Ants in the Darkness

Another memorable play session from Michael Garcia, this one from his more recent Northumbria campaign. Mike is running two groups in the same campaign. “Screams in Store” followed the Winchester family; this story is about the Becketts. 


Background:

The session began with the PCs in a narrow tunnel, which is part of a series of natural limestone caverns that run throughout Wycliffe Island, located in Blackwater Lake. The party had stumbled upon a secret door inside an unmarked crypt on the island, and they started to explore the tunnel beneath it. The group is rather large and the tunnel very tight so they were in a long line, strung out.

From the DM:

Sometimes your players do innovative and bold things at the table, reflecting years of gaming experience. Other times, they shock you by doing silly things or NOT doing the obvious. The following game session began with a casual moment of stupidity that almost killed the entire party, but there were some heroics too. The monsters were not terribly interesting, but stock monsters can sometimes prove surprisingly tough when one small detail escapes your notice at first. In this case, the party (second level on average) ended up slugging it out with over sixty-three HD2 monsters that effectively had platemail! When I realized their plight, just before the battle began, I gave them a short piece of advice: “It’s time to get creative and pull out the heavy artillery or become food!”

Cast of Characters:

Granny Beckett: Witch, eccentric matriarch of the family
Jade Cormallen: Half-elf ranger, distant relative to most
Lord Roger Beckett: Ranger, new family head
Denston Beckett: Cleric of Pholtus, grumpy and dour
Daniel Beckett: Assassin, passionate and protective
Sir Callum Beckett: Cavalier, burly and jovial
Sir William Beckett: Cavalier, sarcastic and brave
Brother Lewie: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, erratic but insightful
Sergeant Blaine: NPC Fighter, porter to the Beckett family
Sven Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Bjorn’s twin
Bjorn Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Sven’s twin
Brother Liam: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, comrade of Brother Lewie
Dagis: NPC (Fighter 0), squire to Sir Callum

Narrative:

The torches guttered from the stiff draft of humid air blowing through the narrow tunnel, and deep shadows danced crazily on the dripping limestone walls. The pale walls seemed to glow a strange amber color in the orange torchlight, while a damp and musty odor permeated the air. Roger Beckett held the torch before him in his left hand, hoping to see the end of the narrow tunnel. Though the group had not seen man or beast since descending into the tunnel beneath the crypt, a nagging sense of danger made Roger twitchy. Perhaps it is just the gloom of this place, he thought. While he waited for the others to keep pace, he stopped and looked closer at his surroundings.

Roger and his kin were in single file, moving on foot through a narrow chasm of chalk-colored rock. The previous four caverns, most of them cramped and small, were flooded with chalky-blue groundwater, which dripped like rain from the rocks above. Hundreds of long, spindly, needlelike stalactites adorned the irregular ceilings, dripping with moisture, while three-foot-high stalagmites forced the group to squeeze around them. The narrow confines of the winding tunnel magnified all sound, and the collective clanking of leather and steel, mingled with dripping water, was obnoxiously loud, making it impossible for Roger to hear anything ahead.

When the two hulking Varangians, Sven and Bjorn, appeared right behind him, Roger moved out once again. To move around a large stalagmite, which narrowed the tunnel to just two-feet-wide, he had to press himself against the wall of the tunnel. Worried about the obstruction, which would make a quick retreat almost impossible, Roger turned to the Varagians and whispered, “Hold here and keep it down. I will be right back.” As he skulked forward, drawing his longsword, he shook his head wearily as he heard the Varangians shouting to the others to keep their voices down.

Roger thought he saw the end of the tunnel, so he placed the blazing torch on the moist limestone rock by his feet, hiding it behind a sizable stalagmite to conceal some of its light. He then moved forward, his sharp eyes darting left and right, up and down. A deep fissure in the ceiling gave him pause, as he could see nothing in its eerie blackness. He gritted his teeth and moved on, ignoring the warnings in his head. A few seconds later, the tunnel opened up into a large cavern before him, about thirty or forty-feet wide. It was too dark for him to estimate its full size. Just then, he noticed the drone of clicking sounds that overwhelmed even the sound of his kin in the tunnel behind him. Though he saw nothing at first, he unconsciously began to withdraw, slowly, step-by-step. He may have gasped as well, because a few seconds later, the two Varangians were behind him, asking what was wrong.

Roger did not speak, for his mind was whirling. As his eyes scanned the dark and droning cavern before him, he reached back and grabbed the torch from Sven’s hand. Thrusting it before him, he saw nothing at first. It was Bjorn that finally spoke, asking, “Roger, why does the floor move?”

