It is the Second of May in the year 2482, or it has been for six minutes when Nignog sits up in bed. He uncovers the luminous stone on his bedside table, a present from his friend Zar. The clock on his wall says six minutes past midnight. Someone is pounding on the front door of his house and shouting his name. It's Rikard. He gets out of bed and rushes downstairs.
Nignog's father is standing in the living room in his underpants, holding a candle and frowning. Nignog's step-mother opens the front door.
"Hello Mister Le Rich," she says. "How nice to see you, although it is a bit late."
"I am here on urgent business, Madame Burgundafora. I must speak to Nignog."
Burgundafora steps back. She is a big woman, not tall, but wide. She's almost as wide as she is tall, or so it has always seemed to Nignog. She smiles. Her face is white and plump, and all around it is a cloud of curly red hair. "It's your friend to see you, dear."
"Rikard," Nignog says.
"Come quickly," Rikard says. "The bank is shaking. Something is inside but the doors are jammed shut. Put on your armor. Something is afoot, and we must be there to help."
Nignog runs up the stairs to his room. Rikard shouts after him. "I'm going to get Ping and Zar. I'll see you in the village."
Burgundafora shuts the door. "Such a sweet boy, that Rikard. So earnest."
Upstairs, Nignog is strapping on his armor as fast as he can. His door is open and he can hear his parents talking downstairs.
"What the devil is he thinking," Nignog's father says, "waking us up in the middle of the night?"
"The bank is being robbed, my darling."
"To the devil with the bank! Why's my boy running about strapping bits of metal to his body on a Saturday night? Answer me that! I'll tell you why!"
"It's because of that grandfather of his!"
Nignog comes downstairs. He stands in front of Burgundafora and turns around. She pulls the straps of his armor tight behind him and buckles them shut.
"Well now my darling," she says, "I think it may be Nignog's decision on his own, you know."
Nignog's father grunts. He steps up to his son. "Son, answer me this. Out of a hundred people who go looking for trouble in the Hills of Doom, and strapping on armor in the middle of the night, how many do you think die a violent death before the age of thirty?"
Nignog frowns. It's a good question. He thinks about the people he has known in the village. He counts them on his fingers. His step-mother pulls the last strap into place. His armor is tight on him now, the way he likes it.
"Four out of seven that I can think of," he says.
"Okay. That's the same as fifty-seven percent. Now, how many accountants out of a hundred meet the same fate?"
Nignog straps his heavy sword to his waist and picks up his shield. He bends down and kisses his step-mother on her cheek. "Thanks Bee."
"Well, how many?" his father says. His hand is shaking and the candle flame with it.
"None," Nignog says, and walks out the door.
"Exactly my point!" his father says.
Burgundafora pats Nignog's father on the back and takes the candle from him. "Just be proud of him Claude. He's the only son you have."
Claude puts his arm around his wife's broad, soft shoulders and leans his head upon her hair. "He's not going to survive. We'll lose him."
"Maybe," she says. "But maybe not. He's a brave boy, and his friends are smart. We'll see."
Claude closes his eyes and presses his lips together.
Funny things have been going on in the village for the past few days. Before we continue with the story of the night of May 2nd 2482, we present the following map. It shows a series of depressions in the earth found and studied by Ping and Nignog over the past few days. The map also shows the layout of Voisson Village.
Not only do these depressions appear in the ground, but John the Plumber says that he's been fixing cracked brass pipes in several houses along the path made by the depressions. Ping and Nignog have been thinking about the depressions, but they have not formed any opinions about them.
When Zar enters the village square he sees a crowd of people with lanterns outside the bank. The bank is next to the pub. It's not usual for the pub to be open so late, but tonight is the first night of May Week. It's the week in the middle of spring when people have loud parties with music, and stay up late. In the Village of Voisson by the River Boome, at the end of a little-used track, and just inside the borderlands at the south-eastern corner of Caravel, the villager's idea of a good May Day party is to go to the Trollhammer Inn, get drunk, and sing.
Most of the crowd outside the bank are drunk, and a good few of them are singing. There is Judith the Inebriated, walking in a circle and waving one arm over her head. Ralf the Blacksmith and his wife are there too, carrying iron poles of some sort, and banging on the oak doors of the bank. John the Plumber is there, leaning on the outer wall of the pub and rolling a cigarette. He's watching the bank manager running up and down the bank steps shouting at people.
Nignog and Rikard march up the steps carrying a log of some sort. Two other men take hold of the log and Ping shouts, "One, two, three!"
The four men swing the log and pound the bank doors.
"My doors!" the bank manager says, "The money! The safe! I have no insurance! I'll be ruined!"
Something crashes inside the bank. Roof tiles fall to the street. Zar walks up the steps and stands beside Ping. The sign above the doors says First Bank of Voisson. So far as Zar knows, it's also the only bank in Voisson, but he has not looked for another one.
The building shudders. The roof sags. There is more crashing inside. The log smashes one of the doors. Rikard and Nignog kick the door inwards. Ping holds up her light. Clouds of dust fill the bank. Blocks of stone fall from the ceiling and smash upon the white floor.
"My bank!" the bank manager says. He pulls on his hair with both hands and looks up at his building. It was a fine-looking building until tonight. It is made of gray limestone blocks, and the floor inside is white marble tiles. But now it seems to be crooked, and there are cracks between the blocks.
"Come on!" Ping says. She walks into the bank. Rikard and Nignog go with her. Zar follows them, holding his luminous stone up high. The bright light of the stone shines through the clouds of dust. There is a wall facing them, and another door. A stone block lands upon the floor beside Nignog, and splinters fly through the air.
"The safe is in the back!" the bank manager says. "Behind that door."
More blocks fall from the ceiling. Nignog and Rikard bring the log and smash down the inner door. On the other side is a room with a huge hole in the floor. Papers are floating in the air. Furniture is turned over. An oak desk is shattered on the floor as if it had been hit by a troll's hammer. Our heroes approach the hole.
"My safe is gone!" the bank manager cries. "It's been stolen! It's been taken! What am I to do!"
The building is no longer shaking. The papers settle to the floor. The four adventurers stare at the hole. A voice floats out of it. The voice laughs.
"Ha ha! You're too late! You're too late!"
It's the voice of a man. Not an old man, and not a boy either.
"Who's going in first?" Ping says.
"Yes!" the bank manager says, "Bring my safe back!"
Ping and Nignog step down into the hole. Zar and Rikard follow them. The tunnel goes down steeply for ten meters, and then levels out. It is roughly circular, and three meters wide. Its floor, walls, and ceiling are made of a tough transparent substance mixed with rock and dirt. Zar scratches the wall with his finger. It is conjured wood holding the dirt and stones back from the tunnel. In places, the conjured wood beneath their feet is thick enough that it looks like Ping is walking on air.
There is a crunching and smashing from around the bend in the tunnel ahead of them. They move forward slowly, with Ping and Nignog looking for traps. The tunnel is blocked in front by a cave-in. Nignog and Rikard climb up onto the fallen rock and earth. They start to move earth out of the way with their shields, pushing it behind them.
After a few minutes, they have opened a gap above the rubble. There is space above the rubble where the ceiling fell down. But the ceiling is sagging, and dirt is sprinkling down. Nignog is not sure he wants to crawl through.
"Excuse me," a voice says behind them. They turn around.
There is a tall man with jet-black skin in the tunnel behind them. He is wearing brown leather armor with plates of metal on his shoulders, chest, and legs. On his head is a metal helmet. A strap under his chin holds the helmet in place. Attached to the helmet is a luminous stone, which shines light in front of him. On his back is a pack with a pick-axe and a shovel. On his belt he has a dagger in a sheath.
"What are you doing here?" Ping says. "It's dangerous down here."
The man bows. "I am Prestor the Prospector, at your service. You may need my help." He points at the cave-in ahead of them. "I know about tunnels. I spend a lot of time in tunnels, looking for minerals."
The four companions stare at him. Ping guesses he is around thirty years old, maybe thirty-five. "Where do you come from?" she says.
"I was born in the Varmillion Mountains, across the desert to the east. I was raised by dwarves." He smiles. His teeth are white in his black face.
"When did you learn to speak Caravelli?" Ping says.
"I'm happy to answer questions later, but it seems to me that we should get going. Whoever stole the safe from the bank is getting away."
"Prestor the Prospector is right," Rikard says, "Time is of the essence. We must hasten after the villains who stole the safe."
"Well then," Ping says, "Is this tunnel safe for us?" She points at the pile of rubble and the crumbling ceiling above it.
Prestor the Prospector climbs up the pile. He looks to the left and right. "Yes," he says. "But keep to the left side of the gap. Shall I go first?"
"No," Nignog says, "I will go first."
Nignog crawls through, followed by the others. Prestor comes last. When he his half-way over the rubble, the ceiling starts to fall upon him. A big rock lands upon his helmet. Another bounces off his back-pack. He scrambles forward and down the other side. There is still a small gap above the rubble, but not large enough to crawl through.
Prestor wipes the dirt from his face and adjusts his pack. "I guess I was wrong."
"Let us proceed," Rikard says.
They walk on down the tunnel. Prestor says they are heading south. The tunnel bends left and right, and goes up and down, to pass by large boulders. Zar and Prestor discuss the tunnel walls. They notice water trapped behind the conjured wood. In places, it seeps out, so that the floor is slippery.
Ping and Nignog stop. They point at the floor ahead of them. "Look," Ping says, "There's something funny about the floor here."
Prestor examines the floor on his hands and knees. He stands up. "Well, it looks like the rock settled down after the tunnel was made. But the conjured wood of the floor stayed where it was." He stares at the ceiling in the light of his helmet. "If we step on the floor, it may sink down, and if that happens, it may pull on the walls and ceiling." He puts some of his weight upon the floor. The ceiling crunches. "Yes. The ceiling may fall down on us."
"I will fill the space under the floor," Zar says, "I will use my Choke spell."
Zar casts his spell and places its ball of conjured sponge beneath the floor. The sponge is invisible, so nothing looks different. But when Prestor puts weight upon the floor, the ceiling does not crunch. "We should run across as quickly as possible, one at a time."
