Prologue: In Kassen’s Tomb

“All right. We got what we came for, so I think it’s time we left. As quickly as possible.” I forced my face to stay impassive. Looking hopefully at the door would undermine the firm tone I needed to use with my companions to get them to do anything sensible.

My classmates were examining one of the ornately carved sarcophagi in the middle of the tomb we should have been exiting. Lan looked up from the unconscious form of the woman we’d found collapsed next to the grave and nodded with enthusiasm. I knew his support of my common-sense suggestions came more from fear than anything else–his comfort zone was libraries and classrooms–but I had to take what I could get.

“In a minute, Elspeth,” Pepwinn muttered, prying at the lid of the sarcophagus. “Just want to find out what’s in here.” The halfling grunted with effort, but the lid defied him with stony stubbornness. He glared at it, muttered a few curses under his breath, and heaved at it from another angle. “Why… won’t… you… move?”

“Resistentialism,” Lan supplied sweetly. Pep had been mocking Lan’s cowardice since we first entered the tomb, and while I didn’t entirely disagree with his assessment of the wizard, the constant sniping was getting on everyone’s nerves. “The malice of inanimate objects. It must be very difficult for you to deal with something that you can’t just badger into agreement.” The halfling cavalier glared over his shoulder, and his wolf, catching his annoyance, began growling quietly. I smothered the urge to throw something at one of them. Any of them. All of them.

A good night’s sleep and a long, hot bath had taken the top two spots on today’s wish list of distant luxuries. Just the thought of the menagerie of tiny beasties that were likely exploring my hair after two days in this gods-bedamned place made it hard to stand still. I wrestled down the urge to scratch my scalp.

“Will you hurry up?” I snapped, then grimaced at my lack of self-control. “Light the lantern, and let’s leave. Preferably before more skeletons find a way across the bridge.”

My classmates all turned to me in surprise.

“I think that’s the first time I’ve heard you raise your voice, Elspeth,” Alaric said mildly. If I’d gotten to choose the group with which I ventured into Kassen’s tomb, he was the only one of my current companions that I might have selected: self-disciplined, mature, and thoughtful, probably due to his extensive training in a Vudrani monastery. While he was a bit too quick to obey rules without questioning whether they made sense, it was a minor flaw compared to the quirks I had to deal with in the others.

The whole thing should have been over the same day it started. It should have been simple. It should have been relatively easy.

The town of Kassen had a quaint rite of passage into adulthood for its children: a few days before the autumn equinox, as the town prepared for its harvest festival, a group of young adults ventured into the tomb of the town’s founder, Ekat Kassen, to light a lantern from the eternally-burning flame above his final resting place. The group then brought the lantern back to the temple of Erastil, where it would burn through the winter as a symbol of the community’s resilience. The townsfolk prepared the tomb as a sort of gauntlet to test the skill of their children, setting up startling but harmless traps, scares and challenges, and stocking it with hidden caches of supplies and tools that the resourceful young adventurers could use to overcome the tests.

I thought it was a lovely ritual, and a useful one. This year, however, Kassen had faced an unexpected challenge: there were no young adults old enough to participate. The town had survived a stretch of lean years, with drought-scorched summers and brutal winters conspiring to drain its food stores and claim the lives of many of its citizens. One by one, the townswomen, with the stark practicality necessary for survival in the ramshackle nation of Nirmathas, had gone to the temple’s priestess or the village midwife to ensure they wouldn’t add another hungry stomach to their family until the fields put forth more bounteous harvests.

Erastil must have heard the prayers of his faithful, for after the third bone-hungry winter, he called forth such a rich, rain- and sun-drenched summer that the birds could barely fly for roundness, and the bees shared their honey with lazy, good-natured indulgence, only stinging Kassen’s gatherers a few times to remind them they could.

