Chapter 9: Close Call
"The round button is the button of the sun," sung Alice. "Open the door with the small button. Oh, which to try? Oh, which to test? First to the east, then to the west."
Alice was wondering through the numerous halls and rooms of Castle Isis, content to simply explore the castle. As she wondered, she found herself singing songs she had heard from the castle's children earlier that day. The songs were apparently nursery rhymes passed down through the generations of the desert people.
The hall Alice was currently in did not have any people in it. Alice had found it hidden between the trees and the wall of the castle courtyard. Apparently not an area found by many and not having appeared on any map Alice had seen of the castle, Alice could not resist going inside.
Earlier that day, the four had talks again with Queen Calasta who had agreed to allow the group to search the pyramid for the magic key. The queen's only conditions were that the group disturb only what they had to, leave behind anything they found other than the key, and immediately leave the pyramid after their goal was accomplished. Even with this, the queen did not seem pleased to allow the group into the pyramid.
The rest of the group was out preparing for the trek through the pyramid, which was to be a dangerous trip considering the monsters and traps said to be inside the structure. Alice had been tasked with studying maps of the pyramid, with the hope that she would find information on the traps within. Unfortunately, no maps of the structure remained in the castle library and there was also no information on what traps they would find inside. Once again, the group would go blind into a dangerous area.
Alice had now descended into a basement and found herself at some sort of small shrine. The area was decorated with golden torches and in the middle of them was another staircase going down. More than a little intrigued, Alice went down the stairs only to find a simple room with a chest in the middle. Although she knew it would be best for her not to touch anything stored in the castle without permission, she went up to the chest to see why it was stored in such a place. Inside she found a beautiful gold armband, decorated with emeralds all around. She marveled at its work.
As she examined the armband, she was suddenly given the feeling that she was not alone. She looked up to see a person in front of her, a man wearing the fine robes of a ruler. She quickly hid the armband behind her back as the figure, as it was semi-transparent, floated over to her.
"Was it you who disturbed my slumber?" asked the figure in a sorrowful voice.
Alice was more than a little afraid. If the figure decided to attack her, she did not know if she could take it down on her own. Nevertheless she nodded her head in response to its question.
"Was it also you who took the contents of this chest?" asked the figure.
Alice paused for a second than slowly showed the armband to the figure. The figure looked at the armband and started to laugh. The figure's laugh sent chills down Alice's spine and she wondered if it was about to attack.
"You are honest. I give it to you then," said the figure, no longer sounding sorrowful but now sounding happy. The figure than slowly faded away.
Alice stood dumbfounded on the spot for a few seconds. After a while, she finally left the room and went to tell the others what had happened.
"I'm just saying I don't think it's fair," complained Ron.
Ron was protesting the fact that Alice got in very little trouble for taking one of the castle's treasures. After her run-in with the spirit, Alice had told the group what happened and she and Suzanne both went to the queen to return the item. However, the queen stated that since the spirit, who was once a great ruler of Isis, gave the armband to Alice than she could keep it and do with it what she wished. It turned out that the armband was the Meteorite Armband that Suzanne had heard about.
Ron continued to protest the situation, "I mean, if it had been me, I would have gotten tongue-lashed by you guys and the queen probably would have made me give the thing back."
Unfortunately for Thomas, he was the one Ron had decided to complain to. "When was the last time either I or Suzanne yelled at you?" he asked.
"Okay fine. You guys don't yell at me. But the hypocritical adventurer over there always yells at me for doing things that aren't even as bad as this! When was the last time I looted a castle's storeroom?" Ron answered.
"Then why don't you take your complaint up with her?" asked Thomas irritably.
"She'll say this is completely different and then just start yelling at me," said Ron. "I don't see how this is different at all myself, but I'm not about to get into an argument over it."
Ron and Thomas were a few steps behind Suzanne and Alice as they made their way to the pyramid. According to the castle maps, the pyramid was almost directly north for just over a day's journey. After preparing for the journey, the group had set off the day after asking Queen Calasta for permission to go in.
