The vast cavern is dark, even with the few beads of light scattered across the walls and ceiling like faint stars. The shadows of people merge together as the citizens of Goldenburg gather in large groups, whispering and looking about at the natural-hewn rock walls. At the edges of the open area the stalagmites grow like the teeth of an encircling beast, while the few candles and torches held by the many people cause those shadows to flicker and dance. Those wearing silver and gold robes stand near those wearing similar rich designs, while the citizens in work clothes and old worn fabric have clustered together in their own groups and circles, but all are united under a pall of fear and uncertainty.
Roughly circular in shape, the cavern has three apparent entrances along the sides. Through the first streams a river of people still filling the cave, and a quarter turn to the left is a giant door, the frame golden and covered in glass of different colors gleaming with some internal light source. The face of the door is some kind of black material that pulls in the light around, like looking into the vastness of space itself, and all across that surface is perhaps a hundred goldfish-sized keyholes that swim and dart about. Children crowd around, but the adults avoid looking at the door.
Three giant crates sit another quarter turn to the left, each as large as three orcs standing on shoulders, with a few people poking at them. And one more quarter turn to the left of that is a dark archway leading to a dim tunnel. Liveried butlers and castle guards stand in a wide half-circle, warding away curious citizens, but just in front of the tunnel mouth stands the Count, the Forge Master, the Drunk and Sorrow.
Throwing his hands wide toward the tunnel, the Count smiles, “And so you face the Gauntlet! At its end awaits the final key to our escape, protected by traps and riddles to test your strength and will! Each was designed by a different person and constructed by the greatest trap maker I could hire!” He pats the Drunk and Sorrow on their backs, “Go forth and bring back our salvation!”
Sorrow tilts his head to the side, his black eyes focused on the dark tunnel, as the Drunk coughs before asking, “Lad, are ya serious?” The Forge Master sighs and covers his face with a calloused palm, but the Count smiles and nods. “The key to that fancy black door is behind a mess of booby traps and puzzles? And ya want me and my boy to retrieve it?”
“Do not make unnecessary requests Father.” Sorrow takes a soot black knife from his sleeve and points the tip at the tunnel, “I will solve the riddles and you will use your strength. This will be like the time we took the Old Round challenge, and I do not think any goblins could be living this deep.”
The Count grins and rubs his hands together, “Ah, but what would a trial be without monsters?”
“That's not the point lads!” The Drunk sighs and crosses his arms, standing firm, “This is your escape tunnel, and yet it can nae be used to escape? Are ya daft?”
The Forge Master nods and looks up at the Count, “I told you people would think it stupid old friend. Perhaps we should wait in the antechamber for whatever will happen above. We have our supplies, we can hold for quite some time, and then go back out with weapons ready.”
The Count's smile droops and he looks at his feet, “But it's a secret escape tunnel. It has to have a Gauntlet, to test the worthiness of the people using it.” He looks over at the Drunk, “I mean, just consider if some thief entered the castle and then tried to escape through here. We would find them stuck in the Gauntlet, undoubtedly!”
“The way ya had this place hid lad, I doubt a thief could find it,” counters the Drunk.
“So you refuse?” Sudo steps up behind the Drunk, whose shoulders bunch up for a moment as his hands clench into fists. Sudo glances to the Count, “Perhaps the fabled old man is feeling his age. I will find my tunnel crawler and the old man can return to the surface to do as hired.”
The Drunk grumbles, “I never say I wouldn't do the thing lad, I said it's daft!” He turns and brushes past Sudo, storming away toward the black door, “Daft and unnecessary. I'll open your fancy door me own way.”
Following behind him the Forge Master chuckles, “This I have to see.” He glances up as the Count matches his pace, “Should I tell him old friend?”
The Count sighs, “If he can break the door we'll recoup a little from the shards. We spent so much time on the Gauntlet though, I wanted someone to go through it.”
“Is that a no on sending my tunnel crawler sir,” asks Sudo, stalking two steps behind the Count with his hands held behind his back.
“Thank you Sudo, but we can wait a little longer.” His eyes on the Drunk's back, the Count grins. “Perhaps the old man will do it. And it shouldn't hurt to allow more citizens to arrive before we move on.” Sudo sighs and nods.
Sorrow stays behind as they walk away, the black dagger still in his hands and pointed at the Gauntlet's entrance. A soft wind drifts out, flowing around him and rustling his clothes and short ashen hair. With the half circle of butlers and guards looking outward and the citizens all grouped farther away, no one is looking as he slips through the tunnel archway.
