Story by Brendan
Editor’s note: In this post on Games vs Play, Brendan Hack introduces us to Arlin, his human wizard character in the Tumbledown World D&D 5e campaign we’re currently playing. A native of the poor but proud theme of Odd Down in New Dowager City, Arlin’s first chance encounter with magic set him on the path to adventure and a lifelong obsession with uncovering the mystery behind the colossi …
Arlin grew up in Odd Down. Not a squalid a life by the standard of the theme, his family didn’t have to share a room or dwelling. But the five of them were squashed into a three-room basement, parents in one room, kids in another and the remaining space for a stove, table and little else. The table had meals on it at the start and end of each day though, and school was available if he felt like turning up. But no one was forcing him to go, or checking up if he did. Still, Arlin at least left for school every day else his father would collar him to work in the tannery. Home was pretty much just the place where he ate and slept, his life was out in the streets with his gang, either getting into or staying away from trouble. All in all he had a better lifestyle than many in NDC, but most in a Freehold City would consider his life pitiful.
That was until one January night shortly after his 12th birthday. He and his gang: Pig, Lizard and Gecko (Lizard’s little brother); had commandeered (OK, stolen) a dinghy late one night and rowed out to the Lady Dowager. Her devotees were inducting a new High Priest that night so they knew the acolytes that usually protected her would be otherwise occupied. They didn’t have much of a plan other than to climb up onto her crown and consume the skin of wine they had also commandeered. Which they duly did. For lack of anything further to do they started exploring with the aid of their skulking torches (pretty much a standard torch, but with a makeshift shield around it to prevent too much light from spilling out behind, where, say, returning homeowners might spy it through a window).
Pig was kicking away at a crack in the stone paving when a tile pivoted and he fell, ending up with one leg inside The Lady and the others wondering how he could spread himself so wide without ripping his groin. They hauled Pig out and peered down through hole. There was a drop of about five feet to a spacious ledge, then off the ledge another three feet to dark water. Without discussion they all dropped down into The Lady – there wasn’t a hole all four of them wouldn’t explore without hesitation. But there wasn’t anything more to see, just the smooth inside of the crown and the flooded depths below. “A copper says you don’t have the balls for a swim Duck” laughed Pig. Arlin peered over the side, but it wasn’t much use, he couldn’t see any more. But the sheer wall down into the water appeared rough enough to be able to clamber up. He didn’t particularly see the point of jumping in given they could barely see anything when out of the water. But Pig could be a dick, and Arlin didn’t feel like dealing with the inevitable chicken impression. “For The Lady’s sake Pig even Gecko would have the balls to take a dip.” Arlin stripped down and dove in.
As he expected, it was pitch black down in the water. Arlin surfaced and looked up at the grinning faces of his crew. “Can’t see nothing much more down here, I’ll see if I can find the bottom.” Arlin dove again, counting in his head to try and keep track of his depth. After fifteen seconds he stopped. There was no bottom, no light and no point in being down here. But as he turned around to swim back up, he caught a tiny glimpse of dim light coming from the wall. As fast as he noticed it though, it vanished. Arlin stared down at the point he thought it had come from but saw nothing. Thinking it was his imagination he shook his head and again got a quick glimpse. Slowly moving his head back and forth he soon found the single angle from which he could see, well, whatever it was. Keeping a firm eye on the light he kicked towards it. He couldn’t really tell what it was even up close, if anything it looked like a hoop embedded in the wall, about the width of a bracelet. So Arlin grabbed it and pulled. It moved a fraction, so he pulled harder. And again. The stonework crumbled around the hoop and its release from The Lady was accompanied by a blinding flash of light and an earthshattering sound as the colossus rang like a bell.
Arlin came to still underwater. He was completely disoriented but there was enough of a glow still for him to discern the water’s surface from the darkness below. He kicked up and found his friends had all fled. Clambering out he donned his clothes again and saw no sign of them or the dinghy. There was nothing for it but to swim. He’d expected to have to avoid angry acolytes rowing out to flagellate whomever was desecrating their idol. But the docks had been swamped, and they were having trouble enough finding a seaworthy vessel let alone launching one. Arlin snuck home and crawled into the bed he shared with his brothers. It wasn’t until he woke the next morning that he realised he was still holding on to the hoop.
