Examining the lift, ibn Fadil finds a wooden platform about ten by ten feet; the mechanism is either underneath or in the walls somewhere; heavy ropes, looking somewhat worn, go up two sides of the smooth stone shaft and anchor somewhere up top. Even as they all gather their wits after the fall, the dwarves are sealing the shaft at the level of the floor above with a hatch just like the one at the surface. There is a grate similar to the one above on this level; it does not appear to be locked.
"There's always a way," Val says calmly, even if it is just to steady himself. "The trick is finding one." He pauses for a moment before adding, "And if you can't find one, *make* one..." The young sailor studies their would-be prison carefully. He's spent hours upon hours in tight places aboard ships before, so he doesn't suffer much from his current confinement.
Over his shoulder he asks Gorn, "What...*happened* to you, anyway? And what in hell were *those*?" indicating the other hooded figures. He tries not to look at the dwarf's double hands, fighting back the revulsion that he feels at the sight of them.
"And more urgently, what are we locked up with down here?" ibn Fadil adds, just before he grabs one of the ropes running along the side of the shaft and starts climbing up, intending to evaluate the probably remote chance of being able to open that hatch. Alas, it is much too heavy, even if there was proper leverage available.
"Gods know," Gorn says with a fearful look at the grate. "We don't ask questions, sometimes he goes out collecting, we never know if he's here, watching, or if he's gone away somewhere. We don't come down here, could be anything now." There is a hint of motion out there, something rat-sized that vanishes into the shadows again. "As for what happened to me... to us, rather - say we made a bad bargain, how is that? Ha! Ha!" He holds up his unnatural limbs. "Oh, I do fine work now, I must say, better than ever I could before, he does hold up his end of a deal, if you live through it. We call him Blade, I can't say his name in xixchil."
"Stop laughing," Val tells Gorn grimly as he draws his sword. He does not turn on the dwarf, however. Whatever was moving around out there probably wasn't a rat, and he wants to be ready.
Pham looks at the dwarf with an expression of fury on his face quite unlike his normal calm demeanor. In a soft, cold voice he asks "Let me see if I understand this. You took this xixchil on board, made a deal with him, let him *cut off your hands* and put those ... things there instead, and now you're going to quietly let him hunt us for... what? Sport? Food? Experimentation? What has this creature been doing down here? Explain it to me."
Pham stares at the dwarf with a challenge in his eyes, seemingly unaware that the symbol of Hextor that he normally keeps tucked within his robe is now laying plainly on his chest.
They wouldn't have thought it, but it *is* possible for Gorn to look even more panicky, and he does.
"Also, is this creature a spellcaster? Speak quickly - I must know."
He stutters for a moment. "Uh-uh-y-y-yes. Yes, he is. That's the problem, you see, we never know where he is, if he's here, what he's listening to, we thought once that he was gone and tried to get in there and - and he...." He trails off with a grimace and an evocative gesture. "After that there weren't enough of us left to try and get him, or to move the ship even if we did. And he can do things to your mind." He takes a deep breath. "Look, it's not like we had a lot of choice. By the time we figured him out a lot of us were dead and the rest of us had things like this." He holds up his hands. "You think these are bad, should see some of the others."
The half-elf climbs most of the way back down the rope, then pauses and glares down at Gorn. "What about our ship?"
"If they were smart enough to lift off immediately, they might get away."
Holding the rope with one hand, ibn Fadil draws his sword with the other, and points at the dwarf with the blade. "More information, less talk," he snaps. "If the rest of the crew were captured, where would they be taken?"
"We take them to the Bubble. I don't know where they go after that." He gestures aft. "That bulge is hollow, it's where we kept the forge when there were enough of us left to keep it going."
"Better," ibn Fadil concedes, leaving off threatening the dwarf, and drops down onto the platform. "Can you lead us there?" he asks Gorn, even as he joins Val to peer out through the grate.
