The stairs spiraled around in a tight ascent, ending finally on a short walkway barred by a portcullis. Darkness gave way to a lighted tunnel to the right, torches flickering as they burned. Neither Stoyan nor de Geffriel could see down the passage, an, when they tried to listen, silence greeted them.
“What kind of hideout is this?” de Geffriel put on a pouty face, and Stoyan found himself smiling. “Who would lead you through something so stupid only to put a gate at the end? How can people even move about? And keeping it clean?! This is…it’s pointless!”
As Stoyan reached around to console her, the tight stairwell forced his hand to brush against the wall. His fingers curled around a wooden extrusion and he pulled down. The sound of iron creaking against stone was a blessed sound, though the gate before them remained still. Their attention instead flew across the way to another gate from a second stairwell, as it slowly retreated into the recesses of the structure above.
“Oh, for the love of…Really? This place sucks.” Folding her arms across her chest in a huffy manner, de Geffriel snorted, another quirk Stoyan found oddly appealing. “Might as well find that stairwell.”
But before they could move, they saw movement as a shadow flickered along the wall. “Hold on, de Geffriel, someone’s over there.”
She waited, watching impatiently, as Elias and Alaiya emerged and stood before the open archway. “Oh, like that’s fair!” She reached over and raised the switch lowering the portcullis in front of them. Both jumped back startled at the sudden occurrence and de Geffriel snickered. Realizing what she had done, Stoyan batted her hand away and pulled the lever down once more, reraising the barred gate.
“Hey, Alaiya, Elias, is there a switch over there? Get us out!” Stoyan’s voice rang out, bouncing off the stone walls.
The two in the other room turned and peered across the conjoining platform and saw Stoyan, his face plastered against the bars, matted hair and flaps of skin jutting out between the bars in an awkward, fish-faced manner.
“Now, that’s a sight,” began Elias, pausing briefly. “…for sore…eyes.” He reached over and pulled a lever extending from the wall. The portcullis across the way opened and Stoyan and de Geffriel moved forward onto the landing to meet the others. Together they looked down the corridor and noticed numerous torches illuminating eight staggered doors on either end.
Suddenly the torches snuffed out, blanketing the corridor in complete darkness. Then, almost as quickly, they reignited.
“That’s, unusual,” observed Elias, his curiosity naturally drawing him into the hallway. With each step he took, the torches extinguished their light and brought it back, creating a symphonic cadence with the Gnome’s steps. Muffled laughter from behind him broke his trance as the torches reignited once more.
Turning, Elias saw Alaiya glaring at the Scout, who had her hand clasped over her mouth, trying to suppress her laughter. Confused, Elias could only stare as de Geffriel held up her hand and snapped her fingers. The torches behind him snuffed out. She snapped again and the torched flared back to life.
“Amazing!” Elias ran to de Geffriel, growing more curious as he tried to comprehend what he was seeing. With every snap of her fingers the torches responded, as though she controlled the life of flame itself. “How do you do that?”
Before de Geffriel could respond, Alaiya interjected. Holding up her hands, she mimed putting on gloves and motioned to de Geffriel. Elias’s eyes followed and widened in realization as he took in the deep purple gloves made of felt. “You found some magick items as well?” He put his hands on his hips and gyrated forward, a gesture that caused both Alaiya and de Geffriel to retch slightly. “Found this with one of the Orcs we killed, right Alaiya? Fierce battle it was. Nifty little thing makes me feel a bit stronger, if I do say so though. I wonder what kind of spell is on it…” Elias lost himself in thought for a moment before turning to Alaiya. “Well, go on. Show ’em your cape.” Alaiya looked at him disapprovingly. “Okay, okay, okay. It’s not a cape, it’s a cloak. Still, show ’em.”
Alaiya half twirled, a little embarrassed by the sudden attention. She held out the cape, its plain brown texture glimmering periodically in the torchlight. Small, miniscule strands of copper and gold had been woven into the fabric and they chased each other as the cloak fluttered and fell back into place across Alaiya’s back.
“Neat, huh?” Elias’s sounded beyond excited. “Well, what else d’ya’ll find?”
Stoyan responded gloomily. “Nothing, those annoying mittens were it. And a whole bunch of dead bodies.”
“Dead bodies?” The news of corpses startled Alaiya.
“Well they’re dead now. Weren’t when we saw them.” He smiled knowingly at de Geffriel as an awkward silence fell over the landing.
