The Realms: A World Apart

The Stairs

Chapter Fourteen, Part Four

“Finally! Where do we begin – here and head back or do we all go back and start again or are we splittin’ up or . . .” Having momentarily confused herself, Kafeera pauses. Giving up on trying to sort out her previous thoughts, she moves on to a new one. “I think I’ll speak with the Mongrel Men again. Any objections? Maybe they know something we don’t, considering this is their home.” 

“We’re waiting until Arianna’s more coherent,” Claire says, waving good-bye to Kafeera.

Gaining strength to stand, a shaky Arianna also waves.

“You should have let Claire drink it,” Melias whispers to Arianna, in Elven.

Rastorn watches as Kafeera closes the door behind herself, then watches Melias and SeLiem searching for secret doors on the walls. Maybe he can do better. He casts Detect Magic and walks around the room and down the hall looking for magical emanations on the walls, floors, and ceilings.

Feeling better, Arianna draws her sword and says, “Alright smartass, where’s the damn secret door we’re looking for?”

Iflander: “I believe the term ‘smartass’ and the phrase ‘fuck you’ were meant to be derogatory, however, the greater good is served by me telling you that the secret door is very cleverly hidden under the stairs between the wine cellar and the hall to this small room. You will note each of the four steps has four squares on it. They need only be stepped upon in the proper sequence for the stairs to move and reveal the next passage. Years ago, each step would have shown a symbol representing a piece to a puzzle. Solve the puzzle and the stairs open. These days, apparently, that flare and imagination no longer exists, for the squares have no markings.  It will be rather mundane work to decipher the order. Oh, well.”

“Thank you, Iflander,” Arianna says. Then, to the rest of the group, she announces, “Alright, thanks to my smart sword I know where the door we’re looking for is located.” 

She waves for them to follow her to the stairs. When they all arrive, she points at the four squares and tells them what has to be done.

“Well, that sounds easy enough,” Claire says. “Are you and your sword having a bit of a falling-out?”

Stepping in front of Claire, Melias sneers at her and says, “You may not have stolen anything, but your greed since joining has been unequaled.” He tips his head toward Deathwish and says, “It’s a shame how you treat him. No one deserves to serve a selfish wench who cares not for a henchman’s well-being. Bonehead deserves better.” He squats down in front of the steps and takes a closer look. “Four switches to press in an unknown order, that would make -” he counts on his fingers quickly, and continues, “- 24 combinations, right? But I can’t help but wonder what might happen if we push the switches in the wrong order. With how deadly this place has proven to be, please allow me to check for traps on the squares first before we run any tests.”

The group steps back. 

He pulls a leather pouch from a pocket and begins checking the stones on the stairs carefully, looking for any pressure switches – which he knows exist already based on how the secret door works – and how they might spring some unexpected side-effects. 

As he works, Claire squats down and retorts, “Yet despite all that, I do whatever he asks when he asks it, with absolutely no complaining.” She spins around to face Deathwish and tells him, “Deathwish, you don’t have to stay with me. If you like, you can go over there with that sanctimonious bastard, who evidently knows how to treat a ‘henchman’ like he’s slightly better than subhuman. Or, you can just voice your opinion with me, and I’ll try to keep what you say in mind. Here.” She gives him all the treasure, minus the things she’d gotten in the trash pile and the gem, along with all of her money. “It’s yours now. Consider it hazard pay, along with half of whatever I get.”

Deathwish leaps at Melias and grabs him by the head, but Claire waves him off. “No. I know you think it’s his reward for insulting your lady, but no. Let him insult me. No matter what he does to me, I’ll bear it. I’ll die soon enough, in all probability, and then it won’t make any difference.”

Deathwish looks at her, frowns, and shakes his head. “Whatever you say.”

Arianna sighs and relaxes the grip she held on her sword. She hadn’t even realized she held on so tight until the situation seemed to calm. “Glad that’s over with. I’d hate to have to kill someone with a death wish.”

“I’d consider retaliating, but with the way your mistress is, I’m not worried about it too much.  You won’t live to see tomorrow. She’ll see to that,” Melias tells Deathwish.

