Nocsaal rose slowly from the writhing mass of serpents, which lay across his entire lair like a living carpet. A multitude of scales reflecting the brazier’s dim light, casting eerie shadows all around. His eyes glowing pale green as he floated menacingly towards a stone platform in the centre of the vast cavern.
“I have awoken!” His voice resonated through the underground passageways, shaking the ancient rock walls. Stalactites broke loose from their ancient bindings, before landing upon the writhing mass beneath and being carried away like a ship on a scaly sea.
Nocsaal began to laugh, a deep guttural sound that chilled Nyeel to the bone. Fear broke her concentration, and the image became misty for a brief moment, before disappearing completely. The surface of the crystal ball once again merely reflected the candlelight and the grim decorations within the small wagon around her.
Nyeel gathered her flowing dress with both hands, before dancing happily outside into the cool evening air. She was too young to understand the significance of her visions, and had yet to discover that what she saw was reality, not just images of fantasy created by her own imagination. Soon it would be her 9th birthday, it was not common that gypsy folk who had the gift could draw visions before the age of 20, but Nyeel had seen that which others cannot since birth.
Growing up as a gypsy had offered her freedom which many other children born to townsfolk in Britannia could not dream of. Her home was a wagon, shared with only her father since her mother had died during childbirth. This had affected her father deeply, and his attitude towards Nyeel has always hinted at an inner resentment. She had relied on the kindness of other gypsy families that they travelled with to bring her up correctly, and in particular Volmaa, who at 87 was one of the oldest members of their group. Volmaa found Nyeel playing alone in a thicket close to their temporary camp.
“Hello there Nyeel” She spoke with a soft kindness, she loved Nyeel as if she was her own, the daughter she never had.
“Volmaa!” Nyeel rushed up, dusted her skirt off and embraced the old lady tightly around the waist.
“Come to my wagon Nyeel, I shall prepare a warm drink for you.”
The two gypsies sat down, the wagon was always warm, and richly decorated with shining trinkets and rare oddities collected during years of travel.
”I have brought you here for a reason” Volmaa said as she poured some liquid into a wooden bowl, before handing it to Nyeel who was perched on a small stool nearby.
“Have you been having any more day-dreams?”
Nyeel nodded, glancing at the crystal ball which sat on a small table nearby.
“Of the snake man?”
Nyeel nodded again, showing a brave face despite the fear this subject brought to her.
“Do not be afraid” Said Volmaa, placing a hand upon the young child’s knee. “It is a gift, not something to be afraid of. In fact, I too have dreamed of this man.”
“You have!” Cried Nyeel, delighted at the news.
“Aye, and he has spoken to me directly. He has told me that he will present a trial, a challenge, to the people of Britannia.”
Nyeel sat upright, excitedly listening to the story.
”Ah sweet child, I’m afraid I only have a small message to convey, I was told but one sentence..” Volmaa smiled.
“The journey shall begin in a town of fighters, deeper still, within the house of the dead, a body shall reveal the beginning, a mind shall reveal the end.”
“I will take this information to those who need it Nyeel, but if this man does come to you in your dreams, do not fear him, for fear doth feed his powers”.
Nyeel nodded, still smiling. It was such a relief that Volmaa had seen him, people would listen to her stories and take heed of the words she reveals. The old lady motioned for Nyeel to leave her now, as she began to scribe the message given unto her. Volmaa smiled a toothy grin as Nyeel left, but as soon as the door was closed, a grim look passed over her. She already knew too much.
Nocsaal had awoken.
Nocsaal passed a clawed hand over the reflectant surface of the pool. A slight ripple formed, spreading to the edges of the murky green water, bringing a new appearance to the mysterious liquid. The pool’s surface no longer reflected the bare cavern walls, but showed a mighty labyrinth, its darkened corridors stretching as far as the eye could see before fading in the swirling mists.
An evil cackle left his dry lips, as he waved his clawed hand once more over the waters.
A few tiny figures could be seen meandering through the maze of stone, some grasping candles and torches for what little light they offered. A few lost souls sobbed gently in desperation, as after hours spent walking they realised they had turned a full circle.
One figure was on a dark mount, which strode majestically onward obeying his master’s orders. The figure stopped suddenly, and dismounted his steed.
