Despite their eagerness, they were still wary of the structure within which they now adventured. They checked their steps after the main room, moving carefully. Bern took the lead, searching the tiles for various oddities that might depict dangerous things.
To their happy surprise, there was nothing.
Now, at the cusp of the next chamber, they checked inside. It wasn’t much. No one knew what the actual purpose of the room may once have been. Nor, at this point, did any of them really seem to care. No, all eyes were fixed on a single point. A large metallic chest, dangling with a heavy iron lock, sat upon a dais at the far end of the room. It gleamed to them like a shiny ripe apple to be picked. Surely, this place was too good to be true!
The thief moved ahead in an expert and wary fashion. He could feel his gut retch as he did so. Something felt off.
“This one isn’t gonna be so good, my friends. I can feel it,” Bern made known.
Tracy cocked his head. “How can you feel danger?”
“It’s a feeling you get. Like, in your gut, man. Something just doesn’t feel right,” Bern said with patience, trying to move past this bit of dialogue. He imagined that some godlike being sat over them, recording their actions and agreeing with his opinion on the matter.
Yenrab nodded, sage-like, as he judged their conversation. He glimpsed the Gamer, hunched over a table in indecision.
“One should always trust their gut,” Yenrab added. “Especially over their brain. When you leave the brain in charge, all it does is make you fat and lazy. The gut, well, it knows when you are hungry and when you are not and it never tells you what to do or how to do it. Ya know, it just warns you when it thinks there might be some problem.”
Tracy nodded at the information. Then he pulled out a scrap of parchment and began to scratch notes upon it. Bern Sandros suddenly felt tired and fought off a confused headache.
“That’s not what I . . . I mean, mate, what the . . . You know what, no, never mind. Well said, Yenrab. Just, everyone, shut your mouths and let me get this done.”
Tracy appeared to change his lips into some sort of fastening device, which he closed. Bern groaned and restarted his approach.
Nothing clicked, clunked, or zwibbled beneath his agile movements though. With a mental sigh of relief, he realized that the path to the chest was clear.
Alright. Good. This still doesn’t feel right though. Step two it is then.
Bern Sandros darted his fingers out, steady and expert on the outside, a quivering and quavering mess within.
If only Tracy’s glowing hand could do this, he thought. He had watched it probe and prod and he knew that it wasn’t nearly agile enough for such a task.
Caressing the dusty stone, Bern moved his hand downward to its lips, gently feeling through the cracks as well as he might. It was more than enough, for he could feel the slightest of disturbances in the miniscule hinge that resided between the top and bottom halves.
“Oh, traps and treasures!” he cursed under a quiet chuckle.
Bern’s nimble fingers slipped underneath, searching for its source as he muttered to himself. He called out to his fellows behind him.
“It’s a trap. I’m looking to disarm it.”
Bern paused, thinking. Maybe he didn’t have to do anything at all? That bizarre wild mage from Freemeet might have something up his sleeve, after all.
“Could you do something about this trap with your mage hand, sorcerer?” Bern asked.
“It can knock things about, lift minor weights and pull with infantile might, but it lacks the strength and manipulative skills to do much more than that,” answered Tracy.
“Yeah, I was afraid of that. Alright, I’m working the lid and . . . shite!” Bern proclaimed, dropping down and minimizing his silhouette whilst bounding back.
The lid popped open with a hard clack and five heavy darts blasted at him from inside. Thuck, thuck, two landed, striking hard between the studs and striking flesh, while three others flew past. Bern immediately thought of poison, then realized that whatever they had been coated with had probably flecked away in the centuries past.
“Hey, man, are you okay?” Yenrab asked, starting to lumber forward toward him. Bern waved him away, giggling off the built up tension and gave him a thumbs-up. Yenrab nodded, confused at the gesture, then shrugged and moved back.
Bern Sandros worked his hands and fingers about just a bit more, searching the box for additional traps. And he found nothing, to his relief. It was time.
“There is nothing here everybody. Not anymore. I think we’re ready. Let’s let the big guy in. Yenrab. It’s your turn at the wheel of luck, mate.”
Yenrab moved forward, his massive bulk tight with nervous apprehension as he lifted the chest and turned it over, spilling its contents all over the floor.
The flood that released from the chest jingled in its quantity. There were a plethora of coins of silver, copper and electrum, though, disappointingly, nothing of the gold or platinum variety. But, more importantly, there were some jewels and gems. For novice adventurers, it was an absolute jackpot.
“Heck yeah!” Carric spun a dagger in his hand as he grinned wildly at their good fortunes. “There’s plenty of treasure and not a fight in sight! If this is what adventuring is all about, gentlemen, I think I could really get used to it.” Never had he heard of a tale with such an easy quest.
