More Duergar would come. Craven instructed everyone to hide the bodies into one of the cavern’s enclaves. Nolofinwe ordered his summoned wolf spiders to cocoon and hang the bodies to make it look like the duergar were ambushed by the giant arachnids. The only concern Craven had was the mass of vegetation Nolo had conjured. Future duergar patrols would know it was not natural, but there was nothing to be done about it. Fortunately, the heroes’ new companion, Samir, knew a technique to cover and hide their tracks and so they left. Hopefully, Craven thought, it would confuse and detour the coming patrols.
In time, when the heroes felt assured that no one was following, they rested.
“We’re only about an hour away from the entrance,” Nolo said.
“Good,” said Craven. “Now we need to decide how we’re gonna do this. Nolo, is there anything else you can tell us about this secret passage?”
“I don’t know much else,” Nolo confessed. “Zufem just said it was a passage that slaves used to escape.”
“Who’s Zufem?” asked Samir.
“A troll I knew. A friend,” Nolo said. “He’s probably dead now.”
“What do you know of Shukalgau?” Craven asked Samir.
“I could draw you a map,” Samir responded. Using rocks and pebbles as landmarks and dirt lines as borders, he drew a crude illustration on the ground.
“This is the only road to Shukalgau,” explained Smair. “The city is built along a massive rock formation.”
“It looks like half a pie,” Arien commented.
“These are the walls,” Samir continued, “made of iron. And these circles are the guard towers. This, right here, is the Great Gate Ebon. It’s the only known entrance into Shukalgau and is heavily guarded. Past the first walls; you enter the outer section – the homes of the commoners, guilds, inns, bars, markets, slave traders, and to the southern end, the slums which are mostly populated by Derro. Past this wall, further in the city, is the inner section. This is where the nobles, wealthy merchants, and the duergar military reside. It’s also the place of the duergar government. This spot here is the Obsidian Palace – the palace of The Gray King and the central power of Shukalgau. At the northern end, near the barracks, are slave pens. Some I know serve the nobles and others are there in temporary holding until moved into the mines – here. I’ve stayed in that place. In this area, behind the noble section are the forges.”
“But where, exactly in Shukalgau, will this secret passage take us?” Craven asked.
“I don’t know,” Nolo answered.
“I’m curious what kind of secret passage it is,” said Craven, stroking his beard.
“What do you mean?” Nolo asked.
“Well, I have a hard time believing this passage was made by slaves and the duergar never found out,” Craven replied.
“Maybe they did,” Flint said.
“True, but I wonder if it was a secret passage meant for the royal family or one of the noble families. If that is the case, maybe it’ll lead us into the inner section.”
“We haven’t been that lucky so far,” Flint added.
“Again, true,” Craven nodded. “Though my other thought is that it will take us into the forges. Maybe it’s a naturally-made passage or made by indigenous animals and the slave simply discovered it and took advantage. If it does go to the forge, it may be tricky to get from there to the inner area.”
“Wherever it takes us, we’ll need a plan and I’ve got one,” said Flint. “Where ever it takes us, I’ll be disguised as a duergar, maybe as a slave trader or a slave wrangler and you lot will either be my slaves or invisible or something.”
“That sounds like a good plan,” Craven said, “but we’ll still need to figure out where the passage takes us before we finalize how exactly we want to orchestrate this operation. The next problem is we need to find where the mechanism is.”
“Mechanism?” Samir inquired.
“Oh, I suppose we never explained why we’re trying to sneak into Shukalgau. You are aware that we are all from different worlds, right?”
Samir was silent.
Craven continued: “We’re all from different worlds, dimensions, or realities, or whatever mystics like to call them. That’s why when you told us of your kingdom and your title, none of us showed any recognition. It’s the same for all of us.”
“I heard mention of something like that, but wasn’t exactly clear,” said Samir.
“Do you remember how you got here?”
“Yes,” Samir answered.
“You do? You remember the duergar taking you to Xymor?" Craven was shocked.
“Well, no, not that part,” Samir confessed. “I remember… I was sentenced to death but ended up here.” Samir’s thoughts went back to that night and Asim. Was it Asim who gave him to the duergar? Did Asim disobey the sultan’s orders and actually spare his life? Was it Asim that told the duergar that Samir would be an excellent slave hunter? He remembered Asim signaling ‘survive.’ Did Asim have a plan to get him out of Xymor? How?
These questions rolled in his head. It wasn’t the first time he wondered about these and it wouldn’t be the last time. But one thing was certain – Samir wanted answers and these new people might be able to help.
Craven smiled. “Yes, it’s the same with all of us. The duergar have some sort of mechanism, a portal or magic spell, that allows them to travel to different worlds where they buy or capture poor souls to be slaves.”
