One Statue Down

I moved toward the giant spider and swung my sickles in an attempt to catch and damage its legs.  Graenas continued to tear at the spider with a necromancy spell, his eyes showing no signs of thought beyond a desire to kill this thing.  I heard Danny struggling to free himself behind us. It took him several seconds — not helped by the fact that the spider managed to catch him in more webbing at one point — but he finally broke free. As he rejoined our battle he swung his warhammer with precision and incredible force, connecting with the spider’s head.  The creature’s exoskeleton cracked loudly as its head caved in from the impact. The whole creature flopped to the ground and twitched briefly before becoming utterly still.

second_statue_dungeon_20180818
The dungeon of the second statue as explored so far.

I turned to my brother who was still lost in icy hatred.  I could feel the crackle of energy as he raised the power to lash out once again.  I strode to his side and placed a hand on one arm.  “Graenas?” I said softly and pleadingly.

He stood staring at the corpse for a second or two longer before finally blinking. He looked at me as more reasoned thoughts returned to him. “I’m here. Sorry about that.”

I nodded and hugged him. Danny shifted uncomfortably and began to look through a pile of various items in the room. I suspect he was discomfited by what he saw in my brother’s expression as well as our moment of tenderness. I could certainly understand being disturbed by my brother’s murderous trance-like focus.  It bothered me too. As for our sibling affection, well, the human would just have to learn to deal with that.

After a few moments, we joined our fighter companion in sifting through the pile. We found quite the horde of coins, a leather talisman, some perfumed candles — I could only imagine what use Graenas might find for those — a vial of perfume, a pewter rod which Graenas identified as an enchanter’s rod, a lute, a hunter’s cap, and an idol.  We took it all.

I watched as Graenas studied the idol for several seconds. It had the general shape of a man, though the legs were reptilian and the head was that of a wolf.  Also, the arms looked more like octopus tentacles. Finally, Graenas said, “it’s clearly some sort of demonic god, though I can’t identify him or anything about the worship of him.”

“Perhaps we can find out more later in Albion City,” I suggested.  Graenas nodded as he dropped the idol into his bag.

“Any idea how we get back out of here?” Danny asked.  He had barely finished his question when we felt the dizziness of being magically teleported. When the sensation passed, we were once again in the first room into the mine.  The four remaining boulders were still there.  The passageway we had opened to find the contraption was gone, however.  In its place was a small alcove with a beautifully crafted statue.

Graenas sighed and stepped toward it.  As he approached, a magical force appeared to cover the statue in a layer of Adamantine.  Graenas reached for the statue with his right hand.  As his hand approached the surface of the protective layer, it began to glow with an icy magic, surely another gift from his abominable patron.  His touch caused the protective layer to melt away and then caused the stone statue to shatter. Danny coughed and said, “‘Tis a shame to destroy such a thing of beauty.”

Graenas stepped back before replying, “I suppose it is. But until I’m in a position to fight back against Auril, I have to basically do her bidding.” Once more, I wondered just how far my brother would take that defense. I hoped there was still a line he wouldn’t cross no matter what, though I agreed that destroying these statues wasn’t an unforgivable offense. I might prefer Tatiana to her frigid sister, but I still wouldn’t call her a grand chum. Graenas pointed to the boulder immediately left of where the statue had been standing.  “Shall we get on with the next one?” Danny and I stood behind him and each grabbed a shoulder as he once again pushed through the boulder and led us into the swirling vortex behind it.

When our sense of reality solidified again, we found ourselves in a fifteen foot square room with a stone door in the west corner of the south wall.  In the opposite corner sat a destroyed siege weapon and in the southeast corner black and white tiles made up some sort of labyrinth pattern.  Graenas tried to open the door, only to find it was locked.  Danny and I went to investigate the siege machine while Graenas checked out the tile labyrinth for clues.

After a few minutes of looking, Danny and I figured out that while the machine was mostly unrecoverable, there was a battering ram that seemed to be in good shape.  “Do you think we can pull it free and use it on the door?” Danny asked.

“I think it’s worth a try,” I said.  We worked together to pull at the strong shaft of wood.  It took several attempts, but we eventually were able to pull it free.  We heard several connecting pins crack as our hard work finally paid off. “Graenas, are you ready to help us get this door open?”

“Just give me a few,” my brother replied distractedly. “The black tiles turn white when you touch them.  I’m trying to turn them all white to see if it reveals a message.  Or maybe it actually controls a labyrinth beyond the door.  It would be a lot easier if it was just one big empty room instead.”

“Not if it means that every monster in the labyrinth can see us all at once and gang up on us,” Danny muttered. I stifled a laugh. I could see both their points. “Anyway, no disrespect to your brother, but he doesn’t seem like the brute-force type.  I suspect you and I can manage this without him.”

I shrugged and followed the fighter to the door.  We held the battering ram between us and gave it a few practice swings.  Once we were satisfied we had our timing worked out, we begin to drive the ram into the door.  The door reverberated each time we hit it. After a couple hits, a crack formed in the door.  That crack grew each time we hit it.

After a few moments, we began to notice that the light in the room kept getting dimmer.  “Hey boy,” Danny said to Graenas.  “Stop what you’re doing.  I think changing the tiles is affecting the light.”  Graenas stopped.  We waited a couple minutes and the light level remained the same. Graenas abandoned his task and rejoined us.

Danny prepared to make another assault on the door when I waved him off. “Let’s see if we’ve caused enough damage to the latching mechanism.” I reached for the handle.  As I pulled, the door crumbled. We were now looking down a long hallway into the darkness.  A pair of glowing red eyes stared back at us from the darkness.  Graenas lit a torch.  The extra light was enough to let us know that the red eyes belonged to a ghoul that was charging toward us on all fours.  Graenas cursed and hit the advancing creature with an eldritch blast.  The creature faltered briefly, but then continued toward us.  Once it reached the doorway we were gathered around, Danny and I began to attack it.  After we each delivered a couple of blows, I managed to tear open the ghoul’s midsection with my sickles.  The ghoul stood in what might have been astonishment as its rotting entrails spilled to the ground. Then it collapsed.

