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Chapter Nine. Kobolds, Trolls, and Liches? Oh My!
Torgin stopped to check the torch supply they had left piled along the tunnel before their descent into the dark, after he ran back up to the main corridor. He also took a good look at his own equipment while he waited for the others to climb out of the sloping tunnel behind him. Doing the chores had kept his mind occupied but as he cleaned the blade of his axe, he had time to think. He was shaken by what had been done to the human volunteers in the experiment room. Those volunteers who were experimented on didn’t get anything out of the deal; it was not mutual. It was torture. People should not have to suffer nor lose their lives simply for the curiosity of others. Shuddering a little, he could not help but hope he would overcome whatever other evils he would find ahead. With a deep breath and nod of his head to these private conclusions, he turned and watched Phlebus, Lucy, and finally Zyrina emerge from the smaller tunnel. They had a moment to speak quietly among themselves and check their own gear as the newcomers caught their breath from the climb out of the troll pit.
“What was done to those people…” Phlebus couldn’t even finish his sentence.
He simply pursed his lips and shook his head. Zyrina looked away from the others and kept her thoughts to herself, but the slump of her shoulders was obvious.
“Now we have to watch for kobolds, liches, and trolls?” Lucy asked as she looked both ways down the tunnels anxiously.
“Who doesn’t like variety?” Torgin joked, trying to lighten his own mood and that of his sister, too.
With a crooked half smile Lucy answered, “Ale, yes. Enemies? Not so much.” She shrugged and chuckled, “I prefer a nice strong dark ale and a single weak enemy.”
“This way.” Torgin peered ahead into the semi-dark hallway that went on and on. The others followed quietly. Zyrina at the end of the line watched their rear.
“Here we go a wandering throughout the mines so black. And as we go, I love to sing, my rucksack on my back.” Lucy stopped for a minute to light her torch, then continued loudly, “Come on join in! Falderi faldera falderi falder ha ha ha!” Her chorus rang out and echoed down the tunnel.
“SSSHHHH! Lucy, are you TRYING to get us killed?” Zyrina shushed her friend.
Lucy shot her an annoyed look, “How do you not know a single mining song at all?”
Then they heard movement ahead of them in the tunnels and Lucy looked stricken. Zyrina had her bow ready to shoot before anyone even blinked.
“I’m sorry,” Lucy whispered as her brother withdrew his axe from its holster. “I was trying to lighten the mood, too.”
When Zyrina saw Torgin drop his weapon back into its holster and crouch down she still kept her arrow nocked and drawn, aimed just beyond Torgin’s left shoulder. Lucy couldn’t see why Torgin knelt, either. Then, snowy lynx paws wrapped around Torgin’s neck, and a fuzzy feline muzzle gave the side of his face a nuzzle.
“I told you to stay put,” Torgin spoke gruffly to the lynx who rubbed up against his leg after he stood up again.
“We have been gone a long while.” Lucy excused Kitty’s behaviour.
Phlebus immediately stopped casting the bolt of electric energy that he was preparing, and Zyrina dropped the point of her arrow before releasing the tension on the string. Kitty walked a few steps into the dark then came back to the group and gave Torgin a piercing look before she padded down the corridor again. She was confident that Torgin would follow her.
Torgin spoke over his shoulder as he started following the lynx into the gloom ahead of them.
“She knows where to go.”
“How does she know that?” Zyrina wanted to know.
Lucy shrugged. “I don’t know, but Torgin hasn’t ever been wrong about what Kitty knows.”
Lucy kept in step a little distance behind Torgin, humming a tune quietly to herself while holding the torch high. Torgin had light enough to see where he walked without blinding him. Phlebus and Zyrina followed quietly. Kitty, of course did not need the light but stayed close enough ahead that Torgin could make out the white and black swish of her tail every now and then at the edges of the light cast ahead of him.
When Torgin stopped suddenly in the corridor so did everyone else. No one was daydreaming this time. There was an exit from the main corridor off to the right just at the edges of where the torch lit the darkness.
