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Xiphos paused briefly and quieted his breathing so he could listen for what may be ahead. His vision was limited to the small globe of illumination cast by his torch and this limited visibility troubled him. His past experiences in these environments had taught Xiphos nothing if not caution. Hearing and seeing nothing to cause alarm, he let out a breath he had not realized he was holding and continued on. The soles of his soft leather boots made little sound on the damp stone floor as he slowly began moving forward again while repeatedly casting nervous glances up and down the corridor he was traversing. A moment more and a wooden door became visible before him.
The door was of thick oak, banded with iron, and possessed a formidable handle and knocker. As Xiphos leaned in close to the door and examined it with his torch he felt an intense cold radiating from it. He gripped the cold metal handle but the door did not move when pulled. While examining the door Xiphos heard a scraping sound coming from the darkness behind him along with a sudden intensification of the pervasive cold in the corridor. Xiphos saw several skeletal shapes begin coalescing out of the darkness. He cursed under his breath, “Bat shit, more of these guys.” Xiphos, along with his travelling companions Shashka and Takoba, encountered another such group of skeletal lich warriors earlier that day. Xiphos managed to escape that group of undead enemy guards but it was the last time he had seen Takoba or Shashka, having lost track of them during his frantic escape from the lich warriors, although he did manage to salvage Shashka’s enchanted mace, Nightfall, as he beat a hasty retreat. They had been decent enough traveling companions Xiphos supposed, but he had neither the time, nor the inclination, to launch any search and rescue missions when there was treasure still to be found. Besides, Xiphos thought to himself my profit margin just increased dramatically. Turning to face the advancing warriors, Xiphos slid his shield off of his back, set his torch in a nearby wall sconce, and pulled his newly acquired mace from his belt.
The lead warrior charged Xiphos its great axe arcing down, and though Xiphos was able to deflect it, the blow numbed his shield arm. Again the undead warrior swung his axe, but this time Xiphos was able to spin out of its fatal sweep leaving the undead warrior over balanced leaning forward. Xiphos did not hesitate bringing his mace crashing down onto the skeletal warrior’s skull crushing it and dropping the undead warrior to the stone floor. Before Xiphos could recover, a blow to his armored ribs slammed him into the corridor wall behind him. The second undead warrior charged in following the blow from his cudgel meaning to finish Xiphos before he could regain his balance. But years of training and combat had rendered Xiphos’ reflexes to razor sharpness. Dropping to the floor, Xiphos rolled under the follow up swing of the charging undead warrior, and rising to his feet he thrust his mace through the creature’s sternum, shattering it and sending another enemy to the floor. The third undead warrior attempted a thrust to Xiphos’ head with its spear. Xiphos again dodged by ducking and rolling whilst cutting out the creature’s legs from beneath it with his shield. As the creature fell, Xiphos sprung back to his feet and finished the creature with a mace strike to its face.
Xiphos stood catching his breath and looking and listening for more enemies. After a few moments of silence, he began searching through the corpses of the skeletal warriors. Finding nothing of interest or value (the undead were notoriously cheap as well as completely lacking in any fashion sense), Xiphos retrieved his torch and returned to examining the door. He again tried the handle, but other than noticing it was still cold to the touch, it did not move. Xiphos next reached out and used the knocker banging it on the door three times. After the last of the bangs echoed down the corridor all was quiet again. Suddenly, the door began to emit a faint buzzing sound and at that same moment Xiphos heard multiple footsteps hurrying down the corridor from the darkness. Xiphos felt a sudden chill in his stomach as he turned about and observed an extremely large group of skeletal warriors rushing down the corridor towards him. Spinning back around he again grabbed the door handle and pulled; this time the door began to swing open. Mindful of the certain death closing from behind, Xiphos hastily shined his torch through the doorway, and only seeing continuing dark corridor, rushed through pulling the door closed behind him.
There was an unbearably intense flash of blue light accompanied by a sharp pain between his eyes and then he was falling. Xiphos gracelessly rolled and slid down an unknown number of steps finally landing at the bottom on his back with a thud and a groan as the air was knocked from him. Laying there, looking up at the stone ceiling above him, Xiphos began to piece together what just happened. He was being pursued, finally got the door open, entered the dark corridor, shut the door behind him, and then here he was, on the floor, at the bottom of some stairs. On the upside Xiphos thought to himself, his current location, wherever that was, was well lit, warm, and dry. Whilst pushing himself to a seated position, Xiphos took inventory of his various bumps and bruises, and concluded there was no serious damage. Looking up the stairs he so recently tumbled down, he started in surprise when he noticed the door he just entered was no longer there. Instead there was only an unremarkable stone wall containing two wall sconces occupied by lit torches.
