Copyright © 2009, 2014 Chris Gonnerman
All Rights Reserved
They say the city of Slateholm never sleeps, but no one took note of me as I
slipped into an alleyway in the Poor Quarter. It was dark, just before
midnight, and the waning moon had not yet risen. I was armored in leather with
dull metal studs, and soft boots that made no sound on the cobblestones of the
The narrow alley zigged to the left, then zagged to the right, so
that no one looking from one end would be able to see through to the other. At
the first turning, I reached my left hand over my shoulder and drew my four-foot
blade from its scabbard. The blade was dull black metal; only the edges shone.
Thus prepared I continued slinking quietly through the darkness. At the second
turning, I could see the magical light which illuminated my target: the huge,
squat tower at the end of the alley, around which the alley broke to the left
and right like a stream breaking around a rock. Though it was called a tower,
the great pile was well over a hundred feet across but no more than fifty feet
high. No windows pierced it at ground level, and no upper-floor windows were
visible from the back. The only way in from the back was a single door, up
three steps from street level.
For a moment I stopped... I smelled a faint, pleasant scent over the foul smells
of rotting garbage and excrement always common in the Poor Quarter. But it was
gone as soon as I noticed it; shaking my head, I moved on, approaching the tower
but staying out of the light. For a while I stood still, studying the doorway.
Getting inside was going to be a challenge, but I had come prepared.
With my right hand I fished a small phial from my beltpouch, and opened it and
swallowed the contents. It tasted as nasty as the last time I had used it, and
grimacing, I restored the phial to its hiding place, all without putting away my
sword. My time was now limited, so without further delay I approached the door
and knocked, then quickly hunkered down against it. The small peephole in the
door opened with a squeal; after a few moments it closed again. I reached up
and knocked again, and the peephole opened more quickly. "Who's there?" said a
guttural voice. Receiving no answer, the guard within closed the peephole
again, and again I knocked.
This time I felt the door opening behind me. Before it could open more than
a crack, I said loudly, "What do you think you're doing?" Thanks to the potion
I had quaffed, my voice came from within the tower rather than from my own
I heard his heavy boots as he turned toward my voice, and away from me, and even
as he said, "What? Who's there?" I leaped to my to my feet and shoved the door
the rest of the way open. The chainmail-clad guard within was turned away,
looking down a darkened corridor toward my voice. He must have heard the door
open, for he started to turn, but before he could complete the maneuver I
brought my weapon down two-handed across his neck.
The guard fell, making two distinct thuds as he struck the stone floor. I
looked down for a moment on my fallen foe, who it seemed was not a man but a
hobgoblin. Then I smelled it again, and I muttered "Jasmine?" under my breath.
I quietly closed the outer door and lowered the bar into place. The hallway
was unlit, but I could see light illuminating a door at the far end. Feeling
my way to the end of the corridor, I noted several doors along the way, all
apparently locked; but when I tried the door at the end, it was unlocked. So I
carefully opened it, a crack at first, then enough to pass through into the
large chamber beyond.
The room was circular, perhaps sixty feet in diameter, and opulently decorated.
It was illuminated magically, as I expected, and the light was sourceless;
looking down, I saw that I cast no shadow. The outer wall was lined with single
doors, with one ornate pair of double doors on the far side. The ceiling was a
dome, perhaps fifty feet to the top, painted black and set with glowing
gemstone stars. But it was the staircase that attracted my attention.
A well of sorts, almost thirty feet across, dominated the room. The well had
neither wall nor railing around it, but was merely a gaping hole in the floor.
A spiral staircase descended around the outside of the well. There was no
light within, save apparently at the very bottom, so the staircase was rather
gloomy. It looked all the more dangerous because it also had no railing.
I heard a scuffling noise on the stone-flagged floor behind me, and I turned
swiftly to discover four more hobgoblins behind me. "Trying to sneak up on me?"
I said, smiling grimly. They just smiled back, displaying their prominent lower
tusks. As they advanced, I reached down with my right hand and drew a long dirk
from a scabbard in my boot.
They fell upon me then, swinging heavy maces, and with my good black sword in my
left hand and the dirk in my right, I wove a virtual web of steel around myself,
fending them off. Still, I knew while I held the hobgoblins at bay, I would not
be able to strike back at them without leaving myself open to attack. I knew it
was only a matter of time before I would fall before their rain of blows.
Suddenly, one of the hobgoblins fell. The others were surprised, and one
turned to see what had become of his comrade, so I took advantage of the
situation, burying my dirk in the distracted hobgoblin's side.
A slim feminine figure joined the fight; the blood on her dagger made it obvious
she was who had brought the first one down. Now, with the odds suddenly even,
my fighting grin returned, and I turned the full force of both of my weapons
against one hobgoblin while the other turned to fight the woman.
Shortly I landed a fatal blow with my sword, felling my opponent. The woman was
backing away, dodging and parrying the hobgoblin, who seemed unaware that he was
now alone. I stole up behind him and ended his life with my dirk.
We stood there a moment, breathing hard, and I regarded the woman. She was clad
in a dark cloak over leather armor. Finally I said, "I'm John Northcrosse."
"Call me Eldritch," she replied.
"Not your real name."
"Not your business," she said, a defiant grin on her face.
"You're a half-elf," I said. "You've the ears and eyes of an elf, but the
curves of a woman. And you wear jasmine perfume."
"You're observant, for a human," she replied, and I smiled. "Come," she
continued, her tone changing, "we are here for the same reason, I'm sure, and we
make a good team. Let's continue together."
I frowned. "The last comrades-in-arms I had lie buried in a temple in the
desert of Nol. I was the only survivor."
"I'm not worried," she said, smiling broadly.
"Very well," I replied. "You were invisible before... can you be so again?"
"My ring must rest a while first, I'm afraid," she replied.
"I see. Well, it seems we must descend. Ladies first?"
"Chivalry?" she said, grinning. "Just this one time, why don't you lead?"
"Very well," I said again, wiping my bloody weapons on the cloak of the nearest
fallen foe. I turned to the stair and began downward, following the wall and
staying well clear of the rail-less inner edge. Eldritch followed close behind
We descended three full times around before reaching the bottom of the shaft,
entering the magical illumination at the bottom cautiously. Just as we reached
it, the clatter of armored men, or perhaps more hobgoblins, came from above.
"They're behind us," I said quietly. "There's a doorway there, at the foot of
the steps, we should try to get through it before they see us."
"No," whispered the half-elf. "Under the steps is a better place. There's
only one doorway here, so it must be their destination. I'd rather be behind
them than in front of them."
I nodded my assent, and took a quick look up. "Now, let's move, I don't think
they'll see us."
It was hobgoblins, I saw, peeking carefully out from beneath the stairs, and
there were five of them. They went directly to the door and passed through,
though the last one did stop and glance around the well-bottom; but I foresaw
his movement and drew back beneath the stair, and we went undiscovered.
After a few moments of silence, I stepped out from under the stairs. I looked
around, but did not see Eldritch. "Your ring has rested, eh?" I said.
"Yes," came her disembodied voice.
"Good. They may come back this way, when they don't find us beyond. If they
do, I'll draw them in here, and you try to get behind them."
"Aye, it worked once, it may well work again," she replied.
I quietly walked to the doorway; beyond the half-open doors, I saw a passageway,
perhaps twenty feet wide with a ten foot ceiling. Every twenty feet or so, a
heavy dolmen arch made of stones three feet thick supported the ceiling. "Very
good," I whispered, "I can use these arches for cover." With that, I moved
quickly down the darkened corridor, beckoned onward by a set of double doors
outlined thinly with light at the far end.
As I approached the doors, I heard a soft male voice from the lighted space
beyond. "I'm very disappointed in you," said the voice, "letting thieves into
"Master, please," said a harsh yet quiet voice, "Grak and Og and the others,
they were weak and stupid. We'll find the thieves and kill them for you."
"No," came the soft voice in reply, "stay here. I don't trust you to keep the
thieves away from me. No telling what trouble they might cause, and I'm rather
busy right now. Go back to the stairs and stand guard."
Hearing that, I quickly took cover behind one of the arch-pillars. "Damn, this
won't do," I whispered fiercely, "they'll see me for sure." But no answer
came... if Eldritch was near me, she didn't answer.
Then suddenly I remembered my potion, and wondered if it might still be working.
As the doors behind me opened, I yelled "Damn, they're coming, back up the
stairs!" I thanked whichever of the Hundred Gods governed the powers of magic
when my voice came not from my mouth, but from far down the passage toward the
stairs. Sure enough, hearing that the hobgoblins broke into a run and never
looked back, passing just inches from me without noticing.
I stepped out of my hiding place, looked briefly toward the hobgoblins, and then
turned the other way. They had left the doors half-open; through them, I could
see a large, softly illuminated room, and a man in elaborately-decorated robes
facing away from me.
The man, it turned out, was standing before a sort of stone table or altar.
Around him I could see the slim hands and feet of a bound victim, the rest of
her body being hidden by his large belly. Without turning, the robed man said
softly, "Come in, come in."
I was startled, but only for the briefest moment. "So, Pentalion, the rumors
are true... you do engage in human sacrifice."
"Sacrifice?" said the large man, turning. "I suppose you could call it that.
But I won't harm a hair on her head." He stepped aside so that I could see the
victim's face, but my eyes were following the wicked knife in his right hand.
"Oh, this?" he said, seeing John's gaze. "I was merely going to remove her
I turned my gaze on the victim, clad only in a light night-dress. With her eyes
she begged my aid. "She's just a girl," I said, surprised.
"Why, my friend," replied Pentalion, smiling wickedly, "when you must choose
your virgins from among the population of the Poor Quarter, they're apt to be a
I hefted my sword and began to advance on the robed man, but he said
"laflictis", and with arms upraised he flew up into the air.
"You think I can't harm you simply because you are out of reach of my sword?" I
said, drawing my dirk; but even as I did so, Pentalion said the word
"dephlotis" and made a dismissing gesture with his hands. When I threw
the weapon it turned aside in midair, falling harmlessly to the floor.
Pentalion smiled. "You see," he said, still speaking softly, "you cannot harm
me. But I, on the other hand... solectu!" A blue-white bolt of
lightning struck down from the wizard's outstretched hands. I leapt aside, but
the twisting, arcing bolt grazed me, throwing me to the flagstones.
I lay there for a moment, stunned and twitching. As soon as I could, I picked
up my sword and began to rise. "I have more," said the wizard in his soft
Then I heard another voice, feminine, speak the word "interecti", and
suddenly Pentalion fell to the floor, crying out when he hit; the sharp sound of
his impact signaled a broken bone. Smiling grimly, I stepped forward again,
grasped my sword in both hands and raised it high.
Pentalion looked up, in obvious pain, and said "thalactis." With a
sickening twist his body seemed to collapse and disappear. "He's teleported,"
said Eldritch. "No telling where he's gone."
"Free her," I replied, "while I look for him." I turned toward the exit just in
time to see the doors slam shut, and before I could reach them I heard a bar
slam down. "Damn, we're going to have to work to get those open."
Turning, I saw that Eldritch had freed the girl. I began to walk back to them,
but even as I did, a huge, eyeless head reared up behind the stone table. Its
neck was long and serpentine, its skin was pasty white and slimy, and its open
mouth was lined with hundreds of long, sharp teeth. "Look out!" I yelled.
Eldritch turned and saw her peril, and grabbing the girl, she leapt out of the
way as the monster struck swiftly, snakelike. I wasted no time, running forward
and burying my sword to the hilt in the monster's neck.
For a moment, all was quiet. I pulled my sword out of the monstrous creature's
flesh and stepped back. "Is it dead?" asked the girl in a small voice.
