After dismissing an idea of a potential revisit to the sunken citadel to possibly free an unknown spiritual being from an ancient tomb to appease Awk’s new patron, our traveling party began our cart ride for Paripas. The road was quiet leaving Greenrest, and we settled into a nice rhythm of travel. Some chirps and squawks of argument from Awk and Felegum over the nature of the Dragon Priests, some travel songs from our bard, and other bits of miscellaneous banter. I spent the time listening to the stories of my traveling partners and meditating when I could. All was well until our cart shuddered to a halt.
“We should camp here, near the well,” Felegum said as he waved his arms at a small hill with a dismal crown of large stones and an old well as its damaged centerpiece. The well was barely visible, a small pile of rubble surrounding a sudden plunge into darkness at the peak of the hill. The abandoned hilltop reeked of loving construction abandoned to a long-lost tragedy. In case its woes weren’t also long-lost, we spread out to search the grounds.
I looked around for signs of hiding bandits or any signs of recent activity. We were on a small hill, with decent visibility to anyone trying to approach, and the overgrown foot paths and crumbled stones showed no signs of recent travel. It was all windswept grass and mossy stones, with the two intermingling at the borders. The only signs of activity were the trampled grass and scuffed stonework leading back to our cart. But this earnest search for safety provided me a chance for classic monk chicanery. I quietly pulled a long blade of grass from an overgrown tuft and stalked behind our druid, who was practically licking the large perimeter stone he was investigating.
“Do you feel anything, druid?” I inquired mischievously. “What does the grass tell you?” As the blade of grass danced across the back of his neck, Awk shivered and began to squawk excitedly.
“I AM GETTING SOMETHING, EVERYONE BY READY, THERE COULD BE….” He turned and sputtered as he inhaled the stalk. His sudden explosion of nervous energy brought the eyes of our party straight to my dancing blade, bringing many a smirk and even a chuckle from Zeno.
“You know I explode when I am surprised…” Awk stammered as he regained his composure.
“I know.” I met Awk’s eyes, keeping my face neutral, knowing not if he remembered the words I left him with in our shared dream. A violent experience of cathartic infighting that it seems only Zeno and his new-found shimmering cloak were willing to admit even happened. But before we could unpack our feelings, Felegum broke the tension with a new problem.
“I hear a voice in the well! I think someone needs help!” Felegum craned over the dark hole in the waning daylight, trying to make sense of what he heard as he beckoned us closer.
“Help, I’m stuck!” A feeble voice murmured from the dark as we quietly circled the well. Establishing our campsite became secondary to arguing over what we should do with this voice. With light from Set and Felegum working through his familiar, we began to explore down the shaft. It was too deep to fully explore from outside, but there was a small landing halfway down and a healthy amount of water at the bottom. There was no signs to show how a small child might have gotten into the well, no signs of activity as we approached, but on the off chance a real child was in danger, our less suspicious party members decided we needed to check. So, Zeno offered to watch the cart while Set tied a set of ropes together for Helli to begin climbing down. Awk shifted to a spider and followed down the unlit shaft. I was in no rush to test the strength of our rope or the patience of a giant spider in the dark, so I waited for the all-clear from below from those who do well in the dark.
It came shortly in the form of a request.
“Break it down?” Helli mused. The faints sounds of tools scrapping and pinging nearly covering her soft voice.
“Try some more mundane approaches first,” Felegum cautioned as the creaking and banging sounds began to grow to a head. “Harry, we have a job for you.”
That was my cue.
By the time I made it to the first landing, Helli and Set had already popped the decrepit old door open and Felegum was entranced with his searching further below through Dronie. I already felt claustrophobic shimmying down the thin well open and my view in the room was not encouraging. A low ceiling and musty stonework were not my favorite locale, but they did match the fireplace full of molding charred remains of fires long past. The room’s centerpiece was a tilted, rotting wooden table covered in scraps of research long past. A few of the notes that hadn’t fully crumbled in the stuffy, abandoned room had concerning tidbits: “…it’s working… subjects are restless…” and “…green stone may help with my mental powers…” I looked up in time to see Set reaching for one of the shards of faintly glowing, sickly green crystal.