Kassen had been prosperous ever since, but echoes of that long-past trio of haggard harvests whispered through its streets when the residents realized that the gap in childbearing meant there were no candidates this year to undertake the Quest for the Everflame. Town meetings were called to address the issue, with one side arguing passionately that the lantern must be lit lest Erastil be angered and revoke his favor, and the other pointing out that it didn’t make much sense for townsfolk who’d already undergone the ritual to do it again, nor for unprepared children to risk making a mockery of it. Mayor Jonark Uptal, up for reelection in a few months, was beside himself with anxiety and his long-suffering wife was beside herself with Jonark.

That worthy lady rounded up a few of her subordinates in the town guard and traveled south to the Azthur Glorgirn School, where she had studied as a young woman, to ask advice of the headmaster. Gruff old Azthur had offered to send some of his students to undergo the ritual as a training exercise, and that should bring us more or less to where I started this tale.

Upon entering the tomb, we’d discovered that our presence wasn’t the only deviation from tradition this year. The townsfolk had seemed a bit nervous that those they’d sent to prepare the tomb hadn’t returned by the time we left. Upon entering the tomb, we’d discovered that our challenges had a strangely schizoid character – one pit trap might open onto a pile of pillows, while the next was lined with spikes. By the time the first skeletons attacked us, it was already pretty clear something was wrong. Alaric had theorized that the townfolk had prepared more serious tests for us, given that we were adults and students at a fairly prestigious school for adventurers, but the bodies of murdered townsfolk strewn through the tomb had given the lie to that theory.

Still, in for a copper, in for a gold.

I looked around at my companions. Before we set out on this little adventure, I had known all casually from the classes we’d taken together, but couldn’t have told you much about them after I finished with their names and countries of origin.

Alaric Mannix was a monk from the exotic island of Jalmeray, here to brush up on his fighting and survival skills before seeking entrance to one of the more famous monasteries there. Danaddenaw Thrashmire III was a young paladin of Iomedae, hoping to gain enough seasoning to be admitted to the Pathfinder Society. Pepwinn Samrit of the Eastern Samrit Retgroves Near Gladefield was a cavalier of the Order of the Cockatrice with a mercenary streak wider than a Taldan highway.

Landrathanon Ayaldemir was—well, truth be told, he was something of a mystery. He was a frail-looking elf, studious and shy, but rumor had it that he’d fled Westcrown with a phalanx of Hellknights and a detachment of Thrune guardsmen hot on his heels. I couldn’t fathom how Lan could have done anything bold enough to catch the attention of either the Hellknights or her Infernal Majestrix, Abrogail Thrune II.

“Elspeth?” Alaric followed up. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” I said. “I just think we should get out of here.”

“Just a few moments more,” Pep protested, straining at the tomb lid. “I felt it move.”

I strode over to Dan and snatched the lantern from his belt. He flailed at me, but like most humans, he was too slow to stop me. I hopped up on the edge of Ekat Kassen’s tomb, positioning myself carefully so as not to fall into the arms of the withered corpse inside the desecrated sarcophagus, and touched the wick to the flame burning above it. It didn’t catch, so I cursed and shifted my weight to lean in closer and hold it there.

A dry laugh drifted through the chamber.

I froze, swaying as I tried to keep my balance.

“So, Kassen’s heroes have come to fight me again.” The voice was barely more than a whisper, but the words were clear.

“Nope,” Lan squeaked. “No heroes here. Sorry, sir, didn’t mean to disturb you. We’ll be going now. It’ll be like we were never here.”

“You’ll make fine minions in my army,” the voice continued, ignoring our wizard. With an ominous rattling, skeletons began to emerge from behind the pillars that stood sentinel at the room’s edges.

Lan was backing toward the door, and I ordered my muscles to unfreeze and follow him. “Perhaps you didn’t hear me, Sir Voice. No heroes here. Just friendly visitors, who’ll be leaving now.”

“Come then, and meet your doom.”

