Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Epikydes Underground - Chapter One

I would have asked myself how I got here, but I already knew the answer: wondering what the dagger-script passages in Aurelius’s journal said.

By “here” I mean carefully climbing (head first!) down a long length of chain to the cage where Fadeyka was locked up, prisoner of the dwerro.  The chain went up to the ceiling of a phosphorescent fungus-lit cave, through a pulley, and down to a huge winch (that’s “winch” not “wench”).  Sitting around that winch were several dwerro, ostensibly guarding it (but really playing Liar’s Dice for Fadeyka’s clothes – I think, my ability to understand degenerate dwarves with a tendency to babble is not high).  This is why I was freeing Fadeyka the hard way.  Luckily, I found a passage for servicing the pulley on the ceiling, which, by the way, had not seen use anytime recently as the caked dust was thick and I had to move slow to avoid causing myself to sneeze.

Now a bold man would call Fadeyka a comely wench, even with the extensive henna tattoo work, but he’d better duck quickly afterward or she’d knock the leer off his face with her chain sickle.  I call her “an excellent example of an adventuring priestess of Armea Gris, the adventuring goddess of magic,” which is to say: she’s very fit, has nice curves, and a chip on her shoulder about people who see only her body, not her well-trained mind.  Which is how I talked her into this expedition – I told her I needed someone smarter and more knowledgeable than me to back me up.  Well, that plus providing an opportunity to leave Coldpond right after she’d wrecked the village’s only tavern (due to some grope-y patrons).  The town guard closing in significantly helped make my case.  Timing is everything.

Me?  My name is Epikydes.  I’m half-elven, unlike Fadeyka who is full human.  Also unlike her long straight black hair and green eyes, I have shoulder-length brown hair and brown eyes with a little green in them.  I’m only a little taller than Fadeyka, but she’s tall for a woman in these parts (at least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it).

Right then, however, I was slowly climbing down this chain to free her.  Luckily the chain had not been oiled in quite some time, providing me with a much better grip.  Grip is important when one is climbing down a chain over a deep, wide, spiked pit.  The downside was that the chain creaked if I moved it too much, so I had to climb down slowly.  My arms were not happy.

While I was moving slow enough to keep the chain from making noise, I couldn't keep it from making any motion at all and the vibrations on the chain warned Fadeyka that something was up.  She spotted me in the gloom and adjusted her seating position so she could watch the dwerro guards and check my progress with minimal motion, reducing the chance of attracting the guards’ attention.  I wish she hadn't – it gave me a great view down her blouse.  Did I mention “curves”?  Very distracting.

When I (finally) reached the cage, I pulled a vial of oil out of a belt pouch and applied it to the hinge where the chain attached to the cage.  Fadeyka shot me a look when some of it dripped on her leg, but said nothing.

Once the hinge was oiled, I slowly let myself down onto the cage and let out a quiet sigh when it made no noise.  The cage was about five feet on each side, made of a grid of iron bars.  The pit underneath the cage was thirty feet in diameter.  A thinner chain connected the side of the cage to the edge of the pit, allowing the dwerro to pull the cage over when they wanted to put someone in it or take them out.

I reached into a different pouch and pulled out a jade medallion shaped like one of the moons, the symbol of Fadeyka’s faith, and carefully handed it to her through the cage bars.  She was clearly pleased to see it again.  One of the dwerro had taken it from her as a trophy when she was captured.  I later relieved him of it and any other burdens he might have been carrying.  I cleaned all the blood off of it with some holy water before trying this rescue.  Priests get finicky about things like that.

Next was the tricky part.  I climbed out over the side of the cage to get at the locking mechanism for the small door on the side.  Fadeyka moved back to the far side of the cage to balance the weight and keep the cage from moving too much.  It’s that kind of thinking on her part that makes me really glad to have her on this trip.

Long story-short, I picked the locks, oiled the hinges, and silently opened the cage door.  After a little careful climbing we were both on top of the cage.  We had a short pantomime conversation about climbing up and who would go first and then she started climbing.  I’d like to say something nice about myself here, but the truth is, my arms were tired and I wanted to rest them a little longer before making the climb up.  Once she was half way up the chain I followed.

