There was a rattle of bolts from behind the door and Horace yelled, dropping his sword. He laid violent hands on the door handle and pulled with all his might. Metal snapped, clearly audible even above the roar of the storm and the door swung open with a crash, spilling the big fighter to the floor.
The startled pirate gasped in disbelief at the torn and shattered bolts, his face going pale. Frantically he yelled for help, twisting to avoid the rushing Knights. For a long moment, he eluded them, dodging and rolling between their legs. When he saw the hopelessness of his position and realized no one could hear his cries for help over the fury of the storm he turned, whipped out a dagger, and plunged at them, determined to make them pay for his death.
Jon sucked in his breath with a hiss as the pirate’s dagger slid past his ribs. He rose up on his toes and plunged his dagger forward in a twisting riposte. The pirate’s eyes bulged in agony and they met Jon’s. The Knight was startled to see that the outlaw was as young as he was. Then the man’s eyes clouded over and he slumped to the floor.
Jon wiped off his blade and knelt beside the dead man, closing his eyes with gentle hands. He rose after a moment of silence. “Now what?” he asked, running his eyes over the passage they were in.
Behind the shattered door was a long tunnel going deep into the heart of the mountain. Once the work of nature, it had obviously been broadened and smoothed by the hand of man. Deep crevices on the floor were filled with plaster or bridged by thick wooden planks. Scones had been placed along the walls every twenty or thirty paces and held brightly burning torches illuminating the tunnel. He saw no less than five doors, indicating the existence of side tunnels or caverns, now closed off into separate rooms or hallways. Boxes were stacked at random along the length of the tunnel until it dipped down out of sight, and the wind whistling in from the storm blew the torch flames about, sending shadows dancing about, alternately revealing and cloaking the long passage.
Katrina noted the flickering with an uneasy eye. “Somebody help me close the door,” she said with evident worry in her voice, “before someone comes to investigate.” She laid hold of the edge of the door and heaved against its bent hinges where Horace’s strength had twisted them out of shape.
Aaren and Horace fell to, aiding her in pulling the door shut as much as possible. The wind died away to the faintest of breezes and the torches settled down. A few paces from the door was a shadowed niche that was out of the direct line of sight from the lower reaches. By common assent, they moved into its shadows and huddled together to discuss their options.
“This is great!” Horace exulted. “This is the kind of adventure we should have been having all along!”
Jon turned a reproachful eye on the big fighter. “If you’ll remember, this is the kind of thing I talked you out of because it was too dangerous,” he said acidly.
“But we’re adventurers, it’s supposed to be dangerous,” he protested.
“Are you out of your mind?” Jon yelped. “We don’t have the foggiest idea how many pirates there are here. There could be dozens of them, maybe hundreds. That’s not dangerous, that’s suicide!”
“So we’ll be real quiet. We’ll sneak up and get ‘em from behind,” Horace grinned wickedly, drawing a finger across his throat.
“And just what makes you think we’ll be able to get behind them? What if they’ve got their backs to the wall?” Jon folded his arms stubbornly.
Horace puffed his cheeks out angrily. While he launched into a detailed description of the hows and whys of guards and their posts, Aaren pulled Elric over to the side. “Check out that ring we found,” he told him softly.
Elric gave him a puzzled look. “Why? I was going to work on the boots first.”
“Just do it, alright?”
Mira overheard their whispered comments and added her voice. “I think Aaren is right, try the ring.” He was dumbfounded at her unexpected support and she shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s nothing personal . . . just a hunch.”
His lips compressed and he turned away angrily. “Just check it, alright?” he gritted to the mage.
Elric nodded. “Sure, no problem.” He pulled out his spellbook and bent over it intently.
Katrina drifted over, tired of listening to Horace and Jon’s argument. “What’s up?” she asked.
Mira nodded at the ring Elric was concentrating on. “We think it might be able to help us and we’re having Elric use his magic to determine what it does.”
“He’s still working on it.”
At that moment there was a soundless flash and Elric vanished from sight.
They stared in shock for a moment then whipped out their weapons, looking frantically around for the cause of his disappearance. Horace and Jon left off their argument to pull their blades.
“Elric vanished! He was working on that ring and–”
“Don’t get excited,” Elric’s soft voice interrupted out of thin air. “Everything’s fine.”
