Chapter the Twenty Ninth: A Glimpse Behind the Curtain May Spoil the Surprise
Even my light steps echoed loudly throughout the empty, hollowed out chamber. I gazed outward in awe at the room, crafted untold numbers of years ago by Black Mountain Dwarves. When Virgil and Vollinger caught up the sounds their feet made against the polished rock beneath were loud enough to startle me with each step. I didn't know exactly what I was expecting, but I certainly hadn't expected the mines to be so... empty.
There were no dwarves to greet me at the entrance, no proud, stout guards lining the entry hall to make certain I would be on my best behavior. Instead there was only scrap, rudimentary barricades blocking my way as if they were insulting the great stone cavern around them. The cautionary greetings that should have been shouted by dwarves were replaced with the gentle echo of squeaks, whines, and light growls.
A family of wolves darted around a nearby corner, attacking. I drew my axe in defense, knowing that it was too late to avoid combat now. Stupid animals... I don't mean you any harm, if you'd let me pass you could have lived. I regretted having to kill them. My axe swept in wide, powerful arcs surprising even myself at the skill with which I struck. The wolves fell before me having stood not even a shred of a chance, their corpses bleeding at my feet. Although I've never been a terribly religious person I still said a brief prayer for them.
Continuing down the thick stone passage I discovered a wide staircase to be the only path that lead further into the mines. There were other paths I could've taken had it not been for the haphazard trash that blocked the way. Normally piles of junk were good to me - I could scavenge them for parts - but here they were just nasty bits of rotted wood and rusted metal.
The bottom of the winding staircase revealed only more twisting passageways for me to follow, becoming all the more hopelessly lost with each successive turn. Suddenly, from out of the darkness, rats pounced. I knew not what could make rats so large nor aggressive, but the unfortunate truth in the matter was that I had cause to defend myself yet again. After no more strikes from my axe than there had been rats, I was already rounding the next corner.
A part of me had expected even more things eager to rip and tear at my flesh, but all I found were more dull, stone passageways. Vents chiseled into the stone walls lead to an ancient furnace, or perhaps to the molten depths of the Black Mountain from which these mines and their dwarves had taken their name. The warmth that issued from them was a small comfort in the cold, dead halls I tread upon.
As I turned another corner I caught movement just at the edge of my awareness. I turned, startled to find a mound of living rock standing up to face me. I took a step back, frightened at this new kind of creature or thing that I had never encountered before. The deafening bang of Vollinger's gun sounded out and a thick chip of stone slid off of the creature's side, yet still it lumbered towards me. I suspected Vollinger had the right idea.
I drew my axe and stared at the creature as it slowly stalked ever closer. When it was near enough it reached out a stone fist and tried to slam me against the wall, but I was too fast. Reflex took over and I darted underneath its surprisingly fast arm, whirling around and sinking my axe into the side of its leg. The leg cracked where my blow contacted it, eventually splintering under the weight of solid rock.
The creature still stood, even on only a single leg. It swiveled to try and strike at me again, but there would be no hesitation on my part. I had come around fully to the creature's backside and I took the opening that afforded me. I swung my axe high over my head, bringing it down upon the back of the creature's stony skull. As happened before, the stone cracked and shattered, then at last the creature fell to the ground lifelessly. Exactly how stone should be: unmoving. The sooner I pressed on the sooner I would be safely back in Tarant, so pressing on is exactly what I did.
As if the rock creature had been the embodiment of the mines themselves, its death sent the lifeless mines into a frenzy. Activity exploded around every corner as all manner of beasts sprung to life, attacking the first thing they saw - me. My axe served me well and I clung to it tightly. It was my life preserver in the sea of violence I found myself rapidly drowning in.
It seemed as though Vollinger was quite impressed with how I'd been handling myself. "Thank you, kind sir. It's good of you to notice, even if I'm not always proud of it."
He shrugged casually, "We cannot all be paragons of what society demands of us. I think it is admirable that you do what it takes to survive in this often cruel and underestimated world of ours."
Although I really didn't feel that hacking things to bits was something to be complimented over, I still smiled at Vollinger's thoughtfulness. "Well... I appreciate the compliment." It surprised me just how elaborately Vollinger could speak when he wanted to. It really was quite flattering.
As the stone passages wore on and on I repeatedly encountered a greater number of the tiny goblins known as Kite. Had I not known better I would've suspected these mines weren't home to dwarves after all, but it would've been utterly impossible for Kite to carve out such a spectacular structure. Whatever was once the home of dwarves, however, was clearly long abandoned and newly found by an aggressive Kite tribe.
It seemed that over the years the Kite even developed an agreement with the living stones that guarded the mines. I came across a small group of them sharing a fire with one such construct, although the second I was noticed they concentrated their efforts on attacking me. The Kite fell effortlessly beneath my axe, which would've made me feel guilty if they hadn't attacked before even trying to determine if I was a friend or foe. The deep crimson stone golem, however, would not fall so easily.
