|Rikard Le Rich||Son of Baron LeRich of North Caravel||M 22|
|Ping Pong||Wizard of Noc, Native of Voisson||F 24|
|Nignog Gateaux||Knight of Gebong, Native of Voisson||M 21|
|Zar Queznel||Wizard of Noc, Son of Zarquon||M 17|
|Helene Mallet||Editor of the Voisson Village News||F 48|
|Ralf Mallet||Blacksmith of Voisson Village||M 45|
|Judith Mallet (The Inebriated)||Artist for Village News||F 45|
|Gene Clairmont||Wealthy Man of Machay||M ?|
7th July 2482
On the very same day that Ping is sitting and talking with Throm Beausex in Machay, indeed: at almost exactly the same time, Zar sees a kobold poking around his camp. We call it a camp, but he calls hi his house and garden. He lives in the forest in the Borderlands south of Caravel, five minutes walk from the center of Voisson Village. He did not buy the land. He just found a clearing, killed the bushes in it by burning them, and made a conjured shelter. You may be curious to know what he does for toilets and baths, but you'll have to ask him yourself, because we want to get on with the exciting part of the story, which is the kobold poking around in his camp.
Zar fires an arrow at it. It's only a kobold. He doesn't think it's worth a whole spell.
The kobold turns and runs away. But it drops something. It's a bag made of sack cloth. Zar picks it up. Inside are three grasshoppers, several large mushrooms, some dried meet that smells bad, and a piece of paper with a coded message on it. Zar examines the code for several minutes, looking up occasionaly to see if the kobold is sneaking back to get its bag. The kobold does not come back. Zar decides the code is a letter substitution applied to a message in Latin. He walks back to his shelter and sits down with a pencil and paper.
Six hours later, by the light of one of Alfonso Bongo's fine luminous stones, Zar has decyphered the entire message. It is indeed in Latin.
to abacuscraft from spy six oh gret gne be warned a rich and powerful man who is called jeane clairmont is paying a fhrtune in gold to an army of adventurers to take the black tower and capture the elementalist
Zar smiles. His comrades will be excited about this. He wonders about the spelling mistakes. He decides they are there because the writer of the message did not take the time to translate his message back into Latin again to check his spelling.
The Voisson Village News is a weekly newspaper printed by Helene Mallet in her own home in the center of the village. Each week she prints the issue on a large sheet of paper, double-sided, and folds it for delivery to each subscriber in the Village. Each copy sells for $10. Helene's husband is Ralf the Blacksmith, who spends a good deal of time in the Trollhammer Arms gathering information for his wife, or so he says. He and Joe the Plumber are good friends. Judith the Inebriated is Ralf the Blacksmith's twin sister, and she spends a lot of time in the Trollhammer Arms also. Until recently, Judith had so much money in the bank that she didn't have to work, but now that the bank was robbed, she is helping Helene with the paper, making line-engravings to illustrate the stories. Judith has a good hand for drawing.
Subscription has risen from eighty to a hundred copies in the past month. That's partly because of the bank robbery, which has everyone in the village wanting to know what's going to happen next, and partly because Judith's drawings make the paper more interesting.
There are a few dozen other people in the village like Judith: they came to Voisson with plenty of money and now that their money has been stolen, they are working any job they can fins, even walking to Machay to do odd jobs. These people settled down in Voisson to enjoy a place that makes its own laws. In Caravel, the Queen's Law states that you must belong to the Church of Caravel. But here in Voisson you can worship any god you like and say anything you like. The village even has its own cleric, Mistress Beezelwax, who can get medicine from the gods in emergencies.
The Village News, 3rd July, 2482. Beautifia Avarisiosa has left Voisson Village. She had been living in the house of Nignog Knight of Gebong (grandfather of Nignog Gateux), but yesterday she departed by taxi cab for Machay Town with all her luggage, saying she is going to live with an old friend in Lutetia, Kiali. She declined to tell us who this old friend was, but Beautifia's friend Chartreuse asserted that this old friend was none other than Lauren Laurenese, formerly the manager of the First Bank of Voisson. According to Chartreuse, Beautifia received a letter from Lauren a few weeks ago, inviting her to come and stay with him, saying that he has been very lucky at cards, and is now wealthy again.
Everyone has enough to eat, but not as many people have the money to go out for a drink or a meal at the Trollhammer's Arms, nor to buy coffee at Simple Sally's Coffee and Scones. So Jeane Mallius, owner of the Tavern, and Sally Velagnieux, owner of the coffee shop, are making less money. That's not to say that they have fewer customers. Everyone still gets together at these two welcoming places, but they don't spend as much money these days. They sit and discuss how they can find the Elementalist and get back from him the twenty thousand gold pieces he stole from the bank.
The Village News, Special Edition, 9th July, 2482. In the afternoon of 8th July, Nignog Gateaux Senior called an emergency town meeting, which was attended by one hundred and thirty-six people. The Mayor of Voisson, Mistress Pong, was absent, but Sheriff Trombone and many other prominent citizens were present. The meeting was called to discuss the gathering of an army of adventurers to invade the Hills of Doom, storm the Black Tower, and capture the Elementalist. Eight Voisson citizens declared their intention to join the army, and arrived in the Town Hall fully armed and equipped for battle. They spoke in favor of more able-bodied men and women joining them, so that they might hope to capture the Elementalist and discover where he has hidden the gold taken from the bank this past May. A dozen people stood up and spoke in favor and against joining the expedition. When all who wished to speak had done so, Nignog Senior took the podium. He declared that the orcs of the Hills of Doom would not allow anyone to return from such an expedition, and that the participation of Voisson Village in an attack of this type would be an act of war that would threaten the security of the village. He ordered Nignog, Ping, Zar, and Rikard to stop anyone from leaving the hall until all had promised not to join the expedition. Sheriff Trombone deputised the four of them on the spot. The eight who where were armed and determined to go charged the four Voisson Champions in an effort to get out of the hall, but failed to do so. Some were frozen where they stood by the magic of Zar and Ping. Another recoiled in terror and collapsed. Those remaining fought hand to hand with Nignog and Rikard and lost. Sheriff Trombone and his deputies threw the eight of them in jail for Assaulting a Deputy of Voisson.
Nignog Gateaux Senior is the father of Nignog's late mother. She died giving birth to Nignog in the forest of the borderlands where she and Ningnog's father were hiding from the Caravelli Police for speaking ill of the Queen. Nignog Senior is a retired adventurer, and the most respected man in town. Nignog's mother must have had a mother of her own, but Nignog Senior has never told the story of how his daughter was born.
Another prominent citizen in the village is Ping's mother, Mistress Pong, who is the mayor. She and her husband live with Ping on their farm outside the village. Mister Pong likes to raise horses, and has several large stables. He keeps Zar's horse as well as Ping's. Theirs is one of twenty farms around the village that provide food to its inhabitants. Each farm is roughly ten hectares in area, which is three hundred paces by three hundred paces. Most of this is used for ten fine cows to graze in, and to make hay. But there is a field of wheat also, and a fine orchard of pears and apples.
In the evening of 8th July, 2482, Rikard, Ping, Nignog, and Zar walk from Voisson Village to the Bridge of Fallen Trees. Here they find one hundred and nine adventurers gathered, armed, and confident of victory the next day, when they plan to cross the bridge by foot, walk east to the River of Fire, and storm the Black Tower. The adventurers have chopped down more trees to make a larger clearing opposite the bridge, and they have piled these trees across the gorge of the River Boome to make the bridge larger and stronger. In the center of the clearing, right on the road to Machay, is a red and blue tent. According to the crowd, Gene Clairmont is in the tent, planning the attack tomorrow with ten Captains of the Hoste, who were elected half an hour earlier. Some details of the attack are going to be known only to the captains, so that surprise can be assured. In the meantime, six wizard adventurers are making conjured shelters, erecting lights, and planning an inspiring firework display at midnight. Gene Clairmont's servants are roasting four pigs over open fires, and cooking other food for the hoste to eat.
