Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Great Salt Mine Disaster of 151 NK

The Albino Son

It had been an unusually rough day for Dr. Chickenhiemer. He clucked quietly to himself at the back of the cave, pecking at tiny seeds in the dirt as he studied the round brass plate on the cave column. Suddenly he had an odd recollection for some reason.

“You know, it seems to me that I’ve seen that Korfu fellow somewhere before… but I can’t quite place where. Strange, I usually have a reasonably indelible memory. Ah well, at least I recall quite well his mentor Ibis from days gone by. Fascinating fellow he is! Good thing he doesn’t seem to remember me, but I certainly remember him. I think I had best keep an eye on that one. Yes, indeed…”

Meanwhile at the front of the cave everyone was supping their soup and preparing to get some sleep before journeying back to Hobbington the next morning. They were all thoroughly exhausted and looking forward to sleep. However, just as Hermel had put his bowl down, and began rolling himself into his blanket he heard the faint sounds of footfalls outside the cave. He sat up. The others heard them too. Everyone stared at the dark mouth of the cave.

“Oh goodness, are we seriously going to be attacked again?” said Arik putting a hand on his trusty battle-axe.

“Hey Lanna, this is a real secret place you found,” said Korfu staring open eyed out the cave door.

“Oh it’s probably a friend this time,” said Hermel, thinking wishfully that the Elkron could not be quite that harsh.

“I will go and look,” said Bantum standing up.

“Um, no its ok, Bantum. Relax. This is how we’re going to handle this…” said Hermel. And then he shouted without so much as sitting up, “Who goes there?!”

“It is I,” said a meek sounding voice from outside the cave.

“Who is ‘Eye’?” shouted Arik gruffly in return.

There was a pause. And then the meek voice, which Hermel and the other fellows from the ‘AAA’ Adventuring Group did not recognize, said “Lanna? Lanna! Are in there?”

“Who wants to know?” shouted Arik.

“You’re not Miss Lanna!” came the voice with a growing sense of alarm.

“Well, who wants to know who wants to know the whereabouts of Miss Lanna?” shouted Arik, now enjoying his guessing game.

“Did you hurt Miss Lanna? If you did I’m coming in there!” said the meak little voice with a squeak, and clearly trying hard to sound courageous.

Hermel pulled the blanket over his ears, having lost any interest in the squeaky voice looking for Lanna. Wisely so, thought Hormel, who did the same.

Into the cave stepped an unusually pale young man with red pupils and long white hair braided down his back.

“You’re a friend of Lanna’s?” shouted Arik amiably.

“Gentlemen, this is Praymar, my son,” said Lanna.

“Oh? So you are Lanna’s cub, eh?” queried Arik, eying him with his great bushy brows raised high. “You don’t look especially furry,” he added to amuse himself, and to test how he or Lanna might respond to that jibe.

“Furry?” answered Praymar. “I should think not,” answered Praymar not getting the jest and brushing his long white bangs back with his right hand. He was thin fellow, with high cheekbones and thin red lips. Despite his unusual coloring, he was a rather handsome looking youth, probably no older than fourteen.

No one in the group, looking him over from various angles, thought he looked very much like Lanna at all; or Ben, his presumed father, for that matter.

“Ma! Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“I’m sorry son, I ran into some trouble while trying to get your father home. He’s fine, but didn’t come back with me. He’s working on something else just now. At any rate, I met these gentlemen who were kind enough to help me locate your father, but we all kind of ran into trouble at the same time. So we came together to the cave to find the rest of the clan. But no one was here so I had hoped they were with you at the farm.”

“No, ma, there’s no one there. That’s why I came to the cave hoping to find you, or anyone for that matter.”

“Really,” she said, with a sense of foreboding as her eyes wandered to the shadows at the back of the cave and sat down by the fire with a worried look.

“How was the trail?” she asked Praymar after a few pensive moments of staring.

“I had a hard time getting here. The path through the Jagged Hills is buried under two feet of snow,” he replied as he sat down by the fire and removed his boots.

“You were careful not to be followed?” she asked.

“Of course no one followed me … as far as I know,” he answered, with a backward glance to the cave entrance.

“Good,” she said and seemed to relax a bit.

She then introduced each of the members of the adventure group to her son. They all greeted him politely. Bantum offered Praymar a chicken as a form of welcome, but Praymar put the chicken down with a “thank you” and it began clucking and pecking at the ground looking for seeds. Lanna served the lad a bowl of “wolf meat” soup which he devoured with loud sops, thinking that the wolf meat tasted remarkably like chicken, but didn’t mention it.

A Secret Revealed

At that point Bantum noticed that one of his favorite chickens was missing. The nice chicken with the red comb on his head had vanished from his motherly sight. This would not do.

“Chicken… where aaaaare you?!” he called out into the cave. From a distance he heard a nervous cluck. Everyone else decided to roll over and get some sleep, and so Bantum wandered into the shadows at the back of the cave by himself. After an hour he came back and took a torch from the wall and returned to the back of the cave. Now he could see.

“Bad chicken, now come over here!” he said once he found Dr. Chickenhiemer hiding between two tall rocks. “Come on its time to go to bed!” There was a half hour chase as he blundered around trying to catch the poor thing, but having finally gotten his big paws on the little ball of feathers it calmed down and accepted its fate without further demure.

