At first, there was a lot of cover in the form of bushes growing along the upper sides of the path. Before long however, the bushes began to thin out. As far as they could see ahead of them the tube ran in nearly a straight line. Once they left the cover of the surrounding brush they would be easily visible to anyone watching from above.
Storm decided it was time to give Ralt’s invisibility spell a test. They each took one of their twigs and broke them with a dry snap.
The results were amazing.
In less time than it took to draw in a single breath their bodies became transparent as glass, then faded until there was nothing left but a slight, wavering outline where each of them stood. Storm extended his arm out in front of him. He could barely see the outline of his arm and hand, but the ground under it was clearly visible. He could see right through himself! It was as if he’d turned into a ghost. He looked at Lorelei, barely able to make out where she was even though she was scant feet in front of him. He heard her choke back an awed gasp. He smiled broadly, knowing she couldn’t see it. He was glad to know she wasn’t as completely unflappable as she pretended to be.
“Wouldn’t it be great to run around naked like this?” she giggled suddenly. “You could flap your rear end at some old biddy in Nahor and she’d never see it.”
Storm resisted the urge to chuckle. “But if you’re invisible so she can’t see you, she won’t even know you’re there or you’re naked. What fun is that?” he countered playfully.
“Good point,” she admitted. “You men are always so practical,” she teased lightly.
“It’s our middle name,” he chuckled, turning back to their trek up the tube. “Come on.”
It headed straight for a towering cliff situated on the outer cone of the volcano which gave birth to the lava flow. The closer they came to the cliff, the less damage there was to the upper portion of the tube. It closed in overhead until the two sides met and they were walking through a tunnel like a giant pipe. Storm realized with a start if this was indeed the correct trail then it was possible there was only one way in or out of the bandit’s lair. If so, it was a defender’s dream come true; a small, enclosed passage forcing any attackers to advance single file and providing absolutely no cover of any kind. Anyone trying to attack up this tunnel would be a sitting duck.
He and Lorelei paused to discuss it in low whispers.
“If this is the right trail, then the gods be with us,” she commented. “We couldn’t take this place with a thousand troops, let alone thirteen.”
“It’s one long, killing zone,” he agreed darkly. “They could pick you off one at a time and there would be nothing you could do about it.”
“Perfect place for booby traps too,” she added. “There’s no way to go around them.”
Despite the desperate situation, Storm found it a relief to finally have a kindred soul to talk to. Ralt and Durin were both fine men in their own way and he was forced to admit to a growing sense of friendship with them, but still . . . they weren’t like him. He and Lorelei were from the same mold, they’d grown up with the same love of adventure; he could see it in her plain as day. He knew without asking she’d have been a boon companion during his twenty years of wandering after Lydia died, maybe even more than a companion. He stifled the thought quickly. Back to work, he told himself sternly. “I can check for magical traps,” he muttered to her, “but as for the other kind, well . . .”
“. . . we’ll just have to go on instinct,” they both said together. What was I just saying, he thought to himself? They shared a quiet chuckle, then headed up the tunnel once more, with redoubled caution.
They inched forward in the pitch, black confines of the tunnel, feeling their way along, alert for the first sign of danger or discovery. If anything happened, it would come at them with lightning speed allowing no time for misjudgments. Any mistake would be their last. Storm worried a patrol could come marching down the tunnel, from either direction. If from ahead, they could simply turn and run, hoping they weren’t heard. If from behind, they would have no choice but to forge blindly ahead and hope for the best. In their exposed position their choices were sharply limited. After nearly thirty minutes they’d covered perhaps two hundred yards in the Stygian darkness.
Storm was beginning to wonder how far they had to go when he saw a faint glow up ahead. There was still no light in the tunnel so he knew it had to be magic. He stopped.
Sensitive to his every movement, Lorelei stopped as well. He reached back for her hand, then tapped on it in drum talk, “Something ahead. Wait here.” In his mind, he’d always thought of it as a form of Morse Code. She tapped back an affirmative.