“I wouldn’t touch that.” I hissed in a low voice, working my best stern teacher voice.
Set maintained what passed for eye contact with a low hood as he snatched up a shard and began muttering. Yet again, my abilities as a teacher were thwarted by an obstinate teen. With more time, I would have been firmer, but a sudden splashing and a shout from the well caught my fraying nerves and tore them asunder.
“Is everyone okay?” I shouted down, skidding to a stop at the lip of the landing, the straps lashing my quarterstaves to my back loosened for a quick draw.
“Rope sucks,” a voice called up to me, presumably a now wet and frustrated Felegum. It matched up well with the empty knot at the end of our rope to the top of the well. After a thorough attempt to stare down the dim gloom of the lower well that had now swallowed Felegum, the soft sounds of our sticky fingered rogues shuffling through the piles of tattered belongings drew me away from my futile attempts to intimidate the indifferent maw.
After a deep breath in a futile attempt to steady myself, a scratching started at one of the old doors in the room. Its rhythmic scratching and tapping slowly settled into a rhythmic tapping.
Suddenly, the taps settled into five quick taps, a short pause, and two final scratches. A haircut and a shave, only two bits? Only a truly malevolent force would taunt you with knocking for a haircut and a shave. Can tapping and scratching at an ancient door be friendly? My favorite quarterstaff was a comforting presence as I drew it, settling my nerves as I motioned to Set and Helli to stay quiet. A rotted beam threatened to crumble as I gently lifted it free and cracked the door enough to see our visitor. I was greeted by my own glaring eyes reflected eight-fold in the unsettling gaze of a giant spider. The door creaked and crackled under my tightening my grip, protesting my growing tension as I waited for the spider to make its choice. To my surprise, the spider suddenly leaned back on its rear legs and did its best to wave and began dancing a merry jig. The clumsy dancing, flurry of waving legs, and twitching fangs were friendly enough, but will probably haunt at least a dream or two in the coming days.
“Awk, that best be you…” I growled as I flung the protesting door open. Its sodden, rotting planks made a quiet “wump” as the door fully opened and split from one of its hinges. The spider was just a shifted Awk. It was just Felegum slipping into the water. It was just a small boy trapped in a dark well with no signs of how they got in. My patience was being tested at every turn, and everyone else was so happy to just walk around poking in an abandoned well with an attached living space, a TOTALLY NORMAL FEATURE OF WELLS.
Now I was gripping my quarterstaff for comfort, jumping at every shadow, hoping that whatever evil I knew was here had the decency to do its evil loudly and with enough warning for us to respond. But until this well needed me to be the creature that bumps back in the night, I needed to stay calm and focused. I closed my eyes and took stock of what I knew. Helli was exploring a secret passage in the fireplace, Awk had joined us as a spider, Felegum fell fifty feet into a pool holding a poorly knotted rope, and Set was having a particularly teenage day. Well, Set had abandoned his crystalline fascination and moved out to the landing to repair the rope down to Felegum, coming down from his obstinate teenage high to repair his failed knot.
Maybe my warning got through to him, maybe it was the wound to his knot-tying pride. I’ll take the little victory in this bleak place.
A little glimmer that we were just rooting through old remains in a quiet cave.
Just a little bit of sated curiosity and stretched legs before we help Zeno set up camp for the evening.
Light exercise and some new conversation after a day of riding in a cart.
Nothing was coming for us.
And then a sickening crunch and an agitated buzz burst forth from the doorway back into the well shaft. Shouting and the hum of crackling power roared over the burbling of flowing water that had filled the chamber moments before as I pushed past Set and his nearly finished knot and jumped down the well. Felegum survived his fall, hopefully unscathed, because I was coming in headfirst. The dimly lit surroundings blurred together as I plunged into the pool. Felegum, silhouetted in the flashes of power splashing off of something on the other side of the cave, marked a usable patch of rocky land on one side of the water. The small beachhead he stood on was a welcome bit of dry land to collect myself on in the thundering echos and flashing lights of the chamber. Luckily, a timely descent from a now brilliantly winged Set revealed the hulking crustacean we now faced.
