Areia remembered bits and flashes of what she thought happened next. She remembered losing light as if she were entering a dark hole and the sky was blotted out. She remembered hanging bags, swaying in a rotten breeze. Smells of meat cooking, and the hissing of steam and fire. The smell of smoke in her nostrils. Bubbling. The smell of death and disease, of rot. Moisture and damp stones under her feet. Wicked cackling and laughter. These were mixed with more sounds of others, men mostly. Blood curdling screams that made her hair stand up on end. The sounds of complete agony, as someone was tortured in a way that could only result in their death.
Above all though, one voice, the voice of an elderly man, soothing, wise. Kept returning to her.
For the sake of us all, do I spare thee, child.
For the sake of us all, shall you rise.
For anyone, big or small may be a hero.
And so shall you be too.
And finally, she remembered feeling like she was falling. Not down a ladder or over a cliff, as she sometimes had nightmares of, especially as a homeless youth on the streets of Far Realm. This was a memory of her falling into herself. She fell into the stones of this dark wet cave, and the stones rose up to meet her. Giant hands, and blackness. And that laughter. Always the sound of cackling from all around her.
“Haryk, Haryk! Wake up.” The fighter awoke, and immediately tried to cry out in pain, but couldn’t. He couldn’t see, so he wasn’t able to look at what was stopping his cry, but it felt like, it felt like a hand. Haryk grabbed it and found another covering his mouth as well.
“Shhhh friend,” soothed Areia’s voice. “We’re going to move our hands away, and when we do, it’s imperative you make no noise.”
Haryk nodded that he understood, and tried to sit up in the blackness. He detected the body heat of others around him, but when he moved to right himself, he felt the floor sway under his feet. Luckily, this time, he kept his lips closed.
Andril’s voice, his magical whisper came next. “As best we can tell here, Master Haryk, we were all duped into this predictament. Do you still adore your new pal, Inara?”
Haryk tried to clear his mind. He sensed a lingering feeling inside of him and thoughts came tumbling back out of his recent memory like rocks down a hillslide. Inara had tricked him, and he had been unable to help it.
“We think we are hanging in a cage, currently. Tied to a hook above.”
“Where’s Thrak?” said the soldier.
“Herrree human,” grunted the lizard man, and he was met with shushing nearly instantly, “And unlike the rest of you, I look good naked.”
Haryk moved his hands over his torso and legs to discover that he was completely nude. “Our weapons?” He asked quietly.
“Gone.” The sad reply.
“Oh it gets better,” said Andril. “We have a few visitors around this cage. From the sounds, I’d guess they were bats, but Thrak knows better. He knows their screeches well. Ordinarily, they’d be annoyances we could deal with swiftly, even without weapons.”
“What are they?” asked Haryk, trying to look around. He saw well in the dark, much better than Andril, but couldn’t see much except for what looked like odd rocks on some of the cavern walls around them. Below, he thought he could detect the floor, and what seemed like gigantic skeletons and bones. Possibly from more of the giants.
“It isn’t what they are that is the problem,” said Ariea. “It’s what we are. This cage, Master Haryk, is the size of a breadbox. A Celn breadbox. Do you understand?”
Haryk remembered the sinking feeling, from his own nightmares. The feeling of the floor rushing up to meet him. He sighed. “Yes. The wicked hag’s dark magic of course.”
“Move even a little and we’ll wake them,” Andril whispered, “These are island stirges. Imagine a mosquito, and with our size what it is, now imagine it the size of those winged demons we fought while shipwrecked. Now imagine that instead of a beak, it has a long hollow beak, and it’s built to stick it inside your abdomen. Picture this needle twice the size of your arm, wrapped around your body. It sucks your organs out while giving you a nice bear hug with those leathery wings, like Thrak sucks out the insides of one of his snailshell lunches he goes on about.”
“Sssso,” began Thrak trying his best to whisper again, “how do we escape this cage without having our insides turned into a bowl of our own flavored soup?”
The party of Areia the Rogue, Thrak Yak the barbarian, Andril the Mage and Lord Haryk the fighter, snuck one by one down the most delicate of threads conjured forth by the mage, and tightened into something stronger with more magic.
They soon discovered that the cave they had been placed in was a feeding area for the winged stirges Andril had described. The group came close a few times to having the lot of the things down upon them. It took little imagination to know how disgusting a death this would have been in the dreary darkness they had been left in. Bones and skulls of other victims lined the cavern floor, and jagged rocks jutted from all directions. Dripping sounds masked their movements, and although a few of the beasts flitted once or twice, they stalked cautiously away. Without talking, or thinking, as if they all needed to try, they crept along in the darkness searching for a light of any kind. A hope of escape from this Kethole. For hours they crept and crawled over filth and rotten waste wedged between rocks. Andril was glad he couldn’t see, he wasn’t sure he wanted to do so. Areia led them along their left wall. She stayed close this time, perhaps letting them know that this time, she was herself again, and she could be trusted once more. She soon found an area where the giants were sleeping. It was a possible means of escape she supposed but she didn’t like it. A slight breeze and smells of the jungle told her they’d make their way out, if they could get past the beasts.
