“Well THAT’S new.”
There was a well up ahead on the road to Warlock’s Den. Or just the base, Paula noticed: a cylinder of rocks with no rope or bucket. Odd, especially since they were still a mile from the nearest town.
“You sure?” Mike asked from behind Paula. She didn’t remember a well, either, but she wasn’t one for remembering in the first place.
“Yeah, there’s no well on this road, I’m sure.”
“So, what, you think it’s enchanted?”
“Can’t just be unfinished.”
“I mean, like, opposed to cursed.”
“Oh. Well, let’s go see.”
Paula went on ahead, with Mike rushing behind her, the harp around her neck twanging with each stride. Keeping up with Paula was difficult for someone as short as Mike. Paula’s grandmother was an orc, and there was talk of a bugbear lurking somewhere in Paula’s ancestry. Mike would’ve believed it–Paula was easily six feet tall, with limbs thick as harpywood trees and tufts of facial hair bristling her cheeks.
“Wait! Wait, Paula!” Mike shouted as she ran, although Paula was already looking into the well. Mike was going to add something about not touching it, but was too winded to speak. She ran straight into the well, leaning on it to catch her breath.
“Seems fine,” Paula said. “Maybe it is just unfinished.” There was something shimmering at the bottom, but Paula knew better than to assume it was water. She and Mike had made a similar mistake on a previous mission, and Paula still had bite marks on her arm from a particularly violent Ichor Pudding.
“Don’t…go…into it,” Mike huffed.
“Hey, I’m not THAT clueless,” Paula grinned, rising back up to her full, towering height. “I just thought it was worth checking out.”
“Fine, so we checked it out,” Mike said, annoyed to realize she had been touching the well. She brushed her hands off on her billowy bard pants. “Are we done here?”
“Hold your horses,” Paula teased. She had noticed a few rags, maybe a dozen or so, scattered around the well. She picked one up, and saw that a thin string ran from its corner to the inside of the well.
“Paula? PAULA!” Mike was huddled against the well, pointing at the rags. Or maybe not rags, for as Paula watched, they started to move, shifting side to side, edging closer to the two of them.
“I’ll…I’ll do an Arcana Check on them,” Mike stammered, scootching closer to Paula.
“What are you talking about?” Mike had taken hold of Paula’s leg, and yelped when Paula tried to kick her off. “You don’t know anything about magic, dummy.”
“Neither do you!” Mike squeezed Paula’s leg tighter, keeping her hold as Paula overswung her leg and toppled over.
The exchange of punches and insults that followed completely distracted them from the sentient rags. Luckily, the rags didn’t appear interested in the bard or the fighter, nor their heated name-calling. One by one, they began to fold themselves into vaguely humanoid shapes, their strings wrapping around their middles like tiny belts.
Paula and Mike stopped wrestling. “Aw, they’re just cute little guys!” Paula extended a hand to pick one up, but Mike swatted it away.
“We still haven’t ruled out the cursed well thing!” Mike chastised. “Don’t touch, you could lose a finger.”
“I’m NOT gonna lose a finger,” Paula rolled her eyes. “They’re some kind of magic dolls, or something. Maybe they belong to a warlock.”
“It’d be perfect if there was a warlock nearby, it’d keep us from having to go all the way to the Den,” Mike thought out loud. “Problem is, I don’t exactly SEE a warlock?”
“Maybe we should wait, then. Beats having to keep on traveling.”
“Stay with the cursed well?” Mike gaped at Paula. “Nuh-uh, not a chance. Waaay too dangerous.”
“Fine. How about you go on ahead and I stay here and wait?”
“That’s even worse! I’m not leaving you alone with a cursed well!” Mike was pacing, worriedly rubbing her hand against her mouth. “I’ll stay here, you go on ahead.”
Paula didn’t understand Mike’s reasoning most of the time, but knew she couldn’t do much to change her mind. “Fine by me. Keep an eye on the li’l guys.”
“You mean the cursed rags?” Mike asked pointedly, glaring at the enchanted objects in question. “Of course. Be careful in town.”
“I will.” Paula went back on the road, waving Mike and the rags goodbye.
“All of them? Really?”
“That’s what the innkeep said,” Paula repeated. “The real warlocks, anyway. Heard about a dragon’s hoard nearby and they all split.”
She and Mike were sitting on the ground, leaning against the well. After spending an hour alone with them, Mike didn’t appear to have a problem with the well or the rags anymore. In fact, she was even more excited about the rags than Paula was.
“They’re pretty neat little things,” Mike said, holding one of the raglings up. They seemed larger and more detailed now that Paula could get a good look. The way the fabric folded, it almost looked like a warlock’s cloak. If it would’ve had a triangular earring, it could’ve passed for a miniature warlock.
