Towards the end of winter, in the Village of Voisson, Nignog, Knight of GeBong, takes up his grandfather's sword, his grandfather's armor, and his grandfather's shield. He leaves the village at dawn a week after his twenty-first birthday. He walks north to the Bridge of Fallen Trees. He crosses the River Boome and enters into the Hills of Doom. On the far side of the bridge is a broad path through the trees. Nignog follows his grandfather's directions along the path to the east. He walks alone through the quiet forest for two hours. He comes to a bridge made of wood and iron. The bridge crosses the River of Fire, and to the north, Nignog sees the Black Tower. He crosses the bridge. Here the broad path goes north and south along the bank of the river. Nignog turns right to go south, away from the Black Tower. After an hour, he sees the Giant Willow where Ogre Brook joins the River of Fire. He turns left to go east up the brook, and walks for another two hours, following a narrow trail beside the brook, until the trail ends at a set of large double-doors in the face of a hill.
Nignog knows he has to get back home by dark. He cannot stand and wonder about what to do. His grandfather told him there would be treasure behind the doors, guarded by an ogre, and Nignog should try to bring some of it back, because that is the way adventurers earn money. "Monsters steal from the poor and we steal it back," he said. "Think of it that way until you're older and wiser, and then we can talk about it again."
"Should we give the money to the poor after bringing it back?"
"Can't do that, son," his grandfather said, "The monsters eat the poor as well as stealing all their treasure. That's why you should kill the monster while you're taking back the loot, if you can. But if you have to choose between taking the loot and killing the monster, take the loot."
He pushes upon the doors. they are barred from the inside. He climbs up the slope and finds a chimney hidden in a tree stump. He listens at the chimney. There is warm air from a fire coming out, and deep, slow snoring. He returns to the door and lifts the bar on the inside by pushing his sword through the gap between the doors. He enters a broad cave with dird and wood ceilings and walls. He creeps past a side door. The snoring is coming from that door. There is a second double-door before him. With the snoring behind him, he lifts the bar from the second door. He drops the bar. The snoring stops. The sleeping monster wakes up and comes out. It is an ogre. It growls. Nignog runs away. The ogre gives him a knock as he goes by, but Nignog keeps going running. It took him five hours to get to the cave, but it takes him only three to get home.
Ping-Pong, Wizard of Noc returns to the village. She knew Nignog when Nignog was young. She is 23, he is only 17. With her, tagging along behind, is the strange boy called Zar son of Zarquon. He is a Wizard of Noc also, but he's only 16, very young for a wizard. He does not talk much about his family. Maybe he does not have one.
Ping-Pong and Nignog set off for the ogre lair. Zar follows them. They reach the lair. They try to lift the bar on the other side of the door, but Nignog's sword breaks in the effort. They try again with Nignog's broken sword and Zar's crowbar. The bar comes off with a bang. Ping-Pong opens one of the doors. They run back from the door and hide. The ogre comes out. He looks around. He does not see them. He closes the door and puts the bar back in place.
Ping-Pong and Nignog look around. Zar follows them. They find a blood-soaked handkerchief near the chimney. They find the ogre's toilet near the stream. They look around some more. It's getting late. They head for home. They try to take a short-cut to the river, going near The Black Tower, but they are attacked by dozens of large rocks thrown from the top of a gully they are walking along, and retreat. As they near the bridge of fallen logs, it is dark, and they are using luminous stones to find their way. They attract a will-o-wisp. They climb a tree, thinking to escape, but it finds them and looks at them. If flashes. If hovers around. They climb down. The will-o-wisp shows them the way to the fallen-tree bridge. It turns out that they were lost.
Nignog returns the broken halves of his grandfather's sword.
"Don't go to The Black Tower," grampa says. "You'll die."
He won't tell them what's in there.
Come back a couple of weeks later, when they have gathered enough money to buy Nignog a new sword. There's a good fire burning beneath the chimney. They lift the bar on the doors quietly. They sneak past the ogre's door. They open the door to the Big Cavern. They enter. They explore. They are attacked by giant spiders. Ping-Pong scares them all off with a Flash spell. But after a while, they come back. Ping-Pong is bitten and can hardly move. The ogre hears the fighting. He looks into the cavern. He laughs. He closes the door and bars it from the other side.
Nignog and Zar prop Ping-Pong next to the door and fight twenty-five spiders. Nignog's armor protects him from their bites. Zar is bitten and collapses. After several minutes of non-stop fighting, Nignog squashes the last spider. He stands panting.
Zar casts his Circle spell.
The ogre opens the door. Zar casts Flash on the ogre. Nignog attacks the ogre and gives him a good blow. But the ogre swings his club around at Nignog and the ogre is so strong and the club so heavy, that Nignog cannot stand against him. Nignog runs off to the front doors, hoping the ogre will believe he is running away. The ogre must think so, because he leans down and picks up Zar. His fingers meet the Circle and there's a hiss and flash of light, but that just makes the ogre mad. He throws Zar over his shoulder. Zar can hardly move.
Nignog returns and attacks the ogre from behind. The ogre is real mad now, and fights with Zar on his shoulder. Zar raises his circle with all the strength he has, and brings it down on the ogre's head. The ogre's head turns into black powder, a cloud of steam, and some smelly gas. The ogre drops Zar and his headless body falls with a thud on the ground. Blood pours from his neck.
Nignog drags his companions into the ogre's room and gets the fire going. He pours the human bone soup into the big cavern. He bars the doors to the cavern and outside. They spend the night in the ogre's room. In the morning, Ping-Pong and Zar are feeling better. They search the ogre's room and find armor, two silver cups, weapons, some gold, and a thunder-egg. There are spices also, and smoked human body parts, ready to eat.
They carry all the loot home and celebrate. Their families are greatly relieved to see them.
Ping-Pong meets Donk the Strong, a soldier of great strength but very little brain. He is sitting by the old, collapsed iron bridge near the village crying about his lost brother. He has a map that shows where his brother went with two other guys in search of adventure. There is a hill five hundred meters east on the other side of the bridge. Ping-Pong gets a compass and takes Donk over the fallen-tree bridge and back to the other side of the collapsed iron bridge. They follow an old path through the forest to a small hill.
There is a lizard-like humanoid the size of a ten-year-old child in a bush asleep on the top next to a circular trap door. Ping-Pong decides the creature must be a kobold, although she has never seen one before. Donk agrees.
They approach the kobold. He does not wake up. There is an empty wine amphora next to him. Ping does not want to kill the kobold or bonk him on the head because, "He might be good." She wakes him up. Well, he gets right up and blows his horn. He lifts the trap door, jumps down the hole underneath and pulls the trap-door over again.
Ping-Pong and Donk wait and see what happens next. After a few minutes, Donk sees kobolds all around them. They are surrounded. Eleven kobolds start firing at them from twenty meters away. Donk and Ping-Pong lie flat. Ping-Pong casts Circle. She tries to protect her and Donk with the circle. There are arrows sticking out of her armor and Donk's. Arrows hit the circle and fizz. Donk fires his crossbow a few times, but he does not kill any kobolds.
Ping-Pong charges at the kobolds, with Donk close behind. The kobolds run away. They won't fight hand-to-hand with sapiens. They just keep firing their bows. Ping-Pong Flashes the kobolds, and blinds three of them. She and Donk start running. Two kobolds stay behind to look after the blind ones. Six chase after Donk and Ping-Pong, firing arrows all the way. The kobolds fire all their arrows at Donk. Donk's armor protects him (it's ring mail), but he's still hit in many places, and he's hardly able to run from all his wounds. Ping-Pong is certain that Donk will soon be killed. But the kobolds give up chasing and go home.
Donk and Ping-Pong make it back to Voisson Village alive but exhausted and injured. Donk cries.
"That's how my brother died! The kobolds shot him and ate him!"
Nignog is returning to Voisson Village from Machay Town. Through the trees ahead of him, he sees Ping-Pong and Donk crossing the fallen-tree bridge into the Hills of Doom. He follows them, but by the time he gets across the bridge, his friend has vanished into the forest. He searches for tracks and finds some leading along the path to the west. He follows them. Cart tracks join the path from the north, and leave again to the north.
A few paces after the cart tracks leave the path, Nignog stops and stares ahead. There is a child-sized, lizard-like humanoid hiding in a bush to the side of the road. It's a kobold. Nignog keeps walking. The kobold jumps into the path and shoots at him. He runs away. The path collapses beneath his feet. A huge trap-door folds down into the ground. Nignog jumps to safety. In the pit below the trap-door is a scaly green monster on two legs with small clawed hands and a huge head full of teeth. It scrambles and jumps out of the pit. It is taller than a kobold but shorter than a man. It is a raptor. It's knees bend backwards like a bird's.
