|Marcel Le Rich||Baron of North Caravel||M 51|
|Isabelle Le Rich||Baroness of North Caravel||F 65|
|Rikard Le Rich||Only Son of Baron Le Rich||M 22|
|Clarice Le Rich||Aspiring Archaeologist Sister||F 27|
|Janice Le Rich||Amorous Sister||F 26|
|Marie Le Rich||Decorous Sister||F 24|
|Beatrice Le Rich||Oldest Sister with Two Children||F 31|
|Ping Pong||Wizard of Noc, Native of Voisson||F 24|
|Nignog Gateaux||Knight of Gebong, Native of Voisson||M 21|
|Zar Queznel||Wizard of Noc, Son of Zarquon||M 17|
10 am, 23rd August 2482
The sun is shining upon the rolling hills of north-eastern Caravel. It shines upon the tall trees of the woods and it shines upon the grass where the sheep graze. It shines into the ancient stone quarry at the top of one particular grassy hill. At the bottom of the quarry, two men in metal armor are moving rocks. They pick up the rocks from one pile and put them in another pile. One man is broad and strong. The other is tall. Standing beside them are two women. One wears leather armor. The other wears denim trousers and a jacket. She has a paper in her hand and crouches to look beneath the rocks the men are moving aside. There are five hourses in the quarry also, tearing up the grass and thistles that grow beside a small pool. Standing with the horses is a boy of sixteen or seventeen in leather armor with a pack on his back. He is looking around, keeping watch.
"There it is!" the woman with the paper in her hand says.
The men in metal armor move the last of the rocks and there is now revealed a circular black cap almost a meter across. Upon the cap are carved words that the two men cannot read, nor even the woman in leather armor, who leans down to look at them, and runs her fingers over the cold surface of the cap.
"It's cast iron," she says, "But it's not rusty. How can it be a thousand years old, Clarice, if it's not rusty?"
"I think it must be magical," the woman with the paper says.
The broad man is touching the metal and scratching it with his nail. "Some cast iron does not rust, if it has just the right amount of sulfer in it."
"That is interesting, Nignog," Clarice says.
"What does the writing say?" the tall man asks. He leans close to Clarice and puts his hand upon her shoulder. She holds the paper up to him and reads from it. "Ye who seek the Bowl of Exshathallion, Beware! The demon hoard of Zanatakatak awaits you, furious at your intrusion."
"Pretty scary," the tall man says.
Clarice rolls her eyes. "Rikard gets scared easily. He has always been like that."
The woman in leather armor stands up. "Actually, Rikard's right. A demon hoard is something to be scared of. But if you are sure this cap has been here for a thousand years, I doubt the demons are still in there."
"Thank you, Ping," Rikard says.
The boy keeping watch says, "Why would they tell us about the demons before we take off the cap?"
"Good point," Rikard says, "They might be bluffing."
"Well, let's get it off then," Nignog says. "May I have your crowbar, Zar?"
"Sure," the boy says.
Nignog fits the tip of the crowbar between the edge of the cap and the rim of the granite hole in which the cap is set. There is not much space to fit the crow-bar into, and what space there is has been filled with morter. After a thousand years, however, the morter is crumbling. Its lime has been washed away by rain. The cap lifts up on one side. Ningog puts a mailed hand beneath it, braces himself, and lifts one edge right up. Beneath is a circular shaft going straight down into the granite of the hill.
Rikard and Ningog move the cap aside. Rikard rubs his gauntlets together. "Wow, that thing is heavy. It must weigh two hundred kilograms. How much is two hundred kilograms of iron worth?"
"About two hundred gold pieces," Nignog says.
"It's worth ten times that as an artifact," Clarice says.
Ping holds a luminous stone above the top of the shaft and peers down. "I can see the bottom. It's about ten meters deep."
Rikard and Nignog kneel beside her. Clarice stands back, leaning over Rikard's shoulder. "Do you see any demons?"
"Not yet," Ping says. "How are we going to get out once we get in?"
11 am, 23rd August 2482
Nignog and Rikard lower a ladder made of conjured wood into the shaft. The conjured wood is transparent, but there are pieces of rock and grass embedded within it so that the sides and steps are visible, assuming you know what you are looking at. The ladder rests upon the bottom of the shaft and sticks two meters up in the air at the top. Nignog checks that the ladder is sitting well. He tightens his sword belt and ties his shield to his back. Upon his helmet is a luminous stone, held in place by invisible conjured matter.
