The group slogged out of the lake and onto the rocky shore, exhausted and battered, but alive. The sunrod had fallen near the shoreline, much to the relief of everyone, and was snatched up quickly by Stoyan as he took in his surroundings. The cavern was a large granitic cutout, with two exits, one north and one east, leading away from the lake. The lake itself seemed to be a massive aquifer, stretching on beyond what they could see in the limited light.
Cyrxx dried everyone off using a cantrip as they contemplated their next course of action.
“Where are we?” asked Alaiya, in complete awe of where she found herself. “How did we get here?”
“Doesn’t matter. How do we get out?” Stoyan seemed more determined than usual, like he was fancying a fight.
Alaiya looked back over the lake. “I don’t think this way is out. I can’t even see the other side. And there’s two exits over there.” She pointed to the tunnels leading away. “Which do we take though?”
“Simple,” replied Stoyan. “That exit,” and he pointed north, “runs along the lake’s borders while the other one,” indicating the eastern exit, “leads away from the lake. I think the east is the best choice.”
“A wise observation, young Stoyan.” Veth was walking toward the exit as he spoke. “I might I suggest we get moving. If there are things in these tunnels, it would be easier to fend them off without a lake at our heels.”
The rest of the group nodded in understanding as they took off through the eastern exit.
The tunnel was large enough for Veth to maneuver comfortably, yet small enough to force them to stay in a single file line. As they traveled they came across multiple offshoots of the main tunnel, but they decided to keep the risk low and stick to the obvious path. After an hour, they noticed lichen growing on the rock walls and traces of water moistening the rock. The air started thickening as the humidity of the tunnel increased, making their steps slightly more sluggish. As they pressed on, a faint fog began to develop, wrapping around their feet first (well, the feet of Veth and Stoyan, it was at the waists of Alaiya and Cyrxx), and slowly building up until it filled the entire tunnel. The light of the sunrod lessened in the heavy fog, limiting their visibility substantially. Keeping their hands to the walls to maintain a sense of balance and direction, they noticed when the two walls suddenly veered in opposite directions.
“It would seem the tunnel has opened up into a larger room.” Stoyan’s voice was barely that of a whisper, but everyone heard him clearly. “Let’s stick to the right wall and see what happens.”
As everyone moved to the right wall, Cyrxx tripped, sending himself headfirst into the stone. “By Glittergold’s beard! Bah, I’m using my own light. The crap stick you’re wielding doesn’t even reach down here!”
Stoyan and Veth swallowed their laughter, which was the only reason any of them heard the soft gnashing of teeth coming from the center of the room. Everyone readied themselves, when, as if on cue, a sharp blast of air tore through the room, chasing out the mist and letting the uncertainty slip away.
In the middle of the room were three massive rats, with yellow eyes that focused relentlessly on the party. Their fur was course and black, and their claws rose off their feet in high arches. However, that came second to the frothy saliva that poured forth from their gaping mouths. Alaiya pulled back as the stench reached her.
Stoyan wasted no time as he rushed the rats, eager to work out his frustration. He cut through one rats, severing its front right leg as he tore open a massive wound in its side. Cyrxx followed with a shadow spell that wrapped itself around the other two beasts while Veth charged another. Alaiya sat back and shot orbs of magick at the first rats that Stoyan had engaged.
The beasts were caught off–guard at the sudden attack but quickly scattered, moving rapidly around the cavern floor. The one with the missing leg launched itself at Stoyan, sinking its teeth into the flesh of his lower leg, causing him to grimace. The pain was slight, the bite shallow, but he could feel the infectious saliva coursing through his throbbing leg. He swung down with his blade, opening the first gash further, causing the creature to release its bite. Cyrxx unleashed another volley of magical arrows directly into the wound and finished it off.
The attack came with a risk however, as a rat skittered by the Gnome and knocked him to the ground with its tail. Immediately it pounced, effectively covering the Wizard with its body, and clamped down on his shoulder with its teeth. Cyrxx screamed in pain as his flesh was torn away. As the rat pulled back for another bite, an orb of magic shot it off Cyrxx and toward a waiting Veth, who dazed it with a quick blow to the head. Veth ran to Cyrxx’s side, blood oozing out onto the cavern floor. Calling out to Sehanine, he laid his hands on the Gnome and encased his small body in a shroud of divine light. As he entered his necessary trace however, the third rat rushed over and gnawed at the Cleric’s arm. Veth maintained his trace despite the pain for the sake of Cyrxx.