I poked at the remains with my boot, disgusted. “That’s one less undead thing in the world. I will consider that a great service tot he natural order.” Danny grunted in what I assume was agreement. Graenas made no response.  We slowly made our way down the hallway, checking for traps.  After 125 feet, it finally ended at another stone doorway. This one seemed to be sealed around the edges with some sort of metallic substance.

Danny glanced back toward the room we had just left. “Perhaps we should go back for the battering ram.”

Graenas shook his head.  “The corridor’s too narrow.  I doubt the two of you could work it together effectively in such a tight space.” I nodded my agreement.

“Well then, let me see if I can push this thing in,” Danny said as he leaned all his weight into the door.  After a few seconds, we heard creaking and saw as the metallic sealant appeared to be losing its cohesiveness.  A few seconds later, the door collapsed and Danny stumbled forward. We followed him into what turned out to be another room fifteen feet by fifteen feet in size.  This one had two archways, one in the east corner of the north wall and another immediately south of the first.  There was another siege weapon in the room, this one even more destroyed than the last.  On the wall behind the siege machine, someone had inscribed the phrase “beneath the statue.”

A loud voice came from the archway in the north.  “Hey! Whoever is out there, turn out that light.” The three of us glanced at each other wondering how to respond when the voice continued, “Oh yeah. What’s the password?”

We again looked at one another, unsure what to do. I glanced at the inscription on the wall, but decided against it. While the drawl in the voice suggested we were dealing with someone rather unintelligent, I doubted they were stupid enough to write the password where any intruder could just read it.  Eventually an eight foot tall half-ogre walked into the room brandishing a battle axe.  “I said, ‘What’s the password?’ Now are you going to give it to me or do I have to smash your faces?”

After a moment, Graenas plastered a cheery smile across his face and stepped toward the beast. “Hey there! You must be the front door guard. The boss told us to expect you. ‘Great guard. Great at smashing faces of people who go snooping where they don’t belong,’ he said when he hired us. That was just this morning, in fact. But you see, here’s the thing. He was in such a hurry that he forgot to actually tell us the password before sending us on our way. Easy enough mistake to make. I’m sure you understand.” I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. My brother was insane, but if anyone could fast-talk us past this idiot guard, it was Graenas.  I decided that if he succeeded, I’d have to buy him something special. Maybe even treat him to a tavern visit myself.

“Uh? Which boss?” the half-ogre said, momentarily confused. I could see Greanas trying to figure out how to keep the ruse going. Unfortunately, the creature wasn’t quite stupid enough for our purposes. “Hey! You two are half-elves. I’m gonna have to smash your faces now!”

It was worth a shot, I thought to myself as I rushed forward with my sickles.  The half-ogre managed to catch me with a swing of his battle-axe and I flew through the air a few feet and landed hard on the floor.  I was blacking out fast. As consciousness faded, I heard Graenas shout, “That was my sister, you fucking bastard!”

When I eventually came to, Graenas was kneeling over me, with my medical kit in his hands.  “I thought we had lost you.” He said, the concern in his voice palpable.

“Me too,” I said, taking my kit back from him.  I spent a few minutes taking care of my wounds, as my brother’s clumsy attempts had merely stabilized me and allowed me to regain consciousness. I glanced at our companion, who looked like he had taken a nasty blow himself. “Let me patch you up, too,” I said. Danny came over and I cleansed, salved, and bound his wounds.

Once we were in a better state to continue, we followed the archway back the way the ogre had come from.  We found ourselves in another room which expanded twenty five feet to the north and fifteen to the east.  There was an iron door in the west corner of the north wall, a stone door in the north corner of the east wall, and an archway in the center of the east wall.  There was yet another ruined siege machine in the room.  Danny and I decided to check it out while Graenas investigated the doors and archway.

“Doesn’t look like there’s much use for anything here but some extra tinder,” Danny said.

“That may be useful for fires,” I offered.  The fighter nodded and we set to work salvaging what wood we could.

After several minutes, my brother rejoined us and gave us a report. “It sounds like there’s someone or something behind each door. I’m guessing whatever is behind the iron door is another ghoul or some other kind of undead creature.  I don’t think anything living would make the wheezing and moaning sounds I heard. Whoever is behind the stone door is intelligent enough to speak. I heard it talking to itself, though I couldn’t make out what it was saying.  As for the archway, there’s definitely another room that way, but I didn’t notice anything coming to investigate or patrol.”

Danny tore another piece of wood from the machine before saying, “So what do you recommend?”

Graenas thought for a moment. “I worry about intelligent enemies. I say we deal with whoever is behind the stone door so they can’t sneak up on us if we end up facing an onslaught of zombies from the north.

“Seems reasonable to me,” I said.  “It should only take us a few minutes to finish up here.  Of course, it’d go faster if you’d give us a hand.”

“And damage my perfectly manicured nails?” Graenas said, his face showing look of horror that I couldn’t be entirely sure was in jest. I just swatted at him and went back to work.

When we were done pulling apart the weapon, we went to the stone door.  I carefully reached out to open the door.  As I touched the handle, a rune flashed on the door.  I quickly leaped backward and tumbled across the floor to the opposite wall as a burst of energy was let loose.  I stood back up and dusted myself off to find both men lying on the floor.  A voice came from beyond the door “What happened? Who’s there?” I realized I was alone if the owner of that voice came to investigate.  I crept over to Danny and examined him. I sighed in relief as I confirmed he was alive and even conscious.  But he appeared to be paralyzed.

I silently thanked my father for convincing me to study herbalism as part of my training as I pulled out my herbalism kit. I took my time recalling and following the formula to make a tonic I knew would negate even most magical forms of paralysis.  It still took me a half dozen attempts to successfully make two doses.  I poured the first one down Danny’s throat, figuring that if I was interrupted, his warhammer would be better back-up that my brother’s magic. After I saw that the human was regaining the use of his limbs, I walked over to tend to my brother.  In minutes, they were both ready to go again.  Danny said, “That may have been the worst thing I’ve ever experienced.”  Graenas nodded as he returned to the door. Danny interrupted him, “Are we sure that the same thing won’t happen again?”