`Nightwing, do your work`
Chuckled the figure as he traced his a finger along one of the stone walls. There was a small click, followed by a low rumbling as the wall slowly swung outward, revealing a secret corridor, its entrance still concealed by shadow. His master walked through, before the massive walls sealed themselves again, leaving not a trace of the opening. Nightwing snorted angrily, before striding onward through the corridors ready to attack anyone she saw.
`Hmm… interesting.` Mused Nocsaal, tapping his mighty green staff against the floor.
`It seems these people show some potential for my way of thinking after all.`
‘I have sensed many have already discovered the secret of the labyrinth, the entrance shall be closed.’ Nocsaal thought, as he murmured something in an ancient tongue.
* * *
Many oceans away in the town of Jhelom a young boy was hiding in an old burial house, deep within the town cemetery. He was hiding from his schoolmaster, as he had done many times. The suspicious old man would never search for him here.
The boy could scarce believe his eyes when a skeletal body chained to a post nearby broke from its bindings and clattered to the floor. The bones crumbled to dust, the chains disappeared and the timber post that had secured them exploded into a cloud of wooden splinters. The remains were quickly scattered by the wind which sucked through the tomb with an eerie wail.
The boy was already running at full pace in terror, not only would he never visit this place again, but he would never again miss a day of school in his life.
* * *
Nocsaal grinned, and an expanse of yellowish teeth reflected back at him.
`Excellent. I feed off their frustrations, their anger is my blood. The task at hand was mere child’s play, those who have succeeded so far shall now be tested properly, no fools shall be permitted into my home.`
He spoke softly to the staff he gripped so tightly as if it were alive.
`I grow weak, I must have strong minds to feed upon.`
After two gruelling quests from the Snake Master Nocsaal, a few brave adventurers remained to face a final peril…. Each other.
This was to be no ordinary challenge for the hardy questors, their brawn was to be tested alongside their cerebral mettle. The Snake Master grinned to himself, surely this was to be a most entertaining evening...
The hour had come, the final trials were soon to begin. Already those who had made it this far gathered in the tiny magic shop, within the walls of Serpent’s Hold. Nocsaal watched over them, contemplating the events that were to follow.
Occasionally he teased the gathering crowd, summoning scaly beasts to send chills down their spines, feeding off their fear. The ground spewed forth pungent swamp waters, and vines crept up the walls, yet the crowd remained. Nocsaal knew they would not be scared easily, they had triumphed over some perilous trials to make it this far, strength of heart was a virtue they all shared. Summoning a magical gate, Nocsaal appeared in a blinding flash at the centre of the room. A wall of startled faces surrounded him. “Follow me” He said, striding through the shining vortex.
He watched as the crowds gathered in his home. It was here they were vulnerable, here that their minds could strengthen his dwindling powers.
Appearing before them, Nocsaal spoke loudly. “You have all done well to make it thus far, but your mutual respect should be short-lived.” A wry smile spread across his face, in stark contrast to the grim expressions worn by his captive audience. “Before me stand many strangers, but soon, before me shall stand six teams.”
After appointing the leaders, Nocsaal watched as the team’s quickly formed. Whispers echoed around the cavern walls as speculation grew of the task at hand. Nocsaal delighted in telling them that they would be plunged into an arena, and at the end of a mighty battle, the two teams who had the most members still breathing, should progress to the final stage. Some confidently laughed, feigning bravery, but Nocsaal knew their fear. Others said nothing, lost in thought, these were the ones to watch...
In a short while the people found themselves sealed within cages. A portcullis slowly rose, revealing a short corridor that lead to a pair of sturdy, and sealed, heavy iron doors. Most were silent, some hid in the shadows, but all were planning their strategy.
Nocsaal knew more than anyone that those who were quick witted would achieve victory. People complained that they were not fighters, much to Nocsaal’s amusement. The humble peasant could achieve success, had he the gift of insight, and a strategic mind.
The doors swung open, the fight had begun.
A large arena lay before them, with glowing runes at the centre arranged carefully around a mighty monolith. It depicted a huge serpent coiled around a rock, watching over the battle with an expression of eternal hatred. The sight sent fear through the heart of the mightiest warriors, though few showed any emotion.
