Strange new world
Through the Looking Glass
The companions shook the dizziness from their heads. As the blur parted from their aching eyes, their surroundings could be made out more clearly. They were no longer in Specularum, that much was certain. Above their heads and all around was a void of infinite blackness. Their feet rested upon a surface of sheening black stone, within which each companion could clearly see his confused reflection staring back. Later Drewen would profess that these surroundings were truly alien to him. In all his years dwelling beneath the ground, the dwarf had never come across such a material. The strange stone formed part of a long plateau, and as the companions’ minds cleared more fully, it struck the five that they were not alone here. Surging into action, Lana grabbed for her amber rose dagger, brandishing the blade aloft in the air as a gesture of hostility, toward an entire battalion of armoured guards. These men were all clad identically to the two who had orchestrated the companions’ abduction back in Specularum, only moments before. Or had it been longer…?
One thing the heroes did know was that they were surrounded, heavily outnumbered in this strange place. Instinctively the heroes drew in together, closing rank but knowing that they could do little against this miniature army…
“Come now,” came a surprisingly old and venerable voice. “Put away those weapons before some-one gets themselves injured. I don't know, you young folk rush into every situation with swords drawn and fists raised, entirely the wrong approach and quite the wrong attitude, I’m telling you…” The speaker ambled his way through the crowd of guards to stand only a few yards before the companions. Karnus gasped in recognition of the ageing and robed newcomer.
“Mallek!” the blue-robed mage breathed in recognition of his one-time mentor.
“Why yes!” responded the archmage like an old acquaintance. “Young Perdissium – my, what great progress you have made to be standing here! But really,” the old man’s brow creased sternly, “you would be much better placed outside of this scenario. I really have no wish to kill you, so I would ask that you and your companions stand down before some-one does something rash…” the old man’s gaze fell on Lana, her teeth gritted and still brandishing her dagger, “and some-one and hurts somebody else! My, all this violence, it is, of course, totally uncalled for.”
Lana drew a breath of exasperation at the old man’s disinterested tone. “Now listen here Skarda, you cannot simply -”
The ageing wizard whirled, overtaken by an unexpected onset of rage. “WRONG!” he shrieked. Then, reposing himself, the old man’s hands strayed across the folds of his robes. “Skarda is not at home at the moment,” came his quiet voice from within the depths of his beard. “You may not speak with him.” At mention of this, the companions stared at one another in utter bewilderment. Truly the old mage had developed some sort of alter ego complex!
Lana pressed on determinedly. “Well then, Mallek,” she began again. “You must appreciate our predicament, from our perspective. Your minions have kidnapped each of us five from our homes in Specularum, against our will, through the use of force and for no fault of our own. Of course we’re going to retaliate against you! In addition, we have reason to hold you responsible for the disappearances of Halia and Retameron Antonic, who –“
“Well of course that was my doing, yes!” the old wizard nodded enthusiastically. “And I appreciate your predicament entirely wholeheartedly! But you see, I have great plans for the Duchy, and I cannot allow you to interfere … why you might get hurt! So that is why I have brought you here,” the mage gestured around, “into my Mirror. And…” the man’s voice fell into almost conspiratorial tones. “To be quite honest, I think I’ve been jolly kind with you up until now. I mean, some-one less sympathetic could have just had you all killed!” He chortled. “Some-one like that mean old Skarda, for example… So do be good, play along nicely and nobody will end up being any the worse for wear. There now!” He folded his arms contentedly. “I do believe I have mentioned everything I meant to. Please try to enjoy your time here in the Realm, won’t you. It’ll make things go that much faster, don’t you think…”
With one final nod of his head, the old mage cast a kindly smile along the party turned tail and strolled off at a leisurely pace along the mirror plateau.
With their host having departed, the party were left in the company of the not-so-hospitable guard battalion. Each of the heroes was bound by their hands, their feet remaining unfettered in preparation for the long hike ahead. Our companions were forcibly marched along the long mirror plateau, which they soon discovered was the highest point within the strange mirror world. The whole realm seemed to stretch out like a vast circular disc, whose edges were shrouded in a perpetual and impenetrable shroud of darkness. At the far end of the sheening plateau they could make out the towering mass of a great citadel, hewn from the same strange mirror rock as the rest of the place. Down to one side, there was the remainder of the Realm, a wide expanse of quarries, streets and cramped housing, reaching far off into the horizon. The companions marvelled at their surroundings – could they truly be inside the Mirror itself? Or else had they been transported off to some faraway, alternate dimension, from which there might be no escape? No answers seemed forthcoming.
