woman in the same situation as Cassia Moray would have felt justified not
to feel anything less that full blown terror... but, the only thing she
felt was the feeling of total embarrassment over the blunder that had
landed her in the dungeon of a power-mad necromancer. Seated on a
rickety old pallet - the only piece of furniture inside the dank,
moss-covered cell - the sable-haired woman tried to think of how she was
going to get herself out of this predicament. Of course, she wasn't alone;
pacing along the length of the cell across from her, her companion Istara
Dirksteel fumed silently. While she grumped, she vented her frustration on
the crawly things scuttling across the cracked floor, keeping her gaze
focused somewhere in the air in front of her. Cassia watched
the shorter woman for a span of heartbeats before speaking. "Look,
say it, Cass!" the dwarfish human replied tersely. Cassia closed
her golden eyes and sighed. This wasn't going to be one of her easiest
apologies. "Istara, . . . I'm sorry! I thought this would be a quick
job! How was I to know that there'd be a ward in that part of the
sewers!" Istara stopped
in front of the iron bars that formed the door of their underground
prison, banging her brown-tressed head against them. "'A quick job,'
you said. 'We'll be in and out before that fat toad would ever know we
were there.'! Blazes!" She turned to face her companion, black eyes
flashing. "We were going to recover a holy relic from a necromancer
like Rabon, and you didn't think he'd have some spells in place to protect
his home from thieves!?" Cassia felt
her brown skin grow hot amid the gloomy chill of their prison. "What
was I supposed to do? Send him a messenger and ask what spells he has in
place on every stone in this tower? I'm not all-knowing!" Istara crossed
her arms. "No, but you're a historian, Cass! You should know how to
research a job like this by now! Especially when dark magic is
frowned, rubbing her palms on her thighs to get rid of the sweat
collecting there. "I planned this out the best that I could. Xathar
Tower's not as well known. I had enough trouble just locating a map to
lead us here." "Well,
now we're trapped in a dungeon, most likely never to see our next
birthdays, and that thrice-cursed fat man is probably laughing at us right
now." Lying back on
the bed (with a small thought of tiny vermin in the straw), Cassia stared
at the low ceiling. She couldn't blame Istara for being mad. Her skills as
a treasure seeker never let them down before, but this time they had run
into trouble. Recalling how things seemed to fall apart after they
discovered and captured by the minions that called this lonely tower home,
she grimaced at the memory of their first meeting with Rabon . . .
Any other woman in the same situation as Cassia Moray would have felt justified not to feel anything less that full blown terror... but, the only thing she felt was the feeling of total embarrassment over the blunder that had landed her in the dungeon of a power-mad necromancer.
Seated on a rickety old pallet - the only piece of furniture inside the dank, moss-covered cell - the sable-haired woman tried to think of how she was going to get herself out of this predicament. Of course, she wasn't alone; pacing along the length of the cell across from her, her companion Istara Dirksteel fumed silently. While she grumped, she vented her frustration on the crawly things scuttling across the cracked floor, keeping her gaze focused somewhere in the air in front of her.
Cassia watched the shorter woman for a span of heartbeats before speaking. "Look, Istara--"
"Don't, say it, Cass!" the dwarfish human replied tersely.
Cassia closed her golden eyes and sighed. This wasn't going to be one of her easiest apologies. "Istara, . . . I'm sorry! I thought this would be a quick job! How was I to know that there'd be a ward in that part of the sewers!"
Istara stopped in front of the iron bars that formed the door of their underground prison, banging her brown-tressed head against them. "'A quick job,' you said. 'We'll be in and out before that fat toad would ever know we were there.'! Blazes!" She turned to face her companion, black eyes flashing. "We were going to recover a holy relic from a necromancer like Rabon, and you didn't think he'd have some spells in place to protect his home from thieves!?"
Cassia felt her brown skin grow hot amid the gloomy chill of their prison. "What was I supposed to do? Send him a messenger and ask what spells he has in place on every stone in this tower? I'm not all-knowing!"
Istara crossed her arms. "No, but you're a historian, Cass! You should know how to research a job like this by now! Especially when dark magic is involved."
Cassia frowned, rubbing her palms on her thighs to get rid of the sweat collecting there. "I planned this out the best that I could. Xathar Tower's not as well known. I had enough trouble just locating a map to lead us here."
"Well, now we're trapped in a dungeon, most likely never to see our next birthdays, and that thrice-cursed fat man is probably laughing at us right now."