Among the hoste are Claude, Jacques, Phillipe, Marc, and Minuit. They greet our heroes politely and seem glad to see that they are well, but neither party wishes to speak of what happened in Lutetia, so they make excuses and separate. Prestor the Prospector is there too, standing out in his strange leather armor with mining tools on his back. He is not the only black man in the hoste, but Ping recognises him from the other side of the clearing.
"Ping!" he says. "What good fortune." He looks around and lowers his voice. "Are you determined to storm the Black Tower, or can I interest you in another plan?"
"Um..." Ping says. She does not know what to say. She and her comrades are not here to storm the Black Tower. They are here to get a look at Gene Clairmont, whom they think is one and the same as the Elementalist. She has been charged by Sheriff Trombone with spotting any other citizens of Voisson Village and detaining them, so that they not take part in the expedition. But can she say this to Prestor?
"Tell me what you have in mind, and we will think about it."
"In Lutetia I bought this stone from an adventurer." He takes out a clear, scratched stone that looks like glass or maybe salt. He hands it to Ping. She looks at it. She scratches it with her fingernail, but leaves no mark. Prestor takes it from her and scratches it with an iron ring he wears on his finger. "See? It is not as hard as a gem. It's not a gemstone at all."
"It's just salt or something like that, isn't it?"
"Exactly right, in a way." Prestor says. He leads them away from the crowd. "But not exactly. It's a crystal of mithril sodium silicate, a very rare form of mithril ore." He holds up the stone, which is three centimeters across. "This stone weighs fifty grams. If treated correctly, it will yield ten grams of mithril."
"My gosh," Ping says. "Mithril sells for a thousand dollars a gram, doesn't it?"
Prestor smiles. "Indeed it does."
"What does that mean?" Nignog says. His brow is furrowed in that cute way that makes Ping laugh. Nignog is not the sharpest tool in the shed, as her mother always told him, but he doesn't let that slow him down.
"It means that gem is worth close to a hundred gold pieces."
Nignog looks at the gem. "Where did the adventurer find it?"
"Apparently there is a trap-door in the path east from this very bridge." He points to the Bridge of Fallen Trees. "There tend to be monsters in the pit beneath the trap-door, but following this army, I'm not going to worry about them. I'll make sure the trapdoor is sprung as the army is going by so the army will kill the monsters. After that, there is a door. I will pick the lock and descend some stairs. There is some kind of slimey thing down there, but apparently you can get past it if you are quick, although I'm not sure about that. The adventurer didn't want to tell me how to get by the slimey thing. But once again, I could find a few people to help, so I expect I can get by."
Ping and Nignog look at one another. Ping makes a sign that Nignog should not say anything about their own experiences yet.
"Beyond the slime creature is a room full of cheap gems like this one, stuck into idols and statues." He grins. "See? The stones are there, but whoever owns them does not know their value. With the army going by, whoever usually guards the cavern will be confused. I think I can get in, grab a sack full of these, and get away."
"If you can get past the green slime," Zar says.
"Do you know of it?"
"Indeed we do," Ping says.
"Well," Prestor says. "If you come with me, I'll split the treasure with you: one third for me and one sixth for each of you. What do you say?"
From the center of the clearing comes a voice. "May I have your attention please!" It is a man on a bright red platform of conjured wood. "Gene Clairmont would like to say a few words to you before the sun sets and dinner begins."
The crowd of adventurers cheers and gathers about the platform.
A man of middle height with shoulder-length black hair and a beard jumps up onto the platform. There is a hint of gray in his beard and his hair. The beard is square-trimmed and shiny. He wears a red shirt with a simple white diamond on the chest. Beneath the shirt is ring mail. Judging by his tummy, he is a little overweight. He waves to the crowd and they cheer again.
"Friends, soldiers, wizards," he says. His voice is loud and clear. "Welcome, all of you, to this place. I was hoping for fifty of you to join me, but behold, there are more than a hundred of you here. I have a ledger, and I would have all of you sign your names there, so that the list of those who took part in this enterprise might be complete. I want all of you to come home when the job is done, and I want all of you to get your reward."
The crowd cheers.
"And for those of you who have forgotten, the reward is one hundred guineas to anyone who returns and signs the ledger within a week. The ledger will not come with us, but will go back to Machay, where it will be in the keeping of the Spittoon Tavern. If you get lost and come back a separate way, sign it when you come home. And don't think that just because there are more of you than expected I can't pay you all. That's nonsense. I know some people have been worrying about that, but don't: I have eleven thousand guineas set aside, and I fully expect to pay all of it out by the end of the week."
Someone in the crowd says, "What about the treasure in the Black Tower?"
"Good question," Gene says, "We'll split that between us. Everyone who returns will get one share, except for me. I get ten shares."
"Boo!" some people say. Others laugh.
Gene frowns. "I may be generous, but I am a businessman, remember. I hope to make money out of this adventure. I don't know how much loot is in that tower, but I'm thinking it's as much as we can carry."
"Why not bring a cart?" someone says.
"Good point," Gene says. "I'll tell you why. This is dangerous territory we're going into. We will be shot at by kobolds. They won't hesitate to kill our horses, and anyone pulling a cart will be vulnerable. We are going to go in, storm the Black Tower, and come home. We're not going to get killed. We're not going to lose horses, and we're not going to get greedy and put ourselves at risk. Is that clear? I'm coming with you and I have no intention of dying or being captured."
The crowd murmers.
"Tonight, we have food brought by the excellent kitchen of the Spittoon Tavern."
Some of the crowd boo and others clap.
"There is enough for all." He points to the roasting pigs. "Eat well, for tomorrow we have a two-hour walk before battle, and we leave at dawn. We won't have much time for breakfast. I would like you all to sleep for eight hours, but I have been talking to some old hands at this sort of expedition, and they all tell me the same thing: nobody sleeps before they get up at dawn to go into the Hills of Doom. So we're not going to lie around all night getting cold and worrying. Better is to accept that we are not going to sleep, and instead have a good time. So there's some wine and beer to help you relax, and we'll have some games and a few contests. The wizards will show us some fireworks to inspire us, and you will all get to know one another better. I'm sure you'll all snatch a few hours by the time we're done celebrating. By the morning we'll be old friends."
The crowd cheers. Someone holds up her hand. It is a woman in leather armor with a copper helmet and a longbow on her back. "What is your plan for the attack?"
Gene nods and looks serious. "I have a plan that I like, but I am going to discuss it further with a few of the more experienced adventurers here. My plan is to have the wizards make a ramp of conjured material up the side of the tower so that we can climb right up to the first wall."
An older man holds up his hand. When he speaks, Ping recognises him as Minuit. "What if the elementalist can annihilate conjured matter?"
Gene nods and looks even more serious. "That sounds serious. As I said, I will have to listen to some advice before I make the final plan."
The woman with the bow says, "Do we take orders from you?"
Gene rubs his chin. "I don't think so. I think we are all free spirits here. We'll decide upon a plan and execute it. I don't think we need to act like a common army. We're all here of our own free will." He frowns. "But be warned: if you stray from the group, you will be in danger. The denizens of the Hills of Doom are no danger to a group our size, so long as we stick together, but if a dozen of you go off alone, you will be in great peril. By the time we get to the Black Tower, every kobold, gnoll, ogre and minataur within ten kilometers will be prowling about the perimiter of our force, so stay close together and pay attention. Remember the cardianl rule of adventuring." He looks at the crowd for a few seconds and raises one finger. "Don't split up."
The crowd murmers.
Gene smiles. "That's enough of me talking. Have fun tonight. I'll talk again at dawn. Try to relax."
"But what if we don't capture the elementalist?" the woman says. "What if he's not there?"
"Bad luck for me, eh?" Gene says, "I'll still have to pay you, but that dasterdly criminal will still be at large, and I'll bet he's going to be extra mad at me after this, so I can expect trouble. So please: find him."
He turns to step down, but changes his mind. "A thousand guineas to the man or woman who captures him for me!"
The crowd cheers.
8th July 2482
The sun sets and darkness gathers over the Hills of Doom. In a clearing on the west side of the River Boome, a hundred adventurers set to talking. Gene Clarimont has finished his speech, and the night-long pre-expedition party is about to begin. Ping and Nignog wander among the crowd, looking for anyone from Voisson Village. They fine no-one.
