“What was that thing?” Lorelei gasped, shrinking back from the pile of steaming flesh quivering in its death throes at her feet. Her face was twisted in revulsion.
Durin prodded it gingerly with the tip of his axe. “Never seen the like,” he shook his head. The mass of scales, claws, and tentacles was beyond his experience. The bluish-green ichor streaming out of its many wounds bubbled and hissed menacingly. He jerked his head away from the stench. “Whew!” he exclaimed, backpedaling quickly. “Smelly sort of beastie ain’t it?”
“To say the least,” Lorelei agreed, holding a hand over her nose. It had dropped on them out of the darkness overhead in the huge cavern they were passing through. Storm’s sense of danger saved them at the last moment. An instant before it landed he’d yelled and hurled them away from it. With only the light from Ralt’s staff to see by, the fight had been brutal and savage.
“Anyone hurt?” he asked. They all shook their heads. “Good. Let’s get moving before another one comes along to see what all the commotion was about.” Noise traveled a long way in the caverns, echoing weirdly for leagues against the stony walls. He wasn’t interested in fighting another one of the nameless horrors or several at one time. Durin pointed wordlessly and they struck out at once.
Storm was being to wonder if taking the route through the caves was such a good idea after all. In only half a day’s time they’d already been forced to fight a pack of goblins, a cave troll, and now this. The caverns were warmer than trekking through the snow, but that advantage was more than offset by the constant fighting. It was wearing them down.
Ralt suddenly echoed his thoughts. “Am I the only one who thinks we’d have been better off trying to sneak past the army?”
Storm responded with a tired shrug, “It’s too late to do anything about it now, but yeah, I was thinking the same thing.”
“Don’t wonder ’bout it no more lads,” Durin rumbled from the darkness behind them. “Ye didna see that army up close like I did. This is better no matter ’ow many monsters we hav’ta fight. Take me word fer it.”
Durin’s muffled voice snarled at them from beneath the body of the misshapen giant, “Git this stinkin’ oaf off of me! He’s crushing me flat!” The monster’s body had fallen full across Durin as it died, pinning him under its rancid bulk.
With the exit from the dank tunnel almost in sight Ralt’s spirit had risen dramatically. “Right away O’ Mighty King,” he sing-songed in his best imitation of a lisping courtier. “The royal eunuchs will be here in a trice to save you, my Lord.” He grinned ear-to-ear at Storm and Lorelei as he grounded his still smoldering staff of power.
“I’ll turn ye into a eunuch meself ye blasted shrimp!” Durin roared back as best he could from under the giant’s flabby belly. “Git him off!”
“You forgot to sit on the giant and bounce up and down,” Storm chuckled at Ralt, “but other than that you’re turning into a first-rate barbarian. Not bad for an evil wizard.”
Ralt wiped sweat from his brow, “You’ve been a good, er, bad influence on me.” With their numbers whittled down to only the four, a family-like camaraderie had gradually developed between all of them, revealed in a growing number of jokes and affectionate insults.
Lorelei tried to arch a disdainful eyebrow at them but an escaping giggle ruined the effect. Relief that the awful trek through the underbelly of the mountain was coming to an end was giving her a case of the tired-silly’s. “Aren’t you two going to help him?” she asked, gesturing at Durin’s feet sticking out from under the huge carcass. She tried to repress another giggle at the way he was kicking but didn’t quite make it. It came out as a tiny squeak.
Storm understood her relief and felt it as well but his natural stoicism helped him hide it better. He sheathed his swords, grabbed the giant’s arm and gave a mighty heave. The dead bulk flopped over once, then again, and Durin slithered out from under it muttering imprecations. The tall swordsman eyed the crushed-looking dwarf sagely, “Still think this is better than facing the army?”
Durin glared for a moment before giving in with a shrug. “Aye, lad, it’s better.”
Ralt shook his head. “That must have been some army.”
Durin finished dusting himself off and sat down on a nearby boulder with a grunt. “Compared to a regular king’s army it’s middling size, but for the four of us . . .” He shook his head, leaving the rest unsaid.