“How can you be so bad?!” asked Bantum as he strode with Dr. Chickenhiemer back to the fire near the entrance of the cave.

“Cluck, cluck” said Dr. Chickenhiemer, which translated meant something rather complicated having to do with the brass plate, nitric oxide as an cellular energy source and the fifth dimension by which transmutation might be effected through the judicious application of mind-force, but as usual Bantum could scarcely make out more than a few chicken words he said. The wizardly chicken sighed, and clucked “never mind”, which Bantum happily accepted. This chicken was not like the others, Bantum thought to himself. He could understand plenty of what the other chickens said. Usually they talked about very simple and ordinary things like how good corn tastes, how tired they were, or whether or not a fox was lurking about, and things of that sort. Dr. Chickenhiemer however always said things that Bantum couldn’t understand. It was too bad, actually, since Bantum might have learned an extraordinary amount from Dr. Chickenhiemer, had he only been a super genius. Not to be.

Ibis noted Bantum returning to the front of the cave talking to his chicken. He had been sitting there going over the details of his plans for the short-range future. He wanted to ensure that he would have enough energy available in the morning to use his mystic power to influence the magistrate when he met with him. However, he was quite low on energy, and so he decided against working with Korfu that night, other than to chat with him. Korfu, because he had become accustomed to his nightly Emotion Control Training with Ibis, was upset about this, despite Ibis’ explanation that it was now time for him to begin exercising emotional control on his own. Korfu felt crestfallen, but recognized that he needed to begin to control his own emotions, so he tried his best to curtail his anxiety. He sneezed, and was tired, and a bit skittish and decided to go to sleep.

Hermel, began talking in his sleep.

“… No Ischandar… don’t drink that…” he murmured.

There was no watch that night as everyone was too exhausted to remain awake, and so they all fell asleep.

And so it was that Dr. Chickenhiemer, finding that the coast was clear at last, climbed up onto Bantum’s chest very stealthily and quietly and began to wave his wings in slow undulating motions around the giant’s head. “Cluuuuuuuuck-cluck-cluck-cluck… Cluuuuuuuuck-cluck-cluck-cluck” he was intoning softly as his pinions stretched forth making delicate designs in the air over Bantum’s forehead. “Cluuuuuuuck-cluck-cluck…”

With this Korfu woke up, having been sleeping somewhat fitfully. He looked over. When he did the chicken was on Bantum’s chest, but he had stopped moving his wings around and clucking. He was just sitting there. He gave a sudden slight tilt of his head, and then blinked twice, and tilted his head the other way… just as chickens usually do. “Cluck” he said quietly and that was all.

Korfu rubbed his eyes. He looked again. He was sure he’d seen the chicken doing some bizarre ritual over Bantum’s face, but now he wasn’t quite so sure. Maybe he was dreaming. It was hard to say. He did feel a bit feverish after all. Ibis woke up to Korfu’s shaking. “Wake up! Wake up Ibis!” whispered Korfu anxiously.

“What what? What’s wrong Krofu?!”

“I … I … I think … either I’m very very ill… yes, that must be it … I’m sicker than I thought …”

“What is it?” asked Ibis.

“It will sound very strange… but I could swear that I saw that chicken …” he said pointing to Dr. Chickenhiemer, “performing… some kind of bizarre ritual on Bantum’s chest…. I think…”

Ibis was not the sort of person to be outright dismissive… he said, “Ok, what do you think he was performing… there was no audience.”

“I know,” said Korfu, “but he waited for all of us to fall asleep I think…”

Ibis stood up and went over to look at the chicken. It seemed rather ordinary, other than it having taken a position on Bantum’s chest. It looked to the side, blinked, and gave a tiny little “Cluck”. He then jumped with flutter to the ground and began pecking at the dirt, and that action woke Bantum up.

“Hey!” he said to Ibis who was towering over him with a quizzical look on his face. “What are you doing to my chicken?”

“Bantum,” replied Ibis calmly, “I think you have a very special chicken there.”

“They’re all special to me,” said Bantum sincerely.

Dr. Chickenhiemer made his way between Bantum’s legs and clucked innocently.

“My apologies,” said Ibis, and returned to his sleeping roll. Both he and Korfu spent the rest of the night unable to fall back to sleep. Dr. Chickenhiemer clucked and settled down next to Bantum. Occasionally Korfu would notice the chicken’s head poke up over Bantum’s chest, stare at him, tilt his head, blink, give a quiet cluck, and then duck back down again.

Lanna had woken up from the talking and went to sit by the fire. She stared pensively into the shadows.

Ibis, now partially persuaded that the chicken was indeed rather a bit unusual, occasionally took a look over, only to see that Dr. Chickenhiemer was staring at him. “It’s very strange,” thought Ibis to himself, “but somehow I think there is something about that chicken…” Dr. Chickenhiemer ducked down again and clucked quietly.

Dawn came eventually, and Hermel stretched and went outside. The sky was clear, but there was a two-foot blanket of snow covering the land. That would make the going dangerous, as the trail that wound through the Jagged Hills was pot marked with steep drop-offs into bottomless crevasses, and dotted with ice patches.

The group roused themselves and began to get organized for leaving. Hermel suggested that everyone tie a rope between them and set Bantum as the anchor. The only problem, mentioned Arik, would be if Bantum himself slipped and fell… in which case he would drag everyone with him over the edge. Most of them had noticed that Batum, though certainly strong as three oxen, was actually quite a clumsy fellow overall. They decided that they might not want to be tied to him for the journey, and despite Hermel’s puzzlement declined that option.

“By the way, Ma, did you tell our friends about that round brass plate I found at the rear of the cave?” asked Praymar quietly of Lanna as they were putting things in their knapsacks for the journey.

“They found it of their own accord, son. I had not wanted them to try their luck at it, and Ibis nearly perished from his effort with it. He had his arm frozen solid, but fortunately the difficult one over there”, she said gesturing toward Hermel, “was able to heal him, grace be from Minvar.”

“Oh, I see,” replied Praymar.

Hermel scowled, and went back to packing his things.

Bantum, having heard about the plate again, said “I know how to turn the plate!” and started walking over to the back of the cave where the brass plate was.

“Bantum,” said Star of Justice, “why don’t you tell us how to do it before you go ahead and try that.”

“That’s right, Bantum, remember what happened to Ibis. It almost killed his arm.”

“I was told how to do it though,” said Bantum.

“Who told you how to turn the plate?” asked Star.

“The chicken,” said Bantum, looking down at the chicken whom he had picked up and carried off that way.

“I see,” said Hermel “Ok, well… yeah… but… here, why don’t we go outside and put your hand in the snow and keep it there until I tell you to take it out? Then I can explain what happened to Ibis. Ok?”

Korfu was staring at the chicken with one raised eyebrow.

“Cluck…. cluck… cluck…” the chicken said in between pecks at the latches on Bantum’s leather vest.

“Are you … taking the chicken story seriously, Korfu?” asked Arik incredulously. “You really think Bantum’s chicken told him something?”

“No, no… It was just … I found very early in the morning that the chicken was sitting on Bantum’s chest behaving … strangely… and then he was staring at me … I don’t know… I think perhaps it was a dream…”

Meanwhile outside, “If you keep your hand in the snow then it will get frozen like that icicle,” he said pointing to a large heavy icicle hanging down from the cliff. He struck it with his sword and it shattered. “And that’s what almost happened to Ibis’ arm. So I don’t think you should touch the plate,” concluded Hermel as he took Bantum’s hand out of the snow. His fingers were very cold.

“But then you can make my arm good again, like you did for Ibis,” said Bantum.

“I might not be able to,” replied Hermel in his calm soothing voice.

“ohh…” said Bantum thoughtfully. “But I do know how to do it.”

“I understand, Bantum, but I don’t want your arm to fall off,” said Hermel.

“Ok,” said Bantum.

Arik stepped outside, and looking at Bantum with his hand covered in snow, shouted “What in the name of Omri’s beard is going on out here?!”

There was a distant peal of thunder. Hermel felt the weight of the Dragon Stone pull his vest pocket downward suddenly. Star of Justice, who heard the thunder, thought that it sounded like the distant roar of a Dragon, and he remembered that Omri was said to be the ancient father of Elkor, the Great Dragon Elkron. He had a strange sensation.

Hermel went back to persuading Bantum not to touch the plate. Bantum was still quite focused on turning the plate just as he envisioned in his mind. He could hear from the chicken at his feet an almost ethereal sound, “Cluuuuuuuck-cluck-cluck-cluck” very quietly. He so very much wanted to turn the plate he could not resist it. He picked up Dr. Chickenhiemer and began walking toward the cave entrance.

“I have to do this… I really have to do this for my chicken,” said Bantum as he strode back into the cave.

At the bottom of the pillar Bantum took his left hand and placed it on a hitherto unnoticed engraving in the stone of a crescent, embellished with tiny flecks of silver, and with his right hand on the brass plate he pushed and gave it a sharp turn to the right.

Arik heard the tell tale sound of a slight hiss, and along the seam in the wall that he had found earlier, a smooth and fabulously natural looking stone door slid nearly silently out of the way. The quality of the door, while in a much more ancient style than any Arik had ever seen personally, was so perfect as to nearly rival Dwarven craftsmanship, were such a thing possible.

Dr. Chickenhiemer clucked, flapped his wings, and made a wild dash for the large dark opening in the cave wall. However, it was not to be. Dr. Chickenhiemer was probably the least lucky of all chickens.

Star looked at Bantum. He looked at the chicken squawking his way toward the entrance. He looked at Bantum. He put all the pieces together. He started to get the feeling that something weird going on. A normal chicken would not be lurching toward a dark cave opening. Hermel was also concluding that something weird was going with that damn chicken. The others also thought it beyond passing strange.

Everyone ran after the chicken.

“I think we should let the chicken go ahead,” suggested Hermel, thinking that if there was some nasty horror from the land of nightmares in the cave, it might be better to let the chicken find it first. Korfu, however, had something else in mind and was scrambling after the chicken to catch it. The half crazed bird dodged left and kept going, causing Korfu to fall over his own feet. Bantum, in a very lucky maneuver caught the chicken in his hands. For such a clumsy fellow, he sure was lucky with catching chickens.

