“It’s all here.” The human trader gestured at the chest, sitting in the exact center of the slowly rocking boat. “I assure you. Please, check the contents yourself.”
“No need.” Ambassador Talfin looked down at the small box. Though it was almost impossible to see in the dusky moonlight, he could hear the voices inside, singing. Their voices, the song of mourning and pain. The song of beauty. He knelt down next to the chest, his scales tingling with anticipation at the thought of finally opening the chest, going through its contents. Here, though… The middle of the Inland Ocean simply wasn’t the place to do that. Not when the merfolk under the water could hear.
“So, I can get paid now, right?” The trader grinned. “I got them for you, which believe me, wasn’t easy.”
“You’ll be paid, yes.” Talfin turned around and snapped his fingers. The door to the captain’s cabin opened, and Talfin’s two bodyguards stepped out. Like him, they were both aqahartis, an amphibious species descended from the merfolk. Between them, they carried a large chest, filled with gold taken from the treasury of Tifingor itself. They set the payment chest down on the deck, and turned it to face the trader. Slowly, one of the guards pulled a key off his belt, inserted it into the lock, and opened the container.
The trader swept up to the chest and peered inside. His eyes lit up, and he nodded eagerly. His heart started beating faster, a rapid pulse that spoke of excitement. The bodyguards simply closed the chest, locked it again, and handed the trader the key. They then picked the chest up and walked to the edge of the galley, where the trader’s small boat was moored. With a swift and experienced throw, they tossed the chest onto the other ship, and turned back to face Talfin.
“Thank you.” Talfin nodded to the trader. “Perhaps we can do business again.”
“I think not.” The trader shook his head as he walked to the side of the boat. “I did this because I needed the money. I don’t like helping out fish.”
Talfin froze. Both of his bodyguards reached out and grabbed the man before he could make it to the ladder. The trader’s eyes went wide, and he thrashed against the much stronger grips.
“What did you say?” Talfin stepped across the deck. His webbed feet sucked against the wood, and he made a conscious effort to change the color of his face. The blueish-green scales that covered his entire body began to change, transforming into a brilliant red. Back when his species had still dwelt under the ocean, it had been a survival mechanism. Now, all it was good for making himself look more intimidating. And it was good at that. He could see the trader changing color himself, turning much more pale in the moonlight.
“I said… Fish?” The trader squirmed. “It was a term of affection! You have scales, fins, it wasn’t meant to…”
Talfin reached behind his back and pulled out a small dagger. His hands were webbed, but that didn’t mean they weren’t effective. The blade drove through the man’s neck, and he collapsed in a pool of blood.
“Shall we throw the body overboard?” One of the bodyguards spoke up.
“No.” Talfin shook his head after a few moments. “It’ll either get eaten by sharks in a feeding frenzy, or it’ll sink down to the merfolk kingdom. Either way, our cousins find the body and start investigating.” He walked up to the edge of the ship and peered out across the water. The shores of Tifingor were just visible. Oh, well. He had been thinking about taking a vacation for some time now.
“Throw the body back onto his own ship. Retrieve the gold, make it look like a robbery. Maybe a pixie. The moment you’re done, come back on board. We set sail the moment you cut him free.”
“And where will we go?” One of the bodyguards inquired as the other jumped over to the other ship. “Are we going back to Tifingor?”
“No. I think it’s high time that we met the man we’re working for.” Talfin frowned, then nodded slowly. “Donisil. We’re going to Donisil.”
“Have you found anyone to fight yet?” Ondernifam stepped into the room at the inn, his head nearly clipping the doorframe. Garnisic rather wished that it had, that would have been funny.
“Not yet.” Garnisic shook his head and turned back to the large pile of books that covered his desk. “I’ll let you know as soon as I find something.”
Ondernifam snarled softly. Though he wasn’t looking, Garnisic knew that the noise would result in a large puddle of drool on the floor. What was it with orcs and drooling? Everywhere. Ondernifam couldn’t even drink an ale without slobbering alcohol across the entire bar. The only reason he was still allowed in the establishment was because Hesione could produce enough gold to pay for the damage and cleanup. As if to prove his point, Ondernifam turned and thumped out of the room again, crashing down the hallway with the force of a troll.
Garnisic smiled for a few seconds as he pictured the innkeeper throwing Ondernifam out of the establishment, then shook his head and went back to work. While Hesione was out talking to the locals, drawing in as much information as possible, he was stuck reading through a bunch of old texts that the elf had pulled from the local library. Granted, they were all in ancient dwarven runes, which no one else could read, but it still sucked to be sitting at the desk while everyone else was out having fun.
That thought brought another smile to his face. Ondernifam’s face was covered in scars from where his tusks had pricked his cheeks. The orc couldn’t be happy, or else he got hurt. It was quite amusing, to say the least.
Slowly, he brought his focus back to the tomes in front of him and started reading again. The words danced in front of his eyes, tales of an ancient conquest. From what he knew, the country of Donisil had once been part of a massive dwarven empire, before civil war and some sort of outside aggressor had allowed the humans to take the land. Most of the texts in the library had been pulled from ancient dwarven ruins located nearby, around the edges of the lake. Everything he had read so far had dealt with the civil war itself, none of it delved much into local lore or legend.
Finally, after several more hours of reading, Garnisic finished the book and closed the cover. Nothing of importance. He picked the book up and set it down on the pile that he had finished reading, raising it to the height of… Two books. Slowly, he looked at the stack of fifteen more tomes he had to make it through. Even if they had been sitting on the floor, he suspected that the pile would have been taller than he was.
“You’re moving through that quickly!” Hesione swept back into the room. She smiled at him, then frowned. Garnisic rather liked her happy face better. “Wait.”
“I’m working on it!” Garnisic climbed up on top of the chair, stretched his arms, and carefully pulled the next book off the top of the pile. The stack tilted to the side, but thankfully failed to collapse. “It’s all in runes. It’s not like it’s easy to read.”
“And if it was in another language, you could read faster?” The elf swept through the room, up to the window.
Garnisic snorted and just flipped the pages open. Reading was something that female dwarves did. Not males, not true miners. Which, of course, was why he was above ground in a human country.