“Hey, come you three, we have a bigger picture ahead of us and I’d hate to choose sides if this came down to blows. Actually, I know where I’d stand, but I’m not sharing that knowledge. Let’s find this cube, do with it what needs to be done and after that we can all go our merry way or stick together. That cube is more important than all of us combined. I’m not going to ask you all to shake hands – because I fear hidden daggers –  so how about at least a nod and grunt to each other?” Arianna says.

“I apologize for any insult I might have caused you,” Claire says, “I give you full right to berate me. I won’t complain. I’ll still do everything you ask. I just want two things. First, don’t use the word ‘wench’ to describe me. Second, I scaled back Deathwish’s duties and started paying him, so don’t treat us like I’m some cruel slave-driver and he’s my stooge.” She stares at Melias, “Sound fair?”

Melias grunted at Arianna’s request, and paused at Claire’s statement. “It’s nothing you’ve done against me. You just remind me of my family, and that makes me uneasy. If you want to appease me, change your ways.” He looks to Arianna and asks, “So, did you say there was or wasn’t a secret door over this way?”

“Yep, those stones are the trigger to open the door. We have to figure out the code first. But, there’s no markings on the stones so this might be difficult. I agree though, the right combination will be a good thing, however what happens if the wrong combination is done?” Arianna shrugs.

She looks at Rastorn and asks, “What about those books? Isn’t there one for secret labs or some such thing?”

Rastorn was intently watching the angry exchange and took a second to note Arianna’s question. “Uh, yes, there is a book title like that, but all the books were eaten, leaving only the covers. No clues there.”

Melias sighs, “Four squares on four steps – each. Now this is a conundrum.” He scratches his head and continues wondering aloud, “Is it one square per step, or do all 16 have to be pressed in the right order? We’ll never figure this out before the humans in the party die of old age. Do you realize that if all sixteen need to be pressed in the right sequence, that’s a total of – well, I can’t count that high, but it’s quite a few. And if you throw in the possibility that each step might be pressed more than one time, the number quickly increases to infinity! It might be less difficult to just bust through the wall.”

Melias continues checking the steps for traps. If any were trapped, he could safely eliminate those from the possible combination. He attempts to surmise if any of the steps seem more worn than the others. 

“Too bad we don’t have my Commune scroll anymore, it could have helped,” SeLiem comments.

Melias looks up from the stone stairs and dully toward SeLiem, “There are sixteen squares. How do you propose we find the correct combination with only a handful of yes-no questions?” Without awaiting a response, he returns to work and says, “Why don’t you all try to find something hard to bash through the door in case I can’t do anything to help minimize our options. Bonehead looks pretty dense – he might work.”

“We could have at least figured out a few from the yes and no questions,” SeLiem responds.

Claire checks the steps for markings. “Hey, Arianna!” she calls. “Can your sword tell us anything about this?”

“Doubtful, but it’s worth a shot,” Arianna answers. While still holding Iflander she says, “Do you know how the combination goes? Or at least have a clue as to how we can discover it?”

Iflander: “Back in the Golden Age, I was with a band of heroes from Goodman who encountered a similar situation. There was a sequence that needed to be solved in order to leave an area without setting off the traps there and they had little time to solve the puzzle, since we were being chased by powerful creatures from another Plane. The Priest of the group cast a spell called ‘Find the Path’ and asked to reach the other side of the wall by the safest, most direct route. The spell told him what order to step on the symbols on the floor in order to open the wall. That would work, but I doubt your Priest is as godly as he.”

Arianna repeats – more or less – what Iflander spoke in her mind.

“Right. All we need is a high-level Priest and a scroll of Find the Path,” Claire says. “Or, we could pray Hell gets chilly. I think either way we’ll get the same result.”

“I’d jump on the stones in random order to see what happens, but I’m through being a guinea pig,” Arianna comments. “I bet there’ve been clues that we’ve missed. Anyone remember any number patterns or a set up that could resemble the stones?”

 Coming up empty handed with the Mongrel Men, Kafeera returns to the rest of the group and after she has their predicament explained to her she heads outside. Locating Orjulun and pulling  him aside, she explains the party’s current situation with the steps then asks, “Any suggestions?”

