Behind the locked door was a square room. More lanterns lined the walls, flickering hither and thither. The perimeter of the room was separated from the center with thick metal walls that seemed to form another room. Leaving the entranceway and turning to the right, facing the metal box, Jothal saw another reinforced door that had a small window striped with bars through which an observer might peek inside. The door had what Jothal could only assume was a lock on it, and, after attempting to push or pull the door open, Jothal was quite sure of this. It had more strange runes on it and a small keyhole. Jothal decided to check the perimeter for any more traps before she would investigate the metal box. Sounds of metal being dragged, low rumbling, and the occasional watery sound filled Jothal’s ears. She had to be careful.
The rest of the room revealed little information to Jothal regarding the box’s contents. There were one or two sets of chains on the walls, a few rusty weapons leaned up against the walls, more old books written in strange languages, and bags of white powder. A set of keys were dangled right outside of the box’s door, which Jothal thought might come in handy later, alongside a few pairs of gloves and a bucket. One of the old books was laid open on top of a cabinet. Even though Jothal could not read the writing, she could see more sketches of strange symbols, diagrams of anatomy from many races, and drawings of intricate apparatuses. The page was overflowing with the lines, curves, and a smudge or two. The book looked like some sort of journal. She noticed that there was yet another hallway branching off. How far did these caverns go? Jothal turned towards the metal box. She had found no traps but no answers. Clearing the fears from her mind and exhaling deeply, Jothal moved towards the box’s door, held up her shield, and looked inside.
Only the faint glowing of the torches reached the inside of the box, providing a few thin rectangles of light. Jothal turned her headlamp back on, casting her orange beam around the room. The floor was a mix of deep reds and browns, and the walls were coated with thick layers of earth. The metal box appeared to have been last cleaned sometime last age and was filled with many indiscernible lumps. As she shone her light on one of the lumps, trying in vain to find a recognizable shape, the lump jostled and rolled over, making a sickening squish sound. Jothal pulled away from the window quickly, gathered her wits, readjusted her shield, and turned back to the window. Looking back through the bars, she saw that the lump had sat up, if you could call what it was doing “sitting up.” She could now see that it had a frame not unlike that of an Ithoan, although it was somewhat thicker and squatter. However, there were very distinct arms and legs, and it had the pale flesh of a newborn Ithoan. It appeared to be turned away from her. Its back, or what Jothal thought to be its back, had a raised, pinkish pentagram on it.
“H-hello?” Jothal called, her voice wavering. The creature turned it’s fleshy head towards her. Jothal could now see two sunken eyes staring back at her over a nose and a thin line of a mouth. It’s eyes squinted shut as it raised an arm, a low groan coming from it’s closed mouth. Jothal could feel that it was trying to respond to her, but it looked like it was in a great deal of pain. She heard a sound coming from the hallway.
“Shhh.” Jothal whispered. “Don’t hurt yourself…” She looked around the room for another lump, and her orange beam glanced over another pale figure. This time, the figure was very clearly Ithoan but with blue feathers jutting out from its back. It almost looked as if someone had stuck the feathers into a lump of clay and forgotten them there. This figure did not respond to the light. Glancing about the room, she could see at least a dozen more creatures, all distinctly Ithoan and at the same time distinctly not. One had a cluster of mushrooms growing from a leg, another had turned a sickly shade of purple, and yet another had lost its limbs entirely. One creature with patches of thick fur on its body was chained to the wall. A number of these creatures had responded to Jothal’s headlamp by now. A few had cowered in a corner of the metal box, while two had approached the door. One figure was the tallest of the lot and looked as if half of his face had been turned into stone. The other approaching creature had completely white eyes and seemed to be holding on to the stone-faced one’s shoulder for support.
“Hello?” Jothal greeted the two carefully, readying her shield and Rankein in case they attempted to harm her.
