Several miles away from the academy, tucked within a dense collection of oak and birch, is a solitary boulder. Unlike the region’s natural, dark red stones, the foreign gray boulder is painted to blend into the white and brown of the surrounding tree trunks. From a distance, the stone is barely distinguishable from the trees. The only sign the boulder is there is an occasional shimmer of reflected sunlight, which can only be seen at the right time of day and from the correct angle. Fizzle perches on a branch as his friends squeeze their way through the thick grove. Fritz gingerly puts his hand against the cool surface of the stone, a look of awe creeping across his face.
“The illusions on this entrance are incredible,” Fritz marvels. He gently knocks on the boulder, the sound resembling a hand hitting metal instead of stone. “There’s a door embedded in the stone, but it’s masked to look like the rock. If you can see through the rock face spell then all you see is a locked door. The door illusion is interactive, so most people will keep trying to pick the lock. In reality, there’s a gaping hole that you can pass through if you break the illusions. Course, if you can’t see through them then you end up walking into what you perceive to be a metal door. Illusion spells of this caliber are rare. Only ancient casters and certain magical creatures could have made this masterpiece.”
Nimby uncomfortably clears his throat to admit, “I still see a rock. So, how do I get in?”
“A flaw in these spells is that they depend on awareness,” Fritz casually explains, passing his hand through the rock. “I’ve told you that this is fake, so you can follow me without seeing through the illusion yourself. It has to do with knowing that I’m real and trusting that I have figured out the trick.” He notices Nimby is still staring at the boulder and looking doubtful. “If it makes you feel better, I can hold your hand.”
“Very tempted, but I have to be in front,” the halfling says. “We don’t know if there are any traps in there.”
“Fizzle keep watch. Not like stuffy dark. Good luck,” Fizzle announces, vanishing from sight.
“Draw your weapons and keep your eyes sharp,” Luke tells his friends, trying to sound like he knows exactly what to do. “We don’t know what’s down there. I agree that Nimby should go first. Whoever put these spells up would have put some traps behind it and he knows more about traps than the rest of us. Take it easy and go at your own pace, Nimby. We’ll be behind you in case something goes wrong. Not that we expect anything will go wrong. It’ll just be safer for us that way. This speech isn’t coming out right. Good luck, Nimby.”
“The least you guys could do is stay closer than five feet behind me,” Nimby nervously requests, watching Fritz step through the boulder. “Being too far ahead makes me feel like bait . . . helpless, terrified, out-of-his-element bait.”
Nimby takes a deep breath and closes his eyes as he plunges through the illusion. He is still moving when a hand grips his shoulder, the ground beneath his right foot vanishing. The halfling opens his eyes to find Fritz pulling him back. Looking ahead, Nimby sees they are at the top of a descending staircase with blazing torches set along the rough walls. The stone steps are finely crafted with barely any signs of use on them. A thick layer of dust is disturbed with every step Nimby takes. He covers his mouth and nose with his shirt to avoid inhaling the choking cloud, smirking when he hears Fritz cough behind him.
Trailing behind, Luke and Aedyn are unaffected by the low-hanging cloud of dust kicked up by their shorter companions. Still, it is a slow descent as they push thick, sticky cobwebs out their way. Luke is feels his heart throbbing in his chest as he eyes the shadows for any signs of spiders. A brief movement among the webs causes him to pause, relaxing when he realizes it is only a breeze moving the torchlight. Aedyn glances back at the forest tracker, hissing for him to hurry up. Luke keeps his head low, ignoring the webs as he rushes to catch up.
“Your courage is astounding,” Aedyn whispers.
“I have issues with spiders,” Luke mutters.
“Some forest tracker you are.”
“I protect nature. That doesn’t mean I have to like all of it. Besides, I have my reasons.”
“I am sure you do.”
“I had . . . an encounter as a child with giant spiders.”
“This story can be told another time, Luke.”
“That’s really it.”
“Oh . . . then, I apologize for teasing you.”
