:: Dungeons & Dragons - The Threshold Party - The Toppled Temple ::

The Toppled Temple - Part Three

Dawn in the darkness

The lantern oil burned out after less than an hour, meaning the companions awoke in darkness several hours later. Lana fumbled blindly in her pack and managed to refill the oil, striking a spark to the wick and light returned. She noted that her companions were still exhausted, so she quietly drew forth her spellbook and began to read while they slept on.

Drewen was next to wake. "I don't know how we're going to transport all those," the dwarf said sadly, inclining his head toward the many sacks which had been filled to brimming with coins. There remained a considerable amount of coinage - mainly copper and silver - inside the room but nothing to stow it inside as the party's sacks, backpacks and pockets had all been crammed full.

Lana experienced a moment of inspiration. "I might be able to help!" she announced excitedly, recalling the second enchantment she had scribed from Rezgale's scroll just days ago. She thumbed through her spellbook. "Give me a half an hour and you'll see."

Drewen appeared confused but said nothing. Needing to be cheered after a poor night's sleep, he pulled out the ruby and caressed it lovingly while Lana set about memorising her newest spell.

Canerzon and Threy woke shortly afterwards, both complaining about the discomfort of sleeping wearing metal armour. The four breakfasted on the iron rations they had purchased from the general store, which consisted of dried fruit, meat jerky and oatcakes - not an entirely appetising combination.

"Shall I cast my spell now?" Lana volunteered brightly.

"What spell?" Threy asked unenthusiastically. "Will it achieve anything?"

"Floating Disc. It'll help us transport the rest of these coins to the exit."

Drewen's eyes and face lit up. "You mean we won't have to leave them behind?"

Threy and Canerzon also seemed pleased. "What are you waiting for, get casting!"

Lana spread her hands and intoned the spell she had committed to memory only a short while before. The words vanished from her mind as she spoke them aloud, then for a brief moment the outline of a broad disc formed, floating at waist height before her, then faded.

"Is it still there?" Drewen asked.

Lana nodded. "I expect so, let's see." All four put out their hands and felt the disc floating in mid-air. Threy attempted to push the platform downwards by applying his bodyweight; it took all the force he could muster and refused to budge.

"Impressive," he nodded.

The four set about sorting through their belongings and loaded their heaviest items onto the magical platform. Drewen was loading a sack onto the disc when he happened to notice its contents.

"Who packed this?" he demanded.

"I did," said Can. "Why?"

"It's full of copper."

Can stared at him dully. "Copper's valuable."

Drewen's mouth fell open in shock. "Not as valuable as silver, and look how much of it we're leaving!"

Threy appeared gobsmacked. "You were going to take away a sack full of copper when there's all this silver lying around?"

Can held his hands up in protest. "Okay, okay! So I wasn't thinking clearly."

"Too damn right," Threy muttered. "Brains would be dangerous…"

"What did you say?" Can demanded, clenching his hands into fists.

"Guys!" Lana stepped between the pair. "Just refill the sack with silver and let's get going."

There came a point when the disc would take no more - it was around the size of a small shield so only a certain volume could be loaded onto it. Drewen listened at the secret door before declaring the area beyond to be quiet, then located the mechanism which caused the section of wall to slide back into its hidden recess. The party emerged back into the hall beyond, stepping gingerly over the body of the black-robed cleric with its severed head, while the treasure-laden disc bobbed along behind them.

"That's really neat! Can laughed, watching the treasure follow within a few feet.

"Sshhh!" Drewen was looking around. "We should keep quiet in case there are more goblins or undead about."

"Agreed," Threy muttered. "Let's head for the exit."

The party headed through the hall and entered the long tunnel running north to south, which they followed back to the small room and staircase beyond leading up.

"Hold up," Drewen whispered, signalling for his companions to halt. "I hear voices up there. Back up a bit."

The four companions retreated back into the small room, leaving a twenty foot section of passageway between them and the stairs. At the top of the stairs, just as Drewen had detected, could be heard an array of noises - many non-human voices and the sound of weapons clanking against armour.