Arriving at the base of the great citadel, the party was ushered down through a secret section of mountain rock, where a long dark staircase led deeper into the sheening bedrock. The steps led down into a maze-like network of cramped prison cells, dimly lit by the flickering glow of an occasional wall-mounted torch. Two doors were unlocked, and the party cast into cells, Drewen, Karnus and Lana through one door, and Vasily and Threy through the next. The stench of the interiors was sufficient to make each of the party members wretch, as rats scuttled busily amid stinking piles of muck and bones. Before the door to the first cell closed, a hulking figure stepped into the doorway, his huge form blocking almost all the light from the corridor outside. This was Kogrin the jailer, whom the companions presumed to be partly of ogre descent, if not simply a supremely ugly human. Kogrin cordially manacled the dwarf and each of the two mages to the cell walls, before proceeding to hurl a bucket of raw sewage over the trio. The welcome was complete! Lana breathed a sigh of relief as the remains of her shield spell caused the muck to slither away harmlessly. Dwarf and blue-robed mage were not so lucky. The two were left literally fuming! Time passed and little was said among the companions as they took a short while to take account of all that had conspired.
From the depths of the darkness however there came a strange scratching sound. Was some-one else in the cell alongside the three companions? No surely not, for the small cell seemed too cramped to house even the three present guests. A rat, then? Still the sound came, and at last Karnus decided to investigate. Having spent his formative years surviving the gutters and backalleys of Specularum, Karnus had been quick to master the art of escapology, and put his skill to quick use, cleverly twisting both hands to free himself of his imposed fetters. Free now the dextrous mage made his way over to the corner of the small room, hunkered down and squinted, his eyesight still adjusting to the darkness...
A pair of eyes gleamed back at Karnus through the darkness!
Karnus recoiled in shock, but realised that he was being watched through a hole in the wall. Whoever this stranger was, he had managed to chip out a single brick on his side of the cell, and was now trying to contact our heroes!
"Who are you?" was all that the stunned Karnus was able to utter.
The eyes wavered, and then came the rasping, barely audible reply. "My name is Ashgarth ... Ashgarth from Hell!!
Karnus continued to parley with this mystery stranger, who it transpired after brief introductions was another of the hundred of slaves, captives of Skarda, brought from their village homes in Karameikos against their will to work the mines of the Mirror Artifact. Ashgarth informed the heroes that they were like no others to have been brought here before ... save perhaps two others who came in a week or so ago, a couple... Lana's eyes lit up, as these reports confirmed that Halia and Retameron, if these two were the couple of whom Ashgarth spoke, were indeed still alive!
A plan for escape
The four minds merged as plans were hatched in a bid to escape the drudge and filth of their prison surroundings. Ashgarth was evidently weak and still manacled in his cell, as were Lana and Drewen. Their resources were few, as the guards had been sure to frisk each of the heroes and deprive them of their individual trappings, even down to the rings on Lana's fingers. Had the guards been truly thorough, though? Thankfully not. Lana had been wearing the two rings of protection all the time, in order to test her theory on whether two rings of the same source might function in combination. Despite the apparent failure of her reasoning, the mage was overjoyed that her ring of telekinesis had gone unchecked! Karnus retrieved the ring from the leather cord tied around his fellow mage's neck, and slipped the silver circlet onto his index finger. A plan was hatched ...
In the outside corridor the guard on patrol was ambling lazily along the length of the slave pens. Casting a glance to one side something seemed amiss... one of the doors was missing, a void in the doorway was all that remained, literally as if the wooden door had been taken off its hinges and spirited away.
"Quick Karnus, now's our chance!" came an excited female voice from within.
This was the cell of the newest prisoners, he knew, and Skarda would have little mercy on any guard who let these powerful individuals escape! Panicking the guard ran forward into the open cell to confront the prisoners, who must surely still be chained up ...
