Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Flight from Unicorn Vale

The Sudden Departure

For a few moments the canary fluttered around Hermel’s head, whistling a cheerful song, before alighting onto a rung of the ladder.   In the smoke and embers that were circulating in the air from the fire above, she seemed to transform into a three inch tall pretty blond girl with gossamer wings.  Hermel rubbed his eyes and looked again.  She fluttered her wings a few times and smiled.  Then with a sudden leap she flew directly to Hermel’s face, and gave him a kiss on the cheek.   Delighted she flew around in a little circle, and then flew away down into the dark mine.

Hermel called out after her but she vanished into the darkness and was gone. He listened intently. From the darkness he heard footsteps approaching. Not wishing to wait and find out to whom they belonged, Hermel climbed the ladder and hoisted himself out of the hole. There was snow on the ground, and covering the pine forest round about. The burned out barn had collapsed completely, and all that was left of it was smoldering ruins with a few spots still burning, casting smoke and embers into the air. In the distance he saw the Prancing Unicorn Inn. There were a few people still milling about putting out the last of the flames, but there was no sign of Hermel’s companions.

Ibis happen to have been at the Inn tending to Korfu who was in bed feverishly sleeping. Praymar had gone with his mother Lanna and his father Ben who had decided to leave the valley and head back to the mysterious Gray Serpent Cave where they’d lost their friends. Star was downstairs in the tavern tending to the wounded. He was not able to save everyone, however, and a few men died of injuries and smoke inhalation. One of the miners had been very badly wounded, crushed by a boulder. The man, Star realized, could not be saved. Before he died, the man gripped Star by the arm, and with blood sputtering from his lips, he took small leather parcel from his vest, and pressed it into Star’s hand.

“Take this to … uuuuuggghhh…” said the man with his least breath.

“Take this to … ‘uhhhhgggghhhh…? Who is ‘uhhhhhggggghhhh’?”, asked Star, but the man was already dead. Without looking at the contents of the parcel, he said the man’s last rights, and went on to help the next miner, whose injuries were such that he could be saved. Star, after that, veritably forgot about the parcel in his haste to help the other victims.

Back at the barn, Hermel heard familiar voices call up from the hole behind him.

“Hello!” shouted Arik.

“Hi!” called Bantum.

Hermel was confused. He couldn’t understand how they wound up being behind him in the mine.

“Hello!” he called down, glad to see them. “Where have you been?”

“We went for a drink somewhere at a Dwarven pub with Thorvain!” shouted Arik merrily as he climbed the ladder and heaved himself out of the hole.

“It was pretty!” said Bantum following behind him. “We ate real good!”

Hermel was very surprised to think that there was a pub in the mine somewhere. In fact, he had trouble quite believing any of it until Bantum said “Look what I got!” and lifted up his bright and shining Dwarven warhammer that he’d received from Thorvain as a gift.

“We have to go,” said Hermel tersely.

“Where to?” asked Arik.

“Hobbington, and as soon as possible,” replied Hermel earnestly.

They walked toward the Inn, and as they approached Star happened to notice them out the window. He put down the bandages he was wrapping, having finished tending to the last injured miner and went outside onto the porch to hail the party members as they came walking up. Meanwhile Ibis had come downstairs as well, and so the members of the adventure group conferred with each other as to what to do next. Hermel was anxious to leave the area as soon as possible; feeling strongly that life expectancy for them all was to be measured in minutes as long as they were within the vale. The last cryptic words of Joe Ricci down in the mine served to convince him that the adventurers were already known suspects among those who controlled the mine. He did not want to wait long enough to find out if his theory was correct.

The Ibis Stratagem

Ibis, however, had other plans.

“I’m going to stay here,” said Ibis. “Korfu is too ill to be moved, and I also have interest in whatever it is that is going on down in the mine. There is a mystery afoot, and I find myself curious to discover more about it,” he said with determination. “I will catch up with you later on.”

As Hermel was anxious for them to escape the vale as quickly as possible, he did not spend much time arguing with Ibis about it. He simply recounted his most recent adventure, and that there were serious dangers in the mine, alluding to his capture and escape from “dangerous persons” who lurked below.

Ibis was not persuaded by this to alter his resolve to enter the mine and find Joe. He felt that he should  apologize to him, thinking that making a friend on the inside of the mine would help him to uncover the mystery more efficiently. He intended to go down in the mine right away, seek out Joe, make his apologies and establish a friendly rapport with the man.

“Where can I meet you in Hobbington when I get there?” asked Ibis of Star. “I hope to follow on behind you as soon as I can,” he said.

“You can find me at the Temple of Eldrik whenever I reside in the township,” replied Star.

“Ibis, you’re probably going to be the death of yourself, and me as well," said Hermel.  "I hope you realize that you’re going to put all of us in danger if you lurk around here sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

“No,” said Ibis, “you’re not going to be here, since you’re leaving.”

“Oh I’m sure you won’t intentionally do anything wrong, but if you’re captured and tortured, you will naturally reveal our party’s destination, and put us in jeopardy.”

“Well,” said Arik, responding to Hermel’s point, “we will all be together, and with our new equipment from Thorvain, Bantum and I at least are a force to reckon with! And I have to say, you’re a pretty hardy fighter yourself by now, Hermel,” he concluded.

“I suppose so,” replied Hermel not entirely convinced.

“You know, caution is one thing, but don’t you think you’re being a little paranoid?’ asked Star.

“No, not at all,” answered Hermel. “In fact, lets go.”

“We’re not going to take skinny man with us?’ asked Bantum puzzled by the party split.

“No,” answered Arik, “skinny man is going to follow along behind us later. He needs to rest. Don’t worry, he’s got those skinny legs. He’ll catch up fast.”

“Oh, ok”, said Bantum resigned to not understanding.  He petted Dr. Chickenhiemer and looked to see where everyone else would go.  As the group was talking outside the Prancing Unicorn, Lanna and Ben came trudging through the snow towards them along with their albino son Praymar.

“I just want to say ‘Thank you’, before we leave,” said Lanna to the group. “You helped rescue my husband a second time and we feel a debt of gratitude. But we also feel it’s best to leave immediately, and we wish to go back to the Gray Serpent Cave now that Bantum helped us to learn the secret of how to open the secret tunnel. Our friends may be in danger there, and we must see if we can find them. So, thank you, and farewell.”

“You’re welcome,” said Bantum.

“You’ve been very helpful, Bantum. Thank you,” said Lanna warmly.

“You’re a nice lady,” replied Bantum, looking down at her happily. Ben, limping from an injury in the mine, came and shook each of the adventurers’ hands and thanked all of them.

“Well, good bye, Ben, nice meeting you. That’s a hell of a wife you got there,” said Hermel as they shook hands.

“Well, I think so, too … thanks… uh,” replied Ben not quite sure if he’d been complemented or not. In any case, seeing his limp, Star asked if Ben might want him to take a look at his leg. In a few minutes Star used his medical skills to bind the wound and provide some relief from the pain with an herbal balm. “Almost good as new” said Ben afterwards, stomping his foot down a couple of times appreciatively.  "I don't know how to repay you," he said, "but I'll find a way somehow."

"Don't mention it, please," replied Star politely.

“We’d best be getting along,” Ben said to Lanna and Praymar, and with that they turned and began heading up the path to the gap in the hills which lead out of the Unicorn Vale.

“Good bye all,” said Praymar to the adventurers. No one replied. He said “Good bye all,” again a couple of times in his high squeaky voice.

“Uh… good bye…,” said Arik finally, “…weird bear people…”

Praymar Acknowledged

Hermel, realizing that no one had wanted to say good bye to odd little Praymar hurried after them and shook his hand saying, “Praymar, I underestimated you at first, but you did go down the shaft and freed the miners, so I want to say thank you. Don’t worry if people look askance at your appearance in life. Your merits will eventually shine through in people’s eyes, I’m sure.”

“Oh thank you for saying so,” said Praymar excited that someone had finally acknowledged him. “I’m just glad that someone listened to me and that my dad and the others were saved,” he answered sincerely and shook Hermel’s hand in his surprisingly crushing grip.

“Well, sure sure… uh… you still creep me out, but you did well in the mine, and … so … uh, thanks,” Hermel said wrenching his hand free before it was accidentally crushed by the enthusiastic little albino boy. Praymar’s eyes flashed red and he smiled.

"I have to say, you give me the heeby-jeebies, too, there, Praymar," said Arik, "but you did a good job rescuing my buddy Thorvain and the rest.  We Dwarves owe you something for that.  In fact, keep your freakish red eyes peeled for Thorvain.  He mentioned along the way that he intends to try to catch up with you some time and thank you personally.  I wouldn't be surprised if his doing so turns out rather handsomely for you, young fellow," he said with a wink.

“Well, it’s time we get going,” said Hermel. Turning around looked at Ibis who was standing a little ways off back toward the Prancing Unicorn Inn.

“Good bye Ibis. Take care of yourself and Korfu, and try not to get captured and tortured too much, ok? And good luck with whatever it is you’re planning to do, anyway,” he said, not in the least bit suspecting the vastly sinister plan that Ibis had been planning and plotting ever so slowly and carefully for so many years.

And with their final ‘good byes’ they parted from Ibis and headed down the snow-laden path towards the gap in the hills where the wooden bridge lead out of the vale. They passed the steaming bathing pool on their right and walked through the forest about a mile. It was sunny, but the air was bitter cold and a wind howled through the trees casting long mists of snow along the hill's rocky ridges. As they walked Star looked around in every direction. In fact the entire vale was surrounded on all sides by steep slopes topped with pine trees, and he surmised that the vale itself must be a crater from which there was a single gap through which one might enter or leave. “Quite a strategic location, actually,” he thought to himself, as he peered along the slopes. “No wonder Ibis likes it here, with all his military conjectures and whatnot. Seems the ideal place for him to write his treatise ‘On the Defenses of Mountain Villages and Townships’,” he thought.

