Introductory Fiction (1995)

(This was going to be the original introductory story to the 1995 FRUP rulebook. In retrospect it’s far too long, but I still have a soft spot for it. Needs a fairly brutal edit, though. Lee Brimmicombe-Wood created a fantastic full-page illustration for it, which he later redid completely because he wasn’t happy with the first one. Anyway, here you go.)

For many days they had tracked the path of the underground river as it coursed through countless caverns, from echoing galleries of glowing bats and squeaking fungi, to narrow crevices scarcely wide enough to squeeze through. They had followed its icy waters down treacherous sink-holes, across flooded grottoes where blind cave-fish darted away at their approach and somewhat braver albino crayfish nibbled at their boot laces. They had ventured ever downwards through submerged tunnels flooded with manhood-shrivelling water, pulling themselves blindly along a rope until their lungs were near to bursting. They had fought off attacks from many humanoid and inhumanoid denizens of this underworld, both many-limbed and entirely non-limbed. They had discovered the fresh corpses of a party of adventurers twice as good as they, each well-muscled body impaled upon a sharpened courgette and each twisted visage bearing a look of almost indescribable disappointment. And they had lost the party priest two days before in a rockfall so sudden and arbitrary a more cynical group of adventurers might have questioned whether the gods of fate were merely rolling up encounters according to some random chart or list.

It had been a long, hard, exhausting, incongruous—no, not incongruous, impetuous, yes that was it, foolhardy and expensive trek. But now it was over.

The four remaining members of the party stood in the guttering light of their last torch and watched in sullen wonder as the river became a waterfall, dropping hundreds of feet from the cliff on which they stood into the massive underground sea beyond. This was the moment of the end. This was the moment they knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, finally and with all their hearts, that the map that the bloody old bastard of a sage in Huzza had given them in exchange for the priceless Crown of Costikyan, the sodding bastard bloody bastard map which had promised an end to their seven-year search, was unquestionably a dud.

The mage Azarkan kicked a small pebble over the edge of the cliff, and a few seconds later the others heard its faint plop over the dull humming roar of the water. ‘I’ve come to a decision,’ the spellcaster announced. ‘And that decision is that we’re well and truly stuffed. There is more sage and onion in us than in the fattest Midwinter goose. Stick an apple in our mouths and we’d be a dish fit for kings: roast suckling PCs. By the sacred name of Paxos, patron lord of all turkey dinners, we’re so full of—’

‘If you don’t stop talking about food, Azarkan, I’m going to shove that magic staff of yours so far up your arse that you’ll be able to bite it.’ Nigel glowered across the small rock platform, the spray from the waterfall making the goose-pimples on his bare stomach glisten. He tugged at the bearskin he wore over his shoulders, and leaned forward. ‘We’re out of food, and down to our last torch. Anyone got any bright ideas?’

‘At least we’re not short of water,’ said a shape in the shadows.

Azarkan ignored it and began stroking his chin in a vain attempt to appear sagacious, his long cloak swirling gently in some unfelt wind. ‘I could teleport us out of here,’ he suggested.

The shape became a shapely woman wearing the unmistakably skimpy armour and scars of the Valkyries of Daene. ‘No you bloody couldn’t, you useless jessie,’ she countered. ‘You’d discover you don’t have the right spell components just at the moment, or there would be too much metal ore in the stone around here, or the cosmic vibrations wouldn’t be right, or the particular spell never works on the ninth Runeday after Praxmas, or something would distract your concentration at a crucial moment. Forget it. I’d make a better sixth-stage wizard than you do.’

‘Yeah?’ asked the wizard, taking a defensive step backwards. ‘So who was it who loosed off the bolt of lightning that destroyed that entire group of dark halflings, eh, Myrian? Eh?’

‘The bolt of lightning that brought down the roof onto poor old Gredler, leaving us without a priest, you mean?’ The Valkyrie’s voice was harsh with indignance, and her spectacular euphemisms shook with suppressed rage, or possibly cold. ‘That was the only time a high-level spell of yours has gone off this adventure, you over-dressed ponce. I reckon we should get a rules lawyer to look you over when we get back. Possibly even test your attributes again—’

Nigel’s immense axe interposed itself between them. ‘Leave it out, you two, or I’ll kill you both, slice off your ears and claim the career points for myself.’ He turned away, to the silent henchman who stood gazing out across the lake. ‘Murdoch, what do you reckon?’

