Bren kel Tomas was a well-known swordsman. Young and energetic, he had cunning as well as speed. He could be great on a battlefield. Somehow, he had seen little action against the Beinison in the previous war, perhaps because he was not Baranurian by birth. But his pedigree had lent him status, his sword arm had given him a reputation, and he was now Duke Dargon’s personal weapons trainer. He was also standing opposite me, with an unsheathed blade and a stance that told me he was going to attack.
His blade flashed in the torchlight as it cut through the air, and I parried it easily enough. I shifted onto my left foot to draw my own blade backward toward his head, but his defense was already up and I heard the unique clang of steel against the iron boss of a shield. That was too easy for him. I was sweating, and the smooth-worn wooden handle on my borrowed weapon slipped in my grip. He had a leather glove on his right hand that helped maintain a firm grip on his weapon. I refused gloves, however, preferring the naked touch of my skin on my sword. It was a preference that might work against me here.
He danced on the sand floor of the arena in which we fought. Four torches marked the limit of our battleground at the river’s edge, and turned his normally reddish complexion into fire. He had the visage of a demon, and fought like one as well. Again his blade flashed, and I rose to meet it with my own, but I only parried air. Before our blades met, he changed his cut and brought it down toward my ankle. My weight had shifted too far forward to retreat, so I dropped my shield quickly. His own weapon glanced lightly from the oak wood, hardly nicking it. That, too, was just a feint. I was off balance now, my weapon high and my shield low. He plowed into me with his own shield, backed by the mass of his body, and I plummeted backward. I landed on my back, and my sword slipped like an eel through my sweaty fingers.
I could see him judge the distance between me and my blade, and he knew — as I did — that I would never be able to retrieve it before he cut me down. He stood regally before me, extended his blade toward my neck. I spat on the ground, disgusted. He was a tricky one, straight enough. I had held him off for a mene or two, but in the end it was my body that lay sprawled on the ground, while he stood above me with his weapon extended.
“Yield,” he commanded.
“Of course,” I said.
He nodded twice, then wiped his blade with the cloth that hung from his belt before sheathing it. He extended his hand to me. “Well done,” he said. Patronizing turd.
“Thanks,” I said. “You’re still too quick.” I grasped his hand and he pulled me up.
“I have the advantage of formal training,” he responded. “But in time, I think you’ll be able to keep up.” Pompous bastard. I retrieved my sword and wiped it with my oil cloth before sheathing it. It might be borrowed, but it was all I had, and I didn’t want sand pebbles nicking at its edge.
“You’ve improved,” he continued. “You read my footwork better, but you still need to watch your own balance.” I grunted my acknowledgement. “You really did quite well. You say you’ve never had formal training aside from the duke’s patrols?”
“Never,” I said. “But my father was an archer in –”
“Yes, I remember.” His interruption was not malicious, simply inconsiderate. “But that’s irrelevant, really.” Gods, I hated this man. I wished Duke Dargon had given me any other companion to ride to Winthrop. There were six of us, in total, but the other four were regular soldiers: three spearmen led by a sergeant. Technically, I was a regular soldier as well, coming up through the ranks. But after I had witnessed the brutal slaughter of my last patrol by man-sized creatures that appeared to be made of fur and stone, the duke decided I needed a special assignment.
There was more to it, of course. The local baron’s son was a mage who had lost control of his power. While he had successfully warded off the fiends attacking us, he simultaneously killed off the few remaining members of my patrol, and the woman I loved. Baron Winthrop had me imprisoned and blamed for the deaths of my patrol, and for skulling his son with a rock. That last part, at least, was true — it was both a matter of personal survival, and revenge for losing Captain Fellin. The others I could stand losing, though I missed them. That was also where I’d lost my sword, which I missed even more. But Captain Fellin was smart, agile, beautiful, and a born leader. I would not forgive her murder.
The self-important bastard kept talking. “I am really quite excited about helping your progress in your swordsmanship.” He smiled at me as if looking on a child. “You are becoming a favorite student of mine.”
“Great,” I replied. Part of me had the sense to keep the sarcasm from my voice.
The twins approached us from beyond the firelight. Their relaxed gait suggested the watch had been uneventful, other than Bren and I sparring. I knew the report even before they spoke.
“Good evening, lieutenant,” Torrin said. I shivered briefly at the reference to my new rank. I doubted the appointment was permanent. Duke Dargon simply wanted me to outrank the sergeant who led the troop, so I was given a promotion.
“Any news?” I asked.
“None,” Dorrin answered. Torrin and Dorrin. We called them “the twins,” though they looked nothing alike, and were not blood relatives. They simply had similar sounding names. But as soon as they met, a mutual attraction had built between them, and they were both inseparable and troublesome. They were good men, however, and had proven themselves in a shield wall. I could trust them in battle. That had been my main concern, when the duke asked me to hand pick a small group of soldiers to accompany kel Tomas and I back to Winthrop. I knew the sergeant, Kent, from the barracks, and he was okay. It was the twins I wanted, though, and they conveniently came from a short-handed troop that had just returned from a cushy assignment on the outskirts of the city, patrolling nearby farmsteads and hamlets. The fourth in their group was a quiet man named Ongo. I didn’t know much about him, but he was good with animals, and kept the horses well fed and groomed. A giant of a man with dark skin, he didn’t speak much but he followed orders. That was all I cared about.
“Go wake Ongo, then,” I said, “it’s time to get moving.” We were about two leagues from Raven’s View, where my previous patrol — and about 15 conscripts — had been slaughtered. I was not looking forward to returning.