Nignog draws his sword, holds his shield up, and fights the raptor. The kobold shoots arrows at Nignog while he fights. The duel between the man and the raptor goes of for almost a minute. The raptor learns to be careful early in the fight, after Nignog cuts him in the leg. The raptor is quick, but Nignog is well-armored and his sword is sharp. Nignog kills the raptor, chases off the kobold, and returns to the pit. There is a door leading out of the pit. The door is closed. Beside the door is a spear with a gold ring tied to the blade by a yellow ribbon.
Nignog does not go down into the pit to get the gold ring or the spear. Instead, he cuts off the raptor's head and carries it away. He makes it back across the fallen-tree bridge. He takes all forty teeth out of the raptor's jaws, boils them, and saves them. His grandfather says you can sell them for a gold piece each in the The Big City.
Sensible the Ranger comes into The Village. She stays at the pub. She arrives on the day that Ping-Pong and Donk are repelled by the kobolds. She is looking for Amblenickle, the rich kid who lead Donk's brother and a friend into the Hills of Doom. Donk's brother's name is Bump. The friend was Mongoose. Sensible and Ping-Pong agree to set out the next morning in another attempt to find the lost party of adventurers. Donk says he will come too, no matter how beaten up he may be after the fight today.
And so the next day they set out early and come to the Kobold Lair in the morning. Ping-Pong sneaks up on the kobold sentry, who is studying something in a bush beside the entrance to the lair. Sensible and Donk shoot at the kobold and Ping-Pong leaps out and attacks him with her dagger. He (or she) lifts up the door in the ground and jumps into the hole. Ping-Pong cuts him. Ping-Pong climbs down the ladder, followed by Sensible and Donk. There is a round room below with openings in the walls, several broken wooden boxes, and a metal box against the wall with three metal levers sticking out of it. The kobold lies upon the floor. He is badly wounded. He is crawling towards the box with the levers.
Ping-Pong takes out some rope to tie up the kobold. Sensible reaches the room, draws her sword, and kills the kobold. "We don't have time to mess around."
The ladder falls down the hole into the room and Donk lands on his bottom. "Ow!"
Ping-Pong and Sensible find thirteen gold pieces on the kobold, as well as a knife, a brass horn, and a bow with twenty arrows. They put these in Donk's sack.
There is a door in one wall. It has no door handle and it won't open.
"You're the wizard," Sensible says, "Pick one of the levers to pull and open the door."
The lever on the left has a shiny brass handle. The other two levers have brass handles that are covered with dirt. Ping-Pong at first thinks that the shiny lever is the one that is most used, and must open the door. But she ends up pulling the middle lever. A door opens in the wooden floor. She jumps aside. Below is a pit with spikes in the bottom.
"Wrong one," Ping-Pong says. She pulls the shiny lever.
The door opens. Sensible goes through, followed by Ping-Pong and Donk. There is a spiral staircase beyond, leading down. They descend with Ping-Pong's luminous stone in Ping-Pong's teeth to light the way. Sensible goes ahead to take a look. She stumbles on one of the stairs. Several sharp voices come from below. Sensible stops.
"There are kobolds below," she says.
"Brother!" Donk cries, and pushes past Ping-Pong and Sensible. He charges down the stairs. They follow him. The stairs end in a room. The floor is cluttered with old clothes, boxes, weapons, armor, and kobolds. The kobolds jump up and attack the intruders. There are twelve kobolds. On the other side of the room is a short flight of steps going down to another room, and a circle of sunlight in the far wall of that other room. Water flows into the main room from a hole in the wall and passes along a stone channel, down the steps and out beneath the circle of sunlight.Ping-Pong stands in the entrance and casts her Circle spell. Sensible and Donk stand in front of her and fight the kobolds. They fight two each. The kobolds fight with spears and shields. One of them stabs Donk and he collapses to the floor.
Donk is cut in the neck, and he's dying. He calls out his brother's name. "Bump!"
A voice from the room at the bottom of the stairs cries out. "Brother!"
Donk smiles and dies. Ping-Pong wails with grief. She wields her circle spell at the kobolds. She and Sensible retreat up the stairs. The kobolds follow them. There are seven kobolds left alive, and they are all mad. Sensible and Ping-Pong run away up the stairs. They close the door in the round room and spike it shut by hammering their daggers into the wooden floor beside the door. They adjust the ladder and climb up it.
Once out in the fresh air, they run for the river. Kobolds appear and fire at them, but miss. The kobolds do not follow the adventurers. Ping-Pong and Sensible make it back to The Village. Ping-Pong is still crying. Sensible says nothing. When they enter the pub, Ping-Pong says, "And the treasure was in Donk's sack. I don't know what became of it."
"Never mind," Sensible says. "We'll get help and go back and get it."
Sensible, Ping, Nignog, and Zar get together in The Trollhammer Tavern in Voisson Village. It's the day of Donk's death. Ping is still crying. They decide to go back and rescue Bump, Donk's brother. But Ping and Nignog are injured, and unwilling to go back into the Hills of Doom until they are at full strength. They set off for Machay Town, where they visit The Hospital. Here they pay 30 gp for two healing serums. Nignog and Ping stay in the hospital over-night. Zar and Sensible stay in the Spittoon Tavern.
The next evening, the four adventurers return to The Village. The morning after, they set off at dawn. They cross the fallen-tree bridge and reach the Kobold Hill in two hours. There are two kobolds hiding beside the entrance. When Ping and Sensible set foot upon the hill, the kobolds jump up and try to escape down the hole. But Sensible sprints quickly and grabs the hole-cover just as a kobold in the hole is pulling it into place. Ping stabs at the kobold with her spear. The kobold gives up and lets go of the cover.
Ping drops her luminous stone down the hole. Sensible climbs down quickly. Two kobolds shoot at him from below and pick up the stone. But they flee when Sensible lands in the room. It is dark down there. Sensible can't see much. The kobolds close the door. Ping, Nignog, and Zar climb down. With Zar's luminous stone, they can see. Ping casts her Circle spell. They pull the shiny lever. The door opens. They run down the spiral staircase, Sensible and Nignog in the lead.
When they reach the Chamber of Kobolds, Ping holds her light up over Nignog and Sensible. Ten kobolds jump up from under blankets and shoot at the two fighters. They put up their shields and spears and close their eyes. Nignog and Sensible charge and attack. Zar casts his Glash. Because the kobolds are closing their eyes, they are not blinded. Zar and Ping charge the kobolds also.
There follows a short, fierce fight in which Ping blinds four kobolds with her own Flash spell, and kills the kobold captain with her Circle. Nignog kills another kobold, and the little lizard-creatures turn and run down the stairs to the smaller room. The blind ones crawl along the stream passage into the sunlight. Zar charges down the stairs and attack the other four, who have formed a wall of shields and spears. Sensible joins him. The kobolds hold their line. One after another they crawl away down the passage. When there is one left, Sensible and Zar have backed off. Zar is injured. Ping is injured. Sensible is injured too.
With the kobolds gone, Ping-Pong finds Bump in the shadows of the lower room. He is fastened to the wall with a chain and a locked band around his waist. Ping breaks the ring on the wall with her Circle spell. Bump sits on the floor and cries. He is wrapped in a wool blanket. Ping and Nignog try to pick the lock on the band, but they fail.
The adventurers search the two rooms. Nignog lights his lantern. Zar has his luminous stone. There is some light coming from the stream passage. Nignog finds the key to the band around Bump's wait in the stream. They unlock the band.
In the two rooms, they find ten blankets, two suits of chain armor, one suit of ring armor, three swords, four shields, six daggers, ten good wool blankets, ten sets of clothes stuffed with leaves to make pillows, 40 gp on the kobold captain, 20 gp on the other dead kobold, and two kobold bows, shields, spears, and quivers full of arrows. In the small room there is a box containing several pieces of Donk and of one or more kobolds.
They search the rooms for secret doors and compartments for almost an hour, but find none. Bump tells them that the way he, Ambernickle and Mongoose were defeated was on the way home, when the kobolds ambushed and shot them. In anticipation of this same tactic, Sensible puts on chain armor. Bump puts on his own clothes and chain armor. Zar puts on Sensible's studded leather armor. Ping is disappointed because she has no better armor to put on. The ring mail suit was Donk's and it's way too big for her.
