The Mage’s Thesis
In celebration of our upcoming 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. Here’s part one. Enjoy!
The Mage’s Thesis
The scattered groups of students and faculty made way for Deirdre as she glided into the lecture hall. She smiled at them as she passed, and automatically gestured benedictions with her long, delicate fingers. Inside the lecture hall, members of the senior Collegium faculty sat and chatted, while most of the fourth-year students stood awkwardly or paced nervously. Deirdre wondered, briefly, which one was hers.
Ah. That must be the one.
He looked quite a lot like some of the other students that Deirdre had assisted over the decades. A bit too scrawny from forgetting to eat. A bit slope-shouldered from all the bending down to mix components. A bit squinty in the eyes from all the required reading. He also had that unfortunate air that some of the older Collegium students often adopted. The tedious, imperious one that seemed to say, “I have read many books and cast many spells and, as a result, I know more than you ever will.” It was an air that gave Deirdre, who was just shy of three hundred years old, feelings of amusement and exasperation in about equal measure.
The young man’s beard growth did much to tilt the scales significantly toward the “amusing” side of things, it having come in patchy and scraggly in places, and having been so ill-maintained that its bristly black hairs jutted out in all directions.
Deirdre approached him, unfolding her arms and removing her hands from the voluminous sleeves of her priestly vestments. She extended her right hand for the young mage to shake. He looked at it somewhat disdainfully, took it diffidently, and shook it, slightly, once.
In her mind’s eye, Deirdre saw the scales tilting radically back toward the “exasperating” side. She did not let this show, of course. Instead she smiled and inclined her head.
“You must be Zot.”
“I am,” said Zot.
“Hello. I’m Deirdre. I’ll be your divine protector during your sabbatical.”
“I can’t imagine I’ll need your protection. I’m quite skilled.”
Deirdre felt her smile tighten just a little bit.
“Well,” she said brightly, “that’s the hope, Goddess willing!”
After a moment of awkward silence, she ventured, “How has your fourth year been so far? Have you constructed your focus yet?”
The young man raised an eyebrow and studied her with an appraising look. Zot seemed surprised, and perhaps grudgingly impressed, at her very basic knowledge of the fourth year student curriculum. If that was all it took to win his esteem, this sabbatical would be much easier than she had feared. She suspected that she could absolutely win him over by revealing a few trivial facts from her youth.
“Not as of yet, no,” said Zot, with much more energy and cordiality than he had previously voiced. “We’re permitted to do it at any point in our last year, so I plan to do it after the sabbatical. This will give me sufficient time to lay the groundwork for the casting of the preparatory spells, as well as to obtain certain rare and quality ingredients for the binding.”
“Ah,” said Deirdre. “Are you going to do something classically magey, like a wizard’s staff, or do you plan on taking the ring or amulet route?”
Zot clasped his hands behind his back, gave a rueful smile, and shook his head. “No, no. None of those things. Instead of investing all that power into a mere object, I plan to summon a familiar. I’ve read that it’s very difficult to summon and bind a living creature, but I feel confident that I can do so successfully. And before you ask, no, I’m not going to be seeking out anything nearly as ordinary as a cat or an owl. I think a wizard of my stature requires nothing less than a mirror drake.”
Deirdre put some extra effort into keeping her face pleasantly neutral. Mirror drakes were small dragons, roughly the size of kittens, and covered with bright, colorful, highly reflective scales. She knew, from her long collaboration with the Mage’s Collegium, that they were often talked about by excitable first-year students, prized for their beauty, grace, magical aptitude, and their ability to breathe colored flames on command. Summoning one as a mage’s focus was very difficult, however. So difficult, in fact, that Deirdre had only ever heard of one mage who had ever summoned one successfully. And that was…when…ninety or so years ago…or more now?
To Zot, she simply nodded. “Interesting and daunting! I shall pray for your success.”
“Thank you,” said Zot, with the tone of a self-impressed young man who felt he would never need any outside help.
“Ah, Deirdre! I see you’ve met our young charge already!”
An older woman–well, older for a human, anyway–strode up to Deirdre, her chainmail hauberk rasping softly against the well-worn surface of her platemail tassets as she approached. She wore a heavy longsword in a quick-draw scabbard on her right hip, which was counterbalanced by a pair of weighty pouches on her left. A brown slouch hat was crushed down upon her round, greying head, and a scraped and faded leather backpack hung from a strap over her shoulder.
“Thrace!” said Deidre, giving the wandering sellsword a quick, one-armed hug. “It’s good to see you again. I thought you told me you were retiring from the program last year!”
Thrace Anwi responded with a quick hug and hearty, two-fisted thump to Deidre’s back. “Pay’s better than a lot of delves I’ve been on recently. Besides, there’s no better way to go treasure hunting and learn a bit of history at the same time.”
Thrace threw a wink at Zot. “Safer and easier than delving, too, even with the babysitting duty you and I are going to have to pull.”
Zot sniffed. “I’m standing right here, you know. And I assure you that I don’t need…”
Thrace ruffled Zot’s thinning black hair with her calloused sword hand. “Yes, yes, Mister Young Master Wizard doesn’t need anyone’s help because he has his raw intellect and his magical spells on his side. Well, I’m sorry, Zot. It’s just bad luck that you’re stuck with us two old ladies. Collegium policy and the Chancellor’s decree, and all!”
“I just hope that you won’t be too bored,” said Zot, his mouth quirking in a sardonic smile. “After all, I’m uniquely well-suited to completing this elective, and I suspect that we will–”
Thrace snort-laughed. “You and every other apprentice mage here, Zot!”
