“Crushed to a pulp, he was,” the dark bearded dwarf said and grinned evilly up at Llwyd.
“That is unfortunate,” the elf replied. Llwyd was the newly arrived elvish ambassador, and the cheeky dwarf was his guide.
“Squashed like strawberry jam. Never seen anything quite like it.” The dwarf eyed Llwyd for a moment and saw that his narration was not having the desired effect. Llwyd seemed entirely unfazed by the story of his predecessor’s demise, crushed by an incalculable amount of stone when a tunnel collapsed in the underground Dwarven home of Khorduum. Like many dwarves, Llwyd’s guide disliked elves, finding them haughty and arrogant. Llwyd seemed impervious as any of them, however, unfazed by the gruesome description he had given of the last ambassador’s death. The dwarf sighed with dissatisfaction.
Another thought occurred to the dwarf. “Have you ever had it?”
Llwyd blinked with confusion. “I’m sorry?”
“Strawberry jam. Have you had it?” The dwarf was shepherding Llwyd to his quarters in the dwarven capital of Khorduum, dwarf and elf walking side by side through a series of tunnels lit dimly green by the fluorescent moss the dwarves cultivated in the upper corners of the corridors.
“Oh. Yes, I have.”
“Delicious, isn’t it?” The dwarf said, and licked his lips. “Only ever had it the once myself. Dearer than sunlight down here, of course,” the dwarf said.
“I suppose it would be,” Llwyd replied.
The elf’s hair was long enough to brush his shoulder blades, braided into a queue that kept it neatly back and away from his face. It was, unusually for an elf, gray in color, and that combined with his pale complexion gave him a sickly and frail appearance. He did not seem weighed down by his ill-health, however. His eyes were bright and rarely settled on one place for long, constantly studying everything around him. This study seemed to either intrigue or amuse him, judging by the look on his face. It was difficult to tell which.
Llwyd wore a long, thick wool robe that was a darker gray than his hair. There was a patch on the left breast embroidered with a winged horse and sword, marking him as an official of the noble elvish court. In one hand, there was a cane of dark, knobby wood that supported him. It did not quite come up to his waist, allowing him to use it as a prop comfortably.
“I don’t suppose you have any, then?” the dwarf asked, the hope plain to hear in his voice.
Llwyd grinned, showing white, even teeth. “I didn’t think to bring it.”
“Ah, well,” the dwarf said. “Here we are, then.”
They had stopped before a door. It was unique in Khorduum in that it stretched 6 feet or so from top to bottom, sized to be more comfortable for an elf than the shorter dwarf-sized doors. The dwarf presented Llwyd with a heavy brass key inscribed with runes along the shaft and with a blade of an odd and eye-twisting construction. It combined the dwarves’ inherent talent for engineering with their runic magic to make a key that could not be copied. No doubt it fit a lock that could not be picked.
“Thank you,” Llwyd said, smiling. He hesitated, then said, “What is your name?”
The dwarf looked suddenly apprehensive. “Why?”
Llwyd shook his head, amazed at the dwarvish capacity for paranoia. “I will find some strawberry jam for you, my dear dwarf. As a thank you for guiding me to my quarters.”
The dwarf scowled. “Don’t trouble yourself. Farewell.”
The dwarf turned on his heel and hustled away down the corridor, glancing once over his shoulder at Llwyd.
The elf shook his head once more and shrugged. “What an odd fellow,” he said.
The key fit the lock in the door perfectly and turned in his hand of its own accord. Llwyd pulled it from the keyhole and studied it for a moment. The magic was not of a type he understood, though it fascinated him.
The door opened, catching him by surprise. Standing there leaning against the door jam was a slight elf woman. Her hair was short, and her complexion was a honey color. “What are you doing, standing out there?”
“Hm?” Llwyd replied, still distracted by his study of the key. “Oh, just looking at this,” he showed her the key. “Fascinating thing.”
“Is it?” she seemed uninterested.
“Oh, yes,” Llwyd replied.
