Meanwhile, far below them in the tunnel, Bantum ran pell-mell after Dr. Chickenhiemer, with Arik, Hormel, the two monks from Bear Claw, Moose and Lee, and the two Dectalions of archers following in an unwieldy pack behind them. But our story keeps us topside at the moment, so lets follow along with the splinter group and see what became of them first.
As Star wearily stood up, wiping the sweat from his forehead and taking in the aching of his shoulders and legs, he was surprised to notice that his morning star seemed to sparkle with golden flecks. He lifted it, heavily, and rested the black spiked metal ball in his left hand. A careful examination showed that now there were indeed golden flecks embedded in the metal. He rubbed at them, but the flecks remained. They seemed to glint in the firelight. That was definitely new.
“This is a better sign than what became of my old morning star before,” he said to himself, reflecting on the time he had tried errantly to bless the weapon, only to have it turn, and remain, jet black. He took encouragement from this. Perhaps Eldrik was not entirely displeased with him after all. Looking at Praymar, who was not quite able to rise without assistance, he felt that perhaps saving the queer little albino boy might have been the right thing to do after all. Praymar flicked out his forked red tongue and gave a little hiss. ...Maybe.
The crazy cacophony of Hermel’s phantom voices that the Hell Cat had been barking out mercifully ceased, as the last of the echoes receded into the void. The barn was in fact eerily silent except for the creaking and crackling of burning wood coming from the far side where the wagon that had crashed through the western door was ablaze. Fire was greedily licking at hay bails and wooden beams as smoke belched upward and lofted into the rafters amid huge showers of flying embers.
A voice boomed out of the darkness from beyond the barn door.
“Ha ha ha!” exalted the Brigand leader, Black Patch, from his position at one of the well-fortified windows of the Black Dragon Inn across the street. “I have you fools completely surrounded! There is no way to escape! I have archers covering both doors and the barn will burn down on your heads if you don’t throw down your weapons and come out with your hands above your heads! If you do, I will let you live! Ha ha ha!” quoth he.
“Do you think he’s telling the truth?” Star asked Hermel, who had just dropped down to the ground floor from the loft by one hand. Smoke was filling the upper rafters, and the fire began blazing a trail across the uppermost beams.
“Give me a minute to discuss this with my men!” shouted Hermel out the doorway.
“You have one minute!” returned Black Patch severely.
Star picked up Praymar, who had been rather badly wounded by an arrow to the leg, and carried him quickly past the open doorway to where Hermel was standing. To Star’s relief, no arrows were fired. Apparently Black Patch was serious about the one-minute’s worth of diplomatic immunity. Lee, the monk from the Bear Claw Village, felt it would display a lack of trust to make a dash for it, and so he walked with a deliberately measured gait as he passed the doors.
Hermel signaled for Star to help Praymar make it to the room where Arik had discovered the secret tunnel entrance beneath the barn, and for Lee to guard the rear as they went. The far side of the structure was engulfed in flames, and the air was thick with smoke and flying embers. They made their way into the room staying as low to the ground as possible. Praymar suffered quite a bit a long the way, but endured it with stoic resolve. They entered the room, and by the light of the blaze could see the hole in the wall that Arik had spoken of. Beyond it was a black tunnel.
Although it was pitch black, and Hermel could see nothing, the two mystics had previously enchanted themselves with the mystical ability to see in utter darkness. They lead Hermel down the long corridor in silence, and eventually came to the bottom where the tunnel ended. Lee bandaged Praymar's wounds, and provided him with an invocation of mystical healing as was his duty as a healer-monk. Star described to Hermel what he saw by virtue of his mystic Night Vision.
"On the right, here, is a huge metal door, approximately eight inches thick. It is half opened, with four metal bolts extending from a central wheel which I believe secures it when the door closed. The bolts go into metal slots in the floor, ceiling and both side walls. It looks like it can only be opened from the side we are by turning the wheel," explained Star. Once closed, Hermel had no doubt that the wheel would spin shut, sealing the door shut. Praymar stepped into the corridor beyond. Star and Hermel waited. There was no horrible shrieking. That was a good sign.
The mystics could not see far, but they could see the bare dim outlines of the corridor stretching off in both directions to the right and left. Praymar peered both ways down the corridor. It ran off in both directions, vanishing into blackness. The sound of water dripping echoed from some distance away. There was a musty smell in the air.
The Water Chamber
“He gets to fly,” grumbled Arik under his breath as they ran after Chickenhiemer. The wily fowl chicken-smirked and made a fancy little pirouette in mid air. Arik, who was able to see better than the others due to the quality of his Dwarven eyesight, muttered another curse under his breath and kept running. Somewhere in the starry heavens, Omri smirked at this, too.
