by, December 29th, 2009 at 08:54 PM (307 Views)
Cardwell pulled the rope up until he could once again see the sack that held his belongings. He wondered for a moment why the skull charm had not warned him of this snare, speculating that the pendant might only work if the trap was sorcerous in nature. He swung the rope back and forth until the bag landed just outside the hearth. He then slipped into the narrow opening, wriggling his body until his entire frame was inside the flue. Cardwell could see the shaft expanded as it drew closer to the hearth, and as he descended, his arms and legs pressed against the front and back of the chimney for leverage. When he reached the bottom of the flue, he could see the crude trap door. There was a narrow ledge around the opening’s sides and back, and Cardwell used these projections to launch himself out of the hearth and into the room. Ashes had scattered into the room when the snare had been triggered, but Cardwell was not worried about the three men finding his tracks or his method of access into their dwelling — only stealing the bloodstone and receiving the antidote in payment concerned him. He glanced about the darkening room. The thief had been told that somewhere inside the cottage was the entrance to a sprawling labyrinth, and that within those twisted passages the skull-faced healer would take his rest.
Cardwell donned his armor, wiping off soot where his wet skin had touched the flue’s walls. With his sword fixed at his side once again, he felt somewhat safer as he glanced about the room. The cottage’s furnishings were few. Besides the table and chairs and the cupboards affixed to the walls, there wasn’t much to see, but there was one piece that he had not seen previously when he looked in the window, a black armoire set against the wall next to the front door. The closet’s sides were elaborately carved with the symbol of a six-fingered hand, and although the thief paid no deity homage, he recognized the hand of Arnor, the healing god’s mark. Taller than a tall man and sufficiently deep, the wardrobe seemed spacious enough to hide an entrance, but the piece was such an obvious choice that Cardwell instinctively turned away from it and surveyed the room once more. A round rug woven from coarse cloth was set in the back corner of the cottage. Even in this dim light, he could tell the covering had been moved, for the dust around it had been disturbed. He pulled the stiff carpet towards him to reveal a hinged panel set into the floorboards. A hole had been cut into the access, a handhold through which ran a thin rope attached to the circular rug’s rim. Cardwell realized that this line was used to pull the carpet back over the panel after it had been closed. There was no doubt in the thief’s mind that this was the ingress he sought, and without thinking, he placed his hand in the hole and pulled the sturdy panel upward. The door moved easily, but upon opening it, Cardwell found another rope attached to the underside of the square lid that disappeared into the darkness.
“Damn!” he whispered. “This place is worse than a rich merchant’s manor.”
He wondered what alarm he had just tripped, perhaps bells in the three men’s chambers deep in the bowels of the catacombs, but he did not dwell upon it long. Before him stretched a stone staircase, its steps stained with moisture. He descended the stairs and found himself in a corridor that went in two directions. The hallway was dark, and Cardwell had no map to guide him through the passages. He held the necklace on which hung the coin-sized skull in one hand, and in the other hand he gripped a poniard of black steel. With haste, he moved off to his left, his liquid movements more akin to a windswept shadow than a man of flesh and blood, the practiced movements of a thief experienced at his craft. He advanced deeper into the labyrinth, down flights of stairs and around sharp bends, all the while committing to memory the twists and turns he had taken. He knew his ability to retrace
his steps was his only chance of escaping the maze. And then a sound came to him, a bell or a gong, faint at first but echoing. Cardwell tried to determine from which direction the sound came, but no matter which way he turned, the elusive noise seemed equally loud. His frenzied pace combined with the poison in his body to make his heart beat fast, and he stopped to rest, wiping his sweat-covered brow with his sleeve. When he looked up, he saw a faint light ahead.
Cardwell moved toward the light, pulling the sorcerous cloak more closely about him. At the end of the passage was an archway that opened into an octagonal room. On a magnificent oak table rested a tall brass candelabrum, its eight white tapers casting a warm radiance about the strange gallery. There were several large tomes on the tabletop, along with a serving tray, three dinner plates, three cups, and two uncorked wine bottles. Each plate was littered with the remains of a meal, and one of the books was open as if to mark the reader’s place.
Cardwell scanned the spacious room carefully, even glancing up at the vaulted ceiling. Four of the eight walls were covered with rich tapestries, long velvet hangings of deep blues and reds, but set into the remaining walls were openings similar to the archway through which he now looked. He had not seen any doors in the passage leading here, nor had he come upon any chambers other than the octagonal gallery. Although he could not possibly have explored every corridor, the room seemed to him to be the labyrinth’s hub.
Cardwell strode over to the table and placed a finger on the untouched roasted coney that lay on the serving platter. The meat was still warm. The thief was unsure if he was any closer to finding the skull-faced healer, but he was relieved to have located a room recently used by the three men, even if it
were by mere chance that he had stumbled
upon it. Without further delay, he made his way across the chamber, choosing to advance toward the rightmost archway. Beyond the opening, he found stairs that led downward into darkness. Although he was no stranger to black winding tunnels and hidden passages, there was something about the shadow-filled stairwell that bothered him. With each step down, the light given off by the candelabrum in the room above decreased until it seemed to Cardwell that he was immersed in a black void. He raised the skull pendant before him and placed his hope upon its ability to detect traps and alarms.
When he reached the bottom of the stairs, torches on both sides of the hallway flared to life, illuminating the passage before him. At the end of the corridor stood the skull-faced healer, the grim figure waiting motionless as if he somehow knew the thief was coming.
Cardwell remembered the rope connected to the underside of the trap door and wondered if that mechanism had alerted the healer. He knew the cloak he wore hid him from view, but if he moved too swiftly and the cape parted, then the healer would see him. Cardwell remained still, waiting for his adversary to act, but after some time had passed and the skull-faced man made no movement, it became obvious that the thing facing him at the end of the passage was not the healer at all, but merely an image of the man. The thief crept towards the likeness until he stood face to face with it, and then he passed his hand through it. The healer’s image dissipated as if it were made of smoke, revealing a door hidden behind the sorcery.
Cardwell reasoned that, with the brands burning in the hallway, there was too much light to simply open the door and enter. If the healer were beyond the portal, the torchlight
would alert him of a trespasser. He moved down the hall and removed each firebrand from its holder, and as he did so, the torches sputtered and went out. Now in complete darkness, he placed the unlit brands on the floor and felt his way back toward the door, his hands sliding along the cold wall until he reached the portal.
Cardwell found the door unlocked and opened it with great caution. The light of a single candle illuminated the room beyond. His attention was immediately drawn to the skull-faced man lying on a bunk, and he ignored all other details of the room. The bloodstone rested on the ugly man’s chest, rising and falling with the sleeper’s breathing. The thief looked down at his prize.
He searched through his satchel, his hand coming to rest on a hard oblong object, which he then withdrew from the bag. He held the small rune-carved stone aloft and stroked it as if it were a beloved pet. The rock murmured, a strange sentience singing from within its confines, the item’s sole purpose to induce deep sleep. The melodic sounds slowly changed to chilling whispers, elusive haunting voices from insanity itself. A mist floated from the stone and drifted down to cover the slumbering man’s head. The sleeper inhaled the drugged vapors and his breathing slowed. Cardwell knew the oblong stone had done its work, and he was now far more confident that the healer would not awaken for some time. With the dagger in his hand, he cut the leather cord and lifted the bloodstone from the man’s chest.
“Forgive me,” Cardwell whispered. He then turned and left his victim to dream, the thief’s shadow-wrapped figure a barely perceptible outline in the darkness.