“You’re back,” comes her familiar voice. It wasn’t a surprise this time. In fact, even as he laid waste to his companions in his insane state, a small voice in the back of his head had pointed out that it was likely he was going to hear her voice again soon.
He laid no blame on his companions. He was unable to control his actions. They did what they must when they had cut him down. And he was indeed glad that death had not taken to the sorcerer’s body. They would live. Indeed, it was probable they would be calling him back to service again soon. For now, though, he would enjoy his brief visit with her.
He turns to look into the smiling eyes. “Likely just for a short visit. Our work is undone. The Sky Pharaoh yet continues his efforts to return to life and power. Probably have a few hours or so.”
Kylise wraps her arms around him in a tight embrace. “Then we best make the most of it,” she smiling. She takes his hand in hers and starting to lead him towards a nearby cabin.
Striding through the door, they instead find themselves in a different room than they expect. Before them lies the main room of a familiar tavern. The barkeep waves them over to the bar, setting two mugs of ale on the bar.
Kylise and Heagen exchange glances, then stride across the room. Heagen grabs one of the mugs and downs the drink in a single, long pull. Kylise instead takes a small sip before setting her mug down, never taking her eyes from the barkeep. “No,” she says insistently. “Absolutely not.”
The man doesn’t take his gaze from hers, but he does seem just a little bit intimidated by it. After a few moments of this contest of wills, he finally speaks. “Sorry, but I need him.” She holds his gaze for a few seconds more, then looks down and stares into her mug.
Heagen watches the exchange silently. He learned long ago never to get in between Kylise and anyone she’s arguing with. He lays his hand on hers. It’s a surprisingly gentle gesture from the barbarian.
“You saved my life, Cayden.” he says quietly. “You know I’ll do whatever you need doing. You only need to ask.”
The barkeep turns to look at Heagen and nods slightly. “I know, lad. I know.” He glances towards Kylise then back to the half-orc. “And I wouldn’t ask, except, I’m in a bit of a fix.”
“It’s your own damned fault,” seethes Kylise, still staring at her drink.
The barkeep flinches visibly, but doesn’t dare look at her. “Aye, lass, I know. See, my boy, I was taken a visit to the Inn and got meself into a bit of a card game with some of the others. And I may have had a bit too much to drink–that Reorx brews a good ale, let me tell ya–and so I may have gotten a bit full o’meself.”
“You think?” Kylise injects sarcastically. Heagen gives her hand another gentle squeeze and she falls silent, bringing up her mug for a long, slow sip.
The barkeep glances warily at her before continuing. “Well, it was a sure bet, to be certain. I mean, I had a full set of swords. Unbeatable hand! A sure thing I tell ye!” he enthuses, then pauses for a moment, before looking a bit deflated. “Well, I thought so anyway. How was I to know the Eye had a Royal set? That’s a one in a million hand….” His voice trails off and his eyes lose focus.
Heagen’s sure the barkeep is lost in the memory of the game for the moment. With a glance towards a conspicuously empty space on the wall behind the bar, he’s pretty sure he already knows the answer before he asks his question. “What did you bet, Cayden?”
The barkeep refocuses his eyes back on the barbarian and looks a bit sheepish. “Um… well, ya see… I might have bet Reprisal.”
Reprisal, Heagen thought. He’d heard stories of the rapier. An artifact of no small power, it had been in the hands of various of the faithful of Cayden over the years. Heagen would never have use for such a tiny weapon, nor would Kylise, being a paladin. But since many of the barkeep’s followers were bards, it was a weapon with many tales that followed in it’s wake.
The barkeep goes on. “And that brings me to you, lad. I, uh…. I need you to get it back for me.”
He could feel Kylise’s hand beginning to tense up and he sensed another verbal onslaught about to erupt from her lips, so he decided to preempt it. “All right. Who do I need to smash to get it back?” He began to sense that was entirely the wrong question as felt Kylise flinch.
“Well, lad,” the barkeep said. “It’s not quite that simple. You see, the Eye has a new attraction at the Inn. It’s a labyrinth, a maze of traps and foes and puzzles. And for the next one who can beat the maze, he’s made Reprisal the prize.”