“Now, Thrace,” said Deirdre, lifting her hands in a demure and conciliatory gesture. “There’s no need to be antagonistic. We’ve only just met Zot, and we certainly don’t know anything at all about his scholarship or his capabilities. Besides, I think we should find our seats. It looks like Chancellor Tobenhorne is about to get the proceedings underway.”
Chancellor Tobenhorne proceeded through the rote part of his speech with as much speed as he could while still appearing academically professional. He thanked the faculty members, congratulated the fourth year students, and briefly talked up the sixty-third annual fourth year sabbatical. Just like every year, he mentioned that he thought that this year’s students were among the very best that the Mage’s Collegium had produced. He expected that they would do very well on this, their first time in the field, and that they and their teams would find much of historical and archaeological value to improve the Collegium’s knowledge of history, legends, and magic.
With that out of the way, the chancellor went on to name the fourth year students, their teams, and their assignments. Most of the archaeological sites were old standbys that the Collegium had been slowly excavating over the past few decades, all of which Deirdre had been to at least once. Sprinkled in with these were some new places that the faculty of the Collegium had discovered within the last year. Deirdre was particularly interested in both the Giant’s Gnomon and the Petrified Falls. She wondered if Zot would be paired up with the students who were sent to those locations.
“And, last alphabetically, but certainly not least academically,” said Chancellor Tobenhorne, “Zot. You will be conducting your research at the Necropolis of Eng-Haran.”
Shocked gasps and jealous grunts reverberated through the crowd.
Thrace chuckled, gently elbowed Deirdre in the ribs, and said. “Better pack an extra cask of holy water.”
“Or two,” whispered Deirdre.
Though she tried her best to hide it, she was not feeling Thrace’s levity. A heavy weight, like a jagged chunk of ice, had settled in the pit of her stomach.
“Chancellor Tobenhorne,” said Deirdre. “A word?”
The elderly chancellor, dressed in his academic gowns and a soft, red velvet skull cap, turned and peered at her myopically over his reading glasses. Deirdre felt her heart go out to him as she fully realized just how old he had become. It was not so long ago–in her mind–when he had been Eddie Tobenhorne, a red-headed and sprightly youth of twenty who had a mad desire to create a permanent levitation spell. By the Goddess, where had the time gone?
“Ah, Deirdre!” said the chancellor, bowing slightly. “Always a pleasure to see you. I suspect this year’s star pupil will be quite grateful to have you on his team.”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, Chancellor,” said Deirdre. “I know that Zot is…impressive…but, really? The Necropolis? Are you sure?”
“Well…” Tobenhorne shrugged. “I would have preferred to send him to the ruins near the Vanishing Tower. Much safer, closer to Greyport, and the fourth-years found such interesting inscriptions there that I’m sure Zot would have translated long before the end of his sabbatical. Unfortunately, he thought that the old Vanishing Tower was a bit too pedestrian for a wizard of his talents. He put forth an impassioned defense to the faculty, staged a scroll-writing campaign, and his father, Toz the Elder, is one of our most prominent donors. And so…”
“I see,” said Deirdre.
“I really very much dislike the political parts of this job,” said Tobenhorne as he made a tired twirling gesture with his hand. “That being said, I made sure to do some scrying of the Necropolis, along with some baseline magical detection. It’s still as dead as it’s been–oh, if you’ll pardon the pun–for the last eighty-five years or so. I’m sure it will be all right for some light archeological work, and I’m also sure that you and Thrace will be more than able to protect yourselves and Zot from any lingering traps or spells left behind by the Li…”
“Of course, of course,” said Deirdre, cutting the chancellor off before he could say the name of the Necropolis’ former ruler.
Again, she marveled at humanity’s relatively short life spans. While it was oftentimes difficult and heartbreaking to watch humans wither into old age while she watched, it was also oftentimes maddening to see how short-sighted and perspective-free their brief lives made them. For Tobenhorne, the Necropolis hadn’t been active since before he was born. To the septuagenarian chancellor, that roughly equated to “forever.” For Deirdre, on the other hand, the power in the ancient city of the dead had been dealt with practically yesterday.
“I understand the difficult position that this puts you in,” said Deirdre, sincerely. She had dealt with more than a dozen chancellors during her time of service to the Collegium, and most had complained to her about how the job was mostly about greasing palms and pleasing wealthy donors and not very much at all about teaching mages or researching new avenues of arcane power. “I will, of course, do my best to keep him safe. But if I find out that there’s anything dangerous lurking within the tombs of the Necropolis, I’m ending this sabbatical and bringing him straight home.”
Chancellor Tobenhorne removed his reading glasses, folded them, and tucked them into the sleeves of his robe. His smile was sly, but also embarrassed.
“If you can make that boy do anything he doesn’t want to do,” he said, “then you truly do have Elaana’s favor.”
The trip out to the Necropolis of Eng-Haran normally took about eight days of hard travel, depending on the weather. For Zot, Deirdre, and Thrace, it took about twelve. The delay had nothing to do with the weather–which featured brisk autumnal winds, crisp and slightly chilly sunny days, and only the occasional spate of rain–but due to Deirdre quietly manipulating things to delay their arrival by as much as she dared. She urged Thrace to a slower pace, citing her bad knee, “accidentally” misread some trail markers, and stopped more frequently than necessary to pray to her goddess. Elaana offered up no portents, visions, or cryptic advice about what they would find once they reached the Necropolis, which only made Deirdre that much more nervous.
Zot, for his part, seemed to neither notice or mind the delay, likely because he was having his own issues. For all of his skill at wizardry and at laboratory research, he, like most students of the Collegium, was not at all used to the hardships of life on the road. He struggled under the weight of his heavily-laden pack, complained frequently of blisters, and frequently veered from being uncomfortable that he was sweating under his robes to being uncomfortable because his robes had been soaked through with rain.
