Sunday, August 28, 2016

Misty Menagerie

The corpses of the slain garrison were dragged from the barracks into the room where the fight had started, and the doors were closed.

After resting and tending to the wounded (Sehlinah was persuaded to remain behind as their "nurse"), Myrdagyn and Company opened the doubled bronze doors leading from the barracks. A broad passageway turned left and ended at another set of doubled doors.

The pillared hall that these doors opened onto was large and dimly lit by a single pair of torches at the far end on either side of a low dais. The floor was marked by dust along the edges and the evidence of many feet having come and gone recently. An assembly of numerous people had stood here. The dais contained a single throne.

Leaving a pair of Legionaries at each end of the passageway to guard the doors, the party advanced cautiously between the pillars toward the throne. Xoniuqé paused to cast a "magic ID" spell and confirmed with a lowered voice that a "presence" was ahead, at the far end of the chamber, but since nothing was visible, he suspected that their approach was being observed from behind the wall, probably behind the dais.

The torchlight cast enormous black shadows from the pillars. Nothing lurked in those shadows, as they searched while they moved forward silently. Nouvzé and Horgand flanked Lorinkh in the lead. As the three of them passed between the last pair of pillars, the floor suddenly gave way on either side of the Drulath hero! Black pits were revealed and the father and son duo tottered and then leaped desperately to save themselves. Nouvzé successfully gained the opposite side. But Horgand fell! Fortunately for him, Lorinkh had been looking directly at him the instant that the pit trap had been triggered. The Drulath shot out a brawny arm to seize upon the man. But Lorinkh's hand was batted away by a flailing arm as Horgand fell. The whirl of Lorinkh's body, however, had also at the same instant caromed into that of Horgand, propelling him just enough toward the opposite edge of the yawning pit that his fingers curled on the lip. Lorinkh threw himself down and seized Horgand's left wrist in a vicelike grip, even as his desperate fingers slipped from the smooth stone. And there the pair of them froze, with Horgand's feet dangling into blackness, his face blanched with terror. Nouvzé stepped swiftly to the side of Lorinkh, and reached down. Horgand swung up his free arm and Nouvzé took hold of it and they hauled him out.

The gasps of alarm were followed by sighs of relief from the party. "Our observer has run off," said Xoniuqé, nodding toward the dais. "No doubt he was to blame for that near miss. We must be more cautious. Not all traps require living agents to trigger them. This 'hall of assemblies' could hardly function as such if the foremost ranks of the congregation were constantly falling to their deaths."

His words were soon verified. A search of the dais, throne and the wall behind, indicated a "spy hole" in the wall, and no apparent physical means to arrive at the passageway behind. Probing with his will, the wizard found and manipulated the mechanism through telekinetic means and the section of wall immediately behind the dais sank into the floor. "That would have been impossible to do without sorcerous skill," he said smugly. "At least, not in my long career, have I known of anyone who could have gotten us through this hidden door with mere thievery lore."

The order of the party was altered. Horgand took up the rearguard. His reaction time was not on a level with that of his younger son or Lorinkh's experience-honed reflexes. The Drulath and younger man took the lead, with Nouvzé following immediately behind as they entered the blackness of the passageway that led away from the dais. No sooner had Lorinkh reached the left-hand bend than the floor gave a lurch and dropped away. His leap as the stone slab began its descent propelled him to the opposite side and he landed nimbly. He spat into the void and turned to continue on. One by one, the party skirted between the corner of the wall and the pit.
 
Up at the front of the single-file column, Lorinkh and Nouvzé came to another left-hand bend. The passageway terminated in solid stone. But as they looked around in the light of the torch that Nouvzé held, they noticed a hole in the floor a few inches wide. It was emitting a feeble glow. As everyone came to a halt and it grew relatively quiet, a faint, mingled sound could also be heard emanating from the hole. Getting on his knees, the youth peered into the hole and saw lenses arranged there to magnify and augment the observation of any activity occurring below. A large, brightly lit chamber was revealed, and in a misty atmosphere persons of both sexes could be seen engaged in romantic congress. All the while, music was being played out of sight and voices were raised in pleasant song. A festive venue was being enjoyed down there. As each member of the party arrived at the spy hole in the floor, the curiosity engaged their attentions before they moved on.

