Ulf looks at Tric across the bones and rocks strewn between them. “Are you all right there?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” Tric replies.
“I think they’ve stopped moving.”
“Yeah.” Tric shudders. “Moss below, that hurts. That staff does a number!”
“I’m not touching that again,” Ulf says. “That purple light was so weird. It seemed like you were kind of stunned by it.”
“A lot of us were,” Tric replies, looking down at the collapsed skeletons it took out. “It was like getting hit by a horrible gust of wind. A cold wind, cutting straight to the bone.”
“I guess I was standing in the eye of it. I didn’t feel anything.”
Tric straightens up a bit more and looks around. “We’re all safe? Everyone in one piece?” He sees their guide still looking around frantically. “Jedeth, are you all right?” When the only response is a call for his mace, Tric vaults out of the dig and heads over to calm the man. “Jedeth are you all right?” he repeats, trying to get through to the man. “We’re all fine. We did it! You did a good job,” he says encouragingly.
“Did we do it? Did we get it?” the older man stammers out, looking up at Tric and then around about himself nervously, seeming to come to awareness of the present.
“We did it! And you did exactly the right thing,” Tric assures him. “You’re our guide; I’m glad you didn’t put yourself in harm’s way. I would have felt really bad. And let me tell you, it may not have seemed like a big deal, but that sandwich saved my life! It gave me the energy I needed for the fight.”
Meanwhile, Heppa steps up closer to the edge of the pit to help Ulf out. “I think that one might be a necromancer’s staff,” she observes, looking down at the staff. Ulf leaves in lying among the bones where it fell as he climbs back up to the main level with Heppa’s assistance. He limps over to where the smaller rod landed at the edge of the pit when he cast it aside earlier.
With Jedeth calmed, Tric tells the others he will take care of the staff. “You’re welcome to it,” Ulf says. He hobbles away from that area, not wanting to be within the radius of its effects should Tric set it off.
“It’s all right. I’m an elf; it can’t affect me,” Tric assures him.
“I’m pretty sure it already did!” Ulf points out. Heppa offers him her arm and her medical skill. She helps him over to the side of the chamber where they set down their backpacks earlier. That is fine with him; he wants to be as far from the pit as possible.
“I meant other than the horrible blast…” Tric replies. Before he approaches the item, though, he recovers his belongings from the side of the cavern. If anything goes horribly wrong this time, he wants to be able to make a hasty getaway and know that Mate is safe with him. He returns to the lip of the pit and looks dubiously down into it, making sure none of the skeletons are moving before he gets any closer. Mate pokes his head out of the bag and does not like what he sees. Neither does Tric. Now that everything is still, he recognizes that some of the bows are of elvish make. It follows that some of the skeletons belonged to elves. He makes his way carefully down into the pit, resolving to rebury these poor souls once he has removed the staff.
The item in question lies still on the ground. Tric has a very personal understanding of what it can do, though, and cannot bring himself to touch it. Still, they need to get it out of here. He sips his waterskin dry and then uses it as a glove to pick the staff up. This gives him his first up-close look at it. It is creepy, but the absurdity of the skull design atop it gives him something to laugh about, at least. It lacks curling horns but has even more tusks crammed into the mouth than the one they found in the Foul Fen. He imagines a couple liches constantly one-upping each other by adding more tusks to their staffs. “The lich county fair must be quite a festival, as everyone vies for Best Staff. The award for Most Tusks goes to Mal-Ridiculous,” he mutters. “Where do they get these tusks?” he asks the room at large. “Where are they sourcing them from? Orcs? Boars? Something weird? If we stop the illegal tusk poaching, will that end necromancy?” Tric sets the staff down outside the pit with a warning to Mate not to touch it.
“Stupid,” the magpie suggests.
“Yeah,” Tric agrees. He then sets to work burying the fallen-again archers.
While Tric deals with the artifact, Heppa examines the injury to Ulf’s leg. Under other circumstances, she would not want to linger in such a disturbed area for this, but Jedeth has indicated it would take an hour or so to get back up to the surface, and Ulf’s mobility is compromised. Heppa pulls out her poultice pouch, already starting to feel better herself. Medical work is always soothing for her.
While she conducts her examination, she talks with Ulf some, asking questions about the artifact he will be keeping. He does not have any real idea what it is. Right now, he is more concerned with the pain in his leg and with staying away from the other artifact. Heppa wraps a pressure-bandage around his ankle and calf—the most she can do for this injury that will take some time to heal. She briefly considers trying magic, but she is rather worn out and this place has so far been somewhat challenging to cast in. Something may be out of balance here. Heppa does not want to take a chance with someone else’s health, but she offers Ulf the option, provided he is fine with her resting some first. He does not have a keen interest in lingering around those skeletons, still or no. His injury is not completely incapacitating, so instead he just asks for a shoulder to lean on and for them to be on their way. He thanks her for her solicitude, though, and remarks on how they have now come full circle, with her seeing to his injury.