Stoyan hurried to Veth and pried the creature off, allowing the Cleric to finish healing Cyrxx. The beast slashed at him with its claws, ripping open his forearm. Stoyan threw the rat to the ground and slammed the edge of his shield on its windpipe, snapping its vertebrae. The rat shuttered beneath its fur and lay still. Stoyan stood, searching desperately for the third rat, when Alaiya screamed from behind him. The last beast had cornered her and was striking out with its teeth, tearing away the fabric of her cloak. She tried to concentrate her magick to blast the creature, but her fear and anxiety impeded her. Stoyan stood, though the pain in his leg urged him not to, and tried to close in on the rat, but he knew he would not make it. Luckily, Veth was quicker. The Cleric ran, mace in hand, headlong into the beast, and buried the weapon’s blunt head into its ribcage. The sound of bones snapping echoed throughout the tunnel with such clarity it seemed surreal. He swung again, knocking the rat away from Alaiya, back toward the center of the room, to a waiting Stoyan. As the rat slid to Stoyan’s feet, the Paladin thrust his blade down, finding the heart in a sickeningly efficient maneuver.
Exhausted, the friends looked at one another, blood and sweat covering their faces. Now that the battle was finished, they could see another tunnel on the other side of the room, leading further away. Slowly, they made their way to the tunnel, positioning the group in a defensive formation within. Veth attended to everyone’s wounds during the brief reprieve.
“We should continue on,” suggested Stoyan. “I’m not sure we could survive more of those things.” Just then Cyrxx retched, stomach bile and blood pouring out of his mouth. The Gnome’s eyes glazed over and he slumped forward, his body convulsing in minor spasms. “What is going on?”
Veth raced over the Cyrxx and placed a hand on the unconscious Wizard’s body. “This isn’t good. He’s been infected with something. The rat’s…He must’ve contracted something from them.” Veth scooped up Cyrxx and started down the tunnel. “I can stall it, but it’ll take time. And I’m not sure we have that right now.”
Quickly, Alaiya and Stoyan gathered their things and took off down the tunnel. Another series of twist and turns saw them without incident, something they were all quite grateful for. As they continued, the moisture on the rock walls lessened and the air thinned out. The tunnel itself seemed to widen as they walked, granting a sense of hope to the group. When the tunnel opened into a large expanse of a room though, that hope flittered away. Before them stood a massive underground lake, one which they could not see across.
“What’re the odds that there are two of these things down here?” Stoyan tried to be light in his humor, but there was a lack of sincerity in his voice. His disappointment was obvious.
“It would seem that the path we chose brought us to the other side of that lake,” said Veth. “We have to go back and try the northern tunnel.” As though his choice was as simple and uncomplicated as that, the Cleric returned back down the tunnel.
“Wait a second, you oaf!” Cyrxx jumped down to the ground and adjusted his clothing. “I can handle myself from here. Besides, you smell like wuss.” Cyrxx chortled and fell into step behind his friend.
As they traipsed through the rock corridors, the thick mist returned, once more moistening the walls as the neared the room where they fought the rats. Veth walked across the room and halted, confused. “Where’s the exit?” The others followed across the room and soon noticed that there was no exit.
Stoyan shrugged it off, though he was worried. “We got turned in the fog. Let’s go back –,” he stopped as a ship appeared through the northern rock wall. Inching forward, the ship seemed to tear apart the stone as it settled in the middle of the room, its bow coming to rest directly in the center.
The companions stood, dumbfounded, as the ship creaked and groaned in the stillness of the room. Its tattered sails and flags whipped in a gentle wind that no one could feel, and the ship lurched as though it were still riding the waves of the sea. Cyrxx was the first to move to inspect the vessel, moving to the nearest side. He lifted a fist and rapt on the wooden planks, sending an echo all around. Curious, he continued, making his way around to the bow when he, and more importantly his light, suddenly vanished. If he screamed, the creaking of the ship masked it.
