Nan led the way slowly up the path into the rocky upland. The dirt trail was well-trampled and the stone walls that shouldered close to it bore odd scrape marks at head height. Demaris fingered one speculatively, then rejoined the group.
Fa’ss’th looked up at the village woman. “I suggest Nan head back to the village now. This trail is pretty obvious, there’s no need for her to strain herself now.” Nan simply shrugged.
“Do you think you will be safe making your way back to the village by yourself?” Oren asked. She shrugged again and turned to leave; she didn’t seem to care whether she was safe or not.
The path led eventually to a great crack in the stone; a black maw opening on an unknown depth. Barak approached slowly and peered into the darkness, his weak human eyes straining.
“What’s down there?” Yorick asked.
“I can’t really see,” Barak said, digging through his pockets until he found a smooth glowing stone. “It looks . . . empty.” He took a few steps forward, paused, then turned around and walked out again. Everyone stared at him in surprise. “I’m not going in there.”
“What? What did you see?” Fa’ss’th demanded as the entire group took several steps backwards in unison.
“Nothing. There’s nothing in there.”
Giving Barak a skeptical look, the lizard wizard scrambled around the rocks and peeked into the hole himself. He entered the cavern and looked around. It was a dry, dusty hole, rough-hewn from the stone, but otherwise unremarkable apart from its size. It was large enough to swallow the inn back in the village. A wide slot in the stone appeared to lead into another chamber. Olena dug a sun rod out of her pack and tried to follow Fa’ss’th, and was mystified to find herself repeating Barak’s performance. Some strange feeling filled her mind and blunted her will.
Outside, Yorick examined Barak a shrewdly. “If there’s nothing in there, why won’t you go in?”
“I don’t know. Leave me alone,” the human said, sitting down heavily on a rock.
“He’s right,” Olena announced. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Why?!” Yorick demanded.
“Because there’s nothing here,” she said, and began walking back up the path. Demaris shot a perplexed look at Oren, and the paladin trotted after Olena.
“Wait!” he said, plucking at her sleeve. She stopped and they spoke quietly for a few moments. Finally, she let him draw her back to the cave entrance.
“There’s something fishy going on here,” Demaris murmured. Yorick walked into the cave, twitched in surprise, then groaned.
“There’s an Aversion trap in the entrance, is what,” he muttered.
“An Aversion?” Demaris asked skeptically. “You mean, it’s a psionic trap?”
“Drat,” Fa’ss’th said, examining the stone in detail. “I can’t find the source. Heh, not like I could really remove the trap now, even if I could find it.”
“How far into the cave did you go?” Yorick asked the lizard.
“Not far. If there’s traps I can’t see, I don’t want to go messing around in there much.”
Yorick took on a sour expression. “I, well, I have that ability.”
“Right,” Demaris said. “So what are you waiting for?”
“Staying out here is still a good idea,” Olena offered.
“I’m with her,” Barak seconded.
Yorick stared at the entrance for a long time, then flattened himself to the wall and shuffled carefully into the cave. He pointed at the ceiling. “Trap’s up there . . . if you are careful, you can squeeze past. Do you have some way to break the rock up there?”
Fa’ss’th poked the ceiling repeatedly with his shortspear. There were a few sad pinging noises, but otherwise little result. “I can try blasting it, but it’ll make a LOT of noise. Do we want to try that?”
“Let’s see if we can get past it without doing that,” Yorick replied.
Oren frowned at Olena, then dug a scarf out of his pockets and offered it to her. “Perhaps if you cover your eyes, you will be able to approach.”
“All right, but you’ll have to lead me,” she said, tying the cloth around her eyes. She put her hand on Oren’s shoulder. The paladin gritted his teeth and stepped into the cave, sighing in relief when he suffered no ill effects. Olena began to balk, though, and rather than stop, he scooped her up in his arms. She squeaked angrily and fought briefly, but once they cleared the entrance she relaxed again.
Demaris examined Barak, “If you think I’m going to carry you again . . .”
Barak glared at her angrily. “Just go in. I’ll stay here on guard in case anything comes.”
“Suit yourself,” she said, and trotted into the cave.
Olena took off the scarf and blinked in the darkness. A faint glint caught her eye and she bent to pick up a strange object. It looked a great deal like a piece of fine, clear quartz, but it was a thin plate the size of her palm instead of a squarish block like most quartz crystals. She held her light up to it and smiled at the rainbow of colors that resulted. Opening her pack, she started to squeeze it into a corner and was startled to find that the crystal flexed slightly in her hand. “Hey!” she murmured. “Strange.”
