They followed Iki through a labyrinth of winding tunnels, both natural and carved. The kobold was quick and stealthy, their tail swaying nervously as they guided them quietly away from the tribe’s territory. The kobold led them confidently into obviously less used tunnels and natural cave systems. Antios breathed deep as the musty smell of the kobold tunnels, whilst not unpleasant, soon gave way to the less dominating smell of empty caves, the change was refreshing. There was a hint of a chill in the air, but it felt fresh, unlike in the corridors or the spicy scent that hovered everywhere in the elder’s chambers.
Eventually Iki, the kobold, stopped. Casting furtive glances around what appeared to be a dead end. They swished their stumpy tail back and forth as they looked curiously at Utig, the hulking barbarian was slowly bringing up the rear of the party.
“We need the big one to move this please.” Iki said, shyly putting a scaled hand on a large boulder that Antios had assumed was just a part of the cave wall.
“Be wary of what is on the other side, bones have not used this route in a long time, but you never know.” Antios noticed how the small kobold was studying every member of the party in turn, yellow slotted eyes flicking up and down his friends before giving that strange smile at the edge of their wide mouth. Iki was enjoying this. They studied Havia the longest, appearing to be fascinated by the tools and weapons she had fastened to various belts and straps, clearly sensing a kindred spirit. The thief put a thumb up to them. Iki was a quick learner, returning the positive gesture. Havia had clearly made an impression.
“Ok, Utig, boulder duty. Havia, get a bolt ready.” He pulled his sword from its scabbard. “I will stand next to the hole, Quink, you get ready to bring the pain if anything gets past us.” He made eye contact with everyone; this was the sixth floor. As a party they had cleared dungeons with three floors before. Even tackled the first couple of floors of a five tier now and then. This was a mega-dungeon, there was no telling how the floor level contributed to the skill set of the monsters, the previous floors had had their challenges, but nothing they hadn’t overcome.
“We’ve been lucky so far, really lucky. Now we do things slow and steady. On three.” He smiled at his friends, and their guide, holding his fingers up while Utig straddled the boulder and prepared to roll it to the opposite side of the tunnel.
“One, two, three.” He counted brandishing his sword, ready to fight anything that leapt from behind the boulder.
Utig groaned, rolling the large stone forward and then off to one side. A thin stream of mist wafted up from the hole that was exposed, a flight of carved stairs within on the other side. Quink’s lights darted in to reveal stonework descending into a thin layer of fog that soaked up the orbs of gentle light and dispersed it along the floor. A chill permeated the cavern quickly, Quink put a hand to her head for a second and Utig reached out a hand to steady her.
“You ok there?” He asked as he supported her. She rubbed her temples and straightened up.
“Yeah, sorry, that vapour is unnatural, draining. We shouldn’t waste too much time down there.” Utig reached into his void bag and pulled out a thick fur cloak which he draped over Quink’s shoulders. It fit her surprisingly well.
“Oh, that’s so warm?” She commented as the barbarian gave her a brief hug before closing the fastening at her neck.
“Can’t be having my lady go cold now can we.” He said, grinning.
They all turned back to face the ominous stairwell beyond the hole. Its thin layer of fog drifting out and chilling them at the ankles.
Antios ducked to look further into the stairway.
“Ok, so no sneaking, it takes too long, and the dead are dumb! We know this.” He grinned, for the first time in a while he was going to enjoy the challenge instead of worrying about it.
“Utig, you and me up front, Havia take the rear and keep an eye on Quink, she’s obviously at risk down here if there’s a mana drain in effect.” He looked at the kobold for a second, Iki was obviously nervous, tail twitching and clawed hands clasped.
“You don’t need to come with us, you could guard this exit?” He said, pointing at the boulder.
“No, I must, the elder wills it.” They said, clutching tightly to their spear, a simple staff with a black-iron tip, it was only slightly taller than the kobold.
“I know how to kill the dead.” Iki stated, gritting their sharp teeth in determination, pointing to her own head with one of her sharp claws.