Lying back on the bed (with a small thought of tiny vermin in the straw), Cassia stared at the low ceiling. She couldn't blame Istara for being mad. Her skills as a treasure seeker never let them down before, but this time they had run into trouble. Recalling how things seemed to fall apart after they discovered and captured by the minions that called this lonely tower home, she grimaced at the memory of their first meeting with Rabon . . .
The guards dragged both women into Xathar Tower's lowest, above-ground chamber. There, they ended up tied back to back across from the deep pit in the center of the room. The guards piled their packs and weapons piled out of reach along the one side.
Not long after that, an obese, cloaked figure that could only be Rabon entered the room in a swirl of black and red. Standing before them while running his fat, hairy fingers over the handle of his staff, he listened as one guard gave a report. At the end of it, Rabon stepped towards them both, his puffy face a sallow mockery of a death's head grin.
"You were very clever to get in through the sewer-ways, fleshling," he oozed. "Not that many dare to come to my home to steal from me. You have great skill and spirit. I like that in a female... though, not in a thief."
Her brown skin turning darker with anger, Cassia snapped, "You think I like nosing through sewers!? If you'd left the Priests of Ankylar their relic, I wouldn't have had to come!"
Gurgling, Rabon stepped closer, reaching out to pinch her chin between his thumb and forefinger. Forcing her to look into his red eyes, he asked, "You mean the Virgin Stone, little theif?!" Releasing her, his eyes glittered with mirth. "Ah, but of course. Why else would those fools send a mercenary to rob my home?"
Cassia felt her skin crawl, but she held herself in check. "The Virgin Stone is a sacred artifact! You couldn't possible have a use for it."
Rabon replied, "That... is where you are 'dead' wrong, fleshling. It shall be of great use to me."
"For what? Raising an army of zombie minions?" Istara muttered, hidden from view behind Cassia.
Rabon peered over the taller woman's shoulder, chuckling. "Why waste it's power to do what I can already do? Why not something more? Like using the stone to become… a god?!"
Cassia gasped. "You can't!"
Rabon sneered. "I can! The Virgin Stone is reputed to be a piece of the Great Maker's throne on Mt. Tassa, where he supervised the forming of the world. Legend says that part of his power was left behind after he abandoned the throne... only to survive the ages as a piece of it broke away, recovered by the priests to With it, I finally have the means to achieve my ultimate destiny. You thought to stop me from obtaining my budding godhood? Tsk! A mistake, to be sure."
"The only mistake I made," Istara growled, "is that I let your minions tie me down so I can't split your ugly face in two!"
"Don't make him too mad, Dirksteel!" Cassia hissed.
The burly sorcerer stepped around to stand in front of Istara. "Just how do you propose to do that, even if your did have your hands free, small one?"
Despite sounding disgusted, the small woman just grinned. "With a little help…UNCLE!!!"
At that point, Istara's war ax slashed through it's leather bindings, breaking free of the pile where their packs lay. Arcing through the air, it aimed itself straight at Rabon's head as he turned around…
A ball of dirty-white smacked into the flying ax, bursting apart in a blossom of streaming rags. Before it had traveled another arm's length, it was wrapped up entirely from pommel to blades, looking like someone had mummified it. With a moan, the ax dropped like dead weight into the pit, vanishing from sight.
Rabon laughed, shaking his shaggy haired head in amusement at the looks of dismay on Istara's face. "An interesting weapon…but even its enchantment is no match for my powers. Soon even that will increase a hundred, even a thousand-fold... but, that is something that the two of you will never have to worry about, ever." He motioned to the armored guards. "Cast them into the cells. By tomorrow night, two new additions will grace the depths of my Bonekeep!"
So, there they were... two more bodies imprisoned, about to become numbered among the undead sorceror's latest victims.
Cassia shook her head. "No…"
Istara grunted, "'No,' what?"
"We're not going to let Rabon do as he pleases," Cassia replied. "He may have caught us, but I'm not standing for it!" Sitting up, she stared over at the bars. "We're getting out of here."
Istara threw up her hands. "Swell! How? We don't have any weapons, and there's no way out of this hole!"
Cassia sighed, "Oh, you of little faith . . . "
"Around you, it's not hard to be that way!"
Reaching up, Cassia fiddled with her hair. "Old Keegan used to say: you can't ever be too prepared for trouble." She removed her hand, coming away with a thin silver hairstick. "I always did listen to that old criminal," she grinned. Kneeling, she peered around the bars to get a look at the lock.
Her anger forgotten, Istara watched as her companion stuck the pick into the lick. "I always did wonder why you chose that old thief for a mentor."
