They all caught sight of the shade at least once on the way to the stairwell. Havia felt relived the first time Antios pointed down a far-off corridor.
“We’re being watched, is that the one?” he’d asked. She had confirmed his suspicion with several well aimed swear words. Quink saw it next as they were entering a large room, next to an empty bookcase. Again, it didn’t approach, just watched, and disappeared into the wall once they got closer.
“That’s not normal right?” Utig asked as the shade retreated from the torch light that emanated around them.
“No, I think we have established that nothing about this fucking dungeon is normal.” Havia snapped, she examined the wall, next to the bookcase, but they were all spooked and so continued quickly onward.
They found the stairwell where Havia had guessed, southeast from where they had originally stopped. After walking for what felt like an age, the conversation had become stilted as the strangeness of the empty level of the dungeon permeated their mood.
Thick timber stairs protruded from the circular walls, like accusing fingers, casting blame on each other for their descent down into the darkness. The walls here were bare rock, not masoned stone. It wasn’t unusual for a dungeons structure to change the deeper you went; in fact, it was reassuring to see a change in the environment.
“Decision time, up here all we have to look out for is that weird shade, we have no idea what’s down there and we desperately need a night’s rest.” Antios turned to stare back down into the darkness.
“My suggestion, we double back to the room with the bookcase, it had two entrances on the same wall, standard watch, four-hour increments. Two by two.” He smiled; it was how they always did things in larger dungeons. You could be down here for days, weeks even, it was essential to get at least four hours sleep for every twelve you crawled through the trap-ridden, monster-infested dungeons.
Everyone nodded and turned to make their way back to the room with the bookcase. Havia paused, cocking her ear to the stairwell.
“Counter suggestion,” she said, waiting for them to turn back towards her before continuing. “You guys head back, Antios starts our watch, and I go down there a short way, scout it out, see how far down it goes?” She shrugged as they looked at her with uncertainty.
“Look, this place has me feeling a bit twitchy, but I feel we need to know for sure if this is the right way to go?” They all nodded agreement, walking off slowly, tired and frustrated at the strangeness of the place. Utig, in particular, was used to cracking a few more skulls than this.
“Be careful, and don’t go too far down.” Antios said, fishing about in his backpack, he pulled out two small hour glasses, handing one to her.
“You turn back when this hits halfway, right.” He said as he turned the glass tubing over in its little frame.
She nodded and took the device; it had a clip, so was easy enough to attach to her belt.
“You know I hate these gnomish gizmos, right?” Havia tapped on the glass and silver device that made a quiet hissing sound as Antios patted her on the shoulder.
“You want to go off, you get a time limit.” He said before smiling and walked off to catch up with the others. Havia turned to the stairs, the torch light receding behind her.
Thankfully, at some point in her families past, an elf had taken a fancy to one of Havia’s ancestors. The result was that most of her family aged a little slower, and, occasionally, a member of the family could see quite well in the dark. Havia’s secret weapon. As her eyes adjusted, she stepped onto the first massively thick step and proceeded down the stairs.
Utig was rudely awakened by Havia and Antios having a heated debate in the corner of the room. He had what others called, an unnerving ability to wake up when his watch was due, a trick his father had taught him as a child. He could sleep for exactly four, six, or eight hours, and he could fall asleep anywhere at any time.
The plains tribes were a guarded people, always setting watches. It was ingrained into his very being. If, for any reason, he was awakened early, the phrase “What the actual fuck,” was often deployed.
Stretching gently, he untangled himself form the eldritch creature that was Quink’s sleeping form. Legs and arms wrapped around him with a bizarre strength, absorbing his heat, using him as a cushion, a blanket, sometimes even a food source. He still joked with her about the time she had bitten him in her sleep.
The party had agreed that letting the spell caster sleep a few extra hours was always worth it. So, Utig would always take the first two hours of his watch alone, letting the demur, yet somehow terrifying, Quink, sleep that bit longer. Giving the mage more time to recharge her arcane skills.