They jumped in surprise.
Mira spun around wildly. “Where are you?”
“Right here,” Elric said, reappearing by her shoulder.
Mira shrieked in surprise and they all jumped.
Elric laughed at their reaction. “Relax, it’s a just ring of invisibility.”
Katrina slumped against the wall, her heart pounding. “‘Just a ring of invisibility’. I oughta strangle him for that stunt,” she muttered under her breath. She raised her voice. “So nice of you to tell us that,” she said sarcastically.
He caught her tone of voice. “Hey, don’t get mad at me. I didn’t know what it did either until my spell triggered it,” he said defensively.
Jon cocked his head quizzically. “You weren’t supposed to use the ring, just find out what it does.”
Elric nodded. “I know but that’s how the spell works, it tells me what an item does and triggers it into action at the same time. That’s the way it is.”
“Always?” the thief asked in dismay.
“I think so. There may be some exceptions.” He dismissed it with a shrug. “Anyhow, now we know what it does and what could be better for exploring a pirate hideout than a ring of invisibility?” He grinned widely at them, tossing the ring from hand to hand.
Aaren plucked it out the air and gave it to Jon. “Wonderful idea, Elric, and Jon is just the person to use it.”
The slight rogue examined the ring. “Me?”
“Sure,” Elric agreed. “You’re the one who knows the most about sneaking around–”
“–and finding things out,” the mage finished smugly, ignoring the interruption. “Oh, and by the way, the command word is on the inside of the ring.” He pointed at a faint tracery of letters.
Horace snickered loudly at the rogue’s evident discomfort. “This ought to be fun to watch.”
An evil expression crossed Jon’s face and he slipped the ring on, muttering the command word as he did. He vanished from sight. An instant later, Horace’s sword pulled itself out of its scabbard and smacked the fighter soundly across the buttocks.
“Hey!” Horace grabbed for his sword.
It clattered to the floor to the sound of Jon’s invisible laughter. “Gotcha!” Soft footsteps whispered away down the tunnel.
Horace picked up his sword. “I’m gonna get him for that,” he warned. “Just you watch and see.”
The rest of them chuckled at Horace’s embarrassment then settled down to wait for Jon’s return.
Jon pattered softly down the tunnel, stopping every twenty or thirty steps to listen intently. Except for the distant rumbling of thunder, the belly of the mountain was still and silent. The doors the Knights had seen earlier turned out to conceal nothing more than dusty storerooms. Wondering uneasily where all the people were, he continued quickly and quietly along the tunnel.
It gradually dipped down. The further he went, the steeper it got. Here and there, bumps on the floor were carved a little more deeply to provide secure footing. As the tunnel dipped further and further, the bumps became more pronounced until finally, he was treading on a set of stairs. The scones on the wall were set closer together as well and he realized he was nearing the main areas. He redoubled his caution, fully aware someone might walk right into him if he didn’t get out of their way.
As he approached the first door he’d seen in quite some time, his caution was repaid. It swung open abruptly and a burly, black-haired giant of a man strode out carrying a huge barrel. He shut the door with his foot and staggered down the stairs with the barrel on his shoulder.
Jon let his breath out with a silent sigh of relief and drifted after the pirate, an invisible, soundless shadow.
At the foot of the stairs, the passage branched three ways. The pirate took the far left passage, and after a moment’s debate with himself, Jon followed suit. Since he had no idea what the layout of the place was, following the big pirate was as good a plan as any.
He soon discovered the pirate hideout was smaller than they’d imagined. The left passage the burly pirate took led only to an oval-shaped cavern set up as a combination bunk room and mess hall. Three men were waiting there for the return of their companion. Upon his arrival, they immediately tapped the keg and began drinking heavily.
Uninterested in listening to drunken jests, Jon cat-footed out of the chamber and back to the junction at the foot of the stairs. He flipped a mental coin then went down the center passageway. After only a few dozen steps though, he realized the tunnel ended at the midden. Wrinkling his nose with distaste he backtracked and took the remaining passage.
This time he had better luck.