"Come back, chicken!" shouted Bantam as he ran on into the darkness.
Arik and the others were quite a ways down the corridor by the time Hermel, Praymar and Star arrived at the bottom of the outer tunnel. They had finally caught up with Chickenhiemer who had come to an open archway on the left hand and wall, which opened into an enormous chamber. The lintel of the archway, and side posts, were carved from one solid piece magnificent green jade, delicately worked into two spiraling patterns from the floor to the capstone at the top. The room, they saw as the archers came up with the torches, was staggeringly huge, with hundreds of pillars emerging from murky black water. On the far side they could see a dim silvery light reflecting off of the water in the distance, but could not see anything else. It was by this distant light that they could ascertain the enormity of the chamber. It was truly enormous. It was from here that the sound of dripping echoed, and they had no doubt that it was also the source of the unwholesome stench that filled the corridor.
Chickenhiemer was busy studying the pillar on the right side of the doorway. He was clucking to himself quietly, as he cocked his head to one side, blinked a few times, and then cocked his head to the other side. He was evidently quite fascinated. And well he should have been! This was probably one of the most remarkable archeological discoveries of that time. He was able to assess from the nearly illegible script long the pillar's curve that the architecture was pre-Varincarnian, and very possibly dated back to the long forgotten Mythic Age. He paced back and forth and took reams of mental notes.
“Hmmmm…. I wonder…,” said Arik. Taking out his battle axe, and holding it by its head, he pushed the handle as far down into the water as he could. It did not touch bottom. It was deeper than 4 feet at least. But he had now way at the moment to ascertain just how much deeper.
“Hmmmm…” he said thoughtfully. The torchlight flickered against the columns creating eerie wavering shadows that seemed to writhe against the walls and ceiling. It was very disconcerting, indeed. No one wanted to go anywhere near the room, let alone actually dare to enter it.
“Why did we come here?” Arik asked rhetorically.
“Cluck cluck cluck cluck,” said Chickenhiemer. Arik studiously ignored him as he turned and looked up the corridor. The walls, he noted to himself, where perfectly level, and the angles of the walls were of an exacting degree of perfection. The floor, he noted, was made of what appeared to be a single solid slab of granite, but that rather defied credulity. Perhaps, he thought, the seems were so fine as to escape detection. He stood trying to look like he was not waiting for Dr. Chickenhiemer to come to some sort of conclusion.
“Did anyone ever get that backpack?” asked Arik of Ishcandar and Lido. Neither of them had had the time or wherewithal to go fetch it from the street where Ishcandar has thrown it. Arik was not too displeased about that. It was, after all, from what they had surmised, a kind of portal to Hell, possibly. Better not to bring one of those along with you down into an ancient and unfathomable ruin, he thought. He’d had his fill, it would seem, of strange and obnoxious gear.
Ishcandar was rather uneasy, and a feeling bit claustrophobic. Were there eyes upon them? Ghastly, cold and horrible eyes, he thought. So, he took it upon himself to chant a mystic spell he had learned at the Adventure Guild one day long ago. This spell allowed him to definitively sense if there was anyone secretly present nearby, even through walls. He cast the spell. He felt no one, but had a vague sense of apprehension nonetheless. Unfortunately, not being at his best, he neglected to notice that casting the spell happen to cost him the last of his mystic energy. He felt woozy, afterwards and regretted the effort. He felt almost as though he was drunk, he thought to himself, though the feeling was not nearly so nice as a nice decanter of brandy… but still, perhaps it would do in a pinch, he thought with a little not-really-drunk smile.
“I always liked you, Lido,” he said waving his arm airily.
“Are you feeling quite alright?” asked Lido.
“I don’t know,” replied Ishcandar with a vague look in his eyes. Having no mystic energy can have this effect on people, you see.
“Well, anyway, why have we stopped here?” asked Lido of Dr. Chickenhiemer. The chicken clucked a few times and pointed his beak at the right side of the archway, and gazed with a cocked eye at the pillar. Lido gazed, too, but saw nothing other than a stone pillar covered with what looked like lichen, possibly.
“Cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck,” said Chickenhiemer. He was in fact giving something of a minor dissertation on the history and symbolism of the pillar and arched doorway, and a partial translation of the script so far as Chickenhiemer could manage it. However, Lido did not speak a cluck of Chickenese, and so he missed out on the lecture entirely, as did everyone else. Except Bantam, who managed to catch a few words, though those confused him more than illuminated his understanding.
