As the friends caught up since they had last seen one another, they could not help but wonder how sad it was that Winn was no longer running the Orphanage.
“What will you do?” asked Veth, turning to the young Alaiya.
The woman sighed, though she said nothing. She had been thinking the exact same thing since she had found Winn two weeks ago. She lifted her nutmeg ale to her lips and inhaled the sweet aroma, but did not drink. She sighed again as she placed her mug down, slowly lifting her face to meet the Clerics. Their eyes met as she shrugged her shoulders, saying more than her words ever would. Veth replied with a slight nod.
“I don’t suppose you can come back for a while? No one has stepped forward, but everyone is asking.” There was desperation in her voice. “What will happen to the children?”
“If some are old enough,” chimed Stoyan, “I can take them to Gimlora. The Paladins could always use more wards.” He smiled gently at Alaiya and shrugged. “It’s the least I could do for Mother.”
Alaiya felt comforted by his words as she quickly went through the mental images of those in the Orphanage. She returned his smile, though she felt herself strangely uncomfortable by the action. Stoyan had changed – he seemed more at peace than before he left – but there was a hesitancy in how she opened up to him after such a long absence.
“How many would you say could be ready for Gimlora?”
Alaiya took her time slightly whispering, “Six or seven are ready.” She paused a moment as she struggled with her next thought. Swallowing her hesitation she quickly murmured, “Ten or so could shape up given the time.” Turning back to Veth, she began to speak, but the Cleric raised his hand to stop her.
“It has been a while since I have spoken with the Clergy, Alaiya. Let them go to Gimlora and see for themselves. I cannot foresee the Clergy turning any willing soul away.” Alaiya shrunk back down and nodded, content with what was said. “Now, Cyrxx,” he turned to the Wizard who was engaged with the bottom of his mug, “can you check to see if the Craft resides in any of the younger ones? That should help greatly relieve the burden.”
Cyrxx had moved his attention to a couple of other nearby drunks on whom he was casting some illusions. This drew the ire of Alaiya, who promptly, and playfully, smacked him over the head. The Gnome cackled with delight as the illusion vanished, much to the bewilderment of the drunkards.
Suddenly two men in the corner began yelling, and came to blows. Two others who had been seated with them had stood and backed toward a wall, willing to let the friends work out their differences on their own. Deire Spitcoin, the owner of The Drunken Sailor, looked over to two Dwarven men and nodded and they began working their way across the tavern. The table that the men had been sitting at was overturned with a loud thud as the men grappled. The larger man was clearly more intimidating that the other smaller man, but he seemed resigned to disengage before he was escorted out. Throwing the smaller man to the ground, he bolted for the door, leaving in his wake murmurs and curses as the patrons returned to their drinks.
Alaiya stood quickly and made her way to the tavern entrance, catching a glimpse of the man darting into a nearby alley. Meanwhile, Stoyan had made his way over to the smaller man, though he seemed more than capable. He quickly readjusted his clothing and cast a look at two brutish looking men who had been sitting with him. The man made a quick hand gesture that Stoyan only glimpsed at, and the bald man made for the door. Then, he turned toward Spitcoin, who stopped the Dwarven men.
“It was a worthy fight. A shame the man left.” Stoyan’s voice was cool, and it carried a hint of excitement. He stopped short of the man and continued. “Tempus looks proudly upon a good fight.”
The man turned, his scarred eye catching Stoyan first. Then, taking two gimped steps toward the Paladin, the little man cocked his head and stared appraisingly at Stoyan with his good eye. His clothing was tattered and ripped, but not recently, and patches adorned his garments. His smell surrounded him like a coat, reminding Stoyan of the stables back in Gimlora, only not as pleasant. The man seemed to be one that took pleasure of bathing in the waste of others. Stoyan’s common decency prevented him from covering his nose and mouth in his presence. As the man arranged his clothes though, Stoyan eyed a weapon tucked in his belt that spoke of a different truth. A dagger, with an onyx jewel set into a bone-white handle, flashed so quickly behind the folds of his shirt that Stoyan was not even sure he had seen it. Even though he had only caught a glimpse of the handle, Stoyan knew it would fetch a high price, if the man could ever be convinced to part with such a weapon.