A little more than an hour had passed since they began exploring the corridor. The first few rooms held nothing of great significance other than some beddings, tables, and stools. A few rooms had not even looked occupied, while others looked disheveled. At one particular room, wedged in between the door and the floor, had been a tuft of hair, dark brown and reddish in color. Obviously, the rooms had been recently occupied, though the group could not remember if anyone they had met recently had brownish-red hair.
In addition to the standard, inn-like appearance of each room, they all possessed a distinct smell, something slightly acidic with a hint of alcohol. Unfortunately, no one could immediately recognize it, which prompted the curious Gnome, Elias, to further investigate. Getting on his hands and knees and plunging his nose into the corner of the room where the smell was strongest, he inhaled. Stoyan, believing he could assist the compound-savvy Artificer, joined in, much to the amusement of de Geffriel. Since neither was having any success, Stoyan told Alaiya to check the scent in the other nearby rooms, to see if there was a similarity. She agreed and headed across the corridor to try her luck; de Geffriel remained behind, marveling at the stupidity of it all.
Once in the other room it was easy enough for Alaiya to locate the smell. Tracking it to the corner it took her all of three seconds to realize why it smelled so familiar. Often times, when new boys or girls came to the Orphanage, they maintained their previous grooming habits, which often meant relieving themselves whenever they felt the urge, like a newborn babe. With images of raising the young back in Fareen, Alaiya stood up, shook her head, and sighed. She slowly made her way back to the other room as de Geffriel played with the torches, and saw Stoyan and Elias still crouched over the corner, discussing possibilities. She kindly leaned in, grabbed Stoyan’s arm, and pulled him away. Whispering into his ear, she told him what she had found.
“It’s Gnoll urine.”
Stoyan’s face told the story before his words could. It scrunched like crumbled paper as he made a gagging noise, choking on the dry heaves he was forcing upon himself.
“Oh, that’s disgusting! Why, Elias…Why would you have me smell Gnoll piss?”
The Gnome leaned further, swiped his finger across the ground, and lightly touched it to his tongue. Smacking his tongue to the roof of his mouth a bit, he seemed to agree with the conclusion. “I wonder if I could use it for anything?”
As they continued, they discovered more inn-like rooms as well as a linen closet full of fabrics, mops, and buckets, along with another switch. Curiosity, and boredom, tested de Geffriel as she pulled it, only to hear a massive number of rumbling sounds echo up from the stairwells they had come up. Another flick of the lever and the stone sound reverberated once more.
“Hmmm…A master control? How convenient.” She promptly snapped the lever from the wall and tossed it into a nearby bucket. “Good luck with that now.”
At the end of the corridor was another stairwell spiraling up and before that was the last door. Stoyan, hoping to find someone or something other than linens, tried to force the door open. His hand was immediately greeted with several sharp pinpricks that immediately caused swelling.
“Damnit! Ugh, I hate this place! I’m going to kill whoever designed this gateway to the Abyss!”
de Geffriel pushed him to the side and took a look at the handle. “You might want to have Elias look at that, Stoyan; there’s a faint trace of poison on the needles.” As Stoyan wandered over to Elias, de Geffriel withdrew a small kit from her bag. Eyeing the lock once more she found a pin-sized hole and chose the appropriate tool, a thin silvery wire full of crests and valleys. Slipping it inside, she wiggled it around until she felt it hold on a chamber. Slowly twisting it, raising the internal mechanism, she heard a soft click as a tension released on the handle. Stoyan returned, his hand wrapped, just in time for her to swing it open with a mocking bow.
“At your digression. It was not a troubling lock.”
Stoyan rolled his eyes and shoved the door open, knowing there were more secrets in this room than the others – why else would it be locked?
As he walked in the difference was instantly noticeable. There was no bed or linens, no table with place settings, and no where to sit. Instead, the smell of urine and feces and blood seeped forth from the walls themselves. The smell was as rancid as it was thick. On the far wall, driven into the stonework, hung three sets of manacles, the iron holds thick and cold. Stains of urine and blood were splattered beneath them, painted deep into the groundwork with time and repetition. Beneath the manacles, carved into the floor, was a smoothed V-shaped groove, about a foot long and three inches wide in its center. Stoyan ran to the wall and began searching, looking for any signs of recent use. Much to his dismay, it appeared that it hadn’t been used in weeks. Annoyed, he returned to the door and shut it.
“What was in there?” inquired Elias, wondering if there might be a chance for some other unique substance to collect.
