The Realms: A World Apart

Taber’s Keep

Chapter Ten, Part Four

Landing on the heap of bodies formed by his companions, SeLiem rolls off and checks his surroundings. Melias is already wandering around, while the others are all piled up and trying to get untangled. They are someplace entirely different from where they were. There is an incredibly dense forest behind them and a dirt road runs parallel and another stretches out away from them. They are at a three-way crossroad. The road is uphill in all directions, so they cannot see where any eventually leads. The sun is obscured by clouds. They aren’t positive which way they are facing.

A small metal box floats mid-air in the center of the crossroads. It has a slit cut out of the top of it, but nothing can be seen, but darkness, within.

Once standing, everyone looks around, somewhat disoriented. 

Arturus is the first to speak. “Well, at least it isn’t Dumas. So where are we? And why do I have boobs?” she finishes, with a smirk.

Claire looks at him blankly, then turns and shakes her head. She lays out the Sheet of Smallness. “Who gets what?” she asks.

“Well, no one disagreed with my claim to the non-magical treasure, since I’m not taking any of the magic, so I’ll just help myself to this,” Rastorn says, as he begins scooping the jewelry, coins, and gems into his bag.

Percy ignores the treasure and checks out the floating metal box. “It looks like a collection box or voting box to me. Do you have any information on this, Melias?”

Rastorn looks up at Arturus. “Yes, I’m glad we are away from Dumas, but are we any closer to the wanted adventuring group?”

“Someone should check out where these roads lead, while we check out this box,” Percy suggests.

Rastorn bulks at Percy’s suggestion. “Why don’t we have our experts, like Melias, Orjulun, and I, look the box over Percy and the foot soldiers like you can do the scouting, eh?”

“I’m a foot soldier? The insults just keep coming. Besides, how does a magical floating box make Melias an expert anyway?” Arturus states. She shakes his head, loads an arrow in his bow, and heads into the forest ten feet, with a plan to travel parallel to the road. 

 “To check for traps, of course, my Elf-friend! In case you haven’t caught on yet, Arturus, Melias is skilled in the stealth arts! He doesn’t just masquerade as a bandit, he is one,” Rastorn hollers to Arturus.

 “I am not a bandit,” Melias says. 

Percy ignores Rastorn and stands guard near the box.

The forest is unnaturally thick, and Arturus has a difficult time moving through it. Within a few steps, she is slapping insects and itching. She keeps getting caught on thorny plants that scratch her skin and tear her loose clothing. Within a minute, she is sweating profusely, bitten up, stung, and dragging the branches of several briar-like bushes. She discovers venturing deeper than the few steps she had gone, is impossible. She continued to stay just inside the fauna and follow the road, but she is being punished badly by the thick forest.

Arturus decides that like everything she’s done lately, this too is a bad idea. She heads out of the forest onto the road and quickly gets bored and begins to hum a tune she had heard at the play in ASU. She notices different things about herself. She walks differently than she used to. Her steps are a bit lighter and her hips sway. She stops on the road and shakes her head in disgust. She blames herself and her own stupidity and hopes to get this spell reversed as quickly as possible. “By Kurosaw, if that can’t happen, I hope someone can alter my memory, so I believe I was always a woman. At least then this might not be so horrifying.” She slings her bow and draws her sword, trying to catch a glimpse of what she looks like in the blade’s reflection. It is a distorted reflection at best and what she can see is attractive. At least he isn’t an ugly woman. It is then that she notices her hands are also different. The creases in her skin are roughly the same and old scars and markings are there, but her hands are a lot smaller and slimmer. “I’m going to be considered a giant for a female. Maybe they can shrink me as well as warp my memory. No! I must not think like that. I will be a man again; I just have to be patient.” Before reaching the top of the hill, she locates a slightly less dense section of forest and disappears into it and kneels. “Oh, Great Kurosaw, I know I am an unworthy man . . . Elf? I know better than to ask you to reverse this magic that’s been put upon me. All I ask is that you bestow upon me the courage and strength to carry through this. I must not fail my friends, but I fight with myself over what has happened. Please my lord, give me a sign that all will be restored.” Arturus had prayed often in her life and now feels shame for not praying as much recently. When she returns to the road, her mood has not improved. It has grown darker.

Seeing that Arturus had gone left, SeLiem travels the road heading to the right. Percy can see there is really nothing for him to do near the box, so he travels the other road.

