The air was filled with a musky smell, Ivo's large nose twitched but his mind was deep within the stone. Dwarves could feel the weight of the hammer, the edge of the chisel, the grain of the wedge used to split the stone just by touching the seams between the blocks, or so it was said. Gnomes became part of the oerth, looked out from the stones. They saw the hammer as it struck, felt the crack as the rock split and the great loss as the one was broken into the many.
It was long ago that the stone before him had been cut and set. Ivo saw it as a swift flash, the years streaming backward in darkness till there was a brief explosion of light and movement, a stirring across its surface. The touch of passing hands, the drum of feet, it felt like the brush of an insect's wing. Then there was the rending, the shock of separation and back into the memory of a larger whole and timeless unhurried being.
"This place is old..." Ivo said aloud. He laughed, all that he had felt, a thousand years at least summed up into so small a word as old. "It has been empty for a very long time."
"Ivo," the thief called back to him, "we've cleared a path; can you cast that spell?"
"Spell? Ah yes," Ivo brought his mind back to the present and away from the ageless rock. "Light, we need some light. Hand me that torch."
The halfling complied and watched with interest as the gnome cast his spell.
"Hey!" said Little Rat. "Light coming, look!" he pointed back the way they'd come.
"That doesn't look like a torch," said Harold. "It must be a magic light."
The ranger watched the glimmer slowly approach. "Maybe a lantern," Harold thought aloud.
The gnome only half listened to them as he worked his spell. His hand traced a pattern on the wood and he mouthed the gnomish words that sent the magic forth. Light blazed from the torch's end twice as bright as it would have shone from a rag soaked in burning pitch. Harold shielded his eyes and reached out but the ranger plucked the torch from Ivo's hand and held it high above his head.
The light shined down and lit the hallway bright as day.
"It looks like Talberth and the orcs," said Harald.
"Do you see the others?" asked Ivo. It's hard to tell from here."
Harald peered down the hall, he tried to see past the young mage but there was no light beyond the glow on Talberth's chest. "I can't see, maybe they are coming after."
* * *
She breathed out and let the blessed water fall from its cup, pouring it out over Derue's wounded form. Time slowed to a crawl, the water shone like a stream of jewels, the light from the small fire she'd set nearby catching the droplets as they fell. There was a prayer in her mind, she'd thought it before the first word passed her lips and then she was above it all looking down. Her sight was beyond her body, outside of it but she was still inside. She felt the muscles in her hand as she turned the cup, the beating of her heart; she heard the stillness around her disturbed only by the harsh rasps of breath coming from Derue.
The droplets fell, one almost struck Derue but a shell of hellish red appeared around the scout. The water smoked and vanished in a flash of steam. A dozen droplets followed, they burnt like golden fire and ate the shield like hot water over ice. The red became a mouth, a serpent's head; the falling water lashed it with a hammer blow. The snake rose and twisted, the water formed into a rod, a gnarled cudgel. The fanged mouth reared back, the cudgel made of light smashed down, both splintered into a hundred fragments gleaming red and gold.
* * *
A fragment of light, a swirling spark of red meshed with gold shot toward her. Gytha recoiled but her body was down below, she had no eyes to blink, she was only spirit detached and formless. Time had slowed, the falling of the water, the battle between the serpent and the power of the saint, and the shower of gleaming sparks, they had moved like a falling leaf on a windless day. Time returned, the burning ember, the shard of evil and good came rushing up, it struck and she was seeing through her eyes again. A dozen fiery splinters stung her arms and face, the cup fell forgotten from her hand and she stumbled back, a small cry of shock and pain escaped her lips.
"Gytha!" Telenstil exclaimed, he had been watching her, standing back by Ghibelline who lay unconscious, healing as he slept.
Gytha clenched her hands and cleared her head. All her senses came flooding back, for an eternal moment she had been both spirit and flesh, now she had returned to just her purely mortal guise. There was a shock, a tingling that ran through her hands and feet as if lightning had struck nearby.
"Are you hurt?" Telenstil asked. He was by her side, she had stood frozen while he approached, but to her no time had passed. The moment that time had stretched and slowed had snapped back, she lost a few seconds in recompense.
"I'm fine," she said in a quavering voice. "Fine," Gytha pulled her shoulders back and squared them, steadied her voice and willed strength back into her limbs. "Now I must heal him."
Deep below the Steading a dank chamber was lit only by the dull embers of a dying fire. Its occupants lay dead in the vast chamber beyond, but the room still held their scent, thick and pungent. Two huge apes had laired within, pets to their master who shared the room. The musk they extruded fought against the stench of the giant's unwashed flesh.
