I awoke with a foul taste in my mouth, and aches everywhere. I resisted the urge to sit up, and groaned. "He's alive!" called a loud, feminine voice. I cringed at the volume and wished I could go back to sleep. "We did it right!"
"What happened?" I managed to croak. My throat felt like liquid fire, and I desperately yearned for something to drink.
"What was that?" asked the voice. "I didn't quite catch it."
I decided to forego the previous line of questioning in favor of a new one. "Is there any water?" My eyes opened slowly, painfully, until I was able to make out Bethany's concerned face hovering over me. In other circumstances, this might have been pleasant, but the pain coursing through my body precluded any such thoughts. I was no longer in the room with the statue, but the smaller adjoining space. I noted a door slightly ajar to my right, and another at my feet. Dukoth knelt by the latter, and as I watched his elbows twitched as he worked at the lock. To my left I saw the temple with piles of shattered crystal lying everywhere. I quickly looked away.
"Um . . . water! Yeah, hold on a minute." She fumbled through her pack until she found a waterskin, and held it out to me. I took it with quavering hands, and tried to pour some down my throat. I only succeeded in splashing my face and chest. "Here," she said impatiently, and poured a slow trickle of water into my mouth. I accepted it and swallowed painfully. I lowered my head and tried to concentrate on making the pain stop. I attempted to fall into a healing trance, but failed.
A moment later, my stomach rebelled and heaved up the water I had swallowed. I looked up and found Bethany looking on with distaste. However, in spite of it all, my throat felt better. "What happened?" I whispered a little more clearly. "The last I remember, I was holding on to the sword and not able to let go."
"Oh, you destroyed the statue. You were caught in some sort of power feedback. Chance and Dukoth tried to pull you free, but they got stuck to you also. The sword exploded when the statue exploded and the backlash killed you, but we were able to use some of the herbs to bring you back to life. Narsala wasn't so lucky. The parts were too mushed for us to work with."
I remembered watching Narsala in the grips of the statue and her horrible death, and shuddered. I've seen death too many times and in too many ways to be paralyzed by it, but few times have I witnessed a death so gruesome.
Duragan came forward and knelt by my head. "This stuff is going to taste terrible, but it should help speed your healing." He tipped a flask toward me and poured a few orange-colored drops. He was wrong -- the taste was abominable, but I forced myself to drink and keep it down. When it was over, I gestured for more water.
We spent half a day resting in the smaller room, waiting to go on. I discovered that half the no-dachi blade had melted away. I mourned the loss of a good blade, and the power within it.
"No matter," Bethany said as she put it back into what she called the stasis chamber. "We'll wait until we can have it reforged. Duragan might be able to reactivate the embedded spells." She whispered a quiet word, and the chamber became a small crystal in her hand once again. I looked at the crystal and shuddered. I found myself avoiding her for a while, after that.
Once again I tried to meditate and accelerate my healing, but it only proved marginally useful. Still, I was ravenously hungry and ate the last of the bread in my possession. Stu wandered by, muttering at the amount of time this was taking. I saw the furrows in his forehead and knew that something was bothering him. If his thoughts were anything like mine, then he was worried about all the noise we were making, and who might be coming to investigate. The thought didn't make me very happy.
A bubble floated into the temple room, but there was nothing to catch it. As I watched, Duragan swiped at one of the bubbles with his sword, and it popped. Chance fell to the floor with a heavy thud, but Elizabeth landed with easy grace.
Eventually, I declared myself fit enough to be able to travel. I limped to my feet and secured the remaining sword behind my back. I dearly hoped I wouldn't have need of it in the next few days, but I also knew just how much weight my wishes carried at the moment.
The small room we were resting in looked like it had been hit by a storm. Some broken plaster and shattered furniture littered the floor, and the door on the east wall was a wreck. A tremendous crack and scorch marks marred the dark wood. It looked as if something had hit it with the strength of a ballista shot. No surprise.
A short while later, Dukoth finished with the lock he had been working on. We saw that the way lead to stairs, and began to gather around it. Chance took the lead while Stu was berating him and Elizabeth for wandering off alone. I saw Bethany cringe as if she were guilty, and saw that her face was pale with shock. I wondered what she had seen. After Stu finished his tirade, we gathered behind him.
Just as Chance was about to reach the bottom, Dukoth froze. "What be that click?"