Dust shook loose from the smooth stone ceiling above me as the creature stomped a path towards me. The cavern shook and shuddered, sending down another cascade of dust, as the golem's fists crashed into the stony floor and walls. I couldn't afford to be struck by one of those powerful limbs; it would only take a single blow to crush the life out of me. It was all I could do to simply avoid them, nevermind actually making my own attack against the creature.
Bravely, Virgil stepped up towards the creature and provided an excellent distraction. Angered at Virgil's chipping away, the creature turned and refocused its efforts. Luckily for Virgil the plate armor I'd crafted for him was able to absorb a substantial portion of the golem's strike. Virgil wasn't as adept at dodging as I and a sharp sound rang forth like a blacksmith's hammer solidly striking a length of steel against an anvil. "Are you all right?!" I shouted. Damn you, getting yourself hurt again! I'm awful glad I gave you that armor.
Virgil weakly groaned, "I think I'll live to see tomorrow."
I gritted my teeth and leapt at the golem, swinging my axe madly. I struck it several times before it turned to face me, then I darted around behind it and struck it several more times. I could feel my axe plinking uselessly off of its impenetrable exterior, but with each successive strike I knew I was digging further and further. Finally, the stone cracked and I took the opportunity to bury my axe where the creature was noticeably weakened. There was a loud crunch and then silence.
A puff of rock exploded from the creature's chest, launching stone fragments into the air. It was as though the creature had been imbued with a heart that finally burst after the onslaught I delivered. Then a loud crack echoed throughout the stony hall and the creature's head slowly slid from its shoulders, landing on the ground with a solid crack and rolling up against the wall before finally settling there. Our battle finally finished, I gently walked over to Virgil. I took the front plate off of his armor and applied some healing salve to his wound before tending to the basic repairs his plate needed.
"Thank you, but that's not necessary." He whined.
"Well I think it is necessary, Virgil," I chided him, "I'll not have my companions sitting wounded in a corner for my sake." Idiot. Don't think that I'm so heartless as to not care for your safety.
He hung his head, "Well... thanks."
I merely smiled at him and handed him back his newly repaired plate before setting off to find the end of these damnable mines once and for all. I'm not dead yet, Bates... and I don't plan on dying for your sake.
A nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach developed when I spied a gnomish corpse on the ground just a bit further down the hall. I approached it carefully, desperately looking around to try and find what had killed it. The pool of blood it was lying in suggested it was no accident. After I was certain there was nothing to be afraid of in the immediate vicinity I crept up on the corpse and tried to find out what I could.
I noticed the gnome was carrying a few pieces of paper. Two of them were scrolls, one marked 'traps' and the other 'exit'. They seemed fairly straightforward. The third piece of paper was entirely more worrying. It was a simple note.
My eyes drifted back towards the corpse and I spied the distinctive amulet of the Molochean Hand around the gnome's neck. I started to feel faint. "They're here... they know I came this way and they're already in the mine trying to kill me. I don't know who killed this one or why, but they're here for me!"
Virgil put his hand on my shoulder, "Please, calm down. It'll be all right. Obviously someone or something here doesn't welcome their presence any more than it welcomes ours, and we're holding our own so far. Those bastards have yet to succeed in their efforts against us so I say we continue forward. I'm certainly not afraid of them."
I still didn't feel right about the situation. "You may be correct, Virgil, it's just difficult for me. Of all the things that have ever happened to me I can't say having a group of ancient assassins after my life is one of them. I'm not used to this."
He sighed, "It'll be all right. Please," he begged, "trust me."
"Okay, Virgil," I nodded. "Let's continue then."
The very next room seemed to answer the questions I'd just been asking myself. There were even more corpses, three of them, and next to them were more of the rock creatures I'd been battling on my way in. I suppose Virgil is right, then... those things really don't like the assassins either. Although there was a certain danger in doing battle with them, they were a danger I was familiar with. Fighting against the rock creatures didn't scare me, though it probably should have. By extension I supposed that I ought not fear the Molocheans either if they were no match for the living rocks.
At the end of the room I at last came to the staircase leading back upwards. I climbed up it with satisfaction that I'd managed to defeat the abandoned mines, to succeed where the best thugs money could buy had failed. My heart sank when, at the top of the staircase, I saw no less than two more staircases leading straight back downward. Damnation! When will these abominable stone halls come to an end?! They had long ceased being a marvel and instead become an incredible annoyance.
I stared down both staircases carefully before making my decision on which one to pick. From the farther of the two I could swear I smelled the sweet scent of herbs and so I chose that one. It was a small reason to choose it, but I had no better reason to choose the other one so down I went. That sweet and yet pungent scent of herbs grew stronger, but all I could see with my eyes were a half dozen more unexplored passageways. I continued to follow the scent into the first passageway on the left side and I was greeted with a rather surprising and somewhat spectacular sight.
