We stared at the single ghoul that hadn't turned to dust. As we realized it looked like a dwarf, rather than a huge goblin, Alex knelt and took off its helmet, then prayed over it.

I had my own work to do, and I moved to Miara to begin to heal her. We all stared, though, when the ghoul regained his features: we recognized the dead King Gadrik. Kyuskay said, "All is clear. Gadrik sold his soul to Chaos to save his son Mendri." Then Kyuskay became pale, fell to the ground, and began retching with great violence. I moved to him to help him. I was worried about possible contamination from Nergal. Miara looked over with concern, but Alex quickly swallowed something, and began to speak in Bretonian. I realized he was using José's spell and went back to caring for Kyuskay. Negotiations were not my purview. I kept my ear open, though.

He spoke very formally, "I, Alex, am a servant of his lordship, King Mendri of the dwarves of the Black Mountains. King Mendri sends you his compliments, thanks you from the bottom of his heart for previous services rendered, and I must beg that you render him one more service for the good of his father, himself, and the dwarves of this world."

Miara answered him, equally formally, "What is this one more service you require?"

"As I think is clear to you now, this is Gadrik, Mendri's father, who has been for the past 23 years the victim of the chaos gods. It would be disastrous for Gadrik's name and Mendri's reign, and indeed, the whole of dwarfdom, if it were known that Gadrik was the victim of chaos. What Mendri asks of you is that you allow Gadrik's body to be discovered, allow it to be known that you are his killers, and never tell anyone of his chaos affliction. Mendri would be forever in your debt. This is a lot to ask, as it would ruin your reputations and all dwarves would pursue you to the death, but my lord would not ask it if it were not of the utmost importance."

"Why is it important that we be his killers, rather than anyone else?"

"It would be difficult to accept that Gadrik would be the victim of a small group of ghouls."

"I cannot agree to such a stain on my family's honor. There must be others at whose feet to lay blame for his death."

Kysuakay, who had recovered somewhat, shakily asked, "Tell me, how did Gadrik restore Mendri to life?"

"He traded his life for Mendri's," he politely answered Kyuskay. Then he addressed Miara again. "Lady, I understand your reluctance."

Miara said, "Surely the dwarves have an enemy that could be rumoured to have killed King Gadrik?"

"Perhaps. Mendri is camped a few miles back, He has come to negotiate with the dwarves who have inhabited this ancient site. The negotiations will be tense, and possibly violent."

"Negotiations frequently become violent," Miara said with her inscrutable smile.

"But Mendri hopes to solve this peacefully, if at all possible. If you wish, you can accompany me back to Mendri's camp, and once negotiations are completed, you can explore this ancient hold under more peaceful circumstances, with Mendri's help and blessing."

Miara demurred. "I would prefer to ensure this tunnel is cleared of ghouls. Mendri and his forces will be negotiating and coming in from the front, and we'll make sure the back tunnels are clear so they are not attacked by ghouls from the depths of the cave."

Alex seemed a little taken aback by Miara's insistence that we stay here in the cave, but he agreed and wished us good luck. Miara graciously offered good wishes to him and to Mendri. He gathered his bag and his axe, which he had dropped, but left Gadrik's body behind with us.

Once we were certain Alex was gone, Kyuskay said, "They're going to blame us for Gadrik's death with or without us."

Miara said, "Probably. We're screwed either way, but having gone back with Alex would have ensured our imprisonment. At least now we're free agents."

We looked at Gadrik's body, which no longer showed any signs of corruption. He had many wounds on him, and it was obvious that he had died in battle.

Goldrim said, "I think Alex was trying to express his own, and maybe Mendri's desperation. He was throwing himself on our mercy. I don't think that Mendri's on the side of chaos."

Kyuskay muttered, "I do."

"I'm not sure I like Mendri, but learning that Mendri didn't actually kill Gadrik made me revise my original lousy opinion of Mendri. I do know that Mendri is in a struggle to hold on to his kingdom. The principal group of dwarves resisting him are called the Royalists (loosely), and they would like to see Mendri replaced with one of their own. It's the Royalists who are upstairs right now.

Miara said calmly, "Mendri is the rightful king of the dwarves. His father, King Gadrik, gave his life and his soul to chaos, just to ensure Mendri took the throne. If Mendri does not frame us for Gadrik's murder, I prefer to help him find a way to fix this mess. If he does blame us for Gadrik's murder, then the Miaras must go to war against him." Kyuskay nodded his emphatic agreement, and she continued. "In either case, we need to keep control of Gadrik's body for now." She turned thoughtful for a moment. "Shame we can't take it to the tower in the valley for safekeeping." I laughed, and then sighed. Shame I don't have a way of preserving the body myself.

Kyuskay said, "If we could drive the Royalists out of here and block the way we came in, we could hold this place against the dwarves until our honor is restored."