“I don’t suppose you’ve found anything?” Hesione turned her back to the window and crossed her arms. “Something that would help us?”
Garnisic sighed and turned to face the woman. He had to admit, even for an elf, she was stunning. Today, she was wearing a brilliant green robe that perfectly accented her golden skin. Of course, the only parts of her that were visible were her hands and her face. Robes covered everything else, even most of her head. Her face was only visible under the shadows of the hood that she wore, shrouding herself in mystery. Ondernifam always started drooling when he looked at her. Garnisic rather hoped that he kept his own affections under wraps a bit tighter.
“Nothing.” Garnisic sighed. “It’s all about the civil war. I didn’t study much when I was still in the mines, but the civil war was certainly talked about. Our greatest defeat, losing to ourselves.”
“No, you lost to the humans.” Hesione smiled softly. “But if you blame it on yourselves, then no one else will have ever beaten the dwarven empire.”
“Not even the goblins or trolls can stand up to our might.” Garnisic struck a pose that he hoped was heroic. After a moment, he sighed. “Not that either of them are really intelligent races, but…”
“Oh, you’d be surprised.” Hesione sighed and crossed her arms. “So everything is about the war?”
Garnisic pointed at the stack of books. While he hadn’t actually read most of them, he had certainly skimmed the titles. “War tactics according to General Confession. An account of the battle of the Western Pass. How the High Dwarves were driven from Culvenheim.”
“I get the picture.” Hesione frowned for a moment, then sighed. “No references to a necromancer or time getting all twisted around.”
“Not that I’ve found.” Garnisic shook his head. “Not even a mention of unusual structures uncovered during the chaos. Whatever that thing was, the dwarves have never seen it before.”
“Never seen it and lived to tell about it, at least.” Hesione bit her lip. “I borrowed every single ancient dwarven text that the library had. I don’t suppose you’d happen to know where the library found the texts in the first place?”
Garnisic snorted. “I’m not from around here, and I wasn’t the one who got the books.”
“I suppose so.” Hesione shrugged and crossed her arms. “Well, we just need to find whatever ruins they were pulled from.”
“Why?” Garnisic held up his hands. “I’m sure the archive paid good money for these texts, and if they didn’t, someone else would have. Any ruins we find are going to be picked clean.” He nodded at the books. “If the information isn’t in here, we won’t find it in a some old cave.”
“Well, it can’t hurt to check, anyway.” Hesione smiled and walked up to the door of the room. “Besides, ancient ruins are great places to learn things, right? Get ready.”
Garnisic climbed down off the chair and walked over to the small armor rack in the corner. He began buckling armor to his body, smiling as he felt the dwarven magic flowing through the metal.
“As soon as you’re ready, we’ll grab Ondernifam, and get moving.” Hesione bent down to help him get into his metal boots. “Do you need anything else from town, or are you good?”
Garnisic sighed and bit his lip. He did need a few other things from town, but the elf was treating him like a child! Yes, he was short, but he could still fight plenty well. And he was going to be a better guide through the dwarven ruins than anyone else. It wasn’t his fault that he was only four feet tall and nearly as wide.
The moment that his armor was all the way on, he grabbed his enchanted hammer from the corner of the room and followed Hesione out into the hall. He really was quite proud of the weapon, and the others knew only a fraction of it. Most enchanted objects could hold a single enchantment, no more. Some of the stronger metals could hold two, maybe even three. His hammer had no fewer than five, giving it a range of abilities that Ondernifam would quake at. The simple change from warhammer to pickaxe was the simplest and least useful of all of them.
As they made their way through the halls of the inn and down towards the street, a large part of Garnisic rather hoped that he would get the chance to show the pesky orc exactly what he could do. Then, maybe he would be able to get the creature out of his life for good.
The two fighters fell into line behind Hesione as she made her way through the town. The sun shone down on the city, its warm light a stark contrast to the rather chilly air blowing in off the Inland Ocean. One thing that Garnisic had not liked about skipping six months was that he had missed the entirety of summer. Cold temperatures were not something that he enjoyed.
Hesione walked through the front door of the library, pushing aside the wooden door with ease. Ondernifam muscled his way through a moment later, smashing the door into the wall with force that spoke of an internal anger. He then proceeded to try and smash Garnisic in the face by closing it behind him.
“Hey!” Garnisic snarled and forced his way ahead of the orc. “Watch it.”
“Sorry.” Ondernifam mumbled. “Didn’t mean to.”
Garnisic snorted and simply pushed his way forward. He had to slow down after a moment, as he barely fit between the shelves of books. For a brief moment, he cursed his girth, and behind him, Ondernifam chuckled.
“Excuse me.” Hesione held up a hand as they reached the back of the shop. “Bookkeeper?”
“Yes?” An ancient, withered voice hung in the air for a moment, and a human walked out of a back room. He was stooped over nearly double, as white wisps of hair drifted off his head. And yet, he was still taller than Garnisic. “You were in here earlier, weren’t you?”
“Yes.” Hesione nodded and knelt down to be closer to the shopkeep’s face. Garnisic sighed and turned away. People were too tall. Why couldn’t there be someone shorter than dwarves that they could encounter? “I was wondering if you could tell us where you got the books?”
“Which books?” The bookkeeper wheezed. “I have many volumes, with many tales.”
“The dwarven ones.” Hesione shrugged. “Do you know where those came from?”
The man frowned, then nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes, I think I do.”
Garnisic held his breath, not wanting to overpower the man’s voice if he spoke too softly.
“I bought them. They were being sold by the merfolk.”
Garnisic sighed and turned around. Ondernifam was blocking his way, though, making it hard to simply walk out of the store.
“The merfolk?” Hesione sounded confused. Garnisic couldn’t blame her, really. “What would underwater people be doing with books?”
“There’s an old ruin that fell into the lake.” The man shrugged. “ Apparently, there were some sealed rooms that survived being submerged. They sold me a bunch of the books, so you’d have to ask them for any more information.”
Hesione nodded and stood back up. Garnisic groaned as Ondernifam slowly turned around and started making his way back out of the shop.
“Please tell me we’re not about to go swimming.” Ondernifam muttered. “I hate swimming.”