“Don’t talk to me about your gods, ya righteous snot.” The man’s voice was shrill, but firm. The air wheezed out of his lungs as though they were half useable. His eye moved up and down, assessing every aspect of Stoyan. A snide curl of his upper lip predicated his next words, though Stoyan should have expect them. “That brute stole something from me, and I aim to get it back. Whatever means neccesary. But, I’m a busy man, and I can’t be distracted by this inconvenience right now.” The man’s words sounded like poison. “How would ya like to earn a little bit of gold, eh?”
Stoyan thought for a moment, before replying. “Tempus doesn’t look kindly on stealing. What did he take from you?”
“Bah! I told ya not to mention your gods!” There was bitterness in his voice as he uttered the last word. “Don’t matter. Ya want the job or not?”
Stoyan ran through the code of Tempus to himself, in case the man took offense. “Be fearless. Never turn away from a fight. Obey the rules of war.” Stoyan frowned, unsure of where the sanctity of his god’s credo stood. “If it is not my fight to start, am I turning away from it?” As Stoyan contemplated the gravity of his situation the beggar man seemed to lose interest and turned his attention back to Spitcoin. The innkeeper and he exchanged some words, heated whispers that caused Spitcoin to wring his hands and glance nervously about. The other brutish man moved closer to the two and Stoyan took this as a sign that he was to let them be. He then strode across the tavern to the others near the entrance.
“What did he want, Stoyan?” asked Veth, casually readjusting Cyrxx on his shoulder. The Gnome had managed to maintain two mugs of ale with a cantrip and one more in his right hand.
Stoyan shrugged with a quick glance over his shoulder. He saw Spitcoin duck beneath the counter and bring something back up. He set it in front of the man who quickly shuffled it into his shirt. “He claimed the other fellow stole something of his. But I can’t say I trust either. Best leave them to their gods.”
Alaiya shook her head furiously. “We should follow one of them. They went two different ways.” She pointed up the street to the right. “The one who ran ducked in that alley and,” she turned down the road and gestured left, “the man who followed went that way.” Alaiya looked back into the tavern, but not at her friends. Instead she cast a long, hard look at the frail-looking man with the scared eye. “Whatever it is he wants, we would be wise to get it first.”
“Ahhh!!! The girl speaks with fire!” Cyrxx squirmed around on Veth’s shoulder and screamed loudly. “She speaks with fire!” Suddenly, a blast of fire sprung forth from Alaiya’s mouth, pouring over the others and sending a nearby group ducking for cover. As the fire subsided back into the lungs of Alaiya, audible gasps rose from people scattered nearby. Standing, where the blast had engulfed them, were Veth, Stoyan, and Cyrxx, who had found the bottom of another mug. Cyrxx laughed loudly as Alaiya stepped forward and smacked the Gnome over the head.
“We should follow the one who ran.” With that, she walked up the street to the right and turned into the alleyway.
Stoyan rushed after her as Veth brought up the rear with Cyrxx in tow. “You should let me take point, Alaiya,” Stoyan said matter-of-factly. “Wouldn’t do if we – hey!” Stoyan barely had time to avoid the man turning the corner in a full sprint. Blood streamed down his face from a gash on the top of his head, and his hair and clothes were covered in fresh mud. His eyes were wild and fearful, and he reached threateningly toward Stoyan. The Paladin remained calm, content to let the man make the first move.
“Please! Gods, no, please!” The man became startled at the loudness of his own voice. As he continued to speak, his words became softer, but faster. “You’ve got to help me! They’ve taken him – my son – gods no, they’ve taken him.”
Alaiya’s eyes widened at the strange admission as she stepped closer to the man. Stoyan followed up with the obvious questions. “Who has? Who’s taken your son?” Behind them, Veth could be heard whispering a prayer to Sehanine.
The man balked at the questions at first, then opened his mouth to speak, but quickly closed it again. “I…I can’t tell you. Not here, not now. They have eyes and ears everywhere. It’s too much; too much I tell you!”
Stoyan removed the man’s hands from his shoulders and looked him hard in the eyes. “We can’t help you if –”
“The docks. Pier Three. There’s a green house there.” The man’s lips began quivering as he spoke. “That is all I can say.” With that he tore out of the alley, leaving the other standing, perplexed and a little dumbfounded. A hiss of a cat in the distance reminded them of the genuine fear in the man’s eyes.
