Tellurian Tales (vol 05): The Library of Nuchal

When we last left our heroes, Luceo and Invellios were traveling south to the lost City of the Dead, where Luceo hopes to recover an ancient tome of forbidden lore. Forced by a raiding party of orcs into the ancient forest of Selil-Lelal, they met a female elf druid named Dea. Dea agreed to lead them into the hills to certain tunnels that pass under the Maracan Plains a few miles to the City of the Dead.

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When they reach the caves, Dea declines to join them further, as she has her own concerns in the Selil. Besides, she comments, "I don't like undead." She does agree to look after the two adventures' pony, Gretel, while they try to reach the City.

Invellios and Luceo enter the cave, which becomes a long tunnel, angling down and then up again to a 4-way branch. The first branch leads, after a long trek, only to a cavern filled with water. The second branch takes them eventually to a chasm, with a 60 foot drop to a muddy floor. Lacking a rope, Invellios and Luceo still decide to try to climb down. Invellios slips and falls from the rocky face, landing heavily. Luceo chooses to use a scroll of Spider Climb after Invellios reports a small tunnel out from the chasm floor.

The small tunnel leads through a cavern and past various branches, but always the two adventurers choose the path that seems the most easterly, according to their approximations and the crude map they sketch of their journey. In the second cavern past the chasm, they encounter three skeletons, who rush them from out of the darkness. One falls to Invellios's arrows, while Luceo binds the other two to his will, commanding them to follow.

The next cavern they enter is filled with strange moths, and the ground covered in sluggish caterpillars. The tunnel out is partially filled with chest-deep water, growing gradually shallower and more stagnant until the two wallow through thick, rank muck. A zombie attacks them in the next cavern. The growing presence of undead seems a good sign they are on the right path. More branching, and then another flooded tunnel, which grows increasing low and mossy until the two are forced to backtrack and try another passage. Another cavern and two more zombies, one dispatched by arrows and the other torn limb from limb by Luceo's two commanded skeletons (one of which was lost in the process). The cavern ends in a short chimney of 25 or 30 feet up to another passage. Verifying that the path continues on, the two spend an exhausted night at the base of the chimney.

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After a couple slips, the two manage to climb the chimney (leaving the willing but unagile skeleton's bones smashed on the rocks below). They find another 4-way branch in the path. The first tunnel of this Chimney crossroads leads them a merry chase, up and down steep tunnels, through a flooded, phosphorescent cave, through more moths, only to return again to the 4-way branch. The next tunnel shortly peters out, calf-deep water trickling out through a windy crack too narrow to follow. The last tunnel leads up to yet another branch in this winding cave system.

The first passage of this new crossroads quickly ends in a small cave with a pool on the far edge. As Invellios stands near the water, looking for possible exits, an undead creature bursts out of the water, teeth snapping and claws flying. Dancing back, Invellios lets loose his arrows, while Luceo attempts to rebuke the foul incarnation. As his rebuke fails, and the cave began to fill with the gagging, choking stench of corruption, Luceo realizes they face a ghast. But the ghast fails to land a blow, dashing from Invellios to Luceo and back, prickled with arrows. At last Luceo places his palm, burning with the force of positive energy from a Cure Light Wounds spell, against the loathsome thing's back, and it burns to ash with a scream. Invellios finds a small chest of coins and gems submerged in the lake, through recovering it necessitates ducking beneath the stagnant, minerally water. Then they return to the tunnel crossroads to clear their heads of the foul stench of the dead ghast.

The next tunnel (from what they now call the Ghoul Crossroads) leads into a long, winding tunnel. It grows narrower and narrower until the two are forced to squeeze through sideways. Suddenly it widens to a reveal a large stone door. Listening reveals nothing on the other side, but a Detect Undead shows at least three minor undead lurking on the other side. Deciding to go for it, the two adventurers put their backs to the door. Slowly, with a horrible grinding moan, the door pivots on its center--and then ghouls are clawing and biting Invellios, scrambling to get past the opening door! Luceo raises his symbol of Wee Jas, and in the cold grey light it emits, three ghouls fall back, fawning and cowering before him. Invellios dodges past them, and spins to sink arrows into a fourth ghoul, hidden behind the door. The two adventurers spend the next minute hacking the cowering ghouls to pieces.

At the far end of this new cave, they find a short set of stairs down into thick, stagnant, waist-deep water. A few feet further on is a great round seal of steel, eight feet in diameter. It blasts a jet of flame as Invellios approaches, which he manages to dodge. The strange door is covered in streaks of rust, but has an odd glimmer to it nonetheless. A Detect Magic spell reveals a weak Arcane Mark--the sigil of Nuchal! Luck is with them--the library they seek may well lie on the far side of this portal!

Invellios tinkers with the lock, then they haul the rusted door open with a squeal of metal-on-metal and a shower of rust. More stagnant water lies beyond, and another door down a short corridor. As they cautiously near the next door, the water to their right bubbles and stirs and a great skeleton bearing a hooked beak and great claws, rises up above them. Dodging the mighty sweeps of it claws, Luceo manages to lay a Chill Touch upon it. The owlbear skeleton quivers and dashes past them, through the steel portal, and up the stairs. Giving chase, they find it cowering before the great stone door. Luceo disintegrates it with five flashes of positive energy from his wand of Cure Light Wounds before the thing can recover its senses.

