Storm paused at the lip of the cave to survey the valley laid out before him.
As might be expected of a military man, Niran had laid out the tents in an orderly grid pattern, spaced far enough to create wide boulevards between them for ease of movement of his forces. There were no choke points to impede them if they were called to defend the perimeter of the camp. Several permanent buildings were scattered here and there among the rows and rows of tents. Streetlamps, lanterns on high poles, cast pools of light at every “street corner”. He swiveled his head back and forth but didn’t see any movement.
Durin fell in wordlessly at Storm’s left side, Ralt behind him. Lorelei took the rear, an arrow nocked and ready to fly as he led them to a wide set of stairs, carved into the rock that led down to the valley floor. If everyone was truly sleeping speed was more important than stealth.
Storm remembered an old quotation. “Rapidity is the essence of war: take advantage of the enemy’s unreadiness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack unguarded spots,” he muttered to himself.
After reaching the bottom of the stairs, Storm set a brisk, almost military pace, trying to watch everything at once but making no particular effort at hiding. The tents were larger than he’d first thought them to be, nearly a hundred feet long by fifty wide. If Niran was using standard T’thalian formations it meant a hundred men to a tent. Storm shook his head at the near endless rows of tents. Niran might have six thousand now but he was obviously planning for more.
Durin, beside him, was watchful too. “What was dat ye said on da stairs?” He kept his voice so low it barely carried.
Storm smiled briefly. “I was quoting from The Art of War by Sun Tzu.”
For a split second Storm felt an insane urge to launch into a knock-knock joke but he suppressed it. “He was an ancient general, about 26 hundred years ago, who wrote what some still call the definitive book on war and how to fight it. It was required reading for military officers.” He glanced around quickly.
Eckhardt seemed to have been telling the truth. They hadn’t met or even seen anyone as they strode boldly toward the keep. In fact, the encampment had a decidedly empty feel to it. Storm paused, they were about halfway to the keep. He pitched his voice low, “Hey Ralt, can those elven ears of yours hear anything in these tents?”
Ralt was already shaking his head. “I’ve been listening ever since we came out of the cave,” he answered in the same voice. “There was only one tent that had two people in it and both of them were breathing heavy like they were sick.”
Durin’s voice was a soft rumble in the night. “They’re all out on de mountain lookin’ fer us. But dat don’t mean we can git careless, no matter who yer quoting,” he cautioned.
Storm nodded at him and resumed his trek toward Niran’s stronghold. Still, it was nice to know they wouldn’t be instantly swamped by enemies if things got noisy. It gave them a better chance than they had any right to expect. Focusing on the approaching keep he began to ponder their odds against Niran. As they got closer he began to make out some horses on the roof. Their silhouettes were oddly distorted as if they were covered by rumpled blankets. He frowned. Horses? On the roof? He stopped again.
“Durin? What’s with the horses on the roof?” He pointed with the tip of his sword.
The dwarf peered upwards. “They ain’t horses,” he chuckled after a moment. “They’re Pegasus, like them we saw in Breckinridge.” He squinted closer, “Maybe five or six of ’em.”
“Hmph.” Storm resumed his quick march toward the keep. “They might be our ticket out of here,” he said quietly as they hurried along. A strangled gasp from Lorelei told him what she thought of his idea. If climbing terrified her, flying would be even worse. He shot an apologetic look over his shoulder at her. “Sorry, but if we gotta, we gotta.” She bit her lip morosely but didn’t slacken her pace. Before she could think of a suitable reply they arrived in front of the doors to the keep.
Storm gestured for Durin to take one door while he took the other. Ralt and Lorelei set themselves in front of them, weapons at the ready. At their nod, Storm and Durin yanked the doors open with a rush.
From the light of two lanterns on either side of the doors, they could see a great hallway stretching through the gloom nearly to the back of the building. Hallways branched off it on either side about halfway back along with a few, widely spaced, heavy doors. In the middle of the great hall, a set of wide stairs rose gracefully to a second story balcony. Another set of stairs could be dimly seen above them. A flickering glow spoke of lanterns on the second floor but the third was shrouded in darkness. All of it was conspicuously empty. Storm scanned it with his magical eyesight but found nothing. He glanced at his companions but each of them shook their heads in turn.
He shrugged and led them in.
The first set of stairs were heavy, quarried stone. They moved quickly and quietly up them to the second floor. They found themselves in another great hall similar to the one on the ground floor, again with hallways and doors leading off it. They circled around to the bottom of the next flight of stairs. They were constructed of sturdy oak, heavy and old. Storm peered up them to the darkness above, his sense of danger beginning to tingle. “There’s something up there,” he hissed. “Not right at the top, but up there somewhere.”
Ralt gripped his staff tighter. “Niran?”
Storm shook his head. “Can’t tell from here.” He looked at Durin. “Can you see anything?”
The dwarf shook his head too. “Nuthin’ movin’,” he muttered. “Looks empty.”
Storm hefted his swords higher and started up, moving with the cat-like grace and stealth he learned years in the north. Lorelei followed just as quietly. Ralt and Durin did their best to emulate them as they ascended behind them.
The third floor was radically different than the lower two. They found themselves in a great waiting room, extending some thirty feet on either side of the stairs and stairwell back to the front wall where large windows overlooked the encampment below. Moonlight streaming in through the windows showed a row of mismatched chairs lining the wall to the right. On the left wall, through an arched doorway, a smaller set of stairs led upwards to the roof. There were no rugs, paintings or decorations of any kind to be seen. If not for its location in the midst of the encampment it would appear completely deserted.
