The final challenge.
Three orbs balanced delicately balanced atop perfectly smooth stone pillars and an ostentatious elf stood before us in the final chamber.
“Choose the form of the monster you shall fight,” the elf purred to us, a mischievous toothy grin plastered across his face.
“Wait, can you repeat that?” I snarled in response more intensely then would be deemed to be polite. Every challenge we faced held a twist straight from my childhood: an underlying twist that made the impossible probable, a twisted instruction that led you to a wall while guiding you to a door. There was always “something to miss”, something a student would miss, and a master would exploit.
“Choose the form of the monster you shall fight,” the elf restated, his smarmy mask unbreakable under my growling questions.
Our party broke out in chatter knowing there was nothing left for the elf to offer us. My eyes locked onto the orbs as they sat there, a stark contrast to the still, blank room we entered. One of tan and white, swirling in slow rolling waves, glowing with an aura of fury and warmth, sat upon the final stand. One of sky blue and white, blustering with the vigor of a winter storm, had an aura that seemed to pull in just as much warmth as the first one emitted, giving the second plinth a faint shine of frost. Lastly, the orb of black stood on the first plinth on the left, a faint wisp of motion fluttered in its inky blackness, betraying a hint of life in the nothingness. The black orb spoke to me, but any words it had were not a message I wanted to linger for.
“Let’s go with the black one,” Felegum piped up, my fears coalescing into conversation. Set voiced his support with a cracking of his nimble fingers. The rest of the party voiced only minor concerns and general consensus. For a group of people who could see in the dark, they seemed to be blind to the fact that we were missing something.
“I can’t see in the dark! And there has to be a trick, our choice matters, and we don’t have a time limit, let’s not rush this.” My hissed whisper slowly died as it leaked through gritted teeth, pleading for patient contemplation, pleading to reign in our growing head of battle fervor, pleading for a little more time. This was a puzzle, a battle of minds dressed up to resemble a spar for bored masters of the forces of the universe to identify those who had something to contribute to their cause. But the waning volume of my concerns were quickly eclipsed by the waxing confidence of Felegum.
“Goldfish,” our own half-elf sorcerer stated calmly as he hoisted the black orb, his movements failing to betray any weight to the key to our demise. Within a single blink of the eyes, the plain room was gone and we were plunged into a rocky cave, only enough light was left to make out the main details. Rough natural walls failed to betray any hints of what was waiting for us. Zeno caught on quickly though, motioning to the other side of the cave system, where it tapered down to an alcove with no room for retreat. I snuck a look behind us where the cave lazily spiraled away into darkness, offering a chance for exploration, maybe the answer to the riddle we had yet to identify. But Zeno’s terse two-finger motion dragged me back; my purpose was settled. At my most confident, I was the tip of our spear, plunging in first to disrupt for the rouges’ blades and the magical firepower to finalize the dazed survivors. But today, slinking forward in the dim light to examine what horrors we doomed ourselves to, my job title seemed to be much closer to the canary in the dwarven mines.
Our party formed up along the pillar that had obscured my view, Helli and Set slinking away to a dark corner as Zeno, Felegum, and Awk fell in behind me. I stepped out from the safety of the wall, unsure of what could keep Zeno quiet. Very quickly, a number of pieces to the puzzle fell into place.
Why did he say goldfish?
WHY IS IT ALWAYS SEAFOOD?
WHY DID THE OCTOPI HAVE BODIES?
My eyes closed and I let the image of the three illithids staring unflinchingly back at us roll in my mind. They were separated, one and two, standing as properly and menacingly as their frail, cephalopod supporting frames would allow, loose robes almost billowing in the windless cave.
Our company was unusually calm in the faces of these tentacled fiends. Maybe my pleading hit home? There was a window for peace, maybe the trick was to stare the nightmarish creatures down and talk through your fears. Flashes of a childhood with challenges of being expected to face my nightmares bubbled low in my mind, threatening to unravel my nerves and shatter my calm.
