It had been Erik’s idea, and a beauty, one of the Ranger’s best ever. Roll boulders down the ramp, smash the guardian skeletons to bone shards, and flow down afterwards like pirates down a gangplank, steel in hand. An idea this outrageous always got the thumbs-up from this band. After many sensational victories over heinous foes, they had no fear of a few walking ribcages.
Barrick the Twitcher
One among them, though, sheltered some doubts. It wasn’t that the dwarf Barrick was afraid, exactly. True, he had felt some fear months before, and had only gotten past it by concentrating on his Warlord learning, a kind of warrior meditation. But Barrick’s problem these days was more nebulous, a feeling of being ungrounded. This was an unpleasant sensation for one of his kind. Dwarves are normally stolid, dependable, steady. Barrick was instead feeling uncertain, flighty, indecisive, and even vaguely elvish, though he wouldn’t admit that while sober.
And, he was pretty sure he knew the root of his troubles.
Magic. This cursed magic that seemed everywhere, now.
Any adventurer had to face magic, of course, but in Barrick’s experience, if you kept your head down, your shield up, your axe swinging, and your wits about you, you generally came out OK, flying fireballs be damned. Fighting in this band, he knew there were some fancy finger-twitchers, especially the two gals, Rift and Tira, who didn’t always seem to mind whether their spells hit friend or foe. But friendly twitchers could be helpful too – especially the healers like his Dragonborn pal Felsmon and the much-missed Z’alden. No, his compatriots’ magical abilities weren’t the problem.
The problem was that he, Barrick the Stolid, Barrick the Steady, Barrick the Boring, was increasingly being required to – incredible but true – to use magic himself!
It had started slowly, when he received some cleats as plunder. They seemed like plain, sharp cleats to suit any Dwarf in a melee, and he had grown fond of them, but was later told they were actually magical. He had thought this a joke – but then came a suit of armor that protected against heat, a real help with Rift torching everything in sight. Ordinary armor might do the same, he thought, but then came a necklace, a belt, an axe, a helmet, supposedly all magical. From what he could tell, though, each gave him only the same advantage as a tankard of ale – instant confidence, and no more.
Lately the spooky equipment had gotten out of hand. As the only Dwarf in the band, he had been required to try to use an ancient twitchy Dwarven key to open some doors. It had worked, but he felt a fool anyway. Since then, he had been able to use the same key to call up a shower of painful blows onto the heads of distant foes, without ever looking into their faces. What fun was that, and what use? You couldn’t curse the spirit of a conquered foe whose eyes you had never seen. Anyway, he took this whole magical key thing as an extended joke, too. No doubt Rift or Tira would stifle a chuckle as they timed a real magical attack to his clumsy handling of the key, always so far before a battle heated up.
Now, in this latest quest, he had been given even stronger powers, they said. He was told he had the ability to teleport out of danger – he hadn’t tried it yet – and that if he threw his latest axe, it would fly back to his hand like a bird to its nest! He hadn’t tried that yet, either.
It was all getting to be too much. He felt like he was being groomed, manipulated, played, but by whom? And why?
One, Two, Three, Go
While the others meddled with magical potions and such, the Ranger and Barrick whacked the porous boulders into spheres. More like potatoes, really, but they would get the job done. Felsmon and Barrick of course got the nod to set them rolling and follow them down. Prescott, the newest addition to the band, came next. Just how he ended up in front of Erik was a mystery – maybe as a reward for thinking to cover the poison gas outlet with the door curtain.
Barrick wondered whether Prescott had been around long enough that the others would want to bury his corpse after this fight. Sometimes these fly-by-night amateurs were left to rot where they lay, especially if they got in the way too much. Other times a big deal was made of their help, and their passing. Whatever.
So Felsmon and Barrick pushed the two surprisingly light boulders into position, just above the icy ramp. They could see two flaming skeletons at the bottom, and, sure enough, along came two flaming orbs – always magic! – heading right at Barrick. Keep your head down when the fireballs fly, Barrick thought, and sure enough, one hit his boulder, the other flew over harmlessly. He looked at Felsmon, and the two mouthed the usual words together: One, two, three, …
On ”three”, Prescott leapt on top of Barrick’s boulder and threw a dagger, hitting one of the skeletons. Flustered, Barrick stood up and looked around to see why the plan had changed. Enemies from behind? Another cavein? Getting only shrugs from the others, he realized what had happened: Prescott hadn’t been told that this band always went on the fourth beat, not the third, a classic adventuring mixup. Barrick turned back to face the targets – and caught a fireball in the chest as Prescott leapt nimbly off the boulder to safety. His fire-resistant armor had been placed in storage in favor of a newer suit – yet more magical, of course – and THAT ONE HURT! Barrick looked back at Felsmon, who had given up on the timing and sent his boulder down the ramp with his strong shoulder. Barrick immediately did the same, not knowing whom to curse.