"Who's going first?" Ping says.
Some dirt sprinkles from the ceiling. They look at the floor. The sunken ground extends for five meters. If Zar's plan fails, there's plenty of time for the ceiling to fall down as they run across.
Without waiting for any discussion, Rikard cries, "God save the Queen!" and rushes across the floor ahead of them and stops ten meters away. He turns around. He is panting, but smiling.
The others rush after him. Dirt falls from the ceiling, and a few rocks, but the tunnel does not collaps. They gather at the other side.
"Listen," Prestor says. They hear clanking and voices far away down the tunnel. "The sound of pick-axes on stone. There is mining ahead."
"How odd," Ping says.
"Mining or not," Rikard says, "There are robbers to catch." He points down the tunnel. "Onwards."
They proceed down the tunnel until they arrive at a square chamber with a vaulted ceiling. It is twenty meters across. The walls and ceiling are made of bricks. The floor is made of stone slabs, but it is ankle-deep in water. There are waves going back and forth across the floor. Even as the companions stand at the entrance to the chamber, the waves grow smaller and disappear. The tunnel continues on the other side of the chamber, but it's floor is waist-high. In the right wall of the room is an opening and a stone staircase going up. In the left wall is a passage going down, but it is partially blocked and in shadow. Only Rikard notices it.
The party moves forward, straight across the stone floor to the tunnel. Ping stares at the water on all sides. In the far left corner the floor has collapsed or sunk, and the water looks deep. There are tree roots sticking down through the ceiling.
The tunnel leads onwards, going roughly south. A trickle of water flows down the tunnel. When they have gone a few hundred meters from the brick chamber, the tunnel turns down. The party stops at the top of the slope. The sound of clanking and voices is louder. Now they can hear another sound, a strange sucking noise.
"It's too slippery to walk upon, I think," Rikard says.
"Tie my rope to me and I'll go down," Ping says.
With the rope around her waist, Ping descends. When her rope runs out, Prestor ties his own rope to the end of hers. His rope is long and fine and strong. After thirty meters, the tunnel levels out. Water flows around her boots and around a bend ahead of her. She hears voices speaking the same language she heard in the Chamber of Bubbling Waters. But the voices are not those of orcs. The voices are not as deep. The sucking noise is loud. She cannot think what it is. The clanking of pick-axes sounds as if it is right around the corner. She dare not speak to her companions behind her. She does not want the miners to hear. She unties the rope and creeps along the tunnel in the darkness. There is light ahead of her. Bright light, like that of a luminous stone.
She peeks around a corner. There before her is a cavern thirty meters across, with a tumbling floor and a jagged ceiling of gray stone with veins of white rock running through it. Light comes from a luminous stone in a glass lantern box on a natural shelf in the wall. Six humanoid creatures are working in the cavern. They are smaller than orcs. They wear ring armor. They have shields and spears and crossbows piled upon the flat part of the floor in the center of the cavern. A meter above the floor on the other side of the cavern, the tunnel with conjured-wood walls leads away. Water flows out of it and onto a pile of rock on the floor.
The miners are chipping away at a pile of pink rock. There are pink crystals among the pink rocks. There are several buckets full of the pink crystals on the floor. Ping cannot see the entire chamber. The sucking noise is coming from somewhere. She steps forward and leans out. She kicks a stone off the tunnel floor and it falls down into the cavern. The miners look up. Their large, slitted eyes stare up at her. On the floor behind one of them, at the lowest point on the floor, is a wooden box with holes in. The sucking noise comes from this box. Water flows across the floor and in into the holes.
The miners shout at one another and rush towards their weapons.
Ping turns and runs back up the tunnel. She grabs the rope. "Pull me up!" she says, and she scrambles up the tunnel to her companions. "Small orcs with no tusks, mining pink crystals. They're going to come after me! Get ready to fight!"
"What did they look like?" Prestor said.
"Big round faces, green hairy skin, sharp teeth, big noses, fat lips, smaller than orcs, but wide-bodied."
"Ah," Prestor says. "Goblins. But I meant the crystals."
"What did the pink crystals look like?"
"They were pink. And big. They looked like gems. The goblins had cleared all the dirt away from them and they were cutting them out with their pick-axes."
Prestor grins. "Yes. I knew it. Rhodonite crystals."
They pull up the rope and draw their weapons weapons, except for Prestor. "I doubt they will be foolish enough to try to attack us up that slope," he says.
The sound of mining has stopped. Now the sucking noise stops. They listen.
"I think they have run away," Rikard says.
"Let's go," Nignog says.
They move down the steep slope of the tunnel together. They bend their knees and go carefully. The water makes the conjured wood of the floor slippery. They reach the bottom of the slope and approach the cavern. The only light comes from their own luminous stones. The goblins have gone. Water drips from the ceiling.
There are two crossbow bolts stuck in the wall of the tunnel. Zar pulls one out. Water trickles from the hole left in the conjured wood.
"Don't pull out the other one," Ping says, "The walls may break."
Zar looks at the conjured wood and touches it with his finger. He does not think the walls are going to break. The conjured wood is strong and thick.
