Chapter 1: First Encounter
In the northern woods, not very far from my guard post, a lone dwarvish ranger trudged through the snow. Seemingly unaware of my scrying so far, he was making steady progress in my general direction.
When it was obvious he was not in the area by accident, I muttered an incantation while outlining a box in the air, and stepped through the summoned shimmering door to take me closer to the ranger. As I was closing the distance to him, I kept on guard for any thrown weapons.
The man noticed my arrival, stopped on his tracks and turned to look at me. He was undersized and powerfully built, and his skin and hair were a ghastly, pale white. His strangely reddish eyes met my inquisitive gaze without faltering, although he must have been aware of the dark clouds gathering above.
"You're far from your mountain burrows, dear hobbit," I mocked. "Are you sure you've not gotten lost?"
He cocked his head. "I get around." The strangely shimmering armour, the extensive weaponry and the fact that he was all but ignoring the biting chill in the air was evidence enough that this was not an ordinary woodsman on the hunt. He clearly did not belong to these parts.
"Where do you hail from, stranger?" He was probably after my master's fabled treasures and would have to die for it, but knowledge never hurt. He could have been a scout of a larger group on the move.
He answered absently while checking the sharpness of his enormous, wicked-looking battleaxe. "Scythe."
At this point I did not bother to question the man further; no living soul of his brutish allegiance was welcome anywhere near my master's estate. I glanced at the promisingly dark clouds, shouted a phrase and lifted my arms high. A glaring bolt of lightning splintered down from the clouds and slammed into the intruder, the sheer unleashed power lifting a billow of steam and snow in the air.
As it settled down somewhat, I was pleased to see the ranger down on the ground, immobile. He never even had time to realize what hit him. I got closer to check if he had anything interesting on him to take with me.
A few steps before I reached him, my eye caught a faint movement to my right. I barely had time to turn to look when a dark gray blur of fury plummeted into me, knocking me down with the impact.
I had lifted my arms up in reflex, and realized they were being torn to shreds by fangs attached to something that must have been the steaming maw of death itself.
I heard something resembling a command from nearby, and as suddenly as it had appeared, the furry demon was gone. My arms fell down, out of my control. I lay in the snow, breathing in rugged gasps, trying to understand what had happened.
A face appeared in my area of vision. I blinked to drive the illusion away, but it stubbornly remained. I was pretty certain that my earthly remains were still alive enough to be filling my mind with throbbing, searing and chilling pain. Yet the ghastly dwarvish face peering at me with its red eyes implied I was, in fact, dead, and as a result free to be pestered by other spirits of the recently deceased.
He did something with one of my arms and I stopped worrying about everything; my vision erupted in a burst of red stars and I blacked out.
Chapter 2: Honesty of a Scyther
When I came to, it took a while to adjust to my surroundings. Then I took some more time to adjust to the implications of said surroundings: I was at the entrance of the estate, leaning against the cold stone wall by the doorway. I had no recollection of moving there.
I heard a growling sound nearby. Before I managed to locate it, the ranger appeared from somewhere. "Oh, you're awake. Can you walk?"
"Huh?" I would probably have had something pithy to say on the matter, but momentarily forgot what it was.
He let out a snort. "How did you ever get into mage school if you're this slow? Are you able to stand on those skimpy legs of yours or not?"
I tried to get myself up, but when I lowered my hands to the stone floor to support myself up, it felt like someone was pouring molten lead on my right arm. In response to the sudden sensation, I unceremoniously dry-heaved my long-gone breakfast until I felt myself lifted up. Among the accompanying mutters I caught repeated further insults towards my intellect.
Once the flood of acute infernal pain settled down, I found that I could stand, albeit my knees were somewhat wobbly. I leaned against the cool stone wall and closed my eyes to collect myself.
"No time for beauty sleep, you're going to open this here door for me." The ghost dwarf was prodding me. I wanted to shoo him away but I groggily recalled there was something wrong with my arm. So I turned to observe it.
It was wrapped in a bandage. In fact, both arms were. I did not have any recollection of this either. I opened my mouth to enquire about this, but the ghost waved me off. "Yeah, you were bleeding all over the place, it was a big mess, so I stopped it. Now open the door."
It dawned on me that he was talking about the estate door behind me. My eyebrows quirked in amusement. "Wait. You want me to let me in?" Still somewhat light-headed, I giggled at the preposterous thought.
I heard a low growl closer now and felt acutely uncomfortable for a moment. As I turned to look in the direction of the sound, the events of moments ago started to click into place. An enormous dark grey wolf sat on its haunches, watching me. I reflexively took a step back, then turned back to the ranger to think about anything else than fangs.
"That thing yours?" Even as I asked the question I realized it had to be, otherwise it would have eaten us both alive by now. But my mind was still too clouded to get the situation straight.
"Yeah. And he's getting hungry, so –" he gestured at the door with his thumb.
I went through a full spectrum of amusement to incredulity to outrage in two blinks of an eye. This buffed-up midget would presume to boss me around! "You seriously think I'm going to let you into my master's estate? What kind of mushrooms have you been eating?"
"Sure you will."
"Over my dead body, dwarf."
He made a thoughtful sound, as if considering an invitation. "You know, I'll just dig my way through the wall then. You know how us dwarves are with the whole burrowing." He gave me a meaningful look.
I snorted. "You'll never get through these walls."
"No? Oh well, maybe I'll just throw you in through the door to catch a few of the first traps that way then. It's not a very pleasant way to go, if the old geezer's reputation is anything to go by."
For a moment, I considered the poisons and trapdoors and other very literal dead-ends on the way, and had to concentrate to not wince. I was not going to show weakness in front of this brutish thug. "You can't scare me, I am fully prepared to die defending this place." I cursed inwardly when my voice threatened to betray me toward the end of the statement. Why was courage always coming so much easier to people in stories? It was simply not fair.
The ranger cocked an eyebrow at me. "Is that so? Laying down your life serving the sadistic old fart who would happily leave you to die gruesomely, eh?" He looked at me thoughtfully. "Maybe I should leave your corpse set up so that he can think it was you who was after his treasure. Which do you think is more precious to him, anyway, you or his polished rocks?"
I sent a murderous glare at the dwarf while furiously working on a comeback to demonstrate my strength of devotion and to snap him out of any ideas that he might be able to rattle me.
But the uncouth woodsman would not let me finish my brainwork in peace. "One way or another, I'm going in, and you're not in any state to stop me. But if you help me get what I want, I'll help you in return."
I found it remotely strange how the undersized ranger, over a head shorter than me, could talk down to me so effortlessly. But he was clearly deluded, so maybe that was why. "Help me? What would I possibly want from you? Great tips on how to pick up a hairy bed-warmer on four legs? Thanks, but I'll pass."
He pointed at my arms. "I stopped the bleeding but the bones in the right one are in shreds. They're not going to mend themselves." I cringed at the thought, and quietly cursed the weakening of my backbone after this mere brush with death. Where was my self-control? The dwarf was not helping, continuously interrupting my thoughts where I was furiously trying to collect them. "So unless you've got a personal healer stashed somewhere, I figure you won't be doing a whole lot of casting any time ever."
Now he was looking at me like a broken dog to be put down. I grit my teeth.
The foul-tongued cave-dweller mistook my silence as an invitation to go on mocking me. "Yeah, you'll be a mangled cripple, and I doubt your dear master will have use for you in that state." Another pause, giving me plenty of time to regret following his train of thought. "Well. I know a cleric back home who can fix you right up. All you need to do is to get me in."
I chortled in disbelief. "Fix me up? You expect me to be foolish enough to trust a Scyther?" The sheer gall on this white-skinned freak of nature was mind-blowing.
He swatted my argument aside. "I'm a man of my word. Let me give you an example. I promise your arm's going to hurt like hell in a second."
Before I realized what he was about to do, he swiftly closed the small distance between us and squeezed my bandage. My mind went blank for a moment, and seconds later I found myself doubled over on the stone floor, curled around my broken and abused arm.
He was standing next to me, peering down. "You believe me or do you need more of a demonstration?"
I furiously pushed back at the agonized whimpering my traitorous mind had plummeted into. I was sworn to protect the estate with my life, and I was not about to turn away from that just because I had failed to quite die in the attempt yet. I growled some wordless defiance at him.
"I can come up with all kinds of ways to make you trust me, sweet cakes. Do you like your legs? They're such nice legs." He prodded one with his boot.
Through the red haze a thought came to me that there was no real point in encouraging him to mutilate my already broken body further. I mumbled a grudging admission of defeat.
He bent down and tapped his ear. "I didn't quite hear you, did you say you would like to learn more about what a honest man I am?"
I counted to five slowly, and put more breath to it. "No, thanks, I am fine."
"There, now. And just so you know I'm not a monster." He reached into his pack, extracted a herb of some sort and handed it to me. "Chew on that, it'll help."
I looked at the sprig suspiciously, but then accepted it with my reasonably operational left hand for further investigation. The plant looked vaguely familiar, used for treating wounds. I chewed on it. It was not like he was going to bother to poison me at this point.
A moment passed in silence, and the searing fresh pain in my arm was reduced to a more dull throb. In a while I was able to think more clearly again.
And I found I had a plan.
Chapter 3: Coming to an Agreement
Shrugging off some piled-up tension from my shoulders, I turned to address my captor. "Ok, dwarf. I'll help you in, you'll help me get out of here before my master comes back, and get my arms fixed?"
He grinned toothily. "So we have a deal." He helped me up again. "I'd shake your hand on it but, well, you already got that point."
I snorted at him. "Don't make me regret this, now." I awkwardly slid my left hand into the folds of my robes, and pulled the key to the front door out of a concealed pocket.
He moved to gather his things, and I opened the door.
Once I was in the narrow hallway leading into the estate, I gestured at the floor. "Step only where I step." To demonstrate my meaning, I shrugged off my thick winter cloak, with some difficulty, then bundled it and threw it on a nearby tile. The tile clicked faintly, and some needles shot out of the wall just above it.
He followed me cautiously, telling the wolf to stand back. I was slightly disappointed at his canine-sparing edginess, but figured even a brutish Scyther would realize the dumb animal could not follow the concept of stepping stones. I pondered for a bit if I could have used some other trap to make the dwarf trust me so that he would not have left the mutt behind, but it was just as well the wolf was not poisoned on the first steps. After all, that would still leave me to deal with its pissed-off owner.
I had something much better planned for him.
He was barely two steps behind me when I quickly leapt forward and victoriously slammed my left hand on a tile on the wall. The wonderful sound of a trapdoor opening next to my feet to devour the insufferable scourge was like a soothing salve to my wounds. And I needed it, because the sudden impact of my bandaged better arm against the wall made me gasp and see stars erupt on the wall in front of me for a moment. But as I was focusing on restoring my unhampered vision, I heard the same trapdoor close again and lock my torturer into the spiked chamber below to die in agony. I broke into a broad, relieved smile.
After a bit of self-steadying I straightened and started to think of the corridor behind me again, and the leftover canine at its end that I would have to somehow get rid of. As I was turning to look that way, I felt something like a handful of apples on strings hit my legs, and suddenly crashed on my back when my feet got yanked out from under me.
I heard more than saw the dwarf holler, "Recall any other traps on the floor between us? Think quick, now." He was pulling me back where we came from. I felt a momentary panic rise, but pushed it back down. The trapdoors were closed again, I was sliding on them and there were no further mechanisms on top of them. That left me with just the obvious problem at hand – or leg, as it were.
I felt the tangle of cords around my legs pulling me towards him. I realized he had me caught in some strange contraption, but another sudden yank caused my raised head to hit the floor. Within moments he had roped me over like a fish caught in a seine.
I was still trying to come to grips with what just happened. Why wouldn't the ghastly vermin just die? Then his face appeared above me again, notably less cheerful this time. "I think you need a leash, puppet." With that, he flipped some of his rope over my head, planted a foot on my chest and unceremoniously tightened a noose around my neck until it was blocking my air.
I futilely clawed at it with my weak remaining forelimb, but he kept the cord tight while he shifted his attention to untangle the contraption from my legs. By the time he was finished, darkness was already creeping to the edges of my vision. The disinterested, callous look he gave me froze my blood. He was done messing around, and was not going to loosen the rope out of any flavour of sympathy. No, he would look me in the eye while strangling me to death.
The overwhelming feeling of powerlessness made my arm drop to the floor. I had tried to kill him, after all, and he was simply in a better position to return the favour. I could not possibly hold his cold gaze any longer, and closed my eyes to get away from his. I felt like curling into a ball as I shakily waited for my consciousness to slip away.
A moment later I felt him release the noose and loosen the knot enough to let me breathe again. I wheezed a lungful of air through my tortured windpipe and then proceeded to double over on my side, coughing.
I was not yet done steadying my breath when the dwarf leaned over to my ear and told me in a low voice, "This is the last lesson you'll get from me, squirt. You're a convenience item, but ultimately expendable. Got it?"
I tried to croak a hasty answer, but could not find my voice. I nodded shakily.
The rest of the corridors passed with an emphasized lack of excitement; not only had my bag of tricks been exhausted, I had no heart left to even try.
We got to the workroom door. "This is a room that only the most trusted servant of my master could enter, besides himself. I have not been there."
The dwarf peered at me. "Not really a favourite, are you."
I snorted and tried to spot any obvious traps on the door. It looked safe, but the simple wooden door was nevertheless locked. I was about to point this out to the man behind me, but had to hastily dodge aside when he unceremoniously sunk a battleaxe into the door. Pushing the shattered remains aside with his boot, he gestured for me to go in first.
The study was luxurious, with its own fireplace, a thick carpet on the floor, a desk, multiple bookshelves and paintings lining the walls. After some searching, we spotted a sturdy metal trapdoor under the carpet that had a single keyhole, and no visible vulnerabilities. An axe would not break through it, and digging through bedrock to get to the room underneath would be a feat even for an industrious dwarf with a lot of time on his hands.
I turned to the dwarf, who was looking through the room as if pondering what to bring. "This is as far as I can bring you. My master did not trust anyone with the key to this vault, so I expect it is on him even now."
He looked at me strangely. "You don't know how to get through this door?"
I shook my head, unsure what to make of his expression. "Without my spells, I can't even leave a dent on that. I doubt anything you have with you will get through it either."
He clicked his tongue disappointedly. "Pity. Looks like you outlived your usefulness after all." He began to unsheathe the nasty-looking weapon again.
Chapter 4: Searching for Treasure
It took me a while to realize what he meant to do with the wicked axe.
"...Wait! We had a deal!" I hastily backed away from him, positioning the desk between us.
"A deal which you're not fulfilling. You promised to get me in, yet here I am, on the wrong side of this door, and you just said your help stops here." He shifted his weight, as if to step toward me.
I squeaked in horror, to my eternal shame. "No! Just... just give me a moment, I'll look more carefully, alright?"
He shrugged. "If you insist. Don't take too long, though, this place is starting to bore me."
I scanned the room furiously, and decided to start my search at the desk. There were some papers stacked on it, with one in particular left as if it had been read just before my master's departure. I picked it up, desperate for any clues.
It was a letter from some man called Darbon, speaking of new merchandise being saved for a long-term honoured client, clearly my master, and an urging to come have a look before "she" would be accessible to other customers. The man sounded like a slave trader; I got the impression of the general location where they might be, and put the letter back down be to search the desk more carefully.
A drawer caught my attention; it seemed smaller than it should be. I pulled it out to grope at the space under it, and found a hidden compartment. My surprised gasp did not go unnoticed, and the dwarf came to look what I found.
The lid was stuck, and when I pulled at it with the futile strength I could muster from my less-broken arm, something snapped and a splinter scratched me. I pulled my hand out of the desk in surprise, and showed the blooded finger to the dwarf.
"There's something in there, alright. Strange, I don't think I was pulling hard enough to break anyth-" I suddenly lost feeling of my hand in mid-sentence. "Shit, it was a tr- I can't feel my – it's spreading!" My intonation went up an octave as the realization slammed into me like a brick on ice.
The dwarf seemed impassive at my panic about being poisoned, probably lethally. "Hmm. Trapped secret compartment. This place might have something interesting yet."
I tried to empathetically attract his attention to more serious matters. "I'm going to die, you heartless asshole!"
But to my consternation, he was too deeply occupied with calculating the riskiness of smashing the desk to get to the secret compartment without further contact with any poisoned needles. My mortal concerns got waved off. "Not in the next ten seconds, if you can still talk. Sit down and keep still, I'll have to think if your scrawny ass is still worth saving."
"If I'm worth – you cheap bastard!" My further valuations of his character were interrupted by urgent new signals coming from my muscles. "Arrrgh! My whole arm's on fire!"
The dwarf was still rummaging through the desk to look for more traps. "Should cut down on the yapping, it'll just spread fas- on fire, you say?" He came over to examine my finger again, then grinned broadly. "You're in luck, kid, this poison I know. Here," he produced a small vial from his pack, opened it and offered it to me. "Drink this."
I did not need to be told twice; I snagged the vial with my teeth and chugged it down. The liquid tasted like fresh dragon vomit, but I did not let it climb back up. Discarding the bottle, I slumped to lie on my back and sighed in exhausted relief.
Moments later, the smug dwarf prodded my arm and declared he had been right. I was too worn out by yet another near-death experience to even roll my eyes at him.
He provided further commentary as he went back to work on the secret compartment. "I've prepared for magical poisons, and a number of rare venoms, but turns out the old coot's too cheap for such fanciness." He pulled the contents out easily, now that it was deemed reasonable safe to move around. It was a wooden box, a bit under a cubit long and wide, and half a cubit deep. "Can't blame him, really, since he's got the guard setup to match."
I suspected he was referring to me, but concentrated on the wonderful feeling of normality slowly spreading to my arm. Well, normality aside from the bandaged flesh wounds, but that was nothing compared to being left completely without any functional forelimbs. My shattered and useless right arm decided to remind me of its miserable existence as I was revelling in the restoration of the left one. "You wouldn't have any more of that magic sprig that makes me forget my right arm too?"
"What, your head is clearing already? That won't do at all." He gave me a new sprig with an ambiguous leer. I was entirely too happy to see the familiar herb to spend time thinking whether he was serious or not.
He took out a knife to pry open the lid of the box, and it gave way with a crack. Then he sniggered, a very disturbing sound. "What? What's in there?"
"Our gracious host failed to inform us of his drug habit." He held up a small vial of a milky white liquid. "I'll definitely find a buyer for these. And," he produced a black, thick tome from the box, "I do believe a market is in place for this as well. And these." Five rings in his hand were humming with magical power. I recalled seeing at least two of them in my master's hand on separate occasions. "But bah, no key. I guess I'll have to get it from the man himself. You said you had some clue where he is?"
I tensed at the question, unsure whether this would open up further depths of betrayal on my part. In the end, I decided he would find the letter easily enough himself. "Uh. He's somewhere around the Isle of Cyprum, judging by the letter on the desk." But he would also be coming back soon, I feared, after figuring out that something was not right with the estate. In either case, it would be best to be as far from here as possible by then.
He glanced at the letter and nodded. "Cyprum it is."