Voltag and Yolanthe marched Grimestoke through the deserted alleys of the town towards the castle. Yolanthe had put away her bow but the dwarf kept a hand on the gnome’s shoulder and a dagger pressed against the small of his back. Grimestoke thought he might be able to outrun the dwarf, but before he got ten paces the half-elf would have her bow out. There was no way to avoid her shot.
“Nice and easy,” muttered Voltag as they approached the fort. “Say you’re taking us in for making a mess.”
There were two guards at the side door of castle. Both snapped to attention when the gnome appeared.
“I’m bringing these two with me,” said the little man. “Trouble makers.”
The guards saluted but said nothing and in a second all three were inside the castle.
“Where’s Baltrog?” asked Voltag, giving the gnome a poke with his dagger.
Before he could answer, Yolanthe said, “He’ll be in his study, if he’s not eating.”
“He’s in the dungeons,” Grimestoke said. “See for yourself.”
Voltag considered. “Study first,” he said. “You lead the way.”
The inside of the fort was a warren of passageways interrupted with large, studded, wooden doors. The gnome led them down several hallways until the came to a stone staircase that spiraled up.
“I remember this,” said Yolanthe. “It’s the only way to the study. There’s a door at the top of the stairs.”
“Lead on,” said Voltag, giving Grimestoke another poke with the dagger.
The three of them made their way up the stairs that were poorly lit by infrequent smoky candles mounted on the curving wall. Voltag estimated that they had made three complete revolutions while climbing before they came to short hallway that ended in a door clad in metal. There was an elaborate lock set above the door handle.
“Open it,” said Voltag.
Grimestoke reached into his vest and pulled out an elaborate key. He inserted it in the key hole,
“Something’s wrong,” began Yolanthe. The hallway floor that she and the dwarf were standing on seemed less solid than she remembered it being. She also noticed that the candleholder on the wall beside them was different than all the others they had passed.
The gnome twisted the key to the right and quickly twisted it back to the left. The two floor stones that Voltag and Yolanthe were standing on shifted.
“Jump!” shouted Yolanthe, but it was too late. Voltag fell backwards into her just as she was trying to jump to the stair behind her. Together they tumbled down a stone shaft, falling some fifteen feet before landing in a pile of dirty hay. The dwarf hit first. Yolanthe fell on top of him. Rats squealed beneath their bodies.
“Are you alright?” asked Yolanthe, feeling around for the dwarf in the dim light.
Voltag grunted. “Better when you get off me,” he said.
“Well well well,” the little man snickered. “Three holes in the ground, as the old joke goes. Well well well.”
They looked up to see the outline of Grimestoke’s head peeking over the edge of the shaft.
Before the gnome had finished his last “well,” Yolanthe had her bow up with an arrow cocked. She sent it flying upwards just as Grimestoke pulled his head back. It slammed harmlessly into the ceiling of the stairwell and fell back down.
“A miss is as good as a mile,” came the gnome’s voice. They heard the little man snicker again and rattle the complicated door lock. “Be seeing you soon!” he called. They heard him tinker with something mechanical and then slam the door.
“You might have told me about the trap,” muttered Voltag.
“It’s new,” said Yolanthe. “We have to get out of here before Baltrog comes.”
“Right,” said the dwarf. “Up on my shoulders, see if you can reach the edge.”
Voltag intertwined his fingers to offer Yolanthe a step up. She put her foot in his hands and nimbly climbed onto the dwarf’s shoulders. Voltag felt as solid as a stump under her feet. Standing on her toes, she could almost reach the edge of the floor. She hopped off Voltag.
“Can you reach?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Then climb out,” said Voltag. “And toss me a rope.”
“No. There’s something wrong. Grimestoke would not make a trap this easy to escape. He loves complicated, sadistic machines. And I heard him fiddling with something up there.”
Voltag grunted. “Maybe he’s lost his touch.”
Yolanthe bend down and scooped up some of the rotting hay on the floor. A dozen rats squeaked in protest. Forming the damp hay into a rough ball, she gently lobbed it up. As it cleared the lip of the shaft a blast of flame shot sideways from somewhere they could not see. The ball of hay floated down as so many ashes.
Voltag grunted. “Well, not that way.” He began to survey the space they were in. It was about seven feet round, made of crudely cut stone blocks set in a roughly circular pattern. A skilled climber could probably scale the wall easily but would be cooked when he reached the top.
“I don’t see anything,” he said.
“No,” replied Yolanthe. “But listen.”
The dwarf focused his hearing but could make out no sounds.
“Don’t hear nothing,” he said.
“Exactly,” Yolanthe replied. “Why did the rats stop squeaking?”