Both boulders in full roll, Felsmon leapt after them, sliding on his scaly feet like a Dragonborn youth having fun on a frozen river. Prescott leapt over Barrick, got off a shot from the air, landed on a boulder, and rode it down like an Elven youth rolling a log in a river. Barrick, his beard singed and his timing off, leapt after them both, caught a cleat, and landed on his face like a Dwarven youth on a dancefloor.
Rift, Tira, and Erik had all gotten off shots, but now the boulders were bearing down on the white stacks of bones. The first boulder hit both skeletons, glancing blows only, while the second, with Prescott aboard, hit one of them, Prescott leaping to safety on the other side. Nearing the bottom of the ramp, Barrick managed to get his feet up, willing his cleats to hit any bones still standing, but the boulders had broken into pieces, and he hit only stone. Felsmon, too, had slid into the broken-up rock, hurting himself into the bargain.
Shaking his head at the two mighty battlers lying on their backs on the ice, having made a shambles of his plan, Erik used a sword like an ice axe to stop his own slide short of the bottom, switched to his bow in his usual blink-of-an-eye, and got off two quick shots, both hitting home. Tira stayed above the ice, sending a lightning bolt that struck both skeletons and even jumped to one of two zombies coming up from the rear.
Rift, feeling indulgent of the new lad’s bravery, cast a spell to defend Prescott from the skeletal fire. Barely noticing the flames, the confident youngster sauntered up behind the nearest skeleton and casually cut the thing in half at the waist with his dagger! Barrick and Felsmon, struggling to their feet, paused in mid-struggle and both watched, slack-jawed, as he then went after a third skeleton that had come up from behind.
But the undead beasties were closing on Prescott. Both Zombies had staggered onto a raised platform that seemed to boost their power, and Prescott had no defense against their icy blasts. They both laid into the youth, as did the skeleton, and he was soon motionless and in apparent great pain.
Barrick, on his feet now, didn’t particularly like digging graves, which he reckoned Prescott would deserve after such feats. Stepping over the remains of his boulder, he shouted at the pack “Ain’t it good to be alive!” Whether they understood the taunt, or just recognized a more dangerous foe, all three of Prescott’s mindless assailants moved towards the waiting dwarf, who delivered his favorite backhanded sweep of the axe blade, dealing horrific damage to two of them – and smashed his shield into the face of the middle one for good measure.
Felsmon started swinging, Erik kept up his arrows, Tira sent in another blast, and Rift cast a fire shroud, then another, which took down an already-injured injured zombie. Prescott used the opening to teleport to safety next to Tira atop the ramp, and hunkered down to nurse his wounds.
Seeing Prescott teleport his way out of trouble made Barrick think that maybe his new equipment might be magical after all. The fight was going better now – Rift had taken out the other zombie, too, although it had exploded and hurt Felsmon – he thought now would be a good time to try throwing his axe. Erik had just shot a skeleton, and Barrick, 15 feet or so away, tried to take careful aim.
He knew the technique: wind back the throwing arm while peering over the shield, then swing the shield away and use the momentum to whip the axe towards its target, with just enough wrist for exactly one revolution. As he swung the shield to the left, though, a fireball from the other remaining skeleton got through, hitting him in the gut. His arm kept moving, but with no momentum he missed as badly as an axe-wielder could well miss. The axe bounced off a rock at Felsmon’s feet, launched back at Barrick and stuck in his shield. If that was magic, he thought, he could do without it.
After all the creatures had been sent back to the void whence they came, and the magic ice had been melted, and the raised platform had been destroyed, and Barrick had yanked the “magical” axe out of his shield, the group had to decide on what to do about the room next door. Erik, with his Ranger senses, could make out the voice of Lorvas, a human necromancer who deserved the same fate his zombies had just met.
There was no question of whether to venture into that room, only a question of whether to enter fighting, or try to close in first. Many Twitchers who were dangerous from a distance, Barrick and the others knew, were pushovers if you got up in their face.
It was decided to try a bluff, just to gain a few steps before letting the fury flag fly. Funny how often this ruse worked, Barrick thought. Lorvas must have heard the carnage, or rather boneage, that just ended, but a magic-mad fanatic like Lorvas could be counted on to never think he, himself, was in any danger. These types all seemed to believe that their mastery of some mumbo-jumbo or other would protect them against all possible bands of foes – even if it included ones like Rift and Tira who knew some mumbo-jumbo themselves.
Rift teleported through the door, actually a portcullis, and unlocked it from the other side. Erik scoped the room from the top of a grand stairway: a hulking green beastie in the middle; Lorvas lurking among pillars in the background with another twitcher named Nemeia; piles of bones everywhere. Barrick thought it wise to sharpen his axe – and did so with the “special” whetstone he had bought some time ago. Magical, of course, they had said.