One team rushed towards the centre, jeering at the others, taunting them to rush from the shadows that enclosed them. A barrage of magical attacks reverberated around the walls, already people fell, mortally wounded by powers arcane. A flight of arrows whistled through the air, raining down upon another team as they spewed forth from the darkened tunnels. Before long the sounds of clashing steel and burning spells echoed around the bloody walls, and the moans of the dying chilled those who remained hidden in the shadows.
It became clear an alliance had formed, as two teams congregated at the arena centre. Nocsaal smiled. They had used their time wisely, politics would seem a good alternative.
The new force swept through the remaining tunnels, cutting people down as they cowered in the darkness, before the remaining survivors held aloft their hands in defeat.
They had won.
Nocsaal appeared, breathing life back to those who had perished. He sensed their anger, feeding from their resentment. ‘An alliance was not fair! Nor just!’ ..Would they say that if they had taken the time to arrange an alliance of their own? Nocsaal needed no answer. Brains had prevailed over brawn.
He scanned the victorious teams, a chef clutched a rolling pin, a fierce look in his eyes. Around him lay the bodies of heavily armed warriors. ‘There is indeed a lesson to be learned here’, mused Nocsaal as he summoned forth a gate, allowing the defeated to take their leave.
Twisting a teleport spell through the air, the victorious teams found themselves back in Nocsaal’s lair, the now familiar pungent smell again filled their lungs.
“Congratulations. Whilst the method of your victory may not be the most honourable, it has proved the most effective.”
Some held their heads in shame, having ganged up against people they considered their comrades. Yet most maintained an air of resolve, Nocsaal wanted them to turn against their friends, nothing would entertain his sinister mind more.
“For this final task, you will again need to collect your thoughts. Prepare now for the task at hand. You shall all be presented with a poem, each line of which refers to a Britannian town. Whomever hands me a book listing the correct answers in the shortest length of time, shall emerge the winner.”
The poem read:
The castle sits atop the mound,
Sailor’s friend deep underground,
Struggling free from her scaly grip,
Mine the ore and build a ship!
Safe and sound within her walls,
Stars appear as darkness falls,
As gambling fills the mind with malice,
Corruption breeds within the palace.
Entwined within the towering trees,
Canals flow past the honey-bees,
Magical streets are lined with gold,
Fighters clash, so strong and bold!
As the crowd frantically puzzled over each line, trying to untangle the words within, a silence swept throughout the cavern. Before long, all had handed their completed answers back to Nocsaal, who began quietly assessing them all.
Some paced around in circles, others discussed their solutions, with the grim realisation that their answers had been wrong.
Silence ensued once more as Nocsaal revealed the correct answers. “Britain, Wind, Serpent’s Hold, Minoc, Trinsic, Moonglow, Bucanneer’s Den, Nu’jelm, Yew, Vesper, Magincia, Jhelom!”
He took great delight in announcing the winners, in reverse order. With all but one solution correct, and having handed in his book before any of the 3 others who also attained 11 correct answers, Shazam was declared the champion.
Most showed great strength of character, cheering and applauding him, others quietly sulked, disappointed by their lack of wisdom.
Nocsaal brought forth a mighty staff, carved in days of old, it was twisted and scaled as if it were in fact a living snake. It crackled as he held it aloft, indicative of the powerful magic contained within. “The Staff of the Serpent” He declared, as he handed it to Shazam. “Use it wisely, and it shall strike a plague through the heart of thine enemies.”
Shazam nodded, holding the weapon with caution. He would take care, for such an item could wreak havoc if used incorrectly...
Nocsaal murmured some form of incantation, before violently spinning on his heal, with arms still aloft. A few gold coins clattered onto the cold stone floor around them, before a mighty rain of gold and magical items poured from the darkness above.
”To the others, enjoy these riches, for you also are worthy of reward.”
Nocsaal had harvested enough powers from the unsuspecting crowd, it would suffice for the time being. After again congratulating them, he bid them farewell, and withdrew back to the shadows. Gathering up the darkness around him, he disappeared once more from the eyes of man.
For now, Nocsaal was at rest.
From the Town Cryer - The Journal of Ultima Online