The Toppled Temple - Part Two
The lower level
At the bottom of the stairs the passage continued north then branched off east. The passageway appeared to continue in both directions.
"Which way?" Lana asked.
"North," Threy announced, striding off in that direction before finding himself held back. Canerzon's hand had clamped onto his shoulder.
"East," the fighter muttered.
Threy appeared taken aback. "You mustn't have heard me when I spoke before you did. Remove your hand before I -"
"Before you what?" Canerzon taunted. "Listen cleric, I don't take threats lightly. I wish you would -"
"Stop it the pair of you!" Drewen snapped. "Lana would you turn out that light for a moment?"
Lana fiddled the shutters of her lantern, leaving the group in darkness. "Why?" she asked.
"The light interferes with my infravision," Drewen explained. "I see further in the dark. There's nothing to the north, but to the east there's something cold."
"Cold?" Lana found this strange. "What like? Not more undead?"
"No," the dwarf reassured her. "I can't be certain but it might be water, or coins."
"Treasure!" Threy exclaimed, springing forward but finding himself restrained by Lana's hand on his arm.
"Don't be hasty!" she chided. "There could be monsters down there."
"Not likely," Drewen said. "There'd be a red glow if there were."
"Let's go then," Threy said impatiently. Shrugging, Lana undid the lantern shutters and light returned as the four walked down the east passage. After forty feet the party entered a room whose floor was littered with coins - mostly silver. Threy whooped excitedly, drawing chastisement from Canerzon in particular. In the midst of the coins was a peculiar object - a mouldy, moth-eaten hat, the type a fop might wear.
"What a funny hat," Lana murmured, eyeing it. "I wonder what it's doing here."
"Never mind the manky old hat," Threy said, his eyes glittering as brightly as the treasure trove. "Look at all those coins!"
"There must be hundreds," Can breathed. "Just think -"
He was cut short as four shadowy forms detached from the ceiling, falling to land on their feet and scuttle toward the party. They were each as large as Canerzon's shield, with long spindly legs and bloated abdomens covered in coarse red fur. Lana shrieked as she identified the creatures.
"Crab spiders!" she yelped, fleeing toward a corner of the room to cower in fear. Three of the spiders engaged her companions in the middle of the room yet to her horror the fourth followed her and launched itself to attack. Acting in desperation Lana extended her hands and spoke the incantation she had gleaned from the scroll found in Rezgale's study. The cave filled with a flare of amber light and the spider fell to the floor, reeling with surprise. When it came to its senses it was running round in wild circles, a faint glow emanating from its many beady eyes.
"It worked!" Lana exclaimed excitedly. "I blinded one of the spiders!"
"Delighted for you!" Threy called sarcastically. "Would you care to join the rest of us?"
Picking up her lantern and dagger Lana mustered courage before running to help Threy with his spider. The cleric's mace crushed one of the spider's legs, setting it off balance long enough for Lana to find an opening and stab. Her blade sank deep and after another blow from Threy's mace the spider fell on its back and stiffened, clearly dead.
A heavy crunch was heard as Drewen finished his foe, then with a massive sword swipe Canerzon did likewise. The remaining spider was the one Lana had blinded, still running in mad circles. Simultaneously Canerzon and Lana charged at the spider with their weapons drawn. Threy followed but Drewen stood looking somewhat confused.
"Guys!" he called, though his words fell on deaf ears.
Can's blade sank into the spider, then Lana and Threy landed glancing blows which caused the spider to spring onto a wall and race toward the ceiling. "Get it!" Canerzon yelled, grabbing his crossbow and launching a bolt which caught the creature and caused it to drop to the floor.
"You shouldn't have done that," Drewen said quietly. His companions looked at him strangely.
"Done what?" Can asked dully.
"Ganged up on that spider," the dwarf muttered.
"It could have killed us," Lana said.
"It was blind and defenceless!"