They make bundles out of the blankets, take the leaves out of the clothes, and pack everything up. They all carry shields. They ascend the stairs, checking for secret doors. They search the round room. In the pit opened by the middle lever is a gold brooch with a ruby. The brooch sparkles in the light of Zar's luminous stone. Even though Ping is a trained climber, she refuses to climb down into the spiked pit because she does not want to suffer another injury by falling. Sensible takes off her armor and climbs down with a rope to get the brooch.
They are ready to leave. Nignog climbs up the latter and pokes his head out behind a shield. He sees six kobolds crouching on the hilltop looking at him with their bows ready. He goes back down. The adventurers go down the stairs to the stream passage. Nignog crawls along a rusty iron cover over the stream and into the sunlight. He looks around. Two kobolds are at the top of the hill. Nignog's four companions crawl out behind him, pushing their bundles and shields. Eight kobolds line up along the crest of the hill. The five adventurers crouch behind their shields. The kobolds fire.
The arrows go wide, or glance off Nignog's metal armor. But Ping is struck solidly in the shoulder. She cries out. She is wounded.
"This is bad," Sensible says.
Ping-Pong won't be able to walk out of the forest. Bump suggests they crawl back into the Kobold Lair and try to last the night, binding Ping-Pong's wound and hoping that she survives.
"What about the thunder-egg?" Sensible says
"Yes," Ping says, "Use the thunder-egg."
"I want to save it," Zar says.
The kobolds fire another volley of arrows.
"Okay," Zar says, "Use it."
He takes out the thunder-egg and gives it to Nignog. Nignog pushes the button, stands up and takes two steps up the hill. Four kobolds shoot at him. He is injured, but throws the thunder-egg anyway. It detonates with a great flash of light and a clap of thunder. A tree bursts into flame. The ground is scorched. Five kobolds are burning. The other three run away.
The adventurers run away too. When they have gone a thousand meters, they stop. Zar pulls the arrow out of Ping-Pong and binds her wound. It is still bleeding. She has only hours to live unless she gets better help. They hurry through the forest to the bridge of fallen trees. Nignog half-carries Ping with his arm under her shoulders. They cross the bridge and limp to Machay Town. They reach the hospital, where they spend 20 gp on a serum for Ping-Pong. The doctors take care of her and she spends the night in a hospital bed. The party is safe. The others stay in the Spittoon.
Sensible and Bump go back to Bump's home county. Sensible will tell Amblenickle's family of his removal by orcs from the kobold lair the night after he was captured. Sensible will receive a 50-gp reward for this information.
A couple of weeks later, Nignog, Ping, and Zar meet the young knight Rikard Le Rich and his elderly man-servant Mr. Bajard in The Spittoon Tavern. Mr. Bajard asks them to take Rikard with them on their adventures. Rikard is equipped with fine armor and weapons. He comes from a wealthy family. They all meet with Nignog's grandfather (also named Nignog) in The Trollhammer Tavern Voisson Village. Nignog Senior says that he thinks Rikard is an honest kid. Mr. Bajard says he will pay 40 gp for Rikard to go with Nignog, Ping, and Zar on their next adventure: 20 gp now and 20 gp from Rikard's share of any treasure at the end of the adventure. Our heroes agree.
The next morning at dawn it is a cloudy day without rain, and the four adventurers set off across the bridge of fallen trees along the path to the west. They find the trapdoor in the path where Nignog fought the raptor. They pull on a rope in the ground nearby (which Rikard discovers) and the trap door falls down as it did before. The room beneath is empty. With the help of a rope tied to a tree, they descend into the room and stand next to the door that leads out of the room. Nignog fails to pick the lock, but Ping succeeds. A passage leads down into the ground. The walls are rocky in places, and bricks in other places, and held up with wood in other places. There are wooden steps. They come to a rocky chamber. There is a door on the other side.
The entire ceiling of the chamber is covered by a green slime. There are green lumps in it. The slime reaches down with thin tendrils reach down towards the floor, and then rise up again to rejoin the main body of the slime. There are ten or twenty of these tendrils moving down and rising up again at a time. As they stand in the entrance with their two lanterns and two luminous stones, the slime moves towards them. Ping pokes it with her spear and it moves away from her blade.
"It's alive," Zar says.
The slime continues to grow thicker above the entrance, and then begins to creep out of the chamber. Our heroes turn around and go back up the passage. They close the door behind them. They climb out, and with a rope tied to a metal ring on the trap-door, they close the trap-door too. They do not know what to do to protect themselves from the slime.
"It will fall on us and eat us," Ping says.
Rikard sees two kobolds hiding in the forest nearby. Nignog sees them too. They go home along the path, but the kobolds do not fire at them.
"Are we running away?" Rikard says. "We should assail the slime with cold steel."
"I don't think weapons will defeat it," Ping says.
The next day it's raining and cold, so they stay home in The Village. But the day after is clear and warm and calm. They set out.
"We will go back to the ogre lair," Ping says.
"Very well," Rikard says.
They reach the trap-door, which has been disguised once again with dirt and leaves. Rikard, who has some skill at tracking, can find no footprints. "What manner of creature hid this door?"
"Kobolds," Ping says.
They continue along the path. After another hour, they come around a bend and see before them, fifty paces away, a huge warhorse in ring armor with a huge man in plate mail armor on its back. Or maybe it's not a man. It's too big to be a man, and it's head seems to be the head of a bull with a metal helmet on. It's horns stick out the top. It has a battle-axe on its back, a shield on its left arm, and a huge lance in its right.
The minotaur (that's the name of a man with a bull's head, minotaurs are a type of calipanti) lowers his lance-point and charges them. They are on foot, of course, so they can stand or run. Nignog draws his sword and holds up his shield. Rikard does the same. Ping and Zar move to the side of the road. Ping casts a Flash spell. The minotaur keeps coming, and his horse. Neither are blinded. Zar fires an arrow, but misses.
The horse's hooves pound upon the path. The horse snorts. The minotaur bellows. His lance is aimed at Nignog's heart. Nignog raises his sword and steps away from the lance at the last moment. He swings at the minotaur's body, but his sword clangs off plate armor. Rikard strikes, but misses. The minotaur sweeps past.
He stops fifty paces away, turns, and charges again. Ping fires two arrows. They bounce off the minotaur's armor. Zar casts Choke and tries to get the spell into the horse's big lungs as it charges past, but he misses. The minotaur attacks Rikard. The two knights on foot strike with their swords. Rikard delivers a solid blow, but it does little more than put a dent in the plate on the minotaur's arm.
The minotaur charges with his lance again. Ping and Zar fire arrows. The minotaur charges past, once more unharmed by the knight's swords. He turns and charges a forth time. Zar fires arrows. Ping casts her second Flash spell. The horse turns away at the right moment, and the minotaur holds its shield up. Neither are blinded. He charges through Nignog and Rikard. Nignog takes a mighty swing, but strikes only the minotaur's shield.
Ping and Zar fire arrows at the minotaur as he rides away. They expect him to stop and turn to charge a fifth time, but he does not. He keeps riding.
"We vanquished him!" Rikard says.
They wait a few minutes, but the minotaur does not come back. They are excited and proud, but a little bit worried about getting into another fight, so they return to the village. Over the next few days, they think about whether they are ready to go back into The Hills of Doom. They go to the Spittoon Tavern and talk to other adventurers. One group says some friends of theirs were attacked by The Minotaur of the Path, and the minotaur skewered one of the group on his lance, lifted the fighter off the ground, and carried him away on his lance like a chicken on a spit. They never saw the poor fighter again.
One evening, a couple of weeks after their encounter with the Minotaur, Ping, Nignog, and Zar find Rikard Le Rich in The Spittoon Tavern. He is drunk and sad. He plays dice and darts with the other customers in the tavern and loses all the money in his purse. He starts shouting at the tavern owner to give him a free drink, and the owner has two of the customers carry Rikard out into the street.
Nignog, Ping, and Zar go out and kneel next to Rikard, who is sitting on the ground, leaning against the tavern wall. They have to throw a bucket of water on him to wake him up, he's so drunk. He tells them he went adventuring to the Ogre's Lair with three other people: a beautiful theif called Sally, a fighter called Joe, and a wizard. He loved Sally. But when Sally put her head through the double-doors to the Ogre's Lair, to see what was inside, a new ogre pushed the doors and killed her. The ogre came out and hit Joe with his club. Joe flew all the way across the stream. Rikard and the wizard ran away. They had not gone far before kobolds fired upon them. The wizard's armor was only leather, and the kobolds shot him down. Rikard kept running. He made it back across the bridge of fallen trees.
