"Are you sure you won't purchase a mule?" The storekeeper's smile spread from ear to ear, as he rubbed his palms together.
Threy scoffed, regarding his companions with disdain. "You might as well, you've already bought three of everything else."
Lana glared at him, aware that they had indeed accumulated a huge pile of purchases. For weeks she had been saving the allowance her father provided; the fund was now blown. She returned her gaze to the shopkeeper and hefted one of several heavy, iron spikes the group had been talked into purchasing. "Remind me, what are these used for?"
The man seemed surprised. "Why, a variety of purposes naturally!" He didn't expand on this point. "Certainly your predecessors stocked up on plenty of them." He smiled. "It's good to see young folk answering the call. It's been quiet round these parts lately."
"That's no bad thing for us," said Drewen. "It means there'll be more gold out there for the taking!"
To the group's delight, the shopkeeper nodded to show his agreement.
Moreso than anywhere else in Karameikos, Threshold was renowned for giving birth to adventuring groups. The town's location amid old ruins (some of which were particularly ancient) made an ideal departure point for would-be adventurers. As they explored more of the surrounding area their abilities and proficiencies would increase, inevitably leading them in search of greater challenges - to the capital Specularum in the south, or the wild moors around the merchant city of Kelvin or the perilous Dymrak Forest in the east. Many would even depart the Grand Duchy altogether, passing over its borders into neighbouring Thyatis or Darokin or further afield.
In addition to the shopkeeper, four individuals stood in the supply store around their sizeable pile of supplies - comprising coils of rope, tinderboxes, torches, sacks, flasks of oil and the like. Even a ten-foot wooden pole had been purchased. It didn't look sturdy enough for combat use but the vendor hinted that it might offer other useful functions.
The first of the novice adventurers was Lana Budanter. Originally from the village of Glaston in the south-east of the Duchy, the young woman had been taken in as a pupil by the wizard Valtanivark after her mother was killed by goblin raiders. Possessed of a sharp intellect which put her in good stead to pursue the magical arts, her master had judged her to have learned as much as she needed through academic study and directed her to venture into the world to experience life first-hand. Safety was to be found in numbers, especially for magic-users who were incapable of wearing armour or bearing weapons other than a dagger or staff therefore Lana was told to form an adventuring party. Her master had a particular destination in mind for the party to explore...
Recently, it had reached Valtanivark's attention that another wizard named Rezgale was operating nearby and had founded a base in the Black Peak mountains north of Threshold. Rezgale was a recluse and went to particular lengths to avoid contact with Valtanivark and the local ruler, Sherlane Halaran. Valtanivark used one of his magical devices to scry upon the wizard and observed him animating corpses to serve as workers and construct his tower. Valtanivark immediately went to speak with his friend Halaran and both men agreed that the wizard should be persuaded into leaving the area. Determined to confront Rezgale, Valtanivark had journeyed north, taking his spellbooks and bidding Lana not to meddle with anything within the tower in his absence. Lana recalled how Valtanivark had returned a few days later, wearied, reporting that he had tried to negotiate with Rezgale but to no avail. Rezgale had foolishly set his undead minions upon Valtanivark, whereupon a magical battle ensued. Valtanivark subjected his opponent to heavy injury then set about the reducing the half-built tower to rubble. Rezgale had fled from combat and further scrying failed to locate him - he had presumably died from the damage Valtanivark's spells inflicted upon both the tower and its master.
That had been weeks ago. Rumours circulated that corpses still walked Rezgale's ruins, along with gigantic animals and some of the wizard's other servants such as goblins. It was possible the ruins might have been picked through by other parties in recent weeks yet Valtanivark felt they would make an ideal location for Lana and her friends to start their adventuring careers. Surely a few treasures remained within the depths.
Keen to found a party, Lana had approached her closest friend within Threshold - Drewen Goldenhammer, an easy-going dwarf who was young by his people's standards. Drewen owned a cottage in town which he occupied with his mother, both having arrived years ago. Drewen had told Lana about his origins - a stronghold in the Altan Tepe mountains, from which his clan had scattered when his father died combating a treasure-hungry red dragon. On her visits to Drewen's cottage, Lana noticed an old warhammer hanging above her friend's mantelpiece. The weapon didn't seem to match the dwarf's placid demeanour but even so, Drewen struck Lana as an ideal adventuring companion. When she proposed forming a group, the dwarf sighed and responded, "well, I suppose somebody needs to take care of you youngsters."
