Editor’s Note: we are stoked once again to welcome guest author Geoff Bottone, a founding member of SlugFest Games and one of The Red Dragon Inn’s original designers!
While en route to the Red Dragon Inn, Fleck decided that he liked Gerki very much. Admittedly, part of that was due to Gerki’s constant and effusive praise—it was difficult not to have fond feelings for someone who kept telling you how great you were. In addition to this, Gerki also won him over by nicking a coin pouch off of a Greyport guardsman, using some of the coin in the pouch to purchase apples for himself and Fleck, and then hurling one of those apples with incredible accuracy at a foul-mouthed teenager who was bullying a pair of smaller kids.
Gerki flashing his complement of knives when the bully swung around to yell at him only sealed the deal.
“You’re going to love adventuring with us,” said Gerki. “Zot takes us into the Undercity all the time, and there’s all kinds of crazy stuff down there. Traps, monsters, treasure. You name it, it’s got it.”
They were at the steps of the inn now. Gerki started the ascent to the door, but Fleck held back.
“Before we go inside,” said Fleck, “I have a proposition for you.”
It wasn’t so much a proposition as it was a matter of presentation—there was no sense in one arriving for an audition if one couldn’t make a dazzling first impression, after all. Fleck took a moment to explain things to Gerki before sending him inside and taking up a position by the door. He tuned his lute and listened with half an ear as Gerki talked him up to his future employer. The halfling was a natural at it. Fleck wondered if he had done a stint in a circus or as a seller of miracle cures before trying his hand at adventuring.
“Without further ado,” said Gerki, his high-pitched voice rising to a crescendo, “may I present, for the first time anywhere, the newest adventurer in our merry party. Fleck. The. Bard!”
Fleck swept into the common room, strumming a tarantella on his lute and smiling to the patrons. Those that had heard the song before started clapping along, hooting and whistling as he processed down the main aisle to Gerki’s table. An olive-skinned serving girl, her silky black hair sadly imprisoned by a kerchief, stared at him as he walked by, the drink tray on her shoulder forgotten.
He favored her with a wink and a smile and moved on.
Gerki stood in front of a table at which sat two women and a man. The women could not be more unalike from one another. One was a human dressed in heavy armor, her fiery hair raggedly cut with a blunt knife and tied up in a strange nest to keep it out of her face. She hammered her mailed fist on the table in time with his song. The other was elven, poised and elegant, her long, blue hair serving as perfect counterpoint to her long, blue dress. She bore an emblem of the Goddess around her neck, but her holy orders did not prevent her from throwing Fleck a sly smirk as he approached the table.
Fleck smiled even wider and turned his attention to the man. He was old, grey-bearded, dressed in a metal skullcap and sumptuous, velvet robes. He was absent-mindedly petting a white rabbit while he stared unblinking at Fleck. If possible, both the rabbit and the man bore identical expressions of disbelief and disdain.
Fleck brought his song to a satisfying conclusion and slapped the strings to quiet them, drawing appreciative cheers from the crowd. The armored woman whooped and slammed her fist even more energetically on the table, causing the various cups and glasses to bounce. She seemed not to notice when the old man and the rabbit both shot her dirty looks.
“Thank you all,” said Fleck, bowing most gracefully before turning his attention to the old man. “It is a pleasure to be here. I only hope that my not inconsiderable skills and enthusiasm will serve me as well as a dungeon delver as they do as one of Greyport’s premiere street performers.”
The old man clutched the side of his head and winced.
“What is this?” he moaned. “Is this some kind of a joke, Gerki? Are you trying to be funny?”
Fleck’s face was a perfect, smiling mask, but inside he thought, says the old man who brings his pet rabbit wherever he goes.
The rabbit looked directly at him and….grinned?
Fleck stopped smiling.
“Everybody,” said Gerki, gesturing up at him. “This is Fleck. Fleck, this is Deirdre, Fiona, Zot, and Zot’s familiar, Pooky.”
“Lovely to meet you all,” said Fleck, taking a seat.
“So,” said Deirdre, taking a sip from her tall glass of elven wine, “you want to go crawling around in the Undercity?”
“I do,” said Fleck, nodding vigorously. “Very much.”
