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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fred's dead baby... Fred's dead.

Mandlebrot rushes over to the spot where Thaelioth had just vanished and takes out a small brush and some vials from his pack.  He begins to scrape and sweep up the grains of sand that fell in the wake of the mysterious elf woman’s teleportation spell.  Busying himself with his task, Mandlebrot doesn’t immediately notice the conversation that has erupted in the small library around him.

“If we canno’ trust her, then what’re we to do now?”  Boucher’s baritone voice cuts in.  “I mean if we’re talkin’ true now?  How, by Amanautor’s light, are we to tell who be friend and who be foe?”

As he finishes, Boucher notices all of them looking at him.  The expressions on each of their faces telling the dwarf he’d just voiced what all of them were thinking.  All of them except one.  Mandlebrot was putting the stopper in the vial of sand he’d been sweeping up.  Pleased with himself over his latest curious acquisition, for almost everything concerning magic was a curiosity to Mandlebrot, he finally looked up to see the others grim faces.

“What about the map?”  Aelar states, breaking the silence to everyone’s relief.

Murook pulls out the map they had found in the caves just two days before.  The day the Academy was attacked.  The day they had fled for their very lives.  The day everything had changed for them.  The day of the blue dragon.  He unrolls the parchment out on the room’s small table and studies it, and the others move around him to do the same.

“The monkey’s paw print is odd.  I wonder who this map was created for?  I mean, if this is indeed a laboratory of some wizard, monkey or man, why leave something to lead others to it?  Most wizards aren’t known for their open and sharing nature.”  Arquelios states, as he runs his fingers along the map searching for any imperfections that may give a clue to the maps age and authenticity.

“Was it made for us?”  Murook wished he’d not said it, but quickly realized that whatever implications that question alluded to, it was only added to the already overwhelming situation that they now found themselves in.

“It’s a possibility.”  Mandlebrot said after a pause that seemed to Murook to be much too long and uncomfortable.  “If I may suggest?”  Mandlebrot continued.  “Archelios and I will stay here and study these books to see if we may figure out anything that may be of use to us, and you three go and check out this location.”  Mandlebrot walks around the small room motioning to all the tomes and parchments stuffed onto the overflowing shelves that line the walls of the small room.

“Right, we certainly have the means of travel to get there and back quickly.”  Aelar quips as Mandlebrot pulls out Traveler and tosses it to him.

“Then we should get going.  The sooner we find some answers the better.”  Murook said as he grabbed his pack and motioned for Boucher to do the same.

Aelar, being the first time he’d held the artifact, was surprised when it spoke to him inside his own thoughts politely asking the druid where he wished to go and who was to accompany him.  It was as easy as thinking about the answers to those questions but, of course, Aelar spoke the answers aloud, not quite catching on to the ways of the arcane as easily as Mandlebrot or Archelios.  In the instant that he finished answering the sentient orb, the three of them vanished and, with a pop, found themselves standing beside a fast flowing river pouring forth from the base of snow capped mountains.

“The Dragonspire Mountains as sure as I’m standing here!”  exclaimed Boucher.  He looked to the others and noticed that they were similarly entranced by the ease in which they had just crossed the whole of the Dalelands.  A journey that would’ve taken a tenday or more to cross on horse back.

“Indeed, I am amazed at the power of this orb.”  said Aelar, correctly gauging the expressions of his companions.

“Aye.”  said Murook.  “Let’s be at it then.”  Murook was anxious to get out of the open, not really wanting to be too exposed when whoever, or whatever, was tracking them decided to show up.  More than once he made a quick glance around the area, most notably toward the sky.

“Dragon’s don’t be flyin’ that fast my friend.”  Boucher said with a wink, as he noticed Murook’s swiveling head and obvious agitated state.  In truth, Boucher shared a measure of that hesitation, but it seemed that Murook was truly worried, more so than he’d ever known the half orc warrior to be.  He gave a quick glance around the sky, when he noticed that Murook paid him no heed, just to be sure.