Next to join was Canerzon - a member of the guard who had been born and raised within the town's walls. While not intellectually gifted, Can was known to wield a sword with skill. Several of his fellow guards had dipped in and out of adventuring careers when their shifts permitted, often returning from their escapades bearing riches and minor magical items - potions and the like. After hearing his friends' plans, Can was happy to lend his support.
Valtanivark considered it likely that some of Rezgale's undead servants still dwelled within the ruins, therefore the three friends decided to recruit a cleric to provide protection against the undead. Drewen enquired at the local Church of Karameikos but was told none of the clergy could take time off from their duties. The only remaining possibility was a lonesome individual who had been sighted regularly within the Misty Beard tavern - a social misfit whose unkempt appearance and the dark circles around his eyes gave him a haunted, haggard look. Threy was reluctant to talk about himself but hinted that he had been orphaned at a young age and had joined a local cult (venerating a particular outlook on life, rather than any specific Immortal) as an adolescent. More recently, a rival faith had stolen a relic of his church therefore his Elders had instructed Threy to amass some wealth to assist the Church's efforts to locate and retrieve the item. The young acolyte didn't come across as likeable or in any way trustworthy, therefore Can in particular expressed reservations about permitting him to join the group, however it was undeniable that his ability to repel the undead would prove invaluable in the upcoming mission therefore Threy became the group's fourth and final member.
And so armour was strapped on, weapons were readied and backpacks were stuffed full of newly purchased contents. Lana raided Valtanivark's larder for provisions, leaving a note to explain to her master although she knew he would wouldn't mind.
The party of four trekked north for several hours before arriving at the site which, unmistakably, had served as Rezgale's base. All four surveyed the ruins, noting the scorch marks and other signs of Valtanivark's magic which had toppled the dark wizard's tower to leave only ruins and rubbles. Clearly Rezgale had spent time clearing space beneath the surface - a number of openings were located among the ruins affording access to subterranean tunnels below. In one central point a set of moss-covered stone steps led down into darkness, while around a hundred feet away Can uncovered a hole with darkness below. The four decided to access via the latter, hammering an iron spike into the ground before securing a rope and descending into the pit.
Down the rope, the party found themselves standing in a large cave. Canerzon lit one of his newly purchased torches which partly illuminated the surrounding area. At the base of the northern wall was a murky expanse of liquid, which the companions approached warily. The liquid neither dissolved a cloth nor tasted foul when applied to the tongue, and was therefore judged safe. Can waded in, discovering that the pool was in fact the entrance to a sub-aquatic tunnel leading to another cavern beyond. All four drew full lungfuls of breath and followed - including Drewen whose heavy armour weighed him down - to emerge safely on the other side.
The water had doused Can's torch therefore Lana struck a spark to the wick of her shiny new lantern. It cast light in all directions, including up. Looking toward the ceiling, the companions froze when they saw hundreds of bats nestling among the stalactites overhead. Cautiously the party edged its way through the cavern, being meticulous so as to not cause any disturbance - and miraculously they succeeded, with not even Drewen or Canerzon's armour making the slightest sound.
The companions' newfound confidence in their adventuring abilities proved short-lived as they entered a new cave whose walls contained dark recesses. From one of these alcoves was emanating a curious sound, which sounded like squeaking. As the party approached cautiously, out of the alcove sprang a number of ferocious creatures - five giant shrews, their claws and fangs bared, emitting an ear-splitting shriek as they closed to savage the intruders.
So ferocious were the animals' attacks that Can found himself backing away from the combat, leaving Drewen to hold the creatures at bay with his hammer. Can quickly overcame his uncharacteristic lack of mettle and rejoined the fray, whereupon he and Drewen together managed to slay one of the attacking shrews. Seeing one of their number fall, the remaining four lost their fierce edge and fled back into their alcove. Lana unstoppered a flask of oil which she hurled into the nest, followed by a flaming torch from Canerzon which took out two more. Then, as the flames died, Can and Threy took out a further creature while Drewen's hammer crushed the skull of the remaining survivor. The party had survived its first ever hand-to-hand encounter! Yet to their disappointment, upon checking the shrews' nest it was found to be empty of treasure.
A passageway in the north-east corner of the cave led to natural stone steps leading downward. On the level below, the party emerged into a large cavern where they immediately attracted the attention of the sole inhabitant - an enormous spider, the size of a horse, whose bloated body was covered in bristling black hairs. As it skittled toward the party at speed, Lana (an arachnophobe) gave a cry and instinctively cast the sole magical spell she had memorised that morning in preparation for the expedition. An arrow formed out of pure magic by her shoulder and at her bidding careered toward the beast, flying true to impact in a blast of amber-hued light. Having contributed as much as she could, Lana ducked behind Canerzon's armoured form for protection. While Threy fled toward what he hoped was a safe corner of the cave, the remaining male party-members engaged the spider with their weapons. Both landed hits but the spider managed to sink its fangs through a gap in Drewen's chainmail. The dwarf's hardy constitution served him well, as he fought off the creature's venom without ill effects. Watching him from a short distance, Lana experienced a strange sensation - as if she wanted to start dancing for some unknown reason. Was there a magical quality to the creature's attacks? Moments later Drewen gave a triumphant cry as his hammer smashed clean through the beast's head and it collapsed unmoving.
