The short, fat candles in thick brackets lining the crumbling stone walls cast thick shadows in the smoke-filled tavern. Amhar leaned against the scratched oak bar and emptied his tankard. He called to the barman for it to be refilled and tossed a couple of gold pieces onto the beer-soaked counter. The barman handed him a refilled tankard and rushed off to quell an argument which looked to spill over into a fight.
Amhar emptied the tankard in one go and was about to call for another when he heard a familiar voice behind him.
'I thought I'd find you in here,' said the voice. Amhar turned to face the person who had spoken and came face to waist with the tall, balding figure of Professor Palladium.
'You've grown, haven't you?' asked Amhar. 'I've told you before. If you get any taller you'll grow right through what little hair you've still got.'
'I haven't grown,' replied the Professor. 'You're just not standing up properly. Ale does that to you. You really should cut down.'
Nonsense!' exclaimed Amhar, waving his hand at the Professor and losing his balance in the process. The Professor helped him back to his feet and inquired of the whereabouts of Portly Stoutmaster.
'He's in the library,' Amhar replied. 'He said he'd meet us here.'
As if on cue, Portly arrived just then, grabbed his two companions and embraced them then hammered on the bar and ordered a round of ale.
'So,' said Portly, after finishing his drink. 'What have you two been up to?'
'Well I've been off trying to learn new spells and I don't think I'm far from the truth when I say Amhar here has been drinking the last of our gold.'
'S'not true!' pleaded Amhar. 'I've been going 'round town trying to find the best place for us to stay and I happen to find that the place with the best beds serves the worst beer so, naturally, I've had to sample the beverage in each establishment before I make a decision.'
'But there's only one inn here,' said Portly. 'So surely it's the best?'
'Well, yes,' admitted Amhar. 'But I still had to make sure it was worth the money.'
Portly wasn't convinced. They'd completed their last job several months ago and the reward they'd been paid had been slowly ebbing away ever since. At first they'd bought themselves new equipment, to make things easier on their next adventure. Portly still wore his thick woollen jumper, but hidden underneath was a new vest of the finest chain mail available. Amhar had sold his old leather armour and replaced it with plate mail while the Professor now sported ring mail covered by his mage's robe and a helmet to cover his balding scalp.
Amhar had bought himself a new axe to replace the one he had broken during the party's last adventure. Portly had given him his old sword, which he had carried as a spare after getting a more deadly one from the corpse of a goblin on the same adventure, but Amhar found the weapon not to be to his liking and had given it back soon after. Portly still carried the goblin blade, which he later discovered was very old and also very valuable. No doubt the goblin had taken it from someone it had ambushed during the night.
The Professor, who was a superstitious man at heart, still carried the sword he had begun his adventuring career with. He had bought it with the last of his gold in the hope that a group of adventurers would come by in need of a young mage who was fresh from his training. Portly had found the young mage in a bar and had offered him a place in his part soon after. From then on, the Professor believed, the sword brought him good luck.
'How much do we have left?' asked the Professor.
The three adventurers rummaged in their coin purses and Portly counted the combined sun on the beer-soaked bar. There were 40 coins.
'Well, it's enough to get us a room for the night,' said Amhar. 'But we won't have much left.'
'That won't be a problem,' said Portly. The other two looked at him expectantly.
'Drink up, lads,' he continued. 'I've got us another job and we're setting off tonight.'
Amhar and the Professor finished their drinks while Portly collected their last gold coins into his purse. When he had finished drinking, which didn't take long, Amhar asked what the job was.
'We're to find a book,' Portly replied. 'A very valuable book. Then we're to bring it back here.'
'What sort of book,' asked the Professor, placing his empty tankard on the bar.
'Some ancient text or other. The Book of Loholt, I think it's called. Apparently someone had found it and was bringing it here but he got ambushed by Ythcalites on the way. Our job is to go and retrieve the book - and the courier, if he's still alive. The ambush wasn't too far from here so the Ythcalites could still be near by. That's why we're leaving tonight. As soon as possible.'
'Do we have enough time to get supplies together?' asked Amhar.
'No,' replied Portly. 'I'll call on the gods to aid us in the food department. We'll not go hungry, don't worry.'
And with that the trio of adventurers set off in search of a stolen tomb of ancient knowledge with only the knowledge that the ambush had occurred on a road a few miles to the North-west.
Portly called on the gods to send them food and was rewarded with enough to feed them for ten days. They stuffed the provisions into their backpacks and headed towards the road.