There was a sticky bit when she got to the top and stepped into the service passage, which shook the chain a lot.  It caused the now unlocked cage door to slowly reopen.  I decided to speed climb the last ten feet rather than get caught on the chain by the guards – they had crossbows and my armored coat was up in the service passage.  This caused more movement of the cage and the cage door started to swing back closed just as I made even with the service passage.  Fadeyka grabbed me and pulled me to her and into the service passage (and out of sight) just as the cage door slammed shut, alerting the guards.

(Did I mention Fadeyka was stronger than me?  There’s a reason the adventuring priestesses of Armea Gris are called “Moon Amazons”, just like there is a reason they are rarely called that to their faces and never more than once.)

We stood in the shadows of the access passage, trying to quietly catch our breath while Fadeyka listened to the babble of the guards.  She understood dwarven-speak, which seemed to also apply to crazy-degenerate-dwarven-speak.  After a few moments she leaned over and whispered into my ear, “They’re trying to figure out whether I teleported or turned invisible and who has to pull the cage over to check.  We should be safe for a short while.  Did you bring any food or water?”

“Yes to both,” I whispered back.  “They’re about twenty feet back in my haversack.”

“Great!  I’m famished,” she whispered in reply before releasing me and making her way down the passage.  She took two steps and then stopped.  “You’re going to have to lead me,” she quietly stated.  “I can’t see in here.”

“What?  Oh, right!”  I had been wearing my darkvision goggles for so long I had forgotten about them and this passage did not have enough light for Fadeyka to see by.  I stepped over to her and placed her right hand on my left shoulder.  “OK, small steps, straight ahead,” I instructed quietly.  “There are no stairs, but it does slope downward and the dust is kind of thick.”

We made it to the niche where I had stashed most of my gear.  I pulled out some deer jerky and a waterskin and put them in Fadeyka’s hands so she could eat and drink while I put on my gear.  It had been something close to a day since Fadeyka had been captured and she quickly finished off the deer meat and drank much of the water by the time I was ready to move.

“So what’s our plan?” Fadeyka asked.

“The tunnels around here seem to be unused and I found a room nearby with a concealed door.  We can hold up there while we rest and get some sleep.  After that, we can do some real planning.”

“Are we going to continue on or find our way back to the surface?”

This was a fair question and Fadeyka had every right to an answer, but I…wasn’t certain yet.  I sighed.  “I haven’t decided yet.  I haven’t slept in over a day and have been scouting extremely hostile territory trying to find and rescue you.”  My voice was starting to get a little querulous from the strain so I stopped and took a deep breath.  “I’d really like to get some sleep before making that decision.”

Fadeyka was clearly not pleased with the answer, but nodded.  “OK.  We put that off until we both get some sleep.”  She took a final pull from the water skin before concluding, “But tomorrow we will discuss this until we reach a decision.”



The hidden room was only a short distance away, but it was past a spiral staircase leading back down to where the dwerro were active.  We could faintly hear the dwerro guards starting to call out an alarm, which echoed up the stairs as we moved past them.  Fadeyka tensed up but continued walking, following my lead.

The hidden room was accessed through a door concealed in an elaborate geometrical wall carving.  I would have missed it entirely when I came this way earlier, but I noticed parts of the pattern formed the word “rest” in dagger-script and looked closer.  Now I knew exactly which part of the carving to lift on and the door silently swung into the room (I’d taken the time to oil the hinges earlier – handy stuff oil is).

I helped Fadeyka over the high step into the hidden room before climbing in myself and closing and bolting the door behind us.  I pulled a candle and my flint, steel, and kindling from a belt pouch (yes, I have several belt pouches) and said, “I’m about to light a candle.”  Fadeyka nodded and turned her head away while I lit the candle.  Once it was lit, I lifted my goggles up to my forehead and moved the candle to an old candle holder.  The room was once fairly cozy, with a writing desk, some bunk beds, and three small barrels that once held…something – they were dry now.  The table was rickety and I didn't trust the bunks to support any weight, but there was floor space to sleep on and the door was concealed.

“This is an interesting little place,” Fadeyka commented.  “How did you find it?”