‘I be reckon someone’s chiselled foot-holds into t’rock.’ The henchman raised a mailed arm to point out the indistinct markings on the cliff wall with a hand whose fingers were all missing their final joints. ‘There’s mayhap a ledge near the edge o’t’water, leading round t’cave. And there’s an encampment of yon orcs on t’other side.’

‘Orcs? Really?’ Azarkan was sceptical, and more than a little glad of the change of subject. ‘How can you be sure?’

‘I heard ’em singing, just before you three twonks began your ruddy shouting. Happen they knows we’re here now. And they also knows a way out of here.’

‘Don’t be so bloody stupid, man.’ Nigel stared at him. ‘I know you’ve never seen an orc before. None of us ever have. How in the name of the left nipple of Nyx can you recognize their singing, let alone know what they’re thinking?’

‘Because they were singing in Prolix about how they’re t’last of their orcish tribe, and yon fire is giving off peat smoke, and peat don’t grow underground. Now if you dozy city boys and girls will permit, happen we should go and kill them.’

‘Bloody know-all NPCs,’ Azarkan muttered to Nigel, but the steroid-pumped Boeotian wasn’t listening.

‘Orcs!’ the tall man breathed dramatically. ‘At last. I have waited for this moment for so long.’

‘Wake up, you oaf.’ Myrian slapped his flabby back with her well-thumbed copy of the Book of Beasts. ‘They’re one beast-dice monsters. Hoard letter H. We’re talking no more than twenty career points for each one. That’s not going to get you up to stage ten very fast. How many points do you need to get before you hit the half-million, anyway?’

Nigel caught her eye and held it for a long second. ‘Another twenty thousand, by my reckoning, and then at last I can reclaim the rightful estates of my family. My father, and his father, and his mother, and her aunt before her all reached stage ten, and my great grand-dam got to stage thirteen, but none of them ever killed an orc. That eighteenth-stage fighter we found dead in the grotto of the micturating mushrooms had killed dragons, but do you know, not a single orc was listed on his character chart? Have you ever seen an orc?’

Myrian stared at him, then turned away. ‘No. I haven’t. But so what? I’ve seen plenty of other really gross monsters.’

Nigel turned to the others. ‘Any of you?’ Azarkan shook his head.

Murdoch frowned. ‘Happen my old dad said he had,’ he said, ‘but the old gaffer said many things that turned out to be balls. Now are we going on, or are we after making pleasant conversation here until the torch goes out?’

‘Fret not, my good burly henchman. I can always cast an Illumination spell if it does,’ Azarkan suggested with a nonchalant swagger. Myrian swiped him across the back of his balding head with her Book of Beasts and he shut up.

The climb down to the ledge below was a long and dangerous one. The foot-holes were thickly encrusted with limestone and slick with spray, and the nearness of the rushing torrent felt like it might sweep them away at any moment. The ledge at the bottom was no more than two feet wide; it twisted and turned its long, sinuous way around the sheer sides of the huge cavern, the dark waters of the subterranean lake bubbling ominously sometimes inches, sometimes furlongs below. Each party member came within a knife’s edge of losing their life a dozen times or more, but such exploits are generally tedious and must wait for another tale to be told of here.

At length Murdoch signalled them to stop and they stopped. Nigel complained in petulant whisper, ‘Look, I’ve told you before, Murdoch. I pay you and I pay you pretty damn well too, Mister Only-a-henchman, so if anyone around here is going to signal us to stop it’ll be me. Got it?’ The barbarian indicated for them all to start walking again, they each took a step forwards and then he waved for them to halt once more.

‘The gods help us. All of them,’ spat Myrian to no one in particular.

Ahead of them the ledge widened, leading into a dark entrance in the cave wall. Strange voices could be heard from the other side, and the faint light of a fire reflected dimly on the rippling lake-water.

‘How many?’ Myrian whispered.

‘More’n three, I reckon. Mayhap six, but no more.’ Murdoch eased the face-plate of his helmet down.