Torgin spoke quietly, “Kitty sat down and faced that opening. There must be something in that cavern, or she would have gone in there or past it.” Still whispering, he nodded toward the entrance to the cavern, “Be ready.”
It was a mid-size cavern, with dripping stalactites and stalagmites growing up from the floor to meet them around the room. Steaming pools of greenish mineral water collected in some of the hollows formed by the constant dripping. In the middle of the room there were several dead bodies on the ground around a small glowing lantern. But the most striking of the particulars was the large shimmering lich in the middle of the room who had just turned from its killing spree.
Torgin drew his axe and took a deep breath. Zyrina stepped from the back of the group and worked her way up to beside Torgin. When they touched shoulders, it was time.
“AAAAAARRRRRRRRR!!!!!” Torgin’s shout as he sprung through the door caught the attention of the lich.
Next, Phlebus stepped through the doorway and spoke the final words for his fire ring spell. A large circle of flames shot up around the lich. The fire only burned Phlebus’s target; Torgin was untouched by the inferno. Torgin led off with a knockdown, pushing the lich right into the middle of Phlebus’s magical blaze.
Zyrina entered to see Torgen swing his axe to strike the liche. The reverberation stuck the lich in place. Her arrows soon followed. She knew that Phlebus’s spells would not be the most helpful in this fight; physical strikes were the most effective way to overcome this magical monster. Liches were powerful mages but if Torgin and Phlebus could hold the lich in place she could send arrow after arrow into the target.
Phlebus’s spells were long and complicated. Every time he was interrupted, he had to begin at the beginning. Magic was not very effective against a powerful lich mage because of all the interruptions; but he was doing what he could to assist.
Zyrina was learning it was worth her effort to make sure that no one interrupted him while he was casting, and she took it upon herself to be his protector while he cast. It had taken him years to learn and to perfect these spells, but they were magnificent. She was proud of her friend; he had been only a handful of years out of childhood when they had parted. Now he had grown into a resourceful skilled mage. She grinned and went back to firing arrows one after the other.
With the lich now stuck in place, Phlebus was already deciding on his next spell as he felt the healing touch of Lucy nearby. Lucy was casting a spell that she called Soothing Rain. It would keep healing each of them for a short time while they fought, no matter where they went in the room. Plebus was speaking a spell that would create a fire elemental wisp. It would strengthen any of the fire spells he cast. Immediately after it materialized like a human sized flame beside him, he began another ring of fire.
Between them, Torgin and Phlebus kept the lich pinned in place. Zyrina kept firing arrow after arrow, even though it felt like she was assaulting thin air. Lucy helped everyone when she added some kind of boost to their health and movement speed with a song she was playing on her harp while interspersing faster healing spells to each of them individually. Her calls of “Asen-Reno” could be heard over and over again. It was this welcome surge of energy that helped Zyrina to stay focused when the lich started wearing away at her defenses. She fired arrow after arrow in piercing shots. The battle did not take long. Soon enough the lich was a crumpled heap of opaque gelatin at their feet and Torgin was nudging it with his foot to make sure it stayed dead. He dropped to kneel for a moment after making sure the thing was not coming back to life.
“Ancestors,” was all he would say when he stood and saw Zyrina’s questioning eyebrow.
“Are these dead the kobolds that ran off earlier? Or the ones who left before we arrived? Is the book on any of them?” Phlebus was already looking through the pockets and bags of the closest body.
“They aren’t all kobolds. Look. This one is an elf. High ranked mage by the look of it.” Zyrina showed the body she had just turned over onto its back that was laying on its own by one of the pools in a dark corner of the cave.
“Elves too?” Lucy’s eyes went round. “This is really too much.”
Phlebus called from the back of the room where he had gone to examine yet one more of the stone statues. “There is an elf back here with a letter in its pocket, too. I can’t read the beginning of it. It’s smudged.”