“At least you can actually float.” Garnisic crossed his arms. “I’m not always that lucky.”
“No one is going swimming.” Hesione drew her robes around her as they walked out of the library and shut the door behind them. A particularly powerful blast of wind swept across the area, bringing a particularly chilly blast of air with it. “We’re just going to go talk.”
“I don’t like talking, either.” Ondernifam fell in step behind her, snorting and snapping his jaw. “Why can’t we just go look for books in an old ruin?”
“We are.” Garnisic scowled and jogged to keep up with the two giants. “You know we’ll wind up going there.”
Ondernifam smiled, stabbing himself in the cheeks yet again. His gaze turned back into a scowl, and Garnisic chuckled. They reached the docks only minutes later. Gorktindin was not a huge town, not by any stretch of the imagination. The only reason it was even on the map was because the location made a good place to dock boats, and given the storms that often blew up across the Inland Ocean, it was helpful to be able to get to shore as quickly as possible. At least, that’s what Garnisic had always heard. He rather tried to avoid traveling on water as much as possible, and hadn’t actually been out on a boat in years.
When they reached the docks, as usual, they found a bustling hub of commerce. Dozens of booths lined the shores, fishermen selling the catch from the previous night’s endeavors. A few more exotic traders wandered back and forth, their robes quite literally displaying their wares from dozens of tiny hooks worked into the clothing. Idly, Garnisic reached into his pocket and brushed his totem of luck. It was a small thing, but, as his fingers touched the soft wood, spots of energy lit up across his vision. Tiny points of light, indications of every bit of gold in the area. Most people had a few coins on them, but one individual…
Garnisic’s mouth started to water as a trader stepped off a nearby boat. He was dressed in long, regal robes of a distant kingdom. Tifingor, if Garnisic wasn’t mistaken. Interestingly enough, the man was an aqahartis, a form of merfolk adapted to walk on land. Physically, he looked like a human, though his skin was replaced by scales, and his hands were webbed. Oh, and he was blue. Of course, that wasn’t what Garnisic was focused on, it was the fact that the creature was carrying hundreds of gold pieces on his body. Each of his two body guards, also both aqahartis, were carrying an equal amount of gold. Interesting…
“Hey!” Ondernifam called from up ahead. “Hurry up!”
Garnisic sighed and pushed forward, jogging up and onto the docks. Below him, several sprites splashed in the water. He snarled down at them, and the magical creatures, which resembled young girls, dissolved into foam.
By the time he caught up to his employer, she was kneeling down at the end of the docks, peering out over the water. Garnisic crossed his arms as he walked up. A dark shape moved in the ocean, and a head rose from the water.
Merfolk were beautiful, he had to give them that. The female that he was looking at was… Well, she was a looker, and though he could only see her head, he could imagine what the rest of her looked like. That said, merfolk were disgusting when they first came up out of the water. All the liquid that they had been breathing only moments before had to run down out of their gills before they could start speaking, which gave him shivers every time.
“What can I do to help you?” The girl, probably in her early twenties, looked up at the trio. “As an official envoy between the nation under the sea and the world above, I am authorized to…”
“I actually just need the answer to a question.” Hesione smiled softly. “There’s an old dwarven ruin somewhere in the ocean. I’ve been told that several texts were taken from this ruin and sold to a library here in town. Would you know anything about that?”
“I can ask.” The girl looked down at the water. Light pulsed from under the waves, and strange, glowing symbols appeared on the surface of the ocean. She spoke in a high-pitched voice, and the symbols began to change, shifting back and forth in a rapid pattern. After a few moments, the light faded, and the mermaid looked back up at the group. “Yes. The ruins are located just north of here, in an underwater grotto. Several rooms still had air, and thus, had preserved books. The merpeople managed a trade with the librarian, since we have little use for such texts.”
Hesione nodded. “Is there any way we could go see this ruin?”
The mermaid’s nodded briefly. “An underwater guide may be hired for three gold pieces every hour. Potions of waterbreathing or magical totems may be purchased from our vendor at the other end of the docks, provided that he hasn’t ran out of stock for the day.”
“We’ll be fine.” Hesione smiled and stood up. “When will the guide be here?”
“I’m calling him now. He should arrive within half an hour.” The mermaid smiled. “Please, remain within calling distance of the docks, so I can reach you when she has arrived.”
Hesione nodded and stood back up. The mermaid closed her eyes and sank beneath the water, and the high elf turned to the two warriors.
“I can breathe underwater. What about you two?”
Ondernifam snorted. “Tried it once. Didn’t work out that well.”
As soon as he said it, the orc chuckled, leaving Garnisic with the distinct impression that the oaf had been joking. Maybe? It was hard to know for certain.
Hesione looked at Garnisic. “What about you. Anything?”
In truth, Garnisic had a perfectly fine totem of waterbreathing in one of his pockets. Unlike most of his totems, though, it was a single-use object, designed to burn out after successfully helping him get out of whatever emergency he had managed to land himself in.
“Nope.” Garnisic shook his head. “I’m a dwarf! What do we need waterbreathing for?”
“Tunneling out underneath the Inland Ocean.” Hesione shrugged.
Garnisic shook his head violently. “Doing that would be a direct violation of the dwarven treaty with the merfolk.”
“Why do you think I mentioned it?” Hesione sighed and walked back along the docks. “We need to get totems for you, and soon.”
“You told the mermaid that you had a way.” Ondernifam spoke up. “Was that a lie?”
“No.” Hesione turned and smiled coyly. “It most certainly wasn’t.”
Hesione walked back along the docks and onto the shore. The sprites were back, frolicking in the shallow water. Garnisic almost tried to scare them again, but thought better of it. Sprites were made of pure magic, often sticking to the shores for fear of larger magical predators in deeper waters. If they became too afraid of the shores, there was a chance they would try to come up on land. Which rarely worked out well.
Hesione knelt down on the shore and placed her hands in the water. Her long fingertips brushed along the gravel, and, after a moment, she drew out two small pebbles. Light pulsed from her fingers, and the pebbles started to glow. In an instant, they transformed into small spheres, crystal balls the size of a thumbnail. Well, a human thumbnail.