At that moment there came a shattering crash behind the four companions, scaring them all witless. Even Can gave a cry of surprise and span with his broadsword in one hand. The floating disc had vanished, droppings its pile of contents. Several of the sacks had spilled their contents, and one of the biggest had even split along its seams, spreading silver coins across the floor.

"You have got to be kidding," Threy snorted.

Lana stared at the pile of coins in dismay. "It's the first time I've ever cast the spell," she confessed. "I thought it might have lasted longer."

The cleric looked unimpressed. "Couldn't you have practised at home?"

Lana planted her hands on her hips. "What difference would that have made?"

He shrugged. "For all we know you botched the casting, it barely lasted an hour."

"It wouldn't have made any difference!" Lana reacted angrily. "My master told me the duration wasn't great."

"So now you tell us!"

"Hey!" Can stepped up to Threy. "Quit being aggressive or you'll have me to answer to."

Threy's lip curled but he said nothing. Lana gave Canerzon an appreciative smile but still felt awful that her spell had proved so useless.

Drewen heaved a sigh. "We're no better off than before, we'll just take what we can carry and leave the rest." He cast a glance of longing at the sea of coins, the majority of which was going to be left behind. "Right now we've got bigger concerns." He gestured toward the stairs with his thumb - footsteps could be heard, descending.

"Goblins," he muttered. "Lots of 'em by the sound of things."

"They'll notice all this silver as soon as they reach the bottom," Lana said miserably.

"What are we going to do?" Threy asked, sounding anxious.

"Fight 'em," said Can simply.

"We can't face that many!" Threy wiped sweat from his brow. "There must be dozens."

"I've got an idea," Lana announced.

Threy looked exasperated. "Another brainwave like your floating disc?"

Lana ignored him. "Drewen, do you have that invisibility potion?"

The dwarf nodded, patting a pocket where he had wrapped the vial in a rag to keep it from breaking.

"Great, I say you should drink it, and Can put on your ring."

Both nodded, and vanished from view moments later, an empty vial dropping to the floor and becoming visible as Drewen discarded it.

"Threy, get out of sight." The cleric hesitated before ducking into a corner of the room. Lana meanwhile concealed her dagger, ruffled her hair and stood amid the pile of silver to await whatever was coming down the stairs.

"So you're proposing to do what exactly?" Threy asked.

"Play the lone defenceless female card," Lana whispered, holding her lantern high, "and hope we'll get the element of surprise if we need to attack. Load your sling and keep it ready."

The cleric nodded. Moments later goblins appeared at the bottom of the staircase, blinking and shielding their eyes against the bright light of Lana's lantern. She stood defiantly as they approached, more and more descending the stairs. There were not just a few - there were easily two dozen if not more. As they approached the room their gazes lingered on Lana, then were drawn to the sheening sea of silver coins.

The largest goblin present stepped forward. "What you doing here?" he barked.

"Greetings!" Lana responded in the humanoids' native tongue. "I am a travelling wizardess and a friend of the clerics of this temple. I appear to have lost my way, could you escort me to the altar room?"

"You talk too much. You come with us."

"Are you declining my request?"

"You come with us," the goblin repeated.

Lana shook her head. "I thought my request was simple. I'm prepared to pay you if you show me to the altar room."

The goblins broke into laughter. "Pay with what? You no have money. We capture you so silver coins belong to goblins now."

Lana looked affronted. "You clearly don't know who I am. I am a great and powerful sorceress. You would be wise not to anger me, or…"

"Or what?"

"Or," Lana said clearly, fixing the lead goblin's gaze. "I will use my magical abilities to defend myself."

Appearing unconvinced, the goblin took a deliberate step forward.

"Ah!" Lana raised a finger. "If you even touch that silver I will use my magic spells to summon demons and spirits from the, em, the Dark Abyss of Time!"

The goblin scoffed. "You too young to be powerful. We kill you and take treasure."

Lana shook her head sadly, drawing back the sleeves of her robes. "You leave me no choice. So be it." She began making the motions of spellcasting. "Umberiadne, umberiadne. First I shall summon a warrior champion to do my bidding." She hazarded a glance at the goblins and was relieved to see they were holding back for the time being, and were looking at one another uneasily. "Umberiadne umberiadne - Canerzon!"