By then, the wall at the far end of the passageway had been lowered and everyone was entering a spacious living quarters, with fine appointments such as rugs on the polished black stone floor and hangings on the walls, furnishings of carved wood and chests of personal belongings, and so forth. Some shelves and tables contained items and implements of a sorcerous nature. These Xoniuqé spread out on the large bed and examined one by one, while the rest of the party went through the contents of the room.
 
While the others continued the examination of the living quarters, Lorinkh went to an alcove in the opposite wall from that by which they had entered. And thrust his hand into an aperture where a lever released the back alcove wall to sink out of sight into the floor. He advanced his torch and could dimly discern a long, unlit passageway, parallel to the bedchamber. Wary as always, he examined the floor closely before his feet, passing the torch back and forth near the smooth ebonite surface. Then he stepped through. An almost inaudible slipping sound overhead galvanized his whole body into a springing motion, a headlong dive to the side up the passageway where he rolled to safety. Behind him a column of black stone had plummeted from the high ceiling to completely fill the opening to the living quarters. He stood and spat on the obstacle, then wordlessly began to slowly explore up and down the straight passageway.

Nouvzé, having received quite a shock when the black column of stony death had dropped right before his face, narrowly missing his toes, cursed and turned back into the room. Taking out his sudden rage he broke open a chest and strewed its contents on the floor, then advanced to a shelf and tipped it over and hacked at it. After a moment of shocked silence, his companions mostly grinned and joined in the destruction, venting their pent up emotions on the inanimate objects of the room. From where he examined the occupant's more intriguing possessions, Xoniuqé looked up briefly, then shook his bald head and returned to his scrutiny with a tight little smile.

As the destruction went forward, the purpose of escaping the chamber without having to retrace their steps took top priority. So it was gratifying when Myrdagyn found another section of wall at the far end which obliged by vanishing into the floor at their feet, revealing a landing and steps leading down into inky darkness. The vandalism ceased at that point.

Lorinkh had returned through the original passageway by which they had obtained entrance. With him was Sehlinah and a squad of Legionaries. His exploration of the now blocked passageway had discovered the far end to open upon the privy, and the near end to open back into the 'hall of assemblies', where Horgand had narrowly escaped his demise at the pit. Signaling to the two Legionaries still keeping to their post at the doubled doors, Lorinkh had returned with them through the passageway and via the privy to the base camp of rooms where the wounded men and others were staying. Selecting the squad from among their number, and allowing Sehlinah to change her mind and accompany them, they had wended their way back through the hall and passageway to the bedchamber. Now, the entire party advanced single-file down the revealed stairs, opting to ignore a second set of stairs that also led down from the left. At the bottom of the stairs, Lorinkh reached a right-hand corner, avoided yet another pit trap, and quickly found and engaged the lever that opened the section of wall where the passageway terminated.

The view was instantly intriguing. A broad corridor lit by lamps went off to the left and right. Directly across from the opening to the staircase was another set of doubled bronze doors. As Lorinkh, Nouvzé, Myrdagyn and Xoniuqé emerged from the opening in the wall they could see that the far ends of the corridor turned ninety degrees away from them. Thus the doubled doors seemed to access a very large space enclosed by the corridor.

Without wasting any more time, they advanced across the more than twenty feet of corridor and pushed on the handles.

The doors swung easily inward. The sounds of almost reverent revelry that they had heard earlier from the passageway above smote them like a gentle blow. The strong though pleasant light was the next impression; it was seemingly without a source, filling the mist-filled chamber from everywhere at once.

A few occupants, male and female, moved across their front and casually turned their way as the doors opened. These people either turned away and then resumed their attentions upon each other, or nodded a pleasant greeting before doing so. Music mixed with the mist in the room. A subfloor sound of splashing fountains added to the voices, the music and occasional laughter.

