Sheen leaned her head against the side of the cab and watched the city go past the window. Joris and Talan were sitting silently as well, absorbed in their own thoughts. Eventually, the cab stopped and the driver thumped on the wall, shouting, “Twelve Factols!” as if to make sure that they got the hint.
Talan pushed the door open and Ari promptly jumped outside, wagging her tail so furiously that her entire body wavered from side to side. She looked over her shoulder until Talan hauled himself to his feet. “Rrrruuroooo!” Ari bawled enthusiastically.
“I’m coming!” Talan said, laughing and waggling the end of his cloak in front of Ari’s nose.
“I wonder what the purpose of this building is?” Sheen asked, looking down the stone staircase that descended into the depths. Others might have found the architecture ominous, but Sheen, raised among dwarves, found it familiar and comforting. She trotted down the stairs nonchalantly. The hall below was lit by glowing crystals. Dwarves and baraiur sat quietly at tables, mostly absorbed in their food. A few looked up as Sheen walked past, but their bland curiosity held no hostility.
The stairs continued down into a loud, busy room full of yet more dwarves and other natives of Ysgard, drinking, boasting, and singing. A wrestling match broke out in the corner as they watched, accompanied by loud cheers and shouts of encouragement. Sheen skirted the festivities, followed by Talan and Joris, and went down yet another staircase.
This final hall was lit only by faint blue crystals, which cast an eerie glow on the deep black stone of the walls, ceiling, and floor. Two dwarves in full armor silently flanked an ominous metal grating. One immediately crossed the floor towards them.
“Hail, friends,” he said.
“Hail,” Sheen said in the dwarven tongue. The guard raised a thick eyebrow at her, clearly impressed.
“I’m guessing you’ve come to visit the Realm Below?” he responded in the same language.
“Yes,” Sheen said. “We have need to reach a portal in the Undercity.”
“Ah,” said the dwarf, his expression becoming very grave. “Well, I can’t let you pass unless one of you can defeat me in combat.”
Sheen blinked, then shrugged. She’d learned not to question dwarven customs. “If you would like to engage in the games, I will assent.”
Talan glanced over at Joris. “I’m not sure what’s going on here,” he said.
“Me neither,” Joris replied.
The dwarf laughed loudly at Sheen’s expression. “I’m just pullin’ yer leg! Eldgrim Ringhammer, at yer service!” he announced in Common, thrusting out a hairy, thick-knuckled hand. “Put ‘er there!”
“Any relation to Fritzan Ringhammer?” Sheen asked as she let the dwarf maul her hand briefly.
Eldgrim spat on the ground. “Afraid so, the leatherhead. Those Harmonium berks filled his head with their screed ‘till he forgot all about his clan. Anyway, I *am* supposed to warn you about the dangers below. We get no end of Clueless sods comin’ here thinkin’ they’re gonna find piles of gold down there, I’m sure ye can imagine.”
“Oh, I can imagine,” Sheen said. “We had the same problem in Undermountain. Is it much worse down there than having Halaster for a neighbor?”
“Undermountain?” Eldgrim asked, his eyebrows shooting up again. “No wonder you speak the language so fluently. I wouldn’t know, lass, but we did have a passel of umber hulks tear up the place about ten years ago. I’ll also ask ye not to disturb the dwarven catacombs, but ye seem like decent sorts who’d know better, and not wantin’ any dwarven curses upon ye, of course.”
Sheen nodded. “I was raised in the dwarven halls—I don’t know why, I grant you, that’s all I ever knew—but I know how to behave.”
Eldgrim nodded and started to add something, but there was a loud rattle of steps coming down the stairs and a breathless woman burst into the room. She went straight to Talan and grabbed his arm.
“Odin’s beard, I didn’t think I’d ever find you!” she gasped. Talan blinked. It was Dalla, the Xaositect cleric they’d most recently seen in the company of Mordrigaarz Antill.
“What happened?” Talan asked. “Why would you come looking for us?”
Dalla coughed a couple times. “They took Haden!”
“What!?” Joris yelled. Sheen crossed her arms, scowling furiously.
“Who too Haden where?” she demanded.
