Critmas and Caverns – Part 1

Amber had just finished fixing her eyeliner, when there was a loud thud at the door followed by a barrage of knocking. Fluffing her hair, she hurried out of the small bathroom, crashing into the back of Duncan who was, for some reason, blocking the door.
“Dude, move, there’s…”
“Buddy!”
Duncan had been blocking the bathroom door because, in the confines of the RV, it was the only place to stand when answering the front door. Which is what he had been doing. Amber ducked as hands appeared over Duncan’s shoulders and headed straight for her face. As she moved to the side she was able to see the source of the loud knocking and the owner of the hands. The inimitable, incorrigible Chris Cook with, of course, his brother in tow. As always Chris had his guitar slung across his back and as Matt seemed to be playing pack horse, Chris had his hands and arms free to draw a very unwilling Duncan into a hug. Amber grinned at the stiff way Duncan returned the hug before patting Chris’ back in a tough guy, ‘manly’ way, before extracting himself and moving to help Matt with his burden.
“Amberrrrrrrrr!” This, of course, left Chris free to hug Amber and, if he wasn’t quick enough to evade the gesture, Seth. Fortunately the other guests hadn’t yet arrived. Amber wasn’t sure how Tulip or K-Dogg would take to hugging. She suspected neither of them were particularly huggy people.
“Chris, dude, how you been?”
“Amazing.” Chris beamed. Amber beamed back. No matter what the situation, Chris was blessed with permanent optimism, the kind of optimism that was infectious.
“Hey dude.” Apparently, accepting the inevitable Seth had opted to engage rather than evade. Amber just managed to move out of the way before getting caught in a bizarre Chris-Seth sandwich. Instead, she grabbed her drink and headed to the table to check their connection to Miller.
Blocked by their younger brothers Duncan and Matt exchanged cursory, hand shake, back pat, greetings before attempting to hustle the others towards the lounge/dinette area. This was further complicated by the addition of a small, fast moving, extremely excited Jackie who felt the need to introduce himself to all and sundry, even if they hadn’t just arrived. Enjoying the mayhem, Amber chose not to call him to heel and instead settled herself on one of the benches in the dinette area so she could spectate. Beside her Miller, attending in the only way he would considering that there were people (and ignoring the fact most of these people he already knew) present, watched through the Skype connection, one eyebrow raised in a perfect imitation of a certain Vulcan science officer.
“Erm, shall we maybe get things underway?” Amber finally suggested. She patted the seat next to her and, ever obedient, Jackie jumped up, made a few turns one way and then the next before curling up, his head resting on Amber’s thigh. With one complication out of the way Duncan managed to push past Chris who, no longer in hug mode, seemed to now be faffing with Betty, his acoustic. Matt followed with an irritated glance at his brother. As he passed the table he paused to take a couple of bottles from the box he’d been carrying and placed them in the centre. Amber surveyed them.
“Rum. Nice. Ooh and the good kind.” She said with approval. Matt grinned.
“What other kind did you expect?” He asked with mock curiosity.
“Well, with these philistines,” she gestured at Seth and Duncan collectively, “whatever kind they can get drunk on at the least expense.” Matt rolled his eyes and made a disgusted sound. Amber laughed, the sound causing Jackie to lift his head up before he resettled himself and huffed back to sleep. She dropped a hand to scratch behind his ears.
Without too much more fuss they were all installed around the table, waiting for their final guests. In front of each of them was a drink and a sheet of paper. Matt, Chris and Amber also had either a small box or bag, each which contained an assortment of dice. Matt had laid out a sheet of paper which was covered with other smaller pieces of paper. In a small blank square there stood seven figurines, one for each of the players. On the laptop screen, Miller appeared to have barricaded himself in, the top of some sort of book was visible in the lower part of the screen. He seemed to be engrossed in its contents.
“So, I’m a barbarian? What does that mean exactly?” Duncan asked frowning.
Seth smirked, “I think it means you’ve been typecast bro.” Duncan responded by thumping his brother on the arm. Unperturbed Seth nodded, “yep, definitely typecast.”
“It means you get to bash stuff. A lot.” Amber simplified. Matt looked up and seemed to consider explaining in more detail before shaking his head and studying his character sheet.
“Well what are you smart-ass?” Duncan grumbled at Seth. He studied the paper in front of him for a moment before answering. “Erm, a Paladin.”
“A pala-what now?”
“Paladin dude. Duh.” Seth frowned at his character sheet. Duncan glared at him for a moment before turning his attention to Chris, who had the misfortune to be the next nearest.