Probing the lock, Cassia stuck her tongue out of the side of her mouth and chuckled. "Mother never minded who people were, so long as they did a honest day's work for her." For a moment, the only sound that filled the air was of metal against metal and Cassia's heavy breathing. Then, something clicked inside the lock.
"I think . . . I've got it," Cassia muttered. "Just . . . a little more . . ."
Before Istara could comment, she heard a low sound-like gears slowly beginning to grind-rumbling beneath the floor. "Um, Cass?"
The sound grew, getting louder with each passing moment, but Cassia didn't hear it. She had all her focus narrowed down to her fiddling with the tricky lock. "Hang on, it's coming!"
"Cass!!" Just as Istara shouted to get Cassia's attention, the taller woman straightened up and shoved the cell door open with one hand.
"I got it! See? Nothing to it!" Her triumphant cry suddenly turned to one of dismal surprise as the floor split into two sections. Each one canted down at an inward angle, making the two women fall to their knees on the stones.
Istara had enough time to shoot Cassia a arched look before the two sections swung completely down and away, dropping them into a darkness that seemed to go on forever…
The stench of decay; overpowering. Disgusting . . . it was the first thing Cassia sensed when her wits returned.
The second thing she knew was that something was nibbling at her clothing. As she lay there at the bottom of the pit, it suddenly struck her awakening mind that the nibbling was going on in other places as well!
"Gah! Stop it!" Thrashing around, the golden-eyed woman kicked out, her boots hitting skittering things that felt like rats scrambling over her legs. When they retreated, she tried to pull herself upright, gagging on the stench. "Augh, now I know what the bottom of a refuse heap feels like!" Trying to right herself, she tumbled off of whatever object she had landed on. She slipped on something, landing on her backside in waist-deep, rancid water. Peering around, she shivered against the coolness of the dark.
"Oh, Great Maker! You'd think after living for twenty-seven years…if I ever get out of this, I swear I'll never take a job against the undead for as long as I live!"
"Might not be very long, unless we get out of here!" a voice replied sullenly.
"Istara?" Cassia asked. "Is that you?"
"No! I'm the Great Shagrat! Who else could it be?!"
Cassia blinked, trying to get her 'night sight' to work - a gift from a long-dead elven patron, whose artifact she had recovered once - but surrounded by darkness, she was effectively blind. "Well, I'd never know unless I kissed you… in a manner of speaking! Are you all right?"
Istara grunted, a splash somewhere by Cassia's left side echoing against the stones. "Still whole, except for the fact that I'm wet and most likely will stink for weeks after this is over. What about you?"
"I'm in one piece, too," Cassia replied, trying to get to her feet. "Rabon is one tough capson to build his prison with traps in the cells. Now I wish we had waited until daytime to attempt this."
Istara snorted moistly, "I told you so! Even Trevan said so… Blazes! I wish I knew what happened to him!"
"I'm sure he is . . . okay," Cassia said, hoping to soothe her companion's fears. "We can search for him after we stop Rabon!"
"Right. I don't like the idea of a living god of the dead wandering around any more than you do!" Istara strained to lift herself onto a relatively dry place, her muscles bulging with the effort. Unfortunately, the stones she clung to crumbled to wet, mushy blobs. "Guess that creeping bag of rot was right. Nothing lasts long down here."
"Well I'm not staying here that long," Cassia griped, just as she slipped and fell back into the muck.
Istara took a moment to brush off some of the sewer gunk from her limbs. "Cass?"
"I can't get out of this water! Do you still have that ever-light torch?"
"Yes," Istara replied, moving quickly to remove it from a hidden pouch in her belt. A spark ignited the small ivory torch, filled with a slow burning cindersand. As the pale flame grew, she spied her partner a short distance away, still struggling against a low ledge. "Hold on, Cass!" She reached Cassia's side with a minimum of stumbling. Jamming the torch into a nearby crack, she bent down, took hold of Cassia's wrists and hauled her onto the ledge.
"Thanks!" Rubbing her wrists, Cassia slowly rose to her feet, snatching the torch with one hand as she straightened to her full height. The light revealed towering walls that seemed to vanish into the darkness above.
"Ugh! Looks like that pit trap dropped us into the underbelly of the tower," Cassia commented. "Only one way out now, and that's up."
Istara sneezed. "Do you think there's a tunnel or ladder leading out of here? I don't relish the idea of climbing walls…especially if the rest of those stones are as in bad shape as the ones down here." She kicked a crumbling brick for emphasis.