“All part of being in the great outdoors,” said Thrace, clouting Zot on his shoulder. “Trust me, once you get the knack of arranging your pack and some calluses on those baby feet of yours, you’ll start to enjoy it. I promise!”
“Oh, I don’t imagine I will,” said Zot, sniffing with some irritation as he mopped his brow. “I’m going to be a professor, after all. I’ll be much too busy to come out and ‘enjoy’ all this nature once I’m tenured.”
Thrace shrugged amiably. “And when I was your age, I thought I was going to be a tavern singer.”
“Meaning that sometimes–oftentimes–life is going to surprise you, Zot my lad, so you have to expect the unexpected and be flexible enough to alter your plans when it does.”
“I don’t think…” said Zot, but Deirdre waved him to be quiet.
“We’re almost there,” she said.
Ahead of them, the trees had dropped all their autumn leaves weeks early, and now had nothing left to cover their twisted, withered, and misshapen trunks and branches. The leaves lay curled, brown, and dead in heaps and piles at the bases of the trees, hissing and crinkling as a frigid and fitful fall breeze blew along the path. As they walked onward, the pathway narrowed quickly, until Deirdre and the others had to twist and duck or be ensnared by grasping branches. The trees became increasingly warped, their trunks bent into torturous shapes that made Deirdre’s heart hurt just to look at them.
Zot, being much younger and not having any firsthand experience with the region around the Necropolis, studied the trees with more clinical detachment and great interest.
“This is fascinating,” he said, mostly to himself. “I had read about how powerful necromancy can warp the natural world, but I’ve never seen evidence of it in person until now. I had thought that scholars were being overly dramatic when discussing the power of the Necropolis, but now I see that, if anything, they were understating things.”
“Good,” said Thrace, from up front. “Does that mean we can go back now?”
“What? No!” said Zot. “I have to do some research, take some surveys, and locate some artifacts, otherwise I’m going to fail this part of my fourth year. I thought you said you had done this before.”
“She has,” said Deirdre, trying to make her voice sound as mild and non-confrontational as possible. “We both have. Many times. Between us, we’ve mentored a lot of students on a lot of their sabbaticals, and none of them have ever willingly chosen to go to a place as dangerous as the Necropolis. If you knew what she knows–what I know–about this place, you would want to go back, too.”
Zot balked. “I don’t understand. Thrace is a trained, battle-hardened warrior. You’re a priestess and a chosen of the goddess Elaana. And you’re afraid?”
“Yes, just a bit,” said Deirdre, smiling weakly at Zot. “Perhaps we’re being overly dramatic, though. I suppose we’ll see.”
As the sun began to sink into the embrace of the line of hills to the west, Deirdre, Thrace, and Zot emerged from the dead and horribly mutated trees to stand upon an outcropping overlooking a blasted valley. Standing in the center of the parched, cracked, and foul-smelling earth was a cluster of cyclopean buildings crafted from dark stone. All of them were large, trapezoidal in shape, and accessible only through massive bronze doors that glowed with dull red fire in the dwindling light of the setting sun.
Pathways edged with rotting gravestones rambled maze-like between and around these forbidding structures. Hewn from the same dark stone that made up the buildings, these funereal markers jutted out of the ground at odd angles, looking for all the world like broken teeth in a horribly misshapen jaw.
The three of them stood on the hill in awkward silence, the whole of the Necropolis spread out before them. It was Zot who spoke first.
“We should…I mean…I suppose that we ought to set up camp before we lose the last of the sunlight.” Zot glanced nervously at the distant horizon. “There seems to be quite a bit of fallen wood in the forest around here. I’ll go and collect some to build a fire. It shouldn’t take too long.”
“Sounds fine,” said Thrace, swinging her pack off her shoulder. “When you come back, you can help us with the tents and things. Don’t go too far.”
“I won’t,” said Zot. Though he tried to sound his imperious self, his voice cracked, just a little.
As he crunched off through drifts of dead leaves, Thrace smiled and winked at Deirdre.
“You see, Deirdre? He’s not completely made out of starched stuffing and hubris. Just mostly!”
Deirdre returned the smile with some difficulty.
They had decided to camp on the hill just outside of the Necropolis, and had set up their tents accordingly. While Zot stacked kindling in the newly-dug fire pit, Thrace chopped up the larger pieces of firewood with her axe, and Deirdre processed in a circle around their small encampment, praying to the goddess for protection against evil in general and undead in specific.
She had just finished when Zot uttered an incantation and launched a bolt of fire into the center of the neatly-stacked kindling. The dry wood caught immediately, and began to burn with unsettling bluish-purple flames.
“Wizardry beats flint and tinder, that’s for damn sure,” said Thrace, burying the blade of her axe in a nearby stump. “But did you have to make your fire all magic-y, Zot? It really doesn’t help with the ambiance.”
“That wasn’t me,” said Zot, peering into the fire and scratching at his beard. “I think the wood’s been so deeply altered by ambient magic that it just…burns with aquamarine-colored flames.”
“I think it’s more of a periwinkle,” said Deirdre.
“I don’t think…well…maybe it’s periwinkle?” said Zot. “I’m not entirely sure what the difference between the two is, if I’m being entirely candid.”
“Say we cook food on that fire,” said Thrace, eyeing the flames with suspicion. “If we eat it, it’s not gonna give me actual crow’s feet on top of my regular crow’s feet, is it?”
Zot passed his hand near the fire and muttered another incantation. After a moment he said, “No. Despite the somewhat unusual pyrotechnics, the magical energies in this area are only just slightly above normal. I wouldn’t suggest trying to live here, of course, but we shouldn’t be noticeably affected by any of the ambient magic during our relatively brief visit.”
“Well, I’m relieved,” said Thrace, flatly, as she hauled her cast iron skillet out of her pack.