She held her breath tight, bringing her hands down in a sweeping gesture and hoping her friend would cotton on to her plan. As much as she respected and admired him, Can really wasn't the sharpest sword in the forge. But to her great delight the lead goblin's head suddenly detached from its body and fell from its shoulders, then moments later Canerzon popped into view. Clad in sheening plate armour and bearing Kernrick's magnificent blade the muscular fighter struck an imposing sight to the unnerved goblins.

"Next!" Lana announced, "I shall call upon ghosts and spirits to torment you and steal your souls! Umberiadne, umberiadne - Drewen!" Still invisible by Lana's side, the dwarf began making wailing sounds, shaking his chainmail and kicking up great handfuls of coins which combined with the loss of their leader had a terrifying effect on the goblins - as one, they turned tail and fled back up the stairs.

Lana and Can laughed heartily together as Drewen chased after the goblins, making as much of a commotion as possible.

"I cannot believe they fell for that rubbish," Threy said, emerging from his hiding spot. "But well done."

"Thanks!" Lana replied, though her smile faded a moment later. A grating, grinding sound could be heard coming from the direction of the stairs, accompanied by a great many shouts in the Goblin tongue.

"Drewen?" Lana asked, uneasy. "What is that?"

The dwarf's face bore a dark expression. "Those bastards are sealing us in."

"What do you mean, sealing us in?" Either Canerzon didn't follow, or he didn't want to.

"They're closing off the top of the stairs by the sounds of it. There must be a sliding section of wall, or a boulder they're moving into position or something."

"Great going!" Threy threw his sling on the ground in exasperation. "We're doomed, absolutely doomed. You've gone and let them seal off the only exit so now we're trapped down here with the undead and who knows what else!"

"Oh come on," Lana reasoned. "There must be any number of ways out of this level, there are passages we haven't explored yet. And we've got enough food to eat - those iron rations will last for ages."

Can nodded. "There's nothing else we could have done to avoid fighting those goblins. We'll find another way out, I'm sure."

"I wish I shared your cheery outlook," Threy responded, but said nothing more.

"There's no point fighting," Drewen said coolly. "Let's take as many of these coins as we can carry and get on our way."

Stuffing their packs, sacks, pockets and boots full of the treasure the party pressed on, leaving well over what they estimated to be two thousand silver pieces on the floor of the room with the sealed staircase beyond.

"Thank the Immortals it's only silver and not platinum," Can whispered to Lana as they departed, "or we'd never hear the end of it from that pair." For a long while Drewen and Threy stood staring at the treasure they were abandoning before tearing themselves away to follow their companions and the lantern light, deeper into the dungeon.

Trapped...? In search of a way out

Judging by the rough map Threy had been making, the party had explored most of the western area of the level they were on so they decided to head toward the east and returned to the room where they had fought the crab spiders. Expecting to find the room unoccupied, the companions were surprised when the lantern cast light over five enormous beetles - each around three feet long, with black and green striped abdomens.

"Great," Threy moaned as the creatures approached, snapping their pincers. "Another fight."

"Not necessarily," Lana muttered before reaching into her pack and throwing chunks of dried fruit into a corner of the room. This diverted three of the beetles' attention although the remaining two kept coming.

"They mustn't like fruit," Threy said. "They must prefer meat. Hey! I know, let's feed them the ferret. Although I suppose there's not much eating on him, he's mostly skin and bones."

"Oh do shut up Threy," Lana snapped, grabbing her ten foot pole and prodding one of the beetles. This was sufficient to keep it at bay though the other continued to advance.

"Oh well," said Can, drawing his sword. "I guess it's going to be a fight after -"

K-RUNCH! As the remaining beetle drew close, Lana felt a pull on Whiskers' leash as he stepped forward and sank his teeth into the beetle's hardened side. The creature gave a squeak and hastily tottered away to join its fellows in the corner, leaving a clear path to the doorway on the opposite side of the room.

Drewen, who remained invisible from the potion he had quaffed, laughed aloud. "Well I never!" came his voice. "Let's get going."

The going proved slow, very slow. All four companions were encumbered and had to stop regularly to take a break from the heavy loads they bore. It took them at least half an hour to go the short distance back to the room containing the statue from which Can had taken the golden key. The four stared at the many exits leading from the room.