After Threy returned from cowering, the body of one of the spider's victims was found in a corner of the cave - a female elf who wore three bracelets on one wrist. These were removed to be shared out later. The companions noted with interest that the cavern which had served as the spider's lair, strangely, did not contain any webbing.
In an opposite corner of the cave, the opening of a low tunnel was located. The give-away to the tunnel's presence was a chewed corpse protruding from its end into the cavern. Threy invoked the power of his faith to check whether the corpse was undead, but declared that it was not. Dubious as ever and unwilling to rely on what the cleric had to say, Can withdrew a vial of holy water and held it ready while his companions entered the tunnel, all apart from Drewen needing to stoop as they did so.
The tunnel led into a large cavern whose walls were rectangular. From his many years' experience of living underground Drewen declared that this area was not a natural occurrence and must have been hewn from the rock by artificial means - such as magic or digging, or a combination of the two. The cave was full of nothing apart from piles of rubble and debris - supporting Drewen's theory. Three tunnels led onward - north-east, north-west and south-west. An argument followed between Can and Threy as to which direction the party should take. Neither of the pair seemed to have strong motives for their respective preferences; instead they seemed to be jumping at the chance to argue for any reason at all. At last Canerzon acquiesced and a smug Threy led his companions down the south-west passage.
The passage proved short and led into a medium-sized cave, again appearing to have been carved from the rock by magic or some other means. The party's attention was grabbed by a glow at the centre of the cave's floor - upon closer inspection it was discovered that a circle of magical runes had been inscribed on the stone. These gave off a faint light, and encircled a pile of gold coins and in their midst a tarnished-looking silver ring. The party's heartbeats quickened - if other adventurers had been through the ruins, they had clearly missed this treasure trove! Motivated by greed, Threy sprang forward before any of his companions could act and began cramming coins into his pack. As he crossed the rune barrier, the glow spread to his body and a peculiar sensation stole over him though he otherwise appeared to be unaffected. The glow faded after several moments.
Canerzon too crossed the rune barrier; the same glow overtook him but faded without any effect. He and Threy both set about stowing away the coins. Drewen looked on happily - his priorities were clearly torn as he was enthralled by the pile of gold but was unwilling to come into contact with the magical aura. Lana meanwhile was captivated by the radiance and slowly walked around the circle, scribing the runes into the wooden exterior of her tinderbox. She would ask her master to decipher their meaning once she was back at home.
Once all the coins had been taken, only the silver ring remained. Can picked this up to inspect it, and idly slipped it onto his finger. To the utter astonishment of his companions, the fighter disappeared from view. Lana gave a gasp as Can re-appeared moments later, grinning and having taken off the ring. It was ruled by majority vote (as ever, Threy had decided to dissent) that Canerzon should retain the ring for the time being.
Threy's annoyance at being over-ruled caused a heated argument when it came to the discussion as to which way to head. Canerzon, Drewen and Lana wished to backtrack to the previous junction, whereas Threy was determined to press on ahead. Threy was determined not to be overruled a second time and refused to bow to Canerzon's threats or Drewen and Lana's pleadings. Helping himself to one of Lana's torches, Threy held his light source aloft and strode off in the direction of his choosing. As he departed, Canerzon roared insults which fell on deaf ears. Once Threy disappeared from view, the remaining party-members turned and walked in the other direction.
Back in the large cavern the three companions took the north-east passage which led to a door. Again, Drewen commented that the passageway was not natural to his dwarven eye and had probably been carved out through magical means. The door was locked but flew open when Canerzon charged at it with his shoulder.
The room beyond was shaped like an octagon - every other one of its eight walls contained a door. In the centre of the room stood a large stone statue of a hobgoblin, its expression one of pure malice. The statue was imposing, standing around eight feet tall. Canerzon was first to step into the room, and instantly a terrible feeling crept over him as if his limbs were freezing and turning to stone. He could not help but back away, back into the passageway where he bumped into Threy! The acolyte regarded Can's panicstricken expression with amusement, before announcing that he had located a second hoard of treasure along the passageway he had chosen to explore.