Heagen cringes. “Sorry, boss. I can’t beat that. Foes? You know I can smash just about anything they would throw at me. Traps and puzzles? Nope, that’s not gonna happen. You might as well make another rapier if you expect me to do that.”
The barkeep says nothing. Instead, he refills Heagen’s mug then sets to wiping down the bar to one side. The three of them set about a silent stalemate. Finally, Kylise breaks the silence.
“No, love, you can’t beat them,” she says softly. “But I might be able to. I’m going with you.”
Heagen stares blankly at her for a moment. “No,” he finally manages. “Absolutely not! I won’t have you risk it!”
Heagen sees the anger flare in her eyes and braces himself for the impending rain of fury and wrath that is about to descend upon him.
“You dare tell me what I can’t do?” she seethes, jabbing a pointed finger into his chest. “You, of all people, should know better, Heagen’ar’thalik of Segemere. You know full well that I was not always a paladin.”
Heagen cringes. Since he’d left his homeland, he’d only ever told one person his full name. And the few times she’d used it were when she was exceptionally angry with him. There was no chance he’d win this fight. Not that he’d expected to anyway. But he’d had to try and convince her to not get involved. He couldn’t risk her. Not again. Never again.
No, that wasn’t true. She was already dead. And at the moment, so was he. It wasn’t a real risk. If she died in the labyrinth of this Inn, whatever it was, she would just return here again, wouldn’t she? No, he had to admit to himself, that wasn’t it at all. What he couldn’t bear was to watch her die. Not again. But, as usual, when she’s made up her mind, nothing will change it.
Besides, she was right. In the time before she’d found the path of the Drunken Hero, she had lived on the streets, stealing, picking pockets and locks with equal ease. It was part of what he loved about her, the dichotomy of her soul. Her skills had proven useful on numerous occasions during their adventuring days. Now they would again.
A short time later the two of them find themselves standing upon a wooden platform seated high above the lip of a yawning chasm. Other platforms of various sizes and makes could be seen about the area, a couple within fairly easy reach.
About the platform float several magic “seeing eyes”. Cayden had explained that the magic of the eyes allowed whatever they saw to be projected into magical images about the massive common room of the strange inn. They allowed the crowds to monitor the progress of the contestants and to make ongoing wagers throughout the event. Heagen didn’t care. He’d done time as a gladiator. He performed as well for an audience as without.
Behind them stood an open door and standing in the doorway was the man who ran this place. As they turned to face him, he gestures in a broad sweeping stroke with his arm.
“The first challenge should be obvious to you,” he says in a grand fashion for the benefit of the audience. Heagen is only half listening. Instead he finds himself focusing on the man’s strange, smoldering left eye and the smoke that drifts lazily upward from it.
“Reach the other end of the chasm,” the man continues, “where a door like this will grant you access to the second trial. At the end of that lies a final challenge. A “boss level” if you will. Pass all three and you shall have the prize you seek.” With that the smoking man bows to Heagen and Kylise and shuts the door.
Heagen is half tempted to rip the door off it’s hinges, but as he contemplates it, the door vanishes. “Damn magics,” he mutters, then turns to Kylise. “Well?”
Kylise is gazing out across the chasm, inspecting the various platforms. In their adventuring days together, Heagen often relied on her half-elven eyes to spot things at a distance and they didn’t fail her this time either.
“I see it,” she says, pointing across and to the left a bit. Then she frowns. “And I see two more,” she adds, pointing towards two more points to the right of the first.
Heagen scratches his chin. “Well, I guess we shouldn’t expect it to be easy. Let’s get going.” He eyes the nearest of the other platforms, about 10 feet away to the left. He takes a few steps back and prepares to leap the gap, but Kylise grabs his arm.
“No,” she says. “Not that one. It’s trapped.”
Heagen steps to the edge and stares intently. Finally he spots the holes permeating the surface of the nearby platform. Spikes. Landing on that platform would definitely be painful. Already he’s glad that she is by his side for this adventure.
He smiles. “It’s been too long since we’ve done this, love,” he says. She returns his smile, then starts running to their right, leaping towards another nearby platform.
