There comes a time in everyone's lives when so great a strain comes from monotony and uneventfulness, that a strange, almost reassuring calm can be derived from experiencing mortal danger or physical agony. Treguard, Lord of Dunshelm and Master of the Dungeon of Deceit, had long been familiar with this paradox. The deaths of his family and the entire House of Dunshelm during his teen years had orphaned him and left him drifting long without purpose through mainland Europe until the harsh and gruelling perils of the mercenary life, with its crude pleasures and purchased friendships, had brought some kind of shape to his being. An unpleasant shape perhaps, one which he would not be proud to remember in his later years, and also one which was uninspired - the pursuit of wealth through the blood of others hardly commanded much imagination. But all the hardships and ugly simplicity somehow fed a new sense of identity into Treguard, even stability, and after the destruction of his family, stability and a sense of self were what he most needed.
Likewise the horrors he faced when reclaiming Dunshelm, now Knightmare, from the diabolical Gruagach had given him the ability to move on from his days as a mercenary and return to the code of Chivalry. Strangely, he might not have been half the man he was had his family not died, and had he not had to face the Gruagach's evil. It had been the making of the Lord of Knightmare.
So it was that when the Lord of Knightmare now found himself and his companions held firmly in the brutal branches of a vast and powerful dryad in the marshes of the North, and even now felt the grip of these branches squeezing the strength out of his aging bones, the familiar atmosphere of hostility and impending doom seemed almost to settle him down. This was, as it were, familiar ground, this was the world as he knew it. He had a job to do, a challenge to answer, and all through his life that was what he had enjoyed the most.
It should be acknowledged however, that the challenge in this case was not one of his favourite ones. He had always been a fearsome warrior with sword in hand, but solving the conundrums of faerie creatures was an art in which he was occasionally found wanting. His wits at puzzle solving were certainly far sharper than once they had been, but for all the wisdom that age had brought him it still wasn't his natural game. He preferred things to be just a little more direct.
The great dryad, Oakley, had issued the challenge...
"Twas on the forest isle of Old Kintyre, the first of the Westermen did walk on fire. Trapped he was, in a forest in flames. There was nowhere to run, no time for games. The North half of the isle was a raging inferno, and it spread with the breezes, for south did they blow. The man could not swim, no help was at hand, no boat was in reach to take him clear of this land. From all corners the island would soon be afire, every inch swallowed in its terrible ire. All at hand were two sticks to fight for life, no use against a blaze though, its fury so rife. And yet he survived, unscathed bar inhalation, so tell me how he escaped the dire conflagration."
Treguard had considered the puzzle at some length, and was beginning to think that it was a trick question. But deep down he knew it wasn't. Oakley may have been highly intelligent, but he just wasn't the sort to use verbal sleights-of-hand, so to speak. How could a man who could not swim escape from a forest island that was in the throws of a fire? It had to be possible, or Oakley wouldn't have said the man survived.
It would be great, thought Majida bleakly as she saw Treguard agonising over this puzzle, if another of these dryads came along and beat the Oak-thing up. She was dangling in the grasp of another branch about a quarter of the way around the tree from the Dungeon Master, and she was enjoying the experience no more than him. So why she thought that another dryad showing up at this point would be nice was unclear. Maybe she was too asphyxiated by the tightness of the branch constricting her lungs, but the reasoning went something on the lines of; -
"If there's one good thing about a bad problem, it's that if an identical one comes along they might get in each other's way and solve themselves."
This was, on the face of it, the most absurdly twisted piece of logic possible, even by Majida's appalling standards, but it was then that it clicked. In this ridiculous idea, lay the very truth they were gasping for (literally).
"An answer, now," growled the tree troll, "Or agony you'll feel, and feel it, how."
"Treguard!" Majida called out in excitement, not easy with the branch keeping her from breathing in too hard. "Treguard, I know answer!"
It might just have been that Treguard was now out of breath too, but the look on his face seemed to have more than a hint of scepticism in it. From a little way above and to the right of Majida, she heard the sound of Bumptious jabbering ironically in his own wooded snare. She ignored him. A vague rumble in the distance told her that the drizzle was about to give way to thunder and lightning. Now was not a time to be sitting in a tree.
"I mean it, Treguard," she promised. "Let me answer thees tree-thingie."
Treguard was still staring at her doubtfully, but the simple fact was he was stumped, and he knew that Oakley wouldn't give him much more time to answer. Better probable death than certain death; so better an answer that was probably wrong than no answer at all. He looked down and nodded. "all right Majida. Tell him."
"Speak now, genie-girl," Oakley instructed her, "Or the last you've seen of this mortal worl'."
The bluntness of the threat shook the confidence of Majida's convictions slightly. What if her conclusions were as perverse as the logic that had brought them about? What if the answer she was about to give was not the right one? She had to clear her throat a couple of times before she could begin.
"Thees man," she said in a faltering voice. "He rub sticks together to light new fire. Starts fire near South shore. Wind blow new flame South and he follow. New fire burn out on South shore. Old fire can't follow because trees now burned out. Both fires die, forest gone, but man survive."
There was a brief silence, during which time everyone bar Dervilinne stared at Majida - Treguard and Bumptious in astonishment, Oakley in... well. The look on Oakley's enchanted face was a strange one, less than encouraging, and Majida was suddenly sure that her answer was wrong.
"Or something?" she almost added, but happily she realised that such a lame afterthought would not win her the benefit of any doubt.
"Truth accepted," stated Oakley finally. Treguard and Bumptious both laughed, purely in disbelief, while Majida just let a glazed look roll across her lovely dark eyes. "The evils of fire," continued Oakley, "can be beaten, by giving it land which it has already eaten. Life is doomed when fire is the master, but if even one life is saved, it is not quite disaster." Oakley developed a tranquil expression in his timeless face. "I trusts you now, yes. You may leave in peace, but nevertheless, I wants peace too so let me slumber. It's noisy enough with all that thunder. So go now and go quietly, and let me rest, or it's death for you next time without even a test." The branches suddenly went limp and Treguard, Majida, Dervlinne and Bumptious all fell back to the ground with painful thuds.
