Chapter 1: Forbidden Lore
The Central Library at the University had forever been a source of mystery and fatal attraction for our three lifetime friends, though for different reasons. Despite the number of students pursuing higher education on the campus, library access was always heavily restricted; and students had never seen more than a handful of its public rooms. Whether it was to research secreted knowledge, uncover theologies repressed by the clergy, or simply find newer and stranger creatures to befriend, each of our friends had their own reason for plumbing its depths.
But such secrets were closely guarded as well. Beyond the locked doors seemingly in every room, nightmarish sentinels were said to lurk–unseen hands, disembodied voices, and statues that moved of their own in the night. Worse still, the empty grounds were said to be maintained by a crazed Kuo-Toa, who had gone half-mad with isolation. Two junior students, who had been nearly caught while enjoying amorous solitude, spoke of a dark figure who muttered of antediluvian beings and “a thousand eyes.”
Our three foolhardy friends needed no other reason to plot an evening of danger and intrigue. But as long as the grounds’ lampposts remained lit by the earth currents and professors walked casually nearby, such fancies would stay only that. Daydreams better left in the storybooks on the shelf.
That is, until the day the lights went out.
DM’s Note: As this is your first “real” session, please create your character as a full first-level character, complete with class, redone skills, adjusted feats (if you’d like to alter the ones you have), and equipment appropriate for the character wealth. The only two things you are required to keep the same are your character’s race and stats.
Keep in mind that the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Stormwrack all contain useful equipment for your travels, but be sure to double-check with the DM if you choose any magical items–some will have different forms underwater (such as potions) and others are simply outlawed by Yanethlien society.
Session Record (October 13, 2012)
Seven years have passed since our friends’ misadventure in the passages below the Cradle, and the three were preparing to graduate their final courses. Over the years, Damash, Tialka, and Vhenkor had earned a respectable reputation for mischief, though they had gained experience in both avoiding most major mishaps and concealing the rest.
After his first few years in the dojo, Damash had spent his time serving diligently at the temple to Tabor, even going so far as to take a sacred Vow of Poverty. In his time of service, he learned never to ask questions about what lay under the temple–the icy glares returned by the clergy were all the answer he needed. In contrast, Vhenkor had begun his time learning discipline at the temple, then transferring to the dojo where he was schooled in the basics of combat and physical defense (a needed study for anyone interested in magic). Lastly, Tialka had spent her time studying biology; and although she struggled with some classes, she had a more solid understanding of the way the biosphere worked. She had even been able to befriend a good-natured squid, which now spent its time constantly following her like a lost fry.
[DM's note: This translates to a first-level party of one monk (Damash) with a Vow of Poverty, one wizard (Vhenkor) who's taken a level of fighter as his first level, and one druid (Tialka) with a squid for an animal companion.]
One morning, not long before their graduation, they woke to find the background illumination of the cradle flickering hectically. Although the Warrens and areas near the head of the current were also home to bio-luminescent creatures, the University itself was lit mostly through lanterns maintained by deep earth currents.
Each of these lampposts (and corresponding lights in all of the campus buildings) were flickering on and off, as if powered by a faulty circuit. What’s more, the greenish glow that illuminated the cavern from outside wavered and fluctuated in exactly the same patterns.
Knots of students gathered idly outside to watch the spectacle, but the faculty seemed much more concerned. They bustled in small groups from building to building, shooing students back to their dorms, and instructing them not to be worried.
It was difficult, however, to not be at least a little concerned when the flickerings finally ceased entirely, plunging the entire School of Scales into darkness.
Fortunately, our mischief-makers had come prepared, with Damash and Tialka sporting glowing mushrooms they’d snagged from their rooms, and Vhenkor a bio-luminescent jellyfish he’d more-or-less trained to be a lantern.
The sharp eye of Damash caught a glimmer of light moving in the second floor of the nearby campus library, a restricted building the trio had oft wished to plunder for hidden lore. Today, the three might actually get their chance, as the library was normally brightly-lit by lanterns and patrolled by faculty. With the recent developments, sneaking in undetected was now a distinct possibility.