“She always makes that look easy,” he mutters, running to leap after her. He crosses the gap easily, landing beside her.
Over the next half hour or so, they cover half two-thirds of the distance across the chasm. The floating eyes keep pace with them throughout and it takes of of Heagen’s self control to resist the urge to try and shoot them with his bow. Unsurprisingly, as if sensing Heagen’s thoughts, the stupid things keep themselves well out of the pair’s way.
Crossing the platforms has been challenging to say the least. Some are connected by ropes or chains, others by bridges both wide and narrow, some by magical portals and others by nothing whatsoever. By Heagens estimation of the reports Kylise provides, about a third of the platforms or crossings are traps and he is the forced to admit that he never would have gotten anywhere near this far without her. Heagen is sizing up the jump to the next platform, when he notices Kylise has paused.
“We’re close enough to the doors for me to see them better,” she says and Heagen watches silently as she stares intently at each of the three doors. Her gaze slowly drifts across each of the doors and he watches as she then turns her gaze across the platforms between their current position and the center-most door. Finally she shakes her head slightly and he watches her repeat the process across the platforms between their position and the center door.
When she’s finished, she closes her eyes and Heagen can see her mentally reviewing all that her eyes took in. After a minute, she opens her eyes and says. “I don’t know. It’s not the door on the right. That’s fake. But I can’t tell which of the other two it is. All I know is the path to the left door is more difficult than the path to the center.”
“Then left we go,” Heagen replies. “It isn’t meant to be easy. The left door is the right one.”
She meets his eyes for a few moments, then nods. “Left it is then.”
They carefully make their way, bearing towards the left door. They are four platforms away from the final ledge, when the sound of trumpets blares across the space, followed quickly by a cacophony of crashing sounds from the direction of their starting point. Both of them turn to look and even Heagen can see what is happening.
Starting with the platform they had started on, the platforms are falling into the void below. They have perhaps two minutes at most to reach the door before they plummet into the chasm with whatever platform they are on.
“No time for careful now,” Heagen says, then turns and runs across the narrow bridge to the next platform.
Just before he steps onto it, Kylise cries out “Wait! It’s trapped!”
But Heagen doesn’t hesitate and takes the blast of magical acid full in the chest as he runs across the platform’s length. “We’ll have to take any remaining traps my way!” he shouts, leaping the gap to the second platform.
Landing, he senses something amiss and immediately rolls into a tumble as spinning blades slash up out of slots in the platform’s surface. Rolling to his feet, he spares a moment’s glance to make sure Kylise is still close and sees her leaping over the same trap.
He grabs the chain leading to the third platform and stops as agonizing pain shoots through his body. Heat, as hot as dragon’s breath radiates into his hands, but he doesn’t let go. “Kylise!” he hisses in pain. “Grab onto me and don’t touch the chain!”
He sees the look of concern on her face, but she doesn’t hesitate to follow his instruction. She climbs onto his back, arms around his neck and holds on as Heagen begins the rapid hand over hand transit across the gap.
He spares no thought for the agony he is experiencing and crosses the gap faster than he would have thought possible. Finally, the pair drop onto the third platform and he runs towards the next gap. A rope and wood bridge, perhaps half a meter wide, spans the gap and it’s not until he’s several steps, a snapping sound echoing as his foot breaks through, that it registers that perhaps a quarter of the boards are a lighter shade than the others.
Kylise is suddenly there, a tumbling leap over Heagen’s dropping form, her hands grasping his flailing arms as he falls through the shattering planks. It’s not a big shift, but it’s enough to bring Heagen’s hands down on one of the solid planks, grabbing hold, and preventing his plummet into the abyss.
“Mind the light ones, love,” she smiles as he pulls himself up onto the bridge.
“Got it he mutters as they dash the remaining length of the bridge to the fourth and final platform. Once across this it’s a simple leap across the final gap to the rocky ledge where the door stands in an oddly out of place plaster wall.
