Brutus whined, turning around in place as he looked for his master.
“I’m sorry, boy,” Alex said, approaching the big canine and gingerly reaching out to pat one of his heads. The head glanced at Alex for a moment, but didn’t move away as he touched it. Brutus kept whining, still looking for Theresa with the other two heads while allowing Alex to pet him: something he would not have tolerated at the start of their journey.
It was a good thing that their relationship had improved, especially now that Theresa wasn’t with them. Alex knew that as anxious as Brutus was about Theresa, she must have been equally as worried and anxious about him and which group he’d ended up in. Alex kept his hand on Brutus’ head, thinking that he’d do his best to make sure that the two of them were back together soon.
“Atta boy pup, we’ll get you back to your mommy soon,” Thundar grunted, then looked to Rayne. “Hello, Rayne.”
“E-er hello,” Rayne responded nervously, eyeing the massive minotaur and the strongly built young wizard. “Pleasure to work with you.”
“Yeah, you too,” Alex said, glancing down at his spell-mark.
It was bright red—indicating that they were very far from the teleportation circle they were supposed to reach. Considering that they weren’t even in the underground complex yet, that made sense.
“Alrighty,” Alex said. “No use wasting time.”
He turned, still petting the anxious, whining cerberus. “I’ve been in caves once or twice before, but I don’t have a lot of experience with them. Do either of you?”
“My cousins and I once had to clear out a nest of Lurchers near our home, and they were in a cave,” Thundar said. “But that was a big tunnel—maybe twelve feet high—and it was just a straight shot from the mouth of the cave to their den. What about you, Rayne? Any experience?”
“Ah,” Rayne cleared his throat. “My father was hired by the Delvers’ Guild on a couple of occasions to clear caverns of monsters, but I’ve never been deep in a cave, just in small grottos to collect mushrooms. And uh…” He paused. “…my father never talked about those jobs.”
Silence hung over the group for a moment.
“Right, so none of us have that much experience,” the minotaur said. “Guess its tactics straight out of class then. What should our marching order be?”
Alex eyed the group carefully. “Do you know a lot of attack spells, Rayne? Anything that isn’t fire so we don’t burn up our air and die in the dirt, all blue in the face and clutching our throats?”
Both of his companions stared at him for a moment, before Thundar shook his head. “Just ignore him, Rayne, he’s always like this.”
“I know some attack spells,” Rayne said after another nervous silence. “Mana bolts, force missiles and acid arrows.”
“Oof, acid arrow, now there’s a nasty spell,” Thundar grunted.
“Sounds like it,” Alex agreed. “And Thundar, you know some ranged spells from your battle magic class, right?”
“Yep,” he said, then drew his mace. “Plus I got old reliable here.” He glanced at the skinny Rayne. “How comfortable are you with getting in a melee?”
“Er, I’ve never held anything deadlier than an axe that I chopped wood with,” the young man quickly said.
“Right, right,” Alex said, considering their options. “Okay, here’s what I think. Brutus can go in front, and I’ll be right behind him. He’s got the best senses of any of us: I trust your nose, Thundar, but he’s got three of them. Rayne can go behind me and blast stuff that’s coming at or behind us. Thundar, you can take up the rear. Who can cast lesser force armour and force shield?”
Both wizards raised their hands.
“Perfect,” Alex said. “I can cast both on myself and Brutus. That way, the whole party’ll be protected. Sound good?”
“Sounds good to me.” Thundar said. “Anyone know anything about the undead?”
“My father kept a journal about all kinds of monsters he fought when he used to travel for some of his commissions. He can’t really do that kind of work anymore, so he gave it to me before I left for school.” Rayne said, pulling a notebook from his bag. “I might be able to identify some of what we come across.”
“Hopefully, we won’t be coming across too much,” Thundar grunted. “What about light? I can see in the dark, but-”
“There’s my forceball,” Alex said. “I can use it to scout ahead too.”
“And I can cast a light spell onto an object,” Rayne added. “It will make it glow.”
“Right, then,” Thundar grunted. “Let’s get this moving skeleton-feast started.”
The minotaur looked at him. “It’s just an expression.”
“Really? And you talk about me?” Alex said. “Where do they say this expression?”
“Here. In The Barrens. A hot trend started by Thundar, son of Gulbiff.”
