Startled, they spun around, weapons at the ready. A halfling, unusually pale for his brown-skinned race, stood in the middle of the corridor they had just passed through, watching them calmly.
“A little skittish today, aren’t we?” he said. “Makes a person wonder what you’re up to.” His eyes seemed to be unusually large and limpid, almost bottomless.
“Where did you come from?” Horace demanded hotly, scanning the walls for signs of concealed doors or passages. “How did you get behind us?”
“We halflings are famous for that,” he answered smoothly, his voice sliding over them like a silken veil. “You Big Folk make so much noise a poor halfling has to practically stomp his feet to get your attention.”
“What are you doing here?” Mira asked in a calm voice, lowering her bow slightly. It seemed heavier than normal somehow, it was an effort to hold it.
“Blanrus was my master,” the halfling replied. “A cruel and vicious one. My thanks for driving him away. You’ve freed me at last.” His eyes seemed to get bigger by the moment.
All of them were starting to lower their weapons, unaware of doing so. Their eyelids were getting heavy as well. Elric’s head drooped and he swayed, fighting off sleep. “Glad we could help,” he yawned. “Do you need anything else?”
The halfling edged forward, a greedy light in his eyes. “Actually, there is one other thing you could do for me,” he told them. “I’m suffering from the most incredible . . . thirst. I wonder if you’d give me something to drink.” He practically hissed the last word, fangs glittering in his mouth.
Weapons were dropping from five sets of nerveless fingers as they succumbed to his hypnotic eyes. Their own eyes were blank and staring, completely under the little halfling’s power. He dropped his poise and strode forward arrogantly. He ran a caressing hand over their bodies in eager anticipation, feeling the hot blood pounding through their veins.
“You were right, Dolgaron,” he laughed evilly. “this is better, infinitely better!” Climbing up Horace’s armor he pulled the fighter’s head back, exposing his neck. His lips pulled back from his fangs, his face contorting with an expression of hellish anticipation. Then searing pain exploded in his back and he screamed as he fell to the floor.
Jon was horrified. His friends had fallen behind him and he’d flown back to see what was the matter. He’d found them standing like a bunch of statues in the middle of the hall while some weird halfling climbed all over them. The diminutive creature was getting ready to bite Horace when Jon recovered from his surprise and hurled one of his magical daggers at the creature’s back. When the halfling fell, Jon saw the fangs.
A halfling vampire, he thought in shock. How could that happen? He hurled his other dagger before the monster could recover from the first blow.
The Knights came out of their stupor with the suddenness of a sleeper waking from a nightmare. Fear gripped them and they dove for their weapons.
Kasrah dematerialized, the daggers in his back clattering to the floor as they lost their purchase. He re-materialized in front of Aaren, his face suffused with inhuman fury. “You’re mine!” he screamed, flinging himself at the priest. “Your blood is mine!”
Aaren hurled himself backward. He tripped and went down hard, the demented vampire clawing its way after him, wiggling forward. He grabbed for his hammer but it slipped away. In desperation, he held up his holy symbol in front of him.
“BY ALL THAT IS HOLY, BE GONE!” he thundered, thrusting it full in the vampire’s face. Blinding light erupted from the tiny symbol and struck the monster like a physical blow, slamming it against the far wall.
Before anyone could react, the vampire leaped to its feet and roared down the hallway like a dark wind, shrieking in fear and pain. The creature turned a distant corner and vanished.
“Wow!” Aaren sighed and fell back relief. “It worked!”
Mira straightened up from her crouch. “What worked?”
Aaren propped himself up on his elbows. “Turning,” he replied. “I didn’t think I was strong enough to turn a monster like that! I guess the Lord of Light thought differently.” He smiled as he sat up. “Is everyone alright?”
A chorus of ‘yeses’ answered him.
He turned to Jon. “It looks like we owe you our lives,” he said. “If you hadn’t come back when you did, we’d have been goners.”
Jon blushed with pleasure. “No problem,” he mumbled.
Horace slapped him on the back. “That’s one I owe you, little buddy. Next time you need some help, you let me know, and it won’t be any problem for me either.”
“Say,” Elric exclaimed, “I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but why’d you come back at that particular moment anyway?”
Jon shrugged. “Well, I’d found Blanrus’ room and I was getting impatient waiting for you guys.”
“What?!” Elric shouted. “Where?”
Grinning at his excited outburst, Jon quickly led them down the hall to a short, side hall. A door stood open at the end of the hall. Elric whooped for joy and plunged through. They followed him at a slower pace, looking around carefully.
The spacious room was square, about 25 by 25 cubits, with a canopied bed against the far wall. A wide desk occupied the wall on their left. Tall bookshelves, mostly bare, stood on either side of it. Opposite from the desk was a fireplace, two wing-backed chairs in front of it. A cloak rack stood by the door and a trunk full of clothes sat at the foot of the bed. A table stood in the middle of the room, a bowl of half-eaten fruit on it.
Elric was already rooting through the desk drawers like a wild man when the rest of them came in, throwing papers around him until it looked as if a blizzard had struck. He emptied the last drawer and began tearing through the paltry rows of books on the shelves. Jon wandered away to tap experimentally on the walls. Not really knowing what to do with themselves, the rest of them undertook a desultory search of the room too.
Horace shook his head over Elric’s crazed efforts and went out to stand guard in the hall, taking Gronk with him.
Elric finished pulling the last book off the shelves and stared around the room with wild eyes. “Where is it?” he cried desperately. “Where?” He flung himself down by the trunk of clothes and began yanking them out by the fist full.
“What happens if he doesn’t find it?” Mira whispered to Aaren.
He shrugged. “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t give a bent copper on Altman’s life expectancy. Elric will turn him inside out for lying to us.”
Elric finished throwing clothes around and kicked the empty trunk away from him. He leaped to his feet and rushed to the head of the bed. There was a nightstand there and it was the next piece of furniture to be attacked.
Jon gave up his tapping and joined them by the table. “He’s losing it,” he said, nodding his head toward Elric. “He’s going to destroy this whole place.” He shook his head and picked over the bowl of fruit, trying to find a piece that was whole. The bowl was sitting on a raised section of wood. Jon pulled the bowl over to the edge of the raised section for a better view. He frowned, bending his neck sideways. He picked the bowl up and shoved it aside. The raised section of the table was actually a large, leather-bound book embossed with arcane symbols. He picked it up. “Hey! Is this what you’re looking for?” he called.
Elric froze, staring at the book. “That’s it!” he yelped, practically levitating across the room to snatch it from Jon. “That’s it, that’s it, that’s it!” he sang, clutching it to his chest and dancing around the room.
Aaren turned to Jon. “Where did you find it?” he frowned.
Jon pointed at the table. “Sitting under the fruit bowl.”
Mira snorted with laughter. “He’s tearing the room apart and you found it under the fruit bowl?” she giggled.
“Please don’t tell him.”
“Only when the time is right,” he grinned.
Katrina joined them, a wide smirk plastered across her face. “Then I probably shouldn’t tell you what I found,” she told them.
Jon gave her a ‘what could you do that I couldn’t?’ look. “Yeah? What’s that?”
She opened her hands and gold coins glittered at them. “Three sacks of it, hidden in a little niche by the head of the bed.”
Jon’s jaw sagged in disbelief. “Gold? I found a stupid old book and you found bags of gold?” He kicked the table in disgust. Horace poked his head in the door. “Are you guys through in there? We’re pushing our luck. We gotta get going.”
Aaren nodded, “We’re done. Come on people, let’s move.”
“My gold!” Katrina yelped.
Elric stopped his madcap dancing. “What gold?”
“Yeah,” said Horace, coming back into the room. “What gold?”
“We’ll explain later,” Mira said. “Let’s just grab it and go.”
They quickly divided the money and backtracked to the spiraling tunnel. The halfling vampire was nowhere to be seen and they made it back without incident. After ensuring it was still deserted, they turned and followed it up towards the surface.
“How come we didn’t take this route going down?” Mira wanted to know as their path continued upwards without interruption. “It would have been a lot easier.”
“Maybe Sithfarith didn’t know where the entrance was,” Jon answered her.
As they neared the top of the tunnel they saw light ahead of them and heard the sound of voices. Aaren extinguished his magical light and sent Jon on ahead to check it out. After a minute or two, he was back with a report. “There are twenty guards up there.” He shook his head somberly. “They’re wearing full plate, like Horace. Plus, they’ve got ten to fifteen archers with longbows and plenty of room to use them. The exit is locked and barred from the inside.”
“Now we know why we didn’t come in this way,” Mira muttered.
“No chance of a surprise attack?” Horace asked, ignoring her.
Jon indicated the slow, sweeping curve of the tunnel. “It opens out onto a straight stretch that’s over 60 cubits long. They’d have us in sight for most of it.”
“They didn’t see you,” Katrina pointed out.
“I’m wearing a ring of invisibility,” he reminded her.
“Maybe I should be wearing it this time,” Elric said suddenly, looking up from Blanrus’ spellbook with an excited grin.
Jon cocked his head warily. “Why?”
“How closely packed are the guards?” Elric countered.
“They’re kinda spread out. I mean, all of them are right up near the door at the end of the tunnel, but they’re not in a tight formation or anything.”
“If I was wearing that ring I could get close enough to throw a fireball at them,” Elric grinned excitedly. “We’d catch them flatfooted.”
“But you used up all the pearls on the necklace,” Horace objected. “You can’t throw any more fireballs.”
Elric shook his head happily. “I can now,” he said, holding up the captured spellbook. “Why else do you think I wanted it so badly? I knew there would be spells in it that I didn’t have yet.”
Aaren knew more about spell casting than the others and understood the risks of attempting a new and powerful spell. “Are you sure you can do it?” he asked worriedly.
Elric nodded confidently. “And with Jon’s ring, I can get right up on top of them.”
“I can throw some magic at them too,” Katrina offered abruptly.
Aaren heaved a sigh. “Looks like it’s up to you, Battle Master,” he told Horace. He waved the fighter to center stage.
Horace shrugged. “It doesn’t sound like we’ve got much of a choice. Jon, give Elric your ring. Once his fireball goes off, Gronk, Aaren, and I will lead the charge. Mira, I want you to take out their archers. Katrina, help her with your ‘spells’,” he said, a question mark clearly in his eyes. “Jon, while we’re keeping them busy, I want you to get the door open. Let out a yell when you’re done.”
He paused. “We haven’t seen any soldiers in this tunnel but 20 guards on the door means it’s a major entrance. There are bound to be others down some of these side corridors we’ve been passing.” He looked seriously at them. “Keep an eye on Jon. As soon as he gets the door open, I want us out of here. Elric, you first. Then Mira and Katrina, then the rest of us. Don’t try to stay for one last swipe at someone, don’t try to grab any treasure,” here he shot a dark glance at Jon, “and don’t try to be a hero, just bug out before reinforcements arrive.”
“What if somebody gets hurt bad?” Mira countered. “What if they need help?”
“Don’t get hurt bad,” Horace told them grimly. “Twenty warriors in full plate, plus fifteen archers, plus who knows how many others lurking about somewhere,” he shook his head, “we don’t stand a chance of beating them. We want to blast our way through and be gone before they know what happened. I’m not joking, don’t let yourself get hit too badly, we might not be able to get you out.”