“Never thought I would remember the duergar caves fondly,” Abassi muttered as the tremor faded. He wiped the dust and gril from his eyes with an equally dust and grit-covered hand. Groaning in irritation, he quickly beat his hand against his leg, then reached into his pocket to retrieve the clean-ish handkerchief he had stored there when the tremors started.
“Never mind the tremors,” Miles said. “The tunnels are safe.” A huge jolt rocked them up and then down. “Well, mostly safe. Besides, we’re almost there.”
“You seem to know where you’re going,” Asha observed.
“Yeah,” Abassi said suspiciously.
Miles shrugged. “I’ve studied Bornin since I was a child,” he replied. “When older folk asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer ‘a dwarf.’”
Gray said nothing but glanced at Adalai. She had spoken little since their descent into the tunnels. She was having difficulty keeping up with her usual level of cleanliness, and Gray could tell it bothered her.
“Aha!” exclaimed Miles. They had come to a single door on the right side of the corridor. The tunnel carried on into the distance, periodic orbs of sickly green light marking the way. The door was marked in dwarven runes.
“Miles,” Abassi murmured. “That says ‘maintenance closet.’”
“‘Course it does,” Miles countered. “But this is the end of the line.”
“How do you know?” Asha asked.
Miles pointed in the direction they had been heading without looking. “End of the tunnel.”
The group looked in that direction and saw that the tunnel carried on out of sight. Adalai started to murmur and then her eyes glowed with arcane light. “Oh!” she exclaimed.
“What?” Gray asked.
“It’s a mirror,” she said. “Enchanted so that we’re not in it. It’s a relatively simple trick.”
Miles was pushing on the door with his considerable strength. “The dwarves believe that simple is better. Less moving parts, less to go wrong.”
“Is that why they make everything out of stone and metal?” Abassi inquired. Miles grunted and nodded. Suddenly, the door gave way and Miles fell into the next room.
Indeed, instead of a maintenance closet, the room was much larger. It seemed to be an antechamber or narthex of some kind. Huge doors marked with dwarven runes stood at the far side of the room.
“What’s it say?” Asha whispered.
“Direct translation?” Miles replied. “‘Welcome to the Forge of Bornin.’”
“It does not!” Abassi snapped. “It’s some kind of word puzzle locking mechanism.”
Miles shrugged. “Same difference.”
“I used to be something of a locksmith in my home country,” Abassi mused. “I might be able to-”
Miles looked incredulous. “You think so? In the home of the greatest mind ever to live and die under the sun?”
Abassi shook his head. “No, probably not.”
“But you said that simple was better, right?” Gray asked. “What does the puzzle say?”
“It’s a series of three six-digit numbers,” Abassi said.
Adalai perked up. “What are they?”
“975,949; 634,536; and 182,018.” Miles read aloud.
“How do you say 808 in dwarven?” Adalai asked without hesitation. The huge doors clunked loudly and the lock opened. “Oh, apparently it understands Common!”
“How did you do that?” Asha asked in amazement.
“Simple logical progression,” Adalai answered. “Nine times seven is 63, five times nine is 45, four times nine is 36, and so on. You coming?” She walked into the large chamber beyond.
“Did I say the greatest mind that ever lived under the sun?” Miles breathed as Gray moved past him. “I meant second greatest.”
The chamber beyond was massive. Hundreds feet long, and fifty or more feet tall, arrayed with row upon row of neatly marked and catalogued boxes.
“Now,” Miles said, clapping his hands. “Let’s get to it. We are looking for the ‘Tees’.”
“Each row has a rune,” observed Asha.
“What does a dwarven letter ‘T’ look like?” Gray inquired.
“Kind of like a sideways ‘Z’ with a bunch of little squigglies through it, oh nevermind,” Miles began to run.
“Wouldn’t a sideways ‘Z’ be an ‘N’?” Gray called, hastening to keep pace with him.
“Nope, distinctive differences!” Miles called back, not really paying attention. “X, P, E…” he muttered aloud.
“Isn’t the dwarven alphabet in alphabetical order?” Adalai asked Abassi, who had not moved.
“The dwarven alphabet has thirty characters, most of which only sort of correlate to the Common alphabet,” Abassi explained. “Does it worry you that Miles seems to know exactly what he’s doing?”
Adalai shrugged. “Most people underestimate me because I am particular about cleanliness, I have to count the bricks in the wall and the stones on the floor and because I’m only an apprentice,” she said. “But Miles thinks I have the greatest mind under the sun. So that has to mean something.”
Abassi shot her a sidelong look. “How many…”
“Seven thousand two hundred and seven bricks, ten thousand nine hundred and eleven stones just in view.”
Abassi nodded. “I’ll take your word for it.”
“Found it!” Miles yelled, seemingly from a long distance. Asha, Adalai and Abassi all moved to catch up.
In the “T” row, Miles had just pulled out a box, exclaiming “Teleportation Circle!” while Gray was contemplating just how much a dwarven “T” did in fact look like a sideways “Z” and NOT an “N.”
“Some assembly required!” Miles groaned. “Curse the sods for their responsibility…” He tore open the box and removed six pieces of silver wire, all lightly curved. The others soon caught up while Miles was studying the circle.
“Can you put it together?” Gray asked. Miles shrugged.
“I can see how it fits together,” he replied. “But the magic has to be activated with a trigger word, and I haven’t got a magic bone in my body.”
Abassi removed a box from the shelf. “How about this?” he asked, holding it up. “Do you think this will work?”