"The spell would have worn off," Lana said. "It might have come after us." She knew she didn't sound convincing; truth be told, she was simply relieved there was one less spider in the world to worry about.
"Ganging up like that wasn't fair," Drewen said.
"I'm sorry Drewen. You know how much I'm afraid of spiders."
"Enough already," Threy said irritatedly. "It was a spider for crying out loud. Help me gather these coins."
The four set about scooping the many dozens of gold and silver pieces into Canerzon's backpack. Lana thought she saw Threy slipping coins into his own pockets when the others weren't looking but she said nothing for fear of yet more argument. Going to inspect the hat, she saw that it was in a state of complete disrepair - once it must have been a fine, stylish piece of attire however it was now moth-eaten and covered in cobwebs. As she turned the hat in her hands, she noticed a gleam through the webbing. Inspecting more closely, she drew out a six-inch pin of a recognisable grey metal...
"Platinum!" she breathed. Drewen came to inspect the item and gave an approving nod.
"You're not wrong," the dwarf announced, "solid platinum it is too. Easily worth a small fortune, at least a hundred gold pieces."
Lana gasped in delight, coiling her hair into a bun and securing it with the valuable treasure. "Mr Sendleson will be delighted when we show him."
Drewen smiled and the pair rejoined the other two then left the room, continuing north before reaching a staggered crossroads. At the end of the west tunnel a door could be made out.
"Who votes we go west?" asked Canerzon.
"Me," said Lana.
Drewen nodded silently.
Threy opened his mouth, about to dissent, but caught the eye of Lana who cast him a pleading look. "Very well," he said. "West it is."
Canerzon's eyebrows rose but he said nothing and the party headed to the door. Can tried the handle but found it was locked. Listening at the keyhole nothing could be heard. Drewen peered through the keyhole but saw nothing, not even with his dwarven infravision.
"I'll kick it down," Canerzon announced. He stepped back, raised his foot and booted the door. There was a loud thud upon impact but the door remained intact. Annoyed, Can booted the door a second time, this time more strongly, but again it refused to budge.
Irritated even more, Can took a few steps back and charged at the door, levelling his shoulder at it. He slammed into it heavily but still the door refused to give way. Several reattempts were made but to no avail.
"Damn, bloody door," he swore.
"Come on Can." Lana laid a hand on his arm. "It's not going to open, or it would have done so already. Let's go find a key."
Fuming and breathing heavily, the man nodded and the party returned to the previous junction and headed east. After forty feet they reached another crossroads. After a short discussion the decision was made to head south, and the passage led into a large hall containing a larger-than-life-size marble statue of an imposing, robed individual. Around its neck on a slender chain was hanging a large, golden key.
"The key!" Canerzon exclaimed, rushing forward.
"Wait!" Lana cried, "it could be magical, or a trap, or -"
Rash as ever, Canerzon jumped up and grabbed the key, yanking it off the statue's neck to stand grinning from ear to ear with no visible ill effect.
The party retraced their steps to the locked door. Canerzon tried the key in its lock and was overjoyed when it fitted and turned. The door swung silently inward. A passageway led onward to yet another crossroads. After another discussion the party headed west, reaching a Y-junction then heading north-west with Threy in the lead. After around twenty feet they entered a room, perfectly twenty feet by twenty feet, its floor strewn with rubble and the occasional rat. The four set about sifting through the rubble in search of treasure but couldn't locate anything besides a few rusty nails. Nor was Drewen able to locate any secret openings amid the room's walls. Disappointed, the three headed back to the junction and took the other passage.
After thirty feet the passage opened into another room - twenty by thirty feet with whitewashed walls, and seemingly empty. In the wall opposite was an opening, which appeared to lead into a second room.
"Empty again," Canerzon sighed. "So much for this level being full of treasure." He approached the opening and stooped to step through.
