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The mist seemed to add to the surreal feeling of despair and unholy dread that clung about the castle. Timothy carefully glanced over the edge of the drawbridge. Far below, he could see the dark fog that concealed the base of the cliffs. Carefully Timothy drew back and looked up towards the castle whistled nervously.

“This is the stupidest thing you've ever done,” he whispered to himself, “besides getting yourself thrown out by Master Wildaburn.”

“Hey, Creep you say something?”

“Nothing,” Timothy said aloud, “just talking to myself.”

He glanced over at the others. A couple like him were huddled in rough spun cloaks. A third member of the group who looked like his mother might have been an orc, didn’t wear much more than a pair of trousers and a sleeveless tunic.

“Well, make yourself useful. Are there any magical traps?”

With an inward grumble, Timothy concentrated his effort into perceiving the arcane art. He would have much rather stayed behind at the inn and waited for the group to return. Two things prevented that from happening. First, he didn’t trust any of them to recognize an enchanted artifact from a rusted spoon. Second, they had insisted he come along if he was to have any share of the loot, of which he was sure there had to be something he could use that was left behind by the Dark Lord to further his studies into the arcane. The Dark Lord was well known to have been a powerful practitioner of the mystic arts himself. 

“There are some small simple enchantments about the area,” Timothy finally confirmed.

“So there are traps. Good to know,” said Darren one of the other hooded figures.

“I didn’t say that. I said there are enchantments about the area, I can’t tell if they are traps or not.”

“Then what use are you?” asked the large orcish looking man.

Timothy sputtered, “I need to examine the enchantment to understand how it works. It's not something I can do from a distance.”

“Then I suggest learning quickly,” Darren stated as he crossed his arms. In the distance, the howling of wolves suddenly echoed through the night. Timothy felt the hairs on the back of his head stand on end as he drew his cloak in closer around him. It was only yesterday the villagers had found the bodies of those men in the roadway not even a mile out from the village. Torn and savaged by a wild beast. Something like that hadn’t happened since the fall of the Dark Lord.

“Let's go,” said Darren, “I want to see what the Dark Lord has left for us.”

One by one each member of the group turned to continue the rest of the way across the bridge to the castle. Timothy glanced back nervously at the swirling mists that obscured the trail that back to the village. For a moment he thought he saw the outline of something running through the woods and he hurried to catch up.

“Besides traps, what else should we expect to encounter within the castle?” asked the Orcish man.

“A couple of nights ago, the villagers I sent ahead said there were some undead ghouls,” stated Darren, “One of the idiots got themselves killed for it too.”

He chuckled which prompted the others to laugh as well. Timothy for his part frowned before reaching into the folds of his cloak to feel for his dagger.

“You didn’t mention the undead still walk here,” he muttered to himself more than anyone else. Darren must have heard him speak however and turned his head back in Timothy’s direction.

“You say something Creep?”

“Yes, I am wondering why you didn’t mention the undead before now.”

Darren laughed, “Why? A few ghouls or skeletons are nothing to be frightened of.”

“The undead cannot animate themselves,” not that you would bother to know that since your such an idiot, Timothy thought privately before continuing aloud, “they need either a necromancer, a curse or another powerful undead creature to raise and sustain the animation.”

“Are you patronizing me Creep? Because last I checked there are no necromancers or whatever around here. Besides your job is to help keep an eye out for magic traps, not history lessons on undead whatever.”

Timothy scowled and drew his hood up. He considered the information about the undead attack. If they were lucky the villagers had either lied about what they encountered in the castle or were mistaken. The alternative was the possibility of something considerably more dangerous than a few ghouls or skeletons. The worst was the possibility of a competent and powerful necromancer or lich. Another alternative was the chance one of the Dark Lord’s spawns might be lingering about the castle as well.

The group approached the large heavy wooden doors to the main entrance to the castle’s keep. After Timothy confirmed that indeed there were no traps, Darren directed the orcish man to push open the doors. The entry hall was dark and covered in thick dust, four time-worn sculptures of wicked-looking reptilian creatures seemed to peer at them from the ceiling alcoves above. Timothy glanced about looking for any sign of enchantment hidden or obvious. What he could see were the remains of broken spells with no possible way to discern their original intention.