Graenas paused before answering.  “That was a rune-trap.  Usually, they dissipate once they’re sprung, just like a physical trap.  All the same, I’ll understand if you want to back up a bit.” The fighter grunted and backed up ten feet. I joined him. I trusted my brother’s judgment, but I wasn’t a gambler either. After all, if I was paralyzed this time, who would create the antidote?

Graenas carefully opened the door, only to be confronted by a gray-skinned gnome holding what looked like some sort of mechanical weapon. The gnome spoke quickly and harshly, “Who are you?  Speak fast or I’ll put a bolt clean through ya.”

I felt a tingling sensation as my brother began to exude some sort of fey power. He spoke kindly to the gnome. “Hello there.”

The gnome’s face went expressionless than took on a more welcoming looking. “You’re kinda pretty,” he said. I covered my mouth quickly. I prayed that Graenas would not be too tempted to look for the love — or whatever he frequently mistakes for love — he desperately wants in the middle of this dungeon. That would surely spell doom for us all.

Fortunately, Graenas managed to control himself as he continued to work his charms. “That’s so sweet of you, old friend.  Hey, can you tell me a bit about the guardians we might find here?”

The gnone blinked.  “Guardians?  What guardians?  What are you talking about.”

Graenas paused for a moment.  “Well, I suppose you don’t think of them like that.  Who else is down here, behind all these doors?”

“Oh, there’s all sorts of people and things down here,” the gnome replied almost cheerfully.  “There are a few ghouls and skeletons, the occasional cultist, and who knows what else.”

“And how can we find the main chamber of this complex?” my brother pressed.

At that, the gnome became more agitated.  “Hey, why are you are you asking all these questions.  Who are you again?”  Graenas seemed about to respond again when I stepped forward. It was clear to me that my brother was losing this gnome and I wanted prevent any more near-death experiences, I slashed at the gnome and his weapon in an attempt to disarm him. I was successful only in ending the conversation. “Hey! I’m going to have to kill you for that!”

Graenas groaned, “I know she can be annoying, but all of you need to quit trying to kill my sister.”  With that, he blasted the gnome with his power.  The gnome managed to get a couple shots off with his bolt-throwing machine.  One missed and the other seemed to suffer some sort of misfire. I began to suspect that the device was still too experimental to rely on in battle as I slashed at the gnome.

Danny quickly ended the battle with a swing of his warhammer that turned the gnome’s skull into a small explosion of bone fragments.  The rest of the body collapsed.  Graenas sighed, “I tried to keep this from turning violent.” I wasn’t sure whether he was regretting having to kill another sentient being or just preferred to avoid a direct physical confrontation. I comforted myself on the possibility that it could actually be both.

Graenas picked up and stowed the bolt-throwing device, then searched the body.  He found a small platinum key, and a parchment.  He held out the parchment for Danny and I to inspect.  On it was a drawing of a statue.   The drawing showed what looked like might be a a keyhole in the rear part of the base, and once again the words “beneath the statue” were written on the parchment. It seemed obvious that we now knew where to use the key.  We just had to find the statue.

 

Out of the Device Chamber and Into the Spiders’ Den

The human and I stood there for a a few moments after dispatching the previous round of rats as Graenas gathered up the handful of coins our attackers had left behind. “That was a nice workout, but I’m not sure it got us anywhere,” I said casually.

Danny nodded and said, “Perhaps it’s a timing thing.  What if we were to pull the levers at the exact same time?”

My brother joined us as he slid our latest gains into his bottomless magical pouch. “I think it’s worth a try.”  With that, he reached up to the lever on the left and turned his head to Danny.  “You call it and I’ll match time with you.”

Danny nodded and reached for the other lever before beginning his count. “One. Two.  Three.  Go!”  At that, both men pulled down their levers.  The levers made a clicking sound, then there was a sound like an inrush of wind coming from the ceiling.  I glanced up, but saw no ventilation shafts or any other openings.  We still seemed to be in a completely sealed, perfectly cubic room.  The levers returned to their resting places.

“Try that again,” I said.  “I want to watch the ceiling this time.”  I stilled my mind and put my sight and senses at their fullest alert as the fighter repeated his count.  I heard the sound of the levers once again being pulled and latching into place.  Once again, I heard the sound of in-rushing air, but saw nothing.  No door opened.  No other opening appeared.  No dust or other particle gave any indication of a source of new air entering the room. Despite the complex mechanical nature of the contraption, there appeared to be a highly magical aspect to it as well. I supposed this was to be expected, given the involvement of the fey.

“Well, this isn’t getting us anywhere,” Graenas said impatiently.  “I say we try the next position on the dial. I silently worried that my brother’s impatience would one day get him into deeper trouble than he already was in.  In this case, however, he was right. It was time to try something different. I nodded and turned the dial back to the previous direction indicator and watched as the numeric display reset to 2.  Graenas and Danny each took a lever and pulled on Danny’s mark.  We instantly heard the same fog horn sound and shuffling sounds behind us.  We turned around to confront five spiders, each the size of an adult rottweiler.  Graenas let out a string of Sylvan profanities. I suspect that he had learned some of them from Auril, as I couldn’t make a few of those words out enough.  But my lessons with our father allowed me to understand enough to know that Mother would be reaching for the soap dish had she heard the things my brother had just sputtered.  He launched a blast of eldritch energy at the southern-most spider.  He just barely grazed it, though it was enough to make it mad.

Danny moved to engage the two spiders in the north and was immediately attacked by both of them and the spider in the middle.  The spider Graenas had attacked launched itself at him and overshot onto the contraption.  That left me to approach and attack the one remaining spider.  I hooked the sickle in my right hand around one of its legs. I heard the leg crack and tear as I used it to pull the creature towards me.  Once its body was in range, I drove the point of my other sickle between the spider’s eyes.  There was a squelching sound as more of the curved blade sunk beneath the surface and the spider screeched and shook violently for a moment then went completely still. I pulled both sickles free.  The one dripped with blood as I joined Danny to take care of whatever spiders had not yet gone still beneath the fighter’s warhammer.