“It’s strange, Ma,” said Praymar to Lanna, “but something about this seems familiar to me, but I don’t know why… it’s as though I saw all of this happening in a dream long ago.”

“Perhaps, son. Stranger things have happened,” she said, trying her best to peer into the dark cave opening.

Ibis walked over to Bantum.

“Ok chicken,” he said in a commanding tone, “Spill it!”

Everyone stared at him. Then at the chicken. Then at Ibis.

“You are talking to a chicken, you know that don’t you?” asked Hermel.

Dr. Chickenhiemer clucked his great annoyance and tried to escape Bantum’s enormous grip to no avail. He was not going to make it into the dark opening, was he?

“Bantum,” instructed Ibis, “I’m going to go out on a limb here… but would you mind telling the chicken to tell us everything he knows?”

Bantum smiled broadly and nodded happily. “Chicken, is there something you are not telling us?”

Dr. Chickenhiemer let out a long string of varying length, decibel and pitched clucks for about a minute and a half.

“Something about a snake… and it’s gray”, said Bantum earnestly to Ibis. Everyone else hung their shoulders and shook their heads looking at the ground. It was definitely starting out as one of those days.

Arik walked over to the newly opened secret door and ran his fingers along the now exposed frame. Perfectly designed.

“Bantum,” instructed Ibis again, “please tell Mr. Chicken that everything is fine. If he happens to tell you …”

“You’re still trying to talk with a chicken?” asked Arik from the secret door as his eyes tried desperately to pierce the darkness of beyond the opening. It seemed to him that the darkness there was darker than shadow should be somehow. Darker than dark, even, were such a thing possible. He did not particularly like the look of it. He was momentarily tempted to put his hand through the opening and touch the darkness, but instead turned around and walked back to the group as they huddled around Bantum and the chicken. He bristled his beard and said, “I can’t believe you are talking to a chicken!”

“Hold on everyone… Bantum, we have already proven that I can’t speak chicken, have we not?” said Hermel.

“Yes,” agreed Bantum.

“Fine, then lets prove this one way or another. Bantum, let me take the chicken over there and hold up a some number of fingers. Then I’ll bring him right back and you can ask him how many fingers I held up.”

Bantum stood thinking for a while. Then he said, “That sounds reasonable. Ok.”

There was a long silence. Everyone stared at Bantum. He’d used a four-syllable word. Dr. Chickenhiemer, however, was quite proud of his student at that moment, as he’d been trying to teach him that word for the past 4 days. “Cluck” he said proudly.

As, however, Bantum was giving Dr. Chickenhiemer over to Hermel, the chicken managed to twist, flutter, and wedging a wing against a thumb, flipped himself out of their hands, and landed with a loud squawk on the ground. He immediately lurched in the direction of the dark cave entrance, clucking furiously as he scrambled over the rocks. Everyone leapt after him in disarray.

“Have you people… lost your … ever loving MINDS?!” yelled Arik philosophically.

It took some doing but Bantum caught Dr. Chickenhiemer just before he managed to get inside the dark opening. Never before in the annals of history was a chicken ever quite so frustrated, as Dr. Chickenhiemer was that day.

“That chicken really wants to go through that door,” said Star as they held the frenzied squawking creature. And at that moment the door slid silently closed, almost unnoticed by everyone except Arik, and Dr. Chickenhiemer.

“CluuuuuUUUUuuuuuuck,” said Chickenhiemer despairingly lolling his head and sagging his wings. Arik raised a bushy eyebrow at the closing of the door and walked over to inspect it. Perfectly sealed.

“Ah, good,” said Hermel. “Ok… I will show it some fingers, Bantum. Now don’t look.”

Bantum dutifully closed his eyes and held the chicken up toward Hermel, who held up two fingers. Dr. Chickenhiemer, slumped, lolled his head and rolled his eyes at the outrageous indignity of being asked to count two whole fingers.

“Ok,” said Hermel. Bantum opened his eyes and asked Dr. Chickenhiemer, “How many fingers did he show you?” There was a depressing sounding “cluck”.

“He says you flipped him two birdies,” said Bantum.

“He seems to understand what you did. We may be dealing with an intelligent chicken,” said Star.

“Cluck cluck cluck”

“An intelligent chicken? No, we seem to be dealing with CRAZY PEOPLE, is what we seem to be dealing with here!” declared Arik, his eyes bulging and beard bristling.

“A lucky guess,” said Hermel under his breath, looking at Dr. Chickenhiemer suspiciously.

“Bantum,” said Ibis suddenly, “What is six times seven?”

“I don’t know. What is it?” asked Bantum trying to think of what “times” might mean.

“Ok, that’s fine. Ask Mr. Chicken what it is.”

“What is it?” asked Bantum of Dr. Chickenheimer.

“Cluck,” said Dr. Chickenhiemer.

“Four-dee Two,” said Bantum.

“The chicken can do math,” said Star.

“This chicken can do more than math,” stated Ibis now staring at the chicken with wide eyes, and not a small amount of fear. He knew at that moment that he had seen this chicken somewhere before, but for the life of him, he could not remember how or when.

