Echoes and Shadows

Rats in the Cellar 7/27/09

In Which Our Heroes Endure An Obligatory Hazing

The adventurers arrived in Briston and set out straight for Mendel’s tower. There, they had been informed, they might learn something about disgraced planar theorist Thomas Iggins (to suit Joseph Drueger’s curiosity) and also had some chance of finding the renowned inventor Giotto (which would suit Jet Hulstrum just fine).

The tower was on the fringe of town, past an untilled field of high, wild grass. The heroes stumbled over hidden stones and gopher holes more than once on their way out to the tower, but happily no adventuring careers were cut short by a broken leg. In due time, they reached the exterior of the tower. The wizard’s retreat was perhaps sixty feet tall and with a diameter about a third of that, and was fashioned from smooth-cut black volcanic glass. Small, overly-tall and rail-thin reflective parodies of the heroes moved across the surface of the glass in tandem with the party’s movements.

There was no immediate and obvious means of entering the tower; the obsidian surface was unbroken as far as the heroes could see. Baldric knocked experimentally on the side of the tower; the small impact made the tower ring like a great, deep bell. A panel, invisible moments before, slid away in the outer wall, and the heroes were presented with the image of a figure dressed in black from head to toe. The only part of the creature’s body that peeked out from beneath the black cotton was its face, and that was the face of nothing human. Its features were crude, its skin scalloped rather than smooth—its face looked as though it had been fashioned out of putty by someone with few artistic skills. The eyes were cold white agates, painted with blue irises and black pupils, though this wouldn’t have fooled even the most casual of observers. As well, the things body appeared strangely lumpish beneath its black cotton clothes, with strange growths where no growths should be and other parts of its body appearing slack and hollow. It carried a torch that burned with an cool, smokeless purple flame. For all of its weird appearance, it made no threatening gesture towards the party, and when the adventurers expressed their intention to meet with Mendel, it only beckoned for them to follow and began to walk into the tower’s interior. The adventurers followed after, down a long corridor cut into the black glass. Everburning torches with that same purple witch-light were set at the corridor at intervals, but even so the interior of the tower was dim. The heroes walked for some time, surely going farther than the twenty feet that should have taken them out beyond the other side of the tower.

After a while, the party came into a kind of sitting room, with several mismatched chairs set around a wooden table. The furniture in was grey with dust. The servant—if that is what he was—motioned for the party to sit down, and then disappeared down another corridor that opened up in the wall and disappeared without leaving a seam. The heroes hadn’t been sitting long before the servant returned, and motioned for them to follow again. The party once again walked down an interminable corridor, although this time the sound of distant shouting competed with the riot of echoing footsteps. As the heroes drew closer, they were able to determine that there were two persons shouting—both male, one with a gruff voice, cracked with anger, and the other speaking in a much higher register, and sounding as though he were desperately trying to get the other speaker to calm down. The heroes eventually saw the speakers—one of them an elderly human in heavy black robes, discolored by spilled ritual components, the other a youngish gnome in clashing purple- and orange-dyed leathers. They were sitting across from one another at a long table that bore a few dead sticks in a vase by way of a centerpiece. They sat either side of what appeared to be some kind of a chess set, although a chess set with some sort of small bronze crane arm dangling over the board. The human shouted “Queen’s Rook Two to Queen’s Rook Four!” The mechanical arm dipped down and plucked a pawn up off of the board, but rather than moving it to the desired position, it continued to apply pressure to the pawn in its grip until it burst into dust and crumbles of ivory. This prompted a renewal of shouted complaints. The gnome insisted that the device was useful, and would surely prove an asset to quadriplegic chess-lovers everywhere. The two of them seemed oblivious of the adventurers standing at the entrance of the room until the servant went over and tapped the human on the shoulder. That disrupted the argument, and both men greeted the new arrivals, the human with ill-concealed irritation, and the gnome with outright enthusiasm.

These were indeed the individuals whom the party had been seeking. Joseph pressed Mendel for information on Thomas Iggins’ theories; Mendel assured Joseph that he had such information, but would not release it without due compensation, requesting that the adventurers clear the “rats” out of his basement before he helped them. It was clear that the mage wasn’t being entirely truthful when he spoke of these “rats,” but without a better option, the party agreed. Giotto urged Mendel to be more forthcoming, and suggested that such fellow adventurers and drop-outs from the Academy of the Arcane Arts should be treated with greater hospitality, but Mendel dismissed his suggestion with a growl and a wave of his hand. Clearly, the heroes would get no more from Mendel until they performed a service for him, and so they went off towards the basement.

The mute servant—whom Mendel had identified as Dmitri—led them on yet again down yet another illogical corridor. At the terminus of this corridor was a large storeroom, occupied by stacks of boxes and barrels and a pile of filthy rags. A line of glowing green light ran around the corners of the room, coursing over the junctures of the walls with the floor and the ceiling and the meeting points of the walls themselves. This light was not constant; it sputtered, and seemed to be burned out in places. Vel’s keen eyes noticed something else hovering over the boxes: three clusters of silently writhing tentacles, hanging in the air and showing no anatomical details of any right creature. Baldric didn’t wait for an invitation, but went rushing into the room to protect his master, and all three clusters of tentacles swooped in on him. He lashed back with his pick, but found that swinging at the “rat” was liking swinging his weapon through a heavy mist; the thing seemed to be as much figment as substance. A full battle ensued, with Baldric swinging furiously as the creatures swarmed him, Vel striking out with his fists and feet, Joseph calling down the light of forbidden stars to smite the creatures, and Jet hurling revitalizing potions at his allies and alchemical lightning at his enemies. The creatures didn’t go down easy; the caress of their tentacles conjured up horrific visions of nightmarish violence visited upon friends and loved ones, and was sufficient to leave a body numb and motionless. Joseph went down, as did Baldric after a significant amount of punishment, but the party sprang back and eventually banished the “rats” back to the weird world from which they had come. The corpses of the things, their tenuous tether to reality severed, vanished into utter nothingness, leaving no proof that they had been there at all.

The battered adventurers marched back upstairs to confront Mendel. They found him back in the dining hall, with a plate of some strange-smelling brown stuff in front of him. Grumpy at being interrupted in the middle of eating his “Hell curry” (with real imported Hell cardamom and Baatorian cloves), Mendel asked why they adventurers had returned after clearing out only one level of the basement. The party pointed out that these were no ordinary “rats.” Mendel fessed up to the untruth readily enough; they were fell taints, a kind of pest that infested the holes between the worlds. They had set up in his basement after he had performed a ritual to communicate with the Far Realm, and had proved to be persistent annoyances in the week since. While the basement was warded, it had been some time since Mendel had renewed the warding rituals, and they had weakened sufficiently to allow the creatures access to all three levels of the basement. Happily, the wards were yet strong enough to prevent the taints from getting out of the basement and wreaking havoc in the town. Jet observed that such a powerful wizard as Mendel who could commune with other planes should have no trouble blasting the “rats” with a single spell; Mendel agreed, but if he were to do so, then how would the party earn its keep?

The crotchety mage ordered the young heroes back down into the fray. They pleaded exhaustion, and Mendel commanded the mute Dmitri to make up some bedrolls for them in the now (hopefully) safe first level of the basement. The heroes went down to rest, after which they were committed to expunge whatever other horrors lay deeper down in the wizard’s cellar.

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