“A good thrust to the skull, I am practiced.” Holding their spear in their other hand she gave it a thrust into the air, to prove the point.
“Good,” Antios said. “You help Havia. Keep anything from blocking our escape. Just in case we need it. And protect Quink, I have a feeling we will need some magic before this is done.” He turned and made his way slowly down the stairs, surprised by the chill suddenly clawing its way up his spine.
After descending the stairs and meandering down a few quiet corridors they found their first bone, as Iki called it. It stood around six feet tall, armed with a crude, rusty sword. A skeletal figure that didn’t seem to belong to any single race. The bulk of it could have been human, elf, kobold, or even orc. As if the bones had been gathered randomly and thrown together to make an approximate humanoid shape. Some bones on one leg didn’t match the bones on the other, same with the arms, which looked different lengths. Giving the skeleton a lopsided gait as it walked past their hiding spot. The skull was smooth, like a pebble, and the cleanest part of the construct. Not showing any racial dominance, instead looking like a child’s drawing of a skull.
They crouched in the tunnel, Quink had dipped her lights, but it didn’t seem to matter, the bone just walked past, as if sleep walking, automatically scanning its surroundings, completing some pre-set circuit.
Havia stealthily stepped forward, Iki glued to her side in imitation.
“I think it will only sense movement, maybe sound?” She said, Iki nodding their head in agreement next to her.
“Yes, the bones, they only see you when you make sound or move near them. They are dumb.” The kobold had her clawed hand to her chin as it confirmed Havia’s theory. They both moved to the far side of the corridor as Quink slowly joined them.
“It looks like very basic necromancy, but with a bit of golem thrown in. Someone’s been mixing up their magics. I’d say these are more like bone golems than undead.” The street mage looked a little pale, lost deep within the furs of the cloak Utig had secured around her.
“I can feel my mana draining slowly, faster that I can top it up. I’m going to try a mage armour spell; it might impede the mana drain and give me a buff against physical attacks.” She placed a hand on the glass orb secured to her belt, the sphere glowing with a blue grey swirl as she incanted under her breath. For the briefest of moments there was a flicker of white all over her, as if the mage stood in front of a lightning strike, and then it was gone. Leaving Antios with a ghostly afterimage of the mage slowly fading as he blinked it away.
She breathed a sigh of relief and instantly had a touch more colour to her cheeks.
“That’s better, I’m still feeling a drain but if I focus on mana regeneration, I can balance it out and not be left without any magic. The big spells are off the table unless it’s an emergency.” She nodded to Antios who looked at everyone else in the party.
“Ok, so no big bangs. Let’s deal with them as they come and see if we can find the source quickly. Probably some old geezer dressed in black and green.” He smiled at them all, and Quink laughed slightly.
“I knew a guy who dabbled in necromancy, he wore way too much black and green.” She giggled to herself at the memory while Antios turned his attention back to the patrolling skeleton.
It was easy, once the skeleton had turned away, for him to walk up behind it and thrust his sword through its skull. It felt like piercing a wooden box, it had resistance, but once through the initial bone it gave way to nothingness. A cloud of dark, silver-laced smoke escaped from the cracks that appeared around his blade, the rest of the skull dissolving into a similar dark vapour. All that was left was a headless skeleton, frozen for a heartbeat before the bones collapsed with an unsettlingly wet clatter. Its rusty sword made the most noise as it fell against the stone floor.
Havia breathed in sharply through her teeth as the clang of the blade hitting the floor rang loudly throughout the corridor.
“Well, ring a bell why don’t you?” She said, skirting past the fighter to look up the corridor where the skeleton was heading.
“I’d say were on the edge of a sweep, if anything heard that racket it’ll be on us soon.” She smiled warmly at her friend, knowing there was little he could have done differently.
“I suggest we do the Tifraw dance” she said as Antios put his hand to his forehead.
“You’re never going to let that night go, are you?” he complained.
Quink looked curiously at Utig who had a strange grin on his face.