Directly ahead of them was an ornate doorway with two double-doors in it. Storm felt a palpable sense of danger emanating from behind it. There were also, for the first time since Krista’s box had been stolen, ripples in the weave leading straight to the doors before them. He glanced at Ralt for confirmation. The wizard nodded; he saw it too.
He called his friends in close. “Niran is in there alone,” he whispered, “and so is Krista’s box. We don’t know how long it takes him to summon one of his demons, so let’s not give him a chance.” Grim nods answered him all around. “I can track Krista’s box, so I’ll get it while you three stand back and hit him from a distance. Don’t hold anything back. Hit him as hard as you can with everything you’ve got. Ralt, give us some light as soon as we open the door.” Without waiting for an answer he cat-footed over to the doors. Sheathing his blades he took up a position on one side while Durin did the same on the other. He took one last look around at them, his heart full of pride at the way they set themselves to follow him into battle. They were becoming a family following their patriarch, him, in every sense of the word. With a prayer in his heart, he mouthed the words, One, Two, Three! They ripped the doors opened and bounded inside. A streak from Ralt’s staff shot over their heads to explode into a great ball of light, illuminating the stone room.
It was huge, a hundred feet deep and nearly as wide. Arches soared nearly fifty feet overhead to support the roof. In the middle of the wall to their right, a raised dais with four broad steps on it was surmounted by an inlaid chair with a plush red back and seat. Several straight-backed, wooden chairs were arranged in a semi-circle before it. Dozens of burnt-out candle stubs littered the dais at the feet of the throne. One of them was barely lit. A huge, round table littered with maps sat not far from the dais and chairs. About midway along the wall opposite the dais was an immense cupboard that had seen better days. The rest of the echoing room was as empty and bleak as the waiting room outside. The ripples in the weave led directly to the cupboard.
Storm caught a glimpse of Niran turning in surprise at their unexpected entrance but he didn’t have time for him. Trusting his friends to keep the former Sword Master occupied, he hurled himself toward the cupboard. Behind him, the hum of Lorelei’s bow was followed by a blast from Ralt’s staff.
Niran’s overconfidence was showing; the cupboard wasn’t even locked. He yanked it open, exulting at the sight of Krista’s soul box. He grabbed it, stuffing it in his pouch with a savage grin. In the same instant, another item caught his attention. It looked like an old-fashioned magnifying glass of the type Sherlock Holmes was pictured with, but an aura of magic around him told it was something different. On a whim, he took it with him, then was immediately glad he did.
Under it was a red, hard-covered book entitled “Mein Kampf.”
He stared at it in surprise.
The presence of Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s semi-autobiographical book that contained the evil seeds of the Third Reich, at least explained why Niran used “The Leader” as his chosen title. It was what Der Füher meant. But how did Niran get a copy of it? It opened more questions than it answered. He shook off the questions and snatched it up, shoving it in his pouch along with Krista’s soul box and the magic glass.
Behind him, Niran was yelling in fury. A sudden sense of danger, sickeningly familiar erupted within him.
Whipping out both his swords he wheeled to find himself face-to-face with the same demon they’d fought before. In spite of Ralt’s warning that demons couldn’t truly be killed except in their infernal home, it was still a shock to see the hideous thing standing before him once again, in perfect health – or what passed for perfect health for such a monstrous being. The only consolation was Ralt’s comment that it couldn’t return for three days after it was ‘killed’ each time.
It grinned evilly at him. “We meet again, barbarian!” Its voice was every bit as harsh and grating as he’d remembered. “This time you won’t sur…” Storm didn’t have time to listen to speeches; his blades tore into the beast before it could finish. It roared in pain and the battle was joined. Behind the demon he could see Niran, bloodied but unbowed, backing away from his friends, his whirling swords deflecting most of their attacks.
The demon swung hard and fast, but Storm, borrowing an idea from Durin, rolled under it across the floor. He came up on one knee, stabbing straight up into the demon’s belly with his short sword then swinging the other, like an axe chopping down a tree, at the thick leg nearest him. The demon’s roar nearly deafened him. Behind him, a blast of lightning from Ralt’s staff made his hair stand on end. Before he could swing again a bone-breaking, backhand blow hurled him across the room.
Agony ripped a scream from him as jagged bones tore through his flesh. Through pain-blurred eyes, he saw the demon coming for him. Forcing himself to concentrate he pushed healing power toward his wounds, but he wasn’t finished when the demon’s hand wrapped itself around his throat. His air was choked off as it picked him up, his feet dangling six feet above the floor.
“Now you die!” it roared in hate-filled rage. It squeezed hard.
Storm felt himself starting to black out. With his last bit of conscious effort, he turned his power – to heal or to harm – against the demon. The bones in its hand snapped in rapid succession like fireworks. The powerful hand suddenly became a bloody, misshapen mass. The demon bellowed with unexpected pain, dropping him to the floor.
He staggered, drawing in huge breathes of air, trying to concentrate. Heal, heal, heal, he told himself. Power flowed until it was nearly half gone, and abruptly he was in perfect health again, just in time to duck beneath another terrifying blow.
He rolled across the floor, dignity long gone, scrabbling for his sword. He found it and rolled over just as the demon hurled itself on top of him. Their eyes met, human and demonic, as the sword plunged its full length all the way through its body. The monster moaned in shock, pain and sheer, disbelieving terror.
“No. That’s impossibl . . .”
Bloody froth spilled out its lips as it collapsed on top of him.
Storm grunted at the dead weight. The sounds of battle were still coming from the other end of the room. He took a huge breath then heaved the demon off his chest. It was still partially across his legs and he had to take another moment to free himself. He lurched to his feet, yanking awkwardly on his sword to pull it from the bone and muscle clinging to it. With a sucking sound, it came loose along with a river of purple blood. Shaking his head to clear it he turned toward the fight with Niran.