“Eat these.” Hesione tossed the crystals to Garnisic and Ondernifam. “It’ll let you breathe water for about twenty-four hours. If we’re still under at that time, we’ll probably have bigger issues that we’re dealing with.”
Ondernifam eyes the crystal for a moment, then popped it into his mouth. His tusks worked around for a few moments, until he had swallowed the non-meat object. Hesione turned and raised an eyebrows at Garnisic, who sighed and popped the object into his mouth.
Despite the fact that it looked like a perfect glass marble, it still tasted exactly like a piece of gravel. Working in the mines, it was easy to wind up with a fragment of stone in your mouth. Garnisic had experienced it dozens of times before, but… This one was magic.
It took him several tries before he finally managed to swallow the crystal. When he was done, he felt almost exactly the way he had before. A few streamers of color burst across his vision, but that was it.
“When you get in the water, you’ll be able to breathe just like one of them.” Hesione turned and walked back onto the docks. “Now, shall we look around until our guide shows up?”
Garnisic sighed, but nodded and walked back onto the docks. After a few moments, though, an idea struck him. He reached into his pocket and activated his gold detector, except… He looked down, instead of at the people.
There, under the docks, were hundreds of pieces of gold. Buried in the mud, dropped by traders and merchants, it was a virtual mine. And it was his for the taking. He smiled and walked around to the shore, splashing through the frolicking sprites. They hissed at him, but didn’t dissolve that time.
The water rose around him, coming up to his knees, then his waist, then his chest. It was only a moment before his chin rested on the liquid, with the waves splashing up into his eyes. Between waves, Garnisic took a deep breath and sank beneath the waters.
To his credit, he did manage to keep his eyes open. That, if anything, was what let him realize that the magic charm was working. He could see. The handful of other times he had fallen in water as murky as the Inland Ocean, he had been unable to see more than a few feet in the muddy liquid. Now, though, he could see as far as he could on land. It was surreal, to see the merfolk swimming through what almost appeared to be thin air, flashing back and forth around the docks. One of the mermaids saw him, and proceeded to start doing cartwheels through the liquid, fascinating him. All the merfolk wore garments that appeared to be made from seaweed, or at least some type of underwater plant.
It was so unusual that he didn’t even notice that he started breathing until he started walking down under the docks. It came as a bit of a surprise, a strange acknowledgement that he was actually breathing water. He smiled, then proceeded to keep walking along the ocean floor, looking for gold.
It certainly wasn’t hard to find. Dozens of pieces of gold lay scattered across the mud, some of it a bit buried, others just laying on the ocean floor. In a matter of minutes, Garnisic had picked up fifty pieces of gold. He suspected that he could have found even more, but his pockets were full. With a grin, he stalked back up onto the beach.
Upon exiting the water, he was hit by a blast of icy wind, colder than almost anything he had ever experienced before. His armor was sopping wet, his robes stuck to his body, and the wind was worse than almost any he had ever experienced before. He took a step in the direction of the inn, planning on changing out of his clothes and into new ones, when he heard Hesione’s voice.
“Garn! We’re ready!”
Garnisic groaned, turned, and jogged back across the docks. He was frustrated for two reasons. First, that he didn’t have time to go change. Second, because everyone was calling him Garn instead of Garnisic. The only reason he had agreed to the shortened name was because he knew that Ondernifam would refuse to allow a shortened name under any circumstances, and he rather enjoyed the thought of being a bigger person than the orc. At least in other people’s minds. He reached the end of the dock an instant later, to find a merman sticking his head up out of the water. The ocean finished draining out of his gills, and he nodded at the company.
“You all have your waterbreathing equipment, spells, or potions?”
Hesione nodded, and the merman smiled.
“Good. In that case, please, enter the water. There is a chariot just below the waves, which you can board. I will guide you to your destination. Please note that neither I nor the merfolk empire will be held responsible if your waterbreathing fails and you drown. We also do not guarantee your safety in the event of a shark, squid, or other aquatic predator attack.”
“Understood.” Hesione nodded at the waves. “May we?”
The merman dropped under the water with a flick of his tail, and Hesione jumped into the liquid. Ondernifam eyes the ocean carefully, a look of concern on his face. Garnisic laughed and clapped the orc on the back, sending him plummeting into the ocean. Garnisic then proceeded to jump in as well, splashing into the water with a crash.
That was the moment when he realized just how heavy he truly was. His armor wasn’t exactly light, and the extra gold in his pockets made him really quite heavy. And, as it turned out, he wasn’t perfectly above the chariot to begin with.
His eyes opened wide as he sank straight past the wooden box and headed towards the ocean floor. Out towards the end of the docks, it was nearly thirty feet deep, and he soon landed on the muddy ocean bottom. Frantically, he flapped his arms, trying to swim upwards. He was met with about as much success as he had assumed such an action would have, but… It was worth a try.
Above, the chariot started to move. The dolphins that the device was hooked to swam downward, bringing the transportation to him. Hesione and Ondernifam were already seated in the two front seats, forcing Garnisic to scramble into the single rear seat as the chariot settled onto the ocean floor. Their guide swam between the two dolphins, and as Garnisic got set, he reached out and touched their backs.
It was like being shot from a cannon. Garnisic had to hold on to the seat to avoid being swept off the back of the chariot. In front of him, Ondernifam’s jowls flapped in the liquid, and Garnisic tried not to think about the fact that he was probably breathing Ondernifam’s drool.
The chariot shot along the bottom of the ocean, racing away from the docks. Garnisic turned around, watching it vanish into the distance. They whipped around a bend in the shore, and he turned his attention back to the front.
The underwater landscape was surreal. It looked almost like the landscape above the water, except with fewer trees. The ground still rose and fell with hills and valleys. Garnisic wasn’t positive, but it almost looked like there were even rivers of a darker liquid, flowing back and forth under the waves. Strange.
In the distance, deeper into the ocean, Garnisic could see the landscape continue to fall away, allowing the ocean to grow ever deeper. The water grew dark as he looked out across it, giving a hint of mystery. As a dark shape swirled along the edge of that darkness, Garnisic turned his attention back to the front. He didn’t particularly care to face off against a water monster, not when he was a dwarf that would sink faster than most rocks.
