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Husband, father, and writer working on a short story project and submitting my novel, The Windsmith, to agents.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Adventuring Party, part 3: The Cave of Darkness

The tall, golden grass was waving gently in the wind on a bright, summer day. The few trees in the area were still a full green color, though past the fruiting phase of the year already. Some birds flittered among those trees, setting up a nest and sharing some juicy beetle one had found in the grass below. The tranquility of the scene, however, was shattered when a group of four individuals came tearing through the grass as fast as they could.

“I can’t believe that you took those gems from their scared statue, Dash!” one of them was yelling. She was taller than most of them, with short blond hair and long, pointed ears and was wearing a bright yellow robe with red trim.

“Listen, Sharai,” said the shortest one, who had a shock of green hair on his head and a large, bulbous nose, “how was I supposed to know the primitives would freak out about loosing the damn things?”

“It was their SACRED statue!” Sharai shouted, sounding slightly hysterical.

“Bah!” cried a third member of the band. it was the second shortest in the group, though far larger than Dash in girth. It appeared female in shape, but had facial hair that was kept neatly trimmed to the jaw line. A symbol of silver hung from her neck, depicting an anvil with three hammers on it. “They were pagans anyway, worshiping the spirits of their ancestors.”

“Not helping any, Nor,” Sharai said in a slightly less hysterical yell.

“Enough!” came a cry from the last member of the group. He was tall, taller even than Sharai, and muscular, with heavy armor and a shield. In the running, he was taking up the rear, and if the heavy, labored breathing was any indication, the armor wasn’t helping that position any.

“They’re catching up to us,” he continued. “Less fighting, more running.”

Sharai turned around and saw that the warrior was correct. A large mob of people with primitive, but no less deadly, spears were gaining, and more importantly, getting close enough to throw those spears.

“Del’s right,” she said, putting more effort into running, “we’ve got to keep running!”

“I hear the river up ahead,” said Dash, his keen ears picking up the sound of rushing water before anyone else.

Dash put on an extra bit of speed, not waiting for anyone else, and raced towards the river. The tall grass seemed to end suddenly, and the gnome found himself facing what appeared to be a cut in the land itself, as if someone had gouged out a strip of earth with a mighty sword. Below him about thirty feet was the rushing currents of the river. It was there that he also saw the small river boat, anchored to the cliff face; its crew lounging on its deck.

“They’re here,” he said. Then, without further notice he jumped.

Shari came to the river next. She looked down and saw that Dash had employed the magical ring he found in a previous adventure. She watched for a second as her companion slowly floated down towards the boat as if he were a feather. He mouth twisted in frustration, sure that he was just showing off, but then she let it go. Dash would be able to get the crew in order and ready to leave as soon as everyone else was down there. And he had also given her an idea on how, exactly, to get to the boat.

“Come on, everyone,” she said, waving them all on. “I’ve got an idea.”

The dwarf and the human came up to her a few seconds later. Del looked back over his shoulder, noting that the mob of angry, spear-wielding natives was getting uncomfortably closer. He and Nor looked expectantly at Shari. She rubbed her gently curving, pointed elven ears in nervousness for a second then nodded her head. With no explanation, she shoved her two companions over the edge of the cliff, a feat only accomplished by the fact that they were not expecting it.

She ignored their screams as she looked over her shoulder behind her. She was reaching into one of the many pouches that hung from her belt, searching for something. When her fingers ran across the soft, light object, she smiled and jumped. She twisted her body so that it was a straight line, parallel to the cliff, and caught up to her companions quickly. They were still screaming, and she wasn’t even sure they noticed her there. She put such thoughts from her mind and quickly set about her work.

She pulled the feather she had felt earlier form her pouch and held it to her forehead and muttered a few arcane words of power. A second later, the feather glowed a rich golden color. She quickly reached out and touched both Del and Nor with the feather before touching herself. The effects were instantaneous, as the sudden fall turned into a gentle downward motion that was achieved by a soft swing back and forth. A few moments later, they were landing on the boat. As expected, Dash had the small crew in action, and all was ready.

“Just in time,” Dash said, pointing up. Sharai looked in time to see the hundreds of natives line up on the cliff face above her. They didn’t even pause before throwing their long spears down at the boat.

“Weigh anchor! Everyone take cover!” cried the boat captain.

The spears rained down on the boat, but thankfully, throwing down is not the strong suit of the natives. Most of the spears bounced off cliff face opposite the boat as they over threw, and some stuck harmlessly into the boat’s deck. Two, however, struck home. One hit a crew man, and though it didn’t kill him outright, it did cause him to fall over board. No one was quite sure if he survived or not, but most hoped it didn’t. The natives were not known for being kind to prisoners.

The other spear struck Nor in the arm, pinning it to the railing she was holding onto for support as the boat got moving. The dwarf didn’t even let out a scream, however, holding her ground until the boat was well away from the range of the deadly spears. Then, she let loose with the cry of pain she had been holding in.

“Oh, my Gods, Nor!” Del cried, rushing to her side. Sharai wasn’t surprised it was Del that got to her first. He’d known Nor his whole life. She was friends with his family from her days as a young miner, before she became an adult and decided to enter the priesthood. The truth was that, young as she was for a dwarf, Nor was the oldest member of the party, and everyone tended to look to her for wisdom, forgetting that she was just as young as they were, at least emotionally.

Del didn’t wait for Nor’s permission, and put two large hands on the shaft of the spear. He yanked hard, and the spear, bronze spear head and all, came out of the wood of the railing and Nor’s arm, and flew from Del’s hands into the river.

“Can you heal it yourself?” Del asked. Nor only nodded.

Shari watched in wonder as the priestess grasped the talisman she wore around her neck, the symbol of the dwarven Gods, known as the Three Brothers, and placed it over the gaping wound in her arm. She muttered a prayer through gritted teeth, and a blue glow emanated from the symbol. She continued to mutter the prayer as the flesh beneath the symbol was also covered in a blue glow, one so bright that Shari couldn’t bare to look at it for a few seconds. A moment later, the glow stopped, and when Nor removed the symbol, only a minor wound that was already beginning to scar over, remained. Despite that Nor would complain at not being strong enough to channel the divine energy needed to fully heal her arm, Sharai was amazed, as always at watching Nor work her particular form of magic.

Shari pulled off her backpack and reached into it, feeling the comforting presence of the hard, cold leather cover of her precious book of magic. Arcane magic, that is, the kind practiced by wizards and sorcerers. This she knew and understood. Formula, rote, chants and hand movements. There was a certain art to it, yes, but it was the same art that a mathematician found in solving a particularly difficult equation. It all followed rules and made sense. But divine magic… that baffled Shari. It was all based on faith, in some mystical deity that almost never responded directly to the priests who performed miracles in their names. Oh, sure, Shari believed in and prayed to Primor, the God of Magic, who is also said to be the one that created the River, a metaphor used to describe how the arcane energy wizards draw upon work. But, beyond that, Primor is never directly involved in her spells. Shari shook her head. There were other, pressing matters to get to.
She reached into her backpack again, and pulled out an object of power. It was cylindrical, and about eighteen inches long, but only about half an inch thick, and made of wood. At the top of the scepter was a spear head made of solid ruby. It was a single piece, that didn’t appear to have been cut or chipped into shape, but was, instead, a smooth, solid shape. It was also decorated with feathers and beads, though Sharai knew that just the scepter and spearhead held the magic.

“At least we got what we came for before Dash decided to increase our wealth,” she said. Everyone turned to look at their prize.

“All right, that’s two down,” Dash said, “and two more to go, according to your book.”

Shari nodded. The other week they had retrieved a golden necklace with a jade coin attached to it. Like the spear head, it was flawless and appeared to have been cast rather than cut form stone.

“The next one,” she said, opening her book and turning to a marked page, “is only a few days from here, in a place called the Cave of Darkness.” She briefly mused to her self that these places of power often had silly sounding names like that.

“Wait,” Dash said. “You’re not suggesting that we skip returning to the city and continue our artifact hunt, are you?”

Shari only nodded. This had already been decided, and Dash was just putting on a show for the sake of arguing. Sometimes, she thought he wasn’t happy unless he was arguing. She just ignored him, which resulted in his attitude ending rather quickly. Nor threatened to hit him over the head with her hammer. Del, on the other hand, always rose to Dash’ bait.

“We’ve already talked about this Dash,” the human warrior said. Shari looked at Nor, and the two only shook their heads. Shari wondered if it was particular to gnomes and humans, or if it was just relegated to men.

Despite Dash’s near constant grumbling about not getting to spend his loot in town, a few days later found them in a dead forest, looking at a intricately carved round stone blocking a large cave entrance cut into the side of a hill. Both Shari and Nor were studying the runes on the stone and discovered that it was a strange combination of arcane sigils and priestly rituals. Finally, Shari deciphered that both were needed to move the stone and gain entrance to the cave beyond. It was a simple ceremony that took about fifteen minutes to complete. After they were done, the stone simply rolled aside to the right. No flashing lights, no mystical sounds. Sharai was rather relieved.

Inside the cave was so dark that it appeared as if they were looking at a wall of blackness. Shari spoke a word, and the gem on the end of her staff began glowing a bright, but soft, blue. She pointed it into the cave, and the darkness receded, as if it were afraid of the touch of the blue light. Now, the boys went to work. Del and Dash took positions, Del slightly behind Dash. Both had their weapons drawn, and kept their eyes peeled. Del was looking up and around, ready for an ambush by monsters of other attackers. Dash kept his eyes on the ground and walls, looking for traps. Shari came behind them, lighting the way with her staff. Nor took up the final position in line, watching for attack from behind.

“What are we looking for here again?” Dash asked during a pause in the march as he disarmed a simple tripwire. Likely, it was designed to spring another trap, like a pit or a falling rock from the ceiling. When Dash was finished, it wouldn’t spring anything ever again.

“According to the book,” Shari answered, “the next item we need for this ritual is a key.”

“That’s it, a key?” Dash replied. He was always grumpy when the goal wasn’t treasure.

“Yup,” Shari replied. “A key made out of the rib bone of an extremely ancient and powerful red dragon known as Mystoph. ‘’

“Okay,” Dash replied, ready to move on further into the cave, “so it’s a fancy key carved from dragon bone. So?”

“The book describes the key’s manufacture,” Shari interrupted. “It states that the wizard who forged it took the rib bone out of Mystoph while the dragon was still breathing.”

“So, he was a bad ass,” Dash said, unflappable as always. “What’s the key do?”

“I’m not really sure,” Shari said. “The book isn’t real clear about that. It says something about opening the doorway to the universe, but I have no idea what that really means. But, it’s part of the set of four, and after this one we just need one more.”

“Right,” Dash said. “And hopefully, there will be treasure other than this key…”

“Wait,” Del said, stopping suddenly. Instantly, everyone ceased marching and was looking ahead to see what Del saw. Shari’s sharp eyes needed less eyes than the others in her group, but even she had trouble spotting what ever it was that set Del’s instincts on edge. Then, she spotted it. It was on the wall of the intersection up ahead. A slight movement. At first, she thought something was crawling up the wall, but then she realized that it was the wall itself.

“What is it?” she whispered. “Another trap?”

“I don’t think so,” Del said. “Stay here, I’m going to check it out.”

Del moved forward while everyone else stayed back, weapons at the ready for anything that might happen. What happened, however, didn’t fall into Shari’s definition of ‘anything.’ The thing on the wall started speaking, and it was then that Shari noticed it was in the shape of a pair of lips. A mouth, carved into the wall, speaking.