The adventurers walk down a slope to the cavern floor. On their right is the formation of pink crystals. The crystals sparkle in the light of the luminous stones.
"They could be here, hiding," Ping says.
They peer into the shadows of the jagged walls and ceiling, but they see no sign of the goblins. From the mouth of the tunnel ahead of them comes a screaching of metal against metal. They hear voices and a loud bang.
"They're opening the safe," Prestor says.
There's another screach of metal followed by marching feet getting louder.
"Someone's coming," Rikard says. He takes a step back and holds up his shield. He looks left and right. Nignog draws his sword. Prestor rushes to the left side of the cavern and crouches behind a big rock. Six goblins with shields crowd the tunnel mouth. They put their shields together to make a wall along the tunnel floor. There are four shields along the floor and two above. Rikard and Nignog watch over their own shields. The others stand behind the two metal-armored men.
Four crossbows poke between the goblins' shields and fire at once. Two bolts glance off Nignog's armor. Another bounces off Rikard's shield. But the fourth hits Rikard in the waist and cuts through his armor.
"Ah!" Rikard says. He runs after Prestor and hides with Prestor behind his rock. This leaves Zar exposed in the middle of the floor. Zar runs to the right side of the cavern, taking care not to run too fast because he does not want to trip and fall. He crouches behind the pink crystals.
Nignog does not move. Ping stands behind him. What spell can she cast upon the goblins? Flash may not work. The goblins are hiding behind their shields. Two crossbows peak between the shields. Two bolts fly towards Nignog. Once glances off his helmet with a chiming sound. The other thumps into one of the carbon steel plates on his thigh, and breaks. Nignog flinches at the impact, and his leg moves a few centimeters, but other than that, he shows no sign of being affected by the goblins' fire.
"Put your lights away!" Prestor says.
Ping puts her light in her pocket. Zar has his luminous stone is in his mouth. He shakes his head. He's not putting his light away. He needs to see to cast spells.
Nignog crouches behind his shield. Ping crouches behind him. The goblins fire four more bolts. One of them strikes his shoulder hard. He frowns. Can these little bolts can get through his armor?
Zar casts a spell he has never used before in battle. It is a hard spell to use because it has to hit the head of an enemy, and right now he's eight and a half meters from the goblin he wants to hit. (You may be wondering how Zar knows it was exactly eight and a half meters to the goblin, and the answer is: he practices guessing how far away things are for several hours a week, and tests his guesses with a spell called Calibrate.)
Zar blinks. A moment later, the goblin farthest from him, being the one he could see, shouts and stands up. Zar smiles. The goblin has been struck by Fear.
When the goblin stands up, his shield falls back into the tunnel. The other goblins move apart. Ping says a word out loud.
"Close your eyes," Rikard says to Prestor.
The goblins are trying to get their shield wall together, but the frightened one picks his shield up and runs away, shouting the same word over and over. A blinding flash of light fills the cavern with a deafening bang. The sound echoes from the walls.
Nignog opens his eyes. The goblin shields are out of place. He hears Rikard shouting at him to get behind some cover. Nignog narrows his eyes. He charges forwards. Zar and Prestor see Nignog charging. Prestor has borrowed Rikard's bow. He and Zar fire at the goblins. The goblins themselves fire two bolts at Nignog, but the bolts don't stop him charging. He runs right up to the end of the tunnel and swings his sword straight down from above his head. There is a goblin in front of him, cowering on the floor, blinded by Ping's Flash.
Nignog cuts half-way through the goblin's body and pulls the goblin out of the tunnel and down to the pile of rocks at his feet. He yanks his sword out and blood splatters on the wall. Despite the sudden death of their comrade, two of the remaining goblins try to stab Nignog with their spears, but they cannot penetrate his armor. Rikard charges from behind his rock. Prestor follows him, yelling at the goblins. The goblins turn and run, leaving their dead comrade behind.
The party gathers around Nignog and stares down at the goblin's corps. The goblin's face is still and his eyes are open. His mouth is wide and his lips are fat and black. He is ugly to look at, but not frightening, now that he is dead. Rikard puts his hand upon Nignog's shoulder. "You are valiant, Nignog, knight of Gebong. I don't doubt that your courage has once again saved us all."
"We can get the crystals later," Ping says. "First we'll go after the safe. That's our mission." In her hands, she holds the two halves of a freshly-cast Circle.
"Oh?" Prestor says, "Did you make a deal with the bank manager about a fee for your services?"
Rikard stops on the lip of the tunnel where it leaves the rhodonite cavern. "You raise a good point, sir. I do not recall any agreement made with the bank manager."
Ping stands up in the tunnel. "We don't do it just for the money." She smiles. "We're here for the adventure." She raises her spear.
"Yes," Rikard says, "We fight for the innocent and the weak."
"I see," Prestor says. He climbs up last into the tunnel. "And the bank manager is weak and innocent, is he?"
But the others are not listening to him. They are jogging along the tunnel. He follows, looking at the walls as he goes. The ceiling is slate now, and the walls are clay and slate. So far as he can tell, they are roughly fifty meters below the ground, and directly below the River Boome. The tunnel bends to the left and begins to ascend.