Raven’s View appeared very much as I had last seen it, except that there were no charred bodies littering the ravine. Raven’s View itself is a peak among the hills about two day’s travel southeast of Dargon. We timed our arrival so that we would camp a few leagues from the battle site, and start our search in the morning. Come sunrise, we were free to roam the terrain and search for clues. The twins split off immediately, running down the shale and scree, heading to the area my former troop had made camp. kel Tomas stood at the peak, scanning the horizon. He might have been staring at the clouds as far as I was concerned. I tried to remember back to the battle, to identify where I had seen the movement among the rocks.
“I’ll set the horses to graze,” Ongo said. His deep, gravelly voice was an audible reflection of his massive form. He was easily two hands taller than I, and twice as wide. As he lumbered down the southern slope, a more gradual incline than the precipice over which we viewed the battle site, his body rocked back and forth like a ship on the ocean. Each step planted solidly on the ground before he took another. The mass of hair on his head was compressed down by his iron helmet; large tufts of it stuck out behind and on the side making a comical appearance. There wasn’t chain mail large enough for him, so he wore leather and furs instead, and kept a large ax strapped to his back.
I looked back to the ravine and watched the twins. They stuck together and leaped from rocks to boulders like children playing in the woods, stepping only momentarily on the natural path. Their scamperings appeared unhindered by the chain armor and small swords they wore.
I scanned the ravine wall across from me. Two or three large boulders appeared capable of concealing the monsters that had torn my old troop apart. I made my way down the scree, carefully walking or sliding as the situation required, and climbed the other side. Unlike Dorrin and Torrin, I felt the weight of my armor as I traversed the rocks. I perused the boulders thoroughly, but they were nothing more than that: boulders. Large, heavy rocks that no man — and I believed not even those beasts — could have moved. The horses whinnied, and I looked over to the sound. Ongo stood next to them, attempting to soothe the animals, but they were pulling against their reins and stamping the ground with their hooves. I suddenly remembered the beginning of the battle, and how Captain Fellin’s horse had disappeared.
“Torrin! Dorrin!” I called to the twins. “Get back here!” This was feeling all too familiar, and I didn’t want to be caught in another trap. Much as I hated Arlan, his magic had saved our lives before it started killing us. I moved over to Ongo quickly.
“Ongo, what’s the matter?” I asked.
“Not sure, Lieutenant,” his voice rumbled. “They don’t like this patch. Something scary.”
“We lost a horse here last time,” I said. “Can you walk them about a bit?”
“Sure, I’ll get them away,” he replied.
“No, I mean … ” I was uncertain how to phrase it. I wanted him to use the horses like dogs, sniffing out a trail. If the monsters that had attacked us had come up around here, somewhere — if they were truly subterranean, as I suspected — then there might be an entrance, a tunnel, something they’ve left behind. And if the horses were scared just to be here, they might be terrified of that tunnel.
“I want you to bring them to the scariest location you can,” I said, finally. I looked at Ongo when I said that. I hope he saw the remorse in my eyes. I did not want these beasts to suffer, but they could help us.
Ongo nodded. “Okay. But not long.”
I agreed. “Not long.”
Ongo tightened his grip on their reins and led the horses forward. The grassy patch was not large. If the horses willingly went in a direction, he would stop going that way and turn around. If they fought against a certain direction, Ongo would stop and soothe them, and then get them to continue in that direction. Eventually, we reached a location where the horses adamantly refused to continue. It was near a tree stump whose roots were unnaturally raised from the ground. I told the twins to see if they could find anything unusual about the stump, and told Ongo to bring the horses back to pasture.
The twins never even approached the stump. “Did you notice, Torrin,” Dorrin said, “that this stump is the only stump in this ravine?”
“Yes, I did, Dorrin,” Torrin replied. “There’s just rock, grass, and shale everywhere else in the region. This is the first tree stump I’ve seen.”
“Exactly,” Dorrin responded.
“And did you also notice,” Torrin said, “that this stump is from a large conifer?”
“Right you are, Torrin!” Dorrin exclaimed. “There’s none such as these for leagues. The scant few trees in these hills are oak and birch.”
“Exactly,” Torrin responded.
They folded their arms, looked at me, and smiled. Torrin was a hand and a half taller than Dorrin, and had dark hair. Dorrin was a bit stockier, with sandy hair. Somehow, their smiles were identical. “Regular pair of rangers, aren’t you?” I asked. “So tell me this: what’s it doing here?” They both frowned at this question, and stared at the stump.
“It’s covering something, obviously,” said a voice. My skin bristled. I knew that tone. Bren kel Tomas had made his way down from Raven’s View to stand by us while we inspected the stump. “Have your men remove it, and let’s find out what lies beneath.”
A bell later, we had cut out the larger roots and wrapped a rope around the stump. Ongo coaxed the horses into getting close enough for us to lash the ropes to their gear, and then they pulled. Ongo, the twins and I helped. After a few menes of sweating and grunting, the stump pulled free. What we saw confirmed what I had speculated about the beasts: it was the entrance to an underground tunnel. “Well, lads,” said kel Tomas, “it seems we are to become subterranean explorers.”
Ongo looked at me. “What’s that mean?” he asked.
“It means we’re going underground,” I replied. “Get some lanterns, ropes … Whatever else you can think of, and let’s get moving.”
I slid down loose stone and landed in a pit of dark silt. It smelled like a riverbed. The lantern highlighted the scoured and clawed sides of the tunnel, indicating it was not natural. The beasts that had attacked us made these tunnels, and they made them wide enough for two or three men to stand abreast. I stepped forward to give room for the rest of the troop to follow behind. I heard stone slide, and the soft pad of leather on dirt as their feet touched the ground. “Twins, take point,” I said. I kept the twins up front for two reasons: they worked well together, and they knew what it was to fight in a shield wall. Their shields and spears would keep a beast or two at bay and give us time to fight, or retreat. “Then me, Bren, Ongo. Sergeant Kent, track the rear. Ongo and I will carry lanterns.”
