He lit a torch, holding it high when the flame grew big enough to light the path ahead of him. The tunnel was damp, the earthen walls dripping gloomily. Minty Erenstein was not a particularly brave Human, but he was an intelligent one, and he knew that he would rather proceed down this chilly, gloomy tunnel than go back to where he was sure he had heard nefarious whisperings.
Aminton was also not particularly tall, which was an advantage in this specific tunnel. He barely had to stoop to advance, although he was beginning to wish he had left his dulcimer behind. It was strapped awkwardly across his back and had as yet to serve a purpose on this singular adventure. As a bard he was used to earning his living making music, until he stumbled into a “get rich quick” scheme that was beginning to feel like a “get dead quick” sort of venture. He had allowed a beautiful and sweet talking Elvish wizard to talk him into going on this “quest,” but she had refused to enter the tomb with him. She had said something about how the type of magic that protected the treasure prevented her from entering, or something like that. His intelligence had failed him at this point and he went along with it, with only a shortsword, a knife, and his instruments to keep him company.
Now he was seriously regretting all of his life choices.
Minty’s foot slipped in some grime and he tumbled backward. The torch sputtered, although he managed to keep it in his hand. Grumbling, he picked himself up, but now his hand and trousers were slimy. He tried unsuccessfully to wipe his hand clean, but only managed to rub the slime more firmly between his fingers. Minty sighed, and started to move forward again, but froze when he heard a scrabbling sound behind him.
He whipped around, nearly singeing his hair as he raised the torch. He peered back toward the entrance of the tunnel, which he could barely perceive in the dim light. Holding his breath, he waited for the telltale signs of being followed, but he neither heard any more movement nor saw any shape advancing in the darkness. Hoping it was just his nervousness manifesting scary sounds in the darkness, Minty turned back and proceeded further into the tunnel.
It wasn’t long before he heard the sounds behind him again, but rather than turn and see if he could identify the source, he instead quickened his pace. Which, after about 30 feet, drove him headlong into a skeleton.
They both tumbled to the ground, the torch falling from Minty’s hand but miraculously remaining lit. As Minty struggled to his feet, he realized to his horror that the skeleton was also struggling to its feet.
He scrambled backwards, further muddying his hands and trousers. He had heard of such things, of course, the reanimated dead, but he’d never encountered one before. What should he do? Should he just...kick it in the face?
He kicked it in the face. Or rather, he tried to. Instead, all he managed was to throw himself off balance and twinge his left knee. The skeleton, on the other hand, rose to its full height, which seemed to be considerably taller than Minty, as it had to stoop uncomfortably to fit into the tunnel. Could a skeleton be uncomfortable?
Minty didn’t have time to contemplate the thought (it’s muscles that are uncomfortable, right?) as the skeleton swung its fist down at him, brandishing a shortsword he hadn’t realized the skeleton was clutching.
Minty threw up his arms to try and shield himself, but his leather armor did little to protect him from the blow. The sword cut into his left shoulder with excruciating ease, and he immediately felt like he was going to vomit. He screamed aloud when the blade slid from his flesh, and he clutched his shoulder as the skeleton reared back.
He reached for his own weapon, but in his twisted position on the tunnel floor, he realized instantly he wouldn’t be able to pull the sword free. Instead he reached back for the only other thing on hand: his dulcimer.
He grabbed the instrument by its neck, but as he attempted to pull it from his back, the pain in his shoulder intensified, and he doubled over as blood poured from the wound. This was not going well, and he would have words for that Elvish wizard if he ever got out of here.
The skeleton lunged forward for another strike, but the bones in his legs rattled unhealthily, and Minty heard a distinct crack. The skeleton stumbled and its stroke grazed the wall of the tunnel rather than landing on Minty himself.