Standing before the void-black door, the Drunk looks up with his arms crossed. His gaze darts across the surface to follow a few of the moving keyholes in turn, then he blinks and focuses on the door face itself. There are no cracks or seams in the material, and up close the door looks to be made of a single block of opaque glass in which all light that attempts to pass through is absorbed and trapped forever. The children that were crowded around the door now stand back with the Count and his retinue.
The Forge Master calls out to the Drunk, “Need a clue do you? I'll tell you I made it myself, with the help of three wizards and their respective students.”
The Drunk reaches out toward the door, “Three ya say?” His hand brushes near one of the moving keyholes, which darts away to avoid his grasp. The Drunk smiles and moves his hand faster than the keyhole, but when he smacks his palm against the spot there is a small ripple and then an electric shock that pushes his hand away. The keyhole vanishes, reappearing elsewhere on the door as the other keyholes dash away from the spot. “Aye, now I see all three. The repeller is nae obvious.” The Count spreads his arms wide to nudge the children back, the Forge Master frowns and crosses his arms, and Sudo moves to stand in front of the Count with a silverware spoon in each hand.
The Drunk lifts his shawl of furs up over his head and tosses the garment aside, leaving only the old breeches to cover himself. Aside from his messy mop of hair and torn knee-length pants, he looks like the marble statue of a god carved by someone with only the faintest grasp on reality. The muscles in his arms and shoulders and back and waist and legs all flex as one when he holds out an open palm toward the door. He doesn't seem to have anything but muscles covering his compact frame. As each finger of his hand closes one by one into a fist, a sound like boulders crunching can be heard.
“Three strikes.” The Drunk pulls back his arm and squares off against the door, his eyes closed. “If three can nae do it, I'll go as ya suggested.” And without seeming to move his fist is planted against the door. The whoosh of displaced air is heard like a typhoon in a bottle, and then the electric field across the door pulls inward to the point of impact just after a ripple of black roils outward. The free-swimming keyholes scatter to the edges of the door, and the Drunk grunts with a whisper, “Not bad.” His arm holds steady but his whole body is pushed several helms backwards as his bare toes dig in to the rock floor. The door's black face is soon calm again, but the electric field buzzes with energy and remains that way for several breaths before fading.
People are beginning to watch in the crowd behind. A few butlers guard the Count's back, silverware forks in their hands, but the gathering citizens have spread out to all get a good view. Rich or poor, beggar or lord, they all have their eyes glued to the Drunk's back. The Count glances down to the Forge Master, “Would you bet with or against him old friend?”
“Against him old friend, of course. I know better than any what that door can withstand.” The Forge Master grunts and adds, “Now if it didn't have all that magic augmenting it, maybe he could. Why did you have me enhance the door so much anyway?”
Standing close to the door again, the Drunk pulls back his fist. He stamps his feet against the ground, forming two indents in the rock for his feet to brace against, and then he opens his eyes. They shine with a blazing golden light, like pools reflecting the sun, or perhaps they are twin suns themselves. And again, faster than the eye can follow, the flat of his fist is against the door.
Another rush of air, and this time accompanied by a heart-rattling boom and a shock-wave of compressed air originating somewhere between where his fist was and where it now rests. The door's surface ripples like a black lake after throwing in a stone, the many keyholes disappearing altogether, and the repellent field buzzes with the sound of vicious bees against his fist. Flashes of lightning arc across the skin of his arm, spiking through and burning the flesh, but each wound disappears as quick as it formed. The Drunk gives a small, rueful smile as he is lifted upwards by the energy and thrown backwards, tumbling through the air with his arms and legs flailing, straight at the wide-eyed Count.
Sudo spreads ten spoons in a fan shape and meets the Drunk with their combined surface. For the tiniest moment the Drunk seems to be frozen in motion, one shoulder pressed against the spoons, but then Sudo changes the spoon's angle and the Drunk continues on, his trajectory altered enough to fly over the heads of the stunned crowd. He crosses the entire room and hits the opposite wall ten or so helms to the right of the Gauntlet's archway and close to the ceiling, compacting the rock and leaving a crater in the shape of his body as he falls to the ground. Sudo drops to one knee, breathing heavy as the bent spoons clatter to the ground.
With a dry chuckle the Count replies, “Same as the Gauntlet old friend, to see if I could. There are a wealthy few who would pay handsomely for the design specs of a perfect door.”
“Perfect?” The Forge Master snorts as he turns around to look in the direction the Drunk flew, “There isn't anything perfect in this world.”
A snarl from across the room becomes a growing howl, and Sudo stands with a wobble and a grimace, “Sir.” He places a hand on the Count's shoulder and speaks in a low, urgent tone, “You must get yourself and the people to the room's edges. The Monster has awoken.”
