Astrid inspected the two massive wooden doors for any hidden triggers or booby traps while considering which one to open. Both barriers were wrapped in studded bands of iron, and both were securely locked. Her two companions sat on an outcropping of rock impatiently awaiting her decision. One was an iron-helmed warrior wearing battered, rusty, splint-mail armor and sharpening his two-handed bastard sword with a well-oiled whetstone; a nasty gash on the side of his face, recently delivered by a goblin’s crooked spear, still oozed blood. The other, an old gray-bearded sage dressed only in a rune-covered and somewhat tattered robe, leaned heavily on his gnarled staff after expending a vast amount of magicka in order to reveal the doors upon which the toothsome rogue pondered; her tight-fitting leather armor only served to enhance her shapely curves.
“Well?” huffed the soldier peevishly, “we’re waiting.”
Astrid spun around with her hands on her waist, “Would you please shut it, Bjorn? Why do you think this is my choice to make anyway?”
Bjorn looked over to the exhausted wizard, “Clearly, Ingvar is out of it, and since you haven’t really done anything spectacular so far...”
The rogue drew her two matching stilettos and cut him off. “Haven’t done anything? Are you serious? I should finish what those goblins started!” she fumed.
“Hold on there, girl. I meant no offense. I merely meant that tricks and traps are your bailiwick, not mine,” the tactless soldier backpedaled.
The wizened sorcerer spoke up, “Why don’t we just review the rune riddle again, so we can make an educated guess…no?” From the folds of his robe, he pulled out a ragged cloth parchment covered in sigils and symbols and began his recital…
“Into the labyrinth the three shall go;
A knight, a mage, and a maiden so fair.
Two lefts, a right, and a wide river flow.
Once across must vanquish a deadly foe.
A right, a left, and a magickal rite,
Unveils two oaken and iron bound doors.
Even leads to the gold and soaring heights,
Odd leads to darkness and a fatal fight.”
For quite some time, the only sounds in the foyer outside the two mysterious doors were of moisture seeping from the cave walls and dripping into shallow puddles. Bjorn was the first to express his opinion. “The three of us entered these caves together as the legend instructed, “Ingvar is the mage, I’m the knight, and I guess you, Astrid, are the beautiful maiden,” he quipped with a satirical wink.
Astrid crossed her arms, annoyed, her fists still clenching her twin daggers, “I’m not sure we followed those directions carefully enough, because you’re not a knight, Bjorn; you’re a callow barbarian…and, contrary to your opinion that I’ve done nothing spectacular so far, it was my nimble traversal of the river’s rapids to anchor the rope, that allowed Ingvar to get his feeble bones, and you to get your heavy arse across.”
Bjorn shrugged and continued his primitive analysis, “Fine, but once across, you two would’ve been overwhelmed by that goblin horde had it not been for my mighty sword.” He pocketed the whetstone, and spun his hefty blade for emphasis.
Ingvar coughed, “Please do not belittle my remarkable contribution in dispelling the illusionary wall that hid our final obstacles.” He wheezed again for a dramatic effect of his own, and continued, “Let’s use logic. Clearly even is good, and odd is bad. The runic verses sent us through three left turns, and two right turns…so…if we choose the left door, we will have taken four lefts and two rights; both are then even numbers. Conversely, if we choose the right door, we will have taken three lefts and three rights; both are then odd numbers. This obviously means we should take the leftmost door.” He smiled at his learned and ingenious conclusion.
Bjorn scratched the whiskers on his chin, wiping away some congealed blood. “But…if we take the right door, and we’ve taken three rights and three lefts, then the number of rights and lefts are equal, or even. If we take the left door, it gives us four lefts to two rights, or an unequal, or uneven number of lefts and rights. So maybe we should take the rightmost door.” Bjorn grinned stupidly at his cleverness.
As was typical of a thief, Astrid threw a wrench into the works. “But…but…the verse says we’ve taken three lefts, two rights, and performed a rite. So we’ve already navigated three lefts and three rights, making the next choice even no matter whether we choose left or right.”
Bjorn’s head was swimming, “Why don’t we just number the left door one, and the right door two? Therefore, the even door would be the right door, and that’s the way we should go.”
Ingvar the mystic chuckled eruditely, “However, these particular runes on this rare parchment are read right to left, rather than left to right, so in that case we should number the right door one, and the left door two. The even door would then be the left door, and that’s the way we should go.”
“This is stupid!” proclaimed the fighting-man. “Why can’t we just open both doors and see what is beyond before we all go crazy!” He stood up and charged, putting his shoulder into the right door. With a thud, the door remained steadfast as Bjorn rubbed his sore right arm.