I dropped the lantern, pulled a potion out of my belt pouch and gulped it down, sighing a bit in relief as my hands disappeared in front of me. Invisibility is a girl’s best friend when she’s got to make a quick exit. “Undead aren’t the best conversationalists in the world, are they, Lan?” I asked conversationally. “They’re not very good listeners, and they have a distinct tendency toward the melodramatic.” Then I sprang off the tomb and ran as quietly as I could to the far wall of the chamber, my padded elven-made boots silencing my footsteps.

A skeleton, dressed in ornate antique armor, its eyes burning with sickly blue fire, clanked toward the spot where I’d spoken, and I smiled to myself at the success of my little trick. Get everyone out of the chamber, brace the doors shut with some of the rubble outside, then run for the tomb entrance, and we’d be safe and well on our way to putting the tomb’s skeleton problem in the hands of someone with a lot more experience in these matters than a bunch of students.

I couldn’t call to my companions without alerting Sir Bones to my current position, so, of course, they proceeded to flaunt their customary lack of common sense.

Lan stopped edging to the door and buried his face in his hands. “Seriously? ‘Come and meet your doom’? That’s quite possibly the worst thing you could have said to—“

Dan bellowed. “You have never met heroes like us, foul shade!”

Lan rolled his eyes heavenward.

I moved to his side and took his hand. “It’s Elspeth,” I whispered. “We should just get out of here. Is there anything you can do to distract our cadaverous friend while I round up the others?”

The elf shrugged. “Not really. Neither of us is strong enough to haul Dan out of here against his will, and Pepwinn isn’t going to be shown up if Dan keeps fighting.”

“What if Dan were unconscious?” I asked.

Lan shot a disapproving glance in my general direction. “We’re not likely to get out of here alive if we start fighting each other.”

“I’m not suggesting we hurt him,” I protested. “Just that we wait until it happens, and then take advantage of the situation.” Dan’s penchant for boldly rushing into the unknown had made him the group’s top trap-finder. Unfortunately, his discoveries were usually accidental. He’d spent roughly a third of our time here unconscious from falls and bumps on the head.

“Elspeth,” Lan said, very seriously. “You know I prefer running to fighting, right? But I think we’re going to have to destroy this thing. I did some research on the history of Kassen when we were given this assignment, and based on that pendant he’s wearing, I think this might be Asar, the man Ekat Kassen died fighting. He’s not just another skeleton, and he’s not going to let us leave here.”

“Perfect,” I muttered. “Just perfect.” Skeletons are hard to stop, since they don’t have internal organs you can stab. I’d have to find a way to separate Asar’s head from his body, I reasoned, sheathing my dagger and drawing my shortsword. If nothing else, it ought to slow him down enough to let us escape.

“Elspeth,” Lan hissed after me as I began to creep toward the tangle comprised of Dan, Pepwinn, and Asar. “Do something about his necklace.”

I stopped and stared incredulously back at him, then remembered that he couldn’t see me. “Define ‘something.’” I didn’t bother to whisper.

“Make it…not be on him,” the wizard snapped.

Pepwinn was mounted on his wolf, who yelped as the skeleton got in a good hit on her flank. The cavalier swung back, but missed. Off-balance, he and the wolf stumbled, and Asar’s longsword sheared off Pepwinn’s sleeve and a thin ribbon of flesh.

Muttering curses in Elven, Lan darted forward and waved his hands. A viscous liquid bubbled into being under Asar’s rusted sabatons, and the ancient warrior shrieked as his feet slid out from beneath him. He crashed to the ground with a sound like a collapsing metalworks. His skeletal companions hesitated, watching their leader struggle to stand.

Dan shouted an invocation to his goddess, and his sword began to glow a pure white. As his armor shone with reflected holy light, I had to admit he made a rather inspiring figure. He brought the blade down on Asar’s sword arm with a final, triumphant cry, and the limb burst into dust.