“You’re not one of them, are you?” The stone-faced one asked her, a hint of fear in his voice. When he spoke, only half of his face moved while the stony half remained frozen. Jothal tried not to stare.
“One of whom?”
“The robed men. You aren’t here to kill us?”
“No… Not if you aren’t posing any threat.” Jothal raised Rankein in a warning. The stone-faced man looked tired. He relaxed, as if releasing some large amount of tension. Jothal lowered Rankein in response. “I’m just searching around for whatever has been causing disappearances in this mine. You don’t think your robed men had anything to do with that?” The stone man’s eye perked up slightly.
“A mine… That sounds vaguely familiar. I think I may have heard them talking about a mine. I can’t quite remember though.” His mouth contorted where it was able. Jothal could see that the man was searching some long lost part of his brain for information that would never be found. She sighed.
“Why are you locked up here anyway?” Jothal asked. The man again looked confused.
“I’m… not sure…” he mused, half of his brow furrowed with deep thought. “All I know is that every now and then, a robed man takes one of us away from here, and when we return, we aren’t the same.” He looked at the white-eyed man that was holding on to his shoulder. “None of us can remember what they do to us. My friend here was taken away just yesterday. He’s been blind ever since.” The white-eyed man bowed his head towards the ground. “We’ve taken to calling each other by the modifications we’ve received. Well, those who can talk. I’m Stone.”
“Aptly named. I’m Jothal.” she replied.
“You’ve got to help us. I don’t know how long we’ve been trapped here…” Stone pleaded. Jothal was skeptical. There was something wrong with the whole situation, but, looking at the state of some of the other men, she knew that these men were not here of their own choice. She remembered the keys on the wall near her. It was worth a shot.
“I’ll help you, under one condition.” Jothal offered. “You tell me where or when I can find these robed men and tell me more about them, and I’ll set you free.”
“It’s a deal!” Stone replied enthusiastically. “The men come by every day to give us some scraps of food. They haven’t been by today yet, so I expect they will be here soon. I don’t know what they’re capable, or if they’re working for anyone, but you ought to be careful. They’re some kind of magic users…”
“Okay. How many of them are there? Are they armed? How do th—“ Jothal’s flow of questions were muffled by a gloved hand covering her mouth and a strong pair of arms wrapped around her arms, pinning them to her sides.
“I guess you’ll be able to find the answers you seek rather soon, hmm?” She heard a voice from behind her, heard the solid thunk of a shovel on the back of her head, and then saw only darkness.
When Jothal regain consciousness, she was tied tightly to a table. She felt weak and could not summon strength to even move her aching head. She could see that there were multiple bowls burning incense around her. The sweet scent filled her nose and stuffed her lungs. A robed man approached and bent his head over her to get a better look. He was wearing a blood red cloak and some sort of medallion. His head had been shaved, and his muddy brown eyes were somewhat piercing despite their subdued color.
“Now, now child… Back to sleep for you. You’ll need all the rest you can get.” Jothal fought her eyes to stay open, but the thick air and sickly smell urged her into slumber. She sunk back into darkness.
She woke up back in the room, tied to the same table. However, the bowls had been removed, the man was gone, and she felt woozy and numb. She was wrapped in linen cloth from neck to lower torso and could not move her arms, but she could wiggle somewhat. She was afraid for what has about to happen. Her mind raced with possibilities, each new one making her heart race faster than the last. At least now she had recovered some of her strength. She tried to sit up, but the ropes held her hostage. She tried to wiggle her feet and in the process knocked over some poor unsuspecting object that clattered to the ground. She heard footsteps scuttling towards her in the distance.
