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The Inn of Adventurers: Teatime for the Dead

 

The Inn of Adventurers: Teatime for the Dead

Joshua Cox-Steib

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 by Joshua Cox-Steib

The Inn of Adventurers: Teatime for the Dead

Cold wind howled, and heavy sleet hammered into the Inn of Adventurers. A fire sputtered in the hearth, casting little light or warmth upon the four figures huddled nearby. They had pulled a table as close to the meager flames as possible. Wooden legs flush with the brick hearth. Bottles and jugs littered the table — run dry, and dismissed. It was a bad winter, and the Sentient Woods were a miserable place to spend it. The very trees fought root and limb to protect even the deadfall; the adventurers had the wounds to prove it.

What little firewood they’d gathered hadn’t lasted long. The adventurers were cold, miserable, and quite inebriated. The curator was keeping them company. Both with tales of their predecessors, and copious quantities of spirits – billed to their account, of course. An account that was getting rather large. Another bottle or two, and the curator thought the destitute trio would be ready to hear the news: time for them to find work, and pay their tab, or get out. The curator smiled into his mug, and watched Randell turn to Tarly.

“Tarly?”

“Yesh?”

“Why’d you have to be a wizard? I don’t like wizards.”

The two were well past drunk. As was Drudge. The dour cleric drank from his mug, and stared into the pathetic embers with smug satisfaction. If only the other two would quit talking. This was almost like being back home. Drudge found that he missed his home, and his brethren. It was a strange sensation for him, and an uncomfortable realization. Some prayer was in order. The cleric closed his eyes, and beseeched the God of Doom and Gloom to forgive his lapse into positive sentimentality.

While the cleric prayed, Tarly worked on how to best answer his friend’s question. He wasn’t having much luck. The storm raged louder, and nothing else could be heard. After a few minutes of competition with it, the quarreling pair gave up, and went back to silent contemplation of their beverages.

The curator cast his eyes upwards, clearing his throat irritably. The storm abated, and the tail end of his cough sounded loudly in the sudden silence.

“About time you chaps found another job, don’t you think?”

Drudge grunted apathetically, Tarly felt a wave of panic — lingering trauma from their last job. Randell surged to his feet.

“In this?! Are you daft? Even if we found one, we couldn’t do it. Not until the weather clears.”

“Bad weather is just another part of the adventure. If it were easy it wouldn’t be an adventure.”

Randell paused at this, giving the words serious consideration before nodding begrudging agreement.

“Besides, if you don’t find a way to pay your tab you’re going to be out in this storm anyway.”

Randell glared at the old man, spluttering incoherently.

“Surely you wouldn’t actually turn us out in this storm, would you?” Squeaked Tarly.

The wizard had begun to see a little of how strange the curator was, but he still found it hard to believe that he would go to such extremes. Sure, they hadn’t taken any jobs since that first one. The one with the goblins, and the boy. Tarly still had nightmares about that day. That had been two months ago, and they had turned down three jobs since. Two because of Tarly’s reluctance, and one because Randell had thought their potential employer was laying siege to the inn.

“You bet I would. Right on your asses.”

Tarly sat there, stunned. This was unlike the old man who, while very strange, was also quite pleasant. Usually.

Randell was having none of it. Let the crazy old man try to throw them out, and just see what happened. Besides; there was no work to be had in weather like this. Randell had no qualms with calling the curators bluff.

“Fine. Find us a job in this weather, and we’ll take it.”

In the weather, you say?”

This got everybody’s attention. Even Drudge, though his look was decidedly more pleased than those of the others.

Tarly interjected, “No, no. Not in the weather, but during this weather. That’s what he meant. Right, Randell?”

“Right. Exactly that. The only thing we’d accomplish in this weather is freezing to death.”

The curator thoughtfully loaded his pipe, clamped it between his teeth, and began puffing away on the inexplicably lit bowl. He gave Tarly a loaded smile. A neurotic dance of sympathy and ruthlessness, tipped with mischief. It scared Tarly, and gave Randell the creeps. Drudge saw it as the answer to his prayers and the path to his due atonement. They were going to have another adventure. No doubt it would end even worse than the last.

“I have just the thing. Indoors. Pleasant temperature. Nice atmosphere. The Dwarf will be right at home. You’ll all love it. Even you, Drudge.”

The curator stood from the table, and began a wild caper about the room, chanting arcane words, and trailing motes of incandescent light. The adventurers stared at him, wondering if he’d gone completely mad. Tarly would have thought the old man was casting spell, what with the visual effects and all, but it certainly didn’t resemble any magic that he’d seen before.

“Best grab your things boys; because you’re going for a ride!”

As the curator spoke the specks of light began pulsing and swirling. Soon there was a silent maelstrom occupying the room, far more terrifying than the one kicking around outside. Tarly barely managed a strangled shout before the frenzy of magic slammed into him. It tore him apart. And it put him back together somewhere else entirely.

Tarly couldn’t see in the darkness, his presumed elven blood had never given him that advantage, but he could hear his two companions imitating his behavior to either side — retching up hours of heavy food, and strong drink. Teleportation magic was restricted for a reason.

It was extremely dangerous, and incredibly hard on the body. That was the official reason. Tarly’s analysis indicated that it actually had far more to do with the Wizard’s College controlling the transportation industry through its regulation of teleportation magic. His paper on the subject had received failing marks, and been promptly burned.

Randell, like Tarly, was reminiscing. He was recalling a time with his father. They’d been visiting one of their breweries. Sampling the ale and inspecting the casks. An elderly wizard had been there, buying a cask of ale. Randell hit him in the face. He was hoping to forge a new memory. A similar one. With the curator taking center stage.

Drudge was feeling grateful for his punishment, and sinful for his gratefulness.

A noise pierced the darkness, startling all three. It was followed by a series of sharp clicking sounds, like an entire night’s worth of chirping bugs squashed into an impossibly small volume. More followed. Many more.

“Blighted spells and spoiled potions! Where has that old man put us?!” Tarly had taken up cursing in order to cope with the new lifestyle that had been thrust upon him. He wasn’t particularly good at it. Randell kept trying to tell him so, but Tarly insisted that his homemade curses were both brilliant, and poignant.

The clicking stopped. A soft scraping and rustling replaced it. Growing slowly, and steadily closer.

“Not a damn clue wizard, but we need light. Now. Whatever’s making those sounds isn’t likely to be a friend.” Randell was searching for his axe with growing panic, but he’d not had it when they were teleported. He had to settle for a belt knife.

Tarly whispered an arcane phrase, and a globe of light sprang to life above his head. He rather wished it hadn’t. They were in a tunnel. A natural one, as far as he could tell. At the edge of the light, some hundred feet in front of him, were two monstrous spiders. They were the size of dogs, and two sets of eight eyes rolled coldly towards the well-lit adventurers

“Randell, charge! Get them!”