Stu snorted disdainfully. "I didn't hear any --"
A bolt of lightning appeared in the landing ahead of us. It shot through Chance where he stood, Illuminating him in a sudden, bright glow. It didn't stop, but leapt to each of us in turn. We didn't even have time to cry out. As we stood stunned, it arced off the ceiling in the room above and came back down, retracing its path through our bodies as before. It disappeared into the floor from where it had erupted, and we were finally able to collapse as marrionettes with their strings cut.
I moaned quietly to myself. No wonder Chaos had won, in the end. I wondered why I hadn't passed out again, although I knew that I was too weak to stand. I could smell burnt hair, clothing and metal.
"Is . . . everyone all . . . right?" Chance's voice was weak.
"No, everyone is not all right!" Elizabeth replied tersely. "Everyone is quite a long way from being all right! I think we're all alive, though."
No one said anything until Stu, Bethany and Chance stood and announced that they would continue on and check for traps. Elizabeth elected to join them.
"Capital idea," Siralos growled quietly. "Whilst ye be there, willya then close the barn door, now that the bleedin' horse be gone?"
No one favored him with an answer.
We waited for an hour or so, before the first signs of trouble began. We heard Bethany shout, and stop in mid-sentence. Elizabeth shouted something I couldn't make out, and also stopped abruptly. We heard the unmistakable sounds of Stu casting spells, and rushed down the stairs. I took the lead, my sword ready. There was nothing there. Silence. The stairs brought us to another room that had but one other egress: a spiral stairwell leading downward.
We exchanged quizzical glances with each other, but no one had any suggestions. Cassandra, the crystal mage, held up a small gem and focused on it. The gem glowed brightly, and I found myself backing away in horror. I was going to have as little to do with crystals as possible, and I fully expected this one to kill us all. Finally, she stopped and shook her head. "I can't detect anything unusual."
Dukoth poked his head down the stairwell. "I ken somethin', but I know not what. There be someone down there."
"Do not call out to them," Duragan said firmly. Dukoth gave him a hurt look. I crept over to the stairs and looked. The stairwell spiraled down beyond where I could see. I beckoned to the rest and started the descent.
The stairwell dropped through a dozen feet of stone until it opened into a massive open chamber. The stairwell continued down for another hundred feet before it reached the bottom. From my vantage point, I could make out an odd rectangular building directly below us; the stairs stopped at the roof of this structure. I couldn't make out how tall the building was, but I saw stairs leading down the north wall.
Below us I saw a remarkably ugly woman in priestess robes sitting on the bottom step, exhausted. She looked to be part snake, and was covered by odd marks where the robes showed flesh. Bits of frost and ice dripped from her robes and skin, and I guessed that she had recently fought with Stu, though he was nowhere to be seen. She looked up, narrowed her eyes, muttered something, and I was somewhere else.
This is going to stop now, I told myself. I looked around to take stock of the situation. A brisk wind stirred my hair and clothing, smelling of the sea. There was a night sky overhead, and I didn't recognize any constellations. I didn't know if I should be surprised by this or not. The moon was full and clear, and although it was almost the same size that I recalled from my world, the familiar form of the water bearer was not there. By its pale light I could see that I stood atop an odd platform made of stone with four columns standing at each corner. At the peak of each column sat giant skulls, and I didn't want to know if they were real or carved. In the center of the platform waited stairs that vanished into darkness. Beyond the columns we were surrounded by an endless expanse of snow. I noted Stu pacing the corners looking extremely frustrated, Elizabeth pouting and a large rock which I took to be Bethany A moment later, Dukoth, Siralos, Duragan and then Orthad appeared next to me. The only people still missing were Chance and Cassandra.
Stu favored us with foul looks. "Probably didn't do any better than I did. I almost had her, damnit!"
"Who was she?" Duragan asked, still a little disoriented.
"I don't know, but if I see her again I'm going to fireball her ass into oblivion!" Stu groused. "I can't believe one woman was able to beat all of us." He wandered off by himself, although he didn't have far to wander. The platform was only a hundred feet across.
I sighed, sat down and settled in for meditation. This time, my mind and body were able to focus on the healing I needed, and I came out of it a short while later. I looked around hungrily. "Does anybody have any food?"