When Deirdre stepped out of her tent the next morning, she was unsurprised to see that Zot was already up, dressed, and ready to go. He had also, to his credit, done some tidying up around the campsite and had built up the fire. The fresh, though still eldritch-looking flames were crackling energetically enough to drive most of the morning’s chill away.
“Good morning,” said Deirdre, as brightly as she could manage in the oppressive surroundings. “Is Thrace up yet?”
Zot shook his head and closed the small book he was studying. “I wasn’t sure how she’d feel about me waking her up, so I just decided to be patient.”
“Probably a good idea,” said Deirdre, as she sat down next to the fire and warmed herself. “What are our plans for today?”
“Well,” said Zot. He took a long pause. “Originally, I had wanted to more closely investigate at least one of the mausoleums in the Necropolis. Considering your warnings, however, as well the general unpleasantness of the area and the dreams I had last night, I think we should do something slightly less adventurous–such as investigating the various gravesites near one of the mausoleums.”
Deirdre’s graceful elven ears perked up. “Dreams? What sort of dreams?”
The young wizard absently poked at the fire with a charred stick for a moment before responding. “Oh, dark clouds. Being lost. Grabbing hands. You know, the usual anxiety dreams one has before beginning a large undertaking.”
“You’re sure they’re not prophetic?”
“I mean…they were…” Zot tossed the stick into the fire in irritation. “I took an elective in Dream Interpretation. I’d know the difference between jittery dreams and prophetic dreams, I should think!”
“All right, all right,” said Deirdre. “I believe you. I was just concerned for you, that’s all. I’m a priestess. It’s my job to be concerned for the welfare of others.”
“Thanks,” said Zot, a touch huffily. Then more sincerely, “I appreciate it.”
The flaps of Thrace’s tent burst open and the mercenary stepped outside in her nightshirt, sleep-tousled grey hair framing her round face.
“You’re being loud,” said Thrace, with a wink. “So I assume that means you’re both awake and ready to go. Good! I’ll make breakfast.”
Deirdre glanced up at the grey sky. There were no clouds, and the sun had almost reached its zenith, but in the Necropolis, the day still felt like it had either barely begun or was almost over. She touched her holy symbol and quietly chanted a prayer of protection against the chills and the damp. It alleviated the worst of her shivering, but not all of it. She was dismayed that, sometimes, she could see her own breath.
A short distance away, Zot and Thrace crouched amidst a cluster of crooked gravestones, taking rubbings using thin parchment and charcoal and talking quietly. Periodically, Zot would begin talking excitedly about the various runic markings they discovered on one stone or another. From scattered audible parts of their conversation, Deirdre learned that some were binding runes from powerful spells, while others were, seemingly, the ancient script of the long-lost Elven Empire.
As an elf who was, if only slightly, interested in the ancient history of her own people, Deirdre felt a small tug of enthusiasm at Zot’s words. Unfortunately, the unpleasant ambiance of the Necropolis had all but snuffed her joy and enthusiasm. Deirdre resolved to ask him about his discoveries later, when she was well away from this ghastly place and able to talk about mundane matters more easily.
“It’s a pity so many of these have been worn away by time and the elements,” said Zot. “If the Collegium had dared to send expeditions out here thirty, or even twenty, years ago, many of these might have been a lot more legible, and we would have a more complete idea as to–”
As Deirdre felt herself buffeted by waves of nausea, Zot let out a gurgling grunting noise, clapped his hands to the sides of his head, and toppled over.
“Oh, hell,” shouted Thrace, leaping to her feet and drawing her sword in one motion. “Deirdre. We’ve got a–Deirdre?!”
Deirdre had clutched reflexively at a nearby gravemarker, feeling the rough lichen scrape her fingertips as she struggled to keep her balance. The world swung drunkenly about her for a moment. An unpleasant, acidic tang burned its way up her throat. She blinked rapidly, gulped down air, and, as Thrace ran over to lay a supporting hand on one shoulder, felt the awful sensation pass.
“I’m all right…” Deirdre said tentatively, as she released the stone and moved as quickly as she dared to Zot’s prone form. “I think, anyway. How are you?”
“Fine,” said Thrace, her voice curt as she walked with Deirdre over to Zot, her head snapping back and forth, looking for threats. “Cold. Trick elbow acting up. Nothing like what happened to the two of you.”
Deirdre knelt down beside Zot, and was relieved to find that he was groaning and shaking and, therefore, still alive. Sweat beaded on his forehead.
She took up her holy symbol in her hands, and was surprised to find that the crescent moon medallion was hot to the touch. She called out to Elanna for protection against curses and evil spirits and, very gently, touched Zot on the shoulder.
Fear knotted in the pit of her stomach. Deirdre took a deep, cleansing breath, and called out to Elanna for something to alleviate Zot’s suffering. To deaden the pain. To make him comfortable.
Thrace jolted next to her as Deirdre let out a tight, tiny cry. Grasping her holy symbol so tightly that it dug into her palms, Deirdre implored the goddess to intervene and heal Zot with any grace she would care to send. A light soporific. A restive sleep. Anything.
At least Zot seemed to be coming around of his own accord. Deirdre watched him, helpless, as he got his arms underneath him and pushed himself into a sitting position. The flesh on his face was a clammy green, and his pupils had grown so wide that their black centers had all but swallowed the color of Zot’s eyes.
“What’s happening, Deirdre?” demanded Thrace.
“My magic,” Deirdre said quietly, staring at Zot. “It’s gone.”
A rictus of horror seized Zot’s face. He lifted one shaking hand and snapped his fingers once. Twice. Three times. He stared in disbelief at his empty fingertips.
“Mine, too.” he whispered.
