Warning: if undead NPC's dropping body parts upsets you - don't read this story.
Waking the Lich
"There it is, lads. Just where the old seer told us it would be," Bret Steelaxe said. He stood in a heroic pose, legs braced, chest out, and brandished a highly polished (but otherwise ordinary) warhammer in the direction of a stone castle, barely visible through a dense forest of trees.
"The ill-famed Dead Keep," Bret's brother, Karka, said cheerfully. He was dressed in chainmail, like his brother, but held a musket, instead of a warhammer, in his hands.
"Doesn't look like much of a place to start our noble quest," Bret said, eyeing the structure. "Hmph, no more than two stories high it looks. Bit small for a castle."
"Oh, I don't know," their gnomish companion said, pushing forwards to peer at the ancient keep. He wore bright purple and orange robes, and had a gun belt and holster strapped around his ample middle. "Sometimes the most harmless looking things hide the nastiest of surprises. Why, this reminds me of a story ..."
"Whoa, look at the time," Bret said, gazing up at the sun as it moved just a bit past the mid-day mark. "We'd best get moving if we want to reach the keep before, er ..."
"Early afternoon?" Karka said, winking at the gnome. "Well, Gunter can tell us a story while we walk. It will make the time go faster."
"What story? Oh, right. Harmless things, dire magics. Well, my second cousin, once removed on my mother's side, Fred, a lovely girl, it's a shame that her nose was so small. Little bitty thing, you could barely see it, and it spoiled her looks something awful. See, Fred was in an old wizard's library, she wandered in quite by accident, and anyways the door wasn't even locked, and found a harmless, little book. Not one to put something down without seeing what it was first, terribly curious Fred was, never did listen to the tales of Aunt Feline, well she took a peek inside the cover, just a quick look, what harm could it do? Well, fwoosh, bang, faster than a speeding bullet, poor cousin Fred was sucked into a hellish dimension ..."
"Which hellish dimension?" Karka prompted when Gunter paused to breathe. "There are an awful lot of different ones."
"The absolute, worst, most horrid dimension you could ever imagine," Gunter replied, shuddering. He looked around furtively, and dropped his voice to a whisper. "Have you ever wondered where Griffins go when they die? Poor cousin Fred doesn't, not anymore."
"Shut up, Gunter," Bret growled. They had reached the walls of the keep. "You're spoiling my dramatic moment of triumph."
"Onwards to glory," Karka said with a smirk. "Lead the way, oh great leader."
Bret stepped forwards confidently, and then stopped as a look of puzzlement spread over his face. "The drawbridge is closed. How do we get in?"
"Climb?" Karka offered, looking dubiously at the thin vines that crawled up the stone walls.
"You two twits are lucky to have Gunter, inventor/thief spectacular, helping you," Gunter said, rolling his eyes. "These old castles always had other entrances, at least one that the servants could use to stay out of the way of the noble prigs."
After a great deal of cursing, they finally made their way through the undergrowth that surrounded the castle and found a hidden entrance leading into the keep. Bret stepped eagerly forwards to meet his destiny. His companions followed him, somewhat less eagerly.
Two hours, half a dozen gibberlings, three spiders, and one slime mould later, even Bret was willing to concede that the reality of adventuring was less than glamorous. "There's no sign of any sleeping damsel on this floor," he finally admitted. "We'll have to try upstairs."
"But the prophecy hinted we'd find her on the lowest level of the keep," Karka said.
"Get going," Bret said, prodding his brother in the back with his hammer. "I'm beginning to think that prophecy's a bit of a crock."
"If we're lucky there'll still be some treasures on the second floor; we can at least make a profit from all this drudgery," Gunter said, sighing. "Seeing as this floor's been stripped clean of anything worthwhile."
The second floor was even barer than the first, and the disgruntled adventurers were discussing whether they should give up before or after venturing onto the roof. Fortunately, before they left in defeat, Gunter went through all the rooms again and found a hidden panel behind a mouldy wardrobe in what was once a spacious, stately bedchamber.
"Come on," he shouted as he hurtled through the door. There was a moment of silence, a shriek, one gunshot, and then the cursing began. "Damn, damn, damn bloody gun jammed again. Help!"
Bret and Karka rushed down the tunnel and up a short flight of steps into a darkened, cavernous chamber where their friend was backed against the wall nervously eying a gigantic figure. There was a moment of silence when the two dwarves studied the scene, and then they erupted into laughter.
"It's only a statue," Bret said, lighting a torch to illuminate a silver-coloured statue of an armoured knight with the symbol of Helm prominently twinkling on his chest.
"Looked like a bloody great monster in the dark," Gunter muttered as he stood glaring at the pistol in his hands. "It's not my fault my night-vision is as poor as a human's."
Karka looked at the gun that Gunter was now prying apart, and patted his own musket with a gesture of loving pride. "Why don't you just go back to using a standard pistol? That toy of yours is dangerously unreliable. You're going to get yourself killed someday when it jams at the wrong moment."
