Fiction Archive | 12/23/2009
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Tallfolk Tales
Lisa Smedman

The following short story comes to us courtesy of Lisa Smedman, author of novels and stories set in the Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Shadowrun, and Deadlands universes. A reporter by profession, she also teaches game theory and video game history at the Art Institute. She also writes history books, children’s books, plays, and screenplays, and has designed dozens of adventures and sourcebooks for various role-playing games over the years. Her website is www.lisasmedman.topcities.com.

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So it’s a guide you’re wanting, is it? Well, if it’s Araumycos you’re going to, that guide won’t be me. Regardless of the rumors you may have heard around town, I’ve had my fill of that place. Why, even the smell of mushroom wine—

Now hold on, elf. Don’t be so hasty to leave. I didn’t say there wasn’t a guide to be had. You’ve come to the right person. I know someone who’s as familiar with the twists and turns of Araumycos as that barkeep over there is with this tavern. And best of all, she won’t cost you a sack of coin, the way someone from the guides’ guild will—assuming they’d even take you there. No, she won’t charge a thing. And reliable? Well, listen to my tale and you’ll see that Rook is the person you want one pace ahead of you, if you’re venturing into Araumycos. And I’m the one who can tell you how to find her.

Fetch me some ale and sit down here at my table, and I’ll tell you my tale. But none of that spitfroth the humans try to pass off as lager, mind. Nor any of that honeyed cider you elves seem to love so much. Make it dwarven Samman ale, bitter and brown.

Ah. That’s the stuff. A meal in a glass, as they say.

You’ll be wondering at my taste in drink and my thick red beard. I’ve seen you note the silver hammers braided into it and my iron bracers. The star on them, just above the wrist, is part of my clan name. It’s Morndin you’re talking to, son of . . . well, son of Moradin, you might say. It was the Dwarffather who forged my soul anew, after whoever I was in my last lifetime died. He took my dwarf soul and cast it in a human mold, this time. Although if you ask me, it’s likely Vergadain had a hand in it too. They don’t call him the trickster god for nothing.

So here I am in this lifetime, a human. That’s why my shield-brothers call me Morndin. Compared to them, I’m high as a mountain.

Now don’t raise that eyebrow. Just because it’s odd doesn’t mean it isn’t so. The Dwarffather must have decided there’s something I had to learn in this lifetime, something I could only discover in this body. Or perhaps there was some deed he wanted done. Something it would take this towering, narrow-chested human body to accomplish.

I see that smile you’re trying to hide. I know what you’ll be asking next: how is it I came to believe such foolishness. You’ll be wondering if someone cast a befuddlement spell on me, or some such. The short answer is no. The long answer has to do with that footman’s mace leaning against the wall beside me here.

My parents—also human—had a provisions store in Hammergate, down by the Rift. They often took in items in trade. I’m told that, a year or two before I was born, a creaky old longbeard said his adventuring days were behind him, and asked my father if he’d like to buy this mace. It’s pretty battered looking, isn’t it, with that slight bend in the handle and one of the flanges missing from the head? My father thought so too. He didn’t want to take it in trade, but the longbeard said coin would comfort him in his final years more than any weapon would. And so my father bought the mace, tucked it away in the storeroom, and forgot all about it.

Turns out it was a magical weapon forged by the Ironstar clan—light as a feather, and capable of dealing a blow that calls down Moradin’s thunder, if you know the right word to say. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Years later, when I was seven, a half-orc tried to rob the store. He held my mother at knife-point and demanded all the coin in the lockbox. I was in the storeroom, and heard the commotion out front. The mace was the closest weapon to hand. I rushed into the shop, swinging it like a kuldjargh—that’s Dwarvish, by the way, for “beserker.” They say I wielded the weapon like I was born with it in my hand. And here’s the part that will lift that other eyebrow of yours. As the mace cracked against that half-orc’s head, I shouted a word that filled the room with magical, booming thunder. The crack of it split his head wide open.

