Greetings and felicitations, I am Gwendolyn a wood elf and wealth adjuster. You do not know what a wealth adjuster is? The easy answer is that I am a thief. However, that title carries many negative connotations with it that are not strictly accurate. To be sure, there are thieves and then there are thieves. Now that I have muddied the waters a bit let me clear up some things in our profession.
Most thieves belong to the Thieves Guild. Our organization regulates and set strict rules that our members must follow. In exchange, members receive some degree of legal protection. Now, there are rogue thieves, who do not belong to the guild. I fear to say these rogues give us all a bad name. These unregulated thieves will steal and rob from anyone. They do not refrain from using violence to obtain their goals that can even lead to ghastly murders.
To be sure, we as a guild, hunt down these rogues. We cannot afford to have anyone using our title running amok doing whatever he or she very well pleases just to obtain a handful of silver crowns. Some of the rules are that we do not rob from the poor, nor do we rob from fellow members. We also frown on using violence to rob someone. Furthermore, we do not condone murder. Only in the case of self-defense is a guild member allowed to use violence. After all, any idiot can club someone from behind and lift his or her coin purse.
Now that I have established my profession, I will now regale you with who I am. In previous publications, I established that I became the Grand Champion of the arena in Imperial City. Many know me by my title as the "Black Arrow". Unfortunately, many more know me by the romanticized and embellished woodcuts printed in fliers. These show me in the arena as an Amazon -- sans any piece of garment for modesty -- often holding a severed head in my left hand and a raised gore covered long sword in my right.
I cannot tell you how many people are a little disappointed to see a lithe average built Wood Elf armed mainly with a bow when I tell them who I am. The Imperial Arena loves good promotion and nothing packs the arena better than the idea of a naked muscle-bound woman in combat. Nonetheless, I can still fill the seats when I make my special post-retirement engagements in the arena.
Therefore, you now know my official profession as a retired gladiator and you know I belong to the guild. However I am not merely a guild member, I am also the leader of the Thieves Guild. That is right I am the Shadow Fox.
Many of you dear readers may doubt the existence of the Thieves Guild and more will doubt the existence of the Shadow Fox. However, I can assure you both exist and we take great pains on making sure that the general public is mostly unaware of either one.
As the Shadow Fox, I am even an enigma to most thieves in the guild. However, I am the overall head of the organization. With the help of the guild leaders, we assign various tasks to the most suited thieves. Believe it or not, most of our work comes from the government. We are adept on securing secrets, restoring lost possessions, and just knowing the everyday buzz on the street.
To be fair, we are not the only organization often employed by the Empire. The members of the senate often use the Assassins Guild to settle debts in a less subtle manner. To say there is a rivalry between the Assassins and the Thieves Guilds would be an understatement. Fortunately, when it comes to being unnoticed the Thieves Guild will always beat the Dark Brotherhood.
Now, as I was saying, being the head of the guild sounds prestigious. Unfortunately, it is also a lot of paperwork and sitting behind a desk. So every once in awhile I would assign myself a task, much to the chagrin of the guild leaders, just to keep myself in tip-top condition.
It came to pass that a few months after the whole "Tiberium Letters" affair that a group of adventurers found their way into Imperial City. Word quickly passed around that they were associates of Brunis, the evil mage I killed in Giland. I knew that one of these strangers was a mage. If they were looking for revenge, a little research with the Mages Guild would discover my suspension from that organization over the fortunate (or unfortunate) demise of Brunis.
I also took the time to scout this quartet of adventurers. I heard many things and learned even more. I heard the so-called ranger had killed a dragon. On observing him moving clumsily around town I figured the dragon was old and decided to choose ‘suicide by knight' which is more common than you can imagine.
There was a rogue thief claiming the name of King of the North. A fairly good thief I will begrudge but not much of a fighter. However, I would choose him over the ranger to back me in a scrap. I kept my spies on him to make sure he did not try anything disruptive in town.
The party also boasted of a bard. He was a decent singer and tale-teller, but with dubious tastes of the carnal nature. I fear his hormones tend to make most of his decisions. Not too terribly good if one is attacked by a succubus, nymph, or even a group of choirboys.
The final member of the party was a sorcerer of average quality. However, his street smarts bespoke of some time traveling with a troupe of performers. I can tell you that if I had the thief under watch I had the sorcerer under double watch. He was the one rumored to be an associate of Brunis.
I soon put any concerns I needed to fear this band of adventurers to rest. They were at best a group of amateurs. Nonetheless, I decided it was best for all involved if I left town for a while. As I previously stated we thieves do not kill if we do not have to. There would be no honor in dispatching this small group.
It so happened that the Emperor had sent another group of adventurers into the city sewers for its annual clean up. Now, a maintenance organization makes sure the city's sewers operate efficiently; however over the course of a year, things move into the sewer. Nasty things and the Emperor will pay handsomely for a group of adventurers to clean them out.
Usually, the adventurers are lower ability and desperate. The money is good, but the danger is great, and the smell is even worse. It happened that no one had heard from the latest group for over two weeks. The Emperor had petitioned the Thieves Guild to look into it. I personally accepted.
I grabbed my trusty longbow, elven armor, short sword, and my enchanted shield that dispels all forms of hostile magic as well as a few other do-dads. Little did I know I was about to engage in one of the strangest adventures of my life.
There are many ways into the city sewer, most of them quite well known. However, I did not want anyone to notice my entrance -- in the unlikely event someone was on the lookout for a person such as me investigating the disappearance of the party of adventurers.
I am good friends with a certain proprietor of a food stall, you may have heard of his shop, "Lord of the Onion Rings". He has been known to be interested in certain... ah, artifacts that are not strictly legal. So, we have an agreement for our mutual benefit. Now, this businessman has a secret entrance behind his stall that leads to the sewers. He figures it is wise to have an escape route close to where he works and lives. I cannot argue, though personally the sewers would not be my first choice.
To say the least, I found my way into the city sewers without anyone the wiser. One thing many people do not realize is that sewers are not only smelly but also quite dark. I have stated before that most elves can see in low light, but are utterly blind in pitch darkness. I have also stated that I know a night sight spell that only lasts a minute that allows me to see in complete darkness.
It has been a quest of mine to find a spell, talisman, or enchanted trinket that would to allow me to see in the dark for extended periods of time. So far, my search has been futile. I have located spells that would allow me to generate light. However, if this were what I truly wanted any torch or lantern would serve my purpose. Alas, I again found myself forced with muttering that simple spell every sixty seconds.
One should note, it is not easy to mutter any spell, including simple ones, when you are gagging over the smell of a city's accumulation of filth. Sure, the underground waterworks are supposed to wash away the sewage into the nearby river; however, we are talking about thousands of people voiding themselves several times a day. Further, the annual maintenance had not happened yet. So the occasional dam or stagnate pool of waste were starting to accumulate.
I choked out the spell that allowed me a quick view of where I was. I think it may have been better not knowing exactly what was around me. Nonetheless, I started on my quest. It was not long before I picked up the trail of the adventurers. Seeing as how they were composed mainly of the non-rogue types and stealth was not in their main interest, I did not have much difficulty.
With a piece of cloth wrapped over my mouth and nose, I was able to keep the worst of the vile scent a bay. At least, I would like to believe I was. In any case, I continued to gag and choke out my incantation that allowed me to navigate through the dark and damp sewers.
I quickly came across an old campsite the party of adventurers had prepared a week or more ago. The charred remains of a campfire lay upon the cold and slimy flagstones of the sewer floor. I guess no one bothered to warn the party that having a fire down in the sewers was risky at best.
A pocket of confined methane gas could easily explode any unwitting party member to smithereens. Despite the adequate ventilation of the sewers, this catastrophe has happened more than once in the past. Fortunately, the sewer's construction was first rate, so the pressure from the blasts tended to funnel down the long corridors.
Sometimes the blasts would actually help the maintenance crew by removing many of the obstacles that obstructed the optimal function of the sewers. These maintenance crews would often contain at least one mage or priest that could conjure up a decent light spell to help them navigate and work in this subterranean world. Thus, most fires were unnecessary.
It was obvious that the party I was after did not meet with such a fate because their footprints led further down the dank and smelly corridor. I kept my short sword ready in case I came upon one of the denizens of the sewers. These were mostly composed of giant rats. These animals about the size of a large dog somehow thrived down here. I do not even want to think about what they ate in order to survive.
I did not travel far when I came to the scene of a struggle. It appeared that another group of humanoids ambushed the adventurers at this point. I could easily read from the footprints and blood splatters against the walls that the fight went poorly for the adventurers. The party's struggle was not very long and they were quickly subdued and taken prisoner.
I should point out that not only giant rats live in the sewers. Those seeking to escape from the eye of the law or civilization often made their way down here. That is why many of the maintenance crews often employ a novice member of the Fighters Guild or two. Of course, if there were any such people down here, the maintenance crews hoped the annual party of adventures would take care of them first.
Unfortunately, it looks like the adventurers were the ones who were the worst of it this time. I could not understand immediately why the ambushers did not just dispatch the party and dump their bodies in the deep channels of raw sewage that ran down the middle of the corridors. I could tell that the unfortunate adventurers became the unwelcome guest of some other party.