Alex rolled his eyes. “Just ignore him, Rayne, he’s always like this.”
“Hey!” Thundar grunted. “Don’t use my own words against me!”
“Vengeance is mine, so says me,” Alex said before turning back to Brutus. “Alright Brutus, let’s try to get back to Theresa fast.” He smiled, petting the big cerberus. “We’ll find her together, okay? Let me just cast some spells on you before we start.”
Rayne cocked his head. “Does he understand you?”
Thundar snorted. “That big dog knows a lot more than he lets on.”
Brutus looked at Thundar almost as if he were saying, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’
He gave a short bark, but did nothing else as Alex began to cast his magic. The cerberus watched in curiosity as a red glowing shield manifested in front of him. He tried nipping at it a couple of times before he grew used to it. He also nipped at the lesser force armour that formed around him until it turned invisible. Alex then cast his protective spells over himself and manifested his forceball and Wizard’s Hand. Thundar and Rayne also cast their own protective shields.
The group looked at each other, exchanged silent nods and turned toward the entrance.
The entrance to the underground complex loomed out of the dusty plain ahead of them. It looked like a squat, square building made of sun-baked stone; its entrance was a black doorway that was at least twelve feet tall. Flanking the passage were two statues carved of orange, dust-blasted rock.
The statues looked like humanoid skeletons, and each clutched stone scythes that were upside down so that the blades curved by their feet. The sculptures were so life-like—or death-like, he supposed—that Alex almost expected, that just like the statues within The Cave of the Traveller: they would come alive to attack them at any moment.
The little party approached the entrance cautiously, but neither statue moved as they crept through the gateway. Alex swore that their dark, empty eye holes watched them, though.
They descended an ancient staircase into the dark. The light from The Barrens’ blazing sun slowly faded behind them, and soon the only light that they had was coming from the crimson glow of their force spells, and a white light that Rayne had cast onto an ordinary wand carved of willow wood that he kept in his bag for the purpose.
As they reached the bottom of the stairs, they saw a massive entrance hall looming ahead. It was almost like a church in its layout, with soaring ceilings and broken stone benches all facing a raised dais on the far end of the chamber. Rising above the raised platform—and built into the back wall—was another massive statue of a skeleton, maybe twice as tall as Grimloch. This statue was carved to look like it was wearing robes made out of stone, with skeletal wings spreading behind it that filled the back wall.
“Well that’s a grim god,” Thundar said.
“Or deity,” Rayne said. “Since it’s a skeleton, we can’t really say if it’s supposed to be a male, female, or something else.”
“Well, whatever it is, I don’t want to meet its worshippers.”
Alex’s mana senses began to tingle as they approached the opposite end of the room. Another passage opened on their left, revealing another stairway going further down into the deep.
A dark magic emanated from the tunnel.
It wasn’t as thick as The Traveller’s mana had been in her sanctum, but it still felt like a great power was coming from somewhere deep in the earth.
He told his companions what he felt.
“Yeah, I’m starting to feel something too,” Thundar said.
Rayne shrugged, but Brutus’ heads were pointing toward the deep passage, as rumbling growls came from all three throats.
“Well, looks like there’s only one way down anyway,” Thundar grunted, thumbing the haft of his mace. “Might as well keep going.”
The ceiling of this passage rose only about eight feet above their heads, causing Thundar to bend his neck to keep the points of his horns from scraping the stone.
They soon found that the tunnel led into a maze. At the bottom of the staircase lay a crossroads of several passages, all leading further into the darkness. At the corners of the crossroads, there were carvings of more stone skeletons that appeared to be watching the wizards.
Alex was starting to see a pattern in the architecture of the place. He wondered what Selina would have thought of it. Rayne swallowed, watching as Alex scouted down each passage using the red light of his forceball. The second year student glanced at Thundar. “Hey, um, aren’t minotaurs good in mazes? You all don’t ever get lost, right?”
Thundar snorted, rolling his eyes. “That’s fairy tales: it came from that old bard’s story about the first minotaur being some monster created to guard a labyrinth. Which is completely made up.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Rayne quickly apologized.
“Don’t worry about it,” Thundar said. “More focused on trying to find the right way to go right now. Any guesses, Alex?”
Alex swore under his breath. “Only thing I can tell is that there aren’t any deadends within like thirty feet of us.” He glanced down at his spell-mark. “I guess the only way to figure out which way to go is to pick a path and watch our spell-marks.”
