They had to wait for Elric to energize his spell before they could put Horace’s plan into action. They retreated down the tunnel a full revolution and into a deserted looking side tunnel to avoid inadvertently alerting the guards to their presence. While Elric sat hunched over his spellbook gathering his power, the rest of them took the opportunity to examine their weapons and armor. The prospect of facing ready and waiting members of a military brotherhood was not one they wanted to charge into without preparation. They had been lucky the first time; the warriors had been lined up in a squad, their weapons sheathed, not expecting anything. These warriors, on guard before a major entrance, had to be expecting trouble as a matter of course and certainly knew by now there were invaders in their underground hideout.
At last, Elric was ready and they moved into position. He donned the ring of invisibility and headed around the bend of the tunnel. Despite the protection provided by the ring he still felt horribly exposed as he approached the guards. His skin wanted to crawl off him every time one of the guards looked his way and he had to fight an overpowering urge to crouch and sneak along. Halfway there, he had to pause and steady himself, his knees trembling like he had palsy. Going on from there was one of the hardest and loneliest things he’d ever done. But as he did, he somehow knew that he’d never again have cause to doubt his own courage.
He reached his designated position and pressed himself hard up against the wall. Looking back he could just barely see his friends peering around the bend in the tunnel, waiting for him to start the action. He turned and extended his arms, hands moving in intricate gestures memorized from the captured spellbook. He took a deep breath, held it for an instant, and spoke the words of power that unleashed a fiery streak from his outstretched fingers.
Jon’s description of the guards had been accurate. They were standing in a loose formation that extended across the tunnel a full 20 cubits deep in front of the locked and barred door. Behind them, pressed up almost to the wall, was a line of archers. The archers wore simple chain but the guards were attired in full plate similar to Horace’s armor except theirs was inlaid with fantastic patterns and designs. Their naked swords also bore inscriptions and inlays along the flat of the blades. The pommels were chased with gold and rubies. The archers held longbows taller than Elric, black arrows nocked loosely in them, and over their shoulders, a score or more were held in quivers.
They were a formidable sight.
But no one can remain eternally vigilant and in the manner of guards everywhere, they were standing in small bored groups talking in low tones. Swords and bows were held slackly and in one or two cases, propped against the wall while their owners shifted wearily from one foot to another. The fiery streak was almost on them before one of them noticed it. His eyes flew wide in shock and he opened his mouth to cry out a warning but it was too late.
Elric had cast the pearls at Blanrus from the necklace of fireballs in the openness of the huge cavern but he didn’t have any experience with the results of that same power in a smaller enclosure. The exploding fireball was far too big for the close confines of the spiraling tunnel, even though it was the largest tunnel in the underground maze. The flames turned the end of the tunnel into a raging inferno then billowed back toward Elric.
He gasped in shock at the onrushing flames and dove for the ground, praying fervently. Luck smiled on him and the fire roared over and past him, doing no more than singeing his hair and robes.
The blistering heat died away and he rolled to his feet, concern for his friends overriding his interest in the guards. But the flames hadn’t reached them. They were already charging forward, bellowing their war cries and waving their weapons.
Mira skidded to a halt halfway there and unloosed a shaft, grabbed one she had clamped in her teeth, and sent it after the first one so fast that both were in the air at the same time. It wasn’t until she reached for a third arrow that the extent of the damage from Elric’s spell sank in. The archers, penned against the wall with no possible retreat, had suffered the most. Their slender bowstrings had been instantly consumed in the blaze, rendering their bows useless. Their chain mail hadn’t offered much protection from the blast and many of them were either dead or dying.
The swordsmen were in better shape. Their heavy armor had stopped the worst of the terrible heat better than the more porous chain the archers wore. Because Elric aimed at the end of the tunnel, the fireball went off behind them and they were able to throw themselves down like Elric and let most of the flames pass over them. But they were still clambering to their feet, dazed, confused, and hurt when the Knights hit them like a runaway avalanche.
Gronk, sword in one hand and axe in the other, struck two of the enemy warriors simultaneously, hurling them back against the dying archers. Horace and Aaren were on either side of him, swinging their weapons with equally devastating results. Streaking bolts of light, a testament to Katrina’s new-found spell casting skills, struck yet another guard.
Jon restrained the urge to whoop for joy at the sight and concentrated on the door. His boots took him swooping over the fight and he landed beside the heavily locked portal. One of the archers was still able to fight but Jon’s flashing daggers tore him apart. Turning his back on the now-dead archer, he applied all his skills to unlocking and opening the door. He worked quickly, trying to balance the need for precision with the knowledge that speed was also essential. He blocked out the noise of the battle raging around him, his vision narrowed down to his hands and the lock.
Elric started to cast another spell then realized he was still invisible. He remembered that Jon had been able to do considerable damage to various enemies in that state, so he left off working Art and pulled his enchanted dagger to plunge into the fray.
Mira moved forward slowly, firing steadily into the whirling maelstrom of the battle. She picked her targets carefully, choosing those that were close to her friends yet not so close that a missed shot might hit one of them. One of the guards on the outer perimeter of the fight saw her and bounded toward her with a snarl. She backpedaled, firing quickly but he threw up his shield to turn her shafts. She despaired and reached for her sword, then stopped when a red line suddenly drew itself across the man’s throat. His life’s blood flooded down his chest and he crashed to the floor. She heard Elric’s invisible laugh and smiled grimly. She left her sword in its sheath and resumed firing. Behind her, she heard distant shouts and the sound of running feet. Her eyes widened in alarm.
Gronk’s height and strength made him a major target for the enemy guards and for a long moment Aaren, fighting at his side, was left alone. Taking advantage of the momentary lull he cast a spell of holding. Two of the guards he cast it at froze in place, but combat wasn’t the best place to cast Art and the rest of them shook it off. He counted himself lucky that two of them were out of the fight and swung his hammer to meet his next opponent.
Jon felt rather than heard the final tumbler fall into place and gave a glad cry. He swung the door wide, blinking in the early morning light as he looked around. He slammed his back up against the door to keep it open and bellowed to his friends over the clash of steel.
“It’s open! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s get out of here!”
Invisible footsteps pounded through the doorway then glowing missiles of power came hurtling back into the tunnel as Elric darted to safety. Jon grinned savagely at the sight. “Ladies! Elric is out! You’re next!”
Mira and Katrina didn’t wait for a second invitation; they dove for the beckoning portal. The rest of the Knights were hard on their heels. The guards had recovered from the jolting surprise of their onslaught and were starting to deliver some devastating blows. Horace was bleeding heavily and Gronk was weaving drunkenly from a near-fatal blow to the head. They saw a wave of reinforcements coming up the tunnel as they scrambled out the door. Jon slammed it behind them. An instant later there was a heavy crash as the pursuing guards slammed into the door. It bulged threateningly.
“They’ve got the key. It’s not going to slow ’em for long,” Jon shouted. “Follow me!” During the moment when the door first opened he’d seen a possible way out. He darted between two buildings, turning sideways in the narrow space to emerge on the street in front of the Loud Bang.
The Knights followed him without hesitation.
Aaren was the last one out. He tossed a sack to Gronk along with two healing potions. The sack clinked pleasantly as Gronk caught it. “That’s your pay,” he shouted. “Lead them on a wild goose chase. It doesn’t matter where just so long as it’s away from here or Macazecaha’s.” Gronk nodded and the Knights barreled down the street out of sight.
They continued running for several more blocks then slowed down and took stock. They quickly used the last of Blanrus’ potions to heal themselves from the wounds inflicted during the brief fight. Copious amounts of blood and gore were still visible on their weapons and armor though, and early morning pedestrians gave them both fearful looks and a wide berth.
“No sense stopping now,” Aaren said, speaking for all of them. “Let’s keep going. Blanrus doesn’t know we’re out and no one could have told him yet. That means we still have the element of surprise.”
A chorus of muttered ‘aye’s answered him and they picked up their pace. Rounding the corner of Macazecaha’s Bar, they saw the building behind it Altman had mentioned and broke into a run. Horace and Aaren hit the door with their shoulders and smashed it flat. A startled guard tried to rise from his chair but Mira’s sword carved a new mouth on his throat and he crashed to the floor.
Jon scanned the building and saw a flight of stairs at the rear. “There!” he shouted.
They darted through the dusty warehouse aisles and pounded up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Surprised shouts and yells were sounding throughout the building but the Knights were moving so fast they were already on the second floor before Blanrus’ men fully realized what was happening. The Knights erupted into a hallway at the top of the stairs and started down it, swinging at everyone who got in their way. They quickly discovered that only the dead guard below was a member of The Sword. The rest were just hired bully boys and were no match for the determined Knights.
A door at the end of the hall opened and Blanrus peered through, then gasped in shock. “Unzar! Stop them! They mustn’t get here!” the mage shouted in a panicked voice. He slammed and barred the door.
A tall, shifty-eyed fighter turned and grinned at the Knights. “You heard the Master,” he grunted menacingly. “You’re dead!”
“Wrong!” Horace snarled. His mighty sword clove the man from head to crotch in one blow and he dove on past without slowing down. The hired fighters behind Unzar paled in fear, falling over each other trying to scramble to safety. But it was a vain effort and within minutes the hallway floor was littered with dead men.