After two days travel they arrived at what appeared to be the site of the ambush. The courier's body had been left rotting at the side of the road, although his head had been severed and could not be found. Portly didn't want to think of what was going to be done with it. Something dreadful no doubt.
Amhar and Portly buried the remains of the courier in a shallow grave by the side of the road while the Professor went about the process of mixing powders and casting a spell to give the adventurers knowledge of their surroundings.
'There's a group of Ythcal monks three days travel North. They've left the road and are travelling by foot through the wilderness. I think they're the ones we should be going after.'
'Well it's getting dark now so let's set up camp here and get after them tomorrow. Do you have the correct powders to teleport us?'
The Professor nodded. The party set up camp in a clearing close to the road, on the opposite side to the freshly-dug grave of the headless courier. Amhar set a fire going while Portly and the Professor prepared the evening's meal.
That night Portly dreamed of blood, skulls and invocations. Of death and destruction flowing across the land.
'That sounds like an omen if ever I heard one,' said the Professor when Portly told him of his dream the next morning.
'Do you think it's got something to do with this book we're after?' asked Portly.
'I'm not sure, but I'd say it was likely. I've heard of the book before, during my training. It's a tomb of ancient knowledge of other plains of existence.'
'Maybe the Ythcalites are planning to unleash their god's influence on the whole of Kharne.'
'If so we'd better find them and stop whatever it is they're going to do before they destroy the world.'
The adventurers packed up their belongings and the Professor scattered the remains of the previous night's fire before covering over the encampment with leaves to make it more difficult for anyone following them to trace their steps. Then he began mixing powders and chanting in ancient tongues to transport the party to the last known position of the Ythcal monks.
When the ringing in his ears had finally dissipated, Portly looked at the barren landscape around him.
'Where are we?' he asked.
'If I remember correctly, we're a couple of miles west of our intended position,' the Professor replied.
'That's not too bad then,' said Amhar. 'But we'd better get moving if we're to catch these monks.'
'Which way should we be heading?' asked Portly.
The Professor mixed more powders and cast another spell, going into a deep trance. It was several minutes before he answered.
'I can't find them,' he replied. 'They're not on the surface and there are no settlements nearby. They can't have gone far out here though.'
'Then we should head off to where you last saw them and see if we can pick up their trail from there,' said Portly.
'I hope they're in some sort of dungeon,' said Amhar. 'I'm looking forward to trying out this axe on something's head, and maybe even finding us some gold in the process.'
Amhar was finding it hard to contain the excitement of battle as the group trekked through the scrub land in the baking sun. They were all incredibly hot but Amhar was thinking about fighting more than anything else and so didn't notice the heat too much.
'How far now,' asked Portly as he pulled off his jumper, revealing the chain mail beneath. He pushed the jumper into his backpack then swung the pack over his shoulder. The Professor had unbuttoned his robe, which flapped behind him as he walked. He was now complaining about how his ring mail suit was heating up and making him uncomfortable. Portly repeated his question. The Professor thought for a moment and then replied.
'I'd say half a mile, maybe less.'
'Look!' Amhar shouted. 'Over there!'
Portly looked in the direction the dwarf was pointing, but he couldn't see anything except a small rocky outcrop with a couple of small trees. None of it seemed to be of any interest.
'I don't see anything,' he replied.
Amhar ran off towards the rocks. Portly and the Professor exchanged glances of mutual confusing and ran after him. When they arrived they understood what the fuss was about. Amhar threw the dead branches Portly had mistaken for trees out of the way to reveal a flight of stone steps leading underground.
'Do you think they could be down there?' asked Portly.
'I've not heard of any dungeons 'round here before,' replied Amhar. 'This could be a Ythcal shrine, or something similar.'
'We'd better be prepared for trouble either way,' added the Professor.
The group drew their weapons, Portly put on his jumper and the Professor buttoned his robe, then they cautiously descended to meet whatever waited for them below.
'It's very dark down here,' remarked Amhar.
'Hang on, I'll soon fix that,' said Portly.
The priest cleared his mind of worldly thoughts and called on the gods to bestow light on the party and its surroundings. The room began to fill with light and soon it was as if they were outside again.
'That's better,' said Amhar, looking around at the cold, moss-covered walls of the small chamber they had descended into. An archway had been crudely carved into the southernmost wall, connecting the room to whatever was behind it. The light didn't stretch outside of the room, leaving whatever lay past the archway in darkness.