“These tunnels are large,” Kent said. “Just for the entrance, you think?” I saw his eyes search for mine in the lamplight.
“No, I don’t think,” I replied. “These creatures are large. The smaller the tunnels are, the better our advantage, they’ll only be able to fight one at a time, to our two or three. Make no mistake, however. Big as they are, they’re fast, and they’re tough. If these tunnels get wider, or we find a cavern where they live, then we’ll have trouble, so stay sharp. And remember, we’re not here to take on a whole bunch of them. We’re here for recon, get some proof they exist, and leave. Lord Dargon will handle it from there.”
We moved out. Stone and rock scattered along the compressed dirt floor and the lanterns cast flickering shadows along the walls. The tunnel was taking a definite downward slope, going deeper into the hills in an eastward direction. It led to a large fissure that created a natural passage, almost twice as wide across as the tunnel we had come through, and took us in a southerly direction. The fissure seemed to be act as a primary passage, into which a few tributary tunnels fed. The dank air was heavy in my lungs. Despite the height of the passage, easily three or four hands above my head, we jogged along in a hunched position. We traveled this way for at least a bell, perhaps two; it was hard to tell without daylight. We saw nothing: no monsters, no people, just dirt and rock. Eventually, we stopped to rest.
Ongo passed a water skin around. Sergeant Kent tossed me an apple. “What do you think?” Kent asked. He was nervous, but that was okay. The twins stayed close together, watching our backs with wary eyes. Bren’s visage revealed nothing.
“I think it’s odd we haven’t encountered anything,” I said. “I’m not even sure where we are, right now.”
“The tunnel we entered was heading east, but we’ve been heading south for a couple of bells, I think,” Bren stated. “That would put us somewhere near the north side of the Coldwell River, but not as far as Coldwell Abbey. These little tributary tunnels should take us to the surface, much like our entrance point did.
“There’s one thing that bothers me about this,” Bren continued. “You say Baron Winthrop was responsible for a mine, yet we are clearly well east of his demesne. I’m not sure who owns the land here, but it would seem to be under Count Connall’s control, or perhaps Baron Coronabo. Possibly the abbot of Coldwell Abbey.”
“I know,” I replied. “I think that’s why Winthrop chose this area. It’s mostly desolate rock and scree, there are no villages for leagues, and no one really has a strong claim on it. It gives him free reign, until a passing patrol comes across some miners who need help. And if he hadn’t sent his son to deal with the monsters the same time we came along, no one would have made the connection between him and the mine.”
Bren nodded. Without another word, he stood up and looked around at the rest of us. We all came to the same conclusion, and resumed our trek.
The fissure continued its downward slope, and eventually connected into a larger fissure coming from the left, what I guessed was an easterly direction. Slowly, a low rumbling became audible as we continued along. It was very soft, but I could feel it in my feet, as if the ground was constantly suffering from minor quakes. It was a new experience for me, and when I looked around at the others, it appeared it was new to them as well. The twins were downright gleeful for having a new experience. Ongo looked like an uncomfortable bear. Sergeant Kent was petrified. Even in the wan light of the lantern, I could see sweat beading at his forehead. He twitched and looked to the rear constantly. Only Bren seemed passive.
“Well?” I asked him.
“Probably the Coldwell River, or a major tributary, based on where we are,” he said. His voice took on that of a pontificating preacher. “We can hear the rumbling, you understand, just as we would on the surface, based on our proximity. The difference is, it’s harder to hear underground, so we must therefore be closer than one would be on the surface to hear it at the same volume. It’s really quite interesting.”
I shook my head. His ability to patronize without even trying was amazing. I looked at the others, and they all had a silly grin that said we shared the same joke. All of them, except Kent. He stepped forward to speak to me. I could smell the sweat on him.
“Problem, sergeant?” I asked.
“It’s these tunnels, sir,” he said. He glanced this way and that while he spoke. I could see his eyes were wide with apprehension. “It’s not that I’m afraid to be down here, it’s just that it’s not normal! You understand, this is kind of weird! And … ” He looked around again, then leaned in close to whisper. “And I don’t like having my back to the dark. I can’t tell what’s behind me.”
I nodded my head. In truth, the lanterns did not cast a lot of light into the passage, before or behind us. But we didn’t need Kent acting like a tree rat if he was picking up the rear. I decided to change our formation, and see how Bren felt about the darkness creeping in behind him. “New formation,” I said to the group. “Sergeant Kent will take third position behind the twins, followed by myself and then Ongo. Bren, carry up the rear.” I thought kel Tomas would show some emotion at his new assignment, but he simply moved where I had told him to go. He must have thought as I did; the rear of our troop was the most dangerous spot.
We continued in this formation for perhaps another bell. The low rumbling became an audible rush, and the soft quake in my feet became a gentle vibration in my chest. I felt it when I breathed. Kent’s condition did not lessen, but nor did it increase. The twins looked thrilled to be exploring in the dark, and took occasional opportunities to suggest the ground was getting slippery, or that they saw small dirt falls in the ceiling ahead. Kent tried to shrug it off, but it was obvious they were getting to him.
Then the passage opened into a cavern. We stopped at the entrance, where a large set of carved stone steps went down into a giant bowl about 100 hands below us. Several torches burned a pale blue flame shone intermittently along the stairs and many more in the bowl. Small huts were scattered across the bottom like an underground hamlet. There were people — or so they appeared — gathered around a dais in the center of the bowl. Another person stood on the dais gesticulating and making noise, but we couldn’t hear what he was saying over the sound of the river.
