The whole never-ending maze felt like they were crawling section by section, compartment to compartment through one massive rusting machine. Or perhaps through the internal systems of some great, slumbering, ancient and infirm monster. Complete with associate smells and leaky bits.
The uniform, block stone walls were slick and sticky from insect poo and mould. The wreak of ancient air, harsh metal and good oil was practically edible.
There was a permanent sound track to their progress, a detached underlying bass hum. Always one persistent, dramatic, foreboding note constantly just on the edge of auditory periphery. This was accented every so often by a burp of escaping gas or wheeze of steam; either that or the occasional muffled rumble as chunks of either stone or metal moved about unseen.
To Burrs heightened and already frayed senses he half expected a massive foamy tongue or tsunami of fizzy stomach acids to come slurping round the next corner or out of the next door.
Normally his usually amiable Dwarfish associate would be very happy and very much at home here. But due to Burrs anxious presence he was very much not. Burr turned his attention back to said squat engineer who had finally calmed down enough to allow actual words and sentences to form. To Burr, it sounded like a distant thunderstorm gathering up all its pent up wrath…
‘…Burr, I have the patience of one of those Sunna Saints of yours.’ The dwarf’s eyes were tightly closed and his whole body was so rigid he vibrated. The storm grew more fractious and rumbled ever nearer. He continued, ‘I’ll have you know that I can hold my focus and nerve even when bombs are dropping and enemies are at large at my back and Mother Nature is doing her best to lay us low…’
‘Yes, I’m sorry, Bottkrak. It’s just…’
The storm was very much overhead and all enveloping…
‘…But what does send me kilter out of kelter is when I’m doing fine locksmith work like this and folk are whining and whinging and pacing up and down and asking me ‘HOW LONG NOW?’
The dwarf finally opened his fierce eyes and pointed a wide, hairy, grubby, stubby finger into the fat man’s face and bellowed ‘One break in my concentration and we’ll both be horrifically killed in milliseconds! But anymore crap, Pork Glugger and I’m going to take great pleasure in breaking this door down with your head. Understand?’
All of a once the storm broke, either that or Burr was luckily in the eye of it. The light spatter of the commencing precipitation cooled his forehead. Or maybe that was just his ‘I’m soon to be dead’ sweat pouring down his forehead.
‘Yes, of course. I’m so sorry, it’s just I’m a little nervous. He stammered. ‘And hungry. And thirsty…And cold.’
The oppresive gathering of dark clouds blew out of the many stony cracks and crevices then made a hasty retreat presumably toward the horizon; That just left the pair of them in that tiny, dark, dank, dirty room.
‘As am I, Lardicus. As am I.’ rumbled the dwarf turning back to his work his anger apparently spent. ‘Hell of a thust on me. Haven’t had a beer in nigh-on a day and a night. But soon as I’m through this door everything will be well. Now concentrate, Plumper; pass me the three-quater inch Cocksprocket.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know what a Cocksprocket looks like’ whined Burr, gingerly poking around in the Dwarfs’ expansive armour-plated tool box. ‘Is this it?’ he said hopefully, holding up something drippy with some sort of nozzle flapping about on top.
‘By Bumgrims Red Hot Poker, buck up man!’ there again, that distant rumble of thunder. ‘How have you gone through life this clueless? Do you want to get out of here this year? Alive? With all your limbs on the right way?’
‘Sorry, I’ve had no real experience in tinkering or machinery. These tools are all so strange to me.’
The short man gawked at the fat man. ‘You mean to tell me that you haven’t so much as changed a wheel on a horse cart before? I don’t know anyone who hasn’t changed the wheel on a cart before. Won’t get very far in life not knowing how to change the wheel on a horse cart.’
‘Well no, see, where I’m from horse and carts aren’t really used anymore.’
‘What? Why? How are you supposed to get your beer from the brewery to the tavern then?’
‘Erm. Well, by a wheeled mechanical device; a combustion engine I believe it’s called.’
The crouching dwarf turned again and raised a shaggy eye brow. He waved a pointy ended tool in Burrs general direction. ‘I know what’cha mean, one of them new steam powered buggers, eh. Trains and barges and such?’
‘Sort of, it’s called a car!’
‘Oh, well that’s more like it. Thank Bonki’s Hammer Head, you had me worried then. Hold up…’ The brazen beardy bastard paused his work once more. ‘So you can change a wheel on one o’ them contraptions but not on a horse cart?’
‘Well, no actually. Neither really.’
The dwarf’s eyes rolled around the places on his head where hair was slightly less prolific. ‘Useless. Utterly useless.’ He grumbled as he returned to technical in hand. ‘My kin have yet to develop a word to chastise folk like you, Burr. Simply because we’ve never met anyone like you before. Remind me why the Companionship took you into the fold again?’
Burr took a deep breath of the thin, fetid air: ‘Because if you don’t see that I’m safely home soon your world and all you’ve ever know will cease to exist and the very fabric of space, time and reality will rip itself apart in a cataclysm of fire, light and blood…Apparently.’