Less than a minute left, he realizes as the echoing sounds of wood and metal crashing against the chasm floor far below echo up towards him. “Plenty of time,” Heagen starts to say as Kylise, now ahead of him, steps onto the last platform. But his statement is cut short as a blast of wind strikes her, flinging her up and off to the left.
He can see it. He can see it all. She has no purchase, nothing to grab on to. She will be flung clear of the platform and into the abyss below. He shifts his weight mid-stride, flinging himself left and up with every ounce of his barbarian half-orc might.
The effort takes everything he has and his body cries out in pain at the exertion, but it is enough. He slams head-long into her and his momentum is enough to land them both on the left end of the platform.
‘Or not,’ he thinks, as their tangled, tumbling mass keeps going, sliding off the left end of the platform. He grasps for the edge, but is unable to make contact as he hurtles out into the open space.
He wonders how far it is to the bottom, contemplating his end, as a hand suddenly wraps around his wrist and with a jerk and a cry of pain, his fall is suddenly stopped. Kylise has one hand on the edge of the platform while the other clings desperately to Heagen. Heagen gazes upwards in wonder at her feat of strength and for a moment is too stunned to react.
His mind is suddenly wrenched back into motion as a nearby platform groans momentarily, then falls into the darkness below. Looking back to her, he can see that Kylise is injured and is barely able to keep them from falling, let alone pull them up to the platform.
Using his free hand, he pulls his greatsword free of its bonds. Grabbing hold of it by the blade and hoping the pommel guard is as strong as it looks, he uses it to hook onto the edge of the platform and with all the force he can muster from one arm, he pulls himself upward.
Seeing his motion, Kylise releases his wrist and Heagen uses his now free hand to grab the platform. With another move he unhooks the sword, sliding it up onto the platform and climbs up after it. He twists around to a kneeling position, grasps Kylise’s wrist, then pulls her up after him.
All that remains is a rope bridge across the final gap. Heagen looks at Kylise as he reattaches his sword. Her left arm dangles uselessly at her side, and her right arm isn’t much better. “Go,” she says, nodding towards the bridge. “I’ll never be able to cross that. Go without me.” The platform nearest theirs falls with a groan and shriek.
“Like hell,” Heagen says, grabbing Kylise and throwing her over his shoulder. He backs up to the edge of the platform to get as much running room as possible. Running the length of the platform, Heagen skips the rope bridge and leaps the final gap, landing hard on the cliff ledge. Mere moments pass before the final platform falls into the abyss below with a crash.
“Rope bridge was probably trapped anyway,” he mutters, helping Kylise to her feet.
“Quite right, too,” comes a voice. Standing in the now open doorway is the man of the smoking eye. He steps forward, laying one hand on each of them, muttering an incantation. Heagen feels the familiar healing energies of the divine flow through him as his wounds and hurts are mended.
“You’re a cleric?” Kylise says in surprise as she moves her now healed arms through their full range of motion.
“Quite so, paladin,” he answers, stepping back towards the doorway, motioning with a hand that they should step through. “Cleric, bard, fighter, planar lord, innkeeper. I’m a man of varied talents.”
“Cleric of whom?” Kylise responds, as she steps through the doorway.
“Hmmm, an interesting question,” he says with a smile. “I suppose you might say that I’m a cleric of myself. Or of this place. Anymore this place and I are somewhat one and the same, if yet different.”
Heagen groans as he follows Kylise through the door. “Cleric of crazy is more like it,” he mutters.
Kylise slaps Heagen’s shoulder, but the man just laughs. “You’re probably not far wrong, friend,” he says. “You’d have to be half crazy to become the lord and cleric of a half celestial, half-hell plane of existence. And even crazier to open an inn there to boot. Maybe I am crazy. Maybe not. You’ll get good odds on both.”
The man’s eyes grow distant for a moment, then he refocuses on the two warriors. “Either way, I’m enjoying myself. Good luck on the next challenge!” With that, he steps back through the door and shuts it. It vanishes without a trace, leaving Kylise and Heagen alone once more.
Well, not entirely alone. The floating eyes drift lazily about them as Heagen and Kylise examine their new surroundings. It’s a small cavern, about ten meters square. There are doorways leading out of the chamber into dark tunnels to their left and right. And directly across from where the door was moments before stands a small table with several items laying on it.