I followed the trail as it wound down the labyrinthine corridors and over more than a few bridges that occasionally crossed the river of filth. Occasionally the bones of rats and other small mammals littered the slime-covered flags. I stealthily and unerringly followed a trail until it led to a blank wall.
I have had experience with trails suddenly stopping at walls to know that I had come across a secret entrance. It only took me a couple of moments to find the trigger, a rusted iron ring set in the stone floor, which opened the door.
I quickly slipped passed the door before it slid back to the closed position. Here I found the random torch set into the wall. As I sighed in relief from not having to mutter that infernal dark sight spell again, I realized that the smell of sewage diminished noticeably. That or I was finally getting used to it.
A quick glance in the flickering light revealed several shattered crates and barrels littering one of side of the new corridor. This tunnel was not an original part of the sewers and led straight from the wall. I also noticed that amongst the debris of shattered containers there appeared an iron bound chest about the size of a hatbox.
The quality of the lock told me that something of great value must be stored inside. My lock picks made quick work of the lock. As I flung open the top, a gust of wind blew from the box extinguishing the torch and leaving me in pitch black.
I was in mid mutter of renewing my dark sight when I heard a voice echo across the corridor.
"Ah, thanks old chap. It was getting a little musty in there."
I froze momentarily as I noticed in the dark two flaming red orbs rising from the box I held in my hand. I do not need to tell you that freezing in horror like this can be very unhealthy for a thief. I completely forgot to finish my spell and could only stare in fascination as the two orbs rose up to the level of my eyes.
"Sorry, I didn't realize you were female. Well, in any case I can't thank you enough for finally freeing me from that beastly chest," the voice said.
I slowly realized that the red orbs were the "thing's" eyes and it was now looking at me face to face. I still had a hard time regaining my composure and the first words out of my mouth were not to summon my dark sight spell, but instead a simple, "Who are you?"
"Why I guess you could say I am nobody," the thing said and then began to laugh.
The laughter put me enough at ease that my mind finally relaxed and I was able to function. Before the voice finished its laughing, I summoned the dark sight spell again.
There standing in front of me, or more accurately floating, was a disembodied skull.
"Get it? Nobody, because I have no body," the skull explained.
"Yeah, I get it," I replied dryly. "How did you end up as...?" I trailed off, for I could not figure out how exactly to phrase my question.
"As a disembodied floating skull that has two flaming red orbs in its eye sockets and can talk?" the skull finished. "Well, I wasn't always in this state. I used to be an apprentice to a mighty mage. Being ambitious, one day I found a tome hidden by my master.
"I asked myself, ‘Mobius, (for that is my real name) what arcane knowledge does this book contain?'
"I knew that if I could find some secret spell that would allow me to attain greatness in a hurry my boring internship would be at an end. So, I opened the book and began to read.
"The words were captivating. But, not in the usual sense. They literally capture my mind and I could not stop reading. The words tumbled out of my mouth and an enchantment began to build. First, I noticed that my skin began to dissolve. I did not feel any pain for my entire focus was on the words that I could not tear myself away from speaking aloud.
"Then my legs disappeared, yet I did not drop to the ground. I kept on speaking and I tried to force myself away from the book. It was not long after that my torso and then my arms vanished. Yet the book did not drop. Finally, in a last desperate attempt, I ushered up every ounce of willpower and I tore my eyes away from the book.
"So here I am a floating skull because I was able to quit while I was a head," the skull started laughing again. "Get it? A head, because I am a head."
"Yeah, I get it," I replied dryly. "That isn't what really happened was it?"
"Well, no. I used to be a jester and I pissed off a wizard," Mobius replied.
"And the chest?" I queried further.
"He figured he would use me as a bookend. I can tell you that being a bookend is rather dull, so I used to tell jokes to amuse myself. I guess he did not have much of a sense of humor for he boxed me up and dropped me down a privy," Mobius said. "Imagine dropping me down the toilet like that and in a box that only he had the key to. How rude!
"Thank the Gods you were able to open the lock. I can't tell you how long I've been down here. I also can't tell you how many people have tried to open the box and failed.
"So in gratitude I, Mobius, King of the jesters and jester to the king is at your service."
"I believe I've heard someone else use that line before," I said.
"Stole it from me I'm sure."
I soon started my travels down the corridor again with a floating skull now following me. The one advantage of a floating skull is that they generally do not make noise. Well, I guess the average floating skull does not. I really do not know how many floating skulls there are but I can only assume that not all of them chatter incessantly as Mobius does.
It took me quite some time to press upon Mobius to be silent before I returned him to the box. I guess that did it because Mobius just hovered there for a moment with his mandible agape before he finally clapped it shut with an audible click.
Soon, we again encountered torches lighting the corridor. I took advantage of every shadow and obstacle as I made my way down the hall. I probably would have been less conspicuous if I did not have this floating skull hovering over me everywhere I went.
Fortunately, we did not encounter anything, not even a giant rat. Eventually, we found a stout wooden door set into the side of the hallway. The door boasted a barred window that usually spoke to the fact it guarded a gaol or dungeon. As quickly as I did with the box containing Mobius, I had the lock on the door picked.
I swung it open slowly and started to creep in when I suddenly stopped.
"Ah, you know Mobius, we need a rear guard here. Do you think you can handle it?" I inquired.
"Not a problem, mate. I'll keep my eyes peeled," again the skull started to laugh. "Get it? Peeled, because my eyes have no lids and are peeled."
"Yeah, I get it," I replied dryly. "Just keep it down so no one can hear you and warn me if you see or hear anything coming this way."
"Right-o. Cheers," Mobius replied as I started down the hall.
I did not have far to go before I came upon a large room lined with cells. The first few cells contained a person stripped down to her undergarments. It was curious that there was no guard on duty. Nonetheless, I crept up to the first cell containing a female orc wearing only a dirty shift.
Thank the Gods for that, because no one should ever see an orc in anything less than a shift. Well, unless it is another orc I suppose.
I peered around the bars and studied the orc for a while. She was sitting on the edge of a wooden cot stuffed with filthy straw. Her mottled green head was in her hands as she grumbled below her breath.
"Psst," I hissed to get her attention. The orc's head shot up and stared at me in surprise.
"By the blood of Uranus!" she exclaimed.
"What?!" I replied in surprise.
"Huh?" she replied in turn, "You do not know of Uranus the god of the sky?"
"Oh," I said, as I finally understood what she said. "Sorry, thought you meant something else.
"I'm here to save you and your party."
The orc ran over to the bars in excitement, "That is wonderful. With my group and yours we should be able to defeat the vampires who have taken up residence down here."
"Excuse me. You said vampires, right?" I asked.
"Yes, they captured us and are going to use us as food. But when we combine our forces we should be able to defeat them handedly," the orc replied with confidence.
"You must have a good group of soldiers to have made it this far," the orc continued. "How large is your party?"
"Ah, I guess you could say two at best."
"What, only two of you. You must have had to battle your way down here and taken many casualties."
"Well, not exactly I came by myself."
"I thought you said there were two of you."
"I said two at best. It is a little hard to explain my companion."
"By Thor's blood how do..."
"I thought you believed in Uranus," I interrupted.
"To orcs -- Uranus is Thor," the orc started to explain.
"Whoa! What was that?" the voice of Mobius exclaimed behind me.
The orc jumped back from the cell's bars with a shriek.
"It's not what you think," I said to both Mobius and the orc at the same time.
I turned to Mobius. "She was explaining her gods to me."
"Oh good!" the skull sighed, "I thought for a minute she said..."
"I know," I replied as I turned back to the orc. "This is Mobius my companion."
"I am Mogutz leader of this doomed party," the orc replied tentatively returning to the bars.
"I am Gwendolyn rescuer of your doomed party," I began when I suddenly turned towards Mobius.
"Why are you here?" I asked.
"Oh yeah. I heard someone walking this way."
"Great!" I cried as I ran down the hall of cells with the skull tucked under my arm. I found a wooden door and quickly picked the lock and secreted myself inside.
It was not too soon; as I heard footsteps enter the room. I peered through the crack I left open in the doorway. I watched a tall-emaciated man walk into the room. His skin was sunken and cadaver gray. I did not have to be a High Elven lore master to know I was looking at a vampire.
"Pardon me," Mobius whispered.
"Shh," I hissed.
"Sorry I was just talking to..."
"If you don't clam up I'll use you as a bowling ball," I whispered harshly.
The vampire addressed the prisoners, "Tomorrow you will be taken into the old city. When the full moon reaches its zenith your blood will be spilled to summon the great lich-mage Zormandus. Then we shall feast upon your life's blood.
"Prepare yourself. You may want to send prayers to your gods."
The vampire then motioned for the servants who were waiting out of my sight to enter the room. They brought in bowls and mugs and dispersed them amongst the prisoners.
After the servants finished their tasks, the vampire ushered his minions out of the dungeon. He turned back towards the prisoners and said, "Enjoy this meal for it shall be your last. The gathering of dark mages, necromancers and the undead has begun."
With that, the vampire left the room. I waited a few minutes before I exited the sanctuary of my closet. I returned to the cell containing Mogutz with Mobius hovering just behind me.