He doesn’t, so she returns.

Having not located any traps on the stone pressure plates on the steps, Melias stands and brushes off his hands and knees. “Nope, all safe. Nothing to worry about. Go ahead and start jumping in random order. Oh, but first, let me get back upstairs.” He approaches SeLiem and asks, “Your temple gave you a helping hand with all sorts of higher-level goodies, right? Any chance that scroll has a ‘Find the Path’ spell on it?”

“You have a very good memory, I almost forgot about those gifts.” He takes out his pack and searches, “By the gods- I do.” He pauses a moment in disbelief. “Fortune is upon us. Blessings to the gods.” He pulls out the scroll. “Everyone cross your fingers.”

Arianna literally does so.

SeLiem successfully casts Find the Path from the scroll and the proper sequence of tiles on the steps is revealed to him. Since Melias detected no traps, SeLiem goes ahead and follows the proper order himself. 

The top left, the next in line (left to right) on the next step down, the third square on the third step, and the far right square on the last step. The stair slides back and down, turning the same stairs going up into stairs going down and in the opposite direction.

“Well done, SeLiem,” Melias cheers.

He shakes his head, as he studies the reversed stairs. “I’ll bet Red would have seen that long ago. I don’t know how I missed it. So clever, though.” He smiles as he admires the engineering. “Well, stairs down, new area . . . most likely dangerous . . . any volunteers to take the point?”

“I’ll take point,” Arianna says, pushing to the front. “Do you detect any evil down here?” she asks Iflander.

Iflander: “Arianna, In my weakened state – from being used to power an Iron Golem that was created by the kings of men to protect The Cube of Power 100 years ago – I can only detect powerful emanations of evil, basic things like Orcs won’t be picked up by my scans. There is no great evil ahead of you.”

Arianna thanks Iflander and tells the group, “Well, I know there is no great evil ahead of us, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a war party of Orcs down here. Just no Liches with evil Paladin sidekicks playing with their color-coded Dragons.”

Arianna travels down and stops when she reaches metal bars blocking her path She looks for a key. Not finding one, she calls for Melias or anyone else who can unlock a door. “I found locked jail cell bars down here. From what I can see this looks like an actual dungeon.”

Melias squeezes past everyone gathered on the steps and joins Arianna.  Reaching the barred door, he takes a deep breath and says, “Every other damned thing in this place has been trapped, so I’d better look for those first.” He pulls out the familiar leather pouch that houses his locksmith tools and begins investigating the door carefully – inspecting every nook and cranny for a hint of a trap, before setting to attempt to unlock the door. “Sorry for the delay folks, I know you’re eager to get in there. This shouldn’t take long.”

Melias detects no traps and the door unlocks easily.

With a smile of confidence, Melias steps back to the rear of the group, then says “Ok, it’s all yours,” and waves Arianna forward.

Arianna pushes the door open and proceeds inside to investigate the cells lining the side walls. 

Claire hangs back and does nothing. “This is all too damn . . . organized,” she mutters.

Melias steps no further than one step beyond the door they just entered and watches as the others explore the area further. He fully expects something terrible will befall them, no matter what the stupid sword said. Traps, after all, are neither good nor evil. “Didn’t the ugly people say this was some sort of game to the masters? I wonder how much of this is make-believe,” he asks no one in particular.

“That poison was real enough,” Rastorn whispers, deadpan.

Arianna walks to the first two cells beyond the initial gate. She checks the door to the left and discovers it is locked. The torches interrupt his Infravision, but she can still make out most of the inside of the cell and a slim, tall stand in the corner, which has a large globe on top. The flickering torch light reflects off the globe, but it has some sort of inner sparkle as well.

The door to the right is also locked and appears to be empty, except for huge, thick webs near the corners. The webs are thick enough they could easily conceal something more.

Arianna heads to the next set of cells, but is halted by the sudden onslaught of what seems like an endless string of silently flying skeletal bats, each with a five foot wingspan.

Claire rolls her eyes and draws her longsword. She speaks over her shoulder, answering Melias. “Not a lot of it, actually. If a few people died, they usually got more guests simply because of the danger factor.”

To be continued . . .

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