“You have got to be kidding me!” declared Arik at the end of his patience. “I thought we were going to Hobbington!”

“Ok… actually, no. Which is more probable?” Hermel was saying. “That we have an intelligent Chicken that can do math, and knows the secrets of trigger-trap-doors… or that Bantum is secretly a clairvoyant genius?”

There was a pause as everyone thought that over.

“It is more probable that we are all MORONS!” said Arik with a rigorous shake of his head. “Anyway, I want to see that door again,” and began moving toward the plate.

“I don’t think you can try that plate again,” said Praymar, not knowing why exactly he thought so. He had some dim recollection of having seen the plate some time long ago, but the memory was vague in his mind. Perhaps it had been a dream. But whatever the reason he was convinced that trying the plate a second time, so soon after the first, would result in some form of disaster for everyone there. Arik, who was not a little bit spooked by all of these bizarre events, pulled his hand back from the dully-glinting bronze plate. Maybe it would be best to leave it for now, he decided.

“Well, at any rate, this business about the intelligent chicken has made me hungry. I want to go to Hobbington and get a great big dinner!” he announced.

Bantum tied the chicken to his bandoleer. Poor Dr. Chickenhiemer. There he hung upside down clucking away all of his complaints to the Elkron. Had he only gotten through the door he might have been able to read what he suspected would have been the ancient and sacred Script of the Gray Serpent King, and would have finally learned whether or not his theory regarding nitric oxide cellular-source-energy was accurate, and if the fifth dimensional Mind-Force could activate it, which he’d derived from hours of studying the positioning of the brass plate, the engraved moon, the sub-scripted text along the lower portion of the pillar that none of the Adventurers had noticed, and the celestial mathematics that were clarified by that study, or if he was as yet still missing a vital and fundamental principal… yes, Dr. Chickenhiemer was indeed unusually frustrated.

In any event they decided that there was nothing left to do but to leave the cave. Lanna, who looked at the solid cave wall where the door had slid closed, now had some regrets. But her fear of the dark opening overrode her impulse to go and try to find her friends down that dark unfathomable hole. It was, she thought, and probably quite rightly, far too dangerous a mission for this group of inexperienced adventurers. Especially without Ben there to help. Her first impulse gave way to her second. Go get Ben from the mine, and then return to rescue her friends. Surely Ben would agree, and know what to do.

“Were you once a human? Flap once for yes, and twice for no,” Hermel asked the chicken. There was a short pause and the chicken flapped twice.

“Perhaps you should let the chicken go,” suggested Star.

“Would you run away from us if we let you go?” asked Star of the chicken. There was a suspicious silence.

“I don’t want chicken to feel bad. I will free you, but you must be good, understand?” said Bantum to the chicken, and put him down. Chickenhiemer, with no particular intention to go anywhere began pecking at seeds on the cave floor.

Hermel took Ibis aside and suggested that they test to see if the cave possessed the chicken… he suspected the cave might be a magical Being, and wanted to eat them.

There was no special reason he thought so, but events had become so weird that he was not ruling anything out. He suggested that they find out if the chicken could read. If it could they would write a question for it, and it would pertain to something that occurred before they arrived at the cave. This would show them if the chicken had been intelligent before arriving at the cave, or not. He noticed that stalagmites did in fact look a lot like sharp fangs. He shuddered.

Hermel asked Bantum to ask the chicken if he could read. There was a lot of intense clucking, and Bantum said that the chicken said, “Yes”.

They showed the chicken the writing they had contrived on a piece of Ibis’ paper, and Ibis said “Chicken, what is the answer to this question?”

Dr. Chickenhiemer read, “What happened when we went camping at the large stone circle in the snow?” on the piece of paper.

“You know, I think it’s kind of ridiculous that we’re playing a game of 20 questions with a chicken!” yelled Arik, at his wits end again.

“Just remember chicken,” said Hermel, “if you can’t answer this question, you’re food.”

The chicken clucked for a while, and flapped his wings, and Bantum reported that it said “Bad smell”.

“The chicken’s story checks out,” said Hermel with a grunt.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life!” yelled Arik, thoroughly outraged.

“Well why don’t you ask it a question?” answered Hermel.

“Because I’m not a completely INSANE MORON!!” declared Arik stomping his foot. “I want to leave this besotted cave, and I want to go to Hobbington and have a huge meal of roasted chickens, braised chicken breasts, chicken soup, chicken kabobs, and fresh CHICKEN dumplings!”

“Oh, well that does sound pretty good,” said Hornmel, who himself was feeling a bit peckish.

“Well, I should say that when we get to Hobbington, I am a wanted man there, of sorts,” mentioned Hermel, now thinking about the journey ahead.

“Oh?” said Lanna with a high arched eyebrow.

“I don’t want to get into details about this, but I want to avoid being hit by darts of Black Lotus poison. So when we get to Hobbington, you guys can wrap me up in a blanket and carry me as if I’m dead. That way we can get past the guards.” said Hermel looking toward the ceiling of the cave as he formulated his plan.

Everyone stared.

“Ok… now that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life!” said Arik.

“Why?” asked Hermel, thinking his plan sounded quite reasonable. “Once inside you should carry me in the blanket so we can maintain the charade. Otherwise we might tip our hand,” he suggested.