Once I recovered from the surprise, I wondered how I’d done it. I knew a little Dwarvish; I’d grown on the Rift’s edge, in a shop that catered to dwarves, after all. Both of my human parents spoke Dwarvish, if a bit brokenly, and could read a little. But there was no explaining how I knew what word to shout that day. It wasn’t a word you’d expect, like corl or raugh or rorn. It—

Yes, yes, I’ll tell you about the guide in a moment. It’s just that you need to know this piece of it, so you’ll understand all that follows.

Could I have another Samman? My ale cup’s gone dry.

Ah. That’s better.

You’re obviously an elf of the surface realms, judging by that longbow you carry. That won’t be much use to you, down here in the Underchasm. And that leafmottle cloak won’t be much use either. Not here in Gracklstugh, where the buildings are as gray and gloomy as the duergar who built them. Nor will it aid you within the musky embrace of Araumycos. Most of the fungus is gray-white, dotted with orange puffballs. That’s what you have to watch out for, by the way. Blunder into one of those, and you’ll die a slow, choking death with spores that clog your nostrils and fruit deep in your lungs. Even a little whiff of it’s enough to scar the lungs for life. And a man whose body is erupting from the inside out with puffballs is a shuddersome sight, I’ll tell you.

But Rook will steer you clear of those.

You obviously have some passing familiarity with the Underchasm, to have make it this far down. And I see by that shield ring on your finger that you know a little about Araumycos’ strange pull. The closer you get to Araumycos, the more vivid those nightmares become. Even with magical protection, they root in your mind by night and fill it with strange whispers by day, telling you to join with . . . something. Whatever’s at the heart of the thing. Some say it’s a patch of the fungus that’s afire with spellplague and needs live fuel to stoke it. I couldn’t say if that’s true, myself. I just know you have to beware of the golhyrrl’fhaazht.

I see that frown. You’re wondering why I speak Drowic. Short answer is, I don’t. They’re a race that’s evil through and through—cruel and depraved—but that word they coined is the best fit I know.

“Dream trap.” That’s Araumycos, all right.

Given their fear of it, the drow normally avoid Araumycos like the spellplague. That’s why we never expected to—

Yes, yes, I’m getting to the part where I tell you about Rook. But first I have to set the stage.

I won’t ask why you want to venture into Araumycos. Your reasons are your own affair. The reason we went in, my shield-brothers and I, is best told by what’s in this pocket, here.

You ever seen one of these? It’s a rock gourd—a tiny one, no bigger than a walnut. They’re usually much bigger, at least the size of your head. Shake ’em like this . . . And there you go. See the water dripping from the stone? That’s what makes a rock gourd so valuable. Get lost in the Labyrinth, or trapped by a cave-in—or, I suppose, get lost in one of those deserts you have up there on the surface—and you’ll at least have all the water you need until you find your way out again.

’Course, this one’s too little to be worth much. Takes half a day to fill a thimble. But you get the idea.

Sad thing is, it’s the only one I was able to bring back with me.

Rock gourds are the reason we ventured into Araumycos. A patch of Araumycos had died off, and Gamlin and Farrik—two dwarves I once counted as shield-brothers—figured they’d make their fortune before it grew back again.

Gamlin was the one who knew there’d be rock gourds there. He can sense things like that. He’s spellscarred, you see. Blundered into a patch of spellplague a few years back, and came out with feet that crackle with blue fire. Turned out to be a blessing in disguise. That spellscar roots him to the earth—roots him deep. Most of the time it just lets him stand firm on stone—long as he’s barefoot—and not be pushed around. But stone whispers to stone, as they say, revealing secrets buried deep.

Anyhow, Gamlin talked his brother Farrik into venturing into Araumycos. Told him they could carry out their own weight in rock gourds several times over and be set for life. Which is where I came into the scheme.

After I came north, looking for my clan, I apprenticed as a stonemason. Swinging a mallet all day’s what gave me these arms. I was still living on the surface, in those days—still saving up for these darkvision goggles. One day, as I watched two earthmotes grind together, casting off a drift of splinters that thudded to the ground in their wake, I found myself wondering why the broken-off pieces lost their magic and fell, rather than staying aloft. I wondered if there might be some way to restore their magic.