By common ascent they all found a place to sit, resting before attempting their breakout from the tunnels. Lorelei leaned against Storm resting her head on his shoulder. His arm automatically went around her. “If Niran’s army is that big then what’s he waiting for?” he mused. “Roderick’s army has been shrinking for years. People are afraid he’s getting sloppy. Niran could walk all over him.”
The dwarf nodded agreement. “Sodan’s been hearing the same thing. He’s even thinking about changing the routes for some of his carav—” He stopped abruptly as he remembered the old man’s passing. He shook his head sadly. “Anyway,” he continued more somberly, “he wasn’t sure Ingold was safe passage anymore.”
“It was more than that,” Ralt added quickly. “He was also worried about Carrzulm. They’ve been trying for years to break through the mountains to attack T’thalia from behind. Ingold is the stopper that keeps them bottled up. If it fell, Zered would be next in line on their way to the coast. That didn’t sit well with him.”
Storm nodded thoughtfully. He was as well versed in the lay of the land as anyone and Carrzulm’s repeated attempts to break out of its natural enclosure were common knowledge. There were only two passable roads through the near-vertical, mountains surrounding the low laying, Jungle Empire; one over a thousand leagues to the west, the other through Ingold. Once the western road made it through the mountains it skirted the eastern edge of the Bitstsah Swamp before cutting north through the Blood Lands on the way to Nahor. The combination was so bad it was called the Hell Road. That in turn put Ingold in the catbird seat. For nearly eight centuries the mountain kingdom had enjoyed an out-sized prestige and influence from its strategic location but if it fell, the balance of power in Southern Gaia would shift suddenly and dramatically. Sodan’s concerns had been well founded. “Niran is T’thalian born and bred though. He may be turning into a would-be tyrant but he’d never let Carrzulm take Ingold.”
Lorelei stirred by his side. “Maybe he wants T’thalia to turn the tables on Carrzulm,” she suggested.
Storm wished she hadn’t mentioned that. He’d already considered it the day they burned the mountaintop fort and didn’t like the implications or where it led. From Durin’s expression, it looked like he had too.
Ralt was looking back and forth at them in puzzlement. “What?” he asked.
Durin shrugged at Storm. “Ye know him better than any of us, lad.”
He craned his head, looking both ways up and down the tunnel. Nothing moved or came to investigate the sound of their voices or the recent clamor of battle. According to Durin, they were still several hundred cubits from the exit. If their battle hadn’t roused any guards by now they were probably safe. He turned back to find his new family watching him expectantly. “If Niran is trying to turn the tables on Carrzulm it would imply a deeper level of planning and coordination than we thought,” he sighed reluctantly. “He’d have to prepare men and supplies in T’thalia as well as here.”
“Or have the official backing of T’thalia itself,” Durin added darkly. “It’s bad enough their battles make the sea lanes impassable. If they move their idiotic war inland no one will be safe.”
“That would be the worst-case scenario,” Storm agreed heavily.
Ralt eyed him askance. “Worst-case scenario doesn’t sound much like something a barbarian would normally say. Tactician maybe but not a barbarian.”
“Or an experienced military officer,” Storm countered cheerfully, grasping quickly at the change in topic.
Ralt conceded the point. “So . . . what are we walking into out there?” he asked, waving his hand in the direction of the ‘exit’.
Storm shrugged as he rose to his feet. “Is everyone rested?” Nods answered him all around. “Why don’t we go find out?”
Durin took the lead, axe at the ready, dwarven senses searching for the slightest sign of danger. They padded quietly down the tunnel, around two, long winding curves. A third one turned into an abrupt corner that opened into a large cavern full of brightly burning torches and rows, stacks, and mounds of crates, barrels, and bundles of every imaginable shape and size.
Immediately they dropped into a crouch and dashed to the nearest mountain of crates. Storm motioned silently for Ralt and Durin to stay put while he and Lorelei checked for movement or guards. Putting their woodland skills to use they crept to opposite ends of the mound they were hugging and peered around. A long, meandering aisle through the crates and barrels met Storm’s gaze but that was all. Nothing moved; no noise, no nothing. He looked over his shoulder at Lorelei. She pantomimed a dead end. He nodded then gestured for them to join him. He pointed silently at Lorelei’s bow then waved a hand back and forth over his head, cover me. She nodded and knocked an arrow.