“Listen to this!” he called out again, and began to read aloud, “‘…have my suspicions about the fidelity of that mage we discussed previously. You know the one, the quiet one. I can’t recall his name. He doesn’t seem to take the usual approach to any of our activities here in the temple and doesn’t allow anyone to say “because we always did it that way” as an acceptable answer to his queries about procedure. I’m not sure if you remember he grew up here. Captured as a baby from one of the villages we passed through a couple of decades ago.
The Southern Red Branch has been the only family he has known, and he has been a trial for us to raise. I still doubt the wisdom of keeping him here but bowed to the council’s request. After we realized he would not be a good volunteer for the procedure to bind him with a dragon, things deteriorated even further. You remember the reports of his protest when he found out we had used spiders from the southern caverns to conduct our early experiments? The protest signs? The petitions? Yes, well lately he has begun questioning the wisdom of casting spells using the assistance of the moon shards. Can you imagine?
It’s not like he asks many questions, I’ve barely heard him speak and not often above a whisper, but those questions stick with you. Like this one: “Does it hurt the dragon when we merge it with another being?” What a silly question!
Regardless of the cabal’s trials, I look forward to a visit with you. My best regards to your family, Nestor. I’m certain we will be out of this mine for Sequanna’s fest and can meet at…’” Dejectedly Phlebus concluded, “I can’t read any of the rest.”
Zyrina spoke up then, “This Kobold has a part of a letter, too. I don’t think kobolds wrote this, either. This bit is addressed to Nestor, the Southern Red Branch. Listen: ‘The liches definitely have the book. Several of our mages have gone to the room of casting to retrieve it from them. After they left, several kobolds came screeching past our hiding spot in this cavern then continued down the corridor, and up to the lich room. I think that the kobolds are trying to claim the book for themselves after having discovered its power when they came upon the experiment room.
It’s a good thing we were already leaving when the kobolds battled their way through the troll guards. I am certain they did not see us sneak out of the area while they were fighting. I am confident in the abilities of our mages to withstand a few kobold miners with weapons, but it didn’t seem needed.
We are hiding here until the book is returned to us or we are all lost trying to retrieve it. I realize its importance. I am certain it was left when we fled the room of casting yesterday during the lich attack. If we had not forgotten it, we would already have left the area.
The liches who attacked us are members of the Dougan family. It seems they have been trying to protect their family member, Merrik Dougan, who was one of our human subjects in the experiment. There were several clones of that human that failed but we used the original Merrik Dougan, and he lived through the transformation. There still are few more clone specimens in the vats for further experiments. We had finished with the experiments on animals as they were too stupid to try to control. I suppose all of that’s moot now. We have to leave. Liches have been attacking for months, but the attacks intensified yesterday when the kobolds became roused after discovering our trolls and experiment room. The liches are not in the mood to go back to their crypts.
Kobolds are attacking everything they find but they have left us alone so far in this cavern, but I don’t feel sa…’”
Zyrina looked up then. “Blood covers the rest of the page,” she finished.
Phlebus mused, “Do you think this Nestor is their boss?”
Torgin reasoned, “Regardless, I think some kobolds found these elves hiding here, killed them, and were plundering when the lich attacked them.”
“The mages are all elves!” Lucy shouted far too loudly in her excitement, “Does that mean the mages who had the book are all elves?” No one moved for a moment taking in what must have happened in the room just before they arrived.
In the quiet of the gloom in the damp and sulphur smelling cavern, Kitty spoke up, “Mrroeow.”
Torgin’s chuckle filled the cavern before the others shushed him, but the silliness was a relief after their battle. They were soon all heaving with silent laughter each time that Kitty beckoned.
“Kitty.” Torgin looked to his pet. “What is it?”
Kitty left the room. Torgin followed.
“Come on, there are more of them,” he called over his shoulder.
Slowly the others regained their composure before turning to follow Torgin and Kitty from the cavern.
“I think Kitty knows more than we realize.” Lucy voiced what they all were thinking as they gathered up their bags.
