We set out the next day for the mine. I had slept well, but my companions had not been as fortunate. Gar had run into some trouble finding an inn that would house an orc for the night, and Milo had stayed up late trying to find accommodations for him. In the end the pair had taken to the woods for the night, burning through precious supplies. They seemed adamant that Malakar and I share in their crankiness by making the two hour hike to the mines as uncomfortable as possible. I didn’t know which was worse, the orc or the inquisitor.
Gar grumbled loudly during our trek, gun in hand. He would beat it against his hand as if itching to blow holes in something. As disconcerting as Gar was, Milo took it upon himself to make our walk doubly wretched. He didn’t respond to my attempts at conversation in the slightest, he just seethed the whole way. His eyes darted from Gar to Malakar to me as if he were inspecting us. As soon as one of us wasn’t paying attention he would strike at us with a personal question or a passive aggressive statement.
“So how did you two sleep?”
“’Cause you know, I’m feeling a little sore myself.”
“So you’re from the south.”
“Aren’t there, like, evil dragons in the south?”
“You’re a half-elf. Why do you hide your ears, half-elf? Are you hiding something?”
This went on almost endlessly until we finally reached the mine. We stood around awkwardly for a few minutes, knowing someone had to go in first but not wanting to upset each other. Finally Gar let out an impatient huff and stomped forward himself.
The mine was abandoned for the most part, although there were obvious signs that goblins had been through recently. Half-chewed bones of dogs and pigs littered the ground and the smell of filth was everywhere.
After a while we reached a fork in the tunnel. Milo insisted that Desna, his goddess of luck, would show us the right way. I had my doubts about how much a deity could possibly care about which direction we took, and they were not put to rest when the inquisitor pulled out a gold piece.
“Heads we go right, tales we go left” he announced as he flipped the coin. We ended up going left. I knew there was no arguing with a man of faith. Endless arguments with my cleric sister had taught me that it was best to humor the pious.
I was just about to remark on how fortunate we had been to have evaded the goblins up to this point when everything went to hell. Gar hadn’t been paying attention to where he was walking and the rest of us noticed the trip wire too late. The orc stumbled over the trap, snapping the trigger. He had just enough time to look back at us, confusion and fear in his eyes, before an explosion rocked the cavern. The tunnel collapsed, burying the gunslinger under the weight of the rocks. Malakar rushed forward to aid the fallen orc, flinging chunks of rock and dirt over his shoulder in a frantic attempt to dig him out. I knew better, even before I heard the dreadful sound of scuttling feet and the gurgling language of the goblins from the direction of what was now our only exit.
"Goddess of luck, huh?" I grumbled as I summoned my dragon claws in preparation for combat. I had never found much use for my ability to grow scaly blue talons in place of hands in the past, but I was grateful for my draconic ancestry now.
The goblins came at us four at a time. There were certainly more, but the narrow walls of the mine prevented them from swarming us. I slashed at the first one, scraping its face ineffectively. Milo drew his crossbow and finished the thing off before it could smack me with its tiny mace, but another stepped forward to take its place.
We needed Malakar as soon as possible, but he had been caught off guard by the attackers. By the time he gave up hope on the cave in, I had already been shot with several goblin arrows. The pain made me long for the potions I had stored in my backpack. When he finally stood against the monsters, however, the fight turned squarely in our favor. He roared with rage as he drew his curved blade and dove forward to slash through the first wave of goblins in a single, bloody swing.
Malakar made short work of the remaining goblins, needing little help from the rest of us. When the fight was over we turned our attention once again to the pile of rubble. We dug the orc out eventually, but too late. His body was broken, already cool to the touch, and caked with blood and dirt.
Milo knelt and whispered a prayer over his fallen friend’s body. Malakar stomped off and started kicking the tunnel wall in frustration. I waited respectfully for my companions to compose themselves before I knelt over the orc myself and began to collect his things.