Veth, in a panic, ran to his friend, calling his name. Stoyan and Alaiya were too slow to stop him and they watched in confused horror as he suddenly disappeared when he reached the ship’s bow. Stoyan looked around once more, making sure there were no alternatives to what he was about to do. Seeing none, he began walking toward the bow.
“It’s likely a trap,” murmured Alaiya, as she too began walking.
“I hope so,” responded Stoyan coolly, “I’m not sure I could handle it if it isn’t.” As they neared the ship, the creaking and groaning grew louder and more eerie. They paused right before they reached the bow and looked at each other. With a silent nod, Stoyan stepped forward first, holding the sunrod high above his head so he could see. As Alaiya looked on, Stoyan vanished. No trace, no sound, and now, no light. Darkness enveloped her, causing her heart to race. Calming her nerves, she readied herself and took a small step forward, preparing for something she did not know. She stepped in the direction she had seen Stoyan go when something clicked softly beneath her feet. Then she was falling.
The water rushed over her again, and she had a sickening feeling of déjà vu. She thrust her arms out and pushed herself through the water, breaking the surface gasping for air. Looking around, she saw Cyrxx and Veth on a nearby shoreline with Stoyan slowing trudging out of the water. All three were looking at Alaiya and Cyrxx motioned for her to join them.
“This can’t be –,” Alaiya started, but Cyrxx cut her off.
“It is, girlie.” He looked around the cavern and noticed that nothing had changed from the first time they had fallen in. “But, just to be sure…” The Gnome wandered over to the eastern exit and held out his hand. A white light burned into the stone, leaving a magical mark before briefly disappearing. “We’ll know if we find ourselves here again.”
Stoyan stood, glaring over the endless lake, a deep line creasing his normally relaxed face. “Maybe we should try to other exit. Just in case –.” As if on cue, the entire cavern shook as a tremor hit the underground cavern. As the dust settled, a loud crash echoed into the cavern from the northern exit, followed quickly by a pillow of dust and debris. “Well, that solved that.” Stoyan sighed dejectedly and headed off through the eastern exit.
Before he entered though, Cyrxx held up his hand to the wall by the exit. A white light formed around his hand, soft and gentle, and then slowly disappeared. When it had faded, he lowered his arm revealing an arcane symbol that slowly faded into nothingness. “We’ll know if we come back this way again.”
The group traversed the eastern tunnel again, noticing slight differences in the walls and rocks. Offshoots from the main tunnel existed, but, once more, they avoided these, deciding to stick to the larger path. The fog slowly built up, wrapping around them again, and everyone readied themselves as they pressed on. Soon, the tunnel opened up into a larger room and the companions stopped, listening for the gnashing of teeth or the scrapping of claws on the stone.
No sound came.
Slowly, they made their way across the room, noticing the eerie similarities it held to the previous one. As they walked across, the fog dissipated, revealing the room in whole, completely empty. They pressed on through the opposing exit, and soon found themselves back at the lake, confused.
“We’re going in circles,” exclaimed Stoyan, his frustration becoming increasingly apparent. He slammed his fist against the rock wall in anger and turned back inside. “There’s got to be something in one of these side tunnels. C’mon!”
Acknowledging they were out of options, the others followed. The first few side tunnels yielded nothing, being no more than a few hundred paces in length before ending. However, as they got closer to the large room, the side passages got longer. They also began finding remnants of life – cobwebs, bones, husks of creatures – though nothing stirred now, obviously something had. It was down one of these tunnels that Stoyan and Cyrxx found themselves exploring, having left Alaiya and Veth to guard the entrance.
The Paladin slashed through old cobwebs, which wilted and fell away, mostly on the Gnome walking behind him. As Cyrxx pulled layers of cobwebs out of his beard and hair, he noticed that as they moved deeper, the strands became thicker.
“Eh…Stoyan…you might…” Cyrxx stopped speaking, transfixed on the ceiling as Stoyan turned. The light from Cyrxx’s globe shimmered and cast deep shadows across the man’s face. The faint magical light was not strong enough to penetrate the darkness more than a few meters, but it was able to light the entirety of the section they were in. As the Wizard stood there, the long, spindly legs moved silently and effortlessly across the crest of the tunnel’s ceiling, moving in and out of the light, as if trying to determine what it was. Cyrxx took a calculated step back and silently motioned that Stoyan follow.