“Over here!”  Aelar was pointing to the rock face as the other two snapped their focus away from the sky and onto the druid.

The river poured forth from under a low hanging rock ledge.  Barely two feet of space was between the water and the solid rock wall hanging above the tumult of water.  The water seemed to be expelled from the rock.  Upon closer inspection, however, it became clear that there was some kind of cavern about ten feet in.  Boucher confirmed this after knocking on the rock a few times and letting the vibrations of the rock ’talk’ to him.

After a few moments of planning and some strategic rope use, Murook jumped into the frigid water and started to make his way along the wall under the overhang and into the darkness beyond.  He’d not gone far in when his foot met, not with the expected stone, but with metal bars.  He took the sunrod Boucher had conjured for him from his mouth and, after setting his other hand and feet well enough, he poked his head under the water and gazed upon an iron gate set into the wall just below him.  Murook kicked at the gate and it swung lazily open, the water holding any sudden movements in check.

“Found a tunnel.  It’ll take some swimming but it looks like this could be it.”  yelled Murook before replacing the sunrod in his mouth, then sucking in a long, deep breath in preparation for his swim.

After a short time all three had negotiated the tunnel and climbed a set of stairs that led out of the water and into a small chamber with a huge stone door directly opposite.  All three were drenched and shivering having no doubt that the water had come from the melting snow high in the mountains rather than an underground spring.  A quick survey of the area revealed a handle set into the rock beside the door.

Once inside, what the three of them were certain was the back door to the place, each of them felt a thickness that seemed to close in around them.  There were no sounds, no movement of the air at all.  The place had been sealed for a long time, perhaps a century or more, according to Boucher’s nose.  The first room they entered was dominated by the statue of what Aelar described as a pseudodragon, a large caldron containing some sickly smelling liquid, a small magical circle inscribed in the floor and two thrones carved of marble.  The companions noticed that the magic circle was glowing.  Not wanting to mess with anything magical, Murook immediately went to inspect the two thrones placed midway along the back wall of the room.  While Boucher and Aelar studied the magic circle in more detail.

After a cursory inspection, Murook discovered that one of the thrones could be pressed into the floor, if enough weight could be put atop it.  Boucher and Aelar broke away from their study of the circle, not feeling at all certain about its nature anyway, to help him.  It took all three of them, plus the weight of the caldron, to move it but at last it started to sink into the floor.  The marble throne stopped suddenly with a loud click.  Almost immediately the second throne slid to the side to reveal a set of spiral stairs leading down.  The three of them hoped off the first throne to inspect the new passage.  As they exited the sunken throne, a stone slab slid in to cover the hole, or at least that was the way it was supposed to work.  The slab slid in and quickly met with the metal caldron the three had used as extra weight to help them push the throne down.  A loud bong echoed throughout the whole of the place, not unlike a large temple bell being struck at mid-feast.  Again and again the complex resounded with the great bong of the caldron bell, until the three managed to yank it from the throne and at last, silence.  For what seemed like an eternity they all stood, listening for any signs of disturbance.  There came none.

“Well.  Onward then.”  Boucher stated flatly while picking up his sunrod that he’d abandoned in favor of his mace just moments before.

Boucher descended the spiral stairs cautiously, leading the other two downward.  Aelar, thinking about all they had seen so far, found it curious that everything in the place seemed large, as if made for large creatures, perhaps giants, he surmised.  And yet, these stairs they now descended could not possibly be used by giants.  Not even the smallest of giantkin could make use of them.  Curious indeed, he thought.