The library had always been something of a mystery. While it was a decently-sized three-story building, students were only allowed entrance to the foyer, two nearby rooms of books, and a few small reading alcoves. A good five-sixths of the library had never been seen by the students (and by most faculty, it was rumored).
The sign-in ledger
Upon entrance to the library, visitors were greeted with a sign-in ledger. The book itself was a bit of a curiosity, as its pages were stiff, flat, and more porous than should have been possible in an underwater environment. The cover and binding, as well, were made from an unfamiliar hide.
The foyer painting
On the wall behind the ledger was a painting of the skeletal remains of a large, unknown creature. Some theorized that it was from this animal the ledger had been formed.
However, entrance would not be through the front door today. Professor Oort-Ba, the eccentric librarian in charge of the library, was busy shooing students and faculty alike from the steps of the library.
“The library is closed,” was the curt answer to the party’s entreaty to enter. When pressed, Oort-Ba pulled Vhenkor aside and declared pointedly, “I admire your curious spirit. I really do. I admire your curious spirit. But the library is off limits today.” After a long and meaningful stare, he stepped back inside the library and closed the front doors, leaving the trio to their thoughts.
Never one to back down from mischief, the three quickly returned to their dorm rooms, grabbed whatever supplies they felt would be necessary (including Vhenkor’s ranseur, which came in more handy than one might imagine), and headed for the library. Its secrets would be theirs this day.
The Third Floor
The three mischief-makers carefully swam to the back side of the library, where there were no throngs of students, and used their rudimentary gall bladders to slowly rise to the second floor, where Damash had seen the flickering light. A look into the second-story windows showed a large reading room, where students may have, at one time, sat reading their curriculum or working on projects. Now, however, it was quiet, unused, and immaculate. Furthermore, through one of the door left ajar to the rest of the library, the same flickering light could be seen moving up and down the hallway. The group decided to enter on the third story instead, where neither Professor Oort-Ba nor strange lights had been seen.
Getting in proved more tricky than anticipated. Tialka first sensed something was amiss when she discovered a window leading only to a brick wall. While the other windows were fastened by a simple latch on the inside, none of the party had any tools small enough to fit through the cracks. Vhenkor eventually chose the direct route by smashing a window pane with his fist. Although he nearly cut himself on the glass, and the resulting sound was loud enough to attract passerbys, and the three managed to duck into the library room and close the window before being detected.
Initially, the group considered pinning the blame for the window damage on Tialka’s hapless squid. In the end, a rock Damash just happened to have been carrying was left near the window as a potential explanation. Neither Tialka nor Vhenkor were brave enough to ask why Damash kept a rock with him.
The library room the three found themselves in was oddly-shaped, being more of an L than a rectangle, and apparently hadn’t been used in years. Apart from a writing desk and a shelf of entry-level curriculum books that had been arranged with perfect geometric precision, a statue stood in one corner of the room:
The three recognized it as a notable aquatic hero from days gone by, and it was not uncommon to see homages to it in various parts of Yaneth’lei. The search of the third floor quickly took a turn for the bizarre, however, when the only door from the room led into a hallway with a dead end.
The labyrinthian third floor took some time for the party to make sense of. Strange and inexplicable events included:
- A dead-end hallway accessible only by secret panel doors.
- Audible footsteps, though always a room or two away, and only when the party was motionless and actively listening.
- Doors to previously-explored rooms that closed silently when unobserved.
- A room holding a collection of statues of important political or historical figures from days gone by. Entertaining a private suspicion, Vhenkor was relieved to find more than one statue of the same person throughout the level, implying the statues were only made of the historical figures and not from them.
- A room filled with stacks of books, reaching to the ceiling and almost impossibly-balanced. Although one stack of books was knocked over upon the party’s first entrance, it was later found to be righted in its original position once unobserved.
- A statue standing directly face-to-face on the other side of a closed door.
