth was fiery-cheeked and sweating despite the cool, blood running slow from the thigh. He struggled to look relaxed as he examined the wound and mopped the leg with his tunic, then bent low and took up the torch.
He nodded triumphantly at Gruff, satisfied he'd earnt whatever right it was.

Wilt at the rear stood watching, amazed by the turn of events and thinking despite the display of vigorous life, or perhaps because of it, of those restless dead. The Cleave would surely be a restless one. And he and Gruff might well be close to seeing it.

What if they lost him? Wilt thought back across the leagues of waste they'd travelled. Of the arrows he'd fired at the beast, the dangers his presence might have warded off. Of that very expensive armour that had come out of the expedition's purse. Wilt's purse.

Perhaps the foreboding place heard. For its part it wanted no restless living, or so it seemed, for the Cleave's luck only got worse. As his torch and Gruff's - a fair way behind - blazed up on the jagged edges of a second false wall, light leaping into the gloom beyond, he stepped through, stretching for solid ground, but lost balance; weak now maybe, or heavy in the new mail, he stumbled and caught the wall with his shield.

A rush and crash of debris obscured and partially buried him; all vanished in dust.

Part Four

Spluttering and wheezing as the cloud of plaster dust thinned, Wilt moved towards the incandescence of Gruff's torch, worried less about worms than being left alone. Gruff in turn moved towards the Cleave's torch, but found the warrior well away, his new-found gravitas thrown over with his body, good leg flailing and mail skirt up over his head.

Boy and man hauled him out from the debris, woozy-looking, white under the gritty dust and slurring his words, and having carried him back into the light of his torch, stood watching as he recovered, and brushed himself off, grimacing and badly cut. The ugly wound on his thigh was now one among many, blood and dust mixing in wet pink crusts.

Wilt looked at the rents in the armour and wondered if having those put right was going to be the next big investment the Cleave advised. His thoughts wandered back to their mule - his mule? - tethered outside. He wondered at the resale value of a ten-foot pole.

The Cleave was wheezing too as he stood, and hobbled a little before settling finally for a more comfortable limp. He didn't move back to the front of the party, however, but rather hovered near the boy, and Gruff realised that it would be he who went ahead from this point on. He enjoyed a moment of quiet superiority at winning back from the warrior whatever it was he was competing with him for, and then a hollow feeling struck him as he looked into the darkness ahead. It crept back before them as they crept on inwards.

In the stale air of what was a long entrance hall they were struck by an invisible blow that seemed near as strong as the one that felled the Cleave, for there they found the refuse and graffiti of an impossibly large host who had come before them, and over many ages, and who - as incredible as it seemed - perhaps even slept and ate there.

Had others felt so confident as to even live in such a place? The old footpad was struck by self-doubt and the boy too began to wonder at all the expense. Scrawled messages mocked them in only those languages they understood, for being far too late to claim a prize. Three passages left the space and they opted for that closest the entrance.

The short corridor led to a small square room which the flicker of torch flame revealed to be stripped of its glories, little left but the suggestion of rich decoration; dusty fingers scratched at a faint sheen of precious metal remaining here and there, but no fleck came away. Wilt hurried them on - the dark sand of the floor tickled the back of his mind, was faintly magical, wrong somehow, and somehow deep. He shuddered again at the thought of the restless dead, and that seemed just too close to it; just too close...

To the right the passage continued away from their lights, and after short, measured, tense progress along it the thief came slowly, with torch low, to the gritty threshold of a larger chamber, where the warm glow ran up the step of a raised tomb, perhaps burnt.

He heard nothing - above their breathing at least - and stepped in, onto a loose, uneven gravel. His footing slipped as he placed his second step and he fell, landing heavily and gashing open a leg on his own sword. He swore, and swore again more quietly as he sprawled looking up at the ceiling. Peering down with eyes glittering in the flames of the torch was a spider-like creature, standing upside down among a mass of nodules.

He looked over at the Cleave, but that streaked face was looking further into the room. There within half a dozen of the creatures were emerging from the dark on the walls.

Part Five

The creatures crawled over the walls above Gruff and around as he lay up on an elbow, quiet, cold, bleeding on the ravaged floor; they peered, arachnoid centaurs of a kind.

In the corridor behind the Cleave, Wilt forgot all about the rents in the big man's armour and panicked, in low tones with trembling hands tracing a protective skin for himself.

And then they spoke, in the thief's tongue, or as like as. They were matter of fact, as if quite familiar with the idea of visitors, but moved up the walls such that the now quiet wheezing warrior imagined they were preparing a defence. They assumed the party would move on, along the continuation of the way, and did not expect them to return. There was nothing here anyway - and this much was true, for Gruff saw as he moved across that the pitted sarcophagus was empty. They rarely left the chamber themselves, they said, but were beginning to wonder what lay further on that drew and kept so many.

All the while there was a pungent unease, dozens of eyes flitting, fear on both sides; fear of confusion perhaps, misunderstanding. Life was hard enough without that too.

Gruff conveyed the gist to the others. The warrior indicated with the force he had that he and the boy were not leaving the doorway, so as not to have the path back blocked and he bid Gruff move on to investigate alone; Wilt nodded with still more force, until the bit about Gruff going on alone, at which point thoughts of a restless dead Cleave returned.

Gruff stood silent; grim. Thoughtful. His hand went to his empty purse, in not quite full awareness. But there was hope - if true that others had gone on and not returned, there might be treasures yet to claim. Money. It could be here, deeper. It was why he'd come.

Sword in one hand, torch in the other, and glancing up and across between creatures and passage, he stepped sideways into the gloom that flowed back ahead of him as the torch entered. Moving close along the walls, detecting no danger, he passed with a steady pace towards a purple glow that came to be framed by the doorway ahead.

As he reached the opening, the light of the now guttering torch flashed over an object spinning in the centre of the room, angular, golden. A soothing spin. Golden. Gold.

He studied the space. Keen. But saw nothing untoward and stepped with care in, onto another black sand, planting his feet firmly now, studying still as he moved. But he felt observed, and each face of the object as it came square had him freeze, muscles tight.

And then a shout from behind - the Cleave's deep voice. Another cry closer, closer still and almost in the room, but no light danced in the passage. For the warrior's torch had all but gone out and as he and the boy had struggled to douse a new, they had heard behind them - back along the passage towards the entrance - a dry clacking, a dull scraping; and they saw a winding serpent of ribbed bone rise out of the falling dark.

Falling over themselves, pack, torch, shield and all, they rushed in over the chamber and up the passage up after Gruff, spilling into the room over him waving them down.

Together they tumbled, moved back deeper along the walls, and the boy and warrior lit another torch with much fumbling on the black sand even as Gruff's faded out. With the golden object now between them and the door, they watched in terrified silence as the pale beast wound its way over the lip, a serpentine skeleton held together by some dark magic. It writhed deliberately across the floor towards their light, raising ripples of sand in its wake, and as it moved left round the spinning mass of angles they retreated right.

And then, truly restless, from far out it lunged, close past a corner of that golden shape; too close the men sensed, as with a hideous SCREECH and a heavy rush of dusty air a thousand points of light swept down on all, quivering shafts, flesh and bone bursting...

... and it could be worse, thinks Wilt, pinned; the Cleave struggles to push his purse towards the boy; Gruff sees hard edges of coins and wonders what all that fuss was...

... and life and hope drain away in the flicker of flames that grow old and die in turn. 

*          *          *          *          *

Back along the passages and out past the feet of the broken statues, beneath a weak sunlight a grey worm bristling with a brace of arrows feeds on the haunches of the mule.

No comments: