Aaren’s heart sank like a stone. “How far ahead is the trap?” he asked.
“About 60 cubits.”
“Alright, let’s get out of this intersection then get some light so we can see what we’re facing,” he told them.
They slowly crossed the cross-passage then huddled together next to the wall. Horace pulled out Jon’s little stick and the faint, blue light illuminated their strained faces. Katrina pulled out her map and pointed at the Xs she’d drawn in to represent traps. Silently she indicated their position. There was no way around the obstacle ahead if they wanted to reach Illene. They all nodded their comprehension and she put it away. Horace turned the little light down the tunnel but it was too faint to reveal any details. Aaren grimaced and cast Art. Light filled the tunnel. They stared toward where Katrina’s map said the trap was.
“I don’t see anything,” Mira said doubtfully. “Are you sure it’s there?”
“According to Ryal’s map it is,” the bard assured her, “and I copied it down exactly.”
“She did,” Elric added, backing her up. “I was watching the whole time. She got everything down exactly the way Ryal’s map had it. There’s a trap up there alright, we just can’t see it.” She smiled gratefully at him and he squeezed her hand.
“Must be magic then,” Horace said thoughtfully.
Aaren nodded. “My Sight can’t see it.” He glanced at Elric who shook his head. “Maybe a detection spell can reveal it, it’s what they’re meant for.” He swung around and cast Art again. His eyes narrowed as he scrutinized the passage ahead.
“See anything?” they asked him.
He nodded again, “It’s there. Right beyond that pile of rocks of up there.” He pointed. “I don’t know what it does, but it’s powerful, I can tell you that.”
“As soon as we set it off, Blanrus is going to know we’re here,” Mira warned darkly.
“I’m afraid so,” he agreed somberly. “It’s a double whammy.”
“Well, who wants to volunteer?” Jon asked them.
They exchanged quiet looks, tension drawing lines on their faces.
Horace finally broke the silence. “Whatever it is I can probably survive it better than any of the rest of you, I’ll go.” He stepped out into the passage, breathing hard.
Aaren clapped him on the shoulder. “The Lord of Light protect you,” he intoned, a blue nimbus of light spreading briefly around the fighter.
“Thanks, just be ready with some healing spells if something goes wrong,” the big fighter said with false levity.
“You got it.”
Horace took another deep breath then hurled himself down the tunnel, trusting to momentum to carry him through whatever magic was there. The others crouched defensively, fearing a backlash. A brilliant flash erupted in front of them and a roar of thunder blasted their eardrums. They staggered back, their eyes tearing from the painful light, searing afterimages floating before their eyes. Their ears were ringing painfully.
Mira recovered first. She shook her head and trotted forward anxiously, looking for Horace. She found him and gasped with fear. “Aaren! Come here! Hurry!”
Aaren staggered forward, shaking his head to clear it. He dropped to his knees beside her. “Good grief!” Horace had taken the full brunt of the most powerful lightning bolt he’d ever seen. His flesh was black, burned, and crisped from the power of the bolt. Smoke wafted up from him and his skin still sizzled and popped like bacon frying on a hot skillet. It was a miracle he was alive at all.
Aaren laid his hands on Horace, ignoring the painful heat still radiating from him, and began praying as he’d never prayed before. Healing power flowed down his arms and into the twisted body on the floor, but Horace’s wounds were worse than anything he’d ever contended with before and the work was slow and hard. He redoubled his efforts, sweat breaking out on his forehead.
Slowly, so slowly it was almost imperceptible, the horrible, gaping wounds began to close. Horace’s skin began to revert to its normal color, the jagged edges drawing together and sealing themselves. His breathing slowed and steadied. His eyelids fluttered weakly and he swallowed convulsively. Aaren took a huge breath for one last effort, then he sank back against the wall, trembling with effort.
“That’s it,” he croaked. “That’s the best I can do.”
