The Ancient Keep
The Ancient Keep
Hannegelt and Kemann decided they would explore a little, since it was early still, and there was no socializing going on around a campfire. They went a little further to the north and started to notice that the random boulders that made up their camp site were becoming ‘regular’. The spacing more regular, the shaping more defined, and actually showing more like blocks. The line curved and ran back into the bluff, where it seemed to terminate.
Kemann jumped onto the block that protruded out of the bluff and leaned back to take a break. Hannegelt sat on the next one out and faced him and the bluff. After so much physical exertion and mental effort, Kemann was tired, so he wasn’t talking much. Neither was Hannegelt. A lizard catching the last of the rays of warmth clung to the rocks above where Kemann sat. Hannegelt saw it and mused how easy life must be for the simple little thing. He watched it scurry over the top of a jagged ridge and disappear from sight. He kept looking at the spot where the little reptile had gone, and something was familiar. Not like deja-vous, but something else. The jagged line. He recalled the conversation of two evenings ago, and how he had mentioned that the Company would be at the spot on the were-women’s map by this evening. More than that, as he looked at it, there were two round indentations to the right of the line. He recalled two dots also on the map, having looked at them as sloppy ink from some scribe’s quill.
“Kemann, come over here,” Hannegelt said. “Look at this.”
Kemann got up and looked to where Hannegelt was pointing. There was the line from the map. There was no indication as to what it was. The rock was smooth above the ‘block’ protruding from its base. No door, or a crack for a door was to be seen. “I think, just as we had to ascend to the pass, we must also ascend up to that ledge if we are to solve this riddle,” Kemann divined.
“That could prove difficult. The rock has no purchase, and we have no ladder.”
“We have each other,” Kemann noted. “If you stand on the block, and I stand on your shoulders, I may reach those two holes and pull myself over to the ridge. There may be another clue up there.”
So the two friends made like cat burglars and did just as Kemann suggested. He did struggle with the span between the holes and the ridge, but with Hannegelt helping by reaching as high as he could to help with one step, Kemann managed to grip the end of the ridge and scramble up with only a couple of minor scrapes. He disappeared over it just as the little lizard had done. His head popped over to look down at Hannegelt. “I imagine you should see this,” he said.
There was a corroded old chain attached to the stone, and Kemann dropped it down to Hannegelt, who climbed it. Once on the balcony, which lay behind the ridge, there were two gargoyle figures that were dragons facing each other in a crude archway. They had obviously found a door to something; the question was how to open it. Upon examination, the two elongated dragon figures showed circular scratches around their bases, so the gargoyles were perhaps hand-cranks. Trying one at a time did not do anything, as neither would budge, but together, cranked in opposite directions, the archway began to reveal its opening edges. It took a fair amount of force to open it enough for a man to squeeze through, but once done, the two adventurers did not hesitate to step in.
Several steps in, the darkness became thick, and Kemann pulled a small crystal sphere from his bag, and it began to glow with a whisper from the young Wizard. It was perhaps not as strong as Sam’s flashlight, but in the dark, it was enough to see close by. They stood at the top of a spiral stair of stone that wound down counter-clockwise, so the only logical thing to do was to follow it, which they did.
Leaving footprints in the centuries old dust, they had descended about a hundred feet before the steps ended in another small space with an archway similar to the one at the top. The two dragons guarding this arch would not crank as the others, however. Kemann wiped the dust off of them to see if there were any secrets to their function. As he rubbed the neck of the one on the right, its eyes began to glow green and the arch swung open.
“This is old magic,” Kemann noted as they stepped through to the next passage. Several feet from the entrance, the sound of the stone arch closing behind them made them swing around, but they were too late to do anything about it. The thought of being trapped underground-- with the others not knowing where they were—was not very appealing. Examination of the walls around the arch gave no clues as to getting it back open. There was an indentation on the inside of the door, perhaps for some sort of key. Kemann tried a couple of incantations on it, but it would not yield. “Right. Old magic,” was all he said.
“Well, we could stay here—maybe forever—waiting for help, or we can keep going and come back up here to wait later. There may be another way out further down,” Hannegelt said. It was an easy decision; they kept going.