"I don't want to spend the night here," Ping says. "We'll get no sleep."
"You can come to my house," Zar says. "I can make supper for you."
"Good idea," Nignog says. "Supper is always interesting at your house."
"Er," Ping says.
"Where is your house?" Prestor says.
Zar points along the road to Voisson. "It's three kilometers that way, in the forest. I made it myself."
"I would be honored," Prestor says.
And so they walk to Zar's house, which is a kilometer outside Voisson Village, arriving after dark. The house is made of conjured wood. It is lit by luminous stones. His stove is a hot stone that he brings from outside. As soon as they enter his house, he fetches some water from the spring nearby and puts it in a cast iron pot on his hot stone.
"Is it not possible to make pots and pans out of enchanted materials?" Prestor says.
"No," Zar says, "Not good ones. The conductivity of conjured and spirit matter is too low for the heat to pass from the stone into the water." He peels some wild onions and drops them in the water. "Also the iron pot is heavy, so it does not move when you stir the water."
Prestor nods. "Do you need some help with the meal?"
Zar looks up. "Yes, fetch me that jar of grasshoppers from the shelf."
Ping grimaces and Nignog smiles. Rikard is reading a letter from someone, sitting close beneath a luminous stone. Prestor gets up and looks at the glass jars on the shelf. Their lids are pieces of flat slate. There are several with grasshoppers inside, or so it seems to him.
"This one?" he says.
"No," Zar says. "Those are crickets. They're not ready yet. The one next to it. And get that packet of chipmonk jerky too."
Zar serves onion and mushroom soup, crispy grasshoppers, chipmonk jerky with jam, and something that he calls bread, but which is more like hot dough in Ping's opinion. She puts it in the soup to make dumplings.
They sleep close together that night. Ping is woken up a couple of times by the distant sound of fireworks.
9th July 2482
The next morning, Zar is up early making a breakfast of smoked river whitefish garnished with crumbled dried earthworms. He arranges the food on spirit wood platters. He works by the light of luminous stones because it is still dark outside. He makes mint tea with wild honey, and cooks more of his dough bread.
"This looks delicious," Prestor says, when Zar hands him his platter.
"Er," Ping says.
After breakfast, they walk back up the road to the Bridge of Fallen Trees. The air is thick with fog. When they arrive at the clearing, they see the adventurer army is only just waking up. The fog is so thick they can hardly see from one side of the clearing to the other. Gene Clairmont walks about encouraging people to wake up and get ready to go. The cooks from the Spittoon Tavern are at their fires making breakfast.
"Up and about my friends," Gene says. He is wearing his armor. The red and white of the Clairmont Coat of Arms are drab in the foggy morning light. "There is coffee!" He rocks the prostrate form of a big man lying upon a pile of hay. "Wakey wakey, we have an expedition to complete."
Nignog and Ping walk through the several conjured shelters. Lying in one corner on a conjured rubber mattress, they fine Bistro Mathics, son of Mathem Matics the school teacher of Voisson village. He is unconcious. Nignog cannot wake him, so he picks the young man up, leather armor and all, and carries him out of the shelter over his shoulder. Rikard brings the young man's bow, quiver, and sword.
"That's all," Ping says. "But more may show up. Why don't you carry him back home and we'll wait and see what happens here."
And so Nignog the Strong carries Bistro back to Voisson. On the way, Bistro wakes up. "Let me go!" He pounds on Nignog and kicks until he squirms out of Nignog's grip and stands on the road. "Out of my way!"
Nignog punches him. The spirited young man fights back, hung over with drink, shaking his head and jabbing with his left fist. Rikard watches them circling one another with the fog all around. Nignog does not bother to jump from foot to foot. Bistro pounds him in the stomach, but Nignog feels nothing through his armor. The third hit Nignog lands upon the young man is a good one to the chin. Bistro collapses to the road. Nignog picks him up and throws him over his shoulder.
"What are we going to do with him?" Rikard says.
"Throw him in jail," Nignog says, "with the rest of them."
After a minute, Rikard says. "But we're going into the Old Hills today, looking for those gems. Is that honorable of us?"
Nignog says nothing until they are at the border of the village. "We're not going with the expedition. It would be dishonorable if we went with the expedition."
Two hours after dawn, Nignog and Rikard arrive back at the clearing. The army of adventurers is gathering together. Wizards have just completed a bridge of conjured wood over the gorge of the River Boom, expanding the Bridge of Fallen Logs. Gene Clairmont stands at the head of the army with his banner and shield.
"And so our great day begins!" Gene says, "We're a bit late starting, but not to worry, the fog will hide us from the enemy, and our arrival will be more of a surprise. The weather is on our side, and I'm thankful for that."
The adventurers look around at the fog. Some of them frown. Others cheer. One or two shake their heads.
"Follow me! Follow the Clairmont Banner!"
The army crosses the bridge of conjured wood. "I want to go with them," Ping says, "I'm worried about Minuit and Philippe. And I want to know what happens."
"No," Rikard says, "That would be dishonorable. I will not go."
"We have a plan," Prestor says.
Indeed they do. While the Spittoon Tavern staff pack up their equipment and leave with their carts and horses, Ping and Zar find a quiet corner in one of the shelters and prepare one spell each. At ten-thirty in the morning, an hour and a half after the adventurer army departed, the four companions and Prestor follow the army's path into the Hills of Doom.
9th July 2482
The road that runs east into the Hills of Doom is wide enough for six people to walk abreast. It is not a paved road. It is dirt and grass. The tracks of a hundred sapiens are clear to see on the dirt. In low-lying places the boots of the army have churned the dirt into mud.
Rikard looks from side to side. The fog is so thick that he cannot see the tops of the trees. They have been walking for forty-five minutes. For the last ten minutes, it has been uphill. The road here is hard and dry. The Veloceraptor Pit is somewhere nearby. He looks at the path. Something moves in the corner of his eye. "Ah!" he says, and looks up to the left.
"What's the matter?" Ping says.
Rikard crouches on the ground and points at a tree. A crow calls out and flaps its wings. "A crow."
"Okay, Rikard," Ping says, "Calm down."
Rikard stands up. "I'm not a calm person." He looks at the road. "I think we have passed the trapdoor. Let's all look for it as we go forward. If we don't find it in ten minutes, we'll have to come back."
They move forward. Zar finds the familiar trap door in the road. The fallen tree that marked the spot the last time they were here is gone, but it's tree stump is in the forest nearby, just visible through the fog. The door is covered with ten centimeters of dirt. The boots of the army have packed the dirt down.
Prestor jumps up and down on the door. He hears a hollow booming. "Surely they would notice the sound."
"They know about the trapdoor already," Rikard says, "They were not here for the trapdoor."
Ping finds the rope and handle in the forest that opens the door. She pulls it and the trapdoor falls into the Pit of the Veloceraptors. The dirt pours into the pit, spreading across the floor. There are no veloceraptors there today. The pit is empty. Nignog jumps down and inspects the door in the east wall.
"Listen," Rikard says in a whisper. They listen. They hear a far-away clash of metal against metal in the direction of the Black Tower.
"The Minotaur," Ping says.
"I don't think so," Rikard says. "Unless its ten minotaurs. But it's definitely a battle."
Nignog calls up from the pit. "There is a trap here." He points to a wooden slat that is balanced on top of the door. "If only I had some string."
"I have string," Zar says. He takes off his pack.
Nignog ties up the slat so it won't fall down when he opens the door. "I'll pick the lock."
"Ping should pick the lock," Rikard says, "She's faster. We have to get going. We have to be out of here before the army comes back."
Ping jumps down and takes out her lock picks. The lock is simple. She has it open in less than a minute. "There!"
"Nice work," Rikard says. They jump down into the pit.
Nignog opens the door. Below ceiling on the other side is a string and pully with a wicker basket and a rock. The rock would fall on the stone floor. "An alarm trap," Nignog says. He takes the rock out of the basket.