"I want to kill that ogre! Poor Sally!" He starts crying and falls asleep.
Our heroes carry Rikard to his hotel, where his servant Mr. Bajard puts him to bed.
The next day, Rikard comes to The Village with Mr. Bajard. Our heroes meet him in The Pub. Mr. Bajard is rude to our heroes, saying they are wasting Rikard's time. Rikard shouts at Mr. Bajard, ordering him to leave the pub. Rikard agrees to come with our heroes to the Ogre Lair as soon as the weather is good enough for the long walk.
Three days later it's cloudy and cool, but not raining, so they set out. They walk west to the river, cross the Iron Bridge, go south to the Giant Willow Tree, and follow the path by the stream up to the Ogre's Lair.
There is lots of smoke coming out of the chimney. While they are up above by the chimney, an ogre comes out of the doors and walks to the stream. He goes in and out again. He fills a huge clay jug with water. He closes the doors.
Nignog pushes the bar off the inside of the double doors with his sword. The bar falls with a thump. Zar climbs up the slope and hides above the doors. Ping and Rikard stand ten steps in front of the doors. Nignog stands behind a door and starts to open it. The door bursts open. Nignog jumps out of the way. An ogre steps out, swinging a huge club. This ogre is less fat than the last one, and quicker on his feet. Nignog draws his sword and defends himself.
Rikard is pale and trembling. He stands beside Ping without moving.
Ping casts Flash and there is a bright flash of light in front of the ogre. Zar casts Choke but misses the ogre's lungs, so the spell has no effect. Nignog stabs the ogre in the side by sliding his sword under the ogre's armor plates. There is blood on his blade. The ogre groans. He steps back through the door and closes it. He puts the bar back.
There is silence.
"Why didn't you fight?" Ping says to Rikard.
Rikard does not answer. There is sweat upon his nose, under his helmet.
Zar casts Circle. Nignog removes the bar again with his sword, and they enter the passage behind the doors. The door to the ogre's room is locked. Ping picks the lock. They push the door. It won't open. The ogre is sitting with his back to the other side. They push. The door moves a bit, but not enough to let them in. They ram it with the bar, they push with their legs, they use the bar as a lever. The door moves some more. They go in, but by this time, Zar's Circle spell has expired.
The ogre appears to be dead, but Zar the Healer feels the ogre's heart beating slowly: one beat every ten seconds. And the ogre is breathing slowly too. They take 40 gp from the ogre's purse. They find smoked human meat in the room.
"Shall we kill him or tie him up?" Ping says.
They talk about it, and in the end, they decide that they must kill the ogre. If it wakes up again, after healing itself somehow, as maybe creatures like him can do, the ogre will be waiting from them when they come out of the tunnels. The ogre tried to kill them right away when they opened the door. The ogre ate Sally and was starting to eat Joe.
Nignog stabs the ogre in the neck and kills it.
Now Zar and Nignog are both Ogre Slayers.
"I'm just a coward!" Rikard says. "I ran away when Sally was wounded, I ran away. When the ogre came out today, I couldn't move." He kicks the ogre's body. "Darn it!" He draws his sword and stabs at the ogre's rusty iron armor. "Darn it!"
"You're not a coward," Ping says. "Put your sword away."
Rikard puts his sword away.
Nignog says, "You stood with me and faced the minotaur. If you were a coward, you would have run away then."
Rikard is crying. He wipes his eyes. "Thank you Nignog. Thank you Ping."
Nignog and Rikard put the bar back on the outer door, to stop anyone from following them into the catacombs. They lift the bar from the door to the Cavern of Spiders. Ping and Zar put their luminous stones upon the steps. Nignog leans his lantern against the wall. They peer into the shadows. Spider webs hang from the ceiling and cover the walls. They sway slowly in gentle movements of the damp air. On the floor are the bones of an ogre. There is no skull with the bones. There are what looks like sapien bones about the floor also. The blood of the ogre Zar killed is nowhere to be seen. The stairs and the cavern floor have been cleaned by someone, but whom?
In the rib-cage of the ogre skeleton dark shapes are moving. The light upon the stairs is reflected by many eyes. The eyes move in sets of eight. A hairy leg extends from between the bones. It is the leg of a giant spider. The spider's body is a third of a meter across, with shiny, black, leathery skin. It's legs are half a meter long and hairy. This is the same species of giant spider our heroes faced once before, in this same cavern. They are freshly-hatched and grown to adult-hood from feasting on ogre-flesh. But they finished the ogre-meat and sapien limbs some time ago, and they are hungry. They crawl from the skeleton. Others crawl across the ceiling. They are crawling to find food. They are crawling towards the light.
"I'm scared of spiders," Rikard says.
The four adventurers draw their bows and shoot at the spiders. They kill six or seven, but the spiders keep coming. The adventurers jump down the steps, put their bows away and draw their swords and spear. They stand back to back. The spiders start to drop from the ceiling and spring at the adventurers from the floor. The fight is on.
When two spiders fall upon him at the same time, Rikard collapses to the floor, holding his shield and his hands over his head and sobbing. Nignog, Ping, and Zar make a triangle around him. They try to persuade him to get up, saying he'll be okay in his armor, or saying that he should not be a sissy. But he keeps sobbing. He does not seem to hear them. Zar casts Flash and all the spiders nearby are blinded. The spipders shuffle about without direction. Our heroes cut them up, but more soon arrive. In the end, however, our heroes prevail, and there are thirty dead spiders littering the cavern floor around them.
Rikard sits up and wipes his eyes. Nignog tries to find something he can use to wipe all the green spider-guts off his sword. He wipes his sword on the ogre's bones, and then uses the corner of his shirt. He puts his sword back in its scabbard on his hip. Ping stands in front of Rikard.
"You must fight with us, or we might be killed," she says, "We all have to fight together. We're all scared. But we fight anyway. When you are scared you should fight to make yourself feel better, not lie down on the ground crying."
Rikard puts his head in his hands. "You're right. I know I'm a coward."
"Well, get up for now," Ping says, "We have to get going."
"You're not always a coward," Nignog says.
Our heroes know from their previous trip that there are only two open passages out of the cavern. They choose the left one, which they call Tunnel A. The roof has collapsed into the tunnel a short way along, but Nignog and Rikard clear the rubble and they crawl through. Nignog and Ping go first, looking for traps. They take one step at a time. They come to a pit. Ping sees a thread across the pit. Around the thread is invisible conjured rope.
"It's a wizard's trap," Ping says. "Zar, look closely here."
Zar agrees that the trap was made by a wizard. The rope connects to a bridge ring. Ping cuts the rope, and so disarms the trap. They cross the pit using the ledges on either side. They come to a chamber. Nignog finds another conjured rope hanging from the ceiling. It is attached to a bell hidden on a ledge. They walk around it. A stream flows along the floor of the passage now, having arisen from a spring in the chamber. Ping finds another rope across the passage. They step over it.
The passage ends on a ledge. The stream falls down from the ledge to the floor of a cavern, and flows across the floor to a pond. The cavern is fifty paces long. Sunlight shines through a hole in the ceiling. Magical light shines from several very bright luminous stones set in the wall above the pond. Vegetables, corn, herbs, and flowers grow in a hundred large, clay pots on the floor of the cavern and on balconies accessible by stairs. On the wall opposite the pond are two rounded structures made out of a material that looks like gray stone polished by water. Each has a doorway covered with a curtain made of a fabric that sparkles in the magical light.
There are several boulders on the floor at the center of the cavern. A man with a big, gray beard, a green robe, and a blue hat decorated with silver moons and stars stands up from behind one of the boulders. He shouts in Caravelli, which is their own language.
"Begone, you horrible thieves, before I blast your eyeballs out of the back of your greedy heads!" He waves his hands at them and says a few words. He watches them and blinks. "Damn it!" he says, and ducks down behind the boulder.
Ping says, "We don't want to hurt you or steal from you. We are just exploring."
The man sticks his head up again. "You do not know my great powers!" He waves his hands. There is a bright flash of light in front of them, but it's not quite close enough to blind them. The man stands up again. He waves his hands and stares. "Damn it! That would have showed you." He ducks down.
"Two of us are wizards ourselves," Ping says
The man does not answer.
"Maybe we can help you," she says.
The man sticks his head up. "You're wizards?"
"Two of us are."
He casts Fireworks and fills the cave with multicolored light that flies around wherever he points his finger.
"If you're wizards, you will be able to answer questions about magic."
He asks them questions about magic. Zar tells the man how to use a Choke spell to catch a bird. Zar does it all the time. Ping tells him what would happen to a piece of metal if you put it through a Circle spell.