“What’s yours?”
“Bard.” Chris didn’t even need to look at his sheet. He was always a bard, in real life the guy carried a guitar with him wherever he went, he composed song about the feats performed by himself and his brother, as well as any other heroics he heard of. The only time Amber could think of when he hadn’t composed a song was after the hotel incident in Vegas. Mainly because the Eagles has gotten there first. To be honest, if anyone had been typecast it was him, although it was a bit of a chicken on egg thing, was he a bard before gaming or because of gaming? “Also, halfling.” Again, everyone but Duncan understood that that was pretty much a given.
“Half-who?” Amber sighed, it was going to be a long night. Matt caught her eye and nodded towards Duncan, ‘you want me to take this?’ She smiled and nodded back, ‘gods yes!’
While Matt explained the ins and outs of the character classes and basic gaming rules, with occasional interjections from Miller and the use of the figurines and a lot of gesturing from all parties, Amber roused Jackie and took him out. Once the final two arrived it would be hours before anyone thought to let the little guy out, plus it gave Amber a final chance to smoke and get some peace. She hunched her shoulders as she rolled a cigarette, wishing she’d stopped to grab a coat. Jackie, unaffected by the cold thanks to his scruffy fur coat, trotted about sniffing here and there before staring off into the night ears twitching. Amber watched him, alert as always for potential danger. Jackie glanced in her direction before going back to sniffing around, stopping for the occasional wee. Suddenly, without any warning, he let out a bark and shot off into the dark.
“Fuck.” Amber threw down the half smoked cigarette and started to dash after him. She’d only made it a couple of paces before she heard laughter. She stopped and squinted into the night. “Hello?” A movement ahead of her, someone was coming nearer, the sound of laughter moved closer. A pale face swum out of the darkness, Tulip. She smiled at Amber and they hugged, a brief cursory, out of politeness hug. “I think your guard dog might have just given it up for belly rubs.” As she said this a second shape emerged from the dark, in its arms was a wriggling ball of ginger.
“Easy.” Amber smiled and K-Dogg placed Jackie on the floor and leaned in for a hug. His was a more genuine, pleased to see you, kind of hug. Meanwhile, Jackie dashed about their feet, snuffling and huffing in doggy joy. “Everyone else is already in.” Amber stated before turning back towards the RV. “Just waiting on a couple of stragglers.” Ignoring the jibe Tulip and K-Dogg followed her back inside, herded by Jackie.
“OK so is everyone happy with their character classes? Game rules? Any questions?” Miller asked in a tone that suggested if anyone were to have an issue or questions to ask he would probably ignore them anyways. The group nodded assent, all except Jackie, of course, who was currently partaking in his fifth nap of the evening. Jackie’s naps lasted no more than about 15 minutes each and were book-ended by a manic five minute PLAY WITH ALL MY TOYS episode. Sadly once the game got underway, he would be playing with all his toys alone, as all the humans in the room would be busy dice rolling and monster bashing. Kinda like a normal day, Amber mused, only the dice rolling wasn’t a real world thing. Probably a good thing, imagine a critical fail when facing off against psychotic Angels, for example. Taking the silence as encouragement, Miller began. His voice took on a rich quality as he began to tell the friends a story of a band of mercenaries and warriors, all but one on the side of chaotic good (in case you’re wondering) who were on a quest to save someone from something with the help of many magical artifacts and group wiles, no doubt. To be honest, while Miller set the scene, the rest checked their character sheets and, with the exception of Duncan, had a quick flick through their lists of spells and abilities.
“Following your journey through the Dwarven mines, you stop for rest and respite from the snow, in the next nearest town. Once there you find your way to the nearest tavern and secure beds for the night. The beds come with dinner and, although the landlord looks at you in an avaricious manner, suggesting the food will be of a lower standard than what he is serving to the people who seem to be regulars in his bar despite the cost, you gladly accept the offer of dinner. You are hungry and tired and, right now, any food will do.”
“I dunno about that” Duncan grumbled.
“There is also a plentiful amount of ale.”
“More like it.” Miller frowned at Duncan’s interruptions before continuing to set the scene.
“The bar is small and homely, there is a fire throwing out meager warmth at one end of the room. All but one of the tables are full. You occupy the last table.” There was a pause while Miller fiddled with something off screen and then the sounds of a busy tavern floated through the speakers. “The landlord brings over mugs of ale and plates of what looks to be a thin sort of gruel.”
“I challenge the gruel.”
“Er, Dunc, I don’t think you can challenge the gruel.”