BAMM! Within a heartbeat the spell of invisibility was cancelled, and the door popped back into plain sight. Karnus trick had worked. As the guard now reeled in shock from the unexpected face-first collision, the blue-robed mage reached out through the magic of the ring of telekinesis. The ring of keys lifted clean off the guard's belt and floated through the iron grill in the door, into Karnus' waiting hand! A smile crossed the mage's face as he unlocked the door, thinking next to free his companions and then the clerics with the remaining keys ...
Karnus' fists of fury (!)
But as Karnus turned his back, presuming the guard incapacitated, there came a sound from behind. The guard was back on his feet, and stumbling toward a rope which hung from the ceiling, not far off ... he was trying to alert the attention of the other guards! Immediately Karnus was at the man's side, grappling to restrain him from attracting unwanted attention. But the guard threw Karnus off onto the ground, and then lunged! Dodging, Karnus leapt to his feet, fists bared, and closed with his adversary. Punches rained like wildfire, left, right and centre, but the nimble Karnus was more than able to avoid the overeager blows of his opponent, returning with some stinging force of his own! With one final, heavy impact, Karnus knocked the guard clean out, and the man crumpled into an unconscious heap at the blue mage's boots.
Dragging the unconscious guard into the cell, Karnus swiftly set about freeing his companions, who then assisted in manacling the guard to the wall and closing the door behind them! Hopefully it would be a while before anyone noticed the guard's absence, buying the heroes enough time to find Halia and Retameron and make their escape. The clerics were next to be released, Threy and Vasily both staggering into the light of the corridor and rubbing their chafed wrists as the blood in their wrists began to circulate freely once more. With the guard's keys in tow, Karnus led his companions round to the back of their own cell, to which the hole in the wall had connected. Inserting the key in the door, Karnus noted with some turning difficulty just how rusted and seldom ever opened this lock was. How long had Ashgarth been in here?
Inside the cell, the companions came face to face with their would-be ally. Ashgarth was as tall as Threy, with a long and straggling beard, evidently untended for many long months. Once in the distant past this man might have been lean and muscled, but now his frame was that of a skeleton and little more, flesh stretched taut across bone, all form and substance having wasted away due to lack of proper nourishment or any decent sort of existence. Shaking his head as he was released by Karnus, even Ashgarth had lost count of how long he had spent in this dingy lifeless existence. Still, now would be the time for retribution...
Ashgarth was led out of the cells area, requiring support even to walk or stand straight. He soon regained strength as if the idea of plotting against Skarda was better food than food, water or light! For as long as he could remember the man had been hatching an escape plan, and he profusely thanked the companions for assisting him in this venture. In the meantime, the party stressed, the greatest favour Ashgarth could lend them would be to lead them to the location of Halia and Retameron, who surely would be found in nearby cells, but which? Time was of the essence. Ashgarth thought for a moment and came to a logical conclusion. He led the companions along many long, winding corridors, occasionally having to duck back behind a corner or into an unused prison cell to avoid detection by the passing guard patrols, but at last came to two isolated doors at the end of a passage. Karnus fitted a key to the lock, and it opened easily - evidently this door had been used recently.
The Antonics rescued
Within the dim light, the six comrades could make out the shape of a female manacled to the back wall, her dishevelled hair hanging around her face, her once resplendent robes now colourless and in tatters. "Keep away," the figure muttered defiantly, "I shall take no more of your discourtesies." Halia evidently thought the intruders to be Skarda's guards, but was instead overjoyed to discover she was the object of a rescue mission by her friends from Threshold. Foremost in her concerns however was the fate of her husband ... checking in the next cell, sure enough, there was Retameron! The two embraced, and offered their thanks to the party for the timely rescue.
Eager now to leave the prison cell, Ashgarth took lead of the party and led our heroes on through the passages of the dungeon and in what Drewen deduced was an upward decision. After a short while the cells gave way, and at the top of a tall staircase, the outline of a door could be made out. Within this room, Ashgarth informed the others, would be the party's items, laying in storage until Skarda found time to examine their magical properties more closely. The room doubled up however as the main guard barracks, and it was possible that a fight might be unavoidable in the redemption of rightful property! Everyone had an interest in recuperating the belongings, however, most notably Halia, whose spellbook and wand had been confiscated, and of course Karnus, whose cedarwood staff had also been stolen. The party climbed the steps in next to complete silence, and voices could be heard from within the room beyond.
