Dust in my eyes and a booming reverberating through my skull. I felt like I was listening to one of the massive drums Thror had been so fond of. No. I felt like I was inside one of them. The very stones themselves cracked and groaned, so many fingernails scraping down so much slate. The rumble of thunder – without the lightening – battered my eardrums, even as a hand appeared in my line of vision. Without a word, I took the hand and pulled myself back to my feet. Tanc’s grey eyes were concerned as he said – said something I couldn’t hear. I could guess though
“I’m okay” I said – lip reading, there was nothing like it. Terryn would be proud of me. “Just some ringing in my ears, that was too close for comfort.” I was suddenly extremely glad we’d all overruled Nera. She was running low on spells and had been insisting – since the time we’d waded through the kobold’s rubbish pit that we ought to rest. We’d all said that there wasn’t time – well, Tanc and I had said it. But it wasn’t until we’d managed to disarm the magical traps and found this hidden staircase that she’d finally accepted that the earthquakes weren’t part of the original traps but were in fact, being caused by the Iasavites. And so here we were, standing in a small group at the top of a hidden staircase, shaken and dusty from the biggest quake yet.
“Now what?” Tanc sounded as close to exasperated as I’d ever heard him. I carefully rubbed the dust out of my eyes and lifted my head to see – nothing.
Well, not precisely nothing. There was fog. Thick, floor-to-ceiling fog. Black fog. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of black fog before, but I’ll bet you anything you like it’s not a good thing.
“Nera?” Wow, I sound as exasperated as Tanc. There was a weariness in my voice I hadn’t noticed until now. We’d spent all morning – though it felt more like all day – wading through this gods-forsaken dungeon, dodging traps, ducking traps, fleeing from traps. Negotiating with bloody stubborn kobolds. And now what? Oh yes, more traps.
“It’s fog.” Nera said simply.
“Yes Nera,” Tanc almost snapped the words, “we can see that. That’s not quite what Silver was asking I think.”
“Hey! don’t get me involved in this.”
“What else do you want me to do?” Nera retorted. “It’s fog. Magic fog – like everything else in this damn place. I can’t see anything else, the fog is blocking me – or something. I said we needed to rest. I asked you people again and again and you overruled me. It’s not my fault!”
“All right!” I interrupted before Tanc could say anything else. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Rifus’ head swivelling back and forth between them, his green eyes wide and a little nervous. Tanc was far and away the most level-headed of the group, if he was getting fed up, it wasn’t a good sign. “Nera, just – try and dispel it okay?” Snarling and swearing in her native language, Nera did exactly that. And again – nothing.
“Damn it!” She hissed, frustrated. “I can’t-”
What is that? The fog is moving? What is that coming out of the fog at me?!
“Aaaieeeeee!” I screamed and jerked backwards as a thin, bedraggled hand slithered silently out of the darkness and latched itself to me. A grip tighter than iron and colder than ice locked around my right arm.
All frustration forgotten, we started moving like the team we were. I fumbled with my left hand for the edge of my cloak even as I heard Nera try another dispel. The fog did nothing, but it lit up awfully pretty as Rifus’ eldritch blast slammed into the scabrous hand clinging to me.
“Be careful!” I yelled, even as I got hold of my cloak and swept it up and around, slicing through the skin. No blood, no smell, no nothing. “Undead!” I cried, staggering as another earthquake shattered the overall silence of the cavern. I swore under my breath in elven, we really didn’t need this right now.
“There are more of them!” Tanc yelled the warning over his shoulder at Rifus and Nera even as he grabbed the arm holding me and twisted in both hands. It worked. The whatever-it-was let go of me and went for him instead. It missed, Tanc simply dodged both blows and scowled as he moved in again.
In front of us four more had appeared out of the fog and lunged at our friends, a couple of yelps, a blast of wind and the fog ripped itself apart, tiny shreds flying around, reminding me of the odd black snakes we’d seen on the Plane of Shadows. It stayed that way long enough for me to see that Nera had destroyed all four with a well-cast spell, then the fog was all-encompassing again. Feeling thoroughly fed up by this point, I slashed once more at the final undead thing. Apparently I wasn’t the only one feeling annoyed by this, purple energy from Rifus hit at the same time and it fell in a dead – or is that re-dead, heap at my feet.
“Well,” I said, carefully stepping over the body, “that was entertaining.” Sarcasm. Was there any situation it wasn’t suitable for? I saw the humour, the laughter, in Tanc’s eyes as he glanced at me, before his expression turned serious again.
“There’s some sort of door up ahead. Some disturbance,” he said it so calmly. Then again, after what we’d already been through – was there any point in getting upset? Probably not.
The fog didn’t impede or hinder us as we all stepped right through it and up to the archway Tanc had noticed. Somehow we’d ended up in a line, the four of us, as we stepped through into what can only be described as a cavern. In front of us was a chamber – within it, standing massive and unmoving, were eight statues arranged in a huge square around a central point. Each one wore identical armour and matching implacable expressions. Each held an appropriately sized quarterstaff – it all seemed perfectly normal, as normal as eight gigantic dwarf statues in a dungeon we’d all assumed to have been built by a human can be... save one thing. Each staff was black and – wispy? Now that didn’t make sense.
“Any idea?” Tanc started, before he could finish, Rifus was already answering him.
“I’m too far away to tell about the staves,” he said. “But there’s magic right in front of us.” He started forwards, Nera reached out a hand and I grabbed her wrist
“Don’t bother” I said, shifting my weight as another dull rumble echoed around us. “He’ll never change and you might as well save your spells.” I gestured, an elegant dip of my head, towards the dark walls, “I suspect you’ll need them before long.” Nera sighed, but said nothing until,
“Rifus says his invisibility is gone, but he can still fly.” The three of us looked at each other and shrugged. In unison, we walked through. I felt absolutely nothing as I walked through the spot where Rifus had said there was magic. Nera gasped and I spun round, only to find her staring at Tanc. Damn he looked strange. The magic had apparently stripped him of his magical illusion – the one he maintained to keep him looking normal. Without it, he was – well, colourless. I twitched my shoulders slightly, trying not to let him see how uncomfortable it made me feel, Tanc was still Tanc after all.
Ahead of us, Rifus had zoomed ahead to investigate what appeared to be a hole in the wall. He knelt and peered through it, silent for a change. Without a word and with an expression that on any other face, I would have said was worry or concern; Rifus so rarely showed either emotion I wasn’t sure what to call it.
“There’s a bunch of workers out there,” he murmured, “humans, some kobolds and goblins. It’s dark, wherever they are,” he added, before Tanc could ask the question. Drawn by some odd curiosity of my own, I moved cautiously towards the hole, absentmindedly covering my eyes as dust fell from the ceiling above. I could hear the wisht-wisht-wisht sound Rifus made as he flew up towards the nearest statue to check the quarterstaff for magic.
“Agggh!” Three heads turned and three pairs of eyes stared anxiously until the young elf moved. His normal clothes were so dark when he stopped moving he was almost impossible to see. Now I saw him slide down to the bottom of the statue, holding his head in his hands. With a speed I still found astonishing, even after all this time, Tanc was by his side and kneeling next to our warlock. I waited in silent anxiety, keeping one eye on the workers beyond the hole, which slowly slowly, got bigger.
“The magic is overpowering,” Nera said quietly, coming up behind me, but stopping quite a few feet from the hole in the wall. “He’s going to check another one,” she added.
“He’s an idiot,” I muttered. “Doesn’t it work the same way as an overpowering sense of evil? He’s going to give himself a headache.” Still, even as I divided my attention between our soon-to-be unwelcome guests and the idiot warlock, I knew why he was doing it. There was only one Shadow Staff. Only one ultimate weapon wielded by the Shadow King. We had to know which one it was.
“Next one is the same,” Nera reported tersely, looking over her shoulder as Tanc quietly lifted Rifus back to his feet for the second time.
“Tell him to stop it.” I snapped. “We’re going to need him befo-”
I was on my back, covered in dust and rubble. Rocks were falling on my head and getting in my hair, ears and eyes. What the hell?!
I could hear Tanc swearing and Rifus replying. Then Nera was at my side, pulling me up and I realised what had happened. The wall. The wall had blown in. No way had the workers done that. And as I straightened my clothes and turned to face the now rather larger hole, I saw I was correct.
Four mages, dressed in the black robes we’d come to associate with the Iasavites stepped through. Three were in a line, slightly behind the fourth who stood forward with a wand in his hand, pointed directly at Tanc, whose speed had brought him to the front of our little group before the dust had even settled. Rifus joined him there, standing behind him and a little to one side. Without a word, I stepped forwards, in front of Nera. I glanced at her over my shoulder, her face was grim and set in lines encrusted with dirt and bits of rubbish that still clung. I imagined I looked much the same. I grinned at her before turning my attention to the mages. I might have been speaking to no one or everyone; to the walls or the ceiling. But I knew they heard me and I knew they understood I was talking to them. Enough of this. It’s time.