At the front of the party, Nignog is jogging with Ping, climbing a hill that is steep enough to make him breath heavily, but not steep enough to make them slip. Their boots splash in the water on the floor. They come around a right-hand bend. Five meters in front of them is a human-shaped creature. Its body is covered with blue and orange flames. Beneath the flames, it appears to be brown, with rocks sticking out here and there. It's head has lumps for ears, two black holes for eyes, and a small black hole for a mouth. It carries a shiny, circular steel shield and a shiny steel sword. There is no leather on the shield or the sword.
Ping slows down, but Nignog charges forward without hesitation and swings his sword at whatever it is. Ping runs to catch up. So mighty is the blow Nignog aims at the creature that is forces the shiny shield aside and Nignog's sword bites ten centimeters into the brown fiery body. He pulls his sword out right away and defends himself against a swing from the shiny sword. Ping thrusts at the creature with her circle. She catchs it on the shoulder and sees the body material vanish and puff.
The creatures stops moving. Nignog is about to strike it, but the flames on the creature's body leap out. They burst forth with a roar. Nignog and Ping leap backwards. The flames chase them down the tunnel. Their companions flee in front of them. They don't stop running until they are down the slope and around another corner.
"What was that?" Prestor says.
"Some kind of fire and stone creature," Zar says.
"What are we going to do?" Ping says, "We can't stand against a thing like that. He'll burn us alive."
Nignog looks around the corner. The fire creature is walking forwards. "He's coming!"
They run back to the end of the tunnel in the cavern. They wait. They can hear the hissing of the creature. They also hear the sound of goblin voices down the tunnel behind the fire creature, and another bang and a smash. The fire creature is just visible from the right side of the tunnel.
Prestor strings Rikard's bow and fires. He fires again. The fire creature moves back around the corner. Prestor creeps along the left wall and peaks around. There it is, standing with its shiny shield and its shiny sword. He leans against the wall. Well, he says to himself, no harm in shooting at it, I suppose.
He shoots. His arrow sticks into the creature's body. It pulls the arrow out, and appears to be unharmed. Prestor shoots again and again, but appears to have no effect. He cannot draw Rikard's bow back all the way because he is not strong enough. The others are behind him now, against the wall.
"I'm going to try to block some of its fire holes with conjured sponge," Ping says. She moves up past Prestor and casts Choke and makes the ball of sponge appear around the creature's waiste. Sure enough, the fire on its body dies down from his chest to his thighs. The fire creature looks down at its body with its black eyes.
Ping returns to the others. "I worked."
"Well done," Rikard says.
"Good aim," Zar says.
"Someone else shoot at thim now," Prestor says. He holds out Rikard's bow.
"Very well," Rikard says. He takes his bow. His hands are shaking. He strings an arrow and moves ahead along the wall. The fire creature is standing five meters away. Rikard draws his powerful bow right back. He takes aim and shoots. His arrow strikes the creature in the neck and passes all the way through its body to bury itself in the conjured matter of the tunnel behind.
"I shot it through the neck!" Rikard says.
Nignog strings an arrow and walks to the corner. The fire creature is gone.
The tunnel climbs to a new cavern, and there it ends. This cavern has a low ceiling and three other tunnels leading out of it. These tunnels have stone walls without conjured wood. The fire creature is standing in the tunnel on the left. It takes a step backwards. The tunnel slopes up steeply. The other two tunnels go down into pools of water.
In the center of the cavern is the oak and steel safe from the bank. It lies on its back. Its door has been torn off and bent. Many packets of papers remain in the safe. Gold pieces are scattered about on the floor. On the far side of the cavern is a pile of rocks.
The fire creature disappears up the side tunnel. A voice drifts down into the cavern.
"So long, bozos! Better luck next time!"
It's the same voice they heard when they first came to the tunnel in the bank.
Ping steps forward and picks up a card that has been placed with care upon the edge of the broken safe. The card has four triangles drawn on it in red, blue, green, and brown.
"That must be his calling card," Prestor says.
Zar walks to the pile of rocks. It is conjured matter with rocks. On one side is a hole into the center, but there is nothing remarkable in the hole. Ping tries to stick her spear into the pile, but the conjured matter is springy and tough. Prestor notices that some of the rocks are large, sharp pieces of cut granite. They must have been brought from elsewhere. But most of the rock is slate and limestone dug from the walls of this very same cavern with pick-axes. In all, the pile of rocks must be three meters across and two meters high, and weigh over ten tons.
The adventurers gather up the loose gold pieces on the floor, fifty-three pieces in all. They take the papers from the safe. Prestor says they will be valuable to whoever they belong to. "I suggest we get some of those crystals before the cavern back there fills with water or the tunnel starts collapsing."
They return to the cavern of the crystals. Prestor taps and chips and cuts with his small pick and shovels. The others help him and keep watch on the tunnels. They wrap the crystals in cloth and pack them away. After an hour, Prestor stands up and wipes his forehead.
"I think we have four hundred gold pieces worth of crystal already. And there's plenty more."