"Ron, get up here!" Suzanne called. "We've got company!"
Ron and Thomas caught up with the other two and drew their weapons. Suzanne and Alice already had theirs drawn. In front of the group were two giant caterpillars, much like the ones they had fought around Romaly. However, these caterpillars were red in color.
Ron and Suzanne met the two caterpillars and gave them deep cuts with their weapons. Ron's opponent slashed him across the torso with its dagger-like legs. Suzanne's foe reared back and then unleashed a blast of hot gas on the four, which burned them as though they had been hit by a fireball. Alice finished the gas-breather with a bolt of ice while Thomas helped Ron finish his foe. The battle was over in a few seconds.
"That gas the one breathed was pretty hot," observed Thomas. "It was almost as like being burned by a fire."
"Flamapedes are what they call them," explained Alice. "They spit out hot gas when threatened. It makes them dangerous because they can effectively attack several opponents at once."
"We'll have to watch for them from now on," said Ron.
As the group neared the pyramid, they were all amazed at the structure. It was in the shape of a rectangular pyramid and was very large.
"It's going to take a long time to search this," muttered Ron.
"Well then we better get a move on," said Suzanne.
The group proceeded up the stairs to the first level of the pyramid. They stepped inside a hallway which led them to a fork, with passages to the left and right and with the hallway continuing ahead. As the group went into the middle of the passageway, the floor suddenly gave out beneath them. Everyone but Alice, who had been at the back of the group, fell down inside a pit.
"What the!" Alice yelled. "Are you guys okay down there?"
As the rest of the group got to their feet Suzanne yelled back up. "We're fine. It's some sort of trap door. Luckily there weren't any spikes down here to catch us."
"Yeah, if these are the traps we have to worry about, they won't be more than a nuisance. I've got the rope here so we can get back up." Ron said, as he started to dig through his pack.
"Wait a moment on that," said Suzanne. "For all we know, the key is down here. Alice, could you join us?"
"Oh sure Susie. But I'll have to use a bit more style on my descent," answered Alice. She readied a spell and jumped as she finished. The spell slowed her descent, so that she floated towards the bottom floor at the speed of a feather. However, as she cleared the trap door, she suddenly accelerated and fell to the ground.
The rest of the group could not help but laugh at Alice's fall. "That's a lot of style right there," Ron observed.
"Hmph. This isn't a time to laugh. I feel a familiar blocking feeling here. Magic is sealed in this area," said Alice.
"She's right, I feel it too," said Thomas. He rummaged through his pack and pulled out some medicinal herbs and handed them to the rest of the group. "I won't be able to heal everyone efficiently down here."
The group had found themselves in a large room with several skeletons strewn throughout. Trying to ignore the unsettling scene, they searched the room and did not find anything. There were two small hallways leading out of the room through which could be seen other rooms. As they proceeded to the next room, they were greeted by four strange beings. The things looked like shadows of a winged creature with no lower torso that had somehow risen up from the floor.
"What the hell are these things!" asked Ron as he ran at one of them. Suzanne and Thomas assisted his charge while Alice stayed back with her knife ready. Suzanne and Ron each struck one of the things and were relieved to feel their weapons hit solid matter. The two shadow creatures dissipated at their attacks. Thomas struck a third one but this one offered much more resistance, his spear was turned aside as though the creature had strong armor on. The creature formed a pincer like appendage and struck him in the shoulder.
The one that had not been touched yet breathed a purple gas at the group. Everyone but Ron fell asleep. Ron rushed the one that breathed the gas and took it down. He then got hit in the back by the one with the pincer. He spun around and struck at the creature, but was amazed to find this one had an armor-like resistance to his attack as his blade clanged off it. The creature tried to strike him again but he blocked it with his shield.
By this time, both Suzanne and Thomas had woken up. The three ganged up on the creature and finished it. After a little while, Alice woke up.