Its long body nestled among the rocks on the opposite coast, covered in interlocking chitinous plates, mottled in patches of lichen and moss. The segmented legs lifted the hulking form from its hiding place, frustrated with the sublimating remains of the crushed Dronie, and shuffled forward. It shrugged off the unerring blows of Felegum’s missiles as it slid forward into the murky water, silently gliding towards the haunting glow in the middle of the pool.
Being right not to trust the well was little solace in a fight, but a fight was where I was at home. The tension flowed from my body with a roll of my neck and shoulders and a deep sigh to settle my defensive stance. The submerged form shifted its approach, slowing and diving down to the spot just below where our rope dangled, the source of the pools haunting glow. I could barely make out a rough crystalline patch about the size of the large waystones.
My heart sunk as the notes in the room above pushed back into my forced battle calm.
“… help with my mental powers…”
Who wrote that note?
“…the subjects are restless…”
Was this the subject, or the master?
Were we the first course, or was this empowered appetizer frustrated enough with its first course of familiar and going to leave us alone?
Why was I thinking of seafood?
The eerie greenish glow at the pool seemed to flicker and pulse as a sickening crack reverberated through the pool. Our angry seafood feast centerpiece lingered long enough for everyone to get into position. Helli dangled high up on the rope and Set had finished drifting down to our chosen side of the chamber. Awk, having shed his spider form, closed out our perimeter on the monster’s original beach, hands crackling with the dark glow of eldritch energy. We thought we were prepared for it to surface.
When it did, I expected it to roar, to bellow, to screech, to do something loud, anything audible. Instead, the quiet whispers and echoes of the waterfall by Awk’s small beach provided a menacing background to the silent breach. It paused long enough for the water to slide from its now glistening shell, washed of its camouflaged plant life, the edges of each plate clear in the steady glow of Set. Then, two of the large plates at the top of its back, spanning the width of its body, quietly slide apart along its length, and revealed a massive eye. Most people aren’t ready for a dish that stares back at them.
And no one is ever ready for eyes in the wrong places in their meal.
Helli and I came to the same conclusion to the newly exposed weak point: turn it into a pin cushion. One dart from my free hand and Helli’s lazily dropped dagger lodged in its newly revealed eye. We could check “unblinking” on the list of unsettling properties of this new eye. New veins bloomed as the creature shrieked, but it kept right on staring at us, flicking about the room at the sources of its pain. Its newfound metal irritants got worse when Felegum set the metal of the dagger to red hot and it started to sizzle. Burning shellfish is a scent you don’t quickly forget, but I could process the additions to my nightmares when we were done hammering it with steel and magics. The creature was stabbed, burned, frozen, and bludgeoned, and thankfully, it was starting to show cracks.
Antagonizing an unblinking eye mounted to a hellish crab cake was almost fun until the sickening wave of muscle tightening hit me. Every muscle in my body tensed in a sudden pulse, trying to freeze me in place like a pained statue, screaming a silent cry of fear and frustration. I fought for my own movement, eyes flicking about the room as my muscles worked themselves loose. It seemed everyone was suffering from whatever just hit us, but the effect seemed to be in one punch. Breaking its first hold was enough to clear it, but I couldn’t wait to see if more was to come. The eye’s petrifying gaze searching the room for its handy work taunted me, sitting in the water out of reach. I was going to have to make my second dive, taking a few steps and launching off shore and onto the eye, bearing down with my feet and staff. Luckily, Felegum and Awk seemed to still be free, and they continued their magical barrage on the overstuffed lobster roll. Well, at least Felegum did, Awk took a shot at the light source below the water. I wanted to show my exasperation at Awk’s overthinking the problem, but a set of claws knocked me from my feet and took hold of my arms.