“I waited here, but no one came for them,” Mike went on. “They seem autonomous, though. A few times, they went into the woods and came back with treasure, all on their own.”
“Treasure?” Tiny rag creatures were interesting, but not in the way treasure was interesting. They had been tasked to track down a warlock, but since that was proving difficult, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to find a little extra gold.
“Yeah, but they dumped it all in the well,” Mike said. “Didn’t think I should try to stop them. Curses and all, you know.”
“Oh come on,” Paula laughed, reaching out to take the ragling. “They’re just li’l guys, what’s the worst they could do?” The ragling stepped daintily onto Paula’s calloused hand and spun around.
“I just hate to mess with curses, don’t know what could–”
“Look, we need water anyway, and we don’t have a bucket. I’ll go down to fill our waterskins, and maybe check for treasure while I’m down there.”
Mike shook her head furiously, “Uh uh, you’re not going down there, I am. You might get stuck.”
“I’m not gonna get stuck! You can’t even carry your own pack, how are you going to climb out of a well?” Paula asked, setting the ragling down and pulling a rope from her adventurer’s fanny pack.
Mike couldn’t argue with that. “Ok, just be careful.”
“I’ll be careful,” Paula promised patiently, wrapping the rope tightly against her knuckles.
“Be careful!” Mike said again as Paula hoisted herself into the well.
“I’m being careful,” Paula assured. She had tied the rope securely to a tree, and was climbing slowly down the slick well wall.
As Paula belayed herself further down, it grew darker, and her progress dwindled. Near the bottom, her foot slipped, and she half-fell into the bottom of the well.
“That didn’t sound careful!” Mike yelled from the mouth of the well, her voice cracking with worry.
“I’m fine!” Paula called back. The water only came to mid-calf height, pretty shallow for a well. Even stranger, there wasn’t any treasure underneath the water, just mud.
“There’s nothing down here, Mike!” Paula yelled. “I’ll just grab some water and come back up.”
“No, it’s a well curse!” Mike insisted, even more worried now. “Come back up! Right now!”
But Paula had already filled one of the waterskins. She struggled to climb back up now that her hands were wet, and Mike’s constant nagging didn’t help.
“You have to be more careful about curses, Paula!” Mike rambled as Paula came back up. “I’m always telling you, I’m ALWAYS telling you, you never know what could happen! You can’t keep-”
“Yeah, I know, you care about me and junk,” Paula smiled, dragging herself out of the well. The climb, along with the traveling and their little skirmish, had left her exhausted. Paula let herself fall to the ground, content to sleep wherever she landed.
Mike didn’t say anything back, and that was enough to catch Paula’s attention. She looked up, and saw that her feet were glowing. The middle of her calf to the toes of her boots was caked in golden light. Now a little more alert, Paula saw that her palms were also golden, and the waterskin was shining softly from inside like a dragon’s egg.
“Curse,” Mike breathed, her eyes wide, horrified.
“It’s nothing, relax,” Paula said, but her assurances no longer sounded so sure. Her feet felt fine, but any unexplained magic stuff still put her on edge. Mike’s fears weren’t ungrounded; they had gotten into their fair share of magical scrapes.
“Yeah?” Mike calmed down a little. “Maybe it’s just enchanted, then…”
“Yeah, I don’t know why golden water would be evil,” Paula agreed, trying to convince herself. “Nothing to do about it now, anyway.”
As Paula’s clothes dried, the glow subsided, putting their fears to rest. Paula rested her head back on the ground, and Mike plopped down to join her, using Paula’s right side as a pillow.
The sky grew dark above them. Mike hummed as she tuned her harp, relaxing more with each note. “I, for one,” she declared loudly, “am exhausted.”
“You’re exhausted?” Paula asked incredulously, cracking one eye open. “Didn’t see you walk to Warlock’s Den or climb down any wells.”
“Emotional exhaustion.” Mike grinned, but her voice was soft. “You scare the life out of me sometimes.”
Paula’s eyelids drooped. “Hmm. Yeah. Sorry.”
Mike strung up a slow, looping song on her harp. The raglings responded with a lazy dance, drifting back and forth, ever closer until they were draped across the two resting adventurers.
A piece of cloth tickled Paula’s hand. A ragling was laying across her fingers, its humanoid form all but gone. It appeared now to be just a simple rag, but bulkier, like there was something underneath.
Paula squinted, and adjusted her hand ever so slightly. A fold of the ragling’s cloak fell open, exposing a small set of jaws where its torso would be. And lodged between the two rows of teeth, a single triangular earring.
The shadow of a question quickened Paula’s heart, but the sound of Mike singing put it back to rest. She readjusted the ragling’s cloak, keeping its tiny mouth hidden, and allowed her eyes to close. She had had enough adventuring for one day.