I changed course and slipped up behind one of the skeletons, taking a few seconds to line up a precise blow. My sword sheared its skull from its neck with a satisfying crunch, and the creature collapsed into an inert pile of bones. The others wobbled in surprise as I became visible again.

Asar was shrieking in pain, more from the divine energy swirling around Dan’s sword than from the actual blow. Pepwinn’s face was pale, and his hand hovered protectively over his wounded arm. There was a substantial chunk of flesh missing, and I winced in sympathy. One of the skeletons rose out of the shadows behind him. “Pep!” I called. “Behind you!”

And then, out of nowhere, Alaric was there. He wrapped his well-muscled arms around the skeleton and hauled it away from the injured cavalier. I ran to Pep’s side and slid in front of him just as another skeleton raised a rusty blade to strike. Its sword hit mine and shattered. Alaric wrenched the head off his skeleton and joined me, protecting Pep’s other flank while the halfling tore a strip from his shirt and bound up the wound.

Then the little fool pulled out a flask of some sort of oil, poured it over his sword, and urged his wolf toward Asar, ribbons of blood trailing from his clumsily bound arm. Alaric’s eyes met mine and he shrugged. “I sort of expected it,” he murmured.

“Songs will be sung across the land of how the skeleton lord died at my hand!” Pepwinn crowed. Lan and I both winced at the poor rhyme. The wolf leapt at Asar, and Pep delivered what actually looked like a pretty solid blow aimed at the undead warrior’s skull. Asar flung his remaining arm up, and the halfling’s sword shrilled along the bone.

Dan’s face changed from surprise to fury. “Your pardon, sir,” he said coldly to Pep. “But I fear it is I who am doing the defeating here today.” He swung at Asar, but the blow went wide. The skeletal warrior hauled himself to his feet and his naked jaw creaked open in what I assume was supposed to be an actual grin, rather than a normal skull-smile. His empty hand balled into a fist and struck the side of Pepwinn’s head.

The halfling’s eyes rolled up and he collapsed, twitching, across his wolf’s back. She whined in concern and slunk away from the skeleton, bearing her unconscious rider to a dark corner.

I spared him a quick glance to make sure he was out of immediate danger, and turned to Alaric. “We need to finish this. Now!”

The monk nodded and ran to Asar’s side. I moved opposite to him and began hacking at Asar’s hand as Alaric pummeled his ribs. Dan stepped in front of his infuriated opponent and bowed slightly. “When you reach the Boneyard, foul creature, tell its denizens that it was I, Danaddenaw Thrashmire the Third, who sent you to them.”

Then he turned his sword and swung it, two-handed. The flat of the blade struck Asar in the face and sent his skull sailing across the room. A startled yelp told us it had hit the wolf in her corner. Asar collapsed into a pile of moldering bones.

Dan looked at his fallen enemy with satisfaction. “And thus falls one who would challenge the might of Iomedae’s servants,” he proclaimed.

I headed into the corner where Pepwinn lay crumpled. His wolf whimpered nervously as I checked the damage to his head, but let me examine him. It wasn’t good – it looked like his skull might be broken. “Alaric!” I called. “Do you have any more of those healing potions?”

The monk nodded and tossed me one. I pulled out the stopper with my teeth and pried open Pep’s jaw. The wolf whimpered again as I poured the contents into his mouth, then tilted his head back.

After a few tense seconds, his eyes opened and he coughed. “Whozat,” he muttered drunkenly. “Did we win?”

“Yes,” Dan said proudly. “I defeated the unholy fiend.”

“A bit redundant,” Lan observed, “but accurate, as far as it goes.”

“What a pity your fragile halfling skull was cracked, and you were unable to aid in vanquishing our foe,” Dan commiserated, turning to the pile of bones and ancient armor that had been Asar and beginning to sort through the undead champion’s personal effects.

Pepwinn’s eyes narrowed, and he pushed me aside.

