The young woman with eyes the colour of peridot turned as he came running into the room with a grin upon his face. Niramour had been waiting for over 3 cycles, he was late, again.
The project leader was wearing a costume that made him look as though he were coming into the room straight out of bed, but when he moved his arms or legs a thin layer of fabric webbing extended almost to his ankles and wrists, making it appear as though he wore a strange skirt.
“You look similar to a bat in that get-up” Niramour chided him fondly. Over the last few days she had started to warm up to the wizard’s eccentricities. She was beginning to worry that jumping off tall objects might start to sound like a good idea if she stayed at this job too much longer.
Niramour started to describe the results of the testing she had been doing, but Harry put her off with a wave of his hand heading straight to one of the sets of runes she had noted a particular issue with the night before.
“I knew that engineer was going to distract Mindu if he kept up that racket. These lines here are all wrong! We’ll have to rewrite this sigil.” He turned to Niramour his eyes still slightly orange and aglow with a detect magic spell, “It’ll have to be done before we turn the machine on for your next test.”
After instructing one of the lesser wizards on what to fix Harry paused and with a hopeful look said,”That should only take half a cycle of drawing. I’ll quickly grab a cassa to eat, perhaps you’ll accompany me?”
Niramour, was thrilled to have been invited but remained composed. The two of them walked out the door together and enjoyed a well made meal through many awkward silences before heading back into the Experimental Room.
The room was hemispherical, large enough to have a clear echo when empty. The walls contained glyphs and pipes arrayed in complex, artistic and mathematically sound patterns. The brain child of Harry and his close friend, an engineer named Quint, they dreamed of making a room unlike any other on the continent, to entertain the non-mechanized citizens of Elza, and perhaps Bitura, Shalee and the Dynasties, too.
Niramour and Harry stood in front of the testing team, it was time.
Niramour took a deep breath before telling the small group, “We’re testing the 4th program today. Remember to keep track of any glitches you may find. We’ll go through them with the wizard once the round ends. Got it?”
The six testers nodded or murmmered their ascent. They’d had a lot of problems with this particular program and half the team was ready to call it a lost cause. From outside the room Quint called out to Harry.
Harry, not hearing this, skillfully traced the spell in the air to start the sequence of illusions and conjurations, then turned to leave the room. Niramour and the testers knew the maze was coming but once again were surprised by the realism that came with the experience. Around them the room became darker, ahead grew a large archway and a long wall. Carved around the edge of the arch read the words “Success Lies in the King’s Court¹”.
Underfoot the ground was soft and mushy, as though a heavy rain had recently fallen. Niramour led her team up a hill towards the entrance of the maze. “The entry has three paths, we should split up. First team to make it to the center will get dinner on me!” she called out enthusiastically. Her group of testers cheered and headed in their own directions.
After a couple dozen steps Niramour couldn’t continue moving, she’d hit an invisible wall. Something to tell Harry about she thought as she turned around to take a different path, nearly knocking her companions over in the process. As they got back to the front of the maze, Harry was there as was one of the other pairs of testers. Harry was locked in the game with them and two of their people were missing.
“Yes that makes sense, we still haven’t found a way to keep the user in one place, while letting them feel like they’re travelling. at least not when there are multiple users.” Harry mused once Niramour had updated him about the invisible wall.
As the conversation turned to triggering the exit, the team quickly discovered the most serious malfunction of the day. At least most of the team did, Tevaga and Levis were just getting into another heated argument about whether they should try smashing the maze’s gate.
After the team had entirely exhausted their collection of exit spells Harry announced he had one other way to get out, but that it could completely destroy the Room. “Looks like we’re going to have to play this program to completion if we want to get out” observed Chuck, the bearded lady, “and no Tevaga, before you suggest it, we’re not smashing our way out of the Room.”