Returning through the steel portal, Luceo cloaks himself and Invellios with an Invisibility to Undead scroll, and opens the next door. It leads to a wide hallway, also flooded, that wraps around a central square, with doors leading off on all sides. Most of the doors stand open. The first couple rooms are smashed laboratories, the second coated with a thick black goop apparently bubbling out of a smashed crucible on a stone table. They give that room a miss, focusing on their mission of finding the First Cryptical Book of Hsan.

On the far side the square, a flight of four steps leads up out of the stagnant water to double doors. Hearing nothing on the far side, they push them open and enter a bedroom-study, containing a bed, desk, kitchen table, and, on the far side of the room, a bookcase! On the bed, reposing atop the covers, lies a desiccated corpse of a woman, dressed in finery, with bloody and mangled fingertips. The walls were covered in strange writings and glyphs, many in black ink, but a number in a red-brown substance.

Quietly crossing the room, Luceo approaches the bookcase and begins to slip books into his backpack. But, as he does so, the corpse opens its eyes and sits up. It stands, and walks to the center of the room, eyeing the bookcase. Its eyes glow fiercely with a pale light. Yet it cannot see them, thanks to Luceo's invisibility spell. But it doesn't seem they'll be able to slip the books out while it watches. Luceo gestures to Invellios to get ready, then carefully draws out a scroll of Chill Touch. Creeping close to the dead spellcaster (the deathlock), he quickly chants the words of the spell and lays his hand, lit now with cold blue-grey fire, upon its shoulder. As he does so, the invisibility spell drops away from the two adventurers.

The deathlock screams and Luceo falls back, weakly shaking in fear as the corpse strikes him with its own Chill Touch. Invellios lets loose two of his Dragon's Breath arrows, and suddenly the room is bathed in flickering light as the deathlock's robes catch fire. And in that light, three tiny, humanoid-shaped bundles of hair, dust, claws, and teeth scamper out from under the bed and table, biting and nipping at the adventurer's calves.

The flaming deathlock screams again, and dashes through the double doors, stumbling down the stairs and into the stagnant water with a great hiss of steam. Luceo rebukes the furry tomb motes that slash at them, but only two of the three cower. Invellios lights the third on fire, filling the room with the stench of burning hair and filth.

And then the wet deathlock is storming back into the room, eyes aglow. It blasts Invellios back with two Magic Missiles, then stands towering over Luceo, who stumbles back, blasting the abomination with a Sound Burst as Invellios sinks arrows into it. The sonic blast rips the weakened corpse apart, and the remains crumple to the ground. Nuchal is dead again.

The adventurers quickly dispatch the two still-cowering tomb motes, scattering the hair and teeth across the floor. Now the library-tomb is silent again, except for a distant dripping of water.

Luceo examines the glyphs and writings covering the wall, but can make nothing of them. They seem to consist of both ravings and wardings of some sort, but the language is unknown to him. The only fragments he gets is "Hastur" and "the Haunter in the Dark comes to sunder". Exploring the room reveals a bit of gold and jewelry... and of course, the books! Invellios wonders at how few they are--only twelve book hardly seems to constitute a "library". They divide the books between them.

Low on both spells and arrows, Luceo again cloaks them in Invisibility to Undead, and the two hasten out of Nuchal's tomb without exploring the other rooms. Past the Ghoul Crossroads, they return to the top of the chimney. Luceo proposes they rest there for the rest of the day (however long that might be in these lightless tunnels) and the night while he looks through the books to be sure they got what they came for.

They make camp. Five of the books turn out to be rather mundane scholarly writings, but the others are more arcane. One in particular stands out--larger than the rest, bound in a dark yellow leather, and eerily attention-grabbing.

A couple hours layer, Invellios wakes from his elven trance to the sound of Luceo's voice. Luceo sits with the yellow book open on his lap, but his eyes stare off into the darkness. He is pale, trembling, and slowly rocking back and forth. His lips do not move, but his raven familiar, Rasputin, perches on a rock nearby. It is the raven who speaks in Luceo's voice--"Run, Invellios! Hear the beating of the vile drums and the whine of the accursed flutes, and despair! I have seen what should not be seen! It is the Fulvous Carnifex, and it calls Them! Take the other books, and run!" Then Luceo lurches to his feet, raises a glimmering hand, and Invellios feels terror clutch his throat. He leaps from the lip of the chimney, rolling as he hits the ground, and flees away into the darkness. Behind him, he can hear the moaning screams as Luceo's mind gives way.

DM's Note:
Sorry for the rather tedious bits of tunnel-crawling; I wanted to record the details of the tunnel systems, which were all randomly generated on the fly. It's also interesting to see some stupid adventurer decisions--mostly involving failing to bring proper adventuring gear and, consequently, falling from great heights. There were a few DM slip-ups too, though--such as Nuchal failing to note the illumination brought into the room by the invisible adventurers.
Nuchal's library--from the great rusted steel door onwards--mostly comes from Andy Collins and Bruce R. Cordell's Libris Mortis: The Book of Undead ("Nuchar's Tomb", p. 177-9).

The Fulvous Carnifex ("tawny executioner") is inspired by The King in Yellow, by Robert Chambers. Other books and features dating from Tellurian pre-history, such as the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan--are inspired by H.P. Lovecraft (particularly, his Dream Cycle).

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