Gerki’s Big Solution
In celebration of our successful Kickstarter campaign for Tales from the Red Dragon Inn, author and SlugFest founder Geoff Bottone has written a series of six stories about how Deirdre, Zot, Fiona and Gerki all met and started adventuring together. You can read part one, part two, part three and part four here. Here’s part five – a sequel to part three!
Gerki’s Big Solution
Zot, still bleary-eyed and sleepy, stumbled in his cap and nightgown to the Mages’ Collegium infirmary. Pooky, fully awake and eyes gleaming in the semi-darkness, hopped silently down the hall beside him.
He came at last to the infirmary door and raised his hand to push it open. He didn’t get the chance to, because, in the same moment, the Vice-Chancellor opened it from the inside.
“Zot, please come in. Thank you for coming so quickly.”
Darvishon gestured over to one of the beds. Standing next to it was a young woman in mage robes, her face twisted into an angry snarl, the fingers of her outstretched hands curled into claws. Zot took a half step back before he realized that the young mage was enveloped in the flickering field of a stasis spell.
Zot moved over to examine the imprisoned mage, his brow crinkling in concern. He had some vestigial memories of seeing her around campus, walking to her classes, chatting with her friends, quaffing an Alertness potion in the library as she studied for finals. A growing sense of alarm cleared the last of the sleep fog from Zot’s brain. A stasis spell–even one as small as the one enclosing the young woman–was both a complex weaving of magic and a nigh-unbreakable means of imprisonment. Using one on a student was roughly the magical equivalent of fireballing a gnat. It wasn’t like Darvishon to flagrantly use such power.
“Her name is Talia Zangarian,” said Darvishon from behind him. “A third year.”
Zot looked up at Darvishon, as his memories of his own–very long and very personal–experiences with a similar spell began to filter back into his mind. He tried to shrug them off, to minimal success.
A loud, insistent thumping noise distracted him from his ruminations. He looked down and saw that Pooky was hammering his back foot on the infirmary floor. Zot suspected that Pooky had made the noise to pull him back to the present, but the way his familiar cocked his head in amusement also made Zot suspect that, on some level, Pooky was mockingly reminding him of their own extended sojourn in stasis.
“Yes, I remember. Why wouldn’t I,” said Zot to his familiar, before turning to Darvishon. “What happened? Why is she in stasis?”
“The City Guard found her down by Enchantment Park half an hour ago,” said Darvishon. “According to them, she had gone berserk and was tearing up a hole in the street. They tried to apprehend her, but she started blasting away at them, casting hexes on pedestrians, transforming squirrels into slavering monsters, that sort of thing. They sent for me, and I was able to put her into stasis and bring her back here. I also sent some of the Transformation professors to the park to undo the damage and help free the Guard that Talia had turned into ornamental shrubbery.”
Zot raised a bushy eyebrow. “That’s quite the display of power from a third year!”
“Yes, I know.” Darvishon’s shoulders drooped in exhaustion as he strode over to the bed nearest Talia. He plucked something off of the neatly tucked bedclothes and brought it over to Zot. “I suspect that this had something to do with it.”
Zot looked down at the item cupped in the Vice-Chancellor’s hands and felt his breath hitch in his throat. Darvishon held a tarnished silver half-mask, its surface dotted with semi-precious stones.
“Oh no,” said Zot.
“Oh yes,” Darvishon replied. “Talia was wearing it when the Guard encountered her. Its magic went dormant the moment I put her into stasis, but there’s no telling when it’ll activate again, or who it’ll try to ensnare when it does.”
“I don’t understand,” said Zot. “I put it in the Vault myself. Warded. In maximum security. How on earth could a third year just stroll in and take it out? How would she even know it was there?”
“That’s the other problem.” Darvishon returned the mask to its original resting place on the bed. “I had the same questions and went to the Vault myself to inspect our security measures. All of your wards are still in place. And the mask that you acquired from your friend? It’s still there.”
“You mean,” Zot sank down heavily onto one of the beds. “There’s another one?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Zot spent the next few moments trying to collect his thoughts. His eyes kept roving from Darvishon to Talia, still in stasis in full magical attack pose, to the sliver of the mask laying ominously atop the bed, and back again.
“Dispelling the magic should remove the compulsion,” said Zot, at last breaking the tense silence. “Well. Most of it at any rate. She may also need to be treated with the Rod of Disjunction, just in case. But that’s not why you called me here, is it?”
Darvishon shook his head. “No. I was rather hoping that you had received any word or sign from your young friend. Something that would help us get even the smallest shred of insight into what is rapidly becoming a rather concerning mystery.”
“Unfortunately, no.” Zot massaged his temple. “For reasons that aren’t quite clear to me, Gerki hasn’t sold the ring yet.”
“But he also rarely takes it out of his pouch. The few times I’ve attempted to scry on him, all I see are a couple of old buttons, the odd scattering of coins, and some lint.”
“That’s not as good.”
“It is. Everything seems normal, but without being able to see what’s going on in his immediate environment, I don’t really know for sure.”
Darvishon adopted a brooding expression.
“I think,” said the Vice-Chancellor, “it may be time for you to take more drastic action.”
Gerki jerked awake, coughing and sputtering.