Sword in hand he dashed up the aisle. He stopped at a slight bend and pressed himself up against the crates stacked ten high over his head. Looking around the bend revealed only more barrels and crates as well as a side avenue breaking from the one they were in. The few torches cast fitful light and wavering shadows over everything.
He waved for his family to join him. One at a time they ran down the aisle. Durin’s heavy chainmail squeaked and protested enough to raise Storm’s hackles. All of them tightened their lips at the noise. The dwarf reddened and immediately set to adjusting his armor to avoid a repeat.
Storm had Lorelei look around the bend to the junction up ahead. With another cover me motion he edged around the corner. Behind him, Lorelei stepped boldly into the middle of the aisle, bow drawn back. He scooted sideways along the aisle, out of her line of fire, until he came to the corner. Sword at the ready he stuck his head around to look. He relaxed. It dead-ended in less than fifteen feet at another towering wall of crates.
He waved everyone into the little alcove to take stock of their situation. Judging from the arch of the ceiling they were about halfway across the cavern. The piles and stacks blocked his view though. Keeping his voice as low as possible he whispered to Durin, “Can Fenris Fang or those dwarven senses of yours tell which way the exit is? I can’t see a thing.”
Durin dropped to his knees, planting one hand flat on the floor. He concentrated for a moment. He got up with a grunt. “That way,” he rumbled, pointing a few degrees to the left of the main passage.
Storm clapped him on the shoulder then resumed their leapfrog advance down the long aisle. He was beginning to believe the huge storeroom – for that’s what it had to be – was deserted. Feeling a bit safer, he started paying attention to the crates and barrels lining the way. Most bore the markings of T’thalia, which, unfortunately, made sense. Lettering and hand-drawn signs on them indicated their contents; dry goods, tools, bedding, cloth, wagon parts, lanterns, flour, pots and kettles, the list went on and on. A storeroom for an army, he thought, a big army. He hadn’t really needed any confirmation on the size and scope of Niran’s operations but if he had, the vast cavern would have provided it a dozen times over.
The aisle came to a four-way split. He glanced down at Durin with a question in his eyes. The dwarf pointed silently to the left-hand passage. He nodded and turned down it, Durin close on his heels followed by Ralt then Lorelei, covering their rear.
The new passage ran thirty feet before turning sharply. Around the corner was an open expanse. Two long tables occupied the middle of the floor along with a handful of stiff, wooden chairs. Beyond the tables and chairs on the far wall was a huge set of double doors, at the moment solidly closed. The room had the empty feel of a deserted house after the owners had moved out. Throwing caution to the winds he bounded across the empty floor to press his ear to the heavy, wooden doors.
The others, moving more slowly, drifted over to join him.
He looked at Ralt. “Have you got any way to tell what’s on the other side?” he asked, jerking a thumb at the doors.
Ralt laughed softly. “Nothing magical if that’s what you mean but my elven ears may be sharper than yours.” He brushed his hair back and pressed one slightly pointed ear against the door, listening closely.
“Don’t you mean part-elven?” Lorelei jibbed as she watched.
Ralt waved impatiently for her to be quiet. She stuck her tongue out at him with a saucy grin. Seconds later he gave them a jubilant thumbs up. “Only one guy out there and he’s snoring.”
A grim smile etched itself across Storm’s face. Belker’s letter was proving true; a guard named Eckhardt who falls asleep on duty, it said. Looks like we just found him, he thought. Turning his attention to the doors themselves he ran a quick eye over their details; they were tall, heavy timbered, meant to be barred from the inside. That suggested they probably didn’t lock from the outside. He took a firm grip on one massive handle. “We need him alive,” he growled. “When I open the door, grab him and get him in here fast.”
The prospect of action, against their real enemies instead of random monsters, had their blood racing with anticipation. They looked like racehorses ready to burst out of the starting gate. They crouched, nodded at him and with a surge of power he pulled the door open with a mighty heave.