pay me here

more options

The trio moved stealthily through the back alley warrens of the City of Thieves in the still black night. The Xo'ehn female was small for their kind. The elfling was even smaller, dark within dark eyes piercing the shadows, skin pale to the point of pink-green, a slight cloak-bound shadow among shadows. The dwarf was leading, loudly splashing in the puddles mining the way, chain armor and metal plates clinking against each other. The city itself was completely made of narrow dark alleys except for a few brightly lit thoroughfares where pickpockets were more common than muggers, but just barely.

"I'm saying, it's dumb to have an entire city of thieves. who wants that? Why would a thief want to be around a bunch of other thieves? If I were a thief-" The dwarf was talking low and walking before being cut off.

"What do you mean IF?" The elfling moved in and out of the shadows as she spoke with a quiet ease.

"Oh, right, we're thieves now." The dwarf laughed, "and here I am in the City of Thieves where the only people to steal from are other thieves."

"Seems fine to me. It's more of a redistribution of wealth, than actual thieving." the elfling said.

"Yeah, but it's not sustainable, right? it's just going to end up being the same shit being stolen back and forth. There has to be some new goods coming in or the economy stagnates." The dwarf said.

"Great Mother Goddess, please shut up." The Xo'ehn woman said, then after a pause, "Besides, it's more like, a place you go to hire a thief, not a place for thieves to live."

"Except as a home base." The elfling added.

"Also, it's a permanent thieves guilds convention." The dwarf said. "If you don't have a guild house here, you aren't a real thieves guild."

"The place we're looking for is right up there on the left." The Xo'ehn pointed up the narrow winding alley.

"The Whore's Rag?" The dwarf stopped and looked back at the Xo'ehn. "Nice."

"You want muscle for free, this is where you get it." The Xo'ehn moved past the dwarf and took the lead.

"Pure Blood Dwarf you say?" The dwarf said skeptically.

"You'll see. One of the old ones." The Xo'ehn woman wound her way through the stacks of crates and jutting buildings on either side.

"Are these walls made of clay?" The Xo'ehn rubbed her hand over the nearest wall.

"Maybe whitewash rubbed with shit for a few centuries?" The dwarf said.

She flinched away from the wall, and moved into the moonlit center of a slightly wider part of the alley. A drop of water fell from a rooftop overhang onto her head and she flinched, "I hope that's water. Let's just pretend that's water."

"Smooth walls deter climbing" Dein said "Lots of dark hidden spots around here."

"I can climb them." The elfling whispered to the dwarf.

In the midst of a moist courtyard stood The Whore's Rag, as broken down a tavern as there had ever been. The windows were boarded up, but poorly, there was no glass left except on the ground. The security at the door was just a large man leaning comatose against the front wall. A jug had fallen from his hand at some point. The liquid that leaked out had killed an entire colony of ants and possibly a mouse, something had killed it anyway. The trio entered the dark tavern and the dwarf and elfing followed the Xo'ehn towards the back of the establishment. A motley collection of vagrants, rogues and prostitutes of all sizes and types sat silently and mostly unconcious in singles and occasional pairs. Not one eye raised up towards the newcomers.

"Pure Blood Dwarf you said." The dwarf spoke quietly.

They stood in front of a booth with a single wide occupant, a tankard was resting on his belly which had pushed the table away. A large bearded head was resting on the top side of the tankard, snoring loudly. The great and long once-red beard was mostly grey now, tumbling down around his flagon and onto his armor, sleek black metal, finely wrought overlapping plates adorned with expertly carved figures. It was known that the Pure Blood Dwarves rarely if ever took off their armor, especially not for so mundane a task as sleep, or drunken stupor.

"Yes... Pure Blood Dwarf." The Xo'ehn said not exactly impressed, "Ah, he is big though?"

The elfling leaned in and touched the Pure Blood's forehead and he awoke. Sleepily he looked over the three figures before him, and half sneezed into his tankard. The trio's dwarf stepped forward and made a nervous motion with his hand, half a handshake and half a wave.

"I am Dein Deadaxe. Deathaxe. Deadaxe." The dwarf stumbled out his introduction, "And this is Sildinis, she is a, a, a-"

"Elfling, yeah, and a local makes three. So, I'm FatBelly, what not want not." The Pure Blood interrupted.

"Uh, want not?" Dein said.

"I... We are looking for some help." The Xo'ehn interrupted.

"So we got Dein Deadaxe Deathaxe Deadaxe and his stalwart Sildinis the elfling, no doubt with the witching, and you, Xo'ehn?" FatBelly said while he looked down into his empty flagon.

"Yana Khet" The Xo'ehn paused after she said this, and mouthed the beginnings of a word but then just stood still.

"Aye? That's your name?" FatBelly said his flagon forgotten.

"It means shadow in my people's language." Yana said.

"No... It really doesn't. Not exactly anyway. Hmm." FatBelly said, "Help you say?"

"Some priests stole a religious icon." Dein said as he waved for the waitress to bring more ale "and we mean to steal it back... for them."

"That's my boy, and if these priests you speak of be the Priests of Xi, You can count me among your merry band as long as I'll be crushing a few of them." FatBelly said as he held his flagon out for the waitress filling it full up.

"Priests, maybe, but for sure, there is a beast." Yana said with her arms folded firmly.

"There's always a beast, right? Ha!" FatBelly spoke with successive mouthfulls of ale between each word as he drained his cup and held it out again for a second filling.

"What do you have against the Priests of Xi?" Yana said.

"That's my business." FatBelly stood as he spoke. "But any priest in general will do... in a pinch."

FatBelly stood a full head taller than Dein, who was the more normal height for dwarves of four feet, both dwarves were as wide as they were tall. FatBelly's armor was thick but sleek and moved with him easily. It was fitted tight and close with overlapping sections seeming to bend as he moved. The designs on the stomach portion of his armor stretched grotesquely. Dein's armor was of the normal type, mostly chain with a few dented and well worn plates haphazardly added.

"Tall for a Pure Blood." Dein looked askance at FatBelly.

"I get that from my Momma's side." FatBelly picked up both Yana and Dein by their belts, one in each massive hand, spun them around then gently put them down.

