Ed arrived at the covered hole in the floor. Planks lay across it it, loosely attached with nails. A crowbar, pulled from his robe, had soon pried up enough of them for him to slide through. He let himself down between them and slowly dropped until he was hanging by his fingertips. At that point he realised he should have tested the depth first. “Bugger,” he said, as his fingers slipped away from the plank and he tumbled down into darkness.
He tried to orientate himself until he was facing downwards, judging when that was from the air rushing past his face. Once he had done so, he murmured an incantation just quietly enough to not be heard, which, given the air rushing past him, meant he completely misjudged his volume and screamed it. Moments later, he slammed into a soft, almost liquid pool that had formed underneath him. The depth of the drop had been of a remarkably convenient level.
He stopped to appreciate the fact for a moment before standing up and wading to the solid edge of the small pool, lifting himself onto the dirt covered rock.
He felt around in his robe until he found a torch, a little sodden at the base but with a dry enough burny end. He pulled out a flint and steel and spent a few minutes lighting a handful of tinder and transferring the flame to his torch. With light, he could see that a dark, dank cave was around him, a passageway stretching away from him, down which he could only see thirty feet or so. He headed off.
Half an hour later, he had smothered the torch and was peering over the top of a spike of rock that jutted out of the cave wall. Ahead of him were three men playing cards on a badly balanced table. One of the legs was over a large crack in the ground, but somebody had shoved some rags under it to try and hold it up. He was wondering whether he’d be able to handle them all or if he’d have to wait for one to leave.
Suddenly, the oil lamp on the men’s table spluttered and went out. “What the hell?” one of the men said, “who’s got the matches?”
“Didn’t you-rgh!” said another.
The other man didn’t respond.
“Oh, found them.” The candle was relit and two of the men jumped and gasped. The third was lying on the ground, unconscious.
Ed shrugged. he didn’t know what had happened, but this was his chance. He leapt from behind the rock and shouted a spell, holding his hands out in an arcane gesture that made him look like he was doing a futuristic dance. One man whipped his sword from its scabbard, just in time for it to go limp and drop off at the hilt, landing on the floor with a splat.
Ed began casting another spell, and the chants echoed off the rock walls. The unarmed man froze. He glanced around him and was then skewered by a stalactite dropping from the ceiling, stabbing through one shoulder and dragging him to the ground as its pointed end came out one of his buttocks. It cracked as it hit the cave floor. He screamed, which quickly turned into a gurgle and he fell down. The white, crumbly mass that had appeared around rim of the stalactite fell apart a little more on impact. A matching mass had appeared on the ceiling where it had detached.
The other man had drawn his sword by now. When he saw his companion brought down, he screamed and raised it, charging at Ed, who threw himself sideways and grabbed a large rock he’d seen there. He whispered to it and its texture shifted. It felt lighter in his hands and took on a pale yellow texture. He drew his hand back to throw it but the man fell upon him before he could. The sword ricocheted off the cave wall and he dropped it, bringing his hand back again and clenching his fist, opting to punch Ed instead. As his fist came flying, the glove that covered it turned from green to a pale, pasty beige, and rapidly swelled. It still hit Ed’s face, but it was more like being pummelled with a large, wet cushion. It made a splatting noise upon impact.
The man stared at his fist, then the chainmail he was wearing did the same, swelling to cover his head. He brought both hands up, trying to pull the substance away as it suffocated him, but both hands were covered in the same thing, and it just stuck together, cutting off his air supply.
Ed pushed the man off him and stood up, trying to sweep off the remnants of whatever it was that had suffocated the man in case it tried the same thing on him. As he did so, a woman’s voice spoke to him. “Don’t move,” it said, “I’ve got a crossbow pointed right at your stomach. It’s hard to cast anything with a foot of wood stuck through your abdomen.”
Ed froze. “Can I talk?” he asked.
“I fully expect you to. What are you doing here?”
Ed looked at the bodies on the floor. The man who’d jumped on him was still twitching. He decided honesty was the best policy here. “I’d heard these bandits were raiding nearby farmers. There’s a reward in it for me if I stop them.”
“So you started killing them?”
“I wasn’t really given the chance to negotiate.”
“Will you carry on?”
“Not if I can help it. I think most of these men were driven out of the forests when they became overrun, but there’s a fightback happening and large swathes have already been reclaimed.”
“Don’t treat me like an idiot. I know all that. I’m not one of these idiot locals.”
“Sorry, it’s just hard to judge when I can’t see you.”
“You’re hoping to convince them to move back to the forests and join in the efforts to reclaim them then?”
“If I can.”
“Good. Last question then, what’s that on your robes?”
Ed looked down and ran his hands over the drying, white lumps that covered his blue gown. “Cottage cheese,” he said, “I didn’t arrive here in the most dignified fashion.”
“Caseusmancer,” corrected Ed, “yes. Who are you?”
The woman walked into the candle light. She wasn’t holding a crossbow, which annoyed Ed. Not because he’d been deceived but because he didn’t like lies as a general principle. Her hair was dark and tied back, cut crudely, and she wore the robes of a panemancer.
“Ah,” said Ed, looking down at the dough coating the body next to him, “I was wondering what that was.”