The Astral Scroll 5: The Scary Part of the Journey

Posted on Jun 6, 2024 in Tales from the Table.
Part of a series called The Astral Scroll.

Oh deer!

Date: June 1, 2024

Characters present:

Character level: 4

A Fireside Chat

Resting by the trees at the top of Echo’s Cliff (cliff, cliff, cliff), the party was in the middle of having trail rations for dinner when Saryx, the dark-haired elf with a scar across one eye, came walking by. He asked if he could join them for dinner. Lazarus was hesitant, but Bib told him to have a seat. Perhaps they could glean some clues about this mysterious man.

“So,” said Saryx, seating himself on the nearest rock, “what brings you out here into the wilderness? It’s a dangerous place if you’re not careful.”

“We’re… going to a wedding,” lied Bib. Saryx laughed, clearly not believing her for even a second, but didn’t press further.

Remembering the prophecy the old lady in the desert had given them, she asked: “What’s your last name? And what are you doing here?”

“My last name is Palar.” He took off his backpack and took out a large chunk of raw meat which began eating. “I’m a ranger, keeping the borders of civilization safe from aberrations.”

The rest of the meal was eerily tense and mostly silent. Saryx eyed them one by one with that smirk he’d had when they first met him in town.

“Well, I better get going,” he finally said, standing up and throwing the bone that remained of his meal onto the ground. As he turned to walk away, he briefly stopped and turned his head, smirk still glued to his face: “Good luck,” he said before finally leaving them in peace.

That night, Bib spotted a deer during her watch. It stood perfectly still, staring at her. Then it slowly cocked its head to one side, as deer don’t. Bib was just about to wake the others when the deer jerked back, as if having broken free of a spell, and ran off.

“Is there anything to gain by fighting the library?”

As the party began their slow trek once more the next morning, they came across a town. According to the map, this was the last outpost of civilization before the wilderness. It was a small town, surrounded by a ten-foot-high stone wall. The gates were open, and above them was a sign with unreadable writing on it. The letters didn’t look like any language the party knew or even a real language at all. Bib’s monocle of language comprehension verified that the sign was meaningless.

The town was quiet and there were no people out in the streets. The first place the party headed to was the tavern right by the town’s entrance.

Inside, I treated the party to an unusually detailed description for reasons that would soon become apparent. There were five tables with four chairs each, two larger tables with six chairs each, three booths by the wall, each with windows above them, an empty fireplace, a bar disk with eleven mugs and a dish rag, one decorative shelf with liquor: three bottles of dwarven ale, twelve bottles of beer from Endar’s brewery, two bottles of mead, and four unlabeled bottles (perhaps homebrew, hahaha), four unlit candles on the walls, and one chandelier in the ceiling with nine unlit candles.

There was no one inside, but they heard the sound of a door slamming from the kitchen. The party followed, which led them outside through the back door just in time for them to see the door to an outhouse in the backyard slam shut. Bib immediately walked up to knock on the door, as curious players do. She only managed a single knock. Her hand stuck to the door. Whatever it was, it wasn’t wood.

Suddenly, one of the planks on the side of the outhouse broke away from the structure, held from the inside by some amorphous purple limb. It began swatting at Bib. Anton and Lazarus rushed to her aid as the door swung open, flinging Bib to the side and revealing a purple, fleshy mass of teeth and sickly yellow eyes. Lazarus swung at it, digging into the fleshy wood with her greatsword. The monster shrieked and shifted its planks, using them as legs to crawl away towards the tavern. There it morphed into a purple blob that stretched itself like a slinky through the window, breaking it with a crash as it moved inside. The party rushed back through the kitchen door.

Apart from the now broken window, things looked mostly the same. There were five tables with four chairs each, two larger tables with six chairs each, three booths by the wall, each with windows above them, an empty fireplace, a bar disk with twelve mugs and a dish rag, one decorative shelf with liquor: three bottles of dwarven ale, twelve bottles of beer from Endar’s brewery, two bottles of mead, and four unlabeled bottles (perhaps homebrew, hahaha), four unlit candles on the walls, and one chandelier in the ceiling with nine unlit candles.

Bib was the one to notice the only thing that had changed and recklessly swept all the mugs off the bar disk. All fell to the floor except one, which morphed into a blob of purple tendrils clinging to Bib’s arm and lashing out at the party. Anton hurt it with his spells, but Lazarus couldn’t hit it without also hurting Bib. Thus, Bib soon went unconscious. The blob reached out a tendril and pulled itself up to the chandelier, swinging as it latched onto Anton with another one and pulled him off the ground, attempting to crush him with its grip. Lazarus swung at the monster, hitting the chandelier and breaking it free from the ceiling, causing it to fall to the ground along with Anton and the creature. Then she drove her sword through the thing and it finally stopped moving.