"He's still shorter than Yana, he'll do." Sildinis said as she moved around FatBelly deftly.

FatBelly drained the last from his flagon and attached it to his belt as the quartet made for the exit. At the door, FatBelly removed a dingy cloak hanging on a pole and threw it on the ground. A meek "hey!" squeaked out in the shadowy booths as FatBelly picked up the cloak-rack and placed the heavy maul on his shoulder with a mean glare into the darkness. The former cloak-rack was an exquisitely crafted maul with a dull metal handle four feet in length, adorned with some animal skin wrapping of indeterminate origin. The maul's head was an immense piece of finely worked BlackRock, with smooth square sides and tapered edges.

"Is that a BlackRock maul?" Dein stared at the maul's head as he spoke. "How did they make BlackRock smooth like that? Some magic? No tool can work BlackRock, not even CreeSteel."

"Still looks like a hat rack to me." Sildinis said.

"What is this religious icon we be back-stealing?" FatBelly said.

"The Everlasting Eye of the Snake." Yana said.

"Never heard of it." FatBelly said as he pushed past the team and out into the night.

The campfire sparked and sizzled in the cool night air. The forest was thick and close, tall dark old growth trees of varying thickness rose in haphazard fashion from the broken ground with branches weighed down by heavy moss. Fireflies winked on and off randomly in the blackness unbroken by moonlight. The road was nearby, at a bridge over a clear quick stream they had found the clearing perfect for the nights rest.

"And they walked for what seemed like days, Aye! Weeks maybe." FatBelly gesticulated wildly as he continued his story, "You ever notice, the stories never talk about the endless walking. Pretty much every adventure I ever had was mostly walking. Not in the stories, though, gives a young lad the wrong impression of adventuring."

"And now I know..." Sildinis interrupted, "It's not just Dein's messed up storytelling. It's a dwarf thing apparently."

"Right, well, in the midst of all this walking, Skal BoDubh and Lin Sey stood back to back against a horde of great Orcs. And not the feeble meek ones you have around today, these were monsters, eight feet tall and a thousand pounds of muscle and thick hide, normal Xo weapons would not even penetrate them. Could crush a tree trunk in their bare hands. Monsters!" FatBelly continued, "They fought for days back to back with no rest in the deep dark ground, slicing, hacking, crushing. It was a great day. A new river of blood flowed through the underground. Entire clans of Orcs disappeared forever, felled by axe and sword. Never had greater glory been gained."

FatBelly's voice trailed off with this last, and he shifted his gaze to the campfire and leaned forward, slumping as he stuck a stick with meat attached over the flames, his face saddening.

"Did they win then? Skal BoDubh and Lin Sey?" Sildinis said into the sudden silence as she twisted a stick with meat in the fire.

"No." FatBelly grew more melancholy.

"Oh..." Sildinis looked at FatBelly, then at the ground, and continued in a cheery voice, "hey, I can do things with plants."

Sildinis pointed at a small green sprout nearby just a hands width out of the ground, and it shot up instantly growing several feet and gyrating frantically, vibrating, twisting, then growing leafy limbs impossibly fast. The man shaped leaf creature then gyrated haltingly and moved across the ground around its stem. Sildinis danced in place along with it watching it in joy and FatBelly leaned forward intently.

"Very nice. Excellent control." FatBelly said, his melancholy forgotten, "What can you do with the other... with the dead?"

"That's offensive" Yana interrupted.

"Why's that offensive?" FatBelly said.

"You just assume she is a necromancer because she has the eyes." Yana said.

"The eyes mark the compact with the dead. Of course she has the blackwills." FatBelly said, then looked at Sildinis and continued, "Don't let anyone tell you it's bad. It's a gift. Now come on lassie, show us something amazing!"

Sildinis looked down with a devilish grin, then smiled broadly and moved her hands, palms down over the ground, and crouched low. Spider-walking around the campfire weaving her hands through the air, back and forth, she stopped with both hands hovering over one spot and closed her eyes. The earth began to tremble, then shake. Tiny pebbles broke loose from the soil as the ground pushed up in place under her palms. The ground pulsated and a small dome rose up like a small volcano erupting, then a white sharp form burst forth. The skeleton jumped around on bones barely connected like a newborn milkcalf finding its legs. It was a bird or flying reptile, some flesh still hung loosely from the frame but not enough to tell. Fluidly, gracefully, the tiny skeleton began a dance, spinning and stretching, it lept in the air on fine bone wings with such beauty that the observers could imagine the gossamer skin that once stretched on the wind had returned intact and invisible. Yana and Dein turned away flashing each other a disapproving glance. The creature mouthed its beak without sound, spun and lept, attacking ghost insects, rolled on the ground and launched iteslf once more into the air. Flapping bone wings in vain, it fell to the fresh soil once again.

FatBelly's eyes were alight. Smiling and full of mirth he rested his hands on his belly and watched the tiny creatures performance enraptured, leaning in ever closer. Just then, the creature rolled and lept and sprung off FatBelly's knee and gained enough height to snip his nose. Drawing back quickly and slapping his belly in joy, FatBelly stumbled back laughing until he fell completely on his back. The ground trembled a bit when his bulk hit, and the skeleton dropped in place a dead and fully lifeless thing once again.

"Oh, lassie, you did indeed provide the amazement! Good on you lady Sildinis." FatBelly said as he lifted his own great bulk off the ground.

"It's abomination." Yana said darkly.

"Tis not." FatBelly said, matter of factly.

"The soul is dragged back into the form, without consent and almost certainly in pain and horror." Yana said.

"I've lived a hundred of your lifetimes and I've seen nary evidence there's anything better after the here-n-now." FatBelly lifted his bulk onto one knee as he continued, "I'd say it be better to be back and whatever pain that happens' just part of life. One thing I'm sure, life's better than death."

"No one has the right to make that decision for another." Yana continued her pointed debate.

"The Pact of the BlackWills is the right." Sildinis said low and darkly.

"Aye, the Pact of the BlackWills be the right. Lady Sildinis, when I'm gone, you have permission to raise me up and make me dance anytime you want. Now, excuse me, I'm taking the pipe snake a-mining." FatBelly said as he rose and stumbled slowly into the forest.