One of the hooded companions that thus far hadn’t heard spoke a word since Timothy had joined up, knelt to examine the floor. He, or at least Timothy assumed it was a he, then beckoned for Durren. Timothy ignored them as they played about with the dust and continued onward a little further into the castle. He paused at the end of the entry hall, ahead the hall seemed to continue deeper into the castle. To his left was a large wide stairway that led up out of sight into the dark recesses of the castle, and to his right, a smaller passage disappeared into the unknown dark.

“It seems we are not the only ones that have been passing through here,” said Darren, “not sure if its someone alive or undead. Either way, be cautious.”

“What about those villagers you hired?”

“I doubt they would have returned. It took a lot of my coin to convince them in the first place,” Darren gave a low chuckle, “the locals are too scared and avoid the castle out of stupid superstition. We should be the first and hopefully only ones to lay claim to the Dark Lord’s wealth.”

“Agreed,” stated the orcish man.

“Hey, Creep you see anything up there?”

Timothy glanced back at the rest of the group, “nothing but darkness and dust.”

“Hmm, looks like your right,” said Darren as he joined Timothy, “guess your eyes are good for seeing the obvious at least. Come on let's go.”

Darren led the group straight ahead ignoring both the stairway and darkened passage. Timothy was expecting the passage to lead into the throne room, instead the group found themselves entering a large chapel. The large stained glass windows that dominated the far wall lay shattered and partially boarded up. The raised podium appeared to be smashed and a skeletal figure was crumpled around its base.

The mute hooded figure raised a hand to stop the group before moving forward to examine the floor. Timothy ignored him and glanced around warily at the overturned and smashed pews, trying to spot any movement of anything that would attack them.

“Blood,” Timothy turned his head sharply and realized that Darren had been speaking, “it's a trail of blood. Looks like someone had dragged a body over this floor. Possibly a few days ago by the looks of things.”

With a frown, Darren stood up and gave Timothy a hard look, “So tell me Creep, are the undead known to move bodies.”

“Hardly,” said Timothy, “very few of the dead are intelligent enough to even consider the idea. Unless they were given orders otherwise, a rotting corpse would have just been ignored.”

“Could be the corpse crawled off,” offered the orcish man.

“Of course!” Darren laughed, “that is a possibility!”

“A worrying one,” muttered Timothy and even more quietly, “because you overlooked what I just told you.”

“Hey Creep! I hope you're muttering some stupid spell to reveal magical traps.”

Timothy only glared as a response. Darren shrugged, “guess you haven't found anything. In that case, let's fan out and check this room first.”

The orcish man and the other hooded figure nodded their understanding and moved to explore the room. Timothy for his part closed his eyes to focus his attention to reveal the underlying aura of arcane energies. The chapel was like a scar in the ethereal, which often happens to a holy site that has been desecrated. To channel the power of the divine would prove difficult though not impossible. Timothy wondered if the chapel had been desecrated before the Dark Lord turned to the forbidden arts, or sometime shortly after. Interestingly enough, the chapel hadn’t been consecrated to any of the Dark Gods, not even in a more generalized way. Privately he considered if perhaps the Dark Lord had a private shrine erected elsewhere to conduct his worship.

“Look here,” said Darren. Timothy glanced his way to see Darren standing by the raised podium holding aloft an amulet.

“Must be worth something, if this old fool,” Darren kicked the skeletal remains that lay beside the podium, “was holding so dearly to it. What do you think?”

“Looks decent,” replied the orcish man. The other hooded figure merely shrugged.

“What are your thoughts Creep?”

Timothy approached and offered out his hand. Darren handed the amulet over while wearing a smug look of confidence. The temptation to throw the amulet away surged angrily in Timothy’s mind, instead, he glanced over the amulet looking for enchantment and other magic.

“It’s some holy relic.”

“That's obvious Creep! We found it in a chapel. Tell us something we don’t know.”

After grinding his teeth angrily, Timothy continued, “There’s a divine blessing over the amulet. If I had to guess it most likely offers protection against undead and the power of the dark gods.”

“You guess? Your suppose to be the magic expert, Creep.”

“I am. Divine magic lies outside my area of expertise. Your better off asking a priest if you want to know the particulars.”

Darren rolled his eyes, “we invited you to come along so we wouldn’t have to hire someone else to tell us what each little magical thing is supposed to do. You said you could detect magical traps, and explain what all the magical stuff we find does. Now you're saying you can’t?”