With a splintering smash Retameron barged straight through the door, causing the startled guards inside to upturn the table upon which they had been playing cards as a sort of makeshift barrier against the sudden onset. This proved to little avail however, as long weeks of pent-up imprisonment had left the burly Retameron with an irrepressible urge for physical confrontation> The guards stood no chance against the iron muscles of this giant! No sooner than Lana had thwacked the hilt of Drewen's dagger against the temple of her assailant, and Drewen clubbed his opponent, the remainder of the guards lay strewn like dolls at grinning Retameron's feet!
The only other object within the room was a heavy and familiar-looking chest, which Lana knocked open through simple application of a conveniently memorised spell. Thus the party recuperated their belongings, before Skarda could lay his clutches on the precious items. Halia flicked anxiously through the pages of her spellbook, her mind beginning to fill at once with new power. Lana's eyebrows rose in sheer admiration as Retameron hefted his magical possession from the trunk, a girdle of sheening steel, endowing its wearer with strength equivalent to that of a hill giant!
Now armed to the teeth once more, with even Ashgarth donning a vest of rusted chain from the guards belongings, the armed and armoured party members pressed onward with spirits strengthened. The way out of the citadel was above, Ashgarth informed his fellows, and from what little he had gleaned from eavesdropped conversations over the years, the most dangerous part of the journey was just around the corner ... A flight of spiral stairs lay ahead, leading upward, and once at the top, the walls of the onward passage were hollow, and peppered with murder holes, small gaps from behind which the sheltering guards might hurl deadly missile weapons at any slaves brave enough to have pushed their escape this far. The party comprised eight members now, and so it was unlikely that their passing would go unnoticed. True enough Drewen's keen dwarven hearing could detect the faintest hints of a whispered conversation from further up the steps, along the hallway ... what was to be done.
Lana after a few moments thought elbowed her way to the front of the party, an idea suddenly entering into her head. Tiptoeing up the steps as quietly as possible, Lana dashed forward and hurled her dagger into farthest reaches of the waiting corridor. Sure enough even in the dim light Lana's eyes made out the long, narrow slits in the walls of this passage. Before her blade landed however, over forty feet away, Lana cried out a sharp word of magic, shutting her eyes tight against the oncoming effect. The pent-up magical energies stored in the amber gem of her dagger hilt were released in a sudden and blinding flash of amber light. With cursing cries of pain from behind the walls, the watching assassins were blinded by the blaze, and Lana excitedly bid her companions to follow her up the steps! Racing along the long and twisting corridor however, it became apparent that the final strike's effects had not been permanent, as glittering darts began to whistle out of the sides of each wall, aimed straight at each of our heroes! Several darts bounced harmlessly off shields and armour plates, and the magic-users threw out their billowing robes as a defence against the lethal darts. No-one seemed hurt, that was except Retameron. The burly fighter's neck was pricked by one tiny needle, and beads of sweat began to break out as a poison entered the man's system. Flushed with concern, Halia began to fuss and fret over her husband's predicament, but Retameron put up one reassuring hand. Skarda had to be brought to justice. The party would move on.
A bright light lay ahead, and after only a short distance more the party emerged from out of the citadel catacombs! Ahead lay Hell, Ashgarth informed the heroes, his own adopted home in this alien land, to where the slaves of the Mirror retired at the end of each day to find rest before returning to their backbreaking labour in the mines each following morning. Ducking through the twisting alleyways, the heroes found an empty dwelling place and entered in, hoping to take a short rest before continuing onward. But to where? Ashgarth spoke more openly now of his people's unhappy plight, how each and every citizen plotted secretly against Skarda's minions each night, but lacked the guts to make the first stand. Many in the past had tried to make stands against their oppressor but had been dragged down and publicly degraded. It was obvious that the workers if united would prove a force to be reckoned with, even pitted against Skarda's magic and the might of his mercenary Raiders who controlled the hordes, but if only the people could be spurred out of the apathy they had lived by for so long.
The weary companions took a few short hours to recuperate from their day's ordeals, with these thoughts repeating through their minds. The next day they would rally together many followers, citizens of Karameikos, topple Skarda and exit the Mirror Realm, back to their beloved homeland. But first rest was needed.