Recent experience told me there was only one chance at diplomacy before that clean, crisp springtime lightning scent of magical energies and the copper scent of blood filled the air. I steadied my breathing, tilted my head to the side for a flow of pops down my neck, and let the tension flow down from my shoulders. My stance loosened and relaxed as I let my body settle. Roll with the blows, strike at the openings, know your enemy as they seek to know you. The advice seemed very literal as I opened my eyes to the horror known for its affinity for the minds of its victims.
I settled my loose stance on my toes, providing a tense base to a flowing stance with a slow waver shifting from foot to foot, finding that same nonexistent wind from the robes of the illithids.
I matched eyes with the most ornate of the three.
A leader perhaps?
I held my confidence in my training, in my combat prowess, but my words were a blade that needed more time on the whetstone. I was more confident than even the magic users in my abilities to hold my own without the many trinkets and wears of modern life. But now as I floated out a sad excuse for a greeting, even knowing I spent my life training to be the weapon when I was unarmed, the steadying presence of my quarterstaff was the only thought still lingering in my calm mind.
And then the answer arrived.
A wave of sickening, twisting energies washed over us in a single screaming wave, echoing in my mind as the psychic energies wracked our bodies. The final piece fell into place as I fell forward through the psychic onslaught towards the isolated illithid. With all the tricks and puzzles we had faced, this was shaping up to be a truly simple puzzle: fight, survive, win. My mind snapped back into focus and my steps picked up speed as I felt eldritch energies wash over me from behind, flowing from a murmuring Felegum urging me forward with a flourish of his wrists. My eyes snapped to my target’s weak points and the world around me seemed to slow.
A blow to the side of the stomach below the ribs forced the illithid down, crumpling it to its left around my fist. A faint glow of the ki of the vile creature ebbed away from my blow.
My left knee rose into the stumbling illithid, balancing my opening blow on the opposite of its soft abdomen. Its body betraying it, crumpling into my low blows to the soft tissue between the lowest ribs and the top of the frail hips. The glimmer of its ki retreating up from my blows to the safety offered by a cage of ribs and a solid skull.
My fingers flared then curled as my right palm drove into its temple. Following its floundering tentacles and elongated skull that had snapped from left to right with my quick opening, my blow connecting with the soft patch just behind its left eye. The assault set my cephalopod time piece ticking in time with the strikes.
The third blow pushed the pendulum, tipping the stable base of my cephalopod time piece by shoving forcefully in time with its beat. Like an ornate clock being rocked by an unbalanced mechanism until it tumbled, the illithid was dragged by its motion. With just three blows, I set the creature sprawling away , its head and chest a glow with its ki moved from its normal flow. Like a damaged clock, the battered mage was out of sync, unable to react to even the simple fact that the floor was stationary and it was the one wobbling about trying to stay on its feet.
I watched my work stumble away from me. The ebb and flow of energy through the illithid was focused in its head: its body was sprinkled with small pools I had squeezed up into its torso with my body blows, but its brightest glows pooled deep between its eyes and somewhere deep inside the tangled mess of tentacles. The monstrosity was a creature of the mind, and of the mouth, consuming and dominating. This fact seemed simple: “ugh, stupid monk, don’t over complicate it, the brain is big and it has stupid tentacles.” My internal obstinate student taking on a Set quality to its voice as it pointed out that my knowledge gained was obvious. But to see the flow of ki, to touch the flow and alter it, to build it to a point, and strike the creature where it hurts— that was my magic. And for the first time, the poetic musings of my old masters snapped into usable skills to build upon and it was time to make use of this skill.
“Helli has weapons,” Set hollered between his own frantic swings, interrupting my sudden life epiphany. The brooding blur coalesced into fragments of clarity as the hastened blows connected with the illithid.
