I woke with a foul taste in my mouth, and aches everywhere. I sat up with a groan. "Shh," said a soft voice. "Lie still. You've been dead for a while, and we had to use one of our life-giving herbs to resurrect you. You're going to feel horrible for about a day or so."
"I feel horrible now," I croaked, but I lay down as I was told. I opened my eyes and saw the cleric kneeling over me. She opened the top of a skin and poured a small bit of water in her hand. Some of it dripped down on my face, and felt good. She gestured to me to open my mouth with her free hand, and when I did, she carefully poured her handful of water past my lips. It tasted wonderful, and I wanted more, but she shook her head.
"Not right now, Amagor. Your body has had a tremendous shock, and you've got to give it time to recover." She took out a small cloth and soaked it in water. She placed it on my forehead and bid me to stay still. I had no problem with this suggestion. I felt worse than I had in my entire life. Then again, if what she said was true, I'd never been dead before.
I couldn't remember what had happened. I remembered climbing down the ladder and falling. After that, I couldn't remember anything. It was a mercy, I suppose. But I felt my belly twinge painfully as my stomach accepted the water. I had received a sword stroke in the belly once, and this felt a lot like it. I looked down, and found my tunic slashed in the middle. Someone had cut me across the middle. But who, and when? I could remember no battle.
Stu appeared with a huge grin on his face. "Ah, the fearless warrior returns to us! Welcome back, sir!"
"What happened?" I asked again. My voice croaked, and I could hardly manage above a whisper. However, Stu's keen elven ears heard me easily.
"What we think happened is after you fell off the trapped ladder, you hit a Mystickal Kill glyph. We don't know if you were alive when you hit the bottom or not, but that glyph made sure you weren't. Then something channeled through you and resurrected you as a zombie. Our first clue that something was totally fubar was when you started flying up toward us." He paused to favor me with another grin. I found that his expressions were starting to grate.
"I flew?" That didn't make any sense whatsoever.
"Don't worry, you weren't yourself at the moment. You were quite dead. You came at us and started swinging with your sword, but either you're a really lousy swordsman, or whatever was controlling you didn't have a firm grip. We were able to take you down without any damage to ourselves, but then we had to revive you. Take it from me, I know it's a real bitch. I was dead, once, but I got better." He got an odd look on his face at that. "Much better."
"What happens now?"
"We think we've found Bethany and Elisabeth, but we're not sure. We want to make sure we're at full strength before we continue on with any more surprises, so we're waiting for Narsala to try some more healing for you. I don't think it'll take too long. You'll be back up and slaying dragons for beautiful damsels in no time!"
Dragons? He listens to too many bards. I closed my eyes and sighed. For all of his ego, Stu wasn't a bad soul. Again, the image of the elf boy haunted me, and I groaned.
"Are you all right? Do you need Narsala?" Stu asked, concerned. I shook my head.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. I could barely hear my own voice, but he did.
"Sorry for what? If you mean for attacking us, don't give it a second thought! We pieced together what happened, even as we were piecing together your body."
"No, for . . . I'm sorry for the boy. He should have grown up and been given the chance that you were given. I'm sorry that I was the first to face him, so he never got the chance."
Stu watched me quietly for a few moments. It was obvious that he had no clue about the events I was referring to, but it seemed that he was able to infer much. "It's all right, human. Rulers bicker about all sorts of useless things, and then it's up to simple people like you and I to resolve them. I'm sure the boy forgives you in your Valhalla."
I reached out to clasp his hand, and he accepted. "Thank you," I said quietly. Then, with a little mirth of my own I said, "I take back half the things I said about you."
He looked surprised for a moment, then laughed and left me alone.
I struggled to sit up, and painfully assumed the lotus position. I let my mind drift back to my boyhood when my father taught me the secrets of meditation. The mind is a powerful tool, boy. A sword, bow, staff, even a ballista is no match for the power of your mind. Harness it, and you can achieve miracles. There are some mages that get their power from the Gods, others who tap into the fundamental energies of the cosmos. The mages who truly understand real power are the ones who channel nothing but themselves. Those are the mages to reckon with, son. Be like those mages. Harness yourself and force it to do your bidding. Then you can kill a man with a touch, move a mountain with a thought, or heal your body from the most grievous wounds. Compared to your mind, the sword in your hand is a mere plaything.