The Unknown History of Chickens

As they trudged through the snow Dr. Chickenhiemer was reminiscing.  It was not well known that the very first encounter with chickens among human kind had occurred a very long time ago when a great human General had come upon Dr. Chickenhiemer and his arch-rival, Senior Chickenduku, one blazing hot  morning along the side of a road in the land of the Breex near the sea. The General, whose name was Thamocles, was on his way to confront a gigantic army of invading Derxian forces, and yet had taken the time to observe the two cocks engaging in a fierce battle. He stopped to watch the two cocks fighting and summoned his troops, saying: “Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.” With that Thamocles and his army were inspired by this display of primal aggression, and marched off to the coast where they went on to defeat the Derxian forces invading the land of the Breex, saving all of Western Civilization from subjugation at the hands of the brutal Obsidion Empire which had risen in the South East during that dark Age. Even to this day, Doctor Chickenhiemer is amused when he remembers that the General had entirely failed to understand what the two cocks had actually been fighting about. It was not merely that Senior Chickenduku would not give way, which he certainly would not, but that he had been conducting a terrible ceremony on behalf of the Obsidion Emperor for the prior eleven weeks, which was on the verge of completion. Had Dr. Chickenhiemer not courageously disrupted it then the Breex would have found themselves entirely destroyed by a ten day rain of flaming hail stones as soon as their army entered the coastal region. Instead, the flaming hailstorm was diverted to the western desert where the Jinn live; killing many of them. Senior Chickenduku’s plan backfired on him and after that the Jinn cursed him, and the wicked Chickenmancer was forced to vanish into obscurity, and probably wound up in a cooking pot somewhere. And so it was that the Western World was saved that day long, long ago, and Dr. Chickenhiemer had been granted an Earldom on the slopes of Mount Palamir. Had his wing allowed himself to do so Dr. Chickenhiemer would have patted himself on the back. He clucked a little chuckle to himself as Bantum carried him in his enormous left arm. As to what happened in the subsequent centuries to his Earldom, his famous bride and their many adventures and discoveries, which would be far too much to cover here in this story, let it suffice to say that Dr. Chickenhiemer had seen and done a great many things, and that his adventures were far from over.  But then he began brooding again about how things had turned out after all with the humans, and once again questioned how it was that the chicken race, so proud and courageous, became food.  It annoyed him tremendously as usual, and he went back to his ruminations on how to remedy the situation somehow.

Ibis Takes a Leap in the Dark

Ibis returned to the Inn and looked in on Korfu who was still sleeping. He decided that it was a good time for him to head back down into the mine in order to apologize to the mechanic Joe Ricci. Since he planned to leave the valley as soon as possible he did not want to delay. He went to the barn and climbed down the broken ladder into the tunnel. He smelled a slight trace of gas in the air he decided against lighting a torch. And so thinking that he knew the way reasonably well he made his way by crawling through the mine slowly expecting to find Joe in short order. It was soon pitch black. He came to the stairs going down and made his way slowly holding to the right hand wall as he went. He turned the corner and went what seemed like a far distance, stumbling here and there over rubble and broken wood. The smell of gas was a bit stronger here.

“Hey Joe!” he called out into the darkness. “If you hear me, throw me some light! I came down to apologize to you about what I said earlier!” There was no answer from the echoing black corridor. He turned the corner where he believed he should find the iron gate and two lion statues. Suddenly he heard footsteps approaching him.

“Joe? Is that you?” he asked the darkness. There was no answer but the footsteps came up to him rapidly.

“Halt!” yelled Ibis when the footsteps had come within five feet. Suddenly he felt a sharp painful whack to the back of his head, and yellow stars flashed in his eyes, and he fell to the ground unconscious.

Ibis found himself in the the familiar dark cavern. There was the little red man standing on the other side of the fire that came out of the hole in the ground. The black tripod with the bronze brazier on it held a pile of feather dolls.

“What was that?!” demanded a little red man with a bristly black look as he adjusted the round bronze glasses on his crooked nose. “I try so hard … and what do you do? Throw yourself down a dark hole!”

“The relics call to me. Their power is of the ancient Elkron. They are worth the risk,” replied Ibis coolly.

“Perhaps,” said the little red devil.

“Can you help me?” asked Ibis.

“Not from here,” said the little red devil and with that he leaped into the hole and vanished with a cackling laugh. Ibis threw a feather doll into the fire. From far below he heard the sound of laughter falling away quickly into dark silence.

Meanwhile, back at the Inn, Korfu began having a very strange dream of his own. He found himself wandering through a vast desert of small round stones and redish colored sand, and coming upon a gigantic stone hand sticking out of the ground some thirty six feet into the blazing sky above. The ground was shimmering with heat. On the top of each finger was a scarlet flame. In the palm of the hand was an inscription, which read, in a language that Korfu somehow recognized, “You have come to the Palace of the Red Desert Jinn. Be Thou Crushed”. He touched the hand and said some words in the same obscure language. How he knew them he could not remember. A doorway opened at the base of the hand, and he saw inside small chamber in which there was a spiral stair going down. He went inside and climbed downward for a long time until and found himself in a cavern. He wandered in the darkness. Eventually he came to a large cavernous chamber with a fire flickering from a hole in the ground. He saw next to it was a brazen bowl on black tripod, in which he saw what looked like a pile of feathers.

Spotting the Tree-Rat

Far away the party was trudging through the snow toward the wooden bridge that lead out of the vale. Star was saying, “You know, that Ibis is a pretty smart guy. I’m sure he will be ok.” At this Lanna took a look back over her shoulder and rolled her eyes.

Meanwhile, in a clump of trees on top of a tall thin hill about three hundred feet ahead, Star spotted a man with a long bow concealing himself behind a tall old pine in the snow. He quickly scanned along the slopes around them and spotted on the far side opposite another tall narrow hill also about three hundred feet from the trail on which he saw another man with a long bow also concealed in a cluster of pine trees.

Not wishing to give away that he’s spotted the men in the trees he walked calmly over to Hermel and Arik and quietly whispered, “It’s a trap. There are men with bows in the hills.”

“Where!?!” shouted Bantum looking around in every direction. “Where are they?”

“The squirrel is over there!” Star shouted, pointing to a tree.

“I want to play with it!” said Bantum excitedly, following behind Arik.

“It’s there!’ It’s a tree rat! Its in its nest!” shouted Arik loudly, pointing to a tree back up behind them along the trail. “Come on Bantum, lets go look at it,” and he took Bantum with him over to the tree where a squirrel happen to be making a panicked dash up the tree. Everyone followed behind, gaining cover from the archers. They were now all clustered together in a clump of pine trees. The squirrel gave a quick wave to Dr. Chickenhiemer, and then leaped onto the branch of another tree, and made his way off into the forest.

“I can scout ahead and try to sneak up on one of the archers,” offered Praymar.

“No,” said Hermel. “We’re all looking at the squirrel. Lets just stick with that for now while we plan this out, ok? Now we need to figure out a way to sneak up on the archers and get the drop on them, right?”

“Mom, can I go scout ahead? I’ll be careful,” said Praymar to Lanna. She looked at Hermel, and replied that he certainly could, but he must go with his father, and be very careful. Hermel sighed and stuffed his hands deeper into his pockets. And so Praymar and Ben headed off in a round about direction to go scout out the archer on the southern hill.

Arik's First Earth Walk

“While Bantum and I were recently with Thorvain, he showed me a very interesting technique known to the Dwarves that allows us to travel through the earth,” said Arik quietly, looking around the side of the tree at one of the men on the rocky hill. “We can use it to make our way to that man, I think, and gain surprise.”

What Thorvain had taught him was that Earth Walking allows a Dwarve, and a guest or two perhaps, to walk through the earth in any direction up to three hundred and sixty feet. “Now the thing about it”, had said Thorvain, “ is that you’ll be walking through the Earth Realm of Minvar and the Earth Elkron. You might meet others along the way, and some might be friendly, while others might be unfriendly, or neither. It’s risky to use if you are not walking along an Earth Road, which is also known as a Ley Line by some wizards. The other thing to know is that time flows differently in the Earth Realm. No time at all will pass in the outer world. But you only have a limited amount of time to go from the Earth Door at the beginning of your path to the Earth Door at the far end. Any stone can serve as an Earth Door, and you pick it by looking at it as you cast the incantation. Once in the Earth Realm you see clues as to the way you must go to find the other door. It will not be a straight line, so stay alert. Sometimes you’ll see a glow on the ground, or a special kind of stone, or some other sign. You’ll know the sign when you see it. Use Earth Walking when you are in dire straights, lad. It’s saved me more than once, and you can bet your beard on that.”

Arik explained these stipulations to Hermel.

“Can you really do this?” asked Hermel, deeply concerned.

“Of course! I’m a Dwarve damit! We do this sort of thing all the time!”

“Oh, and Dwarves can fly?” replied Hermel skeptically.

“Oh ok! I admit I can’t fly. But it’s not my fault Omri decreed that Dwarves should be too sturdy and stocky to fly!” said Arik, finally admitting that all of his claims about flying were actually Dwarven jesting. “Don’t worry, Hermel. It will work. We may get bogged down in some underworld adventure, but even if we do, as long as we survive that we’ll show up at the far Earth Door in a second, no matter how long we spend down there.”

Hermel’s look was one of absolute incredulous shock.

“Look, ok. I know the theory. I’ve never done it myself, but I know I can do it. There’s nothing to worry about. We’ll be up on that ledge next to the archer in the blink of Ormi’s eye. Now help me to find a stone around here!” said Arik, now eager to try out his new power.

Hermel’s lips moved, but no words came out. He blinked a few times.

“Come on! Snap out of it!” said Arik. “You’re the one who wanted to get the drop on these guys. Are we going to do this or not?”

“Well when I had that idea, I thought you could fly. Not walk through rock. That’s totally different and much less … uh… believable … somehow…” replied Hermel.

“Like I said, it’s not my fault. Omri gives and Omri takes away. Once upon a time Dwarves could fly, maybe. But I can say quite honestly without jesting – we certainly cannot fly now. But we can walk through the Earth, and heck that’s probably even better if we’re planning to surprise the guy!”

And with that they found a stone, and Arik laid his hands on it, and with an incantation for two, he created the two Earth Doors, one there, and one high up on the ridge behind where the archer was standing.

“You ready?” asked Arik of Hermel.

“Ready for what?” asked Hermel, not seeing that anything had changed other than the wind began blowing a little bit more from the south east.

“It worked!” said Arik affirmatively.

“Short people,” replied Hermel to himself as he peered down at the large boulder before them.

“Come on tallie, let’s go,” said Arik and walked directly into the rock and vanished.

Hermel, very reluctantly held his breath and closed his eyes and followed Arik into the boulder. Stepping through he felt a deep bone chilling cold and was immersed in pitch blackness. Arik took him by the arm and they set off.

Arik, of course, could see in the Earth, and followed what looked like the right path down a shelf of granite, through to a rough section of limestone that made a long sloping stair. They made their way slowly, but Arik was always aware that time was passing, and if they stayed below for too long the other portal would close. And that could be bad. Very bad. So they hurried along as fast as they reasonably could. Which is to say, rather slowly. For Hermel it was a dark and claustrophobic journey, and he felt like he was somehow being sanded down with every step. But that sensation wore off after a while and the only sense he had after that was of a dull and persistently cold numbness.