The party had landed in a bowl-shaped valley surrounded by small hills. Each of the roads are up a hill, as are the grassy fields surrounding the roads on all sides, except along the forest. SeLiem walks up the hill and it seems to him to take a long time. Reaching the top and looking down the other side to see where the road leads, he sees a female Elf who looks exactly like Arturus. At the bottom of the hill he sees an intersecting road going to the right and a group that looks exactly like his party standing around a metal box. A man that looks just like Percy is walking up the side road toward the group.

At the same time, Arturus crests the hill and sees the opposite. Someone looking like SeLiem is on the opposite hill, there is a road branching off to the right and a group at the junction. She is certain that Percy is on the side road walking toward the party. Turning and walking back the way she came; she catches up with SeLiem and sees the same scene but reversed. She is on top of a hill which leads to two scenes that are essentially the same but reversed. SeLiem and Arturus look at each other and try to decide if they are really who they look like. SeLiem was a little spooked when Arturus came up from behind him, when he had just seen her walking back the way from which she came on the opposite hill.

The party stopped investigating the box, when Percy, SeLiem, and Arturus reached the top of the hills. They are shocked when Arturus appears on the hill SeLiem just walked up and vice-versa. They are all surprised when Arturus travels back the way she came and appears next to SeLiem on the hill the Arturus had first climbed.

“One of them may be your sister, Melias. Better not take a chance this time. Orjulun, Fireball them both,” Rastorn says.

Orjulun cannot tell if he is serious.

Percy reappears at the top of the hill he investigated, turns, and runs back the way he came, only to return, running toward them. “There is a group that looks just like you all on the other side of that hill! They must be Evil Doppelgangers preparing to kill and replace us! Quickly, we must slay them all before they come for us!” He turns around and runs back the direction from whence he came, his two-handed sword drawn and swinging it over his head.

“Stand at ease, Percy. That other group is probably us. Seems like this is a very small place and we’re just wrapping around to the other side . . . or something,” Melias tells him. He asks Orjulun and Rastorn, “Is that even possible?” With a shrug, he turns his attention back to the box and mutters “pay more than less or go back.” Shaking his head, he says, “I don’t think it’s trapped, physically, but if we don’t do this right, we’ll head right back to the ocean, I think.” He looks to Claire for answers, since she was a bard like the man who gave him so much information. “Claire, Fino said he couldn’t remember the whole poem, but he said we were to pay more than less. What do you think that might mean? There’s seven of us; maybe we should toss in eight gold? What do you think?”

“It would make sense to pay more,” Claire muses. “The road to Taber’s Keep does have a great many ways to separate you from coin. I say we put in . . . I don’t know how much. Taber made sure he knew how much each person could spend. Since it’s still early in our ventures, three coins should be enough.”

Percy didn’t hear Melias’ warning and ran back up the hill. He comes running back in a couple seconds and when no one seems too concerned with him charging them, he walks up cautiously. He stabs his two-handed sword into the dirt and draws Red’s battle axe. Reaching the group, he moves up behind Melias and with the axe held behind the Elf, asks for a password. Melias whispers it to him and he seems surprised. 

“Then, the Doppelgangers are on the other side now! Let’s get them!” he screams and runs back toward the hill. When no one follows, he slows down, turns around, and just sits in the road pondering what is going on.

“Pity. I had so hoped the idiot would continue running back and forth for an hour,” Rastorn says deadpan. “How about each of us give one to three gold of our own just in case this thing has some way of knowing whether each of us has paid? Here, I’ll drop in . . . one, two, three gold. This better work, I’m not accustomed to tossing away coins! I’d suggest we all try and leave at the same time, so we are not split up, too.” 

Each coin makes a loud metallic thunk as it lands in the box.

“Alright, so which road do we take? I’m going to start that way now,” Rastorn says.

SeLiem thinks a moment, then shrugs, “I guess that makes sense.” He drops three coins into the box. “I’m almost completely baffled.”

Rastorn walks to the pile of magic items and picks up the Potion of Giant Strength. He tosses it to the returning Arturus, slides the other items off the Sheet of Smallness, then stuffs the sheet into one of his robe pockets. “This treasure still needs to be split up,” he announces, with little enthusiasm. “Who wants the Potion of Water Breathing? How about this Scroll of Protection Against Water? The Helm of Underwater Action? I know someone wants that – a week ago everyone thought they wanted to grow up to be pirates! The magic spear and the magic pick? Who will take the magic pearl? Finally, who wants the Ring of Levitation?” Once everything is claimed, he waits to see which road the party will take. 