There is a noise from the hole in the ceiling. "Hide!" the man says.
The four adventurers hide out of sight in the shadows. A kobold climbs down out of the hole in the ceiling using a ladder. The ladder rests upon a ledge beneath the hole. You can get to the ledge by climbing a staircase from the cavern floor. The kobold puts a sack on the ledge. The man shouts at the kobold and the kobold rushes up the ladder again, and out of sight.
"You can come out now," the man says. "Okay, you are wizards." He casts another Flash spell, a big one. "That was Grand Flash," he says. "See how I cast one spell after another? See my power? If you double-cross me I'll blow your brains out of your ears."
"We understand," Ping says.
The man looks up at them. "Do you have any booze?"
It turns out that they do have some booze. Rikard has a hip flask of Highland Whisky. The wizard brings a conjured wood ladder over and leans it against the ledge. Ping, Zar, and Nignog climb down. Rikard stays behind. He does not trust the wizard. Up close, the wizard looks to be between sixty and seventy years old, but he's strong and he stands straight. He takes the flask from Nignog and leads them into one of the gray structures. These are like Zar's house in the forest. They are made of conjured wood. He pours some whisky for them and for himself. He drinks his glass in two sips and a gulp. He wipes his mouth on the back of his hand.
"Ah, that's good stuff." He looks at the flask and pours himself some more. "They bring me food, all I can eat, but they don't bring me booze."
Rikard joins them because he is scared on the ledge on his own. The wizard serves them fish stew, made from fish he caught in his pond.
"Who are you?" Ping says.
"I won't tell you my name," the wizard says, "because if I did, I'd have to kill you. I don't want you to know my story. I don't want my enemies to find me."
He gives them a list of things he wants them to bring him: 20 bridge rings, 20 cegoten stones, 20 diamond glass stones, 1 litre of rune-writing ink, 1 kilogram of good paper, and four bottles of whisky. He brings out from under his bed three luminous stones. They shine brightly. He gives them to Ping and Zar to examine.
"These are good stones. I'm good at making them. They will last for years. People will pay up to a hundred gold piece for my stones."
"A hundred gold pieces?" Rikard says.
"Take them," the wizard says, "and sell them. Use some of the money to buy me what I want. Bring it back here, to the top of the hill where you'll find what looks like an old well. But it's not a well. Its the entrance to that shaft you saw the kobold come down. Climb down and give me my stuff. Do that for me, in exchange for these stones."
He stares at them.
"Okay," Nignog says.
"If you don't come back, if you double-cross me," the wizard says, "I'll find you and I'll blow your brains out of your ears." He leans forward. "Do you hear me?"
"Yes," Nignog says.
The wizard frowns in his big bushy beard. "Unless, of course, you tried as hard as you could, but still couldn't make it here, in which case I guess I'd forgive you."
The wizard finishes Rikard's whisky and returns the flask. They thank him for the soup, climb up the ladder to the ledge they came in by, wave goodbye to him, and go back along the tunnel towards the Cavern of Spiders. They step over one trap, go around another, and cross the pit. When they enter the Cavern of Spiders, two spiders jump from the ceiling at them. Nignog has his sword out already and chops one in two. Rikard screams.
"You can do it, Rikard," Zar says.
Rikard draws his sword. The spider jumps at him. He skewers it on the tip of his blade.
When our heroes leave the ogre lair, they are carrying fourty gold pieces from the ogre and the three luminous stones. They decide not to carry the ogre's metal armor: it weighs two hundred kilograms and it's a long walk home. They are glad they left it behind, because they are attacked first by the minotaur on the path, and then chased and fired upon by kobolds. The minotaur charges between Nignog and Rikard. Ping casts Flash at him. He does not come back to charge again. Rikard and Nignog, in their heavy metal armor, protect Zar and Ping, in their leather armor, from the kobold arrows by running behind the two wizards holding their shields up to the wizards' backs.
And so they arrive home, pleased with themselves, but tired.
"We made a friend in the outlands," Rikard says.
"Not a friend," Ping says, "He threatened to kill us."
"He is an ally," Zar says.
"Yes," Rikard says, "An ally."
"And you killed a spider," Nignog says.
Rikard smiles. "So I did."
Down a winding side-ally in Machay Town, there is a heavy oak door with a sign above it saying "All Magic Supplies". On the door is another sign saying, "Open." There are no windows. The building above the door rises three stories and is made of big blocks of gray rock, cut smooth on the outside. One rainy day, a week or two after their most recent adventure, Nignog, Zar, and Ping open the door and go inside.
The interior of the shop is lit by a bright luminous stone. Around the walls are shelves with books, reams of paper, bottles of ink, silver-colored metal rings on hooks, rolled maps standing in wooden boxes, and books large and small on bookshelves. In one corner are gloves and capes and hats on stands. Along one wall, from floor to ceiling there are locked cabinets with thick glass windows. Behind the windows are boxes with velvet linings, opened and stood on their sides to show thunder-eggs and many other devices that our heroes cannot name. Also in the cabinets are jars with liquids and powers, all labeled with names like, alcohol, white spirits, chloroform, petroleum, gympsum, cinnebar, and saltpeter. In boxes on tables are stones like those that Zar and Ping turn into luminous stones, or hot stones, and many other types of stones besides, with names like, sleep, confuse, and conceal.
There is a desk at the far end of the room, and behind the desk is another heavy door. A man is sitting at the desk. He stands up. He is tall and lean, but he looks strong and well. His is clean-shaven. He wears a long, silk robe. He smiles at his visitors.
"Hello again," he says.
"Hello Mr. Bently Tillamoore," Ping says.
Bently walks past them, opens the door to the street, and turns the sign around.
"Have you brought me the three stones?"
"May I see them?"
Zar, Ping, and Nignog each give the man a bright, luminous stone. He sits behind his desk. Zar, Ping, and Nignog sit on stools that were hiding under the desk. Bently examines the stones one after the other. He looks up. "You did not want to answer my questions last time. How about this: I ask a question, you ask a question, and so on, until we know enough to make a deal."
Nignog and Ping agree. Zar looks around at the stuff in the store.
"Are any of you policemen, or working for the government in any way?" Bently says.
"No," Ping says. "Do you know the person who made these stones?"
"Yes," Bently says. "They were all made by the same woman. Do you know her name?"
"Woman?" Ping says, "What woman? No, we don't know her name."
Bently smiles. Nignog whispers in her ear. "You gave away that it's a man not a woman."
Ping frowns. Nignog says, "Have you met the man who made the stones?"
Bently nods. "Yes. Did you find these in the Hills of Doom, or some other place outside Caravel?"
The country our heroes live in is called Caravel. For more about Caravel you can see this History of Caravel.
"Yes," Nignog says.
"Is this man a criminal?" Ping says.
"Yes," Bently says. "Okay. I have heard enough. This is what we'll do. I'll buy the stones from you for seventy-five gold pieces each. You don't tell me who you got them from. All I have to know is that you found them outside Caravel. I'll take them somewhere outside Caravel, and I'll sell them. I won't say who gave them to me. As far as you are concerned, I think I know who made them, but you're not sure I know. We have not mentioned his name. You don't know his name. Is it a deal?"
Ping smiles. "It's a deal."
Bently stands up. "Good. Now, is there anything you'd like to buy here with your money?"
"Oh yes," Ping says, "Lots of stuff." She takes out a list.
On a warm, breezy day in May, Nignog, Ping, Zar, and Rikard set off shortly after dawn. They cross the bridge of fallen trees. They walk with the sun shining in their faces along the path to the river. They see no kobolds, and the Minotaur does not oppose them. They stand on the Iron Bridge. Birds are singing in the trees. The green water of the river flows past beneath them. Water weeds wave silently beneath the surface.
The Iron Bridge is wide enough for a horse and cart, but it has no railing on either side. You could step right off it and fall into the water. And the Iron Bridge is not entirely made of iron. The underneath of it is made of iron. The weight of the bridge is held up by an iron frame. But the part you walk on is made of wooden planks. You can see the iron under the bridge when you walk down the path on the other side of the river, but while you are standing on the bridge, all you can see is wooden planks.
Nignog looks up the river towards The Tower. Like the iron under the bridge, The Tower is black. But it is made of black stone, and upon the stone there are vines climbing up almost to the top, and other plants growing on the top and hanging down. Near the top there is a balcony, and upon the balcony a tree is growing. Its branches bend through sharp angles for no reason that Nignog can see.