Eventually, after winding their way through the hidden byways of the earth they came to an opening that lead out of the limestone and into cave in which there was air. Suddenly Hermel knew a kind of relief that he had never imagined before. Panting he shook himself and breathed in deeply. There is nothing like air when you’ve somehow been missing out on it for quite some time. How he managed to breath at all while walking through the earth was something of a mystery, but there you have it. At any rate, it was still pitch black. They heard a burbling sound like the rush of water. The air was cold and wet. Arik could see that they were in a large open cave with an eight-foot wide stream running down the center from a tunnel entrance on the far side of the cave to another tunnel closer to where they had come out of the wall.

“There are two ‘things’, I’m not sure what they are,” said Arik, “on the far side over there. If we light a torch they will see us. Should we do it?”

“If I’m going to die, then I would rather see what’s eating me … I guess,” said Hermel unconvincingly.

They decided to take a chance and light a torch. Once lit, they peered around the cave. Way on the other side near the far tunnel entrance Hermel spotted the two man-like creatures with brown caps and vests hiding behind a rock. Arik took out his axe and held it in one hand, while he held the torch in the other. As soon as the torch was lit the two creatures hid themselves behind a rock.

“Is that Ishcandar and Lido?” wondered Hermel. “They’re short enough…”

It seemed that the only ford for the stream was over where the two creatures were. Trying to cross the stream elsewhere was not going to end well, they thought as they peered into the rushing waters. It seemed to Arik that the path lead to the other side of the stream and into the far wall of the cavern.

“We need to go over to where the creatures are in order to ford the stream,” said Arik. Hermel held his shield up and drew his sword. They walked along the edge of the stream slowly.

One of the creatures poked his head up. He had twigs coming out of his hair, and he looked to be a scrappy almost monkey-like person in a gray vest and brown cap made of leaves. Arik wondered if this were not one of the fabled earth sprites. He had heard tales of such creatures in the past. One such story was about a Dwarven couple who lived together in a deep cave. They finally had a child, and all was well, until one day they discerned that the child would not age. A year went by and the child was still the same as he was when born. Then other strange things happened such as the child suddenly bursting out in song in a strange language. They called the mage, who came and realized that the child was a changeling. He put an iron cross on the fireplace, and offered to make the child boiled eggs. The child upon being offered the eggs ran to the fireplace, and finding the iron cross, shrieked in terror and turned into fire and blew away into the chimney. The mage revealed that the child had been taken by the earth sprites and replaced by a changeling. Fortunately, the changeling was stuck in the chimney. The mage then traded poetic riddles with the changeling and discovered the whereabouts of the Dwarven child and in the end the child was restored to his parents and the changeling fled to whence ever it came.

Arik and Hermel crept forward. The two creatures peered over the top of the rocks they were hiding behind. The only safe ford was directly across from where the creatures were hiding. They crept forward slowly and Arik began trying make a round about path to circle behind the creatures if possible.

“This is ridiculous," said Hermel.  "Hello?” he called to the creatures.

“Fiddle-lee, fiddle-loo – down into the brook with you!” said one of the creatures. When he said this the brook began burbling more, as though a rush of water had come down from the tunnel entrance.  there was a strange laughter echoing throughout the cave.

Arik kept a careful eye on the creatures, but they continued their game of hiding behind the rock. As they stepped forward the stream began burbling more and more loudly. Soon the ford of stones would be covered over.

“We mean you no harm,” said Arik, “We simply wish to cross over to the other side and continue our journey.” There was silence from the other side of the rocks.  Arik knew from the tales that such creatures could be mischievous, and even deadly. They happen to be fond of such things as ‘Bitter Bark’ and ‘Nettle Berries’ and had a particular fondness for silver.

“Well, Googlie-goo, I don’t trust you!” said Hermel, trying his hand at he rhyming game. There was laughter behind the rock, and the stream’s water grew higher.

“Got any bitter bark?” asked Arik of Hermel.

“No, I don’t have any bitter bark,” replied Hermel.

"God any nettle berries?" asked Arik.

"No nettle berries," replied Hermel.

“Do you have any silver?” asked Arik of Hermel.

“Yes. That I have. There were a few pieces in Ishcandar’s pouch,” answered Hermel. In Ishcandar’s pouch he found three silver pieces.

“Oh people of the earth…” began Arik.

“If you can’t rhyme it then don’t say it,” suggested Hermel. “They seem to like rhymes.”

“I’m a story teller, not a poet,” answered Arik, annoyed. He tried a rhyme but it came out so off kilter that it was useless. “I recite Epics, not limericks!”

The creatures rolled their eyes on the other side of the rocks.

“What would you like? A liver? Or a sliver of silver?” asked Hermel in a singsong voice that he hoped would help obscure the truly awful rhyme.

There was no laughter. The stream’s burbling grew louder.

“Look if you don’t let us cross,” called out Arik, “we will recite bad poetry at you. We can keep this up all day, believe me!”

There was no laughter. The stream’s burbling grew louder still.

“There once was a Dwarve from Nantucket…” recited Arik boldly and then let out a loud guffaw. The affront was not lost on the little people.

“Twiddle-Goom, Widdle-Broom, Be thou lost in darkning gloom!” chanted one of the little creatures. And with that, from the stream there appeared a mist, which grew into a fog that began rolling in and started to fill the cave. It was a wet and gloomy fog.

“Lets retreat!” said Hermel, eying the fog nervously. And he began retreating back up the stream the way they came.

“We should try to get across the river!” said Arik.

“We’re better off pacifying these things. You said they like silver, so lets give them some silver. But we need a rhyme,” said Hermel.

“What is it with you and rhyming all of a sudden?” barked Arik as he followed back up the river behind Hermel.

“Rhymes make them happy. It’s like if I were talking with Dwarves… I would use small words,” answered Hermel. Arik bristled his beard at Hermel. From the other side of the rocks they heard the tittering of the creatures.

“You’re welcome!” said Hermel. Meanwhile the fog was filling up the cave.

“Googly-Hay, Googly-Way! Let is through – We can pay!” chanted Hermel loudly.

There was gleeful sounding laughter.

Arik inspected the stream, and found that the water was rapidly rising. He wondered if it could possibly fill the entire cave. He concluded that it was not worth mentioning that possibility. They were enshrouded in fog. Arik felt unusually gloomy.

“Are you feeling gloomy?” he asked Hermel.

“Yes,” answered Hermel.

“You always feel gloomy!” exclaimed Arik. “For you it’s normal. Stupid earth walking,” said Arik gloomily. “It’s not worth walking. I wanted to fly. Damnit.”  Arik's legs began to feel heavy.

There was laughter on the other side of the rocks. Arik peered that way, but the fog was so dense that he could barely see them. The water had risen to the point where the rocks that had been protruding were now submerged.

“Gibily-gee, Gibily-Flea – why won’t you answer me?” called out Hermel into the fog.

“Grumble-ton, Tumble-sun – pay us now, or you better run!” chanted one of the creatures with a peel of ominous laughter.

“You see?” said Hermel to Arik, “they respond to rhymes.”

“So they do, so they do,” replied Arik. “Gobbledy-Gook, Gibbily-Fear – we’ve got your silver right here!” chanted Arik, finally getting into the swing of things.

"Rumble-Fumble, toss our gifts, and best not stumble!” chanted back one of the little earth sprites with another peel of laughter.

With that Arik and Hermel walked back toward where the ford was. Hermel tossed a silver coin. Into the air one twiggish hand sprang up catching the coin. Arik tossed the other coin and the second twiggish hand sprang up and caught it.

The two adventurers could then see that the fog had cleared a bit at the ford, and there was a bridge of flat stones just above the water line by which they could cross. Arik tied a rope around Hermel’s waist and let him cross first.  He very nearly tumbled into the freezing stream, but managed to hold steady and made it across. Arik followed behind. Hermel took the rope in both hands and braced himself against some rocks. Arik came across without any problem, being steady of foot generally, as Dwarves usually are.

“Gee, that was so difficult,” said Arik sarcastically.

“Globeldy-gue, Flobldy-Foo, now that we’re across, thank you!” called Arik behind him as he grabbed Hermel by the shoulder and walked through the wall into the granite ledge. To torch immediately blew out as they entered the stone. They walked up a ridge of crystal quartz and at the top was the Earth Door through which they were to exit. Arik took out his axe and stepped through into the bright sunlight. Hermel took his sword and shield in hand and stepped out behind him. He was blinded by the bright snow and sunlight, and so held his shield up to cover his eyes. Arik was not so affected by the change in lighting, and saw immediately the archer’s back as he stood peering around the side of the tall pine. He charged forward and hacked the man with his axe. Hermel, recovering quickly from the snow blindness, followed behind and engaged the man in the next attack. The archer was utterly surprised, and quickly subdued by the two stalwart warriors. They tied him up with the rope, and looked out over the edge of the towering hill. Down below they could see the span of the snow-covered forest below. They spotted Praymar and Ben making their way through the trees toward the rock on the other side of a brook, some five or six hundred feet from their position to the south.

Praymar and Ben had crept fairly far forward through the scattered woods, trying to stick to the trees to keep from being a target for the archer. Praymar saw the archer cocking back the bow, and at the last second dodged behind a tree. ‘Thwak!”, the arrow hit into the tree next to his right shoulder. Ben pushed Praymar down to a crouching position and took a peek around the side of the tree.  He ran some quick calculations and formulated a tactical plan.

When Star, who had been keeping an eye on the hills with the archers while helping Bantum to find the squirrel, noted that the archers were both engaging in the fight.

“Bantum! Our friends are in trouble!” he cried pointing to the hill where the archer was shooting at Praymar and Ben from.

“In trouble!? Ok! I will help them!” shouted Bantum as he, Star and Lanna ran toward where Praymar and Ben were.

Korfu's Fateful Choice

Meanwhile, back at the Inn, Korfu’s strange dream continued…

Korfu, sleeping, found himself in the cavern, feeling feverish, frightened and confused. He was standing in the dark cavern lit by a flickering red glow emanating from a fire in a pit in front of him. Next to it there was the bronze brazier set on the black iron tripod. He thought there were clumps of feathers in the bowl, and it surprised him that they looked like feather dolls. Suddenly, he noticed the little red-skinned man with a tuft of black hair standing just beyond the fire next to the bowl. The red man looked at Korfu, and adjusted his round brass glasses.