"Let me look for tracks," Rikard says. There is dirt on the stone floor of the passage, and Rikard sees the tracks of numerous kobolds coming up the stairs and passing out of the door into the pit.
Prestor looks around. "What's behind the trap door?"
Nignog lifts up the trap door to reveal the wall behind, and in the wall is another door.
"Aha!" Ping says. "They may have gone that way." She examines the door and the lock. Nignog stands without complaint, but the trap door weighs a hundred kilograms. He wonders how the kobolds manage to get it back in place when they close it.
"It's locked," Ping says, "But I can open it."
"I think we should leave it alone," Rikard says. "We have to get past the slime and out again before the army comes back."
They enter the low, damp tunnel that leads to the slime. Nignog goes first with his lantern. The others follow with luminous stones. Steps descend into the earth. Prestor has a luminous stone in a holder on his helmet. He examines the walls. They are cut into the local slate, but in places they have been reinforced with baked clay bricks and morter. The work has been done quickly but well. The ceiling is slate for the most part also, but in places held up by wood planks. The planks have been cut in a saw mill and trimmed with an axe.
Zar and Ping tap the walls with their spear and sword in the hope of finding a concealed door. Tap, tap, tap, bonk. They move slowly along to the Chamber of the Slime, and there in the light of luminous stones, they see the mass of green slime clinging to the ceiling, with tendrils dripping down and rising again, and the door on the other side tempting them to cross. The skeletons of their previous visit have been cleared away, but there are the bones of several rats visible near the surface of the slime.
"My gosh," Prestor says.
"The kobold tracks go straight across the room," Rikard says.
The adventurers have talked for several hours about the green slime and how they can get past it. Twice before they have confronted it, and twice before they have turned away. Now they are wondering how the kobolds pass under the slime. They are wondering how the slime knows its victims are nearby. Nignog thinks it might be heat that the slime detects. Zar thinks it might be light. Some think it might sound. All agree that the tendrils could detect movement in the air.
"If it's sound," Rikard says, "Then it should be crawling at us right now, all the racket you were making banging on the walls."
They move back along the corridor. "Let's turn off our lights," Prestor says. "We don't know what it looks like down here without our lights. Perhaps the kobolds have their own light."
"They don't need light," Zar says, "They can see in the dark."
"No they can't," Ping says, "They cannot see in absolute darkness."
"Don't put out the lights," Rikard says. "We are in a corridor under the ground. There could be giant spiders waiting to crawl along the ceiling. If we turn out our lights, we could be ambushed."
"Why don't we run across the room and check the door is locked?" Zar says.
They debate for several minutes.
"For heaven's sake," Rikard says, "Let's do something. We can't stand here talking all day. We have to hurry."
"Calm down," Ping says.
"No, I won't calm down," Rikard says. "It's my job to be scared. I'm doing my job."
There is a moment of silence. Prestor says, "All we have to do is cover our lights and look around."
"Fine," Rikard says. "Cover the lights."
They cover the lights. At first it is dark, but after a few seconds, they find that they can see by the light coming down the tunnel from the door in the veloceraptor pit above them.
"Let's move around the corner," Prestor says.
They creep around the corner, feeling the walls with their hands and holding on to one another's shoulders. After ten steps, Nignog stops. "I can feel the end of the corridor."
They crouch on the floor and stare ahead of them. The slime on the ceiling of the room is glowing with a dim green light. The tips of the tendrils sparkle as they descend and rise. There is water dripping somewhere on the staircase behind them, and they can hear one another breathing, but the slime itself makes no noise. Each tendril pauses for ten or twenty seconds when it reaches its lowest point, and there it sparkles and rotates.
"Wow," Rikard says, "It's beautiful."
"I think it attacks things that bring bright lights," Zar says.
To this hypothesis, all present agree.
"And also people who brush up against the tendrils," Nignog says.
They watch the slime. Ping thinks the tendrils are moving slow enough that she could avoid them when crossing the room. But she would like someone holding a shield over her while she picks the lock.
"I'll go," Nignog says.
"I don't see why you always do the dangerous things," Rikard says. "I will go, if you like."
"Do you really want to go?" Nignog says.
Rikard takes a few seconds before he answers. It is too dark for them to see the expression on his face. "No, I don't really want to go. But I will go if I must."
Nignog pats Rikard on the back. "I'll go."
And so Ping and Nignog creep across the room, crouched below Nignog's shield. As the tendrils descend, they move aside. Ping inspects the lock on the door with her fingers. She does not dare bring out a light. She will attempt to pick the lock in the dark. First she checks it for traps. The metal of the lock is smooth and cool. Around the edges, it is decorated with a pattern of holes punched into the surface. She imagines a dwarf working with a hardened steel point and a small hammer, tapping the holes as fast as he can swing the hammer, moving the point without hesitation from one place to the next. She saw a dwarf making such patterns once when she was a child.
"It's a dwarf-made lock," she says. "No traps that I can feel."
She takes a deep breath and puts her lock picks into the keyhole. She tries to lift and fix one of the tumblers. Every minute or so she has to move aside as a green slime tendril descends in front of the door. A time comes when Nignog does not know which way to move, for if he moves aside far enough to avoid the tendril, he will have to move his shield from Ping's back. The tendril touches his shield and spreads out a few centimeters across the metal. It sparkles. He holds the shield as still as he can. He holds his breath. The tendril gathers itself together and rises to the main body of the slime.
After ten minutes Ping has not manged to get even one of the tumblers to stay put. There is some mechanism in the lock that is defeating her efforts. She searches her memory of the types of lock she studied at the School of Noc. She tries another tool. No luck. She tries another trick. Still no luck. Her hands are sweating and her fingers are stiff. She sits back against the door.
"I can't do it."
"Let me try," Nignog says.
She takes his shield and holds it above him while he attempts to pick the lock himself.
"Look out," Ping says. A tendril descends in front of her face. Nignog presses himself up against the wall. As soon as the tendril ascends, he puts his lock picks back in the lock and wiggles them around. The tendrils make Ping nervous. She doubts very much that Nignog can pick a lock that she cannot pick. But she does not want to offend him by telling him to give up.
Nignog is thinking much the same thing. But he wants to practice picking locks. One day, he wants to be a master of lock-picking. He will be a big strong man that can take off his armor at times and move with the stealth of a cat, like Vango Gruel, the barbarian adventurer he read about in the lounge of the Loud Lady Lodge.
He hears Ping sigh. That is her impatient sigh. He should stop now. "I can't do it," he says.
"Come back," Prestor says. "I'll try."
As they cross the room, a tendril comes to rest upon Nignog's armored shoulder. He stays still. The tendril spreads out, waits, and gathers itself up, just as it did on his shield. He lets out his breath and continues to the entrance of the room, where his comrades await him.
Rikard pats him on the back. "Well done. I would have shivered with fear. You stayed absolutely still. It was amazing."
"Will you go back again?" Prestor says.
Nignog takes Prestor to the door. Prestor tries to pick the lock. But he, too, fails. "I can't to it. But the door opens into this room, and I can feel the hinges exposed here. Perhaps we could knock them off." He feels around the door, looking for traps. "I can't feel any traps."
"Let me look," Ping says. Prestor comes back with Nignog and Nignog takes her to the door. Each crossing of the room takes about a minute, as they wait for the tendrils to rise out of their way, allowing them to take a step forward.
"I can't find any traps," Ping says. "But for some reason I'm sure there is one. I do feel an opening beteween the door and the frame above the lock. The frame and the door are damaged. I think someone forced the door recently with a crowbar and someone else repaired it with a better lock.""I have a crowbar," Zar says.
Nignog fetches the crowbar and advances alone across the cave. He pushes the tip of the crowbar into the gap and pulls upon the other end with his formidable strength. There is a splintering crack. He pushes the crowbar in again. On the third pull, the door grinds against its frame, the lock clunks and clacks, and the door comes ajar.
"No trap," Nignog says. Part of him is dissapointed because he was wondering what kind of trap could possibly penetrate his adamantine banded armor.