"Can, you don't know what's in there!" Lana called to her companion but too late, and he prepared to step through the opening. As he did so, a figure materialised before Lana, Drewen and Threy standing in the room. The figure had its back turned but appeared familiar - tall, well-built, clad in polished plate armour and bearing a magnificent longsword - and raced toward the opening as Canerzon had done.
Drewen stepped backwards in astonishment. "Is that…?"
Can stepped through the opening, vanishing beyond the light of the lantern.
"Hey you!" called the newcomer in a familiar voice. "Come back here!" The individual raced to try and catch up with Can. As he reached the opening, the same individual re-materialised before the remaining party members.
Threy was utterly confused. "Didn't that happen a second ago…?"
"I said come back!" Again Canerzon appeared out of thin air to race after himself in the direction of the opening.
"It's probably a phantasm," Lana announced. "I've seen my master cast a spell of illusion, though it doesn't make any sound. Maybe we're seeing the actual Can, being returned to the room each time he steps through the hole?"
"I don’t like it whatever it is," Drewen grumbled. "Tell him to get back here."
"Can!" Lana called.
"Can't stop," the man said breathlessly. "There's a guy running away from me, I've got to catch up with him."
"That won't happen," Lana smiled. "It's a magical effect. You think you're running into a new room, but each time you're returning to where you started from."
"Are you sure?" Can tried jogging backwards through the opening, but to no avail - he re-appeared in front of a scowling Threy, just in time to glance over his shoulder and see himself disappearing through the opening.
"I've an idea," said Lana, looping her rope around herself and handing Threy the other end before walking toward the opening. Moments later she re-appeared beside her companions, the slack of the rope falling to the floor beside her as a second Lana appeared to step through the opening.
"This is hopeless," said Threy, clearly bored.
"Agreed," said Drewen. "Let's leave this place be. We're obviously not going to get through that opening or break whatever strange magic is at work here."
Returning to the crossroads the party deliberated upon which of two routes they should take - south and north remained unexplored. Drewen peered in both directions. "I can't see anything," he murmured, "but I think I hear sounds from the north."
All four strained to listen and heard noises in the distance.
"Sounds like whining," Threy said, puzzled.
All four crept along the passage toward the north, Canerzon and Drewen keeping their weapons readied. The whining grew progressively louder. After forty feet the passage widened into a natural cave. At its centre were four stout wooden posts, upon which were hooked leashes leading to furry creatures which had been making the whining sounds.
"Are those weasels?" Canerzon asked.
Drewen shook his head. "Ferrets. We used to keep 'em in our stronghold to keep rats under control."
"The poor things!" Lana exclaimed. "Look how emaciated they look!"
"Yeah," Threy said, "scrawny runts the lot of them."
True enough, the ferrets looked like they hadn't been fed for some time. Their coats were matted with mud and dirt and clung to their bones. In all, the creatures were little more than bones, dirty fur and teeth. On seeing four strangers draw near, the creatures yapped and strained at their leashes to get free.
"So," Lana said, "the clerics were keeping these ferrets for pest control?"
"That seems likely," Drewen nodded. "Although they could have kept them in more humane conditions."
The ferrets' yelping was growing steadily louder.
"Well," said Threy, "frankly it's not our problem. Let's get going."
"Are you kidding?" Lana was gobsmacked. "You'd leave them like this?"
Threy surveyed the creatures, practically strangling themselves to get free from their constraints. It seemed unlikely they simply wanted to play and have their tummies tickled.
"They're ravenous, slavering beasts," Threy pointed out. "Rat-catchers. Of course I'm going to leave them alone."
"You can't be serious…"
Threy looked to Canerzon. "We might as well kill them to put them out of their misery."
Can looked to Lana. "Should I?"
"Absolutely not!" Lana was outraged. Turning, she moved slowly toward the nearest ferret.
"Careful," Drewen warned. "Don't go near, it'll hurt you!"
Lana wasn't listening. True enough, the creature was hissing, snarling and clawing to get near her. As she closed, she tried to maintain eye contact and make soothing sounds. She knelt inches outside the ferret's reach, while it clawed the air ravenously.