“Ha! You should’ve used your head, brute,” Astrid laughed as she proceeded to use her stilettos as tools to unlock the left door. After a few moments there was a rattle and then a series of clicks; with a flourish and a bow, the thief swung open the left door. Beyond the threshold, a wide stone stairway spiraled down into darkness; foul, stale air assaulted her senses and she paused. “Let’s see what the other door hides,” she remarked and she went to work on the second latch. Just a few moments more, and the right door was likewise opened; it revealed a similar, but dimly lit, stone staircase that spiraled upward. However, the air smelled no better.
Bjorn sheathed his sword and clapped his gauntlets. “Well that ices it. Right it is!”
“Why right?” both Ingvar and Astrid responded in unison.
“The runes said, even leads to gold and soaring heights! That’s clearly up! Odd leads to darkness and a fight, so that’d be down. I was right; no more talk; let’s go!” Bjorn took a step towards the right door.
Astrid hesitated. “I’m still unsure. I think Ingvar’s original arguments were fairly sound.”
Ingvar propped himself up on his staff. “Thank you for your vote of confidence, Astrid, but if the muscle is going up, then the prestidigitator is going up as well.”
Astrid was about to object, but the warrior cut her off, “I have a prime idea…if you think the correct path is left, why don’t you just sneak yourself on down there and take a peek? If you don’t like what you see, then just come back and we’ll go up. If it looks promising, return to us and we’ll come down with you.”
“Why me?” Astrid protested.
“Because you’re a trained cutpurse,” the wizard explained. “Besides, I would only slow you down, and Bjorn,” Ingvar looked up and down at the fighter’s metallic carapace, “Bjorn, would be a clanking liability.”
Astrid reluctantly agreed, “Fine; stay here. Give me a half an hour. If I’m not back, go ahead and assume I chose poorly.”
After forty minutes, without any sign of their companion, Ingvar suggested, “Maybe we should go down and check on her?”
Bjorn shook his head, “No way old man. She knew what she was getting into when she signed on with us. No matter how pretty she is, there’s no way I’m risking my neck for her. Obviously, up is the way to soaring heights; up is the way to treasure; up is the way; let’s just go up!”
For some reason, the sage couldn’t deny the savage’s crude logic, so up they went with Bjorn leading the way.
After about fifteen minutes, when they finally reached the pinnacle, they realized the error of their ways. In an enormous dead-end cavern, there reclined a hungry, colossal, wingless, three-headed black dragon. Its obsidian scales reflected the fiery sunlight coming down from an exit hole in the roof that was far too distant for anything but a gang of dwarven miners, outfitted with ropes, pulleys, scaffolding, and ladders, to reach. One of its heads opened its serpentine eyes, rose up, and grinned a mouthful of dagger-like teeth before uttering a single deep and menacing word, “Dinner.”
Bjorn didn’t dither, “Run!”
The two adventurers fled back down the staircase, but for every two steps the warrior descended, the sorcerer only managed one. “Wait for me!” Ingvar shouted with the drake close on his heels; the stink from the snake’s three putrid maws nauseated him.
The two managed to slam the right door closed, and then once through the left door, Ingvar took a moment to seal it behind them with a wizard’s lock spell. They knew it wouldn’t hold the monster for long, and there was only one way to go now…down. When they reached the base, they found a similar dead-end cave. However, this cavity was completely deserted, and there was no sign of Astrid. There was a gigantic opening on the far wall that breached the side of the mountain, and the pair ran to it.
Looking down on the green valley below, they quickly realized that unless they could fly there was no way to escape. They heard two crashing thumps and a triple-roar; the black beast had torn the doors off their hinges and was coming for them.
“Look!” Ingvar pointed to the sky and Bjorn beheld Astrid riding a two-headed golden dragon! The serpent’s body glittered like a king’s treasure in the evening sunset, and its feathery wings spread wide, giving it the silhouette of a giant eagle. They knew Astrid had selected the correct path because the number of heads on the gilded drake was even, while the number of heads on the beast that hunted them was odd!
“Astrid! Help! Come and get us!” the barbarian panicked, but alas, it was too late; their pursuer’s three heads had penetrated the grotto and had simultaneously belched a triad of death: acid, flame, and poisonous gas filled the golden dragon’s den.
Astrid ignored the grizzly scene behind her and concentrated on the soaring heights she was experiencing with her newfound friend. She’d been lucky that she knew how to speak draconic, but she was even more fortunate that she’d chosen her own path.