Stoyan turned toward Alaiya who had a hard crease forming down her forehead. “You know this town better than us. What do you think we should do? Pursue the first man, try to find the second, or help the mad father?”
Alaiya contemplated the options, a look of disappointment etching across her face. “Unfortunately, we only have one lead. I think we should go to the docks.”
Stoyan nodded with her logic and gestured for her to take point. “You know the quickest way I am sure. Let’s keep to the main road though, lest another crazy man leaps out.” He smiled at his own dry humor.
Veth followed closely behind, solemn from his prayers. Cyrxx, still babbling upon the man’s shoulders, suddenly cried out, “Sea salt!”
The docks of Fareen were bustling in the late afternoon as sailors loaded and unloaded cargo. Ropes and pulleys creaked and groaned beneath the strain as men shouted obscenities at one another about their mothers, their lovers, and even their cats. The water could be heard lapping up against the side of ships and piers, creating a gently rhythmic contrast to the chaos above. Gulls sat patiently by waiting for opportunities for caught fish to be left alone and steal an easy meal. As the group entered, the smell of the ocean assaulted their nostrils and eyes.
“The man said Pier 3 and to look for a green house,” said Stoyan, his eyes darting from group to group. His hand moved cautiously toward his blade, but he did not draw steel. “Over there, I see it.”
As they moved further down the docks, vendors tried to press upon them their wares, but they were in no mood to meander. Cyrxx had drunk himself into a slight stupor and was softly murmuring from Veth’s shoulder. As they entered Pier 3, Stoyan stopped, quickly raised his hand, and directed everyone closer to the shipyards, as far away from the edge of the docks as possible.
“What is it?” inquired Veth, confused by the sudden urgency of his former student.
Stoyan raised his finger to his lips and continued walking, keeping an eye at the far edge of the docks. “Them, over there. They’re the men from earlier.” He jerked his head in the direction of a few merchant stalls toward a small group of men.
Alaiya gasped, but quickly composed herself. The small man with the scarred eye from before was gesturing harshly to some other men. The two brutes he had with him were still there, but the bald one who had left earlier, kept glancing at the buildings behind them. Her eyes ran over the group of men, looking for signs, anything that would verify what she was so sure of. In the midst of the gesturing, she saw it, though only briefly. As the small man made a slashing motion with his left arm, the sleeve of his shirt pulled up and she briefly caught sight of a tattoo on the underside of his forearm. Her face scrunched in anger, but she still was not positive.
“There, a green house,” muttered Stoyan, still casting glances back to the men at the other end of the pier. “Leave them be. We have no more business with them.”
They walked up to the house, an old two-story building with cracked windows, rotting wood, and chipped paint. Once, it had likely been magnificent, but now it was a ruined image of its former glory. Alaiya walked up the front steps, the wood creaking beneath her feet. An uneasy feeling made her turn around to find the small man, but, to her discomfort, they were already gone. Turning back to the front door, she jimmied the handle only to find it locked. Removing a hairpin from her hair, she knelt and fiddled with the lock. A sharp snap told her all she needed to know as she sighed and stood. Moving to a window, Alaiya looked inside, but darkness stared back. Stoyan joined her and tried his own luck, though found himself failing as well.
“No one lives here. Let’s see if there’s another entrance.” He leapt over a rail and scooted around the backside of the house. “Over here, there’s a backdoor,” he said, trying the handle. “Damn, it’s locked too.” Stoyan stepped back and ran at the door, slamming his shoulder into the wooden planks. They groaned from the impact but did not budge. “Ow,” muttered Stoyan, rubbing his shoulder.
“Here, let me have a go.” Veth set Cyrxx down, who stirred slightly, and barreled into the door and the sound of wood fracturing could be heard. “Whew, tough stuff.” He stepped back and threw his weight into the door again, but the door held fast.
“Your age has caught up to you, Veth,” Stoyan said with a smile as he tried his luck again. The door tossed the Paladin to the ground, which brought a chortle from the Cleric.
“And you to green.”
As Veth set his feet for another charge, the door swung open, the smell of dust and mildew rushing out of the dilapidated house. In the doorway, holding a magical ball of light, stood Cyrxx, his maniacal grin prevalent even through his thick beard. “Windows are marvelous things. So airy and open. Ghahahaha!” With that, he turned and walked deeper into the house, the others quickly following.