Graenas soon turned the spider he was fighting into dripping bits scattered across the contraption and he began to attack those Danny and I were engaging with his bolts of power as well.  When the final spider had been almost perfectly bisected by the long sword in Danny’s off hand, I wiped the blood off my sickles and said, “I hope we figure out how this damn contraption works soon or we’ll be able to ride a wave of our attackers like they were horses. The human snorted in what I assumed was agreement and we returned to the device.

“Three?” Graenas asked.

“I feel like we’re just doing the same thing and hoping for different results, but I have no better suggestions,” Danny said gruffly. I shrugged.  Graenas reset the dial so the number on the reading was three.  The men executed their choreographed lever-pulling routine once more. We instantly knew by the sounds we heard that it was time for another battle.  This time, we were faced off against five of the largest rats I have ever seen and three iron chests that somehow managed to drool and snarl.  I had heard of mimics before through the tale-swapping that takes place in taverns at Albion City, but I had never seen one.  Their unnatural and surely magical construction unnerved me.

Graenas shot another blast of eldritch energy at one of the mimics, which immediately descended on him.  It bit him hard and my brother shrieked, “That hurt, you diabolical piece of luggage!”  Danny was instantly busy with three of the large rats.  I saw another rat headed my way, but one look at the fighter informed me that he would soon be overwhelmed by his wounds if I didn’t intervene. I silently hoped that my attacker wouldn’t inflict too much harm on me as I extended a hand palm forward toward Danny and intoned a healing incantation Father had taught me.  I smiled in grim satisfaction as the gashes on the fighter’s skin began to close and his bruises began to fade.  The renewed health and strength clearly reinvigorated him as he continued his assault on the rats now surrounding him.

I found myself splitting my attention over the next several seconds between fending off the rat attacking me and applying my knowledge of field medicine to keep both Graenas — who seemed to be getting worn down by the rat and mimic that were tag-teaming him — and Danny from succumbing.  I finally managed to kill my attacker when one of the two as-yet uninvolved mimics caught my scent and moved forward to attack me.  I quickly tucked away my sickles and drew my wooden shield and mace, figuring that a blunt weapon might do more damage to the wood and iron that made up the strange creature than a pair of small curved blades.

Danny manged to turn the small group of rats attacking him into  piles of goo and sliced meat as the third mimic attacked him.  Somehow, he managed to get the rat attacking my brother as well as the mimic engaging me to redirect their attention to him.  This allowed Graenas to focus on his mimic.  My brother shouted, “Enough!  Let’s try fire!” Then he  blasted a whole through the top of the chest that served as the mimic’s body with a firebolt.”

“Nice shot!” Danny called out as he smashed the mimic we were both attacking, sending a few more splinters into the air.  The mimic finally went still and he turned his attention to the final chest.  I came around beside him to help, smashing dents into the creature with my mace.  Graenas began attacking it with frosty rays of magic.  Soon, the final enemy quit moving.  Graenas took out his medical kit and tossed it to me, saying, “Thanks for keeping us alive, Uri.  This will make sure you can keep doing it.

Danny reached into his own pack and began to pull out another such kit, but I held up my hand to stop him.  “Hold onto it for now.  This will allow me to keep attending to all of us for the time being. And if something happens to me, one of you might need to be able to quickly stabilize me. You’ll need the means to do that if it becomes necessary.”  Danny thought for a moment, then nodded as he repacked his own kit. I continued, “At any rate, after that intense battle, I think we should rest for a bit.” With that, I undid my pack and set it on the floor, sitting down beside it.

“Sounds good to me,” Danny said as he followed suit.  “And maybe you can tell me a little bit more about what exactly is going on here.”

I glanced at Graenas, who had just finished gathering up the coins left by that last wave of attackers as well as three pieces of parchment he apparently found in the remains of one of the chests..  He shrugged as he sat a few feet from us and pulled out his sewing kit and some sort of needlework project.  I paused, then said, “Graenas’s power comes from an evil fey deity he made a pact with four years ago.  She’s the one who sent us here. We’re trying to destroy an unknown number of statues erected by her sister.”

“What?!” Danny said, his face twisting with anger as he glared at Graenas. “Why on earth would you do such a foolish thing?!”

Graenas’s needle stopped moving as he looked up. I could see the frustration and embarrassment on his face as he spoke.  “I was young and foolish at the time.  Plus I thought I was in love and my heart was breaking.  When Auril appeared, she told me that if I just agreed to do some favors every now and then, she’d make it so William….” His voice cracked as he spoke the name of one of our few childhood friends, the one Graenas had so desperately wished would see him as more than a friend.  My brother fell silent, staring at the piece of cloth in his hand.

After a few moments, I spoke.  “He made a mistake.  A foolish and costly one, but one that’s easy to make when you’re a teenager struggling with emotions and hormones.” I willed myself to accept that defense, myself.  I also hoped I was speaking the truth as I continued. “I think he’s learned his lesson.  Now he’s just trying to make the best of a bad situation until he can find a way to fix it completely. I’m trying to help him.

The fighter huffed.  “I guess I get it.  I still say it was a stupid thing to do!” I inwardly bristled. While part of me agreed with our human companion, I felt very protective and defensive of my brother. I knew what that moment of desperate folly cost him, and not just in terms of being bound to the fey Ice Queen. Graenas really had cared deeply for William, and I suspect their friendship had been ruined forever. I knew the pain of that reality weighed on my brother, along with the knowledge of how deeply he had wronged and hurt William.  I hoped his regret and anguish would remind him to make better choices in the future.

We fell silent after that and I closed my eyes, leading my mind through the exercises that would draw me closer to the natural world around me.  I briefly wondered how well that would work while we were sealed in this chamber that I suspected was separated from the rest of our world by strange magics.  Assuming it had ever been a part of our world in the first place. It must have worked to some degree, however, as I felt much more refreshed when I stretched and opened my eyes.  A glance at the rows of new stitches Graenas had made suggested that two or three hours had passed. He had a slight smile on his face.  I guessed his needlework had brought up memories of helping our mother with various sewing projects.  It was the one thing that would always soothe his troubled spirits after he had a negative encounter with other residents of Shadeville while growing up.  Granted, he also tended to cause a lot of those encounters and exacerbate even more of them. But Mother would always get him calmed down, then gently reprimand him for his own actions a few hours later. He always took her criticisms far better than he reacted to the times I would scold him.  Then again, I had neither Mother’s patience nor her compassion.  At least not when it came to childish antics.

