"So I cut off its tail and then I saw the door," Harold finished.
Telenstil had lowered himself down the wall and was cutting the bottom of the map east to west, following Gytha's good advice. He stopped and looked down at the halfling, "A hidden door you say."
He glanced at the wall, "Talberth is guarding the entrance. Gytha please go with our two Harrys and check into this. And Ivo," he turned his head toward his left and spoke to the old gnome. "Please ask Henri and our two scouts to check into that room there. Tell them it should be the chief's private storeroom; that should motivate the scouts at least."
"Who do you want me to follow?" Ivo asked.
"Best to stay here and keep an eye on everyone else while I am distracted with this map," Telenstil said and began cutting the map free once more.
* * *
"Henri!" Ivo called up to the table top. "Henri, I hate to break into your meditations but if you would be so kind..."
"Yes, master gnome," Henri called down from above. He dropped nimbly from the table's edge onto a chair and then lowered himself to the ground.
'That mask and robe,' Ivo thought to himself, they always make me think that this arrogant priest is older than I, and his manner, always the wise elder to the untried youth. Ivo gave a scowl, he'd not been so irritated by anyone in years and never by someone he had to trust with his life.
* * *
"Here it is," Harald said standing before the manticore hide.
"Pull that ugly skin away," said Harold.
The ranger reached up and tugged at with two hands. The hide was firmly nailed and tough as armor. Gytha grabbed the other side and they both pulled. It tore apart without a sound in two long splits that ran across the top where nails had been driven through each shoulder of the skin.
"I love these giants," Harold smiled up at his friends, "So trusting. No locks, not even on a door they thought to hide."
* * *
"Here, it is here." Engenulf was bled white by the spirit hand. He staggered, still on his own feet, but with each step he wavered more and more. He tore the skeletal bones from their parasitic grasp and flung them at a slab of rock, one no different from a hundred others along the rough hillside. The hand shattered; an explosion of splintered bone and gallons of the witan's blood, the stone flickered and became clear. A mist appeared, it wrapped itself in circles, first rising high, then dropping down then twisting in a spiral; A spiritual force entwined with arcane magics, a guiding will that ground against an impersonal device. There was a howl which could be felt in the giants' bones, the wolves joined in and added an ear-piercing cry to the shrieking grate as two mystic forces met. Nosnra clapped his hands against his ears but his body shook and sweat dropped from his brow, his eyes rolled back showing white, lined with bloody red. The pain began behind his eyes, his teeth ached deep; each nerve pulsed alive and throbbed, a jagged anguish. Around him the wolves thrashed and snarled, they whined and snapped, some ran away, others fell unconscious to the oerth. His giant warriors fared the same, they did not run, but could not stand. Gosfrith shook upon the ground and spat white foam out upon his beard. The witan lay still, blood poured from deep gouges in his wrist and hand. The hill giant chief was the last upon his feet, he screamed defiance into the starry night, the pain went on till he could not see, but he would not fall or turn away.
* * *
The door swung open quietly on oiled hinges. Harold darted in before the rest and nearly tripped over a wooden branch left carelessly on the floor.
"So what's in here," asked the ranger. "What treasures have you found?"
"Firewood," the halfling laughed, "and a staircase leading down."
"Firewood! I could roof a hall with beams such as those," Harald laughed in return pulling at his greying beard.
"Those stairs... We should see what lies below," said Gytha. "There is nothing else in this room but fuel."
"These aren't stairs, they're cliffs," Harold stood upon the top stair's edge and peered down. Each step was almost half his own height.
"You can ride on my shoulder. It's an easy drop," said Harald.
"For you, they're as deep as a pit trap to me," the halfling replied.
Gytha shook her head, impatient with the two friends banter. The steps were deep, made for the giants who were twice the height of most men, but no real impediment to the nimble halfling. She hopped down one step then another and turned back to her companions, "Are you two coming or should I go alone."
"Well then," said Harold turning to the ranger, "we can't let her show us up," and graceful as a street tumbler began to leap down from step to step himself.
* * *
The smell of smoke drifted in around the door. Talberth sniffed and put out his hand. The door was hot, the iron handle warm to the touch. Dark fingers of smoke crept between the upper edge of door and frame. They crawled to the roof and danced about, soon joined by a steady stream, long black tendrils sneaking through the cracks. Talberth knew fire well, but had no spell but one to resists its flames, yet it was the smoke which killed. This vast room would fill quick enough if the hall beyond had been set aflame.
* * *
"It will take us forever to climb back up," Harold complained. He looked up the curving set of stairs.
"I'll toss you up," the ranger laughed.
"Quiet," Gytha scolded them. "You two are worse than my young brothers."
The stairs emptied into a long unlit hall.
"It's dark down here," said Gytha. "
"Light enough for me," said Harold who had the dark vision of his kind. "Don't strike a flint or use a lightstone."
"I'm no fool," the Harald replied gruffly. "Is that a glow down there?"
The corridor ran straight and at its end a large square glowed faintly, a far off light illuminating an open door or arch.
"Very perceptive," the halfling said. "Firewood upstairs, it's probably where they store their beer."
"Beer?" Harald perked up at the word.
"If we find any they'll be none for you," Gytha warned him. "I've seen you in your cups."
"I've heard these giants draw a potent brew," the ranger smacked his lips at the thought. "I'll take a skinfull back."
"You two stay here," Harold told them and crept silently down the hall. He slid along the western wall and ran a hand across the floor. He felt no hidden lines or cracks, no thread-thin wire to trip or trigger an alarm. From his vest he pulled a metal case and opened it. Inside was a small silver mirror with a handle which folded out. He made it a halfling's handbreadth long then turned the mirror back at an angle to see into the room beyond the outlined open square. The light was dim; a single torch set far down a northern wall and far, far to the west, a distant sparkle near to the ground, the twinkle of gems, or glass more likely. Otherwise the huge vault-like room was empty. The floor showed dust but a cleared path ran from this open square and curved to the southern wall. Cautiously Harold turned the mirror back and forth, then up toward the ceiling, a vaulting roof.
He crept forward into the room, but as his hand felt for traps he touched deep gouges worn into the stone floor. The gouges were several fingers deep and wider than his palm. Harold swept his hand back and forth and found another then another still. The gouges formed a line across the doorway. Harold looked up but could see nothing along the inside of the arch. Heavy spikes, he thought, and stepped back into the hall. A trap, how was it triggered? What did it release? These giants were not subtle; this trap seemed out of place. Harold slid back down the wall. He checked the floor for traps again but found no other sign.
"What did you find?" asked the ranger and Gytha both.
"A trap of some kind, but these giants build too high," Harold replied.
"Can we help?" Gytha asked.
"Yes. I don't run away from traps. Come on, the hall is clear at least, I've checked it twice."
"All this crawling about," said Harald. "I don't like it at all."
"You'd like falling in a pit even less," said Harold.
"I can find my way," the ranger answered back.
"In the woods, maybe, but here, with stone halls and locks and traps made of steel and springs.... I think not," the halfling smugly said.
"Must you two argue over every little thing?" Gytha asked exasperated.
"Yes," said Harold. "Come on then, follow me."
The three, ranger, cleric, thief, walked down the hall with care.
"Now hold me up," Harold stood upon the ranger's hands and, with one hand of his own, held tightly to the wall. "Carefully, carefully... "
Even up as high as Harald could stretch his arms the arch was out of reach, and in the dim light, out of sight as well. The halfling Harold would have to climb.
The walls were old, the stone finely set, but cracks had formed and what was nothing more than a groove or line between the blocks in these giants' eyes was hold enough for the halfling to use. He pulled himself up by hand then found a foothold and pushed away from the ranger's grasp.
"Be careful," Harald called up. Harold looked down and stuck out his tongue, then went back to work and climbed. Above the arch he hung on the wall with ease and pulled a small iron spike from a loop set in his belt. It had an eyehole and through it he strung a line of rope, thin and fine, but strong, with a supple feel that did not cut or pinch the hand. He had six such spikes each held in place by a small loop along the inside of his belt. Harold gave the spike he held a kiss then placed it against a line between two blocks and said a word. "Zfiri," the spike whirred in his hand like some captured bee and burrowed in between the stones. The halfling let himself drop and gave both Gytha and his ranger friend a start, they thought he'd slipped.
The rope played down and Harold pulled himself along the inside of the arch. It felt smooth, no sign of holes or traps. He felt along its edge and at its apex he came across a latch.
"Stand back," he hissed to the pair below, "back, go back a bit down the hall."
"What is he up to?" Gytha asked. The ranger merely shrugged but took a good step back.