“What the actual fuck,” he said approaching the others, “You two will wake her up if you keep arguing.” They were stood within inches of each other, red-faced and with no good reason to be so loud.
“What’s got your breeches in bunches?” He asked as he rooted about in his pack for something to eat.
“We’re trying to figure out what to do, I scoped out the stairwell, and I think it’s one big trap.” Havia’s, matter of fact, voice grated on Utig’s nerves. He loved the members of his party dearly, they were now his tribe, his family, his closest friends. But they were also, really annoying shits at times.
“Ok so, why is it a trap?” He asked, chewing on some cold chicken he had removed from his void bag, gesturing with is off hand that the other two that they should move into the corridor.
They did as he suggested, Havia leaned against the masoned wall before replying to him, staring at Antios as she did.
“I went down the stairwell for a full half an hour, maybe a little longer,” she admitted as Antios rolled his eyes at her.
“It doesn’t stop, it just keeps on going. I dropped a coin and didn’t hear it hit the floor. It’s some kind of special trap, magic, like an oubliette. I’d lay money on us getting an hour or so down it and then not being able to find the way out if we came back up.” She turned to Utig, smiling grimly while he used his fingernail to unpick a piece of chicken.
“I think we need to search up here and find a different way down, he thinks we should go down the well.” She pointed her thumb at Antios, red faced and glaring as the rogue then stuck her tongue out.
“I just said we should consider it, maybe it’s just a really deep stairwell?” He shrugged, fidgeting as they considered the position they were in.
“Besides,” Antios said after a quiet moment, “you said it yourself, this place is off kilter, we’re on edge, maybe that’s the point, decision paralysis?” Antios shuffled passed the barbarian, handing him the hourglass as he re-entered the room. Arranging his bed roll on the far side, opposite from where Quink was still sleeping, a high-pitched snore escaping from her tangle of blankets.
“I’m getting some sleep; we can discuss it when we wake up.” He mumbled, unbuckling his breast plate and sword, placing them quietly next to his bedroll, before laying down and pulling a blanket over himself.
Havia followed suit, obviously also in a foul mood, she still placed her roll on the same side of the room as Antios’s and lay her head down. Before long they were both asleep, the sounds of low breathing and the occasional snore filling the chamber. Utig waited in silence for the first hour, turning the hourglass over for the start of the next hour. He held the small device to his ear, enjoying the pleasant sound of the sand hissing as it passed from top to bottom, like a distant rain fall or the tide lapping against a warm beach.
He finished sharpening his axe, brushing his furs, and eating the food he’d rationed to himself for the day. Soon bored, he looked around the empty chamber, his eyes settling on the empty wooden bookshelf against the wall. It was of good construction, red wood of some kind, varnished so the fine grains of the timbers showed through. Curious he got up and ran a hand along one of the shelves.
Smooth, planed timber, finely assembled, with no dust on its empty shelves?
Unbeknownst to the rest of the party, or so he thought, Utig had a secret fascination with carpentry. He dreamed of setting up his own shop, making toys, cabinets, and various other wooden goods. Of course, this would be when his adventuring days were over. He kept in his pack, wrapped lovingly in a cloth, a small set of whittling knives and chisels with which he would often occupy his alone time, when they had a supply of timber that is.
As he inspected the shelves, he noticed something odd, not so much about the shelves, but the area around them. It was cooler than the rest of the chamber, with a familiar smell nearby that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He stepped away for a moment, to peer down the adjoining corridors. He gauged the temperature to be not unlike the difference to a cave entrance, where a slight chill was soon overcome by a campfire. Satisfied that he wasn’t imagining the temperature difference, he turned to examine the shelves in more detail. His hand jumped to the knife at his belt, a flicker of movement on his periphery warning him that the shade had returned.
Much closer than any of the other sightings, it stood before him, a stalwart shadow, not turning or disappearing quickly like it had before. Utig was curious, it had had the chance to attack his comrades, while he was looking down the corridors, and yet it hadn’t.