"I'm not sure that would accomplish anything. We'd be stuck in here, and their numbers could only grow."

The tunnel was solid rock. We'd have to use the stone of stones to make a temporary crypt for Gadrik's body, but Goldrim said he wasn't comfortable with that. He hasn't figured out the stone yet. He's been staring at it from time to time, but hasn't made that connection to it that I did to mine. Until he does, we won't be able to count on any assistance, or danger, from the Crystal of Earth. I suddenly realized that Ashe now carries the Crystal of Fire, and he has also never used it, to my knowledge. The Doomstone I carry is the only one that we may be able to use right now.

The cave was a natural cave in the solid rock. There was rubbish and rubble around, but we decided it wasn't a good idea to bury the body. Goldrim was aghast, because it would be disrespectul. Miara and Kyuskay didn't seem to happy with it, either, although Miara brought it up. She seemed relieved that no one else agreed with the option. As she said, we needed to keep control of it, which meant we had to carry it around with us.

The debates ceased, and I resumed checking Kyuskay out. To the best of my ability, he seemed to be fine. I can only hope his reaction was temporary, but I will be keeping a close eye on him, and Miara as well, since she was also wounded by the ghouls. I took ten or fifteen minutes' time to heal Kyuskay and Miara. No telling what we were walking into. At best, just the Royalist dwarves.

Goldrim carefully wrapped up the body and carried Gadrik himself. He said he didn't want to be on the front lines, because he would have to put the body down before being able to draw his axe and return any blows. So Miara re-arranged everyone for marching through the narrow tunnel. Kyuskay first, followed by Prestley so he could watch ahead, and look all around and up and down, too. Then Ashe, José, me and Carmella, Sun, Bark, Goldrim, and Miara took rear guard. She never seems to be happy to be in the rear, but she always takes rear guard if that's what's needed.

We walked a little ways, and then the passage split. To the right it was a very steep slope with loose footing. It will take skilled climbing to get up it. Time, effort, and danger. To the left, the tunnel was pretty level, although it curved out of sight.

Miara led us to the left. We zipped right, wound around a bit. The passage widened just a little, then narrowed again. Prestley gave updates on what he saw, but it was nothing that useful. Above us were other rooms and passages, and lots of "stuff", he said, that made it hard to tell exactly what he was looking at. But he saw no way up there, and whatever was up there didn't look like catacombs to him.

Eventually, the tunnel opened into a square-cut room. It was empty. The only exit was a square shaft cut straight up in the ceiling. José can fly up with a spell. I can try to use the Crystal of Air to try to carry everyone else up. But that's always risky. We had only two exits, and they both went up. Miara decided we should try the steep slope up first. Difficult it may be, but easier than a straight shaft in the ceiling.

So we returned to the split and went the other way. Kyuskay's the only one of us who has any skill in mountain climbing, so he took one end of the rope and started up. He made it easily. A minute or two later, he told us from above that it was safe to try to climb up, using the rope to help.

Prestley, being small, tried it first. He make it part way up and fell back, but he landed fairly gracefully and suffered no damage. He made it all the way up on his second try.

I held back, not looking forward to the ordeal. As I watched everyone else go up, I got more and more worried about it. I'm just not good at that kind of thing. I can walk a tightrope, but can't climb a steep hill with loose footing.

Sure enough, when I tried it I fell. Falling presents no difficulties, as I can control it easily. Down I can handle. Just not up. But I was the last one, so I tied the rope around my middle, and they pulled me up. Embarassing, really. Even Sun made it up easily.

I shuddered, once there. It was filled with the rotten remains of some nasty machines and tools. It had once been a torture chamber. I could almost feel the despair in this room.

The only way out, besides the steep slope we came in, was filled the rubble of a cave-in. Prestley said it was about 15 feet deep. Miara asked Goldrim how long he thought it might take us to dig our way through it. He looked at the rubble, sifted through it, and did some mental calculations. "We'd have to be careful as we went, to guard against additional cave-ins. Between 2 and 4 days, I'd say."

Miara looked disappointed. "We can't take that long." She didn't even suggest using the Stone of Stones, which should make the job easy. Goldrim had already said he couldn't use it. The Crystal of Air was useless here, and melting the rubble with the Crystal of Fire seemed like a very poor plan. "Back to the shaft, then." She looked at me and I nodded, though unhappily. I hate using it for utilitarian purposes. But recovering the fourth doomstone takes precedence over my personal misgivings.

Ravenna, A Monk of the Biancan Order

Part the First:
Blood and Mud

Part the Second:
Murder and Mayhem

Part the Third:
Puzzles and Crystals

Part the Fourth:
Dwarves and Rocks

Part the Fifth:
Diplomacy and Daggers

Part the Sixth:
Crystal and Chaos

Part the Seventh:
Sheer Insanity

~ The End ~