Horace pried his eyes open and looked at him gratefully. “You seem to be doing this a lot for me lately,” he managed slowly. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure,” Aaren nodded heavily. “I’m just glad the Lord of Light isn’t like The Six or you’d never get any healing that didn’t come out of a potion bottle. How are you feeling?”
“Like I got run over by a team of mules.”
Aaren laid his head back against the wall and closed his eyes wearily. “Join the club,” he sighed.
The others had joined them and were crowded close. Jon looked quickly up and down the passageway. “Can you guys move?” he asked in a worried tone. “We can’t stay here, we gotta get moving.”
Aaren heaved himself up, swaying like a man in a high wind. “I can move,” he said.
Horace tried to get up and turned white as a sheet. He fell back gasping for breath. He licked his lips like a man dying of thirst. “Can’t do it,” he coughed painfully. He started to say something else then passed out.
From off in the distance came the sudden sound of shouts and alarms. “No!” Mira hissed. “They know we’re here! What are we going to do with him?”
“We’re gonna have to carry him,” Katrina said.
“How?” Mira asked, indicating Horace’s armored weight. “It’d take four of us to even lift him. How could we fight?”
Gronk shoved his way through the little circle and bent over the unconscious fighter. He picked him up and effortlessly slung him over his shoulder. “Gronk carry,” he grunted.
Elric’s eyebrows lifted in astonishment. Somehow or another they’d managed to forget about the hulking half-ogre. “That answers that question,” he told Mira. “Gronk carry.”
Aaren was beginning to recover from the strain of his extraordinary efforts and he took charge again. “Katrina, which way do we go now?”
“Left at the next junction,” she said quickly.
He started to extinguish the magical light emanating from his hammer then realized there was no point, the enemy already knew they were here. At least this way they could see where they were going.” He waved them to follow him. “Let’s go!”
Jon rose up in the air and vanished. Katrina took off after the invisible rogue, sword in one hand and map in the other. The rest of them broke into a run, heading deeper into the enemy stronghold.
“They’re nearly here already!” Blanrus screamed in baffled fury as he dressed at breakneck speed. All of his magical traps were linked to him so he’d be alerted the instant any of them were triggered. He’d expected the Knights to set off one of the outer traps, waking him in case Kasrah’s network of spies somehow failed, but instead, they’d bypassed all of the outer defenses and were now past the last inner circle of traps. “How could they do that? HOW?”
“Maybe they got magic,” Kasrah suggested carefully. Blanrus’ rages tended to spill over onto innocent bystanders. He wished he was someplace else.
“Magic? Of course, they’ve got magic, you imbecile!” the mage bellowed at him. “But what about your spies? Why didn’t they give us any warning? What happened to them? I swear, Kasrah, if you’ve sold me out–”
“NO!” the halfling squeaked in fear. “No, Master! I wouldn’t do that! Never! Not in my whole lifetime!” He backed away across the mage’s bedroom, white and trembling. “I give you my word!”
“The word of a walking appetite!” Blanrus sneered. “What is that worth? How do–” A sudden pounding at the door interrupted his tirade. “Who is it?” he shouted.
Altman threw the door open and strode in purposefully. “The spoil sports are here, your Majesty,” he said, addressing Blanrus by the mocking nickname that he’d used since finding out the mage’s true intentions.
Blanrus glared at him angrily, “Stop calling me that!” He still didn’t understand how the fancy fop had managed to deduce what the ceremony would do. Even Unzar didn’t know what he was up to.
Altman grinned back at him, unfazed by the mage’s fury. “Ready to go give ’em the surprise of their lives?”
“Yes!” Blanrus snapped. He stopped halfway to the door and looked back at Kasrah with evil eyes. “We’ll finish our conversation later,” he hissed. “I give you my word.” He spun on his heel and stalked out, Altman close behind.
Kasrah’s knees gave out and he plopped down on the floor. “Oh my,” he said to himself, “oh dear, oh dear me. Aunt Bethena warned me about getting mixed up with wizards, oh yes she did. She really did. Absolutely. And I wouldn’t listen to her, oh no, not me. I had to go ahead and walk right in with my mouth wide open, as the saying goes. Now he’s going to ask me about the spies and how am I supposed to know what happened to them? I was here, not there, doesn’t he know that?” he asked the empty room in a quavering voice.