They headed outside. The town seemed smaller somehow. They could see a small library at the other edge of town which they hadn’t noticed before. They also saw that the gate was gone, and the town was now completely encircled by the stone wall. For a moment, the party debated what to do next. They were injured and tired after the battle with the shapeshifting outhouse and needed to rest. Should they stay here and rest? Board up the tavern and hide inside in case there were more creatures? Or try and get out to safety, risking an attack on the way out? Then there was the matter of the deer that had been watching them. Could it hurt them1?

They decided to head out, climbing a part of the wall that was a bit away from where the gate had been. Anton poked the wall with a stick just to be safe. It didn’t react. He and Lazarus helped Bib up on the wall and then climbed to join her. As they looked back on the town before jumping down on the other side, they saw the library shift ever so slightly.

It was during Lazarus’ watch that night that a small, four-legged figure appeared in the distance. The deer? Lazarus woke the others. They decided to go and talk to it.

Bib was the first one to approach: “Hi! You know, we’re not the ones who shot you before—” and it was then that she realized she was talking to a moose calf. They heard the bellowing of an adult moose from the darkness, and the calf ran off.

As the sun rose, the town gate was back. They headed inside to loot the shops. Most of the gear was gone, but Bib managed to snag some finely crafted snake-hilted daggers from a blacksmith. They investigated the local trading outpost and found some shop records describing a man who had tried to sell a massive, perfectly cut ruby. He claimed he found it that way in a cave. The owner hadn’t been able to afford it, which was just as well because the man was later found dead with his arm chewed off, massive gemstone still by his side.

Bib couldn’t leave town without at least looking at the library. It was a regular half-timbered building with a sign displaying a red book on the front. Nobody wanted to touch it. They were just about to leave when the door opened, revealing a massive, perfectly cut ruby by the entrance. Anton suggested he cast a spell to detect if any magic was affecting the house. He sat down on the ground in front of it and began casting while the others waited. About ten minutes later, the spell took effect and showed nothing. But something was different. He’d sat down a good ten feet away from the library, but now he was right before the door, close enough to touch it. They got the hell out of there.

Deer God!

Leaving the town and heading yet further west, they made it to the edge of the Lonely Woods by the end of that very same day. From afar, they’d seen that the trees grew taller and denser further into the woods. Before them was a narrow path between the trees. Next to it was a small wooden sign saying “nah”. They pondered it for a while.

“That’s not a very clear warning sign,” said Bib.

“In my experience, that’s the typical lack of clarity you get when talking to halflings,” responded Anton.

Bib strongly objected to his remark. She took out her monocle, which translated the writing on the sign to “no”.

They headed inside, and the forest quickly got darker. They found a pile of pebbles by the side of the road stacked meticulously into a cone shape. Anton was about to poke them with a stick to make sure they weren’t mimics when they heard a voice from above.

“Please don’t touch my rocks.” It was a gloomy, apathetic monotone belonging to a small lemur-looking creature clinging to a tree branch. It stared at them with its wide-open yellow eyes.

“Uhm… Sorry.” Anton moved the stick away from the rocks.

“Thank you. You have a nice day now,” said the creature, unblinking.

That part was meant to be humorous but the players were just unsettled. Anyway, they kept walking. The forest darkened even further. It didn’t take long before the forest was so dense that they couldn’t even see the sky. Without sunlight, they became increasingly unsure how long they’d spent in the woods, and after a while, they decided to take a rest. They found a small clearing just off the path. Anton stumbled on something on the ground. It was a large bone.

They rested for an hour. It was dead quiet. No birds to be heard. Examining the daggers she’d found, Bib discovered that one was magical and poisonous. Anton spotted a glimmer of light in the dark between the bark of two trees and decided to follow it. The others stayed close behind. The floating speck of light seemed to move backward as they approached. Finally, it sank and settled on a rock, on the top of which stood a small stone bowl of black ichor. Bib took it with her and they found their way back to both the clearing and path with little trouble.

Pressing onward, things didn’t get any less grim. They found bony skeletal remains stuck halfway inside a tree. Further down, a pile of dead wolves, huge chunks bitten out of them with countless tiny razor teeth.

They also found a small cave opening, too small for Anton and Lazarus to fit through. Inside was some kind of magical darkness that even the glowing orb they’d stolen from Endar couldn’t illuminate. Bib crawled inside anyway and found a small translucent rock where the tunnel ended after just a few feet.