“Well, you’re going to think this is silly…”
“…but I’ve been telling all the stories and sagas for years and for once—just for once—I thought that I’d like to try living the adventure instead of merely reciting it in the public square. It seems like you people lead quite the interesting lives.”
“We do!” said Fiona, bringing her fist down in a rattling thump on the tabletop. “Adventuring is the best!”
“That’s what I had hoped,” said Fleck. “As luck would have it, your friend Gerki and I were talking after my latest performance…”
“And I thought he would be a good fit,” said Gerki. “Besides, he’s Fleck. The. Bard.”
“Well,” said Zot, rubbing Pooky’s head with his knuckles, “I’ve never heard of you. Do you have any qualifications?”
“Sure,” said Fleck, leaning back in his chair. “I graduated top of my class from Bard College.”
“What do they teach you in Bard College?” said Fiona.
“All kinds of things. Music, dance, etiquette, theater, history, art appreciation…”
“None of which are even remotely useful in the Undercity,” said Zot, rolling his eyes.
Fleck shrugged. “Maybe not, but I’m also pretty good with a sword, I know bardic magic, I’m fluent in three languages, passable in two more, and I can read both ancient and modern Drackist, if you give me plenty of time and something for the headache afterwards.”
Deirdre leaned in toward Zot. “There are quite a few Drackist inscriptions in the Undercity, Zot.”
Zot removed his hand from Pooky so that he could better drum his fingertips on the table. Pooky did not look amused with the change.
“It appears that I am outnumbered three…” Zot paused as Pooky flicked an ear, “…four to one.”
“It would,” said Deirdre, her expression radiant.
“Then I suppose I will bow to the weight of the majority and permit the bard to join us as a provisional member. You will be expected to behave in a perfectly professional manner when you are with us, and you will only be entitled to a lesser share of any treasure that we happen to find until we decide that you are worthy to be a full partner.”
“I happily agree to all of your terms,” said Fleck. “When do we get started?”
Gerki clapped Fleck on the shoulder. “Welcome to the party!”
Zot sighed, extracted a folded piece of parchment from somewhere within his voluminous robes, and spread it out on the table. When Pooky didn’t move to better accommodate the parchment, Zot shifted several of the half-empty drinks around to make more room.
“As you know, the Collegium has asked us to retrieve the Tome of Hirun from the depths of the Undercity…”
The stone chamber had become an abattoir, the stench of blood, decay, and death mingling with the acrid smoke of Fiona’s torch and the pervasive stink from the Greyport sewers that reached them even here. The bloated, dismembered corpse of the hideous beast lay in a heap on the floor and twitched—not from its own death spasms, but from the monstrous entity that rooted around in its insides.
Pooky burst out of the beast’s stomach, dripping red gore.
“Aw, Pooky,” said Fiona, sheathing her sword. “Give me a chance to get a few hits in next time, would you?”
Fleck thought he was going to be ill, but Zot’s snide look settled his stomach far better than any medicine. He mopped the sweat off his brow and set his face in what he hoped was a firm expression.
Pooky shook off his fur, spraying blood everywhere. Somehow, his coat was clean and white after he had finished. Fleck tried to figure out how that was possible while he wiped down the front of his lute.
“How are you holding up?” said Zot.
“I’m…managing,” said Fleck. He studied the room. “So is this the lair of the guardian beast you had told us about?”
“I think so. If that’s the case, the Tome of Hirun must be nearby.”
“And we have three doors to choose from,” said Fiona, gesturing to the far end of the room with her torch.
“The hirunians love grouping things into threes,” said Deirdre, folding her hands into the sleeves of her blood-spattered robe. “They were a numerically-obsessed people.”
“Well, their numbering system was in base three,” said Fleck, idly strumming his lute. “I think it’s because they had three fingers on each hand.”
Zot arched a bushy eyebrow. “That’s right.”
Fleck flashed him a winning smile. “Bard College.”
Gerki had picked his way over the ruins of the guardian beast and was now studying the three doors. “If this is anything like the rest of the hirunian stuff we’ve encountered, I’m guessing that only one of these doors leads to the Tome. The rest are going to do something unpleasant the moment we open them.”
“Thoughts?” said Zot.
Gerki took several long, flexible metal tools out of one of his bags. “I’ll see if I can find anything out with these, but I bet that this door with the demon carving on it and this other one with the screaming thing are probably the bad ones.”