Ping stands with a conjuring wand in her hand. She made the ladder. Zar placed the grass and stones in the conjured wood. He is an expert at this sort of thing. The grass and stones need to be placed on the surface of the wood, or else they weaken the structure. All four of the adventurers have their luminous stones, those made by the great Alfonso Bongo, fastened to their helmets.
"Okay," Nignog says, "I'm going in."
Clarice is biting her lip. "Are you sure about this, Nignog?"
"Yes," Nignog says. He puts his foot on the ladder and starts to descend. His head disappears into the shaft. Zar and Ping kneel by the opening and watch him go down. Rikard keeps a look-out. Clarice paces about, sweat standing out on her forehead. It is getting warm in the quarry, but not that warm.
"I'm at the bottom," Nignog says. "There are steps going down. There are lots of rocks and stones on the floor. But the ceiling and walls are okay."
"Is he okay?" Clarice says.
"Oh, what's this?" Nignog says. "Something is coming up the stairs."
Clarice screams. "Run, Nignog."
Rikard puts his hands upon her shoulders. "Sister, calm down."
"What is it?" Ping says.
Nignog's voice comes up the shaft. "I'm not sure. It has a head and tenticle-like things all over, and legs and a couple of stumpy arms."
Claric grabs Rikard. "Oh no!"
"Is it a demon?" Ping says.
"Could be. He's taking a long time to come up the stairs. He's kind of crawling, but he's not doing that very well. I think he's hurt."
"Don't underestimate him," Zar says.
"Kill it, Nignog!" Clarice shouts.
"It's eyes are like black holes," Nignog says.
"Sounds like a demon to me," Zar says.
"It's only a couple of meters away from my feet now," Nignog says.
"Don't kill it yet," Ping says.
"Kill it before it kills you!" Clarice says.
"Chop it's head off," Zar says.
There is a ring of metal and a clash from below.
"Are you all right?" Ping says.
Those at the top of the shaft strain their ears to hear Nignog's voice. Insects buzz about them. The sun shines directly into the quarry. One of the horses neighs. Rikard is staring at the shaft, forgetting his watch for the moment.
"I chopped its head off," Nignog says.
"Phew," Zar says.
"Woah!" Nignog says. Ping sees him climbing up the ladder, his sword in one hand. He puts his sword in its sheath. He looks down, then starts to climb up faster than she would have thought possible. The conjured ladder shakes and bumbs against the rim of the shaft. Suddenly Nignog appears, his face red. "Get back!"
They jump back from the opening and lay down upon the rocky ground. A blast of heat, sound, and light bursts out of the shaft. Sparks appear in a straight line above the opening, a hundred meters up in the air, all at once.
Clarice screams. She clings to Rikard and tries to pull him farther from the shaft. "They're coming, they're coming!"
Nignog stands up and brushes stones off his back. "That was a close one."
Ping sits up. The conjured ladder is gone. "That was an annihilation, wasn't it Zar?"
Zar nods. "I think so. It took the ladder, but there must have been more to annihilate."
"First he sponged the corridor, then he blasted it," Nignog says.
They all stand up. Rikard raises his sister. "Calm down, Clarice."
"Now what?" Nignog says.
They think for a while. Nignog suggests that they go down and get the demon head, or check further along the corridor. There is no movement at the bottom of the shaft, but their ladder is gone. Rikard volunteers to go down on a rope. His sister shakes her head and clings to him. In the end, they put the cap back on the shaft and restore all the rocks that covered it. They mount their horses and ride out of the quarry.
"We'll be back," Ping says.
11 am, 25th August 2482, The Same Ancient Stone Quarry
The sun sparkles in a bead of sweat that runs out from beneath Rikard's helmet and down his forehead. He blinks when it enters his eye, and continues his scrutiny of the upper walls of the quarry. He thought he saw something up there earlier. It was most likely a sheep, but it could be a spying shepherd. Better to keep a careful watch. Nignog and Zar are removing the rocks from the top of the metal cap. His sister Clarice stands beside him. Ping stands a little way off, talking to herself in a language of clicking and rasping sounds.
"What is she doing?" Clarice whispers to Rikard.
"She is practicing her Rattikit, which is the language that demons speak. It is our hope that we will be able to capture the demon in the catacombe and make an alliance with it."
Rikard repeats what he said.
"Oh," his sister says.
Rikard is worried. He's not sure why. Perhaps it is the fact that their plan leaves him at the top of the shaft with his sister for most of the time, while the other three go on ahead. Or perhaps it is the fact that they have no horses upon which to flee the Demon Hord of Zanatakatak should the horde burst forth from the depths and prove irresistable. But neither of these explanations seem to fit with the exact nature of his anxiety. Of course, he must not forget that he is a coward, and that his anxiety made him cower on the floor when he was attacked by spiders a few months ago. Was it only a few months ago? Yes, it was. Janice is right, he has changed a lot since he last saw her.
"Where was Janice last night?" Rikard says.
"She snuck off to see her new boyfriend," Clarice says.
"New boyfriend?" Rikard frowns. "I thought she had a crush on Nignog."
Zar overhears. "Oh yes she does, doesn't she Nignog?"
Nignog frowns and passes a stone to Zar with one hand. Zar takes it and staggers under its weight.
"So who is this new boyfriend?" Rikard says.
"I don't know. All she would say is that Daddy would not approve."
Rikard rubs his chin. What kind of person would his father not approve of? A coward, perhaps.
"Okay, are you ready?" Nignog says.
Nignog and Rikard remove the iron cap. Ping casts a spell and together with Zar makes another ladder of conjured wood. Nignog and Ping lower the ladder into the shaft. Ping casts Circle II and puts her foot on the ladder. Her luminous stone is mounted upon her helmet, but its light is hardly visible in the bright summer sunshine.
"Ready?" she says. She has the two halves of the Circle II space bridge combined together in the buckler arrangement. Her hand is held out beside her, holding the buckler, but the buckler is almost invisible. When it moves, its edges can be seen as a shimmer in the air, similar to a heat devil over a hot rock. The spell will last for sixteen minutes.
"Go," Nignog says.
Ping descends the ladder. She is in the ancient shaft. Her luminous stone shines in front of her. She climbs with one hand on the ladder and the other holding the buckler. She watches the bottom of the shaft. Nothing moves there. She crouches when she nears the passage, so that she can look down it before exposing her body. Nothing moves, but there are the stairs heading downwards that Nignog described. Stone chips are scattered across the floor. Here and there are some smooth pebbles.
She steps off the ladder. "I'm down."
Her voice echoes up the shaft and Nignog starts to descend, his luminous stone on his helmet, and then Zar after him. Ping hears a scraping at the bottom of the stairs. She advances and looks down. The bright, steady light of the Alfonzo Bongo Luminous Stone shines upon walls, steps, and ceiling cut from the granite of the hill. At the base of the stairs is a passage.
"The demon is down there," Ping says. She stands with her buckler ready.
Nignog steps up behind her. She breaths a sigh of relief. A moment later, she descends the stairs. He follows. At the bottom she finds a passage that runs straight for twenty paces. Ten paces from the stairs is a pit that entirely fills the floor. Approaching Ping's feet is a mishappen creature. It has a head, but the head is low to the ground. The legs and head appear to be made of rocks bound together by some invisible force. They are not touching, but they move together.
"It has five legs," Ping says. She might have compared it to a starfish, but Ping has never been to the seaside.
The demon's head is covered with stone chips, with many sticking out at odd angles. Its eyes are black holes. On the sides of its head are two more holes. Two days earlier, after spending many hours studying in the LeRiche's library of sixteen thousand books, Zar had explained to Nignog and Ping that these holes on the side of a demon's head are connected to the eyes by tubes, and are in fact its ears.
"Shtack-k-tk!" Ping says. That is Rattikit for Stop!
The demon does not stop, but advances up the stairs, moving two legs at a time.
"Oh my gosh," Zar says. He has squeezed in beside Nignog.
The demon is at Ping's feet. She lunges at it with her buckler. Its legs move all at once, perhaps trying to grab her, but the tip of one of them hisses, sparkles, and vanishes when it touches Ping's weapon. The demon withdraws for a moment, then lunges again, but once more Ping's buckler intercepts the attack and it backs away.