"Go that way," he points with a spiritless shrug. "This was a food level, it's pretty open. Gods know what's out there now, or if the door's open. Bastards," he mutters at the ceiling. "They know it's only a matter of time. That's how we got to this state - turned us against each other. The last two left will do each other in out of spite."
"It is a large space out there," ibn Fadil says, stepping back from the grate and half-turning to look at Delmar. "Captain, I think we should look for the others, and another way out, at the same time. And not dally here much longer," he adds. He glances around at the rest of the group, wordlessly seeking opinions.
"Doesn't look like we have much choice," Delmar mutters. "Val, next time you have a bad feeling about something, remind me to listen."
"Aye captain," Val replies evenly. _If there *is* a next time,_ he thinks to himself.
Hiro nods his agreement. "The fallen blossom does not return to the tree." He moves toward the gate leaving space for Val and Ibn to take point to better allow them to search for traps.
Ibn Fadil looks at Gorn. "You are coming with us," he says flatly.
"Or what? You'll kill me? Ha, ha." He chokes it down to a nervous giggle this time.
The half-elf gives him a slight, cold smile. "Not yet. I will only want to kill you myself if some harm has befallen my lady, who was on our ship. I have no intention of dying in this stinking hole you've made of your citadel, you see. And if you help us get out," he adds off-handedly, "I might be persuaded to give you a running start before I kill you."
Gorn looks nervously through the grate. "Quite the convincing argument," he mutters. "Guess it doesn't much matter where he finds us."
So saying, he thrusts the metal aside. There is a quite incongruous smell of growing things; beyond the immediate area of the lift, where things are somewhat trampled down, a fairly thick thatch of plants covers the floor. Ibn Fadil and Pham recognize some of them as kin to those grown in kitchen gardens across the spheres, run wild and weedy now, largely dead and leaves pale for lack of sun. When everyone has had a chance to adjust, they realize there is faint light coming from somewhere to the right, just enough to distinguish the true darkness.
"Huh," Gorn says to himself. "Lights haven't quite died yet, we don't use this anymore, plenty of room up top for those of us are left." His strange hands twitch anxiously.
Stepping out of the lift, they can see that the room extends in all four directions, pierced by the shaft like a column. There is a rough stone wall perhaps thirty feet away. There seems to be a break in it somewhere to the left and to the right.
Small things rustle in the dead growth, as yet unseen.
Shadowing the dwarf, ibn Fadil now draws his knife to hold in his left hand, and consults Val and Hiro. "Forward to the wall," he suggests in a near-whisper.
Val nods, silently acknowledging ibn Fadil's recommended course. He keeps alert, stretching his senses in this cavernous overgrown "garden."
Oddly, Val is having some difficulty adjusting himself to the circumstances. He's used to working alone in situations like this (not that he's ever been duped by mutated dwarves before). The cold fire refuses to flood his veins, and he feels strangely out of place. Outwardly, he probably appears a little tense and uncomfortable. Damn.
With ibn Fadil keeping an eye on their reluctant dwarf in the lead and Val nearby, Hiro and Delmar take the rear points with Pham in the center. Old growth desiccated by the dry air of the Flow crunches beneath their feet.
They reach the wall without incident. There are clearly openings in it to either side. From here they (well, those of them who can see in the dark) can also see beyond the lift shaft, where the room narrows to a sort of point, deep in shadow; flowering vines have climbed most of the way to the ceiling.
Ibn Fadil silently points in the direction he thinks is the one they want, looking to Gorn for confirmation; then he signs to the others to wait and slips ahead along the wall, as quietly as he can, to the edge of the opening. There he crouches down and studies it, listening for all he is worth, before cautiously peering through.
It is another rough-walled, dirt-floored chamber, vaguely kidney-shaped with the opening through which he is looking in the outside curve. It is carpeted with more overgrown vegetation, including several tall plants with brightly colored flowers, startling in the sickly garden. He sees something like a lizard with eight legs make its way across a clear spot and disappear, apparently intent on its own business.