It took about half an hour to reach their destination. The chariot began to slow, and Garnisic leaned forward to see a massive hole in the ocean floor. The merman sent the dolphins into a circling pattern, slowly swimming around the edge of the chasm. It was almost perfectly circular, perhaps two hundred feet across. A stone spire rose out of the darkness, hinting at the ruins within. After a few moments, the chariot settled to the ocean floor.
Hesione swam up and out of the vehicle, positioning herself in the water just next to the chariot. Ondernifam did the same, treading water next to his master. Garnisic hopped out, but, once again, sank straight to the ocean floor.
“Here is where I leave you.” The merman swam up in front of them. His voice sounded as clear as a bell, as if they had been standing in the air. “I will remain here, but I will not venture into the ruins with you.”
“We’ll manage on our own.” Hesione smiled. “Thank you.”
The merman raised an eyebrow, and held out his hand. “if you don’t mind, I’d like paid now. Just in case you don’t come back.”
Hesione nodded and turned to Garnisic. A sinking feeling settled in the pit of his stomach, and he sighed.
“Would you please pay the man?” She held up her hands. “I’ll pay you back, just as soon as we get to the surface.”
“Fine.” Garnisic muttered. He fished around in his pockets, pulling out a few coins. “This enough?”
“Plenty.” The merman took the coins and slid them into his robes. “Thank you.”
“It’s our pleasure.” Hesione swam up to the edge of the pit. “Do you know anything about what’s within?”
“Only that there are pockets of air, though I know not how much.” The merman shrugged. “I also know that much has been taken from the structure. I doubt that you will find much within. Well… Much that is valuable. I also don’t know what life you may encounter.”
“We’ll take our chances.” Hesione smiled and swam down into the darkness. Her hands slid into her robes, and small orbs of light shot down into the chasm, lighting the way. Ondernifam swam after her, gliding through the liquid like a dying fish. Orcs were not made for the water. Garnisic laughed at the sight for a few minutes before remembering that dwarves weren’t really made for the water, either.
Slowly, he walked up to the edge. Now that the interior was illuminated, it was easy enough to see the massive dwarven castle spiking up from the floor. Garnisic took a moment to simply take it in. It had been years since he had seen a proper dwarven construction, even an ancient ruin.
If he was right, the ancient dwarves had built the castle in a cavern, centuries earlier. During the war, enemy forces had probably blown up all the tunnels that provided access to the fortress, then subsequently blown the ceiling, allowing the ocean to rush into the doomed castle.
The ocean had preserved the castle remarkably well. Garnisic could still see cobblestone paths across the ocean floor, leading up to the gates of the building. Guard posts still stood tall, ready to defend against invading forces. Or goblins. Upper walkways even still stretched between towers, ready for the dwarven royalty to take a walk anytime they wanted. Hesione and Ondernifam were already most of the way to the ocean floor. Garnisic took a moment to position himself, took a deep breath… And jumped.
Once again, he simply sunk straight to the bottom. Thankfully, his aim was true, and he landed squarely on Ondernifam’s back as he passed the halfway mark. The orc roared as he was driven to the ground much faster, and a moment later, they slammed into the castle courtyard. Had they fallen from the hundred or so foot drop above the waves, they would undoubtedly have both been killed. Down here, though, their fall had been much more pleasant.
“Hey!” Ondernifam leapt to his feet, then waved his arms as the sudden movement caused him to start floating away. “Why would you do that?”
“I needed something to land on.” Garnisic shrugged. “I settled for you.”
“Boys.” Hesione swam past them, her long, graceful limbs handling the water with ease. “If you kill each other, you don’t get paid.”
Right. He had to behave, but only for the money. He glanced at the orc, made a face that he hoped would properly express his disgust, and stalked across the courtyard toward the castle doors. Ondernifam followed, doing his best to swim after them.
They reached the doors only moments later. Hesione placed her hands against the wood, pushing aside the twenty-foot tall blockades with ease. A dark, open corridor opened before them, leading deep into the ruins. Hesione clapped her hands, causing more spheres of light to shoot out into the darkness. They shot down the hallway, revealing a rather empty entry hall, perhaps fifty feet long. It was like most dwarven entry halls, pillars that rose up the sides of the walls, supporting the ceiling high above. Doors that led into other parts of the castle.
“Garn.” Hesione spun as she coasted into the hall. “Where in a dwarven castle would be sealed off from water?”
“The lower levels.” Garnisic stalked towards the doors at the far end of the room. “The king’s chamber will be back there. You’ll find a staircase that leads down, that’s where all the valuables and books are stored.”
Ondernifam muttered something that Garnisic couldn’t quite understand, and the trio set out towards the end of the entry hall. Garnisic led them through a side door, into the twisting dwarven hallways that only a dwarf could understand.
“Hey.” Ondernifam muttered. “These doorways are short.”
Garnisic turned around to see the orc struggling to squeeze through the doorway that only stood five feet high. He laughed at the struggle, at least until Ondernifam made it through and snapped at him.
Garn just chuckled and jogged down the hallways. Dwarven corridors were laid out much like caves. To the untrained eye, they would seem to twist back and forth, randomly branching, leading nowhere. To the dwarven mind, though, they formed a perfect pattern, the ideal way to keep intruders off balance.
As such, it took him almost no time to make it to the royal chambers. Which was where the surprises began.
The doors, up until that point, had been relatively easy to open. It was slightly more difficult than opening them on land, after all, he was pushing them through water, but it wasn’t hard. The door to the throne room, though, was sealed shut. After banging on it for several moments, Garnisic frowned.
“Not opening?” Hesione swam up. “Is it blocked, or…”
“I don’t think so.” Garnisic knelt down and peered through the keyhole. It was an old trick, but easy enough. “Give me one second.”
He squinted as the room swam into focus, revealing the throne, royal carpet, and softly burning torches.
Garnisic frowned. “There’s air on the other side. And… I think someone’s been here recently.”
“Let me see.” Hesione swam past him, forcing Garnisic to step back, far closer to Ondernifam than he cared to be. She squinted through the keyhole, then nodded.