Realization hit Roger like a boulder between the eyes. The inky shadows dancing on the walls and floor of the cavern before them were not illusions caused by the flickering torch. Great black ants, each about two-feet-long, virtually covered the floor and walls of the cavern; the ubiquitous clicking sounds were those coming from a massive nest.

Time seemed to slow.

Roger saw that most of the ants had not taken notice of them; they were not yet rushing the group. He started to motion with the torch, urging his kinsmen back. His efforts were a few seconds too late, for a curious or belligerent ant had come straight toward Sven, its pincers clicking loudly. When it reached the Varangian’s legs, the muscle-bound warrior nonchalantly kicked the ant with a smooth, fluid motion. For one second, all eyes inadvertently locked on the tiny black object as it sailed into the distance, landing somewhere in the middle of the cavern. The next second featured a jolly shout from Bjorn, indicating that the kick was a fine one.

Then the cavern came alive.

Daniel had just pushed his way to the front, but after one quick glance it took him all of two seconds to scream, “Get back! Move! Move! Move!”

Realizing that they would never make it before the insects were upon them, Roger, William, and the two Varangians stood their ground to stem the tide. The ants came furiously, and the four men laid about themselves with wild abandon. Behind them, the clanking of steel accompanied shouts and grunts, as their kinsmen beat a hasty retreat.

It was only seconds later that many ants pushed past the four swordsmen, running along the walls and ceiling of the tunnel. Jade was bitten in the arm, and she screamed while swatting at it furiously. Callum pushed Granny and the three clerics behind him, shouting at them to fall back to the waterfall. Young Dagis, looking terrified, stood by his master with flanged mace in hand. A minute later and they were in action, swiping at ants on the walls and ceiling. Dagis pounded one flat and cheered aloud with a smile.

“Nice shot, little pup!”, yelled Callum.

Granny saw the speed with which the ants were bypassing the foremost fighters. Dropping her leather bag, she muttered to Jade, “Need to buy some time. Fire is usually good for that. Hold this torch and keep them off me.” Her thin and graceful fingers moved rapidly, and in less than a minute she had three clay flasks of oil, unsealed and at the ready. Grinning at the young half-elf, she quipped, “Now the fun begins!”

Dagis smashed another ant flat against the cavern wall, and then another. He cheered again and again, and then shouted aloud, “I think I am getting the feel for this”.

Just in front of him, Sir Callum stabbed repeatedly at the ants on the walls. As he did so, he thrust his left arm backwards, pushing Dagis back and forcing him to retreat. “Keep moving, lad”, he barked, “We need room to fight.”

Sergeant Blaine was in front of Sir Callum, his hands choked up on his halberd, which he used as a short spear. When two ants scuttled past him, he turned to finish them off. However, he groaned aloud a moment later, for two unseen ants sliced into his unprotected calves with their powerful mandibles.

Roger, William, and the two Varangians were now falling back quickly, squeezing past the stalagmites and smashing ants with swords, quillions, and gauntlets. Roger shouted, “Too many are getting past us. Fall back!”

William screamed in pain as an ant bit into his calf, causing him to stumble. He screamed again as two more ants scurried on top of him, looking for flesh to slice apart. Wide eyed, he thrashed about as if touched by burning coals, spewing a litany of curses and sentence fragments: “Good god! Get off, you… Son of a… Die! Kill you… Get off! Kill you too!” Still flailing as he tried to get to his feet, he punched an ant square in the head and then kicked another. His rant stopped abruptly when a bloom of orange flame erupted in the tunnel just in front of him. A flash of light and heat swept over him, and, still wide-eyed, he scurried to his feet.

Sergeant Blaine cried out again, for two ants had fallen from above and had bitten his hands and thigh. Blood ran freely down his knuckles and ankles, but still he fought on. Realizing that he could not fight in such tight confines with his halberd, he drew his short sword and hacked at everything around him.