"So, Korfu, you have made yourself the minion of that poor fool Ibis?" asked the little man rhetorically. "Ah, but alas, who knows what fate and destiny have in store, eh?" he continued, not waiting for an answer as he handed Korfu two objects. The first was a finely crafted silver mirror. The second was a gorgeously inlaid silver goblet in which was a green liquid simmering with a white mist bubbling over the top. Korfu took them, feeling that somehow he had seen this little red person before, somewhere, perhaps long ago, but he is not sure.

"Look in the mirror - what do you see?" said the little red man.

Korfu, holding the mirror in his left hand saw in it a strange scene, nothing like what he expected. There he beheld an iron tomb in a round chamber with twelve archways set deep inside a mountain that overlooks all the world. Next to it was Ibis, reaching out for the iron sarcophagus. Purple lightning flashed across the heavens. Above him to the north was a looming cloud of darkness, brewing with thunders. Southward he saw smoke and fires burning from horizon to horizon. The east was shrouded in deepest gloom. To the west was a dreadful storm, unleashing a torrential flood. The world was shaking. Wind was blowing hard all around him. There was thunder. An eye within the tomb opened slowly. He heard a deep thunderous voice intone "Boom Boom rain and gloom, shadow spreads in the wake of doom. North is grim, south does flame, east lurks dark in the western rain." Korfu felt a sudden terror and the blood in his veins ran cold.

Then the scene faded. He then saw in the mirror a tall man wearing a long black and scarlet robe with a golden belt and a mask of gold and turquoise, and precious gems, with a golden cobra set on his forehead and vultures wings spread wide above him. The man was lifting his arms upward and he was laughing with a sound like many thunders. There were two serpents growing out of his body, one on each shoulder. The earth was shaking.

Then the scene went dark, and the mirror clouded, and then reformed into another scene. He saw Ibis in a dark stone room tied to a wooden chair. A brute of some kind was looming over him. A woman with red hair and black skullcap was standing nearby. Someone else was observing from the shadows drinking a cup of wine. Ibis was in danger.  The scene faded from the mirror and Korfu looked up from it.

"Your dear mentor Ibis has fallen into the hands of some outlaws, the poor fool." said the little red devil. "Perhaps you can save him, or at least die with him if you so wish. If you choose to make the attempt, all you need do is drink of the goblet, which will restore your powers, throw a feather doll into the fire... and then leap into the flames after it!" he shrieked as he hurled himself into the flames, his obscene laughter mingling with the crackling sounds of the fiery abyss as he fell headlong down the fiery hole.

Korfu took a feather doll in his hand, tossed it into the flames, and then leaped in after it.  There was a sinister echo of laughter throughout the cavern as the fire died down and the dolls fluttered in the non-existent wind.

Previous Episode: The Unexpected Rendezvous
Next Episode: Battle of Dragon Bridge

Friday, May 18, 2012

Interlude - The Unexpected Rendezvous

Hermel began to make his way down the dark corridor, using his hand to run along the wall on his right. The further away from the Machine Room the darker it became until he could no longer see his hand in front of his face. He stumbled over some rubble, and the going was slow. Eventually he came to the gap where that long side corridor was, down which he had heard the voices before. He now heard the distant sound of chipping, or digging, echoing up from the long dark corridor.

Facing the gate, he used his hand to guide himself  along the far wall past the corridor, and onward toward the gate. His intention was to find the ladder that led up to the now smoldering ruin of a barn outside. He stopped several times to listen. He could hear the distant sound of digging, but once past the tunnel entrance the sound grew more faint until he was far enough away so that he could no longer hear it. The only sound he heard was the whoosh of a wind that flowed past him in the cold darkness. As he was inching along slowly reaching forward with his right hand while running his left hand along the wall, he came to the gate. The iron bars felt cold to his touch. Moving from left to right slowly, making no noise, he touched each cold iron bar, but he could not find any opening.

“The gate has been sealed,” he thought to himself angrily.

From behind his head he heard a woman's voice.

"The Boss has sent me to come fetch you, and bring you down to him. If you resist, I'm ordered to kill you,” she said bluntly. Somehow Hermel knew that he’d heard this voice before, but he couldn’t quite place it. She sounded deadly serious.

“Oh, which boss is that? The real boss, or the head of security?” he asked with a casual, almost friendly tone.

"Oh, it's you... the guy from the Inn...," she said, surprised. In a flash Hermel recognized her voice as that of the red haired woman with the black skullcap who he’d encountered the first night at the Inn.

After a pause she continued; “He's the Boss of the Guards... Chief of a band of Outlaws who were hired to handle security and keep a lid on the operation, I guess. He’s something of a savage, but shrewd and efficient. Apparently you may know something of particular interest to him about what has been found down in the mine, so he sent me up to fetch you," she concluded, though he sensed a subtle hesitation in her voice. What he thought might have been an almost friendly intonation had crept in.

"Let's move," she said suddenly back to the same hard tone she’d first had. In the darkness Hermel felt the cold steel point of a dagger prod him. Realizing that he was at a distinct disadvantage until he could see, and that he was apparently more valuable alive at the moment, he calmly said, "Oh, the red headed girl from the Inn. I was wondering if something happened to you. I never expected you to happen to me instead. Sure, let's go for a stroll. You're quiet as a cat, by the way. Uh, which way? Unlike you, I don't have cat eyes, and I know that there's a drop off ahead."

She paused. Hermel got the impression that she had smiled. Maybe it was his wonderfully fertile imagination, but he didn’t think so somehow.

"I can see well enough in the dark," she said in a voice that sounded a bit warmer than before. "I won't let you drop, don't worry," she addd with a playful sounding laugh. When she made that sound Hermel heard what he thought sounded like an angry little whistle about two to four feet away from him to the left, and something, a dragonfly, or a bat, maybe a bird, fluttered by his head and then flitted away.  It happened too quickly for him to get a bead on whatever it was.   It vanished into the darkness.

"I wonder if you realize how much trouble you're in right now...” she was saying. “I don't think you do. The Boss is a notorious, ruthless and cunning criminal. Once you tell him everything you know, and he'll torture you to find out for sure I don’t doubt, you're usefulness to him will have come to an end... and that will be that for you. On the other hand..." she went on, seeming to be thinking out loud, "...if you told me what you know, I could tell him it was too late and that you escaped before I could get up here... it might make him mad as hell, but he wouldn't kill me, I don't think..."

She stopped.

"What do you know about what's been found in the mine?" she asked, the point of the dagger digging slightly into his back.

“Did you hear that?” asked Hermel. He was still worried about the whistling noise which he heard again, though further away this time.

"Hear what?" she asked, a small tone of worry in her voice.

"Never mind," Hermel replied. Perhaps it was his imagination, going a bit wild in the darkness.

"At any rate, I'm not that stupid. I know what kind of trouble that I'm in, but it seems, as usual, that I am not in control of my own life anymore," Hermel said with regret. "The funny thing is, I didn't even want to come back here, but my companions saw the fire and wanted to help." After a pause he continued, "I have other people that I need to help, ...and what you do in this mine is your business.... So I have no problem telling you what I know about this mine," Hermel went on in a low voice. "However, like I said, I have things to do that must get done, and for all I know, you could be the Boss, and there's no harm in killing me to keep your little secret safe..." Hermel drifts off and shook his head.

"I'm rambling," he said more to himself than her. "Ok.  Here's the deal, open this gate, and get me into the light by the ladder where I have a fighting chance. The way I see it, on this side of the bars, I'm a dead man. I'm either going to fight you here and now, and probably lose unless I get lucky, or I'm going to be tortured and die later. Heck, your blade is probably poisoned too. Open this gate, lead me to some light so I've got a reason to believe that you'll let me go...  I'll tell you what I know, and then it's up to you. You can draw first blood, and then we fight to the end, or you can let me go, but, after you hear what I have to say, you may just want to leave with me."

"Then again, there's always plan B, but that's risky, and both of us will die, but it's better than dying alone... or torture," Hermel added, with a hint of dry humor.

She paused and thought it over. There was the click of a lock and then the sound of the iron gate being swung open, which was surprisingly quiet (it was well oiled and exceptionally well crafted). As this happened something fluttered past him again, and flew off down the tunnel ahead of them.   He thought he heard something moving along behind them as they walked, but at this point he was chalking everything up to 'nerves'.

"Come quickly," she said and leading Hermel through the dark. After twenty or thirty feet she turned him to the left.  "There are ten feet of stairs going up, be careful."

When they got to the top of the stairs, to his great relief, he could see the rubble strewn corridor, at the end of which was a shaft of light.  At the far end was the broken ladder going up the side of the wall. On the fourth rung of the ladder he noticed a small yellow canary is sitting there preening. Before they got any further, where there was just enough light for him to see, the woman stopped and turned him around.

"Ok," she said, "this is far as I go. At least for now.  Tell me what you know about the mine."

When he turned around he could barely see the silhouette of the woman. She was wearing a black leather skullcap, her long wavy red hair flowing out from beneath. Her pretty face had a tense expression, her lips tight, her stance ready for action.

Behind her he could dimly see the silhouette of another figure crouching on the stairs, a sword and shield in hand, and not looking entirely human for some reason. She had her back to the figure, but he noticed that she was holding one hand up behind her that suggested she had gestured for the fighter to stay where he was, which he did. In a moment the dark figure seemed to blend into the darkness and Hermel could not see him any more.

Hermel rested his back against the stone of the corridor wall, and gave a half smile and chuckle, "Oh, hello there," he said as he nodded in the direction of the hidden figure and sighed, "Well, I asked for a fighting chance. I didn't ask for a good chance. I'll keep my word."

He slicked his hair back, perhaps for the last time, squared his shoulders and said, "I would have told you this without threats: Whatever relics you find in the mines, at least those with magical or religious power, are very old. They might date back as far as the Elder Elkron. Some, if not all of them, are evil and their presence can be felt if you're skilled in that sort of thing. Some can see a dull yellow glow that shines on nothing."

After a distinct pause, Hermel added, "That's all, but this bit is free, and just some friendly advice. I think there's a reason why this place is buried and forgotten. No good can come from it in the long run. In fact, I'll wager that the explosion was no accident, even if it appeared to be. Leave these things alone, or you'll regret it. Besides, the salt is worth enough as is. If the two can be kept apart, it might be worth it, but I doubt it."

Hermel took a deep breath, shifted his cloak back, slid one foot back and placed a hand on the hilt of his broadsword, tilting it her way, ready to draw and attack if necessary.

"Okay, it was nice seeing you again, but it's time for me to go, one way or another, and quite frankly, the suspense is killing me," he said, expecting anything.

She stepped backwards and faded into the darkness as she said; "I may have misjudged you at first. Thanks for the advice. Maybe I'll see you around sometime."

And with that she turned the corner at the bottom of the stairs and was gone.