“Couldn’t give us a map this time, could you, Chancellor?” Thundar grunted.
Rayne winced. “He likely can hear us through the spells-marks.”
It quickly became clear that the marks would be invaluable to their success: they picked the wrong tunnel twice at that first crossroad, and had to double back, finally picking the right one by watching the changing colours of their spell-marks.
As they went deeper, Alex watched Brutus carefully. The cerberus kept sniffing the air, padding forward cautiously and now and then, looking back to check that the three wizards were still behind him. Each time, he paused and whined a little.
It was like he was reminded that Theresa wasn’t around every time he looked back, as he continually sniffed the air.
“Don’t worry, boy,” Alex said. “We’re going to find her soon,” he promised.
It was shortly after comforting Brutus that the first attack came.
It came without warning.
The group was walking along a tunnel lined with empty stone torch holders carved into the wall. The tunnel had curved, reducing how far ahead and how far behind they could see.
Thundar didn’t hear them until it was too late, Brutus didn’t smell them, and before the light of Alex’s forceball had reached them, they came charging around the corner from up ahead.
Rayne cried in alarm, but months of COMB-1000 had hardened the young wizards; they sprang into action as soon as they saw the horrors approaching.
A horde of bone-creatures came rushing around the bend.
They were muupkaras—at least eight of them—or they had been muupkaras at one time. Their flesh had long rotted away, leaving only sun-bleached skeletons. The creatures rushed them with eerie clacks of bone on stone as their skeletal feet skittered across the tunnel floor. They moved with horrifying speed; perhaps two or three times as fast as living Muupkaras.
The little creatures’ bottom jaws unhinged, extending and widening until they spread far enough to chomp off a body part. The sucking part in their mouths had rotted away in death, leaving only the hard bones of their skeletons. But, even though it looked like they could no longer suck flesh from the bones of their prey, Alex had no doubt that their bites would be as deadly as their suckers had been.
“Blast ‘em!” Thundar roared and he and Rayne started firing glowing mana bolts into the mass of skeletons.
Their bones were thick and hardened like petrified wood, but the young wizard’s spells were powerful enough to knock the attackers from their feet and crack bones if they hit at the right angle.
“Animated Skeletons!” Rayne shouted, remembering his father’s notes. “They’re fast, but they’re only bones: they're light and won’t weigh more than a fourteenth of what they weighed when they were alive!”
“Good to know!” Alex said, eyeing their assailants.
Muupkaras were already small: if these skeletons weighed so much less than they did in life, then that meant…
He shot Wizard’s Hand forward and started pulling the creatures off balance. They fell like dried twigs. Alex could use this. He willed Wizard’s Hand to grab one at the front of the troop by its arm and rise into the air. The skeleton struggled in his magical grasp, but it was so light that his enhanced spell could lift it off the ground unhindered.
As the creature tried to grasp and claw at the spell, he dropped it, letting the struggling monstrosity fall into the path of the undead troop, sending them colliding with the falling skeleton. Several fell, but two of the more agile creatures jumped over the pile and leapt for the young wizards.
Brutus met them with bared teeth.
The skeletons were quick, but Brutus was quick too and he had three sets of bone crushing jaws to catch them with.
They snapped shut over two of the monsters.
Bones snapped in his mouths as he grabbed animated skeletal limbs. As each bone shattered, a dark, ominous mana rose from where the marrow would have been deep within living bones. The skeletons’ movements grew weaker as the mana dissipated.
“Their animating force is in their bones!” Rayne shouted, taking cover behind Thundar to quickly consult his notebook.
“Then we break ‘em up!” Thundar shouted.
“And break them down!” Alex finished.
Skeletons threw themselves at Brutus, but their bony jaws bounced off either the force shield or invisible lesser force armour.
Brutus grabbed and savaged another one, his jaws crushing its hardened bones while Alex’s Wizard’s Hand lifted skeletons from the back of the troop and dropped them into the cerberus’ waiting jaws.
The battle was going in their favour.
Until Thundar cried out.
“Oh shit! Look out!” He spun around. “They’re more coming from the back! The tunnel behind is full of ‘em!”
Alex glanced backward to see more skeletons rushing down the hall behind them and toward Thundar.
Rayne paled. “They flanked us! We’re trapped!”