After a few more short tunnels, the three came to a room with a large table decorated with two enormous, silvery candelabras.  The candles were lit and provided enough light to reveal three statues in one corner of the room, and a fourth in the corner diagonally across from the others.  The first three statues were of two human males and one halfling female.  The first male had a bandoleer of daggers across his chest.  The second male held a huge sword at the ready.  The halfling was equipped with two short swords and they all stared across the room at the fourth statue.  This final statue was of a giant with a huge club in his right hand, a titan, they all agreed.  The three also noticed a short tunnel leading to another chamber with a soft reddish glow emanating from within.  Murook grabbed up one of the candelabras and seeing nothing further of interest in this room, led them through the short tunnel and into the next room.

Murook froze at the entrance into the next chamber.  He looked around at the other two still in the tunnel and motioned for them to come take a look.  Inside the room was a small figure standing within a cylinder of soft light.  The figure was very small, perhaps only a couple of feet high, and standing motionless.  In the center of the room was a red, glowing magical rune set into the floor.  They each slowly stepped into the room expecting something horrible to leap out at them from the darkened corners.  Murook made his way toward the figure standing in the light.  Aelar and Boucher couldn’t resist another magical rune to decipher, and they crept over to the center of the room.

Murook looked the figure over closely.  It was a small monkey.  A small, dead monkey, for it had some skin hanging off its lower jaw and its eyes were sunken and dark. It had probably been in this state for quite a while, Murook thought to himself.  Although he’d never actually seen a monkey, it looked exactly like some of the illustrations in the books about the far away jungles of Chult that he had studied at the Academy.  Murook’s favorite class, besides martial training that is, taught by Gertrude Oswatil, a well traveled human bard of advancing years.  She’d seen most every part of the world, from the deserts of Memnon up the sword coast to Waterdeep, the city of splendors, and from there to Karatur in the east.  She was always kind, always had a great story to tell about something or someone.  At that moment Murook was lost in his thoughts about the Academy and the many things that had happened in just a few short days.  Was Gertrude, or Gerty as she wanted to be called, still alive?  He noticed then to his horror that the small, dead monkey had tilted its head up toward his and its eyes glowed red as it gazed up at him.  He staggered back a bit and brought his axe around defensively on instinct.  It struck the light barrier between him and creature and sent a shock through his body.  He immediately recovered and set  him self against whatever attack was coming from the thing.  The undead monkey was, instead, pointing passed Murook and its mouth was moving but no sound could be heard.  It took him a moment to realize the one word the monkey kept saying over and over.


The half orc snapped his head around to his companions just in time to see Aelar step onto the magical rune in the center of the room.

Aelar opened his eyes then, expecting to be standing on the other magic circle in the first room they had entered.  He was not.  Instead he was still in the room with his companions and that odd little creature in the light that seemed to have Murook on edge.  Moments later the sounds of battle rang in his ears, coming from the room back down the tunnel.  But there was nothing in there but those four statues, he thought.

Boucher rushed to the tunnel and looked inside trying to get a sense of what was happening in the room.  The light of the one remaining candelabra didn’t last very long as it soon went out, followed by a loud crash that Boucher assumed was the table on which it sat.  The battle continued on in the darkened room with no less ferocity, from the sound of it anyway.

Murook glanced back at the undead monkey, who was now standing with shoulders slumped and a small, boney hand covering his face.  He had no time to worry with the little creature then, as he rushed back to Boucher, who was setting himself at the side of the tunnel to meet whoever, or whatever, came through.  Aelar joined them, although still not sure why the magic circle didn’t work as he’d thought.

A few more loud crashes, and the battle was over.  Heavy footsteps now grew louder.  Whatever it was, it was coming.  Boucher readied his mace, Murook twisted his axe in his hands and Aelar set his mind on recalling the words and gestures he would need in the battle that was certain to come.  Only moments later the giant burst from the tunnel whipping its massive mace around with wild abandon, and the battle was joined.  Murook flew in from the side striking at the giants ribs, but in truth it was only a feint in the hopes that it would draw the titan’s attention away and let Boucher strike openly.  It worked.  A little too well, for Murook’s liking and he took a glancing blow on the back of his thigh for the effort.  At that moment, it occurred to him that he didn’t really care to know what a solid blow from that enormous mace would feel like.  Boucher’s attacks hit home and after every one landed, dust and shards of stone flew from the impact.  In the dim light of the chamber they all had failed to notice that this giant was still made of stone.  The statue animated but had not come to life as they had feared.  Although each of them were, at that moment, thinking that it made no difference.

