pathfinder: beyond the vale

Part 8: Chapter and Curse

The water came up to Cirice’s ribs. She tried not to think about what she was feeling with soles of her feet under the cloudy, stinking water. The bottom felt soft like fine sand or silt, but occasionally there was something prickly, or something hard and smooth; It could be twigs and pebbles, or splintered bones and buried skulls! – she shuddered. The bear swam along beside the raft, unperturbed by whatever lay unseen beneath the water. She pushed the raft along the waterway further into the flooded cavern and after a few minutes, they spotted a ledge off to one side. She angled towards it so they could check it out and waved a hand to send her floating lights over the ledge to bathe it in their pale blue luminescence.

 

When they reached the ledge, which was a couple of inches above the water level, Garren, Trick and Duriel leapt off the raft onto it. Duriel lifted one end of the raft while Cirice pushed it safely onto the ledge so it wouldn’t float away. The ledge was made of compacted earth but there was a mound of soil which looked a bit like a massive molehill a few feet back from the water. Further behind was another flooded passageway, though much narrower than this one.

 

Garren and Duriel were not keen to pass the mound as it looked as if it might be “occupied”. With giant centipedes at the forefront of her mind, Cirice didn’t want to get too close either. She asked trick to dash past the mound and see what was on the other side. The black and red fox shot off past the mound and out of sight. After a few seconds he charged back. As he passed the mound for a second time a giant centipede burst out of the soil and lashed at him with its tail stinger but missed. The creature fully revealed itself, shaking off the damp soil like a wet dog shaking out its fur after a swim. It turned to “look” at the group with its inscrutable eyeless face. Twitching rhythmically, the centipede radiated hostility, but it did not approach.

 

Trick positioned himself next to Cirice’s leg and began to speak in a series of growls.

 

“The passageway leads back around to the cave we just left…” he said in Abyssal. Garren and Duriel looked from Trick to Cirice with mystified expressions.

 

“Trick says we don’t need to go that way” she said, backing away from the Centipede but not taking her eyes off it.

 

“Let’s go then,” said Garren. “Let’s not fight that thing unless we have to.”

 

“Agreed.” Duriel pushed the raft onto the water and held on to it while Garren and Trick got aboard. Cirice slid into the water and took the far end of the raft while Duriel got on and then they were under way. The Centipede watched them go and then burrowed back into the mound of soil.

 

“Nasty. Wouldn’t want to be stung by one of those.” Said Cirice.

 

They continued to follow the flooded passage and another ledge appeared on the left. It had no mounds on it and was covered in fat red toadstools which stank like rotten meat. They decided to try and find Terrence first and explore later, if necessary, forgoing another stop at this ledge.

 

The water got progressively deeper until it was up to Cirice’s shoulders and the ground below her feet still sloped away. The Cavern had widened and the light shining from Garren’s pebble and Cirice’s floating lights no longer reached the walls on either side. The water seemed clearer here and they could see the bottom.

 

“I think I’m going to need to get on.” Said Cirice “The water’s getting too deep.”

 

Garren and Duriel moved to make room while Fall, who was a surprisingly good swimmer for such a bulky creature. Started to push the raft in her place.

 

The extra weight pushed the raft below the water level at Cirice’s end, but it remained stable enough as the bear pushed it through the water. Garren and Duriel started to get wet but Cirice was soaked to the skin already so she, at least, didn’t mind. Further along a pale blue light shone from an arch-like aperture.

 

They looked down into the deep water and saw a what looked like a complete skeleton, standing on the bottom, with a shield on one arm. A sword seemed to float in the water near its empty hand. Garren’s eyes were sharp, and he quickly realised there was some sort of outline around the skeleton, as if it were floating in a transparent bag. The skeleton seemed to be extruded from its weird container and the pieces were scattered to the bottom. The thing that had just “spat” out the skeleton, whatever it was, seemed to move towards them, rising in the water, like a bobbing cork.

 

Garren saw the thing’s rapid approach and quickly told Fall to push them back the way they had come, realising that it would tip them all into the water if they didn’t get out of the way. The bear swam obligingly around the raft and started pushing them the other way with the motions of his powerful legs, but the bear’s energy was mostly spent arresting the raft’s considerable forward motion. As the raft slowed and began to change direction Cirice raised her hands in readiness. The transparent thing, that must be some malevolent creature was mere inches beneath the water’s surface and too close to the reversing Raft.