I thought of an earth node I’d heard about—one that, if you enter it, creates an invisible, floating disk that follows you around. Handy, if you’ve got a heavy load you need to move. Trouble was, the magical energy fizzles out after about a day, so the node isn’t much use unless you live close by.

I knew the node didn’t make regular stones float, but I got to wondering what would happen if I took a broken-off chunk of earthmote and carried it into that node. It worked—beautifully. The chip of earthmote began to float as soon as I entered the node—and kept on floating for more than a month! It’s probably bobbing around somewhere near the quarry, to this day.

The next step was to find an earthmote of flint or obsidian or chert—stone that would knap into nice, thin sheets. I needed the quarrymaster’s help with that one. Once we located one that was just right, I knapped off a big piece and rounded the edges, then carried it to the node. It floated on its own, just like one of those driftdiscs the drow are so fond of. But better, because I didn’t need magic to control it. Just a simple nudge of the—

That’s right. You’re talking to the man who invented the motedisc. Ryordin Hammerfist is the man who took credit for it—even though all he did was help me locate an earthmote of the right type and provide the labor to mine it. Hammerfist claimed the motedisc was all his idea, but it was actually me who dreamed it up, back when I was his apprentice. And did he give me anything for it? Hah! If he did, don’t you think I’d be the one buying the drinks?

Anyway, motediscs. One day, Gamlin and Farrik came to one of my master’s floating quarries. Not to buy—Farrik always keeps his coin pouch tightly tied, and Gamlin’s purse is seldom full for long—but to offer Ryordin a deal. Said they’d cut him in on a third of the profits if he’d fund their prospecting.

Ryordin turned them down stone cold. Actually laughed at them, when they told him they were from the Ironstar clan. Said he supposed they were ghosts, then, since the last of the Ironstars had vanished centuries ago.

Ironstars. The same clan that made my mace.

Their meeting with Ryordin had been behind closed doors—protective of their future claim, Farrik and Gamlin were. I blundered into the room just long enough to hear them name their clan, and hear them ask for motediscs.

An elf like you might scoff, but I saw the hand of Moradin in it. Farrik, Gamlin, and I were fated to meet. And when I offered to slide a few motediscs their way if they told me more about my clan, they jumped at the chance.

There’s that eyebrow again. Of course you would think they were lying about being Ironstars, taking advantage of me. People often take me for a fool, when I tell them my life story, but I know when someone’s tugging my beard. And they weren’t lying—not really. All dwarf are clan, when you go far enough back past the time of Bhaerynden.

What’s more important to my tale is this: I demanded a one-third share in the venture, in return for me “borrowing” as many motediscs from the quarry as I could spirit away. And I insisted on going along.

Yes, yes, I’m getting to the part where I tell you about Rook. Almost there, in fact. In the meantime, could I trouble you for just one more ale? Tale-telling’s such thirsty work.

Much obliged.

We went down into the Underchasm—Gamlin, Farrik, and I—and made our way to the spot where Araumycos had died back. We found a shaft that had, just days before, been filled to the rim with fungus. That shaft was deep, I’ll tell you, and of natural-worn stone; likely carved by a thundering waterfall long ago. A trickle of water still fell, starting from a point in midair, just above the point where the shaft met the tunnel we’d followed in. Obviously a portal to the plane of water that had been shrinking for millennia. A portal that had all but closed, by the time we found it.

As I was staring up at the spot the water fell from, I saw a flash of something black. I figured it was just one of the bats we’d stirred up earlier, on our way in. Only later did I realize it had been Rook.

What remained of Araumycos was a soggy mess at the bottom of the shaft. Foul-smelling muck. We slip-shuffled through it for the better part of a day, collecting the rock gourds Gamlin ferreted out with his spellscar.

Before I say what happened next, there’s a thing or two you should know about Farrik and Gamlin. They’re twins—that’s been commonplace, among the dwarves, since the time of the Thunder Blessing. But although Moradin cast them in the same mold, they’re different as the surface is from the Underchasm.