“That’s bad,” said Thrace.
A low, metallic groaning sound split the air. Deirdre turned at the noise and watched as one of the great, metal doors that sealed the nearest mausoleum was slowly, agonizingly, grinding itself open.
“That’s worse,” said Thrace. “On your feet, you two. Strategic retreat. Now!”
From the black void of the mausoleum’s interior stalked out perhaps two dozen skeletal warriors, patches of dead flesh and sinew as taut and hard as boiled leather still clinging to their brown and rotting bones. Plates and ragged sheets of bronze hung loosely from their rib cages, and notched swords and axes gleamed dully in their hands. As one, they let out a mindless, deathless howl and leaped forward, running toward Deirdre, Zot, and Thrace with unearthly speed.
The skeletons were almost upon them by the time Deirdre was able to get Zot back onto his feet. Meanwhile, Thrace strode forward, her broadsword clasped between two gauntleted hands, and took up a defensive stance.
“I don’t hear running!” shouted Thrace, as the skeletons closed in.
Deirdre pushed Zot ahead of her, and both of them fled down the dusty pathway and back toward their hilltop camp. The sounds of ringing steel echoed in Deirdre’s ears, and amid the din of clacking bones and rattling armor, she could hear Thrace weaving a tapestry of curses and obscenities that would have curdled the ears of a lesser priestess.
They were more than halfway back to the camp when Deirdre heard a loud, crashing thud. She looked back, and saw that, though a third of the skeletal warriors had been hewn into pieces, the rest had surrounded Thrace and knocked her over. Thrace began to disappear in a cloud of bony limbs as Deirdre turned around.
“Zot! Keep running!” shouted Deirdre, as she removed her holy symbol from her neck.
“What? But Thrace said…”
“As your spiritual advisor, I order you to keep running,” shouted Deirdre, wrapping the chain of her holy symbol around her right fist.
Without waiting for Zot to confirm that he had heard and understood her, Deirdre raced back to her fallen companion. She fell upon the mass of skeletons, seizing one by the spine and pulling it off of the writhing pile. As it turned to face her, its jaw dropping either in rage or surprise, Deirdre let fly with her right fist.
Though her magic had been drained or sealed by the power of the Necropolis, there was still some latent holy might within her symbol that the fell magics of this benighted place could not destroy. Deirdre’s fist passed almost effortlessly through the warrior’s skull, powderizing it in an instant. The skeleton crumpled, its ancient war gear rattling to the ground at Deirdre’s feet.
Letting out a war whoop that she didn’t know she had in her, Deirdre turned back to the pile and scooped up another thrashing skeleton.
“Here’s some last rites for you. And for you. And for you! Go with the goddess’ blessing, you unclean parodies of life!”
The skeletons had by this point become aware that Deirdre was a new and quite formidable threat. While several continued to try and keep Thrace pinned and helpless on the frigid earth, the rest lifted their rotting weaponry and turned to face Deirdre. Deirdre swung her now battered fist again and again, scoring a solid hit here, a glancing blow there. She managed to dust another pair of skeletons before a third slipped up behind her and seized her by the crook of the elbow. Deirdre let out a frustrated, angry shriek and tried to pull free as the other skeletons closed on, bony digits clutching on her robes and hair.
“Deirdre!” shouted Thrace. “Hang on! If I can just get my sword, I…”
“No,” shouted Deirdre, “You hang on. I think I’ve…”
“Both of you hang on,” came a shout from behind them. “Here comes the arcane cavalry.”
And suddenly Zot was in their midst, smashing at skeletons with clumsy swings of Thrace’s cast iron frying pan.
The three of them sat panting on the ground, scratched, exhausted, and surrounded by splintered bones and ruined metal.
“That,” said Thrace, with a tired smile, “was something else.”
“Thanks,” said Zot, painfully rotating his shoulder. “I guess I should have signed up for ‘Melee Combat 101’ after all.”
Deirdre relished the feel of cold earth, grateful now for the chill that crept into her overworked muscles. “You acquitted yourself well, regardless. Good job.”
“Oh, I just helped a little bit at the end there,” said Zot, looking over at Deirdre. “But you were amazing. I didn’t know priests could fight like that.”
“They can,” said Thrace. “When they get really angry.”
“It’s called ‘righteous fury,’” said Deirdre, feeling her cheeks flush hot with embarrassment.
“Whatever you want to call it, it worked,” said Thrace with a chuckle.
“Indeed,” Zot paused and looked down at the weighty cooking implement in his lap. “Sorry about your pan.”
Thrace laughed. “Ah, none needed. It’s had worse than a bit of bone fragments in its day. A little water, a little seasoning, and it’ll be right as rain again.”
Deirdre watched Zot make the face of a man who was only just realizing that he had eaten a meal cooked in a frying pan that had experienced “something worse” than bone fragments. She stifled a giggle, but not very well.
“So, what’s the plan?” said Thrace. “We can’t stay here and keep doing research with undead popping up like dead weeds all over the place.”
“Agreed,” said Deirdre. “We also need to put some distance between ourselves and this place, to see if whatever is affecting Zot’s and my magic releases its hold.”
“All of that is very true,” said Zot, “and far be it for me to disagree with such wise counsel.”
“But…” said Deirdre.
“But, I’m concerned that there’s some terrible presence awakening in the Necropolis, and I’m also concerned that it’s going to get stronger, work more evil, and raise more undead in the time it takes us to get back to civilization to warn anyone.”
“And let’s never mind the fact,” interjected Thrace, “that a mausoleum full of long-lost magical artifacts just happened to throw open its doors for you to climb into and explore, all prestigious and talented young mage-like.”
Zot looked away abruptly. “I assure you that the new accessibility of the mausoleum didn’t even factor into what I was thinking.”
