Down amongst the Dead
Careful, overabundance of caution ahead!
Session 16, the Barrowmaze
“We should be heading for Sukiskyn soon…” Endithas began, trailing off as he gazed into his flagon of cheap beer.
“The horse job? Excellent. But I bet we have time for a quick trip out to the Barrowmaze before that!” Belgarath said, fidgeting with barely contained excitement. The mage had only just arrived in Helix himself, and his clothes were mud-spattered from the afternoon rain. He sat with Endithas Wolfram at a table in the Brazen Strumpet, drinking as the pair awaited the arrival of their companions.
Kalasandr pushed through the door of the tavern, glancing around the room. Endithas waved a meaty hand in the air, and Kalasandr hurried over, “Caasi is ill, and will not be coming with us…” he said as he reached the table.
“Is she alright?” Endithas asked, genuine concern showing in his tone.
“She’ll be fine with a few days rest…” Kalasandr assured them, “And what about that elf? What was his name? Vannelay? Vindaloo?”
Endithas pulled a creased parchment bearing a wax seal from his beltpouch, “Vandelay. Said he had other business to attend to. Left me the seal, if we want to head to Sukiskyn.”
“I bet we have time to head out to that ‘Barrowmaze’ place… there could be treasure to be had…”
Kalasandr and Endithas turned to Belgarath, who was still fidgeting with barely contained excitement. A faraway look was in the mage’s eye, and a slow and unpleasant smile had spread across his lips…they could almost hear the clink of coins from behind his reverie.
19th to 20th of Fyrmont, AC 999
Characters: Belgarath, Mearl (Belgarath’s Henchman), 3 Wardogs belonging to Belgarath, Endithas Wolfram, Erasmus (Endithas’ Henchman), Kalasandr, Solla and Waevryn (Kalasandr’s Henchmen)
Mortal Wounds: None
The group headed to see Guildmaster Osen, re-hiring their erstwhile guide and torchbearer, Morgar. The young man had slightly more success in guiding them to the Barrowmaze, only getting mildly lost twice, and they arrived mid-afternoon. They spent some time examining the barrow mounds near the main, ruined path, eventually deciding to explore one slightly to the north that had already been broken open.
A short stair descended into a darkened burial chamber, some 30 feet square. A lone and broken sarcophagus adorned the chamber, making it clear the tomb had already been looted. Still, a careful examination of the interred bones revealed a tarnished gold ring, apparently missed by the previous looters.
Clearly, meagre loot was all they were likely to find in unsealed tombs, but without the necessary tools it would doubtless be difficult to access the barrows that were still sealed. It was decided that they would head for the largest barrow surmounted by menhirs, and attempt to explore further into the ruined chambers below.
The main chamber of the great barrow was as they had left it, iron tripod standing above a hole smashed in the floor, rotting rope hanging into the darkness below. A torch was thrown down, and with Endithas Wolfram in the lead, the party climbed down the rope. Here, too, little had changed from their previous visit: one wall of the chamber had collapsed into a sloped pile of dirt and rubble, and faded frescoes and newer graffiti adorned the walls. The smell of damp and rot was overpowering, and the only sound to break the silence was the faint drip-drip-drip of water. Lighting torches and lanterns, the group slipped into marching order and headed through the only apparent exit from the room.
A passage opened on their left, and the party moved to explore the corridor. Extending some twenty feet, the side-passage ended at a stout wooden door, swollen from the damp conditions. It was here that things started to go off the rails…
The players spent the next hour-and-a-half arguing about how to set up for opening the door in front of them. Not how to open it, mind you, but who should stand where, and holding what, and with whom… I let them argue it out – the one time I gave them a nudge, I was forcefully rebuffed – all the while rolling wandering monster checks, all of which came up empty. Finally, unable to take it any more, Belgarath’s player, who had been becoming increasingly agitated, shouted, “Screw it! I haul the door open! What do I see?”
“Nothing…” I replied, trying not to laugh at the fact that it had taken the better part of two hours to discover this, “…the room appears empty, save for some bones and other unidentifiable debris littering the floor. Would you-”
“I WALK INTO THE ROOM.”