“I was at the Butcher’s Block, oh, hours ago,” Dalla explained. “Haden came in for a drink, I didn’t recognize him at first. I got up to talk to him, and a gang of six sellswords scragged him and dragged him out the door. Said that the Great Eye would be upon him in Plague-Mort. They were taking him to Plague-Mort! A chaosman tried to stop them and got a cracked skull for his trouble.”
“Dead?” Sheen asked.
“I’m not sure,” Dalla said. “I came looking for you right away. I knew you had your kip at Chirper’s, but the bariur said you were out . . . took me a deal of looking to find you! I woulda followed them, but I’m not much of a fighter or a sneak and who knows what they’d have done to me if I’d tried.”
Talan squeezed Dalla’s arm gently. “Thank you. I’m sure Haden will be touched that you went to so much effort on his behalf.”
Dalla shrugged. “Well, you seemed to be decent enough folks, like to help out a person what couldn’t quite managed to help themselves at the moment. It don’t hurt to give such folks reason to think well of ye.”
Sheen dug into her pack and produced a small glass bottle. “For the chaosman who got injured,” she explained. “Right, you two. Let’s go kick some Illuminated ass.”
“Thanks, cutter,” Dalla said. “Kill one for Chaos.”
Sheen strode towards the metal grate, the other guard scrambling to open it as she approached. Eldgrim waved after her. “Blessing of the Father upon you as well!” he called.
The darkness below was so thick it had an almost palpable weight to it. The staircase twisted and they were soon out of sight of the faint blue glow. Sheen concentrated and her eyes began to shine brightly, casting narrow beams of light wherever she looked. Joris pulled out his mace and cast a light spell over it as well. Talan scrutinized the cleric suddenly.
“When did you get the new gear?”
“Uh, at the Circle,” Joris said. “There was a cleric who followed Corellon there, but he left it behind.” Ahead, testing each stair cautiously before stepping down, Sheen sighed.
“At least you haven’t made me endure a lecture about this being All My Fault,” she said.
“Hey, we’re all worried about him,” Talan said, bouncing down a few stairs so he could look at Sheen from close range. “Are you all right?”
Sheen blinked her eyes rapidly a few times. “I’m fine. Let’s just go.” She scrubbed at her face with her hands, which were trembling slightly.
“You’re not the only one missing him,” Talan said.
“I don’t miss him!” Sheen growled. “He hasn’t even been gone for a full day yet! I just, well, I don’t want him to get *hurt*. I’d rather have him around so I can not miss him to his face instead of behind his back,” she explained.
“Me too,” Talan said.
The stairs terminated in a dusty, web-strewn corridor that extended into the black distance. The faint exhalation of equalizing pressure fluttered past them periodically, lifting their cloaks and filling their eyes with grit.
“You think I’m an idiot, don’t you?” Sheen asked after they’d walked for a while.
“No, I think you’re human,” Talan said. “And I think you’re much smarter than the two of us,” he added, waving a hand in the air to indicate Joris and himself.
“Smarter than me, certainly,” Joris said.
“I’m just not very good with people,” Sheen admitted. “I can manage when it’s just a business relationship, but otherwise, not so much.” She continued walking through the dark halls, the light from her eyes shifting restlessly.
“I know what you mean,” Talan said. “I find it much easier to relate to animals than people.” The ranger glanced over at Joris, who kept opening his mouth as though he wanted to say something, then closing it again and adopting a vaguely constipated expression. “That just leaves you, my friend.”
“You may as well spit it out, Joris, you’re entitled to have snarky opinions just like the rest of us,” Sheen added.
“Well,” Joris said, still hesitating a bit. “Magic makes more sense to me than people, but that’s because it has rules. If people have rules, I can’t discern them.”
Sheen smiled grimly. “People have rules that they make up themselves, that’s the trouble.”
Joris chuckled, a bit awkwardly. “Right.”
“You never know what sort of terrible things they may have made up inside their own head,” Sheen added.
“That’s certainly true,” Talan said. “And I think they change them according to some internal whim.”
“Indeed,” Joris said sagely. “Sometimes I think I prefer not knowing.”
Talan nodded. “I have to say that you two—and Haden—have turned out to be worth trusting.”
Joris looked pleased. “Thank you, Talan. If anything, I tend to be *too* trusting. I’m glad it’s worked out for me this time.”