Horace and Aaren hit the door that Blanrus had disappeared behind but this time the portal withstood their attack. They shuddered from the bone-jarring impact. “I guess this one is a little tougher,” Aaren said ruefully, rubbing his shoulder.
Elric shook his head, “I don’t think so.” He activated his Sight then peered at the door. “Wizard locked,” he told them after a moment. He cast Art again, this time at the door to open it. Nothing happened and he frowned. “It’s still locked. Aaren, can you dispel the magic?”
“Maybe.” He shrugged. “I’ve never asked The Lord of Light for that spell before.” He held up the holy symbol that hung around his neck and prayed silently, asking for the power to overcome Blanrus’ wizard lock. For a long moment, nothing happened. Then he felt a rush of power as his prayer was answered. He cast the spell and smiled at his friends as the door popped open. “There you go.”
They spilled through the door and found themselves in a large room, empty of anything except an altar set up at the far end. Blanrus and Bashaak finished untying Illene from it just as the Knights burst in. Blanrus cursed and flung out his hand. Writhing tentacles sprang up from the floor and attacked them.
“What’s this?” Horace exclaimed as one of the rubbery tentacles slithered around his ankle. He swung at it but his sword rebounded, leaving only a shallow cut. He swung again with the same results. The rest of them found themselves in the same situation. By the time they’d freed themselves from the savage attack, Blanrus and Bashaak were long gone, taking Illene with them.
Jon hurled the last tentacle away from himself and leapt for the far end of the room. He found the door that Blanrus and Bashaak had vanished through and kicked it open, ducking back in case of attack. When none was forthcoming, he darted through and down a flight of stairs. At the bottom, another door led to a dingy alley. The rest joined him an instant later.
Mira ran a professional tracker’s eye over the ground and pointed south. “This way,” she said, taking the lead from Jon. She broke into a fast dog trot, keeping her eyes locked on the ground, alert for the slightest scuff mark or sign of her prey. It was still too early for the morning traffic to obscure the trail and her trained eyes followed it easily. It went straight south. Blanrus and Bashaak hadn’t made any attempt to lose the Knights. They’d simply headed for their next destination and within a few minutes, Mira found herself staring right at it.
“There they are!” Horace shouted, pointing at one of the long docks extending out from the shore. The distant figures must have heard his bellow; after a single look behind them, they broke into a run, hauling Illene along with them. “Stop them!” Horace roared as he sprinted down to the dock. “Don’t let them get away!”
The Knights swept along the wooden dock in a thunderous avalanche of sound and fury, the sight of their quarry goading them to greater and greater efforts. Their rage lent wings to their feet, they put their heads down and stove for all they were worth.
But it was in vain.
The two men reached a small bird-like ship with the name ‘Vis’ emblazoned on the side and clambered aboard. They began casting off in frantic haste. Several men came up from below decks, took in the situation, and fell to. Bashaak disappeared into the recesses of the ship. The sails opened and a moment later the Vis shuddered and began to move.
“No!” Katrina screamed in anguish. “They can’t!” She tried to hurl Art to stop them but she had nothing left.
The sailors winched the ailerons down into position, painted feather patterns on them glistening in the morning sunlight. Together with the ship’s long, piercing ram and extended landing gear, the Vis looked like a bird of prey.
The Knights puffed to a stop as the ship pulled out of spell and bow range. Aaren’s lips compressed in anger. “Back to the Sky Hawk,” he ordered. “We’ll have to follow them before they get out of sight. Hurry!”
His friends obeyed without question. They turned and ran back up the dock, keeping one eye on the escaping Vis. The gangplank of the Sky Hawk bounced and rattled noisily as they pounded up it. The startled watchman greeted them from the forecastle. “What’s going on, Captain?” he goggled as he took in their bloody appearance.
“Get the crew up,” Aaren snapped. “We’re casting off! We have to catch that ship,” he said, pointing at the departing Vis. The Knights didn’t wait for the watchman though. Jon grabbed the cord on the ship’s bell and started ringing it, shouting, “All hands on deck! All hands on deck! Fall out!”
Within moments the crew was awake and stumbling into their clothes, a thousand questions on their lips. They were starting to work as a team though and Garrick soon had them moving at breakneck speed. After a moment of indecision, Aaren grabbed Mira and pushed her toward the ship’s wheel. Elric’s spells might mean the difference between rescuing Illene and failing, but he couldn’t cast Art if he was tied down steering the ship.
The crew swarmed over the rigging and within moments the Sky Hawk raised her sails and pulled out of dock in pursuit of their quarry.