Lorinkh cautiously took a few slow steps into the place, followed by Nouvzé, the wizard and the others packed closely together behind. Soon the whole party was inside and the doors began to slowly close by their own loaded weight. But as insurance against the unforeseen, Myrdagyn told off the squad of Legionaries to stand guard outside in the corridor. Xoniuqé commanded Bruno and his two hounds to stay with them also.

Before going any further they made certain that they were not locked in. As the doors had yielded to their first efforts to open them, it was no surprise to find that they opened just as readily from the inside. The people here were apparently free to come and go as they wished. Judging by the pleasant atmosphere it was not a surprise either that none of them seemed the least inclined to leave.

The air quality was like elixir. The mist seemed life-giving and each of them found themselves breathing deeply of it before a conscious thought not to do so. Looking all around, they could discern no walls other than the one behind, which went off left and right and vanished in the pale chrome mist. A hint of gardens or a grove was barely visible on the edge of their vision to the left. The sound of fountains was directionless, as were the music and the voices and laughter. More revelers could be seen moving slowly about, mostly forming couples, or at most three or four together at once. As the party stood transfixed by the almost overwhelming euphoria of their surroundings, several women and even a few men approached. Each person was clothed in the simplest garments of opulent material that showed a generous amount of bare skin. The women were handsome and the men beautiful, or the other way around, it was impossible to judge which sex might be more healthy, strong and attractive looking.

"Welcome, brothers and sisters," said the women, and the men who approached Auhxalys and Sehlinah. Several were carrying trays of viands and drink. Large perfectly formed grapes were held toward mouths, and teasing fingers drew chins down, and smiling lips, teeth and eyes encouraged the party to partake. Opened mouths received the fruit and found it perfection.

Before Lorinkh or Xoniuqé could even frame a warning, it was too late, most of the party were being led off into the mists, their arms linked through by those greeters who continued to ply them with grapes, wine and other sweets. The mists engulfed them.

The wizard, Myrdagyn and the Drulath hero found themselves alone, ringed by gently imploring revelers.

"Out of my way, wench," Lorinkh said gruffly and armed a comely lass aside none too gently. The young woman seemed momentarily taken aback, then her composure returned and she smiled and ignored Lorinkh. Myrdagyn followed his example, though with less bruskness. He could not help smiling with almost apologetic refusal to imbibe. He did his best to ignore the three women who gently, insistently thronged him. Their beguiling tones went unheeded by the aging leader of the Company, though he found his decision difficult to live with!

The three of them moved slowly further into the chamber. If a chamber it indeed was. Something about the quality of the sound and the air wafting their exposed faces and hands seemed to partake more of the open meadow than a room deeply located in the bowels of the earth. The lighted mist overhead hid any ceiling and could, by appearances alone, go on forever. (The contrivance of magnifying mirrors above that each of them had easily looked through, an age ago, held powers of observation that obviously only worked in one direction.)

Xoniuqé spoke in low tones: "I am receiving a mixed impression. This ensorcelled girdle I am wearing is countering a powerful illusion, but just as rapidly the illusion is reestablished. My senses are afflicted by a kind of 'flickering' alternation between what I must believe is reality, and this place as all of the rest of you see it. The implementer of this illusion, which everyone but our three selves, apparently, believes without question, is just ahead and coming toward us."

The three of them stopped and waited. Very soon they saw a grand specimen of virile manhood striding toward them out of the misty opaqueness. It was Ahkrysyohs in the face, as Lorinkh confirmed (having almost been within weapon range of his retreating body during the battle outside the city walls), but his visage was unravaged, his body no longer stooped but instead appeared as idealized perfection. He wore a cream colored religious vestment with a heavy trim of the color of lapis lazuli, and his head was crowned with a matching high tiara covered in precious gemstones. Something in the quality of the surrounding light turned his entire self into a godlike glory.