Nignog looks down at the river water. His grandfather calls this river the River of Fire. Nignog never asked him why. Ping would ask him why, if he called it the River of Fire in front of her, but Nignog had never asked. His grandfather did not like to answer questions. He liked to talk, and he liked Nignog to listen, but he was never happy when people made him stop his stories with questions. Nignog figured his grandfather would tell him why this was the River of Fire one day.
Rikard is standing on the other end of the bridge, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, watching the forest. "I'm not comfortable standing out in the open here. Let's get going."
Nignog and Ping follow him to the path on the other side. It heads up the river to The Tower, and down the river to the Giant Willow. They turn towards the Giant Willow. Zar spends a few more seconds on the bridge, staring at The Tower, and runs after them.
It takes them almost an hour to reach the willow. The Giant Willow is not the largest weeping willow that Zar has ever seen. There was a larger one at Noc Castle, where he and Ping Pong learned to be wizards. Zar used to climb that one. There was a ladder leading up into its lowest branches, and ropes in the higher branches, with wood platforms and hammocks here and there so that the students could get together high above the ground, and look down on the bald heads of the old masters when they came out to call the students to classes.
This willow is not as large as Old Man Willow of Noc Castle, but this willow is obviously a bad one, because there are places where its bark is black, and other places where its bark is rusty brown. Who heard of a willow tree with rusty brown bark? This one is not right, and its leaves from last year are still clinging to its branches, while the other trees have only the new leaves of spring upon theirs. Even as he watches, it seems to Zar that some of the leaves catch fire. He stops and stares. He blinks. There, by the river, the dried-out leaves of a shrub curl and turn to smoke.
Rikard steps away from the smoking shrub. "Fire!"
Flames flicker across the dry grass at the edge of the path, and in the dry leaves of the willow tree above them. Something disturbs the slow-moving surface of the river. Zar sees a slimy lump the size of a beer barrel protruding from the water.
Nignog sees it too. "Run!" he says.
Just past the Giant Willow, a stream joins the river. A bridge of wooden planks leads across the stream. Before the bridge is a smaller path leading uphill and away from the river. This smaller path leads to the Ogre Lair, and it is up this path that Nignog runs, with his shield clattering on his back and his sword swinging by his side.
Ping and Rikard move together up the path, with Zar coming behind. The fire flickers above them in the willow branches, but does not follow them up the path.
"Why did Nignog go ahead?" Rikard says.
Nignog comes running back. "Kobolds up ahead!"
"Yes," Rikard says, "This is the same place that they ambushed me and my wizard companion when we fled from the ogre, cowards that we were." He frowns and grits his teeth. "Shame on me. But let us not allow my weakness to excuse your folly in going ahead into the danger alone. It is when we are alone that they strike us, and when we are weak."
Ping watches Rikard and smiles. "I agree."
Rikard points at the trees. "Let us head into the forest and go around the kobolds."
"Um," Ping says, "I don't want to go into the forest."
So they walk together up the path until they come to the place where kobolds fired from the top of a bank at Nignog. Rikard sees one kobold hiding in the bushes, but no arrows come down at them. They keep going past the bank and up towards the Ogre Lair.
Two hours later, all four of them are sweating in their armor. They can see the doors to the Ogre Lair ahead of them. Rikard stops and stares up at the hill behind the doors. "I think we have to go into the forest now, Ping. We must find the well that leads to Dunken the Drunken's cave."
That's what they have been calling the Wizard of the Cave: Dunken the Drunken, because they don't have any other name for him.
Rikard leads them through the trees, past the doors. They watch the Ogre Lair's tree-stump chimney. There is smoke coming out. Someone is in there. Is it another ogre? It has been three weeks since they killed the last one. Nignog supposes that's enough time to get a new one. But maybe this time there are two of them. Or maybe there are a bunch of orcs in there.
"This way," Rikard says. They walk up the hill. They come to the top. They see no well. They go past the top. They come back.
"I don't know what I'm doing wrong," Rikard says.
"Just keep looking," Ping says. "We'll find it. Don't worry."
It takes them an hour to find the well. It is in the center of a tight knot of small trees. The sun shines down from above, into the center of the trees, but all around the well is in shadow. The well itself is covered with an old wood-plank roof. The walls of the well are stones with cement to hold them together. Zar looks at it. This well is not a real well. It's a secret entrance to an underground cavern. Who made it, and why? It does not look old. The cement is crumbling in places, but cement does not take more than a few years to start to crumble.
There is a ladder inside the fake well. Nignog climbs down. The others follow. Nignog carries with him a sack full of stuff for the Wizard of the Cave.
"I can't believe it," the Wizard of the Cave says, when our heroes are sitting with him in his conjured shelter, at his spirit wood table, drinking fresh spring water from his heavy spirit stone cups. "I can't believe you came back." He rubs his hands together. "Did you bring me some booze?"
They did bring him some booze, and all the other things he put on his list for. But he ignores the other things and pours himself a big cup of booze. He finishes the cup and gets something out from under his mattress. It's another luminous stone. "Here, take this to thank you for coming back. I made it yesterday."
"Thank you," Ping says.
The wizard pours himself another cup of booze. Ping figures he's going to be drunk pretty soon. "Before you finish the bottle, will you help us get back to the Cavern of Spiders so we can explore the other passage leading out of it?"
The wizard puts his cup down. "Sure. There's a better way. You can get into it from the other side." He stands up. "Come with me."
The wizard leads them along the stream that leaves his cavern. It flows down a tunnel until it disappears into a hole. But here, at the end of the tunnel, the wizard reaches into the river and pulls on something. A hidden door in the right wall cracks open. The wizard pushes it into a smaller passage, and enters. At the other end of this passage is another door with a handle. He opens this one and steps into a larger passage. This new passage is lit by sunlight that shines through the cracks around a large wooden door on the left. To the right it slopes down steeply with a high, jagged ceiling.
The wizard points downwards. "That way. It leads to the spider hall."
"Thank you," Ping says.
"Good luck," he says. "Orcs come in here at night. But hardly ever during the day. So you should be okay."
Nignog and Ping take a few steps down the tunnel. Rikard follows them. Zar stands with the wizard. The wizard leans close to Zar and breathes upon him. His breath already smells like booze.
"Don't fight with the orcs if you can help it."
Zar frowns. "Why not?"
The wizards smiles. "It's bad luck."
He moves back into the secret passage. This side of the door is covered with stone. The wizard pushes it shut slowly.
"Thank you," Ping says, when she hears the door sliding into place.
"You're welcome," the wizard says. The door closes, and now it is invisible in the wall, but Ping knows where it is.
Zar scratches his head. How are they supposed to open the door when they want to go back?
"Come on," Nignog says. He draws his sword. "I'll look for traps."
They descend into the depths of the earth. There is rock all around them. Up above the ceiling is sometimes low and sometimes high. The walls are jagged and tumbling. The passage is narrow and then wide. But a path has been cut along the floor. When a boulder blocks the way, it has been smashed and the pieces pushed aside. In places, water seeps out of the walls. The water joins together to form a trickle. Sometimes it spreads out and covers the path, so that they walk in shallow water. There is mud in places, and in the mud Rikard finds the prints of heavy, man-sized boots. Their own steps echo off the ceiling.
They come to a flight of stairs, cut roughly into the stone. In one place, water wells up out of the ground, adding to the trickle, so that a stream tumbles down beside the stairs, splashing. The passage bends and they find themselves looking out across a cavern. The path leads straight across, but there is a pool of water on either side. The pools look deep.
They stare at the cavern. Its walls shine and sparkle in the bright light of their luminous stones. The water in the pond is blue.
"Let's keep going," Ping says.
They cross the cavern and follow the tunnel out the other side. It descends steeply with steps in the steepest places. The tunnel is damp and warm. The air becomes misty and droplets of water appear on their helmets and armor.
They arrive at another cavern. It is fifty paces across. At the bottom of a few rough steps is a pool of blue water. Steam rises from the water and bubbles burst from the center. There are two smaller pools beyond. One of these is red. The other is green. The four explorers descend to the floor of the cavern and walk around the blue pool. There are three other passages leading out of the cavern. The four explorers enter the third passage, next to the red pool. The passage ends after a few paces in a chamber that must once have been square, but is now irregular. Stones from the ceiling and walls have fallen to the floor. Where the wall is still intact, it is covered with plaster.
The explorers search the room. Nignog finds a small leather scroll case in a hole beneath a square block of stone. Ping pushes though the plaster on one wall to find a small alcove. In the alcove is a little iron box. She opens the box with one of her tools. Inside there is damp cloth. Water drips from the roof of the alcove and down the wall behind the plaster.