Kent stepped forward onto the stairs. He turned around with a silly smile on his face. “You had us going,” he said. “You said there were monsters!” He made claws with his hands and took a few pretend steps, as if sneaking up on someone. “Ha! Good one, Justin! I was getting ready to pee my pants, there!”
kel Tomas was the first to react. Pompous, arrogant, patronizing kel Tomas drew his sword and charged before anyone knew what was happening. Before Kent even knew it. I saw a black, hairy form leap out of the darkness from one side of the stairs to the other. Teeth flashed eerily in the bluish light. And then Kent’s headless body fell to the ground as blood spurted out from his neck.
“Shields!” I yelled, and the twins immediately stood tight together, shield edges overlapping, spears held low in front and ready to stab. But we could no longer see the dark shape, or knew where it had gone. kel Tomas stood poised behind the twins, his own shield reflecting the bit of yellow light cast from my lantern. My sword was in my hand, but I was in the unenviable position of having to choose between protecting our own light source, or strapping my own shield on my arm. I chose the light. A quick glance at Ongo told me he was unfazed, but his giant ax was in his hands now. He had put his lantern down.
There was no cry of alarm from below, so the monster had not gone off to warn anyone else. What were these things? The people in the cavern’s bowl looked normal enough from up here. Were the monsters some sort of pets? Servants?
I was the weak link, now, as the lantern hindered my defenses. I caught Bren’s eyes, and he seemed to understand my intention. I moved toward the stairs, a bit away from the others, as if to look for our attacker. I knew it was a risk. I hadn’t even heard the beast before it bit Kent’s head off. The fact that his head was nowhere on the edge of the stairs had me thinking the beast was sitting somewhere in the dark, enjoying a light snack before it came back for us. I had to force that thought away. These creatures were intelligent. It wouldn’t have gone far. I had to trust kel Tomas’ instincts that he would be close enough, and fast enough, to protect me as I leaned near the edge and held the lantern out.
Something stirred. I drew the lantern back fast, but not fast enough. Searing pain shot through my left arm as the beast leaped up, clawing a gash along my forearm. My right arm swung the sword upward, meeting the beast in mid-air, but bounced off it with a sound like metal hitting stone. A numb throbbing fired through my sword arm, but the strike was enough to turn the beast from his jump. Instead of disappearing back into the darkness, it found itself suddenly in our midst.
We could see it now, the beast before us. It had landed on all fours, but it slowly stood up on two legs like a man. Its body was mostly covered in fur, with rock-like lumps embedded into its shoulders and back. Its chest muscles rippled beneath the fur and a few small patches of pale skin. Even hunched over in its defensive stance, it stood as large as Ongo. Its head was wolf-like, with a long snout and sharp canines. When it growled I saw bits of flesh dangling between its teeth, and again I imagined this thing sitting in the darkness, gnawing on Kent’s skull.
Then the twins moved in to attack. They stabbed at it with their spears while keeping their shields locked for protection. Their spear tips mostly slid or bounced off stone lumps, but a few cuts annoyed it enough to turn it. I swung at the back of its neck, but it ducked beneath the blade. Before I could reverse my cut, it clawed at Dorrin’s shield and knocked him sideways. Bren stepped in and filled the gap instantly. He matched his shield to Torrin’ and stabbed forward with his sword. The beast yelped in pain and pulled back. Again, I found myself admiring Bren’s skill with the blade, even in this brief instant of battle. Dorrin stood up and returned to the small shield wall, and now the beast faced three shields, two spears, and a sharp sword.
It turned suddenly toward me, and I understood my vulnerability. The shield wall was between the beast and the tunnel from which we had entered, but I alone blocked its retreat. It hunched down to leap, but the twins’ spears were back at it, cutting into it with more accuracy now they knew where to stab it. kel Tomas’ own blade flashed into the back of its neck, and the beast howled. It raised its head like a dog preparing to release a long, loud bay. I saw my opportunity, and thrust my sword into its neck and cut the sound off before it started. Blood gushed onto my arm, and I could not pull my sword free. The creature grabbed me by the shoulders and lifted me. I felt its claws piercing my skin through the chain armor I wore. It lifted me up to its head and stared into my eyes. The thing’s eyes looked human; they burned with spite and malice. I heard spear tips striking stone again, and felt the beast shudder and convulse even as it held me locked in its grip, its eyes boring into mine.
Then it dropped me suddenly, and I scrambled to hold onto the edge of the stairs as it staggered, tripped, and fell over into the darkness. I watched as the lantern I had carried spun into the air, trailing behind the beast, until it landed with a loud clatter and exploded into a small river of fire. The oil in the lantern burst into a flaming arrow that seemed to point right back up the stairs to where we were. My borrowed sword had gone with the beast as well, but that thought only lasted a moment. We heard howling echo across the cavern that sounded like a dozen more beasts.
“We should go,” Ongo said. There didn’t seem to be any disagreements.
We ran. We tripped and stumbled and sprinted as fast as we could back up the passage we had just come down. Shadows leaped and plunged as the lantern in Ongo’s left hand swung wildly from side to side. For his size, Ongo moved quickly enough. I was afraid we would begin to outpace him, and have to slow down in order to keep him with us, but fear lent speed to all our feet.
“Think we still need evidence for the duke?” I called to Bren in between gasps of air.
“My word will be enough,” he replied. Damn. Just as I was beginning to think better of him, he had to open his mouth.
