“Scream if you wish to Negotiate…!”

 

“There’s nothing here!” Vincol cried out in frustration. And then he was buried under falling rocks.

Dragon Face ducked back under the tunnel entrance as rocks rained from the ceiling of the mosaic-filled room. Corax lowered his head and ran, side-stepping the large boulders and taking the smaller ones on his tough hide.

With a surge of speed, he made it into the tunnel entrance. Ira, V’vendy and Dragon Face moved to let him through as he skidded to a stop.

The rain of rocks trickled to a stop in the trapped room. Silence fell save for the rustling of settling dust.

“…Vincol,” Corax whispered. He rushed back into the room he’d fled. “Vincol!”

Dragon Face followed. Together they tore rocks out of the pile and cast them aside with reckless abandon. Together they lifted a flat slab and cast it aside, revealing Vincol underneath. The innkeeper was covered with bruises and cuts, and his forehead bled profusely.

“Vincol! Talk to us!” Corax barked. No response. “We need to stop the bleeding,” Corax muttered, digging into a pouch slung on the side of his back like a saddlebag. “And rouse him too…Dragon Face, do you have any smelling herbs?”

Dragon-Face dug into a pouch belted to his tunic. “I carry Wakeroot for when I need to rouse groggy foes,” he replied, pulling out a bundle of leaves.

Ira raised her harp, strummed its remaining strings, and sang loudly:

“Flesh flows to smoothness, bones knit together

Pain fades to aches that change with the weather.

Blood keeps to veins, bound by the heart’s tether!”

The wounds on Vincol closed up, the blood drained from his bruises, and his eyes snapped open. “And that’s why I love healing magic!” He wheezed.

With a ‘twang’, the last of Ira’s harp strings broke. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she sighed, putting her instrument away in its case, “because there won’t be any more until we get back to town.”

Vincol wilted. “Oh,” he said. He took stock of his situation–in particular how he was trapped underground in a labyrinth filled with rodent-infested undead. “Oh dear.”

“Where did that voice come from?” V’vendy wondered. “The one that called itself the Under-King…”

She picked her way through the fallen rocks, running her fingers against one of the mosaic-coated walls. Her hair-feathers twitched, and she peered closely at a mosaic depicting a griffin with spread wings and two large crystal eyes. She pressed on the eyes with two fingers, and they slid back into the wall.

“Oh! There’s a peephole here!” She shouted, waving everyone over. “That Under-King must have watched us from behind this wall. Maybe even triggered the trap!”

“Would you say the wall with the peephole is thinly built?” Corax inquired.

“Um.” V’vendy whispered, knocking on the stone and listening to its pitch. “I think so…oh. Oh, I see!”

She moved back. Corax raised his hammer and regarded it with stern eyes. The hammer suddenly glowed with a faint purple hue. Its square metal head warped and shifted like clay, forming itself into a thick ring that slid free from the hammer shaft and dropped into his clawed hand.

“Dragon Face.” Corax said calmly. “Could you fit this hammer head on my tail? I believe it will fit perfectly.”

“Of course,” Dragon Face said, closing his gaping mouth. The masked wrestler took the metal ring, smoothed the feathers on Corax’s tail, and slid it on till it was as secure as a ring on a finger.

“Thank you,” Corax said. “Now, Dragon Face,” he declared, baring his razor-sharp teeth in a predatory grin. “Shall we?”

Dragon Face nodded in sudden understanding. “Let’s!”

Corax twisted and swung his weighted tail at the wall with the peephole. Dragon Face lashed out at the same wall with a scything kick. The wall crumbled inward, revealing a dank, poorly carved tunnel leading to the northwest.

“Well battered,” Lady Ira said, drawing her short sword and stepping forward. “Now then, my fellow Pilgrims,” She declared, “Let’s have some words with this Under-King.”

%%%

Weapons drawn, the party emerged into a feasting hall, its angular roof supported with thick wooden braces. As far as feasting halls went, it appeared to have been used as a mortuary, trashed by a bull and then left to the rodents.

Chandeliers with flickering red-wax candles illuminated long wooden tables stacked with rows of humanoid bones- ribs, skulls, arms, and legs bones were stacked in a row, and finger joints sorted into wide clay bowls like berries.