"Looks like you guys stumbled upon something big," I stated.
Mogutz just nodded her head before sniffing at the bowl full of some type of stew.
"Rat stew again," she said.
"There is more here than just merely a conference of every evil baddie," a voice in the cell behind me said.
I walked over and looked at its occupant. He was a High Elf, with the telltale pale skin and the arrogant expression on his face.
"A Wood Elf, eh. Did you get lost?" the elf sneered.
"If I did it is a good thing for you because I'm your only hope of getting out of here," I replied hotly.
"Then we are as good as dead," the High Elf continued.
"Now that is not cricket, old chap," Mobius interrupted. "She's already freed me and she did make her way into this cell."
"Oh, that's rich I'm supposed to take the advice of a symbol off a bottle of poison," the elf shot back.
"Gandelf!!!" Mogutz hollered. "This is not the time for your uppity attitude. If you want we can leave you here."
That seemed to take the wind out Gandelf's sails. He muttered an apology and sat back down on his bunk.
"You mentioned that there is something more going on," I stated.
"Rather!" the elf ejaculated.
"Would you care to share it with us," I prodded. It was obvious Gandelf did not like being in the presence of such common folk as us.
"I am Gandelf. I am an archaeologist, and I have been researching the lost cities of the old elven empire. It was rumored that one of those lost cities lies underneath Imperial City. In fact, we can conclude that it is true. These vampires have excavated it and are now going to use it for their evil purposes.
"The elven ruins that Imperial City is built upon are believed to be Alhassar, the ancient city of lore. When the war between the united elven armies and the combined dwarven clans raged over the millennia, many cities were lost on both sides. So many towns and cities were razed that even we forgot where they were once located. We just had rumors and folktales to recall our ancient glory.
"I may add that if it weren't for the desertion of the lesser elves we very well may have won the war that raged for thousands of years instead of having it end in a stalemate. Even the dwarven High king Efdee Ore was quoted as saying ‘We have nothing to fear but fearless elves.'"
"If I remember right it was the arrogance of the High Elves that forced the Wood Elves to return to the Great Forest, the Dark Elves to their mines, and the Sea Elves to the ocean," I rebutted.
Gandelf just snorted, "In any event, as the two sides retreated to their remaining dwellings the humans over the years built their own cities upon the charred ruins of our old glory. The gods compensated the humans for their short lives by letting them propagate as if they were rabbits.
"So now after all these centuries I believe I have found the lost city of Alhassar only to find that its ancient libraries are about to be used for the dark purpose of opening a gate between our world and that of the Nine Hells."
"But that would utterly destroy our world!" I exclaimed.
"Yes it would mean the end of the world," Gandelf simply replied. "So if you free us we would be the only ones that could stop the destruction of the world."
Mogutz raised her voice, "Will you free us and help us in our quest, Gwendolyn?"
I nodded my assent and quickly picked the locks on the cells. First, I freed Mogutz and then Gandelf. The next cell I found a Northman barbarian named Nanoc. He perked up as I approached his cell.
"You are the Black Arrow," he boomed. "I've seen you in the arena many times."
From the cell across from his, a human female ran to the bars. "The Black Arrow I have heard many tales of you."
I had Nanoc's cell open before the woman finished her sentence. I was walking over to her cell when she studied me up and down.
"Hmm, your pictures made you look, ah...bigger."
"Sorry," I said with a little acid. As I have stated before -- I get this a lot, "I hope you aren't disappointed."
"Oh, not at all," she perked up. "I think I prefer you as you are. You seem more genuine if you understand me."
I smiled at her compliment and had her cell door open in a matter of seconds.
"Oh where are my manners? I am Treena acolyte of the Church of Athena."
I noticed the male members of the party were ogling the young human who was only wearing a thin, practically see-thru shift.
I quickly opened the cell to the remaining party member a small human male named Quint. He was small and was neither a fighter nor mage. He also was not an academia like Gandelf. I reasoned that he fancied himself a thief and took mental note that I would need to keep and eye on him.
With the prisoners freed, I watched as they started to pilfer the closet that I had recently hidden myself. It was apparently where the party's gear had been stored. Mogutz dressed herself and then donned her armor. Clunky plate, I noted no chance of stealth near her. However, what really caught my eye was when she buckled on an old sword. Thick rust covered the ragged blade and a few places sported small holes eaten through the metal. One good hit and the sword would disintegrate in a reddish brown cloud.
Gandelf dressed himself in a robe of a scholar and armed himself with a journal and quill. He did at least carry a small dagger in his belt for protection.
Nanoc did not dress himself except for the fur boots on his feet. It appeared the breechclout he wore was his sole form of clothing and armor. The black broadsword Nanoc armed himself with looked more formidable than the one sported by Morgutz. He slapped it and smiled as he looked at me.
"This is Biter. One of the best swords ever forged," he said proudly. Then a frown broke out upon his face. "Sorry, ‘the' best sword ever forged."
"A little proud," Mobius said in my ear.
"Yeah, barbarians can be that way," I replied.
"No, not him, Biter," replied the skull.
Before I could inquire further, Treena walked into the room. She was wearing a short white tunic with high wrapped sandals and a short sword on her slim waist. Again all the males started to ogle the fair-haired priestess.
"Why doesn't anyone look at me like that?" I heard Mogutz mutter forlornly.
"Probably because most folks aren't into green warty skin covered with coarse black hair," Mobius uttered in my ear. I managed to suppress a chuckle.
The last member to exit the closet was Quint. He wore a tight leather jerkin with matching pants and soft low boots. A dagger was his only visible weapon.
"Okay," I said once everyone was dressed and armed. "What does everyone know about vampires?"
"They suck!" shouted Mobius again breaking into laughter. "Get it? Vampires suck because they suck blood"
"Yeah, I get it," I replied dryly. "Does anyone know how to kill one?"
"Ooh, holy water will do the trick," offered Treena.
"Great!" I exclaimed. "How much do you have?"
"Well, actually none," Treena said sheepishly.
"Okay, how long will it take you to make some?" I inquired.
"I'm just an acolyte. I can't make any."
"Does anybody else have any suggestions?" I grumbled.
"Yes," Nanoc offered, "magic weapons will do the trick."
"How many of you have enchanted weapons?" I asked.
Morgutz and Nanoc raised their hands. I looked hard at Morgutz rusty blade and shook my head in doubt.
"Does anyone else know anything?"
Everyone stared down at his or her feet. Well, everyone looked at down at his or her feet except for Mobius who did not have any feet.
"Alright," I finally conceded. "I was trying to ascertain your knowledge of what we are about to go against. Unfortunately, you don't know much. Fortunately, I do. Fire works wonders against vampires as well as silver.
"So I suggest everyone carry a torch and we should have some silver crowns we could melt down and coat everyone's weapons.
"I also suggest you let Mobius and I reconnoiter in advance before we take off."
Being that the party was going to be loud and bumbling about I planned to keep a great distance between them and myself. I would not even have offered to have Mobius with me if I did not already have a plan.
I rummaged through the closet until I found what I needed.
"What are you going to do with that robe and cloak?" asked Mobius.
"We are going to wear them," I replied.
I looked at Mobius hovering in the air, "You must have done some acting while you were a jester."
"Oh, sure. I did lots of plays, told jokes, sang songs, and told riddles," the skull explained.
"Well, that was more than I needed -- but nice resume."
"Granted most of the plays were parodies and comedies," continued Mobius.
"What exactly did you have in mind?" asked Mogutz interrupting the blathering skull.
"I'm going to see how well Mobius can play at being a lich," I explained.
"Surely you jest," scoffed Gandelf. "It takes more than a floating skull to make an undead mage."
"I always jest and don't call me Shirley," snorted the skull. "However, I can rise to the occasion," Mobius replied before laughing again. "Get it? Because I can levitate."
"Yeah, I get it," I replied dryly.
"First we are going to need some background of Alhassar," I explained. "I'm sure Gandelf has a good idea of what this place used to be."
"Ahem," Gandelf straightened up as if he was about to give a lecture to a class, which was not too far from the mark. "As I have previously stated Alhassar was the ancient city of lore for the old elven empire. A copy of every book, scroll, clay tablet, etc. was stored in the city. Nothing was excluded; even forbidden lore was stored away. Alhassar was considered the crowned jewel in the Elven Empire. Its loss is one of the greatest travesties ever to happen to the world.
"At the zenith of the war, an army of dwarven super-heavy infantry sacked the city. Not a single elf was spared in the onslaught. It is rumored that the dwarves did not entirely destroy the buildings or the lore deposited inside.
"Although dwarves value wealth, gems, and precious metals above all else, they were not completely ignorant of the true wealth they held. Many battles were fought to reclaim the city and all failed.
"Over the centuries the dwarves forgot about Alhassar and the elves were too busy trying to hold onto other cities. These were now under assault and they had no forces to spare on retaking Alhassar. The humans probably saw a mound of rubble and debris, not knowing that underneath it all, a treasure trove of incalculable wealth in knowledge lay where they stood. Thus, they built their new city on the ruins."