“I believe you,” said Deirdre, making no effort to make her voice sound convincing. “And you do have a point. I think it’s dangerous for us to stay here in our weakened state, but we owe it to the outside world to find out what’s going on here and if there’s a way to stop it.”
Thrace stood up and dusted off her armor with broad sweeps of her hand. “That’s a point,” she said. “Let’s do this quickly and get away before sundown, though. I don’t want to deal with any more skeletons than I have to.”
Their expedition into the freshly opened mausoleum had to weather a couple of false starts before it got underway. The first one came about when Deirdre and Zot realized that they lacked the magical strength to summon even basic light spells. Fortunately, Thrace proved to be blessedly well prepared, and it only required a few moments for them to return to the base camp and come back with torches and a tinderbox. The next delay followed immediately thereafter, when it became clear that Zot had either forgotten–or had never learned–how to use a tinderbox properly, and was also a touch too proud to ask for help. The young wizard got a lot of sparks and curses flying into the air, but was unable to get his torch to light.
“Here, give it to me,” said Thrace.
“I almost have it,” said Zot, through gritted teeth.
“Oh, I’m not gonna light yours. I’m gonna light mine. That way you’ll have some light to see by to get your own lit once night falls.”
WIth a grim expression, Zot handed over the tinderbox. Thrace ignited her torch a moment later before using it to light both Zot and Deirdre’s torches.
“There we are,” said Thrace. “Shall we?”
Thrace insisted that she take the lead, holding her broadsword in one hand and her torch in the other. They passed through the gap created by the partially-opened metal door and into a massive, dark chamber, whose distant, domed ceiling was supported by dozens of thick columns carved from black basalt. At first, Deirdre thought that the columns were irregular in shape, but as they approached the nearest ones, the torchlight revealed that each column had been carved into a caryatid of particularly gruesome cast. Instead of the usual caryatids–statues carved in the likeness of elven women who held up the roof on their high-piled and ornate hair–these were instead the statues of the corpses of elven women, with rats peeking out of their hair and stone bones protruding from their rotting stone flesh. The deeply sunken eyes of the caryatid columns, only fitfully illuminated by the torchlight, seemed to follow Deirdre and the others as they progressed deeper into the mausoleum.
The walls of the mausoleum were honeycombed with hundreds of crypts, most of which were sealed with engraved pewter slabs. A disturbing number of the slabs had been torn apart or otherwise forcibly removed in the distant to recent past, revealing deeply shadowed, rectangular chambers where bodies of the dearly departed had once lain. Deirdre had no doubt that they had just defeated some of the crypts’ former occupants. Others lay in ruined piles of bones and splintered metal on the floor around the mausoleum, possibly destroyed by other, earlier intruders.
“So, I’m sensing a theme,” said Deirdre, looking around nervously for signs of any unusually vital corpses.
Zot, clutching a torch in one hand and Thrace’s frying pan in the other, only nodded vigorously in reply.
“Looks quiet, though,” said Thrace. “For now.”
Progressing beneath the vacant, yet somehow still malignant stares of the zombie caryatid columns, they came at last to a staircase of polished black granite that descended downward into the gloom. There, the three of them paused and considered the fathomless gulf that lay ahead and below them.
“I wish I was able to cast any detection spells at all,” said Zot.
“If you were able to,” replied Deirdre, “I’m pretty sure I know what they would say.”
“Well,” said Thrace, after a long moment. “They don’t call it dungeon delving because we go up, right?”
Zot inhaled sharply and hefted his frying pan. “Right. Down we go, then?”
They descended, Thrace leading the way. Though the first few steps were relatively clear of debris, they soon became cluttered with dust and cobwebs as the trio descended. The temperature decreased steadily as well, and the air took on a stale, unpleasant odor that forced Deirdre to cover her nose with the crook of her free arm.
As they continued down the steps, Deirdre saw that chains had been crudely bolted into the walls of the staircase with heavy, rusted staples. The chains, made green and slimy-looking thanks to their verdigris-like patina, stretched almost taunt as they traveled down the stairs, along the walls, and deeper into the gloom. They encountered only a few chains at first, but they swiftly grew in number as the trio continued ever downward into the earth. By the time they reached the bottom of the steps, the walls were so thickly covered with the chains that they could no longer be seen.
The chains progressed onward, beyond the bottom of the staircase, stretching before them to form an arched passageway of taut, dripping, emerald links. Deirdre could hear the chains clinking and straining as they progressed down the passageway, realizing that something on the other end was either pulling on them–or being restrained by them–with tremendous force.
“This is very interesting,” said Zot, craning his neck to look at the screen of interwoven chains that formed the roof overhead. “And also very, very unnerving.”
“You did preparatory research on the Necropolis before coming here, right Zot?” said Deirdre, raising her torch high in a vain attempt to dispel the shadows. “Did you read anything about this?”
Zot shook his head. “No, unfortunately. All of the accounts that I was able to find were written after the battle that the mages and priests of Greyport waged against the undead hordes that lived here. They were limited to the exteriors of the mausoleums–not what was inside them. Honestly, that’s part of the reason I came here. It seems as though the Collegium either lost or suppressed any record of what was inside the–”
“Korash’s flamin’ mane!” shouted Thrace, gesturing with her sword. “What the hell is that?”
Ahead of them, the chains passed through an arched doorway and into a large room with a domed ceiling. There were seven other archways leading out of the room, all equally spaced around the polished black circular walls, and each of these arches also disgorged their own set of groaning, patinated chains into the room. All of the chains converged upon the center of the chamber, where their far ends interweaved, twisted, and drew tightly into a massive cocoon of metal links that shrieked and trembled.