Wriggling desperately, Minty managed to pull the dulcimer from his back, and with a swing fueled entirely by pain-filled adrenaline, smashed the skeleton’s legs, thoroughly cracking the already weakened bones. The tunnel filled with the discordant clamour of the now equally smashed dulcimer, and the skeleton clattered to the floor. It still waved its sword feebly in the air, but unable to stand it attempted to roll itself over and crawl toward Minty. Minty quickly gathered his remaining strength and bludgeoned the skeleton with the broken instrument until the bones quivered ineffectively in the flickering torchlight. Exhausted, bleeding freely, and entirely sure he was going to die alone in a dark tunnel on a fool’s errand, Minty sat back against the earthen wall and closed his eyes, feeling a droplet splash gently on his hand.
Rough noises in the dark forced Minty to open his eyes. The torch was surprisingly still sputtering feebly, but any moment it would go out. He silently cursed himself for not learning the light cantrip. He grew up in the city. He never needed to produce his own light for anything! And now he was stuck in a dark cave, totally reliant on the few torches he had brought in his pack. If he ever got out of this alive, he was never leaving the well-lit security of the city again.
He started to move, to grab the torch and give it new life, but his infinitesimal shift caused searing pain to shoot through his shoulder. Right. That. With what little strength he had left, Minty closed his eyes and sang a quiet lullaby, casting a spell of healing. He felt the muscles and skin close themselves up, the pain dulling significantly as the wound healed.
He sat a moment longer, rolling his shoulder and rubbing out the ache that remained. It was a good spell. He felt almost back to normal. He leaned forward, propping himself up on his hands and knees. The damp air tickled his shoulder as he reached for the torch, and he cast a quick mending cantrip on his armor. The leather obediently stitched itself neatly together again. Now there was a cantrip worth knowing.
Minty picked up the torch and stood himself up, gazing down at the litter of bones and wood on the ground. Now that the torch was upright, its flame grew stronger and he could see more clearly. The remains of the skeleton lay flung about, its scimitar gleaming in the torchlight. And there, scattered in dismal pieces, was his beloved dulcimer.
Minty knelt, the gloom around him forgotten. He picked the instrument up by its neck, only a piece of it intact. The strings were broken, the bouts shattered. It had been a lovely instrument, carved by an old friend. The scroll was in the shape of a nautilus shell.
There was more scraping and scuffling in the dark, and Minty whipped around, his grip tightening on the torch. He had almost forgotten what had caused him to run headlong into the skeleton in the first place. He peered into the darkness, easing the dulcimer’s scroll into his pocket and reaching for his shortsword. Luckily, with him standing, it was much easier to access this time.
Having adjusted more to the darkness, he could see a shape sniffing and snuffling along the tunnel where he had entered. It was a small creature, no more than a few feet in height, and it seemed to be crawling along on all fours. It was still too far away for Minty to be able to make out its features, but its head seemed to be...pointy.
Minty found himself unable to decide what to do. As the creature approached, he contemplated his options. He could stand and confront the creature, whatever it was, and now that he was fully healed and had his shortsword drawn, he felt more confident in his capability to fight. But he was in uncharted territory, and who knew what powers or abilities this thing had. It could spit venom for all he knew.
He could also simply continue on his quest. The thing hadn’t attacked him while he was down, and it wasn’t rushing him now. It was possible it had no interest in him whatsoever. Minty was just disinclined to turn his back on anything that might decide to come after him.
Neither option was great.
Before he could even decide, the thing was upon him. Minty cursed under his breath. He was always terrible at quick decisions, and too often choices were made for him. Minty took a step back, gazing down at what appeared to be a…
Badger. A badger? It was definitely a badger, Minty thought, although he had never seen one in real life, and he always imagined them to be a little smaller. The animal was striped in gray and black, white bands glowing eerily across its face. It was moving slowly through the tunnel, stopping every now and then to stick its nose deeply into the soil.
As Minty tightened his grip on his sword, the badger stopped and raised its head, looking directly at him. Its small eyes were not dark as the bard expected, but milky white, and he realized the animal was blind.