With the newfound information given us by Gandelf, Mobius and I came up with a story for the character he was too play. Then we created a plan on how best to deal with the threat about to literally release hell on earth. Trying to reach the surface and rallying the imperial legions would take too long. Therefore, it was upto a skull, and a party of five amateurs and me to save the world.
The party was soon prepared to travel down to the lost city. They wisely decided to let me lead far in advance. I could effectively scout out any danger without alerting the whole evil underworld that there was a party of blundering neophytes wandering in their domain. I would only allow Mobius to accompany me. But, that was with the strict stipulation that he kept his mouth shut.
It proved to be a very smart decision for we had not even left the dungeon when I encountered two of the vampire's servants acting as sentinels. They had no idea as to what was about to befall them in the flickering torch light. I had my bow with an arrow nocked when suddenly Mobius shot down the hall.
"Pardon me," Mobius politely asked the two sentinels. "Have you seen my body?"
The guards stared at each other in stunned amazement for a while. They were probably wondering why a lich was looking for his body or even pondering on how a lich could lose his body.
I did not wait for them to answer Mobius before an arrow was sticking out of each of their skulls. Before the dead sentinels could crumple to the floor, I stomped up to Mobius seething in anger.
"You could have ruined everything!" I yelled.
"Ah, rubbish," Mobius replied. "I only diverted these blokes attention so that you could dispatch them quickly and quietly."
"But..." I caught myself, for he was right. I started to chuckle. "Thanks, and sorry."
"Don't think of it mate," Mobius dimmed one flaming orb in a semblance of a wink.
Before the Mogutz and party reached the door the sentinels were guarding I had searched the bodies. Other than a few coins and pair of dice, the two did not carry anything of note. Even their weapons were not of good quality.
It is odd to think that evil masterminds rarely arm their henchmen with good weapons. I suppose being thrifty and the desire of world domination go hand in hand.
We were soon outside the dungeon and sneaking down the hallway. Well -- I was sneaking -- I cannot exactly say what the rest of the party thought they were doing. Fortunately, as before, I was way ahead of them and leaving little marks upon the wall with a piece of charcoal so that they could follow the correct route.
It was not hard to find the right corridors to follow seeing as how most of the hallways had deep dust covering their floors and one was heavily trafficked. It was also highly unlikely there were any traps. However, I still took precautions. The thief, that forgets that, is not one long for this world.
As I progressed down the tunnel, I started to hear the sounds of many voices in conversation. I slowly advanced far enough to see that the hallway ended at the mouth of an enormous cavern. The vampires, necromancers, et al. had obviously excavated the cavern over many years for it contained many ruined buildings and a large pyramid shaped temple in the center of a square. The denizens had spread torches about illuminating the entire excavation. I was probably the first elf in thousands of years to rest her eyes on Alhassar the lost city of lore.
I was starting to ease a little forward on my belly when Mobius floated in front of me. I had almost forgotten my companion as I sneaked towards the entrance to the cavern. He bobbed up and down and I could tell that he was agitated about something.
"What is it?" I whispered.
"Come quick," he said seriously. The fact that Mobius was serious sent shivers down my spine. "Mogutz and the others are in trouble."
Without further ado, the skull sped back down the corridor. I had no choice but to follow. I can move quickly and quietly, but at the speed Mobius was traveling, it was difficult even for me to be stealthy and keep up with him.
As I pulled even with the skull, Mobius began to explain, "I thought I should go back and see how the others were doing. I knew you could take care of yourself and you wouldn't miss me.
"It was a good thing too. For no sooner had I returned than the party stumbled into a group of hostiles. I think there was at least one vampire in the group."
To emphasize what Mobius had just said, the sounds of combat echoed up the hall to reach my ears. I tossed the robe to the side of the corridor as I ran towards the fight freeing my weapons for combat. In less time than it takes to tell, I had my bow readied.
I turned a corner to see Mogutz and Nanoc wielding their swords against a small group of armed servants. I stopped and watched as the party of adventures was doing well. Treena had positioned herself behind the warriors. This allowed her to cast spells either for the party of adventurers or against the hostiles. Gandelf and Quint stood nearby Treena to help repel anyone who may have gotten past Mogutz and Nanoc.
I was also amazed to see Mogutz's rusty sword lopping off a limb here and there. Apparently, the sword was indeed enchanted. The only physical things I witnessed flying off the blade were sparks when it encountered another sword. In addition, when the blade did cut through the flesh of an opponent, the unfortunate victim would often fall to the ground and begin to experience terrible muscle spasms. Then they would tighten-up with their back arched in the air, fists clenched, and jaw clamped shut until they just expired in this rigid pose.
Nanoc's blade was just as lethal. It too would hack off the limb of one unfortunate enough not to parry an attack. However, it did not seem to have the same effect of incapacitating its victim as Mogutz's sword did.
Standing behind the hostiles was a tall gaunt figure wearing long robes and a staff. There was no doubt in my mind that this must have been a vampire and master to the servants now attacking the party. It took me only a few moments to realize that the vampire was gesturing and prancing about in a furious mood.
Treena must have ensorcelled him with a spell of silence. As long as the spell persisted against the vampire-mage's willpower, the villain could not cast any spells. Even a staff needs a verbal command to function. Unfortunately, with the present combat occupying her attention Treena would not be able to renew her simple spell. It would only be a matter of seconds before the vampire overcame the spell.
Without a second thought, I sent my arrow flying and it found its mark. The projectile embedded itself satisfactory into the staff's shank held by the vampire. As I expected the vampire turned his attention to the new threat, that of course being me. With a wrathful wave of his arm, he overcame the spell restricting him. His eyes glowed with rage as a smirk broke out upon his gray gaunt face.
"Impudence!" he roared, "Did you really think your puny arrow could harm me?"
Now it never has failed to amuse me that no matter how bad the circumstances bad-guys never can withstand the impulse to give speeches in the middle of combat. It must be in the villain's codebook or just standard evil training. Regardless, it was what I was hoping he would do.
"First, I will dispatch you, and then your friends will shortly join you in the Nine Hells," boasted the vampire as he raised his arms. "Inna Godda Davida!"
As the staff flared up to a blinding light, I noticed Mobius out of the corner of my eye duck around me. Just as the skull found refuge behind my back, an immense fireball flew at me. I heard Mobius mutter the words "mommy" in a high-pitched forlorn voice just as the spell hit me. As usual, any offensive spell encountering me while I was wearing my enchanted shield merely evaporated. The only after effects was a slight warmth of air brushing past me.
"How..." the vampire began to ask before I placed one of my magic arrows into his head. The arrow on impact burst into flames and the vampire, like many of the undead went up like a Winter-solstice log. Now, I do not carry many magic arrows, but I have found it wise to carry at least a handful when on a dangerous dungeon crawl. The majority of nasty creatures encountered will be the mundane variety and magic arrows are expensive to waste on such trifles. However, on occasions such as the above a good incendiary arrow can work wonders.
The smell was not pleasant. Now, overcooked flesh whether living or undead is highly offensive to the olfactory senses. Mogutz and party had finished with the last of their opponents by the time I walked over to the smoldering vampire.
I picked up the staff and began to poke around the charred remains of the vampire with the staff's metal butt-cap. Most of the robes and clothing just crumbled to ash as I investigated as best I could with the staff.
"Ghastly business there don't you think?" asked Mobius.
"Yes, but these guys tend to pick up useful things over the course of their undead existence," I replied.
"Exactly how did you stop that fireball?" Mogutz asked as she approached.
I reached over my shoulder and pulled my heavy shield around. "This will protect me from any offensive spell cast against me."
"I noticed your friend the ‘Jolly Roger' did not have much faith in your abilities," Gandelf sneered as he joined Mogutz.
"Hey, I was behind her all the way," Mobius said and then began to laugh. "Get it? Because I was right behind her."
"Yeah, I get it," I replied dryly.
I moved the staff down toward one of the charred vampire's wrists. As the remnants of a robe sleeve crumbled, I noticed a metal band. There were a series of numbers establishing the current time. I knelt down covering my nose and mouth with one gloved hand and reaching out toward the metal object with the other.
"What did you find?" Mogutz asked.
"A Manacle of Time," I said. "These guys have to know exactly when sunrise is or they are utterly powerless."
By now, the rest of the party had joined us around the smoking remains of the vampire. I watched as Quint knelt down and started to shift around in the vampire's waist. I pulled out a dagger and lifted it in the air.
Everyone pulled back with a gasp.
"Whoa, I get it. Your kill!" Quint said as he held up his hands palm out.
However, I was not concerned with Quint's rummaging. I sunk the blade into the vampire's chest and opened a large incision.
"What the..." Gandelf began.
"Eek!" squeaked Treena.
"Hmmm," Nanoc merely grunted.
I pulled out the vampire's shriveled heart. Now as I have recorded in previous publications, part of my being able to reestablish myself with the Mages Guild was that I had to collect ten vampire hearts. Vampire hearts are the key ingredient in many magical potions and powerful components of many strong spells. However, vampire hearts belong to vampires and getting one to give up its heart is dangerous in the extreme to say the least.
I put the dried and shriveled object about the size of an apple in my haversack.
"Aha!" exclaimed Mogutz. "By the blood of Uranus, that may be the most valuable prize here."