The room was pitch–black save for the light of the Gnome’s glowing orb. Layers of dust coated everything in the room, pictures, lamps, chairs, a sofa, and a table. A spiral staircase in the next room over headed up into even greater darkness. Apart from the heavy footsteps of Veth and Stoyan, the house was absurdly quiet.
“I don’t get it, do people live here?” Stoyan scoffed at his own thought. “That fool of a man; he sent us on a goose chase!”
“Look around, maybe there’s something we’re missing?” Alaiya’s voice was louder than she expected and rang throughout the empty house. Adjust to a whisper, “And keep your voices low, in case someone is in here.”
A crash behind them made Stoyan draw his weapon. Cyrxx’s magical light cast dancing shadows along the walls as it bounced away from the prone Wizard, the rug turned up from where he had tripped. “Hehehee…Oww….”
Veth rushed to Cyrxx’s side to pick up his friend, and as he neared him an echo rang out through the house.
“Wait, there! Veth, stamp your foot.” Stoyan moved across the room as Alaiya joined him. Veth stomped his foot down on the wooden planks and the echoing rang again. “Yea, that’s it.” He moved the Cleric away and pulled back the rug.
“A trapdoor!” exclaimed Alaiya. “Can you open it?” Stoyan reached down and pulled, but the door did not budge.
“Here, let me give it a go, green–gills.” Stoyan moved away, a familiar look entering his eyes as Veth reached down and yanked open the trapdoor. “Thanks for loosening it.” A sly grin broke across the Cleric’s face.
“Seems a bit dark there, eh?” Cyrxx peered over the edge into the shaft. The smell of dirt and soil rose to greet him, which made him slightly nostalgic. “Let’s see how deep this goes.” Cyrxx dropped his glowing orb of light down the shaft and watched eagerly as the light floated down. Then suddenly, it vanished. “Heheheh, well that can’t be good!” He looked around and could see everyone fidgeting with themselves in the newfound darkness.
“…gathering a few more before…”
Everyone froze as the voice echoed up the shaft. Alaiya, in a soft whisper, said, “There are people down there. The man wasn’t lying. We’ve got to keep quiet.”
“Bah, this is ridiculous. I can’t see anything anyway, so might as well let them know I’m here.” With that, Stoyan reached into his backpack and pulled out a sunrod, bathing the entire room in a brilliant light. “I’m heading down. Feel free to follow.” Stoyan then removed some gear from his backpack and lowered a rope down the shaft. As he started to descend, he lost his footing and fell the rest of the way, landing with a thud and a groan.
Managing to open his eyes, Stoyan saw everyone else nimbly climbing down using the footholds and handholds embedded in the sides of the shaft. Throwing his head back to the ground, he let out a deep, pained sigh.
The sound of voices erased the momentary pain of the fall as Stoyan hurried to his feet. Cyrxx faded into the shadows of the rocks as Alaiya leapt behind Veth. The Cleric himself managed to find a carved out section of the wall, hiding himself as well. Only Stoyan stayed in the line of sight, ready and willing to face the voices head on.
Two men, covered in dirt and caked in mud, walked through the intersection, still chatting away. “…never could have made it if he didn’t…Hey!” They turned and faced Stoyan, whose sunrod was still illuminating the corridor. “What’re ya doing down here?” They lowered their halberds, prompting Stoyan to think quickly.
“Oh, hey guys. Sorry about this, but can you help me? I was going through some houses near the docks – looking to start a business and settle down.” Stoyan walked forward as he spoke, his arms outstretched in a casual openness. “Going through some of the nooks and crannies in the lower storage areas and the floor gave out. Bit of rotten wood to go with the rotten luck.” He smiled as he turned the corner, leading the men just out of the eyesight of the others. His words though, let them know he was near. “Was wondering if you’d be able to help me find my way out?”
The men looked at each other and before responding. They shrugged in silent communication before gesturing down. “Sure, follow us. Just patrollin’ the area. Keepin’ the vagrants and rats out. We can have ya out in a bit.”
Stoyan followed the two men while Veth and the others followed slowly behind, sticking to the shadows. The tunnels turned and rose and doubled-backed and fell, though the men seemed to know by instinct the way. A few corridors branched off, but they were always smaller and ignored. Finally, they came to a large wooden door set in the earth. As the two men led Stoyan through, they left the door open, a fortunate twist for the others.