“I don’t have my axe! Blast them with a fireball!”

“I didn’t study that one! This should slow them down!”

Tarly shouted a spell, and webbing sprayed from his upraised hands — coating the spiders, and filling the tunnel. The arachnids were delighted by this. They grasped the convenient strands with their many limbs, and came rushing towards the trio.

Tarly shrieked, falling backwards in fright. Randell flourished his belt knife. Drudge stepped from behind the two, and with a swing of his club smashed a spider into the ground, sending chitin and guts splattering in a gory cloud. The other leapt upon the Dwarf, who managed to get a couple of pokes in before the spider bit into the meat of his shoulder. Randell screamed in pain — dropping his belt knife, and grabbed the oversized insect by its bloody fangs. With a shout of effort, he ripped it from his body, and slammed it into the tunnel wall. Hard.

The two spiders were little but carapace and smear. Drudge had a wall to his back, and was warily watching both ends of the tunnel, where the wizard’s light faded. Tarly had removed himself from the floor, and was helping Randell to check his wounds. Lots of scratches, and one bite. The flesh around it was puckered, and reddened.

“Cleric. Can you heal this?” Randell’s voice was gruff, and worried.

Drudge continued his silent vigil.

“Drudge?”

“Doom clerics do not heal. What would be the point? Wander the world healing people one day so that they could die the next instead? Pointless.”

Tarly raised a hand for gesticulation, but Randell stopped him before he could engage their morbid companion in a philosophical debate.

“That’s fine. We need to get moving, anyway. And to find some weapons. It looks like Drudge was the only one dressed for the occasion. When we get back to the Inn I’m going to skin that old man.”

The party followed the stalwart Dwarf down the tunnel, Tarly’s spell globe lighting their way. Moss grew on the walls, and the smell of dank moisture was all around them. Randell led with an air of unwavering confidence. He might have been magically transported into an unfamiliar spider-infested cave, but he was still in a cave, and caves were his territory. They were his birthright as a Dwarf. Much like ale.

As they approached a split in the tunnel Randell brought the group to a halt, giving both options lengthy consideration. Kneeling, he wiped a finger along the gritty floor, and plopped it into his mouth — tasting the cave’s nature.

Jerking upright, the Dwarf began backpedaling. His movements quickly turned into a full-on retreat.

“Run!”

Tarly and drudge exchanged a confused glance. Moments later they could hear it; an incoming onslaught of chittering and rustling. They turned to run as countless spiders swarmed into sight. The two longer limbed adventures quickly caught up with Randell, and were soon taking the lead.

A look behind showed that the spiders were gaining.

Drudge grasped the pendant dangling from his neck – the symbol of his order. He prayed to his God. He really didn’t want to. It was clear from the beginning that they should have just laid in the dark, waiting for the end. He had his orders though, and there was nothing more pointless than trying to disobey a God.

Light emanated from the cleric, misty tendrils forming from it as he ran. The tendrils stretched out to his sides, and up above his head — sinking into stone. Dust fell, and a tremor rumbled through the earth.

The party was thrown from their feet as the tunnel collapsed behind them, stopping just short of Drudge’s heels. Much to his disappointment. Cheer up Drudge. There’s more to life than death. The cleric wasn’t surprised by the voice. His God communicated with him in this fashion, but such advice was quite strange — coming from the God of Doom and Gloom, as it did.

Everything stilled, and a voice cut through it like a sharp hatchet through a pleasant evening.

“I was told you’d be here. Get up. You have a job to do.”

The voice was decidedly female, and just as clearly dangerous. It belonged to a tall woman with delicate cheekbones, short hair, an athletic build, and very pointy ears. She wore blackened leather armor over rough tunic and leggings, and she was wielding two vicious looking daggers.

She was a Drow. Randell brandished his belt knife threateningly.

“Stay back, dark elf. I’m warning you.”

“Oh please. What are you going to do with that, pick my teeth for me?”

“I’ll do what I must! The elders warned me of your kind.”

“Did they? And what, in particular, were their warnings concerning the Drow? That we’d sacrifice your children to fuel our dark magic? Torture your grandparents for fun? Steal your women?”

“Umm…” Randell had indeed been warned of these things. Some of them, at least.

“Good; because it’s all true. But I’m not here for play. I’ve been hired to keep you clowns alive. I’d thought it an easy job before I saw you lot. Get yourselves collected, and follow me. You’re going to help me to keep you alive, and for that you need weapons. That toothpick isn’t going to cut it. Let’s go.”

The strange woman turned and stalked down the tunnel. She was grumbling to herself about the futility of trying to keep anyone alive who would blindly wander up to an Arachnid lair.

Tarly followed immediately – he would follow anyone that seemed even remotely capable of getting him out of here. Randell came begrudgingly – he was a Dwarf, and felt that by all rights he should be the guide down here. Drudge fell in absentmindedly. He was still concerned about his God, after His unwholesome advice.

“If we’re to be traveling with you, at least tell us your name, and who sent you.” Randell had more than a guess as to the second. The curator had felt bad for shunting them off to these tunnels with no warning, and had sent some help as an apology. Randell could respect that, provided the help was useful, and trustworthy. He doubted that she would prove to be either.

“Ilyethiana, but call me Ilye. It saves us all time, and it saves me from having to endure offensive mispronunciations.”

Ilye led them past the stains of their arrival, around a bend, and through a confusing series of tunnels before stopping in a small cavern. The natural stone had been worked over to create a suite of rooms. It was all hidden behind a false dead end that opened when she reached into a shadowy crevice, activating a hidden mechanism, and revealing the entrance.

“We should be safe to bunker down for a while. There are bedrooms throughout, and in the back is what you’ll be looking for. It was once the treasure room of the Gnomish Blood Bandits. Now that was a fun bunch. They were exiled for their experiments, but that didn’t slow them down. It’s all buried in dust, undisturbed for centuries until I got here. Enjoy.”

Ilyethiana squatted, took a whetstone from her pouch, and proceeded to sharpen her daggers as the others went exploring. Randell headed straight for the back. Tarly lingered, looking through every door along the way. Drudge followed Randell, but with so much less enthusiasm that he arrived in step with Tarly. They found the Dwarf curled up on the floor, his arms wrapped about his head.

There were no threats to be seen. There was, however, a blinding mass of gold, jewels, garments, weapons, armor, books, and every other odd thing of value that the mind could imagine. The room sparkled like fireworks under the light of Tarly’s spell globe. The wizard’s hands shook as he saw the title of a particular book. It was the name of an infamous wizard, dead some six centuries, and it was written in the style of an owner’s name upon his spellbook.

Drudge eyed the treasure for a long moment. Gaze stopping in one corner, he grunted, and waded through the glittering jewels towards that which had caught his attention. He emerged with a large club — made of dark metal, and engraved with shifting patterns of silver. The business end was covered in jagged edges that glittered menacingly.