“Nothing,” muttered Stoyan. “Let’s go.”
The stairs brought them to a short, widened hall, void of torches, but lit lightly by scant trances of silvery moonlight filtering into the far room. Two large figures draped in browns and greens stood within the room at the end of the hall, speaking in gibberish. Amidst a series of grunts, snarls, growls, and guttural belches, they seemed to be having a conversation.
As they spoke, the group inched forward, wary of who stood before them. As luck, or fate, would have it, Stoyan’s movements were heard by one, who snapped a command at the other. Both turned and peered down the hall, their beady black eyes passing over each person. Even de Geffriel, a master at hiding in the dark, could not escape their sight. Alaiya reacted the quickest and tried to catch the two figures off guard with a spell. However, the rashness with which she tried to prepare the spell caused it to fizzle out before it left her hands.
Once the first one registered what was happening, it advanced, the head of a flail falling from its side as it walked. Alaiya, who had managed to work her way closest to the room, held her breath. Then, before she could react, it charged her. The face of a Gnoll flashed in and out of moonlight as it ran, the visage as frightening as its clawed feet scrapping against the stone. The flail whipped through the air, creating a high-pitched whoosh, before connecting with the side of Alaiya’s torso, and she bent over in pain. It barked a command as the other starting moving toward the group.
The second figure walked slowly, with a disturbing confidence, across the room. It passed through the moonlight, and everyone could make out the unmistakable fangs and lower jaw of the Orc. It sneered, revealing more convoluted rows of disjointed and misshapen teeth. Saliva poured down out of the side of its mouth, dripping down its jaw before splattering on the floor. Its eyes narrowed as it honed in on Alaiya and broke into a run. As its feet crashed to the stone, it swung a greataxe from its harness on its back and let the blade hit the floor, sending a shower of sparks jetting across the ground. Sliding to a halt just before Alaiya, it made an upward swing, slicing through her robes and catching a portion of her thigh as the blade cut through the air. It finished its trajectory in an arc, coming to rest on the shoulder of the Orc. The beast simply stared ahead, amused.
An arrow flew through the air, whizzing over Alaiya’s head toward the Orc. The beast moved its head to the side as the arrow flew into the larger chamber behind them. The creature seemed entirely focused on Alaiya, much to her dismay.
“Where’s Veth?!” bellowed Stoyan. “Where are you hiding him?” He charged toward the creatures, crashing first into the Gnoll with his shield before following up with a swing of his sword. It slashed away a chunk of the leather armor it was wearing, but had little secondary effect. The attack actually seemed to encourage the creature as it barked again to its companion, who nodded in response.
A thundering, crackling sound rose up from behind everyone as a whitish-yellow flash of light crashed upon the walls. Alaiya, feeling a strong sense of magick, cranked one eye to look behind her as the light slowly descended upon Elias. It took shape around his leathers, dancing over the armor in energetic leaps. He took a step forward, held out his rod and the crystal embedded in it shifted from yellow to light-blue. Almost immediately, a blast of cold air erupted in the hallway, striking the Gnoll, who snarled at the sudden drop in temperature.
“Focus on one, take it down quickly. It’ll be useless to divide our attacks.” de Geffriel’s orders rang clearly as the others paid heed.
“Focus on the Gnoll then, the Orc is mine.” Stoyan grinned welcomingly at the massive creature, a gesture it was more than happy to return.
Alaiya shifted away from the melee, the pain in her leg and side substantial. Grimacing, she willed herself to focus her magick and blasted the Gnoll, a hit that bent it double. It snarled ferociously at the tiny Sorceress, a bestial sound that made the hairs on the back of her neck rise. But the moment was fleeting, as Stoyan stood between the two creatures, an opportunity to appealing to pass up. As it swung its flail though, Stoyan raised his shield arm to deflect the blow, sending the spiked ball harmlessly over his head. Then, without practiced skill, he thrust his sword downward, catching the shaft of the greataxe in midair before it cleaved his leg from his body. The two creatures roared as spittle shot from their mouth, clearly agitated at the failed unison attack.
Another arrow hissed through the air, sinking deeply into the shoulder of the Gnoll, followed quickly by a rope charged with thunder magick wrapping around the leg of the beast. The Gnoll flailed widely at the attacks, managing to break the arrow from its body before cutting the rope. Stoyan, meanwhile, was in a heated exchange with the Orc, matching skilled blows with one another. Alaiya sent another wave of magick crashing into the creature. Then, without warning, two men burst from the corner of the other room, completely surrounding Stoyan. Wielding clubs, they beat on him while he was preoccupied.