Both of them are black bearded and heavy browed. And both are fiercely proud of our race. But Farrik’s not the cleanest, to put it politely. You don’t want to stand downwind of him. He’s always covered in dust, even when he’s not prospecting, and his beard’s always a terrible tangle. He says he’s just too busy to tend to it. That a man who works hard should look like he works hard—dirt under the nails, and sweat stains. But you’d think he could at least take a bath, now and again.

Gamlin’s the clean one. He was the one taught me to braid my beard like this—and to develop a taste for the finer, oak-barrel ales. Gamlin’s coin pouch is pretty flat, most days, because when he has coin, he spends it. Doesn’t matter if you’re clan or not—if you’re someone he’s taken a liking to, Gamlin’s always ready to fill your cup.

He didn’t like me much at first. Nor did Farrik. I could see that. But the motediscs I got for them fixed that, soon enough.

So there we were at the bottom of the shaft, sliding around in ankle-deep rotting fungus, our noses filled with the stench, but grinning away because each stubbed toe was another prize in what turned out to be the motherlode of rock gourds. I’d been able to spirit out six motediscs from the quarry and each was heaped high with rock gourds.

The twins insisted we collect every last rock gourd, until the motediscs were sagging under the weight. I thought that was foolish, that it would slow us down—but they were the prospectors and I was the lowly apprentice, so I did as I was told.

Farrik was tying the last of the nets in place to hold the rocks down, and Gamlin was off in a fissure in the wall, relieving himself of some of the ale he’d drunk along the march. I was bending down to pick up the rock gourd I just showed you. After I got my share, I’d hang on to it as a keepsake, I figured, of our expedition.

I was tucking it into my pocket when a crossbow bolt whistled past my ear.

My first thought, I’m ashamed to say, was that the twins had betrayed me. Then I heard Farrik cry out in alarm and clasp his arm. He’d been hit by a bolt shot from above. Even though it was a shallow wound, little more than a graze, the poison took him in a matter of heartbeats. He twisted, sagged, and splashed flat on his back in the muck.

I glanced up and saw a lone drow, levitating perhaps a dozen paces overhead. She shifted her wristbow, aiming at me. I dived under an overhang and heard the bolt splinter against it. I fumbled for my mace, praying to Moradin that I’d live long enough to use it.

Then the light pellet went off.

I’d been hoping Gamlin might surprise the drow from behind when she landed, take her down. She hadn’t seen him yet, after all. But when the light pellet exploded with such brilliance, I knew it was all over. Gamlin would be completely light-dazzled. Blind as a bat.

An apt comparison, as it turned out.

The overhang of rock blocked the drow’s aim; she couldn’t hit me without descending right to the floor. That would bring her within mace range, but trouble was, I still couldn’t see. My goggles were crackling with dazzle from the light pellet, and taking them off would leave me completely unable to see in the utter blackness. A dwarf I might be, but my eyes are still human, more’s the pity.

I wasn’t about to give up without a fight, however. As soon as I heard her squelch down into the muck, I leaped out of my hiding place. I swung my mace blindly in the direction the sound had come from.

I missed.

Her wristbow bolt took me in the thigh.

I staggered, my leg awash in pain. I crashed into the wall, and my goggles were knocked off kilter. As my human vision returned, I spotted the faint blue glow of Gamlin’s spellscar; it crackled around his feet, which were buried in muck. He stood at the far side of the shaft, behind the drow, his eyes wide and staring. Streaks of blue fire raced across the floor as I watched, questing out the spot where the drow stood. Its light briefly silhouetted a large round object on the floor—a rock gourd we’d somehow overlooked. But that didn’t matter just then.

The drow spotted the streaks of blue fire just as Gamlin drew back his hand, preparing to throw a dagger. She whirled and shot a bolt. It plunged into Gamlin’s chest. His chainmail vest stopped it, but the point penetrated the links of chain just enough to let the poison enter his blood. He wavered, blinked—then fell and didn’t get up again.

His blue fire lasted a heartbeat more. Even with my weak human vision, the dim flicker was enough to show me where the drow was. I hurled my mace and shouted. Thunder filled the shaft as it connected with the drow’s head.

She died instantly, her skull shattering like lightning-struck stone.

I felt myself sagging. I managed to twist around just enough that I wouldn’t land face-down in the muck. That was no way for a dwarf to die, I thought. Then everything went black.