"Oh, but when it works right it's a wonderful, magnificent weapon," Gunter said, snapping the pistol back together. "I tell you, my repeat-shot pistol will make that sorry stick of yours obsolete some day."
"Sure, Gunter," Bret said absently as he studied the statue. "Y'know the only colour on that thing is the golden flail in his right hand. I think it's a real weapon; a right beauty, too."
"You fight with an axe," Karka said when Bret started clambering up the statue to reach the weapon. "What do you want a flail for?"
"We can always sell it," Bret grunted as he touched the flail and tried to wrest it free of the statue's grasp. Suddenly, an ear-piecing shriek rang through the room, and Bret fell off the statue, hitting the floor with a thud. "What in the hells was that!"
"I don't know, but it came from this direction," Gunter called as he cautiously walked down the corridor. He poked his head into a small room, and found a steep set of stairs leading downwards. "Yep, no doubt about it. The sound came from down below. Looks like these stairs go lower than the first floor."
"Oh, come on," Karka said. "Who puts stairs to the cellar on the second floor of a castle?"
"Doesn't matter," Bret said, peering down with a serious look on his face. "We're going down."
"I don't know, Bret," Gunter said in a shaky voice. "That wasn't the shriek of anything mortal. It might be dangerous. Really dangerous."
"We don't have a choice," Bret said, thumping the gnome on the back. "We have to find a way to fight the evil sweeping over our lands. Or more will die like the Fentan family, and no one deserves a death like that."
"Downwards, then," Gunter sighed, and followed the two dwarves into the gloomy depths of the old castle.
"This isn't too bad," Bret said as they stood in what seemed to be an old storeroom. Several crates, empty to Gunter's disgust, were strewn around the room and a thick layer of dust covered everything. "Weird smell, though. Sort of musty."
"Smells like Great-gran," Karka remarked, sniffing the air.
"Like I said, sort of musty."
"This, however, is a bloody crypt," Karka said, peering through a door into the next room. "I think it's been looted. The tomb's open and it's empty."
"Nice coffin," Bret said, walking over to investigate the tomb. "I think those cushions are silk. They must be magic, or they'd have crumbled with age. I wonder if they'd be worth anything."
A cry of outrage greeted Bret's words, and they all turned as a shambling figure, dressed in a tattered blue robe, stepped out from the far corner of the crypt. "Invaders! Invaders in my home!" it shrieked.
"It's a zombie!" Bret shouted, stepping back.
"No it's not, zombies are squishy; this one's all dry. A mummy maybe? Can you shoot a mummy?" Karka said, looking dubiously at his musket.
"It's a lich, you numbskulls!" Gunter yelled, hunting through his pack.
"Oh crap, we're all gonna die. We're all gonna die," Bret mumbled.
"Relax, my Uncle Jan's patented undead dissolver will take care of it," Gunter said triumphantly as he tossed a purple vial at the advancing lich. It landed squarely on the thing's head, covering it with a sticky solution that sparkled brightly.
"My hair!" the lich shrieked. "My beautiful hair!"
"Hair?" Bret said, staring curiously at the lich. There were indeed a few stringy, red things hanging from the lich's head that might be called hair.
"I'm going to sue Uncle Jan! If we get out of this alive, hells, even if we don't. I'll come back from the dead just to sue the old fraud!" Gunter said.
"Shut up, Gunter!" Karka said, and then stepped towards the lich with a wide smile. "Beggin' your pardon Ma'am, uh, you are a Ma'am, right?"
"How dare you!" she said, casting a spell to remove the solution from her body. "You common ruffians come into my home, tracking in your mud, covered in ... what is that black stuff all over you?"
"This?" Karka said, looking down at himself. "Oh, it's just soot, ma'am. Residue from the gunpowder you see."
"Do not touch anything," she said.
Karka thought it would be crass, and suicidal, to mention that the lich had no business being upset over a little mud and soot when her own body parts kept dropping off her. "No, Ma'am, we're very sorry to disturb you. We're on a quest, you see."
"Why did that horrid little creature attack me?" she said, pointing an almost fleshless finger at a trembling Gunter.
"Well, you're a lich, Ma'am. And, you know, lich's are supposed to be evil," Gunter said.
"Oh, yes. That's right," she said. "I may as well just kill you. That will teach you to wake me up."
"No! No, wait, we'll be leaving just as soon as we find a beautiful damsel who's in this keep, somewhere," Bret said. "We need her to fulfill a quest, you see."
"A quest! How delightful," the lich said, clapping her hands in delight (and losing a finger in the process). "I went on a quest once, a very long time ago. I helped create a new goddess."
"Really, Ma'am?" Karka said.
"Oh, my yes. The goddess Imoen. Do you boys know what she's been up to lately? I seem to have been sleeping for quite a long time."
"You mean Mystra's Little Sister?" Gunter said. "Um, she's, been doing god things, far as I know."
"Don't patronize me, youngster," the lich said huffily. "If you don't know, just say so. Now, about that beautiful damsel you're looking for ..."
"We'd be ever so grateful if you'd help us," Bret said. "We've looked all over this castle and there's no sign of her."