He was not, as he would have expected, nestled in his warren of furs and blankets in his little bolthole in the Undercity. Instead, he was in deep darkness, his body pressed against loose wet earth. Mud covered his front and caked his forearms. Feeling around, he realized that he had been trying to dig through it in his sleep.
He sat up and coughed, disgorging large clods of mud from his mouth and nose.
“Augh. Pfaaugh,” he said, to no one in particular, as he unsuccessfully tried to wipe the mud out of his eyes with grimy fingers. “Gross.”
The voice was high pitched, warbling, and thready, as if its owner was screaming at the top of her lungs from a very great distance. Which–Gerki realized after a moment’s consideration–she probably was.
“Gerki! Where the hell are you?”
“I’m…” Gerki paused. “I don’t know! Can you follow the sound of my voice?”
“I’ll try,” said Fiona, who, to Gerki’s relief, sounded somewhat closer. “Keep talking.”
“Oh, you know me, Fi. Always talking. Never shut up. That’s me. It’s one of the things they taught me in the Guild, you know. How to keep a running monologue going to distra…”
He doubled over in a fit of coughing. His mouth tasted like a freshly-turned compost heap after a spring rain. Despite the omnipresent darkness, Gerki saw black stars dancing in front of his eyes.
“Ow. Ow ow.”
When he was able to sit up again, he saw that the cavern in which he had awoken was dimly lit by flickering light. Moments later, this light became significantly brighter as Fiona rounded the corridor, a guttering torch in one hand. In the other, she wielded her newest acquisition–a notched short sword pitted with rust that, despite Fiona’s obsessive bouts of cleaning and sharpening, still looked about the same as when she had fished it out of a tide pool in the harbor.
Upon seeing him, Fiona dropped her sword and shoved the back end of the torch into the cavern’s muddy floor before running over to Gerki and catching him in a firm embrace.
“Are you all right? What happened?”
“I don’t know,” said Gerki, though his recent spate of coughing and Fiona’s very aggressive hugs made talking difficult. “And I don’t know.”
Fiona released him and stared unblinking into his eyes. “What do you remember?”
“Um.” He cast his mind back. “You came over with that Rogues and Warriors deck you found. We played a few hands. We had some dinner. You decided to rest up a little bit before going back to the orphanage. I took a nap and…”
Gerki looked around. The cavern was relatively small, shaped like an inverted bowl, with a low ceiling. A trickle of water sprouting from a ragged crack along the farthest edge of the bowl created a very tiny stream of water that meandered this way and that across the cavern’s muddy floor. Though most of the floor was undisturbed, the area right around Gerki had been hastily excavated to a depth of several inches, Uneven piles of wet and sticky mud lay in clumps around the perimeter of the hole.
Gerki blinked slightly in disbelief. Apparently, he had been busy.
“…and I woke up here, I guess.”
Fiona looked him over for a long moment before saying, “Do you think that…”
“No, no,” said Gerki, shaking his head vigorously and causing specks of dirt to fly every which way. “Don’t say it.”
“I’m gonna say it,” Fiona replied, swiping at her cheek with the back of her hand. “I think it’s obvious what’s going on here, and I think that you need to–”
A brilliant light erupted between them, so suddenly and with such piercing radiance that Fiona let out a little squawk and sat down heavily in the mud.
“What is that?” she shouted.
Gerki looked around frantically. “I don’t know. I don’t know!”
A high-pitched pinging noise began to sound from somewhere nearby.
“More magic! That’s just what we need!”
The light grew brighter, and the pinging noise increased in volume.
“What is that?” shouted Gerki. “Where is it coming from?!”
Fiona slid awkwardly backward on the muddy floor, one hand clutched over her mouth. The other pointed a shaking finger at Gerki’s chest .
Gerki looked down and saw that the light emanated from inside his shirt, shining out between the buttons and all of the holes more brightly than a lantern’s flame. With tentative fingers, he reached inside of his shirt and slowly extracted his pouch, which proved to be the actual source of the light. The radiance shot in a bright beam out of the cinched top of the pouch, as if it were the signal fire burning in the harbor lighthouse.
Holding his face away, just in case the light was secretly accompanied by a gigantic, and heretofore contained, wall of heat, Gerki gingerly opened the pouch.
“There we are,” came the voice of an older man. “Much better.”
Fiona moved closer, huddling next to Gerki so that she could also stare at the strange manifestation pouring out of the pouch in his outstretched hand. Hovering in the light beam was a very small, meticulously detailed simulacrum of a grey-bearded wizard dressed in a skullcap and sumptuous black robes. As Gerki and Fiona watched, a fluffy white rabbit hopped into view and managed to land, with only the slightest amount of fumbling and pounding, on the wizard’s shoulder.
“Hello, Gerki. Fiona.”
Gerki was wondering if he ought to just throw the pouch as far away from him as he could and make a run for it, but then thought better of it. His life savings were in the pouch. Along with a couple of interesting–possibly rare–buttons he had picked up out of a sewer drain. Oh, and that really nice ring that he had grabbed off of…
Ah, damn it.
“Hi, Zot,” said Gerki, rolling his eyes and sighing.
Fiona, for her part, waggled a few fingers in a pensive wave.