He eased down the tunnel until he could see the coiled spell hanging in midair at chest level. Whatever it was, it was designed to catch anyone coming close. He studied it intently, trying to decipher what he saw. There was a mix of colors with amber the predominant shade. It coiled in on itself like a Gordian knot, so complex it made his head hurt trying to follow it. There was a smoky haze to it as if an invisible fire burned somewhere within. Thin filaments about three feet long trailed off from the central mass in all directions. Tiny green lights flashed through it at random intervals, and more of them raced up the filaments to the center of the spell. He considered it. Green was the universal color for ‘situation normal’ while red signified danger. Were the green lights moving in the thing a signal for it not to fire? He crouched down. There were about two feet of clearance between the floor and the tips of the sinister-looking filaments. Could they squirm under them safely if they didn’t touch them? He sighed in frustration at his lack of knowledge.
The filaments stiffened at the sound of his exhalation, the green lights changing to yellow. He froze, not daring to breathe. He watched the dangerous thing, acutely aware he stood on the edge of disaster. His lungs began to burn with the need for air. Still, he held his breath, afraid to even twitch.
After what felt like an eternity the filaments began waving gently again and the lights gradually went back to green. He let his breath out slowly then breathed in just as slowly. He felt lightheaded from lack of oxygen. He waited until his head stopped spinning then backed away one inch at a time.
“What took you so long?” Lorelei drum talked into his hand when he got back to her.
“It’s a spell of some kind. It looks like it responds to physical contact and to sound,” he tapped back. “We have to crawl under it without making any noise or we’re dead.”
“Understood,” she responded.
When they reached the spell-trap he went belly down on the rocky floor, pulling her down with him. “If I squeeze your hand, freeze. Don’t even breathe,” he tapped on her palm. She squeezed his hand in response. They put their weapons on their backs away from contact with the floor and started under it.
For an unguessable time, they moved less than an inch at a time. Storm pushed himself forward a fraction of an inch with his toes, pulling with his fingers at the same time. He rocked gently back and forth, squirming up the tunnel like an inchworm.
Behind him, he knew Lorelei was doing the same thing. After every fractional movement, he slowly turned his head to see what the spell-trap was doing. Every time it was flashing green he moved forward another quarter of an inch. Three times it flashed yellow in response to some tiny movement or sound it detected. Each time they froze, praying it would ignore them and go back to its normal routine. Each time their luck held and they resumed their torturous journey.
At last, they passed the hideous thing. Storm hurried them several yards up the tunnel as fast as he could then signaled a break. They slumped down against the curving walls, exhausted from their harrowing task.
“Now I know what a snail feels like,” Lorelei tapped in his hand. It turned out it had taken them over an hour to traverse a distance of six feet.
Sooner than either of them would have liked he got them up and moving again. They were taking too long getting into the hideout. Their invisibility would be wearing off and they still had to pass the miserable thing on the way back out again. His heart sank as he contemplated a repeat of what they’d just been through.
The spell-trap was proof this was the bandit’s hideout. Despite the fact they could have erected more traps he had to gamble they had gotten overconfident in the months they’d been here and were relying on just one spell. If they were, he had to admit their confidence was well placed. Even with his ability to see it, it had still been a near thing.
He set a more rapid pace this time, muttering a long unused prayer.
After another hundred yards or so the tunnel began curving slowly to the right. A faint light began to be discernible. The tunnel ran roughly at right angles to their original course for about fifty yards then made an abrupt turn to the left, putting them back on their former heading. They came to a sudden halt.
They found themselves looking down a passageway about fifty feet long which opened into an immense cavern. The floor seemed to be about four or five feet below the lip of the tunnel. Scattered around the cavern were a handful of tripods supporting hanging lamps. Only two of them were lit and by their flickering light, they could see two guards standing by the entrance. They carried crossbows which were aimed down the tunnel straight at them.
Storm looked down at himself. His invisibility still held. Even though they stood completely exposed in the middle of the tunnel the guards didn’t see a thing. They continued to pass a pipe back and forth while they talked in low tones of absolute boredom. It was obvious the last thing in the world they expected was an attack.
