They found themselves staring at a short cave.
It was no more than forty feet from where they stood to the cold mountain air outside. Through the wide entrance, the moon cast sharp-edged shadows and light almost as bright as the noonday sun. By it, they saw a broad valley nearly half a league wide, covered by endless rows of tents and hastily erected cabins. Here and there, lanterns on high poles acted as street lights. Past the tents and cabins, a large building, made of stone and timber, loomed over the base. To their left was a parade ground for training. On the other side of it were corrals full of livestock and a loose assortment of buildings. A forge glowed dimly in one of them. Columns of smoke from scattered watch fires rose into the night.
The cave was empty save for a smoldering fire pit and a sleeping guard, bundled up in heavy furs against the night air, leaning back in a chair, his head lolling against the stone wall behind him. Snores so soft Storm wondered at Ralt’s ability to hear them, were the only indication of life.
It was no more than the blink of an eye to take it all in before Durin’s heavy, calloused hand clamped down hard over the guard’s mouth. The man’s eyes flew open in surprise but it was already too late. Before he could do more than register his danger, he was disarmed and hauled unceremoniously into the cavern. Storm slammed the doors.
“Put him in one of the chairs,” he ordered over his shoulder as he barred the doors for good measure.
The pudgy man didn’t resist, his eye flickering from one to the next taking in their well-worn weapons and blood splattered clothes still dirty from their battles in the tunnels. Their grim expressions and steely eyes promised certain death if he struggled or sounded the alarm. He licked flabby lips nervously. In the light of the torches, he appeared less the soldier and more the soft, going-to-seed cook.
Storm sauntered over slowly, giving the man’s fear time to grow. Folding his arms he sat casually, perching one hip on the edge of the table. His massive bulk towered over the man who shrank back in his chair swallowing hard. Storm leaned over him. “Answer our questions, you live. Refuse, you die,” he growled, his eyes diamond hard.
The man nodded so fast his helmet nearly flew off. It was so comical Storm had to fight back the urge to laugh.
“Niran has something of ours and we want it back,” he glowered. “Where is he and how do we get there?”
“The ke-ke-keep, other si-si-side of the valley,” the man stuttered. “The Le-leader is there. Third-floor throne room.” His voice, soft and blurry, was a perfect fit for him.
Leader? Oh, right. Niran’s official title was “The Leader”, Storm remembered. He put it aside. “How do we get there without being seen?”
For the first time, the man’s expression reflected something other than fear of death. He was clearly surprised. “Just walk over there,” he responded in a conversational tone of voice. “Everyone’s asleep.”
The four of them traded disbelieving expressions.
Durin slipped the tip of his axe under the man’s chin, pressing up until the razor sharp edge started to cut the skin. The guard sucked in his breath, eyes wide and round again. “Ye expect us ta believe dat?” Durin snarled. “What do ya take us fer? Babes in da woods? Now answer da question blast ye!”
“But it’s true!” he protested in panic, sweat beading on his round cheeks. “I swear! Everyone’s up searching on the mountain and any who’re left are asleep!”
Lorelei laid a restraining hand on Durin’s arm. “Is Niran really that confident?” she wondered. The man nodded quickly, then saw she wasn’t talking to him and subsided.
“If he is it would confirm our suspicions of what we read in the letter,” Ralt mused thoughtfully, being careful not to mention Belker’s name. “A gem that powerful would mean no worries about traitors or turncoats and if no one knows you’re here, what’s the point of posting guards?” He glanced at Storm for confirmation.
The big swordsman shrugged. “Niran is a military man. He would have posted guards no matter what.”
“Then ’is mistake is h’our good fortune,” Durin rumbled, fingering his axe.
“Hmph. Maybe,” Storm grunted noncommittally. He turned his attention back to the guard. “What’s your name?”
“Eckhardt, Sergeant Eckhardt,” the man answered hesitantly. Storm nodded. Belker had told the truth. “Alright, Eckhardt, does Niran have a bloodstone gem he keeps with him?”
Eckhardt nodded, “Sure. Wears it around his neck all the time. Never takes it off.”
“And how many of his troops are held by its power? Charmed? Enchanted? Whatever you call it?” Storm pressed.