I also clasped the thin metal band of the Manacle of Time on my wrist and I stood up. "You can have whatever else there is on the body," I offered Quint.
I turned towards Mobius, "I believe it may be time for us to resume our disguise."
We tidied up the corridor as best we could. There was no way to dispel the sickly sweet smell of incinerated flesh, however most of the blood we mopped up with the servants' robes. We hid the bodies down an unused side tunnel. The party voted that since it was my kill I had to dispose of the cooked vampire. I managed to do it without gagging too much.
Afterwards I recovered my robe. It was big enough to cover my bow, quiver, and shield that were on my back. If anything, my weapons and shield helped make me look more intimidating.
Before we began to travel down the corridor again, I made sure everyone was aware how impressed I was with the party. They worked well as a team and they were able to defeat their enemies with little interference from me. That eased my mind a bit for the mission that we still had to accomplish.
"Mogutz, I am curious about your sword," I said to the orc.
"Yes, this is Tetanus. It looks like worthless trash however one hit will give most opponents lock-jaw instantly."
I made a mental note not to scratch myself on the blade. A thief that is in the throws of tetanus is not much good to anyone.
"That is certainly a valuable weapon you have there," I added.
I then noticed that Nanoc was frowning and whispering something to himself.
"Ah, you may want to say something about Biter," Mobius whispered in my ear.
"Huh?" I said for I did not quite comprehend about what the skull was speaking.
"Biter, Nanoc's sword. It is sentient and can communicate to the barbarian. I just also happen to be able to hear it. It says that it refuses to help out in the future if all the praise goes to a rusty piece of sh..."
"Right. I get it," I interrupted. "Uh, Biter is one of the best..."
"The best," Mobius hissed in my ear.
"Yeah, I mean the best blade I've ever encountered."
Nanoc smiled and nodded his head in my direction.
"That seems to have done the trick," Mobius said.
It was not long before we were again heading down the corridor. Again, I was far enough in the vanguard to move stealthily without the constant clanking and bungling of my companions to give me away. Mobius was my only company and this time I made sure that he was always in sight.
As we approached the entrance to the great cavern that housed the excavated city of Alhassar, I stopped long enough to complete my disguise. I pulled the cloak out of my haversack and tied it snuggly around Mobius. I then ducked my head down as far into the robes as possible after darkening my face with charcoal. Then Mobius took his place above my head. I positioned the cloak's clasp just above my eyes and the cloak itself draped over my shoulders and down my back. I held the staff now blackened by being in the presence of a burning vampire in my right hand.
I took a few breaths to steady my nerves. Being a thief, I am more used to not being notice. For my plan to work we had to be noticed and still be accepted into this evil cabal.
Mobius and I now moved as one down the sloping path into the city. We did not have far to go before a sentry stopped us.
"Halt! Who goes there?" he challenged.
I unconsciously held my breath. We would now see how good an actor Mobius really was.
"I am Ozymandias," Mobius replied in an echoing high-pitched voice.
I almost started to run for I did not immediately recognize Mobius's disguised voice.
"I do not recall your name. What is the purpose of you business?" the guard continued to challenge.
"You do not know of me? I am Ozymandias, lich-lord of the Lost Continent. It matters not. I am here because you are going to raise the mighty Zormandus the lich-mage," Mobius countered.
By now, a group of liches was now gathering around us. There were also a few vampires and necromancers, but they held themselves back. It appeared that the liches were in control here.
"I do not know of you," one of the liches approached.
"I do not know of you," replied Mobius.
"I am Cadwey, lich-mage. I know the legends of the Lost Continent and none mentions an Ozymandias," the lich-mage said with contempt.
"Of course you know all the great lich-lords. I am one of the minor lords and the only survivor of the Lost Continent. I have been slumbering for the day when the gates between the planes would open. That time is now and I am here," Mobius continued undeterred.
"You are unwelcome, and it would be best if you left," Cadwey commanded.
"Bah! Fool!" spat Mobius his high-pitched voice hitting another octave higher. "Even as a minor lich-lord of the Lost Continent I am more powerful that you."
This was not going well. Mobius had really gotten into character ,and I really did not want to have to face an army of undead and dark mages by myself. All I could do was pray that the growing crowd of evil beings did not call his bluff.
"Very well we shall test you. First we will begin with the riddles," Cadwey commanded to all in the cavern. Now everyone that occupied the city of Alhassar gathered around. Fortunately, there were only a hundred or so liches, vampires, necromancers, dark mages and mortal servants. Unfortunately, there was only me, Mobius and a party of five inexperienced adventurers to oppose them.
Cadwey began, "A box without hinges, key, or lid. Yet golden..."
"Egg!" cried Mobius before Cadwey could finish.
"I view the world in a little space," began Mobius. "Am always changing place; No food I eat, but, by my power, procure what millions do devour."
Now, we should note that the game of riddles is an ancient and honored practice of testing each other for those who are of good or evil bent. The rules are simple: best your opponent by posing a riddle he or she cannot answer. There is power in the game of riddles so cheating seldom occurs.
I had to admire Mobius tactics. His choice of riddle was not one the undead were likely to guess very easily. Being of the formerly living and evil, they tended to stay indoors in such forbidding places as say a lost city near a sewer system. If they did go outdoors, it was in the dead of night.
Cadwey stood there thinking. I am sure if Mobius were not already in a permanent grin, he would be after watching the lich-mage ponder his poser.
"A-ha! The sun!" crowed Cadwey victoriously. "That was sneaky I haven't spied the sun in centuries. However, that did not quite do it. Here's another one.
"Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a..."
"Egg!" cried Mobius. "What is it with you and eggs? Did you miss breakfast?"
The exchange went back and forth for some time. Cadwey posed riddles that Mobius easily guessed, mainly because they were about eggs, or other foods. Mobius would rack his brain trying to trip up the lich-mage with something that the undead may have forgotten in the normal world. No matter how good Mobius put a riddle to Cadwey, the lich-mage would eventually find the answer.
It was Mobius's turn and he sat above me in thought for a while. Finally, after a few minutes of intense silence Mobius began to speak lowly.
"You are in a room without door or window. All you have is a mirror and a table. How do you get out?"
"Easy," the lich-mage began.
"You are mortal and cannot use spells," Mobius quickly added.
"Well...I, um...would..."Cadwey began. The lich-mage thought for a few minutes and then he finally bowed his head in defeat.
"Very well, I give. If this is truly a riddle you must supply the answer or you are forfeit," Cadwey said smugly.
"It is easy as you first thought," Mobius stated. "You look in the mirror to see what you saw. Take the saw and cut the table in half. Two halves make a whole. Just climb out the hole."
The crowd murmured and applauded. A good riddle game is always fun to watch. That probably goes double for the undead and their evil companions. I get the feeling they rarely get much in the way of entertainment living in such dank dark abodes.
As the crowd applauded and gave cheer, I managed to whisper to Mobius. "Where did you get that one?"
The skull turned his head down a bit and in a low voice replied, "I read it once on a box of confections. Being dead I am sure they haven't eaten a box of sweets in a long time."
"I concede your triumph in the riddle game," Cadwey finally said as the crowd quieted down.
"I guess you could say I have a head for riddles," Mobius replied. However before he could start laughing, I reached up and grabbed the clasp of the cloak. A quick tug brought Mobius in contact with my own skull. The pain was fleeting, but Mobius got the hint.
"Are you alright?" Cadwey said.
"Oh yeah, ‘tis nothing," Mobius replied.
"Good, the second test will begin," Cadwey said. I am sure he would have smiled if there were any skin left on his own skull. "Now the test of magic shall commence."
This was not good. The only spell I could cast was a few low level healing spells and my dark sight. The staff could only send off fireballs.
"You may begin," Cadwey offered
Mobius began to laugh. I did not find our situation very amusing and I did not think having me send off a fireball at this moment would be very conducive to our survival.
"It is already cast," Mobius boasted in his high-pitched echoing voice.
"I did not notice anything," Cadwey noted. "Is your spell the ability to make me believe you are a powerful mage? If it is it has already failed." The crowd surrounding us broke into laughter.
"You!" Mobius nodded his head to a particular necromancer with a staff. "Does that staff serve a purpose other than keeping you upright?"
"Aye, lord Ozymandias," the mage replied with respect. "It doth shoot lightning of the highest degree. None can survive its impact."
"I can and I will," boasted the skull. I now saw where Mobius headed and I took and appropriate stance as if to ward off the imminent lightning attack.
The necromancer's staff started to crackle as the mage summoned its power. The smell of ozone permeated the air just a second before a loud thunderclap filled the chamber. A bolt of white-hot electricity flew at us and as with all hostile magic aimed at me while I wore my shield; it just fizzled away to nothing.
The crowd stood there stunned in silence. Mobius broke into a haughty laugh before he replied, "You can see that I am impervious to your spells. Do any of you now doubt my powers?"
The crowd moved back a bit in awe. Not a word escaped from anyone. Finally, Cadwey bowed his head in defeat.
"You have won the test of magic," the lich said respectfully. "We welcome you lich-lord Ozymandias from the Lost Continent."