"Quiet now," she whispered, "there's a good boy. Hush, nobody wants to hurt you."
She dared to glance back at Drewen, who was watching in horror. She returned her attention to the ferret, moving a little closer and extending her hand tentatively. The creature sniffed, then nipped at her fingers - missing narrowly. Lana sighed and withdrew slightly.
"Come on," she murmured, "let me help you. There now…" Perhaps it was her imagination, but she thought the creature's yelps were less loud. It seemed slightly less agitated, though still as ravenous as its fellows.
Unslinging her backpack from her shoulder, she drew forth some of the provisions she had raided from Valtanivark's pantry. She extended a handful of cooked meat on her palm toward the creature. It lurched forwards, grabbing the food and wolfing it down without so much as a chew.
"I don't believe it," Threy scoffed. "She's feeding the runt her rations!"
Lana stood and spun angrily. "Look!" she roared. "For once Threy, back off and stay out of my business! I can do what I want with my own provisions, you don't get a say. If you have nothing positive to contribute then butt out, okay!"
There was a surprised silence. Threy's face was blank, as was Drewen's also, but it was Canerzon who spoke.
"I don't understand Lana," the man said. "You need your food. You should save it, you didn't bring all that much."
Lana gave a sigh - she couldn't shout at Canerzon like she had Threy. Can had saved her life several times and was a dear friend.
"I see where you're coming from Can, but let me try this." She gave a begging look. "I want to try and win his trust."
She knelt and offered the ferret another morsel. It grabbed the food just as before, drawing howls from its companions though its own demeanour appeared to soften and it stared at her almost placidly. Next Lana placed a chunk of meat on the floor before the ferret, and while it was distracted she reached to the wooden stake and lifted the metal ring attached to the end of the creature's leash. When the ferret finished eating, it looked at her expectantly. As Lana led it away it followed at her heels, walking obediently and appearing much more calm.
"Well done," Drewen smiled, though the other two remained unconvinced.
"Keep it away from me," Threy said. "I wouldn't trust that runt as far as I could throw him."
"Don't listen to the mean cleric," Lana soothed, addressing the ferret. "You and I will be good friends. If you want to savage Threy's ankles, that's fine by me."
"I'd like to see it try," the cleric sneered.
"So you're proposing to bring that ferret with us?" Drewen asked.
Lana nodded. "He'll be handy if we meet more rats, don't you think? Go on ahead guys, Whiskers and I will bring up the rear."
Hearing her choice of name, Threy seemed ready to scoff but said nothing. He and the others headed down the tunnel, giving the remaining ferrets a wide berth as they departed. The animals' howls still filled the air. Lana was last to leave, leading Whiskers on his leash. Once her companions left the room she reached into her pack and drew forth a large handful of provisions, which she cast into the midst of the ferrets. They descended on the food voraciously. Lana raised Whiskers' leash and the two made haste after the rest of the party.
The ferret walked well on the leash. Scrawny though he was, somebody had evidently taught him to behave while wearing the leash and he neither pulled forwards nor lagged behind. He would glance upward at his new mistress every few yards, even allowing her to stroke him on the head.
Retracing their steps, the party returned to the crossroads from earlier and after a short discussion headed south.
"Couldn't you have thought up a more imaginative name?" Can asked.
Threy made a sound as if repressing a laugh. "What, like Furball. Or Mangey."
Lana ignored him. "I like Whiskers. I hope my master lets me keep him. He has a pet of his own, a cat, and it's not guaranteed they'll -"
"Stop!" Drewen said sharply. The party drew to an abrupt halt, even Whiskers. "Step back." His companions did as they were told while the dwarf stooped and tapped a few spots on the ground underfoot. He laid his hand flat and pushed downward. The flagstone sank into the ground with a loud click.