He kneels again. Ping frowns at the tunnels. They are tired. It's not that they want to go to sleep, it's that they are getting tired of being alert. Rikard has a cut on his waist. She hears something in the tunnel leading back to the bank.
Everyone else hears it too.
"It sounded like a goblin or a kobold creeping around," Ping says.
Prestor keeps tapping away. Another hour goes by. "Another five hundred gold pieces, I think. And still more. I'll keep going."
"No," Ping says. "It's time to go. We have to go now. There's something back there in the tunnel. We should go face it now, not later."
Ping is insistent. Rikard and Zar agree. So they leave the cavern, with its pile of valuable crystals on the floor. "I'll be back," Prestor says to them, and the cavern falls dark as they leave.
There are waves in the vaulted cavern. The waves settle down as the adventurers watch. The water becomes still like a mirror.
"Something was in here just before we entered," Prestor says.
Rikard points to the passage half-hidden in the wall on their right. "Do you see that?"
They peer at the wall among the roots above the deep pool. They see the dark passage.
"Let's go across," Ping says.
Ping steps down into the ankle-deep water and walks to the tunnel on the other side. Her companions follow. They walk swiftly along the tunnel until they come to the section where the earth has collapsed beneath the conjured wood floor.
"Stop," Zar says, "My conjured sponge will not be there any more. It has decayed. We cannot cross."
"He's right," Prestor says, "The tunnel is likely to cave in if we cross. Even if we run."
They stand staring at the tunnel floor. "What shall we do?" Ping says.
Behind them, they hear the splashing of feet in the vaulted cavern.
"Whatever we do," Rikard says, "we should do it quickly. I fear we are persued even now by enemies fresh for the fight."
Nignog raises his sword and points at the sagging ceiling. "What if we poke it and make it collaps. After that we can crawl over the rubble and get away."
There is another splash behind them.
He takes a step closer to the collapsed floor. "Hold your light up closer, Zar."
Zar holds his light higher and Prestor steps from side to side looking up at the ceiling. "Okay, I'll try it. But I need a stick. How about your spear, Ping?"
Ping hands Prestor her spear. Prestor takes one step forward onto the collapsed floor. The conjured material beneath his feet slips a little and stops. He takes another step. His feet appear to be floating on air. He holds the spear up and pushes on the ceiling. The spear tip sticks into the conjured wood. He thrusts up with the full strength of his arms and legs.
The ceiling splits. Dirt and stones rush down. Prestor jumps back. With a crash, the entire roof collapses in front of him. He and the adventurers rush back as a cloud of dust and a shower of dirt flies past them. Ping takes her spear from Prestor. She presses herself against the tunnel wall and stares back along the tunnel looking for monsters. This would be a perfect time to attack, she thinks, when she and her comrades are distracted.
The dust clears enough for them to see a mound of dirt and rocks blocking the tunnel. The mound slopes up to a great hole, as if they are at the bottom of a pit. There is a crash from above. Planks of wood and more rocks fall out of the hole and bounce down into the tunnel. They hear a splintering crack, a loud scraping, and a shout. A large bed slides out of the darkness of the hole. An old lady is sitting up in the bed holding her night cap on her head. The sheets are flying up in the air. The four posters on the bed corners, and their curtains, are broken off in a tangled mess, and get stuck at the top of the dirt pile.
"Aaahhh!" the old lady cries. She's a small old lady but she has a loud voice.
The adventurers take another few steps back as the bed slides right off the dirt and onto the floor of the tunnel.
"Hello, Old Bess," Nignog says. "Are you okay?"
The old lady squints in the light of Zar's luminous stone. "Put that damned light down, you little rascle!"
Zar stares at the old lady, but does not lower his light. Prestor steps sideways so that Bess is in shadow. Bess lowers her hand.
"What do you mean by this, you reprobates! Can't an old lady get any rest at night? I have enough trouble getting to sleep as it is, what with my tremors, and there I was, dreaming like a twenty-year-old bride, and my house falls down and here I am!"
Bess pulls her sheets up to her chest.
Ping hands her light to Rikard and points down the tunnel behind them. He nods. She comes closer to the bed. "Bess, it's me, Ping Pong, Sing and Clarice's daughter. You remember me, don't you?"
More bricks fall down out of the hole. Two planks of wood bounce down and clatter against the bed. Up above in the hole, something large creaks noisily.
"Of course I remember you," Bess says. She points a finger at Ping. "Always knew you would get up to mischief when you were older. Always had that look in your eye when you were younger. Is this your idea of a joke, digging around under people's houses at night?"
Prestor leans close to Ping. "I think we must be under her house, and her house is collapsing."
"If you just stay calm, Bess," Ping says, "We'll make sure you get out of this safely."
"Oh, stay calm is it? Stay calm!" Bess pushes her sheets aside and steps out of bed. She stands upon the dirt on the floor and looks down. Her feet are bare. "Where are my slippers?"
Ping steps forward with her hands held out. "Just stay where you are."
Bess walks towards Ping and pushes upon her with one hand. Ping moves out of the way. "Tell me what to do, would you?" Bess says, "You got me into this, and I'll get myself out of it." She walks past Ping and Prestor, heading down the tunnel away from her bed. Ping hears the twang of a bow string. An arrow thuds into the wood at the end of Bess's bed. She grabs Bess and pushes her to the floor.