“Fascinating,” said Bantam smiling stupidly. Chickenhiemer suddenly cocked his head and stared at Bantamwith pride. He had taught Bantam that word several days ago. He was proud of his incredibly stupid student that day. He gave a gratified cluck, "Exactly."
Star studied the archway as well. The pillars undulated in a spiral pattern on both sides. He looked to the top of the archway. There he saw what appeared to him to be two snakes heads entwined, forming the capstone. One pillar was of a milky white jade, while the other pillar was pale green. They were both covered with lichen, though in some spots the stone showed through.
“Do those pillars look like snakes to anyone?” asked Star.
“At least it’s not bears,” said Arik. At that moment, for some reason, he noticed a deeply unpleasant aroma coming from his backpack. Perhaps it was because of the now evident comparison he made to the other unpleasant smell coming from the watery chamber. Perhaps. When he opened his backpack a few flies buzzed out and flew around him in circles. Inside, to his surprise, he found that musty, rotting old bear skin. He thought he had thrown that rotten thing away, but apparently he had only imagined throwing it away, and then forgot about it again. It was puzzling. Everyone stepped away from the aromatic hide. It was a truly horrid affair; torn, matted down and caked with dried blood. To Arik, however, the wretched pelt didn't seem so terrible for all of that. Sure the smell was a bit strong, maybe, and the caked blood had kind of matted down the fur somewhat, but he wasn't particularly squeamish about such trivialities. It was a bear skin after all, and that had to be worth something, he thought. In the end though, he'd decided it was useless because nobody wanted to buy it from him. That he couldn't understand, but it turned out to be a fact. So he decided to get rid of it. The only thing was, he had the oddest feeling that it didn't want to be gotten rid of. Absurd. He chalked that up to the same sort of nonsense as talking chickens.
“Stupid bear skin,” said Arik with a harrumph. “Oh well. Anyway, I wonder if there’s anything in that room,” he said turning back towards the archway. There was a ‘plunk’ sound from somewhere in the chamber. After a few moments ripples washed up against the stone step. Chickenhiemer backed away from the dark opening. He began clucking nervously. As there was no door, there was no way to close the portal. They stared out into the pillared darkness.
“If we wanted to move away,” asked Lido of Chickenhiemer, “which way should we go? That way? Or that way?” He pointed in both directions up the long dark corridor. Chickenhiemer flew up onto Bantam’s head and clucked to himself. He was in the safest spot around, and he congratulated himself on his good planning. He was doubtlessly the most envied chicken in the land. Turkenator, who Bantam was still carrying in his arms, happen to agree with that. As to which way was best to go, he hadn’t a clue. Just because he was a titanic genius did not mean he was any better at guessing what was ahead or behind any better than anyone else. They would just have to venture forth and see.
“Well, if we have to fight whatever it is that’s coming this way," said Arik, "lets at least step away from the portal so it doesn’t come breathing down our necks.” He ordered everyone to step about 20 feet back up the corridor in the direction they’d come from and had the archers line up in two ranks and cock their bows. They did so, and waited.
They heard a splash at the door. Then silence. Then they heard what sounded like it could have been long nails running across stone. Then silence again. They all held their breath. Ishcandar, impatient to find out what kind of unfathomable beast would put them through such unnerving suspense, drunkenly pulled out his dagger and lunged through the ranks, planning to charge at the thing. His brain was overwrought from exhaustion.
“I will handle this, friends!” he yelled as he staggered forward. He did not get far. Arik was holding him up by the scruff of his neck.
“Get back you fool,” he growled as he handed Ishcandar to Lido. “If I didn’t know better I’d say you were drunk! And by the way, you would be a pub-snack to this thing – whatever it is. We’re planning to fight it, not feed it!”
From far back up the corridor they heard the distant echoes of Hermel’s voice calling for the party.
"Dang if that doesn't sound just like Hermel!" said Arik, and sent one of the archers with a torch back up the corridor to go get their friends. Off ran Biff, torch held high, heart pounding, into the darkness. It would be hard to describe just how frightened he felt at that time. But being a fifth rank archer of Hobbington, he went on, despite his trembling nerves.
The Meeting in the Dark
Far up the corridor Hermel, Star and Praymar saw a torch bobbing along towards them. Biff came running up panting, his forehead drenched in a cold sweat.
“Ah! Am I glad to find you!” said Biff.
“We’re glad to be found,” replied Hermel coolly. “What’s going on? Is everyone well?”