"Well, we'll still have to climb if that's the only option before us," Cassia reasoned. "Come on…let's follow this ledge. It has to lead us somewhere."
Cassia and Istara slogged through the murk for what felt like ages. Eventually, they came to a large open space; looking like a huge, stone-lined pit. The floor lay covered in calf-deep water, some tumbled rocks, and several piles of skeletal remains; the later of which crowded together along the far side.
"Cheery." was Istara's comment.
Cassia rolled her eyes. "What did you expect? A warm ensemble, just right for Rabon's private chambers?" she asked, looking around herself.
"Well, it's not much better than that pleasure vista we left back there," Istara griped. Peering upwards, she sighed, "I wonder where that goes?"
"Who cares, so long as it leads out of the dungeons. Come on, let's see if we can climb out." Heading towards the nearest wall, Cassia examined the worn walls with her glittering eyes. "Hmmm . . . looks tricky. But . . ." Reaching up, she wedged her slim fingers into a crack between the stones, but when she tried to pull herself up, her grip slipped and she fell back. "Shards!"
Istara shook her head. "Give me the torch, Cassia. Try it with both hands this time!"
Handing the light back, the treasure-seeker tried again. She managed to get a better grip, but could find no more hand or foot holds after moving up a few feet. "No, it's not good. Maybe there's a way over there." Jumping down, Cassia picked their way over to the nearest pile - that consisted mostly of human remains and some beastly-looking ones. While Istara lit her way with the torch, Cassia moved with exaggerated care towards its peak.
Istara cautioned her, "Be careful, okay?"
"Like I'm going to start dancing right now?" Cassia sniped. Reaching to grab at the wall above the top of the pile, she felt something snag the front of her tunic. Thinking she had just brushed up against a loose bone, she glanced down . . . only to see a bony hand cupped over her right breast.
Gasping sharply, she started to bat the bones away when one of the skulls next to her swiveled up to leer at her. "What a Tasty Morsel!"
Cassia screamed, just as four more skeletal hands grabbed her legs, stopping her retreat.
Istara jumped at Cassia's shriek. "What's wrong?!?" Before she could come to her aid, the water erupted in a shower of brine, which fell away to reveal three more skeletons.
"'Allo luv!" one said, leaning in close to grab her. "Give us a kiss?"
"Blazes!" Istara jumped back, reaching for a weapon that wasn't there.
"Oh, come on, pretty! Be nice and let us have a hug!" the first skull said.
"Yah!" another skull chuckled. "We don't get much of your kind down here!"
"Cassia! These bones are alive!"
"Tell me about it," Cassia growled, trying to fend off the ones groping at her with their pawing, bony hands. "Stop it! Let GO of me!"
A third eyed Cassia's curves, smacking non-existent lips. "Hey, Doove," he cackled at the first skeleton, "old Rabs' lust must be waning, if he's tossing tasty morsels like these down here!" All of the skeletons laughed at that.
"Oh, Maker, ick!" Cassia raised her arms, smashing them down on the limbs holding her. Two of her captors found themselves arm-less.
"Oi, She disarmed us!" one chirped.
The other one sneered, "Mother always said you're never handy!"
Twisting away from the rest, Cassia landed in the water below. "Touch me again," she growled, "and you'll lose more than your upper appendages!"
Istara whipped her torch around, trying to keep the other lechers away. "Great! We're trapped down here, and we get these bony perverts to play with!" As a skeleton got close enough to grab her, she jammed the end of her torch into his ribs. With a WHOOSH, the undead blazed up like a pile of dry paper.
"Oh, darlin', Light my FIRE!" The conflagration consumed the old bones quickly, dropping them back into the water with a hiss.
"That's one down," Istara said grimly.
"There's a lot more left to play, Ducks!" the skeleton named Doove chortled. "Come on out, boys! We've got live ones here tonight!"
At his word, more skeletons pulled themselves from the piles or surfaced from the water. They quickly formed a half ring around the two women.
"Shards!" Cassia cursed, stumbling through the water to Istara's side.
"I really don't like this," Istara muttered.
"Well, we'll really be likin' you, dearie," another skull said gleefully. "An' for a long time, too."
"Right! Enough clacking our gums," Doove growled, his brows arching upward suggestively. "Everybody up for a Free-for-all?" he asked, answered by a chorus of affirmatives.
"If we ever get out of this," Istara muttered, "the next time a priest walks into the shop, I'm throwing them out on their ear!"