A lift shaft pierces this room as well, at the far end and to the right; the faint light seems to be coming from that direction. There is another opening in the wall at the far left.
Returning to the group, ibn Fadil quietly reports. "More of the same. Flowers. Another lift, off on the right, another opening on the left, we enter in the middle." Immediately he turns and starts back again, letting Gorn fall back closer to Pham for the moment.
He leads them around the opening into the next room and along the opposite side of the wall for about half the distance to the next opening, then strikes out across the room, aiming to reach the right-hand side of the wall a short distance from the opening, avoiding the flowers carefully.
"That way," Gorn says in a normal voice, pointing toward the shaft. Everyone jumps except Hiro. "He knows we're here, just a matter of when he gets around to us."
"Quiet," Delmar snaps - quite unusual, for him, but he feels the weight of the situation even more keenly than the others.
Ibn Fadil seconds that with a vicious glare, and switches his planned course to the opposite side of this second room. Approaching the shaft, he slows his already cautious pace even more, looking the area over.
Pham stands beside the captain holding his staff lightly, ready to brain Gorn the second he decides to cause more trouble.
In a whisper, Pham says to Delmar "Captain, rest assured we will survive this. This is a tale that needs to be spread, to warn others against such foolishness if nothing else.
"I know a devotion that can render us silent for a time, but in this darkness I fear it would simply divide us, unable to find our way in the gloom."
Val, who is closer to the shaft, edges closer with ibn Fadil to take a look. He too is very careful and tries to move as quietly as possible.
The shaft is pitch black and empty. A couple of ropes remain, but they hang loosely; it looks like this lift is no longer used. Looking up with the aid of Delmar's stone, it appears that this one is blocked off somewhere above as well.
From this part of the room, they can see as well that the opening where the light comes from is a short tunnel that ends in a pair of very heavy-looking doors. The light source is another stone, set in the ceiling (closer examination of the ceiling shows similar stones regularly placed throughout the room, no doubt to provide necessary light for the plants until the spells on them failed). There is also a hairs-width of light coming from beneath the doors.
With a quick gesture, ibn Fadil suggests that the others place themselves against the wall at the outside of this short tunnel. Then he studies the tunnel for any possible dangers before pacing quietly down it to examine the doors and listen at them, Val a silent shadow accompanying him.
The dirt floor gives way to smooth stone, but there is nothing to suggest danger from their surroundings. The doors appear very solid, iron-bound oak with no visible means of opening them from this side. There is sound from beyond the doors, a screeching reminiscent of birds of prey.
And then another, much louder shriek from somewhere *behind* them - the lift shaft, they realize after a frozen moment. Gorn gives a little squawk of fright, stepping away from the wall with a wild look as if ready to run, but there is nowhere to go and he shrinks back, one set of hands gripping the opposite wrist while the others flutter nervously. The sound is quickly followed by a second scream, different in timbre but from the same direction.
* * *
"I so damn hate being right all the time." Emmett squirms out of the ropes that proved insufficient to hold his Gond-given frame.
Moving as quietly as he can he scans the room for any sign of light -- outlines of doors, windows, anything that might indicate a guard or watching presence -- before muttering the word that activates his gemstone eye, which casts a muted radiance through the eyepatch that will make it possible for him and the others to see without alerting any gaolers.
Taking a few seconds to open the trapdoor in his false arm, he unlatches the hook and replaces it with a short but keen blade, his remaining hand dexterously completing actions which were drilled until they became second nature. With the new tool he makes short work of the bonds holding Alais and Yestin, motioning both to be quiet.
"Where's Nyala?" he whispers.
It takes a couple seconds for him to make out her bound and battered form - the injuries she sustained stand out in stark relief to the others' more rapid, no doubt magical, unconsciousness.
Emmett severs her bonds too, taking a few moment to look her over for either life threatening injury or medical attention by their captors. Once that's done, he shakes her slightly, hoping to rouse her.