At this, a cacophony broke out from the other two players who wanted to stop Belgarath, but I decided this wasn’t really feasible; the exchange with me, the DM, had taken a split second from Belgarath’s point of view, and the character’s actions would be wholly unexpected by his companions.
Now, to be fair to Belgarath’s player, he was dead tired, and had just come off flying a plane here, there, and everywhere around North America, and had been awake since 2am that morning. He was mostly trying to avoid either falling asleep, or entering a sleep-deprivation-induced delirium.
As Belgarath stepped past the threshold of the doorway, a heavy grinding sound emanated from behind him, and a stone slab rumbled down from the ceiling, sealing the room at his back. What was worse, during the massive argument about entering the room, Belgarath had expressed a desire to avoid being a target in the open corridor by holding a lantern, and the exchange with me left me with the understanding that he had passed off his lantern. He was now trapped in utter darkness, separated from the rest of the party!
“I CAST LIGHT!” the player shouted.
“On what?” I enquired.
“My fingertip!” he replied, in what would prove to be a fateful and fortuitous decision.
As the mage spoke the words of his spell, a grinding noise of stone-on-stone came from the opposite side of the room. Light sprang from his fingertip in time for him to see a stone slab retreating into the ceiling in the far wall of the small chamber, beyond which stood more than half-a-dozen animated Skeletons.
Screaming in fear as he lost bladder control, Belgarath tore open a scroll case at his belt, pulling forth an ancient parchment as the undead advanced. He read the words with trembling voice, the Skeletons crossing the space between them. Suddenly, the magical energies bound to the parchment surged forth, and a mass of thick, sticky strands leapt from ceiling to floor, entrapping the mindless undead. Seven Skeletons now hung trapped in a Web spell, unharmed, but unable to reach their prey. (Belgarath had managed to roll a 6 for Initiative, which was extremely fortunate due to his 5 Dexterity providing a -2 penalty to the roll. The Skeletons rolled a 2 for Initiative, and Belgarath was temporarily saved by his player’s very quick thinking!) As their bony feet scraped on the stone floor, a strand of webbing broke with the sound of a snapping lute string; the Web would not hold them forever, and Belgarath was still trapped in the room with them…
Outside the room, the rest of the party vainly scrabbled at the stone slab, attempting to lift it. They could find no purchase.
Kalasandr began searching the archway and door, frantically seeking some kind of reset mechanism for the trap. His efforts proved fruitless.
Back inside the room, Belgarath calmly considered the situation. He would need a change of robe, but that wasn’t really his most pressing problem. He spent some time searching the floor for the mechanism he had triggered, but his lack of experience with such things meant he didn’t even know what he was looking for. The sound of more strands of the Web breaking interspersed the scrape-scrape of bony feet on the flagstone floor. The mage pulled out his sling, and attempted to smash the immobilised undead. His immense clumsiness meant he would likely run out of sling bullets before destroying them all, and he gave up after bouncing several bullets of the walls with a single hit…
The rest of the party now grew desperate, but Kalasandr had come up with a plan: he tossed his crowbar to Endithas, and the big man (with the help of his filthy manservant, Erasmus) began trying to prise the slab up from the floor. Moments ticked by, Belgarath’s demise becoming more certain by the second. Finally, the crowbar found purchase, and the slab was levered upwards, opening a thin gap at the floor. Waevryn and Solla braced the crowbar as Endithas and Erasmus jammed their fingers into the space and heaved!
…slowly, ever so slowly, the stone slab began to grind upwards. With a great heave, the mighty Endithas jerked the slab above his head, and the party looked past his trembling form to find a calm and very much alive Belgarath stroking his beard as he considered burning the trapped Skeletons before him.
The slab was braced with a spear to take some of the burden off of Endithas, and as he and Erasmus braced the door, Kalasandr, Waevryn and Solla entered the room and dealt with stuck Skeletons. A quick search revealed nothing of value in the room or the dead-end passage beyond, and the party withdrew, at last allowing Endithas to drop the stone back to the floor with a resounding “boom!”.
The noise attracted attention, and as the party moved back to the main corridor, a large, glowing beetle trundled towards them. The large insect was quickly slain by missile fire from Endithas and Solla, and while Belgarath began removing the glowing glands from its carcass, a second side-passage on the left was explored.