Doove leered. "There's no way out of Bonekeep, darlin'! Just relax, and let's have some fun!" The circle of bones drew tighter, backing the woman towards the wall. Cassia and Istara cringed against the inevitable . . .
Which stopped when one of the skeletons tripped on something. "'Ere! What's this?"
"What?" Doove asked.
"I 'it me toe bone on somethin'!" Skeletal hands delved into the water, coming up with a soaked, cloth-covered bundle.
Several of the skeletons clustered around the one holding the bundle. "Coo," one commented. "What is it?"
"Lumey if I know!" Undead fingers picked at the cloth, unraveling the wrapping with a frown. As the last of the cloth strips fell away, something burst forth, shattering the unwitting bonehead before it knew what had happened.
Arcing high in to the air, the object cried out, "GREAT MAKER! I'm free!"
A look of surprise covered Istara and Cassia's faces. "Trevan!?"
The possessed war ax sputtered and hovered, not realizing he had an audience beneath him. "Blast that black magician! The nerve of him! Oh, I'll teach him to wrap me up like some holiday gift!"
The weapon started to move upwards into the dark, but Istara shouted, "Uncle, WAIT!!!"
Trevan paused. "Istara!?" The ax swooped down, making several of the skeletons duck before it came to a stop before the women. "Cassia! What are the two of you doing down here?!"
"It's . . . hard to explain--!" Cassia started.
"Never mind that!" Passing the torch to Cassia, Istara jumped up and snatched Trevan from mid-air. Splashing down, the dwarfish human thrust the ax before her, snarling at the now wary lechers. "All right… you bone merchants want a kiss? Well, come ahead then!"
After a universal shrug, Doove shouted, "We outnumber the two of them, so go get 'em!"
As one, the gang of skeletons charged forward, jeering and hooting about the groping orgy to come. Istara howled in counterpoint, swinging Trevan with a vengeance at the front ranks. She connected with two of the bony thugs, who screamed in harmony as they shattered. Beside her, Cassia did what she could with their torch and a few well placed jumping kicks.
The randy host, unaccustomed to victims that fought back - and won - started running for their non-lives. "Cor!" one said, watching as Istara cleaved a fellow undead in two. "That's wot I call a real splittin' 'eadache!"
"Don't stand around stiff," another skull shrieked. "Let's get the hell out of here!"
Istara grinned. "What's wrong, boys!? Don't you want to play?" She twirled Trevan in a circle before chasing after the fleeing undead.
One shouted over his shoulder, "It's not worth a quick feel! I'm history!" Diving back into the pile of bones, he quickly vanished. One by one, the surviving skeletons disappeared before Istara's onslaught.
Cassia watched them flee for several heartbeats, before she stiffened in her tracks. "Hey? HEY," she shouted. "We need one of them!"
Istara skidded to a halt in the sludge. "What!? Are you crazy?!?!?"
"Trust me! It may be the only way we're going to get out of here!" Cassia pointed to the one named Doove, who had yet to vanish with his cronies. "Get that one!"
Istara turned back and hefted Trevan over her head in a two-handed throw. "You know what you need to do, Uncle!"
"Like I have a choice!?" he sniped. A moment later, she hurled him at the last skeleton with a grunt. Trevan sailed through the air with a whistle of blades against the dead air. His target heard his approach, ducking just as the ax came close. Instead of smacking into the wall, Trevan slowed to a halt, facing the now blocked skeleton.
"Not so fast, my fellow resurrected! My friends would like to speak with you!" The weapon made a swipe at Doove, forcing him away from his escape route.
Doove held up his hands to ward off the lethal blade. "H-Here! J-just keep away from me!" Backing away, the animated bones nearly bumped into Istara and Cassia, who stood waiting by torch light.
"Great, we have him. Now what?" Istara asked acidly.
"Now," Cassia said archly, "we talk to… it. First," Cassia said, giving the skeleton a black look, "I want to make something clear to our friend!"
The skeleton whirled to face her, rattling with fright. "L-l-look here, l-let's not be hasty! Me and the boys didn't mean any harm!"
"'No harm,' is it?" Cassia's golden eyes sparkled with ill humor. "If there's one thing I can't stand is being pawed by someone. Especially when I didn't give them permission to, but what I really hate is a bunch of numb-skulls who think they can get away with it!"
"Aw, c'mon! That was...just, all in fun!" Doove replied meekly.
"I can't say that's what I'd call fun," Istara grumped. "You'd think you and your bone-boys would have better things to do than molest the living!"