Nignog opens the scroll case, takes out a scroll, and reads from the scroll in the light of Zar's luminous stone. "My son. Today is the first day of winter in the sixth year since your birth. I am dying of a sickness that cannot be cured. You have found this place and this scroll. I am proud of you. Now, go to the opposite chamber. There you will find an alcove in the wall and".
Zar leans forward. "And what?"
"That's it," Nignog says.
"Let me see," Ping says. She pushes forward and reads the scroll.
"What's that noise?" Rikard says. He's standing by the entrance to the chamber and staring into the cavern outside. "Put your lights out!"
They hide their lights and crouch in the absolute darkness of the chamber, far from the light of the sun. They hear footsteps echoing, and laughter and words in a harsh language they cannot understand. The footsteps are not in the cavern of the bubbling pools, but they are growing louder.
"I see light in the passage we came down," Rikard says.
The explorers move back into the chamber and hide. The voices enter the cavern with a flickering light. There is more talking and laughing. There is the sound of metal on stone, a splash in the pond, and another splash. The voices grow quiet for a while, and cannot be heard above the bubbling of the pool.
"I'm going to look," Ping says. She crawls to the edge of the cavern and looks at the blue pool. There are two torches burning on the far wall, beside the passage with the steps. Six human-shaped creatures are standing and sitting in the hot water of the blue pool. Their skin is white, but their hair is black, or seems to be in the dim and shifting light of the torches. Their lower jaws jut out from their faces, and two tusks rise up and curl until they almost touch their cheeks. All of them are bathing naked in the pool, and Ping can see that three of them are women and three of them are men. The men are more hairy than the women, just like sapien men are more hairy than sapien women.
She crawls back to her companions. "Six orcs. They're bathing in the pool."
"Let's just wait," Rikard says. "They'll go away."
"I don't want to fight them," Zar says.
They wait. It's hard for them to tell how much time is passing, but they listen to the voices of the orcs. Soon they can identify each one by his or her voice, and they are familiar with the sounds of the language the orcs are speaking, which seem harsh at first, but less so once you get used to it.
One of the voices, one of the men who hardly talks, says something loudly. There is splashing and clanking, with some laughter, but not much talking after that. The orcs climb the stairs and go back the way they came, taking their light with them.
Rikard breaths out with a sigh. "Phew. They're gone."
"Good," Ping says, "I want to search the back of the alcove and look in this box." In the box she finds a brass key buried in the wet cloth. At the back of the alcove there is some writing carved into the stone. The letters are covered with water and slime. Ping takes our her handkerchief and wipes the stone clean. She reads, "Look in the small red pool for an iron chest."
She looks at the key in her hand. "This must be the key to the chest."
The red pool is warm, but not hot. It looks red because its bottom is covered with red slime. When Ping scrapes the bottom with the tip of her spear, the slime breaks and swhirls about. The water becomes cloudy and rusty-brown. They search the edge of the pool with the tips of their swords, and as far out into the pool as Rikard can reach with Ping's spear. But they cannot reach the center of the pool.
They stare at the pool. Whoever goes in will get wet, and the pool is cloudy so they can't see the bottom.
"I'll do it," Rikard says. He wades into the pool with Ping's spear. He pokes the bottom. The spear scrapes against stone, stone, and then metal. He taps the bottom. "There's something hollow here." He stares at the water. "I don't want to bend down and reach into the water. I'll get soaked in my armor."
He wades to the side of the pool and gets out.
"I'll go," Zar says. He takes the spear and enters the pool. He finds the metal thing on the bottom. He passes the spear to Ping and bends down under the water. His head disappears he comes up holding a slimy chest in his arms.
"Bravely done!" Rikard says.
A brown skull rises out of the water in front of Zar, and after it the ribs and arms of a skeleton. The bones are covered with red slime, but there are many places where the slime seems to float in the air, stuck to nearly-invisible lumps of matter among the bones. And the bones are not quite right for a real skeleton. And where the bones scrape against one another, they don't sound like bone. They sound like metal.
A voice comes from the skull. The voice is thin and bubbly from water, and it does not rise or fall in its pitch. But Ping understands it clearly. She has heard voices like this before. "I am at your service, master, if you will say my name."
She repeats what the skeleton said to her companions.
"I don't know its name," Zar says. The skeleton reaches out for the chest with both hands.
Zar rushes through the water away from the skeleton. The skeleton tries to follow him, but stumbles and falls into the rusty brown pool. Zar puts the chest on the floor of the cavern and starts to climb out of the water. Something in the water grabs at his leg. He pulls it away and rolls out of the pool.
The skeleton rises out of the water and grabs the chest in two hands. Nignog grabs the chest also. He pulls it out of the hands of the skeleton. The skeleton grabs Nignog's arms at the wrists. His grip is not strong, and Nignog is about to pull away from him, but he finds himself too frightened to move. The face of the skeleton stares into his own. Its eyes are black lumps in its skull. He feels a sharp pain in his head. It seems to him that the skeleton's face is inside his mind. Looking up at the cavern ceiling, Nignog sees the shadows filled with spiders. He feels lumps under his skin, and he knows without looking that the lumps are filled with spider eggs, and the spiders are going to eat him from the inside and come down from the ceiling and eat him from the outside also. He lets go of the chest and sinks to the ground. He covers his eyes. "No," he says, "Get away from me! No!".
The skeleton picks up the chest and walks backwards into the pool.
"Zoomba!" Zar says.
Ping jumps after the skeleton and strikes him with her spear. He cannot avoid her. A flash of light behind her makes the skeleton stand still for a moment. She forces her spear between his ribs. It bites upon something she cannot see. The skeleton drops the chest. She throws her spear behind her. It slides across the cavern floor, past Nignog, who is still rolling around crying to himself. She grabs at the chest as it sinks into the water, and picks it up. She turns and makes for the shore. The skeleton does not follow her. Nor does it appear from the water as they kneel beside Nignog and try to calm him down.
After a few minutes, Nignog sits up. He rubs his eyes. He touches his body. "I had a bad dream."
"Come on," Rikard says, "Let's move you away from the pool."
They sit at the entrance to the side-chamber, and Ping examines the chest. She scrapes the top. Beneath the red slime, the chest is made of iron. She inserts the brass key in the lock and turns it. The chest opens. The inside is filled with water. There is slime and decayed cloth, but also many gold and silver pieces. They empty out the water and throw away the rotten cloth.
On the inside of the lid of the chest it says, "Jean-Christophe Guyard, 24..." There are two more numbers, but they are rusty. There is a symbol of a hammer and a compass, not the kind of compass that you tell direction with, but the kind you use for drawing circles.
Nignog goes to the pool and says, "Jean-Christophe Guyard" a few times. Ping tries it. Nothing happens. They examine the lid of the small iron box that contained the brass key. They find the same name on the inside of this lid, and a date: 2433, with the same hammer and compass symbol.
"That's almost fifty years ago," Ping says.
Also carved in the lid, with a different hand, and visible only after Ping cleans the metal with her handkerchief, it says, "Bhmbnbqppujl" and below, "y → x".
"Bhmbnbqppujl!" Zar says to the pool, "Whyarrowex."
Ping and Nignog try it too. Nothing happens.
"I think it's a code," Rikard says, "The Dukes use codes for their messages to the Queen. There are lots of different types, but they are all impossible to solve without the key."
"Hmm," Ping says.
"I think we should get going," Rikard says. "Lets take the gold and go. It must be getting late. We have to get home before dark."
They divide up the coins in the box. There are one hundred gold pieces, fifty silver pieces, fifty copper pieces and five gems. A few days later, they find that the gems are worth 360 gp together.
Our heroes leave the Chamber of the Bubbling Waters and ascend the passage. They reach the cavern where the path passes between two pools. This time they stop and look into the waters. The water is clear and still, except for drops that fall from the ceiling. There are white fish without eyes swimming slowly in a group. Nignog thinks there must be twenty or thirty of them. Each is about as thirty centimeters long, and fat enough to make a good meal.
Zar holds his light out over the pool. The light shines down and down through the blue water.
"I can't see the bottom," he says.
"It's very deep," Ping says.
On the far side of one of the pools, Nignog sees something sparkling. He stares. It is a curving, silver dagger with a jeweled handle, lying in the pond. "I'm going to get that," he says, and he leaves the path and walks around the pool. The dagger is beneath him. He kneels beside the water and reaches with his hand.
"Look out!" Ping says.