“Well, for one thing, don’t you think that it might attract all kinds of attention… us carrying a fake corpse around on our shoulders?” answered Lanna, to the general agreement of pretty much everyone there, except Bantum who was still thinking it over.

There was a long back and forth argument over this between Hermel and the rest of the group.

“Well it’s better than just walking into town and being hit with a Black Lotus poison dart from the Five Animals Clan, or whoever they are,” replied Hermel.

“Ohhh,” said Lanna. “Did you say the Five Animals? Oh… Well, you do have problems then,” she concluded thoughtfully. “At any rate, I suggest you wear a disguise, instead of us carrying you around like a fake corpse. That would attract far less attention,” she pointed out. As Hermel still had the costume he escaped in, he agreed to think it over, though in his heart of hearts the thought of being carried around as a fake corpse made a heck of a lot of sense to him.

In the meantime, the sun was passing above the hilltops, and so they decided they had wasted enough of the morning already and that it was high time to leave the old ‘Gray Serpent’ cave and head out. The going was rough, slow and dangerous, as they made their way over the Jagged Hills through the deep snowdrifts. There were occasional drop offs into dark ravines, and yawning crevasses but no one slipped and so eventually they came to the other side of the hills where the road was.

The Party Split

They turned southward toward Hobbington. Hornmel looked northward.

“I’m going to head to Bear Claw Village and try to get the old Kung Fu teacher to come to Yellow Clay Village. I will meet you there,” said Hornmel to his cousin.

“I wasn’t going to mention this so soon, but have a way to get a lot of money in Hobbington,” said Hermel. “I plan to use the money to have a poison made in Hobbington that will knock a man out. I intend to hire archers so that we can follow the bandits after we trade the hostages for the village’s spring seed, and have the archers knock the bandits out so we can take the seed back. That’s the least deadly way to handle the situation – and the most effective,” he said to Hormel earnestly.

“That doesn’t sound like a terrible plan,” said Hornmel thinking it over. “But still, we should try get the teacher’s help, just in case that plan doesn’t work. I can make it to Bear Claw in two week’s time, and be back in Yellow Clay in another two weeks, probably. That should give you enough time to get to Hobbington, make the poison, and meet me in Yellow Clay before the bandits return… with a month to spare, if all goes well.”

“Where are we going to get archers?” asked Star of Justice.

“I will have enough money to hire archers from the villages along the way to Yellow Clay. We’ll also need to get trackers. We want them to feel totally at ease for the trade. We can then use the trackers to follow their trail through the woods so we can ambush them,” said Hermel, still in the process of putting his plan together.

“Well, why don’t you pretend to be dead? That’ll throw them off!” said Arik jovially. Hermel narrowed his eyes. “And while we’re at it, why don’t we have all of the villagers pretend to be dead? Then we can surprise them!” Arik added with a loud gaffaw.

“That, actually, might just work,” said Hermel tapping his chin with one finger. Lanna stared at him with her mouth open, and rolled her eyes.

“Why not hire a band of hobbits with blow guns to shoot the bandits when you surprise them with all the fake corpses that suddenly spring to life?” asked Lanna. Hermel stared at her, trying to figure out if she was offering a serious suggestion, or making light of his planning skills. He couldn’t decide, so he thought that idea over.

“Yellow Clay is in for it,” she said under her breath.

With a handclasp and a bear hug to Hermel, and a nod and wave to everyone else, Hormel turned and headed off northward along the road though the undulating sea of white drift snow. The other members of the party turned and went south. They walked for a few hours until they came to the area of hills where the Prancing Unicorn Inn was located. After a while they stopped. From the other side of a hill they saw a plume of smoke rising into the sky.

“That does not look like the usual chimney smoke,” said Star. Indeed it was thick and black and did not look at all like chimney smoke.

“Looks like a fire,” said Hermel.

“Ben!” said Lanna looking in the direction of the smoke with apprehension.

“My treatise!” gasped Ibis.

“My kitty!” cried Bantum as all his chickens suddenly began flapping and squawking.

“We should investigate,” answered Hermel. “But carefully. There might be people needing rescue, but we are persons non-gratis there, remember… and Korfu is a wanted man.”

They turned off the road, and followed the snow-laden path until they passed through the narrow gap in the hill. They then crept through the woods quietly until they came to the wooden bridge in the forest that spanned the babbling, mostly frozen brook.

“Perhaps we should send a scout ahead to the Inn to see what is happening,” offered Star.

Hermel, calling upon the last vestige of power from his enchanted Dragon Stone, created an illusion of white clothing over his otherwise dark green cloak and brown britches. He blended perfectly into the snowy background. Praymar, who was already wearing white, crept behind him as they crossed the bridge together. On the other side they silently made their way off the trail and through the pine forest until they could see the Inn. Behind it they saw a raging fire was consuming the barn. There were dozens of people running from the Inn to the barn and back again with buckets of water, trying to douse the flames. No one saw them. Hermel signaled Praymar and they crept back to the waiting party.

The Great Salt Mine Fire

“The barn is in fire,” Hermel reported.

“The mine!” said Lanna in a state of grave anxiety.