A ten foot blade sprang out from a concealed crack in the wall, at neck height. Lana screamed and leapt behind Canerzon, causing Whiskers to become agitated and start pulling on his leash.
"What was that?" Can demanded.
"A blade trap," Drewen commented. "Disarmed now, you needn't worry."
Threy ran his finger along the razor-sharp edge. "Another two steps," he remarked dryly, "and we'd all have been the same height as Drewen." He looked around expectantly, assuming one of his companions would see the funny side, but none so much as smiled.
"Thank you, Drewen," Lana said quietly. "You saved our lives, I'm sure of it." The dwarf favoured her with a nod.
Threy rolled his eyes. "Shall we continue? I see a room ahead."
Sure enough the corridor ahead opened into a large, rectangular room around forty foot long by thirty feet broad. As they entered, the companions noticed five figures standing motionless at the far end of the room, just within the lantern's light - they wore tattered grey rags and their skin held a deathly pallor, covered in scratches and bruises.
"Are those zombies?" Drewen whispered.
"Probably," Threy replied, "though I'm not sure why they're not moving. Maybe if we stay still for long enough they'll wander off and leave us alone."
"Very well," said Drewen, and the four companions did their best to make no sound or movements, even controlling the quiet intake and exhalation of their breath. The zombies remained stationary. After a couple of minutes however there came a quiet whining at Lana's feet, and she felt something pulling on her robes. It was Whiskers, growing steadily more restless from the lack of action. Her attempts to hush him failed and instead the whining grew louder and more earsplitting.
Threy took a deep breath. "Shut that ferret up!"
"I'm trying!" Lana hissed back, throwing the animal some of her rations yet she had run out of meat having left all her supply back with the other ferrets. The dried fruit that remained did little to tempt the ferret. Instead, he took hold of the hem of Lana's robe with his teeth and began pulling, tearing the fabric. "Whiskers, please!"
"Seriously Lana," Can said, "he's going to attract the zombies!"
"Too late," Drewen muttered darkly. One of the zombies' heads was turning slowly. Moments later all five began moving in the party's direction, slow and eerily silent.
"Great," Threy said sarcastically. "Just great."
"We're in no state to fight," Lana said worriedly.
"Try telling them that!" Threy appeared exasperated. "Shall we run?"
"That'd be like you Threy, running at the first sign of danger," Canerzon said harshly.
Threy's mouth opened and then closed. Then -
"He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day," the cleric said sagely.
Canerzon laughed. "Don't give me that drivel."
"Stop it!" Drewen interceded. "Quit bickering, both of you. We can face these things if Canerzon and I bear the worst of it and Threy uses his turning ability. Lana you stay back and do what you can from a safe distance. Oh," he added, "and try to control that bloody ferret."
Moments later the zombies were upon them. Lana found herself forced to defend herself with her dagger, stabbing through her foe's rotting lung to no great avail. Three zombies had converged on Drewen though he held them off valiantly, his hammer swinging in wide arcs. Lana stabbed her zombie a second time, still achieving little until a longer blade impaled itself through the creature's chest - Canerzon's sword. The fighter then returned his attention to his own foe.
Can proceeded to fell his opponent then after Threy invoked a turning, he and Drewen had an easy time picking off the remaining three. Then once all five had been felled the companions progressed toward the opening in the wall and progressed through to find -
"Not more!" Lana exclaimed. True enough, in the identically proportioned hall beyond were a further five zombies at a distance of around thirty feet.
"These look different," Drewen mused as the creatures lurched toward the newcomers, their arms extended in readiness to attack.
Can nodded. "They don't look as fit as the last group."
Threy snorted. "How can they be fit, they're dead for crying out loud."
"You know what I mean. They're in a bad state, not as hardy as the others."
Keen to test his companion's theory, Threy loaded a polished stone into his sling, whirled the weapon above his head and released it. The shot flew straight and true to crack of the zombies' skulls, whereupon it crumpled to the floor and lay unmoving.