Our situation was not good. The tunnel we had entered from was a long way off, probably half-a-bell’s full run. There were two or three other tunnels that led off the current passage, and those might lead us to the surface, or they might not. But were we desperate enough to try them? The beasts that chased us moved faster than we did, and we had no idea how far behind us they were. We heard their howls and bays, but we couldn’t see where they were, or how many.
We kept running. My lungs burned with fire, and my legs began to feel like dead weights. Chain armor was not easy to run in. I knew I couldn’t keep this pace up, and so did Bren. “Turn into the next passage,” kel Tomas yelled. Several of us grunted in agreement, unable to form words. The howling was louder, closer. The passage appeared in the chaotic light of our sprint, and we turned in.
“Stop!” kel Tomas called. We did. Panting and wheezing, we came to a quick halt. I doubled over to try to catch my breath. “No time for that, now,” kel Tomas said. “Shield wall. Form up!” So that was his plan. The side passage was narrower, we could squeeze four of us together, but it would be tight for even two of those beasts to fight side by side, and they didn’t fight like trained soldiers. We would have the advantage of numbers for a short while. I wouldn’t be much use to them in this battle. My sword was gone, and I had to support my shield arm with my sword arm; the gash the first beast had cut into me was still bleeding. But I could help hold the line, and that was important.
It didn’t take long for the first one to arrive. It came right up the side passage without missing a step. It moved fast, but we were ready. Two spears stabbed out from the shield wall and stopped it in its place, deep gashes cut into its chest. Then kel Tomas struck with that lightning quick blade of his and sliced its throat. It gurgled and howled as it stepped back, blood bubbling from its neck. It’s slow death knell was a keening call to the others behind it.
Two more appeared, and kel Tomas stepped back into the protection of the shield wall. They barely registered the beast lying dead on the floor, merely stepping over it to come forward. Again, the twins’ spears jabbed and poked, keeping the monsters at bay. But they were fast, and wary, and kept their distance from the spear tips. They were learning. Then two more appeared behind them, and we knew we were in trouble.
“Dorrin,” said Torrin, “I must say, you’ve been a fine man to fight beside.”
“Thank you, Torrin,” Dorrin responded. “You’re quite an excellent spearman yourself.”
“We’re not dead yet, boys,” I said. “Keep your compliments for when we’re topside.”
“Our lieutenant seems a bit deranged, however,” Dorrin added.
“Delusional, I think,” Torrin said. “We’re never getting out of here.”
In the midst of the four beasts facing us was a fifth form I hadn’t noticed, probably because it was so much smaller than the others. It was a man. He barked a few words I could not understand, and the two lead beasts moved aside. In the scattered light and shadows, he stepped forward. He wore a fur loincloth around his waist, and a string of bones and teeth hung about his neck, and his skin was pale white. In his left hand, he held a small blue flame, similar to what we saw lighting the stairway down into the cavern. He gestured at us and yelled, but I have no idea what he was saying. He pounded his right fist into his head and snarled.
“He looks agitated,” Dorrin said.
“Indeed, he’s quite upset,” Torrin replied.
Then the man seemed to ask us a question. He pointed at Ongo, and asked again. I turned briefly to look at Ongo, but he looked as confused as the rest of us.
“They think he’s the leader,” kel Tomas said. “He’s back behind the shield wall. He’s the only one not fighting, and he holds the lantern. He looks like the leader.”
“Ongo, say something to them!” I ordered.
Ongo raised his ax and said, “Go away.”
“He’s direct,” kel Tomas muttered.
The pale man snarled, and backed up. His beasts surrounded him. The he yelled something, and the front two charged.
One beast had hit our shield wall earlier, and its weight had staggered us. Two of them crushed through us, knocking the twins, kel Tomas and I all to the tunnel floor. kel Tomas had stabbed one of them in the leg, and a spear tip had jabbed another in the shoulder, but both beasts were standing. Then Ongo raised his ax and brought it down on the skull of one of the beasts. He cleaved it in two, splitting the head in half and sending brains and bone tissue scattering. The other beast was at him in a flash. It grabbed him by the neck and raised him off the ground with one hand. Ongo beat at the monster’s arm to no avail. Then suddenly, its other clawed hand swung around and plunged into Ongo’s belly. Ongo’s eyes went wide, and he tried to scream, but the hand around his neck kept squeezing.
A spear tip found the back of the animal’s knee cap. It buckled sideways, releasing Ongo’s neck and dragging its fist back out of his gut. Ongo fell to the floor, and something squished as it landed next to him. The other two beasts were on us, then. I was still lying on the ground, my shield held above me. I felt pounding strikes smash against the wooden frame and wondered how long it would last. I looked sideways for help, and noticed one of the twins lying motionless on the ground, his spear useless next to him. The other twin was side-by-side with Bren, stabbing and cutting, trying to hold it off. Then Bren noticed me, and I saw something change in his eyes.
In an instant, Bren kel Tomas went from defending against the beast in front of him to turning his back on it. He reached for Dorrin’s spear, trusting Torrin to guard his back. It only took a moment for him to pick it up, turn, and fire the spear down the tunnel. He wasn’t going for the beast in front of him; he had aimed for the small, pale man with the blue flame. In so doing, however, he had left himself wide open. Just as the spear was leaving his hand, a massive claw raked across the side of his face, and he fell to the ground.
I heard the wood of my shield crack loudly as a clawed hand smashed into it. Then I heard the agonized squeal of a man who is unused to pain. I glanced to the right and saw the pale man on the ground, a spear protruding from his leg. He yelled again, and the beasts stopped fighting. Before I could regain my feet, they had gone, taking their dead with them.
