“You seem defensive, my good Barrick, about sleeping in your armor every night. Why does a stout dwarf like yourself care what some young Dragonborn says about your sleep habits?”
Torben Eastlander already knew full well why the stout dwarf had taken to sleeping in his armor. One too many close brushes with violent death, not that Barrick would admit it. In fact, there had been three close brushes, all on the same blood-soaked day in the Horned Hold. Adventurers had a term for the syndrome: “White Blood”. Heroic blood still flowed through Barrick’s limbs, but it no longer supplied him sufficient courage. Instead, his blood had turned white, so to speak, and now supplied him with other instincts, self-preservation chief among them.
“I’m not defensive, I mean, I’m just being careful, that’s all. Like when we were hunting gnolls down at the Well of Demons, and the three skinny ones went off through a crack in the wall, we all stayed in contact with ropes. Nothing to be ashamed of, being careful. If you were surrounded with duergar, gnolls, and worse, who might try to cut your belly open in the middle of the night, you would sleep in armor, too.”
“But here at this pleasant inn, surrounded by friends, drunkards, and bunnies?” Eastlander had become less deferential towards Barrick since hearing about his White Blood problem.
Barrick ignored the crack, and the scribe continued. “What happened when the skinny ones, as you call them, went through the crack?”
Barrick was glad to change the subject. “They rescued a Dragonborn gal, a real piece of work called Surina. Couldn’t wait to mix it up with the gnolls. Gave us no end of trouble at first, but she had something going for her when it came to a fight, she did. We all met up soon after, and scouted around a bit. Heard laughter from some doors, howling from others.”
“If I know anything about your group, you burst into one of the rooms that had howling, arrows and spells flying in all directions.”
“Uh – no. I wanted to, of course, but my, uh, companions wanted to check everything out first. I almost went into one room alone, but I thought, if nobody else wants to, why should I tip the ferry?” Barrick had been studying the floor as if trying to read its beer spills as runes, but now he perked up. “That’s when we met the three Judges!”
“Three judges? You mean the leaders of the Seven-Pillared Hall?”
“No, no, these were ghosts, wanting to judge if we were worthy of the challenges ahead. Didn’t make sense to me – if we weren’t worthy, we would just die like many others had done, even these three themselves. But there they were, and we had to make fools of ourselves, trying to prove our worth, like a young dwarf on his first courting trip. I spotted the broken walls of the room, had Felsmon toss me up there, and did some overhanging rockhounding. Same as on my first courting trip, come to think of it. I think Z’alden was the most impressive, with his knowledge of a ritual that would supposedly help even ghosts.”
“So you passed the tests?”
“Most of them, yeah. Anyways they let us through. We looked into a small room with a movable ceiling, smelled of hot fat. Never got the place sussed out. Eventually, we chanced upon the room with the mirrored columns.”
“Ah, I have heard of that room.”
“Hated that room! People being ported in and out, back and forth, you never knew where you would end up next. Mostly it turned out you would end up in a small room with no exits, facing one poor Gnoll, may Bahamut use his entrails as a hangman’s noose.”
“You ended up there?”
“I wasn’t the first, but yeah, I did, and I got in one good whack, I can tell you, before Surina put the poor creature out of his misery, may Bahamut break his bones.“
“Break his bones? Have you finally run out of new curses for your dead opponents? Won’t their ghosts come back to haunt you if you start repeating yourself?”
Barrick scoffed. “I’ve been killing dark creatures since before your grandfather was born, and no ghosts have come back for me yet. Well, only a few.”
“How did you get out of a room with no exits?”
“Felsmon somehow reached the end of the mirrored columns, alone by then, and he fought off two skeletons, with, he said, exploding ribs! Then he freed us using the magical altar. All in a day’s work for Felsmon.”
“Barrick? You forgot to curse the skeletons.”
“I didn’t fight them, did I! Felsmon did, as usual, desecrate what was left of their bones. Z’alden even desecrated the altar. Fels found a mask there on the altar – which would come in handy later.”
“Well, we were by now on a quest for four items: mask, bell, blade, and tome, or so everyone said. I never understand this magical stuff, I just go along, raise my shield, swing my axe, and enjoy the blood flow!” Barrick used to say things like this all the time, believably. Easterner sensed that in this case, the old fighter was trying to remind himself of how it used to feel, rather than actually feeling it.
The dwarf continued. “This quest was queer from beginning to end. After Felsmon rescued us, a demon popped up, smelling of mead and selling answers for pain. I had lately been practicing Warlord motivational skills, and thought I might negate the effect with the Inspiring Word technique. So, I went first, and asked how to reach the prisoners – SE it was. I felt a little twinge, more weakness than pain, and tried my first in-action Inspiring Word. I think I got the mindset right, and the words were supposed to come out “What, did you want to live forever?!”, but I got interrupted, and it just came out “What, did you want to live?”. Felt worse, if anything.”
“You eventually mastered that technique, I understand.”
“Not that day, though. After the imp disappeared – we got two good answers out of 3 questions, the other being that the prisoners would be sacrificed in one to three days – we ended up at the blood & statues room.”
“Blood and statues? I don’t think I have been told of such a place.”
“A right scene from the abyss, it was. Two pools of blood divided by a stone walkway, with two giant minotaur statues holding flails. Never a dull moment in this job.”
“I’m sure you plunged right into the blood like an eager young orc.” Easterner was baiting Barrick more and more.
“Well, we all scented magic right away, of course. I dipped a dagger into the blood, and let one drop fall onto my finger. One drop too many! I felt a little sick, but worse than that, the statues began to twirl their weapons. They were aimless, like they were trying out new hardware at an outfitter’s, but they reached into the corners of the room. I ducked, Z’alden took a hit to the shoulder, and we had to back off when three demons popped up out of the blood pools, may Bahamut bring them back to life in your presence.”
“That fight was target practice, mostly. I even threw one of my two hand-axes – missed, and lost it in the blood. Like an old friend, that axe was. Anyway, the other four ganged up on the first demon, which fell soon enough to Erik’s arrows, may Bahamut infest its corpse with Dire Ticks. Never saw who took out the second one, but Felsmon did for the third.”
“Did that stop the enchanted statues?
“No, Rift did, and it didn’t take long. Stone statues that couldn’t take fire, never saw that before. With all the fight gone out of the room, we only had to figure how to get across to the far pedestal. We planned it all out – me leaping across with a rope, Felsmon on the other end, and the skinny ones coming across hanging by their belts. Rift ported over the widest gap, found a blade and its scabbard, and put them together. That was a trap – the blood pools suddenly got a counter-current – but since we weren’t swimming, we didn’t care a toss, hah-hah!”
“So that was the blade.”
“That was the blade. Had a bit of trouble on the way out. Tripped on a demon’s corpse, may Bahamut use his head for lawn bowling, and fell face-first into the poisoned blood. Might have killed a human like yourself, but we dwarves are made of strong stuff.”
With Barrick still talking the talk, Easterner wondered whether he had been able to walk the walk during the rest of the adventure. He knew he would eventually hear more details, with bell and book, at least, still to come.