‘Hm. Well. I suppose you’re right there, Bloatling. Well, hold up then and let me concentrate. Otherwise this cataclysm of yours is going to arrive before we’ve even got out of here.’
After a solid half hour of abject silence and absent minded thumb twiddling Burr finally worked up the courage to attempt to break the monotony.
‘So tell me, er, Noble Dwarf, why haven’t your people developed a machine that can do all the lock picking for you? You just jam it on the door and the machine opens it for you. Or perhaps a magical teleporting machine that puts you directly into the treasure room without having to go through all this palaver?’
The dwarf turned and shot Burr a look that suggested the fat man had just asked if he could defecate in his toolbox. ‘I want no truck with that new-fangled arcane muck!’ spat the dwarf. ‘Stick to what works, says I.’
Burr gingerly lit a cigarette from his lantern. ‘But surely your people are on the cutting edge of science and technology? You should be world leaders in this sort of thing.’
‘We likes our old, tried and tested ways.’ Grumbled the beard, now with a pair of telescopic eye wear on. ‘Every one of my people is a craftsperson in his or her own right. From the highest to the lowest. Everyone is treated as an equal. No matter their wares.’
‘Well, in that case-why don’t you simply get the biggest, oldest battering ram you’ve got, and knock the whole building down around the treasure room? The rich stuff is bound to survive somehow.’
‘By Gimley’s Stupid Name, that’d never do. That wouldn’t be right at all. Some bugger’s put all their time and effort into this stronghold and all the ingenious traps. Simply busting through the whole lot would be unthinkable. Downright uncivilised. Sacrilegious even. Furthermore, where would be the challenge?’
Burr elbowed himself off the wall to stare directly at the dwarfs busy, rippling back. ‘You mean you and your brotherhood would rather risk life and limb to obtain historic treasure in the most drawn-out obstinate way imaginable. Just to prove you could do it?’
‘Aye, Chunkster. And what, exactly, is wrong with that? Any fool can become a pick pocket or a bank robber. But it takes decades of study and practice in the art of Locksmithery to protect or expose treasures like this.
It’s an understanding we have between the guild of locksmiths and the guild of thieves. ‘They make ‘em, we break ‘em’. No funny business or half measures. S’like an unwritten law. And a dwarf’s word is his bond.’
Burr slumped wetly back against the wall as the lecture continued.
‘S’what heroin’ is all about when you get down to it: risk everything. High reward. If you fail, you weren’t good enough and you probably end up dead.’
Burr sighed rolling his eyes, ‘Wow, your people and their culture. Mind boggling. You really hate embracing the future don’t you? Surely your lot won’t get anywhere by being so close minded and unimaginative. Think outside the box once in a while!’
‘Is racist is that, Podgling. All dwarf folk are pig headed, unimaginative and uninteresting. Not just me. It’s our natural state’. The gruff beard and eyebrows returned to their diligent finger work. ‘Can’t stand folk who are racist.’
‘Apologies, Sir Dwarf. I didn’t mean it that way. Look, can’t you just cut around the lock with that sharp, shiny thingymajig?’
‘Listen here, Fatling, if I tamper anywhere else on this door it’s likely to bring the whole place down around our heads. But worse than that, this bloody thing could reset all of our previous work and I’ll get trapped in this rather confined, airless cupboard with a fat, foul smelling incompetent. Either way, we’ll never find Riskitts Gold, the King of The Southern Gate won’t get his tribute and you’ll never get home. Ah, finally!’
The mighty door swung gently open to reveal another empty, dimly lit, stone chamber. Guttering sconces on the wall exposed a haze of dust dancing around the freshly exposed room.
The dwarf knelt down, eyeing up the flag stone floor and stroking his beard. ‘Ah, cunning old devil…’
‘What, placing a room on the other side of a door? Seems a straight forward practical approach to me.’
‘Holy Oldburns’ Tobacco Pouch! I’ve got no time or patience to berate you Burr, so kindly slap yourself hard in the face and concentrate. Now listen careful, Wobbler: only tred where I tred. An inch out either side and you’ll be impaled, garrotted or cast tumbling down into oblivion.’
‘Surely not all three at once?’
‘Nay, course not. Probably just the one. As I’ve been trying t’ learn ya: This is Artyfeks Attributum, one of the best security systems of The Age. The whole place is wired. It’s not meant to be cruel. Just more of a deterrent. A highly efficient and highly lethal deterrent. Prevention is better than cure, Blobman. Stick an Artyfeks logo on the front door of anywhere and only the most skilled or stupid thieves will even go near it. She needs to be treated with the greatest of respect. Hence the time and patience needed to cajole her into opening.’
They made their way steadily across the room on tippy toes. The burly dwarf was surprisingly cat footed for such a bulky block of foul tempered hair. Meanwhile Burr had lost all sensation in his legs and every shaky step was a miraculous feat in itself.