And so I focused my mind on accelerating the healing of my body. I visualized the bones and muscles knitting back together in their correct places, the blood coursing through tortured pathways, restructuring and recreating lost tissue. I felt the poisons pull away from inside and dissipate with each breath. The world shrank to a tiny microcosm, where there was nothing except the healing taking place in my body.
A while later, I returned to the world around me and opened my eyes. Narsala was looking at me curiously. "I petitioned to Asanya for healing, but she told me that there was no need. What did you do while you were away?"
"Something I was taught in my boyhood," I replied as I struggled to my feet. I felt much better, but I was still very weak. "My father taught me to bend my body to my will, to force healing when the body is hurt. Still, it has a cost. Do you have any food?"
She gave me a portion of bread, which I found to be delicious. Of course, I was quite ravenous, and probably would have been happy to wolf down a slab of scorched troll hide at the moment. I swallowed heavily and amended that thought. Almost happy.
Stu and Chance stood by the third hatch arguing amongst themselves. Chance noticed me first, and beckoned me over. "Amagor, I'm glad to see you back on your feet. Are you ready?"
I smiled at Narsala and finished off the last of the bread I was given. "I suppose I am. What are we doing?"
"Well, we've figured out where they went, but we're not sure what to do next. They're behind a trap door that swings up and pushes their victims into some sort of pit, but when we called out to them, there was no answer."
"Well," I said as I readjusted the sword at my back. "I suppose we should go down and -- "
"Hey!" called Duragan from below. "Dukoth says he's found something!"
The three of us hurried down the ladder.
The chamber was about five by ten meters in length. Dust lay thick everywhere, except where the party's footprints had disturbed it. The far wall bore a door or gate of curious make, and the floor immediately in front of it had curious markings in the dust, as if someone had been dragged through it. The trail ended immediately at the gate.
Stu smirked when I remarked on the odd tracks. "When we lifted up the door, it swung around and swept Dukoth inside. He tells us he's all right, except for a few bruises, but we don't know what else is going on."
Then I heard Dukoth's voice faintly from the other side. "I found them, belike."
"Are they all right?" yelled Duragan.
"Well . . . I hope ye weren't close," came the reply. I watched Chance's face fall into despair. Then there was a loud thunk, and Dukoth cried out in surprise.
"What is it?" called Chance, but there was no response.
"Let's get this gate up again," Stu said, and gestured toward it. There was no sound as the gate began to rise slowly.
"Not too high this time," Chance cautioned.
"Of course," Stu said with a frown. "Don't disturb me."
Dukoth's voice came to us a little clearer now. "Don't worry, I've found them! Someone throw a rope!"
Another, higher pitched voice joined in with his. "Yes, please. And hurry!"
Duragan pulled a length of rope out of his pack and tossed down one end of the coil. He and I tied the rope to our waists and anchored ourselves on the ladder. Fortunately, the two who climbed up weren't heavy. The first I saw of the woman we had just rescued was a shock of blond hair. As she came into view, I was suddenly very glad I was a man. She was absolutely gorgeous. Dukoth followed her quickly, and he had pretty much the same expression I expect I was wearing. She brushed back her long tresses and favored us with a smile.
"Thank you so much. I have no idea how long we were stuck in that godforsaken pit."
We? I only saw the one. I began to untie myself from the rope and watched her pull a small emerald stone from inside her dress. It was a sight to behold. Then she whispered something I couldn't catch, and the emerald turned into a huge chamber.
"Elisabeth?" she called. "It's okay, now. They're here."
"About bloody time," came a small voice from inside. "How long was I in there, anyway?"
Out walked a halfling in loose pants and shirt, and a black sash tied about her waist. She walked like a cat, reminding me of my father and weaponmaster back home.
The taller woman shrugged helplessly. "I have no idea. How long have we been separated, Chance?"