Danny looked at both of us and said, “I can’t sit here any longer.  Let’s get back to it.”  I think he just wanted to get away from the weirdness of this place and back to something simple and straightforward, like chasing after orcs and splitting their skulls. I nodded, stood, and returned to the contraption along the east wall. I reached out and turned the dial so that the numeric display would reset and turn to 4.  As it did, I noticed a slot that opened on the front of the machine. “Wait,” I said as I pointed to the narrow opening that must have been just a couple inches long. “Did anyone notice this before?” I feared I would have to apologize to Graenas for criticizing his failure to notice the dial earlier.

“No, can’t say as I have,” Danny said, running his finger along the slot.

“I think I did briefly, but thought nothing of it at the time,” Graenas said.  But now that we have four pieces of parchment….”  He shuffled through the four square pieces of parchment and attempted to slide the one marked with the number four on it inside.  Some unseen mechanism whirred as he got the edge of the parchment started just inside.  That mechanism pulled the entire square inside.  The slot then closed and the button on the contraption began to flash.  I tried pressing it, but it woouldn’t budge.

“Perhaps the levers unlock the button,” Danny suggested.  Graenas nodded in approval at the suggestion, then reached for his lever.  The two men pulled the levers in unison and I pushed the button as the levers clicked into place.  We heard a rumbling sound behind us.  We turned to see a large set of double doors now filling most of the western wall.

Graenas walked over and examined the doors.  “There appears to be a four keyholes.  Two embedded in each door,” he said.  Danny and I were investigating the dial, which now had a piece of metalsticking out of it.  It was thin and roughly a couple inches long.

“Do you think it’s broken?” Danny asked.

“I don’t this so,” I said as I leaned over to get a better look.  “It looks like the other end is actually sticking in a socket in the dial. Let me just,” I said as I pulled on it.  I stopped mid-sentence as the piece of metal came free.  Now free of the contraption, four small teeth popped along one end of it.  “Well, there’s one key,” I said.

“We need three more and there are three more major marks on the dial,” Graenas said as he rejoined us by the contraption. “There’s an obvious hypothesis there, I think.”  Danny grunted his assent. Together, the three of us worked through the process of turning the dial, inserting the proper piece of parchment, and working the device to retrieve all four keys.  Once we retrieved the final key, the contraption pulled all of its controls inside of itself and then folded itself back into the wall.  In seconds, we were facing a blank stone wall.

Once they were in hand, Graenas took the keys over to the door and examined both them and the keyholes. He said, “There’s a face-plate containing each keyhole.  They’re all different colors: yellow, green, blue, and orange.  The thing is, each key has four teeth, each tooth being one of those colors.”

“So it’s not going to be obvious,” I said, a bit annoyed.  “Why couldn’t each key be all one color?”

Danny thought for a moment then said, “Is the first tooth on each key a different color when compared against the other keys?”

Graenas looked each key over.  “As  matter of fact, yes.”

“So let’s line the keys up so that we put them in the keyhole whose color is the same color as the key’s first tooth,” Danny suggested. I nodded, appreciating the fact that our new companion had more brains than many weapon experts I had met in the past.  While I was thankful for his skill in battle, I was also glad he had other ways he could contribute to our collective efforts.  Plus I hoped it was a sign that I wouldn’t have to worry about him leaping headlong into an unwinnable battle without any thought.

We got all the keys lined up as proposed.  Graenas said, “I think we should try turning them all at once.  Danny can you manage two keys at once?”  Danny nodded and placed his hands on the two keys nearest him. Graenas and I each grabbed the key in front of us and turned to Danny.  He counted us down and we turned all four keys in unison.  We were rewarded with a resounding and promising click.  I pulled on the doors and they swung out and open, only to reveal another set of doors behind them.  They were identical to the previous one.

Graenas grinned.  “I can see where this is going.  Sort them according to the colors of their second teeth.  We did so and repeated the process to open this door and the two behind it.  As the final door swung open we found ourselves looking into a giant chamber.  As we entered we saw a dreadful sight.  There were three more spiders the same size as the last wave we had fought scurrying toward us. The thing that caused the blood to briefly drain from my face, however, was the red spider that was approximately the size of a small hovel that stood behind them.

The three of us began to attack the middle spider of the three smaller ones, who had all descended on Danny.  Graenas, who had moved thirty feet away so he could attack from a distance, managed to strike the same spider with a blast of energy before the giant red spider managed to hit him with a stream of webbing.  My brother cursed as all his limbs became entangled and he fell to the floor. I redoubled my attack efforts with Danny, hoping I’d be able to get free to help Graenas in time.

The giant spider ambled over and was just about to attack my defenseless brother when Danny brought his warhammer down on the badly bleeding spider we had been wearing down.  The giant spider heard the crunching sound its diminutive companion’s body made and turned its attention and anger toward the fighter.  It began to shoot streams of webbing at Danny but missed, covering the wall behinds us with a white sticky mess.

Graenas struggles paid off as he finally broke free of his sticky bonds.  “That’s enough!” he snarled and I glanced at him just long enough to see the icy hatred in his eyes. I cringed at how much he seemed like Auril at that moment and longed for the day that we could free him from her influence.  Hopefully it wouldn’t be too late.  He uttered an incantation I had only heard him use a couple times before and I once again cringed as I began to smell the now-dead, rotting flesh that hung from parts of the giant spider’s body.

Graenas continued to use his power to instantly destroy the giant spider’s cells as Danny and I each killed one of the two remaining smaller spiders.  We finished our work and turned to help my brother put an end to the red monster. At that moment, the creature finally managed to hit Danny with a spray of webbing.  The fighter went down.  I stepped forward, hoping Graenas and I could hold our own with the creature long enough for the fighter to free himself.

 

Getting pulled into a family feud

I sat with my back against a fallen tree in the small, secluded glade at the Falls of Serenity. My eyes were closed as I tried to still my mind as I waited for my patron to make her presence known to me.  It was not long before I felt the familiar icy chill on my skin.  I heard her cold yet seductive voice a few feet from me.  “Hello there, my sweet child.”  Did she call me a child just to annoy me?  I am an adult of twenty years, after all.  And I’ve certainly grown up a lot since I foolishly bound myself to her four years ago.  Being forced to work for an arch-fey goddess who wants to plunge the world into cold and darkness tends to have that effect on you.

I kept my eyes closed for a few more moments before saying, “Greetings my mistress.”  I reluctantly opened my eyes and looked upon her lithe, elegant, and almost featureless form. She was wearing her usual armor, made of some strange metal that I do not recognize.  All I know is that it seems more rare than even mythril and exudes power.  Everything about Auril exudes power.

“I have a task for you,” she said.

I sighed. “Am I going to have to kill someone?” So far, she has spared me from doing so, though she has made it clear in the past that I cannot expect that to remain true if I am going to continue to serve her and benefit from her blessings. I pray that I find my freedom from her before that days comes. I’m not sure my relationship with Uri would survive if I turn murderer for this ice queen.

“Not this time.  You may have to kill things. Nothing you’d likely consider a person, though.  Will you do as I ask?”

“Like I have a choice,” I muttered quietly, momentarily forgetting about Auril’s keen hearing.

“You can walk away any time you want, young one. You can simply break your contract whenever you’re willing to give up the power I have granted you.”

Therein lies the trap, I groaned inwardly.  “No, Mistress. I am yours to command,” I said, trying to sound subservient.

“That’s more like it,” she replied.  “My sister has started to gain a foothold in this region.  I can sense where her followers have erected her statues in the mine in the mountains northwest of the capital region.”

“And you want me to travel to the mine and destroy Titania’s statues, breaking her foothold.”

“You understand me clearly.  Fortunately, Titania’s followers just recently finished their construction, so their power is rather weak.  The guardians that shield and protect them should still be relatively easy for you to overcome.  Enter the spatial rifts that contains each statue and defeat the guardians you find there.”

I frowned.  “Spatial rifts.  Aren’t those usually deadly for mere mortals to pass through?”

Auril smiled as she held out  a frost amulet in her hand.  The amulet floated out of her hand and moved to hover near me. “This will enable you and anyone physically touching to pass through these rifts unharmed.”  I reached out and took hold of the amulet.  I felt a jolt of energy, as cold as anything that comes from Auril.  I brought the chain holding the amulet around my neck and, after a moment’s hesitation, engaged the clasp.  As the amulet now hung from my neck, I could feel the boost of power it gave me, both chilling and delighting me.  Auril smiled her dark approval, then continued, “You may take anyone you wish with you to complete this task.  Even that annoying sister of yours.”  She sneered as she mentioned Uri.  Those two have hated each other since the day Auril came into my life.  Not that I blame Uri.  This woman wants to turn our world into a ball of ice shrouded in darkness.  Any Druid would take issue with that, though Uri’s dislike of Auril seems to be a bit more personal than that, if you ask me.

“Not like you could stop her from coming along anyway,” I said.  Don’t poke the polar bear too much, I mentally warned myself.  You don’t to end up a ball of ice yourself. But I was right and Auril knew it. Uri and I were inseparable and the only way the frosty goddess could change that was if she actually killed my sister. And I think she knows I’d likely abandon her for sure if she did that.

“Just one more thing,” she said.  “Before you head to the mine, you should return to Albion City and pay a visit to my servant there.  He should have something you might find useful.”

“Thank you Mistress, I will. I bid you farewell.”

“Be careful, my young servant.  Return to me when you can.”

“Yes Mistress,” I said as I turned to leave our meeting spot.

It only took a few minutes to reach the tree where Uri was waiting for me.  She sat cross-legged with her back against it, her eyes closed and her sickles resting on her knees.  I suspected she had been listening in on my meeting through our telepathic bond.  She confirmed it as she said, “Taking on Titania’s forces, huh?”

“You make it sound like we’re going up against a grand army, Sis,” I said, slightly exasperated.

“I don’t trust that frosty wench,” she snapped.  “For all we know, that’s exactly what she’s sending you up against.”

I rolled my eyes. “She knows that would be a death sentence to me. She doesn’t want me dead, Uri.  She wants me to succeed.”

“That in itself should make you worry, you know.”

“What do you expect me to do, Uri?  Walk away?  You and I both know that’s probably a death sentence.  Yeah, she says she’d merely strip me of my powers and let me walk away.  But, as you just pointed out, she’s not exactly one to be trusted.”

“I know. But I wonder if you’d actually give up those powers even if she really would leave you otherwise unharmed.”

I clenched my fists for a moment, then forced myself to relax.  The truth is, I’m not sure she’s wrong to wonder.  “Can we not have this argument again right now?” I said, my eyes pleading.

Uri sighed as she stood up, “Okay. You know I just worry about you because I love you.”

“I know.  So shall we make our way to Albion City?” I said, hoping to change the subject.

“Oh right. First I have to deal with Auril’s crap and now I get to spend time in that oppressively crowded city. Could my day get any better?” I tried hard not to laugh at Uri, who would much rather spend her day running with the creatures in the forest than put up with the hustle and bustle — not to mention schemes — of civilization. I made a mental note to do something extra sweet for her in the future.


We made good time hiking to the city.  I looked over at Uri as we wound through the streets toward Twinkletoes’s Bazaar.  Every muscle in her body must have been tensed as she constantly scanned our surroundings. Neither of her hands were ever more than five inches from her weapons. By the looks of her, one would have assumed that a band of assassins would descend on her at any second.

Unfortunately, her hyper-alert state meant that she didn’t miss it when I checked out a couple of traveling merchants we passed by.  She glared at me and I shrugged.  It had been a while since I had enjoyed the company of another man. It only seemed natural to look around and consider the possibilities.

When we got to his shop, I saw the gnome, Oswald Twinkletoes, deep in conversation with a human wearing the uniform of the city night watch. He looked to be a decade or two older than my sister and I.  I’m not normally into the daddy type, but I have to admit that I found something about his rugged good looks appealing.

“You will most likely want to hire someone who can guide you through the mountains,” Oswald said to the man just before he glanced our way.  “Like a pair of half-elves who’ve spent many years wandering around these parts.  Hello there Graenas, Urizenya.”

Sis nodded curtly to Oswald, “Master gnome. How’s business?”

“Profitable,” the gnome smiled. “Is there something I can help you two with?”

I nodded. “I’m on an assignment from my benefactor.  She mentioned that you might have something for me.”

The gnome’s eyes twinkled. “Indeed I do!  Excuse me, Danny. I need to take care of this matter.”

“Indeed.  Thank you for your help, Master Twinkletoes,” the human said, then turned to nod politely to Uri and me.

“Please hold up,” I said to the man. “I hear you’re headed to the mountains.  As it happens, we are headed in that direction as well and would like to discuss the possibility of a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

The man paused. “Indeed.  Conclude your business with our merchant friend here and then we can talk.”

“Thank you,” I said before turning my attention back to Oswald. “Okay, what do you have for me?”

Oswald pulled out one of his most secure trunks and began to work at the complicated locking mechanism.  I suspect that it’s of magical construction, but can never tell.  Finally, the gnome opened the trunk and retrieved a small bag from the inside and presented it to me. “This pouch has no limit to how much it can hold, nor does it ever gain any weight.  If you can fit something through the opening at the top, the bag will hold it without expanding.”

Uri muttered. “How unusual, the icy wench actually gave us something useful.”

Oswald grinned.  “Actually, this gift was my idea.  I figure it will help you keep all the wonderful treasures you are likely to find on your journeys. And hopefully sell some of them to me.  I’m always looking for new merchandise, you know.”

“I suspect that will be a relationship that will be beneficial to both of us, Oswald,” I said as I took the bag from the gnome.  I no more than grasped the bag when I felt a sudden jolt of power.  The bag was gone.

“And that would be your benefector’s contribution to your gift,” Oswald said as he reached out and tapped the bag, which had reappeared hanging from my belt.  “It’s now bound to you.”

“And there’s the catch,” Uri said, grimacing with disgust. She then turned to address the fighter.  “So tell me, stranger, what takes you into the mountains?”

“First, allow me to cease being a stranger,” the man said.  “My name is Danny Thorsson. I have reasonably reliable intelligence indicating that members of the orc clan that destroyed my village have been spotted in that area. I’m hoping to find them and find out more about their clan so I can repay them for the atrocities they committed against my people.”

“A personal vendetta, then,” Uri said, nodding.  “I can certainly appreciate it.  Though if you’re going up against orcs, I hope you know how to use those weapons at your side.”

“Are you looking to find out first-hand?” Danny said as he narrowed his eyes.

“Maybe you shouldn’t antagonize someone who could have us thrown in prison, Uri,” I said, exasperation creeping into my voice.  Normally, she’s worried about me getting us into trouble when we come to the city. “My apologies, Danny.  My sister here spends too much time among her beloved animals to get much practice in her manners.  Her name is Urizenya, by the way.  And I am Graenas.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Danny responded.  I smirked at the word “pleasure.”

“At any rate, I have a benefactor who has asked me to pay a visit to the same mountainous region you are headed to.  I need to…destroy some statues and whatever nuisances near them.”  I ignored Uri’s snort.  Surely she thought I should be a bit more forthright about what we were doing and why. I didn’t want to scare the guy off right away, though. “Perhaps we can travel together and help each other out.”

Danny rubbed his chin for a few seconds as if he was considering the offer.  I began to suspect he would refuse my proposal when he finally spoke. “I could certainly use the help. I accept your proposal. I just need to return to the guard barracks, return my uniform, and collect my personal equipment and belongings.

Uri spoke, “Very well. When you are done, you can meet us outside the northern city gate. I’ve endured this place as long as I can stand it for one day.”

I pouted.  “Dammit.  I was hoping to swing by one of the taverns for a couple pints of ale.”

Uri scowled.  “Absolutely not.  We have miles to travel and no time for you to have a couple drinks.  And we certainly don’t have time for what you usually get up to after you’ve had a couple of drinks.  The stable hands will simply have to survive without your carnal talents today.”  I stuck out my tongue at her.  I knew she was right, but a guy has needs, dammit.


We had been waiting beyond the city walls for only twenty minutes when Danny approached.  Uri was looking much more relaxed.  She was still on constant alert, but her muscles did not appear to be as taut.  I stood there, casually stroking my new amulet and enjoying the feel of the strange metal against my fingertips. Uri straightened her studded leather armor as our new companion reached us.  “Shall we get going, then?  It’s a long hike to the mountains, and further still to the mine.  Don’t worry, human, we’ll keep an eye out for your quarry. While I do not share your desire for revenge, I have no love for most orcs either.”

“Yes, let’s go,” Danny said as he checked that his equipment was secured. I straightened my own posture and fell in line.  The walk to the mountain was rather uneventful.  I spent most of the time running through the incantations that I had learned.  I wanted to make sure i didn’t forget a single syllable at a critical moment, so I practiced frequently.  Uri occasionally stopped to check out some sort track or marking.  At least I assume that’s what her interest in broken branches and — gross — piles of scat were about.  Occasionally, she would make some comment about nearby wildlife that she gleaned from these investigations. Personally, I found her revelations rather boring.

Danny was fairly silent. Like Uri, he seemed to be constantly alert, looking around.  Occasionally, he’d ask about some landmark.  Uri or I would fill in what we had learned from growing up in this region.  Our companion clearly was not from here originally.

When we made it to the mountains, traveling got slightly more difficult, though not insurmountable. We took our time, trying not to dislodge a shower of stones to fall on the others. Uri guided us around some of the more treacherous areas and found places where the climb would be easier.  Still, I worked up more of a sweat than I would have preferred.  I hoped one of those stable hands might help me find a nice bath when we returned to the city.