Deirdre realized, to her growing horror, that the links in the chains were not all intact. Several of them had burst from the cocoon and lay in twisted heaps upon the marble floor, their metal charred and smoking. With these critical links destroyed, several loops of the chains had split apart and fallen away from the exterior of the cocoon, leaving a narrow gap.
And from that gap protruded a grasping, straining skeletal hand, its bony fingers bedecked with ancient rings.
“Holy hells,” said Thrace, lifting her sword into a defensive stance. “What is that?”
“I don’t know,” said Zot. “There’s nothing in the accounts about what’s inside the Necropolis. And without my spells, all I can tell you is that this looks like some kind of prison. For some kind of undead creature. A very powerful one.”
“It can’t be,” said Deirdre, clutching her holy symbol. “I thought he had been destroyed, not imprisoned. They should have said something–”
“Deirdre?” said Zot.
“They should have warned us that it wasn’t just residual necromantic energies that were still active around here. That it was him.”
“Deirdre,” said Zot, a bit more firmly. “Who is he?”
“The Lich King.” Deirdre swallowed. “He’s too dangerous for us to face, even imprisoned. We have to go. We have to–”
Threads of thin, black energy lanced out from the fingertips of the imprisoned skeletal hand. Deirdre was overwhelmed with icy sickness as one of the threads penetrated her chest, feeling as if it had wrapped around her heart. The strength went from her body. She crumpled, slamming her knees against the floor. The shock of the impact hurt, but it was also the only thing that allowed her to remain conscious.
Off to the side, she saw that Zot, too, had collapsed, the black tendril linking him to the skeletal hand pulsing with unpleasant energies. A third tendril had touched Thrace, and though the warrior had taken a knee from the enervation caused by the sorcerous energies pouring from the beringed and bony hand, she seemed less afflicted than Zot and Deirdre.
“I knew someone would come, eventually,” hissed a voice that sounded to Deirdre like needles scraping on glass. “Bearing with them enough magical power to restore to me some semblance of strength, allowing me to break this century-old cocoon of chains.
“I had hoped for more of you, with greater might, but such as you have brought me suffices, for now. I am partially freed thanks to your magical power and, once I have supped on your life energies, I will–”
“Thrace,” whimpered Zot. “His hand. Strike his hand!”
With a grunt of exertion and anger, Thrace levered herself back up to her feet. Taking her broadsword in two hands, she tottered toward the chain cocoon, drawing slowly closer to the skeletal hand.
“Too late,” whispered the Lich King. “Too late. With your vital energies, I shall awaken yet more of my thralls. They will wander outside of this valley and bring others for me to sup on. Then, with my strength renewed I shall break–”
“Shut up!” shouted Thrace, drowning out the Lich King’s voice.
With a final effort, she brought her broadsword back over her head and, with a powerful downward swing, severed the protruding hand at the wrist.
The small bones of the Lich King’s hand, separated from his arm, were no longer affected by the spells, wards, and charms that kept his corporeal form animate and mobile. They, and the rings they once supported, cascaded down onto the floor with a sound like falling hail. As the hand came apart, the tenebrous threads that it commanded also winked out. Deirdre felt whatever cold, constricting force that had seized her chest immediately relent. She took in a lungful of dry, dusty, air as the chamber around her snapped back into focus.
“–you insolent worms!” screeched the Lich King, as he withdrew his splintered radius and ulna deeper into the cocoon of chains. “How dare you strike me?! When I am free, I shall call the greater demons of the Nether Expanse!”
Thrace turned, her face flushed with the effort of her last blow and with a sudden surge of returning strength. She locked eyes with Zot, who was slowly pushing himself off the floor on his spindly arms.
“Here’s an object lesson for you, my lad. If a wizard’s not properly prepared, swords beat magic every time.”
“Noted,” said Zot. “What do we do now?”
“You will suffer and die by my hands, in excruciating agony!”
“We need to leave, and quickly,” said Deirdre, ignoring her throbbing knees and the Lich King.
“But he’s partially free!” said Zot, gesturing frantically at the still quaking, screaming chain cocoon with Thrace’s frying pan.
“Yes, and soon all shall weep and grovel at my feet!”
“I know that,” said Deirdre. “That’s why we need to hurry. We’ll seal the mausoleum doors, get far away from here, I’ll commune with the goddess and with the other priests at the Great Temple. Together, all of us will have the strength to fix it, but we have to leave before–”
Zot, however, wasn’t listening. Instead, he turned and ran toward the cocoon instead of the stairs. Squatting down on the floor he began rummaging around in the tarsal bones, the scattered rings, and the broken bits of chain link.
“Are you–” Thrace sputtered as she wheeled toward Zot’s back. “Are you seriously trying to loot the room right now, Zot? We need to get out of here.”
“I know,” said Zot, his voice thin and strained. “I’m just trying to improve our overall odds of success here. Bear with me.”
“You haven’t even the merest iota of a chance of success. You might as well just bend your knees now and accept that I am your new master!”
Zot picked up a shattered, blackened chain link. Scrutinized it. Tossed it aside. A moment later, he selected another one.
“Zot!” shouted Deirdre.
“I know, I know. This’ll have to do. Help me. Grab those chain ends.”
Thrace glanced over her shoulder at Deirdre, her face a red mask of confused fury.
“No, he’s right,” said Deirdre, stepping forward to take one of the chain ends. “Thrace, grab the other one! We’re doing a patch job.”
“Right,” said Thrace, still fuming, but understanding.
She sheathed her sword and grabbed the other chain end, taking it in her gauntleted hands and pulling it taut around the cocoon. Deirdre did the same thing, ducking beneath Thrace’s chain as she stepped around to the other side of the cocoon.
“What are you doing?!”
“Little higher, Deidre,” said Zot. Then, as the Lich King’s voice faded from their minds, he added a pleased, “Perfect!”