It seemed as though the dwarves had dug out the entire room with the express purpose of turning it into an underground garden. They'd dug a hole the entire length of the room all the way up to the surface of the mountain, letting in the cool air from above and filtering sunlight into the room. Amazing... simply amazing.
My momentary awe was interrupted as an arrow came sailing out from between the trees and planted itself in my side. I looked carefully and saw a shadowy elf taking aim at me for another shot. As he fired I ducked behind another nearby tree and watched the arrow go sailing past before I charged through the foliage at him.
As an assassin, he was clearly inept. Once I closed in on him he became confused as to what he should do. He froze, frightened, and my axe separated a very vital part of him from the rest of his body. I closed my eyes in disgust at what I'd just done, but to my credit it was at least in self defense. I really need to get a blackjack.
Sighing, I continued onward to explore many more of the passageways. At the far end of the hall I saw several Kite stubbornly guarding a doorway. From what I could see at a distance it looked as though there were several bunks behind the doorway they guarded and it occurred to me that if I left them alone they would probably leave me alone. I wasn't going to sleep in Kite infested beds at the bottom of an abandoned dwarven mine anyhow. No good could come from killing them.
As I explored more of the passageways I came across many more corpses, and on each of them I found the distinguishing amulet of the Molochean Hand. They really went all out to send their most bumbling, easily dispatched agents on this one, didn't they? I finally figured out the puzzle that had been plaguing me when I stepped on a poisoned needle on the ground.
The entire floor was absolutely covered in traps, and the inept Molocheans had been killed by them. I supposed I'd either been lucky to avoid that fate so far, or else the Molocheans had done a spectacular job of unintentionally disarming them for me. I pulled out the scroll I'd found earlier marked 'traps' and rolled it open. Idiots... why haven't they been using these? I secretly hoped that it would work for me, despite my penchant for technology. Futzing around with electrical gizmos and picking locks didn't really seem to be a big deal, although Virgil's magicks argued otherwise.
I read the scroll aloud and the paper slowly crumbled beneath my fingers. The paper bits gently flitted to the ground and vanished as they touched the stone. I felt something slowly coming over me, like a gentle tingling upon my skin. The spell's effects made me uncomfortable, but at the same time a dim awareness came over me. It was not unlike wearing spectacles for which I had no need. My eyes began to ache and I wondered if I could truly see any better.
Continuing onward, I began to spot several traps in the general vicinity of where I walked. I carefully pointed them out to my companions when I could and continued on. I suppose, for once, I'm glad I don't get much of a chance to tinker around any further. As I'd suspected, the traps were nearly everywhere. Walking through them was quite perilous even when I knew exactly where they were.
I wasn't sure how long the spell would last, so I left the heavily trapped area as quickly as I could. I went straight for the staircase I'd entered from and climbed it hastily. With a heavy sigh I descended right back down, this time taking the only other staircase I'd yet to venture down. At the bottom was a grand hall that I imagined would've contained the king's throne were the magnificent stone passages I traversed still occupied by dwarvenkind.
Instead I met up with the king of the Kite, or at least I suspected as much. There were nearly two dozen of the tiny bastards and they wasted no time in attacking as soon as they spotted me. It was lucky for me that it didn't take more than a single strike from my axe to fell each of them or I'd have been in real trouble. Oh what I wouldn't give for an explosive grenade right about now.
It wasn't clear whether there was actually Kite royalty or at least a chieftain or somesuch, but their aggression lead me to believe it was some important figure in their culture. I would've been punctured by several dozen of the tiny pins they use as arrows for their miniature bows, but the chapeau I had gotten from Mrs. Cameron activated and repelled them magnificently through the use of a magnetic field. It was truly a spectacular display of technological invention and my thoughts drifted to the unfortunate loss of such a grand inventor.
My reflexes and instincts took over while my mind was elsewhere, and by the time I'd awoken from my reverie the Kite had been eradicated. Judging by the pile of them around my feet and the blood upon my axe I guessed most of it had been my work, though Virgil and Vollinger had their share of kills as well. None of us wished to break the silence that followed and so I eventually continued onward into the passageway behind the throne room.
Of all the lengthy hallways and damnable corridors in the entire mine, that particular passage seemed utterly interminable. It wound around and around upon itself, twisting in every direction and seeming to go nowhere. The walls were rough and crude, a far cry from the smoothly hewn stone passages I'd been traveling through. Something about those particular halls was very different, but they certainly hadn't been concealed.
I was glad that the scroll I'd used earlier still remained active, because that damnable hall was also riddled with traps. Everywhere I looked, every time I turned a corner, another trap would show itself to my unnatural sight. It seemed like there was only a single path that actually lead through the traps safely and I carefully lead Virgil and Vollinger through it. Finally, at the end of what seemed like an eternity, I came to a cramped room with a massive stone pillar at the center and a dirty dwarf with wide eyes squatting in front of it.