The Count winces and places a hand inside the pocket of his coat, pulling out something like the cross between a large bubble wand and a small butterfly net. Holding the circle to his mouth he speaks to the crowd, his voice booming loud, “Please move to the edges of the room. Everyone, please move to the edges of the cave. Please now, quickly, to the edges of the cave.”
“Now wait, who?” The Forge Master helps Sudo to walk as they follow the Count. “Who is the Monster?” The citizens are all scattering to various places along the cave's sides as directed. They spread out and walk with urgency, though many look puzzled or confused as they glance in different directions.
“The old man's berserk side.” Sudo sighs and looks out at the citizens, “A separate personality that seems to relish fear and destruction. This is very unfortunate. We must find a healer.”
The Forge Master's eyebrow raises, “You were hurt?”
Sudo shakes his head, “To pacify the Monster.”
People are thrown aside like rag-dolls as the Monster charges heedless through them, nostrils flaring wide and teeth clenched. He sprints across the cave, bounding back towards the black door in a zigzagging line, stones and rocks flung up in the wake of his pounding feet. Two of the castle butlers stand in his path and ready their long-tine forks and butter knives, but the Monster vanishes and reappears behind them still running. The butlers fall away, the sides of their livery scattering in a twin bloom of black shredded fabric.
He throws himself against the tall black door, starting with a bent-knee kick and then following up with punches and scratches and more kicks that rain against the door even as he remains airborne. Black ripples spread and clash, one for each strike and sometimes appearing even when no strike could be seen. The repellent field follows each strike, lightning energy forcing his fists and feet back as the Monster flurries against the door, but the Monster seems to be getting faster with each blow and the energy slower. His feet land against the ground with a thud, his back arches and his head drops down as he pours everything he has against the door. The ripples come faster, pressing the keyholes against the door's sides, as the Monster's arms become a blur.
The Forge Master watches from afar, leaning against a stalagmite, “Damn. Is this Monster stronger than the old man normally?”
Sudo laughs, “No. Thankfully.” He sits cross-legged on the ground, pulling his wooden stump in, “But only from lack of focus. The Monster is more vicious, more reckless and perhaps more dangerous.” Several butlers step from the shadows around and he gives a terse command, “Find a skilled healer among the citizens.” The butlers are gone even before the Forge Master turns his head to look. Sudo smiles at him, “Now we wait and see how long your door lasts.”
The lightning sparks and crackles in a tempest that covers the entire door. Red cracks appear in the energy field, a spiderweb of lines that grow wider and more complex. The Monster grunts as it digs blistered fingers in and pulls back, peeling the magic off like a wet coat and compacting the raw energy between its palms. The many swimming keyholes have vanished and the ripples are gone; the void black door remains, though looking more solid than before and with a single, unmoving, ordinary keyhole in the very center about four helms up. The Monster throws its arms high, waving its pressed palms around like a child after catching a frog, and then the Monster brings its palms down and opens them. A lightning bolt rests in the center of the Monster's open hand, coiling and sparking but otherwise placid; the Monster brings the bolt up to its face, sniffs it twice, and then bites down on one end.
The Forge Master gapes, “Is he trying to eat that broken spell? He's mad!”
Sudo sighs, “The Monster does not retain intellect, only an animal-like instinct.” The Monster shakes and rattles from the pulses of electricity buzzing through its body, but then throws the entire lightning bolt inside its mouth and clamps down. It chews through the shocks and then swallows the lightning with a gulp; the Monster gives a toothy smile and licks its lips. Sudo's eyes narrow, “Er, should that have been possible?” The Forge Master shakes his head, speechless.
A Small Folk man wearing a white vest runs out from the crowds, followed by a tall human figure in a long silver traveling cloak. Klax points above the Monster and shouts, “Light, please - .” The Monster is now standing before Klax, one hand pressed against his mouth to silence him, as the Monster reaches its other hand back around to grasp the back of his head.
The slim human tackles the Monster before it can snap Klax's neck. This startles but doesn't do much to move the sturdy Monster, who throws Klax aside and grabs the figure around their neck. With its now free other hand the Monster takes hold of the struggling human's cloak and rips it off. Under the cloak is Bell, who flails trying to pull the cloak back around herself.
A clump of rock smashes against the Monster's back and it turns to face a gaunt and stooping man in a black coat. Despite looking near death the old man cackles with exuberance, wielding a shovel to scoop out another chunk of stone from the floor and fling it at the Monster like a shot from a cannon. The Monster backhands the flying boulder, sending it flying in another direction, and then throws Bell at the old man like a javelin.