A huge, dark shadow moves up from the depths of the pool. A creature with four dragon-like heads rears out of the water, splashing Nignog where he kneels.
Rikard shouts in alarm. "Oh my gosh!"
The four dragon heads are high above Nignog. He stands and draws his sword. The heads seem to watch him and wait for a few seconds. Nignog holds up his shield. The body of the creature is as big as a horse, with a long tail and four clawed feet that grip the floor of the pool. It is covered with thick, black scales. On the back of its four heads is a red flare of skin. Each head is as large a a horse's head, with teeth as long as Nignog's fingers.
The creature surges towards Nignog and the heads lunge downwards. Nignog stabs one of the heads at the base of its neck. The head screams. The other three attack him from three sides. He holds up his shield and slashes with his sword.
Rikard stares at the Hydra. He takes one step back. He grits his teeth. He puts his hand upon his sword hilt. He pulls the blade from its scabbard. "I'm coming Nignog!" He runs to the edge of the cavern and starts to make his way around the edge of the pool towards his comrade.
"Zoomba!" Zar says.
A blinding flash appears on the cavern wall, in front of the hydra. One of the hydra heads, the one that Nignog stabbed, wavers in the air. The others rear up for a moment before they dart down again at Nignog. But Ningnog is ready. Even as the hydra head comes down at him, he is swinging his sword. The blade is hidden behind his body and his shield, in the move his grandfather calls the sudden death. The hydra jaws gape open. Nignog's sword whips out from behind his shield and severs the hydra head from its neck. The head flies over his shoulder and bounces off the cavern wall.
"Yeah Nignog!" Zar cries.
For a moment, blood squirts from the severed neck, but only for a moment. The neck waves in the air and bumps into the blind head.
"I'm coming!" Rikard says.
One of the hydra heads bites upon Nignog's shield and pulls it sideways. Nignog beats the head with his sword. The other head chomps on his shoulder. He can feel the teeth forcing his iron armor into his body and crushing his bones. He stabs up at the hydra's throat and the hydra lets go. He staggers back. Only two hydra heads are still fighting. Nignog raises his sword and feels a stabbing pain in his arm. He pants.
Ping opens her hands in front of her. She has cast a Choke. She is staring at the body of the hydra. She breaths out. "I did it!"
The hydra heads cough. They wheeze. One of them cries out, but the cry lasts only a second before it ends in a whimper. The hydra heaves its body backwards. It sinks into the water. Zar watches it dropping down and down until its red heads are lost in the shadows.
Nignog leans on the wall. He lets his sword rest upon the rock. Rikard reaches his side. "Are you hurt? That was well done, sir."
Nignog stares into the water. He cannot see the dagger. He shakes his head and moves his injured shoulder. It hurts, but there's nothing broken. "I'll be okay."
Nignog never did find the dagger in the hydra's pool. It must have fallen down in the deeps, along with the hydra's head, which would have made a good momento. They climb back up the tunnel to the wooden door. Nignog finds a handle in the ceiling. When he pulls it, the secret door opens. The wooden door to the outside world is locked. Ping picks the lock.
"Shall we go to Dunken the Drunken, or head home?" Ping says.
They decide to go home. Ping opens the door. They look outside. The birds are still singing. The hill slopes down in front of them. A path leads away in that direction. The sun is behind them.
"We're facing east. It's two hours until sunset," Rikard says. He stares into the trees and bushes. "I don't see anyone waiting to ambush us." He examines the ground around the door. "The last people here were the orcs." He points down the path. "They went that way."
"Okay, Rikard," Ping says. "Lead us home."
Rikard leads them up the hill. They clamber over some rocks, which is not so easy to do in banded armor, as Nignog will tell you, especially if you have a hurt shoulder. But Nignog did not complain.
Twenty minutes later, they stand in a clearing and look out over the valley of a river. The ground slopes up behind them. The sun is low on the horizon to their left. Rikard puts his arms on his hips. "I lead you the wrong way. I meant to take you west, but I took you north-west." He puts his hand upon his helmet and frowns at the ground. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Ping says, "What do we do now?"
Rikard looks down at the river. "That is the same river that flows past the black tower." He points towards the sun. "The tower is that way. If we go back up this hill and down to the giant willow tree, we will be taking a long way home, and we we'll just be crossing the iron bridge when the sun goes down. I don't know about you, but I don't want to be out here at night. So I suggest we go north to the river and follow the river towards the sun it until we come near the tower. I believe there is a bridge before we come to the tower, and we can use it to cross the river. It is a bridge of stone, not of iron."
His companions agree to his plan. They walk under the trees and cut their way through young braken. The trees grow thick by the river. They walk with the water visible through the trees on their right. After an hour, the bank of the river is more clear. Many trees have been cut down in recent years. Grass and wild flowers grow on the bank. Reeds grow in the shallow water.
The grass around them smokes. Rikard stops. "Fire!" He jumps sidways and crouches beside a tangled thorn bush. The others follow him. They all smell smoke. Ping wonders if this is the best place to hide, or if it makes any difference.
The thorn bush explodes in flame. The air itself seems to burst into flame. Nignog does not seem to be aware of what is happening. Zar pushes him down and covers him with his own body as a ball of blue and yellow flame swhirls above them. Rikard and Ping lie flat on the ground. The bush is burning, but the fire in the air stops.
"Run!" Rikard says, "Come on, it's something in the water. We can out-run it."
After a few minutes, they stop. The trees are thick by the river again, and they feel safe. Soon they see a stone bridge across the river through the leaves. The trees have been cleared on either side of the river around the bridge. The four companions crouch in the shadows of the trees. A wide path crosses from the other side of the river and goes ahead of them on their side.
Rikard points at the path. "That is the path that runs past the black tower to the iron bridge. It goes to the giant willow."
"Okay," Ping says.
Nignog clears his throat. His lips are cracked from the fire. "We should stay away from the tower."
"I agree," Rikard says, "We should cross here, and go through the forest, away from the paths, to the west. That way we are less likely to meet anybody."
Nignog stands up. "Okay, let's do it now."
They run for the bridge. Ping gets there first. She runs across, with Nignog behind her. Rikard and Zar come last. Rikard is watching the river and so is Zar. And it is Zar who sees a barrel-sized shape rising out of the water. From the bridge, he can see down into the water. Beneath the barrel-sized head is a larger body, the size of a horse.
"Get down!" Zar says. He tackles Rikard and the two of them fall to the stone surface of the bridge. Fire erupts all around them. Zar's leather armor is blackened. Rikard cries out as the hair sticking out of his helmet goes up in smoke, and a jet of flame burns his nose and throat.
The flames stop. Zar stands up and pull Rikard to his feet. They run to the other side of the bridge and into the trees.
"You saved Rikard," Ping says. "I think you saved his life, Zar."
"And mine," Nignog says.
Rikard takes off his helmet for a moment and wipes his face. "Thank you Zar, you are brave and true."
Rikard leads them west through the forest. The sun sets slightly to their right. It's red light shines through the trees and the birds sing their last song of the day. The forest seems peaceful. They see no sign of kobolds or orcs or minotaurs. It is dusk when they reach the path that leads to the bridge of fallen trees. They cross the pit of the veloceraptor. They jog along with their weapons drawn, staring into the shadows.
All four of them are exhausted. At any moment, Ping expects to hear kobold bowstrings twanging in the bushes. She has never seen Nignog so tired. His face is set in a grimace. His breath comes in gasps. Tears come into her eyes. She does not want any of her friends to die. She thought Rikard was going to die on the bridge back there. The flame burst right above him. Only Zar saved Rikard from fire.
"There it is!" Rikard says.
The bridge of fallen trees is in front of them. Rikard stops. "After you," he says to Ping. She crosses. Nignog follows, then Zar. Rikard comes last.
They stand upon the other side. Rikard looks back. "Until next time, Hills of Doom. We shall return."
Ping frowns at the hills. The sun is setting behind her, and it's light makes the tall trees glow pink. Beneath those trees, in the shadows, the creatures of the night are stirring in their sleep. Ever since her youth Ping has stared across the river at the Hills of Doom. So long as she can remember, she has dreamed of the adventures she could have beneath the shadows of those tall, silent, trees. But now she's not so sure she wants to go back again. Maybe she just needs a rest: a long rest with plenty of studying her spell-books. It's not that going into the Hills of Doom is frightening. Its getting out of them that's frightening.
"One day," Ping says.
Nignog shakes his sheild and smashes his sword against it's metal face. Clang! Clang! Clang! He spreads his arms and laughs at the Hills of Doom.
Ping rolls her eyes.