Aelar waded in and set his thorns in place around the colossus, and then blasted it with lightning, which made the thing howl in protest.

“That’s it elf!  The lightning’s makin’ him think twice!”  Boucher shouted back at Aelar.

Aelar was quickly back to casting another bolt, while Murook, using the distraction of the previous blast, landed a devastating blow to the titans left knee which sent shards of stone flying.  The massive, animated statue now swayed to and froe.  Boucher, sensing the battle nearing its end, landed two heavy shots then backed away as a lightning strike shook the thing violently and it toppled to the floor and broke apart into a thousand fragments.  It occurred to Murook then that fighting a real titan would’ve been much harder.  This thing moved with the speed of stone, and had as much grace and finesse as an anvil.  No, he thought to himself, a real titan would have killed them all, easily.  What were they doing here?  When were they to meet the thing that would be the end of them all?

It took quite a few moments after the battle had ended for them to notice that the light in the room had diminished slightly.  Murook suddenly remembered the monkey!  He spun around as the thing, who was already standing directly behind him, spoke.

“Hello there my emancipators!  I am Fredregar, of Phlan, at your service.”  the little monkey announced to them all ending with an exaggerated bow.  “I am finally free of that prison the witch Thaelioth trapped me in thanks to you, although there was a much easier way to free me, but I guess it worked out in the end.”

All three of the companions sucked in their breath, not quite knowing what to make of what they just heard.  The founder, Thaelioth, had imprisoned this undead monkey, named Fredregar, here in this place?  For what purpose?

That name, Fredregar.  Aelar had heard it before at the Academy.  No, not heard it, read it, in the book of history regarding the Guardians of the Balance and the founding of that organization in the city of Phlan!  It couldn’t be a coincidence, this had to be connected somehow, Aelar thought to himself.  He decided not to speak of it openly now, but to tell his friends later when they were alone.

Murook, deciding they really didn’t have much to lose by talking with the undead creature, pulled out the map that had led them here and began to tell the tale.  He spoke of the founder, the Dalelands Defense Academy, the attack by the blue dragon but left out the parts about a certain magical orb.  All the while Fredregar listened intently and after Murook had finished he looked up and smiled.

“I remember that Thaelioth, the kind one.  She changed you know.  After the incident with that damned drow witch.”  Fredregar’s little face reflected the fond memories of which he spoke until he spoke of the drow witch, then his face screwed up in disgust.
“She and the others we traveled with, one of which I called master for a time, could do anything.  Founding members of the Guardians of the Balance we were.  Had a mind to set things right in the world.  Not self-righteous blowhards, but actually trying to make a difference for people that had no champions, and no where else to turn.  Like the people in Phlan.”  Fredregar noticed then that there was the sound of distant rumbling from far below them.

“You’re speakin’ a little too well for a monkey I’ma thinking.”  Boucher said rubbing his chin and squinting with one eye, either for effect or just out of habit,  no one could tell.

“Very perceptive dwarf.  Wasn’t always a monkey and, in truth, I still forget that I am sometimes, but that’s a story for another time.  Now, I think we should make our way out.  This place was awakened when the druid switched off the magic that was keeping most things at bay in the lower depths.”  Fredregar was already moving toward the tunnel and back to the spiral stairs that led up and out.

“But we still don’t know why we were led here.  It certainly seems to me now that finding this map was no coincidence.”  Murook said to the retreating Fredregar, who stopped and turned to face the warrior.