“I am the weapon,” I thought in response, although I may have said it out loud. Even my charisma-challenged mind thought that was a bit much, but self-image is an easy thing to sacrifice for survival in a fight. Something our poor teenage rouge was learning as he attempted to strike the stumbling creature. I respect Set for what he tried. The Kid was complicated, with magics lurking below the surface that I will never match, and a set of light fingers that gave Helli a run for her purloined money. But punching that illithid did more to build my respect that it did to harm the stumbling creature. If anything, it provided it with a reference point to stop the room spinning and bring the predatory sharpness back to its eyes.
“Run, kid, solve the puzzle….” My growled message was swallowed by the tentacles of the creature, smothering it somewhere after the word “run,” long before I could confirm Set wasn’t going to have another teenage moment. An unnerving calm washed over me, attempting to placate me. But when your mind is clear, an invading thought stands out and can be ruthlessly eliminated. I snapped back to myself , having dropped to one knee in the few seconds of struggle that had passed since the bearded embrace began. My arms came up and planted a firm shove into the creature as I pulled my head free from the tentacles, catching a quick look at the drooling, bladed maw lurking below. Free of the tangle and falling back as we both lost our balance, my hand darted out and caught the tentacled beard. For a moment we settled in a shared balance, our weights rocked back onto our heels as we leaned away from each other, held aloft by our shared connection from hand to face tentacle, forming a triangle with its point resting near our feet. Then I yanked on his beard from hell and brought our teetering forms together in a bone on bone low thump as our brows met.
Ki is best understood in its state of flux. It ebbs and surges. It disperses and builds. It flows and crashes. A living being is a small ecosystem of rivers and ponds that reflect who and what we are. And I just dropped a sizable boulder of a blow into the swelling pond of the illithid’s skull. Water was sent back upstream, waves splashed on the shores, the pond was emptied. To put it less artfully, it dropped away from my blow like a sack of potatoes being tipped, legs crumbling out from under it as limp joints guided the teetering torso back over its heels. It was still alive, but my focus was dragged away from the disabled combatant to the remaining illithids. The crackling energies from behind me and the tingling burn of a shimmering moonbeam on my arms reminded me that two other creatures needed the bats removed from their oceanic belfries and Awk’s help might not be making anything better.
My augmented speed had me hurtling in behind the unsuspecting foes who were busy mesmerizing our party. I hoped others were faring better than me under the psychic assaults, but the sight of a crumpled Zeno, head lulling under the effects of some unholy assault from the two foes, broke my calm. Rage seeped back into my emptied mind, driving me towards the two unaware casters in a rapid assault. I grabbed the offending mages by their heads and dragged them together. Striking with my stride as I moved across them, the thumping blows broke their concentrations, but my growing rage left me uncontrolled. I overshot my landing, underestimating my enhanced speed, and I only stunned one of the illithids. My rage suddenly built out of control, a psychic assault building on the kernel of truth already planted. A single booming thought filled my mind and forced my actions.
“KILL THE GNOME.”
I spun on my heels and found a crouching Helli just beyond my puppet masters, the gleam of her blade slowly fading as ichor oozed from the handle over the blade, the trademark poisonous strike of her venomous dagger. I locked eyes with the gnome, the new puppet strings attempting to drag me forward. But despite my large stature and limited charm, I was raised by some of the most slippery, rule-bending, obstinate monks the world had seen. The illithid wanted me to kill a gnome, the message echoed in my skull, I couldn’t escape it, but for beings defined by heightened mental facilities and a hunger to dominate, they missed something rattling around in my mind: I already had plenty of reason to kill a gnome.
My gaze shifted to our bumbling dragon-obsessed druid. My anger was replaced with images of a bear bumbling into a fight in the depths of the Sunken Citadel. A druid flinging icy daggers into our party, scattering the essence of Felegum’s familiar. My singed robes showed the burns when his moonbeam cut through my fight with the first creature of this cave. Why must we all turn the other cheek while he continues to have no regard for our safety? The anger shifted: they had the strings on this monstrous puppet, but they left this marionette too much slack.
