They paused at the bottom of the stairs and took stock. The passageway was wide enough for three to walk abreast and just over 6 cubits high. It ran roughly north by northeast, or counter-clockwise, and slanted sharply downwards.
Aaren called them into a huddle. “Horace, you and I will take the lead with Jon on point. Gronk, you take the rear.”
The huge creature grinned happily and slapped his weapons against his meaty thighs. “Sound like fun,” he rumbled.
Mira rolled her eyes at Aaren. He grinned back and continued. “Elric, you and Katrina stay behind Horace and me. Mira, you’ll be behind them.” He paused. “Can you shoot past us with your bow? Or do you need to be upfront?”
“I can fire over your heads,” she assured him.
“Good. Horace, any hints or tips about what to do in a fight?”
The fighter pushed his visor up. “Just one. If we see the enemy at any kind of distance, get out of Mira’s way and let her take out as many as she can before we close with them. And Elric’s got some spells he can use at a distance too, don’t you?”
The mage nodded silently.
“That’s it then. Oh, if we have to charge them, let me take the lead. I’m better armored than any of you and I can take the brunt of whatever they throw at us.”
“Alright then,” Aaren said, “let’s move out.”
Horace slammed his visor back into place. Jon rose and darted invisibly down the tunnel, the Knights following more slowly behind. The tunnel continued, more or less straight, for almost 200 cubits then split abruptly in three different directions. Katrina silently consulted her map then pointed to the left. Almost at once, they began encountering doors and side passages. They redoubled their caution.
Katrina suddenly hissed for them to stop.
“What?” Aaren said nervously, indicating their exposed position.
“According to the map, there’s a trap up ahead.”
“Can we go around it?”
She examined the map closely in the dim light. “We have to go back to that last tunnel on the left. It connects with another one that’ll take us past the trap,” she told him.
“Where’s Jon?” he asked.
“Up here,” came the quiet reply.
He looked up but naturally didn’t see anything. “Check out the tunnel. Make it fast.”
“I’m on my way.”
They pressed up against the walls of the tunnel, waiting tensely for his return. Even though they hadn’t encountered anyone yet, they felt horribly exposed in the open passageway. Every moment they stayed there increased the chances of discovery.
Even though it seemed like an eternity, Jon was back in a flash. “The tunnels are clear,” he said, “but I could hear voices behind one of the doors. We’ll have to be extra quiet going past them.”
“Fine, let’s get going,” Aaren muttered.
They crept back to the tunnel Katrina had indicated and turned down it. It was narrower than the one they’d been in and they moved quickly, anxious to be out of its constricting confines.
In the next tunnel, Jon appeared briefly and pointed silently at one of the doors. Light streamed out from under it and the faint sound of voices could be heard inside. They nodded back at him and tiptoed past it one at a time. They had a heart-stopping instant of fear when Horace’s armor squeaked just as he was passing it. They froze for a long moment, but nothing happened and they continued on.
Once past the door, they picked up the pace again. They found a connecting tunnel, hurried down it, and were back in the main tunnel in short order. They looked back down the stretch they’d been forced to detour around but saw no sign of the trap the map said was there. Aaren shook his head silently. Even using his Sight the trap was invisible, proof Blanrus had taken precautions against it being spotted by wizards or priests. Without the map provided by Ryal to point out the dangers of the tunnels, they’d never have made it, he thought to himself. That tunnel looked absolutely bare. To look at it, he’d have sworn it was safe.
They continued deeper into the enemy’s hideout.
Twice more Katrina’s map showed traps ahead, and each time they had to detour. Both times they made it through without incident. Shortly after the second one, they saw bright lights from up ahead.
They stopped and sent Jon ahead to spy it out. When he came back to report, his voice was grim. “It’s a guard post,” he told them. “There’s eight of them in there. They’re wearing chain with shields and long swords. There’s a big gong on one wall with a mallet hanging next to it. If they sound it, we’ll have the whole place down on our heads.”
Aaren turned to Katrina but she was already shaking her head. “No way around them,” she said, anticipating his question. “This is the only route to where they’re holding the girl. We go this way or not at all.”
His lips compressed. “Battle Master? It’s your show.”
Horace took over immediately. “Jon, I want you by that gong. Anyone comes near it, take ’em out.”
“Gronk and I will lead the charge . . .” he stopped suddenly. “Where are the other doors?”
“Just one,” the rogue replied invisibly, “straight across from the one we’ll be coming in.”
“Good. Gronk, I want you to block that door. I don’t want any of them getting out.”
“Kill them?” the hulking creature asked brightly.
“Tear ’em apart,” he answered.
Gronk grinned hugely and flexed his hands in eager anticipation.
“Mira, I want you to cover us when we go in. Elric, stay out of the way for now. I want to conserve your spells for later if possible. Aaren, you and Katrina follow me and take out whoever you can.” He shrugged heavily under his armor. “I told you my plans would mostly consist of ‘get them!’.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Katrina comforted him. “It’s the best we can do.”
“Right. Well, follow me.” He eased down the passageway, slowing down as the light got closer. Moving cautiously, he peered into the room. He pulled back and counted silently, mouthing the numbers;
“Now!” he hissed and burst into the room. He and Gronk charged across the room, their swords splashing a trail of blood on the walls as they hewed at the startled guards. Before they could recover from their surprise, one of them slumped down with an arrow growing out of his throat and another was smashed to the floor by Aaren’s glittering hammer.
Gronk made it to the far door and spun around, his sword and battle axe searching for new victims.
The guards recovered and surged to the attack. One of them whirled to sound the gong, took three steps, staggered to a halt, and collapsed, his throat a red ruin. The rest, oblivious to his fate, hurled themselves at the Knights.