- “Detect Magic,” if cast, simply filled the caster’s vision with such a painful, uniform field of bright white light that the spell would have to be dismissed, or the caster dazed.
- A library room of sorts, whose entrance was hidden behind an unused bookshelf. While the party found the customary third and fourth-level curriculum books, they also began finding books for courses they’d never heard of, such as “Contemporary Yanethlien Politics.” None of the names in the book were familiar. Vhenkor also found a poorly-edited introductory pamphlet to the university, and began studying it for clues or secret messages. Both of these items were saved for later.
- Bookcases that moved or were moved when unobserved, trapping Vhenkor in a corner of the room. While he was able to tear through one of the bookcases with his ranseur, the wreckage of the case fell upon Damash (who was on the other side, attempting to help), severely injuring him.
- Books, if moved or stacked in places they hadn’t been found, returned to their original spots when unobserved.
- A room filled with 150 chairs, all bunched together around a single empty tile square, as if they were a congregation eager to listen to an invisible orator. Also in the same room, two statues, one of which had been laid face-down on the floor. Again, all items returned to their original spots when unobserved. Vhenkor wondered out-loud if the library was home to some form of Unseen Servant.
- A gallery of painting and small statues, set in hallways that meandered and turned back on themselves like a maze. One end led to a hatch leading downwards–a hatch painted on the floor, that is. The real door to the floor below was at the other end of the long corridor.
The Second Floor
As seen from outside, the second floor’s layout was much more what the three would have expected of an actual library. Symmetric reading galleries were set on either side of a long hallway, and the far ends of the floor housed a collection of writing rooms and art galleries.
However, it was the content of the floor that piqued the party’s interests. For starters, the three found an interesting letter hidden in the first room they entered, written by an old cleric Damash had heard mentioned but had never met:
I bow to your wisdom and concede your previous points. However, the unfortunate truth still remains that the Great and Mighty Tabor (may His name be ever worshiped) must certainly be displeased with His congregation. Every morning, more and more clerics find their petitions, unanswered, and every evening, more and more priests find themselves simply unable to commune. Indeed, even some of His most holy spells oft do more to harm His faithful followers than the vermin they were sent to banish!
I beseech you, your Holiness, to consider the entirety of the situation. If the Great and Mighty Tabor continues to be displeased with us, through no fault of our own, then might it be possible that He has grown wearisome of us as His followers? Is it heresy to consider the survival of one’s own race over the preservation of dying traditions?
Please, for the good of us all, seek out our options. Find those who know more of Ilsidahur, Demagorgon, and even the Mother.
I respectfully await your response,
Though Damash did not recognize any of the deities named in the letter, he understood the issues being raised.
Next to catch the attention of the mischief-makers was the art displayed around the level. Statues set up at either end of the long central hallway showed strange amalgamations of aquatic humanoids and fish tails:
Although there were several species of aquatic humanoids, none of the ones mentioned in their class studies ever resembled these specimens. The three were left wondering if these figures were of only mythological beings, or of creatures long dead.
Paintings on the walls also showed incredible beasts or fish of fantastic colors, floating below some impossibly-bright light. Tialka noted that colors such as these were poor markings for a fish, as it only highlighted them to predators. Further idle speculation debated if the light came from Tabor himself, as the group knew of nothing else that could produce a light so intense.
Again, footsteps and moving lights were visible, but always just around a corner, out of sight. Whoever or whatever was responsible never showed itself, and a full search of the floor by the party revealed no one other than themselves.
The final room the group entered was at stark contrast to the rest of the library. Whereas all furniture and objects had been arranged with precision (and returned to their places if disturbed), this…storage room was covered by a jumbled layer of exploded books, shelving, chairs, and parchment. It was as if madness itself had seized the room, or been locked away inside. A quick search of the room by Damash revealed both another hatch leading further downwards, and an oddly-mangled scrap of mysterious scawling:
beyond the city they writhe
some with one shape
some with many shapes
some with no shape
do not look into their eyes
for there dwells madness
The First Floor
The confusing architecture of the first floor
The first floor and final level used no right angles or straight hallways. The stone walls veered in or out, and sharp hall corners turned the party back and forth on themselves. Although the design seemed intentional, the three were at a loss as to why anyone would design a floor so.