It so happens that a new tendril started descending from the slime as Nignog made the final pull, and the door brushes against the tendril. Within seconds, the slime is sparkling above the door. Nignog opens it all the way. Beyond is a dark passage. Several tendrils are forming above the doorway. Nignog steps into the corridor. He hears a distant snarling and growling from somewhere ahead of him. He draws his sword.
"Everyone stay still," Ping says. "If we wait the slime might calm down."
They wait. The distant snarling stops. The slime sparkles and lowers a dozen tendrils at a time in front of the door. But after five minutes, the number of tendrils drops to half a dozen, and after ten minutes, the slime appears to have forgotten about the door.
"Let's go," Ping says.
They cross the room, Zar and Rikard for the first time. Rikard's breath comes in short gasps. When he reaches the corridor on the other side, he bends and puts his hands upon his knees. "I think I'm going to throw up."
"Why?" Prestor says.
"He's scared," Zar says.
"Come on," Nignog says, "There are veloceraptors ahead. Several of them."
"Shall I close the door?" Ping says.
"Yes, good idea," Prestor says, "We can take out our lights."
9th July 2482, about mid-day
With the door to the room of the slime pulled shut behind them, they take out their luminous stones and advance. The snarling ahead of them starts up again, and continues. The corridor turns to the right and descends some some steps. Water seeps from the slate roof and walls, and trickls down a channel on the floor. The ceiling is low enough that Rikard has to stoop. At the bottom of the steps is a chest-high door with an opening at waist height.
It is from this opening that the snarling is coming from. Nignog keeps walking past the door and looks around a left-hand bend.
"The tunnel ends in a door," he says.
Ping kneels and looks through the opening in the first door. She shines her light inside. The snarling gets louder, with a scrabbeling of claws on rock. Beyond the door the floor slopes down to a chamber with a pool of water on the left. There is a ledge above the pool. The ledge is separated from the main chamber by a fence of wood poles. Closer to the door is a ladder made of poles tied together with rope and glue. The ladder leads up to the ledge. Just past the ladder is a cage wall and a gate, all made of the same poles, rope, and glue. There are wheels and ropes and levers next to the gate. Ping figures the levers allow a small person on the ledge to raise and lower the gate.
The cage is crowded with veloceraptors. They are hardly moving. They huddle together at the far end of the cage, near the pool of water, which is steaming. The air that touches her cheek is warm and damp. A few of the creatures growl and her light reflects from their small, cat-like eyes.
"A dozen raptors in a cage," Ping says. She stands up and examines the door. It has its own lock, not a dwarf-made lock, but a strong one. "I don't think they are going to get out. They don't look particularly lively."
Prestor looks through the opening. He grits his teeth at the sight of the raptors. He surveys the wood and glue construction. "Goblin construction. That's their favorite: poles, rope, and glue. It's amazing what they can make with it, and how fast they can make it."
"Interesting," Zar says. "But not as fast as conjured wood."
"Maybe not," Prestor says. "Are those creatures dangerous?"
"Not really," Zar says. "The last time one jumped out at Nignog, Nignot cut its head off with one blow."
Ping stands beside Ningog. There is a rope hanging from the ceiling beside the door at the end of the tunnel. "I'll check it for traps." She approaches the door and examines it in the light of her luminous stone. There is a latch, but no door handle. "I can open the latch without pulling the rope."
"Sounds like a good idea," Rikard says. "Not pulling the rope."
"Do it," Prestor says.
Ping takes out a slender, flat, piece of metal and pushes aside the latch between the door and the frame. With another tool she eases the door towards her, for it opens into the tunnel. "Got it."
Nignog advances and pushes the door shut. The latch clicks. Ping looks up. "What did you do that for?"
"I wanted to open it."
"But it opens towards us. You have to pull it."
"I know that now. I'll pull it next time."
Ping takes a deep breath and raises her tools. Prestor notices that the water trickling along the channel in the floor is going the other way. He looks back along the tunnel and sees that the water passes under the door to the raptor cage.
A minute later Ping has the latch open again. "Okay, now you are welcome to pull open the door."
Rikard draws his sword. Zar prepares himself for spell-casting. Ping puts her tools away. Nignog opens the door.
"Gosh," Rikard says, for the scene that meets his eyes is like something out of the adventurer stories he read when he was a child.
The door opens onto a circular cavern fifteen meters across. Its domed ceiling is four meters high at the center. The walls and floor are of cut slate. The door opens two meters up the wall. In front of the door is a ledge. The ledge extends for a few meters on either side. At either end of the ledge are staircases leading down to the floor of the cavern. At the base of the ledge is a pool of water. The water must be hot because whisps of warm, steamy air rise up. Water seeps out of the walls and collects in channels. The channels lead to the pool. Water drips from the ceiling also, and flows towards the pool across the sloping floor.
On the other side of the cavern is a low platform of slate. Standing upon the platform is a huge, broad statue made of what looks like sandstone. The statue is three meters tall. It has two stocky legs that are bent as if the statue is about to kneel. It has four arms, two on each side. The upper arms are extended in front and bent, with the palms up. The lower arms are resting upon its knees. The statue's head is broad, with small horns, and a wide, grimacing mouth with teeth carved along the top and bottom. The eyes are shut. On its forehead is a clear gem set in a silver clasp. The gem is ten centimeters long and four centimeters high, and flashes in the light of their luminous stones.
There are a hundred other gems on the statue. These others are stuck to the arms, legs, and chest, and even its shoulders, although they are more crowded on the legs. They are suck on in various ways, with ropes and glue, with cement, and perhaps with plaster also. There appears to be no pattern to their arrangement. Some of the gems are less than a centimeter across, others are almost as big as the one on the forehead. Given their size, Rikard figures they cannot be diamonds or rubies. But they may be made of the mithril glass that Prestor is looking for.
The cavern has been cut out of the slate bedrock of the Hills of Doom. The ceiling shows the slate layers. It is reinforced with gray cement. The walls are covered by slate pieces that have been cemented with their flat faces vertical, so that the walls are not jagged, but nor are they perfectly smooth. In places, the flat pieces have fallen off and shattered on the floor. Slate is not a good stone to make statues out of. The stone of the statue is smooth, except for a few places where it is chipped and gouged.
There is no source of light in the cavern that Rikard can see. The only light comes from their luminous stones in the doorway. The five adventurers push against one another, moving their lights to see better. As the lights move, the glass gems sparkle, but none sparkles so brightly as the one on the statue's forehead.
Rikard sees no other doors in the walls, but the door they just opened has slate pieces cemented to its face, so that it would be hard to see if it was closed and you were inside the cavern. Who knows how you open it from the inside. So perhaps there are other concealed doors.
"We're going to be rich," Ping says.
"Let's hope so," Prestor says. "I want that big gem at the top. If it is mithril glass, it will be worth a thousand guineas at least."
"I have a bad feeling about this," Rikard says. He looks again at the ceiling. "This is just like the cavern of the spiders. I hate spiders."
"If the door shuts behind us," Ping says, "We must be able to open it from the other side."
They inspect the other side of the door. There is a gap between two pieces of slate, level with the latch, that you can push a finger into and release the latch. Ping and Prestor step into the cavern and close the door. Ping opens it with her finger.
"I think we should leave someone here," Ping says.
"We could wedge the door open," Rikard says. He picks up a piece of slate that has fallen to the floor. "This looks about right as a wedge."
After five minutes of discussion, they agree that Rikard should stay in the doorway, with the door wedged open, to hold the corridor in case the kobolds come back. Nignog, Ping, Zar, and Prestor descend the stairs to the floor of the cavern. Steam rises from the pool. The air is warm and damp. The ceiling drips and the floor is wet. But it is not slimey. Rikard looks at the glistening floor stones. Someone has been keeping them scrubbed clean.
The gem-studded idol towers above them. The four of them begin to break gems off the statue with the help of their dagger tips or lock picks. They put the gems in their packs. They don't bother cleaning off the plaster and glue. They want to get out as quickly as possible.
"What about the gems higher up?" Ping says. "What about the big one?"
"I'll climb up," Prestor says.
Ping volunteers to climb up as well. She takes the left side and Prestor takes the right. They climb up past the arms. Ping stands upon the lower arms. Prestor sits upon the idol's shoulder. He examines the big gem, looking for a trap. He sees none. Ping pulls two big, red gems off the idol's neck and puts them in her pack, which she has over her shoulder.
