A man sees many strange and wonderful things in his life. Myself, I've watched a double moonset meld in the ocean on a calm evening, I've seen a man take a pike through the belly and crawl up the haft to kill his enemy before dying, I've watched a halfling browbeat an orc into submission, I've even watched a mage conjure up a demon like none other I've ever seen (or ever hope to again) and converse with it like a schoolmate.
I'd never seen such a ragtag group of motley questors in my life. These "heroes" did not fit the description of the "last hope for us all." They gave me no hope whatsoever. They didn't seem to have much of an opinion about me either, from the looks I received. I looked around and found myself utterly alone. The goddess had left me to work this out by myself.
"I . . . am Amagor of the Order of Jorus," I said by way of introduction. "I was called here to give you my help."
"Who sent you?" demanded a tall, burly man in flowing robes. He had the manner of a mage, and his voice was soft in the manner of many large men like myself. Others have pointed out that I move carefully, like a cat, lest my great size cause damage inadvertently. My soft voice; however, had been replaced by eight years of command.
"She never gave me her name. I woke up in a place of wonder, where she gave me water to heal my wounds, then led me to a chamber of candles to sit and talk briefly. She told me that she was an emissary of the Light, and had called me to help you."
"What form did she present to ye?" asked a dark-haired dwarf who bore a heavy warhammer on his shoulder. To my eye it must weigh at least fifty stone, but he carried it like a feather. I noticed the markings of ancient runes along the haft and head.
"She . . . she was glory. That is all I can recall of her. I wish I had more."
"That sounds like Isis to me. If he was a plant, then he probably would have lied and given a description." A tall, slender elf in flowing silk robes stepped forward to extend his hand. Although he wore the classic mage's garb, he also wore a sword at his side. Most mages I've known disdain the use of physical weaponry. Was the group so hard up that they were forced to turn even their weakest into warriors? "Stu is the name. Things wondrous and mystickal are my realm. Welcome to my band."
I took his hand automatically, although he was an elf. I was more than a little confused at the fact that the elf mage was the leader of this band instead of the large human. Then I saw the smirks and looks of outrage on the others behind him, and understood completely. Stu obviously thought more of himself than the others did.
Nor was he oblivious to this fact. He released my hand and glared at them. "Wanna see a trick? I've got a great one for you." He held out his hands in a curious gesture. "It's called fireball."
Their faces immediately became stoic and still. Whatever their opinion of him, Stu was also quite obviously competent in his chosen field.
The first mage looked me up and down critically. "You look strong enough, but where is your sword?"
I looked at him helplessly and shrugged. "The Lady told me that my lack of provisions were no matter, as all I needed would be supplied here."
Stu managed to look a little uncomfortable. "That might be a little . . . difficult. We traveled a great distance, and the one who keeps our supplies was separated from us. Chance was able to locate her in some sort of temple, and we're on our way now." He gestured toward the burly mage, who nodded in assent.
"I saw a statue of a snake god, there. After that, my dream vision was blocked." Chance gave me another look, then reached behind himself and pulled out a good, solid sword, big enough to require an ordinary man to use two hands. I stared at it in wonder. It was unremarkable respects, but it was a mark of my trade and who I was. It was kin to me. He handed it to me. "I hope you're better with this than the last fellow," he remarked.
That didn't sound promising, but I hefted the blade, stepped back, and went through basic forms. "How did the last fellow die, then?" The balance was good, and the hilt fit neatly in my palm. Then I smoothly slipped it into the empty scabbard at my back. Once it was done I felt as if a great weight had been lifted from my heart. In an odd way, I felt whole again.
There were several grim smiles at this. Stu was looking even more uncomfortable. "He zigged when he should have zagged."
"I beg your pardon?" It was hard to follow his manner of speech, but I didn't like the sound of that at all.
"Well, we were fighting a T-Rex. You know what those are, right?" At my obvious ignorance, he hurried on. "Anyway, the fool leaped in front of me while I was casting a spell. The T-Rex ate him in two bites after he had been crispy fried."
"You hit him with your spell?" I asked, incredulously. What party of fools had I been saddled with?
"It wasn't my fault!" Stu said vehemently. "Everybody knows to stay out of my way when I'm casting spells! If you get in my way, you could get zapped!"
There were several very quiet snickers in the background, but this time Stu didn't challenge them.