"Maybe two weeks," Chance replied. "We lost track of you after we fought the T-Rex, and I had to use dream magick to track you down. Is this where we need to find the next Artifact?"
Dukoth cleared his throat loudly. "I am Dukoth the Gallant, fair lady. T'was my pleasure to be your rescuer." He went down on one knee before her and reached out his hand as if to kiss her knuckle. She didn't offer it.
"Charmed, I'm sure," she said icily. Then she turned back to the rest of us and scanned the room. "I see new faces. Who did you pick up?"
"Well, there's Dukoth whom you just met," said Stu with a smirk. "And over by the ladder is Amagor of the Order of Jorus, he says. We're fairly sure that Isis sent them to us. Dukoth, Amagor, this is Bethany, and the hobbit's name is Elisabeth."
I bowed as introductions were made. I confess that I've never been terribly good at dealing with women, so I usually don't try. It isn't that I don't like them, I just figure that a soldier's ways are too blunt and crass for the fairer sex (with the exception of those who become soldiers).
I found both Bethany and Elisabeth scrutinizing me, much like a slab of meat. Finally, Bethany spoke. "You have the bearing of a fighter. Are you a student of the martial arts like Elisabeth?"
It took me a moment to understand what she meant by "martial arts." To me, such arts include all manner of warfare, but she obviously meant it in terms of hand to hand combat. "Lady, I am a student of all arts of warfare. I am competent in hand to hand, but the bulk of my training has been with a good sword in my hand."
The halfling piped up. "You're good at hand to hand, then? Who was your sensei?"
I knelt down to face Elisabeth eye to eye. I've known some halflings before, and although they're used to talking to taller races, I've found they appreciate it when I come down to their level. "I do not understand the name sensei, Little One."
She bristled visibly. "If by that you mean girl, I'll have you know that I'm a woman. And by sensei I mean the person who taught you to use your body for defense."
I bowed my head apologetically. "I meant no disrespect. By 'Little One' I meant someone shorter than I by half. As for my sensei, that would be my father, Lord Rekal of Osted Castle."
"You're a Lord, yourself?" she asked me with a glint in her eye. I didn't know how to read it.
"No, but my elder brother is. He is the heir, I am the spare, as the saying goes."
"Well, if you've been trained in a good school, then you need a token to show it. Here." She opened a small pouch and pulled out a long green sash. I took it from her with thanks, and held it in my hand.
"What, don't you know how to wear a sash? It's simple." With that, she snatched the cloth from me and set to winding it about my waist. She put in a deft knot which I utterly failed to follow and stepped back to observe her handiwork. "Well, it isn't a gi, but it will do. Welcome, Amagor-san." She made a formal bow to me, which I could only attempt to copy.
"Stu, does he have magickal ability?" asked Bethany. I looked up and found her stepping out of the large emerald chamber. Stu shook his head with a wry smile. "Good, then you can safely wield this."
I was handed a long, heavy sword with a slightly curved blade. The scabbard was made of light, hollow wood, and had an odd attachment at the end. I had never seen its like, but I had to admit that the balance was superb. However, it looked dreadfully thin and fragile. "I . . . have never seen a blade like this. Won't it break?"
She smiled. "It's a no-dachi, and the making is a secret of a very wise and mysterious people. Don't use it like a bastardsword, and you should be fine. That particular sword is a weapon of power, but none of our mighty magick-users care to touch it. That sword steals mana."
I almost dropped it, and she laughed. "Don't worry, Stu says you have no inherent magick to you, so it won't care about you. If you hit someone who does, well, I pity them."
I pulled the sword half from its sheath and observed the craftsmanship. I had to admit that it was extraordinarily beautiful. I would simply have to wait and see how it held up. I removed the old leather harness from my back and adjusted the loops to accommodate both it and the wooden scabbard. It took a moment to adjust the straps before it was comfortable, but I've carried two swords in the past. I decided I would use the ordinary sword unless we came up against something magickal. I'm not terribly fond of magick.
"Where do we go from here?"