The loud dwarf noises went on in the still of the forest for some time, then there was only the distant hum of nightborn insects and the occasional screech of some predator's hapless victim. In the silence the trio traded glances of alternating curiousity, mirth and concern. Finally there came a cursing from the direction FatBelly had taken and a bit more loud metal dwarf noises, then more stillness.

"Do you think he meant number one or number two?" Sildinis said finally.

"That's a path best left untraveled." Dein responded quietly.

Yana lay down amongst her pack, yawning. She watched the fire as the bright flame burned down to quiet embers.

"We should be in the Temple Valley by mid-day." Yana closed her eyes to sleep as she finished.

"Aye, we should get some sleep." Dein added, whilst laying down as well.

"Aye?... You just said 'aye'" Sildinis said smiling.

"I always say 'aye'" Dein countered.

"No you don't, at least you never did before." Sildinis smirked.

"Go to sleep." Dein closed his eyes as he finished.

Next Week: The Heist! The Beast! Some Priests!

The Temple Valley lay before them, ringed by nearly vertical rising cliffs on all sides except the narrow valley entrance to the west and an even narrower stream to the east, cut over eons, that led to the sea. A high plateau rose on three sides of the Valley, falling away to a thin band of low mountains that trailed off to the west and north to an open plain. The plateau stretched south far into the distance and east for a mile until falling precipitously off into the sea. Temple River cut across the northern plains, a long and winding course, and entered the Temple Valley. Its course was diverted by great clay and stone works, vanishing completely from sight until rising again on the eastern edge of the valley. There it cut a channel no more than ten feet wide at any point through the sheer limestone walls of the plateau that rose high above. The Cut Channel wound a snake-like course through the stone until opening onto the sea a mile from the Temple Valley.

"See those wide stone bunkers that all radiate inward towards the Temple?" Yana was pointing down into the valley below.

The Temple rose in the center of a spiderweb of stone channels rising above the Valley, immense. A ring of low buildings gave way to taller structures, then a ring of gardens green and lush before the Temple proper rose quickly into the sky. It was curvey and bulbous like the flesh of a fattened sea creature weighted down without the sea's pressure to keep its form. It's skin was made of some metallic material that reflected the faintest light in spectrums of rainbows across its surface. The buildings in contrast were square with sharp edges and little adornment, all made of heated bricks the same color as the valley floor, built with expediency and left that way.

"Those channels split the Temple River into a myriad of underground works that can be controlled and distributed. It's a marvel, really." Yana continued.

"Not all those channels carry water, some are flowing out, and that ain't a pretty smell." Dein said frowning.

"And those are the ones we need to use." Yana said disappointingly. "The fresh water channels flow to fast."

"We could have brought a boat." Dein said still frowning.

"There are grates and spikes to deter that very notion." Yana replied.

"There aren't grates in the outbound tunnels?" Sildinis said.

"There would be problems with... solids." Yana said, also frowning now.

"I hae done worse for less, let's be on with it." FatBelly said cheerfully.

The trio followed FatBelly down an animal path, across a swamp of thick excrement and into the brown-pink brickwork tunnel. The sides of the tunnel had shelves for walking access that while mostly clear, the curved vault of the tunnel ceiling allowed only four of five feet of head space on the walkways. The river of nightsoil flowed slowly, horribly, along in the center. Thick solids built small islands on the edges that occasionally floated up onto the walkway.

"So the low ceiling be the reason for a short crew?" Fatbelly said in between stunted breaths.

"Well, that and there is a gas that can kill that rises ontop of the air." Yana said.

"Is that right? In city sewers you need to stay high to not pass out." Sildinis said.

"It rises ontop of the air." Yana said again matter-of-factly.

"I don't think that's right. FatBelly, can I ride on your back? I don't weigh much." Sildinis said as she wrinkled her nose.

"Sure, wee lass, hop on board." FatBelly said jovially.

Sildinis deftly climbed up and latched on tight. Her head now near the curved ceiling she breathed deeply.

"Sorry I don't hae any harness or what." FatBelly continued.

"Don't need any. Elflings of my tribe can cling to almost anything, asleep even." Sildinis said plainly breathing easier.

"And... walking... yet again... more walking..." FatBelly said as they continued on their way.

After some time Dein spoke, "I think Sil's right about the gas. Bit Whoozy... shouldn't we be under the gardens by now?"

"It rises onfrop of the door." Yana said blurredly.

"You said onfrop" Sildinis laughed.

"Didn't" Yana said a bit clearer.

"Definitely it's low." Dein said definitively.

"It rides on... top... of the air." Yana said slowly and firm.

"You said 'rides' not 'rises', it was always 'rises' before." Sildinis said quickly.

"Didn't" Yana said.

"Look! The priest said it rises ontop of the air. That's waht he said." Yana sputtered.

"You said 'waht'." Silidinis continued her needling.

"And back to 'rises'." Dein joined in the attack chuckling.

"FatBelly, do you want to get in on this 'onfrop of the air' thing or waht?" Silidinis quipped.

"Low, or high? No idea, why not ask him?" FatBelly said pointing across to the other side of the sewer tunnel.

A man in a fine blue tunic stood hidden in the shadows clutching both arms tightly to his chest. When FatBelly pointed at him, he squeaked very lowly. FatBelly's party members all shouted a "What the..." simultaneously. Dein drew his axe quickly, its edge glowed slightly in the green fumes.

"Please don't kill me. I'm not a priest or anything." The frightened man seemed to try and shrink yet more into the shadows.

"Don't run, laddie, or I will hae to kill you." FatBelly said as he lifted a small throwing axe from his belt.

Sildinis looked at FatBelly, then over at the stranger and furrowed her brow. A dozen roots burst from the wall quickly and grabbed his arms and legs, pulling him against the wall and causing his arms to straightened. A large gold tray fell from under his tunic and made a loud splashing metal plopping sound at his feet.

"Raise your hands!" Yana said too late as the roots grabbed the stranger.

"Well done, lassie, now stranger, who be you, and what brings you here?" FatBelly said putting his axe back in his belt.

"I'm Jimi, I was an acolyte." Jimi started to say more but stopped, then abruptly blurted out, "I mean, not by choice. My village sold me to these priests. They did things to me. bad things. Anyway, I saw my chance and took it. That plate can feed my whole village for the winter. They woulnd't have to sell the children."