“Forgive the rather theatrical intrusion,” Zot went on, as he reached up a hand to steady Pooky. “Something has happened tonight, related to the incident that we discussed some months ago. I wanted to check in with the pair of you and see if either of you had noticed anything strange.”
“No,” said Gerki, with a smile. “Everything’s fi–”
“Yes,” shouted Fiona, slapping her free hand over Gerki’s mouth and leaning in closer to Zot’s magical projection. “Yes!”
She glared at Gerki, then went on. “He just had one of those attacks again. I followed him to a remote part of the Undercity, where I caught him digging a hole.”
“Digging a hole…hum,” said Zot, before his apparition stepped out of the beam of light. His voice filtered back to them, somewhat muffled. “Let me see if I can locate you. Ah. Yes. Unsurprising.”
“What’s unsurprising?” said Gerki.
“You’re right under Enchantment Park, if that helps you to navigate your way back to the surface.” Zot poked his head back into the beam of light. “Come to the Collegium. I’ll meet you at the front gate. We’ll have a chat.”
Gerki sucked on his teeth. “Is it bad?”
“I think so,” said Zot.
“Then why not just tell us now?”
“Because if I did,” said the wizard, smirking and nodding at Fiona, “You might not come.”
The light, and the wizard, vanished. Gerki blinked the spots from his eyes and said several very unkind words.
True to his word, Zot and his rabbit met them at the front gates. He gave Fiona and Gerki a quick once-over before twiddling his fingers and bathing them with the lemon-scented beam of a cleaning cantrip. Seemingly satisfied that they would not track too much mud onto the fine carpets and polished floors of the Collegium, he brought them up to what appeared to be an infirmary.
Gerki scooted up onto the empty bed next to Fiona, yelping quietly when he realized he had accidentally sat on her sword.
“Watch where you put that thing,” he whispered.
“You’re the one who sat on it,” Fiona whispered back.
“Sure, but it’s your ‘dangerous weapon.’”
“And I keep warning you that I don’t have a sheath for it yet!”
Gerki leaned a bit so that Fiona could move the sword somewhere else. While she was busy doing that, he instinctively cased the joint. It was clean. Well maintained. There wasn’t much in the way of portable loot, unless one counted the doubtless enchanted physicker’s tools arranged in neat racks on the infirmary walls. He could easily pocket a few without the mages noticing, but where in Greyport would he find a fence for such a thing? And also, hadn’t it been stealing from the mages that had caused all of his problems in the first place?
Gerki promptly folded his hands, placed them in his lap, and stared at them until the larcenous thoughts went away. After a quick ten count, he raised his head to survey the other occupants in the room.
He guessed that the tall, thin man with the sharp nose and sharper widow’s peak was Vice-Chancellor Darvishon. Despite his lofty title, he had much less of a commanding presence than Zot. Gerki wasn’t sure why that was, but he suspected that the man’s plain and rather well-worn robes had a lot to do with it.
The only other person in the room was a youngish human woman in mage robes, who was sitting on another bed across the room from Fiona and Gerki. The young mage was in the midst of trying to drink tea, eat a cookie, and surreptitiously watch the room at the same time, only to fail at all three. Gerki suppressed a grin as a thin rivulet of tea slithered down the front of her robes.
“Gerki, Fiona,” said Zot, “this is Vice-Chancellor Darvishon and Talia Zangarian, a third year student.”
“Hello,” said Talia, who was in the process of wiping the front of her robes with the sleeve of her robes. She glanced up at Gerki. “I hear that we’re twins.”
“Oh, real…wait,” said Gerki. “How do you figure?”
“I mean magically,” said Talia.
“But I’m not even…” said Gerki.
“What she means is,” Darvishon said, “is that both you and she have each been possessed by a silver half mask. Whatever magic has affected you is now also affecting her.”
“Oh,” said Gerki. “That’s not good.”
“It’s really not,” replied Talia.
“The reason why you are here, Gerki,” said Zot, sitting down on another one of the empty beds, “is because you had a relapse at the same time as Ms. Zangarian here was possessed by a mask identical to yours.”
“Weird!” said Gerki. “Can I see it?”
“You may not,” said Zot.
While this was happening, Darvishon was peering quizzically at Fiona. “Young lady, don’t be frightened. You are safe within the Mage’s Collegium. There’s no reason for you to go wandering around with a naked sword.”
“I don’t have a sheath for it.” replied Fiona defiantly. “And I’m not frightened–I’m being vigilant and protecting Gerki. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on tonight, and I don’t want him to get hurt on my watch.”
“That’s quite valiant of you,” said Darvishon with a smile, “though I doubt your mettle will be tested tonight. You see, Zot and I are quite skilled in defensive magics, and we also have a plan. Uh. What is your plan, Zot?”
Zot steepled his fingers and was about to speak when Pooky hopped heavily into his lap. It took the wizard a moment to gain his breath back, but when he did, he said. “The Vice-Chancellor and I have cast several spells of sealing on the mask, which should protect us from its enchantments while still allowing us to use it to get to the bottom of things. Our plan right now is to go to the place that Gerki and Talia were drawn to and start our investigations there. Hopefully we’ll be able to gain new insight into this problem before the sun rises.”