"There's one portal we haven't checked yet, and the room where the trolls came from," answered Chance. "I think we can safely pass on the portal that took out Amagor."
I blushed at the mention and moved over to Dukoth while the others began to climb out of the chamber. "From the way you spoke, it sounded as though the women were dead. What happened in the pit?"
He shrugged his massive shoulders and put his hand on the bottom rung of the ladder. "T'was a mistake. There be a dead soul in the pit aside them. He was all I saw, save an ordinary rock. Then the rock bloody well melted in my hands an' became the likes o' her. Gave me the shivers, it did."
A changeling! I shook my head. No wonder she was so beautiful. I wondered if she was as flighty as her race was reputed to be.
Once back up to the top, we found that the fourth portal revealed a stench of corruption so great that we unanimously decided to see where the trolls had emerged from. As we climbed down, I saw the dead, burnt bodies and thanked Hythalia I hadn't been in the way of Stu's casting. The door on the north edge of the wall lead to what could only be soldier's quarters. There was nothing of interest, although Dukoth ruffled through the mattresses (I could only wonder how he could bear the smell), except for two more doors on the north and west side. The west door was locked, so after we patiently waited for Dukoth to finish his search, he produced a pair of lockpicks and worked quietly at the door.
I estimated ten minutes had passed before he finally gave a satisfied grunt and opened the door. "T'was a tricky bugger, but no match for the likes of I." He gave a light kick at the door, bearing in mind that it was reinforced with iron.
The room beyond was essentially a great hole in the ground. A short ledge dropped off into darkness, and the far wall contained nothing of great interest. As we milled about, Bethany called out. "I've found a panel that opens up. There's a lever inside. Any guesses as to what it does?"
Stu looked it over and gave an exasperated grunt. "Whatever it is, I can't sense anything magickal about it. Go ahead and pull it, I suppose."
Bethany gave a strong yank, and the thing moved easily. We heard a loud grating noise in the pit below. "Now let's hope we didn't let loose any demons."
For some reason, Stu gave her a nasty look.
I looked over and found Elisabeth shining her light into the pit. Then I watched her fall forward into darkness. "Elisabeth!" I rushed to the edge, fearful of what I would see. Images of her tiny broken body filled my mind. "Get a rope!"
"Calm down, Amagor!" came Elizabeth's voice from below. "It isn't that steep a drop, only about twenty meters."
Twenty meters? I shook my head. I've seen a fall of ten meters break a man's neck.
"There's a statue here, and it seems to have pulled away from the wall," she continued. "I can't climb up; it's about thirty meters to the top."
Chance and Stu exchanged glances. Chance muttered something under his breath, and lifted off the ground.
"Take me with you!" Bethany called, and Chance took her by the hand before they flew down to where Elisabeth waited. Chance's light illuminated the pit so I could see where a hideous statue had pulled away to reveal an opening in the wall near the head. Bethany inspected this opening while Chance lifted Elizabeth to join them.
"There's a hole in the wall just large enough for somebody's arm. From what I can discern, it's a magickal key that marks you so you can open a magickal lock."
Stu peered as if trying to see through the distance. He yelled, "Why don't the three of you take the mark, and we'll see where it leads?"
Bethany waved her hand. "Already did."
I couldn't see what they were doing, but presently the three came back up. Chance held up his hand, and on his forearm I saw the image of a coiled snake with a flat head. It was probably just my imagination, but I thought the mark was glowing slightly.
"There were another pair of levers as well," Bethany said. "One of them triggered the mark, the other -- I don't know. I hope it did something that will help us."
"Let's move on," I suggested. I lead the way back through the troll lair and to the door on the north side of the room. Again, we waited as Dakota poked and prodded at the lock, although he was much quicker in opening it this time.
The room was large, dank and dim. The light from our torches flickered madly and created monstrous dancing images on the far wall. Ancient rubes covered the walls that we could see, although I did not recognize the tongue, and the script itself seemed to shift and flow as I looked at it. In the middle of the room rested two giant upright clawed hands as if in benediction. The hands were very obviously metallic and scaled. Between the hands waited an open hole.