The three other partymembers exchanged dubious glances. They were reluctant to trust Threy but they had no real alternative, as the hobgoblin statue obviously exuded a magical aura which going by Can's reaction could be harmful. Lana decided to give Threy the benefit of the doubt, although Drewen and Can both expressed misgivings. If there was any treasure, how could they be sure Threy hadn't already helped himself to more than his fair share? In the end their curiosity got the better of them and all four companions headed away from the hobgoblin statue, led by a smirking Threy. Drewen in particular shook his head, muttering something about the folly of young folk.
Threy said nothing as the party retraced their steps to the three-way junction and entered the corridor Threy had followed. The cleric refused to respond to any of his companions' questions but simply gestured ahead into an enormous underground cave at the end of the tunnel. The light from Lana's lantern illuminated only a small part of the vast area, obliging the party to head further into the cavern to explore it fully. As new area after new area was explored, the party's curiosity decreased and their dismay heightened - the "treasure" Threy had referred to was nowhere to be found!
Can reacted angrily, pushing the acolyte backwards to land sprawling on the cavern floor but was prevented from doing more when Lana gave a loud scream. Two large shapes had detached from the cavern ceiling and were swooping down into the lantern light - giant bats! Can instinctively lifted his shield and dragged Lana beneath it. The first bat's wings flapped around his shield, its fangs trying to find a gap in the man's plate armour but to no avail. Lana stabbed awkwardly with her dagger and to her surprise managed to land a hit. Can too slashed with his blade and also hit.
Threy and Drewen were left fighting the other bat - their mace and hammer both landing crushing blows. As they despatched their foe there came more high-pitched shrieks from above as two more bats swept down.
Canerzon's bat had turned its attention to Lana and bit her savagely. Lana gave a cry of agony as its fangs sank through her robes into unprotected flesh - never before had she experienced such pain. Can valiantly stepped in front of her to take the full brunt of the bat's attacks, slashing with his sword to cleave the creature in two, only moments before it was replaced by a newcomer. Despite Can's instructions to stay back, Lana stabbed at the new foe with her dagger but found herself too weakened to land a blow of any great strength.
Drewen and Threy continued to combat their new foe, both landing solid blows. Lana regained her composure and managed to stab Canerzon's foe, before Can and Drewen simultaneously ended the threat by severing their respective foes' heads.
Before the bats' heads even hit the ground Can had seized a dagger from his belt and held it to Threy's throat, demanding to know why the acolyte had lied about having found treasure. Threy smiled coldly, replying that he had simply been curious about what lay within the cavern. Can swore loudly, obliging Drewen to intervene on Threy's behalf. The easy-going dwarf managed to calm Canerzon's anger, then checked the remainder of the cavern which as suspected contained no treasure whatsoever.
The cavern's single exit led to a number of junctions with winding passageways beyond. After several twists and turns, the party emerged into another huge, dark cavern where several columns of stone connected the ceiling and floor. Small forms flitted about within the shadows. By this stage the party was entirely exhausted - particularly Lana after being wounded by the giant bat - therefore they decided to return to the previous cavern to make camp and get some rest.
Drewen took the first watch while the others made themselves as comfortable as they could in such dismal surroundings. The dwarf had no need for light as his infravision would alert him to the presence of anything - warm-blooded or otherwise - which posed a risk to the group. Drewen extinguished the light from Lana's lantern. Hours passed and nothing happened. Then, at around what the dwarf guessed to be midnight, a red outline appeared at the entrance to the cavern. As the tall figure drew close, Drewen rose to his feet and hefted his warhammer lest this newcomer should turn out to be a foe.
Calling a greeting in the Common tongue, a deep human voice responded. Drewen lit the lantern and saw before him a tall, muscular fellow with an auburn beard - seemingly a barbarian from the far northern reaches. The warrior introduced himself as Kernrick. Drewen woke Canerzon and Lana (choosing to let Threy stay slumbering) who were startled to see a stranger in their midst but were nevertheless keen to hear what he was doing in the depths. Kernrick explained that he had become separated from his own party - all barbarians - during a fight with hobgoblins somewhere to the east. He remembered crawling through darkness in a room where he felt strange - it seemed he had passed through the area containing the hobgoblin statue.
All the while, Canerzon's eyes never left the magnificent blade the barbarian carried. Can went so far as to ask whether the sword was for sale, but Kernrick shook his head sternly, responding that the blade was made by his people and would stay with him until his death.
Drewen offered Kernrick food and wine which he accepted and downed with gusto. After he finished, Drewen resumed his watch while the others slept.
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