By the pattern they had already established, retreating from a challenge always meant a lack of further challenges for a time, but after losing Owl, the quiet began to get downright eerie. For at least two hours, they traveled the corridors of Manor Dire with nothing to do but appreciate the architecture. It seemed that in the absence of puzzles and battles the house did, at least, give them that much to hold their attention; where before there had been little but endless hallways of rough stone and wood, they began to see a much more interesting variety of features. More decorative displays, arched windows looking out over the Vrandis pine forest, a sizable banquet hall, two separate galleries of paintings, a small reading nook lined with laden bookcases, and other homey touches came one after the other as if to prevent them from getting bored.
But that was it. The house was silent, peaceful, unthreatening and almost uninteresting. If not for the fact that they had traveled a maze of corridors that should have taken them over several acres in a building they knew was only a fraction of that size, it might have been any well-preserved manor home from the late Age of Adventures.
The longer this went on, the more the tension weighed on them.
“Oh, man, when the other shoe drops it’s gonna drop hard,” Admestus groaned, staring at a pretty little solarium as if it were about to sprout fangs and eat someone. “Just, collapse a whole wing on top of us. There’s no reason to make us wait this long if it’s not planning something truly dire. Pun intended.”
“It’s difficult to disagree,” Lord Rhadid replied. “Professor, your thoughts?”
“The Manor definitely isn’t above applying psychological pressure,” said Eric. “Obviously I can’t say precisely what it is thinking but as a matter of general history, it is unlikely to drop an inescapable doom upon us unless it specifically desires our destruction, and we would probably know beforehand if it did. As long as we are still guests here, we should expect to be treated more or less as we have been. Tested, but not beyond our ability.”
“And is this silence part of the test?”
The dwarf hesitated, looking around the sunroom and then the hallway outside it as if he could divine the house’s intentions from the wall paneling. “I’m afraid I just don’t know. My gut feeling is that it is… But I have studied the Manor from afar, from centuries of recorded accounts. My knowledge is thorough, but lacks…immediacy. Intimacy. I know about it, but I don’t know it.” He shrugged helplessly. “It may just be giving us a reprieve, since we’ve lost two people in the space of a day.”
Rhadid nodded slightly. “Do not hesitate to give advice if any comes to you. For now, best we proceed. Keep in mind, gentlemen, that the simplest tactical reason to lull an opponent into calm is to spring a surprise upon them. I know it becomes tiring over the long term, but we must not relax our vigilance.”
“Opponent, now?” Admestus grumbled, bringing up the rear as they set off up the corridor again. “And here I thought were were honored guests or something like that.”
“In this of all houses,” said Eric, “that is splitting a hair.”
Fortunately for what remained of everyone’s equilibrium, the house did not keep them in suspense much longer. Only a few minutes after their discussion at the solarium, noises in the corridor up ahead made the group slow. Warning noises: shouts, crashing, and an intermittent loud hiss that might have come from some colossal snake. Clearly something violent was taking place. Though the three naturally hesitated, Rhadid did not stop, and for Eric and Admestus the choice was to follow him into whatever danger it was or be left behind.
The hallway opened onto the second-floor balcony wrapping completely around a sizable ballroom, which was as stark and rustic in design as the rest of the house. Shouts in high-pitched voices grew louder as the group approached, but what most occupied their attention were the sinuous shapes writhing through the air in the wide open space beneath the arched ceiling, occasionally spitting streamers of blue fire at something below.
“Katzil demons?” Rhadid murmured, pausing in the doorway to take stock. “No…these are white. That is not normal.”
“They’re, uh, also kinda translucent,” Admestus added, peeking past him.
“Some artifice of the Manor’s,” said Eric. “Not true demons, but meant to be evocative of them.”
At that moment a whirling bola shot up from the dance floor below, snagging one of the pseudo-katzils right around its midsection. The creature hissed in fury and emitted an abortive spurt of sparks as it was dragged down.
Rhadid crept forward, keeping himself low, and peeked over the banister.
On the floor below were gnomes—in fact, the same four they had met in the Manor’s entry hall the day before. Armed with grapples, nets, that one bola, and in the case of their leader Billie some kind of shoulder-mounted mechanical cannon, they were trying to subdue the flying spectres. Along the wall behind the gnomes were five enormous gilded birdcages, three of which now housed furiously writhing spectral air serpents. Two more stood open, and three gnomes were trying to wrangle the recently-captured specimen into one while Billie harassed the last demon with her device, which shot a metal claw of some kind on a long chain and then retracted it. The sole remaining creature was evading her efforts with little apparent difficulty.
“I see,” Rhadid murmured, his voice barely audible to his two companions in the tumult. “Professor, what are the rules about interfering in another expedition’s Manor experience?”
“I wouldn’t say there are rules as such, my lord. Just, whatever seems the most intelligent and courteous course of action in a given situation. But in this case, I might point out that the gnomes seem equipped for this particular trial while we are—and there he goes.”
The aristocrat abruptly straightened from his surreptitious crouch and strode away down the balcony, keeping pace with the kazil as it spun in erratic patterns. Now, a second gnome had rejoined the fray while his two companions worked to restrain their recent catch and get its cage door shut. This one hurled a weighted net attached to a rope; he and Billie Fallowstone’s claw launcher were having no luck. Not for nothing was this demon the last one free. It seemed to have a preternatural ability to detect and evade projectiles.
But then, swinging wide to avoid the flying net, it passed within a few feet of the balcony. Rhadid whipped out his sword and managed to rake the beast’s side with its tip as it came near.
The furious demon immediately rounded on him, opening its jaws. Rhadid had already drawn his wand, and cut off the blast of flame that was coming by firing a shot, forcing the beast to duck. It darted back and forth in front of the balcony, hissing and striking at him like an airborne snake while he deftly fended it off using the rapier’s long reach.
Unfortunately for the katzil, this performance kept it relatively stationary in a much smaller area, and Rhadid had to fence with it for mere seconds before it was entangled in the next toss of the net. The creature hissed in fury and immediately took off for the ceiling, seeming for a moment as if it might pull the gnome up with it, but then Billie’s claw snagged in the net itself and she added her own weight to the effort to pull it down, followed within moments by the other two gnomes hurling hooked lines to snare their quarry.
Getting the thing into the last cage was a struggle, of course, but one whose conclusion was foregone. While the gnomes went about wrestling their captive into place, Rhadid, pausing only to beckon his companions with an imperious jerk of his head, strode unhurriedly to the other end of the room, where a spiral staircase led from the balcony to the ballroom floor.
Billie herself turned to him with a grin as he approached, trailing Admestus and Eric; her three companions were coercing the struggling specter into its cage with the net and two long poles.
“Well! Thank ye kindly fer the assist, melord!”
“You are welcome,” Rhadid answered, inclining his head courteously. “Though you appeared to have the matter well in hand. I rather think I merely saved you a little time, in the end.”
“Maybe so, but it doesn’t pay to make assumptions,” she said. “Help is help, an’ it’s well-appreciated. This is it, then?” Billie’s expression grew more sober as she took in the dwarf and half-elf following him. “Havin’ a wee bit of a rough trip, are we?”
“It has had its ups and downs,” Rhadid agreed. “You seem to have fared somewhat better.”
“Aye, well, we’re professionals. All due respect, yer Lordship, plumbin’ a dungeon ain’t a good line o’ work fer amateurs to take up.”
“This is far from my first such adventure, though regrettably I cannot say the same for all of my party. At least one proved tragically unsuited for this particular task. Have you encountered any other groups, if I might inquire?”