Sir Callum crushed an ant on Blaine’s back and then yanked the sergeant behind him. “Make sure the others are out”, he commanded. Young Dagis followed his master, but almost immediately Sir Callum slipped and fell. It was all the opportunity that the insects needed, for they were on him at once. Dagis shouted in alarm, seeing six ants crawl atop his master, and still others scurrying forward, their chitinous exoskeletons gleaming in the glow of the smoking flames. Callum desperately tried to swat them off, but his sword struck the wall of the narrow tunnel. Giant black ants bit deeply into his flesh, slicing his calves, arms, wrists, and neck. He screamed in pain, and tried to rise. Lunging to his feet, he smashed an ant that was about to bite Dagis. Yet, the burly knight has lost more blood than he realized, for the ants had cut more deeply into his leg than he knew. All suddenly went black, and he fell face forward in the tunnel, which was now billowing with oily black smoke. The pungent smell of lamp oil now filled the narrow corridor, but still the ants came.

Dagis shrieked when Callum pitched forward onto the ground. Mindlessly, a few ants immediately grabbed hold of Callum’s armor and began to drag the man down the tunnel, six inches at a time. Dagis leaped over his master’s limp body and smashed everything that moved in the area. A wild swing with the mace splintered the stalagmite that had obstructed much of the tunnel. Though the squire struck at the ants repeatedly, he saw that Callum’s body continued to move toward the nest in the cavern. He therefore dropped his mace and grabbed his master’s feet, pulling him backwards and away from the nest. It was a valiant effort, and one that Roger and William witnessed, but it left the boy vulnerable. Seconds later, two ants bit deeply into his leg. He kicked one insect down the tunnel and then crushed the other. Wincing in pain, he then limped back to Callum’s body, but blood loss overcame him, and he collapsed atop his knight.

Roger, William, and the two Varangians were now in full retreat. With a dozen giant ants chasing them, they found their narrow avenue of retreat blocked by two fallen comrades and a pool of burning oil. Bjorn, wielding sword and axe, drove the ants off of the fallen bodies, while Sven pulled Callum to his feet. William scooped up Dagis and kicked his mace down the tunnel, away from the ants. Roger struck at three more ants and then grabbed Callum’s sword. They rushed through the burning oil, and not a second too soon, for Acolyte Denston threw two more vials on the fire as they passed.

The flames leaped, and more oily smoke filled the tunnel. Granny, leaning on her staff, far to the rear, made strange gestures in the air with her hand, chanting secret words that few could hear. Though few noticed, the musty air in the tunnel seemed to circle, blowing the oily smoke back into the tunnel toward the nest. Brother Lewie hurled another flask on the fire, causing the fire to flare yet again. Bjorn and Roger finished off the few ants that bypassed the flames, but the tide seemed to have stopped. Grunting with anguish and fatigue, the group fell back to the cavern containing the small waterfall. Sergeant Blaine was sorely wounded, and three companions had lost consciousness—Jade, Sir Callum, and Dagis. Worse, the latter three could barely walk, and Callum could barely move in his platemail.

Daniel watched with concern as his kinsmen limped past him. He muttered aloud, “Well, that was productive.”

In the utter darkness of the subterranean cavern, three torches blazed fiercely. The flames flickered wildly, tossed to and fro by a strong cross draft. The roar of the underground waterfall drowned out most sound, so the companions had to gather close together to hear each other. They stood on a narrow lip of stone that ran in a semi-circle around the edge of a large pond of cold chalky water. A column of water cascaded into this pond from a small hole in the rock wall, perhaps ten feet above ground level. The whole place smelled like a damp cellar in the summertime, though a hint of burning oil now mingled with that scent.

Most of the companions were gasping for air and looking warily back toward the narrow tunnel to the west. The giant ants seemed to have lost interest or were blocked by the fire and smoke, some of which was slowly billowing into the large cavern. Sir William was virtually carrying Sir Callum, and at the first opportunity, he sat the large knight down by the edge of the pond and started unstrapping his leg armor. “You cannot walk in this, Cal”, he yelled.

As William rapidly pulled off the iron leg plates and articulated knees, Brother Lewie pushed past them both, helping Callum’s squire, Dagis. As he sat the youth down and handed him a wineskin, the dour cleric noted dryly, “You are taking loyalty to new levels, my young friend. Indeed, wrestling with giant ants for the body of your master… Impressive. You shall make other squires jealous… if you survive.”

Roger now had his bow out and was scanning the cavern for any signs of danger, and Daniel raced to the east to ensure that the exit to this labyrinth was still open to them. Sergeant Blaine, though staggering and bleeding from both legs, posted himself at the western end of the cavern, halberd at the ready. His eyes were tearing from the cloud of acrid smoke that filled the tunnel to the west, but he stood fast at his post.

Acolyte Denston, with a fluttering torch in one hand, had an arm around Jade, who looked pale and drawn. Setting her down next to Sir Callum and young Dagis, the tall cleric noted grimly, “What a fine location we have selected for founding a hospital.” Filled with nervous energy, Sir William was quick to respond, shouting, “Better here than in that giant ant hive! There had to be hundreds of those things! And what better to do when faced with hundreds of giant ants than to kick one into the rest! Who is that ham-headed idiot, anyway?”

Brother Liam knelt down next to the wounded, offering his wineskin to Jade. “Ant nest”, he yelled nonchalantly.

William, slightly wide-eyed, turned to the cleric and sputtered, “What?”

Brother Liam did not hesitate. “Ant nest. Bees have hives”, he yelled matter-of-factly.

Pulling off the last of Callum’s leg harness, William shouted back, “If we throw you back into that cavern, do you think it will matter one whit what we call it? Wake up, man! Giant bugs almost ate half the party! If they come at us again, we die!”

Granny passed the group at this point, giving William a knock on the head with her staff. “Stop whining and make yourself useful”, she croaked.

Roger returned at that point and shouted aloud, “Get everyone on their feet and ready to move. We should not stay here. Better to get back to the surface.”

Lifting Jade to her feet again, Acolyte Denston agreed, shouting, “Let us return to the light. Pholtus detests darkness.”

William threw his brother’s leg harness over his shoulder and strapped his heater shield onto his back. He then pulled his brother to his feet. Callum, coughing, protested weakly, “You cannot fight with all my gear on your back, little brother.”

William retorted, “We seem to be short on coin so leaving it here is not an option. Besides, we…” His voice trailed off. Callum, Brother Lewie, Jade, Dagis, and Acolyte Denston all followed his gaze to the center of the chalky pond. There they saw the two Varangian barbarians, one with a rope around his waist and the other holding it. For a few seconds, the rush of the waterfall was all that was audible.

Brother Lewie finally broke the silence, asking, “What in the Nine Hells are they doing?”

Roger, soaking wet from his waist down after looking behind the waterfall, approached the group and explained. It had been he who first noticed that the pond water seemed to drain into a few small openings to the northwest, but it had been the hulking Varangians who noticed another drain, much slower. The northeast side of the room featured a large recessed area, where the water was relatively still. They noticed a slow swirl there, and they were now wading out to see what might be there.

A few minutes later, Sven shouted that he had found something large and hard at his feet. Bjorn doubled over with laughter, while others simply rolled their eyes. After twice diving beneath the chest-high water, Sven announced that he was going to pull up some sort of stone. He submerged a third time, remained underwater for a moment, and then came splashing back to the surface, this time with a large calcified mass in his hands. No sooner had he surfaced than he was sucked under again, and his hulking brother immediately strained on the rope. So great was the pull on the other end that even Bjorn found himself being dragged into the deeper water. Cursing to himself, Roger splashed into the pond and lent his weight to the rope. William made it two feet into the water and then stopped, yelling, “I will not drown for you idiots!”. They eventually pulled out Sven, coughing, spitting up water, and still clinging to the whitish mass in his hands.

When the Varangian climbed back onto the rock ledge around the pond, he dropped the strange item. It was bizarre, to say the least. Two skeletal hands seemed to emerge from a lumpy, rocky, white mass, roughly cubical in shape and the size of a large backpack. The family stood gazing at it for a few seconds, blank looks on their faces, though Sven was now smiling broadly, immensely proud of his find.

Denston spoke first, shouting, ““Congratulations. You are the proud owner of a boulder with skeletal arms! Let us leave this place. The dank darkness of this place is going to our heads!”
Sven protested aloud though, yelling, “No. It is a chest, perhaps with treasure inside… and with two hands on the outside for decoration!” He smiled broadly again, hands on his hips. Roger was the first to understand, yelling, “These caverns are carved from limestone. The water is chalky because of the mineral deposits. Someone must have died in that water, and his body must have calcified over the years, along with the chest he was holding. I guess it clogged a natural drainage hole. That lock will not open though, not with all the calcium covering it.”

After a full second of thought, Sven simply picked up the chest and smashed it repeatedly on the rocky ground. Eventually it shattered, sending bits of lumpy white calcium everywhere, along with the two skeletal forearms and scores of small, colorful stones, glistening in the flickering torchlight. Everyone gasped and stepped closer, while Sven beamed, again with his hands on his hips. He finally spoke, yelling, “See? Treasure for those that look.” Ignoring the glistening gems, he then proudly grabbed a skeletal forearm and offered the other to his smiling brother.

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