Dicing with the Gods – First Chapter Preview!

Grug barely heard the trap click beneath him before he plunged through the floor and into the water below. Fragments of what had seemed to be a perfectly sound floor tile slid past, as Grug’s brain belatedly called “it’s a trap!” The current was strong, and Grug could hear the shouts of his companions growing fainter each time his head thrust out of the water. Already, he could feel himself tiring from fighting his way to the surface. Taking a deep breath, he plunged under again and began twisting and thrashing his way out of his mail hauberk, cursing as the weight dragged him down to skip off the bottom of the waterway.

Finally free of his mail, Grug swam back to the surface and let his body relax into the current, trying to figure out where he was. In the dim light, filtering through cracks in the floors above, the water stretched as far as Grug could see, dotted with waist-thick pillars of rough, grey granite that kept the building from crashing down on top of him. Only faint lights coming through cracks from the floor above, and the soft glow of a peculiar moss that wound its way up the pillars saved the seemingly endless room from pitch darkness.

Grug grabbed onto one of the pillars as the current drew him past. For a moment he hung on, the massive muscles of his arms and shoulders bunching and twisting as he fought for a handhold on the moss-covered stone, before the water ripped him away, pulling him farther downstream. Brows furrowed, Grug continued to float, his mind grinding slowly through other ways he could free himself from the current’s pull. At last, he tried again, steering his body in front of one of the pillars, and latching onto it with both arms and legs. For a moment, the water pinned the mighty barbarian, crushing him into the rock. Grug groaned as his crotch ground painfully into the pillar, and the pressure forced the air from his lungs.  Finally, he reached up one long, muscled arm to find a handhold above the slimy moss, and slowly dragged his body from the sucking, unstoppable waters.

Grug peered into the gloom, his eyes searching for anything that might offer him a way out of the watery tomb. Finally, his eyes lit upon an irregular square outline of light in the ceiling above—a smuggler’s hole to move cargo from the level above, downstream and out of the temple. Grug frowned fiercely at the waters rushing by below him, wondering how he could possibly traverse the distance from his pillar over to where the square of light beckoned.

Reaching up to the heavy beams that stretched between pillars, Grug searched for, and found, the heavy iron bolts holding the hewed timbers together. Slowly, carefully, Grug eased himself over the rushing waters, the bones in his hands and forearms creaking as he held to the bolts by only his fingertips.

“Grug getting too old for this,” Grug thought sourly as he passed the halfway mark, his tongue poking from the corner of his mouth and his body swinging gently as he carefully shifted from bolt to bolt, the gritty rust beneath his fingertips threatening his grip with each movement.

Arriving finally at the pillar nearest the smuggler’s hole, Grug gripped it between his thighs and stretched his upper body out toward the faintly lit outline. Gently, Grug worked his knife around the edges of the trapdoor, searching for the latch. It gave way with a sharp click, sending the hinged square of floor squealing downward, narrowly missing Grug’s face. Grug cursed himself for not thinking to look for the hinges before working the latch, then grabbed hold of the hole’s edge and pulled himself into the chamber above.

*                       *                       *

The room was nearly five paces square and almost as dark as it had been beneath its floor. Had it not been for a head-sized hole high in the wall, and the torchlight shining through, just right, onto the floor, Grug might never have seen the smuggler’s hole from below. Short tables, covered in dusty objects, lined the walls of the small, square room, but for a massive, iron-strapped door. Grug smiled at the glint of gold amongst the objects, his eyes tracing through the bounty before landing on an old armour rack in one corner. The rack loomed like a forgotten scarecrow, a silver circlet tilting drunkenly where a helm should sit, and a strange, heavy pendant hanging from the slight, wooden neck. Grug drew closer, his eyes riveted on the pendant, though he could not say why; the chain looked to be nothing but forged iron links, something a maester would wear, with a simple obsidian cube in place of a jewel, but Grug could almost hear it speaking to him, calling for him to pick it up. The meager shards of reflected torchlight seemed to slide like oil across the surface of the stone, and Grug found himself drawn into the gentle play of colours and lights.