Heppa helps Ulf up, and they all leave the chamber, Jeddeth leading the way. As they travel, Ulf allows Heppa to examine the rod that he will be keeping. This activity chases away more of her disquiet from the cavern; looking at new artifacts is always exciting. The short piece of wood does not appear to have any necromantic markings or imagery. It is a simple, smooth rod, much like the ones she saw in the possession of House of Light apprentices. It could have been from an apprentice mage in service to Gweddry who died during the flight from the Southern Outpost. These sorts of rods make casting a little easier for the wielder, which is why student mages learn how to use them. This particular one has a crystal set into the tip with a very rudimentary rune etched in it, probably created by a beginner. She imagines the owner was just starting to learn that craft and experimented a bit with their own rod. She doubts this item would be entirely reliable, considering the damage it has sustained over time and the lack of finesse in the rune. She shares all these findings and theories with Ulf, as they may be of interest to his customers.
On the way back above ground, Tric keeps a careful hold on their artifact. Ulf wishes them well with the super-creepy staff, but Tric can hear the doubt in his voice. “Better that we take it somewhere safe where nefarious or unaware people can’t just dig it up,” Tric points out.
“Just be careful to not set it off again,” Ulf cautions.
Tric assures him that they are well-versed in magic and will keep it safe. “No one will touch it,” he insists, continuing to hold it with the waterskin.
Ulf is content with the dead mage’s rod. “It could be of value to somebody,” he says with a shrug. “It’s not what I was sent here for, but I might get something out of it.” He sighs. “This will teach me to tack on extra battlefield visits when I should have been focused on what I was sent out here to find.”
“What were you looking for?” Tric asks.
“There’s an ancient tome called the Book of Rhys that I’ve been contracted to track down,” Ulf tells him.
Tric keeps his expression neutral. “Book of Rhys? What is that about? Sounds interesting. Ancient knowledge rather than shiny baubles…” His curiosity is real, but this is not the first time he has heard of the book. Kachen read it in installments at the House of Light.
“I’m not entirely sure what its contents are,” Ulf admits. He slows his pace a little to put a bit more distance between Jedeth and them, and he drops his volume. “The society that hired me to acquire it, the Society of Shadow out in Carcyn, they claim the book was plundered from their stores in years past during times of upheaval and that its rightful place is in their care.”
“So this Rhys person was part of this society? Or they were just the caretakers?” Tric prods.
“I imagine Rhys must have been one of the members long ago.” Ulf is quick to add, “I don’t exactly know what the practices of the Society of Shadow are. It could just be an impressive name.” Tric agrees that is likely. After all, if one were up to shadowy business, one would not announce it in one’s title. Ulf continues to hedge, “But let’s not let this get around—”
“Oh, I understand,” Tric assures him. “It’s a serious matter. How will you know when you have found the right book? If it’s been buried in the ground for however long?” Tric asks, wondering how much Ulf really knows about the book.
“I don’t imagine it’s buried anywhere,” the archaeologist says. “It’s probably in somebody’s private library. I was just down here doing an extra dig. I’d learned of this particular site, and I thought I would double dip, as it were. I’m in the area anyway; I figured I’d see what other things there were to find here. I have certain feelers out, but while I wait for my informants to get back to me, I figured I would do some actual fieldwork. A lot of the time it is artifacts like this that I am hired to uncover. Wars periodically roll over Wesnoth,” he says, matter-of-factly. “When they do, there tends to be a lot of looting and stealing. People lay claim to items they have no right to by dint of conquest. My clients protest their ancestors’ items being viewed as trophies of war.”
“It may be in somebody’s library…” Tric murmurs. “Well, I know the House of Light has a pretty extensive library,” he says casually. “They’re not just about practical medical care, believe it or not.” Tric does not want to blatantly admit that he knows the book is there, but he sees no harm in pointing Ulf in the right direction. They were just in a fight together, and Ulf could have run off with both the artifacts and left the elves to deal with the skeletons. He did not. And he seems like a reasonable fellow. Sure, he might try to steal the book from the House of Light, but what is that to Tric? He does not owe those human mages anything. Maybe this will even mean some more work for Heledd. Also, if Kachen is up to something creepy, it would be better for that book to no longer be somewhere that he can check it.