But there was something about the way it was looking at him that made Minty uneasy. He saw its nose twitch as it sniffed the air, clearly recognizing there was something here that didn’t belong. Minty would have happily left in a hurry, except now there was a badger between him and the exit, and, as much as he hated to admit it, he did kind of want to find the treasure for the Elf.
Would it be totally crazy to ask the badger for directions? It was clearly intelligent, and although Minty had no idea whether or not it spoke Common, he cleared his throat.
“Uh, greetings, fair...um, creature,” he began, then paused. He supposed he ought to say something about meeting here in this strange place, but he didn’t even know whether or not it could understand him. The customary exchanges between travelers didn’t really seem applicable here.
But before he could come up with anything, the badger sat up on its hind legs. Minty took a step back, although there were still several yards between them. And then the air around the badger started to ripple. Minty blinked a few times, sure it was the flickering torchlight that was causing the illusion. But no, something magical was happening. Minty could feel it. As he watched, feeling queasy, the badger seemed to melt. Minty closed his eyes against the nausea rising in his stomach.
After several moments, there was a small cough. Minty peered out of one eye, the other tightly closed in case whatever he saw really would make him vomit. Then he opened both eyes in surprise, because he saw, not a melted badger, but a gnome.
The gnome stood at a little more than half Minty’s height, and was clothed in black and gray. Minty wasn’t altogether sure its suit wasn’t made of badger, but the gnome also wore a brilliant belt of white gems around its slight waist. They were grinning, and seemed pleased as punch that they had fooled Minty.
The natural bardic inclination for improvisation notwithstanding, Minty was at a loss for words.
“Oh man, you should have seen the look on your face,” the gnome giggled. Their voice was high but surprisingly robust, although Minty wasn’t sure he could be surprised by much else at this point. Slowly regaining his sense of self, Minty shrugged and allowed himself a quick smile.
“I live to entertain,” he said shakily, and the gnome laughed again.
“But can you…..see?”
As Minty said it he realized it was probably a terribly insensitive question, but he had noticed that the gnome’s eyes, like the badger’s, were milky white.
“Sorry,” he stammered, but the gnome waved their hand dismissively.
“It takes more than eyes to see, especially down here, Stoneskull.”
Minty frowned, not in the mood to be teased by a shape-shifting gnome badger. But he wasn’t about to turn his back on a stranger, so he dipped into a bow and introduced himself.
“Aminton Erenstein, Bard.”
The gnome cocked their head and smiled.
“Tremeldonna Garrick,” they replied, “but you can call me Brock.”
Minty had known few gnomes in his life, but he knew about their affinity for names. Most gnomes went by their chosen nicknames, which had nothing to do with their given or clan names.
“Thank you, Brock. It is a genuine pleasure to meet you. Not everything in this tunnel has been as...polite.”
“Of course, not, Stoneskull,” Brock laughed, and Minty realized with a sinking stomach he had just been granted his own nickname. “Why bother hiding something if it was easy to get to?”
“Then you know about the…” Minty gestured knowingly, expecting Brock to nod wisely. Brock just looked at him.
“You know, the…..” MInty nodded and winked several times, his gestures becoming more obvious. Brock was silent.
“The treasure!” Minty blurted, then regretted it instantly. His voice echoed throughout the tunnel, and several small lines of dust fell from the ceiling. There was a pause.
“Well, yeah,” Brock replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Minty gaped.
“Well, then, why aren’t there more people here, trying to get it?”
“You think there haven’t been? It’s not like people don’t try to get the treasure. They just can’t.”
“You know how many people have died here? Bergin of the North, Master Thomel son of Tamer, the Warrior of Garlong, Lady Illora Yngeral, Paterson Hamstring, Frank…” the gnome was counting on their fingers. Minty felt the nausea return.
Brock stopped, looking sly.
“Ok, ok, I get it!” Minty sighed and ran his fingers through his tousled hair. “Minty, you Stoneskull, why did you agree to this? You know you’re not cut out for this kind of thing. You should never have fallen for it. There are other Elven wizards out there…”
“But you don’t have to die here.”