They had crossed the two lengths of broken chain over the gap where the Lich King’s arm had been. Zot threaded the broken link through the chains’ rings, knitting them together.
“I wish he hadn’t drained me,” muttered Zot, as he squeezed ineffectively on the broken ring, trying to butt the two ends together with finger strength alone. “I could…urg…have done this…mmph…instantly if…”
“That’s another good lesson,” said Thrace. “Can’t always rely on magic.”
Deirdre, her hands on the chains, blew a lock of her hair out of her eyes and looked imploringly at Thrace. “Do you have any tools that could help?”
“Not like that, no.”
“I’m sorry about this,” said Zot.
“Sorry about what…oh by the gods, Zot!”
Zot had pressed the split open chain link against the cocoon, bracing it with his left hand. He brought up Thrace’s cast iron pan in his right and, with as mighty a swing as he could muster, slammed the edge down onto the top of the ring. The thooming bong of the pan striking the cocoon echoed around the subterranean chamber.
“Cast iron’s pretty durable,” said Deirdre, before being cut off by another booming note as Zot swung the pan again. “It should be fine, right?”
“I hope so,” said Thrace.
“Once I have my magic back–” Zot grunted and swung the pan again. “I can cast a mending charm on it.”
“I know you can,” said Thrace, though Deirdre could tell that, from the look on the warrior’s face, that even with magical intervention, her favorite pan would never be the same.
“One, two, three,” shouted Thrace, bracing herself against the mausoleum’s partially open metal door, “HEAVE!”
Deirdre put her shoulder against the door and leaned in. Her feet slipped a bit on the dry moss that covered the ground, but she managed to maintain her balance and keep pushing. The door’s ancient hinges squealed in protest.
“And one, two, three, HEAVE!”
Zot groaned and looked to Deirdre like he was resting on the door instead of trying to push it. It was all right. He had done a lot of good work today and, even by human standards, he was still just a kid. Or, at least, close enough in age to a kid to still count as one.
“Wait, wait,” said Zot, before Thrace gave another command. He stepped back, mopped his face with his sleeve, dried his hands on his robe, and then positioned himself for another push. “All right. Whenever you’re ready.”
“One, two, three, HEAVE!”
The hinges let out one final, ear shattering shriek before yielding to the steady pressure. A few moments later, the mausoleum door had swung completely closed, slamming shut with a glottal rumble that Deirdre felt in the pit of her stomach.
“We should get a log or two from that creepy forest,” said Thrace, panting a little. “Shove ‘em through the handles. It won’t stop that lich if he breaks himself out, but his bony little soldiers won’t have the strength to break them.”
“Good idea,” said Zot. “Then what?”
Deirdre ran a hand through her hair and tried to compose herself. One of the perks of being an elf was that she didn’t look nearly as tired or as ragged as she felt. She had employed this to good use in the past to put on a brave face in dire situations, and she did so now.
“We strike camp, pack, and get as far away from this place as we can before night falls. Hopefully, with a little food and a little rest, you and I will regain enough of our drained magical abilities to be able to communicate with people in the Collegium and the Temple.”
Thrace nodded in agreement. “I know we’re all exhausted, but try not to think about it and just do what’s gotta be done. Later on, when we’re well shut of this place, then we can sleep like the dea–”
“Perhaps a less colorful metaphor,” said Deirdre, though she smiled at Thrace.
“It’s a simile, actually,” said Zot.
Deirdre could tell that Zot regretted saying anything the moment the word left his mouth. The young mage practically wilted under Deirdre’s bemused gaze and Thrace’s slightly stonier expression. Zot coughed into his hand, mumbled something apologetic under his breath, and then, with a flourish, handed Thrace’s pan back to her.
“…and I’m sorry about that, too,” said Zot. “It was a real lifesaver, though. Twice. And I’m quite appreciative that you brought it along.”
“You’re welcome,” said Thrace, cradling the slightly dented pan in her hands. “And I’m sorry, too, Zot. I was expecting this to be just a quiet trek in the woods where you got to learn about how the outside world works and maybe unearth a pottery fragment or two. Didn’t think we’d have to pull up stakes quite as fast as this and bring a dire message back to civilization.”
Zot shrugged, but beneath his uneven beard, his mouth turned up in a smile. “That’s quite all right. Though this expedition was brief, it was certainly interesting. I learned a lot. And I suspect warning Greyport about the resurgence of a terrible, undead threat will convince my professors to grade me on a curve, as it were.”
In spite of all that had happened, Deirdre laughed. “You have my word as a priestess of the goddess that Thrace and I will put glowing recommendations in our reports to the Collegium, Zot.”
“Absolutely,” said Thrace. “But we’d better get going. We’re wasting daylight.”
As they trudged out of the Necropolis and back to the small hill that held their base camp, Thrace reached over and playfully swatted Zot on his right shoulder. Zot, who had overtaxed his arm with flagrant use of the borrowed frying pan, flinched, but smiled back.
“Once you’ve graduated, come find me,” she said. “You’re a natural scrapper, Zot, and I could teach you a few moves. I bet, with some practice and a good sword, you’d be a double threat. Why, the monsters wouldn’t know what hit ‘em!”
Meanwhile, in the silent darkness in the mausoleum, beneath a great cocoon of chains, a scattered collection of distal and proximal phalanges stirred to unlife. Like thick, white worms, they blindly wriggled and rolled along the floor. Were there someone to watch this strange dance of these small, oddly-shaped bones, they would have noticed that slowly, with painstaking effort, they had begun to take on the vague shape of a skeletal hand…
Tales from the Red Dragon Inn, the epic dungeoncrawl adventure game, launches on Kickstarter on September 30, 2021!