“There’s a magic barrier of some sort preventing us from getting through. Let me see here. This is going to take a bit of…”
Without any warning, the door burst open. Hesione, Garnisic, and Ondernifam were all sucked inside in an instant. For a moment, it was head-over-heels, tumbling through an unstoppable current, and then… It was over.
Garnisic gasped for air as the water drained away, leaving him on the wet stone floor, out of the ocean. He pushed himself up, frowning as the floor seemed to dry in front of his eyes.
Slowly, he turned back to the doorway. A flickering barrier prevented any more water from coming in, and curiously enough, the water seemed to be flowing back out of the room, into the ocean. A virtual river poured itself through the doorway, and, as the last few streams of liquid sealed themselves behind the barrier, the door swung shut.
“Well, now.” Hesione climbed to her feet, near the throne itself. “That certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.”
“Nor I.” Garnisic frowned at the doorway. “I’ve never seen that kind of magic before. Dwarves just enchant things, they don’t create barriers like that.”
“Magic that no one understands.” Hesione smiled and started to pace up and down the length of the throne room. “That sounds a bit familiar.”
“A bit too familiar.” Ondernifam snarled. He glanced at the torches, snuffling at the flickering light. “Who lit these?”
“I’m not sure if anyone did.” Hesione frowned as she walked up to the flames. “They don’t seem to be using up the fuel, which means they’re magical.”
“Magic torches, we do have.” Garnisic frowned, and started pacing around the room as well. Magic torches were a staple of dwarven fortresses. The only problem was that they still tended to burn out after a year or so. The fact that they were still burning meant that someone had been here, at least relatively recently.
He finished his exploration of the torches and started examining the rest of the room. At a glance, half a dozen doorways led to other parts of the castle. They all seemed to have the same magical barrier across them, except…
One door, at the back of the room, was a simple wooden door. If Garnisic wasn’t mistaken, that was the door that often led to the lower levels of the castle. He took a step in that direction, then paused. Something had caught his eye, a small pile of rubble behind the throne. Jewels, maybe? He walked in that direction, hopeful for any loot he could find that had been left behind.
He drew up short, though, as the rubble came into focus. It wasn’t a pile of jewels, it wasn’t even a pile of rubble. It was a pile of bones.
“Guys?” Garnisic held up his hand. “We’ve got problems.”
“Bigger than wandering into a place with unrecognizable magic?” Hesione glided over to him. “Well, that’s dead. Is that a problem?”
Garnisic reached down and picked up the skull, sitting atop the pile. It was tiny, no bigger than his fist, and sharply angular. It was also made of stone.
“This is a goblin skull.” Garnisic climbed back to his feet. He crushed the skull in one hand, letting the fragments drip back to the ground. “How much do you know about goblins?”
“They’re fun to kill.” Ondernifam stomped past, snapping his jaws. “Easy to kill.”
“In small numbers.” Garnisic sighed. “They’re vermin, infesting the tunnels of dwarves. Most of the time, they keep to themselves, but when they get hungry, entire cities have fallen to goblin swarms.”
Hesione shrugged. “So how is that a problem?”
“Simple.” Garnisic held up a finger. “Dwarves kill goblins on sight. They’re evil, they’re despicable, they’re disgusting. We have enchantments on every door, designed to kill them the moment they appear.”
“Pathetic combat.” Ondernifam snarled.
Hesione held up a hand and bit her lip. “So… What’s the problem?”
“There’s no way a goblin could have been alive in the castle before this place got sunk.” Garnisic nodded at the lone accessible door, which now seemed a good deal more terrifying. “Which means it got in since then. Which means there could be more.”
Hesione sighed and climbed back to her feet. “What do goblins do with their dead?”
“Eat them, usually.” Garnisic took his warhammer off his back and started walking towards the door. Hesione joined him, while Ondernifam unslung his battle axe.
“Was that one eaten?” Hesione held up her hands. “It’s hard to tell.”
“I don’t know.” Garnisic sighed and glanced back at the pile. “It’s been dead too long.”
“Then let’s go see if there are more.” Hesione walked past him and swung the door open. Garnisic couldn’t help but notice that when she did so, she positioned herself behind the door, so that any enemies would charge at Garnisic and Ondernifam. Oh, well. He couldn’t very well blame her, she was hiring them for their muscle.
Ondernifam took the lead, and Garnisic was happy to let him. They entered the staircase, which spiraled downward in a tight corkscrew. If this had a similar design to the dwarven fortresses that he had grown up in, it would go down for about thirty feet, then level out.
Right on schedule, the staircase opened up into a much larger storage room. Like the throne room, it was lit by magical torches flickering on the walls. Garnisic took a slow breath as he took in the sights. It was unlike any dwarven storage vault he had ever seen before, and what he saw… Frankly, it made him sick.
The room seemed to be divided into sections. The rear of the room was filled with shelves, that had once probably held hundreds if not thousands of volumes of books. Now, though, they were empty and covered in dust. Slightly closer to the staircase was an enchanting forge, and one that appeared to be in relatively good condition at that. Like most that Garnisic had seen, it was about thirty feet across and filled with glowing blue coals, a fire that produced no heat but could still burn with an intensity not matched by anything in the known world. Several discarded weapons lay scattered around the base of the magical forge, along with ingots of metal and enchanted gemstones.
The worst part of it, though, was the section of the room closest to the staircase. It was filled with cages, dozens of them, stacked on top of each other, even hung from the ceiling. Most of the cages were open, allowing whatever had been inside to roam free. And unfortunately, it wasn’t hard to figure out what those captives had been. Hundreds of goblin remains lay scattered across the floor, bones, skulls, everything. Many of the skeletons had bite marks on the bones, probably as the survivors desperately ate their fallen brethren in a bid to survive.
“Is this normal?” Hesione stepped across the bones, peering into the cages.
“No.” Garnisic shook his head violently. “It’s considered a crime against nature for a dwarf to see a goblin and allow it to live. And they were keeping them as pets!”
Hesione bit her lip, then knelt down. She slowly picked up a skull that appeared to have been mutilated. Garnisic ran over to her side as she showed him the object.
The skull had been… Altered. A metal eye, a perfectly created metal eye, had been fused into one of the eye sockets. On top of that, a small box had been attached to the base of the skull, though Garnisic couldn’t discern any purpose for the device.