Kylise cautiously approaches the table. Heagen watches intently, but does not move with her. As she steps up next to the table, the wall behind the table reshapes into the face of the smoke eyed man and begins to speak.
“Welcome to the second challenge!” it cries. “The all-too common dungeon crawl. Before you on the table you see several items that will assist you on your journey. You may choose one, and one only.
“Fear not,” the face continues, “they are honestly and accurately described. None are lies, nor are any cursed. Each has the potential to help, but choose wisely. Each item is different. What may benefit one, might not benefit another.
“One last thing. The bartender and I had a bet about the pain chain. I was certain you wouldn’t be able to hold on. He won. As his prize, he has asked that I recite to you a riddle. I find it rather silly, but he says it will guide you not astray.”
Two horses, swiftest traveling,
Harnessed in a pair, and
Grazing ever in places
Distant from them.
“Again, good luck,” the face concludes and the form melts back into the wall.
Heagen places his face firmly in his palm. “I….. hate…. riddles……” he says.
“I know,” Kylise responds with a smile. “Good thing I like them.” With a cursory glance over the items on the table, she picks up a pair of glasses with multicolored lenses. As she does so, the table and the remaining items vanish with a soft popping sound.
“Um,” Heagen starts. “Shouldn’t we have discussed the choices first?”
“No,” she answers, turning to look towards the left doorway. “Left was always my favorite direction. Let’s go.” And with that strides towards the doorway, leaving Heagen to follow behind.
Despite being several spans taller than Kylise, Heagen finds he has to hustle to keep up with her pace. It’s not until he catches up that he notices that she has donned the glasses and appears intent on something he can’t see. He says nothing but follows as she follows whatever she is seeing along numerous passages. As they walk Kylise points out various traps for Heagen to avoid, but otherwise says nothing.
“Magic glasses, huh?” he asks finally after some 20 or 30 minutes of wandering.
She stops, turning to look at him. “You think?” she says, her tone imbued with the kind of sarcasm that she reserved for when he asked such obvious questions. Heagen could only look down and stare at his own feet in response. She chuckles, then continues down the hallway, leaving Heagen to follow once more.
15 more minutes of twists and turns later, she stops before a seemingly blank wall. “End of the line,” she says. “Through that door lies our final foe, the last challenge.”
Heagen says nothing, but prepares his weapons and steels himself for battle. He sees no door, just a wall. But he’s long since learned to trust her. Plus… magic glasses.
She removes the glasses and stows them carefully away in a pack. Then, drawing her own sword she reaches out and presses against a small indentation. There is a click and a section of wall swings outward a few inches. She nods to Heagen.
He steps forward, then grabs the door and swings it open. Kylise dashes through, then sidesteps to the left. Heagen tumbles through and to the right.
“Rather unsporting of you,” says the Eye with a wry grin to the bartender. “Those glasses were not on the table,” the Eye responds. “Now I understand why you wanted me to recite that ridiculous poem as the clue I allowed them to have. Where did you get the Goggles of Erkist?”
“No idea what you’re talking about, my friend,” comes the smiling response. “Never heard of the Googles of Orcs Kissed.”
“All right, all right,” the Eye responds as they watch the two adventurers wander the hallways bypassing every trap and monster lair within. After perhaps half an hour, the adventurers stand before a blank wall. The Eye senses the frustrated crowds throughout the common room. This night is going to cost him a coin or two. But no matter. He enjoyed the bartender’s company, but he knew what losing the rapier had cost his friend and he wasn’t going to argue it too much.
Neither was he going to make it too easy. He suddenly stands and turns to the crowd. “Friends! My friends!” he cries loudly. “We need a final challenge worthy of these two adventurers. What say you? What foe will be worthy of the challenge?”
There are various shouts of this and that: dragons, beholders, aboleths, demons, and a dozen other creatures are named. Then, from a dark corner booth comes a hiss. The crowd falls silent and while some turn to look, most avert their gazes directly into their mugs of ale or wine.