“Maybe you should give it a moment, Pep,” I warned him. “I’m not sure the potion healed all the—“

The cavalier stumbled over to the unconscious woman we’d found in the tomb, his armor clanking dully as he knelt beside her. For all that my tastes run more to elves or my own kind, she was quite lovely for a human. Pep smoothed his hair a bit, then gently positioned the woman’s head so he was directly in her line of vision. Smiling winningly, he dug a healing potion out of his belt pouch, and gently tipped it between her lips.

At first, nothing happened, and Pep’s expression grew strained. But eventually the woman’s eyelashes fluttered a bit, and she opened her eyes. “Roldare?” she breathed.

“Pepwinn, my lady,” the cavalier corrected. “Be easy. You’re safe now.”

Her eyes drifted past his face and fell upon our strapping young paladin. Her skin was a warm gold, and a faint blush rose in her cheeks, tinting them a delicate shade of coral. “Thank you,” she murmured. “What happened? Have you seen my brother?”

“Roldare,” Alaric echoed. “That poor mad creature we encountered on our way down here?”

“Mad?” The woman struggled to her feet. She swayed unsteadily, and Dan looked up from his rummaging and moved to support her. Her blush deepened, and she gazed at his face as if nothing else existed.

Pepwinn watched them for a moment, then threw up his hands in disgust and stomped over to his wolf, checking her saddle and sulking visibly.

“I have to go to him,” the young woman insisted.

“Be patient, dear maid,” Dan told her. “Give me but a moment to finish my duties here, and I will reunite you with your brother, if only to receive the smile of a lady well served, which is every hero’s true reward.” Her eyes glowed.

“Honey,” I said to the poor girl, taking a seat on the corner of the dais supporting Kassen’s sarcophagus. “Come away from those two gentlemen for a moment, and sit over here by me. We’ll get you back to your brother very soon, but we have a bit of cleaning up to do here, and you’ve been through some rough stuff, clearly. So why don’t you rest here and regain your strength?” I wished one of our teachers were there to notice how I said “gentlemen” instead of “pompous asses,” and give me the extra credit my forbearance warranted. Ah well, it’s an imperfect universe.

The woman looked longingly at Dan, but obediently picked her way through the scattered bones and bits of armor to take a seat beside me. “I’m no lady,” she admitted. “Just a village girl. My name is Dimira.” Alaric quietly took a seat on the other side of her.

“Well met, Dimira,” I said, extending a hand. She looked at my glove, spattered with bone dust and less pleasant things, and took it gingerly. I repressed a defiant shrug. I don’t apologize for what I am. “How’d you come to be here?”

“I was sent to help prepare the tomb,” she explained. “There were twelve of us. We came to set up the traps and hide the supplies for your test. It normally takes a few days, so we brought supplies to camp here until we were done. But once we got inside, we found bodies. We figured that some bandits had tried to rob the tomb – some try from time to time – and some of the traps had gotten them. This place is full of old traps – part of the set up is making sure that we wrap up those with edges and put pillows at the bottoms of the pits. But then the skeletons started coming. I ran away from the others, and hid here. I thought milord Kassen would protect me, but the one with the glowing eyes found me. He kept asking questions about what had happened in the world since he died, and he’d hit me when he didn’t like my answers.”

Her eyes filled with tears, and Alaric pulled a spotless white handkerchief from somewhere in his robes and offered it. I gave him a nod of thanks. Dimira pressed it daintily to her eyes.

“Has my brother really gone mad?” she asked anxiously.

“I think it’s nothing some rest and a reunion with you won’t cure,” I assured her.

She was shivering, so I took off my glove and patted her knee, hoping it would soothe her. My skills tend to fall more in the categories of avoiding notice and disposing of enemies than comforting distraught trauma victims.

Dimira flinched slightly until she realized I’d taken off the offending glove. Her gaze traced my face, and then my ears, with the first bit of curiosity she’d shown since she regained consciousness. I took that as a good sign. “You’re from the school, aren’t you? From Azthur’s? Are there many elves there, my lady?”