Randell gasped out a laugh, overflowing with hysteria, “We’re rich! We’ve done it boys; we can retire as heroes!”

Tarly was trying to decipher the logic of this when Ilye’s voice drifted back to them.

“Only take what you can carry into battle. This cave isn’t a damn amusement park.”

Randell’s face fell. It quickly brightened though, and a cunning gleam shone from his eyes. The Dwarf waded into the hoard, tossing priceless items left and right as he went. He had a plan; he just needed some cloaks, a few shields, and a number of polearms. An odd list under normal circumstances, but not unreasonable given the current one.

Tarly ignored the scrambling Dwarf. That book was all that he had eyes for. The spellbook of Nuraxes himself. He picked it up with shaking hands. It was authentic; the thing was quivering with bound magic. It was a prize beyond belief. High on awe the wizard carefully put the spellbook within his robes, where it would be safe.

“What’s taking you schoolboys so long?”

Ilye backed up the irritated voice with her angry presence, leaning in through the doorway. Curiosity overcame her anger. The Dwarf was tying a number of shields together using twisted cloaks.

“Ron, what the hell are you doing?”

“It’s Randell. And I’m creating a sled for our treasure. Leave me be, or give me a hand. And don’t call me Ron.”

“Sure thing, Ron.”

Ilye leaned back into the wall, and indulged her humor — watching the Dwarf studiously at work. Tarly was idly poking through the room, what was clearly the greatest treasure already on his person. Drudge was staring avidly at a painting propped up in one corner. It depicted men and woman wearing the emblem of his order, but it was all wrong. Their clothing brightly colored, and their faces tanned, and smiling cheerfully. It was an atrocity. Unforgivable blasphemy.

With a suddenness that startled the others, Drudge began shouting incoherently and tearing at the painting, ruining it utterly before anyone could stop him. Not that they would have. Finally, his sudden and unusual capacity to care was exhausted, and the cleric slumped against the wall, laying head and arms across his upraised knees.

Tarly and Ilye stared at him. Randell was too caught up in his own doings to pay attention to the cleric’s. With caution the wizard walked over to Drudge, and laid a hand upon the troubled man’s shoulder. Experiencing one of those rare moments where he was at a loss for words, Tarly simply stood there awkwardly.

Ilye broke the silence with a raucous laugh, “Well, now I know who the art critic in your group is. Funny, I would have pegged robes here for that particular job.”

“It was an abomination. A slight to my God. It has to be…” Drudge lifted his head to reveal a tortured face.

Tarly continued patting his troubled companion’s shoulder, not knowing how else to help the suffering cleric. The Drow gave them an exasperated look, and let out an explosive sigh.

“I’m beginning to see why your ancient friend asked me to come babysit. The three of you are absolutely helpless on your own. Fine then, this is what’s going to happen. You, Dwarf! Pay attention!”

Randell ignored her as he tore cloaks, tied shields to halberds, and made grand plans for spending his fortune. The others watched his labor for a few moments before each dismissed him. Tarly had seen his friend in a frenzy before, and knew that there was nothing for it but to let the Dwarf wear himself out. Ilye considered this whole business beneath her. Drudge was lost in his own troubles.

“Your benefactor has tasked me with guiding you, and has given me instructions to pass along. An old friend of his lives in these caverns. Some time ago the curator loaned this friend a teapot. We’re to retrieve it. Questions?”

Tarly had plenty. He didn’t get to ask any of them. Drudge let out a roar and climbed to his feet as two mostly intact skeletons skittered out of the room’s entrance and reached with sharpened bones towards the Drow. A fleshless hand grasped and ripped into her back. She screamed in pain, dropping to the floor and rolling forward — leaving her attacker holding a dripping handful of flesh and torn leather.

The skeletons clattered their jawbones and walked jerkily forward, arms raised and reaching. Tarly wrung his hands; until he got time to study his spells there was nothing useful that he could cast, and he hadn’t the faintest idea of how to defend himself without magic. Randell had raised his head at the sound of Drudge’s roar, and was peering at the scene before him with gold-blinded quizzical eyes. Drudge grabbed his new weapon and waded forward, planting himself before the injured Drow protectively.

Ilye came out of her roll with a dagger clenched in each fist. She darted around Drudge, slashing at the nearest skeleton before quick stepping back out of its reach. Slivers of white fell where her blades scoured the rune-engraved bones. It didn’t seem to bother the skeleton. Both undead focused upon the cleric, drawn by a deep hatred to their natural nemesis.

Drudge let his eyes droop, and reached into that part of his mind where his God spoke. A nimbus of light surround the cleric, crawling up his weapon and setting it afire. The skeletons slowed from a Beatle’s pace to a snail’s crawl, their awkward limbs moving through the air is if fighting through molasses.

Randell’s sight slowly expanded past the treasures before him, and took in the fight. It was a difficult concept for him: the idea that anything might be more pressing than gold. The only way his brain could make sense of it was if there was a threat to his hoard. Those shambling stacks of bone were after his gold! Teeth bared in a grimace of madness the Dwarf charged towards the slow-moving skeletons, grabbing a bejeweled axe as he went. The golden blade cut one skeleton off at the thighs, and carried through it into the next. They fell to the floor in broken heaps.

“Well, that was fun.” Ilye’s gasping breath belied the playfulness of her words.

Drudge nodded shakily at her, and crumpled to the ground. The sound of heavy snores accompanied his impact. Tarly broke into high pitched giggles, while Randell eyed the shattered bones in grim satisfaction before returning to his project.

Ilye eyed the slumbering cleric, “Not how I’d go about it, but your friend has the right idea. Get some rest. I’ll post up at the entrance and take first watch.” She gave them all one last look, shook her head, and left the room. Tarly calmed enough to choke down his giggling. Enough to check on Drudge, and make sure that the cleric had passed out from exhaustion, and not some unseen injury.

Once assured of the clerics health, Tarly arranged a cloak under his head and left to find some more comfortable sleeping arrangements for himself. Randell was left muttering to himself amidst the glittering trove, fully lost to the fabled gold madness of dwarves.

The night passed in relative quiet. Tarly rose early to spend some time studying his new spellbook. Drudge slept like a log, and awoke feeling remarkably well for having spent the night on a stone floor. Randell was asleep atop the fruit of his labors. It looked like a bundle of loot wrapped in a bag made from poles, shields, and cloaks. A long, stout rope was tied to the center front, and coiled there. Ilye’s usual morning cheer evaporated when she finished gathering the others, and finally located the Dwarf — hidden from view atop his manifestation of bad ideas.

“Really? This is traveling light?”

The dark elf’s criticism was met with an ear-damaging snort from the unconscious Dwarf. Her face reddened, her mouth opening to release her ire, but Tarly forestalled her.