Mobius and I were about to walk off when Cadwey forestalled us by grabbing my sleeve. "My lord what will you do now?"
Mobius laughed mightily before replying, "I shall commit 'chronocide' by heading toward the library."
"Pardon my lord," Cadwey said in a puzzled voice. "I am not familiar with that."
"I just said I was going to 'kill time'," Mobius laughed again. "Get it chronocide..."
I again jerked the cloak bringing our two craniums in contact. Mobius again remembered himself and merely cleared his throat in a manner of speaking.
"Are you well, my lord?" Cadwey asked.
"'tis nothing," Mobius responded before I marched us off.
A few discreet inquiries brought us to a partially destroyed library. Inside oil lamps lined the wall and on tables and shelves, books and scrolls lay in disarray. We had the ancient library to ourselves for the moment.
"What are we looking for?" Mobius asked in a hushed tone.
"Look for any books about opening gates to other worlds or anything doing with resurrecting long dead lich-mages. You know all that evil sort of stuff," I whispered back.
I kept a hand on the clasp of the cloak as we searched through the material laying about the building. I did not want Mobius to be flying about while I, his body, was somewhere else. It would be somewhat hard to explain how a lich could be in two places at once.
"I think I found something," Mobius said. "There the title of the book in front of us. Escaping the Traps of the Lower Nine Hells."
I looked at the book and corrected Mobius, "The title is Escaping the Traps of the Lower Nine Holes. It is obviously a book about a golf resort in the Northlands."
"Hmmm, golf. I never heard of it," Mobius continued in a bemused voice.
"Yeah, it's an ancient Northman game. They don't have much except sticks, rocks, and gopher holes. So they made a game using all three," I explained as I continued my search.
"Aha!" I exclaimed in a low voice. "This is it." I lifted up a book with the title Planar and Planar. A quick search through the pages confirmed my suspicions.
"I've got to get this book to Gandelf," I said.
"Uh, don't you mean 'we'?" Mobius asked.
"No, you are going to stay here with a body double," I explained. "I also will need to gather some things for our friends."
"But...but...but, what am I supposed to do if someone needs me?" Mobius continued.
In a manner of minutes, I had the robe and cloak off, and stuffed so that Mobius had the semblance of studying a book. It would have helped immensely if there happened to be a skeleton around. Unfortunately, it appears that the dwarves had thoroughly cleaned Alhassar after they sacked it. I ended up using whatever I could scrounge up like dirt, wood, fabric, and paper. An old pair of boots and gloves finished the appearance. I then grabbed a few lanterns and some flasks of oil and secured them in a tattered tapestry I found on the wall. A quick glance at my Manacle of Time showed me that I still had an hour before sunrise.
Thankfully, the deep shadows that permeated the cavern assisted my departure from the ruined city. I easily made my way past the sentries guarding the cavern's entrance and quietly and quickly made my way down the corridor. I located Mogutz and party concealed in a side tunnel not too far away.
"Here," I whispered to Mogutz as I handed her the lanterns and oil flasks. "This should help us out." I then gave Gandelf the book I found in the library. He quickly began to study it.
"How much time do we have?" the orc inquired.
A quick glance at my Manacle of Time revealed the answer to me, "In half an hour the sun will rise, that should send the vampires beddy-bye."
"What good is that?" moaned Gandelf in his usual high-and-mighty manner as he closed the book. "Sunrise and sunset don't mean much down here."
"Look," I lectured, it was now my time to teach. "Vampires are helpless while the sun is up no matter how deep underground they are. Liches do not sleep and there will still be dark mages and necromancers. But at least we will have cut the odds down against us."
"Hmmm," Nanoc nodded in approval. He unsheathed Biter and looked at the dark blade. "We should like to hack us some evil."
"Athena, goddess of strategy and battle is smiling upon you, Gwendolyn. Your plan is sound and the forces of light will prevail over the darkness," Treena added confidently. If only I was as sure as she sounded. Nonetheless, I did not betray my own doubts. It was bad enough Gandelf was being a downer.
Quint only smiled with a glimmer in his eye before he muttered in low voice that only my keen hearing picked up. "There should be lots of valuable loot in there."
"Alright, I am heading back now," I said to the amateur group. "Wait for the signal and stick to the plan. Our best hope is too cause as much chaos as possible."
Mogutz grasped my forearm in hers as she gave her parting blessing, "May Uranus blow your enemies away."
It took a fraction of second to remember the name of her god. "Oh yeah, right," I replied.
I made my way back to Alhassar without any difficulty. With any luck, Mogutz had her party already in position and awaiting my signal. I was at the base of the pyramid temple when looked at my Manacle of Time. Twenty minutes, plenty of time I assured myself.
No sooner had I registered that thought than a loud gong sounded above the temple. I looked up and noted Cadwey standing at the pyramid's flattened apex. Next to him and bound between two stout iron poles a small stout figure struggled.
"Friends of Darkness," boomed the steady voice of Cadwey. "When the sun sets this day we shall raise the remains of the great lich-mage Zormandus."
I noticed that a large group of the evil residences of Alhassar was beginning to gather around the base of the pyramid. I quickly concealed myself in a broken-down structure. Through a large hole in the wall, I could see Cadwey above me. I also could see the growing crowd gathering at the base of the temple.
"Before the sun rises I will offer a small sacrifice. Brothers of the nosferatu, please part-take in this feast to sate your appetite until the setting of the sun."
I watched in horror as this unforeseen turn of events unfolded before me. A quick glance at the Manacle of Time told me I had fifteen minutes before the sun rose and that poor victim above me did not have that long to live. Several forms were making their way up the pyramid now. Obviously, they were the vampires in anticipation of their feast.
I looked up and saw Cadwey holding an evil looking knife in his skeletal hand poised over the struggling victim. I had only seconds to act so I did the only thing I could. In less time that it takes to explain it, I had an incendiary arrow arcing up toward the unsuspecting lich.
As the ash shaft embedded itself into one of the lich's ribs, the incendiary spell literally exploded into being. This set off several frenzied events at once. First, Cadwey fell backwards in a flaming heap over the side of the pyramid granting his victim a short reprieve from death. Second, the vampires upon the pyramid began to look around them frantically for the one who had torched their leader. Third and forth, the dark mages summoned demons from the netherworld and the necromancers called to life the long dead residence of Alhassar. The fifth, final, and probably the best thing to happen, was that the only entrance out of Alhassar suddenly became engulf in high rising flames.
This latter event brought me some peace of mind. This indicated that Mogutz and her party were already prepared and when the incendiary arrow exploded, they noticed my signal. Their job had been to block the exit out of Alhassar with a bonfire fed by all the debris they could find. The oil from the lamps and flasks greatly assisted this. I now only hoped that they could keep the fires blazing.
The blazing obstruction blocking the egress and entrance to the cavern only slightly eased my mind. This was only part of the plan, and it came about prematurely because of the incendiary arrow I used against the lich. I was, by no means, where I would have liked to be. Further, I am sure the victim above me staked helplessly between two iron poles would have loved to be anywhere else.
I hid the best I could in the tumbled-down structure as liches began to cast their evil spells, newly raised skeletons of elves and dwarves ran around menacing with rusty swords, axes, and hammers, and demons from the various Nine Hells rampaged through Alhassar.
I heard the great cacophony of battle begin. I mildly cursed myself. Battle could only be ensuing if Mogutz had foolishly tried to battle her way into the ruined city. This was not part of the plan, and it was fool hardy.
I raised my head over the edge of the gaping hole in the wall anticipating watching in horror as the evil cabal annihilated Mogutz and party. To my amazement, this is not what I saw. Instead, I noticed that the summoned minions were battling each other as well as other liches, mages, vampires, and necromancers. It was a frenzied and confusing barroom brawl!
Lightning and fireballs exploded everywhere. Bone fragments flew in the air as well as parts belonging to netherworld beings. The noise and smell of combat echoed throughout the cavern. I am sure that not even during the height of the elven-dwarven wars did Alhassar witness such a battle.
The explanation was simple once I thought it through and that was not until much later. For now, I just huddled in my ruined dwelling praying that in the ongoing battle that a passing fireball would not obliterate my sanctuary. In any account, none in the evil cabal realized that they all tended to work alone, or only with others of their own kind. Therefore, when they summoned their evil managerie from the dead and the Nine Hells the unthinking minions naturally attacked anyone who did not participate in summoning them.
For the moment, I witnessed a brutal and relentless combat. Outside my window, I watched as an army of stout dwarven skeletons attacked and overwhelmed a demon lord. The demon lord swung his mighty and unearthly blade and cleaved skull from neck and arms from shoulders. However the undead where too numerous and even their rusted weapons inflicted enough damage that the demon puffed into a ball of smoke as it returned to the netherworld.
I saw a vampire cast spell after spell into an on rushing stone demon. The rock giant only staggered slightly as the lightning spell collided with its mineral body. When it came into arms reach of the vampire, it grabbed the undead bloodsucker in a lethal embrace. Though technically undead, even a vampire that has been smashed into jelly does not pose much of a threat to anyone.
I learned later that Mogutz and her party were busy at their end as well. Not only did they have to tend the huge inferno but any creature that tried to escape that way had to be dealt with. Fortunately, they were few and after they passed through the fire they were pretty much dead already.