They sat up, groaning quietly at the bruises on their limbs. By the time they looked up, Oakley's face had melted back into the bark of the oak tree, and the branches were all stood calmly and magnificently upright once more.
Treguard pulled himself to his feet, coughing slightly, relieved but also baffled. He quietly retrieved his boots and his sword, which was perched upright in the ground. Meanwhile Majida, almost on tiptoe, untethered the horse and softly guided him away from the trees. The others all followed her away from the cover of the leaves, and only when they were sure they were far enough away not to wake Oakley up again did they dare speak.
"Well done, Majida," Treguard muttered a little reluctantly. "How did you work it out?"
Majida shrugged. "I thought it would be good if nother tree-thing come and fight thees tree-thing. Problem solve itself." She shrugged. "I realise same apply to riddle - fight fire with nother fire. So," she added, an infuriating superior expression setting in over her cheeks, "you still want me catch new-moanier huh?"
The drizzle was still falling, not heavily-enough to complain about without feeling like a bit of a softie, but more than enough to be an annoyance, and the rumbles of distant thunder were getting annoyingly loud. Treguard gave Majida a look that said "Aaah, beginner's luck!" and turned his attention to putting his boots back on. His companions were terribly relieved.
"So what happen to you up there, huh?" demanded Majida, giving Dervlinne an unfriendly nudge.
Dervlinne glanced at her for a moment but refused to answer. She was now clearly out of the trance she'd fallen into when Oakley had appeared, but that didn't explain why she'd fallen into it in the first place. She stared back at the tree, her expression haunted.
Treguard saw this, and decided he didn't want to know what was bothering her. He finished putting his boots back on, stood up straight, and made a face at the weather. "Let's just get out of here."
Lord Fear laughed merrily. This was the good bit, the bit when Sonia Snaggletooth told Jamie Doggerel that their spawn, Frogglerac, was not really Jamie's spawn at all. No, she'd spent the night all those years ago with Martin Foulpath. She had been unfaithful!
Fear laughed again. This was the really great bit, his absolute favourite part, the bit when poor Jamie's face slowly split and collapsed into an expression of total woe and misery, the bit when his heart broke into the most delicious display of emotional inadequacy ever seen on inter-dimensional TV.
Lord Fear adored BeastEnders, it was his all-time favourite soap opera, because no other was prepared to be quite so graphic in its portrayal of personal unhappiness. That sort of horror and tears made Fear laugh and laugh, the sort of thing he always adored seeing, the redoubtable crushing of the hopes and dreams of anyone except himself. BeastEnders wasn't meant to be a comedy of course, but as far as Fear was concerned, that was entirely a matter of opinion. BeastEnders made him laugh, and that was all that mattered.
His prisoner hated it of course, and even more he hated the fact that Fear made sure the volume on his techno-magic mirror was set so loud. It meant it was impossible to ignore the terrible script and appalling melodramatic overacting. He wanted to throw up with all the shouting cockney accents and slapping of faces and swooning female skeletrons, and of course it was this displeasure that gave Fear his loudest laugh of all.
Raptor and Skarkill were both snoozing on duty at the moment, but that was all right by Fear, it gave him the opportunity to watch in peace. On the other hand it seemed only to add to the prisoner's frustration, his misery clearly loving his guards' company.
"Fear," he protested, just as his captor had hoped he would, "we've been watching this rot for hours. Can't we take a break?"
With a single gesture, Fear paused the playback, then he turned and stared at the prisoner with a huge smile of triumph. "Oho," he mocked, "Had enough eh? Can't take anymore, eh? You jumped-up shovel-wagger, I always knew your kind were wimps! Can't even handle a little bit of TV."
The prisoner gave his ample beard a tug. "You're boring."
"I thought I was an Aries," smirked Fear, knowing that the taunts were really getting to his captive now.
"How does that thing work anyway?" asked the prisoner, clearly desperate to change the subject and so delay the resumption of the video.
"You like it then?" said Fear. "It is a classy model isn't it? Wide-screen, digital surround-sound, Sacrificial-Lamb 3D Accelerator Card, seven hundred and twelve Megabytes of Video memory... Y'see, the antenna on the roof picks up signals on the Astral Plane from the TBC..."
Fear looked a bit annoyed at being interrupted just as he was warming to his subject, "Hmm, what? Oh. Uh, the TBC, the Telepathic Broadcasting Circle. They're a bunch of Pagan wizards in the Hebrides who transmit top-quality theatre to selected subscribers by thought transference."
"Only people who have one of those, I mean," explained Fear, pointing a bony finger at the mirror. "And the subscription costs a packet I can tell you."
"Sounds like a real waste of power, these people," opined the prisoner. "Conmen."
"Not at all," retorted Fear, "Sure, they're making big money, but that's because they're offering big quiz shows - The Feel of War Tunes, Who Wants To Be A Mass Murderer?, The Weakest Drink, Name That Dismembered Body Part..."
"Oh, well they must be all right then."
"Yes," Fear confirmed, "nice chaps, the TBC. So as you can imagine, I'd kill them if it weren't for BeastEnders."
The dreaded moment came as Fear reversed the previous gesture and the video resumed. While Fear seated himself on his new cast-iron, energised mecha-throne and made himself obscenely comfortable, the prisoner let his eyes roll shut. He curled up on the floor, covered his ears, and quietly wished Fear would try putting him on the rack instead.
The Valley of Gam was shrouded in a low fog by early evening when Treguard's band had arrived. They now couldn't have been more than a few hours' trek from Marblehead, and the quickest path above ground was through this valley. It was lined on both sides with very high, very steep hills, covered in moss and fungi, a dark reflection of the shortage of sunlight that broke through here. It was invariably very cloudy and although it was sheltered from the worst of the rain, it was always unpleasantly damp, the ground forever soft and yielding, walking always a treacherous labour.
This fact was seized upon with relish by Majida, who had become so insufferable about solving Oakley's riddle that she was complaining with renewed vigour at every opportunity that came her way.