"Nice!" While Drewen congratulated his companion Canerzon fired his crossbow and Lana hurled a dagger - each felling a further zombie so that only two remained by the time the distance between the groups had been closed. A few hand-to-hand attacks followed - Can's sword sliced the head off one, then Drewen's hammer caved in the chest of the other, and all the zombies lay vanquished.
"Look here," Threy murmured, examining one of the corpses. "This one has a mark on its side." True enough, an open wound could be seen which none of the party's weapons appeared to have caused.
"Strange," Drewen commented, after viewing the shape of the wound. "It looks like a mace caused this -" he eyed Threy's own weapon which was blunt, "- one with very sharp, flanged edges. Difficult to tell whether it was done recently, seeing how the thing's already dead and all."
"Let's get out of here," Can muttered.
The others agreed. There were no visible exits from the room so the party returned through the opening to the previous hall, the lantern's light illuminating something new. Lana gave a gasp of shock and leapt behind Canerzon.
The curse of the dying priest
There on the ground lay a dying figure - a man dressed in robes which were black as pitch, a flanged mace hanging on his belt. His robes were shredded, as if by ragged claws, and his fingers were stained with fresh blood. Blood covered his chin, emanating from his own mouth and causing him to choke and splutter. He was scrabbling at the east wall, attempting to stand but seemingly unable to.
The light from the party's lantern had drawn the man's attention, as he turned to stare at the four companions. "Defilers!" he screamed, bubbles of blood bursting on his lips as he screamed in a voice that was little more than a choking hiss.
Lana gave thought to offering first aid, but his wounds appeared severe and probably went beyond her ability to heal. Moreover, she was too scared to move.
"Do you reckon he's one of the evil clerics?" she whispered.
"Seems as logical an assumption as any," Threy responded coolly.
"Cursed ones!!" The cleric continued screaming, hatred burning in his wild eyes. As if to reinforce his point he raised a raw, bony finger and pointed at the group. "You are cursed!" A moment later he slumped, his arm and hand extending in what was presumably death.
"How horrible," Lana said softly, clinging to Canerzon's arm, almost sobbing with fright.
Threy approached the body cautiously, his holy symbol extended for protection. He toed the body a couple of times but it remained motionless. "Well he looks dead," he announced. "By the look of his robes and that weapon he must have been a senior member of the clergy. Maybe one of the high priests?" He stooped and lifted something hideous from around the man's neck - a dark, spiked insignia with the motif of a skull at its midst. It was made from a dark metal which resembled steel.
"This is interesting," Threy murmured, before pocketing the device. "My church will wish to examine this."
The others looked on warily. "Are you sure that's wise?" Canerzon asked.
"What?" Threy appeared nonplussed.
"Having that evil thing on your person!" Drewen said. "What if you…" he paused to think. "What if it makes you become a zombie or something?"
Threy laughed, though none of the others found the comment humorous. "I'll take my chances."
"On your head be it," Canerzon muttered. "I won't think twice about lopping it off if you turn into a zombie."
"Quit it you two," Lana said tiredly as the two men glared at one another.
"He seemed preoccupied with the wall," Drewen said. "Did you see him clawing at it for all he was worth? I'll bet there's something hidden, a trigger to open a secret door or something…"
Threy's eyes lit up. "A treasure vault!"
The dwarf nodded excitedly, then laid his hands on the wall and started applying pressure to different sections. After almost half an hour of searching he located what he was looking for and a section of the wall slid aside to reveal a short passage leading to a door.
"Well done!" Lana congratulated the dwarf, while trying to quieten Whiskers who had grown restless during the wait. The companions entered the tunnel, approaching the door and trying its handle. It was locked.
"Stand back," Canerzon announced, taking a few paces backwards before hurling himself at the door which splintered and burst open. There came a click however and a dart shot out from a concealed section of the wall, embedding itself in Can's arm.
Lana took hold of the dart, easing it out gently and noting that its tip bore a sticky, dark substance.