“I have a spell that may work for this. Randell’s isn’t going to be any good to us until he’s rested, right? And we don’t want to sit around here waiting while we let him sleep. So; we let him slumber up there, and I’ll conjure up a Mist Steed to haul the… uh… cart.”

Ilye stifled her anger with difficulty, finding herself more in agreement than disagreement with the seemingly rational wizard’s words. She sure as hell didn’t like it, though.

“Go ahead, but if this nonsense slows us down, I’m cutting the rope and the damn Dwarf can sleep when he’s dead.”

Tarly reached into his robes, pulling forth a small knife. He ran the blade lightly along one thumb, raised his dripping digit, and began chanting. The air swirled about them, grabbing moisture from all around — pulling it into a churning mass that coalesced into a watery form that was vaguely equine in nature. Tarly dropped his hands, wrapped his sleeve around his bleeding finger, and looked upon what he’d created with pride.

The Mist Steed stomped its hooves, and threw its head, impatiently wanting to do anything but stand still.

“Quickly now, tie the rope to it before it finishes solidifying. Just hold the end in its back for a moment, but keep your hand clear.” Tarly directed this at Drudge. The cleric plodded between shield-wrapped gold, and magical equine with the careful deliberation of complete distraction. Recent events had his mind in a muddle, and try as he might he wasn’t able to get that painting out of his thoughts — or the odd words of his God.

Ilye watched in silence. Impressed by the feat of spellcraft, but uninterested in showing it. She kept her distance, and only eyed the creature fleetingly. Before long the rope was set, and the impatient steed could be restrained no longer. It started forward at a jaunty trot, easily dragging the rock-scraping bundle behind. Placid snores wafted down from above. Tarly, Drudge, and Ilye arranged themselves behind the small mountain of greed, and followed its course out of the worked stone rooms, and back into the natural tunnels.

Tarly decided to spend some more time on the spellbook of Nuraxes. He was becoming quite adept at reading while walking unfamiliar ground. It’s worth noting here that most adventurers consider just about anything between a casual stroll and an all sprint acceptable, depending on what happens to be behind them. With nothing behind them, and a shield-wrapped barrier of precious metals in front, they weren’t particularly concerned.

So it was that they became perfect prey for Rock Wyrms — a nasty species descended from earth elementals created long ago by a particularly eccentric, and lonely wizard. The progeny that hunted today was of a cylindrical shape, tapered at one end, and fronted with a gaping tooth lined maw at the other. The teeth wound around the inside of the opening in descending spirals, each tooth a deadly merger of minerals. The creatures lived predominantly of off metals within the earth, and the adventurers appeared as moving nodes of impure iron to them; a true delicacy. Not to mention the feast of gold that they were travelling with.

It started with a vibration that travelled up their legs. Ilyethiana was the first to notice it, but soon Drudge was drawing his weapon, and even Tarly was looking about in confusion. With a suddenness that took them all off guard they were showered with fragments of erupting stone. Three gaping maws lunged into the tunnel. Long bodies thrashing about in the sudden exposure to air, questing towards the startled group.

A shrieking whinny came from the front side of Randell’s roving hoard, and the mist horse was off — running from the violent chaos at a full gallop, and dragging the makeshift sled of loot behind it at breakneck speeds. A strangled shout joined the fray as Randell finally awoke, sat up, and immediately introduced his forehead to a low hanging stalactite — sending him windmilling backwards off of his quickly retreating treasure.

The Dwarf landed with a thud right before a Rock Wyrm’s convulsing teeth. Tarly responded without thinking, throwing a contorted hand upwards and shouting the words to a powerful incantation. Blue fire shot from his palm and struck deep within the elemental’s maw, burning a hole through it, and setting the stone of its body to bubbling. The wizard slumped with exhaustion just in time to miss the sight of his defeated foe falling upon the nearly-saved Dwarf.

Drudge engaged one of the creatures, chips of stone flying as he swung his brutal club in a divinely powered frenzy. Even so, it was all he could do to stay alive. Ilye had both daggers drawn and was dancing a circle around the last wyrm, jabbing and slashing at it ineffectually with her weapons, accomplishing little other than to irritate the both of them. Tarly struggled to see past the arcane discharge wracking his mind with pain; he had cast a spell that he didn’t fully understand, and he was paying the price. All that showed of Randell was one stumpy boot sticking out from beneath the sizzling hulk of dead wyrm.

Because things can always get worse, the sound of rattling bones echoed down the tunnel. It was coming from the same direction that the mist horse had fled in. A small army of undead came into view, swarming slowly and inexorably closer to the desperate battle. There were clean white skeletons marching with sword and shield, grimy zombies with chunks of flesh still clinging, and full-bodied corpses that looked positively lively compared to their compatriots.

At the back of the horde marched four massive skeletons — made from the bones of giants and other such creatures. They carried a thick wooden platform between them, anchored to their shoulders with gleaming hooks. A robed man stood upon it, holding a staff of screaming souls and cackling maniacally, cracked teeth showing through where the flesh of his cheeks had rotted away over the centuries.

Tarly shuddered as he shook off the last of his spell’s backlash. He blinked his eyes, taking in the sight of Randell’s protruding foot with horror, before lifting them to see the oncoming mass of death, and the Lich that commanded it. He screamed. Loud, and long. Ilye circled around her foe until she could see the terrified wizard, and that which had put him such a state.

“Tarly, run! Drudge, grab that fool Dwarf’s foot, and get out of here! I’ll keep our hungry friends occupied long enough for them to greet our incoming guests.”

She didn’t have to tell them twice. Drudge delivered one last overhand strike with all of the might his God would lend him. The wyrm dropped backward, momentarily stunned, and Drudge ran to the Dwarf; grabbing his foot, and hauling his wreck of a body out from beneath the mass of dead construct. Tarly ran. He was still screaming, but he ran. All that reading and walking had made him great at such feats of multitasking.

Ilye leapt past one wyrm, grabbing its attention while dashing towards the other. She dove to the side as she came within range of its dazed companion. Throwing one dagger for distraction, but mostly to free her hand, the rogue reached within a belt pouch and pulled out a clenched fist. A handful of coin shavings flew into the air between the two hungry elementals — drawing their attention towards the slivers of gold with a magnetism that rivaled that of any Dwarf.

The Drow darted beyond the thrashing creatures, and bolted down the stony passageway after her charges. With a smirk of satisfaction, she considered how this was going to change her defense the next time that she was charged with currency fraud and defamation. Behind her the front wave of skeletons greeted the rock wyrms with a hunger of their own.

It was to the sound of tearing rock and shattering bones that the adventurers made their retreat down a seemingly endless series of twists and turns. A ball of magic the only thing lighting their way, and Ilye trying unsuccessfully to get the panicked wizard to stop running mindlessly. Drudge brought up the rear, hauling the bouncing body of Randell behind. A hazy blue flowed from the cleric’s hand up the Dwarf’s leg — enshrouding his stout form.