Stoyan picked up on the signal and silently mouthed, “How many?” to Cyrxx as his hand reached for his blade. Cyrxx gave one long blink followed by a doubtful look on his face. Stoyan nodded in understanding and moved his eyes to the right. Cyrxx gave a short, quick blink moved his eyes to Stoyan’s left. The man closed his eyes and relaxed, tightening his grip on his sword. Then, in one rapid, arcing motion, he unsheathed his blade and swung to his left, reaching as high as the ceiling would allow. The blade cut into stone briefly, slowing the trajectory, but it met its mark, cutting into the abdomen of the giant spider above. A cream-white substance seeped forth and ran down Stoyan’s blade and the creature fell to the floor. Red magical darts struck the beasts eyes as its mandibles clicked together in a high–pitched sound. Stoyan leapt forward and hacked off two of the spider’s legs as it tried to crawl back up the wall. Another volley of magical energy caused it to slip to the ground as Stoyan maintained the offensive, slicing another chunk out of the spider’s abdomen. The spider, enraged now, turned on the two attackers and spit forth a thick, goo–like substance that coated Stoyan’s feet. He tried to move out of it, but found himself attached to the floor. He managed to brace himself just as the spider landed on top of him, its mandibles clacking wildly over his head.
Cyrxx readied another spell and unleashed it at the spider. It was weak, but effective enough to distract the creature briefly and allow Stoyan to cut the goo from around his boots. Then, with a show of strength, the Paladin shoved the spider off of him with his shield and scrambled back toward the main tunnel. The spider quickly righted itself and gave chase, but Stoyan was ready. As it jumped forward, Stoyan side–stepped the attack and pressed up against the wall, narrowly dodging. Before the sound of the spider’s legs could echo through the tunnel, Stoyan had brought his sword down, severing the head from the body. White gunk spewed out of the body and crept along the floor as an acidic smell rose into the air. Stoyan covered his mouth with his hand and motioned back toward the main tunnel. Cyrxx was already moving when soft echoes of clacking mandibles could be heard from town the small passage.
Veth and Alaiya jumped when the others came rushing out of the passage. It had been relatively uneventful while they were gone, though they did have a small time to reminisce. But those happy memories evaporated when Stoyan and Cyrxx burst out of the darkness, the latter laughing feverishly.
“We need to go. Back, to the room. Now.” Stoyan’s voice was calm, but urgent. As they hastened down the tunnel, none of them dared to turn around. The only reprieve they got was when they entered the large room in the middle of the tunneled corridor. The mist was present still, but not nearly as thick, which allowed them to cross with little worry about rats lurking in the shadows. However, when they reached the other side, they found no tunnel leading away from the room. Instead, they found a flat, solid rock face.
“Sometime Dwarves like to make doors that disappear. Don’t know why, but those rotund babblers could have put one here?” Cyrxx was feeling around, looking for a switch as he spoke. The others joined him in the search, but soon discovered it was to no avail. They searched the opposing wall and the wall to their left, but found nothing. When Cyrxx turned to try the third wall he noticed something disturbing. “Where’s the tunnel we came through?”
Everyone looked around, suddenly worried about what Cyrxx had noticed. The mist had lessened so much now that Stoyan’s sunrod lit up the entire room, and they soon noticed that they were completely trapped. Surrounded completely by rock, Alaiya ran to the wall where they had come through. She slammed her hands against the rock in a desperate attempt to break down the wall. As she did, an ominous creaking sound slowly rose through the room as the mist returned, filtering through some unknown opening in the rock face. The creaking wood was joined by the straining of ropes and a fluttering of torn canvas. The companions looked around, bewildered at the sudden sound, as they saw the broken hull of a ship slowly pass through the wall and come to rest once more in the center of the room.
Cyrxx sighed, shook his head, and began to walk to the bow of the ship, when Stoyan yelled after him. “It’s a trap! A loop. We fall down there again and we start this all over. There’s got to be a way to break this trap – this illusion!”