Field mice, shrews, tiny red squirrels and pink-tailed rats swarmed all over the place, darting from shadow to shadow. A few gathered around wooden plates on the floor, sipping water or nibbling on stale crackers and suspicious meat.

Rows of skeletons hung from racks on the walls, their joints and sockets fastened together with copper rings; their fleshless hands were wrapped around short swords, maces, and splintered bows. Clay chamberpots were placed by the feet of each skeleton, filled to the brim with black oily sludge that quivered and twitched every few seconds.

A withered zombie wearing a bonnet sat at one of the long tables, sewing costumes of bright fabric together with a needle and thread. And by a roaring fire pit, a greasy-bearded Stout in a bright red cape gestured with his flute at a row of field mice and frogs on a bench that squeaked and croaked in unison.

“No, no, no! A-Capella, you grain-fed sluggards! A-Capella! Your voices must blend together!” He pointed at a swamp toad to the right of the tiny choir. “And you, Atreus! Stop mumbling! Without you this whole enterprise falls apart!”

Ira stepped forward, and a stray finger-bone crunched under her foot.

The red-caped Stout spun around. “Who goes there?” He shouted. His eyes widened as he noticed all the well-armed Pilgrims that had entered his feasting hall. “You!” He stammered, backing away a few steps. He grimaced, stepped back up, grabbed the hem of his cape and threw it over his shoulder dramatically. “You survived my trap!” He boomed, puffing his chest out. “Good! Only the mighty are worthy to be in my presence!”

He jabbed a finger at the gathered party. “Name yourselves, intruders, lest you wish to face the Under-King’s wrath!”

Ira’s left eyelid twitched. “The Lady Ira is myself.” She said, forcing her hand away from the short sword sheathed at her side.

Uuco stepped up and doffed his cone hat. “And they call me Uuco the Witness!” He chirped, bowing deeply. “Salutations and most resplendent greetings to you, oh Under-King! And might I say, I like what you’ve done with this place,” he said, glancing around the hall.” It’s very…Underworld-y!”

The Under-King’s scowl softened a bit. “Well, I do try,” he admited.

Uuco stroked his bushy mustache. “Forgive my curiosity, most gloriously adorned King, but what prompted you to found your Kingdom out in this country cave–?”

Suddenly, Dragon Face shoved his way past Uuco, stood tall, and pointed a quivering finger at the Under-King.

“I am the masked warrior Dragon Face!” The wrestler snarled. “For the innocents you’ve slaughtered, for the prairie creatures you’ve beguiled, and for your vulgar mockery of the performing arts, I challenge you to a wrestling match, Necromancer! Face me, man to man, muscle to muscle!”

Ira glanced at Dragon Face with a look of pure horror. Uuco glanced from Dragon Face to the Under-King and back again, bouncing on the soles of his feet in excitement.

The Under-King tittered. “Wrestling, eh? Planning to give me a noogie and toss me in the well too, you musclebound buffoon?” He sneered. Suddenly, he shouted shrilly: “I didn’t spend 40 years learning to bind animals and command the dead just so I could wrestle!”

He raised his flute to his lips and blew a harsh, warbling note that made the air shimmer with darkness. Off to the side, black sludge poured out of the chamberpots and oozed up the skeletons, coating every bone joint and socket, congealing into gelatonous cords that resembled muscles.

The sludged-coated skeletons twitched and walked off their racks, waving their weapons in clumsy circles. The zombie with a bonnet stood up from his table and brandished a tarnished cutting knife.

“Have fun with my subjects!” The Under-King chortled, running to the far end of the hall and through a set of double doors.. “If you’ve had enough of their company, then scream! Scream for your lives, and I might take pity!” His receding, echoing voice proclaimed.

The Pilgrims gathered into a circle as the sludge-animated skeleton army advanced on them.

Dragon Face’s shoulders slumped. “Should I not have said that?” He asked meekly.

“No you should not have!” Ira screamed, slashing through a skeleton’s neck bone with a flick of her sword. The skeleton’s head clattered on the ground. The sludge clinging to its bone torso twitched and rippled like jam, and it swung a mace towards Ira’s head. Behind it, several other skeletons shakily raised their bows and drew back arrows.