He had his gun, a worthless broken thing that I hoped I could sell for scrap, some rope, gun powder, and a pitiful amount of gold. The poor guy had probably been pickpocketed in the bar last night without realizing. I sighed and put the items in my back pack. It was only then that it occurred to me that Milo and Malakar were glaring at me.
“What are you doing?” Malakar managed. I was confused at how hurt he looked.
“Taking his stuff?” I responded innocently enough, “what, were you gonna bury him with it?”
“Some respect for the dead would be appropriate, Kepesk.” Milo spat.
“I have plenty of respect for the dead” I huffed, “enough to understand that he’s not here anymore. This is his corpse. You can bury him if you want, but this stuff isn’t going to do him any good. Not anymore.”
My companions were not pleased with me, but they took the orc’s body outside to bury him. I took the opportunity to poke around the parts of the mine we had already cleared. The goblins we had fought had come from a rather large dining hall at the end of the right corridor. There were even more scraps of bone and meat here, and splattered blood on the walls for good measure. The scene was enough to turn my stomach. I cast a few hasty magic detection spells so that I could put this place behind me.
When I did so, however, I was immediately struck with what I could only describe as the most powerful and horrifying magic I had ever witnessed. Whispers flooded my mind, speaking over one another in languages that I did not understand. Mirth and anguish cut through me simultaneously and seemed to reflect off of each other endlessly. Hideous laughter chilled the blood in my veins and I began to shake with fear. I concentrated all of my will into identifying this magic, but it was from no tradition that I was familiar with. I could not even identify it as originating from any known plane of existence. The magic grew stronger and the voices grew louder until I was forced to wrench my gaze from it. My companions found me minutes later on the floor, clutching my head in my hands and muttering frantically.
“Kepesk, what’s wrong? What happened?” Malakar demanded, lifting me to my feet.
“Did something attack you?” Milo insisted before I could answer, “What did you see?”
How could I describe what I had just witnessed? It didn’t have a name. I couldn’t explain it in any way that would make sense. I could hardly bring myself to speak, much less venture a hypothesis.
“M-madness” I managed finally, “s-strong magic. L-left over from s-some spell. Cast. M-middle of the room. D-don’t use any m-magic in here.”
Milo walked to the center of the room and poured some holy water over the place where the magic was the strongest. A new odor mingled with the blood stench in the room, rotting corpses and brimstone.
“Accursed ground” Milo sighed, “you’re right, something bad has been here.” I could tell he still did not assume anything out of the ordinary. This was not the work of any known entity, arcane or divine, of that I was sure. But as I still found it difficult to compose myself, much less fathom the terminology I would need to describe what I had seen, I settled for simply leaving the room.
Continuing down the corridor, we were ambushed by another group of goblins. A few archers crouched in holes in the ceiling and more with clubs advanced towards us. We made short work of them, they were no match for Malakar’s barbarian rage, and continued on.
Further in we saw a single goblin in plate armor. It was standing in front of a door and did not seem to notice us as we approached. I would have questioned the thing, as it did not seem hostile at the moment, but Malakar ran forward before I could say anything and sliced the strange thing in two. So much for diplomacy. We turned our attention to the door it was guarding.
It was locked, of course. I hazarded an attempt to detect magic. As I feared, the same insane power cut through my mind, terrifying me no less than it had before. I managed to compose myself better this time, the power hadn’t come as such a shock this time, and I relayed the information to my companions with an admirable lack of sobbing.
While we were inspecting the door, however, we failed to notice what had become of the bisected goblin. It’s top half hung in the air as if suspended on strings and it clutched its weapon unnaturally as its head lolled to one side. It swung at Milo, but missed.
I found myself too dumbfounded by the floating corpse to act. The jerky movements and the dripping blood were too much for my already rattled nerves. Malakar was stunned into inaction as well.
“It’s being controlled,” Milo barked as the grotesque marionet raised its blade for another attack, “swing above its head, cut the strings.” Malakar did as he was told in his confusion, slicing some force above the goblin’s head and dropping it to the ground again. I hoped it stayed dead this time.
The door was a baffling mystery to all of us. Malakar refused to go near it as Milo and I inspected it. We were about to give up when, on some whim, Milo tried knocking on it.