Miles read the inscription aloud. “Teleportation ring. I expect it would, but it would only take one of us plus maybe a hundred pounds of gear.”
“We’re in a hurry, yeah?” Abassi asked. They all nodded. Abassi gestured to Asha. “She weighs less than 100 pounds. I could take her.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Adalai responded. “It won’t take more than one sentient being.”
“What if we put her into an extradimensional space? Something like a bag of holding?” Abassi asked.
“Extra-demon what now?” Asha asked.
“It might work,” Adalai considered. “But she’d run out of air in about ten minutes.”
“Easy,” Abassi said. “She’ll climb in, we’ll teleport away, and I’ll let her out. Less than a minute.”
“Why would you be going?” Asha asked.
Abassi shrugged. “You might need protection.”
“I could take her,” Gray reasoned, but Abassi shook his head.
“Do you know how to activate the ring?” he asked. Gray considered the ring and sighed.
“I could,” Adalai offered.
“Actually,” Miles said. “I might need your brilliant mind to help me assemble this Circle.”
“And by ‘might’ he means ‘will,’” Abassi said with a smirk. “It’s me or nothing, small one.”
Asha considered this, and then sighed. “Fine.”
“Are there weapons here?” Abassi asked. Miles shook his head.
“Any weaponry was lost in the cave in,” he answered. Abassi sighed.
Moments later, after Miles had collected a bag of holding from the “B’s”, Abassi slipped the ring on.
“Well follow you,” Miles said. “It will probably take an hour or two to assemble the circle. I just need you to tell me… where we are going.”
“How does it work?” Asha asked.
“Just create a picture with words of where you would like to appear,” Abassi explained. “Tell us what to envision, and POOF. We’ll be there in no time.”
“Of course.” She closed her eyes and breathed in through her nose.
“Envision a forest. Old, ancient even, where the trees themselves seem to breathe and the air is thick with the smell of leaves and brush and sweet grass…. Envision a meadow in the forest… a meadow with a great flat gray rock at its center as wide as Miles is tall. The rock is shot through with black streaks of glittering obsidian. The meadow is bordered on three sides with those great trees, and the fourth lays the river. The river is as old as the forest, but quieter by far… it listens far more than it babbles, but every so often it speaks to the wind the secrets of that meadow… and that wind whispers those secrets to all of our kind. The place is sacred… no flowers grow within the meadow, but for some reason it always smells sweet.”
She opened her eyes. “Good enough.”
Miles let out a breath in a great puff. “Yeah, that should do it.”
Abassi nodded. He held out the bag of holding. “Hop in.” Asha took the back and stepped inside. Abassi cinched the back shut and hefted it over his shoulder. “I will see you all within the hour,” he said, tossing off a half-salute, half-wave. “It has been a while since I’ve done this,” he admitted. “No problem, but I’m just going to go ‘round the corner… maintain my dignity.”
Gray and Miles shrugged and waved at his back as he proceeded around the corner. Then, turning the other way, they headed back toward the “T” section once again. Gray considered Miles’ profile.
“You knew this was here all along, didn’t you?” she asked.
“Yes,” Miles admitted.
“How much do you know?” she inquired. Miles held up his right hand, fingering the ring on his middle finger.
“Order of Steel,” he said. “Started by Bornin himself. It started as a way for craftsmen to get together and share techniques and secrets, but become much more. We all know this place is here, though most of us have never been here.”
“Did you know about the Primary Control Rod and the dragonforged?” she asked.
“Some. No details, just hints… rumors. Bornin created his army in secret… at least with as much secrecy as one can actively CREATE an army.”
Gray nodded. “How long will it really take to assemble the Teleportation Circle?”
“Ten minutes,” Miles replied. “Had it done when Abassi was looking for the bag of holding. Adalai is working on activating the magic.”
“So you don’t trust him either.”
“Not entirely,” he smiled. “Thought maybe we could catch him in the act if we popped in before he was ready for us.”
As they came around the circle, Adalai glanced up. “It’s ready,” she said with a smile. Miles raised a brow.
“That was fast.”
“It was easy,” she said breezily. “Shall we go?”
They all three stepped into the Teleportation Circle. Miles held the image of their destination in his mind and Adalai activated the Circle.
In an instant, they were teleported to the very spot Asha had described. And… no one was there.
Miles glanced around. “Where are they?”
Gray and Adalai glanced around. “There!” Gray said. “Woodsmoke!”
Miles took off running. Gray and Adalai followed in kind. Through a thicket of trees and over a small hill was a set of mud hovels. Miles charged down the hill toward the hovels, shouting.
“Abassi! Asha, are you there?”
A halfling emerged from one of the hovels. Seeing the huge man charging down the hill carrying the massive hammer, he shouted something in his native tongue, and then with a wave of his hand the vines and foliage around Miles wrapped themselves around his huge pumping legs. Miles was pulled to a stop. Gray and Adalai skidded to a halt just behind.
Three more halflings came out, one wearing robes, the rest wearing tunic and breeches. The berobed halfling was old and small, even for a halfling. But his voice was clear and strong as he called out in the Common tongue.
“I do not know anyone named Abassi,” he called. “But if you are looking for our daughter named Asha you will not find her here. She left some weeks ago on a mission of grave importance.”
Miles growled and struggled against the plants.
“Impossible,” he snarled. “They should have just arrived a few minutes ago.”
“It seems they have not.”
To be continued…