Ping picks up a fist-sized rock from the floor. She holds her buckers horizontal, the open face of the deadly space bridge facing up. She holds the rock above it and looks at the demon. "Watch me," she says in Rattikit. She drops the rock. There is a flash of white light, a hiss and a puff of nasty-smelling gas. There is dust in the backing of the buckler. That and the gas are all that is left of the rock. "Stop or I will put this on your head."
The demon moves a little ways down the stairs.
"He understood you!" Zar says.
"Nice work Ping," Nignog says.
"What do you want, demon?" Ping says.
After a few seconds, a faint rattling and clicking comes from the demon. The sound must be coming from his eyes, because Ping can see no mouth. She cannot make out what he is saying. She crouches upon the floor. "What do you want, demon? I did not hear your voice."
The sounds come again from the demon. Ping listens and goes over them in her mind. With a rush of pride she knows what the demon has said. This creature, made by the Illuminati thousands of years ago, has spoken to her in its strange and alien language and she has understood.
"What did it say?" Nignog asks.
"It wants to know where its master is." She speaks to the demon again in Rattikit. "Do not harm us and I will take you to your master." By this Ping means that she intends to become the demon's master herself, and then the demon will be with its new master.
The demon speaks again. "I am sick. My master does not love me."
For a moment, Ping things she is going to cry. "I will find you a master who loves you."
"I will fight for my master."
"Do you want a new master?"
The demon speaks, but Ping cannot understand. It's voice is loud, and it's legs undulate while its head bobs up and down.
"I think he's upset," Nignog says.
After a minute or so, the demon stops making noise.
"Try it again," Nignog says.
"Do you want a new master?"
The demon does the same thing. Zar says, "Don't do it again. He's upset. He might try to blow us up."
"What else do you want?" Ping says.
"I will fight for my master."
Ping stands up. "I think we have a deal with the demon."
Now the question arises: what shall they do with the demon. On the one hand, they want to take him with them when they leave, but on the other hand, they want to proceed down the passage and look for the Bowl of Exshathallion. If they leave the demon behind them, it might block the passage with its sponge. Ping's Circle Spell expires as they debate what to do.
They decide to chop off the demon's head, put it in one of two boxes they brought with them for the purpose. They will lower it down into the pit on Nignog's rope, tied off at the top to Zar's crowbar, which they will hammer into a crack in the floor with Nignog's hammer. The challenge is tying the rope to the box. First, they try to make a hole in the bottom of the box with the crowbar, but this splits the wood. They try to squeeze the end of the rope through the gap between the lid and the base, but the lid, when locked with the hook and loop, fits too tightly. They try to use Zar's string to tie the rope to the hook, and the hook to the loop, but this proves to be more difficult than they thought possible, and they give up. In the end, they make a lasoo and put the closed box in the lasoo. Pulling on the box tightens the rope and makes it hold fast.
Nignog hammers the crowbar into the floor. Ping ties the rope to the crowbar. Zar opens the chest and holds it ready. Nignog stands beside the demon with his sword drawn. "Should we warn him?"
"No, just do it," Ping says. "He might be upset if we warn him."
"I agree," Zar says. "Make sure you get the head off with the first stroke."
Nignog strikes. The demon's five-legged body slams against the wall of the passage, but it's head is still on. It makes a clicking noise and lunges at Nignog. "Oh no!" Ping says. She is certain the demon is going to let off its sponge and annihilation. Nignog's eyes are wide with surprize at his failure. He drops his shield and swings his sword two-handed. The demon's head flies from its body, and bounces on the floor.
"Grab it!" Ping says.
Nignog drops his sword and tries to take hold of the head. Chips of stone come away in his hand, he drops the head and it hits the floor. The demon head clicks and clacks. Nignog takes the head firmly in two hands, raises it, and places it in the box. Zar closes the lid and fumbles with the latch. His hands are trembling. All of them expect to hear the sound of expanding sponge at any moment. He closes the latch. Ping slides the lasoo over the box and pulls it tight. She takes the box from Zar and lowers it into the pit, being careful not to bump it against the walls. When the rope is taught, she crouches and lets it rest against the lip of the pit.
"Phew!" she says.