The woman was Llwyd’s assistant and bodyguard. Dwynen she was called, though most often Llwyd just called her Dwyn. “Well, perhaps you would like to continue your inspection inside,” she said.
Llwyd nodded and stepped through into his rooms as Dwyn stepped to one side, his attention still focused on the key. She closed the door behind him as he put his cane under his left arm. He sank into a chair and began feeling the key between his hands, running his fingertips over it.
Dwyn stood, hands on hips, and watched him for a moment. Eventually she said, “Well?”
Llwyd looked up at her. “Yes?”
“What do you think?”
Llwyd looked confused. “Of the key?”
“Of our rooms,” she said, her tone growing shorter as her patience began to wear thin.
“Oh, fine, fine.”
She huffed. “They are not fine, Llwyd.”
“No?” he said, and his attention returned to the key.
“No. They are cramped and cold. And there is no light in here, just the moss they grow-”
“I believe they call it coldlight moss,” Llwyd interjected.
“I don’t care what it’s called. It’s claustrophobic! I’m going to go mad down here.”
“Nonsense,” Llwyd said. “If it’s light you want-” he lifted his right hand with the palm toward the roof and said, “Shilen.”
A ball of white light appeared cupped in his hand. He threw it into the air, and it hung there, just above his standing height, nearly touching the low room’s ceiling.
Dwyn seemed somewhat mollified. “Thank you, Llwyd. But it is still freezing down here.”
Llwyd nodded. “Oh, yes. We’ll have to find some way of dealing with it. I am shivering, I can tell you. They burn a type of fungus here, I believe. We’ll have to ask for a supply.”
Dwyn looked around their quarters once more, arms crossed, scowling. “They should have had some waiting. Perhaps a fire started for us.”
“Well, that might give us the impression they wanted us here, which would lead to confusion. Here, take a look…” He reached out to show Dwyn some particular aspect of the key’s magic he thought was of interest.
“It’s just a key, Llwyd. I wouldn’t know what I was looking at anyway.”
“I suppose. I found a treatise on Dwarven runic magic before we left Faelve Thalas. I didn’t get much of a chance to study it, but I remember a few runes. This is a bit odd, though. I believe this one is ‘stone.’ That’s not surprising, I suppose. The whole place is stone. This one… I remember seeing it but cannot think what it means. And this one,” he pointed to a third little carved squiggle on the key’s hank, “this one is… Hm.”
There was a distant rumble above them. Dwyn glanced nervously upward. “What was that?”
“I believe this means, ‘collapse.’ That can’t be right, can it?”
There was another rumble, louder, and then a crack like thunder. Dwyn whirled her head around and saw in the corner that the ceiling had splintered. After another moment, there was a snapping noise, the crack widened, dropping gravel and dust, and then the crack spread further across the ceiling.
“Llwyd!” Dwyn cried and raced to the door. It was shut fast, and her turning and twisting of the handle would not open it.
Llwyd pushed himself to his feet and limped over to Dwyn as fast as he could. “Come here, Dwyn. Now,” he said, speaking quietly but forcefully.
“We’ve got to get out, Llwyd!” Dwyn replied, frantic.
Llwyd looked up at the ceiling and placed one hand on it as if he could grasp through and feel the rock above. He shuffled a few feet to one side and then gestured toward his companion. “Quickly, Dwyn. Come here! Now!”
Dwyn glanced fearfully up once more as there was a third snapping sound that echoed in the room. She hurried over to stand beside Llwyd. His hand was still on the ceiling, though his fingers amazingly had begun sinking into the rock itself, a feat that should have been impossible for one so frail and weak. His face was twisted in concentration, and his fingers sank a little farther into the rock.
There was a fourth and final echoing crack, and the split in the rock went from one end of the room to the other, though it separated into two cracks and went to either side of where Llwyd stood with his fingers buried in stone. Smaller cracks spread out from the central split, crossing each other and spider-webbing out across the whole face of the ceiling. In a moment, the stone went from a single solid thing to a mass of loosely joined rocks. Gravity took hold, and it all collapsed to the floor, burying the room in tons of stone.