'Will the light come with us if we leave?' asked Amhar.
'It will go wherever I go,' replied Portly.
'Then let's get moving. You never know, we may even find some gold down here.'
'Wait,' said the Professor as Amhar was about to charge off, axe in hand, through the archway. 'We don't know what's out there yet. We don't even know if the monks are down here.'
As the others stood guard against anything that may come to investigate their light, the Professor crouched on the hard stone floor and mixed some of his powders, casting spells one after the other and going into deep trances. When he came out of the last of these trances he informed his companions of what he had learned.
The dungeon was indeed a Ythcal shrine, an old one which had been abandoned centuries ago. It only had the one level but there were many rooms, most of them with traps; including the one the adventurers currently occupied. The monks were in a large antechamber at the other end of the shrine and it would take just over a day to reach them.
Under the Professor's guidance, Amhar deactivated the trap concealed in the archway; an axe which was released from somewhere in the ceiling on the other side of the arch whenever someone stepped on one of the stones in the floor in front of the arch.
The shrine seemed devoid of life as the adventurers made their way, slowly, down the long, trap-laden corridors on the other side of the archway. The light the gods had bestowed on the group followed them as Portly had said it would, and with each step they took, Portly became more and more concerned that it would attract the attention of whatever the monks had brought down into the shrine to guard it.
After several hours of travelling, nervousness began to creep into the other adventurers too. The Professor gripped his old sword tightly with his right hand and his staff with his left while Amhar began looking from side to side every few seconds.
'Where is everything?' asked Portly.
'I didn't see anything this far out,' said the Professor.
'You mean there's something further in?' asked Amhar
'A vampire and a couple of bands of skeletons. Nothing we can't handle.'
'There isn't anything we can't handle,' said Amhar, as much to reassure himself as anyone else.
'How far are they?' asked Portly.
'Not far now,' said the Professor. 'If they haven't moved far we should met the first set of skeletons today. The others are further in, probably guarding whatever it is the monks have been working on.'
The found the skeletons within the hour. Amhar had taken to walking just inside the reach of Portly's light and his eyes had become accustomed to the near pitch blackness of the shrine. He'd spotted a few small piles of bones a few yards ahead and motioned for the others to come and look.
'I see them,' said the Professor, getting ready to enchant the party's weapons. 'They're right in our path, too.'
'Do you think someone knows we're coming?' asked Amhar.
'Probably,' replied the Professor. 'We know they're down here so it's a safe bet that they know we're here.'
'Let's get them,' said Amhar, who had moved back into the light and was blinking a lot. After he'd become reaccustomed to the light they moved on, with the blades of their weapons glowing faintly under the Professor's enchantments.
The skeletons remained motionless until the party were well inside the chamber where they lay. Amhar spotted the first one to move and dispatched it quickly with a devastating blow from his huge blade. The party backed into a corner of the room, to stop any of the skeletons from attacking them from their sides or rear, and prepared for battle.
Portly and Amhar stood in front of the Professor, protecting him while he cast his enchantments and fired his magic blasts at the oncoming undead warriors. The skeletons formed into a wall of bones and blades of all kinds and advanced on the small band of adventurers.
Amhar swung his axe in a circle above his head and forced the blade into the skull of the nearest enemy, pushing the axe down and shattering the skeleton's brittle body into pieces before turning and parrying a blow from another undead attacker.
Portly pulled his glowing blade from the chest of a smashed attacker and laid into another while the Professor scattered the skeletons who were still advancing in tight formation. The skeletons reformed their wall and advanced again. The Professor scattered the bones of the skeleton in the centre of the wall with his magic and launched another's skull across the room with his staff as Amhar broke through the ribcage of an axe-weilding skeletal dwarf, then another attacked him before he could pull his axe free of his previous opponent. Amhar dodged the skeleton's blade and kicked the legs out from under is before heaving his own blade free and slicing through the neck bones of his legless enemy.
And so it went on. Blade clashed with blade, bones smashed under the force of the adventurers' attack and exploded under the impact of the Professor's magical onslaught then, as it was beginning to seem like the battle would never end, the final skeleton broke under the now dulled blade of Amhar's axe.
The dwarf scoured the chamber for treasure to add to the party's depleted supply while Portly and the Professor ground the ancient remains of the undead guards into dust.
'Find anything?' Portly asked, although he could tell from the look on the exhausted dwarf's face that his search had been less rewarding than he would have liked.