"Aw, c'mon! I-I mean, look at it f-from our side, hm!? Rabs stuck me and the boys down here, leaving us to rot for years and years! All some of us did was just come in from a storm, to stay dry." He shook his head and pointed a digit upwards, "Old Rabs lives up there, workin' his spells and plans, while we sometimes get someone fresh to deal with. And what does he do for all of that, you think? Send us a cow or somethin' to eat once in a decade! Big deal! All we need is a little mortal warmth to lift our spirits once in a while, but does 'e ever consider that? No! Never!"
"I'd say it wasn't your 'spirits' that wanted lifting," Istara growled.
Cassia spoke quickly to stop another rant from her friend, "Look, that still doesn't make what you tried to do any less forgivable. After all, all we want to do is get out of this forsaken place."
The skeleton asked, "Don't you think that's what a lot of us want?" Waving an arm, he motioned to where a couple of skulls were poking out from the bonepiles. "Do you honestly think that just because we're dead that we like it here!?"
One of the watchers piped in, "We never got a say in th' matter, girly-girl!"
Crossing its arms over its empty ribs, Doove continued to speak. "None of us want to be down here! I mean, if we had a chance, we'd all love to get out and give that black bastard what for!"
"Which is what I want from you," Cassia explained. "Show us the way out of this keep, and I won't let Trevan use you to sharpen his blades."
"I should point out," Trevan's disembodied voice commented, "this place seems to be an inescapable pit. There's no way out, unless you can somehow fly out of here!"
Doove looked warily over his shoulder at Trevan, but a chuckle slipped through his teeth. "Well, hello Fancypants! Gee, I guess if we all were enchanted weapons, we'd follow your example, huh?!"
"I was just making an observation of the situation down here!" Trevan shot back.
"Garn, Guv! It's isn't what it seems down here! We've managed to dig a tunnel under th' wall a long time ago!" Another skull explained. By then, several more of the skeletons had returned; seeing as their leader hadn't been destroyed by the two living females.
"A tunnel!? Now, you're talking," Istara beamed.
"But where does it lead?" Cassia asked.
"Right up into the keep-proper," Doove replied. "I tell you, If we'd half a mind to, the boys and I would finish digging it and get out of here for good!"
"Well, why don't you?" Istara asked. "From what I saw just now, you and your… fellows, outnumber Rabon and his followers nearly three-to-one."
Doove's skull looked at the small woman with a sigh. "It isn't just numbers, sweetling! Old Rabs has a whole lot of protective wards protecting his fat carcass! The whole upper tower is covered with 'em!"
"Any of us what try to cross them, gets a one-way fair to th' afterlife!" one skull explained, shuddering. "Besides, if Old Rabs ever caught wind o' what we 'ad in mind, he'd just seal us back in 'ere with a stronger ward!"
Istara sniffed. "Sounds like the best thing to do is wait for Rabon to step out from behind his wards to nail him."
Doove snorted. "Old Rabs would need a pretty good reason to come out into the open like that! He didn't even leave to get that Virgin Stone he's been wanting! Black mercenaries did that job!"
Istara grimaced. "Blazes, Cass! We forgot about those devils," she stated. "That's going to make getting the stone that much harder!"
"Too true," Doove agreed. "Why, he'd almost have to want something else before he left his hidey-hole."
Cassia blinked. "That's not a bad idea!"
The skull cocked sideways, looking at Cassia. "What d'you mean?"
Both Istara and Trevan echoed the question, only with a tinge of apprehension, "What are you thinking about now, Cassisa?"
Cassia's eyes glittered by the light of the torch. "Doove…it was Doove, right? I have a proposition to offer you; one that will get you your freedom, and us our way out of this keep with what we came for . . . "
In his circular ceremony chamber, Rabon's mastodon-sized bulk stood draped in formless robes of black before his unholy altar. All around the chamber, acolytes similarly garbed held sconces with lit gray candles, murmuring in harmony. Patterns on the floor depicted ancient sayings of necromancy, and the air filled with a bittersweet smell of dark incense.
"Ever since my expulsion from the Order of the Priests of Ankylar, I have longed for a chance to return my wrath against them." Rabon's voice slithered around the chamber, filling his minions with his hatred. "Now, and after years of dedication to the dark arts, I am finally ready to reap my ultimate reward."
Like drones, the acolytes continued to chant.
Uncovering his head, Rabon turned his red eyes towards his altar. "Now comes the moment… the hour where my fondest desire is within my grasp!" He spread out his arms, as if to encompass his entire following. "Tonight, my children! We will no longer need to hide from the light of the just and weak. We will be able to go forth, and spread over this world like a fire! A black fire that will remake the face of Midagar! Tonight, I will have my mantle of godhood…and the just will tremble from my rightful revenge!"