"I'll bear that in mind, Sir Mage." I looked over the group chosen to save the world. Stu was an elf, which bothered me, but he seemed to bear no ill will toward me whatsoever. He apparently hadn't heard of the battle of the Veltaran Gorge, or he didn't care. Either way, I was of no mind to update him. Chance was a man like myself, only a little shorter. He looked like he could have been a warrior himself, but unlike Stu, he bore no weapon that I could see. However, he did carry a heavy pack laden with all manner of equipment I could only guess at. A human female stood apart from the others, looking miserable. She wore a symbol which I could only assume was a token from her God, which made me think she was a cleric. Even when the others whispered among themselves, she remained quiet. Another female, elf this time, stood nearby quietly toying with a small crystal. She was small and plain, but there was an obvious intelligence in her eyes. There were two dwarves: the one who had addressed me, and another one slightly shorter with a shifty look in his eye. They favored each others' company more than the others, but they did not separate themselves. At the moment they were chattering away in Dwarvish, which I had not learned. The Dwarves had not fought the Dornali in living memory. Two more men stood quietly near them, occasionally joining in their mirth, but otherwise standing apart. The first was a little more hairy than an ordinary man, and at first I took him for a Bjeorning, but I later discovered he was a half-breed named Orthad. He was curiously reticent as to the other half of his heritage. The second man was yet another mage named Duragan, but he didn't appear to have the brash self-confidence of the other two. I noticed the many pouches at his belt and decided he must be an alchemist.
And then there was me. Not terribly old in years, but far older inside than without. I realized with distaste that I had become happy only when there was a sword in my scabbard or hand. A man with a past but no future or, as the lady had said, "chaff with no will to live."
And we were the hope of all ages. I could only pray that the Gods of Order and Light would forgive me.
"Come on," Chance beckoned. "It's this way."
For the first time I took stock of my surroundings. We were deep underground, in what appeared to be a vast series of caverns. A huge stalagmite rose up to the ceiling nearby, almost but not quite touching the top. We were on one end of a chain bridge which forded a wide chasm. Nearby was another steep dropoff, and Chance was heading in that direction. I discovered a chain ladder fell down beyond sight along the edge; Chance was already straddling the first step to go down. Stu made to follow him.
"Wait," I said to him. He favored me with a disdainful look. "I grew up in the mountains. Give him more distance on the ladder, or your movements will throw him and yourself."
Stu looked like he wanted to say something, but apparently decided against it.
One by one we made our way down. The cleric went pale when she saw how steep it was, but the other woman whispered in her ear and she consented. It was a good two hours before we were done, but eventually we all stood at the bottom of the crevice. Day and night were irrelevant down here, but a chill wind nipped at our bones. From the feel of it, I thought night was approaching.
The cleric said the first thing I'd ever heard from her. "This is a place of evil," she whispered. She shuddered and held herself tightly. I knew that her chill was not from the wind alone. The cave we stood in was surrounded by deep, jagged holds in the rocks. I could well imagine some half-crazed stone giant bashing about blindly in a desperate need to be away. The ground where we stood was unnaturally even and clear; it was obvious that this structure was artificial, and even more obvious that someone was maintaining it. In the center of the crack stood a large stone statue of a snake coiled and ready to strike. The mouth was slightly open, and I almost imagined that I could hear it hiss at me. What little light we had cast unholy shadows around everything.
"They came down here?" whispered the dwarf known as Siralos, obviously overawed by the surroundings. He pulled his hammer free of its loop.
Chance frowned, looked about, and nodded. "See the hatches on the four corners of the ground? I think they went down one of them, but I don't know which."
"Well, this be a fine time ta crap out on us now, O Wise and All-Knowing One," grumbled the dwarf. "Kula only knows what manner o' traps be waitin' fer us down there." He fingered the haft of his mighty hammer nervously.
Kula sounded far too much like Klia, at which thought I shivered anew. Klia's avatar was supposed to take the form of a winged snake. I decided I didn't want to get any closer to that statue than necessary. Mostly for my own sake, I reached back and pulled my new sword out of the sheath. Its weight was a comfort to me.
"How do you suppose we should find them?" asked Chance. He was smoothing out the creases in his robes with slow, languid strokes which I understood to be a cover for his own apprehension. I admired the fact that he was able to hide it better than most. The cleric, for example, huddled by the bottom of the rope ladder and refused to move.
The second dwarf, who's name I gathered was Dukoth, was poking around the statue. He had a small dagger out and was prodding at various places. "There be a lever o' sorts within the snake's mouth!" he announced. "Might be a way inside, but 'tis likely to be a trap."
"Let's leave it for now. If it is a doorway, I think we should come back to it after we find Elisabeth and Bethany." Chance went to each of the portals and made a small mark on the ground. "One," he counted off. "Two, three and four. Let's orient ourselves according to this, and work our way around. Which one should we start with?"We all looked a little helpless at this question. Finally, Stu shrugged and said, "Might as well start anywhere. How about portal number one?"
"Fine. How shall we explore it?"
Duragan, the alchemist, walked over to the portal and pulled at the hatch. It lifted slowly until it rested at right angles to the ground. Then he took a coin from his pocket, chanted something under his breath, and the coin began to glow brightly. He looked up at us, as if to ask if he was crazy to do this. We gave him no answer. He dropped the coin.
Down, down it dropped. Fifty feet, then a hundred, then a hundred fifty. It lit an old, metal ladder on the way down, and the wall beside it was simple stone. Finally, it hit the ground, clattered about a bit, and came to a rest. We still couldn't see very much.
Dukoth dropped to his knees by the hatch and bellowed, "HELLO! Be there friends in yonder hole?"