I shifted and ran for the fumbling spellcaster and caught the gnome by surprise. No time for his tricks, no animal forms to break the blow: he wasn’t looking for a physical assault in a mage’s trial. He had no reason to suspect the sudden reprisal either; we have always treated his damage to the party as water under the bridge because it had never caused lasting harm to our traveling company. To him, he had never done anything wrong to a life that mattered. Even as a druid, he was very loose with his definition of what was alive and what warranted his protection. I drove a strong sweeping kick to his jaw and reinforced the message that it was time to evaluate his life choices. His head snapped to the side, pulling his body with the blow, dropping him face first to the ground.
“NOW THE OTHER GNOME,” a shaky voice corrected in my mind, suddenly considering the looseness of their orders as their pilfered dragonborn went sprinting off to settle his own score, leaving only empty space between the soft, floating frames and an angry gnome who had rediscovered her blade.
I was being forced to dance on the puppeteer’s strings and I was all out of gnomes to stall with. But before I could continue my traitorous hunt, a wave of relief came over me. The invading thoughts were washed from my mind, my various cuts and scrapes knitted together. Zeno popped to his feet with a wild look in his eye, Felegum began waving his hands menacingly, and Bear-Awk roared back to consciousness. I locked eyes with my former puppeteer and formed a single world in my head.
No emphasis, no emotion, no threats.
I held it in my mind and focused intently on my target. If it wanted to play in my mind, it would only see what I wanted it to. The distance between us closed at an alarming rate, Felegum’s spell still fueling my speed. My jabs focused on its head. Like an outclassed pugilist, the illithid raised its arms to protect its face, open hands braced against its temples, and its elbows drawn in to try and glance away any probing blows. I didn’t need to read minds to know that the illithid did not like its foray into the world of hand-to-hand combat, but in the style of my monk teachers, the real lesson was being hidden in the details.
If you spend too much time fighting with one style, your thinking gets limited and may your deity of choice help you if you have to linger there for too long. Our bearded foes fought with magic. Even their hand-to-hand combat was limited to overwhelming a foe with a calming spell as they enveloped them with their tentacles. All magic. In our short exchanges, they just tried their best to limit the damage while they readied their next spell. Now, I was pulling its focus high, its guard raised to its vulnerable head, its eyes looking for an opening between my high blow. I was ready to deliver its lesson. It was a simple lesson with dire consequences. In life, there was always something to miss. Something a student would miss, and a master could exploit. I formed a new thought in my head, a final message.
“You forgot the gnome.”
There was a flicker of realization as the poisoned dagger drove into its spine. I wasn’t fighting to kill, I was fighting for its attention. The creature was focused singularly on the waving hands, focused on the immediate threat, and its senses drawn up high to the flurry of motion. It missed the low padding as the gnome positioned behind it. The dejected mage dropped to its knees, its spinal cord severed in its lower back. Now at a more appropriate height, the diminutive gnome woman executed the creature, her blade silent as it was pulled from the falling body and jabbed up into the base of the skull, letting the paralyzed creature fall into her blade, using no more effort than was needed to quickly end the caster before it could pull together a final spell.
The partner of my dead mind-reader had begun to levitate away as soon as our forces found their second wind, attempting to float out of reach and ready to rain death on our exposed party as they engaged the enraged illithid I had left dazed on the floor. The floating squid mage thought height would be his salvation. I steered my own ki, pooling it into my legs, and sprung up to tackle the fleeing mage. Nothing breaks your concentration like being flying tackled fifteen feet in the air. The enraged cephalopod attempted to slither from my grasp, trying to maneuver his tentacles in for a taste of my skull as gravity regained control of us. The ground abruptly ruined his snacking dreams as he was ridden down into the cold stone floor by a monk hammering him with blows. The dazed predator attempted to scramble away, unable to regain its footing under the persistent assault hammering its back with blows and clipping its ankles before they found purchase. I’m not sure if it had enough focus to read my thoughts as it tried to squirm away, but I wanted to hedge my bets that I sent it to its maker with a final warning for its kind.
“Never forget the gnome.”