Dim-lighted torches adorned the walls of the room casting shadows across the stone interior, but there were enough spots untouched by the light to where the others could sneak in. As Alaiya crept closer to the door, she spotted the three men in the room, rambling on about nonsense as one fiddled with a switch on the wall. The other man laughed at something Stoyan said, causing Alaiya to smile. “He’s ever the wooer,” she thought, and found herself remembering their childhood days. She turned to Veth and Cyrxx and motioned them into the room, as they huddled near the left corner, as far as possible from the others.
“Ah, found it,” said the man who was searching for the switch. “I lose that spot so many times. He pushed in a stone and a cranking sound echoed through the room. “There now, that should do it.” Turning back to Stoyan, he asked, matter-of-factly, “Now, if you and your friends will tell us what you’re really doing here…”
The dagger caught Cyrxx deep in the shoulder as he slumped to the ground. Veth roared in pain and clutched at his leg, blood oozing from his hands. A third groan came from Stoyan as a knife cut across his arm. He whirled quickly, removing his blade in a fluid, practiced motion. Alaiya, her eyes still adjusting, saw three figures seemingly emerge from the shadows on the walls. All were about her height, with their faces covered in charcoal and soot, and jet–black clothing wrapped tightly around their bodies. The two men who had led Stoyan to the room, thrust their halberds at the Paladin, but he managed to deflect them with his shield.
“Ambush!” he yelled, as he spun and sliced at the figure that had been hidden behind him. The rogue took the brunt of the attack on the arm and quickly threw down some smoke pellets, vanishing as stealthily as he had appeared.
Cyrxx managed to raise himself and conjured a writhing, shadowy mass between the two larger men. The shadows lashed out and wrapped around the men’s legs, throwing them off balance. To his right, Veth brought down his mace on the clavicle of his assailant, producing a bone-shattering crunch. As the one before him had done, he tossed down some smoke pellets and vanished. Alaiya turned on the third that was hovering over Cyrxx and shot an orb of multi–colored light into her chest, sending her sprawling back to the wall. She, too, disappeared beneath smoke pellets.
As Stoyan fended off the attacks of the two men, one of the rogues leapt from the shadows and buried his dagger into the back of the Paladin, placing it expertly between the over–lapping plates of his armor. Stoyan groaned and fell as the rogue vanished again. Veth bellowed in rage and rushed the men with halberds, his mace twirling over his head.
“By Sehanine’s grace!” he yelled, as he grabbed the handle and readjusted the momentum of the swing into a fierce uppercut move than caught one of the men underneath the jaw. The shattering of the bone was not nearly as grotesque as the sight of the dead man’s head.
Another rogue popped out of the shadows and slashed at Veth, who parried the blow with his shield, before throwing him back across the room. The man groaned and picked himself up, but not before a volley of magick struck him in the chest. Across the room lay Cyrxx, clutching his side and his red robes darkened with his own blood. Veth took the moment to channel the divine grace of Sehanine over Stoyan, and as the goddess’s power washed over the Paladin, it restored a portion of his strength. Before Stoyan could utter a word of thanks, Veth was across the room tending to Cyrxx.
After Cyrxx had been attended to, Veth engaged the man with the halberd. As he approached, pellets erupted around him, creating a cloud of smoke. The female rogue circled through the shadows and sliced away at the Cleric’s hamstring, causing him to fall to a knee. Alaiya, knowing Veth was in trouble, fired a sphere into the cloud, and let the chaotic magicks erupt. The smoke was swept away as the sphere struck the female rogue in the side, but Alaiya had not realized how close Veth was to her. As the magick engulfed the woman, strands of chaotic energy lashed out, striking the nearby wall and Veth, causing the Cleric to sway wobbly back and forth. With a groan, his other leg gave out, and soon found himself sitting on his knees.
“No!” she cried, horror–stricken at the pain she had caused her friend. She started to run toward Veth, but a hand grabbed her and pulled her back.