Rikard shouts, "Under attack! Take cover!"
Nignog raises his shield and stands in the middle of the corridor. Rikard stands close to the wall. Nignog looks over at him through the eye holes in his helmet. "You are safer in the middle. Arrows bounce off the walls."
Rikard frowns. Who knows where Nignog hears this crazy stuff. His grandfather probably.
"Back behind the bed!" Ping shouts.
"Who is shooting at us?" Bess says.
"I don't know," Ping says.
Prestor helps Bess around her bed. "Someone is shooting at us, maam, and we'd very much like you to be safe behind your bed if that's okay with you."
Bess sits behind her bed. Zar, Ping, and Prestor crouch beside her. Soon, Nignog and Rikard join them. Arrows are thudding into the walls, the bed, and the dirt mound behind them.
"Why do they keep shooting when they can't hit us?" Bess says.
"Oh," Rikard says, "Sooner or later they will hit us. Look," he points to the wound in his side. There is some blood visible through his armor. "I was hit earlier."
Prestor leans towards Ping. "I'm going to go up and see if we can get out that way."
"Wait," Nignog says. "Let's tip up the bed to use as a shield."
"What, my bed?" Bess says.
"Good idea," Rikard says. The two of them lift the end of the bed so that it is standing up in the tunnel. The mattress falls out with a slap on the tunnel floor. Bess smacks Nignog on his armored shoulder.
"How dare you, you impudent block-head!" She kicks him in the shin. Nignog pays no attention to her at all. He stares around the side of the bed and takes out his bow.
Rikard hides behind the bed. His face is pale. "I'm tired of being shot at."
"Right, here I go," Prestor says. He crawls up into the hole. Dirt slides down behind him.
Nignog takes aim down the tunnel. He fires. They hear the sound of feet approaching. "Here they come," Nignog says, "Kobolds, five or six of them."
Nignog draws his sword. Ping hefts her spear. Zar chooses a spell, just in case. He does not think the kobolds are going to charge around the bed. What would they do that for? Rikard draws his sword too. He puts a hand on Bess's shoulder. "Dear lady, this is no time for theatrics. Be seated." He pushes her down and she falls on her bottom. Her hat falls off, but she is too angry to notice.
"You bully!" she says.
Five or six arrows thud into the bed. The tip of one arrow splinters the wood above Bess's head. She stands up. "How dare you shoot at my bed!"
Nignog lowers his sword. "They're retreating."
Zar nods and folds his arms.
Prestor clambers down the slope. "If we go now, we can get out. But it's a trickly clamber over the planks and rubble." He points at Bess and shakes his head.
Ping frowns. "Nignog."Nignog fires his bow. "Yeah?""Can you carry Bess up into the hole?"
Nignog puts his bow away. "Sure."
Bess holds up her hands to keep Nignog away from her. "Oh no you don't, young man. I'm not going to have a house fall on top of me."
Nignog kneels down, grabs one of Bess's hands and pulls her towards him. He puts his arm around her waist and stands up.
Bess pounds upon his back with her fists. "Unhand me you blackard!"
Prestor clambers up the slope. "This way. Follow me." Two arrows clatter on the stones beside him.
Nignog follows him, using one hand to hold Bess in place over his shoulder and another to crawl up the mound.
"I will be last, because of my armor," Rikard says.
"Okay," Ping says. As soon as Nignog is out of the tunnel, Ping and Zar follow him up.
Rikard is left alone, cowering behind the bed. Why couldn't they say. No, Rikard, you go first, you're injured? Maybe they didn't realise that the kobolds would have six more arrows ready by now, and they would be thinking of charging. He may be a coward, but that just means he knows a lot about danger, and where it is going to be coming from. He stares up the slope and trembles. He will be exposed for several seconds.
"Come on, Rikard. Go!" he says to himself out loud. "Just do it. Do it now!"
Six arrows thud into the bed one after another. Now is his chance. He was right to wait. But if he's going to get away he has to go now. He scrambles up the dirt pile. Behind him he hears the light patter of kobold feet and a clink of metal. Don't look back, he thinks, just climb.
In the street outside what is left of Bess's house, Nignog puts the old lady down. A crowd of people with torches cheers. Bess slaps Nignog. The crowd laughs. Prestor smiles. Zar and Ping climb through a hole in the wall. Ping shines her light back into the house.
Just has he reaches the top of the dirt pile, Rikard feels a stunning blow upon his helmet. He collapses to the floor. He tries to raise himself, but he can't see. Nignog and Prestor rush into the collapsing house. They lift Rikard to his feet and help him stumble across the rubble and furniture to the hole in the wall. They help him out into the cool, fresh, night air. The crowd in the street cheers when they see him emerge.
A woman rushes up to Bess and hugs her. "Mother, thank heavens you're all right!"
"I don't need a hug! I need a lawyer!" Bess says.
Ping helps Rikard out of the wall. He points into the house and speaks to her. She nods and turns to the crowd.
"On the lookout everyone!" Ping says, "We may have some kobolds running around in a minute!"