“What was that supposed to do?” I taunted, annoyed that he wasn’t taking this seriously. He shushed me, concentrating on the door.
“How do I do that?” He said aloud. He wasn’t making any sense.
“How do you do what?” I asked. More shushing.
“Knock on the door” he instructed, “you’ll see.”
I squinted at him incredulously.
“Just do it, okay?” I reached out tentatively and rapped on the door.
“The puppet master requires new tribute. Only those who have served the puppet master in this way may enter the realm of mirrors.” A deep voice answered me inside my head.
“Tribute?” I asked out loud.
“You must slay something in the name of the puppet master to gain entry into the realm of mirrors.”
“Who is the puppet master?” I asked. No answer.
“What is the realm of mirrors?” Nothing. I sighed and turned back to Malakar.
“We need to kill something in the name of some puppet master to get in here” I explained, “we should deal with this after we kill some more goblins.”
“I have a better idea” said Milo as he pulled the dead goblin off the ground and pulled a mace out of his backpack, “lets deal with this now.” Before we could stop him he began banging on the goblin’s metal armor. The sound echoed through the tunnel and it wasn’t long before we heard more scuttling and guttural goblin speech.
“I’m not killing anything in the name of some guy I’ve never heard of” Malakar grumbled, “it’s probably evil!”
“Damn. Hadn’t thought of that” the inquisitor muttered, turning to me, “how about you? You seem to be the most… evil… person here. You do it.” Evil? I had never thought of myself as evil. I wondered if he was referring to the way I treated Gar’s body. Perhaps I had been a bit cold, but evil? I supposed the minds of the righteous had little room for shades of grey.
“Uh, sure. You set them up, I’ll knock them down” I answered, “with… evil I guess.”
Finally the goblins broke the awkward interaction with violence. They only came at us from one side, thankfully. Malakar put himself between them and us and began cleaving. I tried to pick off the most wounded ones with a fairly weak lightning spell, but most of them dropped to Malakar’s blade or Milo’s crossbow before I had the chance.
When there was only one foe left, Malakar maneuvered around it to block its retreat. I summoned my claws and dug into the little monster’s throat myself, mentally dedicating the kill as tribute to the puppet master. As the life sputtered out of the goblin, it began to rise into the ceiling as if on strings. It disappeared into the ceiling and reappeared outside of the door.
I felt a little self-conscious as I approached the magical door again. The goblin backed away to allow me to grasp the handle, but cut off my companions.
“Only one who has paid tribute to the puppet master may enter the realm of mirrors.” The voice spoke again in my mind, “You have served the master and may proceed.” The door was now unlocked. I swung it open, turning sheepishly to my companions.
“Uh, if I die in here…” I started, but thought better of it, “I’ll be back in a minute.”
On the other side was a room made entirely out of mirrors. Each of the walls, the ceiling and the floor were all enormous mirrors and at the far end was a chest. I walked over to it and tried to open it. The lid came up from the opposite direction, so that the side with the hinges was propped up to reveal the contents. Inside was some kind of rod wrapped in cloth. I didn't have to cast a spell to know that it was magical. It was practically humming with the insane magic that I assumed was native to this plane. I took it out of the chest, but when I tried to remove the cloth it would not budge. Any way I tried to pull the cloth only seemed to tangle it more. I tried to use it in a way that a wand or a rod might be activated, but to no avail. With another puzzle I returned to my companions who were still waiting outside.
“There was just some kind of rod in there,” I reported, waving the loot in the air, “I have no idea what it does.”
“Well that was a waste” Malakar grumbled and sliced the strings on the tribute, sending the goblin tumbling to the ground. It was probably for the best that we didn’t leave this puppet master with any extra help from us.