When that proves ineffective, he lays her back down and starts unravelling the rope from his leg, revealing the compartment there and pulling out the vial of 150 proof whisky. Hopefully the smell or taste of that will bring her around.
As he does so, he whispers to his companions, "Anyone else have a clear memory of what happened? And Alais, is there any way you can just magic us out of here?" Emmett is wary of pushing the young but puissant mage too much, knowing how the wizardly types of his own world disliked revealing their precious arcane potential.
"It would be rather selfish to leave the others, don't you think?"
Emmett shakes his head, "I mean out of this room, or back to the armory on the _Distraction_, not out of the situation entirely. You and Yestin take a look at the doors, see what you can come up with."
The whiskey does work. Nyala spends a few minutes coughing interspersed with curses in Elvish. As awareness returns, she scrambles to her feet in a defensive posture, looking around a little wildly. "Where is it?!"
Whatever it is, it's not there; they were alone in the room, and there's no sound outside to indicate someone there.
Guessing what she's looking for, Emmett tries to meet her beautiful elvish eyes, reflecting on how much less she looks like an angel when she's conscious. "They took all our weapons when we were captured, I guess. And whatever enchantment they used to take the three of us out didn't work on you. Right now there's the four of us, in this room on the citadel, with whatever we can scrape together. What happened?"
She's got some of her composure back, although still a little woozy from the poison. "You all collapsed. And these *things* came in -- they looked like dwarves, mostly, but they were all wrong. There was something with them, like a big praying mantis. Xixchil. It must have bitten me." The memory clearly revolts her to the point of nausea as she touches her bloodied arm.
"OK. Not-dwarf Dwarves, poisonous preying mantises, big old citadel. No problem." Emmett puts the flask back in his leg, taking a minute to extract his knee spike.
"This can work like a hiltless dagger. Are you comfortable with that?" he asks, moving to hand the blade to the battered elf.
"It is certainly better than nothing." She takes the spike.
"This is barred, I think," Yestin says. He is leaning cautiously against the door, feeling where the resistance is strongest, being careful not to hit his head on the ceiling.
"Where's the bar?" Emmett heads over to Yestin looking at where the Giff is pointing at the door.
"'Bout midway. Here." The door itself is made of some stout wood. The half man looks the door over, seeing if there's a crack that he could use to lever the bar out of place with his knife hand. Unfortunately, the fine dwarven construction makes that impossible. Yestin, who is remarkably unperturbed about all of this, looks at Emmett.
Emmett shrugs. "Alais, do you have your enchantments ready?"
"My spells are ready, unfortunately at the moment I can detect magic, read thoughts and generate light. I wasn't anticipating conflict today."
Emmett resists slamming his head into the wall in frustration -- after all, he knows nothing about how hard it is to learn or maintain spells, and certainly none of them expected this when they got up this morning.
"OK. How much light? Can you blind someone with it? How far away can you read thoughts, and for how long? Can you find the others?"
"Both are possibilities under the right circumstances. I want to save the spells until we can be sure they will effective."
"Nyala, you're the only one that can match the Dwarves' vision. Do you want to take point, or stay far enough behind to act as an ace in the hole, or should we cluster up and just take what comes?" It's obvious from the tone in his voice that Emmett is leaning towards the latter - with Nyala woozy and armed only with a makeshift weapon the idea of her being separated from any support, even for sound tactical reasons, is not one he cherishes. Not if he wants to stay on the second officer's good side.
"Let us, as you say, take what comes."
The comrades ready themselves and, on three, put their shoulders to the door. The bar holds; the bolts holding the mount to the stone wall outside do not, and the two part ways with a hideous screech that drowns Yestin's yelp as he bangs his head on the lintel.
Before anyone is in any danger of relaxing, another shriek splits the air - not near, and yet not far enough away for comfort, echoing through stone halls. Impossible to tell what it might be.
Yestin feels around for a moment, picks up the bar and swings it thoughtfully; it'll do.