“Halt!” the wall mouth cried. “Go no further upon pain of death, for ahead lies the tomb of the Great Eversham, wizard and dragon slayer. If you do insist on forging ahead, then you must first answer me this riddle.”

Wow, this Eversham was arrogant, thought Shari. The voice was continuing.

“Until I am measured, I am not known. Yet how you miss me when I am flown. Answer, or perish.”

“Answer or perish?” Dash asked, but Shari quickly shushed him. Only the answer to the riddle cold be given now. Anything else would result in setting off whatever magical trap this mouth was designed to spring. Thankfully, this was one riddle she knew the answer to. Not only was it a popular one from her youth in the elvin cities, but it was also written into the book that lead them here in the first place. The wizard that wrote that book must have heard this riddle before, or put the answer into here as a note for himself. Unless the still unknown author was this Eversham. She doubted that.

She walked up to the mouth and in a clear voice stated, “Time.”

A few seconds passed, and nothing seemed to happen. Then, the mouth spoke once more.

“Time, indeed, is the answer. May your time here bring you back to the surface alive.”

Then, the ‘T’ intersection they were in changed. The left hand passage disappeared, replaced by a rough cave wall, just like the rest of the cave. The mouth and the wall it was on also disappeared, revealing another passageway. The path to the right stayed where it was. Shari pointed down the new passageway with her staff.

“This way, guys,” she said.

“But, what about this way?” Dash said, pointing to the right.

“That way leads to certain doom,” Del replied.

Everyone looked at the muscular human. He shrugged.

“I’m guessing,” he said. “Based on what the mouth said. We answered the riddle, what we’re looking for must be down the new path.”

Shari smiled and nodded. Everyone got back into marching order and slowly made their way down the new passage. It was long, longer than anything tunnel they had been down in the cave before, and it was also smooth, constructed with stones rather than just the rock and dirt of the rest of the cave. Nor was running her hands along the surface.

“Smooth as a baby’s bottom,” she said. “Fine construction, this wall, and no doubt very expensive. Either this Eversham was a better wizard than any I’ve ever heard of, or he was wealthy.”

“I’m going to go with wealthy,” came Dash’s immediate reply.

No one else said anything, and they marched down the corridor in silence. Finally, after what seemed like hours but was no doubt only minutes, they reached the end of the corridor. Shari was surprised. She had expected to find the corridor branched off or turned or something, but instead, it just ended, in a door. A simple, wooden door, on top of that. Not nearly as nicely constructed as the walls around them.

“Everyone stand back,” Dash said. “There is obviously something wrong with this, I’ll check it out.”

No one argued. They all knew he was right, and let the gnome go about his work. Dash examined the door, the floor, the wall around the door, the door hinges, even the ceiling as best he could. He kept shaking his head. Then, he examined things more thoroughly. He looked over the door handle, and the space in between the door and the floor. Finally, in examining the stones that made up the wall the door was on, he found something. A loose stone near the floor, though until he wiggled it, you would never know. Finley constructed is an understatement, Shari thought.

Dash spent several more moments examining the stone and the surrounding walls. Finally, he stood up and smiled. Shari wondered what it was that he saw. She never ceased being amazed by the talents of her companions. When she first joined them, she thought that none of them could do what she could with magic, that she didn’t need them. But now, she sees, she does need them, because they can all do things she could never do without magic, no matter how powerful she became. It was humbling, and in the end, she decided that it made her a better wizard.

Dash pushed the stone with his foot, hard, and it receded into the wall. Before their eyes, the wall did much the same, receding back and then moving to the left, revealing a doorway to a room beyond. Dash turned to look at the rest of the party with a self satisfied grin on his face, and then returned to the secret door. Del was right behind him. Before either of them stepped into the room, however, a voice was heard. It was the same voice as the magical mouth.