After several hours of climbing, we came to the entrance of the mine.  As we approached, we noticed what looked like the remnants of a campfire near the entrance.  Uri approached it and began poking at it. “I can’t tell what kind of creatures were here or how long ago, but it’s clear that they were sentient.  For all we know, they could still be in the area.”

“Right,” said Danny.  “Don’t let our guard down. I’m right there with you. I have no desire to fall into an ambush unprepared.”

“Well, since no one’s attacking us out here right this minute, shall we go inside?” I said.  “Those statues aren’t going to destroy themselves and I’d really like to get this over with.”

Uri nodded. “Danny, I suggest that you and I take the lead together.  Graenas can bring up the rear.”

“Works for me.”  With that, we crept into the mine.  The entrance was a single long tunnel which we followed for several hundred feet.  I placed my hand on one of the timbers that held up the roof.  It was old and the surface was splintered in places, but it still seemed to be secure.

Eventually, we came to a small chamber with what looked like entrances to five different tunnels.  However, each tunnel was blocked by a boulder with a glowing symbol on it.  As I moved closer I realized that the symbols were runes of fey power.  The one on the boulder to the far right seemed particularly familiar, so I moved to get a closer look.  I realized it was extremely similar to Auril’s own sigil, a rune of ice.  I reached out my hand and moved my palms so it was much a couple of inches from the symbol.  I felt its power, which manifested primarily as heat.  I figured it must be Titania’s personal symbol — or one of them.  That would makes sense, since she’s the complete opposite of her sister.

I placed my palm directly on the rune and it seemed as if the whole boulder started vibrating.  As I applied a bit more pressure, the vibrations intensified and it seemed as though the whole boulder might shatter.  “Um, guys?  You might want to hold on to me.  I think we’re about to go somewhere and I’m your ride.”

Both of my companions came up to stand behind me. Uri placed her hand on my left shoulder and Danny followed suit, grasping my right shoulder with his well-calloused hand.  I kept pushing.  Eventually the vibrations became so great that the boulder shattered and the fragments disappeared as they fell.  Behind it, the tunnel continued for just a few feet before it seemed to disappear in a shimmering field.  I said, “keep holding on,” took a deep breath, and moved forward into the shimmering space.

True to Auril’s word, the rift did not harm me, but it was quite disorienting.  As we moved forward, I felt as if reality twisted and swam around me.  The sense of dizziness and vertigo built for several seconds before I pushed through.  Suddenly, it felt as if reality had returned and I found myself in a room that appeared to be a roughly 25 foot cube.  The floor, walls, and ceiling were all stone. I turned to verify that my companions were still with me.  Uri stood there, rubbing her stomach with a grimace.  Danny stood there stoically.  He looked at me for a moment before saying, “Remind me to question you about just what I signed up for later.” I smiled apologetically and nodded.

There was some sort of mechanical contraption along the east wall — assuming my sense of direction in this place was accurate — and I walked over to investigate it.  It looked almost gnomish in invention.  There was a button in the center and a lever on each side.  “Hey guys, would you help me operate this thing?” I asked.  Uri and Danny came over.

Uri pulled the lever to my left.  Danny pulled to one to my right. I pressed the button. The contraption let out a sound like a fog horn and we heard rumbling behind us.  We all turned around to find six rats and three spiders approaching us.  Uri drew her sickles and approached the rats in the southeast corner while Danny wielded his warhammer to deal with the rats in the southwest corner.  I got back-to-back with Uri as I began to cast eldritch blasts to dispatch the spiders along the northern wall.  My first shot completely missed the spider closest to me and exploded against the northern wall of the room.  a few stone chips went flying, but nothing more.

Most of the rats converged on Danny, though most of them could not get through his chain mail.  The two spiders had a little more luck though and Danny swore as they pierced his skin with their mandibles.  The fighter was too tough to be stopped by a couple insect bites, no matter how severe.

The third spider jumped at me.  I was able to dodge and it landed on the eastern wall.  Spinning, I hit it square with an eldritch blast, turning it into little more than a smear on the wall.  Meanwhile, Uri sliced up the rat that was closest to her and moved over to help Danny with the rest of our attackers, though many of the rats had already met their doom between the stone floor and the fighter’s warhammer.  I kept picking off spiders and rats with bolts of power.  Soon all the creatures had been destroyed and I searched for anything useful.  I manged to find a handful of coins, a parchment with the number one written on one said, and a healing potion.

“Do you have a problem if I hold onto whatever we find for now?” I asked Danny.

“Not at all, since you have the means to carry a dragon’s hoard.  Just don’t try to swindle me.”

“I promise,” I said.

Uri, who had taken the time to inspect the contraption further, spoke up.  “Brother dearest?  Did you notice this dial around the outside of the button?”

“Um, no.” I said sheepishly.  Danny and I joined her.  Sure enough, there was a dial with tick marks. As well as arrows pointing in each of the cardinal directions.  The dial currently appeared to be set between two of these arrows. “There’s a shutter at the top of the dial,” I said.  “Does it open if you press the button?”  Uri pressed the button. Sure enough, the shutter opened showing a reading that seemed to be halfway between two numbers.

Uri turned the dial clockwise so the arrow pointing north was selected.  The numbers behind the shutter spun briefly, then counted up from one to four.  Uri turned the dial clockwise again and the numbers repeated their performance, this time stopping at three.  She turned the dial again.  The numbers stopped at two.  Turning the dial to the final position gave us a reading of one.  “Well, that’s the number on the parchment I found, so let’s give it a try,” I said as I reached up for the lever on the left and pulled.  Danny was about to pull the other lever when we heard the same fog horn and rumbling sounds.

This time when we turned, we found ourselves facing much larger rats.  Fortunately there were only three of them and no spiders.  Again we sliced, smashed, and blasted them until they were dead.  It only took a few seconds and we were able find a few more coins for our effort.  But we still didn’t know what to do with the contraption.  We would have to think and possibly experiment a bit more.