Lifting his hand from the knife, he stepped closer to the shade, getting a much better look than any of them had before.
It wasn’t just pure shadow, it was robed, in an ethereal black silk, reflecting the light from the torches like the moon on a still lake. The occasional shimmer of light would cast a ripple across it, as if a stone had been thrown into the lakes surface.
It wasn’t tall, not like Utig, but neither was it short, like Quink. Utig gauged it about the same height and build as Havia, but the hooded robe clinging to it, wrapping around it, made it hard to distinguish anything else. Within the recess of the hood a dim pair of glowing coals peered out. Not the angry red of a smiths forge fire, but the warm orange of embers, when the fire has died down and the last of the warmth is lingering.
Utig took another step, hesitantly, his hands open at his sides. The shade didn’t move as the barbarian smiled and pointed at the shelves.
“You want to tell me about this?” He asked quietly, aware that his comrades were close to possible danger, if they were to awake and attack without thinking, it could get messy.
The shade glided towards the shelves, silent as the grave, bowing slightly to Utig as the barbarian took a step back. A curious sight indeed, as the shade passed through the shelves completely, disappearing without a trace.
Utig was sat with his back to the wall opposite the shelves, deep in thought, when it was time to wake Quink, the hourglass running dry. He casually flipped it over as mage dug around in her void bag for something to eat and drink. She spent some time tidying her hair and washing her face while Utig told her about Antios and Havia’s disagreement, and then about the shade and the bookcase.
She examined the shelves, finding no magical energy around them as she held her hands out and concentrated. Smiling mischievously, she watched Utig attempt to give them a push, his muscles bulging as he concluded the shelves were somehow mounted into the wall. Any more force and he would risk waking up the others, who deserved their rest.
They returned to sit atop their bed rolls, Quink nestled into the crook of Utig’s arm, as they discussed the possibilities.
“You know,” Quink said,” it could be a ghost, not a shade. There have been accounts of ghosts helping adventures.” They both stared at the bookcase, the gentle hissing of the hourglass reminding them they were on watch.
Quink stretched and stood, straightening the silken robes she wore atop her breeches and leather vest. Utig knew from experience that although she enjoyed dressing the part of Mage, a few daggers and other devices were hidden about her person for more close combat situations.
“Appearances can be deceiving.” He commented, eyeing her approvingly as she straightened the robe and stretched theatrically, sparing a smile and a wink at the barbarian.
“Oh darling, you know that’s true.” She giggled, quickly stifling her laughter when Havia rolled over noisily in her sleep. Leaning forward she placed a tender kiss on Utig’s forehead before tapping him playfully on the nose.
“It would explain why we have only seen one shade, if it is, in fact, a ghost. Shades normally attack in threes and fours, and they attack anyone who gets close, instead of whatever this spectral voyeur has been doing.” She rummaged in her void bag, producing a handful of scrolls.
“Now, I need to prep spells for the day, gimme some peace and quiet, and then we can continue this chat.” She shooed him away as she quietly ensconced herself in the far corner of the room to begin reading through her scrolls.
Utig watched down the corridors, he had an itch forming between his shoulder blades, he hadn’t had a proper fight in a while, he could feel the tension in his back and arms. If he wasn’t careful, he could get lost in the rage next time they fought, he would have to find something to hit soon.
Most of his clan had the rage, a way to release a large amount of anger and frustration while fighting, increasing the strength and speed with which he fought. Utig himself was the son of a famous hunter amongst the tribes of the southern mountains. Thusly a lot of expectations had been handed down to him with that title. What most didn’t know, or at least what was lost in the legends of his tribesmen, was that they were extremely level-headed negotiators and philosophers. In combat they released all their anger and toxic emotions, negative thoughts, and self-doubts. The mountain tribes held vast tracks of land, were valued fighters and shrewd negotiators, because they knew when to keep a cool head. When you had the ability to release your negative emotions it enhanced your calmer ones. Utig was a little calmer than most, often delving into the negative stereotype of his people to fuel his rage. As Quink had said upon their first time adventuring together, “He fought well, thought well and looked good doing it.”