Over an hour, and innumerous turns later, Tarly finally slowed. Collapsing to the earthen floor and gasping cool cavern air into overworked and underfed lungs. The others followed suit. Drudge unceremoniously dropped Randell to the ground as he himself went in that direction. The Dwarf’s wounds were healed; the only remaining sign being the state of his ruined clothing.

Tarly’s gasping breath was the first to attempt speech, “Wh… what… was… that!?”

Ilye wheezed out a chuckle, and shook her head. “A Lich, and a bad joke.”

The wizard looked at her blankly, his breathing growing gradually steady. He opened his mouth to speak, but Drudge beat him to it.

“What are you talking about?”

“That spook leading the other spooks? His name is Lionel. He and your benefactor were friends, back when Lionel was alive. I suspect the teapot that we’re after is somehow connected to the Lich’s power. My guess would be that the curator wants to send his old friend to rest, and that’s why he needs us to get this object. I knew Lionel, but it’s been a long while, and apparently he’s had a hard time of it. He was a lot better looking, not two centuries ago.”

Drudge decided that the rogue speculated far too much to be listened to, and settled for a familiar feeling of ignorant despair instead. Tarly was quite impressed, though. He found her reasoning, and delivery, quite attractive. The implications and conclusions were another matter.

“I’m not going anywhere near a Lich! Are you crazy!? That thing will destroy us, eat our souls, and enslave our corpses!”

“Now, now. Lionel isn’t all that bad. He just has a preference for unpleasant company. It’ll be easy. We sneak past his adoring fans, and once we get close enough I’ll speak with him. While he’s distracted the rest of you will be finding, and stealing that teapot.”

Drudge and Tarly exchanged a quick glance. Tarly cleared his throat.

“Umm… No. Not happening. We’re not intentionally seeking that monster out.”

Ilye stood, giving the slumbering Dwarf a kick, and eyeing the two malcontents. A grin suddenly flashed across her face, light from Tarly’s spell globe reflecting off her teeth.

“Trust me.”

Randell awoke with a start, and grabbed after the offending foot that had awoken him.

“Where are we? What happened?” The Dwarf glared at each of the others in turn, holding them accountable with his eyes for all that might displease him. It was the first time that he ever heard Drudge laugh. The cleric, once started, couldn’t seem to stop; which irritated Randell to no end.

“This isn’t funny! Last I recall I had just finished packing my treasure, and… My treasure! Where is it?!”

Again Tarly opened his mouth to speak, only to close it when Ilye’s angry retort cut the air.

“Your precious treasure is what happened! If not for you, and your greed, we might not have had to fight for our lives back there while you slumbered upon dreams of riches!”

Flinty eyes met fey eyes, the two locked in an ocular battle of passionate wills. Randell was the first to look away, on account of debris in his eye as he would later say.

“Right. The others can fill you in on the plan. For now, we have the tedious job of tracking our own flight backwards. Keep your ears open, and mouths shut.”

The disgruntled adventurers assembled behind the dark elf with the grace and poise of petulant children. Ilye ignored them as she focused upon the ground, her elven eyes easily seeing in the dim light cast by Tarly’s spell globe.

It was hours before they fully traced their route back to the scene of battle. Nothing remained of the scuffle, no Wyrm body, or bits of bone to be seen. Even the coin shavings were gone. Ilye looked about quickly, checking to see if her companions had recognized their location. Blank looks all around. She led them onward, down the tunnel where the treasure had run, and toward where the undead horde had come from.

They made it a fair way before anyone wised up. Drudge was the first to pick up on the slight sounds reaching them, and he wasn’t inclined to comment. The long trek back had given the conflicted cleric plenty of time to think: what he’d arrived at was a lengthy, convoluted justification for denial that would have made his dwarven comrade proud. It wasn’t long before even Randell heard the sounds over his inarticulate diatribe. He hadn’t stop complaining about the loss of treasure, but he had grown steadily quieter as his throat grew soar.

“What’s that sound?” His voice came out cracked and querulous.

Ilye turned an irritated glance in his direction, and spoke in a whisper, “Didn’t you pay any attention? That’s Lionel’s undead army, and if you keep making so much noise we’ll all be joining their ranks.”

“Lionel, eh? I know what you’re up to, Drow. You’re in cahoots with this monster. I’m not following you another step.” The Dwarf turned to his friends, “Tarly, Drudge. You guys realize this is a trap, right? She’s going to hand us over to this bony friend of hers, and take the treasure for herself.”

Tarly gave his erstwhile companion a suffering look, “Randell, the treasure is gone. Besides; Ilye is the one who led us to it in the first place, and the curator sent her here. She’s clearly on our side.”

“Don’t you believe it wizard. Pure deviousness and trickery; it’s what Drow do best. The way I reckon it she was using us as fodder to clear out traps, and we just got lucky that there weren’t any.”

At this Ilye forgot her own warning and interrupted explosively, “You miserable, ungrateful, greedy little Dwarf! I spent hours clearing that area so that you fools could arm yourselves without killing us all. I told that old man that I don’t work with dwarves, but did he listen? No, he said that you were different. That I’d benefit from working with you. What a crock of shit.”

The sudden volume of the rogue’s tirade silenced the loud whispers of the others, and painted Randell’s face an angry red. Tarly found it hard not to sympathize with Ilye, but was more concerned about the two stubborn bigots bringing enemies down upon them than about either’s feelings. He could see his friend gathering himself for all-out verbal warfare, and was desperate to prevent it. Drudge wallowed in glum satisfaction over what was to come. Their doom was inevitable, and had already been delayed far too many times for his tastes. He had determined to intervene no more. Forcefully feeling a level of despair previously unprecedented even for him, the cleric slumped to the ground and prepared to die a slow, and horrible, death.

“What’s he doing?” Ilye’s voice was still fraught with anger, but Drudge’s actions were startling enough to lace some concern in with it.

“The fool hasn’t done that since our first battle together. I thought he was past this nonsense. Drudge, get up! I told you, surrendering is forbidden! Now stop your bellyaching, and help me to subdue this dark elf. We’ll turn her game against her. We’ll be the ones walking away with treasure, and she’ll be the one to join the ranks of the shambling dead!”

Ilye hissed in rage. A knife appeared in her hand is if by magic. She stalked towards the Dwarf. Her eyes glistened with the promise of violence.

Randell met her temper for temper, drawing his axe and cursing the rogue for a traitor, “I told you, wizard. Now I’ll deal with her, and we can get back to our real reason for being here. Treasure.”

Tarly was trying to find his happy place, but all he could see when his eyes closed was a circle of blood-soaked goblins, laying upon the ground in the indecent sprawl of the dead. He’d never quite recovered from that last job of theirs. Drudge was still supplicating himself upon the ground in surrender. The warrior and rogue clashed in a sparkling barrage of steel, assailing both eyes and ears, and generally being the epitome of the antitheses of stealth. Their first clash left both bleeding with superficial wounds, and more determined than ever to put the other in their place.