"Now which way?" Drewen asked. "We came in from the west, and -"

"There's a possible exit to the east," Threy interrupted.

"An exit?" Lana asked. "You mean a way off this level?"

Threy nodded.

"Where?" Can demanded. "And how can you tell?"

"You," Threy stated coolly, "weren't here. The rest of us found an accessway connecting the two levels."

Lana stared at him in confusion. "Threy you've lost me."

"And me," came Drewen's voice.

"Remember the altar room?" Threy prompted.

Lana's eyes widened in horror. "That big slimy chute?"

"You've got to be joking!" Drewen sounded appalled.

"On the contrary," Threy said. "By my reckoning the altar room is just a short way to the east, on the level above, so that chute must come out somewhere near here."

"If you think I'm going to climb up that disgusting, ichor-covered chute, you've got another thing coming."

"It's probably the only exit from this level that isn't blocked," Threy said simply.

"There's bound to be another way," Lana said.

"You know that for a fact do you?"

"No I don't, but -"

"So you're happy to keep lugging around these coins until we find some other way out?"

Lana glared at him.

"Let's find this chute," said Can, "just so I can see it with my own eyes, then we'll decide what options we have. If it gets us out of here that's no bad thing…?"

"Threy can lead the way," Lana huffed. "But believe me Can you won't want to go anywhere near that chute, let alone up it."

And so the party headed east, led by Threy. The passageway ahead branched off to the north while continuing on east.

Threy inspected his map. "Hmm. It should be just a short way on to the east."

"That's assuming your map's accurate Threy. You couldn't draw a straight line."

"There's nothing wrong with my map," the cleric said stiffly, walking on east. His companions followed and after only twenty feet reached a makeshift barrier of rocks and broken pieces of furniture.

"Strange," Can commented. "I wonder who put this in place."

"More like what for," Drewen muttered darkly.

Threy reached out and pulled free a large piece of wood, causing a few stones to come loose and tumble to his feet. "The chute shouldn't be far behind here. Are you guys going to give me a hand with this?"

Canerzon and Drewen lifted out the largest rocks while Threy and Lana lent what additional assistance they could. "It's been built very recently," Drewen commented.

"Maybe by the goblins?" Lana suggested. "I mean, they blocked off those stairs, maybe they've done this to try and keep us in as well."

"I don't think it's quite that recent," Drewen replied.

The prisoner in the dark

After around ten minutes enough of the barricade had been dismantled to create a bit enough gap which would allow them to step through one at a time. The four friends stood clustered at the gap, staring through into the blackness beyond the barrier.

"Shine your lantern, would you Lana," said Threy.

"I am!" she replied. "It's right behind you Threy, for some reason the light won't penetrate the darkness on the other side."

"That's odd," Drewen commented. "Shutter the lantern and we'll see if my infravision does anything." Lana did as she was bid but as darkness descended -

"No good," the dwarf muttered, sounding annoyed. "It must be magical."

"So how do we know what's in there?"

"We don't. Simple."

"Threy that's not helpful."

"Throw in a stone or something."

Threy flicked a pebble through the opening. It vanished from view and could be heard landing on the other side, though it didn't sound as though it had hit solid stone.

"What now?"

"I've got my ten foot pole?"

"Good call - give it a go!"

Just as Lana was readying her pole there came the sound of moaning from within the darkness.

"What in the world is that?" Can breathed.

"Zombies?" Drewen suggested.

Threy shook his head. "They don't make any sound. This is something else."

"It could be magical," Lana theorised. "An attempt to scare us, to keep us away from something?"

"Maybe it's a ghost!"

A voice came floating through the darkness. "Mother…?" came the voice. "Is that you, Mother dear…?" It trailed off, babbling aimlessly.

Lana gripped Canerzon's arm. "There's somebody in there!"

"Don't be so sure," Threy pointed out. "It could be a trap or magical…"

"Who's there?" Lana called, then waited.

The voice seemed to grow scared "Oh - oh dear, they're coming to get me! I'm sorry, I really am so terribly sorry. It's the darkness, you see, the darkness!"

"If it's a ghost, it's deranged," Drewen muttered.