The party was less wild this time as they thought about the even greater wealth that surely lay deeper within the fortress. The adventurers stuffed the coins and gems into the party sack, now bulging considerably, with Yenrab giving a happy grunt as he hefted it over his shoulder. Everything felt absolutely wonderful.
They made their way back into the main room. Checking out the front door, Yenrab gazed into the sky. The hail was done. The weather, though, was still a horrendous night for those things and beings trapped outside. The lightning and thunder were less now, but the water drops that splattered his paddle-sized outstretched paws chilled him and numbed his fingers.
Not a problem, he thought. We’ve got a lot more stuff to check out, I’m sure.
“How’s it looking, Yenrab?” Tracy asked.
“Well, Tracy, we won’t be leaving anytime soon. But, really, do we want to?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure we are exactly where we want to be. Shall we continue?”
The party had explored all of the other doors within this chamber. Now it was time to explore the last. As was becoming habit, the party crept silently to the threshold and took turns looking beyond. It was the entrance to a long stone corridor, its air musty and the walls covered in lichen. The party’s torches did not reach its end.
Tracy stuck up a finger and fake sneezed. Everyone stopped to consider him.
“Guys, we’re gonna have to douse the torches. We don’t have any view of the end of this thing and this isn’t one of those dice-and-parchment games where if you get hit you lose some hit points. Everything has been too easy to this point. We need to be careful and protect our skin,” Tracy said.
While the half-orc and other half-elf nodded, Bern frowned. Bern Sandros was a human and was not blessed with the catlike dark sight gifted to so many of the humanoids that shared these lands. Still, he was skilled at navigating and discovering things in the dark. If he hadn’t been, he never would have quested for a job in which many other beings had such powerful genetic advantages over him.
“Yeah, guys, I’ve got this. Piece of cake,” said the human with the calm and assured demeanor of someone who has done this routinely. Within his thoughts, though, he wondered about it. It was hard to tell if he was attempting to assure the others or himself.
“Are you going to be okay with your, you know . . .” Yenrab asked in that always awkward attempt to not be disrespectful while pointing out a rather obvious fault.
“Yenrab!” scolded Carric, his eyes begging mercy from Bern.
“With my what, Yenrab?” Bern asked menacingly.
“You know, your, uhm, disability?” the half-orc pleaded, his arms waving awkwardly as he struggled to figure his way out of this surprise encounter.
“Are you saying humans are all disabled?” Bern said with a glare—and he broke into laughter. Carric gripped his hands, fretting and unsure, but Yenrab was visibly relieved and his body seemed to settle back into itself.
“Yeah, we aren’t the best at seeing in the dark. No worries, guys. I’m not offended by obvious truths. Just be direct. And, no, it isn’t a problem. I’ve trained to do this and besides, I have a plan,” Bern continued on in a both lecturing and scholarly voice.
Tracy watched and took notes as his companions shared their guffaws. He peered upward and murmured thanks to Coraellon.
Turning to his friends, he noted, “Things are so fascinatingly exotic and folksy outside of Elfsmeet.”
Bern padded ahead, his disappearance quick and stealthy. Sliding against the wall, Bern Sandros took great and exacting care in each motion, ensuring that he made no noise. While the way was dark in his mind’s eye it all came into focus. The shape of the corridor and the nearness of his target stayed fixed and well diagrammed in his trained and talented mind. He did not hesitate as he scouted ahead.
Bern stopped, for he could hear whispers in the distance. The sounds sizzled and hissed, leaving a pleasant auditory aftermath that Bern could well imagine falling asleep to in different, more comfortable, situations.
His brain embraced it, giving the sound a quick inspection.
That’s rain, he thought.
His thoughts raced ahead and traced the echoes and reverberations. Gently and thoroughly, a new mental picture was composed. There existed some sort of hole, a rather large one, in the top of this place. The rain was sluicing through cracks, sprinkling and flooding down to strike the stone floor. The sound was foreboding and his mind felt a spark of horror.
No, no, no, no, no. If there is a hole in the ceiling, then other tomb raiders might have beaten us to the rest of it! Bern felt angry and cheated, though he supposed that if it had been looted, it probably occurred centuries ago and well before he had been alive.
He let his mind go back to its canvas, trying to get a better feel for the state of the large room that he was now absolutely sure lay ahead.
The rain was streaming through at quite the rate, he thought, as it battered itself headlong into old and cracked floors of stone. There was a swirling and slushing quality to it after it hit the floor. That has got to be a drain, Bern thought, now satisfied as to why the whole building hadn’t transformed into one giant water tank.
Also, there was something else. As he approached closer, moving around a bend in the otherwise gently curving passage, he could hear voices, gruff and guttural, making conversation. They spoke some strange, mouth-full-of-rocks nonsense language that generally indicated a darker soul. At least two humanoids ahead, his ears told him, near to that hole in the roof that was cascading torrents of rainwater into the chamber.