Rook? Yes, yes. Be patient. Her part in this saga comes next. Truly. But just one more ale . . .? Certainly this tale’s worth that?

Thanks.

So there I was, dead of drow poison. Or so you’d expect. But it wasn’t a lethal potion the drow had coated her bolts with—just one that places its victims in a deep slumber. It was slaves she was after, not corpses.

I woke up with a jolt, screaming at the agony of Gamlin binding my wound. The bolt had passed completely through the muscle of my thigh, he told me. I’d lost blood, but not enough to kill me.

As he worked on my leg, Gamlin gave me the bad news. While we’d lain unconscious, Araumycos had started to grow back. Already the upper portion of the shaft was thick with new growth that was starting to weave itself together up near the top. If we were going to escape, we had to hurry. Even with the magical rings that were shielding our minds—purchased at great expense, and with great complaint from Farrik—I could feel the tickle of Araumycos trying to take root in my thoughts.

Farrik, meanwhile, was beside himself. As Gamlin tended me, Farrik sloshed back and forth through the muck, shouting that I was in league with the drow, that I’d deliberately led him and his brother into a trap so I could claim all the rock gourds. I shouted back as best I was able, in my weakened state. If that had been true, I pointed out, I’d have helped her finish the two of them off, not taken a wound that came near to crippling me.

He shot back that I was a stupid human who’d underestimated my accomplice. That drow always turn on their allies, and can never be trusted. I shouted back that I was a dwarf. And so on.

It was Gamlin who told the two of us to shut up, that we were wasting valuable time. I glanced at where he was pointing. Above us, some of the strands of fungus had grown as thick as my arm. One had sprouted a puffball. As Farrik also turned his glance upward, it darkened from white to orange and burst, releasing a tiny puff of spores. Each of us held his breath as long as we could, but eventually we were forced to gasp for air. The spores were spread pretty thin by the time they reached us. Even so, that gasp of breath had an aftertaste like blue cheese. Some of them rooted. I can feel the scars from them still, every time I draw too deep a breath, despite the healing draughts we drank. If I ever were to venture back into Araumycos, I’d wheeze like an old man. Like I was telling you when I first began this tale, even the smell of a mushroom—

All right, all right. Don’t be so impatient. Let me finish.

So there we were at the bottom of the shaft, with the fungus growing back fast. There was still a gap in the growth overhead, but it would be a tight squeeze at the top. Worst of all, we’d have to leave the motediscs behind. We had a fortune right in front of us, neatly piled up—and no way to get it home.

I was just as dismayed, of course. I couldn’t return to my apprenticeship at the quarry—not without returning the missing motediscs. That wouldn’t have mattered quite so much if I’d struck it rich, of course. I would have paid for them—double their value. But now I’d be branded a thief.

It was enough to make even the stoutest dwarf weep.

While Farrik complained, and I tried to shout sense into him, Gamlin searched the drow’s body, trying to figure out which of her trinkets had allowed her to levitate. He found one of those medallions the drow are so fond of, but couldn’t make it work. Little wonder; even if he had been able to speak the language, he didn’t know the command word. Meanwhile, Araumycos continued to grow. By the time Farrik sputtered to a stop, the opening at the top of the shaft was even narrower. Now we’d have to hack our way out.

There was one consolation, I told the twins. They could each carry a couple of rock gourds out if they emptied their packs. Enough to cover the cost of the mind-shielding rings and healing draughts Farrik had purchased for our expedition, plus a little profit for each of us on the side. Enough to keep us fed and in ale for a month or two, while we figured out what to do next.

Farrik asked what I’d be carrying. I pointed out I’d have a tough enough climb without a heavy pack on my back. My injured leg was going to give me trouble. In fact, it was already stiffening up. If they wanted to reduce my share as a result, I told them, that was just fine with me.

Farrik looked ready to agree, but Gamlin shook his head and said we’d better hurry, or none of us would get out of there with anything.