Previous Episode:Canary in the Salt Mine
Next Episode:Flight From Unicorn Vale

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Canary in the Salt Mine

Voices in the Dark

The Adventurers could barely see by the light of Star of Justice’s mystical ‘Aura of Retribution’. There was a dark narrow corridor on their left while ahead of them the metal tracks lead to a soft gold light that came from a rectangular opening along the side of the corridor.

“No! I need an A5312!” a gravely cantankerous voice could be heard echoing from where the light was reflecting along the corridor walls, some sixty feet ahead. Korfu leading Ibis, and Praymar leading Lanna began moving toward the light. The rest remained behind to see what would happen and be ready to move forward in case of trouble.

As they stood there Hermel, squatting at the opening of the side corridor, heard the sounds of voices very faintly coming to him from deep in the darkness.

“I think someone is to down this side corridor,” whispered Hermel to Star. He quietly drew his sword, and with shield raised, stepped in the direction of the voices, very carefully inching his way forward. Star kept his hand to his ear and listened after Hermel. He also could hear the voices. Hermel went very slowly and carefully about what he thought was thirty feet or so when his toes came to a sudden drop off. The sound of the voices continued, and by the intonation it sounded as though there was a tense conversation going on, perhaps an argument brewing, but he could not make out the words. They sounded as though they were very far away. He backed away from the edge, and called out, “Is there anyone down there?”

His voice echoed through the corridor. The voices stopped. After waiting a few moments in the black silence Hermel decided it would be wise to head back to where the group was gathered in the main corridor.

“I called out to the voices and they stopped talking. I suspect they are up to no good therefore, so I came back,” said Hermel to Star. From there they could see the light further down the corridor and so they decided to head to where the main group was. It was slow going due to the darkness as they crossed over the rubble. They came to Praymar and Korfu who joined them in their approach toward the light.

Ibis, once he had gotten to the point where he could see well enough by the light to walk on his own, commanded Korfu to remain where he was, and proceeded ahead without him. Lanna also walked toward the light next to him. Ibis came to the opening gap in the wall, and found a stone chamber with many crates piled high. A flickering golden light was emanating from a brass birdcage set on top of a stand in one corner.

An old gray haired man in grease-covered workman’s cloths was hunched over a box, and shouted “No no no! Hurry up! I need the A5312!” to another younger looking man with brown hair who was digging through a crate throwing straw in the air behind him. Neither of them noticed the intruders.

“Can I be of assistance to you, sir?” asked Ibis.

Both men turned their heads around and the older one said, “Do you know anything about vacuum tube thermionic emissions?”

“Um… no,” said Ibis, a bit bewildered by the question.

“Well, you’re useless then!” said the grizzled workman gruffly and went back to peering inside the contraption he was working on and then demanded the A5312 again. His assistant went back to plowing through straw in a crate.

Arik, who had easily come forward through the darkness due to his superior Dwarven Low-Light Vision, said, “Oh is he as useless as that guy there, then?” with a laugh.

“Hey, who are you calling useless?” asked the assistant, holding up a vacuum tube to the light while scrutinizing the lettering along its bronze colored base.

“Well from the sound of your conversation, it doesn’t sound like you’re being all that useful yourself!’ said Arik with his eyebrows wiggling.

“Oh, and you know the difference between an A5312 and an A5315, eh?”

“Do you?” asked Arik pointing his finger at the fellow.

“Well yes I do,” he answered.

“Well, then why don’t you hand it to the nice man?” demanded Arik jovially.

“I’m working on it!” said the assistant, clearly annoyed, as he went back to plundering the contents of the crate. Straw began flying in the air again.

“What you folks doing down here? Are you with the Rescue Team?” asked the assistant.

“We’re a rescue team, yes,” said Ibis.

“Ok, well good then,” said the older man.

“Are the miners ok?” asked Lanna, unable to bear the useless banter any longer.

“I think so, ma’am. We can’t communicate with them at the present, but I’m working on that now. I should have this fixed in a few minutes, if you folks will just step aside and let us get our work done. Don’t worry ma’am. We’ve almost got this fixed,” said the old workman.

Hermel walked up and said, “What’s going on? How are the miners doing?”

“Who are you?” asked the old man.

“I’m Hermel Dreadton,” said Hermel.

“With the rescue team, I take it?” asked the old man while turning back to the device he’d been tooling with. It was a square box with dials and little meters, and lights, much like some of those that Hermel had seen in the Dunn Street Bridge in Doctor Lobe’s Tower.

“Yes, I suppose. Anyway, I was down by the corridor back there and I heard some voices in the dark. When I called out they went silent. Do you know who those people are?”

“Those, friend, are the rescuers!” barked the old man with a harsh laugh.

“But why did they not answer then?” asked Hermel, confused.

“Because,” the old man said angrily, “the people who need rescuing are not that way, they’re trapped down in the mine over there!” he said pointing in the opposite direction further up the mine tunnel to a dark hole in the ground with a great metal cage protruding from it.

“I don’t get it. What are they doing over there then?” asked Hermel, even more confused than before.

“Well, when the explosion happened, those dimwits and their boss decided it was a far better thing to go and investigate a newly opened corridor than to help rescue the miners! That’s what!”

“Is there a shaft that drops off down that corridor?” asked Hermel.

“I have no idea. I didn’t go down there. We, unlike those guys, are actually trying our best to rescue the miners!” shouted the old man while pointing to his young assistant.

“Have you seen my father?” asked Praymar.

“Who’s your father?”

“Ben, Ben Rursala,” said Praymar.

“I’m sorry son, but I don’t know. There was an explosion down there, and I’m not sure how the men are doing. I’m working on finding out. Don’t worry, we’ll find out soon. But I got to get back to work, or we’ll never find out. So if you people don’t mind, I’m busy! And where’s that A5312?!”

Hermel walked a little ways into the room and looked around. There was another doorway, open, that lead into a dark room on the side, on one wall of which he could see a series of large bronze valves sticking out of a number of metal pipes that were linked to larger pipes that vanished into the stone floor. He looked over at the birdcage in which a canary sitting on a swing. He noticed that the light from the cage was not coming from a candle as he originally assumed (though that would have probably blown the mine sky high if it had been since there was gas in the air), but rather, he thought that the light was coming from the canary itself. He wandered over to take a closer look. It was hard to tell where the light came from. The canary whistled a little tune.

“Mind if I have a feather from your canary?” asked Hermel.

“What?! No! You can’t have a feather from my canary!” yelled the old man. “Don’t worry Carolyna, I won’t let anyone take any of your pretty little feathers!”

The canary whistled a sweet sounding tune and rocked back and forth on her perch.

Troubles in the Mine Shaft

Ibis asked the man, “How deep is the shaft to get to the miners?”

“One hundred feet,” said the old man looking up.

“We have enough rope to get down there,” replied Ibis.

“There’s two problems,” said the old man. “One, the elevator dropped down after the explosion and is broken, and two, large debris has fallen down the emergency shaft and is blocking the mine tunnel entrance. I can’t get down there – I already tried.”

“If someone could get down there could the debris be removed and open the mine?” asked Star.

“There are large boulders down there,” answered the man.

“I can move boulder,” said Bantum.

“I believe you, son,” said the old man looking up at Bantum, the chickens on his bandoleer fluttering and clucking proudly.

“I found it!’ said the young assistant holding up a small glass ball with four small prongs sticking out of a brass bottom.

“The A5312. Finally!” shouted the old man and took the tube over to a box and hunching over it for a few seconds sat back and said, “There!”

He flipped a switch and several lights on the front, one green, one red, and one yellow began to glow. He turned a knob, and then another. Static sounds emanated from the box.

“Herman, come in Herman,” said the old man into a small round object he picked up on his right hand. The lights on the front panel glowed brightly when he spoke.

“Joe!? Joe! QSL. This is Herman. Over”, and then there was more static.

“Herman! QSO! What’s the condition down there?”

“Gas leak. Tinderbox. Cave in. We have injured, and several casualties. Situation critical,” said Herman, and then they heard coughing.

Korfu, who had begun to have an anxiety attack, sat down and went into a fetal ball. Ibis quickly went to him, and using his mystic power of Emotional Influence, calmed him down.

“What is this?” asked Hermel pointing to the shaft down which the miners where trapped. In particular he was pointing to the cage and gear that operated the elevator.

“That, son, is an elevator,” said the Joe.

“What does it do?” asked Hermel.

“It hauls miners, equipment and salt up and down.”

“How does it work? Is it magic?”

“Well, you might say that,” said Joe thoughtfully. “It works using something called a motor.”

“Well instead of using ropes to haul us down, can we use the motor?” asked Hermel hopefully.

“I would do that, but … the motor was destroyed in the accident,” replied Joe.

“I see,” said Hermel disappointed. That meant they would have to climb down, and that looked unusually perilous. They began to plan out how they were going to get down 100 feet by rope and who would do the hauling and the dangerous work of removing the debris. At first Arik suggested he might be able to fly down, but that seemed so improbable under the circumstances that they gave up on that plan immediately. Flying was a mystic power that gave it’s recipient the ability to fly like a bird, not levitate a three hundred pound Dwarve down a damaged mineshaft. While the party made their plan, Joe and his young assistant, John, went back to fixing the equipment.

The party happened to have three hundred feet of rope. They tied it together, and Hermel volunteered to let Bantum lower him down. It was then realized that Hermel could not see in the dark. They thought of sending Star, who could make himself glow with Aura of Retribution for a short while and could identify the conditions down there, but this idea seemed somewhat flawed. Praymar suggested that he go down as he had mystical Night Vision, and was also strong enough to move debris. The party began to quibble.

“I could cast a lightning bolt – that would light everything up!” said Arik, who was growing frustrated with the decision making process.

“Bad idea in a place filled with gas,” said Ibis.

“Yes, yes, I know!” replied Arik looking around the tunnel with his eyes bulging.

Star of Justice Descends

Finally it was decided to lower Star of Justice down the shaft so that he could take a look. They tied the ropes around his waist, and threw them over the large metal axel that held the motor, and Arik and Bantum began lowering him. He was half way down to the tunnel entrance when there was loud rumbling and the entire corridor began to shake. The tremor caused Arik and Bantum to loose their grip on the rope, and Star fell some fifteen feet, banging himself badly against the side of the elevator cage. They managed to stay his fall, both of them getting rope burn in the process. Hermel called down to find out if Star was ok.

“I’ve been better, frankly,” yelled Star from below. “I think I’m about half way there. We should keep going, I’m ok.”