“I’m no lady either, Dimira, so don’t worry about being formal with me. I’m not an elf, either. I’m a half-elf, like your town’s bard. But no, there aren’t many elves at the school. There’s Lan and one of the other students, and one of our teachers is an elf, but most of the students are human. The teachers, though, are another story entirely.” Lan, with his elven hearing, cocked a long pointed ear at us, but continued to sort through bones with Pepwinn.

Her eyes widened. “Orcs? Gnomes?”

“No orcs right now, although the school’s healer is a gnome. But many of the professors come from lands far away from here, and some of them are creatures even more exotic than elves.” I hid a smile. If she was this hungry for tales of Azthur’s, chances were I could keep her calm until we got her safely back home just by reciting some of the stories and gossip I’d heard from other students.

Pepwinn straightened from his crouch. “I think we’ve found everything we’re going to find. Let’s go.” Dan looked as if he were going to disagree.

I lifted a brow. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” I asked pointedly.

My comrades all turned to me, confusion writ large across their features. Except, I noted, for Alaric, who seemed, as ever, to be unsurprised by anything.

“The lantern?” I prodded. “The whole reason for coming here? And we should put the lid back on Kassen’s tomb. Seems disrespectful to leave him with his bones exposed.” I may be an aspiring mercenary lacking in the finer points of etiquette, but where it counts, I was brought up properly.

Lan, a bit sheepishly, picked the lantern up from where I’d dropped it, then sprang onto the sarcophagus with characteristic elven grace. He lit the lantern, then flailed backward as a spectral figure, glowing with a faint blue light, rose out of the coffin.

The spirit of Ekat Kassen looked us all over with a benevolent smile. “My thanks, comrades,” his voice whispered through the tomb. “My rest was troubled by Asar’s machinations, and now I can sleep peacefully again.” He looked down on the pile of bones that had been his ancient adventuring partner and eventual foe with a mixture of sadness and satisfaction. “Had ye failed to stop him, I fear he would have added all the people of my town to his undead army, and gone on to ravage many other settlements in his search for the third piece of the key. Asar’s reach ever exceeded his grasp, but I hope that now he will find peace as well.”

Lan was backing away from the ghost. “No thanks needed, sir. All in a day’s work. We’ll just be going, now.”

Pepwinn’s gaze, however, had sharpened at the word “key.” “Key? Key to what? Let’s hear more about this key,” he urged, then appended a belated, “your ghostliness,” for politeness’ sake.

“The invaders who defiled my tomb stole my portion, which I wore as an amulet at my throat,” Kassen explained. “They had found Asar’s as well. They lack only the third piece, which belonged to our partner Iramine. She may well be alive, as elves live longer than we. Together, the amulets form a key, which will open a vault that houses the treasure we found in our adventuring days. Seek out these invaders, and take the amulets from them. They shall not plunder my treasure.”

“I see our interests align in this,” Pepwinn said enthusiastically. “We’ll get right on that.”

Kassen’s glance at Pepwinn was a bit troubled, and it occurred to me that he didn’t seem interested in giving us any clues as to the whereabouts of this Iramine. I suspected he wanted his treasure to stay buried. Nevertheless, the ghost reached into his tomb, and produced a bag, which he tossed at Lan’s feet. “Take this, in thanks. But be warned: do not defile any of the other tombs of my comrades here, nor take anything else from my tomb, lest ye face my wrath.” Then he plucked five scales from the armor clothing his sleeping form, and tossed one to each of us. “Call upon these in an hour of need,” he said cryptically. “And now I return to my rest. Give my blessing to my town.” The spirit faded, and Pepwinn and Dan, with uncharacteristic teamwork, replaced the lid of his sarcophagus.

Dimira, who had sunk to the ground in an awed curtsey before her town’s founder, rose slowly, then wandered into one of the alcoves off to the side of the chamber. She gave a choked-sounding cry.