"Everybody's got a sob story." Dein said.

"Either way, what do we care?" Sildinis continued, "as long as he doesn't raise the alarm."

"No! I wouldn't. Why would I? I stole this plate!" The stranger argued for his life.

"He'll have to follow us to the pit, after that it won't matter." Yana said sleepily.

"No problem. totally on board! there's a bridge across a little bit back there." Jimi said.

He bent over to pick up the shit-covered plate, breaking the roots holding him to the wall. Cleaning it off on his tunic as he walked back towards the Temple. The quartet on the other side shadowed him.

"Why are you so accomodating?" Dein said after a time, looking suspicious at Jimi.

"I don't want to die?" Jimi raised his pitch at the end making it a sentence.

"Seems a bit too easy." Dein said suspiciously, then continued after a short pause "and you keep smiling like that. It's off-putting."

"I have anxiety. The smilings something that happens, I can't stop it. I can't help it. Besides, you said you'd let me live."

"you can't believe every ne'er-do-well ye meet in the sewers laddie." FatBelly said.

Sildinis looked at FatBelly and smirked, causing FatBelly to hastily add, "I mean we woe not be killing you, for sure, but others might. Be wary is all I mean. Don't worry about us though. But be wary."

"Just let it go, it got too weird a few sentences ago." Sildinis said and laughed.

"We should be quiet now, the beasts lair is right up here." Yana interrupted.

"Finally, the beast." Dein sighed. "Feels like this whole caper has been nothing but chatter."

"Aye, chatter...and walking." FatBelly added peering ahead into the darkness.

The group moved up slowly and silently. As they approached a curve from which light poured, Jimi dropped back slowly, unobtrusively, until he was passing Dein to bring up the rear. Dein stopped and watched as Jimi sidled by him, then picked him up by his belt and pushed him in front. Jimi smiled nervously. Yana was in front looking up a large smooth chute that emptied into the sewer tunnel. It curved slightly so the light streaming down revealed a circular opening with a grate across it. Yana strained around to look beyond the grate.

"Jimi, have you ever seen the beast?" yana said as she stared up the chute.

"No, I never seen it, but I heard it, horrible, and there's the people it eats." Jimi said.

FatBelly moved past the rest of the group and started up the chute, it was of large enough diameter he could stand in the center. The slippery footing caused a few slides and slips but he made his way up to the grate. The others followed, except Jimi.

"I go in, you follow a few steps behind and scurry by, I wait for you to be clear and follow, sound good?" FatBelly said.

"Where's Jimi?" Dein looked back down the chute as he spoke.

"Here I am!" Jimi said excited and scared from the bottom of the chute, "can I go now? Please?"

"Aye you go on home now Jimi, and good travels be with you." FatBelly called down.

Dein and Yana both gave FatBelly a sour look, then turned back to the grate. The grate was loose from it's hinges and unlocked. FatBelly pushed the grate open and started out.

"What?" FatBelly said as stepped a foot onto the sand covered floor.

"We'll be moving fast now anyway, speed is of the essence." Yana said excitedly.

FatBelly moved into the center of the circular space. It was all alight and beige, beige sand, beige brick walls, slightly browner beige frames around circular grates. The grates were along the walls, spaced evenly, close to five feet in diameter. The walls went up over the grate openings with square spaces cut out on each level. Some levels had balconies overhanging and some were just wall openings with rooms beyond. The ceiling was a small dot far above them. A pile of bones and skulls was against the wall, in one spot only, as if some giant creature had backed up and excreted them.

The others came out when FatBelly was in the center and waved them forward. They scuttled forward quickly and slowed when they got close to FatBelly.

"I hope you don't think less of me, but in these cases they always SAY there's a beast, but there never actually is one." FatBelly said as the rest of the team came to a stop in front of him. "I should've said it at the Rag, but it seemed like a wopping great adventure, so I..." FatBelly trailed off, confused at the eyes of his teammates getting larger as he spoke.

"There's a beast right behind me isn't there?" FatBelly rolled his eyes as he spoke.

The beast loomed up behind FatBelly to a height of twenty feet, a giant cat body, giant claws protruded from its paws. It's head was somewhat reptillian, with a great mane of thick fleshy tentacles that writhed purposefully. At once, Yana yelled "Run!", Sildinis was already several steps beyond, Yana and Dein followed, and the beast slammed a great sharp paw into FatBelly that threw him across the arena-like space into the brick wall. A dwarf sized impression remained in the wall as FatBelly fell to the ground. A loud boom shook the structure and dust fell from the heights above.

The beast chased after FatBelly, and as soon as he stood up, the beast slammed into him, once again slamming him into the wall and shaking the Temple foundations. Lifting its wide thick head and shaking the brick dust off, the beast turned towards the others, screeched and ran towards them. Sildinis was still in the lead, turning her head, she let a hiss escape between her clenched lips. Roots and vines sprung from the ground, momentarily tripping up the great beast bearing down on them.

"No, this one!" Yana yelled as she changed directions to a different grate opening.

Yana was in the lead now, with Sildinis close on her heels and Dein after them. The beast crunched through the growing writhing mass of plant material quickly catching up. The grate swung open and fell heavily to the arena floor, its hinges broken and rusted beyond the point of bearing weight.

"Oh great." Siildinis said as she lept through the opening after Yana and lifted her hands.

Roots grew in place of the grate just after Dein rolled through the opening and came up on his feet, facing the arena with his axe out in defensive position just behind Sildinis. The beast bore down on the opening screeching, tearing the ground with its massive claws as it ran. The mouth of the beast with triple rows of small sharp teeth grew to fill the entire view from the grate opeing, its forked tongue stretched out through the roots and Sildinis slinked backwards between Deins legs.

"Alright ya wee kitten. Don't be bothering my pals, lets you an me play some more!" FatBelly had a hold of the beasts long thin tail and was reeling him backwards laughing heartily.

When he had the tail at the base, FatBelly spun the great creature in a wide arc, claws digging through the sand and roots, and threw the beast at the wall with a crash. FatBelly bellowed and cartwheeled after it.