They continued to lower him until he stood on a wooden beam that had fallen diagonally across the shaft. There was a strong smell of gas. Not asphyxiating, but definitely notable. He called upon the power of Eldrik, Elkron of the Sun to once again “Attack the Darkness and so shine forth the Aura of Retribution” which caused him to glow with a faint blue light. It was weaker than before, and he had the feeling that maybe Eldrik did not especially like him abusing the wondrous Aura of Retribution in this fashion. However, it was just enough of a glow for him to see by. The cage of the elevator was bent from a large bolder that had smashed into it and landed cross the mouth of the mine tunnel. There was a lot of heavy rubble as well as wooden pilings crisscrossing out from the rocks.

Star called up and explained what he saw. He thought there was little point in his trying to dig out the boulders from the rubble, as a large number of the boulders were far to heavy for him to move, and one in particular was enormous, the main obstacle blocking the mine tunnel. He looked around more and found that there was a ladder going up the side of the cage, but toward the top of the shaft it had broken off and was dangling hazardously.

Then there was a low rumbling sound coming from deep down below within the shaft. The walls began to shake, there was a sudden gust of hot air, and dust and dirt fell, and then rocks and several pilings came loose. Star fell about ten feet before Arik and Bantum could secure the ropes again, and a heavy boulder hit him on his left shoulder hard. Star gave out a loud groan. He was badly hurt this time. Topside the axel over which the rope had been thrown had come loose from the wall and fallen three feet before wedging itself against a corner of the stonework.

The party began debating about the best way to get Star back up, whether to throw the rope over another beam, or using the edge of the shaft. Lanna looked at Bantum and asked if he could simply pull Star up. He gave a big grin and hauled him up hand over hand until Star landed safely at the top.  Hermel tended to his wound, calling upon the power of Minvar to channel her might through his healing stone, which she did, and Star soon felt far better.  He moved his shoulder around and it seemed to him to be good as new.

Joe had been in the other room cursing, grumbling, griping and dashing about the valve room trying his best to stabilize the situation. Star, feeling much better now and thinking it a good idea, went over to him explained how it was down at the bottom of the mineshaft as Joe turned a large valve slowly clockwise, watching a meter carefully.

“Things just go from bad to worse, don’t they?” said Joe gruffly when he heard about the gas. “Well we’ll have to make due as best we can. At least you could get down there. That’s better than I could do! Did you see any hole though into the mine?”

“No I didn’t have time to really explore that much, but I don’t think there was,” replied Star.

While they were having that conversation Hermel had taken Ibis aside.

“When we rescue the miners, we should wrap Lanna’s husband up in a sheet and declare that he died. Then we can hustle him out and no one will be the wiser.”

They conferred this plan with the others quietly, and everyone agreed it was a good idea.

There was another minor tremor. Dust fell from the ceiling. Arik felt that these tremors were due to secondary explosions down in the lower levels of the mine.

“My father!” cried Praymar when Arik explained his sense of things to the party.

“He could be blown into a thousand pieces by now,” exclaimed Arik with his usual jovial zest.

“Mother!” cried Praymar to Lanna and ran to her.

“I’m sorry kid, but it’s true,” said Arik, feeling a bit guilty for alarming the poor lad.

Hermel seated himself on a crate in the machine room, planning to catch a few winks while they waited for Joe to fix the motor.

“We could go up and get some rest at the Inn, perhaps,” said Hermel.

“Why not help out down here?” asked Joe heatedly.

“Help how?” asked Hermel.

“Well we need to haul those stones and beams out from the entrance of the mine shaft,” said Joe looking at Bantum appraisingly.

“I will help,” said Bantum.

“Maybe we should send Arik instead. He’s plenty strong, and in case of emergency he can fly out,” said Hermel from the corner, but this also seemed about as improbable as him flying down, so that idea was left hanging without further comment.

At that point Ibis decided to bring Korfu with him out of the mine to get additional men to help from the Prancing Unicorn Inn. He intended for Korfu to then go to the Inn and sleep, as he said that Korfu was fairly well exhausted, and feeling feverish. Praymar offered to go up with them, too, and help get men to return into the mine. This was agreed upon and the three men went down the corridor and climbed the ladder into the barn. There were still embers burning and smoke filled the air.

Those who remained in the mine thought twice about whether or not it was a good idea for both of the characters who had ‘Night Vision’ to leave together, but Arik pointed out that the canary emitted enough light for them to see by while they waited. He was perfectly fine with staying underground, actually.

“What if the canary should die?” asked Lanna.

Dr. Chickenhiemer Gets the Info

“Maybe my chicken can speak canary!” said Bantum.

“Do you really think chickens can talk canary?” asked Arik with a laugh.

But in fact Dr. Chickenhiemer was perfectly well versed in the intricacies of the canary language. He clucked. The canary whistled. They had a long and fruitful conversation for about five minutes, during which Dr. Chickenhiemer learned some rather interesting facts and rumors about the mine, its history, and denizens.

Our youthful heroes imagined that Dr. Chickenhiemer had been slicking his hair back and doing the shimmy-shimmy to get the canary to fall for him, and everyone had a big laugh about it. Chickenhiemer ignored the ridiculous humans and went on gathering information. In the end, he concluded that the mine was not worth its salt, and thought it would be best to seal it, burn down the Inn, mind-wipe everyone who had any knowledge of it, and seal the valley permanently. But then again, he’s just a big chicken. So what does he know of adventure? In any case he did not mention his thoughts to the canary, but kept them to himself.

Bantum and Arik went back to the mineshaft, and began tying the rope around Arik’s wide girth. Joe, seeing as they were about t lower Arik down, suggested that they fix the beam that held the motor first. That way they could loop the rope over the beam and so provide a safer arrangement for lowering the Dwarve down. Arik had a natural inclination toward this kind of work, and with a massive crowbar, careful leveraging, and a lot of heaving he and Bantum managed to re-link the beam to its slot in the stone.

Meanwhile Hermel laid down on his bedroll and watched Dr. Chickenhiemer clucking away with the canary. He began talking in a low tone to Dr. Chickenhiemer, with whom he decided he wanted to start a relationship. He crossed his hands behind his head, and figured Dr. Chickenhiemer might make a good therapist.

“You know, my life has been a good one so far, but lately I feel I’ve lost control, and I don’t know what I’m doing with my life. I make big plans, but I’m always getting side tracked to help other people, and I don’t know what I’m doing here. I should be focusing on saving my own village. I’m not complaining or anything, but I wish I felt like I was in control of my life, rather than being cast about by the whims of fate…” he rambled.

Dr. Chickenhiemer turned to look at him. He blinked a few times and then clucked a couple of times. There were few in the world who understood this particular sentiment as well as Dr. Chickenhiemer, who was never not being carried off by others against his will.

“I should be helping my village, and here I am doing nothing, because I can’t really help here. So I am to rescue people I don’t know, who wanted to be here to begin with digging around in the dark, digging up bizarre ancient evil artifacts and salt… Meanwhile I’m sacrificing my own goals… for what?”

Strangely Hermel thought he could hear Ischandar’s voice in his mind, somehow, saying “Go to the bar, go to the bar…” but he shook it off.

The canary began to sing a little song and fluttered around in her cage. Hermel turned to Dr. Chickenhiemer. “Can this canary talk too? I’m starting to feel really guilty about now. How many animals can talk?”

Dr. Chickenhiemer clucked.

“Ok, two clucks for ‘a lot’, and one cluck for ‘not too many’”, said Hermel, suddenly quite curious about this question.

Chickenhiemer clucked once.

“Oh, but the canary can …”

“Cluck,” said Dr. Chickenhiemer looking up at the canary as she sang a little song.

“Hey! Do you know Doctor Lobe?” asked Hermel.

Dr. Chickenhiemer clucked once.

“Did he make you the way you are, or are you naturally this way?”

Dr. Chickenhiemer clucked once.

“Wait… one cluck for yes, two clucks for no,” said Hermel trying to figure out what Chickenhiemer was saying. “So did Dr. Lobe make you intelligent?”

“Cluck! Cluck!” said Dr. Chickenhiemer deeply insulted.

“But you know Doctor Lobe?”

“Cluuuuuuck,” said Dr. Chickenhiemer in a low tone.

“Is he a bad guy?” asked Hermel.

“Cluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck…” replied Dr. Chickenhiemer.

“I didn’t get a good feeling about him,” said Hermel.

“Cluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck…” said Dr. Chickenhiemer.

Out of the corner of his eye Hermel caught a brief glimpse of the canary sitting on her swing, and it seemed to him that what he saw was a girl with gossamer wings and blond hair in a green and yellow dress smiling at him. But when he turned his head to see her more clearly she was only a canary sitting there after all. She sang a little melody and swung on her perch happily.

Hermel stood up. He looked around. No one was paying any attention to him. He went to the cage and whispered, “Do you want out of here? … Two whistles for yes, and one whistle for no.”

“Twwwwwweeeeeeeeeeeeet, Twwwwwweeeeeeeeeeeeet,” she said.

“I’ve been doing it wrong all along,” Hermel said to himself, “I’ve been hanging out with people.”

A Few Good Men

Upstairs, Ibis, Korfu and Praymar had exited the hole in the ground and were looking for stout men to bring back down into the mine with them. Ibis, covering his eyes with one arm from the smoke and embers, looked around and saw Tom, the guard he had played cards with a few days before.
“Tom!” shouted Ibis.

“Oh hey, it’s you! Ibis, right? How are ya?”

“Good, good. I just came up from the mine. Joe is down there. He sent us up to get some good strong men to bring back so we can clear the mine passage,” explained Ibis.

“Did you see the Boss down there though?” asked Tom, not really seeming very interested in Ibis’ request at all.

“We found Joe… the …” Ibis was saying when Tom cut him off.

“No, no, no – the Boss! Did you see the Boss down there?” insisted Tom.

“The elevator shaft is trashed, there’s rubble on it and …” Ibis was saying.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I don’t care about that! Did you see the Boss down there?” Tom insisted again.

“No. Only Joe. And a guy helping him,” said Ibis.

“Aghhh,” replied Tom disappointed. “Who was with him?”

“A kid. He was helping Joe.”

“Oh, helping Joe? No, that’s not him. Aghhh… that’s too bad,” said Tom.

“Who is the Boss?” asked Praymar. Tom looked at the young albino. He did a double look. A triple look. Praymar’s white hair, white skin, and red eyes made him step away.

“What the hell is that?” asked Tom of Ibis.

“I’m standing right here!” cried Praymar, deeply offended.

“Look, there are people in trouble down there and we need to send help right now. If you’re not going to do it then I’m going to have to find someone else,” stated Ibis.

“Well the Boss told us to wait up here until he came back or sent word. So that’s what I’m gonna do,” answered Tom firmly.