"Poison," Threy commented over her shoulder.
Lana nodded. "Hopefully not the strong kind. How do you feel Can?"
The man was beginning to tremble. "Not the best." He went silent for a while. "Really not great, actually. My… limbs are…" His breathing became laboured and he began to pant, "starting to seize."
"Don't talk," Lana eased. "Hopefully it's a tranquiliser, nothing more. If it were a killing poison you might be dead already."
Can nodded and sat down, taking a draught from his waterflask before sitting down.
Threy meanwhile had stepped inside the small room beyond the door, seemingly unconcerned about Canerzon's fate. "Guys," he called. "Bring in the light, would you?"
Not wanting to leave Canerzon's side, Lana handed her lantern to Drewen. "Take it to him, would you?"
The dwarf nodded, and as he headed into the room light flooded its contents both the dwarf and cleric were heard to gasp.
"Lana, you want to see this!"
She sighed. "I can't, I'm looking after Can."
Threy snorted. "Just leave him, it's not like he's going to die."
"Could you be a little more sensitive?"
Drewen cleared his throat. "There are rolls of parchment here."
Lana's eyes widened, locking with Canerzon's gaze. He stared at her dully. "Can I'm going to leave you for a moment," she said excitedly. "I won't be far away and I'll be back in seconds, I promise." The fighter managed a nod, after which Lana went to join Threy and Drewen inside the small room.
Stepping gingerly through the smashed door, Lana surveyed the room's contents. "By the Immortals that's a lot!"
For a small room, there was a great deal of wealth inside. Coins were stacked on an array of shelves - gold, silver, electrum and even platinum. And on a desk in one corner stood a small pile of treasure - three vials, containing red, clear and blue liquids respectively, three separate rolls of parchment and a sizeable ruby.
The companions stood mesmerised for a moment, before surging forward in glee. Threy began scooping handfuls of coins into empty sacks he had brought along, while Drewen lifted the ruby and held it to the lantern light and Lana examined the scrolls. Any of them could be magical, she knew. The first was tattered and crumpled, the second had been sealed with red wax, and the third was also sealed but with green wax.
In anticipation she grabbed the tattered parchment, holding it close to her chest while contemplating what mighty incantation it might contain. It could be the Sleep spell she longed for, or more powerful magic such as Web, or Fireball, or a spell to summon a blizzard of cold! In trepidation she began to uncrumple the parchment, not daring to look until she had smoothed the surface to render its writing fully legible. Her eyes scanned the page hungrily, following a sequence of red and black runes. As she attempted to deduce their meaning, the runes began to move on the page and swam before her eyes. She found herself unable to look away. The runes re-arranged themselves into a spiral, revolving outward and releasing some sort of hideous sensation from which Lana was unable to withdraw. The feeling merged with her, like a parasite taking root in her soul. She became detached from her surroundings and lost her balance, falling to the floor. She was vaguely aware of Drewen and Threy standing over her, calling to her, but found herself unable to answer and faded into unconsciousness.
When she came to, she was slumped against the wall of the corridor where she had left Can. He was standing, seemingly having shaken off the effects of the poison. Drewen was gently splashing cool water in her face and across her brow.
"Are you alright?" the dwarf asked, concerned.
Feeling wretched, she shook her head.
"What happened?" Can demanded.
"I don't know," Lana faltered. "I read one of the scrolls and couldn't look away, something came out of the runes then everything went hazy." She swallowed painfully, recalling the ordeal. "I think I might have been cursed."
"Correct," Threy confirmed, holding the tattered parchment in one hand. He spoke in a matter-of-fact tone which Lama found disconcerting. "I was able to read the scroll safely after you drained it of harmful effect. You've succumbed to a curse called 'Battle Rage'. From now on, once you engage in hand-to-hand combat you'll enter a frenzy and you won't be able to stop until all your opponents are dead."
Lana stared at the cleric incredulously. "You cannot be serious."