“Why not, I don’t want this shit. I demand proper food.” Amber and Matt rolled their eyes while K-Dogg smirked to himself. Miller sighed, glancing once at his book before returning his eyes to Duncan.
“Are you going to request better food or cause a scene?”
Duncan opened his mouth but before he had a chance to reply, Amber lay a hand on his arm. “How about we don’t cause a scene right away, yeah?” She looked at Miller, “much as we appreciate the food and lodgings, we have traveled far through the the dwarven mines, meeting more than our fair share of obstacles along the way. We were hoping for something a little more, well… more.” She smiled.
“Persuasion check?”
Amber tossed her dice on the table in front of her, glanced at the result and then at her sheet, “er, 15, I think…” She counted again. “Yeah, 15.”
“The innkeeper eyes you for a moment before turning and heading back to the kitchen. He returns with a tray upon which are plates of steaming meat and vegetables. Behind him is, what you presume to be his daughter. She is holding a basket of bread.”
There was a cheer, mainly from Duncan, at the successful delivery of food. “Good work.”
“Yeah, now we can enjoy our meal.”
“As you eat you can hear snippets of conversation from the nearest tables. Nothing really catches your notice until a voice cuts through the general hubbub.” At this Miller’s voice became booming, deeper, taking on an accent a little reminiscent of Shrek. “I don’t care what you say, someone needs to do something. Another village has been destroyed, are we going to wait until it is our turn?”
Matt glanced around the table, “sounds like our kinda thing. Shall we?” All but one nodded, the one, Duncan, frowned and muttered something along the lines of “ale” and “food” and “save themselves.” Amber thumped him on the arm.
“Dude we’re meant to be the heroes remember.”
“So you’re going to talk to the guy then?” Miller asked. “Cool.”
“I think,” interrupted Tulip, “maybe only some of us, might be a little intimidating if all of us head over there.”
“Ok so who’s going? Oswyn, Ruric, Myla and…”
“… I’ll stay here with Holg.” Offered Amber, while K-Dogg merely lifted his head in assent.
“The fuck is Holg?”
“You are dude, jeez.”
“Right, what about Lyle? Nope? So Ollom, Oswyn and Myla, led by Ruric head over towards the source of the irate voice. As you reach the table the man, who had been berating everyone around him, turns to look at you.” Again his voice deepened, “yeah?”
“We overheard a little of your conversation, something about the destruction of villages…” Matt paused.
“As you speak the man is looking you and your companions over closely. ‘What of it?’ he asks somewhat aggressively.”
“Well, we thought we might be of help.”
“The man stands, he towers over you. ‘Oh did yer now, and what qualifies you to be sticking your nose in eh?'”
Tulip cut in, “well, lets just say we’re a group of individuals with a unique set of skills and very little to lose, who are happy to risk ourselves for the greater good.” She smiled, that same, not overly warm smile which never seemed to quite reach her eyes.
“Take an intimidation roll. I think, hang on…” Miller studied something off screen muttering ‘intimidation, no? Yes? Persuasion. No…’ Before looking back towards Tulip, “intimidation because you’re not really trying to persuade him are you?” Tulip smiled again.
“Me or…”
“Both of you.”
There was a moment’s silence as Tulip and Matt both rolled, checked their die and then their sheets.
“21” Stated Tulip.
“Um, 4?” Offered Matt.
“OK, the man looks at Myla for a long moment, he seems to be weighing up his chances. Clearly he thinks better of it as he sits back down and gestures for you to take the seat opposite. You sit. As Ruric goes to pull up another chair the man, without looking in your direction, almost growls at you in warning.”
As Miller continued to set the scene, creating the scenario for the group of players, Amber took the opportunity to refresh drinks and organize snacks. Once they’d gone through the formalities of discussing and then agreeing to the quest, things should speed up. Therefore it was important they had plenty of booze and, she sorted through the cupboards for snacks, popcorn and crisps. She ferried provisions to the table, making sure the food was placed in such a way that everyone had access to a fair share but also so it kept the center of the table free for the maps and figures needed for illustrative purposes. By the time she was done Myla and Oswyn had struck a deal with the aggressive man for them to do what they could to stop the ongoing destruction of the villages, for as much gold as the man and his friends could gather together. Amber, as Kediranyth, made a last minute suggestion that they request half payment up front, just in case. A successful roll on persuasion guaranteed some gold at least, regardless of what was to happen next.
“When you wake you find it has snowed again, the landscape outside the door of the tavern is white, covered with a thick blanket of snow.”
“Furs!” Demanded Chris.