He didn’t encounter anyone in the rat’s warren of interconnected tunnels and rooms he found, but he did count four more bunk rooms, each large enough to hold ten to fifteen men. He found a poorly stocked armory, a smithy with a forge that had seen better days, and a large meeting room. Down a particularly large tunnel, he encountered a gigantic amphitheater, the result of a vast bubble in the once molten mountainside. Part of the rounded top of the mountain had crumbled away, leaving it open to the raging elements above. In calmer weather, it would make a perfect landing spot for a starship, he thought.
It was conspicuously empty.
That made sense he told himself after beating a hasty retreat from the pounding rain. The wind in the enclosed area would wreak havoc on a grounded ship. Better to take it up into orbit and wait out the storm there.
After prowling around a little bit longer and coming up empty-handed, he headed back to where his friends were anxiously waiting for him. He slipped off the ring, enjoying their startled surprise at his appearance, then sat down to make his report.
When he was done, Horace pulled out his sword and tested the blade eagerly on the ball of his thumb. “Only four of them left,” he gloated. “That’s perfect. Let’s go get ’em.”
Jon gave him an irritated look. “What for? They don’t have anything worth taking.”
“How do you know?”
“I was there!” the thief shot back. “I saw ’em with my own eyes, and they didn’t have a thing on ’em. Believe me, these guys are the dregs of pirate society.”
“Yeah? Well, maybe they had something hidden in their boots, shrimp. Did ya ever think of that?”
Aaren held up a restraining hand. “Alright, cut it out you two. We’ve got a dead body stashed by the door, the granddaddy of all thunderstorms raging outside, and four drunken pirates down there who could come looking for their friend at any moment. We need some ideas, not an argument.” He paused and looked around expectantly. “Well?”
After a long moment, Katrina held up a hesitant hand.
“I think Horace is right.” The big fighter’s chest swelled out and he smiled fondly at her. “There’s six of us and four of them. We have the element of surprise on our side, and we’ll probably have to fight them sooner or later anyway when they discover their buddy is missing.”
Aaren nodded his thanks. “That’s two in favor of attacking. Does anyone else have anything?”
“Yeah,” Elric said indignantly. “We get out of here while we still can. Didn’t you hear what Jon said? There’s a landing site for a starship down there. What happens when the ship gets back and they find everyone dead? They’ll come after us, that’s what happens!” he fairly shouted.
“First sensible thing I’ve heard all day,” Jon said readily. “I’m with you.”
With the rest of the group already divided and spoken for, Aaren realized he and Mira were about to be forced into direct contact again. Mira realized it at the same time he did and reluctantly raised her head to meet his eyes.
“Well? What do you say?” He held his breath, trying to keep his gaze steady.
She tried to still her pounding heart and force herself to think about their situation instead of him. The storm still raging outside showed no signs of abating any time soon. Leaving was out of the question. Or rather, leaving for very long was out of the question. If they could find another shelter nearby they would be safe, but there was no guarantee of finding anything, near or far. So leaving was still too risky.
But staying presented its own set of problems.
The four pirates below were certain to eventually come looking for their comrade. She supposed they could hide the body but that would only delay the inevitable, not stop it. When they realized their friend was dead, they’d come looking for the perpetrators. Horace and Katrina’s suggestion of attacking now had its appealing side, but Elric’s argument about the returning starship was also a powerful one. They’d come back to five dead bodies instead of one . . .
She stopped, thunderstruck.
“Oh, no,” she muttered finally.
Aaren frowned. “What?”
“We have to attack,” she told him. “We’ve already killed one of them. No matter what happens now, somebody is going to be coming after us. Even if we left right now it wouldn’t matter, we’d have a whole shipload of pirates coming after us, plus those four down there, whereas if we attack now, we’ll only have the shipload of pirates after us.”
“A shipload instead of a shipload plus four, huh?” Horace chuckled grimly. “Smart lady.”
She shrugged in resignation. “I don’t see any other choices.”
“I agree with Mira,” Aaren said forcefully. Conversation died and they turned to him with interest. “We don’t have any choice.” He inclined his head at Jon. “Your concerns are valid, but there’s nothing we can do about it. We just have to plunge ahead and hope for the best.”
“Hope for the best?” Jon said to himself in despair.
Aaren saw the rogue talking to himself, realized what he must be thinking, and decided to ignore him. “So, that being the case, I think it’s time to put our Battle Master in charge.” He bowed to Horace and stepped back.