Biff explained the situation ahead. Hermel and the others debated whether or not to close the huge metal door behind them. He considered that Black Patch and his Brigands might follow behind them, but two factors convinced him to leave the door ajar. First, the barn above was undoubtedly burning down, and he thought that flaming timbers would prove an uninviting barrier to the tunnel. Second, the door had a the round wheel on the outside of the door, which suggested that the door was built to keep something locked inside the tunnels. Something that required that kind of heavy metal door to keep out. Something big, he conjectured. And furthermore, he thought the door would likely lock again once shut. The idea that there may have been something in the tunnels requiring a door of such magnitude to keep in was sobering. The idea of being locked in with whatever it might be was downright distressing. He considered driving an iron spike into the ground to keep it open, in fact, but as the floor was a huge solid sheet of granite he deemed it would have taken too long, he decided against it. Lee suggested it would be unlikely for the Brigands to investigate the barn, as it seemed their leader was ignorant of the secret passage. He would probably assume they all died in the fire, he said, and so not bother investigating until the fire finished burning. That might give them an hour or two head start. As that all seemed to make sense, they decided to leave the door open and follow Biff to the others. And so, come what may, they left the door as it was, on the chance that the Brigands would not come down there too soon. And if they needed to flee back out of the tunnel under some dire circumstance, at least they had a known way back out – even if that path led back up to the burning barn. Biff lead the way as they marched together down the long corridor to where the party was. As they went both Star and Praymar could not help but notice that beneath the lichen on every inch of stone there appeared to be an amazing array of dazzlingly ornate relief carvings, but they neither had time, nor the inclination to stop and inspect them.
There were brief handshakes and congratulations on their successful escape.
The Thing from the Dark Pool
“What have we here?” asked Hermel, raising an eyebrow as he looked over the shoulders of the archers.
“There is something through that door. Something ugly. We’re prepared to shoot it,” said Arik grimly.
Looking around Hermel reflected on the possibility of returning back up the corridor to the escape hatch.
“I heard a sound in there,” said Lido, “just before. It sounded like nails or maybe bear claws scraping the stone.”
“Bear!?” said Arik, suddenly aroused. It hadn’t occurred to him that a bear might be down in the tunnels, but it was possible after all. He recalled fondly the time he hunted a bear with his mystic lightning. It didn't quite quite the way he expected, but in the end, he did bag a bear after all, he thought proudly. Arik was from the township of Hobbington, and had scarcely ever been out in the countryside. For him, a bear hunt was especially noteworthy.
“Excuse me,” called Hermel towards the doorway. “Can you hear me in there?”
“Grrrrrrrrr,” said Arik, imitating a bear.
“Look we don’t want to be here,” Hermel continued with an annoyed glance at his feisty Dwarven comrade.
“Grrrrrrrr,” continued Arik, amusing himself.
“We want to leave.”
“Grr,” finished Arik, as the realized there was no answer forthcoming.
“Hello?” asked Hermel finally.
An odd looking thing emerged from the door. Quite ugly in fact. If you took a pale gray rhinoceros and removed its horn, and flattened its face, and gave it the look of an orangutan but with huge stony plates above its flattened snout and ended that in a perfectly circular mouth lined with horribly thick yellow teeth, and gave it fat stubby legs with long black claws, that’s what it looked like. Ugly. Ugly. After a brief glance up the corridor the thing retreated back into the chamber. It was so large that it had taken up the entire archway.
“What about the smart Hobbits?’ asked Lido, innocently, as he turned to run.
“No such thing,” said Hermel as they all began the retreat. Naturally the Hobbits were slower than everyone else as they ran along on their little legs, and true to his word, Hermel kept pace behind them, running while glancing over his shoulder every few steps. The thing, gratefully, was not in hot pursuit.
“That is libelous slander, sir!’ shouted Ishcandar, slurring the words as they ran.
“Ok, who got Ishcandar drunk!?” shouted Hermel as they ran, thinking that this was no doubt, somehow, the cause of the creature’s arrival. It's a fact that drunken Hobbits summon monsters, he was now quite certain of that.
“I don’t know!” replied Lido. “It wasn’t me!”
“A drink? Did someone mention a drink?!” cried Ishcandar excitedly as they skidded to a stop and turned around.
The enormous behemoth came lumbering out into the corridor slowly. Arik estimated that it must have weighted a couple of tons or more. It was wet, and covered with a green film of slime from the shoulders down. As it emerged through the archway they saw that it had eight legs, each ending in a set of long black claw-like talons. It more or less filled the corridor. A three foot forked red tongue came out of its circular mouth and tasted the floor and walls. Praymar was very impressed by this, and flicked out his own long skinny red tongue, it’s little forked end vibrating briefly in the air.
“I know you! You’re uncle slugmaw!” said Praymar, only half joking. He did feel he had some kind of distant kinship with this creature, somehow.
Everyone backed away slowly, the archers maintaining formation under Captain Bob's direction. They went another ten feet backwards down the corridor. The creature licked the floor again.
“I wonder how interested that creature will be with this,” said Arik as he heaved the skanky bearskin pelt down the corridor towards it. As it came skidding up to the creature it flicked out its gigantic tongue at it. It made a strange noise, sounding like a cross between a deep throated groan and a pig's squeal, and stepped backwards away from it. It retreated slowly back through the archway and disappeared from view again. No one blamed the creature for backing away from it. It was really pretty skanky. A loud splash of water was heard.
Praymar pulled out the biology book he had taken from Dr. Lobe’s library way back when. He flicked through it page by page, until he found, to his delight, a drawing of the creature.
“Aha!" he squeaked happily. "I found it!”
“Well?” said Arik.
“Ok, I’ll read it to you,” replied Praymar, and he cleared his voice dramatically.
“This creature is called a Giant Tardigrade. These creatures are four to six feet long, stubby and plump, a thick segmented yet flexible hide, with four pairs of legs, each ending with claws that have talon-like fingers for slashing or gripping. The mouth is circular with small beads of stone-like teeth surrounding it. They have a long red forked tongues which are used for sensing and pulling things towards their mouths.”
“Hmmm… anything else?” asked Hermel.
“Giant Tardigrades are nearly indestructible physically,” continued Praymar. “Their habitat includes caves, dark forests, and underground caverns. Any place that is dark and has moss or lichen, and moisture. They are slow moving, cautious, and single minded. Their only motive is to reproduce and to eat. They eat everything that fit into their mouths. Their teeth can crush almost anything, including stone. They are immune to most physical attacks, including cold, fire, acid, blunt objects, edged and missile weapons. They can survive pressures greater than any found in the deepest ocean trenches and have lived through the vacuum of outer space. They can survive solar radiation, gamma radiation, and ionic radiation. They can go without food or water for nearly 50 years, drying out to the point where they are 3% or less water, only to re-hydrate, forage, and reproduce again. These creatures should be considered dangerous, and in large numbers a category 2 menace.”
“Ah,” said and thought everyone. Not so good.
“And there you have it,” said Praymar, quite proud of himself. He closed the book and neatly returned it to his backpack.
“I think,” said Arik, “that we should leave it be.”
“I agree,” replied Hermel.
“Maybe we should turn around and go back the other way,” offered Arik, stroking his beard thoughtfully.
“Well, we didn’t take a look to see what is back the other way,” said Star. “The other direction might offer a safer way out, perhaps.”
“But you know something?” said Hermel thinking out loud, “I think we may want to take the thing with us.”
“What?! The beast?” asked Arik.
“No, the bearskin,” answered Hermel.
“Take it with us? Really?” Everyone was mortified by the prospect of hauling that horrid carcass around with them.
“It would cover our trail. We could then drop it so the thing doesn’t pursue us. And if Black Patch pursues us, then they get to deal with it.”
“Um…,” said Arik, looking for any rationale for leaving the bearskin where it was. “I don’t think they’re going to come in after us. I mean the barn is on fire. They’re going to leave us for dead.”
“They’re going to come in at some point,” answered Hermel. “Think about it – they’re not going to find any charred bodies in the ruins when the go to look for us. And they’re eventually bound to find the tunnel hole. It was still open the last we saw. And we don’t know if we’re going to be trapped in here or not. And if we are going to be trapped in here, then why not use the environment to our advantage?”
“For once I agree with Hermel,” squeaked Praymar. “They could be waiting for us at the other end for all we know.”
Dr. Chickenhiemer clucked his approval of that point, but no one noticed. After all, had they really thought about it, and perhaps mapped their route up to that point, they would have noticed that they were heading in the direction of the Black Dragon Inn, and were probably close to being directly underneath it, thereabouts.
“You know,” said Arik putting his foot down. “I’ve carried that damn bearskin for weeks now. It’s somebody else’s turn.”
“You’re the only one who can bare its smell, though,” said Hornmel, who had come up from the rear. Hornmel, who had hunted that bear with Arik, was well acquainted with every variation of pelt, and had never once seen any that came anywhere close to being as rancid and disgusting as Arik's. Everyone nodded in agreement. He was also quite correct in his assessment that only a Dwarve like Arik could possibly ignore the horrid smell.
“No need for that,” said Hermel. “We just need to carry it, say, thirty feet past the door and drop it there. If Black Patch pursues and can’t take the smell, we want him to go divert into the portal.” Sounded reasonable enough to everyone.
“Balto,” said Arik to one of the archers, “go get the bearskin.”