I followed her into the alcove, and frowned at the corpse in front of me. It was wearing gray robes that looked strangely ceremonial, and an iron mask. He’d also, clearly, been dead for a while. “Those bandits only arrived a few days ago,” I said out loud. “This guy’s been dead for…months, it looks like. He doesn’t even smell any more.” The face was unrecognizable, and the corpse had a strange waxy appearance.

“A priest of Razmir,” Alaric’s voice said softly from behind me. “Strange to find him here, but I’ve heard that the cult has been growing here in Nirmathas.”

Pepwinn was staring at a door off to the side of the chamber. “We don’t know what’s in there,” he observed.

“All the more reason to leave it be,” Lan retorted. “We lit the lantern and completed our assignment. Let’s get Dimira back to her brother and ourselves back to school. I want a good hot meal and a chance to look over some of these scrolls we found.”

Pepwinn’s eyes slid to Dan. “But there may be evil we haven’t yet cleansed from Kassen’s resting place.”

The paladin’s short beard parted as he smiled beatifically. “Evil! Glory! Let’s go!” he agreed.

“Whoa there, champs,” I objected. “Dimira isn’t a fighter. We need to get her to safety. I doubt,” I added in Pepwinn’s direction, “that there’s anything of value in there.” His expression of wounded innocence almost eclipsed the avarice beneath it.

Lan’s face had a faintly tragic cast. “Much as I hate to agree with those two helmet-heads, we don’t actually know what the parameters of our assignment were. We thought it was to run a fairly simple training exercise and light this lantern, but Azthur seems to know everything that goes on in Nirmathas, so what if our assignment actually was to defeat Asar and cleanse the tomb? We won’t know if we got rid of all the undead until we’ve been through the whole tomb. I wouldn’t want to lose credit on a technicality.”

“Sweet wings of Desna,” I spluttered. “Did you actually just say that?” I felt irrationally betrayed. I’ve always assumed my good sense came from my elven half, as humans are an impulsive species, but spending time with Lan was rapidly eroding my confidence in that theory.

The wizard shrugged. “Yes.”

Alaric had slipped quietly to Lan’s side, and nodded in support. “Since we’re here, and since the village isn’t equipped to deal with an invasion of undead, I agree. The right thing to do is to make sure we’ve finished the job, and that they’re safe.”

I tossed my cloak to poor Dimira, who’d begun shivering, and picked up my pack. “Worst classmates ever.”

Dan threw open the door with a dramatic crash and began clanking down the passageway behind it.

“You know,” I called after him. “I could go first. I am something of an expert at finding and disabling traps. You don’t have to find them all yourself. By falling into them face-first.”

He didn’t respond.

Alaric shot me an amused smile, and Lan chuckled drily, but neither put any effort into stopping the paladin. I shrugged. “Come on, Dimira. Just a few more rooms to explore, and then we’ll get you home. Stay behind me, and if you see anything move that isn’t one of us, yell like your dress is on fire.”

Dimira’s eyes were very wide, and her face had faded from its healthy gold to a sickly pale hue, but she nodded.

“Good lass,” I told her, and followed my classmates into the passage. It was dark, and smelled of wet stone and mildew. Lan gestured impatiently and a mage-light bloomed in his palm. He sent it ahead to illuminate the tunnel for us although, I noticed, he kept it behind Dan.

The floor sloped gently downward, and an increasing number of puddles soaked our boots as we continued. After nearly slipping on a patch of wet moss, I turned back to our beleaguered new companion. “Be careful here: it’s getting—“

A splash interrupted me. Everyone froze.

Lan sent his mage-light past Dan, where it danced happily upon the air, revealing a water-filled room with strange, glowing blue moss feathering the walls. Dan was already knee-deep; apparently the passageway continued to slope down to meet the floor of the flooded room.