Lana reached out awkwardly with her pole, poking as far into the dark depths as she could. "The ground doesn't feel solid," she whispered. "It's actually rather mushy. Like…" She thought for a moment. "Like quicksand, come to think of it."

"So," Drewen speculated, "maybe this person is a prisoner? Perhaps the clerics left him in there as some sort of punishment, to rot in the darkness?"

"Throw in a rope," Can suggested, "we'll pull him out."

"Good idea!" Lana reached into her pack and pulled out the coil of fresh rope she had purchased in the supply store. She called out into the dark. "We're going to throw in a rope, so take hold and we'll pull you free!"

There came no reply. Uncoiling the rope Lana hurled one end into the darkness in the direction of the voice.

"Oww!!" The voice howled, sounding sorry for itself. "Something hit me between the eyes!"

"It's a rope!" Lana called out. "Take a good firm hold and we'll pull you to freedom."

"What have we here?" Moments passed. "It feels like a rope! Goodness me. Whatever am I meant to do with this?"

Exasperated, Lana turned to face her companions. "This is getting us nowhere."

"Let's perservere," Drewen said quietly, as he and Can took the rope from Lana's hands. The pair gave a gentle pull and the rope seemed to have secured itself in the darkness. Without further ado they heaved with all their combined strength. Several pulls later a muddied figure emerged out of the dark, lying in a pitiful, soggy mess before the companions.

"Good grief," Lana exclaimed as she knelt to examine the figure. He was wearing long black robes, his face was caked with mud although beneath the dirt he had clearly been beaten and bruised. Tears began streaming down his face as he looked around himself in confusion, not seeming to notice those who had rescued him.

"Mother? They put me in there, I didn't want to go in, I told them…"

"Ssshhh!" Lana put a hand on the man's shoulder. "You're safe now, no-one's going to harm you. What's your name?"

"My name?" The man stared at her blankly. "I don't have a name, it's… gone, forgotten. The darkness swallowed it."

"Who put you in there?" Drewen asked.

"The clerics," the man said. "I told them I didn't agree with what they were doing - dark rituals, evil magic! They wanted me to be like them but I said no, I wanted to leave the order but they wouldn't let me. And then they gave me to the darkness. Mother told me not to join them, I should have listened to her!" He took his face in his hands and began howling.

"Come now," Lana soothed. "You're with friends now, we'll get you home to your mother."

The man looked at her with wide eyes. "You will?"

She nodded.

"But the darkness! The clerics…"

"They're all gone, dead. You're free now."

The man stared at the lantern Lana bore. "What if the darkness comes back?"

"It won't," Lana said firmly. "We won't allow it to. Let's go."

The party pressed on, leaving behind the barricaded prison.

"This guy isn't going to be much help, is he," Can muttered as they returned to the previous junction. "I mean going by the state he's in he can't even lift a weapon.

Threy nodded. "He'll be a complete hindrance, no use to us at all."

"Oh have a heart you two!" Lana was helping the cleric hobble along, leaning on her pole for support. "He's been through a really tough time."

"Well at least tell him to shut up," Threy said. "All that whittering about his mother is grating on my nerves."

Returning to the junction, the northern passageway wound around to the east and then further around to the south after a total distance of around a hundred feet. Then after thirty feet it ended at a door. Drewen tried the handle, declaring it to be locked.

"Give me room," Can warned, taking a few steps back before charging full-force at the door which splintered and gave way.

Immediately a hideous, rotting stench assailed the party's nostrils. Lana put the sleeve of her robe to her mouth and fought hard against the urge to vomit. Flies buzzed around the party's heads, emanating from the room within. Even Whiskers' nose wrinkled and he began to yap, clearly unhappy.

Can was first to overcome the stench and stepped into the darkness of the room beyond the door. "Hey bring in the light, would you? I can't see a thing in here."

Cautiously, Lana stepped through the wreckage of the broken door bringing with her the lantern light. A gruesome sight met the party's eyes. The floor of the long hall was covered in dried blood and other fluids. Large expanses of fungi and mosses grew where pools of fluid had gathered. At the far end of the room were a group of zombies, at least fifteen in number, who were staggering in the direction of the lantern light.