“Yes! I mean, no!” Timothy closed his eyes in frustration, “I explained I can read and interpret enchantments and arcane energies. Anything enchanted by human hands, yes I can tell you what kind of stupid magic thing it is! But I’m not all-knowing, and the study of the arcane is wildly complex. Divine magic is even more so because it never follows any regular rules or guidelines. Not to mention even if we were to actually find anything it takes time to study an artifact to understand it completely.”

“The Creepy guy is talking too much,” interrupted the orcish man.

“Agreed,” answered Darren, “Listen, Creep. Shut up unless we need you to say something.”

Timothy nodded while he tried to hold his frustration in check. He hated working with such idiots and Darren was the biggest one of all, especially with his self absorbed bloated ego.

“Excellent! Now where to next?”

“We could try the stairs,” offered the orcish man.

Darren took back the amulet out of Timothy’s hands and pushed past him to lead the way to the stairs. There was a brief debate of going up or down, that Timothy thought would be wise of him to stay out of. Instead, he glanced back at the blood-stained floor. They hadn’t seen anything undead since they entered the castle. It was something that struck Timothy as odd, as he considered ghouls, skeleton and the like useful if only used in great numbers. All the same, something had killed the villagers here in the chapel and had enough intelligence to consider moving the body.

Eventually, Darren settled on descending the stairs with the rest of the group following, using torches to light the way. Timothy kept to the back of the group after taking an offered torch while occasionally muttering quietly to himself. Partway down the large spiral stairway, the group came across a broken-down wall that had once been erected to block off access to the lower floors. Darren and the orcish man were excited at the prospect of uncovering something that they reasoned the Dark Lord was trying to hide. Timothy declined to point out that obviously someone else had broken through the wall already and had probably taken off with whatever valuables there was to be found down past the broken wall. 

All of which lead to Timothy truly wondering about Darren’s supposed claims that they should be the first to have entered the castle since the Dark Lord’s defeat. It was obvious the locals had more than a simple superstitious fear of the Castle and have kept their distance from the dark foreboding walls, but what about other travelers that passed through the land? News of the Dark Lord’s fall had spread far and wide across the lands. What’s to have prevented others like Darren’s group from considering the thrill of looting the castle first?

With a shiver, Timothy reflected on the thought of what might have killed the villager a couple of nights ago. Maybe avoiding the castle would have been better in the first place. Let a couple of groups of other adventures explore the castle first and clear out the worst of the dangers. Who knows what might have taken residence here in the Dark Lords' absence.

The group reached the bottom of the stairs and emerged into what looked to Timothy as the entrance to the castle’s crypt.

“Fan out,” Darren ordered, “Creep watch the stairs. This looks like an ideal place to ambush the unwary.”

“Feels dark,” said the orcish man. Normally Timothy might have muttered something about how you can’t feel darkness, but he couldn’t help but agree that something was off-putting here. It felt like they were being watched. Somewhat unnerved Timothy glanced around back up the stairs and noted with surprise that the central column the stairs wrapped around was hollow. He looked up only to see it stretch on endlessly into the darkness above. A sudden sense of claustrophobia crept upon him as he considered the crushing weight of the castle above him.

“Seeing anything Creep?”

“No, unless you want me to say that it looks like you managed to lead us straight into the castle’s crypt.”

“Problem with that?”

“Hardly any if you're dismissing the report of the undead walking in the castle. Need I remind you that the crypt is where they bury the dead?” 

Darren gave a tight smile that was almost more grimace than mirth, “yes thank for pointing out the obvious, the crypt is where the dead are buried. Now unless you have something else to add, let's go.”

Timothy turned back to see the group begin to move in further into the castle’s dark depths. Almost like a practiced maneuver, they each moved to position themselves defensively with the orcish man taking point followed by Darren. The other hooded figure indicated for Timothy to move forward behind Darren. 

Each little sound that echoed the narrow corridors of stone put Timothy on edge. Every corner and crevice seemed like it was hiding a ghoul or monster ready to jump out at them. The farther they moved through the dark tunnels the more he was expecting something or anything to happen. To distract himself, Timothy started trying to read the names of the deceased they had passed by.

Darren stopped the group to examine one of the tombs that looked like it had been forced open. His face turned grim as he lowered his torch and checked the inside.

“Its empty,” he announced, “Creep, check the area.”

“What for?”