“Gah!” he screamed. “Where in the Nine Hells did they come from? Why are you…Agh!”
A club smashed into the side of his face, sending a mix of blood and spittle flying through the air. He spun and fell to a knee, succumbing to the powerful blows of both the Gnoll and Orc. With the second blow, he felt his shoulder pop from its socket and fall limb briefly.
de Geffriel, abandoning her bow, circled around the Gnoll and withdrew her rapier and dagger, burying both into the soft portion of the torso beneath the ribs. The creature swung back in retaliation, but she easily ducked beneath it. “Elias, your beads!”
Elias understood immediately, withdrawing a small red bead from his belt. He chucked it at Stoyan and it broke on the ground beneath him. A light red smoke drifted up in the air and was inhaled by Stoyan. He popped his shoulder back into his socket and stood, feeling slightly invigorated. “Thanks, Elias!” he shouted as he turned to brace against the onslaught before him.
With his friend helped, Elias sent another blast of cold at the Gnoll, who flailed wildly trying to disperse the magical energy gathering around it. Distracted, it never saw the massive globe of magick manifesting in Alaiya’s hands until it was too late.
Alaiya condensed as much magick as she could into the spell, the unstable energy singing the tips of her little fingers in the process. With the attack from Elias exposing its chest, Alaiya attacked the Gnoll uninhibited. The creature howled in pain, lightning and thunder magick from the spell searing fur and flesh, piercing the armor as though paper and burrowing itself deep into its diaphragm. Dark black smoke billowed up from the wound as the Gnoll bent over backwards and collapsed to the ground.
The two men, startled by the sudden death of the Gnoll, took one last timid swing at Stoyan with their clubs and ran for it, disappearing back into the room beyond the hall. The Orc, however, seemed to relish his companion’s death, and called out to his god, Gruumsh. He swung his axe again, cutting into Stoyan’s side, drawing blood. Luckily the Paladin’s armor caught most of the blow.
“Rage!” bellowed the Orc, as its eyes shifted from black to blood-red. As the others looked on, it seemed to grow more ferocious and powerful.
“Shit!” cried Stoyan, through gritted teeth. “It’s feeding off the blood fury! We have to kill this thing and quick!” He thrust his blade forward, but the Orc simply grabbed the blade and lifted Stoyan into the air before slamming him to the ground.
The Orc turned to de Geffriel, who was caught off guard by the suddenness of the attack. Twirling its axe through the air, the Scout could only manage to raise her dagger in defense, taking the brunt of the blow across her left arm. The wound opened immediately, blood gushing down her arm as her rapier swung lifelessly in her hand. The Orc screamed in satiated glory, a deep, maniacal scream.
“Elias, I need another one,” demanded Stoyan.
Elias reached into a pouch at his hip and withdrew another red bead. “It’s the last one I have, I haven’t had a chance to make any more.”
“And you won’t if we die here!” Stoyan’s voice was cold and ruthless, his mind singularly focused on the task at hand. Elias, feeling more cornered than relieved, tossed his last aromatic bead at Stoyan. The red mist swirled again as Stoyan stood. “Yes! C’mere ugly!”
That is when the battle stopped, if only for a moment. From outside, trickling in on the wings of the moonlight, were the unison howls of wolves. Everyone heard it, but none seemed to understand the meaning except for the Orc whose lips pulled back across a misshapen jaw in what could only be assumed as a grin.
“What was that?” quivered Alaiya, her focus suddenly split by the callings of the outside world. Even though she had been traveling recently, the fiercest thing the night had brought were the hoots of owls and the dancing of the winds. Stoyan sensed her hesitation and encouraged her in his own subtle way.
“Alaiya, hurry up and fry its ass!”
Alaiya snapped to and obliged, sending a powerful blast of magick into the shoulder of the Orc, who shook off the attack. It stayed vigilantly focused on Stoyan.
Amidst the chaos of the fight two wolves slipped into the corridor flanking Stoyan, immediately lashing out at the Paladin. With his strength recovered, he was easily able to dodge the bites. “Couldn’t give me an easy day, could ya, Tempus?” he said with a smile. He turned back to the Orc, the thrill of battle evident in his eyes. “You first.”
