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Chapter 42

Lorelei shook Ralt to wake him up. “Come on. Get up. It’s almost time for us to start.” The smell of cooking bear steak wafted to his nostrils. He blinked, rubbing his eyes as he looked out the entrance of the cave. Beyond was inky blackness. He levered himself into a sitting position.

“Is it midnight already? I didn’t think I could sleep that long,” he muttered.

“According to the stars it is,” Storm grinned at him, all evidence of hostility long gone. “The Sword is directly overhead,” he said, referring to one of the constellations that revolved through the heavens. “The rest of us have been up for nearly an hour. We already ate.”

Ralt gave him a dirty look. “Did you bother to save anything for me?”

Durin rumbled with laughter and brought him a huge steak. “The condemned always git a final meal,” he chuckled.

“Thanks,” Ralt grimaced. “That makes me feel so much better.” He tore into his food with ravenous speed, amazed at how hungry he was.

Storm squatted down beside the fire, his face lit from beneath by its orange flames. He traced a finger around his model of the fortress. “We’ll approach from here,” he said, indicating the nearest corner of it where it sat directly above the cliff at the end of the valley. “It has started snowing again so we’ll have some cover until we get right up to them. As long as we don’t make any noise though they shouldn’t see us. They’ll be looking further down the valley for us if they’re looking at all. Once we’re in position, Ralt will trigger all the wards and booby traps they’ve set out for us.” His face and voice were grim, business-like, all traces of lightheartedness gone. Ralt moved closer until the four of them were huddled together, just like he’d always imagined. “We’ll give them a minute or two to rush away from the wall,” Storm continued, “then I’ll toss a grappling hook over it. Durin, you’ll come up after me, then Lorelei. As soon as you’re up, find those stinking giants.” He paused. “Are you sure you can handle four of them by yourself?” His voice was full of doubt.

“Leave ’em to me, lad,” Durin answered confidently. “I’ll be having giant brains for breakfast in the morning.”

Lorelei’s expression showed what she thought of that idea. “That’s disgusting.”

Ralt had to agree. It sounded horrible.

“Fried giant brains are a delicacy,” Durin argued with every evidence of sincerity.

Lorelei started to rebut him but Storm cut her off with a raised hand. “Okay, okay. Save the culinary discussion for later. Once we’re inside, Lorelei will take out as many of them as she can with her bow. I’ll defend the parapet so they can’t get to her. Ralt, you’ve still got your dagger don’t you?” The wizard nodded silently, feeling his stomach screwing itself up against his spine in nervous anticipation. “Good. You’ll guard her back in case anyone tries to climb up over the edge.”

“How?” Ralt asked tensely.

“Stab them in the face, or cut off their fingers as they pull themselves up,” Storm said brutally.

Ralt swallowed hard at the thought. Suddenly he wished he hadn’t eaten after all. “Alright,” he managed around the bile in his throat.

“We don’t know the layout of the fort so we’ll have to play it by ear,” Storm went on. “Keep an eye on each other and be ready to change plans at a moment’s notice. If you’re badly wounded, give a yell. I’ve got full healing power again so I should be able to help you if I’m not surrounded.” He shrugged. “You never know how these things are going to work out, but as long as we survive the fight I’ll be able to heal you when it’s over.” He looked around. “Any questions or suggestions?”

They all shook their heads silently.

“Alright,” he said slapping his hands on his thighs as he stood. “Saddle up.”

They donned their backpacks, putting out the fire as they did. Win or lose, there would be no returning to the little cave. Ralt tried not to think about it. His fingers were clumsy as he laced up his backpack and tightened it down on his shoulders.

They trooped outside, following Storm up to the top of the ridge. The fort was invisible in the snow-filled darkness. He led them slowly towards it, watching carefully, their footsteps nearly silent in the deepening snow. The moment they could see the fort, the enemies inside would be able to see them. Without the element of surprise, their entire plan would go down in flames before they could launch their attack.

For long minutes he tramped forward, tensely scanning for any sign of their destination. When it finally appeared out of the darkness, he almost mistook it for a cliff. A moment later he saw the shadowy outlines of it bulking up before him, a scant twenty yards away. Even without the swirling snow coming down he probably wouldn’t have seen it much sooner anyway. The enemy commander wasn’t letting any light escape from it. If it weren’t for the magical wards surrounding it, he would have thought it was abandoned.

He hissed at his companions to stop.

They crouched down, taking off their packs then shoveling snow over them. Storm spent a minute rolling in the snow, getting it all over his dark furs, motioning his friends to do likewise. Soon they were suitably camouflaged. The falling snow also stuck to their furs, further obscuring their outlines.

Silently he motioned them forward, moving at a crouch, alert for any movement inside the fort. Long minutes crawled past as they slowly approached the bottom of the wall beside the cliff. The slope they were traversing became progressively steeper as they neared it. He could see the frozen waterfall clearly now, the fort looming over them like a black shadow of death. When they were about ten yards away he began hearing the footsteps of the guards walking their posts, their feet echoing hollowly on the snow-covered planks. Glancing up warily he could just make out their helmets. He smiled to himself. In a moment they’d be so close the guards wouldn’t be able to see them at all unless they leaned out over the wall and looked straight down. He turned to his companions with a finger over his lips, pointing up at the wall with his other hand, pantomiming a guard walking back and forth. They nodded silently.

Satisfied that they wouldn’t make any noise, he slid quietly forward, watching every step. A misstep leading to a fall would be disastrous. His friends followed in his wake, matching his caution. Long minutes later they were huddled at the base of the wall, momentarily out of sight of the guards just a few yards over their heads.

Storm eased a coil of rope out from under his belt, taking care not to let the three-pronged metal hook on the end hit anything. He looked over at Ralt. The wizard, pale and tight-lipped, returned his gaze. Storm let a slight smile crease his lips, then he gave an abrupt nod of his head, signaling him to begin. Ralt nodded back. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves then muttered his incantation.

The results were spectacular beyond anything they’d hoped for.

The snow around the fort erupted like a volcano as booby traps went off everywhere, dozens and dozens of them, more than even Storm at his most pessimistic had envisioned. On the other three sides of the fort, there were multiple explosions of light and noise; fireballs blossomed in the darkness, and lightning roared as if a storm had suddenly been unleashed. Thunder echoed back from the valley walls, deafening them. For a moment it looked as though the sun had risen, blinding everyone in the fort. An avalanche of snow cascaded down on them, shaken loose from the walls overhead by the noise and fury Ralt had set off. Startled shouts echoed from inside the fort, barely audible over the surrounding uproar.

Holy smokes, Storm thought in stunned surprise. This wasn’t preparedness, this was overkill! Somebody really doesn’t like us!

He stood up with the grappling hook in his hand as the noise died away and darkness returned. Inside, more shouts were erupting. He waited until he heard the sound he was waiting for, the guards running toward the front of the fort where they would naturally assume the enemy was. Somewhere inside he could hear someone screaming in pain, a high pitched wail that went on and on. Maybe one of the booby traps accidentally got one of their enemies, he grinned to himself.

The din inside the fort was growing louder as they responded to the alarm. He tensed, leaning back then flung the hook high up in the air. It arced over the wall. Even listening for it over the angry shouts inside he barely heard it hit. He laughed out loud as he pulled on the rope until it caught. In an instant, he was pulling himself up it hand over hand. He felt the rope sway as Durin followed him up. He pulled himself over the top of the wall then whipped out his two swords. He fell into a protective battle crouch as Durin, then Ralt and Lorelei crested the wall as well.

They were inside!

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