“What is this?” Garnisic breathed. “I’ve never… I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“I think they were experimenting on them.” Hesione shrugged. “There are more just like it.”
Garnisic narrowed his eyes and frowned down at the remains. Sure enough, many of the bones had alterations. Knives welded to arm bones. Springs fused to leg bones. There were even wires stuck to some of the remains, though Garnisic couldn’t even begin to discern what their purpose was.
“They were building an army.” Ondernifam muttered. “They were going to weaponize the goblins.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Garnisic shook his head. The thought that true dwarves would weaponize goblins! Ha! “It’s a crime, remember?”
“So is war.” Ondernifam stalked back to him. Garnisic thought that the orc deliberately brushed up against him to remind the dwarf that the orc stood nearly twice as tall as he did.
“Alright, so, the dwarves here were doing things that shouldn’t have been done.” Garnisic wandered through the laboratory, trying to crush as many of the bones as possible. “Do you think they built that place we found the book in?”
“No.” Hesione shook her head, then walked towards the back of the room. “The architecture of those tunnels was different than what I see here. Not to mention that the tunnels had been built more recently. It would have to have been the great-great-great-great-grandchildren of the dwarves that did this.” She shook her head. “I think we’re seeing something completely different.”
“I don’t like different.” Ondernifam muttered. “I like fighting.”
Garnisic sighed and walked up to the enchanting forge. That much, at least, he could understand. Slowly, he set his hammer down on the ground and started studying the gemstones left behind.
Dwarves had long ago learned that gemstones, buried deep within the world’s crust, held magical enchantments, powers, and abilities. They could certainly be used in their pure gem form, but it was much more exciting to drain the gems and apply the enchantments to metal. Or whatever else the dwarves wanted to enchant.
Each and every type of gemstone provided a different effect. Rubies allowed a weapon to burn with an internal fire. Sapphires caused weaponry to become lighter. Diamonds made the weapon or armor almost completely indestructible. The gem that allowed Garnisic’s weapon to shift between forms had been a xenophyte. An incredibly rare stone, only found in certain regions of the world. As Garnisic sifted through the handful of basic gemstones laying on the floor, he frowned. There were not one, but two xenophytes mixed in with the crystals. He picked up the glowing green gems, and slowly dropped them into his pockets. They were worth a fortune, a single one could buy him a house in most ordinary towns. He had no sooner lowered his hand back to the ground when another gem caught his eye. It was an opal, hardly a rare gem, but one that the dwarves rarely ever bothered to use in enchanting because its effects were so mundane. Here, though, in a secret laboratory, shrouded in mystery…
He picked up the opal and held it as tightly as he could, allowing its magic to flow up into him. Opals were known for one thing, and one thing only. Making invisible things visible. Specifically written things. If you enchanted a pen with an opal, anything you wrote would be invisible to the naked eye. Since dwarves rarely ever actually wrote anything, and when they did, it was giant warning messages, they were rarely used for anything more than passing notes as children.
Here, though… Garnisic took a step back as words appeared over the entire room. Every single surface, every wall, every floor. Every cage, even the enchanting forge itself. Slowly, Garnisic stepped up to the closest wall and peered at the lettering. It was in elven, a script that he was less than familiar with. As he watched the letters, trying to figure out their meaning… The words began to move.
At first, it was slow. They simply began to move across the surfaces, crawling like ants. Slowly, they began to speed up, moving faster and faster. The words blurred into lines, creating patterns. Everywhere. Garnisic took a step back involuntarily, dropping the opal.
“Something wrong?” Hesione came running back to him, concern written on her elven face.
Garnisic wordlessly bent down, picked up the stone, and handed it to her. She frowned as she clasped the stone, then glanced at him.
“Was this supposed to do something?”
He scowled. “You’re an elf. You’re supposed to be able to do things with materials.”
“Elven magic isn’t the same thing as dwarven magic.” Hesione apologized. “I’m sorry.”
Garnisic growled. It was brilliant. Whatever had been written in the invisible ink was invisible to everyone except dwarves, and unreadable to anyone except elves. Which, of course, boded the question of why and how the elves were involved in the project.
“Wait.” An idea struck him, and he jogged back to the forge. “Is there a chain in any of those cages?”
Ondernifam growled, walked over to the prison, and pulled out a chain. It broke away with a rusty screech, and Garnisic sighed. He was going to enchant a rusty chain. How wonderful.
Ondernifam tossed the chain to him, and he laid it down on the enchanting platform. Blue flames blazed up from the coals in response to the item’s pressure, and Garnisic pulled a lever, swinging the platform out over the fire. The metal began to glow blue almost instantly, and Garnisic dropped the opal into the coals near the side.
“What are you doing?” Hesione walked up to him. “You’re…”
“I’m performing the worst enchanting job I’ve done since I was a dwarfling.” Garnisic muttered, “Just trust me.”
Hesione sighed and continued to walk around the room. Garnisic grabbed a pair of tongs and cracked them together as the fire continued to heat up both the opal and the chain. When just enough time had passed, Garnisic pulled a level to swing the platform back to the edge. It slammed to the side, and he used the tongs to pull the opal out of the fire. He then placed it on the stone edge of the forge and grabbed a small hammer. A few small strikes later, he had created a perfect crack in the opal’s formerly pristine surface. He then used the tongs, once again, to hold the opal out over the chain.
In a fluid rush, energy poured out of the opal and over the chain. The metal, heated by the forge, soaked up the magical energies. The opal faded even as its magic left it, and, a few moments later, had transformed into a simple piece of coal. Garnisic dropped the coal into the forge itself and used the tongs to knock the chain into a bucket of oil.
The oil hissed, but did its job, sealing in the enchantment. A few moments later, Garnisic once again used the tongs to pull the chain out. Carefully, he brushed it with his finger. Instantly, words appeared all over the room again, and his hand failed to explode in magical flame. Two wins.
He grabbed the chain and pulled it out. It was perhaps three feet long, just long enough.
“Take the other end.” He gestured. “It’ll make sense in a second.”
Hesione shrugged and grabbed the other end of the chain. She gasped, and Ondernifam grabbed ahold between them a moment later. His eyes went wide, and Garnisic chuckled.