"How is he not smashed flat?" Sildinis said confused, staring at FatBelly leap into the beast slamming into the wall with another foundation rattling thud.

"Pure Blood Dwarf." Dein said also staring.

"Can we go, time is of the essence!" Yana broke their attention back to the task.

The trio ran up the chute to another smaller grate that looked into a small room with smoother brick walls and a granite floor. Three guards were in the room on either side of a door, with the third man across the room at a different door. Yana sat back and folded her arms, closed her eyes and screwed her face up. The guards dropped to the ground in quiet neat piles.

"Nice." Dein said low as he pushed the grate off its moorings and entered the room.

The room was empty except for the piles of men and the two doors. Fine stonework floors stretched to similar stone walls that rose up to a flat ceiling ten feet above them. Sildinis moved to one of the doors and concentrated, moving her delicate hands over the metal plate that hid the locking mechanism.

"it's complicated... very complicated..." She smiled, eyes closed, and screwed her face in concentration, then smiled more when an almost inaudible click emanted from the mechanism, "Not complicated enough though."

"You really can move iron?" Yana said amazed.

"I told you a hundred times." Sildinis said in reply. "What would you have done if I couldn't open it?"

"Dein's axe was the backup plan, if not that maybe the Pure Blood could smash it." Yana said and added with a smile, "You never cease to amaze though Lady Sil."

The door slid open easily with a light push from Sildinis, beyond was a corridor with a low ceiling twenty feet long ending in another more ornate door. The same smooth stonework covered the floors and walls, with no adornment anywhere but the door itself. Light streamed from above, diffuse and vague, barely illuminating the empty interior, but enough for Dein and Sil. Yana began to move forward peering into the dim shadows.

"Wait... traps." Sildinis held out her hand to stop Yana as she warned.

Next Week: The EverLasting Eye of the Snake, Free Ale, and Pickled Treats! Did I mention Free Ale?

The beast slammed itself backward into the wall and the Temple walls shook once again. FatBelly clung to its back despite the force, gripping his maul around the great beasts neck and smiling. Faces looking down from windows and balconies cheered and shouted.

The beast leaned and wobbled from its own blow, stepping forward a few steps, and shaking its huge head. FatBelly leaned and stretched the beast over backwards then flipped it across the arena into the wall. Hopping left and right holding his great maul in one hand and waving the beast on with his other, FatBelly waited for the beast to get up and shake the the dust off before running at him again.

Running at full speed it tore a path straight at FatBelly, who waited and at the last instant ducked low and rolled spinning his maul in a low circle and taking out the beasts back legs as it stretched out to strike him. The beast fell flat, FatBelly rolled on the ground, then jumped onto his back once again grabbing both hands on his maul across the neck of the beast, stretching the beast up to his full height and bending it backward. The beast flipped onto his back with FatBelly flat footed on the ground around its neck. FatBelly dragged the beast backwards, whispering int its ears.

"Gotcha again wee kitten, Ho!" FatBelly laughed.

"You can see the traps?" Yana stepped back into the room.

"No. But they are there." Sildinis glared down the corridor barely lit.

Sildinis furrowed her brow, the floor of the corridor began to shake. She clenched her fists and closed her eyes, and the stones of the floor began to spread and move, existing cracks widening. Darts two feet long shot out from both sides htting the stone on the opposite wall leaving green acid burning through the stone where they hit. Her face serene, breathing slowing, Sildinis put her hands down on the stone floor where she crouched. Roots begain to push through the cracks in the floor and moved up the walls slowly. Blocks fell from the ceiling crashing into the floor, smashing plant material at first, but the slow onslaught of roots and vines moved over each block unstoppable. Finally a loud click sounded and Sildinis opened her eyes. Yana smiled down at her, but then frowned and looked up as the door at the opposite end of the corridor slid open and a large armored orc stepped through howling.

"Orcs!" Yana yelled and stepped back into the room of three piles.

"That's why ye brought me. Step aside." Dein said as he lifted his axe up and stepped towards the door.

Dein's axe glowed red as sildinis held her hands over it. The CreeSteel edge pulling energy from the air as Sildinis, now behind Dein, continued to move her hands in the air around the axe-edge. Dein dropped the head of the axe to the ground and it flared bright white hot and the air sizzled the second it touched the stone. Dein looked at Sildinis in surprise who returned the same look and shrugged.

"Lots of power here." Sildinis said.

The orc stepped into the room, filling the space to the ceiling. Dein stepped back a half-step letting his axe drag backwards on the floor leaving a burning black mark, then pivoted on his left foot, wide in a full circle bringing his great axe around quickly in a fiery bright arc that cleaved off the orcs leg neatly above the knee. Continuing his spin but pivoting on his right this time, Dein brought his axe straight up in the middle of the arc and cleaved the orc completely in two vertically. The heat cauterized the flesh as it passed, leaving three new neat piles on the floor. Dein kept spinning and when facing down the hall lifted his great axe behind him and threw it down the hall. The long handle caused a strange oblong spinning action, but the axehead hit its mark on the head of a second orc halfway down the hall anyway. This orc's head split down to its chest and the axe continued spinning oddly down the corridor until slamming edge first into the stone door at the end, now closed. The door cracked and tilted slightly in its frame.

"Aye, Ho!" yelled Dein as he ran down the corridor after his axe, deftly leaping the orc body.

Sildinis smiled and chased after him. A large block of stone fell from the ceiling, narrowly missing Dein as his charge set off one last trap. Dein grabbed his axehandle as he hit the door with his shoulder hard. Sildinis lept onto the last fallen block and clenched her fists tight. At the instant Dein's shoulder hit the door, she flooded the axe with power and it burned white hot in an instant. The stone door exploded inward and the dwarf fell through and hit the ground rolling, coming up with his axe already spinning in a wide arc. Dein pivoted on his left, with his axe trailing his eyes he scanned the room, and at about two hundred seventy degrees his axe came up and down on a third orc. The orc was cross-legged on the ground with no armor and noticeably smaller than his comrades.

"Wait! I'm on a break!" The orc squealed as Dein's axe came down hot onto the orc's shoulder slicing straight through to the floor.

"Asshole..." The orc gurgled as he fell over.