"Food!" Stu laughed a little hysterically. "We're lost in some godforsaken dimension where magick is so muted I can barely feel it, thrown so far off our path I don't know how we'll ever get back, and all the warrior can think about is food!"
I blinked. There was a problem with magick? "Right now my primary concern is survival. Yes, I'm thinking about food. Does anyone have any?"
One by one the rest shook their heads. Stu decided to ignore us for a while.
At that moment, as if to relieve the tension, someone else appeared. It was Cassandra, turned to stone. We gathered around her statue, talking excitedly, but it became apparent that no one knew how to change her back. We looked at Stu, who was sulking pointedly away from us, and elected not to ask him for assistance. My stomach grumbled at me, but I put it out of my mind.
Still we waited, and Chance had not joined us. I began to wonder if he was dead, and that thought was shared by others. As we were discussing what to do next, Chance appeared in the middle of us, fumbling with his robes.
"What happened?" Elizabeth demanded first, and was shortly drowned out by the rest of the group chiming in with similar demands.
"Whoa whoa whoa!" Chance admonished, holding out his hands to hush us. "We're in another dimension right now, and we're going to have to find our own way back."
"Thank you for that timely and helpful report," Stu snorted irritably. "Now tell us something we don't know."
Chance didn't even glance at him. "There was a misunderstanding with the priestess of the temple, and she sent me to join the rest of you." I happened to notice that he had a new set of marks on the upper part of his arms. I couldn't see the rest of his skin.
Stu snorted loudly. "Misunderstanding! There's a concept! I'll show her a misunderstanding if I see her again!"
Again, we ignored him while we queried Chance. It turned out that Chance tried to talk before fighting, and the priestess decided to listen. They talked for two hours, he said, and although he was curiously reticent about what they talked about, it was obvious that he convinced her that he meant no harm, and that we had attacked her by mistake. There were several faces made at this.
As we talked, Cassandra turned back to flesh and slumped to the ground. Bethany and I knelt and checked her over. Aside from an incredible headache (which I could sympathize with), she was fine.
By this point, there was little else to do but explore. The platform was resting at the peak of a rocky spire. Below the platform lay puffy snowbanks, and the spire disappear below them. After a moment's thought, I decided I must be looking at clouds. It then struck me how high in the sky we must be. I backed away from the edge and tried to not imagine the whole structure swaying in the wind.
"We're not doing ourselves any good up here," I pointed out. "Once morning comes, let's move down the stairwell."
"Where does it lead?" Elizabeth wanted to know.
"Unless someone has a way to find out other than actually going there, I suggest we find out," I replied. One by one, the group picked themselves up and gathered for the descent. Stu was the last to move, but he did so without comment. His expression was unreadable.
We spent the night in silence before preparing to leave. The wind still blew heavily, and I knew it was going to be a rough descent. My estimation of the snowbanks had been correct: in the daylight we could see that they were clouds. An occasional wisp would drift along the platform to leave us soaked. We started down the shaft and were quickly plunged into darkness. The stone stairwell was narrow, forcing us to twist sideways as we descended. The shaft opened before long so we could walk normally. I counted steps I took as we went down, 831, 832, 833, but the monotony made me give up. The numbers were getting too high to keep me cheerful.
Down, down, down we went, pausing frequently to make sure we were all together. The footing was often treacherous, but we made enough precautions to avoid disaster. I estimated that four hours passed before we finally came to the bottom. Here, the stairs spilled out into a wide chamber with a massive thirty-foot double door on one side. The separation between the doors was jagged and uneven, although clearly artificial. They fit together like symmetrical jaws. A dozen feet away were a series of blocks next to four matching slots. A puzzle, then.
Bethany and Elizabeth stood by the slots to discuss their possible order, and we waited while they experimented with placement. Blocks in the first, third and fourth slots did nothing. Blocks in all four slots, the same. Then first and fourth, first and third, second third and fourth, and so on. The possible combinations were limited, and soon there was a loud groaning screech as the doors began to separate.
Stu suddenly stepped aside of the doors. "These things are huge!"
The doors opened in sequence, each one ten feet thick, and we waited until three sets opened one after another.
"I got a bad feeling about this . . . . "
Bethany stepped back from the door set. "We are either letting something out or in."