That was strange. The rats that scurried through the damp hay on the floor of the shaft had been making a panicked racket since the two interlopers had fallen into their space. But now they were completely quiet.
Yolanthe bend down to run her hands through the hay, looking for the rats. As soon as she hunkered down, she made a soft sighing sound and began to topple forward. Voltag grabbed her by the shoulder before she could fall and pulled her up. She held her head as though dizzy.
“Gas,” she said. “There’s gas collecting in the shaft.”
Voltag looked down but could see nothing. Yolanthe had felt dizzy when she had lowered her head close to ground. That meant that the gas was at the level of his waist and probably rising.
“Soon we won’t be able to breath,” said Yolanthe.
Voltag ground his teeth. “Look for something,” he said. “Anything.”
While Yolanthe ran her hands over the stone wall, Voltag stared at the stone blocks that made their prison and tried to remember what he knew about stone cutting and setting. All the dwarves of his tribe spent some years working with the master stonemasons of Grimm Mountain. In case of an earthquake or cavern collapse, it was important that all the members of the clan knew the basic techniques of stone construction so they could effectively dig out trapped friends or work around destroyed supports. The dwarves of the Grimm tribe not only hewed their stone blocks into perfect, regular blocks, but they carved tenons and mortises in them so that when they were fit together they could not be shifted. To create a gas vent through such blocks a Grimm Mountain dwarf would probably carved a small channel into stones before they were put in place.
But the stone wall that Voltag was staring at was not made by dwarves. It was too crude, too sloppily put together. The blocks were held in place not by mortise and tenon, but by cheap mortar. He tried to imagine how a non-dwarf, how a lazy human might go about building such a wall and how he might incorporate a gas vent into it. First, he would put the vent up high so that the gas would rise and cover the head of even a tall prisoner. Second, he would probably try to disguise the vent so a prisoner could not find it and block it. Third, the channel to the vent would probably just be chiseled through one of the blocks from the far side. If crudely done, the channel would be quite wide, ending in a small hole on this side of the block. And there would have to be some sort of room on the far side of that part of the wall in which the gas would be manufactured.
Voltag unsheathed his axe. Holding it high on the shaft with both hands, he knocked the butt of the shaft against the wall. It sounded solid. He walked around small space tapping the wall every few inches. Finally he heard a sound that was slightly different. It still sounded like solid rock, but there was the faintest of echoes behind it. He looked up and could see a small horizontal slit in one of the stone blocks about eight feet from the floor.
“That’s where the gas is coming in,” he said. Then he felt dizzy. He immediately worried that the gas was now at the level of his head, but when he stepped back from the wall the dizziness receded. Clearly the gas was running down the side of the wall like a stream of invisible water. When he had stood beneath the opening, he had been in the stream. Its strange metallic scent stayed with him.
“Okay,” said Yolanthe. “What now?”
“Stand back,” said the dwarf. He pulled one of his daggers out of his sleeve and held it in his teeth. He flattened himself against the part of the wall farthest away from the vent and sprung forward while swinging his axe over his head. The bottom heel of the blade caught on small outcropping on the wall just below the vent. Using the shaft of the axe as a rope, he pulled his body up to the blade, trying all the time not to breath the gas that trickled down towards him. He reached one hand over the axe blade, grabbed hold of the part of the handle that protruded from the eye of the blade, and pulled himself higher. He was now level with the gas vent. He could feel the coolness of the gas pouring past his head, but he continued to hold his breath. Holding his weight with his one hand, he took the dagger in his other and thrust it into the vent. He twisted the knife. Thin pieces of rock crumbled away. He worked until he could hold his breath no longer, then dropped to the floor of the shaft. He unhooked the axe from the wall. He had managed to make a hole a couple of inches in diameter in the gas vent.
“Your turn,” said Voltag, panting from the exertion.
Yolanthe unsheathed her bow and arrow.
“Boost me,” she said.
Voltag leaned against the wall opposite the gas vent and Yolanthe clambered onto his shoulders. She was on eye-level with the small hole in the far wall. She could see a bit of light at the end of it, doubtless a candle in the chamber where one of Grimestoke’s helpers was making the gas. Balancing there, she nocked her arrow. She let out a shrill whistle and waited, motionless. The small spot of light flickered, then darkened. Whoever was in the chamber was peering through the vent to see what was happening.
She let the arrow fly. It streaked into the hole, through the vent, and struck something. Through the small vent she could her the sound of screams and smashing glass. Then it fell silent.
She hopped off Voltag’s shoulders.
“I got him,” she said. She crossed to the wall with the gas vent and placed her hand on the stone just below the hole. She could not feel the cold gas trickling down. “The gas has stopped. But how do we get out of here?”
Voltag smiled. “Let me show you how a dwarf handles stone,” he said.