He jumped up, pacing back and forth with agitated strides, his hands clasped nervously behind him. “But he doesn’t care about anything except what he wants . . . and he wants to know about the spies. He’s going to get mad and then, oh dear, what am I ever going to do then? Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.”
“Perhaps you should accept my embrace,” a sibilant voice hissed at him from the shadows.
“This way!” Katrina said urgently, pointing to a side passage. “We can get around behind them.” A heavily armed patrol had sighted them and was chasing them through the maze of tunnels, closing fast. “They’ll go right past and we can double back to the intersection.”
The Knights didn’t bother to argue her logic, they dove into the narrow tunnel, barely getting out of sight before the patrol barreled around the corner after them. The entrance to the side tunnel angled sharply back from the main passage and was partially hidden by an outcropping of stone. An invader, unfamiliar with the maze, would run right on past it without ever seeing it. The patrol had no way of knowing they had a map of the tunnels and would assume they’d gone past it.
The warriors stormed noisily down the tunnel and past them, the echoes gradually dying away.
The Knights heaved a grateful sigh of relief. “Come on,” Aaren said, “let’s get back to that intersection before we run into another patrol.”
“Things are starting to get pretty dicey,” Jon grimaced before turning invisible. “We’re getting in over our heads.”
“Well it’s too late to back out now,” Elric snapped irritably. “Let’s get the girl and get out of here.”
They reached the intersection and turned down the tunnel they’d been forced to abandon when the patrol intercepted them. They picked up the pace, their armor and weapons bouncing awkwardly as they ran. The bumpy ride roused Horace from his stupor and he looked around groggily, taking in the situation as best he could. The Knights slowed down to make another turn at the next intersection and he asked fuzzily, “We’ve been spotted?”
Mira looked back over her shoulder as she ran. “Spotted and pursued. We’ve shaken them off for the moment though. Are you back among the living?”
“More or less,” he said shortly. “Have we run into any more guard posts?” he asked, trying to get back in the action.
Mira was short of breath and merely shook her head.
“If we do, don’t stop,” he admonished her. “Tell the others our only hope now is speed. We’ve got to punch on through without worrying about whether they’re dead or not. If we stop, we’ll get pinned down, then we’re dead.”
She nodded and passed his warning along to the others in short gasps as she ran. They acknowledged her and kept going.
His advice was tested almost immediately.
They broke through a wide set of double doors and plunged headlong into a vast, ornately decorated room. A high, curving ceiling was festooned with intricate carvings of war, destruction, and carnage. Brilliant, crimson drapes fell from the ceiling to the floor and hanging lamps positioned around the room sent flickering shadows dancing across the battle scenes stitched on the heavy material. Weapons racks lined the walls, heavy furniture was arranged in small, comfortable groupings, and there were three doors, each in the center of each of the other walls, guarded by warriors in heavy plate. A roaring fire pit, nearly 20 cubits long dominated the center of the room, surrounded by stout, wooden benches. A dozen or more gray-headed warriors stood around the fire in deep conversation, swords in their hands.
Horace took in the scene in one glance from his position in Gronk’s arms and bellowed furiously. “Attack!” The startled warriors, surprised by their sudden violent entrance and Horace’s instant war cry, fell back in alarm, raising their weapons. Confusion reigned for a few precious moments. The Knights didn’t give them time to recover.
Following Katrina’s lead, they tore across the chamber toward one of the other doors. Elric cast Art on the run, sizzling bolts leaping out ahead of them to strike unerringly at the warriors guarding their destination. From out of nowhere two daggers spun through the air to bury themselves in the guard’s throats at the same instant. The guards staggered under the unexpected attack, sagging weakly back against the curtained wall beside them. They pawed feebly at the daggers in their throats.