Aaren and Katrina met one of them with a ringing clash of steel and suddenly found themselves on the defensive in spite of outnumbering him. Mira nocked and fired her arrows as quickly as possible from the doorway, hampered by her friend’s proximity to her targets and the heavy armor they wore.
Horace was in the center of the fight, laughing and cursing, swinging his greatsword with devastating power. Two of his opponents were thrown back into Gronk’s reaching arms and, interpreting Horace’s orders literally, the great creature tore them in half.
Even Elric managed to get involved in the battle, swinging his enchanted dagger with desperate strength.
The guards were good fighters, but so were the Knights, and the element of surprise gave them an unbeatable advantage. In less a dozen heartbeats, the battle was over. The Knights were victorious and none of them were more slightly wounded, whereas all of their opponents were dead on the floor.
Horace spun and leaped for the doorway where Gronk had positioned himself, thrust him aside, and stuck his head out the door listening intently. He could hear the distant ‘drip drip’ of water but that was all. He pulled his head back in and leaned up against the wall with a sigh of relief.
“I don’t think anyone heard the fight,” he said gratefully, pulling his helmet off to reveal his sweat-streaked face. “It went down good, just the way I like it, short and sweet.”
“Maybe it’ll be like this the whole way,” Elric offered hopefully.
“Don’t hold your breath,” Horace laughed shortly. “It’ll get tougher before it gets easier.”
“He’s right,” Aaren agreed somberly. “We used to get a lot of adventurers coming to the temple because the Lord of Light is the only god who gives healing power to His priests and they all said pretty much the same thing. The ones that came back at all,” he added thoughtfully.
Jon reappeared and fell to searching the dead guards. To his disgust though, he only came up with a handful of silver coins and a tiny emerald.
Katrina clucked reproachfully at him, “Come on, we haven’t got time for that. We’re supposed to be on a rescue mission, remember?”
“I remember,” he said, getting up and brushing off his knees. “But it never hurts to keep an eye open. No telling what we might find.”
Mira recovered her arrows from the bodies. After wiping them off she put them back in her quiver. “I’m ready to go,” she announced. “What about the rest of you?”
A chorus of ‘ayes’ answered her. After a brief discussion, they decided against trying to cover up the evidence of their battle. There was too much blood on the floor and several of the bodies were so badly wounded it was immediately obvious they were dead. There was no possible way to hide it so they simply left them where they were and moved on, counting on the fact most of their enemies should be asleep for the night. Jon was back on point, airborne and invisible.
The area beyond the guard post appeared to be more heavily traveled. Brightly burning torches lined the passage, rugs covered much of the floor and the walls were smoothed to a fine finish. Before they had gone 100 cubits they encountered a four-way intersection. Down the left-hand branch, they faintly heard conversation along with the clatter of dishes.
“There’s a mess hall down there,” Jon reported after scouting ahead of them. “There are 50 or 60 men in there having dinner, maybe more.”
“Armed?” Horace asked quickly.
“To the teeth.”
“What about the other passages?” Aaren whispered.
“Nothing straight ahead, just a long tunnel, but the one on the right has a bad smell in it,” Jon replied. “Rank and kinda wet.”
“Familiar?” Elric wanted to know.
Jon shook his head decisively. “Never smelled it before in my life.”
“Well, you’re going to smell more of it,” Katrina assured him. “According to the map, that’s the only safe way for us to go. Any other way and we’ll run into all kinds of people.”
“It’s not the smell that’s bothering me, it’s what might be causing it,” the rogue said seriously.
A sudden burst of noise from the direction of the mess hall cut short her rejoinder. The Knights bounded silently down the right-hand passage. They shrank back into the shadows as an armed patrol marched noisily past.
Elric let out his breath with a sigh. “That was close. We can’t keep standing around talking. Next time we might not get so lucky.”
“You’re right about that,” Aaren nodded. “We’re getting in deeper and we’ve got to keep moving.” Suiting actions to words he struck out deeper into the dark, odorous tunnel. “Jon, get back on point.”
The rogue darted ahead and the rest fell in behind Aaren. Before they had gone twenty paces the tunnel turned four times and the faint glimmering from the main passageway vanished completely. Darkness descended over them like a shroud. They were forced to halt again.
“Darker than the Abyss,” Katrina muttered.
“Do you remember which way we’re supposed to go?” Aaren asked quietly. “I don’t want any lights in here. Maybe we can find our way along by staying close to the walls.”
“We take the second branch to the right,” she told them. “It doubles back toward the intersection then drops down beneath it.”
“Jon!” Aaren hissed into the darkness. “You hear that?”
“Loud and clear,” came the quiet reply.
“Good,” the priest nodded before he remembered that nobody could see him. “Let’s move out then. Everyone stay together, hold hands if you have to.”
They linked up silently and followed him deeper into the dark tunnel. The uncertain footing slowed their progress to a painful crawl. They inched their way along, hands outstretched before them. They found the first opening on the right and cautiously slid past it to continue. The foul odor that Jon had remarked on grew stronger until they wanted to retch. Just when they thought they couldn’t take it anymore, they found the second passageway and turned down it. The stench began to abate almost immediately.
“Whew!” Horace exclaimed gratefully. “I hope we don’t run into whatever caused that. I’d be too sick at my stomach to fight it. That smelled almost as bad as that putrid cloud Elric used on the caravan guards.”
“Maybe that’s where the idea for the spell originally came from,” the mage remarked softly.
The passageway angled sharply down just as Katrina had predicted. After following it for a short while they came to a three-way branch in the tunnel. “Which way?” Aaren whispered back to the bard.
“Straight ahead, but there’s a trap,” she replied.
“How do we get around it?”
“We can’t,” she sighed regretfully. “This is one we can’t avoid.”