That so many did was, ironically, a source of great satisfaction to Treguard, because it usually involved Majida slipping and sliding as the soft peat gave way under her and she earned another fresh bruise to her backside. The pain and embarrassment for Majida that this involved almost made the torrents of verbal abuse which followed in Treguard's direction worthwhile - the sadist lived on in him somewhere.
Bumptious had fallen behind a little, muttering quietly to himself in his personalised dialect. Dervlinne on the other hand had pushed on somewhat, and Treguard could see her about a hundred yards or so ahead, standing on a slight rise in the valley floor, gazing into the impending murk.
"Dervlinne!" called Treguard. "Slow down a bit! We can't keep up with you." The elf glanced over her shoulder at him, seemed almost to panic, and then suddenly ducked out of sight.
Treguard stared at the sudden emptiness with a gasp of frustration. Now where was she wandering off to?
Lord Fear was in a less happy mood today. There was no more BeastEnders on this afternoon, and he had started to weary a little of mocking and torturing his prisoner. He couldn't tell if his sudden bad mood was caused by boredom with the waiting or the nervous anticipation. Soon... soon revenge would be his. Through this simple scheme of deception Treguard would soon be at the Oppositions non-existent mercy, and that power untold would soon be Lord Fears, of that he was absolutely certain. He had considered all the possibilities, checked for any faults in his plans, and they'd seemed negligible. He was as sure as he had ever been about anything that this new approach would work - rather than attack Knightmare Castle, draw Treguard to him on Fear's own terms, in the same way he used to combat the dungeoneers.
So why did he keep experiencing this nagging unease?
The communications alarm suddenly blared into life. Fear snapped his fingers nonchalantly. "Yes, Lissard?"
"Lord-nessss!" hissed the voice of the Atlantean, "your Lord-nessss! We have entered the Valley of Gam!"
This news washed over Fear like the cleansing milk of pure mischief. "At last!" he gurgled with the kind of grin that suggested that callousness was an emotion designed expressly for him. "The waiting is nearly over, Lissard. Now listen carefully, and be sure to obey my instructions to the letter if you don't want your legs to be part of a French breakfast."
"I am attending-nessss to your every word..."
"Treguard must enter the Castle through the outer caverns," Fear ordered urgently, "If you can get his companions to stay with him the full distance, that'll be a bonus, but Treguard is the important one. Once he's reached the Pit of Fear the Chrono will do the rest. Oh and Lissard? A bit of free advice: Make sure you don't stand too close to any of them. The Pit is going to be a little wider than Treguard imagines."
Treguard, Majida and Rod finally caught up with Dervlinne, with tired old Bumptious someway back, struggling to keep up. There was a high hillock up ahead at a turn in the valley, and in the cover it gave it was more sheltered here, but also darker, than ever. Dervlinne was kneeling on the ground, eyes closed tightly, muttering. Majida nudged her with her foot.
What immediately followed was so fast that Treguard didn't see it. All he saw was Dervlinne at first kneeling on the ground, getting a mild kick in the ribs from Majida, and the next he saw the genie pinned to the ground by the elf, who was holding a long silver dagger at her throat.
"Er, I sorry," offered Majida in a display of politeness that was almost unique in the nine years Treguard had been forced to tolerate her. Dervlinne blinked in astonishment, released Majida and sprang to her feet. Majida also got up and made a perfunctory and somewhat futile attempt to brush herself down.
"My apologies," said Dervlinne stiffly. "You broke my meditation. My reflexes are honed against even the slightest attacks while I am in..."
"Meditation for what?" Treguard interrupted suspiciously.
"Even elf-kind have their gods," answered Dervlinne cryptically.
This seemed unlikely to Treguard, and rather less than an answer to his question anyway. But before he could pursue the point any further, he heard some tired and put-upon jabbering noises from over his shoulder. He turned and saw Bumptious staggering up to them, looking overheated, bothered, and about ready to yell blue murder in Treguard's face. But of course he didn't, there was no point, Treguard wouldn't understand him. He yelled at Dervlinne instead.
"He says Why can't you horrible persons wait for him?" Dervlinne translated. Bumptious looked even angrier and had another yell at her. Dervlinne tried to sound placatory, "all right, so I changed one or two words. I included the important details..."
"Never mind," sighed Treguard, "We'll stop to rest here for a while..."
"Treguard!" Majida called out, pointing up to the peak of the hill. "Look up there!"
They all followed her gaze and saw stretching skywards far above them the bulbous stone tower of Marblehead, its dark smooth surface glistening with the broken promise of treasures and the evils of Man's darkest knightmares. It was still late afternoon but the sky around the tower seemed unnaturally dark, the clouds troubled and even angry. In other words, it was much as Knightmare Castle had been as Treguard had approached it on the day he confronted the Gruagach.
After all these days of traipsing miserably South, Treguard should have felt elated to see that they'd finally arrived and they could get on with the real business of their journey. But one sight of the former lair of his techno-sorcerous archenemy filled his heart with foreboding. In spite of all the years he and Fear had been at loggerheads, he realised now that this was the first time he'd actually stood here himself, gazed upon Marblehead with his own eyes, and he was finding the pallid shadow it cast over the hills and valleys around it very unsettling.
He was a little surprised to see that it looked relatively unscathed for a Castle that was supposed to have been taken in a recent raid. The outer walls looked a little more flawed and weathered than they had done whenever he had viewed them in the Pool of Veracity, but not warped or shattered as the reports had implied. Of course exaggeration was a common trait in any military hearsay, but it was still less-than-reassuring to see.
He glanced at Majida who from her expression seemed to share his unease. Bumptious looked very nervous indeed, which, considering the experiences of his last visit, was quite understandable. Dervlinne on the other hand merely stared at the towering edifice above casually, curiously, no more emotion could Treguard fathom in her bearing than that. How strange, Treguard mused, that the nearer they got to a realm of potentially great danger the more relaxed and less nervous she seemed to become. It was almost as if...