Once again, the room was covered in words. They had slowed immensely, though they were still moving just a bit. Hesione frowned and stepped forward, dragging the two warriors with her as she stepped up next to a wall.
“Fascinating. Moving text is common among dwarves?”
“Books aren’t common among dwarves.” Garnisic shook his head. “This is…”
“Magic that we don’t understand.” Ondernifam finished, and looked down at Garnisic proudly. Garnisic just made a face and went back to watching Hesione.
“This doesn’t make any sense.” Hesione shook her head after a moment. “They’re just random words. A code, maybe? Fish, bowl, spoon, fork…” She blinked as the words began to speed up. “Did they do that before?”
Garnisic nodded. “Got pretty fast, too.” He blinked as the words, once again, blurred together into simple lines. “What’s it…”
“Did they do that before, too?” Hesione nodded at Garnisic. He stared at her, uncertain of what she was meaning, until she pointed at his chest. Slowly, he looked down, almost fearful of what he would find.
His entire body, just like everything else in the room, was covered in text. His skin, his armor, everything. Slowly, he looked up to see Hesione and Ondernifam’s skin marred by the text as well, as words simply crawled up from the floor to cover them.
“No.” He shook his head. “It did not.”
Hesione bit her lip, then frowned. She pointed behind Garnisic, to the massive, open wall on the other side of the room. The text was there as well, of course, but… Rather than simply blurring together into lines, they had formed a pattern. Shapes, runes, massive letters formed out of smaller words.
“Those are dwarven runes.” Hesione nodded as Ondernifam tried to find a way to turn around without letting go of the chain. “Can you read them?”
Garnisic frowned at the mysterious words. The runes formed three lines, three words. Two of them, he knew by heart. The third… The third was something else, entirely.
“It’s a warning.” Garnisic gulped. “Beware the Wondrisil.”
“And you’ve never heard of the Wondrisil?” Hesione cooed into the trader’s ear. “Not at all?”
The trader shook his head and took a step back, trying to get to his horse. “Never heard of them, ma’am. If I ever do, I’ll be sure to hunt you down!”
He turned and ran for his mount, and Hesione sighed and turned to face Garnisic. They had emerged from the lake several hours earlier, and had spent the time since then trying to gather as much information as possible. It wasn’t easy, considering that they had been in an ancient dwarven ruin, sunk in a lake for a thousand years, in a human country.
“No luck.” Hesione frowned. “I used to be able to get whatever information I could possibly want by flirting.”
“You might try removing some of those robes.” Garnisic raised an eyebrow. “Might catch someone’s fancy.” She fixed him with a gaze, and Garnisic sighed. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Hesione shrugged and walked past Garnisic. “So, what do we do now?”
“You’re the one paying me.” Garnisic hurried to catch up. “You should be the one telling me that.”
Hesione just shook her head. “We were just in a dwarven ruin, and you didn’t recognize anything in that laboratory. Is it possible that the dwarven empires have changed that much?”
Garnisic bit his lip and shook his head. “I don’t think so. Even the heretic dwarves of Dirnor and Tornor won’t touch goblins. Why is it important?”
“Because in those tunnels, I saw a magic book.” Hesione crossed her arms. “In that ruin, we saw magic writing. I just can’t shake the feeling that they’re connected. If the dwarves are involved in something like that...”
She left the thought unspoken, and just kept walking down the street. “I’ll get you your money as soon as we get back to the inn. Thank you for covering the cost of the trip.”
“Like you said, I’m getting paid back for it.” Garnisic frowned. “Just make sure you do it before Ondernifam gets back. He doesn’t like it when I get money and he doesn’t.”
“I imagine that the reverse is true as well.” Hesione chuckled. “Well, it’s of no matter. He won’t return until tomorrow, I suspect. He’s an orc, which means he’s going to need to hunt, and it’s a good twenty-mile run to the next town over.”
Garnisic sighed and nodded. In her travel down from Elsinor, Hesione had met a librarian in the town just north of Gorktindin. Since Ondernifam was by far the fastest, she had sent him on a trip to ask the man some questions.
“Let’s just hope this librarian you know actually has something to help us.” Garnisic sighed and followed the high elf as a cold, autumn wind started to blow across the town. He stumbled slightly in the wind, and a nearby girl in a brown dress turned to glare at him. “Otherwise, I get the sinking feeling that you’re going to be taking us into a lot more dungeons like this one.”
Ambassador Talfin slowly leaned back from the chest, breathing deeply. Inside, dozens of books flapped back and forth, their pages opening and closing faster than the aqahartis’s eyes could follow. Their screams, their pain, their individuality… It echoed around and through his mind, a song that could never be repeated.
“You can hear them.” The voice rasped through the air, cutting like a machete through grass. Interestingly, it wasn’t a question, but a statement. “You can hear their cries.”
Talfin closed the chest and turned around. A robed figure stood in the entrance to the small lake home that Talfin and his bodyguards had rented for the duration of their stay.
“All merfolk can.” Talfin sighed as he closed his eyes. “It is our magic, after all. Sound. Energy.”
Though his eyes were closed, Talfin could hear everything in the room. He could hear the books, thumping against their imprisonment. He could hear the wind outside the home, he could hear the scratch of branches against the wooden siding. He could most certainly hear the breathing… or rather, the lack thereof, beneath the hood.
“No.” The voice was back, raspy and intangible. “Most can get impressions of it. You can hear it.”
“Perhaps.” Talfin shrugged and opened his eyes. “What of it?”
“The Wondrisil are a unique race, not to be taken lightly.” The being took a step forward. “That you can hear them is no small feat. Nor do I believe that it is a coincidence.”
Talfin frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
“A Wondrisil sanctuary was broken into and destroyed some time ago. Mere days ago, an ancient Wondrisil laboratory was entered.”
Talfin frowned. “Is someone trying to hunt them down?”
“I think that events are simply coinciding. Someone else is looking for answers, and are beginning to ask the same questions that I, myself, asked so many years ago.” The creature sighed. It was a forced sigh, done for effect. Not an ounce of breath actually passed through the creature’s lips. “Our cover will not last for long, I suspect. Unless… Unless, something can be done about them.”