- BLOOD DRAINS, THE HEART FALTERS, DEATH EMBRACES -
~ a short fantasy flash fiction ~
~ a short fantasy flash fiction ~
The small band of adventurers gathered gingerly at the cave entrance, its jagged granite opening silvered by a full moon. A gentle, sibilant hiss from the surrounding trees taunted the gathered party, as leaf-laden limbs swayed in the evening breeze as if urging them onwards into the gaping maw of the cave.
Of the six only three held lanterns, each shuttered as to prevent undue light spilling forth and alerting anything within the confines of the cave as to their presence.
The fingers of a single hand held aloft gestured in signs of communication. Valdric issued simple instructions to the rest of the party: ' Shields front and back... lanterns middle... two abreast '.
All nodded their understanding, silently re-arranging their positioning.
Smiling quietly to himself, Valdric felt a sense of pride and kinship with his fellow adventurers. When he had first entered their ranks they had been nothing but a disorganised and unprofessional rabble. Poor ones at that. But with the unfortunate death of their leader, Valdric had taken over. It hadn't been easy. There had been objections, but a few bloodied noses later and Valdric quelled any doubts. His former military training had been a blessing, and now each within the group benefited from it. The six were now a tight, cohesive unit, capable of taking on double their number and being victorious.
Scanning the blue-grey faces about him, Valdric pulled down the visor on his helm. Turning to the dark mass of furs and bristling shoulder spikes to his right, Valdric nodded to Torvan. Face obscured by dark warpaint, glittering eyes and bared white teeth answered with a reciprocal jerk of the head. Weapons were silently drawn. The faint whispering of their casters barely audible over the breeze-driven hissing of the leaves of the surrounding trees.
Slowly, and with measured caution, six dark forms merged with the blackness of the cave mouth. Silver to black in several heartbeats, then it was as if they had never been.
The trees swayed with renewed vigour, and above, scudding cloud engulfed the silvery disk. Only then did the darkest of shadows detach themselves from the surrounding undergrowth. Man-like and stooped, slitted orbs balefully unblinking and luminescent, they converged en masse with silent intent. Too great in number to count, no sound uttered or issued, no stumbling or colliding; a mass of malevolence with murder their objective, and then a feeding.
Fifty yards was all they had traversed before the first terrified scream announced disaster. Initial confusion swept over the party like a tidal wave, then the continual screaming, punctuated by sounds of thrashing erased the moment of inaction.
Even before Valdric issued the command, Sera, the smallest of the party uttered the language of arcana. Light blossomed in the tunnel behind them. Like the unveiling of the inner workings of a slaughter house, the scene presenting itself before the party was abhorrent in the extreme.
Sera collapsed to the cave floor, the contents of her stomach spilling over her robes and the ground, which she seemed helpless to rise from. The party's second caster, Yarrow, stood next to Sera, his eyes transfixed in horror and disbelief, hands hanging limply by his side. Two of their companions were being overwhelmed by a writhing mass of dark, man-like forms. Valdric stared in horror: Wulfgard had lost his shield along with the arm holding it and now stumbled to his knees under the weight of slashing, biting, dark forms, his sword flailing wildly to no effect. Of Cerran there was just a mass of thrashing black things fighting over bits of what, Valdric did not want to consider.
Torvan screamed in his native tongue, throwing his shield aside and hefting an axe from his belt. Clashing sword and axe together the northern barbarian leapt at the morass of feeding forms, slashing and hacking wildly.
"Torvan! No!" Valdric cursed the barbarian's blood lust. Grabbing Yarrow by the shoulders, Valdric spun the mage to face him. "Help me, Yarrow!"
Torvan's wild battle cries and cursing added rhythm to the hacking sounds filling the cave tunnel. The barbarian was now in the midst of the black forms, as he fought his way to Wulfgard, his brother and kinsman.
Snarling and guttural screeches came as reply.
Releasing Yarrow as useless, Valdric hurriedly lifted Sera from the floor. "Sera! Look at me, Sera!"
Gold-flecked orbs focused on Valdric's visored face, "Work with Yarrow, or we will die in this cave!"
Sera gave a slight nod, wiping her mouth with a sleeve.
Valdric turned to face the slavering horde. Of Torvan and Wulfgard there was no sight, only a magically illuminated scene of writhing, snarling, black figures clambering over each other to get to the centre of combatants that filled the cave tunnel. Several of the drooling forms were advancing slowly upon the remaining party members.
Behind him, Valdric could hear Sera's trembling voice urging Yarrow to do something, but the panic was clear in her voice. She too could see the approaching figures.
With a cry to match that of Torvan's, Valdric charged the advancing horrors. Fleetingly, he angrily thought, it was never meant to end like this!
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Kelly
Ok. Now I've set the scene. Let us assume at least four of the six in Valdric's party manage to survive and kill or repel the slavering horde.
In game terms this resulting encounter could be a disaster. Two out of the four fighters are dead, and what's left of them isn't very sightly either.
So what are the choices? If they were NPCs then maybe the game continues, albeit at a more cautious pace and with greater difficulty. But if they were player characters? Then I am sure some of you reading this will be thinking, 'Get some body parts to a temple in a major city and have them resurrected.'
|Origin of image unknown.|
Granted, many of these things are great vehicles for side quests and adventures, but don't forget, you still have the problem of two players minus characters. Will you give them NPCs to run with until their own characters are ready? I will admit to being guilty of this, and also guilty of allowing dead characters to be resurrected at temples within a major city.
To this end I will have to say, on reflection, that the NPC aspect is akin to giving a driver a hire car whilst his vehicle is in for repairs. No one really gives a shit about the NPC, nor what they have to say, do or offer, so to my mind that's a waste. As for allowing them to be resurrected, well I feel that detracts from the danger of the world in which you are running your campaign. Where is the danger if players don't fear the death of their character?
On the other hand, it does allow for continuity - of sorts - in-so-much that players do not have to re-roll a character and then a flimsy made-up plot to introduce them to the party, who suddenly decide to accept these two new strangers without question, has to be dreamt up on the spot. So if you do not mind a furtherance of suspension of disbelief to the point of the ridiculous, then run with it.
But with hindsight, I know it only lessens the credibility of your game world, your game, and you as a DM, not to mention the value players place on the life of their characters.
Knowing what cock-ups I've made in the past as a DM, be they due to ignorance, ego or poor planning, I would not allow them to happen again (he says hopefully!).
Resurrection, for me, is a double-edged sword. It has potential to be a fantastic vehicle for plethora of spin-off quests and adventures, but should be treated like Pandora's Box - once opened there is no turning back. If used it must be treated and conveyed with heavy emphasis as something miraculous and 'never to be repeated'.
My vote would be leaning more toward hindrance than help.
As easily as you breathe life into a character, the player must accept the undeniable fact that, as in the real world, lives have no set span and no one knows when their time is up. So when a character dies, so long as it was not due to a major f.u. by the DM, and all things were done properly and by the book, then the life is lost, and its passing should be noted heroically - and said players sent into the kitchen to make tea and toast for everyone else ... ok, that bit is optional.
Either way, it is a hard call to make. But as a DM, make it you shall. Just be sure you are prepared for the consequences of this no win situation. Creativity, flexibility and honesty should see you through - and if you don't know why I've mentioned those three things, then reconsider becoming a DM.