They came at last to a short corridor that led to the final door behind which the treasure would surely be situated. Even Burr could tell it was the final door because it had a certain defiant air to it. That and the gold ornamental Pegasus and Cockatrices seemed to be taunting them from their resplendent facets. They gave the impression that they were daring the thieves to try their luck. Mounted high on the stone door frame was what appeared to be a finely wrought filigree hamster cage complete with water butt, food dispenser and chrome running wheel.
In front of the door was a pedestal, ornately wrought in gold of course, that sported a strange rectangular box with a symbolically large leaver set atop.
The dwarf unceremoniously rummaged around in his underwear and brought forth a shiny disk of gold and silver; rather like a large poker chip but with glyphs, insignia and rune in abundance. As the light from the object refracted around the room an ethereal hamster appeared in the cage, jumped on its wheel and immediately started frantically pumping its legs. Sconces about the room leapt to life blazing with an uncanny, electric blue light. Mystical runes engrave into each stone around the room erupted into life in a vein similar to that of the disk.
‘Behold, Riskitts key.’ Breathed the dwarf holding the disk aloft. ‘The one and only four dimensional key for the one and only four dimensional lock. The key cannot be copied, the lock cannot be picked. This was the pinnacle of Artyfeks craftsmanship and pride of the Locksmith’s Guild. Bloater, our quest is at an end…’
Vehemently, reverently and other such words that end in ‘ently’ the dwarf used both hands to carefully slip the disk into a slot in the box below the abnormally sized gold leaver. He gave Burr the biggest saintly smile ever, the eerie blue light reflecting in his eyes, then dutifully he pulled back the lever. There was a formidable chunk, ker-chunk, a woosh of escaping air…and all the lights went out.
There was the sound of someone struggling against the lever trying to return it to its original position. Then there was a scrabbling, scratching sound as if someone were trying unsuccessfully to poke his fingers into the box underneath the lever to retrieve the disk. Then all was quite again.
‘Bugger.’ Said the dwarf in the darkness. ‘I’m sorry, Burr. It can’t done. We’re doomed. If Riskitt’s Key doesn’t work, then all this has been for naught and we’re trapped here forever. Or until the oxygen runs out…’
‘What! Just like that?’
‘Fraid so. System overload or something. Power drain after so long out of use. Some…something like that…’
For the first time ever Burr heard the sound of a dwarf being unsure. It was so unfamiliar that he almost didn’t recognise the voice in the thick blackness. He sighed, struck a match and relit his lantern.
‘Well, luckily there is something I have learned about technology and such from back in my world.’ Chimed Burr happily.
‘It’s useless, Swill Belly, nothing can penetrate such a thing.’
‘None the less,’ said Burr confidently. He withdrew another match from its box and stepped up to the unfathomable device. He poked the match into a tiny hole beside the slit and the key popped out with a click.
The dwarfs bushy eye brows raised in astonishment.
Burr wiped both sides of the disk on his leather jerkin then blew in the slot a few times before reinserting the disk. Finally he gave the contraption a bloody good slap with his hand.
The dwarf hissed and ducked with his hands on his cap as gears and gizmos whirled overhead. The little phantom hamster reappeared and leapt back up on its wheel and sprinted for all it was worth. The weird blue flames erupted from their sconces once again and air flew back into the room. Burr watched smiling as bolts drew back, paddles flapped away and the door opened to the serenade of well-oiled mechanics.
‘See?’ Beamed Burr. ‘Tried and tested. But thinking outside of the box.’
The dwarf solemnly removed his leather cap and wiped his brow, all the while exhaling a relieved sigh. ‘Need to change me britches…’ he mumbled to no one in particular.
Ahead of them a golden glow…a plinth carved in ancient dwarfen runic hand. A fabulous golden tankard inlaid with rubies and next to it a vast gold hooped barrel already tapped with a gold, emerald encrusted spigot.
‘Thar she blows, Fatstuff.’ Respired the dwarf wide eyed and ringing his headware through his hands. ‘Riskitt’s Gold! Hitherto untasted by mortal in over two centuries. Ha! By Grum it’ll put hairs on ye chest.’ Smacking his lips he replaced his titfer and approached the plinth. Rubbing his hand together in glee he then helped himself to the gaudy drinking vessel.
Burrs jaw suddenly dropped and his eyes narrowed as he took stock of what the dwarf had just said.
‘You mean to tell me that we just spent over twenty four hours in this filthy, airless, trap ridden, er…death trap for some sodding beer?’
The dwarf shot him a glance back of almost dumbfounded hurt. ‘Not just any old beer, Chubster. Rustikks Gold!’ he exclaimed hefting his brimming tankard as if that made it all alright. ‘The finest beer ever to come out of the Mid-Land Dwarven holds. The original brew he developed and mastered. The one all his other brews were cast from. The secrets of which are only ever passed on by word of mouth. Nothing compares! Gaah that hits the spot! Fancy one?’
‘Love to.’ Said Burr closing his eyes and gritting his teeth. ‘Provided of course that’s it’s served in your upturned fleshless skull.’