“Everyone down!” Corax roared, spreading his legs and dipping his head. He gargled at the back of his throat, then coughed up a ravening beam of white-hot energy that washed over the lead skeleton and charred its bones black. Twisting his neck, he swept the beam over the archer skeletons, searing them and burning away the strings on their bows.

“Now!” Ira said. “Force them back!” She charged the bonnet-wearing zombie and chopped its arm off with a swing of her sword. To her right, a clay flask detonated in the midst of the archer skeletons, and the black sludge coating their bones dissolved under the spray of caustic foam. “Go get them!” Vincol declared, peeking his head out from under one of the long tables. “I’ve got you covered!”

Corax waded into the fray, swinging his tail into skeletons and stabbing at their ribs with his saber. V’vendy, her feather hair standing on end, fired an arrow that curved through the air and pierced through several skeleton in a row, tearing holes in the black sludges animating them.

The holes in the black sludge flowed together, and the skeletons mobbed Corax and V’vendy, swinging their short swords spastically like puppets on a string.

“That is just unfair!” Corax groaned, blocking one tarnished sword with his saber and taking a blow from another on his chain-mail.

“Blades won’t harm them!” V’vendy noted, ducking and rolling under a skeleton’s wildly swung mace. “Is it the black sludge we need to harm? But how?”

“Bah! Let us see how they respond to a good wrestler’s throw!” Dragon Face roared, grabbing at one of the sludge-coated skeletons. The skeleton dodged out of the way, teeth chattering as its jaw flapped up and down. “Damn you!” Dragon Face cursed, rushing after the skeleton. “Let me toss you!”

A ball of blue flame flew through the air, hit the skeleton’s ribcage, and burst, sending bone shards flying everywhere. Uuco lowered his smoking hands. “I…have a memory of these creatures,” he said to himself, brow furrowing. “It’s foggy, but…yes, yes! Ayup, I’ve got it!” He pointed at the swarming skeletons. “Break the bones!” He hollered. “Those sludge critters can’t hit worth a damn without bones!”

“You heard the Nobble!” Ira shouted. With a twist of her waist and the whip of her arm, she drove her short sword’s point through the bonnet-wearing zombie’s skull, then yanked it out with a twist. “Stoke your rage with discontent! Mark each ache as a prize of life!” The Harper chanted, wading into the fray of skeletal foes, hacking and slashing back to back with Corax and V’vendy. Off to the side, Dragon Face shattered skulls and collarbones with scything elbow strikes.

“Let massacre be our only triumph, death be our only defeat!” Ira declared, raising her sludge-stained sword toward the ceiling as Vincol and Uuco lobbed spells over her head. “No craven parley mar our strife!”

%%%

In the velvet-draped comfort of his chambers, the Under-King heard a distant blood-curdling scream.

His head snapped up. Hand trembling, he set his cup of wine on a table. He stood, shook his red cape out to make sure it had the right amount of swish, yanked on his beard braids, and walked back down the tunnel to the double doors. He set a hand on each door and threw them open dramatically.

His feasting hall turned laboratory was wrecked. The long tables and benches were shattered, drops of quivering black sludge and broken bones coated the floor, and field mice scurried back and forth, squeaking in terror.

The Pilgrims who’d broke into his caverns were sprawled across the floor, bloodstained, motionless and coated with wounds. The dinosaur warrior lay curled up on the ground, with glazed eyes and a cut throat. The archer, the beer-tossing chieftain and the lightning swaying Nobble lay in a pile, backs painted red with stab wounds. The insufferably musclebound wrestler lay buried in a pile of broken skeletons near the door, neck twisted at a sharp angle.

In the center of the hall, surrounded by the dead, the haughty looking Harper hugged herself and cried on her knees.

The Under-King clucked his tongue, relaxing a little. “Alas,” he said, voice filled with creamy satisfaction. “If your fellow Pilgrims had been more humble, this wouldn’t have happened!” He gingerly tip-toed through the pile of dislocated bones towards the trembling Harper. “You at least, had the sense to scream for mercy!” He said, placing a hand on his heart. “And such a pretty scream it was!”

He cackled softly. “Soon, ” he growled suddenly, “soon I will hear that scream from a thousands folks, on the day I impose My Rule!”