The entire cavern shook and dirt fell from the shaking ceiling and dust swirled in the air. Even my small hiding place threatened to topple down upon me. However, I could only watch in morbid fascination as the armies of the evil cabal fought amongst themselves.
The battle began to take on a more serious tone when a few necromancers started summoning more powerful undead to avenge the death of one of their members to a mistakenly fired lightning bolt from a lich mage. Now the battle became personal as groups were deliberately fighting amongst themselves.
There is the saying of "honor amongst thieves" which is highly inaccurate. However, I think the saying should be "honor amongst evil". Evil beings tend not to trust anyone, especially other evil beings.
The battle had hardly started to heat up when the vampires, a numerous faction itself began to run for cover. Many did not make it, as the battle was too widespread and furious. I almost felt pity for the undead as they suddenly slumped down to the ground utterly powerless with the rising sun above the earth. The mortal servants of the vampires tried to do their best to help their evil masters. But, they were only mortal without much skill in arms or magic and easily fell victim to the chaos around them.
The furious battle seemed to last for an eternity. It had been only an hour after the commencement of hostilities when the battle started to die down. Everyone had expended their magical spells and those few still itching for a fight picked up one of the numerous weapons upon the ground and started hacking at each other.
There could only be a score of combatants left in any fighting condition by now. I gave a big yell as I exited the stone ruin from which I had taken refuge. I quickly crossed swords with a dark mage. It was easy pickings for mages do not tend to study melee combat much. The remaining evil members of the dark cabal all stopped their fighting with each other and looked towards me in wonderment. They must have thought this was some avenging elven spirit from the ruins of Alhassar coming to kill them all.
I did not wait for them to collect their senses before I rushed into their midst. I easily hacked into them. Their feeble and exhausted attempts to attack me were easily parried. I noticed a few survivors who had hidden themselves during the chaotic main battle now began to join the new combat. A few remaining spells were sent my way. All the good it did them. My shield merely consumed the magic.
I blocked, parried, swirled, jumped, slashed, and stabbed as I danced amongst the couple of dozen evil combatants. Though I had an easy time killing my opponents I knew that I could not keep up this level of attack forever. Even I, the champion of the arena, have limits to my endurance. Plus, many a novice can sneak in a lucky shot to take out the best of masters.
Soon another yell punctuated the melee in the cavern and a few of my opponents turned to meet the new threat. It was Mogutz and Nanoc leading the way with Treena, Quint and Gandelf rushing close behind. The bonfire that blocked the entrance to the cavern had burned itself low enough to allow the party to pass without damage.
"By the blood of Uranus!" Mogutz hollered a challenge our foes.
Many of the cabal stopped fighting in order to try to figure out what kind of threat that exactly was. It was too bad for them because that pause cost many their lives. The next ten minutes saw a heated exchange of combat and though we were out numbered three to one, we soon had the entire cabal of evil dispatched with nothing more than some minor cuts on our side.
Silence suddenly descended upon the cavern. It was almost as deafening as the combat had been. Only the crackling of the torches and the small-scattered fires left from the intense combat disturbed the quiet.
"We are going to have to make sure there aren't any survivors," Mogutz finally said while she searched the bodies of our fallen opponents.
I nodded my head in agreement. I had to take a breather, even though the battle was short in duration it was very intense. In the arena, I only had to deal with at the most three well-trained adversaries. Here, I had at one time been trying to attack over twenty. Alhough they were not very proficient with melee weapons, their sheer numbers kept me busy.
I moved away from the party and began my own search. I was looking for vampires. I still needed nine more hearts to collect. Most were dead just lying on the ground broken, burned, or just plainly smashed in vampire goo. However, I did encounter a few who just feebly stared up at me completely powerless to resist my attacks. With the rising of the sun, the undead bloodsuckers lost all their dark powers. Therefore, I just hacked off a head and then proceeded to gather my grisly trophies.
I had been in the process of collecting my hearts (as well as pocketing any money or valuables I noticed, I am sure the vampires would not mind) when I thought I heard something. I stopped and cocked my ear, listening intently.
Yes, there it was the sound of someone crying out for help. I looked around for the faint cry that echoed off the cavern's wall and ceilings. Finally, I was able to locate the source of the noise. It was the poor victim on top of the pyramid temple!
In the excitement, I had completely forgotten about the person shackled to the iron poles. I was frankly surprised to hear the voice. It was no small miracle that the victim was able to survive the intense battle that raged around the cavern.
I wasted no time in making my way up the steps of the pyramids. I had to be careful because there were some areas where the bodies of the fallen sprawled over the steps in grotesque angles. This, added to the pools of slippery blood and gore made the ascent quite treacherous.
I finally reached the plateau at the apex of the temple and saw the short stocky victim viciously struggling with his bonds. At first glance, I thought it was a dwarf. However, as I neared the victim, I realized it was in fact a gnome.
Now gnomes are like distant cousins to dwarves. They are not as broad as the dwarf is nor are they as tall. They also do not tend to have as full beards as the dwarves do, though they make up for the lack of hearty facial hair with long pronounced noses. In addition, they are also very adept at making intricate objects and many are in fact inventors. They also tend to live above the earth and dwell in workshops.
"Hail," I shouted to the struggling gnome.
"Get these blasted things off me!" the small creature cried as he swung back and forth between his outstretched arms.
"Not a problem," I replied as I quickly picked the locks to his steel manacles.
Once I had his hands free, the gnome sat upon the ground rubbing his raw wrists. I sat down next to him and stretched my hand to him.
"I am Gwendolyn."
"I am master Aly Eska," the gnome said as he tentatively gripped my hand. "I suppose I owe you and your party my life."
"Well," I said a little modestly, "I did send that lich over the edge with my arrow."
"That was an arrow?" the gnome looked at me in surprise. "I was sure it was a spell. Where did you shoot it from?"
I pointed down to the tumbled-down ruin of the building I had taken refuge in at the base of the pyramid. The gnome shook his head in wonder. "Only a Wood Elf could make that shot. Now if I had my latest invention I could have done the same...
"Hey! Whatever happened to that lich you shot?" Aly asked interrupting himself.
"Well, after he burst into flames he fell over the side there," I pointed towards the back of the pyramid.
As we both turned in the direction I indicated, the two of us sucked in a breath of surprise in unison as we watched the skeletal head of the lich begin to ascend over the edge.
"Get behind me," I ordered as I jumped to my feet with an arrow instantly nocked in my bow.
"Hold your fire!" the skull screamed. I then looked closer and noticed the glowing red orbs of Mobius. I had totally forgotten that I had left him alone in the library! I lowered my bow and replaced the arrow into the quiver on my back.
"Why did the wizard enter the employee break room naked?" the skull queried. "Because the door said 'Staff Only'." Mobius began to laugh, "Get it? Staff only. So he couldn't take in the clothes."
"Yeah, I get it," I replied dryly.
"Looks like we really wiped this community out," Mobius said seriously, as he floated around the pyramid.
"Did you happen to see any survivors?" I asked.
"No, though I did escape a minor skirmish in the library by the skin of my teeth," Mobius began to laugh. "Get it? Skin of my teeth."
"Yeah, I get it," I replied dryly.
I then turned to Aly who was still quivering behind me. "Don't worry," I assured the gnome. "This is just Mobius, he's a friend."
Mobius dipped his floating skull in friendship.
Aly still had a hard time regaining his tongue so I made his introduction. "This is gnome Aly Eska."
"So whatever happened to that chap, Cadwey?" Mobius asked turning away from the gnome.
"I sent him over the side there on fire," I again indicated the back of the pyramid.
"Really?" probed Mobius. "Because I did not see any remains down there."
"Great," I growled. "We have a deadly lich on the loose."
I put my fingers to my lips and whistled shrilly across the cavern. The party of adventures below us looked up and noticed me waving them to join us on the pyramid. I watched as Mogutz gathered her party together. She did have to do some extra prodding with Quint. The novice thief was too busy looting the corpses to pay heed to my whistle.
Within five minutes, the entire group of adventurers assembled on top of the pyramid. Mogutz was making her way towards me while I watched Nanoc repeatedly tug on his sword as if it was wedged in the sheath.
"Come on," the barbarian moaned, "I just said the blade look to be of good quality."
I did not have time to inquire what was going on when Mogutz asked, "What is the problem?"
"We need to search this city for any remaining bad guys," I stated.
"Should we divide up?" Treena asked her brow wrinkled in concern.
"No, we need to stick together," I cautioned. "There may be a lich still at large and we will probably need every one of us to bring him down."
First, we scoured the base of the pyramid. Other than a burned cloak, there were no signs of Cadwey. I studied the ground looking for any spoor I could use to track him. Unfortunately, most liches prefer to hover when they can. Nonetheless, we continued our search around Alhassar.
I observed the party as we made our way over and through the debris and ruins of the dead city. I was not too surprised to see that many of the new adventurers would stumble now and again as they crossed the rough terrain. I was surprised however to see that Quint was having a particularly hard time of it. The small man constantly stumbled and would have to grab on to someone in order to check his fall.