“I saw the Boss,” said Praymar, “and he said you should come down right away! And he’s with my father Ben.”

Tom, not a particularly trusting soul to begin with, decided the white haired kid was lying to him, and so he ignored him completely.

“Don’t ignore me!” yelled Praymar and pushed Tom. Praymar, though a youth, and not very tall or powerful looking, was in fact quite strong. Ibis tried his best to grab Praymar to stop him. Tom, for his part, was a hefty man wearing chain mail armor, but agile, and stepped aside, causing Praymar to miss him, and staggered forward.

“Don’t ignore me! Come with me!” yelled Praymar while regaining his footing.

“Listen kid, or whatever you are,” said Tom angrily, “I’ve got my orders and I’m staying put, see?”

“You’re stupid!” yelled Praymar.

Tom cocked back to punch the youth. Ibis tried to get between the two of them. Praymar was faster than either of them, and reached out with his right hand and touched Tom with two fingers on his forehead. Suddenly the brawny guard felt drained of energy, became dizzy, a bit queasy and staggered backwards a few steps. “Hell’s whiskers,” he said under his breath to himself as he brought both hands to his head.

“Sorry about that!” yelled Praymar after him as Tom staggered off.

“It is not the time for this!” said Ibis to Praymar.

“I’m sorry but he made me angry!” answered Praymar. “No one ever listens to me!”

“Well, I’m listening to you now,” answered Ibis, “and you have to calm down and help to find some sturdy men.”

“Ok,” said Praymar. “How about him?” he said pointing to another man who was stomping on some embers at the edge of the burned out structure that was once a barn.

“Hey! We need men to help down in the mine. We have trapped miners down there! Can you help us?” yelled Ibis to the man. His name was Erik and he agreed to help.

“Praymar, I need to take Korfu to the Inn to rest. Please find more stout men and if I’m not back soon take them down to the mine and bring them to Joe. Ok?”

“I’ll do my best!” said Praymar, and Ibis took Korfu to the Inn. He found the Innkeeper, and explained that he was sending some men down into the mine to help the miners, slapped some money down on the counter for the room, and then took Korfu upstairs. Korfu, weary, went to the bed, flopped down and fell asleep. Ibis left him and went back downstairs to help Praymar collect the men. In the end they found four stout men who were willing to brave the dangers of the mine to help the miners escape. They grabbed torches and began heading down the ladder.

“No, No! There’s a gas leak!” yelled Ibis before they went down. The men stood back. One of them, looking at Praymar’s unusual appearance, and thinking about gas explosions, cut out and so they had three men still willing. They made the descent down the ladder into the darkness, guided by Praymar who lead the way with his Night Vision.

Meanwhile, down in the mine Joe was running back and forth between turning the enormous valves and checking a series of dials on a wall in the far room. They had the impression that he was not quite sure exactly how the valves should be calibrated, as he was cursing loudly the whole time.

“Stop distracting me! Those explosions can rip this mine apart - the gas needs to be shut off in sector 32! But which valves, which valves?”

Hermel Attempts a Rescue

The canary was twittering nervously as he did so, as Dr. Chickenhimer clucked and fluttered about on the floor next to Hermel, and eventually Joe turned the last valve just so, checked several dials again, and then with great relief settled down. Hermel thought to himself that he could take the opportunity to flee the mine with his new animal friends, but realized that if he took the cage the light would go with him, and everyone would immediately notice. He examined the cage. It had a small brass door that had a small latch, which kept the door closed.

“They’re not like us,” said Hermel to the canary and Dr. Chickenhiemer, who rolled his chicken eyes. “When I have a chance I’m going to open the cage, and put an illusion over the cage door that will make it seem as though the cage is closed. This way you can escape when you have a chance,” said Hermel quietly through the cage bars.

As he was doing this, Bantum, Lanna and Star were getting ready to lower Arik down the mineshaft by two ropes slung over the metal elevator axel. Hermel was about to unlatch the the door when suddenly Joe came in and grabbed the cage off of the stand, and took it out to where the party had gathered around the mineshaft. With the cage Joe illuminated down into the darkness and everyone peered the hundred feet to the rubble below. It looked rather more dangerous than they expected.

“Are you one of them there talking birds,” asked Arik of the canary as he checked the tightness of the rope. She tweeted politely.

“Hey, you be careful with that cage!” yelled Hermel after Joe. “You be careful with her!” he shouted poking his head through the opening of the machine room.

Hermel laid down on his sleeping roll and watched as they lowered Arik down. The youthful Dwarve was stacked with crowbars and hammers and iron spikes in his belt. He looked rather absurd Hermel thought, dangling there in mid air with tools sticking out of his belt at crazy angles like some sort of fat metallic porcupine. But lower him down they did, and as he got toward the bottom he was pleased to find that the light from the canary cage was indeed enough for his good Dwarven vision to see by.

Arik Breaks Through

“One hundred feet down is the mine tunnel entrance. You’ll see a ledge with metal tracks. The elevator shaft does not stop there. We have not explored further down. The shaft was blocked another thirty feet down. Be careful not to dislodge the bottom beams! Otherwise everything will fall,” yelled Joe down the mine.

Arik gulped. He got good footing on a wooden beam that had fallen across the shaft. He made his way gingerly as possible over the beam and wedged the large crow bar beneath the huge boulder lodged in the mouth of mineshaft. That was the key boulder obstructing the shaft, along with crisscrossing beams and tons of rubble. He gave a huge shove on the crowbar, using another large rock as a lever. It was enough. The boulder slid off the ledge and a half ton of loose rock and boulders began shifting in the tunnel entrance and falling down the hole… and then things turned south badly. The boulder smashed into the cage with a thunderous noise, dislodging it from the wall sending the entire edifice creaking precariously forward. Loose rocks, dirt and beams began sliding wildly. Arik lost his footing and fell down the shaft. Caught by surprise Bantum, Lanna and Star barely managed to maintain their hold when the weight of Arik’s falling body suddenly yanked the rope. As the giant boulder fell it bounced against the shaft wall smashing into Arik’s right hip, and landed with a huge thud onto the cross beams that were precariously holding elevator cage in place. There was a momentary pause as everyone held their breath. The wooden beams creaked. Then there was a low rumbling noise, and suddenly the entire cross section of beams fell through, careening and clattering riotously into the darkness below with the boulder glancing off the sides of the walls along with an avalanche of large rocks, wooden beams and metal girding following behind. The elevator dropped another twenty feet with a horrible screeching sound, and then wedged itself against the wall diagonally. Arik was dangling in the air over a yawning black abyss. He was very seriously wounded.

“Owwww!” yelled Arik.

Somehow Arik managed throughout it all to hold on to the crowbar.

“On the plus side,” yelled Arik upward, “I did manage to clear the shaft!”

As they slowly hauled him upward he could see that a gap had opened up in the mouth of the mineshaft where all of the rubble had fallen away. But he was too wounded to work further on it. They pulled Arik up to the top of the mineshaft and settled him gingerly as they could on the ground.

“You’re a brave Dwarve,” said Joe, “The men in the mine are going to appreciate it, if we ever manage to get them out.”

“I’m going to take care of my hip, but I intend to head back down and finish the job,” said Arik.

Star preformed medical healing on Arik, taking care to bandage the braised parts of his lower body, provide an herbal remedy that calmed the nerves and strengthen the wounded muscles and ligaments. It was sufficient to improve Arik’s lot considerably. Star then took the opportunity to heal himself. That too was successful, and he felt entirely restored.

At this point Ibis and Praymar showed up with the men.

“Joe,” said Ibis, “when I tried to get one of the guards named Tom to come down and help out, he said he couldn’t because he was waiting for orders from ‘the Boss’… could you come up and help round up him and his men and get them to come down here?”

“No, that guy won’t listen to me. I’m not his boss,” said Joe. He went on to explain that the Boss was the leader of the guards who had come down originally with a few men, but when they discovered a new corridor had opened at the time of the explosion they went down there to explore it instead of helping with the miners.

“With friends like that, who needs enemies,” said Ibis.

“They’re not MY friends,” said Joe brusquely.

“Well, who are they to you then?” asked Ibis.

“I run mine maintenance. The machinery, and such,” said Joe. “Those guys are hired hands who are supposed to be guarding the mine from intruders.”

“The last time I came down here,” said Arik, “there was a Dwarve who was running operations. Where is he?”

“He,” said Joe, “is the Mine Operations Officer, and he calls the shots in the mine proper. I work for him.”

“Is he down…” asked Arik.

“Yes, he’s down there trapped with the miners,” said Joe finishing Arik’s thought.

“I see,” said Arik thoughtfully.

Bantum and the Birdie

“Can I play with the little birdie?” asked Bantum, and he reached over to open the cage, which was right next to him, in order to take her out and play with her.

Joe quickly put his hand on Bantum’s arm, saying, “Don’t open that cage or that nice golden light will go out! We’ll all be in pitch black darkness!”

“Ohhhh… ok,” said Bantum and took his hand away.

“Well lets go rescue the other rescue team,” suggested Hermel.

“What makes you think they need rescuing? Of course we may be able to convince them they’d be better use here, but on the other hand, what makes you think they’ll have any desire to help the miners out?” asked Arik.

“Well, because the entire mining operation has been stopped and they can’t get their product out? How about that?” said Hermel with conviction.

“You’re depending on ‘the Boss’ to be reasonable?” asked Star. “I would think that if he were reasonable he would already be here helping.”

“No that guy is a bandit,” said Joe, “They’re tough and so they got hired as guards when the mine was discovered,” said Joe, “but they don’t care about the mine one bit. They’re outlaws, and bad men. Loose cannons. Half crazy. They’re only in it for whatever they can get out of it.”

“Like honey badgers,” said Hermel to himself thinking of life back home in Yellow Clay Village. Everyone stared.

“Yes… um… like honey badgers,” agreed Arik.

They went back to the mineshaft and looked down. They thought about who should go down the shaft to clear the passageway into the tunnel.

Praymar to the Rescue

Praymar suggested, a second time, that he could go down. He was strong, and could see in the darkness. But everyone thought he would not survive if anything went wrong. They thought Hermel might go down as he was particularly tough, but they decided against him as well since he was low on energy. After more discussion they finally settled on sending down Praymar. Lanna stood behind Arik’s shoulder watching with anxiety as her son was lowered down.

He was lowered down. He landed lightly on the ledge, and called up, “I’m down safely!”

“Good for you, Skippy!” yelled Arik.

Praymar could see that on the ledge were two metal tracks. He realized that this is where the metal wagons would enter the elevator. He could hear on the other side of the rubble tapping sounds.