Fa’ss’th and Yorick made for the entrance to the next chamber, both of them looking up at the ceiling again first. “There’s another trap here,” Yorick said shortly. “It’s much like the first, but I think it will have a different effect.”
“Oh well,” Fa’ss’th said and trotted through the passage. He felt some clinging tendrils of power, but his will brushed them aside contemptuously. Yorick flattened himself to the wall again and repeated his comical shuffling. One at a time, the others braved the trap and entered the next chamber. The room was full of wooden chests—battered and salt-stained--stacked more or less randomly. Yorick squealed and began flipping through the boxes, examining their contents. Coins and gems shone brightly.
“Here we go again,” Demaris said. “We don’t need money. We need to know what’s going on here!”
“There are some dead gnolls here,” Fa’ss’th called from the far side of the chamber, where another passage led into yet another chamber.
“Well, at least that saves us the trouble,” Olena replied, joining the lizard in examining the walls and ceiling. Yorick reluctantly turned away from the chests and approached them.
“There’s not much room here,” he said. “It will be hard to get past.”
“Oh well, let’s get to it,” Olena said, and began squeezing along the wall. There was a faint sound, a deep, low grumble, then the three of them abruptly collapsed. Demaris covered her eyes with a hand.
“Great.” Oren started to creep forward towards the fallen comrades , but Demaris grabbed the back of his tunic. “Are you insane? Do you want to get caught in it, too?!”
“We can’t just leave them there,” the paladin retorted.
“No, we can’t. You go back outside and get Barak,” Demaris ordered as she began edging towards the limp bodies. Oren gaped at her.
“So you are just going to walk into it?!”
“Yes,” Demaris said, gritting her teeth as she continued her slow approach. “The difference between us is, I know what I’m doing. I think.”
“Oh that’s very reassur . . .”
“Just do it!” Oren sighed and left the chamber. It was some time before he returned with Barak, and he discovered that Demaris had already retrieved everyone in the interval. Barak leaned down to touch Fa’ss’th and winced as he took on some of the lizard’s injuries. Fa’ss’th wrenched back to consciousness, his mind screaming in agony.
“What, what happened?!” he squeaked. Then he felt in his pockets. “Oh no! Oh no oh no . . .”
“What?” Demaris demanded, kneeling over him and trying to get a look at his eyes. Oren waved his hands and cast healing over Yorick, and then attempted to do the same with Olena. Fa’ss’th pulled a handful of crystal shards out of one pocket and a tiny dead snake out of the other, and burst into tears.
“I think she’s dead,” Oren whispered.
Still crying, Fa’ss’th pulled a long, slender piece of crystal out of his pack and touched it to the snake. The crystal glowed and the familiar began moving again, slowly, and wrapped itself around Fa’ss’th’s arm. The gold and ivory snake shifted to make room for the familiar as Fa’ss’th waved the dorje over Olena. She shuddered violently and took a breath. Nodding, Fa’ss’th replaced the dorje, sat down, and began sobbing in earnest.
“Um, are you okay?” Demaris asked the lizard after a while. Oren glared at her. “What? It’s just a question.”
“Have some sympathy for him. His familiar has just died, as well as his other . . . thing,” Oren said a bit awkwardly.
“The psicrystal? They’re just constructs. They can’t ‘die’. They were never alive in the first place!”
“Shut up,” Oren told her quietly. Demaris opened her mouth to retort angrily, and he made a cutting motion in the air. “I am serious. Be silent of your own will or force me to silence you; either way the result will be the same.”
Demaris slammed her fist into the stone, bloodying her knuckles. She hardly seemed to notice the damage, but hit the ground again and again until red drops scattered across the floor. Horrified, Oren grabbed her wrist. “Stop it! What is wrong with you?” Demaris was breathing hard, her gaze distant and strange. After a moment, her clouded eyes began to clear.
“It’s nothing. I’m fine. Let go.” She paused. “Please.”
“You should . . .”
“We should get them back to the village. We’re not going any further today.” She stooped and picked up Fa’ss’th, who put his arms around her neck. Oren lifted the unconscious Olena a bit uncertainly. Barak concentrated and grabbed one of Yorick’s ankles. The man slid easily over the stone floor, and the six of them returned back the way they had come. The surviving women watched silently as they built a small fire and arranged their companions around it.
“What colossal stupidity,” Demaris announced. Oren threw down the wood he was carrying, whirled, and stalked towards the edge of the village. “Hey! Where are you going?” she yelled after him.
“But . . .”
Barak shook his head. “Would it kill you to learn some tact?” he demanded.
“I don’t think it’d kill people to get used to the blunt truth, either! I’m not blaming anyone, so why get upset? Everyone does stupid things. The best thing to do is to identify it as stupid and then move on!”