“Ah, you’re awake again!” She heard her captor’s voice. The same robed man from earlier had entered the room and was looking her over. “I am so excited to see how my latest creation has turned out!” The man loosened her restraints and began to unravel the linens. “You’ll be good for me now, won’t you?” The man looked into Jothal’s eyes with raised eyebrows and an infuriatingly cocky half-smile. “Of course you won’t.” He answered himself. “Nothing a little spell can’t fix.” The man uttered some words that Jothal couldn’t understand, and almost instantly, her body went completely limp. The man smiled and then unwrapped her fully. She struggled to keep the man in her view, but again found muscle function impossible. She caught a glimpse of the man’s face. He was frowning.
“Now that isn’t right, is it…?” The man asked no one. She appeared to be prodding somewhere on Jothal’s upper torso with an instrument, but she couldn’t feel a thing. After a few minutes of this, Jothal saw the man leave the table, carrying something large and spindly and then return with more instruments. His arms and hands were splashed with blood. Jothal felt light headed.
“Alright… that’ll have to do…” The robed man muttered to himself. He raised a hand to his pointy chin for a moment. “Yes, that’ll do.” The man turned to Jothal. “Would you like to see? I would suppose you’d be curious.” She muttered some more unfamiliar words, and Jothal felt her muscles regain their strength. She saw that the man was motioning towards her left arm. Jothal sat up slowly and looked towards her arm, but something was wrong.
“My arm!” Jothal exclaimed in a raspy shout. “What have you done to my arm?!” Where Jothal had once possessed a strong left arm was now a crudely patched up stump. The stump had a raised, pinkish pentagram on it.
“Yes, well… This spell was supposed to have lengthened your arm, but all it managed to do was wither it.” The man replied, looking at the pages of an old book not unlike the ones Jothal had seen in previous rooms. He tossed the book aside haphazardly. “It would seem that these books are rather useless after all.” Jothal’s heart was like a miner’s pickaxe in her chest. She would never make it back home like this. And even if she did, what kind of life awaited her? No life she would want to live.
“What have you done to me? Why?” Jothal demanded. The man barely glanced her way.
“You Ithoans and your questions. I thought you miners were supposed to be a dull bunch.”
“Miners?” Jothal asked. “Is that who…” Jothal thought back to the metal cage. “You’re the reason that the miners have been missing?”
“Well, one man’s lost is another man’s found. Yes, I suppose it was me, but it was necessary. I need the subjects, and you don’t get many volunteers for experimental magic these days. What better place to find a supply of subjects than in a mine? People go missing all the time I’m told.”
“But what about the iron ore?” Jothal asked angrily. “Did you take that, too?”
“Terribly sorry. That spell was supposed to turn a man’s skin as hard as iron, not summon every bit of iron in Lithilen.” The man huffed. “Nevertheless, you won’t be needing the iron anyway.”
“Why?” Jothal asked.
“Well, once I’ve built an army for Azzasmar, your little town will have a lot more to worry about than ore.” The man chuckled to himself. “I just need a few more test subjects and then I can help bring the great demon to power once more!” Jothal frowned. Demon? Azzasmar? She vaguely recalled hearing the name from bedtime stories, but the memories escaped her. All she knew was that this man was up to no good. The man took up a cloth and began to wipe down some metal instruments. Jothal waited for him to reach for another tool, and then lunged at him with her right arm.
The man was too fast for her carefully timed attack. He stepped out of her way, letting Jothal tumble to the ground in agony. Her numbness had begun to subside, sending shooting pains to the arm that was there no more. She writhed in agony.
“Foolish girl.” The man shook his head at her disapprovingly. “You should know better than to attack a dark wizard.” He muttered a few strange words and Jothal again went limp. “We’ll have to make sure you don’t injure that other arm of yours. It would be a shame to lose another beautiful specimen. Right this way.” The man said, moving her onto a rolling cart. “Let’s visit your friends again shall we?” They rolled down the hallway and, to Jothal’s dismay, back towards the metal box. The man unlocked the door with the key and lowered Jothal inside. As she crossed the doorway, the box seemed to glow briefly. “There you are. Be good now.” With that, the man left from their sight. Jothal’s heart sank. She was never going to get home.