In the depths of the pit, and in the darkness of the box, Zar and Ping believe that the chances of the demon being able to place its surrounding sponge in the passage beside them are next to zero. Thus it is safe for them to continue, but at the same time the demon will be ready for them to retrieve when they leave.
12 pm, 25th August 2482, Down the Shaft
On either side of the pit there is a narrow ledge a few centimeters wide, made of chipped granite. At some time in the past, the pit may have been covered with a trap-door through which intruders would fall to their deaths. Perhaps the ledge was required to support some kind of wooden platform. Or perhaps the tunnel-makers believed that a ledge so narrow could not support a human being. And they may have been right when the tunnel was first dug out a thousand years ago, but today the walls on either side of the pit are no longer smooth. They are cracked and pitted.
Nignog puts the toes of his armored boots on the ledge, grabs the wall with his gauntlets, and climbs step by step around the pit. The luminous stone in his helmet shines brightly upon the wall, showing him where to put his hands. Ping holds her breath, for she fears that his armor and the weight of his weapons and shield will surely drag him away from the wall and into the pit.
Nignog steps onto the tunnel floor and Ping lets her breath out. "Well done, Nignog."
"I can't do that without a rope," Zar says.
Ping and Nignog hold a rope between them and Zar climbs across with the help of it. Ping follows unassisted. They proceed down the passage. It turns to the right and they encounter a pile of granite bricks on the floor. Clambering over these, they pass a kink in the passage and come to a left turn. Beyond the left turn the passage is so narrow and so low that they would have to turn sideways and crouch to get into it. They stare down the passage. Ten paces in front of them it is almost blocked by fallen bricks.
"I don't like this," Ping says.
They hear a distant splash. Ping stiffens. "Where was that?"
"Behind us," Zar says.
Ping casts Circle II and they make their way back to the pit. They check the rope and the box. Zar drops in a stone. It splashes in the pool at the bottom of the pit. Ping wipes sweat from her brow. Her heart is still beating fast. She is scared. "I'd like to step outside for a bit."
Ping climbs around the pit and out of the catacoumb. Rikard descends. He accompanies Zar and Nignog to the narrow passage, where Nignog crawls in and starts to move the bricks from the section of the passage that has caved in on the sides and ceiling. He throws them back to Zar, who throws them back to Rikard, who throws them onto a pile in the chamber in front of the passage. Rikard is sweating. The air is cool and damp. He imagines the weight of the rock above him, and the ancient hands carving out this place for the Cult of Exshathallion. What horrible rites did the cult practice with their jewel-covered bowl? Did they use it to drink the blood of orcs, like Clarice said? What is hiding in the pit behind him? He shakes his head. He must not surrender to panic. He counts the bricks.
Zar and Ningog back out of the passage. Rikard has counted to two hundred and seven. Nignog is covered with dust. He sits on the floor and catches his breath. "It's clear."
"I'm really scared," Rikard says.
"Go up and relieve Ping," Nignog says.
When Rikard has returned to the surface, and Ping has come back down, she says, "I think I saw someone watching us from the top of the quarry."
"It could be the shepherd," Zar says.
Nignog leads the way along the narrow passage. He has his back against one wall, and his bent knees pressing against the other. His helmet scrapes the ceiling. After thirty sideways steps, the passage opens in front of him and his head lamp shows him a chamber with a round metal door in the opposite wall. The door is covered with a white, glistening film. The floor is covered with spikes of the same white, glistening material, and on the ceiling there are more of the same spikes. When Ping and Zar join him, they stare at the chamber for several minutes.
"Look at how the spikes on the floor are exactly underneath the spikes on the ceiling," Ping says.
"It reminds me of the green slime," Zar says.
"Maybe the spikes come crashing together like teeth if you touch them," Ping says.
Zar picks up a loose brick and throws it at the spikes on the floor. The spikes shatter. Thirty bricks later, almost all the spikes on the floor and many on the ceiling are shattered. Nignog throws a brick at the door. The door emits a deep, booming, thump. The brick cracks in half, and fragments of the white stuff on the door fall to the floor. They reveal a black metal underneath.
"I think the spikes are stalagtites and stalagmites," Nignog says. "The white stuff is miner's snot, a type of stone that grows in wet tunnels."