"Look!" Threy hissed urgently, pointing at an opening in one corner of the room's ceiling. "There's the chute."

"How would we even get up it?" Drewen asked, keeping an eye on the approaching undead. "It's too high to reach and its sides look too slippery to provide handholds. Not even a thief could scale that."

"The potion of levitation!" Lana exclaimed. "If one of us were to drink it he could float up through the hole, carrying the rest of us one at a time!"

"Smart thinking," Can said, "but those zombies are getting too close for my liking. We should get out of here."

"Agreed," said Drewen. "There are too many of them for us to take on."

Threy snorted and stepped forward, drawing forth his holy symbol. "Leave this to me." Holding the representation of his faith aloft he channelled the will of his Immortal patrons before addressing the advancing undead in a strong, commanding voice -

"Turn!"

They kept on coming.

"Way to go cleric!"

Threy glared at Canerzon before returning his attention on the zombies for a second attempt. "Turn!" he yelled, but again to no visible effect.

"Forget it!" Canerzon bellowed, drawing his sword since the creatures were by now just a short distance away. Drewen too was obliged to draw his hammer in readiness. "Get back, all of you."

"What is going on?" asked a floaty voice behind Lana. "Oh my, zombies!" After standing for a moment quaking in his muddy boots, the demented cleric turned and fled back through the door.

"Oh boy," Lana sighed, watching him depart then turning back to face her companions. To her horror she found a zombie merely ten feet away. Acting on instinct she grabbed a dagger from her belt and hurled it, though the blade went sailing past the zombie's head and far into the hall beyond. As Lana fumbled for another dagger the zombie closed and raked out with its claws, missing Whiskers' nose by a hair's breadth. The terrified ferret gave a yelp and bolted for the door, dragging its owner with him. It was only once she was twenty feet back down the passageway that Lana was able to muster enough strength to draw Whiskers to a halt.

Threy had followed her, having given up on his turning attempt, and stood fuming beside Lana, Whiskers and the demented cleric with his mace at the ready. Then moments later Canerzon and Drewen came into view - backing out of the room in what they termed a fighting withdrawal. The zombies tried to follow but seemed to lack the co-ordination required to step through the splintered remains of the door.

"That'll buy us a headstart at least," Can muttered, "let's get going before one of them gets through." The party hurried along the passageway, back to the statue room and took the unexplored route leading to the south. They followed the passage for forty feet, then it turned sharply to the west and to a door. Drewen who was leading tried the handle and it opened easily.

The room beyond measured approximately twenty feet by fifty feet and appeared to be a store of some description - shelves lined the walls, all packed to the edges with packages and foodstuffs of varying kinds.

Surveying the considerable amount of supplies, Lana looked at Whiskers who was very much in need of a good feed. "Here boy!" she enthused, lifting a pack of food down from a nearby ground and depositing it before the ferret. He sniffed at it disdainfully.

"Eat!" Lana gestured.

The ferret looked at her with wide, vacant eyes.

"He's refusing to eat," Lana informed her companions. "He'll eat rats and beetles but not this stuff - what gives?"

"Is it any surprise?" Drewen asked. "Look at that stuff."

Lana inspected the food more closely, realising it was unlike anything she had seen before. For one thing, it was green and gave off a peculiar aroma. Curious, she broke off a small morsel and placed it in her mouth, then began to chew. She surveyed the remainder of the pack she had opened, and noticed something sticking out of the large mass of compacted food. She stared at it more closely.

"Is that…?" Realising what she was looking at, she spat the food from her mouth.

"Yes it's an earlobe," Threy confirmed. "And the rest of that stuff is probably made up of squashed eyeballs, intestines, toenails, and whatever else goblins consider appetising."

"Goblin food," Drewen muttered.

The party began searching the long hall for hidden treasure or concealed openings, then after a while there came a crash and the door through which the party had entered was flung open. There in the doorway stood a lone hobgoblin clad in leather armour, wielding a massive meat-cleaver.

"What you doing here?" he demanded fiercely in Thyatian. "Get out of my hall!"

He charged at the party, seemingly making a direct line for Lana although Canerzon interposed himself and slashed at the creature with Kernrick's sword, opening a deep gash through the leather armour and into the hobgoblin's chest.