Cyrxx turned, a painfully excited look in his eyes. “There is. But the answers…they’re not here. This is the end of the charade, and if your mind could see, you’d understand. We must start from the beginning to find the answers. And hope…” He paused, letting the word linger on the ears of the Humans, as a knowing smile swept across his bearded face. “That the Illusions don’t kill us.” With that, he stepped toward the bow of the ship, disappearing instantaneously into the shadows. Veth looked horrified at what the Gnome had done and sprinted across the room to the ship. He, too, was taken suddenly by the shadows, though it was not as distressing as it had been the first time.
Stoyan and Alaiya’s eyes met briefly before she turned to the ship. “You can’t!” Stoyan demanded. “We’re playing their game. If we just stop playing, then we can break the loop. I won’t be caught up in this game. And you shouldn’t either. You know it too!”
She hesitated for a brief moment and Stoyan though he had convinced her. “If we sit here and do nothing, nothing will happen. I am tired of people doing nothing. If Mother taught us one thing, it was that you should always strive to do something – anything – in life. So you can sit here and do nothing, Stoyan, or you can come with the rest of us.” With that, she disappeared, leaving Stoyan and his obstinate pride behind.
Stoyan collected himself and sat down positive that his choice was the proper action. With the sunrod beginning to fade, Stoyan surveyed the room and waited.
No sound entered the room. The mist still hung about, and the ship was still in the center of the room, but no sound rang from anywhere. “See! I knew that if we stopped your silly games, you’d have no hold over us. The others will find their way back and when they do, when they see me, we’ll know how to beat your sick, little game!”
It was then that Stoyan heard a response. It sounded like the drumming of fingers on a table at first, only softer. As the drumming grew louder, Stoyan’s heart began to race. The sound seemed to echo all around him, causing the hair to rise on the back of his neck.
“It’s an illusion. That’s all it is,” he told himself, but his hand instinctively went to the hilt of his sword. Then the silence stopped. He searched, looking in the room for the source of the sound, but it was empty. Waiting, he could hear the sound of his heart beating, but that was it. A moment passed; then two and three. As his heart began to slow and he began to relax, his hand eased of the hilt. Then, his feet were yanked out from under him. He found himself on his back, being pulled toward the ship. Craning his neck, he saw another spider, not unlike the one he had killed, dragging him toward the ship.
“No!” Stoyan yelled, groping furiously for his sword, but the spider was fast. It circled around the bow of the ship and disappeared into the shadows of the hull. Stoyan turned sharply as the spider did, then found himself being redirected back toward the bow. Flipping himself over, he began clawing at the ground, trying to slow the drag and buy some time to think of a way to get free. Bits and pieces of rock churned up as he struggled for a grip, but nothing held. The dragging increased and he felt his abdomen start to scrape away. Then he was surrounded by darkness.
As he fell, he could hear a woman laughing. “Like puppies…”
“Cyrxx’s mark is still there.” Alaiya pointed over to the eastern exit to where the white magical mark glowed. “I say we try the north exit before it caves.” The others nodded in agreement as they mentally steeled themselves for their next attempt at getting out of the trap. As Alaiya stretched she happened to glance up and something she had not noticed before – the ceiling. “This might sound strange, but…has that always been there?”
“Why wouldn’t it? I’ve noticed the ceilings in the tunnels and that large room we keep finding. It would make sense that there is one here.” Stoyan stood up as Cyrxx haphazardly dried him off. He picked up his backpack and started toward the north exit when another tremor shook the cavern. “C’mon! Before it collapses again!” He started to run when a piece of wood clattered before him, stopping him in his tracks. He glanced back at the others, who were all staring up at the ceiling, transfixed. A lump began forming in Stoyan’s stomach as he arched his neck up, hoping he would not see what he knew he would. Inexplicably, the upper recesses of the cavern had somehow collapsed during the tremor.
“Reinforcement beams…They likely shattered with the last tremor causing the collapse.” Veth sounded as though he was trying to reassure himself as much as the others.
“It isn’t an illusion; on that I’d bet my beard.” Cyrxx seemed most perplexed by the ceiling and he examined it with a curious eye. “Alaiya, help me out here.” The Sorceress peered quizzically at the old Gnome as he gestured at the cavern’s ceiling. Small red magical projectiles burst forth from his fingertips and flew rapidly upward. Upon impact, the sound of fracturing wood could be heard. “Interesting. Alaiya?”