"Do you know what those things were?" asked Suzanne.
"Shadows. They have the ability to mimic other creatures," answered Alice.
"That would explain why each was so different from the other," said Ron. "The first two went down easily, then the one breathed that sleeping gas like the mushrooms back in the elf cave. And that last one must have been mimicking those damned crabs."
The group continued to search the basement. They found the basement was organized into a collection of four large rooms with small hallways between them. They also met several more shadows in the basement, and dealt with them carefully. The group found they had to improvise a couple times as the shadows pulled out surprising moves on them. Luckily, many of the shadows mimicked apparently weak enemies.
In the southwest room, the group found two different exits. One was a descending staircase and the other a passageway. The group tried the staircase first only to find their way blocked by a door. Like the door on the Romaly-Portoga border, this door could not be opened with Baker's Key. The group proceeded down the passageway and found a staircase leading up. They found themselves just outside the ground level of the pyramid.
"That blocked feeling is gone," observed Alice. "We're out of the magic seal."
"And about back where we began," said Ron.
The group returned to the main entrance and went down the same hallway they went before. When they got to the pit they fell in, they saw that it had reset itself back to where they could no longer tell where it was. Remembering that it covered the middle of the room, the group made sure to hug the walls as they went down the passage to the left. As they entered another room, they found four large frogs hanging around the place. These frogs had reddish-brown skin.
"Company!" yelled Ron.
The frogs quickly took notice of the team's presence and two of them leapt to attack. With the speed given to her by the Meteorite Armband, Alice reacted first and sent a stream of fire at the frogs, burning all of them. Ron and Suzanne finished off the two that came at them, though Ron took a blow to the leg. The two still at the back had been chanting spells and finished them. Two purple clouds appeared over the party and all four were sent to sleep.
Thomas woke up to a pain as one of the creatures was hitting him as he slept. He quickly picked up his spear and ran the creature through. He then went over and finished off the last frog which had been picking on Alice.
Thomas tended to the group's wounds as they woke up. Both himself and Alice had apparently been hit more than once while asleep but the damage was not too bad.
"Geez, how many things here are going to put us to sleep?" Alice complained.
"That could have been bad," Suzanne observed. "We all got sent down that time. We're lucky these things weren't very tough."
The group found there was a chest in the room the frogs had been in. They checked the chest to find it was empty.
"Must've been the looters that librarian was so pissed off about," muttered Thomas.
They went to the room across from the one they were in, once again making sure to stay out of the middle of the room with the fork in it, and came to another room with another empty chest. They walked back to the trapdoor room and went north, which led them to a room almost identical to the one with the trapdoor. Ron decided to test the area for a trapdoor and found himself falling back down to the floor below. The group was prepared this time as they used the rope Ron had to get him back up.
The group proceeded to the left and found themselves in a chamber shaped like a trident. Each prong of the room had a chest at the end of it. The group went up to the chest on the left and opened it. They found the chest had teeth-like rims on the inside of the opening part, making it seem like it had a mouth. They were surprised to see a couple of eyes looking at them from inside the chest and for it to slam itself shut, almost taking Ron's arm with it.
"Look out! It's a monster!" warned Suzanne.
Suzanne and Ron quickly got out their weapons while Alice sent a bolt of ice at the chest-creature. The creature shrugged the spell off and charged at Ron, biting through his armor and dealing a terrible wound to his side. Ron struggled to stay standing after the blow but returned with one of his own the creature's top. Suzanne contributed a blow to its hinge. Thomas sent a group of three beacons of light at Ron to heal his injuries, a stronger healing spell than what Thomas had been using. Ron's injuries were so deep that he was still bleeding, however.
As the creature came at Ron again, Suzanne struck it at the hinge again while Alice sent a stream of fire at it. Ron was about to take another vicious bite when he manage to swing his axe into the opening the chest made, right at the eyes that showed inside. He apparently hit the creature's weak point, for the creature split in half and fell to the ground unmoving. After making sure it was dead, Thomas finished healing Ron's wounds.