“I doubt we were going to the same place,” said Gerki. “After all, you’re all topsiders, and Fiona and me–well, mostly me–are from the Undercity.”
Zot raised a declarative index finger. “Ah, but you were going to the same place. Enchantment Park, to be precise. Ms. Zangarian was there earlier this evening. As were you. Although you were separated by several layers of strata, you were both roughly in the same place.”
Fiona made a face. “Then why’d you make us come here?”
Darvishon, who was idly sipping from his own teacup, peered over the brim at Fiona. “Why, whatever do you mean?”
Gerki watched with barely concealed amusement as Fiona stared in goggle-eyed disbelief at each of the mages–and the reclining rabbit–in turn. “Because we were just at Enchantment Park! Zot knew that! We told him! The three of you could have saved all kinds of time by just coming down to the park to meet us, instead of us coming up here to talk to you and then walking all the way back.”
Fiona let out a frustrated sigh. “If we’re going to fix Gerki, we need to stop wasting all this time!”
“Well,” said Zot, who looked more than a little taken aback, “the Vice-Chancellor and I made good use of our time disenchanting Talia, casting some divinatory spells on the mask, and preparing our next move. I also suspect that if we asked you to wait for us while we got things together, you probably wouldn’t have been waiting for us when we arrived.”
Fiona shot a glance at Gerki, who smiled and shrugged. “Probably not.”
“And besides,” said Darvishon, “who said anything about walking to Enchantment Park?”
The translocation was instantaneous and only slightly disorienting. Gerki patted himself down thoroughly to make sure that nothing had been left behind.
They were back in the cavern beneath Enchantment Park, the muddy, half-dug floor illuminated in a blue-green light issuing from the top of Darvishon’s staff. Gerki stood off to one side with Fiona while Zot and Darvishon squelched through the mud, exploring the cavern and mumbling to themselves.
After a brief interval, Talia joined Fiona and Gerki and pressed some crumbly cookies into their hands.
“I’m a little mad that they didn’t even offer you tea,” she said. “And, you’ll forgive me for saying so, but it looks like you could use these more than me.”
As orphans and street kids, neither Gerki nor Fiona ever turned down free food when it was offered to them–especially if it was cookies. They both gratefully took the cookies and ate them, merrily crunching away in silence. As they chewed, Talia studied them both.
“Where did you find your mask?” she asked them.
“Well,” Gerki quickly swallowed, then said. “It was on display in the park about six months ago. Part of the artifact exhibit that the Collegium students put together. Oh, I’m sure you know all about that. What am I explaining it to you for? Never mind. So the mask. Right. It called out to me, and I guess I put it on and…poof!”
“Oh,” said Talia, with a startled shout. “That was you?”
Across the cave, Darvishon and Zot shushed Talia before returning to their studies. Pooky, for his part, rolled around in the mud and looked like he was enjoying himself.
“Yeah,” said Gerki, a little sheepishly. “That was me. Got into a whole heap of trouble with Zot over there.”
“And the Thieves’ Guild,” said Fiona with a wink as she brushed crumbs off her tunic.
Gerki shot Fiona a look before turning back to Talia. “Anyway, where did you get yours?”
“Kind of the same way, actually. I was doing a workstudy project with a fourth year team who had just returned to the Collegium with some artifacts. I was supposed to do all the cleaning, sorting, and cataloging of all the stuff they brought back. They discovered an ancient cache up in the mountains–a good haul, too–some dwarven runestones, a couple of scrolls, an incense burner, and the mask. Anyway, earlier tonight, I crack open the crates to start my work and, the next thing I know, I’m waking up in the infirmary. Then I found out that I attacked the City Guard when they tried to arrest me for tearing up a hole in the street.”
“That’s scary,” said Fiona. She gestured over at the two older mages, who were studying a section of the cavern wall that looked just like every other part of the cavern wall. “What did they have to say about it?”
Talia shrugged in irritation. “Whatever it was, they sure as hell didn’t tell me about it. Probably think I’m too young and inexperienced to deal with whatever’s going on. Even though it’s my problem.”
“And Gerki’s,” said Fiona, before letting out an annoyed huff.
Gerki was only half listening to their conversation now, as most of his attention was now focused on the cavern. Zot and Darvishon were busily searching the walls, running the light from Darvishon’s staff over every crack and seam. Gerki thought that this was both pointless and wasteful, but he didn’t quite understand why until he happened to look down at Pooky. The rabbit was frolicking in the half-dug hole that Gerki had been compelled to dig earlier.
Talia had traveled down from the Mage’s Collegium to Enchantment Park just to tear up the street. Gerki had come to roughly the same place, and had dug a hole. Both of them had been trying to go down.
Gerki put his fingers in his mouth and let out a sharp whistle. Pooky, brown and almost invisible under his thick coat of mud, jerked up and started at Gerki with tiny, unblinking eyes. The two mages wheeled around, fingers already raised to their lips to shush him, but Gerki, undaunted, pointed at the hole in the floor.
“It looks like you two are, as the elves say, missing the forest for the trees.”
“Do the elves say that?” said Darvishon, a touch distractedly.
“We were getting to that,” replied Zot, at roughly the same time, and much more defensively.