A hush had fallen over the party. One by one, we stepped into the room to inspect the giant hands. I noticed Stu had taken to studying the rune structures on the wall.
As I looked closer, I saw that the hands were covered in what appeared to be tiny scars, each as long as my arm. I touched one giant scale and felt no warmth, as could be expected.
Siralos poked at the hole. "Magick," he breathed. "Me hand willna pass through."
Dakota stood by the far hand and was poking at it with his dagger. As I watched, he attempted to pry open one of the scales, and the dagger slid across the metal. Blood welled where the blade had scratched. We watched in shock as the liquid flowed down the hand and pooled in the center of the pit. The scratch healed swiftly, leaving only a light scar. Suddenly, I understood the multitude of scars on the hand. I took out my sword and made a swift cut along the nearest palm. Again, blood welled up.
"Cut the other hand again," I directed. Once this was done, the blood from each hand joined in the center, and a bubble formed in the middle.
"Looks like a new way to travel," Bethany remarked. I looked at Stu, but he was still absorbed in the writing on the wall.
Duragan walked up to the bubble and touched it with his hand. The bubble immediately started to draw him inside. I grabbed his other arm to pull him out, but he cried out in pain. I let go and helplessly watched the bubble engulf him. Once he was completely inside, the bubble dropped through the magical shield and disappeared.
The wounds on the hands had healed the moment the bubble was formed, so I cut them anew and stepped into the resultant bubble. It dropped without sensation, and I could see myself floating through a twisting pattern of tunnels leading off in all directions. Eventually, I ended up in a large chamber surrounded by mirrors. In the middle of the chamber stood a huge crystal statue. The statue reached out toward me with slow, deliberate intent, caught the bubble, and put it on the ground. Abruptly, I was free.
Duragan was pacing the length of the room, inspecting the mirrors that hung from the ceiling. "I can't find a way out except that door over there, and it's locked. We need Dukoth."
Slowly, one by one the rest of our party began to filter in. Bethany was the last to come through, but I noticed that Stu had not arrived. "Where is the Mage?" I asked with a frown.
"He was still caught up in the scribblings when I left," she replied with a smirk. "He seems to think he can translate them." Her tone of voice gave away her disdain at such a notion. "I suppose he'll join us when he's ready."
"We have no way out save a locked door, and we have no way to know if we can return to the surface." I said.
"Has anyone tried the lock?" Bethany asked.
I shook my head. "I thought it best to wait for everyone to . . ." I happened to glance toward the statue as I spoke, and I saw Dukoth chipping away at one of the many crystal facets. I covered the distance in three broad steps.
"Dukoth!" At my voice, he jumped and looked around defensively. "Don't . . . touch . . . that."
"Ye must be daft!" he whined. "There be a king's ransom in emeralds, and ye say that? We could all be rich through five lifetimes on such treasure!"
"That thing is magickal," I replied quietly. "You don't know what you might trigger by tinkering with it. I say again, don't touch it."
"Surely, with so many gems, it can afford ta donate one 'r two, d'ya think?"
I got down on one knee and faced the dwarf eye to eye. "If you touch the statue again, I swear I'll break your fingers one by one." I stared him down, using my best command voice. "Do I make myself clear?"
He opened his mouth to say something, looked me over again, and shut it.
"Good. Now, we need your help with the door." I stood up again and pointed at the south wall. "Think you can pick the lock?"
He sighed deeply, pulled out a small leather case, and trotted over to the door. I went with him to watch. It wasn't too long before I realized he was stymied by the mechanism, and I began to inspect the workmanship. "Maybe I can break it down . . . ."
"Aye, and ye might bust yer fool head, whilst ye were at it," Dukoth growled. "Leave the doors to me, Sir Knight, and ye'll not regret it."
I looked up to see a bubble coming down from above. I walked over as the statue caught the bubble and set it down. With a moist, pop the mage stumbled into view. He looked disoriented for a moment, and looked around with his face writ with concern, "Amagor, good. I just discovered -- stop! Don't break the --"
There came a loud crash, and the light tinkle of broken glass. Then another one. I followed Stu's gaze and saw that Bethany and Duragan had just broken two of the hanging mirrors to reveal a solid stone wall behind them.