Xiphos then began an examination of his surroundings and noticed he was sitting on a large threadbare and coarse carpet covering the floor at the bottom of the nine steps he just tumbled down. Behind him he saw two large leather- bound chairs with a small wood table between them, sitting before a large fire place. The fire contained therein explained the source for most of the light and warmth of the room. Despite a tall glass half filled with an amber liquid, and the book sitting next to it on the small table, he observed no one else in the room. Sighing, Xiphos got to his feet, brushed at his clothes, adjusted his armor, and checked to make sure his mace and other weapons were still in their proper places. He then climbed back up the stairs and examined the wall, which until so recently, contained the door he just entered though. The stones making up the wall felt quite solid and secure and to all appearances had been so for quite some time. Xiphos then turned about on the landing and looked back down into the room looking for another way out. Once again, he noted the chairs, table and fireplace. On a far wall left of the fireplace there was a large book case containing numerous old tomes, several curious looking instruments of unknown intent, multiple jars of unknown substances, along with two busts of unknown personages. The wall to the right of the chairs contained a large cabinet, next to a table with some disconcerting stains on it. On the wall above the table there were two more walls sconces containing lit torches.
Xiphos walked back down the stairs and began a cautious circuit of the room’s perimeter in an effort to determine any possible way out. He approached the large cabinet and cautiously placed a hand on the smooth ivory handle on its outside. He pulled on the handle, carefully stepping back and to the side as he did so, and glanced inside. Nothing. Just empty space, and what smelled something of cedar, greeted his inquiry. He reached in to feel the inside walls of the cabinet and found them of solid oak construction. Sighing, Xiphos stepped back, closed the cabinet, and approached the table next to it. His subsequent examination revealed a heavy oak table with nothing underneath, and the only thing on top were the afore-mentioned stains. He then bent closely over the table to examine the stains, and detected a faint pungent yet metallic and coppery odor emanating from the surface that confirmed his suspicions about their nature. Blood. Xiphos had spilled enough of it in his two decades of dungeon crawling to be sure of that if nothing else. Giving a brief thought to the fate of whoever, or whatever, met their end of that table, he turned and continued his circuit of the room.
Xiphos passed in front of the fireplace, feeling the heat on his legs and smelling a slight pine odor from the flames, and approached the large book case on the other side of the room. All of books arrayed before him were clearly ancient, attested to by a slight musty odor, along with the copious amounts of dust that had accumulated upon them. Glancing at the titles Xiphos noted some in languages unfamiliar to him along with some others he could understand; however, the works were still unfamiliar to him. Xiphos reached around the side of the book case in effort to feel behind it. Again, nothing. He next attempted to pull the book case away from the wall in hopes of finding an exit, but quickly realized the futility of his efforts. That case is either bolted to the stone wall behind it or is constructed of some phenomenally heavy material. He would wager he could not move it with a team of horses. As he bent to remove some books in order to examine the back of the book case, he gave a cursory glance at some of the titles: Codex Gigas, Necronomicon…
Xiphos froze, holding a book in each hand, and went cold at the sound of a voice behind him in a room that he was certain only he occupied just a moment ago.
Spinning about Xiphos dropped the two books he was holding and pulled his mace from his belt. He found himself facing an individual suddenly seated in one of the chairs before the fireplace. This person was wearing a hooded gray cloak of some rough spun material that covered him from head to toe and provided little hint as to the wearer’s appearance. Peering into the hood Xiphos could just make out the shadowed hint of what appeared to be the face of an older man.
After taking a moment to quiet his breathing, and allow his heart to stop pounding, Xiphos inquired, “Where did you come from?”
“Same place as you I would imagine,” came the enigmatic reply from the equally enigmatic individual.
“Out in the dungeon? I saw no one else in that passage. How long have you been here?”
This elicited a resigned shrug from the stranger who responded. “Not sure, feels like an eternity.” The stranger seemed to find some humor in that response as he followed it with a slight chuckle.
Xiphos walked a bit closer to the stranger placing the other chair in the room between them. He was becoming frustrated with this stranger’s seeming indifference to the situation and decided to try the direct approach, “What is this place? How do I get out?” he demanded.