 

Cirice let loose an electric arc from her fingertips, hoping that the electricity would be more effective on the submerged beast and simultaneously hoping that the charge would not hit the bear. She watched the blue crackling radiance disperse through the creature’s strange transparent flesh, but it didn’t seem to be slowed in the slightest.

 

Duriel pulled his hatchet off his belt and started to use it as a paddle and the overburdened raft moved at last. The strokes of his powerful shoulders helped distance them from the rising creature and foiling its fell ambitions. Garren pulled out his hand bow and fired a bolt at the thing in the water but the water seemed to absorb most of the bolt’s velocity, and it ended up floating on the surface of the water, never reaching its target.

 

Cirice cast her electric bolt again and was disappointed with how little it seemed to affect the beast. Duriel stopped paddling and instead turned the axe on the thing as it finally breached the surface in front of the raft. Three deft slashes sliced open its membranous hide, spilling its transparent jelly innards. Its remains sank out of view.

 

Cirice recalled from her studies that this was likely a creature of abyssal origins. They were of a type of beast called an Ooze. This one, more specifically, was an amoeba. It must either have been summoned by some foul occult rite or… she shuddered at the thought, had found its own way here, drawn by copious amounts of rotting flesh.

 

Garren cast a spell to detect the presence of magic and when he felt the tell-tale echoes beneath the water, he dove down to inspect the skeletal remains. He returned with the skeleton’s belt pouch which contained a few coins and some sort of bottled potion, Garren had also snapped off a finger bone to take an engraved copper ring.

 

They pressed on towards the blue lit archway ahead and after a minute or two found themselves in a smaller chamber. The stench intensified appallingly and Cirice tried to cover her nose while breathing through her mouth, but she remained nauseous, regardless. Her stomach churned and bile rose, salty in her mouth.

 

On a ledge covered with huge pale blue mushrooms they saw the body of the unfortunate Terrence, his torso resting on the ledge and legs dangling in the water, and then they saw what had fallen upon him, lapping blood from a doubtless fatal wound in his throat. The creature was about the size of a human girl, but its webbed hands and feet showed it was no such thing. Its skin had a bluish hue, and its mouth was stained with fresh blood which ran down its chin as it muttered to itself.

 

Cirice strained her ears: “What are they doing here? We did not invite them to drink with us…” it said in an odd ethereal voice. This surprised Cirice a little: It spoke the language of the Fey. Capricious though they often were, the Fey that spoke the Sylvan tongue of the first world were by and large, well – good, in their own way, while the dark spirits of the earth spoke the wretched Aklo of the Dark Fey. This creature was most foul. She guessed it must have been corrupted in some way.

 

“That’s a Nixie,” whispered Garren. “But I’ve never seen one like this before. I think she’s too far gone.”

 

Thinking quickly, Cirice decided to try and speak to the creature to give them time to ready themselves for battle.

 

“You did invite me to drink with you,” she said in the strange sing song voice that human vocal organs struggled to replicate. If it weren’t for the stench of liquescent decay, she might have managed a better job, but she was struggling to keep from vomiting. “You must have forgotten.” The Nixie appeared to consider this, cocking its head to once side like an inquisitive dog, yellow eyes peering.

 

“Look, I’ve even brought guests…” she added. She whispered to the others from the corner of her mouth “Get ready…” as the raft drifted ever closer to the creature.

 

Its expression soured and its eyebrows knotted. “She thinks that we are stupid!” it said indignantly.

 

“Now!” said Cirice, raising her hands.

 

Her friends were indeed ready and were faster off the mark than she: Duriel had levelled his crossbow and let loose a bolt which grazed the creature’s shoulder. It let out an ear-splitting screech of rage. Meanwhile, Garren waved circling hands back and forth, raising up the water in front of them into a great wave which crashed down on the Nixie, throwing her back into the clumps of blue mushrooms by the cavern wall while the raft drifted back slightly on the momentarily angled water.

 

Cirice choked with horror as the Nixie spoke a few blasphemous words and Terrence, stumblingly stood up and turned to face them, with a strange green light in his eyes, slack jaw champing vacuously.