"That thing was horrifically strong," said Thomas. "I used my stronger healing spell, and your wounds were still serious."
"That must be one of the traps we were warned of," said Suzanne. "This just got a lot tougher. We have to be extra careful when opening chests now."
The group proceeded to the next prong, the middle one, and carefully approached the chest lying at the end of it. This time, the whole group had their weapons drawn, ready for an attack. As Ron carefully opened it, they once again saw teeth rims and eyes inside the creature. Ron quickly withdrew his hand and struck the top of the creature with his axe. Suzanne struck at the creature's hinge again. Thomas joined in this time and struck the creature's bottom while Alice sent a stream of fire at it.
The creature leapt at Suzanne as Suzanne readied another strike. Suzanne tried to aim for the eyes in the middle but was shocked as the creature's sharp teeth closed around her arm, going through her armor and skin as though they were not there. The creature ripped Suzanne's arm clean off from her torso. Suzanne screamed in pain and dropped to the ground.
"Susie!" screamed the rest of the group. As the creature spat out Suzanne's arm, Thomas sent a healing spell at Susie. However, the spell was not strong enough to mend Suzanne's arm. Alice sent another stream of fire at the creature while Ron finished it off with a blow to its hinge, once again sending it to the ground in pieces.
Thomas went up to Suzanne and tried to tend to her injury but to no avail. "Someone grab her arm! Alice, we need to get to the castle, quick!" he yelled.
Ron picked up her arm while Alice started on the spells to get them out of the pyramid.
As Thomas came out of the castle's healing room, covered in blood, Ron and Alice watched him with great anticipation.
"She's really lucky," he said. "Not only will she live, but they were able to reattach her arm. With magical care and bed rest, she'll likely make a full recovery in about a week."
Ron and Alice both gave great sighs of relief. "Can we see her?" Alice asked.
"She's resting now," said Thomas. "They don't want anybody in there to get her riled up. She should be able to take visitors tomorrow." With that, he walked away, most likely to get washed up and changed.
The next day Ron and Alice went as early as they could to go visit Suzanne. Oddly, Thomas was nowhere to be found.
"Hey Susie, how are you feeling?" asked Alice.
"A lot better than I look, I'm guessing," Suzanne answered cheerfully. "It still hurts to move my arm, but at least it's there! The clerics say I should be in fighting shape in a few days."
"Show how tough our fearless leader is!" Ron beamed. "Has her arm severed and still is just itching to get back out in the field!"
"Say, where's Thomas?" asked Suzanne.
The mention of Thomas' name instantly made Alice's mood sour. "Don't even mention that jackass! I'm sure he purposely ditched visiting you to go read or something!"
"Don't say it like that Alice," said Suzanne. "You know he probably took this more seriously than anyone. If he is reading, he's probably studying up on every healing spell he can find to make sure this doesn't happen again."
Alice was not convinced, "Don't defend him! He should be here and you know it!"
Ron shook his head, "No, Suzanne is right. Remember that first time I got poisoned? He actually came up to talk to me after that. Not to chew me out, like I thought he would, but to apologize. When we get injured beyond his ability to heal, he feels responsible."
Alice still was not entirely convinced, but decided to let the subject drop. "So what are you allowed to do today?" she asked.
Suzanne laughed, "Not much more than what I am right now, really. I'm surprised I'm even allowed to talk to people!"
Ron reached into his pocket and pulled out a deck of cards, "Well hopefully you're allowed to play a game of cards. I just happened to bring some with me here."
The week went by slowly as the group waited for Suzanne to heal. After the first couple days, she was allowed out of bed, though her arm was in a sling. A few days after that she was allowed to get rid of her sling and use her arm sparingly. She decided to go for a walk through town, and soon enough found herself in the castle library where, sure enough, she found Thomas at a table with several books around him, all dealing with healing magic.