“My, my, aren’t you the smart ones,” the voice said. Shari looked and saw a smaller version of the mouth just to the left of the secret door. She pointed towards it with her staff.

“Congratulations, you’ve found my secret chamber,” the voice continued. “Now, all you have to do to get my treasure, is defeat the guardian monsters inside. Are you up to that challenge? I hope so, because HERE THEY COME!”

That last was at a shout, loud enough to echo into the chamber beyond the secret door. Shari gritted her teeth. That was done on purpose, to either awaken or alert whatever lie beyond this door. Her sharp ears could hear something moving in the darkness, slithering and hissing. Whatever it was, there was more than one, and they were big.

“Everyone get in the room, quick,” Del commanded, striding forward to stand center of the door, a few feet in. He presented a great target, which was his goal, hoping to draw the creatures, whatever they were, to him, and protect the other members of the party. The other’s fanned out, Nor and Shari to Del’s left and Dash to Del’s right. That was all they had time for before the creatures attacked.

They were long, sinewy and vaguely snake like. They had several short legs, however, that moved at rapid speeds, propelling the monsters across the rubble strewn floor with ease. This put the party at an instant disadvantage, as they would be slowed by the piles of rubble. There were five of them, and three instantly headed towards Del.

He raised his shield just in time to block a bite by one, its long jaw filled with sharp teeth unable to get a solid bite around the round piece of steel. Another one, however, got a good grip with it’s jaw on Del’s metal clad leg. The warrior grunted, but it was obvious that the bit didn’t pierce the armor. The third held back, circling, looking for an opening.

The other two started moving towards Dash, but Nor moved quickly to intercept one. She smashed it on the nose with her hammer, eliciting a little yelp and resulting in a few of the sharp teeth falling to the floor. Dash was equally ready for the creature that was on him, jumping up and over it as it charged. In the air, Dash lowered his short sword and sliced across the creature’s back. It wasn’t a deep cut, but it was enough to draw a line of blood and cause it to hiss in pain.

Shari went into action. She saw that Del had moved the three creatures into a triangular position, including the one still attached to his leg by extending it into the triangle. She pointed her staff at the area between them, and muttered a word. A burst of flame sprung up from the very air in the center of the triangle, then burst out in a ball that engulfed the three of them as well as partially covering Del. He, however, had his head turned and his shield raised. While he felt the heat from the fire, he was better prepared for it than the crocodile-snakes were.

The one that had Del’s leg let go and shook his head. The creature that had attacked his shield lay curled into a ball, dead. The third one turned to look back at Sharai, and hissed. She wasn’t sure how it had managed to figure out the ball of fire came from her, but it was obviously angry and looking for some revenge. It made a move to charge at her, but Del extended himself and stabbed it with his sword. It was enough to grab the creature’s attention, and it attached him, biting his arm before being shook off. Del grunted. It was the worst sound he would make during the whole of combat, no matter how bad the would really was. Nor hated that he wouldn’t cry out or let her know when he needed healing.

The other creature attacked his leg again, getting that same grip back. It became obvious to Shari that she wasn’t going to be able to get more than one at a time from now on, which narrowed her spell inventory considerably. Meanwhile, Nor smashed her hammer into the side of her croco-snake, as Shari was starting to think of the creatures. More teeth went flying, and the eyes of the beast momentarily shifted to look in different directions. A follow up blow in the opposition direction before the beast got it’s footing back finished it off. Nor smiled a vicious grin, and turned to aid Dash.

Dash had been doing fine on his own, getting in stab and cut after stab and cut, but he just couldn’t get through the defenses of the croco-snake to do any real damage. When Nor got behind the beast, however, she provided all the distraction he needed. The beast turned to look at Nor long enough for Dash to step up past the claws and plunged his sword into the monster’s neck hilt deep. The creature flung itself back in dash’s direction, howling in pain and searching for the source of that pain.