“Not yet, you pretty little thing…”
The voice was sickening and made her stomach churn. His breath reeked of stale beans and salt, and mixed in horribly with the stench of his body. Alaiya wanted to retch, but fear prevented her. The man moved an arm around her waist and grabbed hold of her hip and she could feel the cold steel of the dagger against her side. She felt the blood from his chest wounds seep through her robes. He brought her arm back and twisted it up, causing pain to shoot up her limb and into her shoulder. She could feel his breath on her neck as an eerily soft laughter started to rise in his throat. Then, as he pulled her closer, a sharp gust of breath fell on her ear as a groan escaped his lips. His grip loosened on her waist and arm as she felt his body slide down the back of hers. As the rogue hit the floor, she turned and saw wisps of magick rising off his back, and a crazed–looking Cyrxx just beyond that.
Stoyan had reengaged the larger man, and had backed him into a corner when the third rogue reemerged, flailing wildly. Stoyan expertly feinted, drawing the rogue closer, before running him through with his sword. After that, it was a mere moment until the halberd wielder fell.
Surveying the carnage in the room, Stoyan posted Alaiya on guard duty was everyone rested up for a bit. Veth used his clerical powers to stabilize the others, but given the situation, he was unable to do a thorough job.
“We need to find a way out and soon,” urged Stoyan. “If there are more people down here, who knows who long we’ll survive. We need an exit and fast.”
The others agreed and as soon as they were capable, they backtracked to the corridor they fell into.
The return trip was simple enough due to Veth’s footprints in the earthen ground. When they reached the intersection that led back to the green house however, Alaiya stopped.
“We still haven’t found the man’s son.”
“You are right, little Alaiya.” Veth tried hard to keep his voice at a whisper, though it was difficult. “It would be foolish to abandon the search when we seem so close.”
Alaiya nodded. “And there is more I’d like to find out down here. You all should know, Mother’s death…it shouldn’t have happened.” Her face darkened at the thought of Winn’s passing.
The three men looked upon her with saddened faces of their own. The mood had suddenly grown very solemn. Veth broke the silence first. “Life comes and goes. Death will eventually find us all. The sooner we realize and accept that, the easier it will be for us to move on.”
“He’s right, Alaiya,” Stoyan added. “If there is anything I’ve learned, it’s that we can’t control the fate we’re destined for. Mother did many wonderful things, but it was her time. Let her go.”
Alaiya grew angry at their words. “No, it wasn’t her time! She shouldn’t have died!” Her fists clenched as the air sparked around her. Cyrxx moved to her side and placed his arm around her shoulders, knowing what would happen if things progressed.
“Still your rage and anger. You cannot change what has happened, child; no one can. Remember it, learn from it, grow from it, but do not dwell. Dwelling will be the death of us all.” There was a strange compassion in the Gnome’s voice, but his words were natural and genuine. He leaned in closer and whispered, “You cannot tip the scales. Not here.”
Alaiya closed her eyes for a moment and the tension in her body ceased. The air around her stopped crackling and she exhaled, long and deep. “Alright. I say we search further for the boy. Are we continuing?”
The others nodded in response and they continued past the shaft back to the green house, traveling further into the depths of the unknown.
A few twists and turns later, Stoyan stopped them. The tunnel up ahead made a sharp turn and he could hear a voice from further down the tunnel. There was torchlight flickering off the walls as a solitary shadow danced along. Stoyan ushered the others back as he prepped himself to ambush the lone figure. As the figure hurried around the corner, Stoyan leapt out, grabbing the wrist, and causing the torch to fall to the ground. In a rapid sequence of moves, Stoyan had the man pinned to the ground, the man’s chest rising anxiously beneath his boot.
Slowly, with a bit of dramatic flair, Stoyan withdrew his sword and pointed it at the throat on the man. With a deep, intimidating glare, he started his inquisition. “Where are we? Who do you work for?”
The man stared alarmingly about and shook his head, keeping his mouth shut. He was cloaked in dark clothing, similar to the men from earlier, but had no weapon. Stoyan dug the blade into the skin, drawing a bit of blood, and silently asked the question again. The man refused to reply, forcing Paladin to kick him in the ribs. That was enough to break the man’s silence.
“No! I can’t. I’ve got to get out or I’m a dead man and if you’re down here, you’re deader than me.” He squirmed beneath the boot to no avail, whimpering like a trapped dog.
“Answer the question!”
As Stoyan reared back to kick him again, the man rolled out and slipped to the wall. He glanced around quickly, gauging his exits as he stood. As he propped himself against the wall, Alaiya noticed his forearm, mauled and scarred. Beneath the scar tissue and cut marks were the remnants of a tattoo – a single candle, partially melted, with an extinguished flame.