Emmett stops, listening for echoes and movement, feeling and scenting the air for any evidence of wind or airflow that might give him a hint as to which direction to take. He's also running his good hand along the wall, trying vainly to feel for smoothness of construction or ornamentation, thinking that the residents would have done more work to the areas they'd been in longer. Hopefully, this will give him some advice as to whether they are further forward or back from the dock which hopefully still holds the _TTS Distraction,_ and thus need to find stairs up or down.
There is no air movement. The wall is smooth, slightly dusty. There is a smell in the air that suggests rats or their kin are somewhere about.
"Nothing here," Nyala says in a barely audible murmur, describing what she sees. The hall, or tunnel, beyond is dark, stone, and deserted, stretching right and left. There is another door across the way, ajar, and immediately to the right a tunnel intersecting at right angles. "Any idea which way? Someone must have heard that noise."
There is a faint patter of verminous feet on stone, then silence.
Emmett flips his eyepatch up and explores the floor with the now bright light. Given how dusty it is, there's a good chance of some sort of discernible tracks, even to his untrained eye.
He can see rat-sized trails leading in all directions - well-traveled ones, at that, though they stay close to the walls. Broader ones as well, something about a foot wide. There is also more widely disturbed dust leading around the corner to the right.
"That way" Emmett motions, leaving his eyepatch up. Given Dwarfish sight, a lot of a little light isn't going to make a real difference, and better that they be able to see where the trail leads them. "Yestin, make sure Alais stays safe."
With that, the half man takes the corner, every sense alert to avoid an ambush.
Another dusty, empty corridor meets his gaze. There are a number of openings on the right, a shadow that might be one on the left, a fair distance away. The dust trail leads down that way.
A rat with two heads and six legs scurries out of a room and away, whisking around another corner at the end of the hall, chittering in harmony with itself.
Emmett blinks slowly, doing strange things with the light in the corridor, then turns and whispers to the others "Ok, Dwarf-not Dwarf. Got it. Is it too early to say I hate this place?"
The Half man continues to follow the dust trail, trusting the others to watch his back. When he takes the left hand corner, it's a short hall, maybe fifteen feet, and at the end is a set of large doors, hinged to open toward the cautious explorers. There is a tiny bit of light leaking from underneath it, and there are faint sounds - either the source is quiet or the door is very thick. The drag marks lead directly toward it.
Seeing the light coming through the door Emmett flips his eyepatch back down, hoping that no one saw the light through the doorway. In the now dimmed light he motions for Nyala to listen at the door and look through the cracks - her elvish senses were probably sharper than anything the others could offer.
She listens for a moment and shakes her head, frowning, tries to look but the doors are set too tightly for anything but the faint line of light.
Moving away she says quietly, "Can't really make it out. Sounds like birds."
"Like twittering birds or squacking birds? Could they be the praying mantises you saw?"
"Screaming birds. And there was only one mantis. It was enough," she adds with feeling.
There is a sudden sound from the door as of a mechanism operating.
Emmett curses softly and motions for the others to fall back to the corner - he and Nyala flat against the wall in the direction they came from, Alais and Yestin on the other side. He also shuts down the light from his eye, limiting the group to the illumination coming from the opening door.
The steady, magical light casts a strange shadow down the hall, that of an attenuated insectoid form. There is a brief silence - listening? some other sense at work? a series of quiet, rapid clicks**, and then the door begins to close again.
Emmett waits for the door to close and listens as best he can, trying to discern if the door is being relocked, and if so how complicated the lock is. There are the same mechanical sounds as before. He can't really tell much just from listening, but it does seem to take a while for whatever it is to work.
"Now where?" Yestin wonders.
Emmett jerks his thumb back at the door. "Through there, probably. Just not yet. Alais, can you read that thing's mind through the door? It's probably pretty close to in charge around here and would know what's happening and where the others are."
"I can try." He casts ESP and tries to home in on the being's thoughts, but senses animal minds only beyond the door. One of them is approaching it.
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson