The darkness suited de Geffriel well. It heightened her senses and made her acutely aware of her surroundings, even if she could not see. She quickly found the wall to her back and noted that she was in a corner. Brushing over it with her bare hands, she guessed it was stone, possibly granite, and extremely thick. She briefly wondered about the others before extinguishing the thought. “They are together for a reason. I chose this way knowing it was my best chance for survival. They can not distract me.”
Softening her breathing and fully concentrating on her surroundings, de Geffriel slowly took out her spear and guided it from wall to wall. The area was clear. Choosing to follow the wall to her right, since slowly moved forward and every few steps would swing the spear one hundred eighty degrees, spanning the area stretched out to her left, quietly listening. A few times her spear found the edges of stone walls, but mostly, the space was empty. She continued on, intently listening for any sounds in the darkness. Once, she heard some shallow breathing, nasally and unfamiliar, but it disappeared as soon as her spear struck a wall.
Eventually de Geffriel reached the end of the wall and found herself in another corner, the wall turning at a sharp ninety degree angle. “I’m in a room, maze-like apparently. The chances of the stairs being on the outer edges are low…What was that?” Another sound caught her ears, though this time it was deeper breathing, a distinct inhale and exhale. “People…Lying in wait. I can’t be reckless down here…” She picked up her spear and continued down the wall, swinging it out every few steps, familiarizing herself with the interior and dimensions, doing her best to draw a map of it in her head.
At least the darkness calmed her.
“Well, it’s not like we can see where we’re going.” Stoyan’s temper had grown short in the moments following Alaiya’s declaration of magick. It troubled him that he could not see and fear began creeping into his mind; fear that he could not fight what he could not see. “How will we even know where we are?”
“We could make like friends and hold hands?” Elias’s humor was as lost as they were.
“Calm down and think,” commanded Alaiya. For some reason Alaiya was able to keep her wits about her, a testament to the focus of her brief studying at Astyr. The ability to not panic in situations and remain vigilant allowed them to never lose control of the magick. It was the basis for survival for someone of magical inclination, and it had been so ingrained in her that it was second nature by this point. However, it was not something she would consciously attribute to her time at Astyr, so uncomfortable it had been.
“Got it,” she exclaimed. Dropping to a knee, she fiddled through her bag until she found a coil of rope. “We can tie ourselves together. That way, we’ll always know where we are.”
“That’s a good plan. Know where we are even though we don’t know where we are.” The line of thinking strangely gave Elias a shred of hope. “At least we’ll be together.” He felt Alaiya hand him some rope and quickly tied it around his waist. “What do you want me to do with the rest?” he asked Alaiya.
“Tie it around Stoyan.”
After some inconspicuous groping, the three companions were fastened to one another and moving down the wall to their left. Not wishing to stray from the safety of the wall, they each kept a hand firmly placed against it. Soon, however, their careless ways attracted the attention of unknown visitors in the dark. Elias was the first to notice.
“Shhh! Stoyan, stop being a walking miner’s cart. We have a visitor; to my right, away from the wall. Sounds…beast-like.”
“Well,” reasoned Stoyan, “better kill it before it kills us. Elias, you stay planted on the wall. Alaiya, follow me. This should be fun.” A devilish grin broke across the Paladin’s face as he strode out into the unknown.
The stuttered falling of her spear told de Geffriel that she had found what she was looking for – stairs. As she slowly and cautiously placed one foot in front of the other, she rose out of the magick that surrounded her as light finally greeted her eyes. The light itself was not great – the flickering of a torch – but it seemed like the burning of a midday sun. She strode forward as she basked in its warmth, not noticing the sudden decline in the floor in front of her. With a hushed, startled yelp of surprise, she soon found herself sliding down a ramp with two tunnels in front of her. Light shone out of the tunnel on her right and she forced her way over there, struggling to slow herself down as she slid.
Not long after she entered the tunnel did she find herself on flat ground again, a wooden door before her, the sound of rushing water echoing beyond. Picking herself up, she peered through the small window inlaid in the door and saw at the far end a creature, pacing back and forth, a longbow in hand. It stood on a ledge, a gate behind it, staring intently at the door from where de Geffriel spied. Behind the gate it guarded was a set of stairs, veering off to the left. Between them spanned a massive crevice and she could see the froth of the churning water fly up as it disappeared beneath her. On the walls between them, spanning the crevice, were small footholds and handholds, barely large enough for a person to place their feet comfortably, let alone stand.
de Geffriel weighed the options and laid out a variety of schemes to traverse the walls quickly enough to land on the opposite platform and remove the threat. Finally, settling on a series of acrobatic maneuvers and an adequate combat style, de Geffriel slowly opened the wooden door and let an arrow whizz by. She counted, taking note of how long it took the beast to notch and ready an arrow and fire. A second arrow whizzed by, breaking on the stone behind her. “Four seconds,” she thought. “I have to time it right, but I can do this.” She took off as the third arrow whizzed by.
Alaiya could feel a strong magical force coming from the far left. She told Stoyan and Elias about it, garnering a look of utter disgust from the Paladin.
“Enough with this magick crap! I want something I can see with my own eyes and grab with my own hands!” The Paladin’s patience, tried and tested to its limits with the constant pursuit and worry for Veth, was nearing its end. “Lan…She will pay for this.” The words were guttural and bathed in an icy demeanor.
“Before you can do that, you must find her. And she seems fairly skilled at running away.” Elias’s insights could be the stuff of legends.
“Bah! Running is for cowards. One of Tempus never turns from a battle. It is why I am always victorious.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen that. You can’t run because you’re usually lying flat on your face at the feet of the enemy. Lucky for you, you find yourself with able companions.”
Stoyan scoffed at the notion and stepped over the threshold of the top step. “Tempus is merely testing my resolve to fight. Without these trials, I could never consider myself an – AHHHH!!!!” Stoyan disappeared as quickly as a flash as the sound of armor clamoring against stone rattled throughout the stairwell.
“Crap,” muttered Elias. “Looks like we’re at it again.”
Stoyan had wanted to stay as far away from the magick that Alaiya said she felt. When the two tunnels appeared in front of him, he did everything in his power to scurry himself to the rightmost passage. It ended with a loud clang and a small room enclosed on all sides, save for the ramp which he came tumbling down. As he stood, the sound of creaking stone caught his attention and, much to his surprise, a statue in the corner of the room.
“What are you doing here?” The statue was that of a gargoyle, but it made no other move than the rotation of its head. Its voice sounded subterranean it was so low, and it spoke slowly, enunciating each word with practiced precision. The words were calm, lacking conviction, yet pointed and straightforward. When Stoyan did not answer, it repeated itself. “What are you doing here?”
“I, uh, slipped,” managed Stoyan, his words bumbling over themselves as he spoke.
The statue cocked its head a moment before asking again. “What are you doing here?”
Stoyan thought for a minute, weighing his options. He had not had a real positive time with statues before, mostly from trying to avoid conflict and skirt around his true intentions. Even though he could not surmise the purpose of this statue, he decided he would be as straightforward with it as it was being with him. “I am searching for my friend.”
“Am I your friend?”
“No, you are not.”
The statue seemed disappointed with the response but continued its line of questioning. “How will you find your friend?”
“By getting out of this room. Where is the nearest exit?”
The gargoyle cocked its head and pointed toward the ramp. “There.”
Stoyan calmed himself so he might possibly leave one statue he encountered intact. “Can you help me get out that way?”
The statue cocked its head again. “No. But I can help you get out another.” Stoyan’s eyes widened in response to the first piece of good news he had heard in a long time. Then the statue added, “Friend.”
Stoyan nodded as he spoke. “Yes, friend, you can help me. Can you show me the way out?”
“Am I your friend?”
“Yes!” urged Stoyan, his impatience beginning to get the better of him. “You are my friend.”
The statue pointed to the stone wall in front of Stoyan. “There is the way out.” Then, a gush of air filled the room as the stone broke apart from itself and swung to the side. “Good luck, friend.”
Stoyan looked through the door and noticed a large beast-man wielding a greataxe pacing about the room. Behind him was a golden gate, and beyond that gate, spiraling up to the next floor, was another set of stairs.
“Finally,” said Stoyan as he unsheathed his sword, “something I can see.”
Elias had leapt before Alaiya and, thinking she would gravitate toward the magical energy, stayed along the left hand wall. He had seen four tunnels, and, unsure of where Stoyan was, decided to hedge his bets on Alaiya’s choice. However, sitting by the door for a few minutes, he decided that Alaiya had indeed, chosen a different path.
“Well, so much for knowing people.” He stood up and dusted himself off. “Now, let’s see what this is all about.”
As Elias neared the gate before him a loud snarl caught his attention and, from the shadows of the room beyond, rose a massive Gnoll. It wielded a longbow and Elias caught the glimpse of an axe strapped to its back. Immediately regretting his decision to approach the gate, Elias froze and watched. The Gnoll simply watched in return, though its focus seemed more on the gate than the Gnome.
“Hmmm…,” wondered Elias as he approached the gate, “What would happen if I – hey!” His hand stopped just short of reaching the gate, brought to a halt by some unknown force. His moved his hands up and down, them never moving closer to the gate, as the air shimmered with traces of magick. “A spell? A conjuration maybe?” Elias concentrated on the air, searching for some trace of magick that he could latch on to. “Like extracting the essence for a potion. I just need to find the source…There!” His fingers slowly wrapped around an invisible strand of magick and he pulled, unwinding the fabric of the spell. He was delicate in his processes, not knowing if extraction was the same as dispelling or if the consequences were greater. As the spell began to unravel, the air lessened in its shimmer, until there was no more. Sensing the magick had dissipated, Elias reached for the gate and it swung open. However, in the midst of undoing the magick, he had momentarily forgotten about the Gnoll and an arrow grazed his arm. Pulling back instantly, the pain shot through his arm.
“Oh yeah, you’re still here.” Sighing, Elias pulled out his metallic rod and readied himself for battle. “Where’s Stoyan when you need someone to helplessly charge into the fray? What luck.”
Alaiya tumbled down after the two men and descended once more into darkness. She knew the magical energy was strongest to the left and thusly stayed right. Not wanting to be trapped in another complex room filled with magical darkness, she thought it would be her best chance at keeping with the others. No way any of them would willingly choose to risk magick again, especially Stoyan.
As she slid, she noticed the faint light of a second tunnel above her slowly disappear. A brief, fleeting thought of de Geffriel came to mind, but her attention was immediately drawn back to the tunnel down which she was traveling. Before her loomed four paths and, as she continued to feel the strong magick presence to the left, she tried to scurry to the right. However, her hands and feet could not grip the slick surface enough to propel her and she ended up descending down the middle-right tunnel.
She landed lightly enough on her backside that she managed to only slightly wince, though it turned into a depressed sigh. In front of her stood a wooden door with a sizeable keyhole in front of it. She approached the door and managed to peek through the keyhole to see a Gnoll strolling back and forth in front of a stone wall. She managed to see some device embedded in the wall, but other than that, nothing more. Turning her attention back to the Gnoll, she noticed that it was waiting, irritably, for something to come through the wooden door between them. Heaving a sigh, Alaiya took to inspecting the door.
It did not take her long to realize the simplicity of the lock. Removing a small fastener from her robes, she slipped it into the keyhole and gave it a few twists. A small click followed and the door slightly budged forward, enough for Alaiya to peek around. Opening the door wide enough to get a clear shot at the Gnoll, she condensed her magick into a ball and launched it. It hit the Gnoll square in the chest, the force moving him back.