 

Cirice realised the spell she had planned to cast would not reach its target as Garren’s spell has widened the gap between them. Heaving and coughing all the while Cirice slipped into the foul polluted water in front of the raft to bring her closer, the water came all the way up to her chin. She yelped in disgust as the nauseating, filthy water lapped at her face. When her concentration shifted to the working of a higher spell, her lights winked out, leaving only Garren’s glowing pebble and the strange phosphorescent mushrooms to light the chamber. She was not sad to see less of it.

 

She raised her hands out of the water and, as Terrence’s undead form staggered a step closer, great gouts of red and orange flames burst forth from the ends of her fingers filling the area in front of her with blistering heat. Terrence was thrown back, his features melted away instantly, leaving his charred and unrecognisable corpse motionless among withered mushrooms, burnt black. The Nixie, also caught in the blast, shrieked horribly as its skin blistered and burned. The thing still lived, however, and dived into the water to sooth its burned flesh.

 

Duriel cheered and was quick to follow up with another crossbow bolt which embedded itself in the Nixie’s thigh. Garren launched a boiling globe of acid at her causing her to roar in pain as the magically derived acids washed over her burned flesh exacerbating her agonies, the water quickly quenched the acid though, so the damage was only slight.

 

The Nixie mirrored Garren’s earlier movements and whipped up the water to do her will, trying to send a wave of the foul water to crash on Cirice and wash her away as she climbed out the water up onto the ledge but in her wounded state she miscalculated and missed. Realising that she was outnumbered, and that there was a bear swimming towards her, the twisted Fey creature tried to swim towards a hole, in the chamber wall, just above the waterline.

 

Cirice let fly another arc of blue electricity not really expecting much but was surprised to see the Nixie jerk and spasm, shrieking its death agony as its watery body was suffused by the coruscating arc. Finally, the thing stopped thrashing around and died, floating face up in the water as it did so. It’s remains steamed and smoked.

 

Cirice barely managed to turn away from the raft in time to conceal her vomiting. She wiped her mouth with her sleeve and spat into the blue mushrooms. It was then that she realised that the mushrooms were growing from piled up, mutilated corpses in varying degrees of dissolution. This set her off again and soon she was heaving dry as tears ran down her face, as she had nothing left to bring up.

 

“Don’t come over here” she said. As much ashamed of her weak constitution as concerned with the preservation of theirs.

 

She noticed a richly dressed woman among the dead. Perhaps this was the one whose disappearance had led to Laurel’s involvement in the investigation and subsequently theirs.

 

Duriel had paddled the raft over to the floating body and reached out to see if it carried anything interesting. He received an electric shock for his troubles and nothing else. The body was dressed only in scant filthy rags with a few small bones as hair ornaments.

 

Garren investigated the hole that the Nixie had tried to flee down but could only see that it led interminably downward. He could hear a trickle of water, but no more.

 

On the ledge, Garren noticed a flat rock on top of which were a collection of human teeth. A grim pestle and mortar covered in clotted blood and bone dust sat next to a heavily water damaged tome with many missing pages and no cover. Cirice ascertained it was written in abyssal. A cursory examination showed a horrific stylised skull/fly device, on one of the remaining pages which she recognised as the sigil of, Urgathoa, goddess of pestilence.

 

The book fell open to a single legible curse which was designed to cause the victim to become possessed by supernatural hunger which would require ten times the normal consumption of food and drink to satiate, unless the victim were to consume the flesh and blood of sentient creatures. Notes scrawled in margins and on top of the original text were in a script she didn’t recognise, written in blood. Crossings out and annotations seemed to modify the curse to cause a great thirst in victims instead.

 

Whether the Nixie was the victim of the curse or the creator, or both, was beyond her but she was reminded of Laurel’s description of Terrence’s thirst before he escaped her shop to come here. She put the book in her backpack for later perusal.

 

Cirice suggested they collect personal effects from the corpses so that they could be returned to the victim’s next of kin. Searching near the bloated corpse of the highborn woman revealed a satchel, a garnet ring and a pouch containing some coin. Cirice collected what she could from the dead, including an anklet from another woman’s corpse, and a pristine cloth doll, and placed them in the satchel for later, while Garren took a grizzly trophy in the form of the Fey creature’s head. Soon they set off to return to Falcon’s hollow, anxious to be away from the horrid place, as quickly as possible.

 

John

Author / Games master