Talan glanced at Sheen. “Since the rest of us aren’t really that interested in other people, we’re really better off with Haden around.”
Sheen eyeballed the ranger, then shrugged. “I never used to have much trouble trusting people. I trusted my own judgment and let it go at that. But now, I don’t know. I can’t seem to make up my mind about him. Do you two ever wonder if this may all be some sort of elaborate plot on his part? That maybe he’s leading us into a trap?”
Joris winced. “Not until now,” he said.
“To be honest,” Talan said, “I’ve never completely trusted anyone who wasn’t covered in fur, but Haden’s done a fair job of dispelling any serious doubts. Why does it worry you?”
“I don’t know,” Sheen replied, staring into the darkness beyond the reach of her glowing eyes. “There’s just something about him that always makes me think he’s after something.”
“We all are to some degree, at least,” Talan said quietly. “How many of us are truly altruistic without any thought of personal gain? Maybe Haden’s just more obvious—or honest—than most.”
“I trust altruism least of all,” Sheen snorted. “That’s why Haden worries me. What does he get out of all of this?”
“Apart from the amusement that his own entourage of Clueless provides?” Joris offered.
“That explanation hasn’t held any water since day one,” Sheen announced.
“You do bring up a good point,” Talan said. “Maybe he simply enjoys having a sense of purpose. It doesn’t seem like anyone has ever expected anything much out of him.”
Sheen shrugged. “Then he could, I don’t know, get a job.”
“I did,” Joris interjected. “I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
“Really?” Sheen asked. “Good for you. There’s just something wrong with a man who doesn’t seek gainful employment.”
“Where’s this job?” Talan demanded.
“At the Circle,” Joris explained. “I’ll be moving out when we get back . . .”
“There’s a room for me, there. It’s not much, but it’s my own space.”
“You’re putting down roots, Joris,” Sheen said. “It’s funny, because I was under the impression that you wanted to go back to Faerun more than anyone else did.”
Joris shrugged. “I won’t deny that I still have a hard time dealing with all the weirdness, but I feel, I don’t know, free here. Like I can be whatever it is that I’m supposed to be, not what someone else wants. Does that make any sense?”
“Yes,” Talan said. “It’s a good feeling to have.”
“I like it,” Sheen said. “There’s a definite air here that no one gives a damn about you and you can do whatever without fear or favor.”
“That’s it!” Joris said, his voice echoing loudly through the dark corridors. “That’s it exactly!”
Sheen smiled. “Finding it nice to be freed from the weight of other people’s expectations, Joris?”
“It’s like I was a slave and I couldn’t even feel my chains.”
Sheen scowled as their light struck a crumpled mass occupying the middle of the corridor ahead. Without so much as exchanging a glance, the three of them sank into a defensive stance, Sheen taking the lead. As they drew closer, it was revealed as a shell of chitinous plates—the corpse of some insectoid creature.
“Probably one of those umber hulks Eldgrim mentioned,” Joris said.
Sheen prodded the carcass a bit. “It looks like it was hacked apart by dwarves. It’s been here a while, but best to be on our guard, anyway. Let’s keep going.”
Conscious again of the danger that might lurk in the darkness, they walked in silence until they came to the break in the wall of the catacomb Lissandra told them about. A ragged hole like the outlet of some burrowing creature’s tunnel led even further into the unknown depths. Sheen scanned the pit and began climbing down the pile of detritus that passed for a floor, Talan and Joris following.
It wasn’t long before they were able to make out a faint light shining ahead. The tunnel terminated in long pool of water lined with phosphorescent fungi. Sheen looked over at Talan.
“That doesn’t look very healthy.”
“No,” the ranger said, “no it does not.”
“I can’t swim,” Joris said, sighing. Sheen took a deep breath and plunged her head into the water, exploring the submerged tunnel with her glowing vision. She sat back up, blowing to clear her mouth and nose.
“It looks like it’s only underwater for a short distance, I can see surface on the other side. If we can’t swim, we can pull ourselves along the tunnel, at least.” Joris looked mournfully at his armor and sighed again. “There’s no use trying to keep anything dry,” Sheen added. “It won’t work, and we can’t afford to leave anything behind.” She began wading into the water determinedly.