“… Smash …”
Niramour blushed when she went to grab Harry’s shoulder, quickly she composed herself and got the rest of the team to form a train by having Chuck’s do the same with her. They walked in one after another, right hands in contact with the person ahead of them, left upon the cold, damp walls of the maze.
“It feels like we’re just going around in circles,” a voice said.
“The best way to get through the maze is to follow the wall until we reach completion. Perhaps we’ll actually get through it this time.”
“That’s debatable,” Levis added, “either way I don’t think we have much choice in getting through it. If we don’t we could be stuck in here forever. I’d rather not get used to this musty stench.”
Harry, who was leading the team down the wall stopped suddenly when he saw a glowing sigil on the wall in front of him. He moved his hand gently along the markings, as though he were writing the mark himself. “Open” he commanded stepping back. The ground began to shake and the wall across from them began to slide down into the earth below. When it stopped moving a gaping hole was left exposing a short length of hall.
When Chuck saw a chest at the end of the hall she bolted. Three quarters of way down the hall she stepped on a loose stone, triggering four spears to come flying out of the sigil Harry had just been touching. The group broke apart, startled by the weapons. Chuck sprawled the rest of the way down the hall skidding to a stop just out of reach of the battered chest.
“Wait! We’ve dodged a spear in this hall already, do we really want to risk opening this chest?” Someone asked, “I mean I don’t think we can actually keep any loot anyway, right?” After some discussion of this it was agreed that the possibility of finding something useful was enough.
Chuck planted her hands on either end of the chest and pulled the lid up, as no lock was apparent. The wood scraped her hands and gave her a sliver. Inside lay two small vials; one containing a red liquid. the other a thick black substance. Scattered along the bottom of the chest were scores of large quartz crystals. There was no time to decide what to grab though as four more large spears flew around Chuck towards the group.
“It’s a trap!” shouted Admiral Akbar, who unfortunately was somewhere else and in another period in time entirely during this encounter.
Levis dove for the floor but was still struck by one of the spears, she’s bruised, but not badly hurt. Niramour was likewise hit with a single spear, she however appeared more badly injured. Somehow Tevaga didn’t react to the trap, but managed to avoid the spears entirely.
Harry, stepping up to the chest, declared “These potions could be useful, at least this potion of Heroism.” as he picked up the bottle containing the red substance. “Feel free to try that other one.. it won’t hurt.”
Suddenly the black vial flew into the air, the stopper wiggled loose hitting Levis, who was still at the end of the hall, on the arm as it fell. The vial tipped upwards as though being poured out. The black liquid slugged slowly towards the mouth of the bottle before pooling in mid-air. Then suddenly it began to move downward in one oyster looking like mass. A gulping sound was heard as the black sludge came to rest about four feet off the ground in a crescent roll shape. “That was disgusting. What did I just drink?”
“Who said that?” Niramour inquired. “Why can I not see you?”
“Mindu. I’ve been here the entire time. You’ve even talked with me.”
“It was a potion of misdirection, or at least it was supposed to be.” Harry answered Mindu, before reforming the line with his left hand on the wall and his right on Niramour’s shoulder.
As they approached a T-intersection Niramour called for quiet. After a few moments of listening everyone present agreed they heard rattling and scraping, and realized there were several skeletons approaching from the hall to the left just as the first of the undead rounded the corner.
“Tevaga,” began Harry, but she was already mid smash. The rest of the group moved along down the corridor to their right, flinching periodically at the sound of splintering bones.
“That… was… the most… fun… I’ve had… all…. week” Tevaga declared, her chest heaving and with a toothy grin so wide most halflings would be afraid they were about to be eaten. “But, what’s this?” she asked spotting a leather bound chest, banded with bronze.
“It looks like the lock is broken” someone said from the back.
Chuck was officially designated chest opener, and was disappointed to find the contents of this chest to be a catfolk skull. “Nothing of value here” she declared walking back.
Niramour gasped as she watched the skull rise into the air behind the short, hairy woman. “Chuck watch out!” she called, thinking something bad was about to happen.