"Haven't seen you the last couple days," Suzanne said to him.
Thomas looked up to see who was talking to him and then immediately looked back down, unable to keep eye contact. "Suzanne, I'm - " he began.
"Don't even apologize for this," Suzanne said, indicating her injured arm. "It wasn't your fault. I practically stuck my hand in that creature's mouth. I was careless."
"You were trying to kill it before it injured someone, as it did to Ron," Thomas argued. "It's my job to keep everyone in one piece after things like that happen and I failed again."
"You failed huh?" answered Suzanne. "Funny, because it seems as though I'm in one piece again. I must be mistaken."
"That wasn't my doing," protested Thomas. "The castle healers patched you up."
"But you got me here and kept me stable until you got me to them. You made sure to bring my arm from the pyramid. You did what you could," Suzanne said. "You've got to stop blaming yourself whenever we get hurt. Your magic has progressed immensely since we set out. I saw how you healed Ron's wound. That was incredible. No novice could have patched him up that well. Soon enough, you will be able to heal injuries like mine. Maybe even on the spot, as the most powerful clerics can. I believe you will."
Thomas did not say anything in response. Suzanne decided to lighten the mood, "Come on. We're going to play cards again tonight. Alice is about ready to lynch you for being so antisocial. And I don't want to have to wait another week to enter the pyramid because two of my companions tried to kill each other."
Thomas managed a small laugh and decided to follow Suzanne back to the inn where the group had been staying.
"The pyramid: attempt number two," Ron said as they neared the structure again.
The week had passed and as Thomas and Alice failed to do any harm to each other, the group was able to make another attempt at the pyramid. Suzanne's arm was back to its former health and she was able to fight as though she had not been injured at all.
The group made their way to the same trident shaped chamber they originally had to retreat from. They went in the right prong, the last one, and cautiously approached the chest. Although it was most likely another creature, the group could not take the chance that it was not. Instead of opening it, however, Ron struck the chest right on the hinge. When the chest did not move, save the movement from Ron's blow, Ron opened the chest. The group was immensely relieved to find no teeth or eyes on the inside. However, there was not anything else inside either.
"Well, I'll take an empty chest over another one of those creatures any day," said Alice cheerfully.
The group went to the northern exit of the north pit room and found a dead end. They went down the east path and found a winding chamber of hallways that led to a room with two beautiful emerald statues, both of a previous Isis ruler. They proceeded until they found a staircase going up to the next floor.
The next floor was made up of a series of thin hallways. As the group navigated through some of the hallways, they came across a blue bag with eyes and a mouth along with three humanoid creatures covered completely in bandages, save for the eyes and mouths with large teeth.
"Here we go again!" yelled Ron.
Alice sent a stream of fire at the bandaged creatures, killing one and seriously wounding the remaining two. The blue bag moved around in a very strange fashion, and a star of green light left Alice and sailed off. Alice felt as though she had just been drained of something.
Meanwhile, the two bandaged creatures did not act as though they had been wounded. Both of them ran up to Ron and struck at him with their arms. Ron was surprised to find claws hidden in their bandages as he took a scratch to the side. He dispatched one with a terrific blow to the shoulder and the creature fell. Suzanne ran the other one through with her sword. Thomas ran at the blue bag and tried to stab it but the creature somehow jumped over his attack.
The creature followed up by casting a spell and the group was covered with the familiar purple mist of an illusions spell. Indeed, it now appeared as though there were a dozen of the bag enemy. Suzanne cast her own stream of fire spell, though weaker than Alice's, while Thomas sent a strong cutting wind at the creature. It died from the force of the two spells.
"Damn! That thing drained some of my magic!" complained Alice.
"What?" asked Ron. "How is that possible?"
"It's a skill some creatures have. I actually know a spell which can take magic from other creatures and use it to restore mine. It looks like I'll have to start using it," Alice explained.