The robed followers bowed their heads in reverence.
"Now, bring me . . . the Virgin Stone," he hissed.
Through the open doors, a pair of dark-armored men carried a cairn, on which was a rock of pure white stone. It seemed to give off a blessed radiance, that paled while near the evil presence of Rabon.
"Good!" he said with anticipation. "Place it there on the altar! The time has come to begin the ritual . . . to fulfill my final destiny!" Watching them as the men did his bidding, Rabon placed himself in the center of the room. With slow decorum, the men in black lowered the cairn onto the charred rock surface, then, after bowing to their lord, they back away.
"Now," he hissed, "let the peoples of the world tremble before my ultimate power!"
"Oh, please! Where did you dig that old, megalomaniac speech up? From a book of Dead Letters?" a voice piped stridently.
Whirling deceptively fast for someone with so much weight, Rabon faced the doorway in stunned surprise.
"Well, Rabon, looks like your Bonekeep doesn't keep its victims very well!" Cassia Moray said archly, her face peaking impishly from inside a borrowed black cloak and hood.
Rabon swore. Pointing a fleshy hand, his voice dropped into a reverberating bass tone. "Asth-eth-Anek-Toth!" From his fingers, a dingy, white ball shot out, aimed straight for the treasure-seeker. At the last second, she reached over and snagged one of the acolytes, puling the unwitting soulless soul in front of her. When the ball smacked into the acolyte's chest, it expanded out into a wrapping of heavy cloth, encasing them from head to toe.
Dropping the wrapped acolyte, Cassia grinned at the look on Rabon's face. "Can you run as fast as you throw spells, you fat toad!?" With that, she ducked out of the hall and was gone.
Rabon bellowed, "Blast your soul, little fleshling! All of you, get after her! Except for you." Pointing to the armored men, the black magician ordered, "Stay and protect the stone! Let no one near it, or I'll feed your flesh to the boreworms!" That said, Rabon stampeded out after his followers, leaving the chamber empty, except for the two guards and their prize.
Or so it seemed…
Shadowy things slowly moved from behind a series of loose stones in the walls. Silently, they crept out behind the men in black armor, whom had their eyes fixed on the chamber doors. On a silent cue, hands like bony claws reached out and jerked the men into the shadows, where the helpless twosome struggled like rabbits in a trap. When their cries were silent, a skeleton peeked out from under cover, looking around for any signs that they'd been discovered.
The chamber remained silent as a tomb.
"Well, looks all clear 'ere! Let's get on wi' it then!" Turning back to his fellows, he ordered sharply, "'Ere! Give the lady a hand, you!"
From a larger hole, Istara clambered out, shaking off the helping hands as she stumbled into the light. "Whew! That was . . . really . . . !"
"Disgusting?" Trevan asked from his place on Istara's belt. "I certainly thought so! I thought we'd be lost forever in that worm's idea of paradise!"
"Oh, hush Uncle!" she griped. "The tunnel wasn't that bad! Now, it's Cassia I'm worried about."
"Oh, don' worry Miss! Th' Gaffer will see she don' come to any 'arm!" The skeleton couldn't help but grin. "He'll make sure she gets out all right!"
"Well, that's dandy!" Istara said, turning to look around, quickly finding the altar, and the Virgin Stone. "There it is!" Stepping over, she made a short bow of reverence-even though she didn't follow the teachings of the priests that worshipped this stone-before picking it up from the altar. "Right! Let's get this out of here so we can meet up with Cassia… if she hasn't run into trouble, that is."
Huffing and puffing, Rabon and two of his followers split off from the rest, chasing after the treasure-seeker with a vengeance. Twice she'd slipped away, but a fresh glimpse of her cloaks fluttering in a doorway spurred them on again.
Through several floors, and numerous rooms of his tower, the necromancer doggedly pursued, until the need for breath made them stop before one entrance to a particular floor. "Master, you should return to the chamber," one of the guards suggested. "We can find her and bring her back to you.
Rabon turned to glower at the man in half-armor. "That little fleshling has affronted me, and I will not sit by while she gets away!" he gasped breathlessly.
"Master!" one of the acolytes gasped. "I saw her! Headed for the far chamber beyond!"
The huge necromancer turned to face the direction his follower indicated. "Blast her! She thinks she's a clever little fox! But that chamber has only one door, and no other way out! Come, you fools, quick! She won't escape this time!"