In desperation the wizard cast a spell; drawing from his new repertoire. A distortion popped into existence around Randell and Ilye — encasing them in a blurry bubble, and instantly ceasing the movements of both. They were stuck there, two faces statically plastered with rictuses of self-righteous rage. Tarly let out a sigh of relief, barely even minding the searing pain that tore through his brain upon casting his spell. He’d stopped them before they could seriously injure each other, or draw the attention of any locals.

He stood there, looking at the cowering Drudge, to the frozen combatants, and back. What to do now? Releasing Randell and Ilye would just let things take up where they’d left off. He had to rouse Drudge, and get his help. Together they could keep the other two from killing each other long enough to get away from here. Then they could find a way out, and to hell with the teapot.

Too late he realized that the sound of rustling bones had grown much closer. Looking up, Tarly cursed profusely, and set to unraveling his spell. Try as he might though, he couldn’t deactivate the time-freeze that he’d cast upon them. Increasingly frantic, he tried a null-magic spell upon it, but fumbled the incantation. Light flared outward from his head, briefly making the bones of his skull visible as he screamed in agony, and fell to his knees.

The last thing Tarly saw was the Lich walking slowly around the nimbus of frozen time. He reached out one long finger bone, touching the spell’s edge. It collapsed, and Tarly lost consciousness. Drudge lay on the ground, and waited. And waited. Eventually, even his determined despair succumbed to curiosity, and the inevitable impatience of discomfort.

He looked up and saw the Lich leaning over Tarly, while a squad of skeletons hoisted Randell and Ilye up into the air. They marched away with their captives overhead. Nobody paid any attention to Drudge. After a while the robed and decaying Lionel pulled back from Tarly with a triumphant cackle. He held a leather bound tome.

The Lich reached out with one fleshless hand, grasping the unconscious Tarly by his robes, and headed back the way he’d come — dragging the insensate wizard with him. Drudge was left staring in bewilderment. Why hadn’t they taken him prisoner? With a sinking feeling he concluded that it must be the doing of his God — obfuscation of His clerics from the undead. He wasn’t going to let Drudge give up, no matter how in line with His teachings such behavior was. Or should have been.

Giving up on giving up, Drudge rose to his feet, and began plodding after his erstwhile companions. If his God wouldn’t let him surrender, then there must be something else that He had in mind for the lone cleric. The trail was easy to follow. A horde of skeletons wasn’t the subtlest of things. Despite others not being able to see him, Drudge could see quite well. To his eyes all was cast in the cheery light of noonday sun. Another unasked for gift from the so-called God of Gloom and Doom. Drudge would have rather been struck blind for his attempted disobedience, than subjected to such a sight.

It was with halfhearted thoughts of defection that the irritated cleric used his Deity’s gifts to follow behind the retreating collection of corpses. Their leader was still hauling Tarly with one hand. Drudge thoughtfully eyed the jostling bones protruding from the Lich’s back. They spiked outwards from Lionel’s robes like the quills of a porcupine. Drudge paused. If they couldn’t see him…

The cleric drew his club, and lengthened his stride — swiftly closing upon his prey. With both hands wrapped about the grip, he swung his weapon in a powerful overhead stroke at the unsuspecting skull. A shimmer of darkness formed, and stopped the club mere centimeters from its target. The resulting explosion of force sent Drudge flying through the air. Lionel froze, knowing that he’d been attacked, but unable to detect anything about it other than that it had triggered his defenses.

A series of quickly cast spells revealed nothing more. With anger, and a trace of fear, the Lich quickened his pace, easily passing the squad of skeletal henchmen. Drudge sat up groggily, seeing his quarry disappear into the distance and wondering what had happened. Of course his attack had failed. This was all just a morbid joke. If only he could figure out the punchline, and get it over with. In what was becoming an increasingly common habit the cleric cursed his God. His complaints went unanswered, not the worst outcome imaginable when railing at a divine power.

Nothing for it but to trudge along behind his companions while they rode in insensible comfort. No walking for them. No, they got to be carried. It was almost infuriating enough to pierce through Drudge’s resurfacing resignation. Whatever had protected the Lich wouldn’t protect his underlings. It was too much work though, and what was the point? If freed, his companions would only be recaptured, or killed. Just a little longer, and his God’s joke would play out and they would all be dead. The path of least resistance was to go along with it, and hope that it was would soon be over.

The distracted cleric bumped into something, realizing too late that his enemies had come to a stop. The jostled skeleton ignored him, and lowered the body of Randell. Two more were laying Ilye next to the Dwarf, both being placed upon the floor, and tightly bound. Drudge looked up, taking in the imagery of this, his final destination.

It was a torch lit, smoke filled grotto of vast proportions. The ceiling only visible as pointed stalactites looming threateningly downwards. The smell of fresh water permeated the cave. A thin waterfall cascaded from unseen heights to splash into a murky pool in the cavern floor. A large stone table floated above the ground, and behind it was a monstrous throne of yellowed bones, upon which sat Lionel. Surrounding him, and filling the cavern, was his army.

Drudge gazed upon the cavern of death with lackluster eyes. What did his God expect of him? If He wasn’t going to let Drudge surrender, and was even going so far as to prevent the undead horde from discerning His cleric’s presence, then the enigmatic Deity must have a purpose here. An objective that could only be achieved through His tool, Drudge. Willing or not.

With a sigh, the cleric stopped ignoring the impulses flooding his mind, and relinquished his will. A surge of unrecognizable emotion flooded through him, too strong to contain. He burst. Uncontrollable laughter erupted from his lips. Not the cynical laugh that he’d known before, but a kind that he’d never experienced. It was joyous, and it was more than he could bear. Choked sobs of release joined the laughter, and soon the burly cleric was on the ground — hugging himself in a pile of emotional confusion. In time the flood of repressed feelings passed, and Drudge once again became aware of his surroundings.

His friends were tied, and kneeling across the table from Lionel the Lich. Arranged so that their chins were resting upon the table’s edge. They’d had to put a stone beneath the Dwarf’s knees to boost his height. All three were conscious, and wobbling, but they were being given ample incentive to keep their balance. Numerous rusty spear points were leveled at them, pressing against their skin.

A raspy voice slithered across the cool air.

“Why are you here? And where did you find this?” The robed man of rot and bone was holding up the leather tome.

Ilye spat a mouthful of blood upon the stone tabletop, and looked up at her captor.

“I’d heard you were getting a little long in the tooth Lionel, but I didn’t know you’d gone full-on undead sheik. It really doesn’t suit you. Visiting you was a hell of a lot nicer when you had a bit more color in your outfit, and a lot more flesh on your bones.”