Nevertheless, the two mages made their way across the muddy floor to the hole that now served mostly as Pooky’s personal wallow. Gerki was fairly certain that Zot’s filthy familiar grinned as he hopped over to where Fiona, Gerki, and Talia were standing. Without any hesitation, Pooky began to rub himself on the hems of Talia’s robes, streaking them deep brown.
“Hey! You filthy little jerk!” shouted Talia, slightly hiking up her robes and adopting a stance ideal for kicking. “Why don’t you go and wipe yourself off on…”
Pooky, now streaked brown and white, looked up at Talia and pulled back his lips in a smile, revealing a frankly unsettling number of razor sharp teeth.
“…wherever you want.” said Talia, as she retreated a short way down the end of the corridor.
“The young man’s right,” said Darvishon. “There’s something here.”
“Indeed,” said Zot. “Ms. Zangarian?”
Talia looked up, puzzled, “yes?”
“Would you mind coming over here for a moment?”
She obeyed, tentatively moving into the cavern to stand between the two senior mages.
“You’ve just about finished the third year course that covers the detection and breaking of hidden enchantments, yes?” Zot gestured at the muddy divot in the floor in which Pooky had just been rolling around. “I’d like you to put all those teachings into practice against this enchantment, if you don’t mind.”
“I… I don’t,” said Talia.
While Gerki and Fiona looked on, Talia noisily cleared her throat, rolled up her sleeves, and stared hard at the floor. After a moment, her expression brightened.
“You know,” she said, raising her hands in an elegant gesture, “I think I do see something! Let me see if this will work…”
Gerki smelled a faint sizzling odor and felt the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck standing up. He stepped back to huddle closer to Fiona as waves of power flowed out of Talia’s outstretched hands and down onto the muddy floor.
Gerki clapped his hands over his ears as a hollow, sucking noise echoed throughout the cavern. Darvishon and Zot leaped backward as the center of the cavern floor poured away beneath them, spinning into a vortex of mud and water. The sinkhole widened rapidly, until all but a narrow ledge of stable floor ringed the cavern. Gerki peered down and saw that Talia’s magic had revealed a previously hidden and mud-encrusted spiral staircase leading down into darkness.
“I did it!” said Talia, hopping up and down on the narrow ledge and clapping her smoking hands together in excitement.
“That was great!” said Fiona, cheering the young mage on from the cavern entrance.
“Yes, indeed,” said Zot. “Even so, this is very powerful magic we’re dealing with.”
“Agreed,” said Darvishon, probing the first few steps with the tip of his staff. “And there’s no telling what further enchantments await us below. We must be very cautious.”
“I’m cautious!” said Fiona, moving to the top of the staircase. “Let’s go!”
“No.” Zot stretched out his hand. “You will stay here. The Vice-Chancellor and I will go and get to the bottom of this. Alone. The three of you will wait here, where it’s safe, until we get back. Talia, make sure these two don’t go anywhere.”
“Fine,” said Talia, her voice flat.
Gerki watched as Darvishon and Zot raised defensive wards on themselves before descending the steps of the muddy staircase. After a moment, a mud-streaked Pooky hopped after them, leaving Gerki, Fiona, and Talia alone in the cave. Talia conjured a light as Zot and Darvishon’s own illumination spells dwindled and faded to almost nothing.
Gerki looked up at a grumbling Fiona. “You all right?”
“Yeah, I guess,” she said. “I just wish I had brought that Rogues and Warriors deck…”
“Anything?” said Fiona, for perhaps the dozenth time.
Talia stood at the top of the stairs, holding her magical light in her hand and squinting into the muddy depths.
“No,” she sighed.
“Just try to relax, Fi,” said Gerki leaning as comfortably as he could against the irregular bulk of the cavern wall. “They’re both powerful wizards. They’ll be fine. I’m sure they’ll be back any min–”
“Hey!” shouted Fiona, “Talia, where are you going?”
Gerki looked back over to the spiral staircase, just in time to see Talia disappear down it. Despite the fact that Fiona’s voice still echoed around the cave, Talia gave no sign that she had heard her.
“That’s weird,” said Gerki, shrugging himself off of the wall. “I wonder why–”
Gerki’s head snapped rightward, the left side of his face stinging painfully from the sudden, sharp impact. He cupped his hand protectively over at his cheek and looked up in betrayed surprise at Fiona. She had a look of panicked anger on her face, and was already winding up to slap him again.
“Hey!” he said. “What gives, Fi?!”
Fiona dropped her hand and leaped forward to enfold him in a stifling embrace. “Gerki! You’re back! You’re both back?”
“What?” said Gerki.
“Look around,” said Talia, who was rubbing her cheek.
Gerki was shocked to find that he, Talia, and Fiona stood at the bottom of the stone staircase instead of the top. They were in a perfectly square-cut chamber dressed with engraved bricks. Stone sconces along the walls–all of which were carved into the shape of dwarven heads–held unlit torches that, despite their age, still smelled strongly of pitch.
“Did we go under again?” asked Gerki, as Fiona finally released him.
“Yeah,” said Fiona, quickly and surreptitiously wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “First Talia, then you. I chased you both all the way downstairs, trying to wake you up. Sorry I had to get physical, but I was running out of options.”
