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The skull gave them a lopsided grin, as if cheerfully inviting the trio to join it for all eternity.
"Looks like we're not the first," Sadun Tryst murmured. The scarred, sinewy fighter tapped the skull with one edge of his knife, causing the fleshless watcher to wobble. Behind the macabre sight, they could just make out the spike that had pierced their predecessor's head, leaving him dangling until time had let all but the skull drop to the floor in a confused heap.
"Did you think we would be?" whispered the tall, cowled figure. If Sadun had a lean, almost acrobatic look to his build, Fauztin seemed nearly cadaverous. The Vizjerei sorcerer moved almost like a phantom as he, too, touched the skull, this time with one gloved finger. "No sorcery here, though. Only crude but sufficient mechanics. Nothing to fear."
"Unless it's your head on the next pole."
The Vizjerei tugged at his thin, gray goatee. His slightly slanted eyes closed once as if in acknowledgment to his partner's last statement. Whereas Sadun had a countenance more akin to an untrustworthy weasel -- and sometimes the personality to match -- Fauztin reminded some of a withered cat. His nub of a nose, constantly twitching, and the whiskers hanging underneath that nose only added to the illusion.
Neither had ever had a reputation for purity, but Norrec Vizharan would have trusted either with his life -- and had several times over. As he joined them, the veteran warrior peered ahead, to where a vast darkness hinted of some major chamber. Thus far, they had explored seven different levels in all and found them curiously devoid of all but the most primitive traps.
They had also found them devoid of any treasure whatsoever, a tremendous disappointment to the tiny party.
"Are you sure there's no sorcery about here, Fauztin? None at all?"
The feline features half-hidden by the cowl wrinkled further in mild offense. The wide shoulders of his voluminous cloak gave Fauztin a foreboding, almost supernatural appearance, especially since he towered over the brawnier Norrec, no small man himself. "You have to ask that, my friend?"
"It's just that it makes no sense! Other than a few minor and pretty pathetic traps, we've encountered nothing to prevent us from reaching the main chamber! Why go through all the trouble of digging this out, then leave it so sparsely defended!"
"I don't call a spider as big as my head nothing," Sadun interjected sourly, absently scratching his lengthy but thinning black hair. "Especially as it was on my head at the time..."
Norrec ignored him. "Is it what I think? Are we too late? Is this Tristram all over again?"
Once before, between serving causes as mercenaries, they had hunted for treasure in a small, troubled village called Tristram. Legend had had it that, in a lair guarded by fiends, there could be found a treasure so very extraordinary in value, it would make kings of those fortunate enough to live to find it. Norrec and his friends had journeyed there, entering the labyrinth in the dead of night without the knowledge of the local populace...
And after all their efforts, after battling strange beasts and narrowly avoiding deadly traps...they had found that someone else had stripped the underground maze of nearly anything of value. Only upon returning to the village had they learned the sorry truth, that a great champion had descended into the labyrinth but a few weeks before and supposedly slain the terrible demon, Diablo. He had taken no gold or jewels, but other adventurers who had arrived shortly thereafter had made good use of his handiwork, dealing with the lesser dangers and carrying off all they could find. But a few days' difference had left the trio with nothing to show for their efforts...
Norrec himself had also taken no consolation in the words of one villager of dubious sanity who had, as they had prepared to depart, warned that the champion, so-called the Wanderer, had not defeated Diablo but, rather, had accidently freed the foul evil. A questioning glance by Norrec toward Fauztin had been answered at first with an indifferent shrug by the Vizjerei sorcerer.
"There are always stories of escaping demons and terrible curses," Fauztin had added at the time, complete dismissal of the wild warning in his tone. "Diablo is generally in most of the favorites whispered among common folk."
"You don't think there's anything to it?" As a child, Norrec had grown up being scared by his elders with tales of Diablo, Baal, and other monsters of the night, all stories designed to make him be good.
Sadun Tryst had snorted. "You ever seen a demon yourself? Know anyone that had?"
Norrec had not. "Have you, Fauztin? They say Vizjerei can summon demons to do their bidding."
"If I could do that, do you think I would be scrounging in empty labyrinths and tombs?"
