Seven Keys

Shayliss pulled her cloak tighter against the howling wind on the hilltop. Balekh had protected them all against the cold, but the bleak white landscape seemed to necessitate some kind of gesture other than contempt. There were still seven heads. That was annoying: the compulsive need to count things she’d been experiencing lately, especially on adventures. Ameiko said it wasn’t anything to worry about; everyone dealt with the stress of being an adventurer in his or her own way.

The heads were regularly spaced in a circle around the massive, snow-drenched hilltop, each carved in a striking and distinctive likeness, each retaining its shape for, Balekh said, ten thousand years or more. Balekh was wandering around the circle now, consulting notes from the library, trying to figure out which was which. She was pretty sure it didn’t matter, as it was completely clear which school each head represented when you looked at it with mage sight, but her husband liked to be thorough.

It was funny; she’d never really liked Ameiko before, but the Minkai woman was increasingly one of the only people in town she had anything in common with. Three of her friends already had their first children. Four more were pregnant. She really couldn’t contribute much to the conversations besides resisting the urge to explain the terrible things she’d seen. Talk about the majestic dam, not the monsters inside it. Talk about the view from the roof of the fortress, not the smell of the corpses in the rain. Ameiko said that was normal, too. Still seven heads.

Balekh had moved on to trying to come up with an appropriate prayer. Right now, he was staring at the statue of a slightly toad-faced woman slowly reciting, “Belimarius, great Runelord of Envy, we beseech you to release your keystone so that we might enter Runeforge… by your grace!” He then cast some kind of abjuration only to have the magic sucked in by the head. There was a rhythmic thrumming noise, a blast of displaced energy ruffled the snow around the head in a quickly-expanding circle, and then sitting in the statue’s mouth was a golden key. Balekh seemed very excited. Everyone else seemed a little bored.

What was weirdest was that she didn’t mind. All of the hopes and dreams of a shopkeep’s daughter, perhaps blessed with a bit of the beauty of ancient Cheliax but none of the sophistication, seemed a little pointless, now. She and her friends had spent weeks trying to get at the sons of the Valdemars and the Scarnettis, knowing full well that they were probably going to settle for one of the few single men in town that owned his own business and was at least pleasing to look at. She’d been the only one who thought it would be fun to try to snare one of the new adventurers. Her life would have been totally different, just in the last year, if she’d listened to her friends and not risked it. Seven heads, three keys now.

The prayers were seeming a little more forced now, Balekh was trying to come up with something unique for each one. At this rate, it could take all day on the last one. “Honey,” she asked, looking up at the face of the snarling but otherwise beautiful woman, “this one’s the evocation lady, right?” At his nod, she immediately attempted to fire off a fire spell, feeling the magic get sucked into the statue. It had the same effect, even without the prayer, and a golden key formed in the woman’s mouth. Getting the rest of they keys was much faster after that, and the rest of them seemed pleased to get moving again. They trudged up the long earthen ramp to the eighth face, this one far more eroded, on the opposite cliff.

Would she have been happy with one of the men of Sandpoint? Everyone else seemed to go about their days only slightly perturbed by all the weirdness in town lately. But everyone else hadn’t had a sister murdered by a ghoul; something told her that would have happened no matter what she did, and only Balekh being in her life let her have the capacity to do something about it. To take out the rage she felt at her happy, provincial life being destroyed by burning to cinders all the monsters of the world. Every blast of fire made her feel a little better, a little less angry, a little more at peace. It was weird; when the fire was flowing through her, but not burning her, she could almost feel another world. A more stable world that wanted her to be part of it. Seven heads, Seven keys, one eroded face, one long, icy tunnel.

Taeva stopped them before they went onto the ice slide. The path was a trap; an ancient illusion of a statue covered the safe route along the edge. Tricky. They pushed through the fake statue and wandered along the real path, quickly seeing how the main path dumped onto a few feet of slide and then a substantial drop. Instead, they threaded their way like a corkscrew down into the ice-rimed chamber. It was warmer here, or at least there was no wind; it felt like an ancient tomb, and obviously the monsters of the world found it creepy enough to leave uninhabited. The ramp gradually deposited them into a frozen cathedral, seven pillars covered in runes surrounding a much larger central column.

She still couldn’t summon up the righteous indignation that the others managed at what was going on. If she understood it correctly, Sandpoint just had the bad fortune to be built on that gross old dungeon, which was somehow involved in this whole thing. If they’d just built five miles down the coast, none of this would have happened: the murders, Nualia going crazy (she did have a twinge of guilt, recalling being jealous of the half-celestial girl and joining in with the older girls’ taunts), the goblin attacks, the giants, maybe not even the ghouls. This Karzoug guy seemed like a jerk, but would it really be that bad to return the stupid, warring, podunk land of Varisia to the rule of a guy that had clearly created works of majesty that had lasted thousands of years after he went to sleep? Sure, it might mean virtual slavery under the thumb of an immortal tyrant… but that seemed right to her, somehow. Eight pillars, seven keys.

Everyone but her seemed to be able to read the pillars. She guessed they were covered in Thassilonian like everything else lately. Finally, the others showed an interest, not just Balekh. She thought it was mostly that they’d all worked pretty hard to learn the language over the last few weeks, and wanted to get some use out of it. Taeva and Veshenga found the keyholes in the seven pillars at basically the same time, perfectly sized for the seven keys. Balekh and Haggor began to work to separate the keys back out by the heads they’d come from, having tossed them all into the same bag. Finally, they got them sorted out, inserted each in turn, and, after some discussion on whether they needed to be turned simultaneously, all got turned within a few moments of one another. The pillars each began to shine as the keys turned, one by one, and then the central column lit up as well, its light twisting into a vortex that seemed to face all of them, no matter from which direction they looked at it. All of them shared a look, began checking gear and enchantments, and then, as a group, piled into the portal to see what the big deal was with this whole Runeforge thing…