That’s enough time here, Bern thought. It is time to head back and report.
“So, you are saying there are humanoids ahead?” Carric frowned, the dream of looting an unoccupied ruin shattered.
“So, you are saying that humanoid languages sound like people chewing rocks?” Yenrab narrowed his eyes.
“Nah, dude, bro, no, not like that. What I mean to say is that there is, well, a more guttural edge to the words and well, screw it. Yes. They sound like people chewing rocks. Sorry not sorry,” Bern stated firmly.
Yenrab pondered that.
“Yeah. I guess you’re right. I don’t suppose you know what type of rocks the said guys were chewing?”
“Nah, mate,” Bern said, “I just know they didn’t sound friendly!”
“Right, right. Alright, I’m thinking maybe you all should just let me go talk to them. They might actually be good people.”
Carric regarded Yenrab with surprise.
“You know, in ballads, brave adventurers stride heroically forth and slaughter monstrous humanoids for, well, being the wrong color with the wrong language. Or so it would seem, thinking about it in a different light. Yes. Yenrab, I think you should go forward and talk with them.”
Everyone turned to look at Tracy Riley. The elven sorcerer glanced behind him and to both of his sides.
“Don’t look at me. I don’t care.”
Yenrab lapsed into an authoritative tone. “Alright, guys, let’s do it. I’ll carry some light with me—Bern, you hang to the shadows and keep out of sight. Carric, you come up lightly from behind me, not hiding, stay obvious and wait in reserve. And, Tracy, I have no idea of what you can do and where I should put you so, you know, you do you.”
The party moved onward down the corridor at a non threatening and steady walking pace. Weapons were stowed by all except the roguish, hidden Bern.
Rock-chewing voices greeted them.
“Duun agaan o kuur ac dec magaan o shuulkaan duun an?”
“Hallo, vriend,” Yenrab called out. “Ek praat glad nie jou taal nie. Kan jy myne praat?”
The half-orc peered on, his face stony and stern. His torch light flickered and gasped as he continued forward, bringing a pair of well-kitted hobgoblin fighters into its radius. They stood firm with weapons ready and faces tense.
“Ja. Kabouter is nie ‘n verfynde taal nie, maar dit is ‘n algemene genoeg parley. Wat doen jy hier in hierdie graf?”
Tracy tried to follow and failing, turned to Carric. “Hey, man, do you have any idea what they are saying?”
“Actually, yes, I kind of do,” Carric replied. “They have agreed upon speaking Goblin for this parlay.”
“Ek hoop regtig dat ek hierdie storie betyds vir Kersfees voltooi, want ek wil hê Robert moet dit lees. Dis ‘n bietjie van ‘n Paasei vir hom en ander uit Suid-Afrika.” Yenrab threw his head back, laughing.
“Plus dan sal ek weet of hy die storie eintlik lees of nie as ek hom daaroor vra nie.”
“What are they saying now?” Tracy asked impatiently.
“It is a joke, friend Tracy, one that I don’t quite understand, but it is friendly in feeling,” Carric smiled. “Yenrab, is there anything you aren’t good at?”
The large half-human, still deep in conversation, simply turned and smiled at them before turning back to continue his discussion.
The talk lasted a good half hour, though the formalities were done within the first five to ten minutes. After that, it was simply chummy monster time, as far as Bern was concerned. And why not? What was it about all of the stories that made everything humanoid, a faceless monster to be butchered and bled to the tune of glory? Enough stories existed about the selfish and lazy poor and he had never been either.
He nodded to himself and made a decision. Stepping forward he folded back into the group from the darkness of the shadows. He surveyed them all and pulled out a whetstone and started sharpening the edge of his blades.
Tracy, the sorcerer, glanced at him. His thoughts were elsewhere as he peered out further into the darkness of the tomb.
The party was all sitting in a group, staying well clear of the hole in the roof, when Yenrab and the hobgoblins, their weapons sheathed, came over and joined them.
“Guys, I’d like you to meet Aronak and Dorduken, ronin of Echo Troop, First of the 3rd Battalion, Tiger Squadron.”
The plated soldiers bowed as their names were said, their distinctly angular features and brownish-orange flesh seeming to writhe under the torchlight. Hobgoblins normally looked angry – these ones seemed downright jovial as they sat down next to the rest.
“Aronak and Dorduken here left their unit in pursuit of treasure and well, they found themselves in bad weather the same as us and, ya know, found a hole and rushed through it,” Yenrab informed them, excited. “So we talked and well, they’re gonna join our group.”
Carric, who had been drinking from his waterskin, started to choke and cough.
“Splght Ugh Thwhat?” Carric said noisily and with a death rattle.
Then the hobgoblins started chattering to him, mistaking his nonsense for their own language. Bern saw the discomfort in Carric’s eyes and chuckled.
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