The fight wore on, blows being traded between the group and the Orc. The two wolves quickly became an afterthought as they snarled and growled, biting Stoyan and de Geffriel, proving to be pests more than threats. But there was something to their methodological attacks. They spoke to the sky, as if receiving a blessing and acknowledgment from the heavens before they attacked, and their pack outside approved of every offering. But they were more or less a footnote as the Orc consummated the full attention of the group.
As the Orc was focused on Stoyan, de Geffriel closed in to assist. However, a feeling of wooziness overcame her as she moved, and her instincts brought her eyes to the wolf bites she had incurred during the foray. The wounds, though not deep, were festering at an unnatural rate. As she struck out at the Orc, her thoughts unusually split from the prospect of the kill to her aching legs, the beast took the blow in stride. Then, reaching across the length of her arm, it grasped her throat in its large, gnarled hands, lifted her up and threw her to the ground with such force that the sound of her forearm snapping could be heard as clearly as a blacksmith’s hammer ringing on an anvil. The Orc stood triumphantly over her bleeding body and threw its head back in victory.
Behind him, Stoyan heard Alaiya scream as the two wolves howled in unison. He had not noticed that they had abandoned the Orc and were now focused on Alaiya and Elias. He turned to see Elias fall face forward, his clothing torn and ripped from the attacks of the wolves. Seeing two of his companions fall before him enraged Stoyan to the point where he took on a similar appearance to the Orc, bloodthirsty and vengeful. He raised his sword, and channeling the power of Tempus, he brought it down on the Orc’s collarbone, shattering it and simultaneously tearing open its chest. The Orc, blood spilling forth from its mouth, never broke its stare from Stoyan’s face, reared back and punched him across the jaw. Blood and spittle flew as the Paladin’s jaw cracked from the force of the blow, but that would be the last.
“Rage,” muttered the Orc, as it collapsed to the floor, blood covering the stonework of the small corridor.
Exhausted beyond measure, Stoyan let his guard fall briefly as one of the wolves moved to face him. He heard Alaiya to his left shuffle back a step, as the second wolf slowly advanced on her. Both lashed out, their fangs sinking into the companions with ease, before releasing with a howl to the night. Calls responded back, filling the corridor with an eerie presence of a den.
“What should we do?” asked Alaiya, hoping Stoyan had some great, fantastical plan for what they faced.
“Kill them and get the hell outta here. Then find Veth and kill Lan.” Stoyan stared down the wolf in front of him, which snarled in response, its bristly fur rising on its back. Out of the corner of his eye, Stoyan noticed a slight movement from de Geffriel and he uttered a small prayer of thanks. Alaiya had, at that moment, noticed Elias stir.
“Elias is alive, Stoyan.”
“Yeah, de Geffriel, too. We need to protect them.” He lunged with his sword, and it caught the wolf squarely. It bit back in retaliation and, for the first time, Stoyan took note of the festering wounds across his arms. “What is this…?”
Alaiya tried to scare off the wolf with a blast of magick, but it simply crouched to the ground avoiding it, and pounced. It caught Alaiya’s arm in its fangs and clamped down hard before releasing. Alaiya formed another globe of magick in her hand, determined to go down fighting. “For Cyrxx and Mother Winn,” she thought. The wolf before her snarled and the hair on its back rose as well. But, Alaiya noticed, it was not focused on her but rather the magick in her hand. Confused, Alaiya risked lessening the magick and the wolf seemed to lower its guard slightly. Releasing the magick entirely from its tangible form, she held out her palm, prepared for what would happen next. The wolf leaned forward and sniffed at her hand before pulling away. It howled to the sky once more and was greeted by not the pack, but one solitary, dominating howl. The wolf looked to its companion and yipped.
The wolf before Stoyan was unresponsive to its companion and had been in a staring contest with the Paladin, interrupted intermittently by testing blows. Stoyan had taken the defensive, and de Geffriel had managed to stand and move behind him, her bow at the ready, an arrow aimed at the wolf. With every provoked attack, she would fire, though her arrows were mostly spent foolishly as she could barely stand. The second wolf moved uninhibited from Alaiya and Elias, who had now gotten to his feet, to its companion and yipped again. The first wolf snarled in response only to be greeted from a solitary howl outside. The second nipped at the hind quarters of the first, who seemed to finally concede.
Stoyan, on the other hand, was reluctant to let them go. As he started to move in on the wolf a weight fell across his shoulders, suddenly making his legs heavy. A voice flittered through his mind, and he felt a divine presence surround his body.