The Gnoll, realizing his prey had finally revealed itself, quickly notched an arrow and fire it at the opening, but Alaiya was too quick to pull back. Frustrated, it moved closer to the door, hoping to cut off Alaiya’s line of sight. Much to her dismay, it accomplished that. She sent out another spell, hoping to force it to retreat, but it only encouraged it. It fired an arrow into the opening, and it sank solidly into Alaiya’s thigh. Crying out in pain, the Gnoll responded with a howl of delight.
“There isn’t another choice. If I don’t close the distance, it has the…” Another arrow struck the stone near her head and rattled to the floor. Her mind made up, Alaiya gathered all of her courage and fought every ingrained instinct to run. Bolting through the door, dagger in hand, she greeted the Gnoll with another spell planted solidly on its abdomen. The brashness of the attack caught the creature off guard and its next arrow sailed wildly overhead. Alaiya, urged on by the unique mix of fear and exhilaration, lunged at the Gnoll, magick prematurely working its way into the blade in anticipation.
Unfortunately, the Gnoll recovered enough of its senses to sidestep the awkward lunge. Dropping its longbow, it unsheathed a greataxe and Alaiya regained her sense of unadulterated fear once more. The wild fear in the creature’s eyes, aided by the animalistic tongue coursing over its lips, rid Alaiya of any senselessness she would have had at continuing with her dagger. Rolling away from the beast, she sent a blast of magick out, propelling the Gnoll back with unnatural force. It snarled and swung its axe, high enough to let the nimble woman duck beneath. Retreating to the corner of the room, Alaiya was left with little choice – running was futile. She sent another wave of magick at the Gnoll as it continued its advance. She did not wait to see what happened, as she could hear its footsteps continue towards her. Unwilling to greet death face to face, Alaiya closed her eyes and discharged as much magical energy as she had left. Collapsing from exhaustion, she barely heard the thud of the Gnoll’s body hit the floor.
A few minutes passed before Alaiya had regained the strength to stand. Deliberately avoiding the deceased creature in the room, she quickened to the stone wall and examined the protrusion. A set of four stone wheels, with numbers one through four etched into them, jutted from the wall and above it, carved into the wall, was an inscription.
Will one ever know where to will go?
Will one always be there for one who never quits?
“Aw, shucks…” muttered Alaiya as she took to deciphering the cryptic puzzle before her. Doing some quick math, which was by no means quick, Alaiya tried to reassure herself. “At least there’s only two hundred fifty-six possibilities,” she said with morbid cheerfulness as she set to work.
de Geffriel moved with the grace of a forest feline as she leapt from precipice to precipice, the Gnoll’s arrows arriving moments after she vacated each spot. Landing solidly on the third and final precipice, she gathered her legs beneath her for the final jump. In midair, she grabbed her garrote from her wrist, and with a display of aerial acrobatic superiority, she twisted in the air, eyeing her kill with delight. The roar of the water boomed beneath her, its white frothy waters leaping up as they bubbled and churned. de Geffriel lowered her garrote around the neck of the unsuspecting Gnoll, intent on utilizing her momentum for one swift, deadly kill. As she landed, however, she neglected to account for the wetness of the stone, and lost both her footing and her grip on the garrote while simultaneously smashing into the gate behind it.
The creature wheeled and withdrew its axe, slamming it into de Geffriel’s arm. Most of the axe head caught the gate, but as warm liquid rand down her arm, de Geffriel knew she was at a distinct disadvantage. Dropping to a knee, she withdrew a dagger and pushed off the gate behind her. The creature parried the blow, but never noticed the second blade she removed from her hip until it lay dug into its torso. The beast howled, a quickly muffled sound as de Geffriel took advantage of the opening as she drove her dagger through the soft flesh beneath the jaw in an upward strike. The beast fell silent as it crashed to the ground. Casually reaching down and taking her second blade, de Geffriel nonchalantly kicked the corpse into the roaring waters beneath her.