The keeper, his name forgotten, had been a malformed wretch, but his hunched and distorted form had not hindered his great strength. Now the massive arms lay still, the flesh lifeless and corrupting, but a malign spirit burned within the rotting corpse. No prayer had been said, his body lay unhallowed and desecrated by the revolting orcs. Inside the body was a seed of undead life fed by an anger that kept the spirit of the keeper bound to the dungeon and the inanimate flesh. Suddenly the flame burst into life, a voice called to the keeper and he called back; A scream of pain, of loss, a hiss that crackled with fire. The power of the divine burnt it though the serpent was made of flame. A portion of it died, a limb cut off, the severed end came thrashing back and desperately sought another host. It felt the spirit of the malformed giant, felt the anger, the overwhelming hate. The serpent knew the call would be answered and lent the giant strength. Dead flesh moved, a red light burned within the cold staring eyes.
The keeper rose, he touched the gaping wounds, a swollen tongue ran across blue lips, a thumbless hand reached up and felt along the crack across his skull. The hand came back, granules of dried blood coating the fingertips. The keeper put them to his tongue, there was no taste, but he smiled anyway. The call came again. It sent shivers up his spine. The shivers turned into a rootwork of fire that traced a path across his nerves.
"Ardare..." the voice called to him. "Ardare..." it demanded.
"I am here," a sepulchered voice broke out, no lung or cord of muscle had made the sound. The fire that burned behind its eyes came from the spirit world, it was not fed by air or flesh; the keeper lived but was undead.
* * *
"What kind of monster is this?" asked Harold.
The halfling peered at a column sculpted in the shape of dozens of tiny creatures, each no more than two feet high. The stone was carved into a human shape, two arms, two legs, a head, but with baggy skin and a wrinkled scowling face. A bulging middle was set on spindly legs, a jowly chin on narrow shoulders; a pair of glaring eyes deep beneath beetled brows, behind a huge bulbous nose and framed by wide protruding ears.
"That is a type of gremlin," said Talberth, "A jermlaine."
"Vermin," Ivo said with some distaste.
"They certainly abide with rats, but it is said that they are distant cousins of the gnomish race," Talberth continued.
"Foul lies!" Ivo exclaimed. "They are cousin to rat and gremlin, not to gnome."
"An ugly beast," said Harold. "Is this their size?"
"Maybe they were bigger when these stones were carved," Talberth said, "but they are smaller now, some just half this size, no more than a foot tall."
"Look at all of these," Harold walked from column to column as they made their way to the center of the room, "That is an ettercap, a merchant I knew had a pair of them to guard his wealth. He kept them, and more importantly his treasure, in catacombs beneath his manor."
"They plague the Dim Forest, ally with spiders and the like," the ranger added. He'd gone on ahead, found the pit again, returned and now stood beside them. "They are skilled at setting traps and filled with poison."
"All the pillars seem to be carved in the shape of monsters," said the ranger. "We could spend hours looking at them."
"These carvings are wonderfully done," Ivo said, "but we waste time, you are right Harald. Show us to this pit."
They passed by a dozen more of the columns, the creatures carven on them grew, from ettercaps to ogre's and trolls, then giants and as they neared the center of the room the columns were shaped into the form of great dragons, their forelegs raised, their heads down and their spread wings forming the vaulting roof. The power of Ivo's spell shone further than Harald's torch had done. They could see the top of the pillars and the roof of the vast hall. The apex of the ceiling was split, a center stone slipping from the grip of the adjoining rocks. Below, the cover of the pit had fractured and fallen down into a dark and bottomless shaft. Harald leaned over the crumbling edge and held the enchanted light above, it lit the sides and showed the walls of the shaft; dark openings could be seen, like the hollows of eyes in a fleshless skull. Four gaps were set some twenty feet down, each opposite the other like the points on a compass, but there was no floor,
"You think the gibberlings came from there?" asked Harold.
"Maybe, but their marks seem to be everywhere," the ranger bent and felt along the edge of the pit. "Just like the other..."
Ivo stood at the ranger's side. "We could climb this," he said looking at the grooves cut into the side of the shaft.
"Maybe. I wasn't able to check the entire chamber, there may be other doors or other pits," the ranger said.
"We could throw those gibberling down this hole," suggested Harold.
"If it didn't kill them they would just climb back up," said Ivo shaking his head. "This pit is an open door, I hate to leave it at our back but we need to see what else might be in this chamber. Talberth, the light on that torch will not last much longer, can you renew it?"
"I know the spell, but I do not have it prepared," Talberth told him. "Just light the torch, Harald do you have any more?"
"I do but I hate to waste them."
"No waste when there is need," said Ivo. "But I say we return to Telenstil. I want to hide the opening up above, make it appear that the ravine is choked with falling rock, keep the giants from doing such if they follow the gibberlings' path back to here."
"There are things I need to gather, wood for one, and I want to check our trail," said the ranger. "I will go back."
"Well I'm leaving the orcs here," said Talberth, then he thought for a moment. "No, I'll stay as well. These carvings interest me."
"I'll stay," Harold joined in. "I want to look around myself."
"Me too!" Little Rat spoke up cheerfully.