The flickering light of Lionel’s eyes burned brighter, and his gaze narrowed in upon the Drow.

“Ilyethiana. So you did survive all those years ago. What a pity.” The ember of his eyes darkened, his mind dismissing the adventurers, and moving on to other matters.

“Collect their hearts, and prepare them for the altar.”

“Wait! The Curator sent us! He said you were a friend of his. We’re here on his behalf! Please!” Tarly’s plea had little effect on the flesh dripping skeletons marching towards him, but Lionel looked up at his words — his interest reignited.

Drudge felt a strong urge crash over him. An irresistible drive to look behind the throne. He complied without thinking, walking through the chaos of his surroundings.

The Lich’s response to Tarly startled the cleric so much that he nearly tripped, his mind resurfacing only to be immediately buried again by the divine impulses driving him.

“Well, well. How is the Lord of Doom? It’s been centuries since he last pestered me. Not even he poses a threat to me, now. Why did he send you here?”

“He just wants his teapot back, that’s all. We’re to bring it to him. Alive.” Tarly’s trembling voice shrank with each word, rising again in volume as he thought to add that final, vital qualifier.

Death itself couldn’t have been more silent than Lionel’s response.

Meanwhile Drudge was sifting through the oddest pile of keepsakes. One shoe, three mismatched gloves, a rancid smelling flask, mold covered books, an assortment of rotten robes, and underneath it all sat a small blue teapot.

On the other side of the throne the Lich leaned forward, bones creaking.

“And why would he care so much about this… teapot?”

“He… really likes tea?”

“Nonsense! Do you take me for a fool, mortal wizard? He’s up to something. If he wants that teapot then there’s far more to it than simple clay, and a relaxing experience. He’s hidden magic in it somewhere. He’s given away his secret, and gotten nothing in return. I’ll uncover whatever powers he’s buried within it, and take them for my own. And I’ll be needing some fresh blood to unlock his spells. You’ve earned yourselves a few more hours of life, be grateful.”

Drudge had been eyeing the little teapot suspiciously while fighting the overwhelming impulse to take it and run. Upon hearing Lionel’s words, and seeing him rise from the throne, Drudge was compelled into action. He grabbed the teapot. As his fingers closed about the cheery blue ceramic, he could feel the collective eyes of the undead becoming aware of him for the first time. He didn’t think, he just ran.

An ethereal howl of fury joined the suddenly active mob of undead.

“I smell your Deity’s power on you, cleric! He can’t thwart me here, you’re mine!”

The Lich charged after his army. Wielding his staff, dropping the tome, and leaving the three prisoners tied, kneeling, and alone. Which, morbidly enough, was a drastic improvement for them.

“I might have a spell to get our bindings off.” Tarly’s hopeful voice shook with the timbre of overworked adrenal glands. He felt the ropes tying his wrists fall free. Looking up he saw Ilye, grinning fiercely, and holding the narrowest, pointiest knife that he’d ever seen.

“I think we’re better off doing it my way.” The smugness in her voice was unmistakable.

When she released Randell he just sat there. Numb, and bereaved.

“My glorious treasure… It’s not here, where has it gone?”

Tarly looked at the Dwarf in alarm. Perhaps he’d been hit harder on the head than they’d thought. Surely he couldn’t still be in grips of the gold madness, not in their current predicament. Ilye gave a long suffering sigh, before stepping around the Dwarf to look him in the face.

“You want your gold? Those skeletal thieves are the owns who took it, and your poor friend Drudge is off fighting them by himself. What kind of Dwarf shies from combat when both gold and comrades are at stake?”

“They have my gold?” A dangerous glint entered Randell’s eyes, and his body shifted from slumped defeat to animated battle lust in a blink.

“That’s right.”

Tarly, unable to follow the Drow’s manipulative logic, felt the need to point a few things out.

“We don’t know that they have the gold. It was going in this direction, but I haven’t seen any sign of it.”

Ilye gave him a quick, angry glare; making a slight hissing noise as she did so. Turning back to Randell she continued with her tactics.

“Don’t listen to the wizard, if not for his spell your gold never would have run off. He hasn’t seen any of your treasure here, because those villains have already split it up, and taken it with them. Now’s your chance to get it back. Their backs are to us, and all of their attention is going to be upon the fleeing cleric.”

Randell had heard enough, with a shout of rage he stumbled to his feet, grabbed his confiscated axe from where it lay, and took off running after his captors. Ilye shined a smile at Tarly, grabbed the forgotten book of Nuraxes, retrieved her own weapons, and tossed the spellbook to the confused wizard.

“No time to waste. Both of your friends are going to die without your help. Best get moving, wizard.”

“What have you done?!”

“Only what was needed. Let’s hurry shall we?”

With a dagger in each fist the dark elf took off at a lope. Tarly made a strangled noise, and rose to join the chase. A few frantic steps later the agile Drow was out of view, and the frightened wizard had nothing but sounds of combat to guide him. Interwoven with the clash of steel and bone could be heard the maniacal laughter of Randell.

When Tarly arrived on scene the Dwarf was only visible by a storm of bone debris flying from the skeletons surrounding him. They were battling amongst a dull mass of stalagmites, eerily lit by a gentle glow emanating from Drudge, who was huddled against a far wall. His arms and body curled about the teapot that they had all risked so much for. Lionel stood nearby, staff pointed towards the cowering cleric, and launching blast after blast of angry red magic. The bolts sizzled, and disappeared as soon as they struck — battering uselessly against the power protecting Drudge. Ilye was nowhere to be seen.

Tarly looked on helplessly. There was nothing he could do to help Randell without drawing the attention of Lionel, and he wasn’t delusional enough to believe that he could walk away from such a confrontation alive. The decision was taken from him. Ilye leapt atop a ledge, appearing from the shadows, and with a shout she drew one arm back. A smoldering cloth, and a hint of glass showed through her fingers as she launched the improvised firebomb, twisting with the throw.

The jar of oil sailed through the air, going largely unnoticed. Until it smashed into the furious face of Lionel. There was a shattering of glass, followed immediately by the sound of violently rushing air, and the smell of burning, rotten meat. A shriek of rage, and a cessation of the barrage upon poor, quaking Drudge accompanied the brilliant dance of flames.

Drudge poked his head out from beneath his shielding arms, and looked upwards with a strangely calm face. His eyes seeing past the stone overhead, and into the heavens. His head tilted, as if listening to something that no one else could hear. Rising calmly, oblivious to his surroundings, Drudge set the little blue teapot upon the ground. He reached forth one hand reverently, and carefully removed the lid.

There was a deranged cackle of laughter, from a familiar voice, and the cleric disappeared into the teapot. With a quirky little jump, and a snarky look at the burning Lich, the teapot folded in upon itself. Disappearing, and taking its lid with it.