The way had no stairs, but still sloped downward and wound around, not unlike Dorsea’s chamber. But this was much longer, and the pair kept on following. Soon the passageway opened into a cavernous room, but the walkway still hugged the edges and came full circle in the chamber before they reached the floor level. They were now deep into the mountain and exploring to the glow of a little sphere, which Kemann held aloft as they explored the perimeter of this chamber. There was a large slab table in the center of this space, but aside from that, it was entirely empty. Once again, they found an archway. The others had been plain panels within the arch, but this one was emblazoned with the image of a flying lizard.
As before, Kemann stroked the neck of the dragon, its eyes glowed green, and the panel opened. Hannegelt was about to step through, but Kemann stopped him.
“Perhaps we should render this door ajar,” he suggested.
“Excellent, Wizard,” Hannegelt agreed.
Kemann laughed. “You sound like your father when you say that.”
They went back to the opposite side of the cavern, where the path had met the floor. There were long, thin stones that made up the edges of the path, and they worked one loose. Hannegelt carried it to the arch and set it in position to jam it open, should it close. They stepped through, and moments later, it did try to close, but was successfully stopped by the stone. Again, they noticed the same indentation on this door that was found on the other door.
The air in this passage felt different—wetter, which was not unusual for caves or dungeons. The faint sound of running water began to grow as they approached the next cavern. It did turn out to be a slow-moving river, and Kemann’s light sphere showed it to be teeming with creatures, lizard-like, but transparent, and blind.
“What manner of creatures are these?” Hannegelt asked.
“I know not. But first I took them for living skeletons,” Kemann said.
“That is what they appear to be. Let us walk the bank.” So, they walked easily along, seeing what they could see and discovered a man’s skeleton in the water.
“Likely another visitor who had not the key to get out,” Kemann postulated.
“Let us hope our luck runs better,” Hannegelt said.
They kept moving and came to the end of the chamber where the river ran under the wall.
“That might be another way out,” Kemann suggested.
On the far side of the water was another, smaller chamber in which, the stones had been fashioned into pillars, but Kemann’s light would not reveal anything more about it. So, with a running start, they jumped the river and landed in the soft sand on its other shore.
The other chamber was a smaller cavern with a circle of small pillars surrounding a large one. The central pillar had carved on it the head of a flying lizard, or maybe a dragon. There was a ring also carved on it that wrapped all the way around. It held thin stone spikes, like a ship’s mast held belaying pins. Hannegelt lifted one of the spikes out and rubbed it. Its dragon-shaped head began to glow bright white and illuminate far better than Kemanns’s sphere. The light showed that the rack was only about half-full. Other visitors had made it this deep, and maybe beyond.
Kemann reached up and rubbed the head of the dragon on the column, and a section of the column opened. The ‘torch’ shown down into the column, revealing a stone ladder carved into the near vertical tunnel. “There are no loose stones in this chamber,” Kemann noted, “with which to fix this door.”
Hannegelt took his ‘dragon torch’ and jumped back over the water and jogged back to the skeleton they had found. He reached into the water and gripped the man’s femur. As he did, however, the lizard fish attacked his hand, leaving several nasty little bites. “Just so you know, Wizard, the water is a way out of this life, but not out of this cave,” Hannegelt called as he stood up with the wet, dripping bone. He jogged back to the crossing and took a little more care about the jump over. He positioned the bone to hold the door in the column open, took three more of the ‘dragon torches’, and they entered the column.
Hannegelt went first with the one lighted torch, and Kemann followed. Kemann was maybe four ladder ‘rungs’ down when the bone gave way, shattering into a shower of shards and falling on him. As horrifying as it was to have a dead guy’s wet bone fragments all over him, it was worse to know that it meant that the way out was shut. “Oh, Xelt!” exclaimed Kemann.