I carefully approached the crazed-looking dwarf while glancing over the pillar. It had writing scratched all over it carefully and meticulously, but still roughly. Before taking the time to read it I decided to announce my intentions to the dwarf in the room. He eyed me suspiciously and seemed like he was getting ready to attack, so the sooner I allayed his fears the better.
I don't know what the hell this dwarf is saying but I do know it's got to be important. At last, I've found what I came here for. "I don't understand. I'm only here to find the Black Mountain Clan."
The dwarf roared in anger, "Betrayal it was! Myself, the Clan of the Wheel, betrayers all! Sent to despair without hope for return! It was Stennar and the boy! ... Stennar... and Bates. We all paid the burden of shame."
Bates had spoken of betrayal as well, but he never spoke of one dwarf betraying another. "Just who are you?" I asked.
Damn it all, would you please start making some sense?! The dwarf obviously knew something, but it was nigh impossible to get him to say it clearly. "Where is your clan?"
The dwarf shook his head repeatedly, chanting "Gone. Gone to their despair. An island of death and hate, the unholy place of judgment."
Perhaps he means the isle of despair? Good heavens, I don't like where this is going. "I don't understand what you are trying to tell me." At least I sincerely hope I don't.
If the damned traps are your fault and the assassins in the shadows are my fault I consider us even, dwarf. "So you have been down here 70 years, laying traps and waiting?" It was an absurd thought, but I knew that dwarves had legendary patience compared to humans.
The dwarf nearly completely broke down, "My traps keep me safe our homes must be protected to the end of days much evil afoot."
It barely made any damned sense at all, but I wasn't ready to give up yet. The dwarf had told me to read the stone, so read it I did.
I commit to stone my judgment on Loghaire and his clan, blinded in their madness to the extent they would allow the elves to force their hand. The day the Elves came, led by the warrior betrayers of the Wheel, was the day my destiny was writ upon the stone. Gudmund Ore Bender would never be banished by the hand of an elf, no matter what untrue judgment of guilt were handed down.
The voice of reason, usually so clearly heard by the dwarven kind, was shunned when it cried out to drive the human from our ancestral home. The Bates child sold the dwarven birthright to the world. As was he the charge of Stennar, so must be the guilt.
This day shall be remembered for all the days of the Ore Bender. When the proudest of clans may be forced as sheep into a circle of banishment created by lowly elves, while warriors stand and do naught, the Ore Bender must reject all that his dwarven bones will him to do, as there must be one to stay and make record of this, the most evil of days.
I scream for my brothers to fight the unfair judgment of the Clan of all Clans, I scream at them still.
I paused before turning to talk to the maddened dwarf again. His record had explained something to me at least. Damnation! He did mean the Isle of Despair after all. It seemed like this Loghaire of the Wheel Clan had passed a harsh sentence upon the whole of the Black Mountain Clan, and at the behest of elves for some strange reason. Bates would be surely wanting to know everything I had found, the very information he'd been seeking for years, even if it was not the kind of information he really wanted to hear. Before leaving, I wanted to get any more information I could out of the dwarf, even if it was mostly fruitless. "Gudmund, could you tell me what you know of this Loghaire?"
Magick made me quite uncomfortable and yet still I'd never felt mages 'in' my head. I supposed that was the realm of crazy dwarves and steam engine enthusiasts alike. "Why would dwarves let elves interfere in their affairs?"
He roared again, dictating the rambling thoughts that passed through his maddened skull, "Elves cowered in fear at the might of dwarven machines for eons past, waiting for their chance to set the dwarves upon themselves with the threat of war."
Well, that answered nothing. "Then what of the Wheel Clan?"
Gudmund continued rambling on and on about his traps 'needing tending' and it was clear I wouldn't be getting anything more from him. Thankfully he'd had the sense to commit his tale to stone before the madness took him. "I will be leaving now." For what it's worth, Gudmund... thanks.
I didn't relish the thought of navigating backwards through Gudmund's maze of traps, so I dug the other scroll out of my pocket and unraveled it. I really hope this one works, too. I never thought I'd regret all of my tinkering, and certainly not at the bottom of a dwarven mine, but here I am. I chanted the words upon the scroll just like I had before, then closed my eyes as the scroll crumbled to dust and vanished.
I felt a draft on my exposed skin and opened my eyes to find myself at the entrance to the mines. Oh thank the gods that it worked. Well, Bates, I lived... what do you and your investigators have to say about that? I sighed, breathing in the fresh air, and looked over at my companions, "I suppose we'd better be off to see Bates, then." Virgil simply nodded his agreement while Vollinger checked to make sure he had enough bullets left over.