Dervlinne noticed the suspicious glare of mortal eyes on her narrow elfin face, and it seemed to make her uncomfortable. She returned the directness of Treguard's stare, almost defiantly. "Should we still make camp here, honoured Dungeon Master?" she asked, as though she were trying to drive the subject onto the narrowest tactical details.
Treguard looked at her coldly. " No," he said carefully. "We're here now, we might as well get on."
"And get in," added Majida. "It still freezy out here."
"Not yet," snapped Treguard. "I want to scout the ground first."
They all trudged along the valley floor until they reached the foot of the hill. A fine silvery glaze of moisture coated the grass here, adding to the unnatural feel of this accursed place.
Treguard looked at Bumptious sternly. "You stay here and take care of the horse. The rest of us will look for a safe path to head uphill."
The dwarf looked alarmed and was about to argue, but then seemed to think better of it, so Treguard carefully stepped against the foot of the hill, testing the amount of give. It felt uncomfortably smooth, but firm enough for climbing. He sharply drove the heel of his boot into the ground to gouge out a foothold, and then climbed a few steps further. Majida stepped into the foothold, and used it to begin her climb after Treguard. Dervlinne also followed, while Bumptious tethered Rod to a large rock, below a nearby outcropping, gently patting the horse on the nose.
Treguard noticed as he climbed that the murk in this place was almost tangible, as though the darkness was physically providing a barrier which light was struggling to penetrate. This led him to consider Lord Fear. Such illusionary effects were well within the Techno-Sorcerer's capabilities. It might not have been an illusion of course, it could just have been shielded from the sun by the valley walls, but it nevertheless left Treguard wondering, could Fear still be nearby?
They were halfway up the hillside when they heard a tiresomely familiar gibbering noise behind them. They glanced over their shoulders and saw Bumptious at the foot of the hill signalling up to them frantically. He seemed to be gesturing along the hillside towards Treguard's right.
"What he saying?" asked Majida.
Dervlinne narrowed her eyes slightly a couple of times, trying to concentrate on Bumptious' scrambled dialect, and then nodded to herself. "He says he has noticed a cavity in the hill face." She pointed the way Bumptious had indicated. "Apparently we'll find it in that direction."
Treguard's gaze followed Dervlinne's finger, but in this poor light he could make out few details over a distance of more than a few yards. Something he could make out was on a slight outward bend in the hillside, about sixty yards off and a little way above his present altitude. There did appear to be a very dark area there, perhaps a recess in the hill face, maybe even the mouth to some kind of cave or tunnel. It certainly looked promising, though not very enticing. He was amazed that Bumptious could see it from ground level, he wasn't aware that dwarves had such excellent night-vision. Must have been all that time he spent in mines.
Treguard nodded. "Let's have a look."
It was hard work to scale along the face of the hill with the awkward tilted stance they were forced to adopt, and it ended up taking them well over ten minutes on the treacherous ground to reach the fissure, with Majida on a number of occasions coming close to slipping and tumbling down the hill. She muttered and grumbled to herself with every agonising step, but eventually they found themselves standing on the lip of a broad ledge a few feet below the fissure. From this close it was clear that it was no mere pockmark, it was a low tunnel burrowing deep into the hill. Treguard produced a rope from his knapsack.
"Dervlinne, give me your knife," he ordered.
Dervlinne hesitated. "Why do you require my weapon, honoured-..."
"Perhaps," Treguard interrupted, aiming another suspicious glower in Dervlinne's direction, "you misunderstood. Or perhaps you don't entirely understand the nature of our relationship, even though your liege-lord and dread Royal Sovereign explained it to you in some detail. I give you an instruction. You obey the instruction. That is the entirety of our relationship. You questioning an instruction, or me having to justify an instruction to you, has not, has never, and will never have any part of it. I have given you an instruction and it has not yet been carried out. That is your only concern."
Treguard held out his hand. Dervlinne reluctantly drew her dagger and offered it to Treguard, who grasped it and immediately drove the point of its blade firmly into a rock. It cut through with ease and held fast. He then started tying the rope to its hilt.
"I can only wonder," Treguard murmurred as he worked, "about your general behaviour, she-sprite. So disobedient at times. At others, just so un-Elfin."
Dervlinne was visibly bothered by Treguard's words, and also by the pointed looks she was now getting from Majida. "I do not understand, honoured Dungeon Master."
"Do you not?" asked Treguard as he finished tying the rope to the dagger, and was now testing the knot. "It's just, well, I can understand the disobedience sometimes. It's just like an elf to resent the orders of a mortal. Perhaps it's a little harder to understand why an elf would display such disobedience against the express wishes of her King. But it's more than that, it's everything about you, Dervlinne. In fact," he added, not without sarcasm, "there are times when I doubt whether you're an elf at all."
Majida signalled down to Bumptious and then started uncoiling the rope and lowering it down the hill.
Dervlinne looked hurt. "What are you trying to say, Dungeon Master?" she demanded.
It was Treguard's turn to be evasive. "Nothing," he answered. "Merely an observation." But Dervlinne noticed that the distrustful expression on Treguard's face was still there.
By using the rope, which was tethered to the rocks below the cave-mouth, Treguard, Majida and Dervlinne were able to scale back down the hillside both quickly and safely. Dervlinne was quieter than ever on the way down, and once they'd reached ground level she just avoided everyone's eyes, clearly shaken and agitated by Treguard's words.
"Yes," said Treguard to Bumptious, "it looks like a tunnel way into the Marblehead dungeon." Bumptious nodded and gave the thumbs-up, smiling broadly. "The whole area looks deserted, now. Grimaldine must have left, so we shouldn't face too much opposition when we go in. Unfortunately, we can't take the horse up that hill, so we'll have to leave him down here..."
Rod was gazing up at the forbidding castle in its fearsome shroud of darkness, and the dauntingly steep hill that they needed to climb to reach it. On the face of it, he seemed rather pleased by this news.
"Any volunteers to stay behind and look after him?"
Dervlinne raised her arm. "I will stay behind and guard the supplies, honoured one," she offered stiffly.