"Oh," Ping says, "Calcite. Of course. This place must have been deserted for hundreds of years for the spikes to grow that big." After a few seconds contemplation, Ping advances into the room and examines the door. It is engraved, cast iron, just like the cap on the shaft. Except this one is held against the wall with a lock and two hinges. The hinges are rusted and the lock is full of calcite. Nignog takes his hammer and bangs on the hinges. The noise of his banging upon the metal is deafening in the small chamber.
Outside in the quarry, Rikard and Clarise listen at the opening of the shaft. "They are fighting something with armor," Rikard says. After ten minutes of banging, Clarice says, "I think they are just banging something with a hammer." After another ten minutes, there is silence and then a ringing boom. Down in the chamber, Nignog has pried the ancient door off the wall with his hammer, revealing a black opening into a cavern.
From an Old History Book in the LeRich Family Library:
In the year 1595, or thereabouts, the Priests of Exshathallion knew that the end of their world was coming. They knew it from the stories of those who fled from the invaders. Nothing could stop the orcs, and when the orc army came, it would burn, it would destroy, and it would enslave. And they knew more than this. They knew what even the most fearful story-tellers did not know. They knew from their Goddess Exhathallion that the orcs would bring with them a plague, and this plague would kill almost everyone in the world.
And so they resolved to hide their most sacred artifact, lest it fall into the hands of the orcs, and be used to do more evil. They took the Bowl of Exshathallion and they hid it deep beneath the earth, in a cavern half-filled with water. And they left behind in this cavern guardians to keep the sacred artifact safe until the followers of Exshathallion might once again come together and worship, or until the end of the world, whichever came first. Chief among these guardians was the demon Zanatakatak, and with him were ten other demons, who together were the Hoard of Zanatakatak. These demons had served the Priests of Exhathallion for centuries. Now they would go beneath the ground, and into the darkness, and serve them for centuries after their masters were dead.
2 pm, 25th August 2482, The Great Cavern
For the first time in hundreds of years, there is light in the Great Cavern. It sparkles upon the wet ceiling, and reflects from the dark pool in the cavern bottom. For hundreds of years, the demons in the cavern have waited. Now, when the light returns, some of them open their eyes and listen for the words that will tell them that their masters have returned. But those words do not come. Instead a great man clothed in metal enters the cavern and stands upon the ledge that once marked the edge of the pool. This must be an enemy of their masters. This is a creature that has come to steal what they have been appointed to guard. This is the time for them to perform their function. This is the time for them to fight.
There were once eleven demons in the cavern. At some point, long ago, there was a battle that the demons barely remember. In that battle, their leader left the cavern and did not return. Then there were ten demons in the cavern. All ten should be jumping out of hiding now, and attacking the intruders. But there are only two with the strength and wit to stand up, jump over the rocks exposed by the receding waters, and launch themselves at the enemy. But even two such demons are danger enough.
Nignog is the intruder, and he stands firm upon the ledge in front of the open door to the cavern, shield and sword in hand. The demons fight like this: they jump towards their enemy so as to crush and smash him. Nignog steps aside when he must, but he allows the claws of the demons to rake over the surface of his armor. His armor is thick, and when the enemy is close, he can thump it harder.
Outside the entrance, the two wizards Zar and Ping are debating how they can help. "I have Envelope," Zar says.
Nignog is fighting alone. "Feel free to come in and join me," he says as he faces off with a demon, waiting for it to pounce again.
Ping is not sure that she and Zar will be of any help in a fight, but she and Zar climb through the door and onto the ledge anyway. One of the demons leaps straight at Ping. The speed and ferocity of the leap astonishes her. The demon is willing to smash its body against hers. She leaps aside. The demon's outstretched claws pass within centimeters of her face. The demon lands upon the wall, crouching sideways for a moment. Its body is gray, with a texture like sandstone. Its legs are thick, and bend like a bird's. It's face is like that of a gargoyle, with eyes like two black holes. It springs away at Zar, and the second demon launches itself at Ping.
Zar casts Envelope and one of the demons is frozen just as it is about to jump from a boulder. It struggles and tears at the conjured sponge.
"That will hold him for a bit," Zar says.