‘We need a marching order. I’ll go at the ba—’ Azarkan was interrupted by the heavy hand of the heavy Boeotian warrior on his shoulder. Nigel smiled down at him.

‘Marching order? For six orcs? Don’t be daft, man. Let’s just get out there and CHARGE!’ He sprang forward, his axe raised, and disappeared into the cave-mouth.

Myrian and Murdoch exchanged a glance of exasperation, then the Valkyrie melted into the shadows in a most un-warriorlike way, while the heavily armoured NPC clanked forward to help his patron. Azarkan, finding himself alone for an instant, pulled out a scroll, tried mouthing a few words to himself, then clearly thought better of the whole thing, drew his dagger and advanced gingerly into the orcish den.

Azarkan recognized the orcs immediately from their picture in his own copy of the Book of Beasts: the discoloured skin, pointed ears, jutting jaws and fierce fangs were unmistakable. There were five of them, seated around a long, polished stone table which bore the remains of their last meal, but the only bone was bone china, the only blood the dark red wine in the crystal goblets. The cutlery was silver, the candelabra gold, and the light cast from the tallow candles was as rich and luxurious as the velvet robes worn by the allegedly foul monsters. It was possible that they looked slightly more surprised to see the adventurers than Azarkan was surprised by their appearance, but there probably wasn’t that much in it.

In the middle of the long table was the remains of an enormous fish, fully eight feet long, and Nigel, hacking at it with his mighty axe. ‘Giant pike!’ he screeched at the others. ‘At least a hundred career points! Help me get its head!’

The oldest of the orcs, its skin wizened with age, stood shakily. ‘Giant trout, actually, old man,’ it said in a quivering voice. ‘We’d have preferred salmon, maybe sautéd gently in a white wine sauce with shallots and basil, but beggars such as we cannot, alas, be choosers. It was a gift from the guardian of the waters. Do have some: there is plenty for all, and the hollandaise sauce really is most piquant. Pull up a chair, why don’t you?’

The head of the great fish fell away from the body and Nigel looked around. ‘Orc,’ he spat in a low voice, striding down the table. ‘Foul fiends, burners of grandparents and rapers of villages_’

‘Oh dear, that old story.’ The orc raised its arms in despair, showing sleeves heavily brocaded with gold thread. ‘Please, can’t we talk about this like civilized beings? It’s been so long since we’ve had visitors. You look like reasonable people: please, accept our offer of hospitality. After we eat, you can tell me of the happenings in the world outside, and I will entertain you with the ballad of the history of our tribe while my wife accompanies me on the harp and ereuugh.’ Its head lolled backwards, fell off its neck and hit the floor with a moist but solid thud. Its brow was ever so slightly furrowed. Nigel shook the dark viscous gloop from the blade of his axe, and advanced on the other orcs. They scattered.

‘MÊLÉE!’ yelled Azarkan, being careful to stay well out of it. In a few seconds it was all over, and the other three player characters were wiping their weapons on the tablecloth. Nigel looked down at the bodies before him.

‘You know, somehow I thought they would put up more of a fight,’ he mused.

Azarkan strode forward. ‘Sod the fight, look at all the treasure! At least a thousand geeps for the stuff on the table alone. Equal shares as usu—’ He trailed off as he found himself staring at the tip of Myrian’s bloodied sword. She shook it under his nose.

‘I didn’t see you doing much fighting,’ she growled.

Azarkan shrugged. ‘I was guarding the rear and preparing a spell. It was all over before I could cast it,’ he apologized weakly.

‘Oh yeah? What made you think our rear needed watching?’

Azarkan grinned. Making excuses was second nature to him. ‘Standard tactics. And didn’t that old orc say something about a guardian of the waters? I thought I heard something from back that way. And as for rears, my dear, I am always willing to watch the sashaying of the twin moons of your most attractive euphemism.’

Myrian ignored the last remark. Azarkan had seen her ignore thousands like it, mostly from him: the Valkyries of Daene got used to that sort of comment fast, in his experience. ‘I didn’t hear anything,’ she said archly.

‘Ah, well, that’s because you don’t have the finely honed senses of an Onyx wizar—’ Something interrupted Azarkan’s thoughts. He turned towards the cave entrance, and his brow creased for a moment in either concentration or constipation. ‘Did you hear that?’