But nothing did happen. Until a small giggle erupted from the skull. The giggle turned into a throatier laugh, which then continued to transform into an evil cackle. When the laughing died down, no one was sure what to do. Fortunately the skull wasted little time after this, saying, “Ya’ll’ve woken me up. Do ya know what that means? It’s riddle time!” At these last three words a dramatic musical rumble rolled off the walls around them.
“Excuse me? Riddle time, did you say?” responded Harry, the first to find the ability to speak. Walking off and muttering to himself he continued “That’s not on the program. I’ll have to remind Quint.”
“I take it yar not a fan, eh? That’s alright, we have plenty of curses ta hand out.” the catfolk skull purred. “Don’t want ta be cursed? Ya’ll need ta answer my riddles, who’s first?”
“All right, let’s get this over with,” Levis sighed.
“If two is company and three is a crowd, what is four and five?” the skull’s eyeless sockets seemed to gleam with glee as he asked his first riddle.
“A cookie be ya. I mean smart a course. Okay, next one won’ be so simple!” The skull spun around to face Tevaga. “Sometimes I shine, sometimes I’m dull. Sometimes I’m big and sometimes I’m small. I can be pointy, I can be curved but don’t ask me questions because even though I’m sharp I’m not smart enough to answer ya, what am I?”
“You’re dumb.” replied Tevaga, who took one of her axes and smashed the skull into a cloud of dust. “Anyone can find those riddles in the library.”
From the air surrounding them a purple mist arose and the voice from the skull began to cackle again. “Ya’ll’re cursed, yo! Cursed!” The laughter slowly faded away.
“Has anyone seen Harry?” asked Niramour, after quickly checking to see that her team was ready to continue on from the humorous skull. No one had, but they couldn’t wait around for him in this dust cloud so she ordered them to line up and continue on.
After a few more twists and turns over what felt like many cycles the group stumbled upon a sleeping Minotaur. After a quick, whispered argument the group sneaked past the Minotaur not wanting a confrontation with such a muscular beast. It continued to snore as they rounded the next corner and came face to face with a locked gate.
“I think I saw a set of keys hanging off that bull man’s neck.”
“Mindu, you startled me!” exclaimed Chuck, clutching onto her braided beard.
“I’m over here, Chuck.” Mindu’s voice came from behind them all. “But I saw that key ring, too.”
“I’ll get it. ” Tevaga said with an upturned smile.
As the group followed Tevaga back towards the beast with their spells and weapons ready for battle the familiar sound of the catfolk skull’s voice could be heard ahead. “Ya just can’t picture it can ya? Dust! She turned me to dust!”
The Minotaur was wide awake, casually leaning against the wall, keys still hanging around his neck, engaged in a conversation with the disembodied voice of the floating, no longer material skull. He turned his head towards them, “That’s not a very nice thing to do, guys.”
Tevaga rushed forward kissing her axes each once before swinging them at the Minotaur. He easily side stepped her attack while using his arms to flip her onto the ground, pinning her.
“You know I figured it would come down to you guys just attacking me. It would be nice if just for once someone would be willing to talk over a cup of brew.”
“Wonderful, I am rather thirsty,” Harry said as he walked in from the opposing direction.
“Oh, there you are!” Niramour squealed before embracing him in a warm hug. “I was worried about you.”
It was Harry’s turn to blush now, disentangling himself from the Aasamir’s firm grip. “I was perfectly alright, but thank you.” Turning to the Minotaur he continued, “let’s drink and discuss the key to the gate.”
After a few gallons each, they were properly inebriated. Key in hand, Niramour slurred her thanks as she walked towards the gate to leave the game. After her fourth attempt to make the large key fit in the larger hole Harry put his hand on hers, and together they opened the lock. Niramour rested her head on Harry’s shoulder as the door opened and the illusions began to dissolve.
¹ Listener here, I must say that may not be the exact words. I was translating it as best as I could.