Barak leaned back and stretched. “That’s why you need to use tact. If you’re not trying to blame anyone, then you need to actually convey that idea.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear that. I’m assuming you meant to say: ‘thank you for the lesson, Barak, and I will behave better in the future’.”
Demaris’ expression was sour. “I’ll take it under advisement.”
By morning, everyone had more or less recovered. Yorick groaned and felt his bruises carefully.
“Well, that was . . . fun. Unless you have some better ideas, I suggest we carry on to Athkatla after our little . . . misadventure.”
Fa’ss’th shook his head. “We need to help these ladies, but I don’t see how to make it through those caves. I don’t know very much about traps.”
“Well, I’d like to know what’s in there,” Demaris said.
“I told you I didn’t want to go in there,” Olena announced. Oren winced.
“I am sorry,” he whispered awkwardly.
“Sorry for what? It wasn’t your fault, Oren,” Olena said gently.
Fa’ss’th frowned in thought. “There were three traps that we’ve encountered so far: aversion, brain lock, and ultrablast. I’ve never met anyone that could manifest that last power, well, except Nymbus, and he’s unavailable.”
“The psionic nature of the traps suggests a connection with Sulveig to me,” Olena said.
“If Sulveig did that, we may as well give up now,” Fa’ss’th replied grimly.
Yorick said, “Unless there’s another entrance, I don’t see what can be done.”
“The, uh, ultrablast didn’t go off again right away, a relief to me, I might add,” Demaris explained, “because it made it a lot easier to get you out of there. The other two traps are more annoying than lethal.”
“And how do you suggest we get past the non-annoying one?” Yorick demanded icily.
“You want a suggestion? Use something to set it off, then go through!”
“Are you volunteering?” Yorick sneered.
“Hey, you asked. Oren did find some animals while he was ‘out’.”
Olena winced. “I doubt the Treefather would approve, but these are desperate times. Perhaps a goat could set it off. It would be easy enough to chase one through, but dragging it there, well, not so much.”
“One part that confuses me is the dead gnolls,” Fa’ss’th said. “Traps like this usually allow friends to pass without problems.”
Oren raised his hand tentatively. “Is it possible that someone wanted to protect the rest of the cave from the gnolls?”
Fa’ss’th shrugged. “Sure, it’s possible. I guess Barak and I can produce sonic bolts and gradually destroy the trap from a distance.”
“Well, if we are set on returning, that is how we should probably proceed,” Yorick said, heaving himself to his feet. Demaris suddently turned and looked at Olena.
“Hey, do you still have that piece of crystal you picked up?”
Olena stared at her blankly, then began rooting through her bundles. “Let me check. Ah, here it is. It flexes a bit. It’s very strange.” Demaris held the crystal in her hands, frowing. Everyone crowded close to look. Yorick paled and stumbled backwards, sitting down abruptly.
“That is a dragon scale,” he said.
“Oh! No wonder it’s so pretty!” Olena said, smiling.
“And so deadly.”
“Um, how big of a dragon are we talking about, here?” Demaris asked, turning the scale over and over in her hands. Everyone began talking at once.
“The villagers didn’t warn us? It didn’t look like a very big passage for a dragon . . . maybe it doesn’t live there any more . . .Is it an evil dragon? Probably a crystal dragon, actually, they’re extremely rare though . . . we didn’t see any other evidence of a dragon, did we? Maybe it doesn’t live there any more!”
Fa’ss’th held up his hands. “All right, stop, stop. I am confused. Didn’t Nan tell us the gnolls took some of the villagers to the caves?”
“I think so,” Olena said. “We should ask her about the dragon in any case.”
The village woman was not difficult to find. Olena showed her the scale. “What can you tell us about the dragon in that cave?”
Nan looked panicky. “It still here?” she scratched out with a piece of charcoal.
“Well, we didn’t see it,” Olena began, but Yorick butted in.
“Tell us what you know,” he hissed menacingly. Nan cringed.
“Dragon come with soldiers . . .” she began to spell out laboriously. Fa’ss’th touched her arm and concentrated.
“There, that should help,” he said. “Now ask your questions.”
~There is a lizard talking inside my head?~ Nan thought. Fa’ss’th snorted with laughter.
~It’s okay, it just makes it easier for us to talk,~ he explained. Nan shrugged.
~The dragon came with the army,~ she explained, pointing to the large burn holes in roofs and walls.
~Why didn’t you tell us about it before?~ Yorick demanded.