"So what were those things, Alice?" asked Suzanne.
Alice looked at the bag's remains and shook her head, "I don't know what that is. The bandaged things are called mummies, though. They're apparently undead that were buried here to guard the treasures and the bodies of the rulers."
Ron had been examining the bag and suddenly jumped up excited, "Hey guys! This thing actually has money in it!"
The group went over to examine the creature's remains and found it had hundreds of gold inside of it.
"I'm guessing that it's a bag that the people animated to life," Alice theorized.
"So they animated a bag of money to guard this place?" Ron asked. "Seems kind of strange to use treasure to guard treasure."
The group continued searching the floor they were currently on. They found more enemies along the way, but dealt with them without too much trouble. They found two staircases, one going down and one going up, along with another empty chest. They went down the descending staircase first only to find a couple chambers with a total of three empty chests.
"I'm starting to think the looters already took what we're looking for," Thomas said grimly.
The group backtracked to the staircase they found going up. They were greeted by a group of four mummies. These, however, had a blue hue to their bandages. As the four mummies came at the group, Alice made them pay with her stream of fire spell. The creatures kept going, however.
Suzanne and Ron both took on two apiece. Suzanne found herself clawed on both sides but finished one of the creatures by running it through with her sword. Ron managed to block and duck under both attacks aimed at him and then came up with his axe right into the gut of one of the creatures, causing it to fall. Thomas came over the assist Suzanne with a stab to the torso of another creature. Suzanne went over by Ron to finish the last one off.
"I'm running out of magic guys," Alice said. "We may have to come back another day if we don't find the key soon."
"Those mummies were tougher than the others," observed Suzanne.
"It's said that some of the rulers' exceptional bodyguards became more powerful undead to protect their masters," explained Alice.
"Such loyalty even in death," said Ron thoughtfully.
"It's not loyalty," said Thomas angrily. "They're undead. They no longer have minds. They do what they were created to do." Thomas hated undead more than most.
The group found several more powerful mummies throughout the floor. Alice had to start conserving her magic which caused the group to take more wounds with every encounter. As a result, Thomas was running low on magic as well.
The group found two staircases leading up along with a passage in the middle that was blocked by a huge boulder. In the southwest and southeast corners of the floor they found two buttons each.
"Wait, I might know what to do here!" exclaimed Alice, suddenly with an idea. "I was hanging out with some of the kids last week and they taught me this old Isis nursery rhyme. 'Oh which to try? Oh which to test? First to the east, then to the west.' Maybe if we hit the east-most button and the west-most button something will happen!"
"I don't know Alice," said Ron. "Couldn't we just go up the stairs? I'd think the key would be higher up anyway. Your idea might just trigger another trap."
"Actually, Alice may have a point. If the people who built this wanted someone to go through, they'd want it to be one of their own people," Suzanne theorized. "As such, they would have left clues on how to get through. This nursery rhyme may have been a discreet way to give such a clue. It's imbedded in their culture but nobody would think about it since it's a kid's song. Let's give it a try."
The group went and did as Alice said, pushing the east-most button and then the west-most button. They were greeted with the loud sound of the boulder moving. The group returned to the middle chamber to see that it was indeed gone. Inside were two chests.
"They could be more of those things," said Thomas grimly.
"Thomas, Alice, do you guys have enough magic to handle one more battle and an escape?" Suzanne asked. The two nodded in response. Suzanne motioned for Ron to try the chests. A strike to each chest produced no odd results, so he opened both of them. One of the chests had a purple seed in it while the other had a gold key with a ruby imbedded in it.
"Is this it?" Ron asked as he handed the key to Alice.
Alice examined the key a little bit. "It's got some magic in it," she said. "I don't know if it's what we're looking for, but it could be."
"Put the seed back," Suzanne said to Ron. "Her Majesty said we should only disturb what we must. It looks like we got what we came for."
"Thank goodness," said Ron. "I hope we never have to go through so much trouble for a key ever again."