"Welcome, thrice welcome, my brothers," he smiled and spread his hands and bowed slightly, graciously, his eyes bright with joy. "You have arrived at last. Your travails to get here have been long and difficult even unto death for some. But you have come as prophesied to me by the god. Now you, my successors, can assume my place for a season, and I can go to my reward. This place is but a simulacrum, and a fragmentary vision, of the reality of glory awaiting us all. And the god has promised me that, now that you are here, I can come into his glorious presence to never go out forever."

Before Lorinkh or the wizard could recover from these astonishing words, Myrdagyn was led off by his bevy of gorgeous consorts, a fat grape in his mouth, chewing slowly and smiling with relief and joy inexpressible!

"Damn!" muttered the Drulath. "What do you suggest? Should I?" He nodded toward the form of the Apostle and nudged the wizard with the hilt of his sword. He dared not speak his intentions aloud. Reticence ruled his tongue.

Xoniuqé got his drift and shook his head.

"Why this dissembling?" the Apostle asked pleasantly. "All is right. You have proven yourselves worthy many times over. Your very presence here is proof of your abilities and worthiness."

Lorinkh quivered with the effort to restrain himself and not instantly run the man through.

"I am sure, that as you think in this place, over everything that has come to pass, that you will see the truth of my words. Please, enjoy yourselves. Rest. We can talk again later. There is no hurry."

The Drulath felt himself weakening. What if everything really had been a test, a series of apparent evils only, to purge them through the 'refiner's fire'? The feeling of losing control instantly engaged Lorinkh's battle rage. He took a step forward, his sword held low and innocuously to the side of his leg.

The wizard firmly took him by the arm and said softly, "Don't. I am certain your blade would have no effect upon what we are meant to see. And by assaulting the Apostle we would bring down upon ourselves the defensive wrath of all our suborned friends. They would be joined by everyone else in here."

"Your very refusal to believe is a sign of your worthiness," said the smiling Ahkrysyohs. "It shows the power of your minds. But you will come to realize the truth of my words. Until then, I will leave you to consider them." He moved off to their right and very soon the mist enfolded him and he was gone.

Xoniuqé and Lorinkh stood for a moment, then the wizard started to move further ahead, away from the doors. "He can hear every word we say. So speak as little as necessary. Follow me. You will soon see what I see."

He led the Drulath hero for what seemed a long ways, to Lorinkh, but to the wizard was only a few more flickering paces to the wall opposite the doubled doors behind them. Xoniuqé stopped and raised one of Lorinkh's hands up to touch the black stone. Only then could Lorinkh actually see the wall. It went off into the mist. To their left was a pool of placid water, its surface disturbed gently by an unseen fountain. "We'll be chest deep if we go in," said the wizard. "To our right we can trace our way along the walls back to the doors."

And slowly they did so, passing several of their friends along the way, who hardly noticed them, so besotted with romantic companionship and food and wine and song were they. The wizard and his friend passed through a garden or grove and skirted more standing pools and fountains, singing and playing of stringed instruments, and men and women indulging all of their senses in a subdued revelry that partook more of religious fertility rites than it did a debauch.

"Very compelling," muttered the wizard. His sole remaining companion nodded, his whole face suffused with the choler of repressed violence. They reached the doubled bronze doors and went out.

In the corridor all reality returned. Both men shook their heads clear of the atmosphere of the trap behind the doors. Questions from their men received terse answers. Then they wondered what they could do next.

"Can you try a counter spell on each of our friends in there?" asked Lorinkh.

Xoniuqé smiled ruefully and lowered his head, shaking it for a while. "My poor brains. That shock to my system above Tarn Chasm must have addled them more than I know. Why didn't I think of that?"

"Let's go find Myrdagyn," said Lorinkh. The two of them reentered the hall of revelry and moved through the misty gardens and searched the visible portions of the pools of fountain-fed waters, until at last they found their friend quite oblivious to his surroundings in the embraces of his three female distractions. His clothing and arms were laid to one side and had been replaced with a robe of exquisite gossamer. Xoniuqé got his attention first, then summoned his will and shattered the illusion inside the man's mind. The captain of their party stiffened, leaped to his feet and looked around himself angrily.