"What was that?" Sildinis said as she slid over the rubble behind Dein.

"It happened so fast, I didn't mean too really. Just a follow through." Dein stumbled over his words.

"He doesn't even have a sword or anything." Sildinis said, then looking down on the body continued "He's pretty small for an orc, is he a half-orc?"

"If he had Xo'ehn blood I could have put him to sleep." Yana said as she strolled into the room.

"Look, I'm sorry, it was in the rush of combat, I mean it happened too fast." Dein said cleaning his axe.

"He was kneeling by the fireplace, eating soup." Sildinis noted the bowl at the half-orc's feet.

This room was the same size as its opposite beyond the corridor, but had a fireplace with cooking utensils and pots, and a round wood table with two chairs and a cot, half-orc sized. A low fire burned in the fireplace and a pot was simmering. A door was on the west wall.

"I feel bad about it, the first part went so smooth..." Dein said.

"Oh well, got to break a few eggs I guess." Sildinis said matter-of-factly and turned towards Yana.

"Lady Sil, one last door, I think." Yana said as she inspected the door.

Sildinis moved to the door and with a click the door swung open.

"It's not even locked." Sildinis said as she looked into the room beyond.

A light from above shown down onto a small altar in the center of the small room. Ornate thick hanging crimson tapestries covered every inch of the walls. The floor was covered in pure white extemely fine dust-like sand. On the altar, three ruby snake statues wound in a spiral with a large eyeball displayed in their mouths.

"Traps?" Yana asked Sildinis.

Sildinis crouched low and moved carefully and gracefully into the small room, clinging to the wall she moved to the right, the fine sand kicking up as her feet slid along the smooth stone floor underneath. The fine dust lingered in the air like a cloud, it formed tendrils in the air each undulating along its own path towards the altar. Wrapping around the pedestal and moving up to the ruby serpents and then floating into the air like ghost snakes swimming towards the stars. Sildinis stood and watched eyes wide in amazement until the smoke snakes climbed out of sight. She then began to move in a circle towards the center altar, but moving slightly slower and with a ease and grace that tricked the eyes of the onlookers. Not a grain of sand-dust moved as she moved over the floor again. She made her way slowly to the altar and stood over the eyeball for a second with her hands raised then snatched it off the ruby statues and tossed it behind her towards Yana.

"No!" Yana said low as she lept into the room, eyes concentrated on the eye floating through the air towards her but clearly going to fall short.

the eye and Yana moved towards each other, as Sildinis spun around to watch. Yana hit the floor first and the air was instantly full of haze and spinning ghost serpents. Her hands were outstretched in optimistic hope, and the eye fell into her outstretched palms. Sildinis laughed and jumped onto the floor opposite Yana, who was lying prone on the ground holding the eyeball carefully in both hands still, frozen in awe. Ghost clouds filled the hazy room, coalescing into cloudy snake forms, spinning and shaking through the air. Sildinis danced, her lithe form moving through them, the dust snakes clinging to her skin and up her outreaching hands until they joined their companions all swimming towards the light above.

"Time is of the essence, Lady Sil, please?" Yana said as she got up and moved into the cookery room, shaking off the fine dust that had settled on her clothes.

"Oh, all right." Sildinis said woefully, as she skipped through the remaining sand-dust towards the door.

The trio broke into a full run back through the corridor and small room, and down the chute. They stopped at the vine-bound grate to the arena where FatBelly still wrestled the beast. FatBelly hopped left, then right holding his maul in one hand lightly. The Beast charged and missed as FatBelly spun fast and slid right, then spun and smashed his shoulder into the beast, tossing the beast into the arena wall with a thud, followed by loud applause from the balconies above. FatBelly raised his hands and smiled to the crowd above and bowed as the beast regained its feet.

"How strong are these-" Dein said as he grabbed the vine bars in his hands which immediately disintegrated with a dead crunching sound.

"It's more of a confidence trick... works alot though." Sildinis said starring at the fight in the arena.

"I hate to harp on about this but-" Yana started to say with both Dein and Sil saying in unison with her as she continued, "Time is of the essence."

Dein broke through the vine grate, and sprinted towards the center where FatBelly stood awaiting the beasts next attack. Yana and Sildinis quickly passed him up and made for a different grate. The beast was charging in an opportune direction at an opportune moment and FatBelly deftly side-step-hopped ten feet to his left and the beast tripped over his feet trying to stop and rolled head over tail past FatBelly as the team ran past. FatBelly laughed heartily, shook his head and ran after the trio to the metal grate. Dein got to the grate with Sil and Yana off to the side, he tugged at the thick metal bars, but they held firm. As FatBelly arrived, Dein had his axe out and had stepped to the hinge side of the grate and Sil was heating up the axehead. With a powerful overhand slice, Dein cleanly cut through both heavy steel hinges and FatBelly ripped the grate off the wall and turned quickly, just in time to catch the beast in a full-on charge at the team with a loud clang. The beast's charge drove FatBelly backwards, his feet dragging sand. The crowd's yells started to turn to jeers as they realized an escape was imminent. Sil, Yana, and Dein in turn jumped into the chute, followed by FatBelly stepping backwards into the opening, keeping the beast at bay with the grate like a shield. The beasts tongue slashed out of its mouth and slathered FatBelly's face with blackish slime. FatBelly chuckled and muttered a low, "ahh..."

The team ran down the twisting chute, light began to dwindle away to darkness behind them, and after a few moments of running in the dark, a vague glow shown ahead of them. The tunnel made a sharp turn at the end, and opened into a larger tunnel filled with a raging river rushing by a stonework landing. Several boats were tied up, banging against the stone dock in the rush of the water. On the dock, a number of baskets and boxes and heaps of ropes were piled neatly against the rough granite walls.

"Take the rope, FatBelly take the first boat, we'll take the second." Yana said as she untied the second boat.

"Now much?" Sil said as she picked up a large bundle of rope.

"All of it." Yana replied.

Soon they were tearing down the tunnel with FatBelly's boat slightly ahead of the others. The tunnel was made of pinkish-beige bricks finely placed. Strange outcroppings from the ceiling, floor and walls jutted into the stream, some made of bricks some of smooth well-worked granite. Light shone down from occasional small square structures on the ceiling.