“Ahhhhg,” cried Balto with a panicked look on his face. Visions of suffocating under the horrid bearskin while being clawed to death, dragged into the dark waters, and devoured by the giant Tardigrade filled his head. He panicked and stood there trembling.
“So,” said Star, “you want us to get the bearskin, go past the doorway, and put the bearskin down to divert any potential pursuit?”
“Sure, why not? Lets put the danger behind us,” Hermel explained.
“But we still have to get past the archway ourselves,” said Ishcandar nervously.
“No problem. We’ll get past it,” said Hermel confidently. “It went back into the chamber.”
“But we don’t know how far in,” replied Star.
“We’ll quickly go by and drop the bearskin,” said Hermel.
“For all we know it could be waiting at the door,” suggested Ishcandar.
“We don’t know how scared of the bearskin it is,” said Arik. “From what that book says, it’s a pretty frikkin horrible beast.”
“Well, it was sniffing around, tasting the area with its tongue, it looked like,” said Hermel. “Probably the bearskin threw it off.”
“Yeah,” agreed Arik. “But if it notices us again, it could come after us.”
“We can use the bearskin the block the door while we pass,” suggested Hermel.
“Yeah, well the book did say it is really pretty slow,” offered Arik stroking his beard and furrowing his eyebrows.
“Let the archers go first,” squeaked Praymar.
All of the archers finally after all this time took notice of the weird little albino boy and glared at him fiercely.
“What!?” squeaked Praymar defiantly. He was just making logical sense, as far as he was concerned.
“I think the person who goes last is going to have the biggest problems,” offered Arik.
“I will lead the way!” said Ishcandar with a flurry of his hand as he slashed the air with an imaginary dagger.
“I’ll bet you will,” said Arik.
“Whatever we’re going to do, we should do it soon,” suggested Star, who really never felt entirely comfortable in cold, dank dark places. His desire to see the light of day again was growing stronger by the minute.
Hermel took a torch from Balto, and moved very quietly past the archway, tip toeing. He looked into the chamber. He could see the creature’s head bobbing above the surface of the water, about ten feet in. He motioned for everyone to move past him, and so the others began shuffling past as quietly as possible, clinging to the opposite wall, looks of terror on their faces. Hermel remained at the archway looking in to see what the creature might do. He heard another plunk in the water some distance off, and then more ripples began to wash up along the bottoms of the pillars. Then he saw something strange. In the distance a silvery pearl was floating above the water. He attempted to use his lovely green cloak to block Ishcandar’s view into the chamber as the Hobbit passed by behind him. Ishcandar moved passed, none the wiser. Hermel sighed with relief. There was nothing ever so dangerous, he thought, as showing the drunken Hobbit a brightly shining bauble. Several horrible Tardigrades heads bobbed above the water line. Hermel backed away from the door slowly.
As it was, no one touched the bear skin, but let it lay on the ground near the archway, stinking, with flies buzzing around it.
An Unexpected Rendezvous
Meanwhile, those as the head of the group saw a light coming their way from very far up the corridor. Someone was approaching with a torch. Star stepped forward and peered as hard as he could to try and make out who, or what, it was, before it got any closer. He ordered a line of archers into two rows ahead of them, and they crouched in formation, all bows knocked with arrows.
Star gasped. Up the corridor, heading towards them as fast as his stubby little legs could carry him, was a hobbit in a black top hat, carrying a torch over his head.
“Great Elkron,” exclaimed Star, gasping, “its that crazy little Hobbit from the battle we had with the Fifth Animal! Mr. Ipps!”
“My friend!" cried Ishcandar, gleefully. "How are you?!”
“There you are!” shouted Ipps, tickled pink to see his Hobbit-kin alive and well. “Thank goodness I found you in time!”
“Lower your voices,” said Hermel, coming up from the rear. “There’s all sorts of ‘things’ down here.”
“Yes there are!” shouted Ishcandar. “Very BIG FAT things!”
Lido covered Ishcandar’s mouth with his hand, saying, “Shhhhh… we’ve got to be quiet!”
Hermel came up to Ishcandar and took a sniff. It was strange. He didn’t smell any alcohol. But he was sure that Ishcandar must be drunk. Or was it possible, he wondered, if he actually always behaved this way? He shuddered with the thought.
“He tried to cast a spell. Then he got like this,” explained Lido, whispering to Hermel.
“Since when can he cast spells?” asked Hermel, eying Ishcandar suspiciously.
“He says he learned them a long time ago at the Guild. He took a magic lessons once,” replied Lido, looking admiringly on his old friend.
“You know he skipped his classes – all the time,” stated Hermel, who knew that for a fact because he and Ishcandar had been classmates in the Freeman School.