The brothers set to work, emptying their packs and filling them with rock gourds. Meanwhile, I felt around for the rock gourd I’d spotted by the light of Gamlin’s blue fire—the one we’d missed. Might as well add it to the pile, I figured. One day, if we were lucky, Araumycos might die back again. Then we could come back and collect our reward.

My hand brushed something solid. I felt holes in its smooth, rounded surface. It was lighter than it should have been, I thought as I pulled it from the muck. It felt thin and hollow. A moment later, I saw why. It wasn’t a rock gourd I’d found, but a skull. Slimy fungus dribbled out of the eye sockets and down my arm. The jawbone hung by a thread.

I nearly dropped the skull in disgust. Then I looked a little closer. The skull had a thick forehead, broad cheekbones, and squarish look.

He—or she—had been a dwarf. Whoever it was had died some time ago, for there wasn’t a scrap of flesh nor beard clinging to the bone.

If we didn’t get moving, we’d wind up just like him.

I placed the skull on top of one of the piles of gourds while Gamlin and Farrik were busy tying their packs shut. They glanced at it, but didn’t say anything. They were too busy grunting under the load in their packs. I wondered how they’d be able to climb.

They managed it somehow, sweating under the strain. I had a harder time of it. Even without a pack, I spent my climb gritting my teeth at the pain of my wounded leg and trying not to faint.

At the top, we had to cut our way through. Having no pack to impede me, I clambered over the edge first, squeezing through what opening there was. Behind me, Gamlin and Farrik struggled, their bulging packs caught on the lattice of fungus. I looked down the corridor that led out—and saw that it was completely plugged. We were trapped!

I was starting to shout this to Gamlin and Farrik when something strange happened. The fungus that plugging the corridor quivered, then suddenly died back, leaving a gap.

Out of it stepped a drow. Black-skinned, gaunt-faced, she stared down at me with all the solemnity of a Deep Lord about to make a judgment.

I struggled to my feet, convinced for the second time that day that I was about to die. My mace was on my belt; I’d needed both hands for the climb. There was no way I’d undo the lashings in time.

Instead of attacking, however, she beckoned me forward. So startling was it, I took a step back, nearly going over the edge.

Behind me, I could hear Gamlin and Farrik sawing their way through the fungus. Getting out with their backpacks on was more important, it seemed, than hastening to my aid. Or maybe they hadn’t spotted the drow yet.

I noticed that she carried no weapons, wore no armor. And she’d still made no move to harm me. Nor did she look exactly as a drow should. Drow women are tall, but this one somehow seemed stretched thin, oddly jointed. Her white hair stood out from her head like old straw, but it were her hands that most disturbed me. They were all wrong: only three fingers, the outer two more like hooks, the middle one straight, and all tipped with claws.

I suddenly realized what she must be. Not a drow at all. A soul, taken at the moment of death, kept warm for days or years or centuries in Bane’s chill embrace, and spawned in a new form that was wholly unlike whatever body it had inhabited before.

She nodded, as if she’d heard my thoughts. “Will you help me, Daffyd? Lay at least part of me to rest?”

I asked how she knew my name. It was one I’d left behind when I departed the Rift. Even Gamlin and Farrik didn’t know it.

She touched her chest with a claw. “Ironstar,” she whispered. Then she pointed at me. “Ironstar.”

I shivered as I realized we must have been fated to meet. Just like me, she’d been . . . reforged. But not by Moradin. Instead she’d been cast in the form of a race any dwarf would attack on sight.

Bane had played an even crueler joke on her than Vergadain had on me.

“Will you help me?” she repeated.

I wet my lips. Helping her would mean climbing back down that shaft. If it had been Gamlin’s or Farrik’s body lying at the bottom of it, I wouldn’t have given it a moment’s thought. But she was a stranger to me.

I stared at the revenant, wondering what kind of person she’d been as a dwarf. Had there been kin who’d mourned her, or had she been a clanless outlaw? An honest person or a rogue? Then I realized that I might as well ask the same questions of myself.

Whatever she’d been, it didn’t matter. Dwarves take care of their own.

“You deserve better,” I said. “I’ll see that you get it. By Moradin’s beard, I swear I’ll see your skull laid properly to rest.”