“Just do it, and tell me if there isn’t anything nearby.”

Timothy closed his eyes, “Nothing beyond the usual ambient aura that fills the castle. There is a stronger focus of ethereal energy over there,” he opened his eyes to see he was point deeper into the catacombs.

“Ethereal-what?”

“Magic,” Timothy specified, “there's more dark magic in that direction. Nothing controlled like an enchantment or a spell but something happened over there about.”

“Well, I don’t really care about over there. I’m more concerned about where this corpse might have wandered off to.”

“How in nine hells am I supposed to know that?”

“With magic of course!”

Timothy let out a slow long breath, “I am more than capable of reading enchantments and deciphering magic scrolls. I can even cast some simple spells, but I never mentioned the innate to see who or where someone one would have dragged off with a random rotting corpse!”

Darren raised an eyebrow and opened his mouth to say something but Timothy cut him off, “No more! I have had it with your insults and idiocy. My name is not Creep it’s Timothy. I had more dignity than this when I was serving under my former Master the Great Magi Wildaburn. I agreed to join this pathetic excuse of thieves and scavengers with the hope of-.”

Timothy choked as the orcish man backhanded him, sending him toppling over the open tomb. Darren stepped around the tomb as Timothy was struggling to his feet again. There was a brief moment when Timothy looked up to see Darren had smirk playing about his face but his eyes held nothing but fury. Darren kicked Timothy to the ground again and then planted his foot to keep him pinned down.

“You don’t get to disrespect me,” Darren pulled out his sword and Timothy went utterly still in fear as he eyed the blade, “at least you can respect someone who has the power to kill you. Now I might have let you off with an apology and licking my boots clean, but I find your voice entirely annoying. Not to mention your great than thou attitude. So how about I tie you down and leave you here to join the ghouls and skeletons.”

“No! Please don’t leav-.”

The hilt of Darren’s sword smashed into Timothy’s head leaving him stunned. With a quick motion, Darren retrieved a handkerchief and stuffed it in Timothy’s mouth before directing the orcish man to retrieve some rope. They quickly had Timothy’s hands bound, and with a self-confident laugh, Darren turned to leave.

“If you’re still alive in the morning we’ll retrieve you. If not…,” he shrugged.

If looks could kill, Timothy’s eyes would have left Darren a smoldering crater. When the last of the group’s torchlight diminished out of sight Timothy immediately started to work his dagger out from within the folds of his cloak, a difficult endeavor with his hands bound. Though he was partially glad the idiots hadn’t tied his hands behind his back, which would have made a difficult task into an impossible one.

It took Timothy a couple of hours to get the dagger free. Partway through he was abruptly frightened by a sudden swarm of bats that fluttered through the depths of the catacombs. He hunched low to the ground fearing a ravaging attack any moment from the winged vermin. For several long moments, he lay low to the ground until he gathered the courage to look up again.

He had dropped his torch, allowing it to roll several feet away from him. With a grumble, he leaned back against the tomb the idiots had left him next to. The bats around him settled into the nooks and crannies of the ceiling above. 

“Stupid winged rats,” he muttered, before reaching back into his cloak, “next time I’m keeping the stupid blade where I can more easily acquire it! Or better yet, perhaps I should actually finish learning some worthwhile spells! That would be a novel idea! Be a magic user that actually casts magic!”

With a disappointed shake of his head, Timothy redoubled his efforts and managed to get the tips of his fingers around the dagger started to pull it out from beneath his cloak. The blade clattered into his lap, and with relief, Timothy started to try to maneuver the dagger in such a way as to start cutting himself free. An endeavor that soon proved just as difficult as retrieving the dagger from his cloak in the first place. More than a few times he nicked his fingers and hands.

After several muttered curses and quiet vows of vengeance, Timothy managed to slip his hands free of his bindings.

“Yes!” he shouted triumphantly, “Once I uncover the Dark Lord’s secrets of the Arcane, I will have my vengeance on those fools.”

Timothy stood and retrieved his torch from off the floor. He collected his dagger again and shuffled through the dark towards where he last believed the stairs were. After several long minutes of searching, he realized he had gotten turned around somewhere and stumbled across a wide set of stairs that descend a few feet to another room.