The three woman who had been enjoying his embraces a moment before looked oddly distracted, as if they were not seeing him clearly, or perhaps for some other reason. They turned to each other and began to talk. Pausing, and looking back at Myrdagyn, then at each other, resuming their eating, drinking, conversing and touching, they seemed to forget that he was there altogether.

"That worked well," said Lorinkh with satisfaction. "Now, let's go find my kinsmen." This the three of them did. As they went Myrdagyn rearmed himself. First they found Ahnxst, and the counter spell brought the youth to his senses in similar fashion, and from similar circumstances as had been Myrdagyn's. But when the wizard tried to clear Khrohm's cobwebs of deceit, the effort failed. He felt diminished in energy, but tried again. This time it worked. But the warning was clear: if he were to go around attempting such a wholesale banishment of this glamour, his mental powers would be reduced to their limits. He might even fail to accomplish the rescue of the others before that dire consequence overtook him. The five of them went out again and they discussed options.

"We are the strongest physically of our party," said Lorinkh. "Let's try overpowering each of the others, one at a time, and carrying them out of there. Once we get them out here we can try talking some sense into them. It might work."

So saying, the five reentered the misty pleasure dome and sought out the rest of their companions. First they found Sehlinah, thoroughly enjoying the flattering attentions of a "sugar daddy" twice her own age but virile without question. To separate them was the easy part. These people seemed to possess the attention span of a fly. And no sexual jealousy whatsoever. The man who found himself suddenly alone on the ground without companionship, simply laid back and stared up at the misty air overhead with a vapid expression of contemplation on his face. Lorinkh had no trouble bearing off the girl over his shoulder, one beefy mitt clamped over her mouth. Once outside, they set her on her feet and others held her while the wizard talked to her. To the girl's credit, she came around quite rapidly. Her ire was great at the trick played on them all, and especially the memory of the degrading experience she had just had. She wanted to go straight in and find that man and remove the offending parts! But of course nothing of the sort was to be allowed and she calmed down. She stayed in the corridor, nevertheless, while the others returned again to find their next challenge.

It was Nouvzé that they came across next, and he was in no mood to listen to anyone. So Lorinkh and Ahnxst manhandled him with difficulty back to the doors and outside. He also came around. It seemed that once outside of the chamber of delights that its influence rapidly diminished. But the most intelligent of their number had the most difficulty, which seemed a strange twisting of intuitive logic. Xoniuqé had no answer for the seeming anomaly.

Horgand was next. Then Auhxalys, being ministered to by no less than three young men, posed the greatest difficulty of all. She wouldn't go by her own two feet, so they had to practically hogtie her and bear her off like an enormous sack of potatoes. It took four of them and all their physical strength to manage it. "By the gods!" quoth the Drulathim together. It was clear than none of them wanted to undergo that ordeal again.

Now that everyone had been reclaimed, the party left at once. They followed the corridor to where it turned ninety degrees right. Twice that distance ahead was another corner. So it was apparent that the corridor went all the way around the "misty menagerie."

As they went, Xoniuqé explained something. "While I was in there, and all that damnable 'flickering' was bothering my brain, I was getting disturbing impressions of the full layout of this place, almost as if whoever was causing the illusion was also baring his mind to me; involuntarily, or even unwarily, I suspect. No matter. These people call this place (he jerked his head to the right, indicating the room behind the wall) 'the chamber of divine devotions'. They can keep it. What I saw beyond, was a vast open space far below, with a pit in the floor at one end. Where it leads I cannot say. Probably it is unknown. But the disturbing feature which dominates my memory is that of a crypt at the other end, huge, deep and containing thousands of corpses, many of them incredibly ancient; probably predating the Kylburians arriving in this land. I am very worried about how to avoid that potential flood of foegim. Should our enemy imbue them with his will, we would be overwhelmed in that open place. Or, should we end up bypassing the crypt, and the foegim be animated in our rear, we would be so pressed upon by unremitting combat that we would be unable to continue resistance before exhaustion would overcome us. Remember Tarn Chasm: there are many, many, many times more here than all that that place contained."