Eckhardt shrugged uncertainly. “Most of them I guess. There’s only a few of us as serves him without it,” he added helpfully.
The man could have been lying but everything he said supported what Belker wrote in his so-called will. It reinforced what Eckhardt said and vice-versa. “Fine,” Storm said. “So how many is ‘most of them’?”
The man stared at him in confusion, “Hunh?”
Storm sighed. “How many troops are here? You said most of them are enchanted. How many men does Niran have so we know how many most of them is?”
“Oh!” Eckhardt exclaimed in sudden understanding. “Say! That’s pretty good. I’ll have to remember that; how many is most of them? I like it,” he chuckled. His merriment was cut short as the tip of Ralt’s dagger pressed up under his chin.
“I’m tired, dirty, cold, and I haven’t eaten in what feels like forever,” the wizard hissed impatiently, “so just answer the question! How many?”
Eckhardt seemed to have only two expressions; abject terror or casual complacency. He plastered the former across his face at the feel of Ralt’s dagger. “About six thousand,” he stuttered in a squeaky voice.
“Told ya that already, I did,” Durin sniffed disparagingly.
Storm ignored him. If Eckhardt could be believed, that meant no more than a thousand of them served Niran willingly, probably less. Even if getting the gem away from him freed the others, that was still at least a full battalion of men loyal to him and presumably hunting for them. Not the best odds in the world, he reflected. “And all of them, all of them are asleep?” he pressed.
Ralt’s dagger was still digging into the skin under Eckhardt’s chin. He nodded carefully, “All of them that’s left! I swear!” They exchanged glances over the top of his head.
Storm came to an abrupt decision. If he was wrong they were dead, but this whole thing was a gamble anyway. “Tell us how to find the throne room in the keep,” he ordered Eckhardt.
The man’s rotund face relaxed again as he sensed the possibility they weren’t going to kill him. “Go in the front door; the stairs are right in front of you. Go up to the third floor and the door to the throne room is right at the top. Can’t miss it,” he added confidently.
Storm stood, moving away from him. “Ralt, put him to sleep will you?”
Eckhardt’s face paled as the others moved away too and the wizard pointed his staff at him. “No! Wait! I can . . .” His words were cut off as the staff spat a transparent, blue sphere at him. It flashed silently when it struck. His face went slack, he dropped to the floor like an unlovely sack of potatoes and began snoring.
Storm heard Ralt mutter, “Thirty to go.”
Ralt looked up. “Hmm? Oh. Thirty charges, thirty uses left in the staff. It’s like arrows in a quiver. It can only hold so much power. Once it’s used up, it’s just a stick until you can recharge it again. Right now, it,” he hefted the staff, “has thirty uses left in it.”
Yet another revelation about the limits of magic, Storm mused. “How long does it take to recharge it,” he asked curiously. Lorelei and Durin were listening too.
The wizard shrugged. “I’ve only done it once before on one of Gerald’s wands, but it takes about a day and I have to have absolute peace and quiet while I’m working. Any interruptions will spoil the whole thing and you have to start over.”
“That’s all well-n-good, laddie,” Durin interjected, “but ’ow long will our friend ’ere sleep?” the ever practical dwarf wanted to know.
“He should wake up sometime around sunrise with a headache like a hangover,” Ralt grinned. “Probably deserves it if he’s here of his own free will.”
Storm clapped him on the shoulder with a short laugh. He hadn’t felt this reckless in years. “We’ll make a barbarian out of you yet. Come on, let’s get this show on the road.” Suiting actions to words he strode over to unbar the doors. Turning back to them he said, “As much as I’d like to kill Niran or the get that gem away from him, or both, the main thing is to find the box with Krista’s soul and get out in one piece. If we can do the others too, great. If not, we keep our promise to Sodan and live to fight another day.” He looked them over. “Understood?”
Ralt’s relief at the reasonableness of Storm’s order was evident. “Works for me,” he tried to quip lightheartedly. He was still new enough to fighting to be demonstrably nervous about what they were preparing to do. Lorelei and Durin simply nodded from long experience.
“Good.” He heaved at the doors, opening them wide. “Durin, you and I are up front. Lorelei and Ralt cover us from behind. Let’s go.”