“Maybe you were sent here to release me?”  the little creature said with a smile that should have been pleasant, but when the skin that was left around Fredregar’s mouth tried to stretch it just broke apart and fell away revealing many more teeth than was normal.  It ended up being a very creepy smile, one that had the three wincing in unison.

Not being at all satisfied with that, Murook decided that he wanted to explore the rest of the complex.  Boucher looked at Murook and nodded, seeming to be able to read the half orc’s thoughts at that moment, which Murook found unsettling but he was thankful that Boucher was of like mind nonetheless.  Aelar, seeming to be out of the loop at that point, had already started off after Fredregar when Murook grabbed him by the sleeve and informed the druid that it wasn’t time to leave yet.  Obviously unsettled by the fact they weren’t leaving, but not willing to leave his companions, Aelar nodded and joined Boucher as he readied another sunrod to help them along their way down into the lower depths of the catacombs.

Moments later, when they were about to start searching for another way down, a door appeared in the wall opposite the tunnel through which they had entered.

“I guess you might have come here for my box.”  Fredregar’s voice echoed from the tunnel, into which he had just moments before disappeared.  “If you insist on going, look for it.  Its located in the crypt down there.  All the doors will be hidden, but  you’ll have no trouble finding them.  Take a right then a left then another right and be quick, this place won’t hold together long now that my magic has been sundered.”  He turned and started off down the tunnel again.

Murook looked to Boucher and to Aelar, who both nodded in agreement, and started toward the new door.

“You’ll all see me again.  We have much to discuss!”  Fredregar’s last words echoed back at them as they walked through the door and down into the lower parts of the complex.

It wasn’t long till they exited the smaller tunnel into a large grand hallway which was lined with statues of gargoyles and other similar winged creatures up near the roof line, some thirty feet from the floor.  A red, orange glow emanated from somewhere up ahead, but it was difficult to tell just how far away it was.

“Could be torchlight?”  Boucher asked hopefully.  It could also be the cooking fire of some monstrous thing that was waiting to eat them, but he pushed that thought away quickly.

The other two kept walking forward, either not hearing him or not wanting to think about it.  Either way it didn’t make much difference.  They were committed now, and they knew it.  On they went toward the glow in the distance, until at last they came to the end of the hallway and discovered its source.  A sculpted, square opening was here.  All three eased their way up to the edge and looked over down into the lava below, perhaps a hundred feet or more down.  They all noticed at once the odd sound coming from within the opening.  Flapping sounds, like a giant bird flying through the air.  None of them wanted to meet whatever was making that sound, and they quickly searched the area for hidden doors.  Fredregar said they would have no trouble finding them, and his words proved true when Aelar discovered the outline of the door on the right side of the hallway.

“Take a right, a left, then another right…”  Fredregar’s words floated through Aelar’s mind.  He noted that this was a right turn and, after searching around a bit, he found the catch and pushed the door open.

Boucher and Murook wasted no time entering the door, as the flapping sound was louder now, so much so that they figured it would only be a matter of a few moments until whatever was making that sound was upon them.  Murook closed the door behind them as they moved through another short tunnel and into the chamber beyond.  Here was a pool of water with steps leading down into it in the center of the room.  Another statue of a pseudodragon flanked it on the right and on the left of the pool a dais rose a few feet from the floor.

“Left turn now?”  Murook asked Aelar as he noted the druid already heading to the left wall feeling the cracks in the stone as he went.

“Aye. As the little monkey told us.”  came Aelar’s answer.