As the Knights gained the door the warriors around the fire recovered from their surprise and roared with anger. They raised their weapons and stormed after the heroes in an avalanche of sweat-stained steel.
The daggers in the guard’s throats pulled themselves free of their own accord, sailed through the air, and vanished. Cries of astonishment and fury rang out at the sight. The warrior’s charge slowed only for an instant, but that was enough. The Knights threw the door open and piled through. Gronk whirled and slammed it shut behind them, his mighty strength jamming the door in place.
“Keep going!” Horace yelled. “We’re doing great!” he laughed.
“WE?” an invisible voice asked in surprise. “What’s this we stuff? You’re not doing anything except getting a free ride.”
“What about that trap?” Horace remonstrated hotly, “Was that nothing?”
Jon’s reply was rude and physically impossible. Horace’s answer was equally insulting.
Aaren rounded another corner hot on Katrina’s heels. “I don’t believe those guys,” he panted to Mira. “We got warriors coming at us from all sides and they still find time to argue.”
“It’s their way of showing they like each other,” she puffed. “If they didn’t fight, I’d be worried about ’em.”
Katrina skidded to a sudden halt and Aaren plowed into her before he could stop himself. They went down in a noisy tangle. Mira yelped and barely managed to dance around them. The others slowed and stopped.
“Hey, Aaren, what are you jumping on Katrina for? I thought you were in love with Mira,” Jon quipped gleefully.
Horace snickered. “Yeah, with everything that’s going on, how can you find time for the ladies?” he said in a mocking parody of Aaren’s earlier comment.
Katrina and Aaren pulled themselves up, favoring Horace with a disgusted look since Jon was nowhere to be seen. “Oh, shut up!” Aaren growled. He turned back to Katrina, pointedly ignoring the answering chorus of laughter from Horace and Jon. “How come you stopped all of the sudden?” he asked her.
“According to the map there’s a hidden tunnel around here that leads directly to where Illene is being held,” she replied, indicating a blank, featureless section of wall.
They turned and examined it. It didn’t look any different than any other section of wall they’d passed since descending into The Sword’s hideout. Carved out of the solid rock of the asteroid, it was plain and unadorned. And, as far as they could tell, it was utterly seamless.
“Are you sure?” Elric said doubtfully. “Maybe this is the wrong spot or something. I don’t see anything here.”
Jon reappeared beside him. “You’re not supposed to see anything,” he told him. “That’s why it’s called a ‘hidden’ tunnel. Back up,” he said, pushing the mage aside. “I need room to work.”
“It’s all yours,” Elric said willingly, moving away.
Horace struggled out of Gronk’s arms, swaying slightly as the half-ogre set him down, but staying on his feet. “Make it fast, little buddy,” he said, looking back down the passageway. “That door isn’t going to hold forever.”
Jon nodded absently, his attention already focused on the wall before him. He ran his fingers lightly over the stone, searching for any slight bumps or pits. Katrina put her map away and joined him. Her years of singing in bars had taught her how to lift a patron’s purses when they weren’t as forthcoming with tips as they should have been. Consequently, her fingers were almost as nimble as Jon’s. Together the two of them swept over the wall in an expanding pattern, searching for a catch or release that might operate the door.
A hollow, booming echoed down the hall from behind them. Horace cast a worried glance over his shoulder. “A battering ram!” he said tightly. “That door isn’t going to last.” Another hollow boom emphasized his words.
“Don’t sweat it, big guy. I’ve got it!” Jon crowed triumphantly.
A faint click sounded as he pressed on an unremarkable part of the wall. A section of wall next to it pivoted on a center post with a deep, grinding noise. A dark, unlit tunnel stood revealed, angling steeply down into the depths.
“Everybody in,” Aaren ordered quickly.
He sprang through, the magical light from his hammer illuminating the passage. The rest followed him in. Jon and Katrina quickly found the inside catch and tripped it, closing the door with a crunch.
Silence descended on the empty tunnel behind them.