“Fine with me,” said Talia, commanding her magical light to hover high above her head, better illuminating the room.
“Me, too,” said Gerki, before moving his jaw around and stretching out his face. “Next time, though, you don’t have to hit me full force.”
“I didn’t,” said Fiona, before pointing at the floor. “Look! I think they went this way.”
She was right. Gerki spotted boot prints and the swishing paths of long, heavy robes that marred the dry dust on the room’s floor. Here and there, he also spotted Pooky’s occasional pawprints. They led to a trapezoidal door at the far side of the room, its lintel deeply engraved with dwarven carvings.
“Zot!” shouted Fiona, as she ran for the doorway. “Mr. Vice-Chancellor sir? Helloooo?”
Gerki raced after her, and caught up with her right before she hurled herself through the doorway and into the hallway beyond. “Hey! Fi! Keep it down. We don’t know what’s down here.”
“Right,” said Fiona, immediately pulling back into the room. “Good plan.”
Talia followed after her, much more slowly, studying the architecture and the carvings as she did so.
“Interesting,” she said. “The old records say that Greyport was a dwarven city, but I hadn’t really seen too much evidence of it until now.”
Gerki turned and looked up at Talia. “Does that mean that you know something about this place? Something that could help us?”
“Not really, but it is interesting.” Talia shrugged. “What do you think? Go on ahead or go back the way we came?”
“Ahead,” said Fiona, hefting her sword.
“How about back?” said Gerki, almost at the same time.
“We should see if the wizards are okay,” said Fiona, insistently.
“If they’re not okay, Fi, that means that something down here got them. And that means that it can definitely and easily get us. We should go back to the Collegium and see if the other–”
Eldritch green light crackled and sparked from the far end of the darkened hallway. In the distance, someone screamed.
“That sounded like Darvishon,” said Talia, as she pushed past Fiona and ran down the hallway, robes flying.
“Okay,” said Gerki, “but that’s all the more reason for us to go back to the Collegium and–”
Fiona tore off into the darkness after Talia, leaving Gerki alone. He frowned to himself as the shadows, which had been kept at bay by Talia’s magical light, swiftly closed in on him.
“This is a terrible idea,” he muttered, and trotted off after them.
He caught up with the two of them just as they reached the far end of the hallway, which opened out into a cavernous room that was so vast that its distant roof had to be supported by square-cut pillars. Zot and Darvishon stood in the open space before them, wreathed in magical energy and hurling destructive spells at one another. As Gerki watched, Darvishon launched a bolt of lightning that rebounded off of Zot’s defenses and electrocuted the two nearest pillars. Gerki felt his arm hair stand up from the amount of static that the bolt had added to the air.
Pooky darted in between the two mages, narrowly dodging magical bolts and secondary effects as he hissed and thumped and worried at the hems of Zot and Darvishon’s robes. Gerki noticed that both mages had slightly bloodied ankles–no doubt caused by Pooky’s desperate attempts to rouse both of them.
Beyond the two dueling mages rose a terraced stone dais, upon which sat a massive stone throne of foreboding size and design. Seated on it, badly askew and long dead, was a skeleton clad in tattered robes and a golden faceplate. Standing around the throne, in attitudes of supplication, were the stone-like corpses of a dozen dwarves, hands reaching out to the skeleton. Gerki was disturbed to see that some of these dwarves–but not all–wore silver half-masks upon their ruined faces.
He was more disturbed when he realized that Zot and Darvishon were also wearing silver half-masks.
“We have to stop them,” said Fiona, stepping forward. “They’re going to kill each other!”
Gerki managed to grab onto Fiona before she got too far into the room. To Talia, he said, “do you have any way to stop this?”
“I could try dispelling the magic, but I can only cast it on one of them at a time. Which means that the other one is still enslaved by their mask and can still use their magic.”
The trio ducked instinctively as Zot hurled a lightning bolt of his own. It cooked the air and rebounded off of Darvishon’s magical sphere of protection.
“Do you have any defensive spells that could buy us some time?” said Gerki.
“Against that kind of power? No way!”
Fiona watched the magical battle, goggle-eyed, as waves of power splashed and rebounded between the columns. “I mean. I could stab them? Would that work?”
“Only if you’re not too picky about which one of you dies,” replied Talia.
Gerki blinked his eyes against the latest flares of magical energy and, after a moment’s consideration, moved to the left, skirting around the very edge of the cavern. He motioned for Fiona and Talia to follow him and, after a moment, they did.
“You got a plan?” asked Fiona.
Gerki paused just long enough to point up at the masked skeleton and the dwarves on the dais. “Sort of. More like a working theory. See if this works out for you. Some of those dead dwarves are wearing those half-masks, and they seem awfully impressed with that dead guy in the gold mask. I’m thinking that, maybe, the gold mask is the one that controls the silver ones and–”
“–and is what’s been possessing us and dragging us downward,” said Talia. “That makes sense!”
“Yeah,” said Gerki, somewhat annoyed that the young mage had stolen his thunder.
He shrugged it off and kept on moving, dropping into a near crouch as he covered the last distance between the cavern wall and the base of the dais. The strange, worshipful tableau above him was lit by the soft luminescence of Talia’s magic spell and, occasionally, by the deadly beams of arcane energy fired by Zot and Darvishon.