Boucher found himself mesmerized by the statue of the small dragon thing.  It was about the size of a large dog, and its small wings, much too small to carry it aloft Boucher thought, were shaped like a butterfly’s and he could even discern a pattern on them.  Had it not been made of stone, he imagined it would be a colorful thing indeed.  Its expression locked in a horrific gaze staring into the pool of water in the center of the room.  He looked back toward his friends checking on their progress, then to the door they had closed just to make sure nothing was trying to follow them and back to the statue which, to his shock, had changed.  The thing was now looking directly at him, with the same horror filled expression.  Its clawed hand had come forth to point at the water in the pool, and that’s when Boucher noticed the bubbles forming in the still water.  Tiny at first, then building in intensity  until the pool seemed like it would start to froth and roil over the confining stones surrounding it.  Boucher looked to his companions to shout a warning but he found that they needed none.  They were staring at the pool also.  Luckily they had already found the door and Murook slapped Aelar a few times on the shoulder which got him back focused on the task of opening it.  A few tense moments later, the door swung open and the three wasted no time entering and closing it behind them.

“The place seems to be catchin’ up with us, eh?”  Boucher gave a half-hearted chuckle, but the other two listening to him then knew it was less from his natural mirth, and more from the disquiet that had descended upon them all.

Here they were, delving deeper into this place, not knowing what was lurking around the next corner, and for what?  A box?  Some treasure?  Murook thought of his earlier lament about pushing their luck, about meeting their end and about the powerful forces arrayed against them. He could only shake the thoughts from his mind.  He knew now that they had at least two things at their back, with no certain way out but back the way they had come.  Back through whatever waited for them out in those halls that they had passed.  Murook could only hope that it would be worth it.  But wait! They had their way out.  They were, after all, holding an object of immense power able to transport them nearly anywhere, or so it seemed.  But only once per day, he remembered just then.  It had only been a matter of a few hours, maybe less, since they had popped in, for lack of a better way to describe it, beside the river outside.

“Maybe we can find’a place to hold ourselves, ‘till the orb thing can get us outa here?”  Boucher asked, breaking Murook’s train of thought.

The half orc warrior looked curiously at the dwarf priest.  It occurred to him that Boucher could read his mind somehow.  It was certainly within the power of some priests to do just that with magic granted them by their gods, but it was a bit unsettling just how frequently Boucher seemed to be of the same mind as he.  Maybe it wasn’t so bad.  They had learned how to fight together in a short time.  Playing off each others strengths and weaknesses to perfection.  Murook diving in, Boucher taking advantage of the openings, and setting up Murook’s big over hand swings.  It also occurred to him, at that moment, that Boucher was a friend.  No, not just a friend, a trusted friend and ally.  One who shared his own struggle, one who was part of his struggle.  He was not alone in all this, and he felt somewhat embarrassed  then, thinking himself doomed to a fate that he didn’t choose.  None of them chose this fate, it was thrust upon them all.  These revelations, although enlightening, did not make the situation any better for them.  Murook decided to let these thoughts go for the time being and focus on the tasks at hand.

“Aye, that’s sure to be a good idea”  Aelar cut in, snapping Murook’s attention back to the here and now.

“I don’t know if we can find a good place to defend for more than three quarters of a day.”  Murook chimed in.  He knew, as they all did then, that although the idea was sound, it was not likely.  The stone doors were massive but not impenetrable.  If something really wanted to get at them, it would take far less than a day.  They had to keep moving and hope there was another way out, or brace for a long battle back to the surface.

The trio kept moving, down the tunnel and through a doorway on the right, a heavy, ironbound wooden door this time.  It opened without any trouble and, once inside, Aelar noticed magical wards, covering almost every inch of the entrance way to this room.  Fredregar must have deactivated them, for if just a few of them had activated, they’d all likely be little more than piles of blackened dust.

“These wards could have ended all of us in the blink of an eye.  Do you think that the little one deactivated them for us?”  Aelar said, turning to regard the others.  He noticed then that both the dwarf and the half orc stood motionless staring into the next chamber with their backs to him, as if they had both been frozen where they stood.

“What is it you see?”  whispered Aelar as he moved up to join them.  The words caught in his throat, as he looked passed them and into a chamber that emitted a golden glow that was almost blinding.