Faint shouts from outside the room pulled Grug’s eyes to the reinforced oaken door. Recognizing the voices of his party, Grug put his mighty shoulders beneath the bar and strained to lift it. His body shook, the muscles of his legs twisting and shuddering, but the damp air swirling up through the smuggler’s hole had rusted everything solid and immovable, even for his barbarian strength; despite his straining, the metal didn’t even groan. Looking closer, Grug could see that rust caked the bar like dried blood, and corrosion bonded the metal to the bands of the door and frame.

Reaching over his shoulder, Grug grabbed for his war axe, staring with some amazement at his hand when it came back empty. Apparently, he had shrugged off more than his chain mail in the waterway. Taking quick stock of the situation, Grug struggled to see how the padded leather doublet, rough canvas pants, or thick leather boots he’d worn could be of much use in opening a rusted door.

“Grug in here!” he yelled in frustration, his massive fist slamming against the door. “Help Grug!”

The sound of heavy footsteps and clinking armour grew louder, as Grug continued to thump on the door. Finally, an answering tap came from the other side.

“Lad, is tha’ you?” Grug felt relief wash over him at the sound of Bhalon’s voice. The cleric had always been kind to Grug, looking after him like an older brother, and standing up for him against the other members of their party.

“It Grug. Grug stuck.”

“If stuck is all ye’ are, you’re a sight better than we expected, seein’ ya go through tha’ floor,” Bhalon replied. “We though’ you migh’ ha’ drowned. Always were a lucky bastard, though.”

Grug grunted.

“Is the door barred, Lad? Can ye’ lift it?”

“Bar stuck. Need help.”

“All right, Lad. I’ll get Haeronor. Mayhap he’ll have a spell that ‘ill do the job.”

The heavy footsteps receded down the corridor and Grug turned back to the room. Peering along the tables, and beneath them, Grug searched for anything he might use as a level to pry at the bar, though he was quickly distracted by the room’s riches. Amongst old statues, jewels, and weapons were forgotten riches that would pay for Grug’s lodging and food for more than a year, but ultimately it was the heavy pendant that drew his eye again. Walking over to the armour stand, Grug carefully undid the clasp, his broad fingers surprisingly deft. The obsidian sat heavily in his palm, drinking in the light on its facets and glimmering at its edges. Testing one side with his thumb, Grug found that the edges had been left sharp: equal parts beauty and danger. The darkness of the stone seemed to expand as he gazed into it, light swirling in iridescent patterns that ensnared his eyes as they danced. Grug found himself staring at the stone, unsure of how long he had stood there, being drunk into the stone, as the light was.

Footsteps sounded outside the door again, and Grug could hear voices arguing. He walked back over to the door, putting his ear next to the door frame to better make out what was being said.

“He’s hardly worth the scroll,” Grug could hear once voice say. A meaty thump followed, and pained wheeze.

“He’s one of our party, Haeronor,” Bhalon hissed, “and he’s saved your arse more times than I’d care to count. Who was it that dragged you out of that rock troll’s cave, not a month back.”

“He’s a liability!” Haeronor hissed back. “We’re better off without him—or have you forgotten about how he set off the trap in the vampire’s lair the month before that, and nearly got us all killed?”

There was a very pregnant pause. Grug could imagine the cold, unfriendly look on Haeronor’s elven face even with the door between them. Then Bhalon’s gravelly voice rumbled like a hive of angry bees: “You’ll do it, or I’ll crack yer skull and let the High Lord’s light in myself. Maybe that will give you some sense.”

“Fine.” Soft footsteps traced back up the corridor. “Stand back.”

There was a shuffling away from the door. “Grug,” Bhalon called, “ye’d best step back from the…”

A howling shriek eclipsed Bhalon’s words. Grug was thrown to the floor as a massive fireball crashed into the door, vaporizing the wood and sending metal shards spinning through the room. Grug’s head pounded and he struggled to focus his eyes on the vague shapes coming through the door, framed by the torchlight now streaming in smoking hole where the door once sat.