The gang was surprised to see him later that day. They’d assumed he was dead. Arlin wasn’t up to explaining what had happened though, or what he’d found. He wasn’t even up for company so left them to their loitering and wandered the streets alone. It was a few days before he could even start to think about what had occurred. And that just produced more questions than answers, chiefly being why hadn’t he drowned? He’d had to have been under for at least ten or fifteen minutes given the guys were nowhere in sight by the time he reached fresh air. And why weren’t the devotees hunting down the heretics that had broken into and damaged The Lady? He even went so far as to sneak back out there one night (even though she was now heavily guarded) and found the crown’s floor was now perfectly smooth with no indication anyone had ever been inside.
Arlin became a loner, shunning his old friends and even starting to go to school to try and find answers. But whenever he’d bring The Lady up he was simply told “There’s nowt about her Ladyship that the likes of you need to learn about”, so it didn’t last long. Pig and Co. beat him up a few times when they crossed paths, Skunk (Arlin’s replacement) even cut him up pretty badly. But they soon grew tired of that as they started earning coin from the lower level members of the In and Out Crew. He never told anyone about his hoop though even though it had never done anything again, not even the slightest glow. He thought he should get rid of it, after all it was evidence of what he’d caused. But it seemed harmless enough, and as long as he kept his mouth shut who would ever know.
Janse first noticed Arlin when he was holding up the bar at one of the taverns near Swinging Jack. The scrawny boy was next to him begging a feed off the owner with no reaction other than a gruff “get out of here”. He persisted though, and each time he got a slightly angrier answer. But right at the point where Janse expected the boy to get a cuff over the ear and thrown out the owner changed his tune. He doled out a large bowl of stew, making sure there were some big hunks of meat in it, offered extra bread and a full stein of strong beer. Janse couldn’t tell what had changed his mind, but he could see the boy had something metallic in his hand that hadn’t been there before.
It took months to gain his trust. And even longer for him to be comfortable enough to not be obviously hiding something. But eventually Janse was able to ask Arlin about the hoop he always carried with him. Arlin was reluctant, but produced it anyway since Janse despised the acolytes. Definitely metallic, 4″ in diameter, about 1/4″ thick and an inch wide, it didn’t look like anything particularly special. Janse asked to handle it but Arlin wouldn’t let it go. “It’s just that I’ve never seen anything like it. Most of the time it looks like ordinary metal, but there’s something wrong in how it reflects the light. If I can just touch it for a while I might be able to get a better feel for what it is. You can keep a good hold of it the whole time”. He thought it a pretty strange request but Arlin allowed it. Janse murmured under his breath and surreptitiously moved his hand under the table the whole time. But he couldn’t hide his reaction when the Identify spell finished and he burst out “Oh! It must have been you!”
Alin almost bolted out of the room right there and then. But he truly had come to trust this strange man and simply watched him carefully for any sudden moves saying “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And it was well he did stay, for if he hadn’t he would never have learned what little there was to know about the Colossi, would never have joined Janse’s ad-hoc collective of amateur researchers nor ever learned what an Arcane Focus was. For the hoop was attuned to Arlin and allowed him to bend magical energy to his will. What it used to do for The Lady could not be discovered, only that it belonged to her and was originally a very powerful device.
Janse’s collective had dissolved now, its members moved on to other places to continue their work. Janse himself had largely retired from his research since breaking his leg badly in a fall while scaling Swinging Jack. But he had taught Arlin the basics of magic and machinery, well enough for him to study on his own. Now a young man, Arlin was keen to escape the confines of the Commonwell (and Odd Down in particular) to discover what he could of these strange machines that littered the countryside.
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Image sources: Banner image – Zastavki; Caravaggio, The Cardsharps – Sartle; Statue of Liberty underwater – Eye of the Cyclone; Rembrandt, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – Liverpool Museums; Arlin’s metal ring – Alexnld.