"I don't see any traps." Prestor says. "And it looks like mithril glass."
Ping watches Prestor slide his dagger under the gem, hoping to lever it out of its silver clasp without shattering it. The hard steel of the dagger scrapes upon the glass.
The idol's eyes open.
9th July 2482, about mid-day
Prestore gasps. Ping's mouth opens wide. The idol's eyes are black holes. She has only a moment to look into them before the idol's top pair of hands slap at her and Prestor. She jumps from the idol's arm and lands upon the floor. Prestor twists aside avoiding the idol's slap. He forces his dagger far under the gem and pulls up. The gem shatters. It's pieces fall to the floor, even as the idol stands up and reaches for Prestor with his left and right arms.
Prestor jumps. Nignog steps up and wraps his arms and legs around the right leg of the idol, clinging to it. The leg rises and comes down with Nignog still clinging. The idol has stepped off its platform. Gems are falling to the floor as the idol's skin moves beneath the plaster and glue that attached them.
Ping stares. What kind of creature is this? She cannot believe that a statue could come to life. There is no way to animate stone. But then she understands: it is a demon. Its body is made of sand and conjured matter. It is heavy and hard like sandstone, but it can move. It is a demon. How can they fight a demon? What spells will be effective?
Zar backs away from the idol. He casts Choke, but there is no space within the idol for him to plant the spell. The idol has no lungs. He turns and runs up the stairs. What could damage a stone monster?
Nignog lets go of the idol's leg. The idol is far to heavy and strong for him to stop it like that. He draws his sword and raises his shield. Prestor takes out his one-handed pick-axe and swings at the idol's leg. Crunch, he splits a piece of its stoney body away. The idol turns and swings at him with three arms at once. He rolls across the floor to safety and raises his pick again. Nignog swings his sword in a solid arc that smacks against the idol's arm with a spray of sparks.
Zar stops on the ledge near the door. "Zoomba!" he calls. His comrades shade their eyes. He casts Flash. The idol does not blink. It seems to be unaffected. It swings at Nignog even as Nignog is hiding his eyes, and almost catches Ningog by surprise.
Ping throws a bridge ring towards the top of the cavern. She says a word. She has cast Surrounding Sponge. With a hiss, the top of the cavern fills with invisible conjured matter. The demon's arms slow for a moment. Ping smiles. Nignog takes a mighty swing at the demon's leg. He chops off a lump of sandy material that falls to the floor and shatters into three pieces, each the size of a brick.
The demon stretches its arms. There is a tearing sound. It rips the conjures sponge apart. Ping frowns. The demon attacks Prestor and Nignog, slapping with its four arms. The sponge flies about, unseen but occasionaly brushing against the sapien's bodies. It does not stay near the floor for long, but floats up to the ceiling.
Zar takes Rikard's place in the doorway. Rikard runs down the steps, drawing his sword, and jumps into the fight with a yell. With his arrival, Prestor backs away and starts to gather gems from the floor. He looks for the fragments of the large gem, which must be there. Ping remains against the far wall of the cavern. She casts Circle and begins making frames for the two halves of its space bridge. This will take twenty seconds, and then she can step into the fight and bring it to a conclusion, or allow the party to escape.
Nignog and Rikard fight the demon. Zar casts Obscuring Cloud. With a hiss, the top of the cavern fills with a dark, gray, fluid that floats. The fragments of Ping's sponge become visible as clear spaces in the cloud. The top half of the cavern is filled with a swirling mixture of sponge fragments and obscuring cloud. The idol must bend down to see its opponents, and bending down slows its movements.
Nignog and Rikard attack the idol from two sides. They pound it with their shields and cut it with their swords. When it swings at them, they jump aside or duck. Sometimes, Nignog allows the idol to thump him a glancing blow, and steps in close to hack at its body.
Ping joins the fight. She attacks with the atomizing bridges of her Circle Spell. With a mighty blow, Nignog chops off one of the demon's arms. Ping cripples one of its legs. The demons falls to the cavern floor. It pushes itself back against one wall, waving its three remaining arms and staring out of its black eyes.
The three sapiens back away. Nignog and Rikard are panting hard.
"Do we kill it?" Rikard says.
"No," Ping says. "It can't stop us now. Keep an eye on it. Prestor and I will get the rest of the gems and our packs."
A few minutes later, with the demon still waving its arms, Nignog leads the way out of the cavern and up the corridor. They pass through the chamber of the slime without lights. They emerge into the light of day. The fog has lifted and the sun is shining. They climb out of the pit and head west along the path. The time is 12:30 pm, according to Prestor's watch.
9th July 2482, early afternoon
They hear a tremendous bang from the direction of the Black Tower. The bang is not deafening, but it rolls out of the east like thunder. They look back. There is a bright light in the trees. They stare at it, thinking at first that it may be something to do with the thunder.
"It's a will-o-wisp," Ping says. "It's like the one that led us to the bridge of fallen logs on our very first adventure."
"Your very first adventure," Nignog says. "My second adventure."
"The explosion is something to do with the battle," Rikard says. "We must press on. The adventurers will be fleeing soon, and we don't want to have anything to do with them." He looks at his watch. "It's quarter to one."
"What shall we do about that thing, then?" Prestor says. He points at the will-o-wisp, which is drifting along the forest floor nearby. "I think it's dangerous."
"I think we should give it some gold," Zar says.
"I don't think it will like gems so much," Nignog says.
"I think you're right," Ping says. "Magical creatures like gold."
"Leave some gold on the path for it," Rikard says, "But for Heaven's sake let's get going."
After another minute's debate, they continue on their way without leaving any gold or approaching the will-o-wisp. They hear another rumble from the east. Rikard looks at his watch. "Five minutes to one." He quickens his pace.
"Where is the will-o-wisp?" Prestor says. There is no sign of it. They continue, almost jogging in their haste. Rikard stares into the shadows of the forest on either side, looking for kobolds.
Another bang rises from the other side of the hill to the east. "Three minutes past one," Rikard says.
Soon after, he points into the forest. "There it is. It's not glowing any more. That's why it's hard to see."
Ping sees a silvery ball in the shadows, circling around the trunk of a large beech tree. She thinks she knows how the will-o-wisp can turn without pulling or pushing upon anything, and without making any sound. She think's it uses space bridge thrusters.
At twenty minutes to two, they see the bridge of fallen logs ahead of them. The will-o-wisp has followed them all the way. Now it starts to shine brightly. It surges forwards. It flies over them and down the path. It turns off into the forest to the north and smashes through a bank of bushes. There are splintering cracks as dead branches fall in its wake. The adventurers hear a short, distinct cry from within the undergrowth.
"That sounded like a kobold," Rikard says.
"It's an ambush," Ping says. "They are waiting to ambush us as we cross the bridge."
"Look at the bridge," Rikard says. This morning there were eight trees across the gorge of the River Boome, and a great volume of conjured wood. Now there are only two trees.
"Is there any other place we can cross?" Prestor says.
"We can go north to the ford opposite Machay," Ping says, "or we could go south to the site of the Old Iron Bridge opposite Voisson, and try to make a bridge there of conjured wood. Both are an hour's walk from here through the forest."
"Why did the will-o-wisp show us where the kobolds were?" Rikard says.
"It was warning us," Zar says.
"It was telling the kobolds not to attack us," Nignog says.
"Why would it do that?" Ping says. She thinks about it. "Maybe you're right."
They keep a close watch upon the forest around them. They stare at the bushes, but they see no sign of the kobolds, if indeed there are any, nor do they hear anything further. The will-o-wisp hovers between the bushes and the adventurers.
"The will-o-wisp is our friend," Zar says.
"Why?" Ping says.
Zar shrugs. "I don't know."
"I think he's right," Prestor says. "I say we cross now, here."
To this they agree. They cross one by one. The bridge is unstable beneath their feet, but none of them fall. When they reach the other side, Rikard stares into the shadows. "Come on," he says.
