Katryn glared at the water pooled over what had once been her family’s vegetable garden. After the village had been destroyed by soldiers, she had made a point of coming back to visit the old house frequently. She had stopped visiting in recent times, which had clearly not been the best decision.
She gripped her sword, attempting to pull it out of the mud. It was stuck.
“Pratchett,” she swore. She pulled harder, magically enhanced muscles straining to no avail. Ezra came over to help her. After a bit of struggle, they decided to harness Muffin to the sword and let him pull for a while.
Lorien, meanwhile, had his ear pressed to the ground nearby. Katryn decided not to comment.
Ezra, to whom tact and sensitivity were strangers, made no such decision. Fortunately, whatever culturally insensitive remark she was about to make was cut off by Cory exclaiming, “Look at those things!”
A group of small creatures came swimming toward them across the moat. They looked like ducks that had crocodile heads crudely imposed over their own. They seemed to have trouble balancing, one of them tumbling end over end even as they watched. Katryn wondered what sort of cruel god would create such an animal.
Lorien looked up, fascinated gaze falling on the crocoducks. He walked cautiously closer to the edge of the water. “Hmm. Artificial chimeras. Their magic is mostly tied to maintaining their anatomy. It’s waning, though… Their source is disappearing…”
Muffin had abandoned his pulling to sniff curiously at one of the crocoducks, which snapped at him before falling flat on its snout.
“Um, yeah,” Katryn said, “Lor, when you’re done looking at the ducks, do you think you could help me get my sword out of the mud?”
The elf walked over to the sword, inspecting it carefully. Then he gave it a tiny nudge with his staff. “Try it now.”
Katryn grabbed the sword, pulling it out easily.
“Wizards,” Ezra muttered, massaging her sore arms.
“The grounds are enchanted,” Lorien said. “It was very easy to break, though.”
Katryn gaped, enraged. “He did what? Cory, stop playing with the ducks and figure out how to get us into that castle.”
A few messy detonations later, the five adventurers stepped carefully across the smoking ruins of the drawbridge and into the castle. Standing in the center of the main entrance hall, Lorien looked around.
Weak, spindly webs of blue magic were strewn throughout the entire castle, but there were two major nodes that the elf could see. He guessed them to be the sorcerer and the key.
“This way,” he said.
“Stick together,” Katryn told the team. “We don’t know what we’ll find here.”
As they walked toward the main staircase, Ezra muttered, “It seems pretty quiet in here.”
The team tensed, awaiting the inevitable minion attack.
Strangely, a minute and then another passed with nothing happening.
“This place is giving me the creeps,” said Ezra.
They walked through the castle, finding no sign of life save the occasional moth. If not for the magic lacing the air, Lorien would have thought the place to be abandoned long ago.
Finally, they found the door containing one of the magical nodes. As they approached, Lorien felt a buzzing in his ears that indicated a strong concentration of magic. This was an elven trait rather than a wizard one, and despite his years of schooling and discipline the buzz always managed to fill him with an almost primal sense of anticipation.
He tapped on the door with his staff, clearing away a few minor enchantments, and gave a nod to the others. Ezra cautiously pushed open the door.
The room was lit with a blue glow, both of magic and magical light, although only Lorien could see the former. The glow emanated from the various glass tanks hovering around the room, filled with a variety of strange and unpleasant creatures.
“That’s strange,” Lorien said, looking at what appeared to be a baby monkey with dragon wings grafted on.
“You’re telling us,” said Ezra.
“No, I mean, this Darghzin. He apparently likes making chimeras. Wouldn’t you think that his castle would be filled with monsters?”
“You’re right,” said Katryn. “That’s weird. Instead all we’ve got are a few mutant ducks and a spell that sticks swords to the ground.”
In actuality, Lorien had dismantled several much nastier spells, some of which would have resulted in the loss of Katryn’s head, but he decided not to mention it.
“Well, the key’s not here,” said Ezra after a cursory look around the room.
“Then there’s only one place it could be,” said Lorien in resignation. “There’s only one problem. Darghzin is with it.”
“No problem,” said Ezra. “We’ve dealt with sorcerers before. We can-"
What they could do, she never got a chance to say, because just then, from outside the room, Cory let off a bloodcurdling scream.