Urging his men on, the massive necromancer plodded towards the entrance. Reaching it, he snarled a word of magic, and the outer door withered to dust and rust. The two followers darted inside, and, when they shouted for someone to stop, Rabon stepped forward to confront his prey. There, in the light of a ring of low torches, Cassia's cloaked form stood in defiance.
Snarling, Rabon fixed her with his red eyes. "You . . . you have the spunk, fleshling, but your time on this world has come to and end." Motioning savagely, he ordered his men to seize her, pinning her arms to hold her in place. Stalking closer, he added, "Were you not so vexing, I'd spare your life! But not now, nor ever! Tonight, after I achieve my godhood, you, will, die!" His left hand flashing, Rabon snatched the hood from her head.
"Thanks Guv!, but I'm already bleedin' demised!" The leering face of an undead grinned up at the sorceror, chuckling as Rabon's face grew livid.
Outraged, Rabon swore a black oath. "Where is the female, you wretch!?"
"Long gone from this place, an' with that precious Virgie Stone of yours," the bony fop giggled, his joints clacking.
With a clatter, Doove rose up from behind a fallen stone, getting the dark magic user's attention. "But don't worry, Rabs! You've got something else to occupy your mind," he said evenly.
Raban paused as he gathered his energy to reduce the undead to powder. "What are you saying, fool?!"
Doove and his companion just grinned. "You ain't behind yer protective wards, Rabs . . . and furthermore . . . " Together, the two pointed at the ceiling in slow unison as the ring of lights grew brighter.
The living glanced upwards, and Rabon and his men turned as pale as the death-entity they worshipped. A horde of skeletons covered the walls from the floor and all the way along the curvature of the ceiling. The remains of nearly a century of victims Rabon had accumulated in his tower. Every skull looked at him with pure hate, while digits clenched with the promise of retribution.
"You've been invited to a little celebration, Guv," the fop heckled, shrugging off the limp grip of his two armored captors. "We're marking the day of our liberation!"
"W-what are y-you doing t-t-to celebrate . . . t-t-the occasion?" Rabon managed to croak.
On cue, six skeletons waiting by the entrance slammed a thick, metal door in place of the former one. At the same time, a stirring breeze whirled around the chamber, extinguishing the torches.
"By havin' you . . . for dinner!"
A short distance away from the entrance to the tower, Istara untied their horses from the lone tree they had left them by. In the middle of readying their saddlebags, especially the deep one on Cassia's dappled bay, she almost didn't hear the approach of booted footsteps on dead pine needles.
Stepping around Istara's roan steed, the golden-eyed female grinned, swinging a pair of packs by the straps. "No one here but us mortals!"
The small woman sighed expansively, before shooting a sour look at Cassia. "Took your sweet time getting here!"
"Oh, hush! I had to say good-bye to those poor souls... and get our gear," Cassia explained. "Doove and the rest of those perverted skeletons are going to have a time on their hands. Even with them running around loose in the tower, they still have to deal with Rabon's followers, or any other holy man that comes to cleanse this place."
"They should be so lucky," Istara grunted. "But, we could mention this place to those Priestesses of Tarosia. I hear they're so uptight, they never get to have any fun!"
Cassia shot her partner a look. "You are far too evil in your own way, Istara." Swinging up into her saddle, she glanced at the saddlebags. "Did you get the Virgin Stone?"
Istara recovered her pack, patting her ax into its holder before replying. "Yes. Thanks to those rolling bones, Uncle and I got out with no trouble at all."
Trevan muttered, "If anyone mentions those dead jesters again, I'll bury my blade in a rock!"
"Hush, Uncle!" The dwarfish woman clambered onto her horse, looking to Cassia hopefully. "As it all stands, can we take this hunk of chalk stone back to the priests and get our reward?"
"All right," Cassia grinned, her eyes glittering in the early-dawn light. "Let's get moving, and if we reach Ankylar early enough, I'll buy breakfast."
"Sounds good to me," Istara grinned. Together, they nudged their mounts into a slow walk to get through the trees, pointing their noses towards the brightening sky. Suddenly, Istara looked back at the tower with apprehension. "W-Wait! What about Rabon? What did Doove and his cronies do with him?"
At that moment, an unholy wail cannoned from the tower; one that made even Trevan tremble in his holster.
Cassia smiled privately to herself. Shrugging openly to Istara, she said innocently, "I really can't say, but I think those skeletons had a major bone to pick with him."
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