"I think not," answered Treguard, "I'd prefer to keep an eye on you."
Dervlinne turned on him, now genuinely angered. "You do not trust me, Dungeon Master?"
"Frankly, no. Anyone el-...?"
"Why not?" demanded Dervlinne. "I have not betrayed you..."
"I only have your word for that, she-sprite," growled Treguard. "You serve Arawn, and it wouldn't surprise me if he had given you some hidden instruction to betray me when I am at my most vulnerable. No, I won't give you the chance to steal our horse and supplies and abandon us. You're coming with me."
"I have served you obediently, Dungeon Master," protested the elf. "I..."
"I wouldn't say 'obediently', Dervlinne. Majida, would you like to stay behind?"
Majida bristled. "Me? Stay with thees fleabag?" She gestured at Rod contemptuously. "He smell, and he always make awful snort-snort noise when he eat! I not staying here." She crossed her arms, turned her nose up to the horse, and adopted the pose of one who would not be argued with.
Bumptious put his hands on his hips and started jabbering defiantly.
Dervlinne translated. "He says he cannot stay behind, honoured one, he has mining to do."
Treguard nodded. "Majida, you're staying here." Majida's response to this was as loud as it was inadmissable in a family-story. Treguard simply ignored her. "You're staying here," he repeated. Majida carried on grumbling, but no one wanted to listen.
Bumptious fetched some tools from the wagon and stuffed them into a sack, which he threw over his shoulder. "Lesssclim!!" he cried enthusiastically.
"He says 'Let's climb'," Dervlinne translated.
"Yes, I got that," said Treguard. He frowned. Something else was bothering him now, but he couldn't work out what it was. Something seemed out of place, something that wasn't anything to do with Dervlinne this time. He shrugged. It was probably just that he was half-expecting Marblehead to be a hive of Celtic activity when they found it. The dark emptiness of the fortress seemed like an anti-climax.
They began to climb the rope back to the cave-mouth, first Treguard, then Dervlinne, and then Bumptious. Progress was smooth and easy with the rope to support them and it took just moments for them to reach the cave. They climbed up over the last few rocks and stood at the cave entrance. They peered into almost total blackness. Bumptious pulled out a lantern, lit it, and shone it into the tunnel. It lit up the walls a small distance in, but the light was soon swallowed up in darkness just a little further along. What they could see of the tunnel was smooth, artificial.
Bumptious quietly babbled something.
"According to Bumptious, these are Dwarf Tunnels, Dungeon Master," explained Dervlinne.
"Good!" exclaimed Treguard, "If this tunnel's artificial then it must be a path into the Marblehead dungeon." Bumptious nodded in agreement.
With the dungeons currently out of phase, there would be little under the hill other than the bare rocks and soils that the dungeon was trying to reform itself with. But it could still be a dangerous place, even at times like these. "We have to watch our step in there. Most of the dungeon will have disintegrated, but there'll still be a few remnants of what was there before. Oh, and remember to avoid anything that gives off a bright light. They'll be dungeon-fragments that are in the process of reforming. Make any contact with them and you'll be absorbed into them."
Bumptious nodded again, this time impatiently - after what he'd been through, he was the last person who needed a lecture on the dangers of journeying through Marblehead. Dervlinne merely sniffed. There was little new that an elf, even one as young as three thousand, could learn from a mere mortal.
Treguard took the lantern from Bumptious, then lowered his head and moved forward into the tunnel. Its walls and floor were a little slippery and broken in places, but it seemed generally safe and manageable.
Bumptious jabbered something to Dervlinne as she started to follow. He backed away from the cave-mouth and started collecting large stones from thereabouts.
Dervlinne called after Treguard who was still pushing further ahead. "Honoured one, Bumptious is concerned that the tunnel may be unsafe. He is collecting some stones to bolster the roof."
Treguard turned and looked back. "Sounds a bit futile," he grunted.
"He believes it will help," Dervlinne answered coldly.
Treguard shrugged and carried on down the tunnel. "Well hes the expert. If he thinks it's worth it, let him. But tell him to hurry up."
Dervlinne relayed the instruction and continued following.
Fear stared into the techno-magic mirror in agitation. The burden of his own expectation was now weighing on him, his nerves jangling like the great bells of Marblehead. The nearer one comes to one's ambition, the greater the terror for there is so much more to be lost through one's own mistakes. He couldn't afford them now, for in allowing Treguard into his own realm, Fear had personally upped the stakes to a higher level than ever before.
"Your Lord-nessss, your great-nessss, your illusssss-striousss-nessss, your..."
"You can stuff the pleasantries where the frogs don't dare to hop, Lissard!" snapped Fear. "Just hurry up and report."
"The time is upon ussss!" cried Lissard, "Treguard has entered the dungeon-nessss through the Outer Cavernssss - precissss-ely as you planned, Lord-nessss."
Fear allowed just a brief hint of relief to flood through him. "Excellent, Lissard. It will take just a few moments, and then..." he clenched a fist, "...Treguard is finished!"
Treguard had already reached the end of the long narrow tunnel before Dervlinne could catch up with him - and when she did, her response to what she found was the same as his had been, a gasp of shock. They had stepped out onto a very long, very broad ledge overlooking a vast cavern. The cave was immense, the size of Marblehead several times over. It loomed above their heads over a hundred feet, and stretched twice the distance below.
And the cavern was shining clear as day. In the distance of the cavern's furthest reaches they could see a vast column of water falling from crags in the rock-face to a deep recess in the floor over a hundred feet below. The water formed a wide flowing river that hungrily chewed its way into the earth far, far below their feet.
There was no visible source of light, there had been no hint of illumination even as they had hauled themselves through the tunnel, and yet this enormous, this unimaginably vast cavern was lit like an infant star.
"This is not possible!" cried the Saxon Lord. "Certainly the hill was large and steep, but it's nowhere near large enough to contain such a cave." He pointed upwards. "How can the roof be so high? From what I saw when we entered the tunnel, even the castle would be enclosed in here." He looked dazzled as he gazed upon the expanse of rocks, almost hypnotised by the dancing light that shone from them into his eyes. "And where's the light coming from? That's not the light of the dungeon re-integrating."