The creature quickly turned to drag me below the surface. A small window was open for me to break free before I was fully submerged and forced to fight in its territory. Raising my feet up onto its face, my body coiled up into tight bundle, moving with the pull of the claws until I sprang back as much force as I could muster. The crushing claws slipped, clacking together menacingly as it flailed its claws and tried in vain to follow my hurtling form back towards Felegum. The continued sputtering hissing of the red-hot knife and a barrage of magic missiles flew past me trying to dissuade our budding seafood boil from pursuing any further.
But my stumbling landing was followed by a screaming Felegum. The crab found a new target and it was doing its best to scarper off with its new catch, one that hopefully didn’t kick as hard. Thinking quickly, I planted my quarter staff in the stone for a solid base and corrected my stumbling with a roll that lent my speed and body weight into a solid kick into the base of the claw. The crab, thoroughly punted back, skipped and tumbled across the water’s surface, halting in a messy splash near the pool’s center. Now sprawled out on the edge of the rocky out cropping previously occupied by Felegum and me, I beached myself ungracefully with my feet dangling into the water, one hand on my wedged staff to keep myself from sliding into the water. My eyes scanned for any signs of Felegum.
My heart dropped.
Now being followed by crippling waves of energy from Awk and Set, and firmly in the sights of a plunging Helli, the rapidly cracking crab Rangoon had brought its appetizer with it. My kick had helped pull Felegum out to the center of pool, still in its grasp. Scrambling back onto the stone and freeing my staff, the watery thrashing behind me was moving towards the waterfall. Felegum was now limply floating in a claw no longer attached to the creature and, for her heroic dismemberment, Helli was flailing to get free of the one that remained. The new eye had been closed in the struggle, and its once solid plates covered in splintering cracks, this ornery bisque had to be close to spilling. I needed to close the distance and finish it before it started pulling people to a watery grave.
The beast was turned away from me, shielding its potentially soft underbelly and face from my reach, but leaving the cracked shell pieces above its tortured eye exposed. Focusing on the spot where the eye seemed to be, I leapt from the rocks to its side. I fumbled the fight in the water, getting tangled in its segmented legs as the crustacean tried to peel me off, but I refused to leave. I had one option.
My eyes never lost track of that spot between the two plates high on its back.
It worked before, to great effect, why wouldn’t it work now?
I loosened my grip on my tangled staff and drove my horned head into the high points on its back.
Shelling crab sounded so different when it’s done with your skull. A sickening crunch erupted all around me, and I was suddenly plunged into a sticky darkness.
There were no death screams, no final hurled spells, no final convulsions when another living thing drives its face through your unnatural eye and straight into your nervous system.
I could no longer hear the commotion around me or the waterfall’s splashing. I was adrift with my head buried in the alien anatomy of my seafood nightmare. Then the throbbing started. My senses returned in rapid succession to remind me where my head was. The pounding started at the crown of my forehead, pulsing out to remind me I broke an armor plate with my face. My lungs screamed as the crab viscera stopped any hope of breathing. Luckily, I hadn’t knocked myself out, as I quickly and ungracefully fought to free my head from the creature’s shattered remains. Hopefully everyone else was doing fine, because the shards of shell on this crab were biting into me, threatening to trap me in my crustacean tomb. My body was quickly catching up with the immensity of how stupid it was to continue using one’s head as a weapon. The sickening slurps and cracks as my head shook loose and the bit of air that leaked through the shellfish viscera were a welcome sensory experience in the moment as I scrambled from my oozing prison. I flailed about as best as I could to drag myself sputtering to shore, letting the world whirl around me as the usual activities of patching up and looting what we could from this mess continued.
Everyone was alive.
Set was making lights and packing up the remains of a child.
Felegum and Awk argued over some freed crystals.
Helli balanced some coins on my stationary head as I remained sprawled out on the beach and bounced away happily. That could only mean some treasure was found.
My time was spent quietly waiting for the room to stop spinning before we made our way back up the rope.
I don’t think I’ll be eating seafood for a while.