'Not a sausage,' the dwarf replied. 'And speaking of sausages, when are we eating? All this fighting and searching has given me quite an appetite.'
'We can set-up camp here,' said Portly. 'This lot won't be giving us any trouble from now on. I'll take first watch.'
The party ate a meal of cold meats, bread and water; as their attempts at starting a fire had failed miserably. The Professor had told his companions it was most likely that the monks knew they were close by and had dampened the little wood they had managed to scrounge together from the cold, dark surroundings. After they had eaten, Amhar and the Professor had fallen asleep quite quickly, exhausted from the battle they had fought only a few hours before.
Portly sat and ran his whetstone across the blade of his newly sharpened sword and listened to the sound of rats scurrying around the corridors nearby. After a few hours he woke the Professor, who took over the watch. Normally they would talk for a while before Portly would settle down to sleep but tonight he was far too exhausted, so instead he lay his sword beside his backpack, rested his head on the pack's thick canvas and fell into a deep sleep.
He dreamed of destruction sweeping the land, saw images of black-cloaked figures reading incantations and saw demonic beasts unleashed upon the land.
When he woke, the Professor was asleep and Amhar was practising with his axe. The newly-sharpened blade swished through the air with surprising speed as the stocky figure went through his often-practiced movements.
'Aren't you cold?' Portly asked, rubbing life back into his cold, aching limbs.
'I was,' the dwarf replied. He continued with his exercises as he spoke. 'That's why I'm doing this. It gets the blood flowing again.'
Portly joined Amhar in his weapon practice and when the Professor woke they ate the remains of the previous night's meal before Portly and Amhar packed up the party's belongings. While the others were packing, the Professor prepared his powders and cast another round of spells.
'We're near,' he said after returning from a trance. 'They don't know we're awake yet and the guards aren't anywhere nearby. We should be able to make it to where they are keeping the book within the hour, but we're going to have to hurry.'
The adventurers hurried towards the antechamber where the book was stood on an altar, alongside the courier's severed head. The front of the altar was a shallow pool of water which shimmered with divine light. Surrounding the pool were eight monks, whose faces were obscured under thin black robes. They were chanting in a tongue foreign to the adventurers, who edged towards the chamber cautiously.
From a doorway Portly hadn't noticed before, a ninth monk emerged, carrying a human corpse which was slung over his shoulder.
'That's the vampire,' the Professor whispered.
'Are you sure?' Portly whispered back.
'Yes. I saw it clearly. He's carrying the vampire.'
'Why?' whispered Amhar.
The chanting monks parted slowly, without breaking the rhythm of their chants, to allow the ninth monk to reach the pool. He slowly lowered the vampire into the pool and walked to the altar, returning to the pool with the book open in one hand and the courier's head in the other. A thought struck Portly and he suddenly understood the visions from his dreams.
'They're going to open a gateway!' he whispered.
'What?' said Amhar and the Professor in unison.
'The pool,' exclaimed Portly. 'It's a gateway. They're gong to open a gate to Ythcal's domain and let him through to take over the land.'
The ninth monk chanted a passage from the book and lowered the head into the pool, where it melted almost instantly. The water turned red and the vampire's corpse began to dissolve slowly.
'We've got to stop them before that body disappears,' said Portly.
'Alright,' said Amhar. Then he thought about what was going on and asked how they were supposed to stop what was happening.
'We've got to get the book,' Portly explained. 'Then I'll have to read the passage that monk just said. Backwards.'
'And then what?' asked the Professor.
'Then either you transport us out of here or we're going to have to run like buggery. Either way we've got to get that book out of here so they can't try this again.'
'Do we get to fight anyone, then?' asked Amhar, eager to put in some more weapon practice.
'When we try to get that book you're going to have all those monks to fight, and probably the other skeleton guards as well.'
Amhar and the Professor both nodded. They all drew their weapons, which the Professor then enchanted and, with glowing blades aloft, they charged.
The monks' confusion gave the adventurers an advantage that they did their best to use to its fullest. Amhar had killed one of the monks with a swift blow through the neck and out the other side before the rest of them knew they were there. The dead monk fell into the pool, making the vampire's corpse dissolve even quicker.
'Keep their bodies away from the water!' shouted Portly as he heaved the disappearing remains of the dead monk from the pool. He threw what was left of the corpse at the monk holding the book, knocking him off balance and sending the book across the room.