Dervlinne sniffed the air fearfully. "There is the reek of sorcery surrounding this place, honoured Dungeon Master."
Treguard nodded, both nerves and excitement suddenly touching his heart with their icy fingers. If it was sorcery that let this cave exist in a place where it evidently could never be - that was the power of the Gruagach himself. It was the power that allowed the accursed Dungeon to reshape itself, to rebuild itself, to grow, to become one with so many other places which by now spanned most of England. That power was present here. And it was complete.
"Could it be?" he dared let himself wonder. Could it be that the time at last was here? Could the dungeon have finally reformed itself? Could it be that the next Age of Adventure, the one he had so long waited for, the one he had craved seeing with a heavy and, at times broken, heart had already begun?
He briefly let himself feel the old surge of hope, the gentle tingle of boyish anticipation that he'd always experienced whenever the Greater Game was about to begin. At last! After all these years he would have his dungeoneers back, he would be able to fight the Opposition on an even footing again, he would be part of the adventure again rather than the victim of it. He would be Dungeon Master once more.
The problem was that he, Dervlinne and Bumptious were inside the dungeon right now. Not a healthy time or place to celebrate.
"It's the dungeon, Dervlinne," Treguard whispered gently. "I think the time is here. The dungeon has awoken, it's alive again!"
Dervlinne nodded, trying to look calm about the revelation, when in fact it was very clear that it terrified her. "Hadn't we best leave then, honoured one?"
Treguard was about to answer in the affirmative when they heard an ominous sound from the tunnel behind them. They turned and saw Bumptious scrambling out of the tunnel on all fours in a mad rush of panic.
"Movmov-outerwa-gimmegooooooOOOOOOOO...!!!!!!!!!" he explained, shoving Treguard off his feet - dangerously close to the edge indeed - his own momentum almost taking himself over the rim.
Behind him the tunnel demonstrated why Bumptious was in such a flap - it collapsed with a loud and disheartening crumbling noise. All three threw themselves flat on the ledge, face down, covering crown, nose and mouth as the cracking and crumbling and tumbling and splitting carried on for over thirty seconds before finally coming to rest in a hideous plume of dust. The echoes of the cave-in carried on reverberating around the cavern for over three minutes before fading out.
Only then, as silence settled in once more, did the three companions dare to look up and, pale-faced, see the ruinous mass of rocks and debris that now thoroughly barred their only exit.
Treguard puffed out his cheeks several times before he could bring himself to speak. He then decided not to because whatever it was he was going to say, he didn't trust himself to say it without polluting it with expletives.
He then decided he didn't give a damn whether or not he polluted his grammar.
"What the bloody hell have you DONE?!" he didn't quite say, but it was something fairly similar.
Bumptious looked shocked to hear such language from a distinguished and noble Lord of the realm, especially so many centuries before such words had even been invented. He jabbered the hurried and clearly rather embarrassed answer that he had tried to reinforce the roof by jamming stones into weakened stress points in the rock, and in so doing had in fact caused hidden cracks to split open completely and the roof fell in, and he was deeply sorry for making such an elementary mistake, especially after his experiences here last time, and which would have been avoided of course if he had simply stuck rigidly by guideline 14b, Section 78f, Paragraph 11 of the manual.
Treguard didn't get this last bit, because Dervlinne judged, correctly, that it wasn't worth the bother of translating it. Treguard merely shook his head and uttered the briefest, bleakest of chortles. In all his many years as an adventurer, he couldn't remember ever bearing witness to or ever being part of a team as pathetically ill-suited to one another's company as this one. Everyone seemed to have some issue with at least one of the others, there was little experience or talent for the arduous tasks of questing beyond his own, Treguard himself was old and tired, Bumptious was old and in battered shape, even the horse was bulshy and uncooperative. And now they'd managed to seal themselves inside the dungeon of Marblehead.
Treguard was not on the verge of saying out loud that things could not possibly have got any worse, experience had taught him as it had taught so many others before that such a statement was just inviting trouble.
But he might just as well have said it anyway because it was at this point that a soft moan met their ears. They looked up and saw emerging from the tangled mass of rocks of the fallen tunnel a chilling apparition. It appeared as nothing more than a large and discoloured human skull, chattering and sighing despairingly as it floated towards them.
"Ohboogblassit chamacorrahou?" asked Bumptious.
Treguard quickly pulled himself to his feet. "A fallen dungeoneer is haunting here. We have to find a way out of this cavern. Move!" He grabbed hold of Bumptious' arm and hauled him upright. Bumptious put his hand to his head, swaying dizzily for a moment. Treguard and Dervlinne had already retreated some way along the ledge by the time Bumptious got his act together. He held his hood with one hand to keep it from falling off, then turned and ran after his two companions, the skull ghost not far behind.
The ledge led straight to one of the immense cave walls. As he ran Treguard constantly checked over the side to see if there was anything below that they could drop onto, but he could see nothing except a very long drop to the cavern floor each time. All too soon he and Dervlinne reached the wall. Knowing the dungeon's tendency to hide its paths, they immediately started examining it closely to see if they could find any doors hidden in the smooth flat rock.
"We appear to have taken a wrong turning, honoured one," suggested Dervlinne, her fear now very audible.
Treguard ignored her, and prodded the wall, trying to find anything, a seam, a fissure of some kind, anything that might be levered.
Bumptious finally caught up with them, gibbering hectically at them.
"Stop panicking!" snarled Treguard, but Bumptious continued wittering fearfully, and pointed over his shoulder. Dervlinne followed his gaze. The ghost was almost upon them, its moan growing in intensity as it sniffed a huge feast of life force ahead.
"Dungeon Master!" cried Dervlinne, "If we are to do something, it must be now!"
Suddenly Treguard thought, "What am I doing?" He turned around confidently, drew Morpheus and held it up in full view of the ghost. "You presume to threaten me, little death-spawn? You attack the Master of the Dungeon himself, the very Dungeon that sustains this mockery of a second life you lead. Dare to attack me and your existence is forfeit. BEGONE!"