“It might be a good time for you to retrieve your treatise, Ibis,” suggested Hermel, adding, “And while you’re at it, see if you can find out what happened.”

With that Ibis walked without demure over the bridge, down the path, and passing numerous people who were running too and fro, stepped through the green door and entered the Inn. People were dashing around with buckets in hand and no one took notice of him. He crossed the tavern and went up the stairs to the third story, and located his room. Fortunately, though the door was locked he still had his room key in his pocket. He poked his head inside, and to his great relief there were his belongings, and those of Korfu, just as they had left them. Just as well, he thought, as he took his treatise and other belongings, as well as Korfu’s bow and backpack and slung it over his shoulder.

On the way down the stairs the barkeep happened to notice Ibis.

“Hey! You’re back!” he said, hauling two pails out from the kitchen.

“Uhm, yes,” said Ibis. “I was otherwise occupied temporarily. I do, um, intend to meet with the magistrate as soon as possible,” he added awkwardly, but the barkeep had no interest in that.

“In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a fire going on,” said the barkeep, extending a heavy water bucket toward Ibis. “Let’s get a move on!”

Ibis put his belongings on the floor saying, “Of course, of course, I’m delighted to help,” and took the heavy bucket in both hands. The barkeep lumbered off picking up two other buckets exiting the Inn, and Ibis, looking around, put his bucket on the floor, slung his backpack and bow over his shoulder again and walked without demure out of the Inn, down the snow-covered trail, and back to the bridge where the party was waiting. He did not notice a pair of pretty blue eyes from a second story window watch him as he trundled himself away through the snow.

Korfu was truly delighted to get his bow back, as Ibis was truly delighted to have gotten is treatise in his hands again. They planned to leave quietly, none the wiser. Until, that is, Lanna strode back toward the Inn with a gruff, “Ben is in danger down there in that damn mine! I’ve got to go help my husband and those poor miners! Come on Praymar, we’re going to rescue your father… alone… without anyone’s help…. by ourselves…” she said looking over her shoulder at Bantum.

“I will help you!” cried out Bantum, and began following after her, despite numerous objections from the group.

With that everyone paused. Korfu was the least inclined to want to return seeing as he was in danger of being sent back down to the mine, seconded by Ibis, who would have been much happier to continue on to Hobbington where his plans were directing him. The others however, least among them Hermel, thought about it, and thought again, and a third time, and with the encouragement of Star of Justice, headed off after Lanna, much against Hermel’s better judgment. Arik, was only too happy to go along on any adventure, as that was far was better than standing around bickering about what to do. Everyone began to follow after Lanna, except Korfu, Ibis and Hermel who stood pensively on the bridge thinking. Finally, annoyed as could be, Hermel announced, “I hate you all,” and proceeded to follow after them.

“You are coming with us?” asked Bantum with a big broad grin when he saw Hermel coming up from the rear.

“No!” he growled, “You are all coming with me!” and with that he proceeded to walk rapidly after Lanna and Praymar. Ibis and Korfu followed up the rear reluctantly. Very reluctantly.

Bantum, was overjoyed to see that Hermel had decided to help Lanna too and so was very happy indeed as he loped along, carving a wide pathway through the snow.

They went directly to the barn, and grabbing whatever buckets they could find, began helping to put out the fire along with all the other people. As they did they began to inquire as to how the fire had started. All they were able to find out in the rush of things was that there was a great thunderous explosion somehow, and the barn caught on fire.

As soon as it was barely safe enough to do so Arik lead the group into the barn, dousing flames on the floor and walls with buckets of water as they went. As they were braver than average they were among the first inside. They spotted a husky looking man heaving buckets of water onto the flaming bales of hay. Amid the gusts of gray-brown smoke, black ash and flying red embers they saw that a huge crater existed where the trap door used to be, they surmised that there must have been an explosion in the mine.

“What happened!?” shouted Hermel to the man. He turned around and it happened to be one of the rough neck men who he’d argued with on their first night at the Inn, but the man did not seem to notice or care about that.

“There was an explosion from below!” he shouted.

“Is anyone down there alive?” shouted Hermel heaving a bucket of water as it was passed to him.

“I don’t know!” shouted the man. “The Boss took some men down the hole an hour ago, but they haven’t come back!”

There was no fire in the crater itself, though black marks scored the edges of the hole.

“Well,” said Hermel turning to the group as they heaved water left and right as best they could. “The men in the mine are either dead, or alive! No need for us to go down and risk our lives!”

Star stared at him with a disbelieving look. He was ready to risk his life in an attempt to rescue anyone who might be still alive down there.

“If you go down there and die, or we all go and die together, what will become of my people at Yellow Clay Village?” demanded Hermel. But Star simply pointed to the hole and said there were lives that might need saving right there. Other lives could be saved later.

Lanna was first to begin scrambling down, finding that the metal ladder was damaged but still intact, and by which she made her way to the dark and smoky bottom. Hermel reached into his pocket. He felt the heavy round stone he’d been carrying for eight days since the beginning of his adventure. He made a prayer that his luck would hold, and pulling it out noticed that it was most certainly transformed from what it had been. The last time he looked it seemed only an ordinary looking green-hued rough little stone, but now it had taken on the appearance of a finely sculptured green jade dragon. He was amazed. Putting the Dragon Stone back in his pocket he made his way down the ladder to the bottom. Everyone else followed, and so they collected themselves at the base of the shaft, and looked down the tunnel.