As the last two levels, paintings were hung on the walls about them. However, the pictures here evidenced a much different atmosphere than those above:
Unsettled by what they saw, the three hurried on. Their travels eventually brought them to a small bedchamber, with a bed, desk, chair, table, bookshelf, chest, and collection of scrolls. Questions to the ownership of this room were answered when a disturbing letter was discovered in the desk:
My dear Oort-Pa,
No, no, no, and a thousand times again, I say no! I will waste no more blood venturing into the outside world.
There has been no word from anyone in the rest of Yaneth’lei in almost three generations. Three generations of silence, three generations where not a single visitor or message has found its way into our secluded recess of the Cradle. I needn’t remind you that the current flows in and not out. I also needn’t remind you that we have already sent out ill-advised scouting parties in years gone by. Well-equipped, well-trained students…many of whom were my personal friends.
I still see their faces at night.
Yes, we know the city defenses powered by the earth currents are still operating, you are correct. We know this because we can see their glow through the cavern openings overhead. However, what you perhaps did not know is that the fields were designed to be automated. They likely continued long after the death of the rest of our species, and likely will continue long after ours.
Let me make myself perfectly frank so that there is no misunderstanding. If this is indeed the closing age of our race, if these are in fact the last few seconds on our clock, then so be it. I will go to my grave with a clear conscience and a head held high, knowing I did everything within my power to care for and protect my charges. Not simply feed them into the teeth of the shark.
Vhenkor, the initial reader of the document, felt his grip on reality slip. Already unsettled by the environment around him, and convinced a secret conspiracy lay hidden just out of his reach, Vhenkor’s mind still reeled from the revelation. He gained his first insight of the Forbidden Lore that lay hidden in their world, but he sacrificed a portion of his sanity in the process. The others seemed unaffected by the letter, though the news of the doom of their species was no less shaking.
There was only one portion of the floor (and thus, the entire library) left unsearched, but the group heard a pair of loud clanking footsteps approaching them. Eventually, a pair of chitin boots rounded a corner, apparently unconnected to any physical object. They halted in surprise upon seeing the group, and the battle was on!
Vhenkor, still convinced the party combated an Unseen Servant, mulled over ways to best reveal the opponent, such as an ink cloud from Tialka’s faithful squid. However, upon seeing the squid successfully grapple one of the boots, and watching the other boot attack unsuccessfully (hitting the first boot in the process), a slow realization began to dawn on him. This was only further confirmed when another pair of boots appeared from behind the party–that is, one boot each at opposite ends of a long hallway!
The battle with the four Animated objects was as dangerous as it was absurd, and many times the three found themselves swinging wildly in space as the nimble boots kicked at their shins and danced back out of reach. Eventually, however, Vhenkor’s ranseur, Tialka’s spear and squid, and Damash’s flurry of blows returned the boots to their original states of scattered husks.
The floor’s final passage slowly curved inwards in a jagged spiral, and the three friends began to see flickering lights and dull chanting murmurs ahead. They gripped their weapons fearfully and steeled themselves before the last corner, unsure of what lay ahead. Then they jumped out as one to see–
The room in the middle of the level at the center of the spiral quite literally had nothing in it but water, and even the mysterious lights and chanting ceased upon entry. Examining the surface of the floor, Tialka noted a fine layer of dust and fish scales, suggesting the room had not been entered by anyone for some time. Vhenkor, thinking perhaps another secret entrance led downwards again, dove his ranseur into the stone floor with such force that it knocked the water out of him.
Now completely confused, the party sat and contemplated their next move, and why a library would be constructed so if it held no true secrets. Just then, the earth current bulbs at the ceilings on each floor began flickering slowly back to life, and it was decided an invigorating sprint for the dorms was in good order.