“So? I can’t cast spells. But then I was never invited to those classes, anyway,” reflected Lido. He had not passed the various intelligence tests given by the Guild to gain admittance to the Mystic Arts Classes.
“Well, he’s my kind of Hobbit anyway,” rasped Ipps in his low gravelly smoker's voice. “Hey Lido! How the hell are ya?”
“What are you doing here?” asked Hermel as he turned to face the little man in the squat black top hat.
“Oh, I just remembered! You know, there’s a guy up stairs who is definitely out to get you guys!”
“We know,” said Lido, “we met the guy. Do you happen to know a way out of here?”
“Sure. I came down from the Black Dragon Inn,” answered Ipps pointing back behind him with a furtive gleam in his eye.
“Can you show us?” asked Lido. “We’d like to get out of here.”
“Sure!” he said, excitedly.
“We should get out of here. That would be a good idea,” said Hermel looking back behind them toward the archway, which was shrouded in flickering shadows.
“Yeah. Well, somebody hired me to screw with you guys, but I didn’t really care for him very much, so when I saw that the barn was on fire, and I knew a way to get to the barn through the tunnels, well, I thought I’d come down and see if I could fetch ya. Seeing as yer my pals and such! How ya doing Ishcandar?” asked Ipps of the drowsy Hobbit.
“I’m doing just great,” said Ishcandar dreamily.
“You look great,” said Ipps.
“Yes, I do, don’t I?” replied Ishcandar merrily.
“How about a drink to celebrate our little reunion?” asked Ipps.
“Why that sounds wonderful!” shouted Ishcandar, suddenly roused and bright-eyed.
Ipps pulled out a silver flask and uncorked the top. From within came lovely scent of fine brandy. Ishcandar took it in his right hand, and lifting it to his lips with a great smile said, “I like this Hobbit!” and took a huge swig.
“That does it,” said Hermel, as calm and determined as ever. “You’re on your own. Since you broke the rule, I take no responsibility for you.”
“Since when have you ever?” asked Ishcandar jovially, taking another swig.
“Since when? Since Dunn’s Bridge!”
“He did help get you out of the brook,” offered Lido thoughtfully.
“Well I didn’t ask you to,” answered Ishcandar, too delighted with the brandy to make much of anything else.
“I don’t care,” said Hermel. “And you will never ask me for anything again. And I will say this – if you put us within a hairsbreadth of danger … I will kill you myself.”
“If I recall correctly, you asked me for things, Hermel,” replied Ishcandar, the flask to his lips, “but I don’t recall ever asking you for a thing. Ever.”
“WOW!” exclaimed Ipss, giving a nod towards Hermel. “What’s with him?!”
“He doesn’t like Hobbits,” whispered Lido awkwardly as he sidled himself between Hermel and Ipps.
“He’s a nice guy, though,” said Ishcandar, unconvincingly.
“Wow! How can you not like Hobbits? We’re great!” stated Ipps enthusiastically.
“Yeah, Hobbits are awesome,” put in Lido.
“Yes, we are!” exclaimed Ishcandar.
“Yay Hobbits! Woohooo!” yelled Ipps
Ishcandar waved the flask in the air, and took another swig. At this point Ipps, who had been craving a drink himself, furrowed his eyebrows and swiped the flask back out of Ishcandar’s hand. He took a big satisfying swig, and then with a friendly gesture handed the flask back to Ishcandar again. For all his faults, Ipps was a friendly and generous sort, when you got down to it, so long as he felt you were a good person at heart.
The Best Laid Plans of Hobbits and Men
There was a distant thundering sound from behind them somewhere that echoed up the long corridor. No one noticed it consciously, except Dr Chickenhiemer, and the monks from Bear Claw village, who surmised it might have been the sound of large burning timbers collapsing in the barn above.
“Uh, I think we should do the Hobbit thing, you know, up topside, though,” suggested Lido, coming around to the grim fact of their situation again.
“You sure you want to head up into the Dragon Inn?” asked Ipps.
“Well, um… do you think there are people waiting for us up there?” asked Lido in return.
“It's positively crawling with Brigands up there," answered Ipps.
“Well, is there any other way out of here that you know of?” asked Lido.
“Um… well…” answered Ipps tapping his chin with a finger.
“We could go back to the barn, maybe,” offered Lido.
“Well, no, I don’t think so. It’s engulfed in flames last I saw,” said Ipps.
“Do you know any other way through these tunnels? I mean do you know these tunnels very well?” asked Lido.
“Well, actually I have kind of explored down here a few times. The only other way I know, is through that room,” said Ipps, pointing back towards the watery chamber of the one hundred pillars.