"You shouldn't have been so hasty!" Drewen scolded, clearly horrified. "From now on, you keep away from combat, understood? You're a wizard's apprentice, not a warrior. I -"
He would have said more but at that moment there came a hideous, shrieking laugh along the corridor. A figure had crawled through the secret door - the black-robed cleric! He was barely alive, still heavily weak and was struggling to speak.
"Cursed ones!" he croaked. "You are of the Blue Star and you are cursed!" He descended into hacking coughs, again raising a bony finger to point at the group. "Cursed ones!"
With that, he slumped forward.
Canerzon gave a growl of annoyance, turning to face Threy. "You said he was dead!"
The cleric looked affronted. "As I recall correctly, I said he looked dead. I didn't guarantee his state of health and I don't remember you rushing to check for yourself."
Swearing profusely, Canerzon ran to hew off the priest's head with his sword, while the three other party members set about investigating the remaining treasure. Undeterred by the curse she now bore, Lana made a beeline for the remaining scrolls. Noticing this, Drewen gave a sharp intake of breath.
"Wait!" he said, "what if they're cursed too?"
Lana laughed weakly. "Do they stack? I've suffered one curse already, I'd hope that's the worst of whatever bad luck is coming our way."
"Agreed," said Threy, picking up the scroll which was sealed with red wax and breaking it. "Let's see…" He unrolled the parchment and began to read.
"What is it?" asked Can, having completed his gruesome task. "Is it a spell?"
"Sort of," Threy said. "Although it's written in the Common tongue, more like a superstitious chant or a poem out of folklore. There's magic to it all the same. If I'm right, it'll protect against those who are afflicted by lycanthropy."
"Huh?" Can sounded lost.
Threy rolled his eyes, shaking his head. "Werewolves, Can."
"Really?" Lana asked. Werewolves were rife throughout Karameikos and it was rumoured that many were at large in the woods around Threshold. "That could be useful."
The cleric nodded, handing her the final scroll. "Would you care to check this one?"
Lana cracked the green seal and read the scroll, finding to her disappointment that the parchment was devoid of magical runes. "This one's written in plain Thyatian, it's…" Her brow furrowed. "A prayer of some description? Is it magical?"
Threy took the scroll from her carefully, scanning its contents. "In the right hands this will cast a clerical spell. One to detect whether items or locations are imbued with a magical aura."
Lana's eyes narrowed. "I thought that was a magic-user spell?"
"It is," Threy responded. "We clerics can procure the same effect."
"What about the potions?" Drewen asked.
Lana gestured. "Go ahead!"
The dwarf unstoppered the red vial and took a small sip. Nothing appeared to happen. Then he clutched his throat, coughing and spluttering while his eyes watered. He shook momentarily then appeared to regain his composure.
"Poison," he croaked, coughing as he placed the vial on the floor and smashed it beneath his boot. "Nasty stuff."
"Are you alright?" Lana asked, concerned.
Drewen managed a grin. "It'll take stronger stuff to affect a dwarf."
"Let's try another," Threy announced, undeterred by his companions' misfortune. He uncorked the clear vial and took a sip, fading from view. "Invisibility," he announced when he re-appeared a moment later.
Smiling, Lana took up the last vial and sipped the blue liquid within. "I feel slightly affected," she said, "but is anything happening!"
Canerzon nodded. "Look at your feet!"
True enough, Lana had risen an inch off the floor. "Levitation," she marvelled, as the effect wore off and she descended. "This could come in handy."
Exhausted as the companions were, they decided to camp in the secret passage as Drewen felt confident that he could re-open the concealed door from the inside. As they settled down for rest, Drewen continued to gaze lovingly at the enormous ruby, Threy re-examined his prayer scroll and Whiskers curled by Lana's feet while she reflected on the folly of rushing into reading the cursed scroll. Canerzon meanwhile had fallen asleep and was snoring blissfully.
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