The ghost stopped approaching and hovered in front of them for a long moment, as if pondering these words. Treguard kept the sword held up, his intense, saturnine gaze never wavering from the wretched spirit. For some reason Treguard suddenly didn't feel as confident as he was expecting to. The ghost just hovered there. It was making no further attempt to attack, but then it didn't appear to be in any hurry to leave either, it just hovered there, just staring at them.
Bumptious and Dervlinne seemed transfixed by the ghost, but suddenly the elf looked past to the wall next to it.
"Honoured one," she whispered to Treguard. "Look on the wall next to the ghost."
Treguard stared blankly where she was indicating. He shrugged. "I see nothing." He turned his attention back to the ghost, which was still just floating there, watching them intently.
"No Dungeon Master," insisted Dervlinne. "Look again."
Treguard scowled, and did as he was asked. For just a fleeting moment he got the vague flickering impression of seeing some kind of shape or outline in the wall, but no, it was quickly gone. The ghost seemed to waver a little in the air in front of him, so Treguard waved the sword warningly. "Stop wasting my time, Dervlinne. What am I supposed to be looking for?"
Dervlinne took a couple of very slight, very quiet sidesteps so that she could manoeuver past the ghost cleanly.
"What are you doing?" Treguard growled angrily.
"Trust me, Dungeon Master," Dervlinne implored him quietly, and she started to inch forward.
Treguard knew from bitter experience that the last thing he was going to do was trust an elf of Anwin Wood just because of her own hardly-disinterested say-so. He turned and held the point of Morpheus' blade to her back. "Stand still, she-sprite! I'm not going to let you desert us."
Dervlinne turned, distraught. "I'm not...!"
These sudden movements were enough to break the ghost's shackles. With a howl as cold and loud as a gale from the North, it lurched forward to attack its prey. Treguard swiftly returned Morpheus to its defensive position, but this time the ghost did not hesitate. It simply swooped down, evaded the sword with an ease bordering on the contemptuous, and started snapping at Treguard's arms and legs with its insubstantial teeth.
The chill Treguard felt as the teeth of the ghost bit into him could scarcely be comprehended, let alone described. The problem was that he felt no physical injury whatsoever, but somehow he still felt the most perplexing agony, as though the ghost had simply by-passed his flesh and bit a large chunk out of his soul. Even Treguard couldn't understand the pain, the chill, and he was the one enduring it.
Dervlinne saw all this and quickly turned and ran to the point on the wall she was looking for. The wall here was fairly smooth, but a small patch of rock some way above her head was protruding significantly. It was very easy for mortal eyes to miss it, but for an elf it was just clear enough. It was a coherent shape, a symbol - the symbol of a bridge. She jumped and reached out for the patch of rock. Her fingers brushed it, but no more than that. She jumped again, stretching and straining, and this time slapped her palm firmly against the symbol. As she did so, it began to withdraw slowly into the rock-face.
Bumptious had pulled out a small pickaxe from his sack and was waving it menacingly at the ghost, trying to draw the creature away from Treguard. Suddenly though, the ghost drew back in confusion. Treguard and Bumptious were knocked from their feet as a furious grinding rumble violently shook the whole ledge. Dervlinne threw herself flat against the ground as the patch of rock finished withdrawing into the wall.
Then from a few feet below her, out of the rock of the ledge, a long slender stone column slowly began to extend out into the cave, stretching out all the way across the vast expanse towards the opposite wall in the far distance.
Even though the ground was still shaking violently, and the column was less than halfway across the gap, Treguard saw the opportunity in the ghost's confusion, and he wasn't going to miss it. He pulled himself and Bumptious to their feet and together they scampered to the bridge. It was not very broad, and it was several feet below the lip of the ledge, so it took a conscious effort on their part to drop onto it for fear of tumbling over the edge to a messy death. Once they landed though they quickly darted forward along the narrow bridge, joined by Dervlinne who by now had also recovered, and did not particularly share the irrational mortal phobia about heights.
Sadly, the ghost's confusion had by now faded as well, and it was in pursuit again.
Looking ahead, Treguard could see that the bridge was heading for another large tunnel in the opposite wall. With the bridge currently only being supported at one end, they were getting the uneasy feeling of the bridge tottering slightly under their weight, but there was no time to worry about that with the ghost closing in again.
The problem was it was such a long way across the chasm, and the bridge was unfolding so slowly. The bridge was little more than halfway across, and already they were near the edge. The ghost wasn't far behind them.
It was quickly very clear that they weren't going to make it, the ghost would catch up with them before they got anywhere near the other side.
Treguard, Bumptious and Dervlinne looked around desperately for some other escape route. Bumptious spotted it.
"Dowdowdoewego!" he cried, pointing over the edge of the bridge. Treguard and Dervlinne looked at him in disbelief. "Looook!" he gestured.
They looked over the edge and saw what he was indicating. The underground river was just ahead running along the cavern floor towards a gap in the base of one of the mighty walls. "Are you mad?" cried Treguard. "It must a drop of a hundred metres...!"
Bumptious gestured toward the ghost, which was practically on top of them, and then gave Treguard a look that said, "You got a better idea?"
Treguard sighed, and raised Morpheus to hinder the ghost long enough for them to make the jump. The ghost pulled back slightly as the magical blade cut at it. Bumptious and Dervlinne meanwhile crouched on the edge of the bridge, waiting for the right moment. The bright glowing rock made the water of the river shine a deep vivid blue that couldn't be fully appreciated at this altitude. From here the river looked like a thin artery below the skin of the cave, a tiny narrow flow of water. Judging the timing of the jump would not be easy, even for an elf...
"NOW!" Dervlinne suddenly cried, and with a somersault faster than the eye could follow, propelled herself over the edge. With rather less grace or poise, Bumptious held his nose and leapt after her, belly first. Treguard spun on his heel, trusted his luck and stepped over the edge.