“You’ve been through the room with the water?”
“Yeah,” said Ipps.
“Did you meet the thing with the eight legs?”
“Ah come'on. They’re slow!” said Ipps.
“They’re that slow?” asked Lido, nervously considering it. Others turned back to glance in that direction. There were more than a few that shuddered and thought the prospects of making it out of there alive were rather dim to say the least. Sloshing through a gigantic room of chest-high black water amid huge shadowy pillars infested with giant eight legged invulnerable monsters that only live to eat... nope. Not comforting.
“Yeah, well they’re pretty slow. Especially in the water. If you get them out of the water, well they’re a little faster, maybe.” said Ipps, with little concern in his voice.
“How did you get through the water?” asked Hermel.
“Yeah, did you have a boat?” asked Lido.
“No!” said Ipps, surprised by the thought of a boat being down there.
“How did you get through the water then?” asked Lido.
“Did you swim?”
“Well how, then?” wondered Lido.
“There’s a ledge along the entire rim of the room!” said Ipps as though that were really quite obvious. “It goes all the way around then entire chamber.”
“Well, wouldn’t that make it easy for the creatures to grab you?” asked Lido, incredulously.
“Um, well, I’m quiet, and fast. They probably just didn’t notice me, and those that did couldn't catch me. If we just tippy-toed our way past, you know...”
“Ah. But there’s more than twenty of us,” said Lido. “I don’t know if that’s really an option.”
“Oh, well, yeah… I suppose. But anyway, that’s the only other way out that I know of,” concluded Ipps.
“Where does the path behind us go?” asked Hermel, pointing in the direction back up the corridor where they came from originally.
“I never went up that way,” said Ipps with a shrug of his shoulders.
“I thought you said you explored this place,” said Hermel, disappointed.
“Well I did. I explored here, I explored there, and down that way,” he said pointing back the way he had come, “and I explored down over there,” he added pointing towards the watery chamber, “But I didn’t explore everywhere. This place is really enormous, frankly.”
“Did you explore under the Black Dragon Inn?” asked Hermel.
“Well yeah, there’s a lot of old chambers, and ancient dusty stairs that went down to another level. I didn't go much further than that,” answered Ipps, recalling to himself those lofty stone rooms, and the wide stairs with the huge steps going down an arched tunnel into the vastness below. Nope. Not going there, he'd thought to himself. No way.
“Did you meet any monsters down that way?” asked Lido, frightened by the prospects of having to explore the dim dank vastness to find a way out.
“Well, this whole place is peppered with grizzly things, uh, ya know. It’s not for the squeamish, I’d say, ya know,” replied Ipps, a tinge of nervousness entering his voice. “Anyway, once I got to a certain point, I turned around and came back because… well ya know, I’ll only go so far.”
“At the Black Dragon Inn, where does the tunnel come up into? A back room?” asked Hermel.
“Well, there’s a flight of narrow stairs that goes up to a room in the basement. There’s a bunch of rooms in the basement.”
“Are there any people in the basement?”
“Well, uh, there were ten Brigands drinking in the basement pub down there. It was pretty easy to worm my way past. Humans don’t usually take much notice of me as long as I mind my own business, so to say,” Ipps explained with a wink. “Then you go up the stairs from the hallway outside that room and you’re on the first floor of the Tavern where the bar and restaurant is. That’s where the Brigand Chief was the last time I looked. If you go up the next flight of stairs from there, that’s the second floor where his room is, and that’s where Garrison is waiting for me to come back and deliver him your heads on a platter so to say. He’s the guy who hired me to mess you guys up, see?”
“Garrison?!” exclaimed Hermel. Arik and Star nodded their heads, remembering Garrison as that quarrelsome man who Hermel exiled from the group what seemed like ages ago. Bantum didn’t remember Garrison at all anymore, and just stared at them all with a befuddled look.
“Yeah. I didn’t like that guy very much. He had nasty way about him, that guy. But you,” said Ipps to Ishcandar, “well, lets have another drink!” They both took turns swigging from his flask, which regrettably was getting rather low in the brandy by then.
Ishcandar suddenly noticed that his mystic energy had been boosted by the brandy, and he smiled to himself. Once, long ago, his father had told him some fairytale about a band of Hobbits named the Mystic Drunken Masters, but he hadn’t really paid much heed to it. Now he realized what his father had been babbling about. How interesting! “Mystic Drunken Masters, eh?” he mumbled to himself smiling. No one else paid that comment any heed, except Hermel who glared at him fiercely. Oh, and Dr. Chickenhiemer, who knew the Drunken Mystic Masters all too well. But that’s a story for another day, I suppose.
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