‘Stop mugging.’ Myrian obviously hadn’t. ‘There’s nothing there except your excuses for being a bloody awful wizard.’

‘No, seriously. Right on the upper edge of your hearing? Like a bat’s cry or a halfling’s fart? You really can’t hear it?’

‘Can it, Zark! I’ve heard enough of your catoblepascrap to last a lifetime.’ She turned away, walking over to where Nigel was loading the cutlery into his large back-pack. Murdoch was sawing unenthusiastically at the orcs’ ears and stowing them in his belt-pouch. Azarkan took a step towards them, and then a step back. He hadn’t been lying; he really could hear something. And it was getting louder.

‘Guys—’ he began, but was interrupted as it exploded out of the water to fill the cavern behind them: a charging mass of hideous, shifting, amorphous flesh; growing, spawning spiked tentacles, swirling with all colours and no colour. It reared towards the ceiling and heads of bare bone appeared at its zenith, snapping their bleached teeth in anticipation of the coming evisceration. Ichor-streaked water sprayed from the unnameable abomination’s pallid surface, and the air was filled with a hideous odour of wet decay and corruption, and the sound of a thousand shrill shriekings. Myrian screamed. So did Murdoch. Azarkan would have done so too if he could breathe, or move, but he felt rooted to the spot: powerless; terrified; awe-struck; and strangely calm. This was no ordinary monster, nor some creation of sorcery, his mind’s voice rationalized. It could only be a creature from the Realm of Darkness, or one of the ageless beasts said to dwell at the heart of the world. Or a messenger of the gods. It was a sign, he knew, and a sign meant for him and him alone.

Nigel was staring at the ichorous thing with a strange look in his eye. Whatever it was, it was bloody big. ‘Run, all of you!’ he yelled, gesturing towards the dark tunnel exit at the back of the cavern. ‘I’ll hold it off while you get away!’ Not taking his eyes off the huge bulk of the shifting, pulsating corpus, he began to dig swiftly through his back-pack. The ululating creature undulated closer, its myriad tentacles probing the air like a cat’s whiskers. As Azarkan watched, more thorn-like talons formed on each one.

‘Nay!’ shouted Murdoch. ‘Stand back, sire, and let me assist ye!’

‘GO!’ bellowed Nigel. ‘The career points for this thing are mine alone!’ He stepped forward towards the wall of writhing flesh. In one hand he brandished his axe Meatcleaver, and in the other was a large sheet of dusty vellum. The portly warrior thrust the sheet at the behemoth, and Azarkan, as he finally regained control of his legs and began to back towards the dark exit, saw what it was: a character chart. Not Nigel’s own, but the one he had taken from the body of the dead warrior in the cave of micturating mushrooms.

‘Look!’ shouted Nigel at the unheeding beast. ‘This is my character chart! I’m an eighteenth-stage warrior with a Brawn of seventeen! I’ve got two hundred million career points! I’ve killed dragons, demons and the daughter of a god! So back off, you ugly great brute, or you’re sushi!’

The entity stopped its advance, and its shrieking died to a distant moan. A single pseudopod extended slowly from the mound of flesh at its centre and hung silently before the vellum, as if examining both it and its bearer closely. There was a long, terrible moment. Then, as the other three watched in horrified awe, a single thorn-talon flicked outwards from its end, and the pseudopod swung down.

‘Run!’ yelled Myrian. Carrying the torch, she dived into the tunnel entrance. Behind her, as the other two followed her, the cavern was plunged into darkness. Azarkan, at the back, heard the sound of old vellum being sliced in two and, as the shrieking of the abomination suddenly resumed, other sounds of slicing, dicing, shredding, tearing and screaming, albeit generally of a more, well, organic nature. They grew fainter as he scrambled away down the narrow passage.

The thing had known Nigel was lying, he thought. It had sensed that the character chart was not his own. For certain, it could only have been an emissary from the gods, sent to track and trap those who flouted their holy rules. Nigel had committed a heresy, a bloody great big one, and the gods had punished him. Now his lineage was ended, his family name would die out, and his family estates would pass to the Chapter. A few years hence, nobody would remember him, and that was a fitting fate for a heretic.