“I will pray to the Goddess for the grace to deliver you from poison or dismemberment, should they befall you,” said Deirdre, clasping her hands before her.
“Gee, thanks,” said Gerki as he fastened two of the tools together.
Fleck, who had been studying the doors from afar, said, “I think this may not be the best course of action.”
“Why?” said Zot.
“Well, I know a bit about hirunian legendry. The demon is Zzral, Master of the Thousand Enchanted Blades.”
Fiona’s eyes got very wide and she made a little squeaking noise.
“That’s only twenty-seven blades in base ten,” said Zot. His expression was no longer readable, but it seemed less hostile than before.
“Still,” said Fiona.
“And the screaming thing is Llarz of the Ten Thousand Endless Torments.”
Gerki backed away from the door slightly. “So the middle door with the smiling lady thing is the one we want, right?”
“Well, maybe,” said Fleck, “but maybe not. That’s Alrza the Huckster. She was a lesser mercantile goddess of the hirun, but she also presided over a cult of tricksters and thieves.”
“Hang on. Are you saying that all of the doors might be traps?” said Gerki.
Fleck shrugged. “That would be my guess.”
“Oh, come on,” said Fiona, as Gerki began walking a circuit of the room. “That’s not fair! How are we supposed to get to the book if every door is trapped?”
“There may be a concealed door,” said Deirdre.
“That’s fine, I guess,” said Fiona. “But how…”
“Found it!” said Gerki. He pressed a hidden catch and a section of the blood-smeared wall rotated into a low-ceilinged tunnel. “Those hirunians were tricky bastards. I’m starting to like them.”
The secret tunnel brought them to a chamber that was lit from above by some strange trick of eldritch sorcery. The Tome of Hirun, its brass pages stored betwixt marble covers, sat ensconced upon a pillar of basalt.
A three-headed beast of truly massive proportions stood hunched before the pillar. It fixed its six glowing eyes upon them and let out a three-toned roar that sent up an unpleasant resonance in Fleck’s bones.
“Zot,” said Deirdre, as the holy symbol clutched in her hand began to shine with a blue light, “I’m beginning to think that that last creature wasn’t the guardian beast.”
“No,” said Zot.
“Yes!” shouted Fiona.
“Do we have a plan?” said Fleck.
The creature advanced on them, its footfall a thundering crash.
Zot took in the entire room in a glance and seemed to engage in a momentary, wordless communication with Pooky, who leaped down from the wizard’s shoulder.
“We’ll fight it the same way we fought the Iron Colossus.”
The others gave nods of assent. Gerki drew a pair of knives from his belt. Deirdre began to pray.
“What do I do?” said Fleck. “I wasn’t there when you fought the Iron Colossus.”
“I know,” said Zot. The tip of his staff began to glow with arcane fire. “That’s why you’re staying here. This will be a dangerous battle, and it’s no place for…”
“Chaaaarge!” shouted Fiona as she ran to meet the creature. Pooky scampered off after her, followed by the others.
“Stay there!” Zot called over his shoulder before directing all of his attention to summoning his magic.
“But…” said Fleck.
He wanted to follow them in anyway, but it had been hammered into him at Bard College that such actions were frowned upon. A soloist might be able to play what they liked, but an ensemble had to play together or the entire group suffered for it. He didn’t know the rhythm of this particular piece of music that the others had performed before, and he knew he would only hinder them if he tried to take center stage against Zot’s orders.
Fleck watched from the doorway as the party closed with the monster. Fiona and Pooky charged straight at it while Gerki swung around to the left, presumably to set up an attack from behind. Deirdre and Zot kept their distance, hurling magical energy up at the creature. Beneath their combined magical assault, the creature staggered and threw back its heads. It was truly an epic scene. Watching them, Fleck could feel the stanzas forming in his head.
And then the creature breathed, exhaling three concentrated jets of purplish gas. Fleck removed his hat and shoved it over his nose and mouth well before the expanding cloud was able to reach him. As he breathed through fabric tainted with his sweat and hair pomade, he realized that the others had not had such a luxury.
The adventurers had collapsed into the cloud’s embrace and were now hunched and sobbing on the floor of the massive chamber. Even Pooky, who Fleck was no longer entirely sure was really a rabbit, had not been able to escape the effects of the gas. He lay sprawled on his back, his fuzzy legs feebly kicking at the air.