“Anyway,” he said, in a whispered voice, as Talia and Fiona joined him, “if it is, and I’m thinking it is, we have to find some way to deactivate the gold mask or break it, or what–”
Beside Gerki, Talia made mystical gestures and muttered an incantation loudly enough to disrupt his concentration. Gerki sighed and waited for her to stop.
“Or whatever,” he said, finally, when Talia lowered her hand. He took a deep breath. “Any ideas?”
“Well, you’re right,” replied Talia. “That gold mask is definitely magical, and it does seem to be linked to the masks in this room. And to us.” Talia looked worriedly at Gerki before reaching up to nervously rub the bridge of her nose. “Only a little for us, but the connection is still there.”
Talia shook her hands free of her sleeves and raised them in a preparatory casting pose. “I can try dispelling the magic on the gold mask. Maybe that would work. What do you think?”
“Worth a shot,” said Gerki.
“I’ll cover you,” said Fiona.
Talia picked her way up the steps of the dais, past the rigid, stony corpses of the ancient dwarves. Fiona followed close beside her, holding her salvaged blade in a two-handed grip. Gerki followed them at a respectful distance, fully expecting to trigger some ancient trap laid on the dais, or to trigger a dormant spell that would animate the myriad corpses above him in some parody of life.
When neither of those things wound up happening, he felt an odd mixture of relief and disappointment.
Talia stood up on her tiptoes, reached up, and tried to touch the golden mask without touching either the skeleton that wore it or the throne that it sat upon. She stretched until her fingers were splayed out just inches from the still gleaming surface of the mask.
“Dispel…” she began.
A bolt of crackling, purplish energy lashed out from the other side of the room, striking one of the dwarven corpses standing on the dais below the trio, exploding it into a shower of misshapen lumps and a cloud of dry powder. Gerki clapped a hand over his nose and mouth–desperate to avoid breathing in even the smallest amount of dead dwarf–and whirled to look behind him.
Darvishon and Zot, their duel temporarily suspended, strode purposefully across the room toward them, their hands gleaming with coronas of mystical energy. A frustrated and terrified-looking Pooky came bounding after them.
“Angry wizards!” shouted Fiona.
“What do we do?” screamed Talia.
“Duck!” yelled Gerki.
They threw themselves down onto the dais as Darvishon raised his wizard’s staff. A volley of eight spheres of green energy erupted from its tip and emitted an awful, high-pitched howl as they streaked across the room. They struck with the force of a thunderclap, obliterating the dwarves and shattering the dais. Even the skeleton sitting on the throne did not escape unscathed–one of Darvishon’s well-struck energy spheres obliterated its rib cage, and sent both skull and golden mask rattling down onto the dais.
The two wizards continued to advance. Flames erupted from the tips of Zot’s fingers.
“Now, Talia! Hurry!” shouted Gerki.
Coughing, Talia pushed herself up onto her knees and reached out to the nearby mask.
The mask shuddered and let out a tortured, metallic shriek as its edges curled inward. Gerki watched, hope rising in his chest, as Zot and Darvishon stopped abruptly and lowered their hands. Zot’s flames went out with a pop, leaving behind only plumes of black smoke.
“That did it!” he said. “I think that did it, Talia! Good jo–”
The mages resumed their march. Darvishon’s staff glowed with a sickly purple-green light. Zot cupped his hands around the air in front of him. In the cage formed by his fingers, a splinter of light began to glow brighter and brighter.
“Do it again!” shouted Gerki.
“I can’t!” said Talia, eyes wide with horror as she looked from Darvishon and Zot back to the mask. “It’s too powerful!”
Gerki’s angry curse was drowned out by the shock wave of Darvishon’s next attack spell. A wave of coruscating green fire sluiced across the floor and up the steps of the dais. Gerki would have been consumed, had not Fiona grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and dragged him behind the relative safety of the throne.
When the green fire retreated, Gerki saw the damaged golden mask nearby, its black eye holes gazing at him with what he could only imagine to be pure, timeless, hatred.
“What do we do?” said Talia.
The splinter of light in Zot’s hands had grown so bright that it was impossible to look at directly. It threw jagged, knife-thin shadows all over the room.
“I have an idea,” said Fiona.
“Wait!” said Gerki. “What kind of idea?”
For answer, Fiona jutted her lower lip out and exhaled sharply, blowing an errant strand of her red hair out of her eyes. Hefting her sword, she stood up and strode forward.
Gerki left the sheltering bulk of the stone throne to rush to Fiona’s side. He had just reached her when, with a fearsome battle cry and with all the strength in her already formidable muscles, Fiona slammed the point of her sword into the bridge of the golden mask’s nose.
Jagged bolts of arcane energy surged out of the wound in the mask and up the blade of Fiona’s sword. They solidified into tendrils of magic that wrapped around Fiona’s wrist like clinging vines. The eye holes pulsed ominously with magical light, faster and faster.
“Fiona, come on! We gotta go!”
Fiona turned to him, her face a rictus of panic. “I can’t… I can’t let go of the sword!”