They certainly couldn’t wait there, at the top of a ladder clinging to the openings in the stone for any period of time, so the only choice they had was to at least get to the bottom of the climb. After one hundred and eleven steps down, they were relieved to finally have their feet on a flat surface again. They rested for a few minutes, but the torch began to get dim. Rubbing it again had no effect. So, they stuck up another one and continued exploring. Down the passage of figured rock, which had the look of a lava tube, the path split. Having been moving continuously down in the mountain in a counter-clockwise direction, they decided to take the path to the right. Before long, they entered yet another cavern that had water trickling down the far wall about a hundred feet away. Along the wall to the left they could see a cluster of items, and went to investigate. There was a large chest against the wall. It was covered in dust, and leaning on it were two swords. In front of it was half a skeleton in armor. The top half.
“What does that look like to you?” Hannegelt asked.
“It looks as if two men made the wrong choice,” the young Wizard replied.
“They attempted to open the chest, and…?”
“Old magic. They did not foresee it coming.”
“At least they have given us an advantage,” Hannegelt added.
Kemann looked at the floor around the chest and brushed away the dust near where the man had apparently been cut in half. There was a hexagonal seam in the floor, likely a trap door. Perhaps the first man tried to open the chest, and the trap door fell out. Meanwhile the second man only fell in part way and was maimed by the closing of the floor panel. He then crawled about two feet before expiring.
Hannegelt stomped on the trap door, and it did sound hollow below. “I think this panel is on a pivot,” he said, “so that if you stand there, and touch the chest, the floor pitches down on that side, but up on the other. That man fell backwards and the stone came down on him as he tried to get out of the opening.”
“So, no magic? Is that what you are saying?”
“It is just a thought,” Hannegelt said. “Do you want to test it? I am the heavier. If I stand back here, you slowly approach the chest.”
“That didn’t look like it worked for this man. Let’s test your idea a different way,” Kemann said. “Stand away.” Hannegelt stepped back and Kemann went to where the hexagon cracks met smooth floor next to the chest. With one foot standing on the (hopefully) firm stone, he pressed on the hexagon with his other. There was nothing—until he touched the chest. With shockingly fast motion, the trap door pitched forward, just as Hannegelt had suggested, and just as quick reset itself with a thud. Dust filled the air and left the two explorers looking like ghosts.
“Some magic, then,” Hannegelt said, as he spat some of the centuries of dust out of his mouth.
“One thing is true,” Kemann observed, “the old magic guarding this place is strong, and whatever is in this chest must be extremely important. You can see the same indent on the face of this chest that has been on the inside of every door we have passed. Not needed to enter, but I feel certain we may never leave without the key.” He looked past Hannegelt and took the torch from him, moving with it to the center of the room.
There, at the entrance to this chamber, a new octagonal hole had appeared. They cautiously moved to investigate. “That was not here when we entered,” Hannegelt said warily, “and it shall make quitting this chamber very difficult.”
At the edge of the hole, they peered down and saw water about two feet down. Leaning in and reaching with cupped hands, the two scooped water to parched lips. It didn’t taste like clean spring water, but it didn’t taste bad. Kemann held the torch out over the water. It was clear and deep. The torch had just begun to fade, and so, he decided to drop it in to see how deep it was. It splashed with an eerie echo in the cavern and sank to about thirty feet or so. They just watched it go, and that was when they saw a greenish blob entering into view from the side down in the well. It filled the shape of the hole and began to rise to the surface. Hannegelt retrieved one of the swords from near the chest. The green blob broke the surface of the pool, and Hannegelt slid the sword into it. Instantly, there was a reaction—not the blob reacting, but the metal of the sword reacting with the body of the blob. A reddish smoke rose from the blade and in a matter of a few seconds, the handle fell from having no blade remaining to hold it up. The hilt then dissolved in similar fashion.
“That does not bode well,” Kemann said.
“As long as that thing remains in there, I shall be content,” Hannegelt added.
The blob slowly sank away and vanished to the side once more.
It had been a very long day, and the two explorers were weary. With few options at this moment, the decided to sit, wait, hope. What they were waiting for was unclear. Hopefully, it would be a rescue attempt by the Company. All they could do was to hope that perhaps the Skadivers could be as clever as they hoped they were. But for now, they would sit and rest. After an hour or so, they fell asleep, leaning on each other—unaware that the water level in the pool was steadily rising.