There was the faint smell of gas.

“Ohhh…” said Arik, thinking twice about lighting a torch, “it seems it was a gas explosion. Most likely from those gas lanterns we saw along the wall when we went down last time.” Hermel had noticed them as well, but it only occurred to him just then how similar they looked to the ones they’d found in the tunnels underneath Dunn’s Bridge in Hobbington. It seemed far far away and ages ago.

“We’d better not light any torches, then,” said Hermel.

Meanwhile Lanna, followed by Bantum, was making her way forward into the pitch-blackness hoping against hope that Ben was still alive.

“I will send a chicken ahead so he can tell us what is there!” said Bantum, but Star reminded him that it might be dangerous for the chicken if he did that, at which suggestion Bantum refrained from tossing Dr. Chickenhiemer into the darkness, to the miserably clucking bird’s great relief. The other chickens, as you can imagine, were hanging from the bandoleer squawking and flapping their wings in various states of frantic anxiety.

“It’s more than likely that the gas exploded and blew it’s own fire out,” said Arik, “but it is equally likely that there is a gas build up now, and so any spark can touch it off again!”

Fortunately, Korfu had the ability to see almost perfectly in darkness… even pitch darkness such as this. Praymar, as it happened, had the same ability.

“Night Vision is a wondrous power,” said Praymar to Lanna. “I’m glad the old wizard chose to teach it to me!”

With that Praymar and Korfu led the others through the tunnel, each member of the party holding a shoulder of the person ahead of them. They proceeded slowly toward the stairs downward, and coming to them, went down with great care. At the bottom of the stairs they turned right and followed the corridor another thirty feet or so. There was rubble on the ground and they found the shattered wooden wall and nearby the wooden desk at which they had had their prior confrontation with the mine manager, where they met Ben, and rescued Korfu. Hermel asked if Praymar could see the wooden box with the button on it that the mine manager had used to call down below, but Praymar said that he couldn’t find it amid the chaos of shattered wood.

They went past the wooden wall. There was a corridor to the right. Rubble was everywhere. Everyone was stumbling over rocks and wooden debris.

Star of Justice intoned the miraculous Invocation that the Masters of the Temple of the Sun had taught him named “Aura of Retribution” by which he was illuminated in a dim blue light. It was, as he had hoped, just enough for the other members of the party to see by. He considered, briefly, that this was not really the intended use of this miracle which was supposed to cause Retribution upon Eldrik’s enemies in combat, and so he quietly told Eldrik that his use of it was “Retribution against the Darkness”, which made him feel a little bit better about it, whether Eldrik consented to that or not.

By this dim blue light the party proceeded forward along the tunnel until they saw towering out of the rubble two enormous statues. They were fabulously carved, and had the shape of two curly haired lions baring enormous fangs sitting on their haunches with one paw each resting on large stone balls. Arik surmised that each statue weighed approximately three and a half tons. The craftsmanship, he noted, was excellent, and it occurred to him that it was surpassingly strange to find such statues at the head of an old salt mine. Dr. Chickenhiemer, however, clucked to himself that these were definitely 2nd Dynasty Style, probably eight hundred years old, and doubtlessly crafted by the Imperial Artisans of the Obsidian Empire. But why here in this ridiculous backwater, he could not fathom.

“Cluck, cluck,” he said. Bantum, however, was busy with his own thoughts at the time, all one of them, and so he missed the brilliant chicken’s scholarly commentary entirely.

As they marveled, the party passed between the enormous statues, which formed a narrow pathway between them. Beyond the statues was a huge iron gate that went from the floor to the ceiling with great thick bars the width of a man’s wrist. The gate was swung wide open and so they walked through.

Beyond the gate there was a ton of rubble strewn along the corridor and they went another twenty feet until they came to metal tracks embedded in the ground. There was a metal wagon that was lying diagonally across the tracks on its side, one of its metal wheels having broken off. There was a crack in one wall, which otherwise was perfectly smooth and polished, and by that Arik noticed that the tunnel had been carved directly through a vein of beautiful plutonic black-granite, quite rare. This was no ordinary salt mine, he thought to himself.

They walked further and came to an open passageway perpendicular to the one they’d been following, and not quite as wide. That corridor vanished a long way off into darkness. As they stared down the black passageway with trepidations that none of them bothered to express out loud. Then, coming from the direction they’d been going originally, they heard a gravely voice yelling from the distance, echoing through the corridor.

“Damn it, no!” the gravely voice barked cantankerously, “Bring me an A-5312! How many times do I have to tell you, A-5312, not A-5315 you idiot!”

Averting their eyes from the black passage, they looked down the metal tracked corridor and could see an orange light playing against the wall ahead. It seemed there was an open section of wall form within which they heard the voice, and the sounds of humming, clanking, and buzzing. With this they stopped and listened, making no noise at all. Even Bantum’s chickens suddenly went silent as everyone stood wondering what in the world an A-5312 actually was.


Previous Episode: A Chicken in the Dark
Next Episode: Canary in the Salt Mine

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