Bess puts her hand on her head. "Where's my night cap!"
Sheriff Trombone of Voisson Village is a large man. He's tall and he's broad and he's strong. The only man stronger than him is the village blacksmith, and maybe Nignog, the Knight of Gebong. On the night of the bank robbery, Sheriff Trombone raised himself from bed, left his wife and three children in their home, and came into the village center to see what was going on. He has been asking everyone questions and writing down the answers in his notebook. He has large hands, but a small notebook, and he writes in small letters. He likes to lick his pencil for some reason that nobody has figured out, and he says, "Right you are," often when he's writing. Nobody understands why he does that either, but nobody has asked him. There's not much point in asking Sheriff Trombone questions. He likes to ask questions, but he does not like to answer them.
So far he has found out a few interesting things about tonight's robbery, but he is not sure he understands how they all fit together. First of all, it seems that there was an extraordinary amount of money in the bank safe. The bank manager says the safe contained two hundred sacks each with one hundred gold pieces. Given that there are only one hundred families living in Voisson Village, that means there were two sacks of gold for each family in the safe. Of course, some families had more than two sacks of gold in the safe, and some had no sacks in the safe, but on average, each family had two sacks. If the money in the safe is lost, then each family in Voisson Village lost enough money to buy four good horses.
The second thing that he learned was that the bank manager had not been lending people money in the past year. Joe Hanson the Plumber said, "Not a penny I could get out of him, Sheriff. And my credit's good. I went to the Machay Bank and they lent me money fast enough. I had to have the money for the new copper pipe tools I've been using."
"Right you are," Sherrif Trombone said, and wrote that down in his notebook.
Because the bank manager had not been lending money to people who needed it, that meant that all the gold given to him for safe-keeping by people in the village was in the bank, sitting in sacks on the shelves of the bank's safe. If the bank manager had been lending the money out, there would have been much less money in the safe.
"I had a word with the Machay bank manager," Joe the Plumber says. "He had an interesting thing to say."
Sheriff Trombone looks up and licks his pencil. "Oh yes? And what was that which he had to say, Mr. Hanson?"
Joe the Plumber lights a match and puffs on his pipe. He exhales a cloud of blue smoke, which curls around the Sheriff's lantern. All around them there are people talking, gathered around Old Bess's house, wondering if it's going to fall down completely, and shouting questions at Ping, Zar, Nignog, and Rikard.
"The manager of the Machay Bank said that they don't keep no more than twenty percent of their deposits in the bank at a time. Say it's bank policy."
Sheriff Trombone nods and writes in his notebook. "Twenty percent you say?"
Joe moves away into the shadows just as the bank manager arrives.
"What am I supposed to do?" the bank manager says. "The money's gone! You are supposed to protect the bank. And now all the money's gone. I wasn't insured! What are you going to do about it?"
"I'll ask the questions, sir," Sheriff Trombone says. "Now, what's this about no insurance?"
"Only last week, I had a dispute with the insurance agent. They wanted to raise my premium. They wanted to triple my premium. Can you imagine that? I refused to pay it, and now look, someone stole the safe right when my insurance lapsed." The bank manager's eyes widen and he smiles and laughs. "I've got it! The insurance company knew that I did not have insurance. They hired someone to steal the money, so as to teach a lesson to anyone who tries to stand up to them." He points at the sheriff's notebook. "Write that down! That's the answer. They knew I had no insurance, and they knew how much money I had in the bank. It fits perfectly."
The sheriff writes in his notebook. When he looks up, the bank manager is still smiling. Ping, Zar, and Nignog are carrying Rikard through the crowd towards the pub. The sherrif pushes his way towards them.
"Before you go to bed, kids, I'd like to ask a few questions."
Nignog puts Rikard down. Rikard leans against him. "Okay," Nignog says, "But Rikard needs to lie down."
"I'll make it quick, then. Did you see any sign of the gold stolen from the bank?"
"We heard the thief talking," Ping says, "and we found the safe, all torn apart, and some gold gold pieces."
"Sixty-three gold pieces," Rikard says.
"Right you are," Sheriff Trombone says. "And where is the other fellow who was with you?"
"He's gone to bed," Ping says.
"What was his name?"
"Prestor the Prospector. He was very helpful. We're going to give the gold back to the bank manager, and we have a bunch of papers too."
Nignog raises a large sack full of papers they found scattered on the floor beside the safe.
"Oh," Nignog says, "And I found this." He takes out the card they found among the ruins of the safe.
Sherrif Trombone takes the card and holds it up to his lantern. "Right you are." He looks at the triangles and lines of different colors on the card.
"Do you know what it means?" Ping says.
"Maybe I do, maybe I don't. It's my job to ask the questions."
"But Sheriff!" Ping says, "You have to tell us!"
"Do you know how the thief carried such a heavy safe all that way along the tunnel?"
"Do you know how the thief tore the safe open?"
"No, we don't, Sheriff," Ping says, "But tell us who the card belongs to."
"Well," the Sheriff says. He frowns and licks the end of his pencil. "I reckon it's the calling card of a villian they call The Elementalist."