The bag tumbled to the ground with a metallic clang and the dull splinter of broken glass, and an assortment of odds-and-ends spilled out across the flagstone floor, even a shriveled orange rolled away eagerly and hid in the shadow of a moldy wardrobe.
“Godsdammit! I’m tired of this shit!”, Kulock bellowed, red-faced, his teeth showing in a raged grimace, and he stalked over to the ruined bedchamber’s door and kicked it open, cracking a few water-softened boards. “Vrayce! VRACE! Get IN here!”
The old bard poked his head out of the room across the hall, the permanent scowl on his face deepened even more, and he barked, “What is it now, ‘Lock? I’m dealing with my own problems right now! Can’t you wipe your own ass!?”
The ranger snarled back at him, “Fuck you Vrayce! Everytime I turn around one of you fuckers has cut my straps, tied my boots together, unbound the heads from my arrows or taken a shit in my porridge! I’m TIRED of it!”
The gnome spluttered, his raggedy grey shanks quivered while he purpled. He pointed an arthritic finger at the grizzled ranger and stabbed it as he yelled, “You think WE did that, you lying sonofabitch?! YOU are the one who cut my fuckin strings last night, because you’re such a bastard!”, and Vrayce pulled a lute from behind him, the strings cut and splayed in all directions like cat’s whiskers, and brandished it at Kulock. “I know you don’t like my singing, but this was too much! Asshole!” The bard retreated back into his room and slammed the door as hard as the old boards would allow.
Down the hall a new voice cried out, “Oi! What’s all the racket about?! You two having another lover’s spat?”
A lightly armored elf, his breastplate gaudily emblazoned with the twin scales of Priturn, strode down the canted hallway of the old mansion, his longsword beating a soft tattoo as it tapped his hip with his strides.
Kulock turned on him and let out another string of invectives, filthy enough to make anyone else but the charming young paladin blush with embarrassment or rage, but Ishkitah just smiled, knowing Kulock was just venting, and he didn’t take it personally. He reached the ranger’s side and laid a friendly hand on his shoulder and said, “I didn’t think you sewed my socks together, my friend, or pissed in my canteen, but something is clearly going on, and none of us are doing it. Honest.”
Kulock just stared at him, still blowing hard, but calming with every breath. It was hard not to listen to the elf’s soothing tone and not feel beguiled by his open honesty. He shrugged the hand off his shoulder and said, evenly, “I want to believe you, Kit, but by the Deceiver, if its not pranks, then what? Godsrotting bad luck? I feel like we’ve angered this place, or something. Like it doesn’t want us here!”
The paladin smiled, showing even, white teeth. “Of course it doesn’t want us here. We came to find the secret it’s hiding. It won’t give it up so easily. You need to relax. We haven’t been attacked, just annoyed. Whatever it is, maybe it can’t hurt us.” He smiled again. “You’ll see. Its not so hard when you—”
An inhuman shrieking came from the bard’s room across the hall, and both elf and man moved as one and shouldered the door, nearly tearing it from its rusty hinges.
The old gnome was standing in the middle of the large, mostly empty bedchamber. His bedroll was still on the floor, and a stack of thin books was piled near the bundle Vrayce used for a pillow. His rucksack lay nearby, upright and neatly packed. His face was a mask of horror.
All around the terrified bard were tiny, ugly creatures, no bigger than rats, but bipedal. They looked like deformed little men, molded of clay, and dirt, and flesh, folded again and again, until it resembled these small creatures. All were clothed with scraps of rags, some in makeshift trousers, others in capes, some only had filthy strings as headbands, where tiny grotesqueries dangled like macabre trophies.
All were armed with some crude weapon. Kulock saw rusty sewing needles, a sharpened fork, a broken garden trowel, even a shard from a man-sized blade, crudely lashed to a broken chunk of wood. There were rats among them, thick-bodied and some were circled with crude saddles, offcuts of leather cinched with sinew, or string.
Vrayce’s eyes were bright circles, his empty hands were open, imploring. His face white as a sheet. “I- I kicked one of them. I thought it was a rat. When I turned around, there they were!” He shuddered and Ishkitar held his hands out, palms up, speaking slowly. “Don’t move, Vrayce. Don’t make any sudden movements, ok? I know what these things are, and you can’t reason with them and you can’t be aggressive, ok? Just walk towards me, slowly, ok? Slowly. It’s ok, just walk to-”
Kulock cut in, his face twisted with revulsion, “Fuck this! Move, Vrayce!” and he shouldered the paralyzed bard aside, lunging with his longsword towards one of the creatures, but he was too slow, and it vanished into a hole in the floorboards.
Suddenly the air was full of hissing, and all the tiny creatures moved like lightning, and disappeared into cracks and chinks in the walls and rotting baseboards as quickly as they had appeared.
Ishkatar moaned, “Why, ‘Lock?! I told you not to…” and he broke off. His head tipped back and he spun in a slow circle, his mouth open, eyes wide. He whispered to the others, “Listen! They are in the walls. All around us.” He danced back from a worm-eaten patch of floor, and looked at the others. “They are in the floors! We need to go. Now!”
The room exploded into motion, Vrayce scooping his books into his bedroll and balling the whole thing up while Kulock dashed for his room and Ishkatar ran for the chamber down the hall, hoping the ratkin had not fouled any more of his stores, and fell bloodily through some rat-chewed and weakened floorboards, down two stories where he passed out after hearing both of his legs break like thick tree branches, bright and clean sounding, and his lifeblood pooled around him in the dusty darkness of the basement.
Vrayce and Kulock weren’t found again for 2 years, when their skeletons were taken as an ill omen by the a group of fortune-hunters, eager to reap the rumored prize of Hagarel House, but the rogue of their group, a cocky halfling, took ‘Lock’s skull and mocked the others with it, keeping it as a running joke until he himself was poisoned by dozens of tiny blowgun darts while he slept.