I felt the blood pulsing in my veins again, as the excitement of battle began to wear off. I became aware of my own body. The pain in my left arm returned, and the sudden realization that I was still bleeding. My helm was somewhere in the tunnel; it was probably dented judging by the way my skull felt. I looked to the twins and saw Torrin supporting Dorrin as the latter regained consciousness. I saw Ongo lying on the ground between us, his hands holding tight to his stomach. In the flickering glow of the lantern, Ongo’s face was a mask of pain.
I went to Ongo’s side immediately. He looked at me and grimaced. “Not good,” he said.
“He’s a master of understatement,” Dorrin said groggily.
“We have supplies with the horses,” I said. “We need to get you to the surface.”
“That’ll be a hard trip without kel Tomas,” Torrin said.
“What?!” I replied. I turned around, scanning the ground for him. He was gone. “What happened? Where did he go?”
“Probably back to that cavern,” Torrin replied. “After the wee pale man caught his spear, the big nasty thing threw me to the side and picked up kel Tomas. They took him with them.”
Gods damn it.
Ongo was heavy, but we made a stretcher with the two remaining spears, and Torrin and I carried him. Dorrin was still weak, so he carried the lantern. The side passage we had turned down rose quickly to the surface. The sunlight nearly blinded us. The presence of grass, trees, and general greenery told me we had traveled a significant distance from the barren hills near Raven’s View. The smell of life was refreshing.
I looked to the sky to guess the time. Was it really only midday? It seemed as if we had spent an eternity in those tunnels. I wasn’t sure exactly where we were, but I trusted the twins to figure it out. “Get to the horses and bring them back here. Bind Ongo up as best you can, and bring him to safety. I think we’re near Coldwell Abbey. They’ll have healers there. Then get to Duke Dargon and let him know what happened.”
“Where are you going?” Torrin asked.
“To get Bren,” I replied.
“I told you he was deranged,” Dorrin said to Torrin.
“Daft is more like it,” Torrin replied. “We’re going with you,” he said to me.
“No. Ongo needs help, and the duke needs to know what’s down there. We’re splitting up. That’s an order.”
The twins looked at each other, then looked back at me and nodded. “Aye, Lieutenant,” Torrin said. “Just one question, though. How do you intend to get past all those nasties?”
“Aye,” Dorrin said. “And when you do, how do you plan to get Bren away from them?”
“Aye,” Torrin said. Then he added, “And if you do that, how do you plan to fight your way back past them all, what with your injured arm, no sword, and probably kel Tomas’ dead body over your shoulders?”
“Well, for the first, I don’t think there’s that many of those monsters left. My previous encounter, we went up against almost two score of those things, and none of them left the battlefield. Why was that leader — assuming he was their leader — coming into battle? I think there are only a few left. And while I may have lost my sword … again … I have Bren’s. As for the rest,” I sighed and smiled. “No idea. But I’m sure something will come to me.”
“Deranged,” Dorrin said.
“Daft,” Torrin replied.
I checked the oil in the lantern before I went back into the tunnel. It was low, but it would be enough. I held onto that thought as I went back into the tunnel. I was a lot closer than when we had started, and I had a fair idea of where I was going. The tunnel intersected the natural fissure, and I turned in the direction of the cavern. I kept the lantern low in my left hand, with Bren’s sword unsheathed in my right. It was slightly heavier than the last sword I’d had. I really needed to find a good weapon smith and buy a new sword. If I got out of this.
I knew this was foolish, but I needed Bren. He was of noble blood, and as such he had access to Winthrop. Winthrop’s son, Arlan, had killed my captain, the woman I loved. I wanted Arlan dead. Therefore, I needed Bren. He was arrogant, self-important, and completely patronizing. But he was also one of the most deadly swordsmen I’d ever met. If he was alive, and if I could get him free, I would simply put his sword in his hand and make do. “Besides,” I told myself, “how many of them can really still be alive?” Part of me knew it was bad that I was talking to myself, but the sound of any voice, even my own, calmed me. I recognized the slow rumble of the nearby river, and judged my distance based on how loud it got.
“There can only be a few left,” I kept telling myself. “There were only two uninjured beasts that left with the pale flame-guy. That’s about … Oh, two more than I can handle on my own, though. I’m going to have to be careful. I’m going to have to be quiet.”
“Best way to do that, then,” I heard a voice say, “would be to stop talking.”
“Aye,” agreed a second voice. “All this chatter is sure to alert the enemy.”
I didn’t have to turn around. “What did you do with Ongo? And how did you follow me without a lantern?”
“Don’t worry yourself about Ongo,” Dorrin said.
“Aye, he’s happy as a jackrabbit in a field of clover,” Torrin replied. “We left him by the biggest patch of wild strawberries you’ve ever seen.”
“I told you two to take care of him,” I grumbled. It was rare enough that I gave orders; I did not like them being ignored.
“He had a more compelling argument,” Dorrin said.
“Aye, he implied that your mission to rescue Bren kel Tomas was of utmost importance to him, and he had great misgivings about our abandoning you in your time of need,” said Torrin.
“He was more succinct than that, however,” said Dorrin. “I think his word were, ‘Go help Justin, or I hurt you.’”
“Or something similarly eloquent,” said Torrin. “But we felt his threats outweighed your orders.”
I shook my head. “And no lantern?”
“Funny thing about that,” said Dorrin. “The wee pale meanie that kel Tomas speared dropped something.”
“And we picked it up,” said Torrin. I turned and saw him reach into his pouch, and remove a blue flame by his fingertips. “Once we got near enough to see your lantern, I put it back. I thought it might draw too much attention.”