Alaiya muttered, mostly to herself, “You…you were one of them.” Turning to Stoyan she pleaded, “We must keep him alive. He might know about Mother.”
At the distraction, the man saw his chance and sprang at Alaiya, hoping to reach the corridor behind her. Stoyan moved quickly and struck down the man before he had taken three steps, much to Alaiya’s dismay.
“Why? I…We needed him alive!”
“He ran from the battle. He did not even try to fight. Tempus does not look kindly on cowardice.”
“So you cut him down from the back?! How is that not cowardly?”
Stoyan gave Alaiya a pitied look. Shaking his head, as though she would never understand, he turned back into the corridor. “We must proceed if we are to find this boy.” Behind him, the sound of shattering stone echoed as magick tore through a wall.
They made haste through the tunnels, as silently as they could muster, the need for care falling to the need for escape. Brandishing their weapons in full view, they longer harbored thoughts about talking their way out of confrontations, as it seemed that everyone they ran into knew they were here. Stoyan had stowed his sunrod in his backpack, choosing to remain semi-secretive with Cyrxx’s magical light. “Invite as little trouble as possible if we can manage it.”
The lichen covered walls soon began to blend into one another as the group moved further and further through the tunnels. They became increasingly aware of the soft echoes of their footsteps, which led to slight paranoia. Eventually though, the tunnels opened up into a larger room, not unlike the one Stoyan was lead to before.
The walls of the room slanted slightly inward, creating a pinnacled effect, drawing to a crescendo in the darkness above their heads. On the far side of the room, set into the wall of stone and earth, surrounded by an array of wooden beams and planks, was a single door. Similar in shape and size to the door they had passed through earlier, the companions approached hesitantly, wary of any sound they might make or hear.
Alaiya approached the door first, leaving behind the clunkiness of Stoyan and Veth and the mad ravings of Cyrxx. She slid along the wall, her robes gently brushing against the dirt and wood, as she took careful step after careful step. Nearing the door, two muffled voices could be heard exchanging words.
“…puppies will always…turn slightly when…they won’t…”
“…command…purpose for…see it…”
Despite the lack of fluidity, she could make out one voice as belonging to a woman and the other, a man. Casting a quick glance back to the others, she held up to fingers and motioned to the door. Stoyan readied himself to charge as Alaiya grabbed the handle. She slowly moved it until she felt the spring take, and looked back at Stoyan. He nodded and charged. At the last moment, Alaiya flung open the door and watched as the Paladin disappeared into the room.
Stoyan stared blankly ahead. “No one’s in here.” Reaching into his pack, he pulled out his sunrod to get a better view. There was a large wall breaking the room in two, with another two rooms off to the right. Alaiya came slowly in, cautious of an ambush, but none came.
“I don’t get it,” she said, slightly confused. “I was sure there were people in here.”
Just then a crossbow bolt clanked into the wall above Stoyan’s head. He turned to see a small man, covered completely in black, duck behind the large center wall, cursing. Stoyan ran to the wall, calling back to Alaiya, “If he runs, get him.” Alaiya gave a quick, acknowledging nod.
As Stoyan turned around the wall, the man was gone, but it did not take long to find him. He had moved into the northern room along the right wall and, as Stoyan had come around the corner, fired another bolt, which narrowly missed the Paladin’s head. “Come around, Alaiya, he’s making a break for it. North room.” As Stoyan gave chase into the other room, another bolt glanced off his shield as he saw the man melt into the shadows of a wall. “No you don’t. Cowards never survive!”
Before he could take a step forward though, a second bolt whizzed by his head from behind. Surprised, he noticed too late that the southern room opened up into the one he was in, providing an ideal sniping perch. The figure from the other room ducked behind a pillar and out of sight. Stoyan looked back and could no longer see the first man so decided to get the second coward. Moving across the room with determination he caught sight of Alaiya standing in the doorway. “Watch my baaaa–.”
Before Alaiya had realized it, the room had been overtaken by darkness, the dying echoes of Stoyan’s voice fading from her ears. Something had happened and she was suddenly blind to her surroundings. Deciding it was more beneficial to try to find Stoyan than sit helplessly in the dark, Alaiya inched forward in the direction Stoyan had been heading. Then, with a soft click, the floor beneath her feet suddenly gave way and she found herself sliding down a dark tube, her robes and hair suddenly whipping around her. So caught off guard that she did not even manage a whimper, Alaiya became reassured when saw a faint light grow as she moved closer and closer.