Minty froze, turning back to Brock.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, those Stoneskulls didn’t have me to help them.”
“Yes, me,” Brock replied, looking put out.
"And why would you help me if you didn’t help them?”
“I didn’t say I didn’t help them,” Brock said. Minty frowned. “But I will help you, for a share of the treasure.”
“The treasure isn’t for me,” he finally admitted. Brock looked incredulous.
“Then what in the four corners of the sky are you doing here?”
Minty avoided the gnome’s gaze.
“Well, there was a wizard, an Elven wizard, and she asked me…”
Minty glanced up to see Brock folding their arms, a smirk on their small face.
“It’s just, she said she couldn’t do it herself!” Minty finished glumly, feeling more strongly than ever that he should never have agreed to this adventure in the first place.
“Uh huh,” Brock just grinned. “Did she happen to mention why she couldn’t do it herself?”
Minty gaped, then stammered, “Well, no, but she…”
“Uh huh,” Brock repeated, then brushed past Minty, who watched the gnome apprehensively.
“Well, you won’t get far without my help, and I am feeling particularly magnanimous today, so come along. We can discuss the terms of my payment later,” the gnome said nobly, making their way deeper into the tunnel without the aid of torch or lantern.
“But, uh...wait!” Minty scuttled along after Brock, nearly bumping his head on a particularly low hanging stalactite. Although still startled from the encounter with the skeleton, and the appearance of Brock, he must admit he was feeling marginally better about the quest. Having a companion, particularly a magical one that could see in the dark, would make this a lot easier. And Brock did seem to know what they were doing, although he was still unclear about the “help” they had offered the others, the ones who didn’t make it out alive.
Minty caught up with Brock, holding the torch alight so he could see where the gnome badger was heading. Brock walked right over the remains of the skeleton, and Minty was a little disappointed they didn’t make some comment about his heroic triumph over the undead creature. Now that the ordeal was over, he felt rather proud of himself, though the feeling was tempered by sorrow over the loss of his dulcimer. But Brock said nothing, merely trotted away deeper into the cavern, with Minty struggling to maintain equal pace.
They walked in silence for some time, Brock moving swiftly with confidence, Minty bumbling along behind, his eyes never straying far from the gnome’s belt of white gemstone’s. Brock’s outfit of muted colors would allow them to completely disappear into the gloom if they chose, and Minty had a feeling Brock was only allowing the gems to glow for Minty’s benefit.
Minty was unable to guess at how long they had been traveling, but he was growing bored. Although another fight for his life would not be welcome, he wondered whether this adventure would make for a satisfactory enough tale. Perhaps he could...embellish. He was a bard, after all. He could throw in another skeleton or two to the initial battle, then maybe later a demonic spider…
Lost in thought, he nearly stumbled over Brock, who had stopped. Minty lifted the torch and his gaze to see that they had entered a rather large cavern. It seemed completely dark, but when Minty raised the torch, firelight gleamed against something glittering the walls. Small stones of deep purple glistened in the light, and presumably the ceiling as well, although it was too far above their heads to see.
“What is this place?” Minty said, then nearly clapped a hand over his mouth. His voice seemed far too loud, and it echoed in strange ways, returning to his ears in whispers and groans. At the same time, he suddenly felt a cool breeze brush against his face. But they were surely too deep underground to feel a draft, weren’t they?
“This...this wasn’t here before,” Brock said, their voice almost too low to hear.
“What...what do you mean?” Minty asked nervously, unconsciously shuffling closer to the gnome, although he stood nearly twice their height. Suddenly he heard a low growling, and Minty squeaked and jumped backward, awkwardly drawing his shortsword before realizing the growling was coming from Brock.
Feeling foolish and anything but brave, Minty crouched down and wiggled close behind Brock, his head just above the gnome’s shoulder.
“What is it? What’s here? Can’t you see?” he whispered desperately.
Brock gave one sharp shake of their head. Minty had just enough time to curse himself for wishing for more adventure before the floor exploded in front of them.