The memory of their first drink in an Inn after that first venture out, about a year ago now, bought a foolish, boyish grin to his face. It had still been a month before they had started being more than comrades in arms, but it was that day he had felt something more than respect for the street mage.
Indulging in fond memories was a good way to stave off the rage, and Utig watched as Quink memorised her spells for the day, taking in every detail as she poured over her scrolls.
Before long the watch was over, and Utig was tapping Antios awake with his boot.
“Gods be cursed, no way was that four hours?” The fighter complained as he stood and put his breast plate back on. Havia was stretching and rolling her bedroll up, sliding it into the top of her pack before placing it next to the doorway.
“So,” she said, hissing softly as she smiled grimly at Antios. “We need to discuss the stairwell, and I for one don’t think it’s going to be a good idea to get stuck in some magical fucking loop for the foreseeable.” Her chin jutted out defiantly at Antios, clearly the sleep had helped her mood a bit.
“I agree with Havia, and I think we might have a different way?” Utig interrupted, cutting Antios off before he could bite at the rogue’s jibe.
“What? How did you find a different path while on watch?” The fighter said as Utig pointed at the bookcase.
“The shade, which we think might not be a shade, maybe a ghost or spirit thingy, went through there. And it made a proper show of making sure I saw it go through.” He simulated walking with his fingers as he then pointed at the bookcase.
“I think it’s been trying to help us all along.” The barbarian put a hand on Havia’s shoulder and grinned.
“You made a friend.” He said affectionately while Quink rolled her eyes, Havia deftly manoeuvred out from under Utig’s grip and stepped closed to the shelves.
“Really, well, now that I think about it, we spotted the shade whenever we took a turn in the corridors? Maybe this level is a bit like a labyrinth, and the reason we haven’t felt challenged is because it’s been guiding us?” She started examining the shelve as Antios retrieved the torch from the sconce on the wall. “We avoided corridors where we saw it, what if it was letting us see it to stop us going down there? Reverse psychology from a ghost? And this time it had to make a point of showing us the obvious.” The fighter finished, holding the guttering torch closer to the shelves. Havia reached back and moved his hand to guide the light towards the lower shelves, it flickered in the slight breeze.
“Ok, so, if this is a doorway, which would make sense as its obviously got some air flowing behind it, I can’t see the switch anywhere on it. Maybe its somewhere else in the room?” Havia started examining the rough-hewn brickwork of the chamber, pushing at the walls in various places. Slowly spreading out from the bookshelf.
Utig stood in front of the bookshelf, admiring the craftsmanship for a moment, sighing sadly as he eased his axe over his shoulder and swung, grim faced, with all his strength.
The crash of splintering timbers was ear shattering. Fragments of red wood went flying everywhere, as, with one strike, the bookcase crumpled in on itself.
“I found it.” He said, grinning as Havia stormed over to him.
“Utig, did you have to do that, now whatever’s back there knows where coming. And you ruined a perfectly good bookshelf.” Utig looked crestfallen at the rebuke, but Quink rested her hand on his arm and rolled her eyes theatrically.
Havia had turned to examine the hole that had appeared in the back of the shelves. Not as big as a normal doorway, beyond it a small, thin corridor snaked off downwards into the dark. Looking at the edges she saw no lock or mechanism to move the shelf that had been wedged tightly into the recess.
“Do you smell that?” She said, breathing in deep as she pointed down the tunnel. The others craned their heads in to breathe in the unpleasant odour that wafted up from the darkness.
Utig grinned wide, he knew he’d caught the smell earlier, and now he could name it. Swinging his axe in a slow arc and letting it rest on his broad shoulder, he grinned hungrily.
“Goblins, lots and lots of the little green shits.”