She landed with a thud and a yelp next to Stoyan. The room they finally found themselves in was small and circular, coated in large wooden planks. The shaft she had fallen out of was twenty feet above her head and had closed flush into the wall. A few moments later, accompanied by some cursing, Veth and Cyrxx fell into the room. Alaiya dusted herself off as she stood, unsure of where they were exactly. The ceiling above was wooden as well, and sat sixty feet up. She let out a resigned sigh as she came to grips with the wooden prison.
“My, my, my, all of the little puppies have wandered into my cage.” There was an eerie laughter that bounced off the walls above them as the woman’s voice continued. “It’s a shame really. You look like you could have made some pretty good dogs with the proper master.” The cruelty of her words infuriated the group. “You were fun to watch though, I’ll give you that.”
“Get down here and fight, coward!” yelled Stoyan, withdrawing his blade and raising it in challenge. “Make this an honorable battle!” Above him he could see slits in the walls, like an archer’s perch, not more than a hand tall and an arm wide. Turning to Alaiya and Cyrxx, Stoyan motioned to the slits. “See if your magic can break open that wall.”
Alaiya glanced up as she brought her hands together, created a mass of red, glowing energy. Manifesting it into the shape of an orb, she shot it at the wall, but it dissipated on impact. Cyrxx sent a volley of magick missiles at the structure, but the slit was too far and too narrow to break the barrier.
The woman laughed again. “They have some teeth! Pity, really, that they don’t bite.” Her mocking words undercut Stoyan’s fleeting confidence. “Now, did you really think you’d get anywhere down here? In my home? You should have stayed on a leash like the mongrels you are!” There was a short pause before her voice turned icy. “Do it.”
The creaking boomed through the prison as whirls and gears began turning. The floor beneath them shook and the walls themselves seemed to hum with energy. Dust began falling from the ceiling as mechanisms behind the wooden walls sprang to life. Veth slammed his shoulder into the planks in a desperate hope to create an exit, but to no avail.
“The lap dog seeks an exit? I wonder if the rest will be as frightened?” Her voice seemed louder and closer than before. “How many little puppies will this make? I’d imagine no less than twenty. They always die too young.”
“That they do.”
The second voice was male, and Alaiya immediately recognized it as the other voice from before. As she scanned the upper portions of the cell, the gears gave a massive crank again and the ceiling lunged closer.
“I wonder what they’ll look like when we’re done?” The woman laughed again as the ceiling continued its descent. The ceiling was soon close enough that Veth could touch it, and he tried pushing back with his massive strength, but the gears driving the mechanism still churned. Another whirl of the gears and Veth was ducking as the ceiling bore down on the companions.
“We should get going. Let the rats have them.” The man spoke as if ordering the woman, but she only laughed in response. The ceiling dropped again as both Veth and Stoyan found themselves on their knees.
“Poor little puppies…” The woman’s voice faded in the distance as the mechanisms grinded to a halt, leaving nothing but silence in the cramped space.
“Always said being short wasn’t such a bad thing, bwahahaha!” Cyrxx reached up and touched the ceiling with his fingers. “How do you like the view, V?” The Gnome seemed to be enjoying the sudden turn of events.
Veth sneered at the tiny Wizard. “This isn’t the time no–ahhhh!”
The floor beneath them suddenly gave way and everyone found themselves free–falling through a cavern. The sunrod floated out of reach, leaving the companions to the mercy of fading sporadic light. Their screams could be heard echoing off the walls when suddenly they disappeared. Water rushed over their heads as they landed in a large lake, muffling the screams, replacing it with another type of terror that now filled their heads.
Veth surfaced first and immediately began looking for the others. He found Cyrxx first, who had conjured a globe in the water to act as a beacon. A gasp for air to his left, followed by frantic splashing, let him know Stoyan was with them. “Alaiya, where is Alaiya?”
“Back here.” The voice came from behind the Cleric, who turned as saw the woman treading water between him and a shore. “We should get to the land and dry off. Who knows what’s in this water.”
As they made their way to the shore, the only sound echoing through the cavern was the sound of their splashes.