Curious, Timothy descended the stairs and found a much grander crypt than the rest of the catacombs. The area seemed untouched by time and he could see upon a raised dais a white marble coffin. He didn’t need to use his ability to perceive the arcane to realize there was something significant at play here. There was a quiet serenity about place that was at odds with the atmosphere of the rest of the castle.

Unnerved, Timothy retreated up the stairs and renewed his efforts in finding the exit. Occasionally he paused to study a few of the tombs, glancing over the names of the persons who occupied them. He took an interest in one that held the remains of a Great Master of the Arcane Arts. 

“I wondered how he came to be entombed here,” he quietly asked himself as he reached a hand to the tomb’s surface, “What secrets do you hold that you still have yet to share with me?”

He wasn’t sure how long he stood there before a cold quiet voice spoke out of the darkness from behind.

“Make no sudden moves and I may let you live.”

Timothy froze. He hadn’t noticed anyone approach, and he was sure he would have seen the light of their torch long before encountering anyone or at least heard them moving through the darkness.

“I don’t mean any harm,” he spoke trying to sound more confident and assured of himself than he felt.

“Good,” said spoke the cold voice, “I prefer not having to kill unnecessarily. Now drop any weapons on the ground in front of you.”

Cautiously, Timothy glanced down the front of his cloak. He had replaced the dagger deep within the folds of his cloak and was rather inclined not to be separated from it with someone threatening harm against his life.

He tried to turn his head to see if the other person was armed when they hiss out a warning, “I didn’t say you can turn around, yet! I told you to drop all your weapons!”

“I don’t have any!” Timothy lied. He held his breath and hoped whoever it was wouldn’t call him out on his bluff. The voice sounds light and feminine leaving him inclined to think it was a girl. Perhaps he could overpower her and run if the situation called for it.

“Then slowly turn with your hands where I can see them, and if you make any sudden moves, I will not hesitate to kill you.”

Slowly Timothy raised his hands while still holding aloft his torch. He was surprised to see a pale, grim-looking woman holding sword between them like she knew how to use it.

“What's your name?” she asked with narrow eyes. Timothy gulped and reconsidered his plans of trying to overpower her.

“Timothy and I should warn you, I’m-. Well, I was apprenticed to a powerful wizard!”

She raised an eyebrow at that statement and Timothy wondered if she was considering whether it would be worth the effort to kill him. Silently he prayed that she would lenient.

“If you're going for intimidation I would stick with just saying you know magic.”

“Well I don’t!” he scrunched up his face, “I mean I do! Yes! I know loads of magic, so you should tremble before I kill you with but a word!” 

Her bark of laughter took Timothy by surprised and he retorted, “Don’t laugh I can do it!”

“Then I will remember to cut out your tongue first.”

His eyes went wide and he shut his mouth. There was a long pause as they each considered each other for a moment. If Timothy knew any decent spells to frighten her into letting him go he would have used it right then. Even a simple distraction spell would have served useful.

“Tell me, Timothy, what are you doing down here?”

Her question interrupted his vain plan of dominating over her with magic that he hadn’t learned. For a moment he considered her question, he didn’t want to explain that he had been left behind by a group of incompetent idiots. To buy himself some time he countered with a question of his own.

“What about you? What are you doing here?”

“I live here,” she replied leaving Timothy surprised, then almost as an afterthought she added, “and I killed the last person I caught trespassing through. So be warned, I might do it again.”

Timothy let out a slow breath as he considered her statement and muttered, “I see.”

Another awkward pause in the conversation threatened to intrude the conversation and Timothy decided to try a new change intact and gave a gracious bow, “my apologies then. I was under the impression that no one has claimed the castle. I shall return and report to my master at once.”

“A master that your no longer an apprentice to?”

“Yes! I mean, no!”

“Yes or no you don’t have a master?”

“Neither?”

This was not how Timothy had hoped the conversation to go. The girl was frustratingly annoying at asking stupid questions that weren’t helping anything.

“Look I was just looting the place. Looking for something the Dark Lord left, okay? Same as you no doubt.”

“I honestly have no intention of keeping anything of the Dark Lord.”

Timothy glared at her in disbelief, that's a load of horseshit. You can’t merely claim to live here without implying to take over as the next Dark Lord!

“However, I also have no intention of letting others use his powers either.”

With indignation at her presumption of grandeur, Timothy shouted, “By the Gods, why the hell would you do that!”

“I have my reasons,” she replied with a taunting smile, “Now I believe it's time for you to go.”

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