When all was ready Tira, whose dagger actually encased a magical ring sought by this Nemeia, began to stroll down the stairs like the Queen of Light herself, flanked by Felsmon and Barrick, playing disinterested bodyguards. Lorvas and Nemeia looked up, the green hulk snarled, and Barrick eyed the distance to Lorvas’ neck. Lots of steps, probably too many.
Eh? What new treachery is this? Three strangers on my stairs?
“Nemeia, it seems our conversation may be interrupted. Some fools seem to have made it past the defenses that protect this chamber. Look, here comes a skinny little girl, creeping down our stairs with two beasts by her side. A Dragonborn and, I think, the other one might actually be a Dwarf! Ridiculous!”
There are more than these three, I sense them, filthy beasts hiding in the shadows above. They too shall die. Something else I sense – some strong magic, an enchanted item perhaps. Yes, they must have a powerful item with them to have gotten this far, and a bit of cleverness, but it will not save them.
“My dear Nemeia, I have something you desire!”
The skinny girl speaks! Could it be the ring that Nemeia has so long desired? Better it comes to my hand first. Slitherall will be most pleased with me for acquiring the ring for Zithruin’s attack on the Kengi.
“See, Nemeia, how she seeks to distract you. Leave us for now, and I will, shall we say, deal with these intruders.”
Obedient as always, my good Nemeia, and she never sensed the new power in the room. But the trio comes closer, and my hulking defender becomes anxious.
“Stop there !!!”
As I thought, the mere sound of my venom has the desired effect. Weak-willed animals. How did they even get past the guards outside? I could destroy them all with a single twitch of my finger.
“Come now Lorvas, you should be able to detect the magic in this ring.”
Her tongue is still loose, and she thinks to seem brave by holding a dagger in the same hand with the ring! Does she think I would cower in fear, I Lorvas, who can summon the hordes of hell to my will? And, she taunts me, which she will soon regret. I detected the magic ring at once, and even now I detect more than her puny brain can comprehend. A very plain-looking ring, but powerful, yes, that is certain.
See how the two brutes eye me, like fowl eye a falcon. Perhaps I will allow my Defender to feast on them. What’s that, some noise coming from outside the door, no surprise, but perhaps I can use it to coax this lass into playing her hand too early.
“What was that?”
Hah, just as I thought, a dagger thrust as I feigned distraction, see her eyes go wide as she misses, and realizes her mistake! As for her bodyguards …
There, those two have their hands full now with my Defender, the green giant. And here comes one of their hidden companions, an archer, it seems. He too shall die. As for the girl, I know how to control her.
“Give me the ring or I will destroy you all !!!”
See, the frightened child already hands over the ring. So easy, so pitifully easy. Now the ring is mine, and I shall … but wait, a trick! This ring is dead metal, the magic stayed in her hand! And the dwarf approaches! Now they shall feel my wrath!
Ha! That blast hurt the cretins, though it seems they all still live. Not for long, once I engage my preset blasts. The magic spot on this pillar is right … there! Amusing, the archer flies like a bird when a blast goes off behind him! So pitifully easy. My Defender is struggling, though. Perhaps I will need another. And the skinny girl is still on her feet. She stares at this worthless ring in my hand, as though she wishes to snatch it back. She will again find me too fast for her.
Impossible! Her snatch was a feint, and left a dagger in my side, aflame with powerful magic. She comes close to gaining my respect, this one, but she too shall die. Turn off the pain now, as I have practiced, must be able to think clearly. Just in time, I have let the archer and the cursed dwarf in too close, they are harming me, and two more are coming down the stairs – the last two, I sense, and I have just the preset blast for them. As for these foolish enough to have struck at me …
Now they feel proper fear of me! They all lie on their backs like doomed beetles, all but the Dragonborn, he comes towards me, as my Defender swings to crush him – but he still stands, and swings, even hits me, and breathes fire too! This one will be worth a remark to Nemeia, but he too shall die. When they are all dead, I will be healed even before Nemeia returns, I know just the spells.
<whump> “Hey there, I’m Prescott! How do you like me so far?”
Blackness enveloping me …
Coming back to the light, I see – my foes standing around me, my limbs bound. Can’t turn off the pain, must fight to clear my head. Maybe this fight was not pitifully easy after all, but soon they will all die.
“So you’re Lorvas, well I ain’t impressed. I’ve known dwarven women who were tougher. Hey, do I have your attention? Want another kick in the head? No? Then listen, we found a message from Slitherall in your pockets, and we want to know all about it. Spill your guts to us now, or we’ll spill your guts for you, like we did your big green buddy over there, may the maggots enjoy their feast.”
So they killed my Defender? Well, it will not save them. I, Lorvas, can summon the hordes of hell to my wishes, and I so wish.
See, another Defender, and he swings already! These poor fools will all rue the day they entered my chamber! They will all die!
“Told you all, I did, should have killed him first time. I, Felsmon, show you how to deal with necromancers!”
Blackness envelops me.