The remaining demon presses its attack. The light from the three adventurer's headlamps jumps about the cavern walls as they dodge and lunge. Again and again Nignog smashes the demon's body, slicing it and cutting pieces off, but the demon keeps fighting. Zar and Ping hack and stab at it also, and leave shallow gouges upon its skin. But the demon is outnumbered three to one. When it leaps at Zar, both Ping and Nignog are able to strike as it flies past, or when it lands upon the wall.
At last, Nignog disables the demon with a mighty blow to its back. It struggles on the ground, waving its arms and legs too fast for the eye to see. Nignog steps down among the boulders and chops the demon's head from its body and it lies still. The three of them stand panting, too tired to speak.
The demon in the sponge tears itself free and attacks immediately, leaping at Zar. They fight it until Ping thrusts her spear into the Demon's neck. The beast writhes upon the ground. She pulls her spear out with a crunch.
"I got him!" Ping says.
"They really spazz out when they are injured," Zar says.
"Should I behead this one?" Nignog says. The demon shakes itself off the ledge and down among the boulders.
"No, just leave him," Ping says.
The ledge leads to a small room filled with gray sand and gravel. They enter and look around. The sand stirrs. Two mis-happen demons crawl towards them. Nignog chops one in half, and then another.
"Poor things," Ping says. "Waiting all this time and then so weak with age that they can't fight."
"Lucky for us, Ping," Zar says.
In the wall is a circular groove. Ping deduces that the groove is for a space bridge and the sand and gravel are for the demons to make new bodies if they are injured. They leave the small room and return to the cavern, where they search among the boulders for something that looks like a sacred bowl. A demon jumps out from beneath a large, flat slab of granite, and attacks Ping.They fight this demon, and another that leaps from somewhere, they don't see where until it is flying through the air towards Nignog. They leap from one boulder to another, evading the demons and striking at them. The sound of their weapons clattering, and their boots scraping across the stones, echoes from the cavern walls. Nignog strikes the final blow upon one demon, and Zar, with his slender small-sword, stabs so deep into the leg of the other that it cannot walk. The two demons shake and writhe until they fall down between the boulders and disappear into the darkness.
The three adventurers are so tired they can hardly stand. Their blades are so dull from cutting the stony flesh of the demons that the swords are more suited to battering things than cutting them. They catch their breath while the noise of the shuddering demons below the boulders slowly subsides.
Up above there is a white lump with small stalagtites hanging from it.
"What's that?" Zar says.
3 pm, 25th August 2482, The Great Cavern
"My guess is: it's some kind of hiding place covered with that white, slimy stone that was on the door," Ping says, staring up at the white bulge in the center of the cavern ceiling.
"How can we get in there?" Zar says.
A lengthy and careful debate follows. The best course of action, they decide, is to shoot the bulge on the ceiling with arrows until it falls apart, and then see what happens.
"It's a great plan," Nignog says. He puts an arrow to his string and draws it back.
They fire a total of twelve arrows at the bulge. Nignog's final arrow shatters something deep within the bulge, and a moment later the entire structure comes crashing down to land among the boulders at the edge of pool. When they come near, the adventurers see the remains of an enclosure of thick glass panes. In the center of the shattered glass is a plain steel bowl twenty centimeters across, sitting upright. It's surface is black. The water of the pool laps upon the stones beside it.
"Hold on a minute," Ping says, "I'm going to cast Circle. Something is going to jump out of the pool when we try to get the bowl."
She casts her spell and makes two space bridge bucklers. Zar volunteers to get the bowl. As he nears it, the water explodes nearby, with a demon flying through the air towards him.
"Told you so!" Ping says.
Together, they fight the demon. Ping's space bridge bucklers are very effective against the demon's stony body. Within a minute or two, Nignog delivers the final blow and the demon jerks and thrashes its way off a boulder and into the pool, where it splashes, stirrs, and then lies still.
Nignog sheaths his sword and picks up the bowl. Looking into it, he sees a black velvet curtain. He holds the bowl up vertically in front of him, and the curtain is hanging in a way that makes sense to him. When he holds it horizontal, as a bowl is supposed to be held, the curtain does not make sense.
"It's a space bridge," Ping says. The sight of it makes her uneasy. She deals with space bridges all the time. The bucklers she is holding in her hand are space bridges. But this is not a space bridge made by a wizard. This is something ancient. It could be that some divine being has been maintaining this space bridge for nearly a thousand years. Any moment it could turn molecular and something dreadful could leap out.