Stu's face settled into a dark expression. "Never mind, now."
"What?" Bethany demanded with a pretty pout. "You might have said something before!"
"You might have waited for me to finish my research, instead of blindly jumping in like lemmings!" I wondered what a lemming was. Too low for anyone to hear clearly, Stu muttered something about some people's children.
"Why, Stu? What did you find?" I asked. I started to feel a tingling at the back of my neck. I turned to lead him back to the locked door where the rest of the group were congregated.
"This is a holy chamber of the snake god this temple is dedicated to. The mirrors are part of the ritual ceremonies, and the statue could be an avatar. I'm not entirely sure, since I could only make a spot translation with the amount of time I had, but -- Yuggoth save us!"
I followed his gaze and saw Dukoth and Siralos standing together at the foot of the crystal statue. Dukoth was pointing toward the door; Siralos had taken out his hammer, and was swinging it in a circular motion. A great arc of white and yellow energy matched its path as he swung it around at blinding speed. It hummed in a eerie manner while sparks were flying from the head, and I realized it was one of the great Artifacts. He was about to hurl this beast at the door where everyone else had innocently gathered, and I had no clue what he hoped to achieve by this.
People scattered in sudden fright. Stu muttered something under his breath and gestured frantically. Siralos let the hammer fly with a screaming trail of lightning. Just before impact, the door disappeared and the hammer sailed into the next room.
An explosion rocked the floor, accompanied by great gouts of lightning that vomited from the doorway and left me temporarily blind. When my vision cleared, I saw that everyone was alive, although stunned.
"Fool!" Stu thundered. "Are you trying to kill us all? That's no ordinary hammer, and you well know it! If you're going to use it, pay attention to who's standing around your target, like us!"
I saw to my amazement that Siralos was again holding the hammer casually in one hand. He hadn't had time to retrieve the weapon from the other room, which meant it must have returned to him. He was regarding Stu with a less than daunted expression.
I heard a low grinding noise, and a sickly green light flooded the room. Confusion reigned momentarily, until I saw the crystal statue coming to life. Looks of terror reflected on everyone's face as this fact began to register. I made a quick decision. "Everybody out of the room! Move! Move! Move!" I yelled, even as I reached for my sword.
I had drawn the no-dachi. It was never wise to test new powers in the middle of battle, but I supposed that this was a good a time as any. If what they had told me about the sword was any indication, it might be our only hope. My only hope, for certain.
The party needed no urging to run; fortunately, the majority of the group were already at the now-empty doorway. Bethany and Chance slipped past the statue's grasping hands, but I watched helplessly as Narsala tripped and fell. I hurried to her side, too late. The statue leaned down and picked her up in one monstrous hand. She screamed at the top of her lungs. My swing missed the hand as it lifted her up, and I crouched to leap in the air. Then the hand closed abruptly, and Narsala's scream choked off and she died in a horrible gout of blood. The statue tossed away her bloody remains and turned toward me, its blazing green eyes burning from within.
I closed my eyes and prayed briefly to Hythalia. For good measure, I prayed to Klia that if I should be meeting her soon, that she might take pity on me. No will to live, the lady had said. I wondered if that excluded me from the silver halls of the dead.
I looked and saw faces peering anxiously through the empty doorway. The statue stood above me and extended its hand toward me. I tumbled out of the way, coming up in position behind the thing. I struck at the back of the leg with a powerful stroke, connected, and watched the slim blade bite deep into the crystal.
My world was filled with light, power and pain. I could feel the sword pulling essence away from the statue and trying to feed it to me, but my body couldn't accept it. It was killing me. A horrible screeching noise filled my ears. I fought to let go of the sword, and failed. My eyes were fixed on the spot where the blade met crystal, and saw the no-dachi starting to smoke. I thought I heard someone shouting in my ear, but I couldn't tell. The crystals began to shake apart.
There was a tremendous explosion, and again everything went dark.