“I hate getting rusty,” Joris murmured and followed. Talan, the most buoyant, came last, striking out with broad, powerful strokes. Ari wavered back and forth on the shore, whining, for several moments, then took a running leap and hit the water with an explosive splash. With deep breaths, all three of them—followed by Ari--plunged under the water, scrambling along the tunnel as best they could.
Joris reached out to grip Sheen’s armor and keep them together when he was shocked to feel her recoil violently. Dark shapes emerged from a crack in the wall, reaching out with hideous claw-like hands. Sheen sprouted claws from her own hands and fended them off, but their dagger-like fingers sank into her flesh and her body went weak and limp. Joris stared into dead face with white, filmy eyes and thrust his holy symbol out, calling on Mystra to protect him. Bubbles of steam erupted from the hideous undead as the force of Joris’ faith burned them. Talan shoved one away from Sheen, cutting it apart with his sword, as Joris rendered the other two little more than floating clouds of vile ash. Together they pulled on Sheen’s arms and struggled away.
They surfaced choking and gasping for air. Talan hauled himself to his feet and stalked down the corridor, looking for any other dangers, while Joris pounded Sheen on the back and tried to get her moving again. She didn’t seem to have inhaled any of the water, but it took several minutes before she had control over her body and could sit up under her own power.
“I didn’t like that at ALL,” she announced flatly. “Haden better appreciate this when we find him.”
“Heh,” Talan said. “I’d laugh, but I’m too tired.”
They resumed their journey through the tunnel, half-climbing, half-walking over piles of scree and rubble. The tunnel broke through into another complex, this one with rough sandstone walls marked with peculiar symbols: hieroglyphics of some sort.
“It looks like the writing of Mulhorand,” Joris said, examining the figures.
“Is it dangerous?” Sheen asked.
“I don’t know,” Joris said, “I never learned to read them. My father can. Some tomb raider came to Silverymoon once and tried to sell him some artifacts, so he took an interest in their history and magical practices.”
Sheen leaned past him. “Squiggle, squiggle, bird, beetle, squiggle. Well, that’s enlightening.”
“If it’s like a Mulhorandi tomb,” Joris continued, giving Sheen a quelling look and pretending she hadn’t spoken, “then yes, it could be dangerous.”
Sheen sighed and forged on ahead. “Let’s assume that if it is dangerous, we’ll find out pretty quickly here.” She began climbing a long, narrow staircase that led up into a vague, dusty darkness.
“Wait!” Joris said when she was already more than a third of the way up.
“What?” Sheen demanded.
“Well, I can cast a spell that will help me find traps,” Joris offered. He cringed a bit under the force of her glare.
“What, were you just going to wait until I exploded? Twerp.” She grabbed the cleric bodily and thrust him up the stairs. Joris cast his spell and began walking slowly, scanning the floor, walls, and ceiling.
“I don’t think there’s anything . . .” he began.
Sheen tried to pull Joris out of the way as a bolt of lightning shot down the staircase, the blue-white glow blinding and the terrible thunder of expanding air nearly deafening in the small space.
“Ow,” Sheen announced several seconds later. Joris slapped his cloak, trying to put out a few small fires.
“Um, magical traps are very hard to find,” Joris said weakly.
“Let’s just go,” Talan said from behind them, coughing a bit at the steam rising from his clothes and armor. “Look at the bright side.”
“There’s a bright side?” Sheen asked, moving her twitching legs carefully.
“At least we’re dry now.”
The room at the top of the stairs was full of great stone sarcophagi, crudely carved from stone. Several of the lids were open, revealing desiccated corpses in varying stages of decay. A large worktable in the center of the room held numerous vials, urns, and tools of unknown nature, all covered in a thick layer of dust.
“Mummies,” Joris whispered. “This is how you make mummies.”
Sheen stepped forward to get a better look. A thin bronze mask sat at the far end of the table. It had a faint bluish patina, but was free of the dust. A large gem sat beside it, a perfect sphere of incandescent blue, like a marble.
“Let’s just figure out which one of these arches leads to the portal and get out of here,” Sheen announced, leaning back from the table. As she stepped forward again, a low wind fluttered through the room, like a slow exhalation. Three wavering silhouettes condensed out of the shadows and reached out with hands that seemed only half real.
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