The ghost growled in surprise and anger as its prey suddenly disappeared.
It was a surprisingly-happy journey down, because it was clear from the first moment that Dervlinne with her sharp elfin vision had managed to get her timing spot on, and they were all not just going to land in the river, but actually land right in the centre, where it was presumably deepest. Hopefully that meant deep enough...
Dervlinne manoeuvered several times as she fell until she was in the optimum diving position to pierce the water. She plunged into the depths headfirst, broke into a graceful swim, swooping up to break the surface, all in a single movement.
Bumptious just belly-flopped into the water about twenty metres upstream of her, and the inevitably-large deluge of water showered up around him as if a depth charge had hit it.
Treguard used his cloak on the way down to slow his descent slightly, and with that he was able to manoeuver in mid-air enough to get into an upright position and break the water with the tips of his feet and disappear below the surface with some measure of control.
The water was deep, but the tide was still unnaturally fast, and it was an effort for Treguard both to break the surface and to get to the shore. With every slow, battling stroke, he moved inch-by-inch nearer to safety. He was hurtling down-river towards the tunnel rather more quickly than he'd have liked but he had no time to worry about that. He established a rhythm, take a breath, head down, three strokes, head up, take a breath... and soon was hauling himself up onto the riverbank. He slumped on the hard craggy ground, heaving for breath, feeling old and inadequate.
He slowly got onto his hands and knees and looked up-river, surprised to see Bumptious helping Dervlinne out of the water. Treguard had rather expected it to be the other way around, and he was surprised Bumptious was so strong in the water. Well, no argument, hidden talents are every bit as useful as the obvious ones.
Treguard got to his feet slowly, his joints sore and exhausted from the exertions of more than a week, exertions that showed little sign of coming to an end any time soon. He had no idea how they were going to get out of here, no way of contacting Majida to ask for help. What a mess. He shrugged his shoulders sadly and headed over to join Dervlinne and Bumptious who were now sat in a heap on the riverbank, looking bedraggled.
Now that he was on the floor of the cave, Treguard had an even clearer indication of just how immense this place was. He looked up, saw the bridge he had just leapt from coming to rest spanning the entire chasm, and far beyond it the cavern roof, so distant that it looked like a dark skyline above a small world. His dungeon had created this, he realised in quiet wonderment. This was but one more example of its incredible power, it had created this humbling colossus of a place. This was once a separate a dungeon, a separate realm, but now it was effectively one with his own, and this was what it could create.
What was most remarkable about this lair was not its capacity to surprise and expose the weaknesses of any who dared to challenge it. No it was that it still had the capacity, even after all these years, to surprise and bewilder its own Master. Not for the first time in his life, Treguard was forced to consider whether he really he was entitled to call himself such a thing, whether any mortal was truly worthy to Master and rule this dungeon.
Treguard reached Dervlinne and Bumptious just as they were getting to their feet and readying themselves to set off again. All three of them were tired, and soaked to the bone, but other than that, they were largely unscathed from the plummet.
"I'd er..." Treguard harrumphed reluctantly, "I'd like to apologise to you for my poor manners, Dervlinne. You did well finding that bridge mechanism, and my suspicions of you were unworthy."
Dervlinne shrugged. "It is forgotten, honoured one," she answered, although it certainly didn't sound like she had forgotten, nor even forgiven.
Bumptious had a broad grin on his face. He was, basically, being smug. It was his idea to jump off the bridge into the river and it had worked. He was clever, he was the brains of the outfit, and he'd even managed it without firstly getting confirmation in writing from Treguard and Dervlinne that they each shared joint-responsibility for anything bad that happened to them on the way down. Unfortunately, Bumptious had discovered that his report-book had been ruined by the water, but in the end, heavy price though it was, it was one he had been prepared to pay.
He casually gestured to the left and muttered something to Treguard in a superior manner.
Dervlinne, as ever, was ready to translate. "He says that he has seen a flight of stairs leading down below the cavern floor. He suggests that we should follow them, and that because it is his suggestion, it is likely to be the correct course of action, as our escape from the ghost demonstrates."
Treguard raised an eyebrow and nodded. "Very well, master strategist. Show me."
Bumptious swaggered arrogantly past Treguard and led them to a large recess in the ground. Treguard leaned forward and peered inside. It was deep, it was dark. There were no steps to speak of. He looked at Bumptious who grinned in embarrassment and muttered something else.
"'Well, maybe not steps as such'," translated Dervlinne, glowering at Bumptious, "'but it does lead down.'"
"I'm not sure I like the look of..." began Treguard, but his voice tailed off as he heard a familiar moaning sound from above. They all looked up and saw the dreaded shape of the skull ghost floating down towards them, still some way off but descending fast. "...Of that ghost," Treguard finished. "Let's go." Treguard gritted his teeth, and for the second time in minutes, took the plunge again. He, Dervlinne and Bumptious dropped into the darkness, which turned out to be a portal, and they were whisked deeper into the dungeon.
On the other side of the portal, they dropped to the floor in a square-shaped chamber. They were not in a cavern this time, but a small courtyard. At the centre of it was a very broad trapdoor, made of very solid oak. There was one exit at the other side of the room and the chamber was lit on all sides by flame torches.
They picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and looked about themselves.
"Not much of a challenge here," said Dervlinne.
Treguard nodded. "I suggest that as long as we avoid stepping on the trapdoor, we should be fine."
Bumptious also nodded so they stepped around the side of the room and walked on, carefully staying away from the trapdoor. That was the big mistake. Bumptious suddenly jumped backwards just as Treguard and Dervlinne were making their fifth steps. Bumptious watched impassively as his companions stepped on a stone that was, in fact, just thin air, and fell through it to land painfully at the bottom of a dank, unlit shaft.
(Here's a couple more riddles for you to think about before you go on to part III.
How can the numbers four, six, eighty and one hundred be used together, without the use of any other numbers, to make exactly nine?
How can a pocket with two large holes in it be safe to hold a gold coin?
Adam was the first man, Eve was the first woman. Who was the first Olympic athlete?)
To be concluded