“Dagger-script hidden in the patterns of the wall carving.”  I stepped over to the desk and set my haversack down on it and started pulling stuff out of it.  “I was able to rescue a lot of your stuff from the dwerro, but not all of it.”  I set out her backpack (heavily damaged as the dwerro tore it apart to get at the contents), her books (scuffed but still intact), and some of her miscellaneous gear, including most of her bedroll.  “They ate all the food they found and drank the water, but…”

“…seeing how I've been providing us food and water through a ritual, that’s not a major problem,” Fadeyka finished my sentence as she walked over to examine the items I’d laid on the desk.  “My books and gear are OK, if damaged, but my backpack is a loss and you don’t seem to have my weapons.”

I smiled mischievously and replied, “As is so happens…”  I reached into my haversack and pulled out her chain sickle.  She was suitable pleased to see it and eagerly took it from my hands.  “Unfortunately, they liked your daggers and crossbow so much they ditched their own and kept yours.  I can give you two of my daggers to replace yours, but I don’t have a spare crossbow on me.”

“Really?”  She smiled lopsidedly at me.  “You seem to have everything else in that haversack.”

I grinned back.  “It is handy.”  She groaned slightly at my pun.  Handy haversacks are appropriately named, being magically larger on the inside than they are on the outside and a fixed (low) weight no matter how heavy the items you placed inside were.  It was a solid investment, even though it had cost me nearly all the money I had at the time.  “I can fix your back pack, so that won’t be a problem either.”

Fadeyka looked at the torn remains of her back pack and then back at me with a raised eye brow.  “Oh I see.  That handy with a needle and thread are you?”  Her voice was full of doubt.

“No.”  I reached into my haversack and pulled out another book, one whose cover was made of leather tree leaves stitched together, vaguely suggesting a face.  “But you aren't the only one to know a ritual or two.”

This clearly surprised her.  “I know you have several magic items, including that star blade of yours, but I had no idea you had studied the arcane, Epikydes.  When did this happen?”  There was sly humor in her voice.

Fadeyka's question and the book in my hands brought back some unbidden and unpleasant memories.  I’m sure I made a face, because the humor dropped out of Fadeyka's expression.  After a moment, I responded, “It happened when I was young.  I learned what I had to in order to…do what I had to do.”  I barely got the last part out through clenched teeth.  I realized how hard I was gripping the book and took a deep breath to let out the tension.

Fadeyka looked at me with an evaluating face and then asked, “Epikydes, you’re only a kid…”

“I’m 18,” I interrupted.

“Fine, 18,” she conceded.  “How long ago was this and is there anything I should be aware of regarding your past possibly showing up?”

I smiled a grin that was not nice and said, “Oh no.  Nothing to worry about there – my timing assured that.  You are completely safe from that.”  I really should not have smiled like that at her, but it was difficult to keep that dark triumph under wraps.

Fadeyka was clearly not happy with my answer or the grin that went with it.  She decided to leave that alone and try a different tack.  “OK, then.  You still haven’t answered my other question.”

I had to stop and think a bit on the answer, remembering past all the adventuring that had brought me here.  “Um, about four, maybe four and a half years ago?”  I scratched my head.  “Something like that.  That’s when I, uh, ended my apprenticeship and came north.”  Fadeyka was still staring at me, which was starting to make me a bit nervous.  “So anyways,” I said, a bit too loudly, “I can fix your back pack good as new.”  She kept staring at me.  “I’ll, um, I’ll just get started on it then.”  I pulled a small satchel out of my haversack, gathered up the remains of her back pack, moved around her while she continued to stare at me, and then over to an empty space on the floor.

According to the notches in the candle, it took me about a half an hour to lay out the shredded remains of the back pack and get all the pieces properly marked for the ritual (damn those destructive dwerro, the ritual normally only takes ten minutes).  During that time, Fadeyka set her bedroll next to me to be repaired as well and then started a different ritual, Travelers’ Feast.  By the time I finished mending both the back pack and the bedroll, Fadeyka was finishing her ritual.  A green glow infused the space above a blanket she had spread out on the floor.  As she said the final words of the ritual, the green glow coalesced over the blanket, resolving into a day’s worth of food in the form of dried meats, some cheese, a few hard rolls, a couple apples, and a large skin of water.  I waited until Fadeyka offered thanks to Armea Gris before reaching for any of the food.

As we were both hungry, we ate in silence for a short time before Fadeyka restarted the conversation.  “Epikydes, thank you for rescuing me.”