Come the morning the sounds were heard of weapons clanking against armour outside the house, a noise which instantly roused the heroes from their slumber. Glancing around the small room, they noticed that Ashgarth was gone. Wondering to do without their only guide to this strange place, the ex-slave returned as if on cue, with a woman in tow. This dark-haired female was tall and of slender build, dressed in the now-familiar grey regalia of Skarda's personal guard!! Ashgarth had betrayed the party it seemed, and in hurt anger the heroes reached reluctantly for their weapons, ready to defend themselves against these two and the mob of guards outside.
Hold! the slave bid his friends. Ashgarth had not betrayed the party in bringing this woman to their hideout. Rather this was an old friend, a sympathiser named Katarina, who once had grown close to the kindness and dedication of Mallek in his wish to mould a more cohesive and efficient society, but then been horrified when the ruthless and unscrupulous behaviour of Skarda became dominant.
Katarina explained the events which had recently confirmed her doubts of Skarda's regime once and for all. The mage had commissioned a range of new palatial buildings within the Mirror, and for this had set many hundreds of slaves to work in the quarries to mine the necessary quantity of mirrorstone. Skarda had truly been too greedy in his demands however, and with such increased exploitation of the Realm's foundations catastrophe had been inevitable. A week ago, one group of miners had burrowed too deeply, and water had started to leak into the mineshaft. No-one could say for certain how or where the water had sprung from, but the sudden inundation resulted in the drowning of the entire group. Ever since the water level had continued to rise at a frightening level despite all efforts to contain the disaster. In no time the water would spread from the mines into the remainder of the Mirror, and after that ... who knew. Lana and Karnus both shuddered. If the Mirror truly was an Artifact, a creation of the immortals as Master Teldon had guessed, then Skarda's fate for meddling in the workings of so powerful an item was surely sealed.
Skarda had not been inactive during this time however, and indeed the flood problem had acted as a catalyst in the crazed archmage's schemings. Finally he would make his stand against his one true enemy, but Katarina was unsure of this adversary's name. All she knew was that Skarda and his guard were planning to withdraw from the Mirror at any time soon, leaving the slave population behind, most likely to suffer a watery end and the concurrent wrath of the Immortals for the spoiling of their created realm.
Therefore as a member of the Guard, Katarina knew of the way out of the Mirror, via a specially constructed portal on the main plateau, whose activation would require a special word of command known only to herself and a few others, of course including Skarda himself. Equally importantly however, the band of men who had accompanied the young guard, standing outside, shuffling their boots in the dust of the grimy alleyway, were fellow sympathisers who had renounced their allegiance to Skarda! Each of the companions exchanged pleased and excited glances, as their army began to form.
The party of the five companions, alongside the added support of Halia and Retameron, Ashgarth, Katarina and the soldiers who had turned their backs upon Skarda's cruelty pressed onward through the narrow, litter-ridden streets of Hell. Their stride was one of confidence, knowing that the causes of Right and Lawfulness were on their side. Those who dwelled within the place were taking more convincing, however. The long years of forced oppression by the archmage and his ruthless minions had worn away gradually at the slaves' resilience, until the once joyful and carefree inhabitants of Karameikos were left in a mindless and terrified acceptance of their long term plight.
"Come now," Vasily murmured softly to one malnourished youth who was sitting upright in the gutter of the alley, as an equally starved rat scuttled past the man's rag-bound feet. In a different land the two individuals might have appeared the same age, but whereas a healthy colour occupied the cleric's fine physical form, this slave was wasting away, little more than colourless flesh stretched taut across a rack of bone. "What conditions are these to be dwelling in? Come, join our throng, and together we will leave this land of despair, together we can fight against Skarda!" Despite these rousing words, the man hung his head dully, wringing his hands in his lap. The look of anguish and abject hopelessness that crossed the youth's face was all the answer he dared give.
The group's number had grown by only two or three of the bravest denizens in the past half hour. Action needed to be taken. "Very well," Lana whispered to the slave, joining Vasily at the roadside. "Do this for us instead - pass a message to as many of your kind as you can, and tell everyone you can that there will be a meeting, at the square in the centre of Hell, in one hour. Skarda's end is near, if we are all brave. Understood?" After an imploring look, the youth finally nodded his head, got to his feet and ran off into the mob.
Read the final instalment HERE
Or, return to the Main Page or the Site Overview