He pulled Lorelei back around the bend out of sight. “Listen,” he hissed in her ear. “Those guards aren’t expecting anything. There isn’t any room for us to go around them so if we want to search any further we have to kill them – without making any noise. I can get one with a spear; can you get the other?”
She slipped her bow off her back and knocked an arrow. “Left or right?”
He grinned. “Left.”
They stepped out from around the corner as if they’d rehearsed it. Storm’s arm flashed forward at the same time Lorelei’s bow sang its song of death. The guards crumpled to the floor as both of them became visible again. Quickly they pulled the bodies down back down the tunnel and stashed them out of sight. Then they returned to the end of the tunnel to examine the cavern.
It had been formed by a giant air bubble trapped in the molten lava when the volcano erupted who knew how long ago. Storm looked it over. It was about a hundred yards across and perhaps half as high. Light from the flickering oil lamps revealed several more tunnels on the far side of the chamber. A wooden ramp to one side of the main entrance tunnel provided easy access for the horses corralled in the center of the vast room. Their hooves clattered on the stone floor as they moved slowly about the enclosure. A giant pile of hay was stacked nearby and from somewhere they could hear the gurgling of water. Several tables, surrounded by chairs were off to the left, next to what appeared to be a very well equipped field kitchen. Copper pipes, held up by tall tripods, disappeared across the cavern to the far wall, obviously for the purpose of piping water to the kitchen and latrines. There were even several small enclosures which looked like shower stalls.
“All the comforts of home,” Lorelei muttered.
“Looks that way,” he agreed. “Come on, let’s have a look around.”
She nodded silently and they began exploring the giant room. Storm counted the horses in the corral. Twenty-six. Assuming some of them were spares and pack animals, it meant there were between fifteen and twenty raiders. Of course, he and Lorelei had already killed two of them. He filed the thought for future reference then cat-footed over to the kitchen area.
It was pretty much what he expected, except for the presence of a huge, cast-iron, pot-bellied stove. He tried to imagine lugging it through the mountains and up the lava tube, then shook his head in disbelief. What kind of bandits went to the trouble of hauling a stove this heavy up into the mountains? Raiders like this usually traveled light. He threw a questioning glance at Lorelei but she shook her head silently, as puzzled as he was.
He prowled around the latrines and shower stalls but didn’t find anything of interest. He turned away and saw Lorelei stiffen as she approached one of the far passages. She beckoned him over silently.
“What?” he whispered when he got there.
“A barracks room,” she breathed in his ear. “Sounds there’s like six of them in there. All asleep.”
That news was both good and bad.
It was good because it gave them a chance to slip in and slit their throats one at a time without waking the others until it was too late. It was bad if Lorelei’s sense of honor prevented her from attacking without waking them and giving them a chance to defend themselves.
Before he could ask the question, she answered it for him.
She leaned her bow against the wall and pulled a dagger out of her boot. “Child killers and rapists deserve no mercy,” she hissed.
He flashed her a quick grin before pulling his own boot dagger.
As a team they slipped into the room, pausing just inside to let their eyes adjust to the dimmer light.
There were six raiders in the room, two on the left, four on the right. Storm considered it for a moment then eased back out into the main chamber to reclaim one of his spears. He pulled a second dagger then gripped the spear in his teeth. Lorelei understood immediately what he intended. As silent as shadows, they slide toward their enemies, Lorelei to the right, Storm to the left. Locking eyes they silently counted off one, two, three!
Storm flung his arms out to either side, slamming a dagger into the throat of each man. They convulsed, blood spurting into the air. Without waiting to see if they were dead he grabbed the spear from his teeth and hurled it at the fourth man on Lorelei’s side of the room. It caught him full in the chest as he sat up sleepily. The impact hurled him back. He bounced against the mattress then rolled off the bunk with a crash. Lorelei’s last man had time for one terrified yell before her bloody dagger ripped his throat apart.
From outside they heard startled grunts as the rest of the bandits began waking up.
Their spy mission was about to become a life-or-death battle.