At the change in Xiphos’ tone the stranger stood and began to pace to and fro before the fireplace apparently in deep thought. “You could call it a way station, or perhaps a rest stop on your journey. There is no need for alarm I assure you, you are in no danger here. As for getting out, that may take some time.” The stranger paused and then asked, “Tell me what is the last thing you remember before finding yourself here?”
“I was in a corridor fleeing from a large group of lich warriors and came upon a door. I couldn’t get it open. The liches were almost upon me when suddenly the door opened, I saw a flash of light, and found myself here.”
The stranger nodded, turned, and walked back to his chair and once seated gestured at the other chair, “Please have a seat. It will be easier to discuss our situation if you take your ease.”
“What exactly is the situation”, asked Xiphos as he moved around the chair and sat.
“Well, we have established that you desire to get out of here and return to whatever endeavor you were previously pursuing. Correct?”
“I likewise have a task to complete that I cannot accomplish as long as we are here.”
“And what exactly is your task”, asked Xiphos.
“Suffice to say I am in personnel and recruiting for the concern I work for.”
“Well I can’t help you there, I already have a job that pays pretty well.”
“Really? Crawling about these dungeons is profitable?”
“How did you know that is what I do?”
“Your attire speaks for itself”, replied the stranger.
“Fair enough. And yes, it does. Pay well I mean.”
“I can always use someone with your type of experience. In fact, I am in need of someone to map this very dungeon. What would it take to enlist your services?”
“Depends, what have you got?” asked Xiphos.
“Coin, and lots of it,” replied the stranger.
“OK, maybe we can deal on two conditions. First, can you get us out of here and second I don’t deal with people who hide their faces.”
At this, the stranger sat forward in his chair, reached up, and pushed his hood back. Xiphos found himself looking at a rather nondescript man of about 60 years of age with a leathery complexion and short graying hair and beard. “Satisfied?” inquired the stranger.
“You’re getting there,” said Xiphos. “Now, you have a name I presume?”
The stranger leaned forward and extended his hand stating, “Please call me Belial.”
Xiphos leaned forward and grasped Belial’s hand firmly, surprised at how warm, almost hot, his skin was to the touch. Sitting back Xiphos stated, “Now, no offense but I will need to see the color of your money.”
Belial reached under his cloak and retrieved a small leather sack that made a solid sounding thud followed by a jingle when he placed on the table between the chairs. “Help yourself.”
Xiphos picked up the bag, pleased it felt as heavy as it sounded, and opened it pouring several coins into his hand. They were gold with a pyramid imprint on them with the word “Naraka” written underneath it. The gold, like its owner’s hand, was warm to the touch, and the bag gave off a faint burning odor, or maybe that was coming from the fireplace. Satisfied Xiphos returned the coins to the bag and tied the bag to his belt. Turning to Belial, Xiphos asked, “Now what?”
“You return to the dungeon and fulfill the duties you have been contracted for.” Belial rose from his chair and gestured to the stairs at the back of the room. Standing up and turning Xiphos was surprised to see the door her entered earlier once again back in its proper place at the top of the stairs. “How will I get in touch with you once I have completed the mapping?”
“Do not be concerned with that I will contact you when I need you,” replied Belial somewhat enigmatically.
Nodding in acknowledgement, Xiphos stepped past Belial and ascended the stairs to the door. Grabbing the still cold handle he opened the door and stepped through. As he exited, he glanced over his shoulder for a last look into the room and was shocked to see Belial was no longer there.
Xiphos continued through the door and again encountered the same intense flash of light, followed by him coming to, once again laying on his back. The first thing he noticed was an intense cold and an extremely queer feeling all over his body. Xiphos realized he was back in the same corridor he fought in earlier that day, and he was lying just in front of that accursed door that began this whole ordeal. Something was different though. Large amounts of dust now covered the floor around him and there was no evidence of his earlier passage. Also, the door was now covered in cob webs that hadn’t been there this morning. Turning his head the other way Xiphos froze. He was laying in the midst of an entire company of lich warriors amongst whom he recognized the skeletal remains of his recently misplaced travelling companions, Takoba and Shashka. Sucks to be them, Xiphos thought to himself as he scrambled to his feet and reached for his mace. Instead of feeling the reassuring solidity of the handle of his weapon, his hand passed through an empty space that should not have been there. Glancing down, Xiphos finally realized his true situation and the nature of that room, and why the liches were ignoring him, and why the corridor looks so different.
Xiphos never made it out of that corridor, perishing there years ago while fighting this very skeletal army. Xiphos watched in horror as he passed his hand once again through the skeletal remains of his own corpse while the lich company of undead warriors formed up around its newest recruit.