But the power of the thing…. Azarkan recalled his terror, felt it still, but felt also the raw energy of the creature, and the awe it had inspired in him. Deep in his heart, down past the rank cowardice and turn left, the mage felt a stirring. Something was calling him.

The pace of the frantic retreat slowed eventually, and the three survivors came to a stop in a nondescript cavern filled with broken stalagmites and stalactites. The flame of the torch flickered wildly in a draught, and Myrian looked around hopefully.

‘Moving air,’ she said. ‘We must be near the surface.’

Azarkan nodded and panted. He was used to running away, but not usually so far or so fast. Murdoch cocked a sardonic eyebrow at him.

‘No fire-balls, sir wizard?’ he asked. ‘No a single force-wall or charmed touch t’send yon monster on its way and save t’life of me old master?’

Azarkan, head down, hands on knees, panted some more. Finally he looked up at the other two and said, ‘No spells. No more spells any more.’

‘What? Why not?’ Myrian sounded surprised, and confused. ‘Sure, you were always absolutely crap as a wizard, but—’

‘I should never have been a wizard. It’s not right. It never was. I was always pretending, always trying to escape my destiny.’

Myrian said nothing, but her expression told him to explain.

‘That thing called to me; somehow, in all of its ineffable alienness, it told me what I should have done all along. As soon as we get out of here, I’m going straight to the Chapter and applying to join.’

‘You’re going to be a priest?’ The Valkyrie was incredulous.

‘I’m going to be a rules lawyer.’ Azarkan was defiant. Myrian stared at him for a moment, then turned away, her shoulders shaking. Whether she was sobbing or trying to control a fit of giggles, the suddenly ex-wizard could not tell, but he knew it probably wasn’t important. He looked instead to the henchman.

‘And you, Murdoch, what will you do now your master is dead? Grieve for him? Find a new master? Return to your lowly peasant village and scrape a desperate living from the damp and unwilling sod?’

Murdoch scratched his beard with one mailed gauntlet. ‘A good query. Shall I grieve for the man who paid me nobbut four geeps a month, gave me no holidays and no overtime for weekends, and made me carry his soiled loincloths in my pack? No, I bloody shan’t. I have had enough of masters, and of Nigel Fat-Guts Gurning in particular, the useless great lardy-arsed twat. After this, I shall go my own way.’

‘But you’re an NPC! You know you can’t go adventuring without a party of PCs.’

Murdoch smiled and dug in his belt-pouch. ‘Ah, well, madam, I had a stroke of good fortune, back while I was gathering the orcs’ ears. One of them was wearing this.’ He opened his gauntlet, and a huge gold ring set with diamonds and emeralds glinted in his palm. ‘I reckon such a thing should pay my subscription to the warriors’ order for a good year at least, and mayhap membership of a guild as well.’

Myrian, having recovered from her fit of emotion, stared at the ring in horror. ‘But that’s party treasure! You know the rules: the Book of Life says it should be divided equally, with NPCs getting half a share.’

‘I knows the rules, Myrian.’ Murdoch’s face creased into an unaccustomed smile. It did not sit well on him and, with his dark eyes and dark beard, he suddenly looked very sinister. His voice grew deeper and more rounded; he was losing more of his ill-delivered yokel accent with every new word he spat. ‘I also know this: I may be a stage zero NPC, but you’ve seen my fighting, and you know I could kill the both of you here and now. I found the ring, so it’s mine. If I hear one word of argument out of you two sad cowards, I shall have the happy duty of telling your orders and guilds that you was both tragically slain by a marauding cave-beast in the bowels of the earth, and I alone survived to tell the tale. Got it?’

Myrian nodded dumbly and a second later Azarkan followed her example. He thought for an instant about casting an Incantation of Revealed Morality on Murdoch, but decided against it. Like most of his spells it almost certainly wouldn’t work, and besides it would be better to wait until Murdoch had become a PC. The bounty for turning him over to the Chapter as a heretic would be higher after that, and the order of priests would be more impressed with the diligence of their new member as well.

Smiling a secret smile to himself, he followed the other two as they moved off into the darkness of the underworld.