“It’s a little spooky alright. Okay, get ready. There are bound to be more of those liches and elves, and maybe some kobolds too,” Zyrina reminded them, as if they had forgotten.
“And trolls, don’t forget them,” Lucy muttered.
“Right, kobolds, elves, liches, and trolls.” Phlebus grinned. “Your favourite.” He winked at Zyrina who smiled but did not laugh at Lucy’s fear.
It’s not easy moving through damp dark muddy tunnels far underground looking for liches, elves, trolls, and kobolds. Not easy and not fun. Not at all.
Torgin stood at a bend in the tunnel and grunted, “The path splits several ways. One of them rises. That’s the path to the liches. Hopefully, the magic book is still there. It needs to be taken from those elven mages. Listen, you can hear the sounds of battle now. Can you hear it?”
Then, shuddering with anticipation, he took his axe out of its holster before reaching down to just behind Kitty’s ears and gently scratching the lynx standing by his knee. “Thanks, Kitty.” She melted into the shadows of the tunnel before they moved further on.
Now, they completely gave up stealth. The ones ahead in the fight could not hear anything but the battle around them so it was a waste of time to try to hide any longer. After a short jog up a small incline and around a few bends, they entered what looked like an ancient room carved out of large blocks. There was light streaming from somewhere.
Phlebus was sure this was another of the ancient rooms that had been buried during The Fall, or perhaps later, from the Obsidian period. They were found buried through all of New Britannia. There were large stone statues of humans leaning on the hilts of their swords, with the tip on the ground in front of each of them in a line along each of the long walls. In the middle of the room about halfway down the length, was a raised plinth with a big dragon leg bone laid on top of it. Nearby was a moon shard shackled with big metal chains to the ground. All that was at the base of a set of steps that led up to a throne at the very back of the room.
Phlebus had no more time to contemplate the architecture. His spells were needed, and they took all his focus to cast. He took a moment to collect his thoughts, then something inside his head cleared and he knew that he had reached that part of him that could touch the magic there. This magic always took something from him, too; he knew that no magic was created without cost. Sometimes that cost was to his own body, like now. He continued to be more than willing to help his friends survive this battle, even if it meant a few changes for a few days.
The changes were not usually permanent, and his hair had never remained snow white; he regained its dark luster in a matter of hours. His skin always smoothed back out, and his bent back straightened from the arthritic creaks that took hold of him while he cast. Magic that affected a whole area of enemies was incredibly draining to continue to cast and took longer to recover from afterward too. This was the fourth battle of the day. Phlebus was beginning to look ancient and frail. He hoped he had enough stamina and focus for the battle ahead of him.
He felt the small pouch of vials Lucy had handed each of them earlier. ‘Take these when you have no power left and they will rejuvenate you,’ she had promised. He knew she was a competent potion maker and trusted that they would indeed revitalize him. She had also handed him some cold Demon Tea stored in a waterproof pouch. He never could figure out how she managed to always have exactly what he would need, but she did. Every time. He had sipped it quickly before entering the room.
Torgin paused to take stock of what they faced before finding his first target. There were at least two liches that Torgin could see near the doorway that were not engaged in battle inside the room with the kobolds. There were several figures farther in who were battling up a set of stairs. As quickly as he could he took two deep breaths and then plunged himself into the fray.
This time it was not just one single lich. It was mayhem. There were many liches, in battle with kobolds. Although the liches had killed most of the kobolds before they arrived there were still a few battling the liches, and now battling Torgin too. Torgin hopped over a few of their bodies on his way through the battlefield.
The waves of attacks by liches seemed to go on for hours and by the end it was difficult for Torgin to even raise his axe without shaking with strain. He was half-heartedly swiping at the last kobold when Zyrina’s arrow pierced its chest, and it joined the others on the ground.