Some fifty feet long, the passage turned right at a door, several more doors and a barred archway visible in the new corridor. The nearest door opened into an empty chamber. The next nearest stood ajar, and after the near-death experience with the previous room, the Thief moved to check door, floor, and archway for traps. As Kalasandr leaned into the room to see if a stone slab waited above this door, a massive spider dropped from the thickly webbed ceiling onto his face! He tumbled back with a shout, battering the spider off onto its back (missed its Poisoned Surprise attack with a 1!). Performing a kip-up, Kalasandr moved back, the massive arachnid scuttling forward, narrowly missing the thief again, as Mearl lunged in and impaled the thing through its abdomen with his spear. Its many legs twitched as Mearl shook the carcass from his weapon.
Kalasandr tossed a beetle’s glow-gland up into the webs on the ceiling, watching for the movement of any more spiders. Carefully exploring the rest of the chamber, Kalasandr noted bas relief carvings of the dead marching into the afterlife, as well as the bones of a previous victim of the now-dead spider. Clutched in the skeletal corpse’s grip was a mouldering sack containing 163 ep of old, traladaran mint.
While Kalasandr explored the spider’s lair, Belgarath hacked the arachnid’s head from its body, intent on harvesting any venom. Meanwhile, Endithas checked the chamber behind the portcullis on the opposite side of the hall. Scrawled writing could be seen, but he didn’t bother to read it before the group moved on towards the end of the corridor. The passage terminated in a bricked-over opening, and on the left was a doorway, the shattered remains of its door strewn across the corridor.
Once again, Kalasandr cautiously approached the portal to check for traps. As he neared the opening, a heavy chill could be felt in the air. Inside the open doorway was a slab, a single mouldering skeleton its sole occupant. The remains had obviously been disturbed, and the faint remains of vandalized frescoes could be seen on the walls. Satisfied the opening was safe, Kalasandr stepped across the verge…
Immediately, the temperature dropped sharply, and the Thief’s breath began to cloud in the cold dampness of the tomb. A whirl of mist threaded itself together on the far side of the slab, quickly resolving into the translucent and decaying remains of a warrior. The figure wore strange clothing, and a ghostly sword jutted from a terrible rent in its chest, obviously the source of its demise. The Phantom stretched a spectral arm towards the thief, its jaw distending in an otherworldly scream!
Kalasandr screamed, dropping his lantern as his bladder let go. The others stood shocked as the thief bolted out of the room, running past them in blind panic, until the Phantom came out of the chamber, its movements halting and awkward in way that belied its horrible speed. To a person (and dog, and owl), the remainder of the party panicked and ran. The other lantern was lost, and Endithas even allowed his massive two-handed blade to drop from boneless fingers.
By some terrible twist of fate, as the party ran all but Belgarath turned through the corridors to end up back at the entrance chamber, rope dangling from the faint light above. The Mage, however, ran until his breath burned in his throat, and he collapsed, unable to run any further. He alone carried a light source brighter than the faint glow of the entrance, the Light spell cast upon his own fingertip, and as he regained his wits (and his breath), he found himself in totally unfamiliar surroundings.
Refusing to lay down and die, Belgarath began trying to trace his way back the way he had come. At first he was utterly confused, wandering in a circle (the player seemed to be unable to piece together fairly simple descriptions at first). However, he quickly determined that his flight had mostly or entirely followed the only open path, and he began to work his way backwards, desperate to find the others before his light spell ran out, or something found him! He passed a large, collonaded chamber, and heard a strange rattling from one side. Further on he crossed a pair of partially collapsed rooms, before passing through a door into a corridor he soon recognised as the main passage into the labyrinth…
For a second time this day, the party had virtually given Belgarath up for dead. Everyone had calmed down enough to begin discussing whether to search for his corpse, or abandon his body to its fate. At that moment, the dogs began chafing and whining, eager to head back into the darkness. A few seconds later, a pale and weeping Belgarath stumbled into the chamber. With shouts of joy, the party embraced The Miser. It had been a very near thing, for as Belgarath related his passage through the dark, the glow around his finger winked out.
Clambering back up the rope to the surface, the sun was nearly set. Morgar and the mule were nowhere to be found. A cold and terrifying night was spent on the floor of the great burial mound, and at the first of dawn’s rays, the party headed back to Helix.