The treasure room was neatly organized.  A small, monkey sized sarcophagus sat in the center of the far wall.  Chests of gold, jewels and trinkets were arranged along the right hand wall.  Armor and cloaks hung around tailor’s mannequins and swords, axes, maces and hammers lined the shelves of the left hand wall.  A table in the center had many small figurines and jewelry pieces laying about.  The wonder of so much wealth and magic in one place nearly overwhelmed the three companions, so much so, that they all stood for long moments just trying to comprehend what they were seeing.  It seemed that each of them was afraid to take their eyes from the wondrous sight.  The fear that if any one of them blinked it would all disappear and be gone forever.

But blink they did when, after a few moments, something crashed against the ironbound door behind them.  All three shook themselves from their stupor immediately.  Then another loud bang on the door.  Something was trying to get in.  Another crash and the wood between the iron straps began to crack.

“Grab what you can!”  Aelar shouted, but Boucher was already moving toward the tiny sarcophagus in the back of the room.

“We can use one of these chests to carry some things.”   said Murook.

“It’s too big to be carrying.  Just pick up what you can, it ain’t worth our lives!”  Boucher cried out.  “We’re sure to be fightin’ our way out.  Can’t be fightin’ and carrying a big chest now can we.”  As if to accentuate his point, at that moment, a top piece of the wooden door was blasted into the room and a gruesome, ghoulish hand poked through and grabbed at nothing in particular.

Aelar pocketed a couple of figurines from the table, Boucher grabbed Fredregar’s box from within the sarcophagus and, on the way back to the door, managed to drape a cloak around his neck.  Murook traded his shoes for some nice boots in the corner, and not a moment too soon.  The door gave way and into the room spilled a horde of disgusting undead.  Some were only bones, little more than animated skeletons.  Some looked more recognizable as humans, elves or other humanoid races, with festering, rotting flesh.  Still others were somewhere in between.  They shambled and loped their way into the narrow entrance way where they met Murook’s axe, and Boucher’s mace, and Aelar’s lightning blasts.

For a few moments, just after the battle began, the trio thought they might destroy this slow, shambling mob and go back to secure more of the treasure.  That thought quickly went away as more and more of the nasty things pushed their way passed the now completely shattered door.  It soon became clear that this room, filled with glorious wealth and fabulous items of magic, would be their tomb if they didn’t get passed the crushing mob of foul undead.

Fighting side by side in the narrow tunnel, with Aelar set behind them tossing lightning bolts into the mob whenever an opening presented itself, Murook and Boucher started their push for the door.  When one of the disgusting things fell, they stepped over it to meet the next one.  On it went for many minutes.  Bodies of the now recently re-dead, started to pile up in the tunnel.  So much so, that every step was into something that squished and made the stone floor more than a little slippery.  They fought and pushed their way back to the last stone door they had come through, and while Murook and Aelar held them at bay, Boucher opened it and they all ran through, slamming it behind them.  Not knowing what was ahead, the trio continued on  until finally they burst forth from the last stone door and back into the grand hallway.

A loud flapping sound came from the pit that led down to the lava at the end of this hallway.  It was much louder now, and the three companions turned just in time to witness two winged figures alight on either side of the pit and stare back at them through hungry eyes.  The things seemed to chuckle and even grinned widely showing mouths full of razor edged teeth as they moved slowly toward the trio apparently taking measure of their new prey.

We shall eat well this day, brother
“wij zullyn inze vullung diaze dagh, bror etiin.”  One of the nasty creatures said to the other in a horrid, demonic voice.

Not if I can help it!
“Nit alz ik heth kazn hulpinz!”  Murook shouted back at them without even thinking about it.

Aelar and Boucher turned toward their friend, a wide eyed expression on both of their faces, not believing what they had just heard.  Murook was talking with these creatures in a tongue neither one of them had heard before.

What had just happened, Murook thought to himself.  What did he just say?  He knew what he just said, but what language was he speaking, and how did he know it?  He made a promise to himself to resolve this question later, if he survived the next few moments.  It was easy to miss the dim glow that shown through the thin leather pouch that Murook wore on his belt.  The same pouch where he’d stuffed a large crystal that he took from the treasure room below.