They follow him to the road. Nignog is looking into the trees also. "I see them too," he says.
"See what?" Zar says.
"More kobolds," Rikard says. "They are on this side of the river also."
Ping stops. "They are going to ambush the other adventurers who escape. We should do something to warn them."
Rikard shakes his head. "No. We go home now. I don't understand what is going on here. That will-o-wisp protected us. If we go back and warn the adventurers, or attack the kobolds, it might change its mind. I don't want to fight that thing. It looks dangerous."
"I agree," Prestor says, "Those adventurers were fools. It's not our job to protect them."
Ping shakes her head. "Nignog, what do you think?"
Nignog stares across the river. They wait while he thinks. Zar stoops and grabs a cricket from the grass. He inspects it. It's a fat one. He puts it in his pocket.
"We should go home," Nignog says.
"Very well," Ping says.
And so they walk back to Voisson Village.
10th July 2482
The five adventurers gather in Zar's house. They put all their treasure in a pile and sort it out. Prestor checks each gem to see if it is mithril glass, which is valuable, ordinary glass, which is not so valuable, or some other form of gem, which might be valuable. He divides the mithril glass into six parts and weighs them with a balance that he unpacks from a slim box.
"There, five hundred grams each," he says, "It's worth two guineas a gram, so each pile is worth a thousand guineas."
"That's a lot of money," Nignog says.
Nignog, Ping, Zar, and Rikard each pick a pile for themselves, and Prestor keeps the last two, as they agreed at the start of their adventure.
"Shall we celebrate in town with a beer?" Prestor says.
"I don't drink beer," Ping says. "But I'd like to put my treasure in the bank."
A quarter of an hour later, in the Trollhammer Arms, they sit together around a table.
"It must be expensive staying here at the tavern," Nignog says to Rikard.
"It is. That's why I like Ping's idea of buying a house. I think we should."
"House prices have dropped," Nignog says. "My father thinks it's a good time to buy. There's Mrs. Dimwitty's property. Her grandchildren are grown up, and she lost about a thousand guineas in the robbery. She wants to sell and get out of town. Since her husband died, there has been no reason for her to stay here."
"What was wrong with her husband?" Zar says.
"I expect he refused to go to the Queen's Church on Sundays," Ping says, "And came here to get away from the Queen's men, like most of the people who come here."
"Actually," Nignog says, "he was wanted in Endromis for supporting the Anoni Rebels against the Endan government, that's what I heard."
It turns out that Mrs. Dimwitty's house is perfect for their needs: five bedrooms upstairs, large rooms downstairs, including a library, a full hectare of land only three minutes walk from the center of the village, a stable large enough for six horses, a paddock with jumps, and a basement that Ping thinks she can turn into a secret workshop.
"I'm asking twelve hundred guineas for it," Mrs. Dimwitty says, when they visit the property. She looks at the house with a frown. "I will miss the place. I had many good years here."
"I like it," Ping says. She is smiling. She wants to buy it.
"It's a beautiful property," Rikard says. "Really beautiful. If we moved here, we would take good care of it, leave it almost exactly as it is, maybe do some repairs on the roof up there." He points to some loose slates. "And prop up that old oak, and restore that wall over there. But it's a lot of money, so we'll think about it."
Nignog smiles. Rikard is bargaining. Nignog's father is a good bargainer, as well as being very fast at adding up.
The Village News, 10th July, 2482. The Voisson Village Treasurer, Claude Gateaux, has been examining the accounts of the now-bankrupt First Bank of Voisson. The First Bank of Voisson was robbed by The Elementalist on the night of 1st of May. On that night, approximately twenty thousand guineas were stolen from the bank safe, all of it in gold coins. Mr. Gateaux is examining the bank's accounts as part of a village investigation into why the bank was not insured against theft at the time of the robbery, and whether or not the bank's manager, Lauren Laurenese, was involved in the theft.
"There are a number of irregularities in the accounts," Mr. Gateaux said. "For example, Mr. Laurenese turned down dozens of loan applications that appear to satisfy all the bank's requirements for collateral and reasonable risk." As a result of declining to lend money, the bank amassed a large sum in gold, which the depositors believed was insured by the Outright Insurance Agency. This agency is the only one willing to insure banks in the borderlands. The agency is owned by Gene Clairemont, the well-known philanthropist of Fairview Manor, Machay Town, and leader of yesterday's expedition into the Hills of Doom. The fate of that expedition remains unknown.
On the night of the robbery, Mr. Laurenese stated in interview with Sheriff Trombone that the Outright Insurance Agency had raised its rates, and when he protested, they had canceled his insurance. He accused the insurance agency of arranging the robbery itself, in order to force others to pay higher rates. Mr. Gateaux had this to say about Mr. Laurenese's statement. "I see no evidence of any such rate rise. I contacted Outright Insurance, and their records show that the bank's insurance lapsed two weeks before the robbery becuase Mr. Laurenese had stopped paying his premiums two months before."
The robbery damaged the bank building, which is the property of Voisson Village. The Bank of Caravel agreed to repair the building in exchange for the right to rent it from the village for ten years, which the village granted after much debate. Of concern to the villagers is the possibility that the Bank of Caravel will seize money deposited by villagers who are wanted in Caravel for refusal to attend church services and other such exercises of free will. The bank has given written guarantees against such actions, but the fact remains that the Queen has the power to annul any such guarantee and force the bank to do her will. When Jean-Christophe Guyard founded the First Bank of Voisson in 2402, he declared it to be an independent and secure place for the people of Voisson to place their valuables, and from which they could borrow money. After his disappearance in 2433, his son sold the bank business to Mr. Laurenese's mother, who ran it until her death in 2479. Her son returned to Voisson upon her death to take over the bank. He is now rumored to be in Lutetia, Kiali, where he was joined recently by Beautifia Avarisiosa.
A week later, Ping, Rikard, and Nignog agree to buy the house from Mrs. Dimwitty for 1050 gp. Each of them will contribute 350 gp. The sale will take another couple of weeks to complete. During that time, the three of them sell their shares of the necromancer's jewelry in Machay. They each obtain four hundred gold pieces for the jewelry, which covers the price of the house with fifty gold pieces each to spare.
Later that day, Nignog writes down how much money each of the adventurers has saved up. They are sitting in Rikard's room at the Trollhammer Arms. Here is what they are left with.
|79 gp||379 gp||119 gp||80 gp|
|1000 gp Mi glass||1000 gp Mi glass||1000 gp Mi glass||1000 gp Mi glass|
|89 gp||89 gp||129 gp||90 gp|
"We spend roughly 40 gp on hotels, food, and equipment repairs each month," Nignog says. He takes a long time to add and subtract numbers, but he checks twice, and seems to get the right answers.
11th July, 2482
Ping, Zar, Nignog, and Rikard ride to Machay Town, hoping to hear news of Gene Clairemont's expedition. The Expedition Ledger is on the counter-top in the Spittoon Tavern. Six adventurers have signed the ledger so far. Four of these are sitting in the Spittoon Tavern telling their story over and over again while people buy them beers. Ping questions each of them closely.
"They came out of the fog," Grumble Awfwather, Warrior of Grototh, tells her. He wears dirty leather clothes and smells of beer and other things she does not want to think about. His hair is long and greasy. "There were thousands of them."
"What were they?" Ping says."Orcs. Thousands of orcs. It was a trap. The general ran up some ramp made by the wizards. A bunch of us went up after him. I couldn't see much becuse the fog was getting thicker."
"It was not fog," says Elatio Milan, a wirey fellow with a well-trimmed goatee beard, oiled hair, and silk clothes. He speaks wtih a heavy Endan accent, so what Ping hears is more like "eet-ah was not-eh dee fog-ah".
"Whatever it was," Grumble says. "I couldn't see through it. The wizards had been banging and blasting until my head hurt. I never trusted those wizards anyway. Magic always leads to trouble. You think it can help you but it is foul stuff that turns your plans to evil in the end."
"It was a cloud conjured by the ruler of the Hills of Doom," Elatio says.
"The ramp was gone when we reached it," Grumble says, "And there were burning bodies strewn across the ground, like some painting of hell. The orcs came at us in a wall ten deep. We had nothing to do but run or die."