“My magic,” sobbed Zot. “It’s gone!”
“The Goddess has abandoned me!” shrieked Deirdre. “We’re lost!”
“My weapons! They’re rusting to nothing!” cried Fiona.
“It’s eating me!” screamed Gerki, even though the creature was nowhere near him.
The creature strode forward, lifted up one of its massive feet, and began to bring it down upon Fiona and Pooky. Fleck knew that there was no time to lose. He sucked as much air as he could into his lungs and stepped into the chamber, letting his hat fall by the wayside. He struck the first notes of the Mente Libertá in G Major, a bardic spell well-suited to purging malignant mental effects. He hoped that his technique and magical prowess would be enough to negate the evil influence of the hirunian gas.
The creature’s foot paused a short distance above the prone warrior and rabbit. The three heads turned, their six, baleful eyes fixed on Fleck. The foot pivoted and came down, not on Fiona and Pooky, but on the open floor between Fleck and the creature. It advanced another step toward Fleck, and another.
Fleck knew that he could not run, not if he wanted to help his new companions. Even though his knees shook, even though his fingertips fumbled a note, even though the purple tendrils of the maddening gas tickled his nose and stung his eyes, Fleck played on.
The warm chords of his music echoed around the lost chamber of the hirun, until even the creature itself was transfixed by it. It halted its advance a perilously short distance away, cocked its three heads on its thick necks, and listened. Heartened, Fleck continued his performance, trying to ignore his throbbing skull and his aching ribs. He was sure his face was at least as purple as the gas.
The others left off their screaming and came back to themselves, clutching at their heads and moaning.
“What’s happening?” asked Zot.
Fleck use the last of his air to speak four short words. “Mind control gas. Counterspell?”
“Ah, I see,” said Zot. He spoke a quick incantation and summoned up a clean, cold wind from nowhere. It whistled through the chamber, dispersing the gas.
Fleck gulped the chilly air into his lungs and collapsed to one knee, his fingers jangling on the strings of his lute. Spots darted in front of his eyes.
“Now!” shouted Zot. “Before it breathes again!”
Gerki struck from the shadows, his blades biting deep into one of the creature’s ankles. It let out a cry of anguish that Fleck was sure would bring the roof down. The creature crashed down on one knee, mirroring Fleck, its bloodied ankle unable to support its own weight.
With a wild battle cry, Fiona rushed at the creature, using her momentum to vault up onto the creature’s knee. She lashed out from her elevated perch, bringing her sword down in a double-handed strike that all but severed the creature’s arm at the shoulder. It raised its other arm to sweep Fiona down onto the floor, but its taloned fingers never reached her, scratching uselessly on a sphere of blue light summoned forth by Deirdre.
In that instant, Pooky scurried up the body of the creature, his claws finding purchase in the folds of the creature’s rubbery skin. The creature roared at Pooky, and the rabbit took that moment to leap bodily at the central head’s eyes.
The creature raised its voices in an echoing shriek and toppled backward, crashing heavily to the floor. Fiona rode it down, walked along the creature’s heaving chest, and chopped downward with her bloodied sword three times.
Apart from Pooky’s determined chewing, there was silence.
Fleck looked up and saw Zot standing over him, offering his ring-bedecked hand. “We would surely have perished here today were it not for you.”
Fleck gratefully took the outstretched hand and struggled to his feet. “Thank you, Zot, though I’d ascribe our success to both your skilled leadership and the generous blessings of Lady Luck.”
“You’re too kind.” For the first time, Zot smiled. “In any event, I think you’ve more than proven yourself, Fleck. If this whole experience hasn’t put you off of adventuring, you’re free to join us on delves whenever you like. In fact, I think that you’ve more than earned a full cut of the treasure.”
Pooky, red and slick from blood, hopped over to them. He came right up to Fleck and began nuzzling his boots and multicolored leggings, smearing them with gore. Fleck must have made a face, because Zot waggled his bushy eyebrows and made a warding gesture with his hand.
“That’s just his way of welcoming you to the party,” said Zot. “It also means that he likes you.”
“Is that good?”
Zot scratched his beard. “It’s certainly better than the alternative.”