I made my way up to Quint in order to be of service if he indeed needed it. I already knew what his game was and I suspected he would not mind me being near him. Sure enough, the poor clumsy oaf stepped upon some loose scrabble and swung his arms around me in support.
"Sorry," Quint mumbled. "I can't seem to get my balance."
"Well, it looks like we should be on some flat ground here soon enough," I consoled him.
I suppressed a laugh. I know there are many thieves out there who do not belong to the Guild and therefore do not follow any of its rules. Therefore, a long time ago I started carrying a large visible pouch containing a small heavy bag inside. If one were to lift it, it would have the heft of being full of gems. If one were to shake it, it would clink with the sound of coin.
In all actuality, it just contains some small river stones and a few steel discs. Plus, a note suggesting maybe it would be wise to join the Guild instead of robbing it. In this case, however, I used Quint's trick against him. As he relieved me of my bag of rocks and discs, I removed his pouch of ill-gotten goods.
I did my best in the search to return to everyone what was taken without their being the wiser. In some cases, I had to make a good guess because I did not know exactly who found the large red ruby and who had the onyx statuette. In addition, I had to distribute everything Quint found as a form of punishment. Of course, I kept a percentage to pay for the lesson I just imparted. I also made sure to keep and eye on Quint in case he wanted to continue his larceny.
We had been searching for hours before we found the ancient crypt that the vampires had made their lair. Fortunately, the sun was at its zenith in the sky so the poor undead were utterly helpless as we helped them move on to the netherworld. Unfortunately, we still did not find any signs of Cadwey.
After dispatching the last of the vampires, we made our way out of the crypt and began the search of Alhassar again. We soon had to light up our lamps and torches as the fires burning around the city were starting to die off. Not to mention that the torches the cabal scattered about had consumed themselves long ago.
We did not have much left to search anyway, just a last circuit to the ruined library where Mobius and I had parted ways earlier. We were surprised as we started up the cracked and broken stone steps of the library to see a small group of necromancers exiting the building. They quickly began to summon the undead.
Skeletons of the elves and dwarves of Alhassar began to rise from the ground. Not to mention that now there were a few fresh new zombies. They were supplied courtesy of the battle earlier in the day. The party quickly readied themselves for battle, except for Nanoc who still had a hard time removing his sword from his sheath.
"Come on!" growled the barbarian. "This is no time for your bruised ego!"
Mobius floated over to the barbarian who was yanking on his stuck blade.
"I say old chap," the skull began speaking to the sword, "if you don't behave, you will find yourself in the hands of a more ghastly master."
Once Mobius said that, Nanoc pulled Biter out of his sheath. Once freed, the blade released a crack of blue lightning that resounded throughout the cavern. The skull certainly did know how to motivate the blade.
The party of adventurers flung themselves into the fray. Skeletal and undead mages were no match for this band of adventurers. I almost stood back and let them handle it all. In fact, I was quite proud to see how far Mogutz and her party had come along in the last few hours.
"Once more into the breeches, dear friends, once more!" quoted Mobius.
I too flung myself headlong into the fight. As I passed the skull, I yelled over my shoulder, "I believe it is 'unto the breach'."
"I told you I did mostly parodies and comedies," Mobius countered. The skull did not have any weapons so he would knock heads with the necromancers interrupting any further spells they would try to conjure.
I soon made my way past the undead and concentrated on the necromancers themselves. As each one fell before my blade, the group of undead that that particular necromancer summoned would crumple to the earth devoid of further animation. It was not long before Mogutz and Nanoc were at my side cutting down the last of the necromancers.
The fight could not have lasted more than ten furious minutes before the last of the necromancers fell to our weapons. I searched around us as Mogutz and Nanoc caught their breath. For the most part everyone appeared to have weathered the combat in one piece. Treena would cast a heal spell here and there for the few minor cuts that the party received.
"Good job!" I crowed. "Good job. I'm proud of you."
"Thanks," Mogutz replied. "That looks like it was their last stand."
Mobius floated over. "I didn't do too bad myself seeing as how I don't have any arms and therefore no arms." The skull began to laughed, "Get it? No arms and therefore no arms as in weapons."
"Yeah, I get it," I replied dryly.
"Well, if everyone is done with this self-appreciation society. I think we should secure this building," Gandelf ordered.
Now some of you more astute readers may be wondering how killing more mages who may be possible members of the Mages Guild was going to help me reconcile myself with the guild. Well the answer is rather quite simple. Firstly, even in the Mages Guild necromancy is illegal. Secondly, to be a member of the guild you have to be alive and that leaves out liches and vampires. Finally, having been suspended, I was technically no longer a member of the Mages Guild. However, I suppose that last argument is splitting hairs. Nonetheless, the mere fact the dark mages were working with necromancers makes them fair game.
After searching the library, we did not encounter any more members of the dark cabal. Gandelf, upon seeing the ancient texts and scrolls, immediately set a lit lamp upon the table and began to search through the material. He looked like cat in an aviary. He could not determine where to begin. I suggested that he should make sure we had stopped the gate between the worlds from opening.
The rest of the party did one more search of Alhassar. But, we could not find any trace of Cadwey. We did stumble upon the cache of equipment and goods that belonged to the previous victims of the cabal. Amongst them Aly was reunited with his goods, including a strange device he called a 'rifle'. It looked like it was a crossbow with a steel tube attached.
He demonstrated his invention to us. Once the thunderclap stopped resounding off the cavern's walls and the foul smelling acrid smoke cleared, we could see that he had indeed put a hole in his intended target. I do not think this weapon will be very practical to a thief. It draws too much attention to whoever fires it. I can appreciate its military significance. Fortunately, gnomes take decades perfecting their inventions, and I do not think we will see them in large numbers anytime soon.
The party spent one more night in Alhassar before we made our way topside. It was during this night Quint noticed his loss of goods. I walked over to the novice thief and told him I could recommend him to the guild. At first, he pretended not to know about what I was speaking. At least that was until I produced the dagger I had pick-pocketed from him. His eyes gleamed and he whispered, "I didn't think thieves were supposed to rob from fellow thieves."
"We don't rob from fellow members. I think it would be best if you joined just so we don't get the rest of your stuff," I returned softly.
With that, Quint smiled and nodded his head. Then a great laughter racked his small frame. Everyone looked over to us wondering what was going on.
"I'll have to make sure I get that joke you told," Mobius said.
Everyone was surprised to see us as we exited the sewers. At first people held their noses in disgust from the rancid smell until they realized that the lost party of adventurers had returned. Imperial City was all abuzz with tales of Mogutz and her party of adventurers. I guess it put many at ease to know that the earthquake they experienced the day before was the final battle with the evil cabal under their feet.
The Emperor rewarded Mogutz and her party handsomely. I too received my reward for finding the lost party and for helping bring down the greatest evil threat in Imperial City history. However, neither reward was as handsome when compared to the value of the treasures we collected while down in Alhassar.
Mogutz, Nanoc, Treena, Quint, and Gandelf all became instant celebrities. I was already the famous "Black Arrow" so I am not certain if my fame increased. Though I am certain that our adventures did not hurt my publicity any. Just another chapter to add to my mystique I suppose.
Poor Mobius had a hard time at first winning over the public. Most people do not naturally associate with talking skulls. He even, for a while, tried to find a mage to reverse the spell upon him. Unfortunately, it was one of those cases where only the mage who ensorcelled him could remove the spell. We discovered that the mage had died centuries before. Poor Mobius had been in that iron bound box for three hundred years!
Well, Mobius being who he is did not let this get him down. Soon he began by telling the tale of our adventures in the lost city of Alhassar to small groups. To trump up bigger crowds Mogutz and party would gather to reenact the battles beneath Imperial City. I would bring Mobius to the Imperial Arena and use my influence to get him inside as the opening act before the fights. All the while, I had taken the skull in to live with me until he could establish himself.
Soon Mobius had established himself and it was not long before people were gathering near and far to see the great 'Skull Jester'. Mobius could tell many a tale and many people even found his old and stale jokes amusing.
We did not find out what happened to Cadwey. Somehow or other the lich escaped the great battle in Alhassar. Fortunately, Gandelf confirmed that the rising of Zormandus and the subsequent opening of the gate between our plane and that of the Nine Hells could not happen for another two thousand years until the stars were in conjunction again.
Over the next few months, the Emperor established a committee to study Alhassar and Gandelf became the leading researcher in excavating the lost city. The High Elf could not have been happier.
Mogutz and Nanoc established themselves with the Fighters Guild. Quint accepted my offer and became a member of the Theives Guild. Treena returned to the Temple of Athena where as a reward for her duties the high priest proclaimed her a novice priestess. Aly Eska returned to his gnomish workshop to perfect his invention and Mobius decided to take his one skull act on the road.
Mobius and I were the last to part. The skull's goodbye was a little emotional for during our adventure, and later as housemates, we had formed a bond with each other. Not many people have talking skulls as friends.
"Well, I guess I better head out," Mobius said as he prepared to leave. Then he began to laugh, "Get it? Head out because all I have is a head. Ooh, that makes me a headliner! Get it? Headliner."
"Yeah, I get it," I replied laughing holding back the tears.