We drew our weapons preparing ourselves for . . . daylight. It streamed inward to allow us to see shadows moving quickly. I heard the distinct noise of metal clinking on metal and stone.
"KAY?" came an exclamation from beyond the doorframe. People in rude clothing holding shovels and picks cringed away from the opening. An excited shout came from the right as a dozen strangely clad men in helmets pushed their way through. The moment they came in eyesight, they stopped and stared at us with wide eyes. Their garb was alien, as well as their language, but they were obviously human. They murmured excitedly among themselves and pointed at us. I looked around to see if anyone could make out what they were saying, but everyone appeared to be as lost as I was.
A man dressed in a strict gray uniform walked past the others and up to us. I noted that the uniform was oddly body conforming, even more severely than the first men I observed. He snapped at the others sharply, "Acthung!" They formed up behind him like rigid statues. From his bearing I gathered that he was in command. I kept my hands and expression neutral.
Chance said "Greetings," and the commander looked up in surprise. So did I; Chance had spoken in High Dornali. The two of them held a brief conversation, of which I understood only half.
"Wo comts sie?" the man demanded.
Again, I heard Chance's words in my native tongue. "We passed through this portal from our world to yours."
The strange man spoke his harsh language. "Was macht Sie?"
"We have come a long way, fighting a war against a horrible evil."
The commander said something else, then turned and called back to someone out of my sight. We took this opportunity to turn on Chance.
"How do you get him to understand?" "What is this place?" "Who are they?" "What are they saying?" "I didn't know you could speak Hobbit?" "Where did ye learn the dwarven tongue laddie?"
Chance held out his hands as if to physically restrain us. In a low whisper he said, "Stop! I can't answer all of your questions at once. I was given an amulet which allows me to understand and be understood by any other sentient person. They are here to find help for a war they're engaged in, and they think we're what they were looking for."
I frowned. "What kind of war? Who's side are they on?"
"I don't know that yet. We haven't had enough time to talk about it."
The commander asked Chance a question.
Chance shrugged. "I have a power that allows me to understand and speak in any language, but my companions do not understand you."
The commander turned from us and began to gesture broadly. "Come mit mer. Bitte." It was obvious that he wanted us to join him. We passed through the massive gates and were lead down a stone slope until we reached what could only be a military encampment. Everyone was dressed in the same tight-fitting clothing with stern, black boots. Most wore helmets that flared out at the edges without covering the ears. Some bore curious metal clubs whose function I couldn't begin to comprehend. The way they held them reminded me somewhat of short crossbows.
Their manners and habits told me this was a well trained and experienced army. Their sentry points had no immediate flaws that I could see, and the sentries themselves were alert and cautious. I could tell they had been in this place for quite some time, from the amount of damage to the land and the refuse built up away from the encampment. In spite of this, I knew that any attacking force would be hard-pressed to take the position. I was quite impressed with their discipline.
We were lead into a tent of heavy cloth which bore the banner of an oddly modified healing symbol. I thought that strange for a coat of arms. The symbol wasn't quite perfect, but cocked slightly off-center. I pondered this as I stepped inside.
A half dozen officers stood rigidly inside, and each gave us a short little half-bow, clicking their boot heels together as we entered. They wore the same tight-fitting clothing and severe boots, although they didn't wear helmets but an odd sort of headpiece. At their sides were small leather sheaths that might have been for knives, but the shape was wrong. The one who had met us at the gate spoke for several moments, and the officers all gave a mighty cheer in unison. They made a sharp salute with hands extended straight from their chests, clicked their heels, and stared at us expectantly.
"They've been looking for magick to help them in their battle against the abominations," Chance explained quietly to us. "They want to see what magickal powers we have."
I blinked. "I'm not a mage!"
Stu smirked. "Of course not; that requires intelligence." I let it pass.
Chanced hissed quickly, "They don't know that!" Louder he said, "They just want to see demonstrations of magick." Chance waved his hand and muttered something, and levitated into the air. The officers' eyes grew wide, and they chattered excitedly.
Bethany stepped forward and studied one of the younger men in the group. Her features began to transform until she looked exactly like him. He gave a start and backed away quickly. Again, more chatter.
I tried to think what I could do to convince them. I knew no magick. On the other hand . . . I reached up and tapped the troll ring on my arm. From the gasps of the men, I gathered that I had been turned invisible. I stepped over to the far edge of the tent and tapped the ring again. Some of them jumped nervously.