The battle was immediately, and violently joined.  The winged, demonic creatures clawed and snapped at the three viscously and without any hesitation.  It was all they could do to fend off the initial fury of the assault.  They could only hope that the creatures would break off to regroup soon, giving them time to set their formation and mount a defense of some kind.  The attack didn’t relent, and although they traded blows, the creatures were showing no signs of slowing their furious charge.  Attacking the things was made all the more difficult because of the fact that they were covered in sharp spines that seemed protrude from every inch of their grayish, ashen skin.

“Close up with me!  Maybe we can keep the devils in front of us.”  shouted Boucher.

“They’ll just jump and fly over our heads.”  Murook responded.

Boucher knew they were in trouble here.  He’d already taken a viscous hit to the left arm, and had more than a couple of those wicked spines sticking in him.  The spines burned his skin and, more than likely, were spreading poison through his veins.  Then he sank within himself and called upon Amanautor’s grace to grant him a powerful spell against these denizens of evil.  The power surged through him, rushing to his call.  His mace flared to life with the divine radiance of the sun gods power.

Murook had fared better than the others so far.  The winged demon he faced had suddenly backed off from him and looked to be rethinking its plan of attack.  Murook glanced around to make sure his friends were still with him.  He saw Boucher’s mace start to glow and knew the priest was about to unleash some sort of spell against the foul things.  He only hoped that it would work.  Aelar too readied a powerful lightning blast toward their foe, who seemed not to be slowing in the least.  He turned his attention back to his own adversary in time to see the thing flap its wings in his direction.  From those hellish wings sprayed forth a number of the burning, poison spines directly at him.  There was no where to go.  He had no shield to stop the missiles.  No time to roll away from the attack.  Nothing to do but charge.

Aelar loosed his lightning bolts and singed the skin of the beast and, for the first time, the companions heard the thing wail in agony.  Aelar then saw the devastating barrage that poor Murook was about to endure.

Boucher, seeing Aelar finish his spell, started his mighty swing downward toward the howling beast.  Its skin still erupting with crackling energy from the lightning.  The thing had no defense against the blow.  The glowing mace struck with deadly force.  The instant it contacted the creatures flesh, a radiant light erupted from the weapon turning the thing to a sickly cloud of ash.  Boucher’s elation was short lived as Murook’s cry of agony split the air.  He looked over to see his friend stumble and drop to a knee, with more than a dozen spines protruding from his chest.

His charge was stopped short as the spines impacted with such force that they almost knocked him backward.  Indeed, in that moment, Murook thought that if he’d not been charging forward, he would have been thrown back many feet.  The power of the attack surprised him.  The effects did not.

Murook let loose an agonizing wail.

He dropped to his knee, but managed, at the last moment, to bring his axe down to steady himself so as not to succumb to the darkness and serenity of unconsciousness that beckoned to him.  Murook knew if he fell, it would be the end.  His friends would not be able to reach him before his enemy could land the killing strike.  He had to continue.  He had to live.  Whether it was instinct, martial skill, luck, or maybe some other influence, he did not know, but he managed to fend off the next series of attacks from the demonic beast.

At last a lightning bolt blasted through the thing, and radiant light erupted all around, although Murook wasn’t sure if it  came from Boucher or from the afterlife that awaited him.  The creature fled back down the pit and into the lava lake below.  Aelar and Boucher worked furiously to remove the spines and stop the bleeding of the stricken warrior.  After a few moments, Murook was able to sit up.

“Can ya move?”  Boucher pleaded, looking back over his shoulder toward the pit.

“Aye, enough to get out of this  place, for sure!”  Murook managed to say between gasping for breath and wincing in pain.

“The next chamber is clear!”  Aelar shouted back, having run up ahead to make certain their path to the surface was open.

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