The Duel III

Tales of the Dungeon Mistress

By

Accipiter G. Goshawk

This story continues form where it left off in The Duel II

They led her further into the ziggurat, making sure to close the various wind-gates as they came to them. It would soon be dark, and unlike the pleasantly cool interior, the outside air would soon drop well below freezing. The last gate was on the other side of a large pit that had been dug into the bottom of the stone corridor. Nasty metal shards protruded raggedly upwards, displaying a series of grotesque skeletal remains.

“Rock-slithers, ma’am,” said Old Harry cheerfully as he helped one of his crew set a series of boards across the trap. “Nocturnal. Like to surprise their prey in dark places; every month there’s one or two that make their way past the gates lookin’ for easy pickings. Can’t climb though, or jump.”

The Dungeon Mistress gingerly crossed over the pit, refusing the hands offered her. Once everyone was across, the boards were retracted and the last gate shut.

“Well, welcome to Flattop ma’am, the tallest settlement this side of the Boiled Lake. If you don’t mind following me, I’ll lead you to our town cave; your lodgings will be right next door. Also, that’s where the mayor and the other tale-smith are. Almost finished negotiating, I should think.”

A frown ran across the Mistress’s face. Her eyes narrowed.

“Negotiating?”

“Yeah,” muttered Harry. “Taken them most of the morning. Honestly ma’am, it’s been a very long time since one of your folk came out this far: we weren’t aware your rates had gone up. Please don’t take this the wrong way; we are truly glad to have you –both of you- here to give us a good show, but we are simple folk and times are hard. Not everyone can afford to part with two water barrels and three thousand pieces of silver. But your compatriot seemed understanding; I don’t think the mayor will have had much trouble talking him down a bit. You might have to settle for a little less though, pardon me saying ma’am. Ma’am?”

Had the shadows of the tunnel not been hiding her face, Old Harry would have recoiled at the cold fury blazing in her eyes.

“I see,” she said, in a voice that sent shivers down the backs of those present. “I suppose I may have to have a word or two with my compatriot.”

“I…I hope this won’t be a problem,” Harry murmured.

“Not at all Harry. Please, do not concern yourself with my…annoyance. This is an…internal matter. Take me to them.”

Harry nodded and strode forward, pretending not to notice the trickle of whispers slowly flowing outwards into the intersecting tunnels. Soon, a small group of people had come to accompany them to the town cave, drawn by the insatiable curiosity of witnessing two Dungeon Masters, as well as the odd tension that seemed to be radiating from the tall dark-haired tale-spinner.

They soon emerged into a large room that was so unlike a cave that the Mistress had to suppress an ironic smirk. It was clearly part of the original architecture and had been built underneath the last stair of the ziggurat. In the centre, a massive stone staircase climbed and stopped in mid-air, probably cut down by the current residents when they had closed the opening in the ceiling with various layers of metal, glass and resin. The last ruby rays of the sun cascaded obliquely into the chamber, casting a scarlet glow that bounced off the various mirrors that had been placed to increase their illuminating effect.

At the foot of the staircase, three people were bustling around a large fire pit. The Mistress noticed a large clear hemisphere connected to a system of tubes set a few meters away, probably a way of preventing the fumes from filling the chamber. On either side of the staircase, a series of long tables and benches had been set to form the communal area.

Two figures sat at the left one. The first was obviously the mayor: a sturdy-looking old man with long white hair and the hands of a blacksmith. He was frowning and shaking his head, as the other man in front of him leapt to his feet and started shaking his fist.

“No, Mr. Mayor that is not acceptable! I believe I have been most understanding and very patient, but I see there is no reasoning with you. In all my years of travel I have never once come across such an inhospitable place. Frankly I’m insulted! I believe there is nothing left for me to do but leave.”

He took a few measured steps away from the table.

“And you can be sure I will inform the order of this welcome. And anyone else I come across on the way to Arten Junction. I’m sure the merchant’s assembly will be very interested in hearing of the way you treat your guests.”

The mayor rose to his feet, clutching a heavy cane. His face softened into a placating smile, but his knuckles were white.

“Please, master tale-spinner. I meant no disrespect. I am only looking after my people. If this is truly your final offer, I will see to it that we provide what you request.”

From her position, the Mistress could now see the other man clearly. He was clothed in travelling leathers, but unlike hers they were almost spotless and had been embroidered with countless depictions of creatures and magic. On his chest he also carried a bandoleer of chance which, she noticed, only contained shining dice that appeared to be made of silver or gold.

“I’ll bet he didn’t forge even one of those sets,” she thought angrily.

His long blond hair had been swept back and was held back by what appeared to be…a crown?! A horrific affair that seemed to have been moulded from resin to resemble the skull of a dragon. His eyes glittered in the light of the awakened fire-pit, and his smile was one of triumph.

“That won’t do,” she growled and stepped forward forcefully, capturing the blond Master’s gaze in her own. He immediately broke away from her steely glare and his eyes travelled down, resting on her bandoleer of chance.

She was thrilled to see his face turn deathly pale.

The story continues in Part IV

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