It was on their way back out that the trio noticed the door to the library’s foyer was now hanging wide open.
Professor Oort-Ba was waiting for them when they returned. Next to him, on the pedestal, still sat the sign-in ledger. However, the periods of darkness between the flickering of the lights overhead revealed its true nature:
The ledger, when in complete darkness
“Did you find what you were looking for?” he asked with a knowing smile.
Oort-Ba then when on to reveal that as an old man alone in a massive library, he had taken the time over the years to Animate literally every object within its walls. (That is, save the statues–even he felt this would have been too “creepy.”) To illustrate the purpose, Oort-Ba reached up and swept a stack of books off the shelves and onto the floor. Once he had removed his hand, the books got up and neatly arranged themselves back on the shelves in proper order.
When the party commented they hadn’t enjoyed his Animated boots at all, he simple declared, “Good! Because you won’t enjoy what you find outside the Cradle either!” He went on to point out that his library had been a good test of mettle for the three, as it would take a robust sense of curiosity, an unfailing spirit, and a sound mind to survive in the world beyond.
Although he could not and would not directly ask the three friends to search outside the Cradle for answers to their predicament, he felt that such action was the only way to prevent extinction. While he admitted Prof. Kee-Blup was still a good man with good intentions, he felt the other’s cautious traditionalism only doomed their race. He would not sit by idly, though neither could he personally leave with the trio on any missions. The “deacons” that oversaw the college had truthfully died off years ago, and the two Professors had been working a complicated facade merely to maintain the Cradle. The departure of one would either create a power vacuum, or cause the other to come along as well to try to stop them.
Oort-Ba was relieved to find the three were very interested in leaving the Cradle for answers, and wished them well. He begged them to wait until after their impending graduation, however, to avoid unnecessary attention. As they left, he gifted them with one last thing–the book sitting next to him on the pedestal. Readable only in absolute darkness, and then only by one with magical training, the volume contained every arcane spell known to those who lived in the Cradle, with additional pages for new ones learned. Understanding the treasure he had been gifted with, Vhenkor gripped it tightly to his chest.
The lights in the Cradle eventually restored themselves over the course of the day, and business appeared to return to normal. That night, however, the three friends had their heads filled with dreams of daring adventure, haunting mystery, mortal dangers, and unseen faces that only showed in the corners of their vision.
Appendix: Yanethlien Architecture
Just as above the waves, buildings can be constructed in a vast number of different ways and from different materials in the depths of the sea. A resident of Yaneth’lei could live in:
- Built-up holes and crevasses in rock or coral (as the Warrens in the Cradle).
- Stone caves, either natural or fashioned.
- Flimsy hovels fashioned together from debris.
- Free-standing structures made from various materials (such as the stone and secreted mortar of the School of Scales, or from thick interwoven fiber “wood).
- Completely biological structures (such as the abandoned shell of a giant mollusk).
Although most creatures swim, there are still the lessened effects of gravity, meaning objects will eventually settle to the bottom. As such, there is a rudimentary “up” and “down” even in the weightless environment of Yaneth’lei, and floor plans will reflect this. Visitors from drier lands would still recognize sleeping mats, chairs, desks and tables, and even the occasional staircase for non-swimming creatures or moving heavy objects.
Still, Yanethliens make use of the extra room afforded to them, and classrooms will have chairs along the walls as well as the floor. A very common arrangement in free-standing structures, for example, is to have a central shaft-like space, where inhabitants can freely swim up or down to where they need to go. The top of the building would be open or covered by a light roof, and the most prestigious apartments would actually be at the bottom, where they are furthest away from predators or prying eyes.
Currents are also a topic for concern in Yanethlien architecture, as they both bring heat and carry waste out of residential areas. Higher-class buildings will often make use of redirected currents in a form of internal “plumbing.” Poor districts of the city, however, must make do with what passes down their street, hoping they are not too far downstream from the warmth and swimming in filth.