We pressed on until we came to the end of the tunnel. A narrow staircase marked the only way to proceed further into the mine. I figured we had probably already cleared the mine of goblins, but it couldn’t hurt to make sure, and there was still the matter of the wizard the brotherhood wanted us to investigate. We ventured into the stairway single file. The narrow walls made our descent seem to take longer than it should have. When we reached the end, the walls of the mine opened up into a wide room. My companions stopped short once they entered the room, leaving me trapped in the stairway. Claustrophobia ate away at my patience and I pushed past them to get into the room for some air. Only then did I realize why they had stopped.
Mirrored surfaces lined the walls of this room, radiating the same alien magic which had terrified me earlier, but this time we were not alone. A tall figure hidden beneath dark black robes stood at the far end. He was surrounded by the madness inducing power, casting into the mirror and chanting softly. No, he was not merely surrounded by it. He was the source of it, or at least he was bending it to his will. Against all odds it seemed he had not noticed us. It occurred to me that this was most likely the dangerous wizard the Brotherhood had sent us to gather information on, but this man was certainly more powerful than we were equipped to deal with. Not even Malakar’s brute force could get us out of this place alive if we tried to fight him. Was this some kind of test? Did the Brotherhood want us dead?
My companions and I stood in the doorway awkwardly, looking to each other for some explanation. We needed a plan. Should we attack while the wizard was preoccupied and hope to gain the upper hand? Of course not, we would be dead in minutes. Maybe if we backed out quietly the man in black would never know we had been there. We could make it out of this to fight another day…
No. If this was some kind of psychotic Brotherhood test of nerve, I would not come back empty handed and I would not be toyed with. I wrapped my hand around the magical rod I found earlier, this was an item of the same terrifying energy as this man was invoking. I didn’t know what it did, but if he wanted it badly enough I could use it as a stalling tactic to get the information we needed and run. I would play this game and I would show this secret society who they were dealing with. I stepped forward, catching a brief glimpse of my companion’s shocked expressions as I spoke.
“Excuse me” I said casually, the man in black made no sign he heard me. I produced the rod from my pack and held it out to him, “I don’t want to interrupt, but is this yours?”
The man stopped mid-chant, jerking his head to the side as he caught the reflection of the rod in the mirror. He spun to face us, revealing a masked face under the hood. His eyes were locked intensely on the object in my hand and when he spoke his voice dripped with hardly controlled rage.
“That! That is an object of pure magic!” he barked, regarding the item as if it was in danger of being snapped in two, “You will hand it to me immediately and in return I will spare your unworthy life.” He lifted an arm to the mirror on his left and a perfect double of the barbarian stepped out and stood at attention.
I had to talk him down fast before this got out of hand, “yes yes, of course” I remarked in an even tone, “but slow down. Are you aware that you’re being tracked?” The man’s eyes broke contact with the rod, for an instant making contact with mine and then flitting back. I took this as permission to continue.
“We’ve been sent to gather information on your actions in this area on behalf of a secret organization” I mentioned.
“The Brotherhood…” he muttered, visibly alarmed.
“Yes that one” I confirmed, keeping control of the conversation. I smacked the rod against my opposite palm to keep his attention, the way one taunt a playful dog with a stick. “Perhaps if you would agree to negotiate with us somewhere more neutral we might be of use to one another.” The man tore his gaze from the rod, this time to regard me with amusement.
“Certainly” he gestured to the wall behind him, “accompany me into the realm of mirrors, I assure you there is no more neutral place.”
“Very well, that sounds ideal” I agreed. Even a poor judge of character could tell he was lying. It was obvious that he had some power over this realm, but to argue the point would be to show fear and I could not risk antagonizing him and losing control of the situation. “But to ensure my safe return, this will be staying with my companions” I said as I handed the rod to the barbarian. The man in black nodded in agreement as he gestured once more to the mirror.
“Ladies first” he offered, but I was not about to walk blindly into an unfamiliar plane of existence alone.
“We’ll go together” I countered.
“As you wish” he shrugged and we stepped through to the other side together, leaving my speechless companions behind.
I couldn’t see where I was going when I stepped into the mirror realm, but there was a brief falling sensation before my foot found purchase in a room identical to the one we had come from, but oriented oppositely so that the far wall became the stairway leading out. I turned and was able to see my companions on the other side. They were being attacked by the barbarian’s double, but I had no doubt they could handle it.
“They can’t see or hear us” the man in black mentioned casually and I realized that he had been waiting for me to acclimate myself to the new surroundings.
“Good” I replied, “So the Brotherhood. They pose a threat to your plans?”
“The Brotherhood is an ancient organization with many agents and deep coffers” he replied, “if they were to interfere, they could very well ruin everything I’ve worked for.”
“Everything you’ve worked for” I echoed, prompting him to tell me more.
“The realm we are in now is a world of complete perfection” the man in black explained with a sort of manic passion, “a world free of suffering and weakness. I seek to bring perfection itself to the pathetic world you come from. To purify it by joining it with the mirror realm.” This was going better than I had expected, the man was too lost in his passion to hold anything back. The brotherhood would be impressed.
“You say the world I come from” I prodded, “I take it that you are not from my world?”
“Alas, I too am tainted by that pathetic place” he conceded, “but I have been enlightened. Only the worthy can commune with the mirror realm, and only the worthy shall share in my new world once it has been purified.”
“And how are you going to do that?” I asked in one last attempt to squeeze information from him, but he was catching on to me.
“I have answered your questions” he announced, “now what have you to tell me of the Brotherhood?”
“I have been recruited by the Brotherhood as I mentioned earlier” I told him, “they offered me quite an attractive amount of gold…”
He cut me off with a chuckle, “Ha! They offer you gold.”
“…and initiation into their ranks” I finished.
“If I had an agent within the Brotherhood, then perhaps when the time came…” the man seemed to ponder this, “Yes. Join me and I promise you more than gold. You will have ultimate power and a place in my new world.” What was it with wizards and ultimate power? Obviously he thought it sounded impressive. It struck me as a rather insecure thing to prattle on about.
“Very good” I agreed, pleased with how eager the man was to trust me. “I will deliver the rod to them as proof of my loyalty and await your orders.”
“No. That will not do. You must give the rod to me.” He said firmly.
“My companions won’t like that…” I said, trying to imagine a way to get out of this with both my life and the rod intact.
“Then I will destroy them” he reasoned.
“No!” I said too quickly, I took a fraction of a second to compose myself, “the Brotherhood expects them along with me, it would raise suspicion for me to arrive unaccompanied.”
“Then what do you suggest?” the man asked. I thought it over.
“When do you need the rod?” I asked, “at the latest?”
“Within the week” he said firmly.
“Hmm… knock me unconscious” I decided, “ make it convincing. Attack my companions but let them escape with the rod. I will find a way to return it to you on our way to the next city after they have lost interest in it.” He seemed to weigh the option for a moment.
“This will do” he answered finally, “but to ensure your loyalty to me, you must swear to do this thing by blood.” He withdrew a knife from his robe, sliced a clean wound into the palm of his hand, and handed the dripping blade to me.
Being magically sworn by blood to an obvious genocidal maniac was not the most attractive prospect I had encountered in my lifetime, but I had come too far to die now. I sliced into my own hand, allowing warm blood to spill down my palm and onto the mirrored floor. He clasped his hand, still dripping with his own blood, against my wounded palm. I suppressed a wince of pain.
“Now swear” He commanded.
“I swear to do everything in my power to return the rod to you within the week” I managed. As I said the words I felt a burning arcane force infiltrate my blood. It started at the site of the wound but soon spread throughout my bloodstream. A small area on my collar bone scorched hotter than the rest. I tore my clothing back reflexively to relieve some of the burning, to no effect. A small Mobius strip had appeared where the pain was the most intense.
“That is my mark” the man in black explained, still clasping our bloodied hands together, “it will allow me to keep track of you while you are in my service.” I could hardly understand him, the pain was so horrible. I found myself blinking back unconsciousness, then falling forward towards the portal.
“I will be watching.” I heard him say. I felt more blunt pain in my upper back as he kicked me forcefully through the mirror, back to my companions and out of consciousness