A figure rises from the booth and slowly steps towards the Eye. The creature was a regular and while it personally gave the Eye the creeps, he had pronounced the Inn welcome to all, turning none away, so long as they behave. It seemed interminable minutes for the creature to close the distance, though it was really just a few seconds. The Eye met its gaze and held it. It would never do to show weakness to one such as this.
“And what say you, Acererak?” the Eye says to the lich.
“I… will be their challenge,” the creature hisses.
A smile slowly grew across the Eye’s face. He turns to look at the bartender, but the god of drink doesn’t raise his gaze to meet it.
“The challenge is worthy,” the Eye responds. He points to a door in a grand sweeping gesture. “Step right through. Your challengers will join you shortly.”
The room is dark, but Heagen’s eyes are able to pick out the details. It is a room perhaps 20 meters square and 10 meters high. There are no other exits that he can see. On the far side of the room sits a dais, with a throne upon it. Seated upon the throne is a motionless figure in robes, a crown upon its head. On the wall above the throne hangs a rapier.
Heagen’s gaze goes back to the figure on the throne as Kylise casts a light spell upon a handful of stones and tosses them about the chamber. He hears her sharp intake of breath as her gaze falls on the lich seated on the throne.
“Damn,” she mutters. Heagen says nothing. Her single word says it all.
The creature stands, a smile on its face. “I shall enjoy this. It’s been too long since I had some fun.”
Heagen doesn’t even wait for the foul creature to finish. Unleashing his full rage, he charges across the room, blade swinging downward, only to find the creature easily sidestep the stroke.
Kylise takes a more measured approach, calling forth the holy powers of Cayden Cailean to bring her strength and resolve against this foe. Then she steps in beside the half-orc, deftly dodging a swipe from the creature.
The battle rages about the room. Heagen and Kylise strike against the creature time and time again, yet seem to make little progress, their blows doing little damage to the undead lord.
Their foe is a blur of staff and magic. Time and again acid, cold and flame flash across the heroes. Interspersed with such elemental magic, the lich occasionally tries some other spell or magic on the adventurers, only to appear surprised that it has little or no effect on them. While they take note of it, Heagen and Kylise have not the time nor understanding to guess what is happening.
Back and forth they go until Kylise sees understanding dawn on their foe’s face and the creature stops, mid-spell and bursts into laughter. It’s an unnerving sound, half laugh and half hiss. Even Heagen, mid-rage, is taken aback and stops, uncertain.
“You’re dead!” the lich laughs. “You’re already dead! Death magic cannot affect those already dead! Oh, well done Innkeeper! You have surprised Acererak.”
He turns and bows to the adventurers. “Well fought, indeed. Long has it been since I’d had such an enjoyable diversion.” He waves to the rapier on the wall. “You have indeed earned your prize,” he says, clapping his hands together in a disturbing display of genuine glee.
It almost makes Heagen’s stomach turn at the sight of it all. At least, he assumes it would if he were currently alive.
To one side a door opens where one was not before and in walk the Eye and the bartender. “Well done,” the Eye says. “A bit cheaty, but well done.”
Heagen, still on the edge of rage, decides to not let the remark pass. “Now wait just a minute,” he growls, stepping towards the Eye.
The bartender steps between them, laying a hand on Heagen’s shoulder. “Now, lad, just be still. You are being called back. Your companions have need of you. Will you go?”
Heagen falters, looking to Kylise. She steps up and wraps her arms around him, kissing him deeply. “Go,” she whispers when she finally releases him. “They need you. And I’ll be here, waiting.”
Heagen starts to say something in return, but suddenly finds himself laying on the floor. What? For a few brief moments he’s certain that this isn’t even his body. But then familiar faces come into view. Argamon is there first, saying something about reincarnation and the odds of being a halfling.
If that sorcerer has turned him into a halfling, there will be blood! Heagen starts to panic, holding up his arms to look at his hands. For just the briefest of moments, they’re not his hands. And then they are. Par appears, and Heagen feels calm assurance begin to flow through him once more.
Then Heagen realizes he’s dressed only in some tattered shreds of decayed fabric. “By Cayden,” he grumbles. “What have you done to me?”