“To gather magmium to help the Contraptions in their wars,” Samir added.
The four heroes looked at each other in silence.
“How do you mean?” Arien inquired.
“The machines the duergar work with – you know.”
“Who had those drawings?” asked Craven. “The ones you showed me of those machines.”
Nolo took out the pieces of parchment and showed them to Samir.
“Yes,” Samir nodded. “The ones I saw were different looking, but they were similar in design.”
“So the duergar are serving or helping these machines in some war effort?” asked Craven.
Samir nodded again.
“That is good information to know.”
Craven began to contemplate the words his goddess said over five years ago. She mentioned a war between the gods and something…. He couldn’t remember. Who were the gods fighting against? Who were the Contraptions and who were their enemies? Was there a connection?
“At any rate,” Craven continued, “we’re going into the mouth of the lion. As far as we can tell, it’s our only way out of Xymor.”
“I’d like to come and help,” said Samir. “I know Shukalgau better than any of you and I want to go home too.”
The four heroes agreed.
“With all this planning,” Craven said, “there is still one problem we have yet to deal with – Vermelda.”
The heroes knew Vermelda would interfere somewhere, somehow, but they didn’t know when.
Night fell, and once more, Vermelda came to assault Arien in her sleep, but it was Artemis who noticed Arien’s distress and brought it to Nolo’s attention. Nolo woke Craven who stopped Vermelda.
“The witch must be getting frustrated,” Craven said as he went back to sleep.
The next day, the heroes traveled to the entrance of the secret passage. They sent Artemis to scout ahead. She saw a giant snail to the side of the entrance and further in, she spied several animated skeletons engulfed in flame, but their cream-colored bones did not burn.
The plan was to sneak by the giant snail and engage the skeletons, but as the heroes tried to sneak past the snail, its giant shell began to glow.
Samir and Nolo tried to quicken their pace into the passage and away from the glow, but Samir triggered a floor plate that forced him to stop. Spheres of molten lava fell from the ceiling and down onto Samir and Nolo.
Flint and Craven rushed to attack the snail. They covered their eyes with their shields, knowing the continual glow would cause harm. But Nolo wasn’t so lucky; he was in the direct line-of-sight with the snail and the glow burst into colored lights – the pretty lights. Nolo was stunned.
Arien had rushed past Nolo and Samir. She noticed the passage had pockets of steaming, slightly boiling water and streams with geysers scattered around the area. Then she saw the burning skeletons. They had heard the commotion and were coming. But the skeletons weren’t the only things the heroes were fighting. Further back into the caverns, two stout dwarf-life humanoids ran towards them, wielding warhammers and their beards and hair ablaze. They were Azer.
Craven and Flint eventually killed the giant snail, breaking Nolo’s hypnotic trance. The three of them sprinted into the passage. Samir, who was still recovering from the trap, followed.
Many of the skeletons had created a blockade in front of Arien; pools of hot water at both sides of her.
Craven held out his arms and his eyes glowed.
“Muerath rules over the dead and undead alike. You are her servants and I am her avatar. Hear my words and fear them – be gone and return to the shadows of death.”
The burning skeletons stopped moving; their eyes flared and their bones shivered. If it were possible, Arien sensed fear amongst the animated bones. The skeletons turned around and retreated, gathering around their masters, the Azer. Arien cast a lightning bolt. It blast through a couple skeletons with little effect, but it did hit one of the fiery dwarves, nearly killing him.
Nolo pointed at the two Azer and skeletons, whispering. An icy chill blew through the caverns. The fiery hair and beards of the Azer diminished and they, for the first time in their life, felt the icy cold bite of frost. The ground around them turned to snow, slush, and ice, and thick, dark clouds formed above them. A snow blizzard swarmed around them and out of the clouds fell fist-sized shards of ice. They pierced the flesh of the flaming-beard dwarves and broke the joints of the skeletons. A shard struck one of the Azer through the jugular, killing him. All the skeletons in the blizzard fell apart and died their final death under the onslaught of the giant icicles.
With Samir’s deadly darts, Flint’s booming warhammer, and Craven’s touch of death, the rest of the skeletons crumbled to pieces.
The surviving Azer rushed forward with a roar and grabbed Flint, forcing both of them into a pool of boiling water. The two struggled and pounded on each other. Arien tried to focus a deadly spell on the Azer, but because of the splashing and close proximity, she couldn’t get a clear sight without hitting Flint. But Flint didn’t need help. With a single, powerful blow, he bashed the Azer’s skull open.
Nolo helped drag Flint out of the pool.
“Gods, that’s hot,” Flint said. “Don’t think I’m gonna need a bath for a week.”