“You thought wrong,” I said, suddenly happy. “We might not be able to kill all the beasts down there, but at least if we travel with this blue flame it might not attract as much attention as the yellow light from this lantern.” The twins nodded in agreement. I turned the lantern’s wick down low and placed it on the ground, then reached for the flame. It felt like I was holding a cool breeze. “Let’s just hope this flame doesn’t go out,” I said.
We reached the stairwell where Sergeant Kent had died. Blood slicked the carved stairs where his life had pulsed forth from his neck, but his body was gone. We could see the bowl of the cavern again. Dozens of pale bodies milled about in a blue light emanating from a cauldron at the center of the dais. “We need to get down there.”
“How?” asked Dorrin.
“These stairs seem the obvious choice,” I said. “And seeing as nothing has come along to bite my head off, I don’t think the thing that guarded them earlier has been replaced.”
“That would support your earlier argument that there are but a few of the nasties left,” said Torrin.
“And that makes us happy,” said Dorrin.
We proceeded down the stairs slowly; Kent’s blood marked our footsteps as we descended. At the base of the stairs, we could see the crowd of pale people, and make out the man on the dais. From bloody bandage wrapped about his leg, I knew he was the same pale man who had faced us in the tunnels. He stood with his hands thrust into the cauldron of blue fire and rocked his head back and forth.
We moved from hut to hut, sticking to the shadows cast by the blue flames from the torches. I could see the crowd of people circling about the dais. Men, women, children, all of them were slowly shuffling about the altar. Their eyes were shut, and their heads swayed gently back and forth while they released a soft moan from their mouths. They looked human enough, if not for the pale skin that took on a soft blue hue from the flames on the altar, and the large, bat-like ears they all seemed to have. “Odd,” I thought, “their leader doesn’t have those ears.”
On the dais next to the pale man were six coffins made of stone. Standing outside the coffins were six of the pale people. The leader chanted while he held his cupped hands high, blue fire dripping down his arms. He gesticulated toward the coffins. The six people stepped slowly forward, as entranced as the rest of the milling crowd, and entered the coffins. Two more people stepped onto the dais and placed furs on top of the coffins.
“Oh, balls,” I said.
“What’s happening?” Dorrin whispered.
“Some sort of ceremony,” I said. “And I’ve got a bad feeling about it. Keep your spears ready, and let’s see if we can get closer.”
We found a spot about twenty paces from the dais, behind the last hut. The leader kept up his chanting, getting slowly louder and louder. This reminded me all too well of Arlan’s magic, and how he had called lightning from the sky. The leader was moving while he increased his volume. He thrust his hands down into the coffin and lifted a giant mass of blue flame toward the ceiling. The crowd’s low moans became loud cries of ecstasy. One by one, they fell to the ground, writhing and squirming like snakes in a pile. The leader threw the blue fire into the air, and it separated, split into six pieces, and fell onto the coffins. Suddenly everything came to a halt: the crowd stopped moving, the leader stood still, and the blue light faded down to a dim, soft glow. Only the rush of the river through the walls reached our ears.
An agonizing scream came from the altar; then another, and another still. A crack split the side of one coffin. A second coffin burst into a cloud of gravel and dust, blocking our view. The blue light from the cauldron brightened, slowly pulsing through the cloud as we heard the sound of more rock and stone splitting and crumbling. There was a low howl, and the shadows of six beasts became visible as the dust settled. They grunted and growled as they pulled their bodies free from the coffins. I could hear their flesh tear as they emerged. Their backs were decorated with blood and chunks of stone where their skin had fused with the coffins.
“We’ve got a problem, Lieutenant,” Dorrin said.
“Six of them,” Torrin added.
“We’ve got two more,” I said. Transfixed as I was by the ceremony, I had not been watching our backs. Two more beasts snarled like dogs behind us, crouched for a fight. We were in no position to fight, but the twins tried; they overlapped their shields and readied their spears. One of the beasts barked a loud call, and the leader on the altar suddenly snapped awake, looking in our direction. The other six beasts were quick to join the two in front of us, but they did not strike. We were surrounded and outnumbered. We dropped our weapons, but I cupped the ball of blue flame in my hand to hide it.
At a word from the leader, three of them herded us to the altar, bringing our weapons with them. He smiled when we got there, and pointed at his leg. Then he pointed to a small pit in the altar where Bren kel Tomas lay, bound hand and foot, but obviously conscious. There was a massive scratch across his right cheek; three long claws had each gouged a valley in his face. But he did not show pain. Instead, he greeted us.
“Gentlemen, welcome,” Bren said. “I see our host has extended you his hospitality.”
“Less hospitality would be nice,” Dorrin said.
“Aye, ask us to leave,” Torrin added.
The beasts dropped our weapons in front of the leader, and then backed away. The other three beasts approached the dais with three new coffins. The leader smiled, and then pointed at himself, and then each of us. He seemed to be asking who was in charge. I took a half step forward and pointed at myself. “I’m in charge,” I said.
“And a wonderful job he’s done,” kel Tomas added from the pit.
The leader nodded. Then he picked up a spear and pointed it at me. He lowered the tip to my right thigh. He tapped his own bloody bandage quickly and barked something at me.
“Ah, poor Lieutenant,” Dorrin said.
“Can’t they just kill us?” Torrin asked.
Then I felt the searing pain of a spear ripping into muscle. Blood gushed down my thigh and my leg crumbled. I fell forward, grasping the shaft of the weapon. The blue flame that I had cupped in my left hand mingled with my blood, and the shaft of the weapon. I felt fire in my stomach, burning cold like an ancient evil. When I looked up, the leader had his arms raised and his back to me. The crowd of pale people was cheering, and the monstrous beasts were roaring. My eyes focused on a tattooed pattern on the back of the leader’s bald little head. I recognized that pattern. It was the same one Arlan Winthrop had on his skull. This mage — I knew him now, for what he was — he was from the same school, or sect, or whatever place those mages come from. Anger welled up within me, and the cold fire felt like lightning in my hands.