They study the bowl. They agree to try a test: Nignog drops a small stone into it. The stone crackles and hisses. They look for a groove around the edge of the bowl that might hold the edge of the space bridge, in the same way that Ping and Zar's bridge rings have a groove. But there is no groove.
"Let's finish up here and get back to the others," Ping says.
They look for the demon head that Nignog chopped off earlier. They find it, but it has surrounded itself with gray conjured matter. Nignog cuts it out with his knife and puts it in their second box. Nignog carries the bowl and they make their way out of the Cavern to the pit. Nignog and Ping help Zar across and climb around themselves. They pull up the other chest with a demon head, and make their way to the ladder. They climb up and into the sunshine.
"Oh good heavens above!" Clarice says. "Is that it! Oh my, that's it! I thought its was made of gold. But that's it!"
5 pm, 25th August 2482, The Great Cavern
Nignog and Rikard have just finished putting rocks over the metal cap on the shaft, and Clarice is still squealing with excitement over the Exshathallion Bowl, when six riders appear in the narrow entrance of the quarry. Five of them are men. They wear leather armor similar to that worn by the bandits Ping and her comrades fought and defeated on their way back from Kiali a few months back. The saddles are set upon crude, wool mats like the one on the horse Ping rode for a few days that belonged to Tindell of the Radash Tribe of Lakh.
The sixth rider is a small woman. She has a robe and her nails are long. Something about the way she sits, makes her look like a wizard to Ping. Maybe it's the long nails, or maybe it's the way she moves her head to face whatever she is looking at. That's what wizards do when they want to hit something with a targeting solenoid.
"Good afternoon." the foremost man says, "You have good day under the ground. I am sorry for this." He points to the rim of the quarry above them. Five archers are kneeling there, arrows strung and pointing at Ping and her comrades. "You no will escape here. These men shoot well. We stand here." He holds out his hand. "Give Bowl of Exshathallion to me."
Ping, Nignog, Zar, and Rikard stare at him for a moment and then whisper among themselves.
"No," Clarice says, "You're not going to give it to him are you?"
The man who spoke watches them with a smile on his face. He turns and says something to the woman. She nods, but does not take her eyes off Ping and Zar.
Ping takes the bowl and advances towards the man. Clarice tries to follow her, but Rikard takes a firm grip on her arm. "No, sister. This is check mate. We survive because we know when we are beaten."
Clarice starts to sob, "But all my dreams were going to come true!"
"I know," Rikard says, "But this is how it has to be. We can't escape without someone getting hurt, or maybe killed."
Ping hands the bowl to foremost man. He places it immediately in a thick sack and hands it to the woman. She holds it to her chest with one hand.
"What is your name?" Ping says to the man.
"I am Razak of Lakh. At your service, lady."
Up close, Razak is a handsome man, in a rugged, unshaved way. His eyes are intelligent. It seems to her that his smile is humorous, but not kind. She returns to her friends. The thieves turn their horses and leave the quarry. Moments later, a hissing sound accompanies the filling of the quarry entrance with gray conjured matter.
"I figured she was a wizard," Zar says.
"Just as well we gave them the bowl," Ping says. "That was targeting surrounding sponge with color, if I'm not mistaken. She must be good."
Ten minutes later, the gray wall of sponge begins to break up. The adventurers ride back to the LeRich estate. They have with them still the two demon heads. They tell their tale to Baron Marcel LeRich, Rikard's father.
"Well done," Baron Marcel says, "You did well not to put Clarice at risk."
Clarice confronts her sister. "Janice, what is the name of your new boyfriend?"
"New boyfriend? Oh, that new boyfriend. Well, it's a funny name. You really want to know? Well, Razak is what he calls himself."
Clarice pulls at her own hair and wails.
Things don't end too badly for Clarice, however. A couple of days later, they set off for the quarry again, this time with a wagon, and they bring back the iron cap on the shaft, with its ancient writing. They leave in its place a wood door with "caution" written on it in Caravelli and Latin. This iron cap should be enough to make her name in archaeology. And it will be much safer than the Bowl.
On the twenty-eighth of August, our heroes say goodbye to Rikard's family and head back home, taking their two demon heads with them.