Through jade glass Finch studied the barrier of bricks before him much as he had the past fifteen minutes. The sixteenth yielded no change in the wall itself, but his consideration of it was always in flux, and homing in on one principal point about the obstacle: it was made of bricks.
"I could budge it," grumbled Dune as he thumped a meaty fist against the wall.
Dixie pouted up at the big man. "I've my doubts about how ye'd fare in this fight, Great Dune."
"My eyes tell me all this door's spells are broken," Finch said, chin on one hand, elbow on the other. "This wall is plain as any. It mayhap that bare hands are not the solution."
"Bear hands, though?" asked Dune, forming a claw and brandishing it before himself.
Ever curious, Dixie snooped at the foot of the blockade, running deft fingers along the edges. "No locks of any sort, not that I can find . . ."
With a puzzled hum Finch took a step back, standing at the precipice of the stairway they had come up. The doors he'd opened showed no means of changing the structure they revealed, and the surrounding passageway was remarkably well-built, yet unremarkable otherwise. It was just . . . a brick wall.
Dune got into a firm stance up close to it, and placed his clawed hands on the bricks, nails scratching as they dug in. He pushed, straining with the effort and every bit reminiscent of a forest beast, but gave up when it proved futile. "It's a solid one, I'll give it that," he panted.
"Bear hands indeed, eh?" Finch mused aloud. As the big man dusted his hands off, he watched the mortar he'd dug into shed fine dusty particles onto the stone floor. "I wonder, though . . . if a tool in those hands would suffice."
"A tool?" Dune grumbled. His hands flexed, and he moved them to his belt, his expression lighting up as he found the pommel of his sword there. "Ah, 'course!" he said as he drew the blade: two-and-a-half feet of solid steel, singing on its way out of the scabbard. A modest piece of equipment, one he kept for emergencies. This seemed to be close enough.
"I'll admit my doubts are shrinking," Dixie said with a wary smile as she hopped a step back from the wall, "but if anything can be more stubborn than you . . ."
A firm swing of the sword met the bricks with a ringing clang, making Finch flinch an inch away. "Er . . . perhaps a different methodology is required? One more . . . surgical?"
"Oh, I'm just givin' her a love tap, is all." Dune hefted the weapon handily, studying the wall as more dust drifted to the floor. "My stubbornness ain't so dull as a brick wall's, D'. Fact it's almost as sharp as this sword, if need be. Observe!"
With that, he leveled the point of the blade upon the mortar between bricks while poking his tongue out the corner of his mouth. His dogged determination was prepared to be on full display, brow knit and eyes intent. This time his attack was indeed more precise. He wiggled, prodded and scratched with his sword, testing it along the edges with no surplus of grace, but no brute strength either.
The ease with which he dug it away made the age of the fortification apparent; Finch could at least tell that much when Dune found a hollow into which he wedged the tool near the center of the wall. It crumbled like it had been set for a great many years, and only now faced a force to yield to. When he had the blade in place, Dune gently pried it up and down to search for leverage.
"I s'pose that's one way to pick this kind of lock," Dixie giggled as she watched the big man work.
"May not be so nimble as you . . ." grunted Dune, twisting his sword assiduously, "but I know where my strengths are."
Heaving the hilt upward, he managed to pry the lower brick in toward them, sending another shower of old mortar to the floor. From there he moved with relative ease the blade around the brick, knocking it loose enough to grab hold of and pull free of the wall itself.
"Ah, there we are!" Dune proudly proclaimed, blade in one hand, brick in the other. "Now that the hard part's done . . ." He then leaned in to peer through the new hole, yet there was naught in sight but darkness.
"What's hidin' back there?" Dixie piped up, a head too short to see.
Finch took a peek through his jade glasses, catching glimmers of crepuscular coruscance in the otherwise black space beyond that indicated something arcane had occurred within. Something . . . delicate. "Whatever it is, it's at work already. I've a feeling a new game is going to be afoot."
"Well no sense trying to figure it out from here," said Dune, sword brought forth once more. He tossed the one brick aside and put his hand through the place it had occupied, tugging at the wall from the center. As he took a gentle jab at the mortar with the blade, the next brick came loose, widening the gap there.
"Now we're getting somewhere!" Dixie said with a grin. The girl was quick to pick up each brick and stack it on the side, while Dune and Finch worked at pulling more free.
As the hole became large enough to stick his head through, Finch brushed his sleeve clean of crumbled mortar and gave the entire thing a cursory examination. "Now now, Great Dune, I think we should take some care from here, else we might find it coming down on our heads."
The big man swiped a hand over his bald dome, regarding the wall in kind as he took a breath. "Right," he sighed. "Best to get it all out of the way quick."
Before the bespectacled mage could question his meaning, he assumed that firm stance yet again, sheathing the sword so both hands were free to be raised to the wall. Those hefty paws of his smacked into it just above the hole already created, and with a growling effort Dune forced the higher bricks, loosened by their progress so far, to budge.
"That's, uh . . .not the sort of care I meant—"
Dune's growling reached a guttural peak as several bricks tore free of the wall and were shoved to the other side. The hole, now torn all the way to the ceiling, posed an admittedly lesser risk of coming down in their direction.
"W-well . . ." Finch began, bringing his half-raised pointer to the bridge of his glasses. "Bear hands certainly can be the solution, it seems."
Dixie hopped forward with a giggle. "Well at least I can fit through that."
"Maybe if you could reach on yer own," grumbled the big man. He dusted his hands before redrawing his sword. "But don't worry, lass. I'm an equitable demolisher."