At the prompting, the woman sent a small orb of magical energy to the same spot Cyrxx had fired upon. Once more, the sound of splintering wood echoed through the cavern. “What do you–” Alaiya was tossed from her feet as another tremor rocked the area. Dust and smoke billowed out of the northern exit as another cave-in occurred. Alaiya risked a glance up, needing to reassure herself. The ceiling had collapsed again.
Cyrxx launched another volley at the wooden structure above and more shards of wood fell around them. The two mages continued to fire magick at the wooden ceiling as it lowered, but it continued its treacherous path.
“Thank you! It has been a while since I was this entertained!” Laughter rang out from above as everyone recognized the woman’s voice. “Your barking is still loud and annoying, but your bite…” Laughter again ensued as the ceiling lurched once more.
“We need to get out of here,” demanded Veth as he started heading for the eastern exit.
“And do what?!” Beads of sweat were streaming down Alaiya’s face. “Stay here? In this trap? Stoyan is right, we have to find another way, and it isn’t going to be that northern tunnel.” She unleashed another orb, hoping to slow down the ceiling. The whirling of gears and the clicking of levers could be heard now as the ceiling got lower and lower. The woman’s laughter from above seemed to grow louder as well.
“Come down here and fight, you wretch!” Stoyan had unsheathed his blade and was gesturing upward. “Step out from behind your parlor tricks and face us!” This demand enticed only more laughter.
Alaiya looked frantically around for another option other than the eastern exit. As the ceiling continued its descent an idea struck her. “Quick, follow me!” Alaiya tossed one more spell at the apparatus above her in a pathetically futile attempt and broke for the lake. Cyrxx followed, close on her heels. She jumped in as the ceiling shook again and began swimming out to the middle of the lake. Stoyan sheathed his sword and took off, with Veth trailing behind him. Laughter continued to ring out above them as shards of wood fell from the trap.
“They’re going for a swim! Look at the puppies, wanting a bath!”
Stoyan and Veth crashed through the still waters of the lake and dove in, dragging their tired bodies along. Once they reached the deeper waters they stopped, treading water to stay afloat.
“What do you think you’re doing,” demanded Stoyan. “This is going to get us killed!”
“Maybe, but we’d be dead anyway. This is at least lower than the shoreline, so we might survive it. Besides,” and a look of expectation glinted in Alaiya’s eyes, “you notice that we always get wet down here, but only in the lake?” The ceiling lurched again, closing within a few meters over their heads. “We never get dusty or dirty from the rocks and dust, and I don’t remember feeling the moisture of the fog. This seems to be the only real thing in this place.” The ceiling lurched again.
“And what do you think is going to happen?” Stoyan’s mind was racing, trying to catch up and comprehend Alaiya’s line of thinking. “You have us floating in water and in hopes of what exactly? Hoping we won’t drown?!”
With one last massive, ear-shattering groan, the ceiling shot down, sealing the entire cavern in darkness as everyone was forced below the surface of the water. They pushed up, feeling the wooden ceiling at the crest of the water’s surface. And there they waited.
As the moments passed, their bodies started drifting downward. As they drifted, a natural underwater current seized them pulling them down faster than they should have been. Twisting and swirling currents tore them through the water into the murky depths of the lake and they were helpless. Rationale thought escaped and each person saw their last moments flash before their eyes – the tower of Astyr, destroyed towns, pilgrimages, Mother Winn – everyone shared these last images, though personal in their own right. As they slowly started to lose conscious, letting go of the mortality of this world, each embraced their fate in their own way. But the prevailing emotion was that of regret.
And then they were flying. Or falling, depending on the direction they were facing. Veth came to first and saw the magnificence of the cavern they fell through. Crystals shown with internal light, creating prismatic colors that danced and intertwined along the walls. Even the shadows played with the crystalline light, welcoming it into its grasp. The rock walls themselves were a yellowish hue of brown, crusted with traces of white that ran jagged patterns across its surface. Outcroppings of rocks had been cut away with the tests of time and stood out like sentries overlooking and guarding the cavern, welcoming and warning all who happened to glance upon its splendor.
As Veth tumbled through the air, slowly taking in all the splendor before them, he finally noticed the dark green lake he was falling towards, quickly rising to greet him. He managed to raise his arms over his head a second before impact. He only hoped the others were as lucky.