Percy walks back to the party. That is you on the other side of the hill, right?” he says. Considering whether to place any coin in the box, he tells Melias, “I’ll do whatever you and Orjulun do.” He looks over at the magic items, “I don’t feel I deserve any treasure after I imperiled the whole group, but I would like to give that pick to Red. What do you think, Orjulun?”

Arturus drops three coins into the box. She then stands and waits, bow in hand, should anything happen. Lately, danger was everywhere, even as a bed partner it was present, she didn’t want to be caught by surprise should something occur.

SeLiem says to Rastorn, “I want the Ring of Levitation. I got a spell to breath underwater, so I don’t need the helm. I will also take the Magic Pearl.”

Without hesitation, Rastorn tosses the pearl to SeLiem. He starts to toss him the ring but pauses. “Is anyone going to be upset if SeLiem gets two magic items?” he asks loudly, as he holds the ring up in the air, like an auctioneer.

Claire taps the bottom of SeLiem’s hand and snatches the pearl out of the air when it pops up. “Have the ring,” she says. “Melias already said I should get this.” She places it in the bottom of her scabbard.

Orjulun places three gold pieces into the slot. “It must be quite magical, but I don’t think we have time to do too much more investigating. Well, there’s really nothing here I need,” he says, looking at the magic items. “If no one truly has their heart set on one of these items, we could always sell some of them and split the proceeds. Percy, I certainly don’t have a problem with you taking the pick for Red, if that is alright with everyone.”

When no one seems to argue about the pick, Percy drops his three gold coins into the magic box, then walks over and picks up the pick. “This is for Red,” he announces, before hooking it to his belt.

“There is still a magical spear, a scroll, the helmet, another potion, and . . . if no one objects, SeLiem will get the ring,” Rastorn says. “Let’s see, Melias, Orjulun, and Percy still didn’t receive anything. Tell you what, three of you plan on purchasing a ship someday, so we’ll make this simple – here.” He throws the spear to Arturus, the helmet at Percy, the potion at Melias, and the Scroll of Protection Versus Water at Orjulun. “You can sell the item later if you aren’t fond of it. Now everything is evenly distributed, right Percy?” as Percy seems to be the most concerned with matters of what is proper, following fair guidelines, and all that.

Arturus hands the spear to Claire.

Percy looks around at Melias, Orjulun, and Arturus, “Well, if everyone else feels this was a fair distribution of treasure, then I’m fine with it, too.”

As Melias and Claire drop their coins into the box, Rastorn whispers to SeLiem, “Listen SeLiem, I’m going to make certain that the untrusted members of our group don’t come back later and say you shouldn’t have got the ring or it should have been given to them. Once they all agree, they won’t be able to take it from you later or say you received preferential treatment in regards to splitting treasure this time and then give you nothing next time.”

As everyone gathers near the middle of the crossroad, Rastorn asks once more, “So, everyone is fine with SeLiem getting the ring, right?”

Ignoring Rastorn, Percy asks the party, “Which road do we take? That one just comes back the same way.”

SeLiem casts Cure Light Wounds on Melias. He pauses a moment, then takes out one of his scrolls. “Percy, come here.” He unravels the scroll then uses it to cast the spell Heal on him.

“I’m not okay with SeLiem taking the ring,” Claire says, keeping her voice even. “What am I supposed to do with a weapon I can’t use?”

SeLiem successfully Heals Percy. Percy thanks him profusely, then points out that Arturus and Claire are still injured.

Upon hearing Claire complain about receiving an item she cannot use, Rastorn says, “But, my dear lady, as you heard our young Invoker and I say, you can always sell it for hundreds of gold. Maybe even thousands. Poor argument. I say SeLiem still gets it.”

Still no one had chosen a road to take, so Percy takes the one SeLiem had first taken. Within seconds of reaching the summit, he is coming back down the hill Arturus had first ventured. “Did you know that these hills don’t lead anywhere, either?” he asks the party as he jogged back to them.

Rastorn looks befuddled. “I was assuming that our coin would somehow unlock the roads and we would now be able to take any of them.” He pauses for a second, then says, “That still leaves two more roads to take, we can’t assume that one will still be attached to the other.”

Percy turns around and runs back up the hill he had just come down. Again, he reappears on the opposite hill.