On the floor, the golden mask buckled with the force of its own stored magical energy.
Gerki took several steps back and rushed forward, grasping Fiona around the waist and tackle-dragging her over the top edge and down the stairs of the dais. The ancient stone cracked his knees and elbows and scraped his shins and forearms. As he and Fiona tumbled, he looked back and saw, to his relief, that they had left both sword and mask behind atop the dais. The mask rattled around wildly like a dropped dinner plate, eldritch fire and smoke pouring from its eye holes. The sword glowed with an unearthly light. Liquid metal beaded on its surface, began to run down the blade.
“I think it’s gonna–” shouted Gerki.
Then there was a sudden, terrifying silence.
Gerki came awake to the sensation of something small, wet, and disturbingly rough lashing at his cheeks and nostrils. Dizzy and partially deafened, he raised his head and tried to banish the insect-like clouds of black specks into the corners of his vision.
Pooky sat on his chest, his muddy coat covered in a layer of dust, desperately licking Gerki’s face.
“Oh, hi,” said Gerki. “I guess I’m not dead? That’s pretty good.”
Pooky let out a snort and kicked off of Gerki’s chest, bounding across the dais to hide beneath the flowing folds of Zot’s mage robes.
Next to him, a figure covered in dust groaned and sat up.
“Hey, Gerk. Did you happen to see the ogre that stepped on me?”
“Are you okay?” shouted a lightly dusted Talia as she bounded down the smoldering steps of the dais toward them. Without waiting for an answer, she crouched between them and looped them both in her arms. “Please tell me you’re okay!”
“Oof,” said Gerki, “I think so.”
“I am relieved to hear it,” said Zot.
Gerki looked up and saw that both Zot and Darvishon had by now reached them. Though both mages were coated in sweat and dust, and though their robes were singed in several places, they seemed otherwise perfectly healthy. Gerki was also relieved to notice that the two mages had removed their silver half-masks and were looking–and, most importantly, acting–like their crusty old selves.
“Oh hey!” said Fiona, who had just left Talia’s worried embrace. “You’re back.”
“We are,” said Darvishon, leaning somewhat heavily on his staff, “though it appears that my ankles are somewhat the worse for wear. Thank you, Pooky.”
On the floor beside Zot, Pooky seemed to be hiding a grin.
“What happened to you both?” asked Gerki.
Zot gave a slightly embarrassed shrug. “We came into this room and, after casting some divinatory spells, deduced that the golden mask was the source of the magical compulsion. We set out to destroy it, but found ourselves quickly overwhelmed by its powers of suggestion. It forced us to put on one of these,” Zot waggled the silver mask he held in an expression of distaste, “and informed us that whoever defeated the other in a sorcerous duel would have the honor of being the golden mask’s new vessel.”
“Yikes,” said Talia, standing.
“Indeed,” said Darvishon. “It had been here for so long that it was willing to settle for any vessel, but it became extremely avaricious when presented with two fully-trained mages whose powers and skills it could exploit. Luckily for us, because that meant it had abandoned its interest in Talia and Gerki and had none at all for Fiona, which allowed–”
“Me to get it right between the eyes!” said Fiona, before slumping her shoulders in slight disappointment. “Lost my sword to do it, though.”
Zot stroked his beard and smiled. “Yes. Though I would strongly advise against such tactics in the future.”
Fiona looked up at Zot with a skeptical expression. “Why? If it works, it works.”
“I do feel that we should compensate the young lady for the loss of her ultimately very valuable weapon,” said Darvishon, with a smile.
Gerki watched as the Vice-Chancellor made a strange pattern in the air with his hands before snatching a short sword out of literally nowhere, accompanied by a shower of bright, blue-white sparks. With an appropriately dramatic flourish, he presented the blade to Fiona, who had bounded to her feet and was staring at it with eyes as wide as dinner plates.
“Gerk! Lookit this!” she shouted, half-drawing the short sword from the sheath.
There were runes carved onto the blade. They glowed slightly.
“It’s magic,” said Fiona in a rapturous whisper.
“Only slightly, I’m afraid,” said Darvishon, still smiling. “The first year students participate in a Weapon Enchanting course as part of their core curriculum where they practice the basics–charms to ward off rust, to keep a blade sharp, that kind of thing.”
“And it has a sheath!” squealed Fiona.
“So it does!” said Darvishon with a small bow. “All for you.”
Gerki rolled his eyes as Fiona hugged her new sword like a long-lost sibling. He expected this gift would only make her even more unstoppably courageous, and that made him worry quite a bit for his own safety.
“Anyway,” said Darvishon. “Now that the threat has passed, I think we should seal off access to this area for now, until I can arrange for some of the members of the Arcano-Archaeology department to travel down here for further study. In the meantime, I expect that the Red Dragon Inn is still open, so who wants to–”
“I do!” said Fiona, springing to her feet in a cloud of dust. “It’ll give me a chance to talk to some real adventurers.”
“Darvishon,” said Zot. “They’re children.”
“Right, right,” said Darvishon. The Vice-Chancellor glanced at the gloomy cavern ceiling and scratched his head. “Maybe a late-night pastry shop?”
Tales from the Red Dragon Inn is live on Kickstarter until October 28, 2021!