Showing but a mite more care, he proceeded to pry the lower bricks up with the blade, breaking the wall down to where a stiff boot could clear the path forward. He barked a proud laugh as he did so, then planted a foot on the debris where it once stood.
"Equitable, indeed!" Finch said as he managed to step through the broken wall. Dixie hopped along the rubble just behind, while Dune tidied up the bricks behind them, the click-clack echoing alongside their footfalls.
As soon as Finch stepped on the stone floor beyond, the room ahead whooshed alight with torches, immediately reminding him of the first floor of the tower. In the newly illuminated space—which was of a similar size, if he judged it right—sat a strange contraption indeed.
Bronze glittered as the firelight played along the rims of two large discs and the long stem that held them upon its ends. Their length stretched out askew on the top of a similar pole, rising to well above the head of even the Great Dune, who walked up beside the others to take in the sight.
Finch estimated both plates to be wide enough to lay across from head to foot, yet they occupied a fraction of the otherwise empty room. The left end's tilted pose was suggestive of a branch laden with a single fruit.
"I suppose this is that 'real game' the lectern mentioned, eh?" Dune said with a slow scratch of his chin.
"It certainly is . . . puzzling," mused Dixie, tilting her head to a degree that mirrored the stem.
The unreachable height of the plates was another reminder of the previous room and their ploy to blow out the chandelier. This time, however, despite the lower plate being only a hands-breadth further up than those candles, there was an even higher place to reach—the door forward.
Through jade glass Finch gazed up past the contraption of brass and to that ledge in the opposite wall where the only other door to the room stood at twice its height. Barred, as the passageway they had entered through before solving the last game was, it posed another challenge that was waiting to be won.
"The wonderful thing about puzzles," he said, eyes returning to the contraption, "is that they're meant to be solved. I'm thinking that the last one was . . . within our reach. Care to try again?" He turned to face his companions with a querying quirk of his brow.
Dixie got the point faster than he'd expected, leaping from a stack of bricks to throw her arms over his shoulders and piggyback on him before he was ready. A steadying hand from Dune prevented them both from toppling over, and the girl giggled as Finch hefted her up as he'd done earlier.
Dune soon lifted Finch up alike, and the trio wobbled their way into place beneath the lower of the two bronze plates.
"It's not quite so low as the chandelier," Dixie said from her perch on Finch's shoulders. Her outstretched arm, hand, and even her longest finger were short of the goal of the plate's shiny rim. "I've almost . . . touched it . . . Just a bit higher—"
Dune teetered an inch forward, and back again, an otherwise solid base to their human tower. "I'm a upright as can be, and I don't think I've any more growin' to do these days."
"Hold steady, Great Dune. I'll move her up." With a firm grasp of the girl's feet, Finch worked to rise from his seat upon Dune's shoulders to kneel there instead, lifting Dixie that much closer.
The brass poles stood still and tall ahead at the center of the room, much too far to hold on to for security, and far too smooth to scale. Where the stem extended horizontally at the top, there appeared to be a joint. Coupled with the slight tip, it gave Finch the impression of a balancing act, not unlike their own as they reached for the near end's plate.
"Almost . . . there!" exclaimed Dixie, tensing of a sudden and nearly sending them both pitching forward. "I've got it!"
The girl's already negligible weight eased by a fraction as she got hold of the plate. "I can pull myself up," she said with a hint of uncertainty, seeming to grow even lighter.
"Careful now D', I don't know if it's entirely—"
Finch looked up as she left his shoulders completely, a high-pitched gasp echoing through the room. Before he knew it she was hanging from the plate and pulling it downward with her—only slowly. So slowly he was busy wondering at the mechanism too long to do anything about it while she descended past him and gently to the side.
"Oh no-no-no!" Dixie exclaimed on her lazy trip toward the floor, legs kicking at the air. "Not the first thing I expected!"
"Where's it takin' ya, D'?" shouted Dune, swiveling under Finch without regard for his balance. He watched the contraption rotate with the girl clinging to one end, drifting away across the room.
Finch flailed his arms, tipping one way then the other. "I b-believe . . . she's the one taking it with her." He managed to steady himself and hopped down to the floor to go after Dixie.
The plates pivoted as the girl reached the bottom of her swing, and she was just as smoothly lifted back up again. "I'm not trying to take it anywhere!" she cried.
"Hold on a moment more!" said Finch, darting to where she had swung, As he reached for her dangling feet the plate rose just too high, carrying her on and around the room.
Dune strode straight past the pole below, heading the girl off at the opposite end of where she started. "I've got ya!"
It didn't carry her quite as high this time, the swing beginning to level out when she reached him. As she passed over the big man's head, Dixie let go of the plate to fall into his waiting arms. "Oof—" She laughed as the plate drifted back up above them. "I like this puzzle better than the last!"
Finch skidded to a sighing stop after chasing around the long way. Upon his assurance the girl was safe, he watched the contraption spin ever slower overhead. "Well, I'm of a mind to figure out how it's supposed to work, first."
The plates went up and down in their rotation, but soon enough leveled out once more, resting at halfway to the height of the door. As Dune dropped Dixie to her feet again, and she gazed up with the others, she hummed in contemplation.
"Well it spins," she mused aloud.
"It swings," the big man grumbled.
"And it's able to be ridden . . ." Finch approached the center pole it stood on, running a gloved hand along the smooth bronze as his eyes moved on upward. "But can it take us up to that door?"