“And what will we do then?” sighed the mage. “We are the size of mice. We’ll die in the jungle before we make the ship. Here, we can at least search for a way to bring us back. The hags transformed us, we can find a way to transform back. Kill them. Retake our treasure.”
“Save the prisoners,” said Thrak. “Take my shield from the enemy’s dead hand. Take her hand. Eat it.”
“Hags?” said Areia. “There are more than one?!”
Andril sighed, “Well rogue, I hate giving good thieves empty pockets to pick,” he laughed at his use of an old Celn expression, “but the type of magic used on us, especially you elves, could only have worked with extreme power, more than a single hag could summon in a lifetime. This,” be continued, “is the lair of a coven.”
“A coven?” said Haryk, “What the Ketian hell is that?”
“Know ye not your Celn mythology, noble Lord?” said Andril. “Covens, are groups of three evil hags, or witches. In a triad, their power is legendary, just as the three traitors once were.”
“Phooey, that’s an old Celn tale meant to scare kids who had homes Andril,” said Areia.
“Is it?” asked Andril. “You are an elf, no? Charms do not work on you, and yet, here we are.”
There was a silence in the dark.
“So what should we do?” It was Haryk, direct as an arrow.
“If we escape as is, the jungle will kill us. If we are seen by the beasts, we will be set upon by them AND the hags who will surely be summoned, but..,” he paused as a scream echoed from somewhere in the cave above them.
“But if we find our way to their lair, we may find a way to turn us back into ourselves once more, find our weapons, our gear. If we can surprise them, we will slaughter them while they rest, or sleep. What other choice do we have?”
Another scream punctuated the wizard’s question. “No, no, nooooaaagggg,” began a bloodcurdling scream echoing all around them in the dark, disgusting cave.
“Follow me,” said the rogue in a resolute tone. She backed out away from the sounds of the giants, and crawled upwards towards the directions the screams had come. They followed, silent, and each shoulder to shoulder.
Up ahead in the blackness, a cool wind was in their hair. The smell of diesases rose up through the air. Thrak paused then, and saw what he thought was a shimmering light. His thoughts were heavy, and his sight grew dim, he had to stop with the fright.
Areia paused, listening to the sounds of complete and utter torture. She wasn’t sure what was happening up ahead in the darkness, but she knew the sounds of dying. And this, she knew, was the sounds of someone dying in the most foul way possible. It was the sound of someone being slaughtered, slowly. It was unbearable to hear. Then she saw the shimmering that Thrak had seen. She moved towards it, and the rest followed. Unbelievably it was the soft glow of a candle, resting atop a table in an alcove of the cave.
“The table!” Haryk pointed upwards to a set of bottles atop a table in the middle of the alcove. Not surprisingly, the table was made of bones, human and elf mostly, stitched together by sinewy thread, most likely made from skin and hair. It was ghastly, and yet, atop it, sat what they assumed, might be their only way out of this predictament.
“Squeaks,” whispered Areia. “Are you there?” From behind them, came the shrill sounds of Areia’s mouse.
“You made it!” said Areia, petting the now pig sized rodent. She hopped on it’s back as if it were a mount, and squeaks began to climb to the top of the table. Once there, the mouse came back and gave each a lift as well under her command. Andril hated admitting it, but he was possibly glad he hadn’t squashed the thing back in Far Realm.
Haryk moved among the bottles, each taller than he was. “There are two types here.” Andril came over to each, and whispered magical words. Both glowed.
“As I see it, both will change us. I just do not know in which way.”
“Great,” sighed the fighter, “,so you’re saying I might grow even smaller than I am now?”
“Cheer up, human,” snarked Thrak, “It might be a potion of handsomenesssss.”
“Well, there’s nothing for it, then. We’ve got to select one, I cannot tell in which way either of these witch’s brews will work, except they will change us. Who wishes to go first?”
Everyone stepped back, leaving Thrak in front. He looked around and the look of his tongue hanging out of his snout was too much for Areia, who doubled over in agonized laughter.
“Ah, look who’s back to her old ssssselllf,” said Thrak in an attempted whisper which only made Areia laugh more. He moved towards the first bottle and stuck a claw in the cork, but then shook his head and withdrawing his talon, put it in the cork of the second bottle. Tilting the magnificent bottle sideways, he let some of the putrid liquid pour into his mouth.
The others waited to see what would happen.