"Attack!" Lana was appalled that the hobgoblin had targeted her out of everyone present, and as retribution decided to set her ferret upon her would-be attacker. "Go get him!"

Whiskers stared at her placidly.

"Attack the hobgoblin!" No response. "Attack!" Still no response. "Get him!" Still Whiskers refused to budge.

In any event there came a cry of pain and the hobgoblin slumped over, dead by Canerzon's sword. Threy approached the body and began rifling through its pockets, which yielded a few silver coins.

Finding nothing more of interest in the room the party returned to the statue room and took the passage to the south. After twenty feet was a junction where the companions decided to turn east, then a further junction offered two ways forward - north or south. Heading south, the tunnel continued for thirty feet before banking sharply to the east then widening into a room measuring twenty feet by thirty feet. The room was empty but had a large opening in the centre of the north wall, through which the companions stepped.

The pit and the cavern beneath

On the far side of the opening was a room measuring thirty feet square, in whose floor was a huge, square pit. A rope attached to an iron spike hammered between two flagstones led down into the darkness.

Lana lit a torch and dropped it into the pit. It fell a short distance (at least fifty feet, she estimated) before hitting solid ground and extinguishing itself with a dull thud.

"This could be tricky," Drewen murmured, more into his beard than to anyone else.

"So much for our plan to reach the upper level," Threy said. "Are we considering descending that rope?"

"I'm curious," Lana nodded. "We might as well see what's down there. How about I go first, I'm the only one not wearing armour so I won't have that hard a time climbing down."

Taking hold of the rope Lana shimmied down into the pit, reaching the bottom without difficulty. "I made it!" she called to the others. "Come on down if you want!"

There were mutterings. And a clank. And another, and another. A few moments later Canerzon touched down beside his female companion. He too breathed a sigh of relief at having managed the descent safely.

As Drewen began lowering sacks which he had secured to the rope, Lana and Canerzon walked around the large natural cavern they found themselves in. A tunnel was located in the north-eastern corner, which appeared to lead to a set of natural stone steps leading down.

"There's a way on down here!" Lana called up to the top of the pit, where she could see a faint light - Threy must have lit a torch. Even so she could still hear the "other" cleric whimpering about the darkness. "Who's coming next?"

"Threy."

Can sniggered. "I bet he slips."

Lana couldn't help but smile. "Don't be so mean."

True enough, as the armour-plated cleric began lowering himself down the rope there came all sorts of clanks and other awkward sounding noises. Threy was not renowned for his grace or dexterity.

"Guys!" he called, once he had manoeuvred himself less than halfway down. "My hold on the rope is slipping, I'm going to fall!"

Noting that Canerzon seemed unconcerned, Lana gave him a reproachful look.

"Don't look at me like that! What does he expect us to do?"

"Can, you should be ashamed of yourself. Help me empty one of these sacks, quick."

Selecting one of the larger sacks Drewen had lowered down, the pair emptied the sack of its coins then held it stretched between them at the bottom of the rope. Moments later they heard a torrent of profanities as Threy lost his grip and fell.

"Aaaargh!!"

"Brace yourself," Can warned Lana.

The cleric's armoured form plummeted into the lantern light, hitting the sack moments later. The impact was considerable and it tore the sackcloth from Lana's grasp. The sack broke Threy's fall to an extent, though he still hit the ground hard, smacking his head in the process and knocking himself unconscious. He gave an incomprehensible murmur and passed out.

"Is Threy alright?" called Drewen from the top of the pit. "He made one hell of a racket."

Lana was kneeling by his side, feeling the back of his neck. "He'll probably be fine!" she shouted back. "He's knocked himself out but I imagine he'll come round in a bit and I don't think he's broken anything."

"Oh right!" Drewen sounded relieved. "I'm sending down Whiskers now!"

Lana's eyebrows rose, as she wondered how in the world the ferret was going to manage the descent down the rope. She watched, curious, as the rope was hauled back up to the surface, disappearing from the globe of lantern light. At the top could be heard the clinking of Drewen's chainmail armour as he appeared to be wrestling with the ferret.