“Not what I planned, but still – effective as always. Too bad he wasn’t here to see it.” A small pout touched her lips as she moved to the gate. Looking at the latch, she noticed a few symbols she recognized as symbols of gods. Arranged on two moveable discs, one within another, with a third set on the outer, solid portion of the gate, she reasoned they must match up in columns of three. “Yup,” she said with a sigh, “too bad he isn’t here.”
As Stoyan climbed the stairs he had a sneaking suspicion that someone or something was waiting for him above. “Screw it! I’ll take whatever this place throws at me!” He raced up the stairs, sword in hand and his heart racing. Bursting into the room at the top of the stairs, he screeched to a halt, astonished at the sight before him. Sitting, feet propped on a small footstool, was de Geffriel, a sly grin plastered on her face. Behind her was a stone archway, a green ‘X’ painted across the wall blocking access.
“Well, well, that wasn’t what I expected, but I’ll gladly take it.” She pushed the stool away as she sprang to her feet. “Where are the others? Or,” she paused, the grin growing wider, “did you come alone?”
Stoyan took a step back, trying to collect himself. “Wait, you’re all alone?”
“Uh, yeah. Remember, the others went with you.”
Stoyan turned and looked back to down the stairs he had just ran up. “We got separated again once we got out of the darkness. I’m not sure where either of them are.”
de Geffriel shrugged, not really caring about either of the two; she had the one she wanted. “Then let’s not waste any time.” Throwing a sultry wink at Stoyan, she headed through the passage to the right. “Be sure to follow close.”
They moved to the next room, a sparsely furnished room, devoid of anything beside a crude wooden chair next to another archway, this one with a yellow ‘X’ emblazoned across the wall blocking it. Another passage extended away from them from the other side of the room.
“What’s with the archways,” pondered Stoyan aloud.
“No clue, but let’s keep exploring. Maybe we’ll be lucky and find a bed.”
Much to Alaiya’s relief, she found herself alongside Elias. Fortunately, their stairwells came together and they found themselves looking hesitantly down the passage to the left.
“You ready, Alaiya?” Elias slowly wrung his hands, a sign of his nervousness.
“Only if you’re ready.”
Elias nodded and started forward. Alaiya followed behind him, her breath quick and shallow. Elias pulled up alongside the side of the passage, and he motioned Alaiya to do the same.
“Careful. Something’s ahead here, and it smells…bad.” Slowly inching forward, Elias saw a beast walking around the room. In each hand, it wielded two handaxes that caught the glint of a torch on the wall. Turning back to Alaiya, Elias spoke in a soft whisper. “Just one guard, but I think we need to rush it.” Noting Alaiya’s surprised reaction, he quickly back-peddled. “I mean, I will need to rush the guard. You, well, make sure I don’t die.” He offered a small smile and broke into the room.
Elias charged, slinging his rod out and sending a blast of cold magick into the guard. The guard spun, swinging its axes, barely missing the Gnome. As it turned, it was greeted with another volley of magick erupting from the shadows. The guard grunted and fell to its knees. Elias reared back and smacked the guard across the face, cracking the jaw with the sturdy metal rod. Only when the guard lied motionless on the ground did Elias notice he was not a Human.
“An Orc,” he questioned aloud. Confused momentarily, he stored the information away for a future reference. Then, inspecting the room, he noticed a stone archway, blocked by a stone wall with a yellow ‘X’ across it. “More puzzles?”
Alaiya moved closer to the wall and noticed a yellow lever in the floor. “Maybe there’s a connection,” she offered.
Elias sighed as he nodded, the mental exhaustion of the hideout beginning to wear on him. Alaiya threw the lever and the wall within the archway rose into the ceiling. Another passage extended beyond as Alaiya and Elias exchanged worried glances.
“This should be interesting.”