At that moment the other gnomes got the cage door shut on the furious katzil, and a deep mechanical thunk sounded from beneath the ballroom floor. All five cages sank straight down into it, metal shutters sliding into place after them. At the opposite end of the room, huge double doors swung wide with an excessively loud creak, revealing a broad entry hall beyond.
Billie glanced at this with little interest before returning her attention to Rhadid. “Other groups? Not ‘ardly. Shouldn’t be anybody else in ‘ere ‘cept the Imperials.”
“An’ maybe Arachne, at this time o’ year,” one of her companions added.
“Aye, that’s right. I’m surprised enough you lot managed to get in. The Army ain’t keen to share digs, if ye get me drift.” Billie winked, finally putting down her claw-flinging device; it wouldn’t have been much for any of them to carry, but on a gnome the thing was enormously bulky. “They’ve more or less given up tryin’ ta keep us outta ‘ere, but it’s rare that other tall folk get through their little blockade.”
“I have my ways,” he said vaguely. “Have you run across the Army recently? Any idea how many teams are exploring the Manor at any given time?”
She shrugged. “It’s not often we cross paths with ’em, lucky enough. They ain’t overly enthused t’meet fellow travelers. I get on well enough with the rank an’ file, but the officers… Well, anybody who answers to a bureaucracy tends ta lack a sense o’ humor.”
“Interesting,” Rhadid mused. “We have crossed paths with an Army exploration team, as it happens. We also encountered Professor Tellwyrn, quite early on. I simply wonder how many Imperial or gnomish groups might be present. If it is only one of each, it would seem we’ve met everyone currently visiting the Manor, in a rather short span of time.”
Billie frowned, turning to make eye contact with her companions before answering. “One o’ the first things any large, organized group learns on bein’ introduced to the Manor is it doesn’t much care fer bein’ invaded. We keep it strictly minimal, only one group o’ the Folk in ‘ere at a time, an’ I reckon the Army keeps to the same policy, if it’s managed not ta wear it its welcome entirely by now. You ‘ave ‘ad a run o’ luck, an’ no mistake. Not ta dwell on a painful subject, but that’s a strangely impressive track record fer a group that’s managed t’lose forty percent of itself in one day.”
“Do you think we’d fare better if we stopped pronouncing the letter G?” Admestus asked innocently. “Is that part of your secret?”
“Admestus,” Rhadid warned.
“Aw, let ‘im poke fun, we don’t mind,” Billie said with a grin, raising one hand to wiggle her fingers flirtatiously at the alchemist. “Ain’t often I meet a fellow traveler as aroused by death an’ danger as me!”
“The work you’re lookin’ for is ‘never,’” her nearest companion grunted. “An’ you, I’ll thank ye not to encourage ‘er.”
“In every group there’s some oaf who interrupts conversations,” Billie said to Rhadid.
“When we first met,” he said, “I declined to discuss my reason for being here. I’m willing to reconsider that, if you are amenable to doing likewise.”
“Well, now, that’s interesting,” she commented. “Ain’t like we planned t’pry inta yer business anyhow, no worries on that score. Why the change in ‘eart? Or, I guess more t’the point, why the sudden curiosity?”
“I find myself considering the prospect of joining forces,” Rhadid explained, his neutral expression betraying nothing. “Clearly, that is not a prospect if our ultimate goals prove incompatible. But it seems unlikely to me that they would, as none of my ambitions involve inconveniencing anyone, least of all yourselves.”
Again, Billie angled her head slightly to catch the eye of one of her friends, the one who had interjected a moment ago. Their faces were as inscrutable as Rhadid, but they seemed to communicate something in that brief silence.
“I wouldn’t give that a hard ‘no’ on the face of it,” she said in a thoughtful tone, “though yer not wrong, Lord Rhadid, I’d need a wee bit o’ insight inta just what it is you’re after in ‘ere before weighin’ in on that.”
“I seek Diristaan’s personal facilities,” he said. “Mr. Rafe, whom you have met, is one of the finest alchemists in the Empire, though you would not know it from a conversation with him.”