Harold climbed above the arch and pulled out a long thin bar shaped as an L. With slow care he slid the metal bar between the stone and metal latch then with a twist the latch popped free and the whole bottom of the arch swung loose. There must be hinges on the far side, he thought, but a rattling vibration nearly shook him from the wall. A thick set of bars came rumbling down and sparked against the stone floor. The room beyond was sealed.
Gytha and Harald both jumped back as the bars crashed with a great stuttering roar then smashed hard and loud, heavy iron meeting stone.
"What did you do?" Gytha yelled up at the thief.
"I thought as much," Harold said then with a smug look glanced down. "I knew there was a trap."
"That's just great," the ranger said, his hopes of beer now dashed. "Why did you have to trigger it!"
"Don't shout," Harold moved across the upper wall till he found his spike again. "Xo!" he said and the spike twirled out and lay still within his hand. "I will be down in a moment."
Harald grabbed the thief as soon as he came near enough and placed him on the ground like a kitten pulled from a tree.
"Watch your grip," Harold complained. "I'm no sack of ale to have my innards all squeezed out."
"Sorry," said Harald slightly abashed. "Now how are we going to get in there?"
"We are not," Gytha told them. "We've spent more time here than we have to spare."
* * *
"Telenstil!" Talberth gave the mage a shout. "Telenstil, I think we may have a problem here."
Ivo came running over at the wizard's call, but as low to the ground as the old gnome was he still smelled the smoke and looked up to see it coming in above the door. "It seems that your spell has had a greater effect than expected."
"I did not think these walls would catch," said Talberth.
"I would not have thought so either," Ivo replied stroking his beard. "That must be quite a blaze out there to burn these damp logs."
"Do you know a spell to turn this smoke aside?" Talberth asked.
"I have no handy spells for this," Ivo said. "I will get our elven friend. His work appears to be just about done."
Telenstil cut away the left supporting side; the map curled in and fell upon the floor still hanging from the right. It would be a huge roll, like a piece of some long carpet that ran down the center of a cathedral or a king's hall. Now that his work was done he looked for someone to help him with the map. To his right, along the eastern wall, the lower door was open and he could hear the sound of movement from within. A little further to the north stood Talberth and Ivo before the entranceway. They seemed concerned and turned to look at him.
"Telenstil!" Talberth called again, and motioned for him to approach.
With a sidelong look the elf left the map behind lying crumpled on the floor.
"What is wrong?" he asked.
"Look up," said Talberth pointing to the roof.
"Ahh! Yes I see," Telenstil looked at the smoke. "Move back and open up the door."
Ivo raised an eye, but backed away.
"I will need to remove the spell that holds it closed," said Talberth. "An-Ek-O," he said then stepped back. "Now?"
"Now we open up the door," said Telenstil.
"I have a spell, but it takes a bit of power. I hate to waste it just to open up a door," said Talberth.
"You two! Wizards, hrumph!" Ivo rolled his eyes. He walked to where he'd left his pack and pulled out a rope and an iron spike. The rope he knotted round the spike; removed a hand axe from his belt then went over to the door. The gnome hammered in the spike with a few hard raps then with both hands gave it several pulls. The spike held firm. "Come on, you are both tall enough to reach. Turn the handle."
Talberth reached up but did not touch the metal latch, he jerked back his hand and spit. The gob sizzled when it hit. "Whew!" he said aloud, grateful to have spared his fingers from a burn.
"Use this," said Ivo standing near. The gnome held out an empty leather pouch.
"Thanks," Talberth put the pouch over his hand then opened up the door a crack. A stream of smoke poured in. It swept up toward the roof, a dark thick haze.
"Quickly now!" said Telenstil.
Ivo and Talberth pulled upon the rope and the door swung open wide.
"Zina-Metali!" Telenstil called and threw a square-cut iron sheet, no bigger than his palm. It disappeared into the wall of smoke that poured in from the burning hall and then it filled the open space of door. A smooth iron valve, no hinge or handle showing, squeezed tight between the wooden doorframe. A tiny cloud, all that passed before the metal formed, rose in a puff and hung about the ceiling high above.
"Very impressive," said Ivo. He reached out and gave the metal wall a rap with his knuckles. It gave out a solid sounding gong. "Makes me wish my own craft was a bit more substantial at times."
"Speaking of time, I think we have a little more," said Telenstil. "But that fire may get out of control and I don't want either the map or us burnt up."
"Hear, Hear!" Ivo agreed heartily.