Lady Ira trembled. “Oh Hidden Gods,” The Harper croaked. “This wasn’t what we signed up for! We just wanted to investigate the rumors of Death Mushrooms and make sure the town was safe from them!” She clung at her frazzled hair with her hands. “The Lady Ira is not even supposed to be here!” She wailed. “Father only sent me to this country for character building, and…and I have NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING ON!”

The Under-King sighed loudly, stepping closer to Lady Ira and spreading red cloak out with a flick of his arm. “Poor child.” He said. “You’ve never known the horrors of the world outside your pampered position, have you? But fear not! I shall return you to your family…in exchange for a hefty ransom, of course.” The Underworld King stroked his beard and thought dark thoughts. “You’re no threat in this state: you know nothing of me–”

Ira’s back straightened. The terror on her face faded into cool disdain, and she drove her dagger into the Under-King’s foot. “And you know nothing of us, Necromancer,” she snorted.

Merciless Evolving Eye, my foot!” The Under-King cried out. He heard a loud grunt from behind him. The necromancer turned his head just in time to see Dragon Face soar through the air, clamp two muscular legs around his waist, then throw him to the ground with twist of his torso.

“It seems we’ll be wrestling after all, Under-King!” The masked wrestler cried out, pinning the necromancer to the ground with an arm on his chest and a hand on his wrist. “Now, everyone!” He called out. “Smite this man and cow his pride!”

Corax, V’vendy, Vincol, and Uuco got up from the ground, the wounds on their body shimmering and then vanishing in a puff of purple vapor.

“Treachery!” The Under-King choked, thrashing in Dragon Face’s iron grip.

“Actually, it’s illusion magic,” Uuco pointed out, conjuring a few motes of light with a swish of his finger. “Good for faking kisses and kicking butt!”

Corax bared his teeth, walked up, and stamped his taloned foot down on the necromancer’s groin. V’vendy shot an arrow that sank into the Under-King’s thigh.  Ira retrieved her short sword and stabbed him through the kidneys.

Hey!” Vincol shouted, cheering from the back. “Get him for me!”

“Kah–!” The Under-King hissed between clenched teeth. He glanced over at the wrestler who’d pinned him to the ground. His bloodstained lips parted in a smile. “…ke…KeKe-Ka-Ha-HA!” He laughed. “Fool!”

His free hand suddenly blazed with dark, caustic energy that spewed and dripped from his palm like sweat. “I’ll drain all your strength, champion wrestler!” the Under-King cackled, reaching out to touch Dragon Face’s neck. “And then I’ll use your power to destroy your friends–!”

Without fuss, Dragon Face puffed his chest up, yanked the necromancer’s arm, and snapped it like a twig.

“Aieeeeeee!” The Under-King wailed.

Uuco glared at the necromancer, then removed his red conical hat and threw it to the side. “So it’s power you want, sonny?” He growled, blue electricity crackling over every inch of his body, his waxed mustache twitching like a moth’s wings. “Then I reckon I’ll give you some…FREE OF CHARGE!”

Uuco threw his head back and screamed. His body dissolved into a miniature vortex of lightning that arced through the air and surged into the Under-King’s body. The red-caped necromancer thrashed back and forth in Dragon Face’s grasp, lips parting in a silent blue-tinged scream.

And then the Under-King went limp, steam rising from his corpse. Dragon Face disentangled himself and stood, gasping for breath.

“I’m unharmed.” The wrestler said softly. “Uuco kept the lightning from harming me!” He looked around. “But where is he now?”

“Did I see that proper” Vincol blurted, ducking under Corax’s feathered tail to see the broiled necromancer up close. “Did Uuco…become lightning?”

“So it seems.” V’vendy said softly. “Is he dead, you think?”

“Either that, or he ascended to another plane of existence,” Ira replied, shaking her head as she sheathed her short sword. “The poor fool,” she muttered.

“No,” Dragon Face said, raising a fist. Everyone looked at him. “My heart…my instincts tell me we’ll see him again!” He said. “When we most need him, when we least expect it…I’m sure he’ll come!”

Silence fell in the hall of the dead as the gathered Pilgrims pondered the wrestler’s words.

“Well then!” Corax said, crouching over the deceased Under-King and yanking the purse off his belt. “Let’s see if this guy’s got any good loot!”

 

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