“Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.”
– Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn
With all other routes explored it was time to investigate the buildings. Since only one of the buildings had a dashed line leading to it they decided to enter that one first.
In contrast to the grotto, the interior of the building was bright as daylight. Though it was bright, the light came from indirect sources overhead.
Each side of the building housed statues lined up and embedded in a clear wall of crystal. Each statue held different objects in its hands. With every statue well out of reach there was no chance that any object could be stolen.
The objects themselves varied widely. One statue held a scroll and a book, both with unknown symbols, and while he learned the language was English, this proved unhelpful. The next statue clutched a steel dagger pinching the blade between thumb and forefinger and holding it up to its eyes as though examining it. After that was a statue with different grades and colors of linen. The rest of the objects held were just as varied. A handful of different seeds, a ripe fruit, a coin of dungeon gold, a plate mouse and a plate rat, a blooming flower, rods of metal, gems, sorcerer’s silver, the list continued.
And, at the end of the room, was a raised dais of black marble threaded with amethyst. A small ruby bowl was inset into the marble, and it glowed with inner light. Above, set into the wall, was a black crystal. It was similar in shape to most dungeon cores, except that parts of it appeared scarred or cut away.
Identifying the marble platform made Zidaun pale slightly as his blood slowely sapped from his face. It was like a slap in the face for putting off his duty. “The Altar of Sacrifice and Obligation,” he said.
Firi gave him a worried glance. Zidaun smiled faintly, and shook his head.
Gurek, meanwhile, was pacing and looking at all the various items, though he turned at the sound of his voice.
Inda spoke up. “An altar? I wonder what it wants sacrificed?”
Gurek was looking at a pile of gems in various simple cuts. He gestured to an arm broadly at the statues “Do you think these are the rewards for a sacrifice?”
Zidaun shook his head. “I doubt it, unless you really want a plate mouse?”
Gurek just made a face.
“I think these are simply examples of acceptable sacrifices,” Zidaun continued.
Inda nodded and glanced around, “There are quite a few different items here, and they seem rather random. I think…” she trailed off for a moment, “yeah. I think it might accept almost anything. I am not sure what kind of reward it might give but we should find out for our report regardless. We have plenty of nonessential things we could give it a few of.”
Inda looked around and got nods from everyone. After a quick discussion they each pulled out a few items.
They started with something simple, and Zidaun dropped a single copper coin into the bowl. The coin dissolved and a tiny clear disk, an inch across, materialized above the bowl and clattered down into it with a faint crystalline chime.
He pulled the disk out; it had an unknown symbol on the front of it. The back held a pheonix. He [inspected] it. “Token of Life and Prosperity: 1.” The description was minimal. It could not be stolen or looted, but could be transferred. He said the name to the others, but without more information any speculation was useless.
He put another coin into the bowl, but it simply rested there. He took the coin back and Inda placed a copper coin of her own in. Nothing.
“Let’s see if it will take something else.” he said. The other nodded.
He took a strip of dried fruit and put it in the bowl. The fruit dissolved and he felt a tiny surge of mana, but nothing appeared. He looked at the token he had already been given. “Token of Life and Prosperity: 2.” The unknown symbol on the front had changed as well. He showed the others.
“This side changed. I think the symbol is a number.” He did a quick sketch of the last symbol and then copied out the new one, marking each as their potential numbers.
He stepped back. “I probably shouldn’t get all of the… well whatever this gives you, even if it is transferable there is only the one token.”
“I’m not sure it’s a problem,” Firi said, and he pointed to the sides. “Looks like that token should fit into those.”
To each side of the altar were two columns about waist high that then angled sharply back into the wall. In that small angled space were three holes in each pillar. They were shallow, ruby, and had a depression in the shape of a phoenix. The column on the left side had two holes on the top. A narrow groove connected each of them to another hole. The column on the right was the same, except the two holes were on the bottom instead.
“Looks like it might be used to combine and separate tokens.” Firi said.
They each examined them for a moment before Inda asked a question.
“So, should we read these top-down or down-up?”
Zidaun shrugged. “No good way to tell without simply trying.”
He was closer to the left column so he put it in the bottom slot of that one. Nothing. The other two slots also produced nothing. He brushed past Firi to get to the other side, who promptly gave him a bit more room, and pressed it into slot on the top. There was a faint click as the token aligned itself perfectly into the indent. It suddenly disappeared and was replaced with two tokens in the bottom slots, jutting out with identical markings to the original token he had received. They [identified] the same too.
“Well that works,” Gurek muttered.
Zidaun gave a low hum of agreement. “We’ll need to see what it does with larger numbers, later. For now…”
He went back to the left side and put the two identical tokens into the top slots. They disappeared and combined into a new “Token of Life and Prosperity: 2.”
Since it did not seem to matter who gave the items, Zidaun proceeded to “sacrifice” each of the items they had chosen. The guild would reimburse them the cost for anything expensive, as long as one of them swore under truth spell that they had used it to learn more about the dungeon.
Most of the items they gave simply added one to the count of the mark. The items they gave were varied: dried meat, a small scrap of cloth, a nut, and so on.
The patterns of what the dungeon valued seemed to be a bit odd at first. The small section of dried meat gave one, the same with the cloth and the nut. The handful of seeds gave three, as did a silver piece. A gold coin was simply ignored (not too surprising since there was a gold piece on display already). A cut sapphire was absorbed and then returned a moment later, it gave two.
This puzzled them for a while until they spotted that the gems suspended in the crystal above one of the statues had changed slightly. Now some of the gems were in the same cut as they had offered. When they tried giving another gem with a different cut, the same thing happened and the gems shifted slightly once again to incorporate the new cut. It appeared that the dungeon had been returning the gem because it was paying for the information, rather than the gem itself, which it already know how to make.
Other items also puzzled them for a while, like the seeds giving three points to the mark. Eventually they pieced it together after giving the dungeon additional pieces of meat. The dungeon would give a total of three points for any relatively unchanged material that was once alive. They had given the missing portions of the other foods to make up the points. Little pieces of every basic material they had, as well as from their stockpiles, were given. And since the dungeon took things more than once, everything was offered at least twice to make sure. Eventually, when they had given pieces of everything that they could do without any real hardship, Gurek spoke.
“Do we want to try offering something a little more valuable?”
“Like what?” Firi said.
Gurek pulled out a heat stone. “I don’t see anything magical here,” he glanced around, “it might give a lot of.. whatever these things are for, and we do have extra of the various stones, just in case.”
“Sure,” Inda said, “as long as we don’t suddenly find ourselves needing them. That would be… unfortunate.”
“Your taste for understatement continues to amuse, someone else” Firi said. He received an elbow to his stomach for his troubles, which he largely ignored.
“Actually,” Zidaun said, “if none of you mind, I would prefer to do my prayers first. This seems an ideal location.” Normally he would have done them at the first safe zone he reached within a dungeon, but the entire dungeon had been a safe zone so far. And putting it off… had seemed to be little risk. The door earlier and the altar had brought home rather forcefully his failure to do his duty, however. He could put it off no longer.