“I hear tapping!” yelled Praymar.

“They’re alive!” exclaimed Lanna with relief.

Praymar began clearing away the rubble and after three hours he’d cleared a hole into the mine tunnel. He immediately smelled a waft of gas. With his mystic Night Vision he could see down the tunnel, and saw the heads of men moving about.

“Hello!” yelled Praymar.

“Hello!” came the answer from the mine tunnel. The voice was that of Herman who was at the head of the collapsed section of the mine entrance digging with several others. In a little while enough space had been made for men to start crawling though the tunnel to the elevator shaft.

First through the hole was Ben, who was greeted with exceeding joy by his albino son. They embraced warmly, and with great affection. Praymar then tied the rope around his father and they hauled him up. One by one all the men were hauled up, including Herman, the Mine Manager, and lastly Thorvain the Dwarven Mine Operator who took three people to haul. There were thirty-four men in total, and of those eight were badly injured, three overcome with fumes, and four had died of injuries. Even so there was great rejoicing among the survivors who were lead out of the mine and taken to the Inn for medical treatment and rest.

Hermel vs Joe

Hermel stayed behind as the other heroes followed the miners out of the mine. Arik, of course, had much to converse about with Thorvain, and so they walked together, Bantum following Arik’s shoulder as they went.

Another tremor shook the mine and everyone stopped. Joe ran back into the valve room and began working the valves. As he was occupied, Hermel took the opportunity to go to the canary cage, open the latch in order to leave the door just every so slightly ajar so that she could escape. The canary for a moment looked like a little girl sitting on her perch smiling brightly at him. However, as soon as he opened the latch the light went out and everyone was plunged into darkness.

“What the hell!” screamed Joe from the valve room. Hermel tried fumbling in the dark to put the latch back but he couldn’t manage it, and the light did not turn on.

Joe game staggering through the darkness yelling, “Leave the cage alone! Leave it alone! For the sake of Minvar – leave the cage alone!”

He made his way to the cage following the sound of the canaries song, and feeling around managed to close the latch and so the golden light began to glow again. With that Bantum came back with Arik and Thorvain along with the others to find out what had happened.

“Can I have the birdie?” asked Bantum.

“No!” yelled Joe roughly.

“I like the birdie! I want the birdie!” yelled Bantum.

“No!” said Joe fiercely. “It’s my bird, and my cage, and no one can have her!”

“Where did you get her?” asked Hermel deeply curious.

“She’s mine I say! I won her!”

“Who did you win the bird from?” asked Star.

Joe did not answer, but instead scowled at everyone with a menacing gaze.

“We need the bird to light the way out of the mine,” said Ibis.

“Can I carry the cage?” asked Bantum.

“No!” yelled Joe hotly.

“Why?” asked Bantum, confused.

“She’s my bird! That’s why!”

“I won’t take it,” offered Bantum.

“No! She’s my bird, you can’t have her!” yelled Joe.

“You’re mean,” said Bantum.

“Come on, just take the bird and lets go,” said Hermel to Bantum.

“Ok,” said Bantum and reached for the cage.

“No!!” yelled Joe fiercely, with an edge in his voice that sounded like he’d have been willing to start fighting with them over the bird. His voice was so edged that everyone was convinced that were a fight to break out that there would be blood.

“No, don’t take my bird!” yelled Joe.

“But we have to go anyway! There’s nothing left to do here,” said Ibis.

“What do you mean!? There’s a ton of work to do! Don’t you see that the mine is in shambles and needs ten tons of repairs! I need the bird so I can see, you dumb bells!” shrieked Joe, angry as a hive of wasps.

The party members tried to argue Joe out of staying in the mine. He insisted on staying. They suggested that his business there was tainted by the fact that there were thugs working as guards, but Joe took no responsibility for them. He had a job to do, and he intended to continue doing it.

“Well,” said Ibis, “are you aware that they tricked the miners into working down here and that those contracts were signed under the influence of a drug?”

“That’s not my business,” said Joe.

“Yes it is,” said Ibis. “It’s everybody’s business.”

“You make it your business if you want, but it’s not mine. I work on the machines and that’s my job. I’m no criminal, I’m a working man!” stated Joe angrily.

“Come on, take the bird and lets go,” said Ibis.

“Don’t take my bird!” yelled Joe.

“Birdie, is he mean to you?” asked Bamtum of the canary. She fluttered around in her cage tweeting.

“He’s mean to birdie,” said Bantum.

“She’s my bird!’ yelled Joe.

“I will arm wrestle you for the birdie,” offered Bantum. Joe stared up at him.

“No! I don’t need to arm wrestle for my own damn bird!” yelled Joe. “Listen, you fellas have been great up till now. You came down here, risked your lives to rescue the miners, and everyone is thinking you’re all heroes. Now why not just leave an old man to do his job and get on with it? And please, for heaven’s sake, leave me my canary!”

“I’m taking my chicken, then!” said Bantum picking up Dr. Chickenhiemer.

“Ok!” said Joe with great relief.

And with that, everyone turned and left the mine, except for Hermel who briefly considered shoving Joe down the mineshaft and taking the bird. Instead, he sat down and began talking with Joe.

“Ay, can you pass me that wrench?” asked Joe of Hermel. He took the wrench from the top of a crate and handed it to Joe, who was hunched over one of the boxes on the work bench. His assistant having gone up to the Inn with the others, Joe deputized Hermel as his temporary assistant.

“You know how to read?” asked Joe as he worked on the device.

“No,” answered Hermel. “It’s stupid.”

Joe looked behind him at Hermel, and then turned back around with a shrug and went back to working on the box.

“This is one of the most amazing devices I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Joe appreciatively, half to himself. He flipped a switch, turned two knobs and three lights on the box lit up with red, green, and yellow lights. He turned a dial and static began crackling out of the box.

“With this box I can talk people anywhere in the world!” he said with a laugh.

“You can work that box, but you can’t fix the light in the cage?” asked Hermel.

“The cage I won in a bet from some odd little fellows who we found living in the mine. The box I found in some of these rooms back here. Now the box I can figure out because it’s based largely on things I can understand and experiment with. The cage, on the other hand is, well, it’s magic, and I have no idea how it works, see?” answered Joe. “I won the bird, and the bird came in the cage. I don’t even know if the bird is the light or the cage is the light. And frankly, I don’t much care. I like the bird. She’s kinda cute, and she sings real pretty, too,” explained Joe as he turned a dial and listened carefully. “Besides, you need a canary in a mine.”

“How much for the bird?” asked Hermel.

“No thanks. I’m not selling.”

“A thousand?” asked Hermel.

“No thanks. Not for sale,” said Joe.

“Five thousand iron,” offered Hermel.

“Not selling. Her name is Carolyna,” said Joe.

“Five thousand iron and I’ll replace her,” said Hermel.

“No thanks! Sing Carolyna! Sing!’ ordered Joe, and the bird began to sing a beautiful little tune.

“Hey, you want a job?” asked Joe of Hermel suddenly.

“No. I don’t want to be a slave in the mine,” he answered.

“We pay! We pay good money. Tell you what I’ll hire you myself. I’ll give you a hundred iron a month!’

“No thanks,” repeated Hermel stubbornly.

“A hundred a month is good money!” said Joe.

Hermel thought about it. That was a lot of money.

“I’ll teach you how to fix things. And Thorvain knows lots about mining, and I’m sure he’d teach you, too, if you want to learn that. As for me, well, not too many people know the kinds of things I do, though. Why not even Thorvain knows how to fix this box. But I do,” said Joe proudly.

“Well, so? What’s the big deal about the box. Don’t seem all that special. So what you can talk with people down in the mine. There’s no one there now anyway,” said Hermel.

“Oh? Well then, listen to this,” said Joe as he began turning knobs and dials. The lights flickered and suddenly music came out of the box. This impressed Hermel.

“I don’t know what country that music is coming from, frankly, but it sure ain’t from anywhere around here!” cackled Joe, delightedly. Hermel would not have known if that music was from the next village over, or from someplace ten worlds away, as he was not well versed music anyway. But Carolyn knew where the music came from, and it was somewhere very far away, and very long ago.

Joe turned the dial again and there was more crackling noise. A voice came through the speaker, in a language that neither of them understood. In fact it did not sound at all like a human voice. It rather sounded like the voice of something very large, and very ponderous, with echoing within it, and the sound of large bells ringing. It was a language, but nothing like any they’d ever heard before. In fact, it gave them both the chills something aweful.

“I don’t think I’ll try keying up to that one,” said Joe in a whisper, and turned the device off.

“Ok, well, I have things to do, people to save,” said Hermel standing up.

“Two hundred!” said Joe.

“No thanks,” said Hermel.

“Ok I’ll tell you what. If we strike a real vein then I’ll make sure you get a share, if you’ll be foreman in the lower level. I can get that job for you, easy, once we open up that part of the mine,” offered Joe.

“A ‘real’ vein?” asked Hermel.

“Oh sure. You don’t think a Dwarve like Thorvain would be down here mining merely for SALT, to you?”

“No, I didn’t think so. I know what you folks are digging for.”

“Oh you do, do you?” asked Joe with a raised eyebrow. “What are we here for?”

“Old stuff,” said Hermel.

“Oh? What kind of old stuff?”

“Real old stuff. The kind that makes people nervous,” answered Hermel coolly.

“Yup. You’re right about that. Join the team, buddy. We’re gonna make it big,” answered Joe in a low voice. “You want to make real money? This is the mine!”

“I don’t think so,” said Hermel.

“Think about it! Look around. Do you suppose we built this equipment? The valve system, the piping, the elevator?”

“No, I’m sure you didn’t. I’ve seen this kind of thing before in Hobbington,” answered Hermel.

“Oh so you know about that too then,” said Joe narrowing his eyes. “Yeah, we’re down here for the old stuff. Sure the Mayor and his friends want to invest in salt, sure. That’s all they know about, and it’ll make good money for them all, no doubt about that. But we have another deal, and Thorvain is hunting for some big fish, see?”

Hermel nodded.

“They don’t know about the old stuff. Thorvain is keeping a lid on it. But you know. And that bastard digging around back there in that new tunnel, he’s on to it now, too, I suppose… damn it! Nobody supposed to know about that stuff.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” said Hermel.

“Keep it in mind?” asked Joe pensively.

“Yeah, sure, I’ll keep it in mind. I’m sorry I couldn’t make a deal with you right now, as I have my sister and village to save, but you’ll see me later maybe,” he said as he turned and walked down into the darkness of the tunnel … alone.

“Good luuuuuck,” called Joe after him.

Previous Episode: The Great Salt Mine Disaster of 151 NK
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