Zyrina was out of poisonous arrows and had used all her steel headed ones. She had been picking them out of the dead and reusing the ones that still had integrity in the last minutes of the battle. Over at the entrance to the room, Phlebus had been knocked completely out cold near the edge of the fighting, but his eyes were now fluttering open as Lucy tended to him. Even Lucy’s supplies of reagents were sadly and nearly depleted and they were all barely still standing from exhaustion.
When the room was finally silent, Torgin dropped to his knee again, followed this time by Zyrina. Lucy wove between the two of them, touching each and casting spells to speed their returning strength and health. She cleaned and patched superficial wounds as they recovered their breath. It had been a vicious fight. Yet here they were, still alive and with a sizable pile of defeated liches and kobolds on the marble floor all around the room.
“Well, you two are in fairly good shape, considering. Even Phlebus is coming around after that bonk on his head.” Lucy patted Phlebus gently on the back to reassure him as he pushed himself to a sitting position. “At least there weren’t any trolls.”
Torgin chuckled, “Indeed not.”
When Torgin and Zyrina could stand they began searching among the dead with Lucy. Zyrina kept her bow and remaining arrow in her hands and Torgin did not sheath his axe. They were not sure if there was going to be more fighting even as they knew they would have a difficult time surviving another attack. After a few minutes of silence, Phlebus was ready to speak.
“Did anyone see the book?”
Unanimously, around the chamber there was a headshaking among the others.
“There are elves among the fallen.” Zyrina reported as she bent over yet another body. “I don’t remember fighting any elves. They must have died before we arrived.”
“Well,” Lucy said quietly while exploring around up the stairs at the end of the room. “There is a chest up here.”
That woke them all up.
“Chest?” Phlebus repeated while jumping to his feet unsteadily.
He nimbly ran up the flight of stairs only to stop and stare with Lucy.
“Are you kidding me?” Lucy was looking down at the mostly empty chest hidden behind the large throne.
“The book isn’t here. There are a few wood scraps, a little bit of gold, and some old clothing.”
Phlebus began feeling around the chest to check for a secret compartment. Down on the floor of the room, Zyrina and Torgin continued to go through the pockets of the fallen.
“It’s not here.” Phlebus sounded disappointed after his thorough search of the chest. It was just a common chest.
“There is a note in this fellow’s pocket.” Zyrina pulled the folded parchment from the pocket of the dead elf in front of her. “It reads, ‘success or death.’”
“This message says that too.” Lucy threw the crumpled paper back to the ground after taking it from one of the fallen elves.
“I found something.” Torgin called out.
It was part of a letter that had obviously fallen out of someone’s pocket and been trampled in the battle. Most was not readable, but the message was clear.
“Listen to this! ‘Nestor, I write as we pack to leave. We will get that magic book back from the liches regardless to the cost of our lives. Kobolds are close behind us. I can hear them in the passages. We have abandoned the experiment room. There is nowhere left to hide in these caves. Spiders and liches have taken over. Kobolds are digging everywhere and will soon find all our secrets here. There are rumours of others sneaking about. They must be searching for the book of magic, too. Several more liches broke free of our controls and turned to stone right in front of us. It is now confirmed that when using this magic book that when we lose control of a subject that they turn at once to stone. We shall teleport once we have recovered the magic book from the liches at their lair. One more battle. Success or death.’”
The rest of the page is torn and stained with gore.
“The Southern Red Branch got here first.” Then he spat. Such a small clue and so profound.
“Turned to stone?” Lucy was considering something. “Did he say that the subjects were turned to stone when they lost control of them?”
“Yes. That’s exactly what is written here. Apparently, those people in Jade Valley had been under control of these mages for some amount of time.” Phlebus bleakly pointed out. “Governor Hari is not going to like that at all.”
“Where are the Red Branch now?” Torgin asked quietly and grimly.
“Who is Nestor?” Lucy asked again.
“I don’t know Lucy, but I’m sure going to find out,” Torgin vowed.
“I’ll join you,” Phlebus pledged. “The governor will want to know more about the Southern Red Branch, as I’m sure will Lord British and Arabella. I don’t think they have suspected that the old obsidian magics are being revived right under our noses.”