“That still leaves the hill Percy climbed first. The one straight ahead,” Claire says, while tying the spear to her back.

“Well, if that one is no good, perhaps we need to add more coins to the box,” Rastorn says. “I really do think we should climb the hill together, though. We don’t want it’s magic to separate us. Orjulun, do you agree?”

“Don’t worry, Claire,” Melias offers. “The Potion of Water Breathing has several doses. I may be sharing it with you later. Just take the spear and sell it at our next city. Keep the riches for yourself or trade it in for something more worthwhile.”

After tossing his three gold in, Melias taps a finger to his head, reciting the statement that Fino told him: “Take the Eastern Tradeway until it ends and then some more, at low tide-when stone faces cry, three jumps and a leap of faith, then something about paying more than less or going back and at the end of it all are a king’s riches.” He scans the area once more, taking in the scenery. There is an incredibly dense forest behind them and dirt roads stretching out in front of them and to their left and right. The roads all go uphill, so they cannot see where they lead. The sun is obscured by overcast skies. He looks left, then right, then straight ahead and shakes his head. “‘At the end of it all are a king’s riches’. I think we should either head through this dense forest, the end of each of the roads, or we should choose any of the roads and follow it.” He heads for the forest, hoping to pass through unhindered.

Orjulun decides Rastorn is right. “Let’s try that road together,” he says. “If it doesn’t work, we can add more coins to the box. ‘More than less’ sounds like it could possibly set us back a few gold.”

SeLiem shrugs. “It makes sense to me, if we have to pay more, then it is no big deal, especially if we sell these items.”

SeLiem, Orjulun, and Percy begin the trek up the road Percy had taken.

“I saw what Arturus looked like when he exited those woods – all bit up and sliced up and sweaty – so excuse me if I don’t jump at the chance to repeat his blunder. I’m with the Wizards, let’s all climb Percy’s hill together first and see what happens,” Claire says, then follows them up the hill.

“Come along, Melias. If we’re wrong, then we can always try the forest again or drop more coin,” Rastorn says, over his shoulder, as he, too, walks up the hill. “You two may want to crest the hill the same time we do or the magic may not allow you to continue without additional deposits.”

Claire nods and agrees, “I know the stories of Taber’s Keep – believe me, if there is a loophole that will allow them to separate their marks from coins, they exploited it. Better follow the Necromancer’s advice, Elves.”

The group walks up the hill and comes down on the other side.

At the bottom of the hill, the road continues on in a straight line through a very dense and dark forest, which continues on in either direction for as far as anyone can see, then up another hill to a walled structure, which they assumed is Taber’s Keep. It is about two miles from one hill to the next, but the weather changes drastically in that short distance. While it is overcast above the group now, the forest is experiencing rain and the keep is experiencing very dark clouds and a mild thunderstorm.

“Is it possible to modify the weather, so your keep always seems creepy and dangerous? This might’ve intimidated the suckers who fell for Taber’s scam, but to me it’s just a waste of magic,” Claire comments.

“If they can do that, what magic might be found there?” an excited Rastorn says to no one in particular.

Percy takes the lead position.

Arturus keeps to the rear, bow ready.

SeLiem puts the Ring of Levitation on his finger, just in case.

Melias looks at the keep in the distance and asks Orjulun, “Does that dwelling seem familiar to you? Like the one you saw in your dreams. We might want to be vigilant for the trap you saw the others fall into.”

“Dream? Um, before we go any further, I think we all need to know about this dream. Any information, even from a source like that should be shared. I’d hate to be eaten alive by something and just as I’m swallowed down into something’s gullet, I see Orjulun standing there going, ‘Yup, just like my dream.’ So, out with it,” Arturus says.

“It was just a dream he had about an unfamiliar party, probably those from the posters, getting blasted by some sort of magical ray as they go to enter a mansion of some sort. The Elf in that group could be heard saying, “No, we are so close!” Then they shrank down and disappeared,” Melias recites for the Wizard. “I was wondering if this was the mansion. Because I’m short enough, thank you very much.”

 Orjulun nods and focuses on the mansion ahead, trying to remember details from his dream.

Claire says, “Knowing all I know about Taber’s Keep, that would make sense. It would have to be more like a mansion than a castle keep. They’d call a mansion a keep because it sounds more ominous.”

“I think ‘ominous’ has been achieved,” Melias says, as they close in on Taber’s Keep.

Continued next week!

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