And that comment, more than anything else, had convinced Norrec then to chalk the villager's words down as yet another tall tale. In truth, it had not been hard to do. After all, the only thing that had mattered then to the three had been what mattered now -- wealth.
Unfortunately, it seemed more and more likely that once again those riches had eluded them.
As he peered down the passage, Fauztin's other gloved hand tightened around the spell staff he wielded. The jeweled top -- the source of their light -- flared briefly. "I had hoped I was wrong, but now I fear it is so. We are far from the first to delve this deep into this place."
The slightly graying fighter swore under his breath. He had served under many a commander in his life, most of them during the crusades from Westmarch, and from surviving those various campaigns -- often by the skin of his teeth -- he had come to one conclusion. No one could hope to rise in the world without money. He had made it as far as captain, been broken in rank thrice, then finally retired in disgust after the last debacle.
War had been Norrec's life since he had been old enough to raise a sword. Once, he had also had something of a family, but they were now as dead as his ideals. He still considered himself a decent man, but decency did not fill one's stomach. There had to be another way, Norrec had decided...
And so, with his two comrades, he had gone in search of treasure.
Like Sadun, he had his share of scars, but Norrec's visage otherwise resembled more that of a simple farmer. Wide brown eyes, with a broad, open face and a strong jaw, he would have looked at home behind a hoe. Yet, while that vision occasionally appealed to the sturdy veteran, he knew that he needed the gold to pay for that land. This quest should have led them to riches far beyond his needs, far beyond his dreams...
Now, it seemed as if it had all been a waste of time and effort...again.
Beside him, Sadun Tryst tossed his knife into the air, then expertly caught it at the hilt as it fell. He did this twice more, clearly thinking. Norrec could just imagine what he thought about. They had spent months on this particular quest, journeying across the sea to northern Kehjistan, sleeping in the cold and rain, following false trails and empty caves, eating whatever vermin they could find when other hunting proved scarce -- and all because of Norrec, the one who had instigated this entire fiasco.
Worse, this quest had actually come about because of a dream, a dream concerning a wicked mountain peak bearing some crude resemblance to a dragon's head. Had he dreamt of it only once, perhaps twice, Norrec might have forgotten the image, but over the years, it had repeated itself far too many times. Wherever he had fought, Norrec had watched for the peak, but to no avail. Then, a comrade -- later dead -- from these chill northern lands had made mention of such a place in passing. Ghosts were said to haunt it and men who traveled near the mountain often disappeared or were discovered years later, all flesh stripped from the shattered bones...
There and then, Norrec Vizharan had been certain that destiny had tried to call him here.
But if so -- why to a tomb already vandalized?
The entrance had been well hidden in the rock face, but definitely open to the outside. That should have been his first clue to the truth, yet Norrec had refused to even see the discrepancy. All his hopes, all his promises to his companions...
"Damn!" He kicked at the nearest wall, only his sturdy boot saving him from a few broken toes. Norrec threw his sword to the ground, continuing to curse his naivete.
"There's some new general from Westmarch hiring on mercenaries," Sadun helpfully suggested. "They say he's got big ambitions..."
"No more war," muttered Norrec, trying not to show the pain coursing through his foot. "No more trying to die for other people's glory."
"I just thought -- "
The lanky sorcerer tapped the ground once with his staff, seeking the attention of both his earthier partners. "At this point, it would be foolish not to go on to the central chamber. Perhaps those who were here before us left a few baubles or coins. We did find a few gold coins in Tristram. Certainly it would not hurt to search a little longer, would it, Norrec?"
He knew that the Vizjerei only sought to assuage his friend's bitter emotions, but still the idea managed to take root in the veteran's mind. All he needed were a few gold coins! He was still young enough to take a bride, begin a new life, maybe even raise a family...
Norrec picked up his sword, hefting the weapon that had served him so well over the years. He had kept it cleaned and honed, taking pride in one of the few items truly his own. A look of determination spread across his visage. "Let's go."
"You've a way with words for one using so few," Sadun jested to the sorcerer as they started off.
"And you use so many words for one with so few things worth saying."
The friendly argument between his companions helped settle Norrec's troubled mind. It reminded ...