"Are those gems? Diamonds?" Sil looked at the structure shining light in all directions from the ceiling.

"Glass." Yana said matter-of-factly and concentrating on holding onto the sides of the small boat as it jerked violently in the flow.

"Beautiful." Sil said transfixed at first by one of the square lights, then the next, each slightly different in form and color.

Sil stood on the sides of the boat as it rocked violently and hit waves bobbing the front and back of the boat, through it all Sil stood easy and carefree. Dein looked green and sat as low as he could. FatBelly in his boat was crouched staring forward.

"I see a grate ahead!" FatBelly yelled back, concerned.

"There's a rope, on the right side, cut that and the gate will rise." Yana yelled at FatBelly, then continued "If you touch the grate you will die."

"I only have three of these!" FatBelly said as he drew a small throwing axe from his belt.

"There are only three gates, X'tlal provides always." Yana said low.

"What?" FatyBelly bellowed from the front boat, carefully aiming his axe, "I'm better right up close."

"She said there are only three gates!" Dein yelled at FatBelly. "Give me your axes, I can do it."

FatBelly looked back at Dein with a sneer and a wink, then turned quickly and threw the axe seemingly without aiming. The axe tumbled in the air and everyone in the second boat watched as it looped in the air slowly. Sil had moved so that both feet were now on just one edge of the boat and as the boat bobbed and torqed, her legs moved easy with the boat like soft springs. FatBelly looked forward gripping the sides of his boat getting ready to collide with the death-grate. The axe hit its mark, the rope whipped away into the ceiling and the death-grate flew up into its channel just as FatBelly's boat passed through.

"If you'd said something, I could have brought extra." FatBelly said angrily through his teeth.

"X'tlal provides always." Yana repeated.

The boats turned a curve, grinding the boats on the brickwork side. FatBelly crouched low, with another throwing axe ready. As FatBelly let the axe go, Sil jumped from her boat after it. The Axe spun in the air, and Sil hit the top of her arc and fell towards the water. A large reed-like plant shot up from the water underneath Sil, on top of which she alighted for just a split second, then lept again. She twisted towards the rope, watching as the axe missed its mark and clanged against the brickwork wall. Sil caught the falling axe, spun and hit her feet against the wall just to the left of the rope. She struck the axe onto the rope, which whipped into the ceiling as she pushed herself from the wall, and with the help of another reed springing from the river, she hopped back to her boat.

"Now you've got a spare." She said to Dein as she handed the axe to him.

The boats made their way down the underground tunnel river, twisting into a section devoid of the light emitting glass. The boats slammed first against port then starboard as the tunnel twisted in the unsettling darkness. Among the crashing wood sounds and gnashing river, Sil let out a joyful cackle. Then the boats smashed one last time against the bricks and flushed into another area covered in the glow of the glass lights. The tunnel now was a straight line to a not so distant circle of light, and one last death-grate. FatBelly threw his axe instantly once the light showed the grate mechanism, the second he let go he realized his mistake.

"It's a chain!" FatBelly screamed to the boat behind him as his throwing axe hit the chain with a spark and fell into the river.

Dein stood up and took out his great axe. He looked balefully at Sil as she heated it from her perch on the side of the boat. FatBelly stood in his boat and put his foot on the back of the boat. His maul in one hand, he looked over his shoulder as his boat careened towards the death-grate.

"Don't worry, I can get it back!" Sil said as Dein's axe heated up white hot.

"It's heavier, heavier than you, and almost as long." Dein said pessimistically.

"Don't worry, I can do it." Sil reassured him.

The front of FatBelly's boat hit the death-grate, and its wood begain flying off in small pieces as if a million tiny knives where chipping it away at lightning speed. FatBelly put a foot on the back of the boat as it sank and stretched his other foot out to the second boat's prow. Dein threw his axe, and Sil jumped right after it. The axe spun a circle of white light and steam as it flew through the humid air. Sil lept twice onto shooting reeds behind the axe, giving it more power as it flew. The chain shattered the second the axe hit it, flying up into the ceiling like the ropes. The axe hit the brickwork behind and cut deep with a hissing sound. Sil followed and grabbed the handle as she spun and her feet hit the wall. The axe came free easily and she pushed with all her might, and a row of reeds shot up to meet her, making a path to the remaining boat. FatBelly had made a long step from his broken boat onto the good one. It sank deep into the river, but not enough to capsize. Dein was eyeing Sil's progress with hopeful worry, paying attention to nothing else. Sil tried to leap off the first reed, but the axe being too heavy, she only begain to fall off, awkwardly jumping to the next reed, which bowed quickly. The axe in her hands dragged her arms down, losing her balance, she tossed the axe towards the boat. With the weight gone, Sil quickly righted herself and hopped along the reeds towards the boat. The axe fell short and splashed into the river with a hiss.

"Noooo!" Dein shouted in fear and panic as he leaned far out of the boat for his axe.

Sil sprung one last time and landed on the edge of the boat. FatBelly leaned over opposite of Dein to keep the boat from capsizing, and Dein leaned out and into the water into the splash the axe made as it disappeared into the river.

"Ha! I have it!" Dein said excitedly as he lifted his axe from the river and righted himself in the boat.

The boat passed through the last gate and into the River Cut. The canyon was less than ten feet wide at its widest with high rocky cliffs on either side sixty feet high. The sun was high in the sky and shone straight down into the thin canyon. They made their way down the river, with Dein and FatBelly pushing the boat from the sides of the canyon to avoid smashing the boat to pieces.

"There's another problem." Yana said.

"Uh-huh." Dein said shaking his head.

"This river falls off into the sea in less than a mile. We have to stop the boat and climb the cliff, or be dashed to bits against the rocks below." Yana continued.

"How do we stop a boat in this?" Sildinis said.

"My axe and some elbow grease." Dein said, holding his axe out for Sil to fire up.

"Wait until near the end. There is a rock, Sil can climb up and tie the rope to it." Yana said.

"Right." Dein said looking disappointingly at Sil.

"Right." Sil gave Dein the same look back, shaking her head.