“Stop, I’m gonna blush!” Admestus trilled.
“Gonna brew yerself a potion, aye?” Billie asked.
“I have in mind a project which, yes, can probably not be completed anywhere else. Thus, my goal here is particular and brief. I mean to reach the alchemy lab, do what is necessary, and depart with a minimum of fuss, ideally without incurring the ire of either the Manor or any fellow travelers. To that end, I am willing to go somewhat out of my way to be of assistance to another party, within reason. The path to a specific goal in Manor Dire is always somewhat circuitous.”
“It is that,” she agreed. “Us, though, we don’t much mind wanderin’ about. Life’s in the journey, as they say.”
“So you are not after any destination in particular?”
Billie tilted her head, one of the pointed ear tips emerging from her curls twitching slightly. “Ye might call us…conservationists.”
“Oh?” Rhadid raised his eyebrows. “Is the Manor in danger?”
“Access to it is in danger, at least potentially,” Eric answered. “The great dungeons are vanishing, at least from public use. I mentioned this previously, my lord, if you’ll recall. Gnomes have been moving to colonize them, and the Empire is trying to seize control of them as continual sources of treasure and training for their agents. Manor Dire is a particularly dicey case since, as Ms. Fallowstone pointed out, the intelligence of the house does not welcome mass intrusion. To our new friends, this is a competition for territory.”
“So y’see our problem,” Billie said, nodding. “Possession is nine tenths o’ the law. Even the Empire doesn’t try to oust the Folk from places where we’ve set up shop, but they play a little rough in the race to control such spots in the first place. But y’don’t possess Manor Dire. Even raisin’ the prospect is askin’ fer a big spank upside the head. Best either we or the Imperials can do is maintain a presence ‘ere.”
“Mm,” he mused. “And you seek something to…tip the balance.”
“Well, now, that there’s a potentially double-edged sword, aye?” she said evenly. “’ere’s a scion o’ House Daraspian lookin’ ta do somethin’ mysterious in ‘is ancestor’s secret lab. Fer the likes o’ us, who’re lookin’ ta impress the house, that could be very good or very bad. No offense, yer Lordship, but yer family ‘aven’t actually controlled the Manor since Diristaan’s day, an’ more recently…how t’put this…”
“I think I would be better off not attempting to dissemble,” he said with a thin smile, “at least not while standing within the aegis of a sentient house which is listening to this conversation. House Daraspian’s wealth comes chiefly from smuggling and the drug trade. Where most of the great Houses feud with each other for power, our chief rivalries are with Imperial law enforcement and the Thieves’ Guild. I would offer as a character witness the fact that I persuaded a Guild representative to accompany me on this mission, but sadly, he is no longer with us.”
“My condolences,” Billie said solemnly.
“What I can say,” Rhadid continued, “and what prompted me to thus approach you, is the emergent suggestion that the Manor itself desires this arrangement. It is self-evident that the paths of any group of adventurers would only cross if the house itself desires that they do.”
“An’ your path keeps crossin’ everybody else’s,” she finished.
“And yours, now, twice,” Rhadid said, nodding. “The soldiers were openly hostile to us, and Tellwyrn…how to put this…”
“Tellwyrn pretty much says it all,” the other woman in Billie’s group interjected, grinning.
Billie turned around fully, and the other three focused on her. What followed was silent and swift, little more to outside observation than some twitching of ears and rapid glances, but somehow the gnomes appeared to hold a full discussion and reach a consensus in the space of about ten seconds. Billie turned back to face Rhadid.
“All right then, Lord Rhadid, ‘ow about this? We’re not up fer any kind o’ formal alliance or nothin’, leastwise not with us all bein’ relative strangers. But as none of us ‘as any pressin’ business an’ the only path through Manor Dire is ta wander around, we’re willin’ ta travel alongside an’ ‘elp watch yer backs. Offer insight an’ guidance, y’know, the likes o’ that. It’s no more or less than any decent Folk would do fer any fellow traveler out in a sticky position. Specially some who’ve had a run o’ bad luck such as you lot, apparently. So long as it’s understood that we’re not with you in any permanent sense, an’ may opt ta go our own way again if the situation demands it.”