I yanked the spear from my leg. I felt nothing but the cold fire burning in me, exciting me, enticing me onward. It reached its way into some animal instinct in my head and allowed pure action to take over instead of reason. I stood up and swung the spear like a staff, crushing into mage’s already-injured leg, and sweeping him to the floor. The beasts near me roared, but I spun and plunged the weapon through the chest of the nearest one. The blue rage within me had given me strength to pierce its hide, and it crumbled to the altar still holding the spear. I picked up another weapon, Bren’s sword, and turned to face the other two beasts.
Torrin and Dorrin had taken advantage of my attack and armed themselves. One beast was down and bleeding from its neck and the other fought against the twins. I hacked wildly at it, but there were still three other beasts on the altar. I looked for the mage. He had regained his feet, and raced to the cauldron of blue fire. He thrust his hands in it again, calling out in his arcane tongue. I abandoned the twins and sprinted across the dais. I knew I needed to reach him before he could finish his incantation. And this time, I wasn’t going to use a rock to subdue a chanting mage.
With a single lunge, I thrust Bren’s sword through the mage’s back. He arched backward, arms flailing, blue light exploding like a wave of force out of his hands and up toward the ceiling. I saw the sword tip rip out the front of his chest. I yanked it backward and removed the blade. His body fell to the ground like an empty sack. The blade was glowing blue like the fire, but the rage within me died suddenly. With the mage’s death, the magic fueling me expired.
There was darkness all around us, now. The torches of burning blue lights all extinguished. The sword in my hand was our only illumination. The pale human creatures that had surrounded the dais started screaming and scattering. The remaining beasts staggered, dazed, and loped away from the light of the weapon in my hand. A loud cracking sound, like a thunderclap, split the air in the bowl-shaped cavern. I looked to the ceiling, and a large chunk of rock broke away and fell into the panicking masses. A fissure of water spouted from the ceiling and fell on us like rain. It slowly grew, taking more chunks of the ceiling with it as the water pressure broke through.
“I think we’ve done enough here, Justin!” I looked about, and saw the twins staring at me, wide-eyed, as if they had never seen me before. kel Tomas was on his feet now, unbound, and holding a spear and shield. “It’s time we left,” he said. I nodded, and we started running toward the stairs. I collapsed instantly: my wounded leg, no longer imbued with blue magic, could not sustain my weight. The twins propped me up, and I held the sword high to light our path. I counted over eighty steps as we climbed the stairs. Water was pouring in from the ceiling in torrents, now, swallowing the floor of the cavern. Little pale bodies scampered up the sides of the walls, looking for escape. Others were floating face down in the flood.
At the top of the stairs, one of the twins grabbed the lantern we had left and raised the wick. I sheathed Bren’s sword and we moved faster down the tunnel. We reached the surface, and daylight, just as the sun was setting low in the hills to the west. Ongo was nowhere to be found.
“And how is your leg now?” Duke Dargon asked me. I stood before him yet again, having told the tale of our adventure.
“Improving, your lordship,” I replied. “Largely due to the excellent healers in your employ.”
“Good. Good. You’ve done us quite a service. Bren and you both.” He nodded at Bren kel Tomas, who was standing to the side of the duke’s throne. Bren’s face had been healed as well, but his cheek retained the scars where three claws had raked him.
“And the twins,” I added.
“Of course,” he said. He nodded and smiled. I liked this duke. With his right hand, he rubbed at the stump of his left arm where it had been severed above the elbow. Something was bothering him again, I suspected.
“With Bren’s collaboration on your current adventure, I can conclude that your previous tale about miners and beasts was truthful, to the best of your knowledge.”
“Thank you, your lordship,” I replied. “I look forward to seeing Winthrop held accountable.” I also looked forward to finding his son and finishing what I’d started with that rock.
“Unfortunately,” Duke Dargon continued, “there is still no evidence that Baron Winthrop committed any crimes.” My jaw dropped. His voice was compassionate, but firm. “I’m sorry, Justin. I’m afraid you will not get the satisfaction for which you crave. I can only give you one thing, as a small token of my appreciation.” He waved, and an aid brought out a bundle of clothes. It was a new uniform. “I’m granting you a permanent promotion to sergeant. Your previous rank of lieutenant was temporary, you understand, but I would not have you fall back to the ranks as a corporal. You can lead men, and you have earned it in battle.”
“Thank you, my lord.” I said. It was something. It was not the vengeance I craved. Lord Winthrop’s greed had not been cut in two. I did not hold his son’s lifeless body in my arms. But it was the best official gift a duke could give his soldier.
“I have something for him as well, my lord,” Bren kel Tomas said. The duke and I looked toward Bren, who approached me formally. He withdrew the sword at his side and presented it to me. The blade retained a soft blue glow. “There’s something different about the blade, now. Its weight is lighter, more your style,” he said. I grasped it by the handle and held it in my right hand. He was right. “I’m not sure if that’s an indication that the steel will snap at some point, or … something else. But it’s less comfortable for me, now, so I’ll need a new blade.” He smiled at me and the scars turned a lighter shade of pink.
“That’s quite a gift, kel Tomas,” the duke said.
“I’d be dead right now, if not for our new sergeant here,” Bren said. “You were just in time.”
I shook my head and smiled as well. “It’s Archer,” I said with a chuckle. “Justin Archer.”