“We have furs?”
“We should have, in the bag of holding maybe?”
“We have a bag of holding?”
“Dude, you have the bag. Sheesh.” Duncan glanced at his sheet and then at the rest of the table nonplussed.
“It’s not written here.” Seth leaned over and pointed at the equipment list. “Oh, right. And that does what?”
“It’s a bag, for holding.” Duncan glared at Amber for a moment, she grinned back at him. “A holding bag.”
“And it has furs?” There was a collective groan interspersed with yesses and Godssakes.
Miller cut in, “You all take some furs from the bag and wrap yourselves up against the cold. It is not currently snowing, but the sky is heavy with it. As yet you are the only people, other than the innkeeper and his daughter, who are awake. You’ve eaten a scant breakfast and are ready to begin your journey.” He gestured at Matt who moved some of the sheets of paper, revealing a hand drawn path ahead of the small figurines. “You set out on the only road which has been cleared, the next village is half a day’s walk and the stories you heard last night suggest it is the most recent to be hit. It is not yet destroyed but there have been rumors of missing people, dead livestock and strange sights and sounds in the night. You are certain it is likely you will find what you seek there.”
“What’s the plan, Ruric, any ideas?”
“I think we head for the nearest tavern once we reach the village.”
“For Ale? Agreed.”
“To see if we can find information, not to drink, fool.” Duncan frowned at Matt. “Perhaps even a guide.”
“Yeah, good luck with that, I think a guide would make our lives perhaps too easy, I doubt that’s Miller’s plan.” Miller nodded in K-Dogg’s direction, clearly signalling he’d supposed correctly. “I suggest we remain on guard as soon as we get to the outskirts of the village, expect trouble.”
“Okay. After several hours of walking you can see the tops of houses in the far distance, the village. It looks to be deserted. You continue walking and as you draw nearer you notice there is no sound. The whole place is silent.” A chorus of oohs went up from the table. “You reach the foremost house, it is silent and dark, the houses beside it are unlit. Although it is day, it is dark enough with the threat of snow to warrant needing lights indoors.”
“Woah, wait, wait guys.” Everyone around the table looked at Chris. “I’m not sure that walking straight in is a good idea.”
“Yeah, I’m feeling that too, good call Lyle. Ruric, Ollom, ideas?”
“Can we go round?”
“You can follow the line of houses around. As you look you can see a narrow street about twenty meters further along.” Miller gestured towards the screen and Matt moved more sheets of paper. About half the big sheet was uncovered and depicted in it was a path which disappeared among small hut shapes. The group studied the paper for a moment, K-Dogg leant towards Matt. After some whispering and pointing between the two of them Matt spoke up.
“I vote we head for the narrow street.” He pointed at a gap between two of the huts.”I think marching up the main road unannounced might be asking for trouble.” As the rest of the group agreed, Duncan glowered in the general direction of the dwarves. “Do we need a roll?”
Miller shook his head, “you make your way round and gather in the shadows at the mouth of the side street. Roll for initiative.” At least half the players’ heads snapped up, four sets of eyes on Miller.
“Oh shit dude…”
“…Here we go.”
There was the sound of dice clacking on the table surface, as each of the party took it in turns to roll. One by one they called out numbers. Miller continued to talk them through the outskirts of the town, down winding streets, past countless deserted houses. The small band inched along, checking for possible attacks, investigating abandoned buildings but turning up very little until,
“Oohkay, Ruric, you take a step forward and peer into the darkness, it seems to be clear and ahead you can see more houses. Further ahead in the center of the town, you can see lights but no shadows inside the houses, they appear to be deserted. Ahead of you, at the furthest end of this street you can see the shape of a much larger building, it is too far away for you to tell if any shadows move there. However, nearer to you, about halfway down the street is a shadow, which does seem to be moving.”
“Kill it.” Duncan offered.
“Yeah, I’ll summon I dunno, flame strike? And blast the fucker.” Amber seconded. The rest of the group collectively sighed. “What?”
“Do you not think it would be better to wait? They might not be an enemy.”
“No way man, you ever known anyone good to be sneaking around in the dark. I say we pow him to kingdom come. Pew, pew, pew.” Amber grinned at the horrified faces before her. “Alternatively we could wait?” She countered.
“Do I assume the big building is where we need to be heading?”
Miller merely smiled, choosing not to give anything away he didn’t have to.
“Roll for stealth then guys, I think we need to try and get down the street nearer to the shadow if possible.” Matt glanced over his sheet and then Duncan’s. “OK you need a high roll, you ain’t the stealthiest barbarian, dude.” Duncan raised his eyebrows.