“Reasonable, and more than fair,” Rhadid agreed. “I am likewise glad to render what aid we may, if the possibility arises. We may even be able to offer you some insight; not to impugn the expertise of gnomes on all things adventurous, but Professor Ahlstrom, here, is a historian specialized in Manor Dire specifically. And of course, should our business demand that we part ways, I am glad that we can do so without acrimony.”
“No worries, we don’t really do acrimony,” she said brightly. “All righty then! Since ye helped us get yonder door open, what see we go ‘ave a look at what’s beyond, aye?”
In fact, there wasn’t much of immediate interest beyond the door, just a broad flight of stairs up to a landing from which one hallway extended, and seemed to stretch on endlessly without even doors leading off it. This quickly began to seem like a resumption of the odd lull Rhadid’s group had experienced before meeting the gnomes, but at least it gave the two parties a chance to get to know one another a bit better.
The other three gnomes introduced themselves as Steinway, Woodsworth, and Sassafrass; whether those were given names or surnames they did not explain, and no one pried. After spending some time flirting with Admestus, Billie moved ahead to chat with Lord Rhadid at the from of the group, and gradually the half-elf and dwarf fell back to trail along at the end.
“Smuggling?” Eric asked in a low voice covered by Billie’s exuberant chatter up ahead. “Drug trading?”
“Two ends of the same business, in fact,” Admestus said brightly, though not as loudly as he usually spoke. “They import the coca leaves, since those don’t grow in the Empire, and refine them into cocaine. Without, I might add, the requisite paperwork and oversight mandated for both those activities. You didn’t quite know what you were hopping into bed with, I take it?”
“The, ah, particulars of Imperial House politics are fairly opaque in the Kingdoms, except to those who make a point of following them… What is cocaine?”
“Happy dust!” Admestus quickly let the broad grin melt from his features. “Well. All joking aside, it’s about the most brain-destroying mess you can put in your face without getting into the kind of alchemical narcotics that’ll get you locked up good and proper. Cocaine isn’t even strictly illegal in the Empire, the Treasury gives trade exemptions for its legal sale. But the fees and taxes on that are so high the Daraspians find it more economical to operate illicitly, even with all the regular scrapping with Imperial Marshals and the Thieves’ Guild this gets them into. The other Houses are really the only market for it, too. Any truly depraved aristocrat party in the Empire owes its fun to House Daraspian. Cocaine is a noble’s drug. Hence why the Treasury tries to tax it oppressively instead of banning it.”
“I guess the Guild wouldn’t like competition,” Eric murmured.
“You shorties really are willing to make the Thieves’ Guild the boogeyman under every bed, aren’cha? It’s actually kind of impressive you were willing to be so polite with poor Owl, in hindsight. No, the Guild isn’t in that trade. Eserites hate drug pushers; they consider them the worst kind of predator. If the Thieves’ Guild catches you hawking narcotics your best bet is to run straight to the police and get yourself tucked away in a nice, safe jail.”
Eric gave him a sidelong glance. “This is the longest I’ve known you to be serious at one time, so far.”
“Yeah, well.” Admestus shrugged. “Guess I’m not feeling quite my usual irreverent self, what with one thing and another.”
“Heads up back there!” Billie called. “Let’s cluster, looks like we’ve got a bit o’ scenery comin’ up.”
Eric drew a deep breath. “This, coming here, has been a lifelong dream of mine. I guess…knowing, intellectually, that delving a dungeon is hazardous can’t really prepare one for the actual experience.”
“True of everything in life, ol’ boy,” Admestus said, not without sympathy. Clapping the dwarf on the shoulder, he strode forward to join the rest of the group at the landing to which they had come.