"We ran," Elatio says. "When we reached the river we stripped off our armor and swam for it. There were many others like us, swimming. The river was on fire in places, but we were lucky. We swam where there was no fire and reached the other side."
"We ran through the forest," Grumble says. "We could hear many others nearby doing the same, but there were archers hiding in the bushes. Many of us were shot down."
"We were lucky," Elatio says.
"Maybe," Grumble says. "We made it to the ford before nightfall. We were the first back here to sign the ledger. It's been three days now. I don't think there will be many more."
The Machay Newspaper laments the disappearance of Gene Clairemont, saying on their front page, "The great philanthropist may be gone forever. Gene has carried on the philanthropic work of his parents since they departed Machay, building a new orphanage, expanding the shelter for the insane, and supporting the library and the performing arts for the enjoyment of the population. We earnestly hope that he will return to us, and urge all to pray to God that he does so."
12th July 2482
Two more adventurers return from the Hills of Doom, having taken a longer route back, hiding at night and crawling on their bellies during the day. They sign the ledger and tell their story of fog and confusion, and deafening noises and flashes, and the army of a hundred adventurers breaking up under the assault of legions of orcs that appeared from nowhere and from all directions.
13th July 2482
Our heroes ride home to Voisson Village. In the Trollhammer Arms, they find Minuit Fistin the Wizard, returned from the expedition.
"Minuit!" Ping says, "I'm so glad to see you."
Minuit smiles. He looks well. He still wears his gray robe, and he has folded up his pointy hat with stars and cresents so that it looks like a simpler, blue hat. His gray beard is well-trimmed.
"And I am glad to see you too, Ping." They hug one another. "May I introduce my friend Charlotte Sardina." He turns to a red-haired woman standing behind him. Ping recognises her as the woman in leather armor with a copper helmet and a longbow on her back who asked Gene Clairemont about his plan of attack. She looks to be about thirty years old, which makes her twenty-five years younger than Minuit.
"Nice to meet you," Charlotte says.
Over supper and afterwards, Charlotte and Minuit tell how they together decided that the expedition was doomed about half an hour before the attack upon the Black Tower began. "Some of the fog was smoke," Minuit says, "Like that generated by a Smoke Cloud spell, you know the one, Ping."
Charlotte wipes her mouth with her napkin and places it upon the side of her plate. "The more I thought about Gene's plan, the more I didn't like it. When Minuit said that about the fog I figured that was it: a trap. We crept off to one side and hid in a cleft in the hill on the other side of the Iron Bridge. Minuit found a cave there and we crawled in."
"I diguised the entrance with a wall of stone-like conjured wood," Minuit says. "It looked pretty realistic, if I do say so myself. I put some branches in it so it looked like a tree was growing out."
Charlotte puts her arm around him. "He did a great job. They didn't find us. We heard all kinds of noise outside. Blasting and shouting and marching. It sounded like an entire army of orcs had descended upon the place, and I was very glad to be hiding in a cave." She kisses Minuit on the cheek. "With my wizard."
"Me too," Minuit says. "Most fun I've had in years."
"You old charmer," Charlotte says. She leans towards Ping. "Are you thinking that he cast some beguiling spell upon me?"
"No," Ping says. "He wouldn't do that."
Charlotte smiles. "I'm glad to hear you say that. So, we hid there for two days. Then we ran out of food and water. So Minuit takes out this heavy metal thing he calls his thruster apparatus." Charlotte laughs and puts her hand over her mouth.
"That's exactly what it's called," Minuit says. "Isn't it Ping?"
"For flying with the Vacuum Thruster spell? Yes, that's right."
"Wow," Zar says. "I want to get one of those. I think I'll be able to caste that spell soon. I have been practicing with space bridges."
"I built a bench and ropes, hooked it up, primed it with bridges, and we burst out and flew away."
"Just like that," Charlotte says. "We went right over the tree-tops, over the river, all the way to the River Boome, and ended up here. Nobody could stop us."
"That's not quite true," Minuit says. "A black orc on a wyvern could have stopped us. But we were not seen."
"We could have dropped into the trees," Charlotte says, "Isn't that what you told me?"
"Well, I suppose so. That's what I told you, and that's what I would have tried, but once you get wrapped up with a black orc on a wyvern, I'm imagining that he will have a few tricks up his sleeve too, so I didn't think we had much of a chance if it came to that."
"And here you are," Ping says, "Staying together."
"Yes," Minuit says. He smiles at Charlotte and she rubs his knee.
"We'll go to Machay tomorrow and sign the ledger," Charlotte says, "Just for the two hundred guines. But I think we'll come back here after. I like this village."
"Aren't you banned from Voisson, after your duel with us?" Rikard says.
Minuit shrugs. "Nobody has said anything. Our money's good, I suppose. We're not causing trouble."
14th July 2482
The next evening, Charlotte and Minuit return from Machay. They bring a copy of the Machay Crier, the town newspaper. Eighty-two ransome notes have arrived at the Town Hall, for eighty-two adventurers held prisoner by one Abacuscraft, Lord of the Black Tower. Of the 109 adventurers who went with Gene Clairemont into the Hills of Doom, 81 are alive and being ransomed, 12 escaped, and 16 were killed. Their bodies were delivered naked and in coffins in the middle of the night, and deposited on the Machay side of River Boome. All 81 ransome notes ask for 100 gp for the return of a prisoner, who is named in full and described in the note: hair color, height, weight, eye color, distinguishing marks or scars, skin color, and so on.
"The creature named Abacuscraft, whoever and whatever he may be," the paper says, "demands this hundred coins be paid within two weeks or else the prisoners will be sold into slavery in the interior of the Western Outlands. This same so-called Lord also attempts to ransome the person of our own beloved Gene Clairemont, but for one thousand coins instead of one hundred. This unprecedented and totally unreasonable demand is to be met within a week or else Gene will be executed for leading the expedition."
The paper goes on to ask all citizens of Machay to contribute to a fund to ransom Gene from Abacuscraft, and volunteers the first hundred guineas itself.
"At least they are putting their money where their mouths are," Rikard says.
Nignog has to think about this for a while. "You're right," he says.
Zar and Ping are whispering to one another. "We think it was all planned. Gene knew the town would pay his ransome, and he's just sitting there having dinner with Abacuscraft, and laughing about it all."
"Could be," Rikard says. He frowns. "The fiend. We'll get him one day."
"Or not," Nignog says.
The citizens of Machay do pay Gene's ransome, and seventy-five of the remaining eighty-one adventurers are ransomed by their friends and families. Six remain in the Black Tower, and are assumed sold into slavery. The exchange of hostages takes place at night, across the ford. Bags of gold go across the river first, with the ransom notes, and the prisoners come back. Abacuscraft keeps his word in every case. Gene returns to Machay on the last day before his threatened execution. He retires to Fairview Manor, after delivering a speech to the town in which he declares himself ashamed and grateful, and also saying that the adventurers fled right when they were about to win the battle, leaving him trapped in the Black Tower, but he does not hold a grudge: he'll pay the hundred guineas to anyone who made it home to sign the ledger.
"Those who were ransomed won't be pleased about that," Charlotte says in the Trollhammer Arms. "They expected Gene to pay the ransom for them, since he was going to give them a hundred guineas for taking part."
"He's a businessman," Minuit says, "He's not going to throw away his money on adventurers. What he's willing to give away, he gives to charities."
Charlotte and Minuit leave Voisson at the beginning of August, heading for Lutetia, where they hope to go on adventures in the Old Hills. And that brings the story of the Gene Clairmont's Expedition to an end. But Zar is planning an expedition of his own now. He thinks he has cracked Jean-Christophe Guyard's code from the Red Pool.
"The name of the homunculus is Aglamapootik," he says. "I want to go back and say the name and become his master."
"Okay," Rikard says. "I'm up for that. But first, there is my parent's thirty-third wedding anniversary."
"Oh yes," Ping says, "We are definitely going to that. And when we come back, we'll move into our new house."
"And after that we'll go find Aglamapootik," Zar says.