As if in answer, the creature rose up and shook itself, and as it did, four
identical heads joined it from behind the table. "There's a pit back there,"
said Eldritch, dodging away from a strike. "That's where the creatures are
"I don't think it's 'creatures,'" I replied, dodging. "I think it's one
creature. Some kind of hydra." One of the heads struck at me, and I dodged
aside. I struck at the serpentine neck as it passed me, scoring a solid hit,
but the wound seemed to close almost as soon as I drew back my sword.
The heads began striking in earnest, two or three at a time, and it was all we
could do to avoid them. I struck at it here and there, but my mightiest blow
seemed to do the monster no real harm. "What do we have to do to kill this
damned thing?" I yelled in frustration.
Finally I had a moment to breathe as all the heads drew back at the same time,
and I looked for the girl. After a brief moment I found her, crouching near
the door and crying softly, seemingly unharmed.
Eldritch looked also, and her face lit up. As she dodged another attack she
called out, "They can't see us, John, they must be hearing us."
"Hearing us," I mused, and then I began yelling, "Over here, you stupid
frog-snakes! Come and get me!" I was using the magic of the potion, which
thankfully was still in effect, to cast my voice behind the monster. The
monster's heads turned as one to attack my phantom voice, smashing uselessly
into the wall.
Still yelling to draw its attention, I slowly moved over to the stone table, and
saw behind it the monster's body within the pit. It was, as I had suspected, a
single monster, five heads attached to a single massive body. Reversing my
sword and taking it in both hands, I leaped into the pit and thrust it between
the heads with my full weight, driving it deep into the body.
The monster's death throes were prodigious, and I was smashed against the wall
of the pit and knocked unconscious. The next thing I heard was the voice of
Eldritch, calling down to me. I shook myself, then sat up. I was drenched in
the monster's foul blood but apparently not too badly harmed. "Need a hand,
friend?" Eldritch asked, smiling broadly.
"In a moment," I said, standing up and checking my limbs. Turning to the gory
carcass, I grabbed my sword. It took me several tries to pull it out, and by
that time, Eldritch had made a silk rope fast to the stone table. I wiped my
weapon on my blood-fouled cloak as best I could, sheathed it and climbed out of
"You need a bath, John Northcrosse," said Eldritch. "And your gear could use
I just smiled at her. "Have you any magic to open the doors?"
"I think so," she replied. She laid her hands on the doors and said
"fralineen," and they heard the bar fly from the other side and land with
a crash. I led the way out, and Eldritch followed, guiding the girl.
We met the hobgoblins at the foot of the stair, but the sight of the
blood-soaked swordsman raising his dripping sword to oppose them was too much
even for such brutish creatures... they turned and ran up the stairs as fast as
they could. I laughed grimly as I trudged up the stairs.
Suddenly I heard a rumbling noise, and the stairway shuddered. "The steps,
they're moving!" said Eldritch.
"They're pulling back into the wall," I replied. "We'll have to move fast if we
want to get up there before they're gone." With that, I began to run up the
steps, taking them two at a time.
Eldritch said "laflictis," and rose into the air, carrying the girl.
"I'll meet you at the top," she said as she passed me.
I just kept running, and the steps kept getting narrower. I had to slow to a
walk, face against the wall, to make it the last few steps. When at last my
hands could reach the top of the well, I pulled myself out.
Eldritch and the girl were indeed waiting. "Look," said the girl, and I turned
toward the well. The well was closing up, shrinking somehow. Soon there was no
sign it had ever been there.
"Swordsman!" came the voice of the wizard. He was seated on a chair, framed in
the now-open double doorway at the front of the room. Behind him stood the
five hobgoblins, weapons at the ready but looking nervous. "Swordsman," he
said again, "you have won this round. Leave by the back entrance. A messenger
has already been sent to fetch the watch... if you are still here when they
come, you'll be arrested."
"We'll meet again," I said, motioning for Eldritch and the girl to precede me.
"Count on it," replied the wizard, his eyes sharply glinting. "Count on it..."