The drop off came up quickly, and Dein dug his axe white hot into the cliffside. FatBelly pushed the opposite wall with his maul. The uneven surface of the cliff wall knocked his maul off several times, and FatBelly pulled it back and pushed again each time. Dein dug his axe in, with smoke and spitting pebbles off, a deep rut drove into the cliff wall as the boat finally came to a stop.

"It worked!" Yana said suprised.

"You sound surprised." Sildinis said.

"X'tlal provides always!" Yana said happily.

Sil jumped onto the cliff wall and quickly made her way up dragging one end of the rope. Yana hurredly tied the rope to the next bundle, and then the next as Sil made her way up.

"Where are you going?" Dein said as FatBelly stepped off the boat, grabbing the cliff wall and holding.

"I been as deep as deep goes, laddie. You don't get that deep if ye can't climb rock." FatBelly said as he slowly made his way up the cliff wall.

Before he reached halfway, the rope grew taut and Sil shouted down to the team members in the boat. Yana took the rope and climbed up, narrowly beating FatBelly to the top. FatBelly took hold of the rope and begain to pull Dein up, once he had pulled his axe from the cliff. The boat continued on its journey over the edge and crashed into pieces on the rocks below.

"Well, we made it." Sil said with a sigh.

"Next time a wee bit a heads-up would be nice about the throwing axes." FatBelly added.

"X'tlal provides always." Yana repeated.

"So... now... back to Knobroot?" Dein said.

"Main South Road is just south-west of here... I think." Yana said, unfolding a map from her belt-pouch.

"The priests?" Sil said.

"It will take them a day to get here, they have to go around the cliffs." Yana said, intently eyeing the map.

"Back to walking, eh? right then!" FatBelly said jovially.

A few hours travel brought darkness and the gang made camp. The wide plain was devoid of anything but waist high grasses as far as the eye could see. Lone trees and small stands around ponds and along streams and rivers broke the bleakness occasionally. Under one such lone tree they made respite for the night.

"Great job with that beast FatBelly... first couple of hits looked like it was going to smash you flat." Sildinis said as the campfire flared alive finally.

"Thanks Lady Sil, a Kraga beast with feet, wonders aloud." FatBelly said in reply.

"Kraga beast?" Yana queried.

"It was like a lion with a lizard head?" Sildinis offered.

"Ah, no. Yah I mean this one had feet like a cat, but Kraga beasts're like long worms, they live in Y'her trees. In every one's a beast. Y'her trees only grow in the wide open plains, so when creatures seek shelter from sun or rain, the Kraga come out and eat them." FatBelly said, leaning his face into the campfire's light.

"You mean Tesswood? There are no real Tesswood monsters." Yana said, then continued, "Just fables meant to frighten children."

"Tesswood Monster sounds stupid, so we call them Kraga Beasts, got a flare to it, right? Mean sounding. Tesswood monster sounds like a straw-stuffed playtoy.... but a Kraga Beast....KRAGA BEAST...AWWWW" FatBelly gave his meanest try at sounding frightening but only elicited a giggle from Sil.

"Tis true, the Kraga beasts're mostly gone now, maybe all gone." FatBelly continued, "but they were real as I. Many times more horrible than that wee kitten. Huge heads, rows of sharp teeth, but behind their tentacles was just a snakes body that never ended, pull and pull and pull, I never saw the end of one, not ever."

"If ye want to sleep beneath the Y'her tree best kill the beast within first." Dein said, "My mother always told me that before bedtime."

"Not that you'd not want to anyway, Kraga beasts are delicious." continued FatBelly after a pause, then he licked his lips and continued again, "And their eyeballs, were the best. I knew a cook in Gate whose pickled kraga eyeballs were the best thing ye could ever eat."

FatBelly leaned into the fire and stoked a log with his armored foot and looked wistfully into the flames.

"Me, Ronat the Red, Breht BoDubh and Mari BloodEater once went a gabhanrhidin down in the deeps, spent a month, eating nothing but orcmeat and a giant pack of pickled Kraga eyballs I'd brought from Gate, and Ronat carried the keg-o-ale." FatBelly's eyes went distant as he spoke, "Good times.... good times."

FatBelly leaned back and was soon snoring, Dein, Sil and Yana traded off watch as FatBelly slept soundly through the night. A cacophony of crickets and hoppers and a sweetloo's love song droned away the sound of the breezes through the tall grass. The moon rose full and bright, then sank quickly into the ground as the sun rose in the east to greet them. A half-day later they crossed Main South Road, and before long came up on a caravan heading south just as they were making camp.

"A large enough caravan will hae a beer tent for sure." FatBelly licked his lips.

"And there is the flag of my sisters." Yana said pointing at a pennant in the distance with a large white flag with a single orange and yellow serpent undulating on it.

"Hey, What's this Everlasting Eye of the Snake. Be it a scryer or what?" FatBelly said.

"No, its the eye of X'tlal's consort, whom she killed to free the world of tyranny. It cannot waste or rot for it is a god's eye." Yana said, bringing forth the Everlasting Eye of the Snake from her felt-lined leather pouch.

"Oh!" Exclaimed FatBelly.

Yanking the eyeball from the palms of Yana, FatBelly threw the entire fist sized eye into his mouth, trailing nerve and all, and sucked in the last of the nerve like a bit of pasta, then chewed slowly, savoring the eyeball. Sil and Dein stood silent and shocked, unspeaking. Yana was frozen, panic and fear and horror etched across her face, her hands trembling but still held in front of her as if she was hoping the eyeball would return to her.

"Mmmmmmm-mmmmmm, hmmm." FatBelly moved his jaws side to side to crush the eyeball rather than bite into it, and closed his eyes in rapture, finally swallowing. Then he began chewing again, holding up a finger in front of him, he paused his reverie, and moved his tongue around to free up a hidden bit of eyeball, then made sounds again as he slowly crushed the remaining eye bits to paste and swallowed.

"Oh, so good. Definitely pickled Kraga eyeball, from gate. I'm sure of it." FatBelly said. "Now thirst has grips on me. Let's go off for some ale, I be buying!"

Sildinis began to laugh, "Free ale, who can turn that down!"

Dein looked at Yana, still frozen horrified having not moved since FatBelly ate her eyeball. She managed a few low squeaks, and Dein shrugged at her and chased after the others.