~I thought it was gone. How was I supposed to know? I only saw it for a second, and it was horrible!~
~Were you left here to bring us to it? Are you in league with the beast?!~
~Yorick, that’s enough!~ Olena snapped. ~Nan, the cave is full of traps now. Do you know what else we may find there?~
~No, I only saw the gnolls take one of the women up the path towards the cave every day or so. Some of the gnolls didn’t come back, the women never did.~
~Um.~ Olena thought, and odd sensation for everyone involved. ~Would you excuse us, Nan?~ The village woman shrugged and returned to her salvage efforts. “All this psionic business ties the gnolls to Sulveig,” Olena said aloud. “They may have left something behind we can use.”
“But if we blast our way in, are we prepared to deal with what we find?” Yorick said, his twisted expression making it obvious that he thought the answer was No.
Demaris rolled her eyes. “I think if the dragon was actually in there, we wouldn’t still be standing here arguing. I mean, if you were going to attack Athkatla, and you had a dragon for an ally, would you leave it behind?”
“I’d never be without it,” Olena said, nodding.
“Heh,” Demaris said, endeavoring not to look pleased at the agreement. “It might not even be possible to leave it behind if it thought it might get some nice loot.”
“All right,” Fa’ss’th said. “Let’s just blast the traps down and see what else is inside. The longer we wait, the further away Sulveig gets. Hey, does anyone have a piece of bluish-green metal?”
“You mean, adamantine?” Demaris asked. She stood ungracefully on one foot and pulled a small sliver of the metal out of her boot. It was barely sufficient to serve as a dagger.
“Good!” Fa’ss’th announced. He jumped up and snatched the metal, then vanished into the ruined town. After a moment, he returned dragging a 20’ pole, looted from a collapsed house. He dug some twine out of his pockets and lashed the adamantine to the end of the pole, then began dragging it in the direction of the cave. The others followed him, mystified. Fa’ss’th stopped at the entrance to the cave and frowned at the ceiling.
“Yorick, invoke that power again so I can see what I need to poke.”
“Um, all right . . .” Yorick said, and concentrated. “It’s right about . . . there.”
“Right!” Fa’ss’th said and hauled the pole into a vertical position. It wavered and wobbled badly, nearly overturning the small lizard, but he braced his tail against the ground, turning himself almost into a tripod, and began chipping vigorously at the ceiling. Demaris coughed violently, trying not to laugh.
Within moments, there was a loud cracking noise and part of the ceiling collapsed with a loud rumble, raising an enormous cloud of dust and splashing everyone with white powder. Fa’ss’th charged into the cave, pole swinging wildly, and attacked the second trap.
Chip . . . chip . . . chip . . . RRRRRRUMMMMBLE. “Yah!” Fa’ss’th yelled and continued on to the third passage. He heaved the pole forward in a mighty overhead swing, catching the ceiling in a particular spot. The pole broke, but it didn’t matter because the ceiling came crashing down.
“FEAR ME AND THE POLE OF DESTRUCTION!” Fa’ss’th roared, brandishing the unbroken portion of the stick. Demaris chuckled and everyone else smiled, amused. Then a long stalk with eyeballs on it whipped around the corner, staring Fa’ss’th in the face. The lizard jumped back.
A squat, three-legged creature came bursting out of the passage, the central mass of its body opening to reveal an immense maw full of teeth. Two tentacles shot out, each ending in a fleshy pad covered in hard thorny growths. It’s eyestalk whipped around, scanning the room. Everyone stared, horrified. Then Fa’ss’th gestured violently and shot a ray of blackness straight into the creature’s mouth. Everyone drew their weapons and charged.
Olena gouged the creature badly with her sword, but a tentacle snapped out and wrapped around her waist. Fa’ss’th and Yorick rained sharp crystals and energy beams at it while Demaris swatted it with her crude staff and Oren sliced at its legs. It flailed and squealed, but it seemed weak and unfocussed in its attacks. For the most part everyone was able to stay out of the way. In less than a minute, it was little more than a twitching heap of decaying flesh.
“What did you do to it?” Demaris asked Fa’ss’th.
“Ray of Enfeeblement, of course!” he announced, looking pleased with himself. “I’m not sure what it was, but it doesn’t much matter now!” He climbed around the monster and peered into the next chamber. It appeared to be full of nothing besides an immense pile of . . . compost. Olena joined the lizard and they both stared at it in stupefaction for a while. Then they shrugged and began digging through the filth. There were no signs of bones, but after a moment they uncovered the top of a large curved object. It looked like a massive piece of quartz, oblong and smooth.
Working together, they were able to free it from the pile and heave it out for inspection. It weighed nearly eighty pounds.
“Oh, wow,” Olena said when they could see it at last. “That looks like a dragon’s egg.”
Fa’ss’th whistled through his teeth. “Sounds like a bargaining chip to me.”
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