Bhalon came straight to Grug’s side, the dwarf’s long red hair and beard bristling over immaculately-polished armour and deep blue surcoat. “All righ’ there, lad?” Bhalon asked, his voice distant and muffled in Grug’s ears.

Grug nodded, his vision still swimming. Irritably, he picked a small piece of hot metal out of the flesh of his forearm and dropped it to the floor.

Bhalon reached down, helping Grug to his feet and bracing the barbarian. Grug leaned gratefully on the dwarf as he regained his equilibrium.

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Haeronor muttered, irritably brushing dust off of his long, purple and black wizard’s robes. Cleaning complete, the willowy, elven mage turned his attention to the tables. “Hmm…spell scrolls, some nice gold work here, too. Maybe you’re not completely useless after all, Grug.” He flashed a false smile, his steely-blue  eyes full of contempt.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Triwathon drawled. The tall, graceful elven ranger sidled in the door, his bow strung and an arrow resting on the string. “We might be better off with a trained monkey. At least it would be cheaper to feed.”

Rage clouded Grug’s vision and tripped up his tongue, as it always seemed to. Only Bhalon’s steadying hand and his own splitting headache kept him from driving a fist into Triwathon’s face.

Haeronor chuckled. “Now, now, Triwathon. Don’t make our barbarian friend too angry. Remember what happened to that thief that tried to cut his purse last week.”

Grug grimaced. Honestly, he hadn’t meant to pull the fellow’s arm off. It was an accident. He was only trying to make him drop the purse he had cut from Grug’s belt.

The reminder seemed to be enough for Triwathon, who moved past Grug and began his own tally of the treasures on the tables.

“Not bad,” Haeronor said finally, as he finished examining the last table and turned his eyes to the circlet still sitting on the armour stand. “Even if this is all we find in the temple, the trip has been more than worth it. I’ll take the scrolls, of course; no one else can cast them. The rest we can split four ways.”

Grug’s brows lowered. Even he knew that the scrolls were worth more than the rest of the treasure combined. “No cheat Grug.”

The mage turned. “Cheat Grug? That fireball spell I just used to open the door was worth more than you are, human. You’re lucky to get anything at all.” He spied the necklace still clutched, forgotten, in Grug’s fist. “That should go into the common pile, as well.”

Grug looked down at the pendant. It was ugly, likely worthless to all but a blacksmith, who might melt the chain down and make something useful. Certainly not something to argue over. “No. This Grug’s.”

The mage’s eyebrow arched and all traces of humour vanished from his face. “Put it in the pile, Grug, or I will make you wish you had.”

An animal growl vibrated in Grug’s chest. In two quick steps, he was across the room, and Haeronor swung a foot off of the floor, the collar of his robes lost in Grug’s massive fist. Grug pulled the mage close. “This Grug’s.”

Elven eyes were suddenly awash in golden flames and an incantation began to roll off of Haeronor’s tongue in a musical elven language that sounded simultaneously enticing and foreboding. Steel sung on leather from behind Grug as Triwathon unsheathed his slim dagger and started toward the pair.

“Enough, Haeronor!” Bhalon snapped, “Unless you want t’ find out how yer spells stand up to the High Lord’s power.” His eyes swung to Triwathon. “Or how tha’ knittin’ needle fairs against my mace.”

Haeronor’s incantation trailed off and his eyes slowly bled back to blue, though they still glittered with suppressed fury. Triwathon glared at the stocky cleric, but slipped his dagger back into its belt sheath.

“Ye know those scrolls are worth more than the rest,” Bhalon continued, his gaze back on the mage. “You’ll take them as yer quarter, and you’ll bloody well be ready ta use them if any member of this party needs you to.” Haeronor nodded reluctantly. “And let the boy keep ‘is prize; it looks to be worth little enough as i’ tis. Grug, put him down.”

Grug opened his fist. Only Haeronor’s elven grace saved him from sprawling on the floor. Grug took a step back and, with exaggerated slowness, fastened the pendant around his thick neck, his eyes never leaving the mage’s.

Hate shone in Haeronor’s eyes.

“Let’s divide this up and get movin’.” Bhalon said. “We’ve still got a maiden to save—and a guardian to slay, no doubt.”

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