Nobody knew what to say to that. And everyone thought about their implied worsening situation. The deeper they went, the worse it seemed to get. Silently, each of them came to one conclusion. There was no way out the way they had been coming. And there was no way that they could fight off everything ahead, when it came for them. So the only decision was to press on and find their enemy quickly and kill him. And hopefully that would render his necromantic minions null and void. In any case, short of that hoped for outcome, none of them would ever see the sky again. So, facing certain death in the event of failure, they individually, internally, resolved to do or die.

They arrived in the middle between the two visible corners. Before them was a single door, opposite the "misty menagerie", and behind the door was a small alcove with the same style of lever for lowering a section of the black wall. They stepped through and into a curved passageway that went out of sight on either hand. It was lit by lamps. Lorinkh chose to follow the right hand way. This proved to be the most direct to their purpose. When they reached the ninety degree point the curved passageway was intersected by a straight one. To their right it went past several doors and seemed to join with side passages at the far end. To their left the intersecting passageway terminated almost immediately with a closed door at the end of it. Opening this door revealed the circular stairwell.

Leaving a strong guard of Legionaries, and Bruno with the dogs, to hold the door, the rest went down as far as the winding staircase would take them. After three complete revolutions, Lorinkh in the lead came upon the bottom of the shaft, carpeted with the corpses of slain, red robed fanatics: Auhxalys's earlier work. The stairs emerged from the ceiling of an enormous pillared gallery and now wound around a thick column to the floor, two more complete twists, and then they were all standing together where the ceiling soared forty feet overhead. To their right, through the pillars of the gallery, by their flickering torches they could barely see a veritable forest of eighty foot high pillars rising up from the floor forty feet below. At the far ends of the gallery were two staircases, fully ten paces wide, that curved down until they joined that floor at ninety degrees to the direction of the gallery. Behind the observers, on the other side of the circular staircase, doubled bronze doors, alike to the others that they had already passed through, stood firmly closed. These were tried first and they opened easily enough. The light of their torches dimly showed an entirely empty, large chamber, longer than it was wide, with an opening of no great size at the far end. They closed the doors for now.

Moving cautiously and as noiselessly as possible, they went to the left-hand dropping staircase and went down to the vacuous hall floor. To their right, below the gallery, the wall was pierced by four huge openings, like tunnels going away into total blackness. Their torches picked at the edges and gleamed on the ebon hued rock. The flickering light illuminated only the mouths and nearest surfaces of those walls; fully twenty feet in height, and indented, as far back as could be seen, with burial niches, side by side and five rows high. In almost all of the ones that they could see, pale, dusty skulls were visible. The dead there were all buried feet first.

"Feet first, it's the only way," muttered Xoniuqé, and an involuntary shiver of dread shook his slight frame. But no one asked what he meant because it seemed nonsensical, and everyone already accepted that the wizard sometimes said things that nobody could understand anyway.

"We will not go any further," he warned. "Remember Tarn Chasm. Our intrusion there triggered the sleeping spell. Imagine that magnified several to many times over!" (In fact, he thought, why am I standing here talking about it? I don't know at which point our presence could alert these slumbering horrors. I think I've lost my edge.)

And so saying, he turned and led the way back up to the gallery. It was decided to bring everyone down, and the entire party would camp inside the chamber opposite the circular stairs. That way the room's exit could be easily guarded and the doubled bronze doors secured against any attack. So it having been decided, Myrdagyn and Ahnxst went back up to the base camp to bring everyone there down. And on the way, they took the guard of the stairs, and Bruno with his dogs last of all.

They spent a very uneasy "night" trying to get some rest in the empty chamber above the crypt.

(to be continued....)

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