The echo came back up at us mockingly. " . . . yonder hole . . . hole . . . hole . . . "
Stu glared at the dwarf. "Fool! Who knows what's down there?"
Chance started. "Wait . . . somebody's down there. I just heard a door close."
"Maybe it be them," defended Dukoth. He backed away from the hatch and sulked a little.
"They would have called out by now, if they were able," I pointed out. "Close the hatch!"
The alchemist gave a strong shove, and the hatch clanged shut. "Great, so we've got something unfriendly on its way up to greet us. What are we going to do?"
"I suppose now we get ready for a fight," said Chance. He backed away toward the statue. I could only agree with his assessment, and held my sword ready for whatever should pop out of the hatch.
"Don't worry so much," Stu said with a grin. Again, he held his hands in an odd gesture and began mumbling under his breath. My eyes widened as I realized what he was about to do, and I flung myself to the ground behind him. "Open the hatch," he whispered.
I crouched, ready for the worst to happen.
The alchemist lifted the hatch again. Slow -- too slow! Just as he finished, Stu released his spell. A ball of light appeared in front of him, caught fire and grew to gigantic proportions. In the space of a thought he gestured, and the fireball streaked toward the open portal and down. There came a muffled sound of thunder, and we heard a chorus of shrieks, then a series of heavy thuds. Fire geysered out of the portal for an instant, then disappeared.
I blinked until my eyes cleared of night blindness. The flare had caught me off-guard. When they cleared, I found Stu bending over the hatch to inspect his handiwork triumphantly. He straightened, flourished his robes and announced, "I love being a Mage!"
"Dinna gloat about it forever, Mage," growled Dukoth. "What did ye do?"
"Oh, I took out about six nasty-looking trolls with a single fireball spell," Stu said. His eyes were alight as if they had produced the fireball. "Damn, I'm good."
"So you keep reminding us," grumbled Chance. He looked over the edge, shook his head, and started to make his way down.
Stu looked disappointed. "Well, don't everybody thank me at once." He looked around again, snorted, and started down the ladder as well.
I stayed up top while the others explored. I could smell the stink where I was, and I had no particular desire to get any closer. I had never fought a troll before, and I never felt sorry for the lack. Eventually, Chance came back up and tossed me a huge band of metal with a curious gem set at the top. "Here, have a troll ring."
I looked it over. It was black, and smelled a little like burned animal hair, only worse. The gem on top was an opal with what looked like a cat's eye in the middle. It made me uneasy to look at it. "What is it?"
"Ring of invisibility, apparently. They were going to ambush us, except Stu caught them with their pants down." Chance grinned suddenly. "Good thing he did, too. They were holding staves with black acid things trapped at the top. Break a crystal filled with that stuff on your head, and the only thing left would be the soles of your boots. When the trolls fell, the globes broke loose and were destroyed by the last of the fireball."
I shook my head and tried on the ring for size. It slipped over my hand neatly and rested snugly on my forearm. "I've never had troll treasure before. Take it back, and keep it with my blessing."
Chance shook his head and smiled. "I don't need it, but thank you anyway. By the bye, don't use it too often. We don't know how many charges it has left, and I don't know if anyone among us would know how to recharge it."
I nodded quietly. I had lived my life without the need for invisibility before, and I didn't see that I would need it now. All the same, a good soldier never throws away anything useful if he can help it. As I was very short on provisions, I figured I would need every edge.
"Were your friends there?" I asked as I shifted the ring around for a more comfortable fit.
"I hope not!" Chance replied with feeling. "If they were, they were probably last week's lunch. It's been a while since we were separated, and my dream said that they landed here when we entered this realm. If the trolls got them, then it's all over. As yet, we haven't found any sign of them. There's another door that leads in a little farther, but it was agreed that we should check the other portals first."
Eventually, the group settled around the second portal. I lifted it up (it was quite heavy) and waited for the alchemist to toss down his coin. There was nothing that we could see.
"Should we shout again and see what comes up after us? Or shall we go down and look?" Stu's innocent expression was given a dirty look by most everyone for that suggestion.
I shrugged. "I'll go first." I sheathed my sword and prepared to make my way down.
"Be careful," cautioned Chance. "You don't know what's waiting for you."
"True. But neither does it." I gave him a smirk and started down. I heard Stu laugh and say, "I like him."
"Pervert," muttered someone. I think it was Marisa, the crystal mage.
About I descended fifteen feet, the alchemist started after me. From what I could see, there was nothing in the chamber except stale, empty air. I thought I could make out a curious marking on the floor below, but I was still too far away to see clearly. I paused to make sure of my footing, and continued on.
The next step shifted under my foot slightly. I stopped in fear, then a mighty surge of energy rushed through my body and jolted me off the ladder. Without a sound I fell down and down until I hit the ground with great impact. My head swam, and my body screamed at me from a million points. I wondered why I wasn't dead.
Then a brilliant flash of light went off all around me. Pain seared my body again, and I blacked out.