Beyond it, there was no more house.
“Is this normal?” Lord Rhadid asked, staring at what lay before them.
“Gotta confess, I’ve never seen the like,” Billie admitted.
“I—this is—” Crowding forward, Eric broke off and swallowed heavily. “I fear this is without precedent in all my readings on adventures in the Manor.”
“All right!” Admestus crowed. “We’re special! Champagne and pudding all around!”
Their hallway terminated in a wide area that might have been an intersection of corridors. It was impossible to tell its purpose or even how large it might have been, because the whole thing was broken off. Jagged edges of floorboards extended into space—and space was, indeed, the right word.
Not only was the Manor apparently gone beyond this point, there was no view of the Vrandis countryside either. Before them yawned an infinite abyss, nothing but distant stars and odd swirls of colored nebulae. Pieces of architecture drifted in the vicinity, fragments of walls, floors, and even miscellaneous bits like statuary, suspended in the nothingness as though left over by whatever had ripped this part of the Manor out of existence.
“So,” Rhadid said at last, after they had all stared at this for several full minutes. “This lies at the end of a long hall with no other path available. That was the only exit offered us from the chamber wherein we met. It would seem that as soon as we decided to merge our paths, this outcome was inevitable.”
“Like I said,” Billie mused. “Either very good, or very, very bad. I’m still o’ two minds on it.”
“Well, now what?” Eric asked. “Do we try backtracking? Or… Honestly, it’s beyond me what we might even attempt to do with this.”
“How possible is it the dungeon is just broken?” Admestus asked.
“I don’t know how anyone would even begin to break Manor Dire,” Eric said, shaking his head. “But, just to play Dark Lady’s advocate, the Tiraan Empire once obliterated an entire country with magical weaponry, and I suppose if they decided the gnomes were getting the upper hand in this contest and were not inclined to lose gracefully…”
“I can’t see it,” Woodsworth replied, shaking his head. “We’ve been competin’ with the Empire over dungeons fer years, an’ they’ve been remarkably good sports. Even with Theasia bein’ such an ol’ hawk, Marshals an’ the Army are right courteous so long as they’re not bein’ outright attacked.”
“There is also Tellwyrn,” Eric added. “I suspect the list of things she can’t do is shorter than that of things she can. Though I don’t know why she would want to damage the Manor. She seemed fond of it.”
“I regret not having brought a mage of my own on this expedition,” Rhadid murmured. “It would have been far more useful than my so-called bodyguard… Presuming that the Manor is still constitutionally intact, this must be some manner of test, or challenge.”
“A leap of faith?” Admestus suggested innocently.
Rhadid turned a wry look on him. “Are you volunteering to take that leap?”
“I volunteer the Professor to do it.”
Before Eric could respond to this suggestion, a figure appeared in the space just before them, hovering beyond the shattered floor. The entire group retreated a full step from the specter—for specter it was, a phantasmal shape of pale blue, wearing wizard robes of an ancient style. Its face was difficult to focus on; one moment it seemed it might have been a man with a full beard, but then on a second glance it was a blank mask, or a decaying skull.
Its voice, however, was rich and mellifluous. When it spoke, it seemed that the words resonated from the air all around them.
“The master’s house can offer all that you seek, but the price is dear. Turn back, adventurers. Before you is reward beyond your fantasies, and a cost beyond your nightmares.”
“Welp, you heard the man,” Admestus said, throwing up his hands and turning around.
Rhadid grabbed him by the shoulder before he could take a step. “We have come too far to be deterred now, spirit. Speak your piece.”
“All of you are still welcome guests of the Manor,” the specter replied. “It is in this spirit that I give warning. You will regret the fulfillment of your ambition.” It hesitated before continuing. “But the brave never turn aside when it is wise. Listen, then, if you would test yourselves against your own fate. This is what you must do.”