The small group travels down the stairs for ten minutes before Nimby stops them. It is a wordless gesture with his hand that causes everyone to freeze. Holding his breath, the halfling straddles a step to examine it closely. Everyone gets anxious as he eyes the step with a level of seriousness they have never seen in him before. He slowly turns his head to look at the next step, gliding his foot along its surface, his toes pointing down the stairs. Using his hands, he tries to measure the suspicious spot.
“What is it?” Luke asks from the back of the group.
“This step is about an inch wider than the others,” Nimby whispers, bending down until his nose is almost touching the floor. “It makes me think there’s a trap here. The mechanics involved in a step trap tend to make the trigger step a bigger than the others. The problem is that I’ve seen traps like this before and they don’t always do the same thing. Thankfully, all of them are set off the same way. It’s a pressure plate and pulley system, which means we only have to hop over the trigger step to avoid setting the trap off. The person who set this up might have been a great caster, but they didn’t have any imagination when it came to trap making.”
“There could be more to it. Let me take a look,” Fritz offers. The gnome straddles the step alongside his friend, causing a metal clink to come from the walls. Everyone holds their breath as the two steps that Fritz and Nimby are standing on sink into the ground.
“A false pressure plate flanked by two perfectly hidden plates,” Nimby says with a crooked smirk. “Well, that’s a nice twist to a classic. I’m very impressed”
A wet crash is heard from the top of the stairs and they can hear liquid splashing towards them. They cover their noses when a foul stench wafts down the staircase in front of whatever liquid has been released. Luke sheathes his sabers and Aedyn puts his staff over his shoulder, freeing their hands to each carry one of their diminutive friends. With the sound of flowing liquid getting closer, the half-elves break into a mad sprint down the staircase.
“Hey, guys! I know that smell! It’s oil!” Fritz shouts, maneuvering himself onto Aedyn’s shoulders. The gnome takes the priest’s staff, making it a little easier for him to run.
“What does that mean?” Luke replies, ricocheting off a wall when the stairs make a sharp turn to the left. He has Nimby tucked under his arm while his legs move as fast as they can. He hears Aedyn almost trip and fall down the staircase when he comes to the sudden turn.
“Not to make anyone panic, but oil is flammable!” Nimby shouts over the growing sound of rushing oil. “There are torches on the walls.”
“By Durag’s light, do not tell me such things!” Aedyn yells in a panic. “If you do not have any good news then please be quiet!”
Luke is so busy running that he is unable to avoid a step that is slightly darker than the others. He presses on it with all of his weight, making it sink into the ground. This time the torches turn upside down, spilling fiery coals onto the dusty ground. The staircase erupts into flames behind the small group as they struggle to run faster. They feel a wave of heat hit them from behind as the river of oil becomes a rolling torrent of fire.
“Take Nimby and run ahead, Aedyn! Maybe I can do something to slow the trap!” Luke shouts. He turns in time to see the flood of flaming oil turn a distant corner. Like a liquid fireball, the flaming oil grows bigger and bigger, eating up the fiery coals as it gets closer.
“Care to repeat that idea, hero?” Aedyn asks with a nervous laugh.
Luke gulps and tightens his grip on the halfling. “Maybe another time. How long are these damn stairs anyway?”
Luke makes a sharp turn and sees a sealed door looming ahead of them. He bursts into a flood of curses when he hits another switch and the door swings opens. The glitter of gold and gems nearly blinds him as a fresh breeze enters the stagnant tunnel. Roaring, Luke hurls Nimby at the opening, desperately hoping to get the halfling out of harm’s way. He watches his friend land on the floor and roll into the room before turning to see where the others are.
“This is really bad!” Fritz urgently shouts. “Fire is attracted to areas that have a sudden intake of fresh air! Move faster, Aedyn!”
The priest barely notices he is passing Luke as he pushes his legs into a desperate sprint. He dives through the opening, turning in time to see the roiling fireball charging down the stairs faster than ever. It licks at Luke’s heels, the half-elf hurling himself through the doorway. Unlike his friends, Luke has no time to jump behind anything before the fireball bursts into the chamber. The flames roll along the ceiling for a few minutes, dying when the door snaps shut.