When she got out, something was standing on the path ahead of them. It was a deer. On its hind legs. It slowly cocked its head to the side, eyes blank. The air grew cold. The party stood frozen in their tracks. Then the deer opened its mouth in a wide, unnatural grin, revealing hundreds of tiny teeth sharpened into points. It dropped down on all fours and broke into a sprint, seeming to grow larger as it approached. When it was upon them, it was as big as a grizzly bear.

Anton hurried to climb the nearest tree. Bib threw herself behind a bush. Lazarus stood his ground as the deer jumped on top of him, biting his shoulder with an awful crunching sound. Bib threw her brand new poisonous dagger at it, but it didn’t seem to mind. Anton began chanting an incantation, and the sound of tolling bells filled the air, draining the life force of the deer, if it even had any. The deer stepped back and charged straight at both Lazarus and Bib, nearly knocking them down with its massive antlers.

Lazarus followed up with a wide swing, hitting the deer in the side. Black smoke erupted from the ground, cloaking the deer as it shrieked in pain. Once the smoke cleared, the skin and flesh was missing from its head. It was now just a skull with glowing red points of light where its eyes had been. It whispered something. Anton nearly lost his footing as the tree he was hiding in began to move. A branch wrapped around his waist and dragged him into the air. Roots erupted from the ground, grabbing Bib’s legs.

Only Lazarus was still able to move on his own free will, but they all fired at it with everything they had. Just as the tree slammed Anton into the ground, Lazarus hit the deer right in the neck, causing it to dissipate into a cloud of smoke with an ear-piercing shriek. Was it dead? They couldn’t be sure, so once they’d caught their breaths and healed up a hit, they headed on down the path.

Neil Gaiman, What Are You Doing in My D&D Campaign?

With all that horror out of the way, it was time for something a bit silly. The party spotted a wooden building with warm, yellow light shining from the windows. A sign above the door said “The World’s End2”. Bib knocked.

“Come in!” said a warm, friendly voice from within. Opening the door, the party stepped into a tavern. They were greeted by the smell of warm meals and oak. Behind the bar disk was a handsome man with blond, back-slicked hair. His facial features were sharp as if carved from rock. He wore a white poet shirt with a black vest. Sitting at the bar was an owl-man with the white and orange-brown feathers of a barn owl, dressed in a blue mailman uniform. At a table was a man with eyebrow piercings and red dreadlocks drinking heavily, his table nearly filled with bottles. At another was a gentleman looking to be in his sixties, with curly gray hair and dressed in all black. He was writing something in a notebook.

Bib did most of the talking. She learned that the owner in the black vest was called Lucifer. Having grown tired of his old job as a “manager”, he built a tavern that sometimes appears in places where the borders between realities are particularly thin. Then she spoke to Montgomery the owl-man, who wasn’t sure if he wanted to become an adventurer in the future or possibly a competitive air racer.

Then they spoke with Pickles the drunken dude, who inspired Bib and Lazarus to get piercings. He also gave them a potion of speed. They told him all about their scary encounter with the deer, which Montgomery overheard and decided to not become an adventurer, thus undoing most of the events in Veil of Whispers. It was probably for the better. Next, Bib got a signed copy of American Gods from Neil Gaiman. Okay, enough silly stuff.

Once they’d rested up in the tavern, the party headed back on the trail through the dark, cold woods. It didn’t take long before they reached Marlin’s tower. It didn’t look anything like they’d expected. It was a round stone tower, only three floors tall, and it looked terribly neglected. Stones had fallen out of the wall, windows were broken, and the wooden door looked rotted.

The inside wasn’t much better. Dust and cobwebs covered every piece of furniture, of which there were few. It didn’t look like anyone had lived there for quite some time, and even then it was hardly much of a home. The only notable feature was a pedestal on the third floor—the only thing to be found there. Atop the pedestal was a sheet of paper. A scroll? Bib walked up to it, but hardly in a hurry. Anton stayed back. Lazarus followed Bib closely. Bib picked up the paper and found a rusty key underneath it.

“Welcome! Here’s the key to the hatch under the carpet. Come on down!” said the note. The group did as instructed. The hatch led to a basement that was empty except for a shallow well in the center, the glowing blue water casting beautiful patterns on the ceiling. Bib reached her hand into the water. About a foot down she felt the water turn to air. She decided to jump into the well, and the others followed.

  1. Yes. ↩︎

  2. Another recurring thing in my campaigns: the interdimensional tavern! This time featuring Montgomery from Veil of Whispers, Pickles the Drummer from Dethklok, and Neil Gaiman himself, from whom I stole the entire idea of the tavern. ↩︎