“Light please catch Bell!” Klax is back up and pointing toward the Monster. A bubble pops into place around Bell as the Monster releases her. She tumbles through the air, slower than she would have but still enough to knock the gaunt man over. He continues cackling on the ground as a few other frail men and women in black coats inch forward to pull the two back. The Monster turns back to the waiting Klax; the burly man takes in a deep sniff of Bell's cloak as the Small Folk facing him shouts, “Sir, I will heal you. Do not fight me!” The Monster grins and licks its lips again.
“Give back the cloak!” The Monster swings its upper body down low as Bell again throws herself at it from behind. She almost passes over the large man's back but the Monster presses its palms against the ground and bucks with its arms and legs, slamming into Bell and sending her flying upwards. Klax watches her and is moving his hand to point at her when the Monster appears at his side and grabs the Small Folk by the extending arm. With something like a discus throw it hurtles Klax towards Bell and the two collide in the air, just as the Monster appears above them and kicks. Small Folk and human hit the ground together with a thump and the Monster harrumphs as it drifts down like a twirling leaf, gnawing on Bell's silver cloak like a piece of tough jerky.
Sudo grunts and tries to stand, “It seems I must step forward. Please join the Count sir Forge Master and guard him in case the fight goes out of my control.”
The Forge Master shakes his head and holds up a hand to stop Sudo. The reptile scales spread to cover his entire body like a skin of red chain armor. “Allow me to go this time.”
Sudo settles back on the ground with a shrug, “You are welcome to, but at this point only a healer can help the old man regain his senses. And I have tried killing the Monster, but somehow it refuses to die no matter how many knives I stick in it.” The Forge Master pauses, a hammer made of flame in one hand. He looks back as Sudo comments, “I have heard you once worshiped the gods sir Forge Master. Can you heal?”
The Forge Master sighs, “Not any more.” The flame hammer disappears and he resumes walking. “But I can take a beating.”
The Monster turns its head as the Forge Master approaches, sniffing and taking the slobbery cloak out of its mouth. Its brow furrows and the Monster snorts, tearing the cloak in half and throwing the pieces away as it stomps its feet and snarls.
The red-scaled Small Folk grins, “Don't like me? I wonder why that is.” The Monster flashes away, then appears behind the Forge Master and punches him in the middle of his back. The Forge Master turns around as the Monster crumples to the ground, rolling around and licking its hand. “Was that a punch or a poke? Sorry, I can't tell when armored.”
The Monster stops rolling and kicks up at the Small Folk's midsection. The Forge Master is lifted just off his feet, another kick sends him several helms up in the air, and the Monster flips up in to a handstand as it kicks a third time and sends the Forge Master flying. The Small Folk laughs as wings of fire sprout from his back and flap against the air, holding him aloft. When the Monster appears above his head to kick the Forge Master, he crosses his arms and takes the strike against them along with a powerful beat of his wings. The Monster tumbles backwards and hits the ceiling, clinging there to a stalactite as it screeches at the Forge Master.
“Light please grant to your servant fortitude in this task.” Klax stands as a thin cloak of light wraps around his body. The Monster stops screeching and turns its attention toward Klax, but the Forge Master flies up and grabs the Monster by the leg, pulling the large man away from the ceiling with great flaps of his burning wings. Klax spreads an open palm toward the ceiling, “Light please send a proxy of your star.”
The large globe appears high in the air, bringing daylight illumination to the cavern. The Monster struggles as the Forge Master flies him closer, whipping its upper body back and forth to get free, but the burly Small Folk's grasp is like iron. Klax presses his hands together in prayer, “Light your star has been seen by the faithful. Now please bring healing to all that you behold!” The light from the floating globe grows brighter but not harsher; the light is warm and kind. All around the room people come forward and raise their hands and faces toward the light, though some like the men and women in black coats turn away. Bell sits up, but her gaze stays to the ground.
The Forge Master holds the Monster up directly in front of the globe and the Monster howls, scratching at its eyes and wrapping its hands around its head. But then the howls and scratching cease, and the Monster falls limp. After another moment the Drunk opens his eyes and looks around, then stares up at the Forge Master.
“Hullo lad. Sorry but can ya let me down now?” The Forge Master nods once and descends, placing the Drunk down on the dirt floor where the burly man stretches out and rests against the cool ground. “Thanks lad. I think I'll take a quick nap before my third try. I'll have that door licked soon enough.” He chuckles and turns to face the Forge Master, who has returned to the ground as his wings and scales diminish, “By the by lad, excellent craftsmanship. I doubt the like has been seen in hundreds of years.”
The Forge Master gives a small bow and turns away, walking back towards the Count and Sudo. The Drunk closes his eyes and rests his head in his arms. Klax sits next to Bell, sweat dripping from his brow, but he soon turns and places a hand on her shoulder. All around the room, the citizens of Goldenburg move toward the center of the room where they can stand below the globe of light.