Now it was Nor’s chance to take advantage of fighting with two people. She started to swing her hammer at the creature’s head, hoping to deliver the killing blow. Unfortunately, the wild trashing of the beast resulted in it’s long, and very strong tail, smashing into her and knocking her down to the ground. Dash, on the other had, managed to get in another stab with his short sword, and punctured the creature’s mouth. It was enough to instantly stop the thrashing, and the body fell to the ground, dead.

Del, meanwhile, continued to fight the two remaining croco-snakes. The one on his leg was making considerable progress against the armor, and Shari could see blood seeping through the spaces between the metal plates. Del was focusing his attacks against that one, and trying his best to use his defenses against the other, but wasn’t as successful as he had hoped. The final beast had managed to sneak past Del’s shield several times and get in some good shots with its long tongue. From the way Del slowed down after each hit, Shari guessed that the tongue held a venom of some sort.

Shari took aim with her staff, spoke a word, and blasted a ball of blue energy at the still free croco-snake. It hit, and caused a hiss of pain, but otherwise didn’t see to have any major effect on the monster. Meanwhile, it continued to put pressure on Del. It apparently decided that enough was enough, spun around quickly and whipped out its tail, hitting Del square in the legs and knocking him over. The one on his leg took advantage and sprung up on top of Del, trying to find a place that wasn’t metal to bite.

The big one that had just knocked him down, however, immediately turned and charged Shari. It was on her before she realized it and clamped its jaw down on her arm. She screamed in pain, and closed her eyes to the fight. She put her staff to the monster’s head and spoke her magic word. Electricity coursed through its body, and it released its grip, limping away. Shari opened her eyes In time to see that the creature didn’t get far before Nor arrived and took it out with a solid blow to the head that crushed in its skull. She looked over to Del to see that he was standing again, and that both he and Dash had their blades sunk deep into the remaining beast. The battle was over.

After some rounds of administration by Nor, everyone was healed and mostly back to normal, though Del still had a slight limp. Nor assured him it would go away in a few days. Now came the important part, thought Shrai. The looking for treasure, specifically the bone key the book said was here. It didn’t take tem long before they found a single, great treasure chest. It was a good two foot on a side, and Shari hoped it wasn’t loaded to the top with stuff. Dash would want to carry it home somehow, and it would likely be up to her to find a magical means of doing so.

Dash examined the box closely, and eventually pointed Shari to a particular mark on the front, just above the large and rather obvious key hole. Shari examined it as well, and nodded. It was a mark that would no doubt blast anyone attempting to open the box. However, she was surprised to find that it was a ward relatively easy to avoid. One just needed to use the correct key hole to open the chest. She told Dash this, and he returned to the rear of the box. A few seconds later, and there was a click. The box was opened. Before they could do so, however, another magical mouth appeared, this time on the box itself.

“Congratulations,” it said. “To have made it this far, you had to have recovered my spell book, the Spear of Yu, and then made it here. You’ve been very clever to have passed my guardian pets and the trap set upon this box. But you didn’t get through everything I had here.”

The mouth said a word, one that Shari didn’t recognize but she knew was arcane. Just then, the ground trembled, and everyone was thrown to the floor. Loud rumbling noises were all that any of them could hear for several minutes, and dust and rocks came down from the ceiling. A few minutes later, when the dust settled, the group took stock and found that everyone was dusty, but okay. The mouth on the chest was still talking.

“Know this, interlopers,” it said. “I separated all these items for a reason. The ceremony described in my book must never be allowed to come to pass. And so to prevent this and to stop you from getting my last relic, I have caused all the tunnels in this cave to collapse. You are all trapped in this room, with your treasure. I hope you enjoy it.”

With that, the mouth disappeared, and everyone looked at each other. How in the Nine Hells were they supposed to dig their way out of potentially miles of rock?

“We’re in some real trouble now,” Del said.

To be continued…

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