Her mouth stretched to a thin smile. She turned and pressed on a section of the wall. A hidden door swung open. Behind it was a staircase, leading up. The air that rushed from it smelled sweet. It was obviously a way back to the surface. One we’d missed on our way in.

I asked if she was going to lead us out.

She shook her head. “Not until the rest of my bones are recovered can I rest,” she told me. “The orcs scattered them far and wide when Delzoun fell—a final insult to my people. But one day I will find them.”

“Delzoun!” I repeated, incredulous. “But that was . . . How long have you been searching?”

“Too long,” she said wearily. “And yet, not long enough. The dwarf body has so many bones . . .” Her words trailed off in a sigh.

Behind me, I heard a shout of triumph. I turned and saw that Gamlin and Farrik had hacked their way through. If they saw me talking to a “drow” Farrik’s suspicions would be rekindled. But I had to know one thing more. “Who—”

Rook was gone. Already, the hole she’d parted in the fungus was closing.

Gamlin and Farrik struggled up over the edge with their packs and shouted in dismay when they saw the corridor blocked. I showed them the staircase up, and told them it was our way out. They were so relieved they didn’t even ask how I knew. Then I told them what I needed to do: recover the skull, take it to a priest, and give it the last rites.

They thought I was joking. Gamlin actually guffawed. Then they realized I was serious.

Gamlin said there wasn’t time. Farrik said the dead dwarf was no clan of his. When I said the skull had belonged to an Ironstar and that it was our duty, he slid a look at Gamlin. Both rolled their eyes.

They turned toward the staircase, as if there was nothing more to say.

Fine, I told them. They could go on ahead, but I was going back for the skull. I’d catch up to them later, and collect my share then.

I see by your look you can guess what came next. I never did see either of them again. Not during that long, painful climb back up the stairs to the surface, nor back at the town we’d set out from. I waited there for tendays, but they never came.

Maybe someday, I’ll see them again, but if I don’t, it doesn’t really matter. That’s what Moradin’s trying to teach me in this life, you see—to choose my shield-brothers more carefully. Or something like that.

Well now. Would you look at that? My glass is dry again. Could you . . .?

No?

That’s all right. My tale is done.

I know what you’re thinking. You’ll be wondering, about now, why I would tell you all about a fortune in rock gourds that’s just lying there for the taking. Short answer: it doesn’t matter anymore. Gamlin and Farrik will likely try to go back to recover them—assuming they haven’t tried already, which might explain what happened to them. Without Rook’s help it will be impossible. With each step I took up those stairs toward the surface, Araumycos followed. By the time I reached the top, the staircase was plugged solid. Anyone who finds it now will set off puffballs every step of the way.

A revenant isn’t bothered by any of that, of course. And Rook, of course, has some way of making Araumycos die back. Wherever it has, that’s where you’ll find her. If you promise to bring whichever of her bones are there to a dwarf priest, and see that they’re given the last rites—or maybe it’s whichever of his bones; I never did get the chance to ask—Rook will likely guide you to wherever it is you need to go.

All I ask is that, if you do find Rook, you put in a good word for me. Tell her I laid her skull to rest, and had a priest say the proper words over the pyre. Ask her, on my behalf, if she’d mind fetching me a rock gourd or two from that cache, in return for me sending her way someone else who’ll help.

What’s that? The name Rook? Oh, it’s just a name I gave her. Those curved, black fingers of hers, with their claws, reminded me of a rook’s toes. I don’t know what her real name is—was. I’ll bet she doesn’t know, either. That’s the way revenants are, you see. A little vague on the details of their past lives. Kind of like me.

I see you getting to your feet. You’re going? So soon? No more questions?

Ah. I see. You think I spun this tale just to cadge a pint or two of the good stuff.

Not so, my good elf. Not so. Every word I’ve just told you is true.

I wasn’t tugging your beard—not that you have one. What I just told you is the truth. If you want a guide who knows every pace of Araumycos, find Rook’s bones. Help her, and she’ll help you—and maybe me, too, in the bargain.

Just remember one thing. Don’t let her appearance fool you. Regardless of what she looks like, she’s a dwarf.

Just like me.

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