In the sudden silence, I noticed two things: first, there was a chirping sound, like crickets, but lower and deeper. Second, filaments of the blue moss were waving lazily, although the air in the room was utterly still.

Dan backed up suddenly, splashing wildly in his haste. “Something touched me,” he shouted.

“It’s dead,” Lan said clinically. He gestured to the corpse of what appeared to be a very large rat, bobbling slightly on the surface of the water. Another bumped it, and the ripples dragged the carcass of a massive amphibian to the surface.

I peered through the gloom at them, but though I see better than humans in near-darkness, the movement of Lan’s light made it impossible to make out details. “Lan, can you hold that light still? I want to get a better look. It seems like there are markings, or…”

The wizard clenched his fist, and the mage-light steadied. “They’re burns,” he said in surprise. “Scorch-marks. That seems familiar for some reason.”

Dan eyed the water and the bobbing dead things with distaste, but stiffened as the sound of a halfling imitating a chicken bounced off the chamber’s walls. “Fear not, comrades,” he called. “I shall make this chamber safe for your passage.”

“Pepwinn,” I said threateningly. The halfling and his wolf turned to me with identical expressions of confused innocence.

“And what is this foul fungus?” Dan asked, reaching a gauntleted hand toward the moss.

“Actually, Dan, I wouldn’t touch it. I think it’s—“

As the tips of Dan’s fingers connected with the moss, a bolt of electricity arced out from it and raced across the surface of his plate mail. The paladin collapsed into the dark water, twitching.

“—azure fungus,” Lan finished. “It builds up and stores electrical charges to protect itself.”

“I really would like to get back to my brother,” Dimira said unhappily.

“In a minute,” Lan told her. “We’re watching our paladin die. It’s one of the ways we amuse ourselves. Adventuring can be very tedious, you know.”

I sighed. “Lan, can we get safely through the room without being stung by the fungus?”

The wizard shook his head. “I don’t think so. I wouldn’t want to risk it, especially with all that water there.”

“So,” I said patiently, “is there a way to get rid of it? Or discharge it?”

Lan’s violet eyes met mine, elven and unreadable. “That’s a good thought, Elspeth, discharging it. It can’t recharge immediately, if I remember right.”

“I do know a thing or two about traps,” I said modestly, “and many of them incorporate electrical charges.”

The wizard turned his gaze on the fungus, but shook his head again after a moment of thought. “Too risky,” he concluded. He stepped into the water, hiking up his robes fastidiously, and raised a hand. A torrent of fire poured forth, and he moved it methodically over each patch of fungus until the walls were clean.

“Pep, since you goaded Dan into this, go feed him a healing potion,” I instructed our incorrigible halfling. “Lan, keep an eye out to make sure nothing attacks us. Alaric, search the room to make sure there’s nothing valuable in here, then take a look at that door at the back. If you see anything suspicious, don’t touch it. I’ll come take a look. Otherwise, take a look inside.”

Pepwinn, surprisingly, didn’t protest at my orders. He urged his wolf into the water until he could reach Dan’s armored foot, then unceremoniously towed the unconscious paladin to drier ground. Alaric waded gamely into the room, and pulled up a waterlogged human corpse. “I think I found another bandit.” He rifled through the dead man’s clothes, and pulled a ring off one of his fingers. “Looks like all he’s got is this.”

“We’ll figure out what it is later. Do you see anything on the door that could be a trap?”

“You’re better at this than I am,” he acknowledged. “But it looks like a normal wooden door.”

“Okay, go ahead and open it.”

The monk pulled the door through the water and peered inside. “I see a lot of really large, really angry-looking frogs, but no skeletons or anything that looks undead.” He carefully shut the door again.

“Perfect. Gentlemen, we’ve now explored the entire tomb complex, and cleansed it of its undead problem. You can stay here and toast to our success with this frog-water if you like, but I’m taking Dimira home.”

“Spoilsport,” coughed Dan.


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