I smiled, partly from pride at pulling it off and partly from embarrassment at being thanked.  “Um, sure.  I’m sure you would have done the same for me.”

“Probably.”  She smiled to show she wasn’t being entirely serious.  “But then I wouldn't have pulled that lever ‘just to see what it would do’, either.”

“That’s entirely unfair,” I started with a little heat in my voice.  “There’s no way I could have known the lever would release all that debris into the room.  It clearly was supposed to lift the center of the floor up into the next room – it’s not my fault that that room was full of debris from a collapse.”  This was a sore point for me – the falling debris had nearly flattened us.  As it was, the everburning torch we had been using was buried under the rocks and by the time we had recovered, the dwerro had arrived and attacked.  I had been lucky to escape, but Fadeyka was knocked unconscious in the fight and captured.  I spent the following day hiding from the dwerro and working out how to rescue Fadeyka.

“OK, OK,” Fadeyka held up her hands as though fending off my words.  “But I believe I did suggest we stand to the side the first time we pulled the lever.”

I really had no argument against that – she had.  “Fair point,” I conceded, deflating somewhat.

“So next time you’ll listen to what I have to say and actually give it some consideration?”  As lightly as it was asked, it really wasn’t a question.

“Yes, Fadeyka, I will.”  Suddenly I wasn’t really hungry anymore and felt very tired.  To give myself something to do, I started packing up the rest of the food, split evenly between her backpack and my haversack.


“Yes, Fadeyka?”

“Stop packing for a moment and look at me,” she requested.  I did so.  She had an earnest look on her face.  “I want you to know that I don’t blame you for me being captured.  It was bad luck on our part that the dwerro were that close.”  She leaned forward slightly.  “If you had not left when I told you to, we would have both been captured with no one to rescue us.”

I bit my lower lip nervously before speaking, “Maybe so, but…”

“No ‘buts’.  If you had stayed and kept fighting we would both be locked in that cage,” Fadeyka insisted, pointing in the general direction of the cage.  A slight grin lifted one corner of her mouth.  “Instead, we have this lovely palace to rest in,” she gestured to the small room we were in, “and the freedom to plan where we are going next.”  She sat back a little before concluding more seriously, “You did the right and necessary thing.”

I still felt bad for leaving her to the dwerro, even at her insistence when the fight started going against us.  “I’m willing to accept it was the necessary thing to do,” I said quietly, “But I still don’t like it.”

“I know that and I’m glad that leaving your adventuring partner during a fight is not an easy thing,” she said with a note of humor in her voice.  “Armea Gris teaches us that the road is not always easy to travel, sometimes it is quite difficult, but if you pay attention and step smartly the trip is always worth taking.”

I wasn't certain what to say.  Fadeyka had switched into her role as priestess and I knew what she was saying made sense, but I still had trouble with it.  I felt deeply ashamed at nearly getting her killed twice and captured once and it was my sense of responsibility that drove me to rescuing her.  Now that I’d done so, I still had my doubts about my ability to make decisions and the wisdom of coming down here.

I think Fadeyka could guess what I was thinking from looking at my face because she said with a serious voice, “Epikydes, you came back and rescued me on your own and, so far, we've gotten away from my captors.  We have our lives, most of our gear, and a safe place to rest due to your actions.  You've done all the right things after some bad luck.  I agreed to this delve because you had done the research and had a good plan.  We may need a new plan now, but the original plan was still good.”

I thought for a moment.  “So…you’re still willing to continue?”

Now it was her turn to sit back and think, putting one hand on her chin.  “We’re deeper in the complex now than we planned,” she said, thinking out loud.  “The dwerro will probably keep looking for us for the next few days, which means we will need to avoid them and we have to be out of here in four days, maximum.”

I was puzzled.  “Why the four day limit?”

“Because in five days a delft slave trading group from the Deeps will arrive here, looking for a priestess of Armea Gris the dwerro promised them.  I don’t want to be anywhere in these ruins when they get here.”

A shiver crawled down my spine.  I had personal experience with how sly and vicious the dark elves could be and never wanted to repeat that experience.  “Four days it is,” I said.  “Three if we can swing it.”

“That would be preferred,” Fadeyka agreed.

Copyright Patrick J. Walsh 2014.  All rights reserved.

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