“He got really drunk once, before you joined, he tried to explain how to sneak past sentries and engage them from behind. Ended up inventing a dance in the process.” The barbarian chuckled down at his partner, who was looking at Antios with open curiosity. The fighter just shrugged in resignation.
“Its four steps forward, two steps back. We find a turning, hide, and hit who ever passes us from behind.” He explained, whilst behind him Havia danced forward silently, shook her hips, then danced two steps back.
“It took Flindora by storm, the bards even made this catchy tune to go with it.” Quink giggled under her breath as they all quietly moved down the corridor while the fighter shook his head.
The rusty blade scratched a shallow line across his chest plate, the squeal of metal on metal accenting the disconcerting silence of Antios’s assailant.
“Fuck you too, I’ve just had that repaired.” He hissed at the skeleton.
There’s a reason quiet as the grave is a phrase, and the fighter was getting up close and personal with a lot of the deceased. With a flick of his wrist, he batted the skeletal hand holding the blade to one side and thrust his own blade forward into the smooth clean skull before him. It was strange how the skulls of these things looked clean and formed while the rest of them were recently stripped bones, sinew and muscle still hanging loosely from them.
The skull dissolved, leaving behind the necrotic vapour. Which is what Quink called the silver-laced smoke. They had tackled a fair number of skeletons since entering the lower corridors. Mostly singular sentries, but the last patrol had been made of three skeletons, which signalled either a change of tactics on the un-dead’s part, or a change of area, which in Antios’s opinion was more likely.
He deftly caught the skeletons sword before it clattered to the ground. The last few fights had taught him to use the delay between despatching the skull and the skeletons body falling apart to his advantage. Utig had bought his axe straight down on the skull of the second skeleton, its bones already falling to the ground as Havia fired a bolt into the eye socket of the third. Her aim had improved, and she grinned as Iki darted between the two other skeletons and stopped their falling weapons from making more noise than necessary.
Apparently, the trick with skeletons was sound and movement. If the party stood still in a shadowed corner or nook, the skeletons would walk past them with little concern. As they surveyed the most recent victims of this tactic a shrill scream echoed from further into the network of fog-filled corridors.
“Well, it’s safe to say something is noticing our work.” Antios quipped as he checked the blade of his sword and turned towards the sound.
“It’s not the best feedback we’ve ever had” Havia replied as she reloaded the crossbow and joined the fighter in the middle of the junction.
“I guess we head that way and see what the ruckus is about?” Quink added, the mage looked pale, compared to her normal demeanour, and leaned in to Utig slightly more as they all looked at the corridor from which the frustrated scream echoed again. She reached into her void bag and bought out a small green potion, necking the concoction and taking a deep breath as it restored some of her mana.
“We need to be quick if you want any magic support, this place sucks! Literally.” She gave them a forced smile as they started off down the corridor, wisps of pervading mist rolling up around them like ocean waves caught in slow motion.
As it turned out they didn’t have too far to go. The corridors had been turning inwards at an increasing level and, despite having to take out two more small groups, they soon came to a large chamber that felt central to the floor’s layout. Shrouded in the mist a large contingent of skeletal figures ambled around the high vaulted hall. The light emanating from the ceiling was a muted, red tinged greyness that only just made the skeletons visible. In the centre of the room sat a huge pile of bones, undulating occasionally as if in response to the mist emanating from a platform on the far side. On the platform was a crudely carved obsidian throne, three large rubies inset on its high back. They radiated a hypnotic vermillion shine which accented the shape of the robed figure slouched between the thrones solid arm rests. Although too far away for them to make anything out other than its hooded shape, there was something very foreboding about the way it leant forward, scanning them as they attempted to hide in the shadows of the chambers entrance.
Every skeletal head in the chamber turned towards them in unison as a low, scratchy voice pierced the silence.
“Ahhh.” It proclaimed in a breathy tone. “We have guests, no doubt the cause of my minions undoing.” The robed figure rose from the throne and gestured around at the numerous skeletons.
“Make them feel welcome my children.” It ordered, as every skeleton in the room turned and walked towards the party, swords, axes, and spears held tightly in skeletal hands.