Chance said, "Is this enough?"
I pointed at one of the crossbows they carried. "What manner of weapon is that?"
Chance asked them, and the commander gestured to a soldier. The soldier stepped toward us and removed the odd weapon from behind his shoulder while he talked to Chance.
"He calls it something that 'throws many small sling bolts rapidly' . . . I think." Chance looked puzzled by this.
The man assumed a practiced stance and pulled the trigger. With a series of astonishingly loud reports, we watched a small rock dance before exploding into fragments. My mind raced at the demonstration. Oh, what I could have done with that at the Veltaran Gorge!
We were instantly made welcome. There was much conversation made, and space was cleared for a large table. Shortly, the table was laden with unfamiliar but good-smelling food. I finally let myself think about how hungry I was. When they gestured for us to sit, I was first at the table filling my plate with meats and vegetables. It was excellent fare. The ale was strong and good (I was later told the drink was called beer). The meat, oddly spiced yet somewhat bland and the vegetables were unfamiliar, but everything went down very well. I noticed a few amused looks both from our hosts and my comrades, but I paid them no mind.
Once I started to slow down, I caught a bit of the translation Chance was doing for the rest of us. "Apparently," he was saying during pauses. "They are in the midst of a world spanning battle; genetic abominations are spreading across the whole of the known world. They seek to destroy the noble soul, to control nations, destroy families and cause widespread economic disarray. They also killed a powerful religious leader some years back . . . . " Chance paused to listen to the speaker.
I reached for another small loaf of bread.
"They think that Bethany and I are in charge because of our blond hair. The rest of you are supposed to be her servants or something like that." Chance was chuckling.
I stopped eating and stared at him. "Surely you jest!"
He had a wide grin on his face. "I swear by all the gods that's what he told me. He wanted to know if you were loyal to us."
Bethany couldn't quite hide the look of supreme satisfaction on her face. Fortunately, she didn't say anything.
"However, they claim to be nearly overrun by what they call abominations, and they prepare for a 'war of cleansing,'" Chance continued. Several of us asked the same question, which Chance relayed. "What do these abominations look like?"
The commander considered her question for a moment then spoke rapidly, he pointed at Elizabeth, Siralos and Dukoth.
Chance turned pale. "Abominations are different races; they can look like dwarves or hobbits. For the most part they are something called Jews."
We all stopped eating abruptly. Dukoth and Siralos began to develop severe frowns on their faces, and I watched Siralos put a hand on the haft of his hammer. "Wait, friends. Let's see how this develops," I cautioned. Siralos glared at me, but didn't draw the hammer. Elizabeth was scowling in the corner, and I could tell that she was biting her tongue angrily.
"What about races like elves and non-blond humans?" asked Cassandra. She cut another slice of meat and chewed on it merrily.
"They didn't say, so I don't think they know about any other races. All humans are supposed to be superior as long as they have light skin, but blond-haired humans are the ultimate . . . how did he put it? Right, the ultimate 'evolutionary development,' whatever that means."
"It means they're bigots, and are using whatever logic they can find to justify their bigotry," Stu put in. His eyes were afire as they had after he had sent a fireball down to the trolls' nest.
"For the time being, these are our hosts," Bethany pointed out. "I think we need to go along with them until we can get away from them."
"They're going to take us to some place they call Deutschland, which is where they come from," Chance translated.
"Much as I hate to admit it," I said. "I agree with the last. There are too many of them for us to start contesting their beliefs, and these are extremely competent warriors. I'd hate to meet them on a battlefield."
The commander turned to Bethany with a smile and went into a lengthy monologue with expressive gestures and a singsong tone. Chance's expression was carefully maintained as the commander spoke. If asked, I would have guessed that Bethany was being courted.
Finally, the man finished and waited a proud look.
"He is happy," Chance told us simply. We waited for him to continue, but he didn't.
The commander turned to Chance indignantly. I saw some of his men snickering quietly behind his back.
"He talked for at least ten minutes!" Bethany exclaimed. "Are you telling me that's all he said?"
"More or less, yes." Chance took a bite of his meal and didn't comment further. I regarded him curiously, and returned to my meal. I began to think of ways we might escape our hosts.
The commander glared at him, but said nothing else.