"Come here Whiskers, sit still. I said sit! No, HERE! There's a good fellow, come here will you. Here! Sit still for goodness' sake. I said stay still! No… no! Leave my beard alone, stop wriggling..."

After a good five minutes the rope descended with Whiskers attached. The dwarf had somehow managed to truss the ferret by his paws, and attach the rope to the bindings. Whiskers struggled as he descended, yelping loudly, and was highly agitated upon reaching the ground. Upon being released from his bonds he immediately scurried off into the shadows but returned a few moments later and allowed Lana to pet him.

A further commotion was coming from the top of the pit now.

"No!" came a frantic voice. "I can't, I'll die! Don't you see? I'll stay here."

"You can't stay here," came Drewen's tired response. "The torch will go out and you'll be left in the dark. You're going down the rope with the rest of us."

"It's too far!"

"It's not too far."

"I'll die!"

"You won't die. The others all made it down safely -"

"But one fell!"

"- well, apart for Threy, I suppose you're right on that count."

"I can't go, you can't make me, they'll make me fall I know they will!"

"Who?"

"They will, I know they will!"

"Pull yourself together man! Wait, be careful, you're right at the edge!" Drewen's emphatic warning came too late as the cleric lost his footing and tottered over the edge of the pit. He gave a scream and fell. Down below, Lana and Can raced to stretch out the empty sack in time but it was no good - the cleric hit the ground beside them with a sickening crunch.

Lana gazed fearfully at the body. He lay, broken and twisted, his head turned at an unnatural angle, however a curious expression formed on his face - the dreamy, peaceful look of a tormented soul who had finally found peace. Stooping, Lana took hold of the cleric's mud-encrusted hood and drew it across his face.

Drewen began lowering down his armour, then his backpack, then the remainder of the sacks of coins then there came a pause.

"Are you coming down?" Can called.

"Yes," came the quiet response. For long moments after nothing happened.

"What are you doing up there?"

"Just a second!"

Silence resumed.

"Drewen?"

"Yes?"

"Is everything okay?"

"Of course!"

"It's very quiet up there."

"Just finishing a few last minute checks."

Canerzon and Lana looked at one another, puzzled. "You're not scared, are you?" Can called.

"Absolutely not!"

"Then come on!"

The rope started quivering as Drewen began to descend. It took what seemed like an eternity for him to emerge into the light of the lantern and he seemed to be shaking visibly.

"Come on," Lana called to him, "you're practically half way and you're doing well."

The dwarf continued to lower himself, inch by inch, taking meticulous care and eventually his feet touched the ground. His teeth unclenched as he heaved a sigh of relief and began strapping his armour back on.

Threy regained consciousness while Canerzon and Lana were scooping coins back into the sack which had broken his fall. He seemed groggy and complained of a headache but otherwise seemed fine.

Heading to the natural stone steps which appeared to be the only exit from the cavern, the party descended and found themselves at a junction where they could turn west or continue north. They headed north, entering a natural cave after around twenty feet. The floor was strewn with rubble but otherwise the cave appeared empty so they continued on through a tunnel in the opposite wall. Progressing along this tunnel, a squelching sound could be heard coming from behind. Curious, Lana turned and shone her lantern back down the passage. There, hanging from the ceiling of the tunnel, was an enormous centipede, well over five feet long with massive mandibles. Its many suckered feet clung to the surface of the ceiling and there was no doubt it was making a direct line for the party.

The party made what haste they could to progress along the passage. The centipede was moving relatively slowly therefore they thought they stood a good chance of out-distancing it. They raced onward past a crossroads then on a further forty feet then they were obliged to stop abruptly when the ground gave out.

They were standing on the brink of a great fissure, easily around ten feet across. The passageway continued on the opposite side. A warm wind issued from the chasm, blowing in the companions' faces and lifting Lana's hair as they gazed into its depths. There, hundreds of feet below could be seen a brightly glowing vortex of colour - pinks, greens, blues and yellows - swirling endlessly.

"It's beautiful!" Lana murmured, mesmerised.

Drewen nodded to show his agreement. "In all my years living underground, I've never seen such a thing."

"That's all well and good," Threy commented. "But how in the Nine Hells will we get across?"

The companions looked at one another blankly.

To Be Continued...


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