“Who needs stealth when you got axe?” He retorted.
“Slowly, quietly, the small party makes their way down the street towards the mysterious shadow. As Myla nears the figure she can hear a sound, like chanting.”
“Do I understand the words?”
“Erm, it’s just Common language, you’re the only one close enough to hear it.” Tulip nodded.
“Cool.”
“Right, then what you can hear seems to be the fragments of a song, ‘the riches mean nothing, the place is the place, praise the all father and his grace…'”
“Which means fuck all.” Offered Duncan.
Miller fixed him with a stare, “it means fuck all to you, you can’t hear a word of it.”
“I sneak back a couple of paces and gather everyone around me and explain what I’ve heard.”
“Wait, but shouldn’t we maybe grab whatever it is, won’t it get away?”
“It’s not like it’s moving fast though, plus if we grab it we’ll have to have a fight probably and lose the opportunity to make sense of the words…”
“…alternatively we talk and lose this opportunity to grab an informant.”
“I don’t even know why we need to talk, we know what was said…”
“…out of game dude, not in game…”
“…difference…?”
Miller watched impassively as, on the screen in front of him, minor squabbling ensued. He idly flicked at the dice before him until someone said his name, grabbing his attention back to the players.
“We stick to plan A, I grab everyone around me and explain what I’ve heard.”
“Excellent, as you do the shadow moves off further from you and closer to the large building you saw. You don’t notice as you’re busy talking, not until there’s a kind of schloop sound and the whole place is lit up in a flare of white light.”
“Fuck.”
“Shit.”
“Cover!”
“PANIC!!!!!!” Everyone except Matt, Tulip and, of course, Miller, fell about laughing. Instead, choosing to ignore the idiots, Matt asked if there was a nearby alley to duck into.
“You can see, as the whole place is lit up, the opening of an alley between the two houses opposite.”
“Can we see anything else around?”
“You look ahead but the lights are so bright you can’t see anything in that direction. Even the shadowy figure has seemingly vanished. Perception check?” Agin the sound of multiple dice rolls as the intrepid adventurers checked their success at noticing anything out of the ordinary.
“Ok so, with the exception of Chris, who is currently looking at his feet, you look around, the facades of the houses opposite appear to be empty as do the ones nearest you. The alley is dark so you can’t see much but, from what you can see it appears to be clear. Ollom, you think you can see something glimmering in the upstairs window of the house opposite.”
“Can I tell what it is?”
“You think it could be perhaps light shining off the head of an arrow, you’re certainly convinced enough to be cautious.”
The revelation of a potential lurking attack sent the group into further arguments, Amber and Duncan were, as always, on the offensive, wanting to attack before the mysterious arrow holder could. The others cautioned against doing anything rash, the glimmer may not be an arrow after all. Amber counter argued that for Miller to suggest it was an arrow meant they were about to be attacked while Matt pointed out that GMs were notoriously tricky and often gave erroneous information. Being Matt he even used the word erroneous to which Duncan merely frowned, it not being a word he had heard anyone use before. Tulip looked bored at all the squabbling while Amber took the opportunity to grab more drinks. Seeing as things were definitely picking up and tempers were already starting to fray she figured it a good time for shots.
While all this was going on, Miller thought it was a perfect chance to nip off for a quick toilet break. Unlike the guys in the RV, he didn’t have anyone to refill his drink or provide snacks so decided he could get all that done while the bickering went on. Knowing the Amber, the Carpenters and the Cooks they could argue over this single decision for a while. The other two he was less sure of but neither of them seemed willing to step in and calm the rows choosing instead to sit and hold their own counsel, probably until the others rowed themselves out. Either way nothing could happen without him and, as he was skyping and not physically in the room, he could leave all his stuff without having to worry about anyone seeing his super top secret GM notes, especially seeing as he did have an ambush planned and awaiting them in the upstairs rooms of the house and the alleyway opposite.
Amber carried the bottle of Jäger back to the table, frowning as her boot slipped on the icy ground. Snow had just started to fall, gently covering the heads and shoulders of her companions. They stood huddled at the edge of the narrow street, just hidden by the houses. Ahead of them was the mouth of a very dark alleyway.
“… Should stealth to the side of the building, see if we can get in and…”
“Why can’t I just Call Lightning?…oh.” Amber exclaimed as her brain caught up with her optic nerves and she realized the interior or the RV had vanished. In its place was the snow covered street Miller had been describing only moments before. “Um guys.. Guys, I er, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
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