Zyrina was searching for any sign or possible direction the Southern Red Branch had gone but there was nothing.
“Teleport scrolls,” she frowned and sniffed. “We won’t find them now.”
Phlebus knew from experience that if Zyrina couldn’t find a residue that no track could be found. Teleport scrolls were the worst. After reading the words on a scroll, the reader is transported through space to a new location in Novia. The location is chosen new each time a scroll is read. Then the scroll disappears as well, in a puff of blue smoke. Completely untraceable. Zyrina hated them.
“Then there is no way to find out where they have gone.” Phlebus shook his head, “They won’t be back now that this secret enclave has been routed and they have the magic book. There are no further answers here.”
“Time to go make a report to Governor Hari?” Lucy asked hopefully.
“Just like that? It’s over?” Torgin looked disappointed, “I thought there would be more to it than that.” Then he kicked at the rock staircase with the toe of his boot.
“No, it’s not over,” Phlebus vowed. “Jade Valley may now be rid of this menace but I’m going to find out who is responsible. They can’t hide forever.” He thrust both his arms over his head in a salute of courage just as Zyrina got to her feet beside him.
Zyrina coughed, “Phlebus when was the last time you bathed?”
Phlebus looked startled then shrugged and laughed heartily. “Apparently after I have a bath, that is.”
There was a general chuckle around the group. After gazing around fondly at his friends as they gathered their things to find their way out of the mine, he could hear Torgin telling Lucy what it was he wanted to do topside. A meal and a hot tub sounded perfect to him, too. In that order.
“Thank you, my friends. You have bravely fought with me to protect this town and valley. I have great respect for your skills and talents and the honour of fighting alongside each of you makes me very proud to call you friends. We were able to discover what was causing the trouble here in Jade Valley. Maybe even stopped it from happening again. But we don’t stop there. We seek justice for those who have suffered loss. With patience and wisdom, we may yet discover where the Southern Red Branch has fled. They may have gotten away this time, but our search continues.”
He thumped his fist for emphasis. “We know what signs to look for now. We have done what we set out to do even if the answer was far grimmer than we imagined it. The loss of Jon the Caretaker weighs heavily on my spirit as I’m sure it does on each of you.” They all were silent for a moment recalling finding Jon in the cavern across from the Trolls.
“The valley will know what happened to their family, friends, and their livestock. This day we will expose the Southern Red Branch. This day we chase them from this fair valley. They may go into hiding. We will wait. We are patient. That malevolence needs to be addressed. And we are more than up to the task. We shall prevail.” And he finished with a flourish of his hands that cast a boost of spirit to each of them seemingly unintentionally. The effects were obvious. The group seemed all to stand a little taller.
Lucy snorted. “Did you practice that while we were fighting?” She winked at Phlebus. “That was a better speech than the one you gave when we were heading out to the unknown.”
Then she broke into a fit of laughter. It was infectious and soon the whole group was grinning. Even Zyrina lowered her bow then smiled.
After gathering up their belongings Torgin lead the group out. Turning left upon leaving the room of casting, he soon spotted Kitty waiting patiently at the exit to the main mining area. It was a long walk out of the mine to go tell the townsfolk that the mine was empty of kobolds.
“Did you think your first assignment was worth it?” Lucy inquired of Phlebus as they trudged back to the entrance of the mine.
“Yes.” He grinned. “Absolutely. It’s too bad we can’t follow the Red Branch anymore, but I’ll keep looking for them. I’m sure someone will want to know where they have gone.”
“I just want an ale and some sleep. I’ll even buy the first round.” She winked at Phlebus.
“That’s what I like to hear!” Torgin’s step took on a little more spring. “Come on, let’s get out of this place.”
“We’re done.” Zyrina sounded as if she were relieved that they were at the end of their adventure. For now.
May you all find the courage the truth and the love in your own lives, till next we find the magic.
Echoes From the Caverns