"Maybe it's me you're looking for," the lich said, tossing her head in a girlish fashion, making all three males wince. "Don't you think I'm beautiful?"
"It's your nose, Ma'am," Gunter said, afraid to lie to the powerful lich. "I'm partial to large ones, myself, and you, er, don't seem to have any nose at all."
"I don't?" she said, raising a hand to her face. "Oh dear, maybe I should have become a spectre. I do like having a corporeal form, but it does become tiresome keeping track of all my parts."
"Why don't you just tell me about your quest," the lich said, mumbling some spell that brought her nose, and a couple of other parts, flying from various corners of the crypt to reattach themselves to her body.
"Okay," Bret said, stepping forwards and trying to look fearless and heroic. "There's an evil overlord that's preying on our lands ..."
"There always is," the lich said, waving a hand in dismissal. "Get to the part about the prophecy and why you're here."
"Yes, Ma'am," Bret said. "An old diviner said I was destined to defeat the evil overlord, and said my quest would start here, at the Dead Keep. She told me a cryptic prophecy about what I'd find here."
"Ooh, a prophetic riddle," the lich smiled happily. "Do tell."
"Yes, Ma'am," Bret replied. "It goes like this:
The way to save your home lies
buried deep, far from the skies.
The answer seek from one who does sleep
in the bowels of her ancient keep.
Ask where the wingless bird flies.
"Oh, that's dreadful," she said, pursing her lipless mouth. "Why don't they ever get a real bard to write these prophecies?"
"I don't know, Ma'am," Bret said, shrugging his shoulders. "Are you sure that's you in the prophecy? There's not some lonely, dwarven princess hidden somewhere around here?"
"You do need a woman in your group, but I'm quite certain there's no other female in my keep," the lich said coldly.
"Quit thinkin' about girls, Bret," Karka said, elbowing his brother in the ribs. "Ask her about that wingless bird."
"Wingless bird, wingless bird," the lich said thoughtfully. "That sounds like someone I travelled with all those years ago. Avian? No, Aerial? Oh, well, her name's something like that. It's been a long time since we were last together. She's been sulking ever since we buried her big lug of a husband. I offered to bring him back, and she said the most horrible things to me. Haven't seen her since. Does that help?"
"No," Bret said. "We have to know where to find this Aviery."
"Oh! Of course. That's easy, last I heard she was a high priestess in a gnomish village called Understone."
"Never heard of any Understone," Gunter said. "Where is it, exactly?"
"For goodness sakes, you're adventurers; buy a bloody map," she hissed, and then relented. "Though it wouldn't hurt to help you, I suppose. Here, I'll make you a little charm to help track the bird woman."
"There," she said triumphantly after a few minutes of tinkering at a work table. She held out a little black feather towards the, still somewhat shocked, adventurers. "This will draw you towards Airly. It just needs a little spell to activate it every morning. Now, which one of you boys is the wizard?"
"Oh dear," the lich said when the boys just looked sheepishly at the floor. "None of you are wizards? Tsk, in my day a proper adventuring party just had to have a mage. Or better yet, two, or three. I'm afraid you'll just have to find one before continuing on this quest."
"We'll hire a wizard as soon as possible," Bret said, boldly reaching out to snatch the feather from the lich's grasp. "Thank you for the help, Ma'am. We'll show ourselves out."
"Good-bye boys," the lich said merrily, waving as they edged towards the exit. "Say hello to Avis for me."
Once out of the lich's sight, the adventurers ran, with as much dignity as they could manage, through the keep until they finally stood outside. "That was strange," Gunter remarked dryly as they stood breathing the fresh air with relief.
"Yeah," Karka said. "Say, you don't suppose this wingless bird is another lich?"
"Oh goodness, no. I least, I don't think so," the lich's voice said from behind them. Karka shuddered, and turned around to see the undead mage standing between them and the entrance to the keep.
"She's an elf," the lich continued.
"Ah, thank you again for your help, Ma'am," Karka said, stepping discreetly back from the lich.
"I came after you for a reason," the lich said, frowning slightly. "What was it? Oh, yes. I came to give you this."
"What is it?" Bret said when the lich tossed a bright blue bag to him.
"Why, a bag of holding!" she answered. "Ever so useful on a quest. It's just amazing how many things you end up having to cart around."
"Thank you again, Ma'am," Bret said, as they started walking down the trail.
"Oh, wait!" she called, and ran after them.
"One more thing, boys," she said as she trotted up to them. "You need a good cleric in your party, too, or a druid if you're desperate. You will think about getting one, won't you, dears?"
"Certainly Ma'am," Bret said, and then looked at the lich who was tilting to one side. "Uh, you seem to be a bit off-balance there, Ma'am."
"Hmm?" she said, and then looked down with dismay. "Drat, I've lost a foot."
"Good-bye!" Bret called as the lich ran back the way she came, looking for her missing foot.
A few minutes later, Karka looked over his shoulder, and groaned.
"She's following us, isn't she," Bret said.
"Yep," Karka said. "Congratulations, brother. I think you've got yourself a girlfriend."
"Shut up," Bret growled.