The Professor tried to pull the vampire out of the pool but it was stuck fast and he couldn't get it to move an inch. A monk charged at him with a dagger, screaming that he would send the mage's soul to Ythcal for his pleasure. The Professor jumped out of the way, drew his own enchanted sword and slammed the glowing blade into the side of the monk's skull.
'Guards!' shouted Amhar as he rushed to block the doorway. The Professor ran with him and together they successfully prevented anything from entering of leaving the room. Amhar's blood-soaked blade hacked at the bones of the skeletal guards while the Professor's blade spilled even more of the monks blood onto the black tiled floor.
Portly had cornered the monk who had been reading from the book. He was a tall, broad man with a thick, lice-ridden beard and breath so bad Portly was having trouble keeping his breakfast down. The monk drew a sword from the recesses of his robe and swung at Portly, who stepped aside and parried the monk's advance. The monk had left his side undefended and Portly took the opportunity to cut the man deeply. The monk dropped his guard for a second and Portly lunged again, attacking the monk's sword arm. The man dropped his weapon in pain as Portly's blade cut deep into his forearm. Weaponless, the monk lunged at portly and sunk his teeth into the priest's left arm. Portly cried out in pain and hacked at the monk until his lifeless body slumped to the ground. The man's black robe was drenched in his own blood. Portly cut a long strip of the robe away and tied it around his arm to stem the blood flow from the monk's bite.
The Professor dispatched the last of the monks and turned to help Amhar with the guards. The dwarf was standing on top of a pile of bones, to make it easier to hack at the skulls of his adversaries. Between the two of them they blocked the entrance to the antechamber.
Portly looked at what remained of the vampire and saw that he didn't have much time left. He grabbed the book and rifled through its pages until he came to the passage the monk had read aloud over the water. It wasn't a long passage, only 5 lines but the body was almost gone and Portly hoped he had time to read even those few lines.
He ran to the side of the pool and held his right hand out, palm upwards, over the water, balancing the book on his left forearm and holding it in place with his fingers. Then he read the ancient language backwards, with some difficulty for he hadn't come across the ancient tongue since his days as a trainee priest many years ago. As he read the text glowing ball formed and grew in the palm of his hard. With each word he spoke the ball grew brighter until, as he said the final word, it was as if he held the sun in his hand. He grasped the glowing ball and hurled it into the pool. The ball exploded as it hit the water, throwing Portly against the altar and knocking him unconscious. A scream echoed through the shrine and the water turned to fire.
The skeleton guards still standing collapsed into piles of bones as Ythcal's grip on their lifeless bodies weakened. Amhar and the Professor ground the bones into dust and then turned to see the Portly sprawled across the altar. The adventurers wiped their blades clean on the robes of the dead monks and the Professor went to help Portly while Amhar went to deal with the corpses.
The mage enchanted some of the water from the party's rations and splashed it over Portly. The priest groaned and the Professor helped him to his feet. He saw Amhar throw the last of the monks into the pool of flames and they watched the lifeless mass of bodies as the flames engulfed them, making sure they did not return to life in the magic flames, before any of them spoke.
'Are you ready to leave?' asked Portly.
'Yes,' said Amhar. 'There's no gold here.'
Portly smiled and picked up the book. He was tempted to throw it into the flames but he knew they needed the reward too badly so he held onto it as the Professor mixed his powders and sent the group back to the surface then across the land to a couple of miles from the city where they had begun their quest.
The return journey went by without incident and Portly noticed that people stared at them in awe as they walked through the streets of the city on their way to the library.
'News of your success has preceded you,' explained the librarian, a short gaunt man with long fingers. 'We heard screams in the air and knew you'd succeeded.'
He grinned and led the tired adventurers to a room at the back of the library where his apprentices were already busy counting a large sum of money into small leather bags.
'Almost finished now, Mr. Cudwell,' they chorused. The old librarian helped them count the last of the coins and gratefully handed the bags to Portly, who gave the book to the old man in exchange.
'What will you do with it?' asked Portly.
'Lock it in the vault,' the librarian replied. 'Don't worry, the boys here and I will make sure no one's can use it again for a long time.'
'I'm glad to hear it,' said Portly.
'Forgive me for prying, but what could you possibly do with so much gold?'
Portly looked at his companions then back at the librarian.
'I'm not sure yet,' he replied. 'But right now I think I could do with a beer, a bath and a decent night's sleep. We'll decide what we're going to do next in the morning.'
Nob T Mouse
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