I paused long enough in my assault to let the floundering mage look up from the ground, finding that it had managed to crawl to the waiting feet of our silent gnome. It stopped to raise its head and hiss its final defiance. But Helli left little to chance, plunging her dagger through the eye, quick in, quick out, turning on her heels and bouncing away before the head came to rest on its lifeless tentacle pile.
A commotion indicated the final illithid was still menacing the remainder of our party. Set was hammering the creature with his fists, and Zeno and Felegum were looking for a magical opening, but the reason for the unusually controlled response became apparent. In its tentacled mass, near that drooling maw I had only glimpsed in my own trip below the noodle-y veil, Awk’s body was hanging, his still body held in place by the embrace of the various tentacles.
“You have my gnome,” I thought as I moved to help our troublesome druid. We may not be on the best of terms, but he was still fighting with us, and he still had helped us out of many a tight spot, sometimes ones he hadn’t caused. No one deserved the death that waited below those tentacles, and I didn’t want to find out if the deaths in this challenge are as consequence-free as our previous challenges. For Awk’s sake, the creature paused from its meal and matched my glare.
“You have MY gnome,” I barked. Maybe it wasn’t listening, maybe my understanding of their probing my thoughts was misplaced. I could question my communication style after our gnome was free.
“I almost had its brain,” the voice dropped into my mind unannounced, sharing its unsettling intent, but its thankfully fruitless condition. It seemed the others got the same message as Set’s blows halted to examine why he was hearing an unspoken message. The eyes displayed their hatred at the interruption of its meal, but it struggled to hold its furled brow, wincing as it flexed around an oozing silver crack between its eyes. Its brow had been split by my earlier headbutt, giving its face a blotchy quality highlighted by the silvery-white oozing line of blood following the shallow details of its face down between its eyes. I completed the final steps returning to my quieted mind. Clearing it for a fight had gotten easier and easier, even as our adventure has given me more and more to contemplate about the world. In the last step, my front foot probed out gently to find a solid plant, my weight rolled off my back foot, up into my hips, twisting to match the shifting balance, my shoulders followed my hips to square, my free arm drawing back into my body, my striking arm extended, fingers clenched. I felt the sickening pop as the small crack I had started before split the skull like a ripe melon.
“Lips or no lips?” Awk croaked as he came to from his stupor. A bloodied ring drawn made by the boring maw was partially visible above his left eyebrow as he shook free of his tentacle crown. A sudden door formed on the rocky wall behind the brutal splatter made by the crushed skull of our former enemy. We hauled Awk back to his feet and piled through to face a final puzzle. A simple panel emblazoned with the letters of the common alphabet stood before us. A message at the top informed us to “Choose one.”
“It’s the red herring thing,” Set mused.
“R…E…D…H…missing letter….R…R…N….G…” Felegum rattled off the letters we had found so far.
“NO I, PRESS THE I!” Zeno exclaimed excitedly, noticing an obnoxious pattern in the letters as Felegum spelled them out, a red herring, hoping the letter we missed in challenge five was an E.
Upon pressing the I, we were greeted by a screaming crowd and an open doorway to the stadium. It seems the other teams had been just as battered as we were, but all that mattered was the final scores. With a close call from a team known as the Red Right Hand, we triumphed with a final score of 387 points.
Our final prize was admission to the Mage’s Guild and an interesting offer of a free imbued item from the mage’s forge. Inspired by my experience with another intelligence probing my mind, a ring of mind shielding was my final choice. We spent time checking all that the mages had to offer, but nothing else was as enticing as a little magical help in keeping my clean mental space my own. Our party settled on their gifts: a pearl of power for Zeno, some thieving gloves for our hauntingly effective Helli, a periapt for Felegum, a bag of tricks for Awk, and finally, our teen settled on the freedom of a magic broom. Our group was now closer to the very reason we came to this city, but now all I wanted was a nice bed and some time to decompress from a day of mental challenges and fights. I slept soundly that night with my thoughts secured and my body truly tested. Maybe these mages were more open-minded about their members then I thought.