Lionel managed to control his pain wracked voice long enough to shout a spell. The flames went out, and twelve shambling corpses, the last of his horde, crumbled to useless dust at the touch of his spell. The Lich relaxed, his injuries and irritation vanishing in spell-wrought rejuvenation. The Lich was now the only threat facing the remaining adventurers. They looked on in tense silence. Waiting to see what this terrible foe would do, and experiencing no small amount of shock over the nature, and occurrence of their cleric’s disappearance. All except for Randell.

The Dwarf scurried about the ground, searching through the prolific corpses for his stolen gold. His eyes were glazed, he was bleeding from a multitude of wounds, and constant muttering drifted from his scowling face. It didn’t take long for him to work his way through the corpses, and over to the feet of Lionel. The Lich was standing still in thought, gazing at the spot where Drudge and the teapot had been. He was enrapt, ignoring the presence of the others. Until Randell started going through his robes.

With a startled shout the Lich leapt back. A wave of force sent the Dwarf flying in the opposite direction.

“Keep your grubby hands off of me.”

“Give me my gold!”

“What? What gold?”

“She told me. She told me that you, and your pathetic army took my gold.”

“Ilyethiana told you this?” Lionel chuckled mirthlessly, “You shouldn’t put so much trust in a thief.”

Lionel eyed the destruction within the cavern, mild irritation spiking into something more as his gaze took in the disjointed, and useless remains of his army.

“It doesn’t matter. I need fresh corpses to replenish my army, and as it’s your fault it only seems fair that I start with you.”

He raised his staff. Dark forces began pulsing deep within the twisted tool. Ominous words of a power spilled forth from the Lich. A billow of fumes coalesced around from the staff, and green gas flooded the cavern — choking those that still breathed. The adventurers dropped like stones. Even the agile Ilye fell with the graceless coordination of death.

Satisfaction upon his face, the Lich waved his free hand, and levitated the bodies. He left the battleground with floating corpses in tow. A plan was forming in his worm riddled brain. He would need to prepare his laboratory for them, and he would need to do it fast. Before the full indignities of death set in. His plan called for able bodied corpses, not stiff limbed zombies.

*********

Drudge leaned back, and drained the tankard of ale. He’d been back at the inn for less than an hour, and it was his sixth. The curator sat across the table from him, smiling, and gently caressing a small blue teapot.

“I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you were able to get this back. This little guy has a lot of good memories stored in it. This is the teapot that I served Grigslaughter the Horrendous with, back when he first began his career. That was about three hundred years ago, and look how well my little friend has held up, not a crack on it.” He proceeded to tell Drudge all about Grigslaughter, and his horrendous exploits.

Logs crackled in the fireplace, the only response to the curator’s tale. Drudge sat in silence, staring into his empty tankard, and worrying about his friends. He’d left them. It hadn’t exactly been by choice, but he couldn’t shake the feelings of guilt and shame, even so.

“Cheer up, Drudge. I’m sure the others are fine.”

The cleric nodded glumly, wishing this was true.

*********

Two weeks had passed, and there was still no sign of the others. The curator maintained that all was well, but Drudge was having a hard time of it. They were sitting in the tavern, as usual. The curator was regaling the cleric with tales of adventurers past, over a particularly potent brandy, when the front door slammed open, and Lionel the Lich walked in. Three familiar corpses marched behind him.

“I’m here to trade. Their bodies for the teapot.” His voice was a raspy hiss; mangled, and hateful.

The curator grew a sly, drunken grin, “Well, now. I don’t know about that. This is a truly amazing teapot. Really brings out the flavor. What makes them worth such an important artifact? They certainly aren’t looking the best for wear.” The curator chuckled at his wit.

Lionel’s clenched teeth showed through the torn flaps of skin that had once been cheeks.

“I know you. I know your true nature. They’re worth it. To you. Give me the teapot. You’ve lost.”

A sad moue contorted the curator’s lips. He laid eyes upon his favorite teapot for the last time, and with a gentle pat farewell he rose, and carried it over to Lionel’s waiting hands.

“Now release them, and leave.” His voice was sober, and harder than dwarven forged steel.

The Lich cackled, raising his prize up high in triumph. With a harsh incantation he slowly faded away, but his contemptuous laughter lingered. Still echoing when the animated bodies of Ilye, Tarly, and Randell had their false life ripped away. Three well preserved corpses fell to the tavern floor. Drudge gasped, half rising from the table in helpless horror. The curator sighed, and shook his grizzled head.

“What a mess.” He silently contemplated the bodies for a few moments before turning to Drudge.

“Take them out back. There is a stone altar set in the ground, overgrown with weeds and vines. When you find it clean it up, and lay their bodies upon it. Then pray to your God. I have a feeling that He’ll listen. He isn’t quite done with these three just yet.”

The curator gave the deceased one last glance, his back to the cleric. His weathered face held an undisguised look of amusement. He schooled his features, turning back to the table, and his waiting brandy. Drudge speechlessly, and unsteadily, went to work. It took him an hour just to find the altar stone, and another to clear it. By the time he was moving the bodies the curator had gone to bed, leaving an empty bottle behind.

It was early morning when the exhausted cleric finished his desperate work, and began formally entreating his God to return the lives of these, his slaughtered comrades. He poured more emotion into that prayer than he’d ever felt before, and of a variety that he’d always avoided. Drudge realized that he cared. He cared about the others, and he even cared about himself. This revelation shocked him to the core. With it came a surge of Deific presence, pouring forth from the altar.

Drudge didn’t notice. His eyes blinded by tears, and his mind by a paradigm shifting acceptance of his own emotional spectrum. A voice brought him back. A voice once dead, and now returned.

“What the hell are we doing sleeping on a rock? I remember… something about a cave… and gold?” Randell was sitting up, and glaring about suspiciously. He gave the snoring body of Tarly a sharp elbow to the ribs.

“Wake up, wizard. Something weird is going on.”

Tarly stretched luxuriously, before curling into a ball, wrapping both arms about himself to protect his sleep from further interference. Ilye sat up, and watched Drudge silently. A knowing look upon her face. In the sky, behind Drudge, the sun had risen on a new day.

The cleric was speechless. His friends were alive. For now, nothing else mattered.

The End.


The Inn of Adventurers: Teatime for the Dead

Our three heroes return in this sequel, and it's time for them to get back to work. Their purses are empty, and their tab is growing by the hour. In this, the second installment of The Inn of Adventurers, Tarly, Drudge, and Randell set out on a journey that may very well cost them their lives, and more besides. With the ire of the Curator egging them onward, they have little choice in the matter. Are they up to the challenge? Or will they fade after a one-time appearance, like so many adventurers before them. Tune in, and find out.

  • ISBN: 9781311951984
  • Author: Joshua Cox-Steib
  • Published: 2016-06-17 23:35:06
  • Words: 10932
The Inn of Adventurers: Teatime for the Dead The Inn of Adventurers: Teatime for the Dead