“A true warrior knows when to still his blade. Consider the situation. It is not bravery you show now, but stupidity. I will not have that.”
Slowly, Stoyan lowered his blade, though his eyes maintained their mark. The wolf, too, backed up on its haunches, slowly backing away out of the corridor and into the room beyond. Like Stoyan, it never broke its gaze. It was only then, when Stoyan was not fully consumed with fighting, that he noticed the crystalline navy-blue eyes. They sparkled with an unnatural intelligence and possessed an unrelenting will that transcended the beast. The second wolf waited until its companion was gone before it left. As it moved from the corridor to the room, it looked at Alaiya once more and gave a slight nod of its head. Like Stoyan had just seen, the eyes of the wolf had struck Alaiya as unusual. The eyes, a mixture of deep greens and blues, spun and swirled before finally merging, much like the Elien in the summer months. But the sensation that Alaiya would never forget was the visible compassion.
The companions watched as it backed through the room, partially passing through one of the streams of moonlight filtering in. Its fur appeared to shimmer as it passed through the light, an illusion perhaps created by the loss of blood and the intensity of the battle before them. But Alaiya, feeling a strange connection to the wolf as it left, saw something entirely different. To her, it appeared that as the wolf passed through the light it took on a different shape.
The shape of a Human woman.
The stone wall slid shut behind them, the end of their trials finally come to a close. Alaiya was the first to recognize the corridor that extended both before them and to the right. Intuition told her what was to the right and she worked her way down a little bit to validate her instincts. There, lying bundled up at the end of the hall, was the weight de Geffriel had made earlier, still attached to the lever in the wall. She let out a shriek of excitement, and hurried back to the others.
She feverishly pulled on Stoyan’s arm, getting his attention and forcing him to her level. She looked cautiously over to de Geffriel, making sure to keep her voice to a whisper. Always hesitant of people, Alaiya had little trust of the Scout, her intuition reinforced by the woman’s questionable actions. de Geffriel’s appearance at the clearing with the statues was questionable, as Lan’s interest in them could only prove disastrous. It did not help things that Cyrxx was the casualty of circumstance. “This is the room, the first room we were in.” Stoyan looked at her, doubt in his eyes. “The bundle she made is still there,” she continued, her excitement quickly fluttering away.
“Shit!” Stoyan’s mind raced as he contemplated the situation, his face suddenly sullen with the news. Then anger took over. “Where in the Nine Hells is Veth then? He should be here! If that damned Orc had only lived a little longer and answered my questions…”
“Uh, it was coughing up a fair amount of blood, and you did cleave open its chest, Stoyan.” Stoyan shot Elias a look, unhappy with his commentary. Elias quickly recovered, hoping to stay Stoyan’s wrath. “And a mighty fine cleave it was. Through the torso like nothing. Stupid Orc should’ve lived longer.” He gave a slight, forced chuckle and turned away, afraid of what Stoyan might do.
“Damned slavers! Curses on their heads and their coin!” With that, Stoyan spat on the ground at marched forward, down the hall to the exit. “This was a waste of time. Nothing here. I’m headin’ back to Berathion. Maybe Orcen knows… Eh? What was that?”
Hurry down the hall he came to the T-section he remembered, but it was now considerably different. To his left stood the entrance, as they had left it, opened to the night. However, to his right, the wall had disappeared and he could follow the tracks into the inner chambers. He paused and listened again. His ears perked and he motioned for the others to follow closely. He made his way down the new hallway, sticking close to the wall. A few torches partially illuminated the way, though there were substantial shadows to keep hidden in. As Stoyan moved down he noticed barred cages along the wall and the stench of feces and urine danced along the air, stealing its way into everyone’s nostrils.
“Who…who’s there?” A low, hoarse voice rang out from before them. It sounded crusty and beaten, devoid of life, and the group immediately stopped, hesitant to betray their intentions or their position. They had earned the right to be wary.
“Who’s there?” the voice rang out again.
“Shut it, Galien. No one’s there. Every damned sound. Just go back to sleep.” The second voice snapped from an opposing cell, the voice a little firmer but still weak. Silence followed as the voiced retreated.
Stoyan and the others inched forward, sticking to the shadows, still unaware of what lay ahead. As they moved, Alaiya was the first to notice the dirt covered knuckles gripping the bars. She got Stoyan’s attention and pointed out what she saw. Stoyan nodded and took charge.
“Who are you?” he called out from the shadows. He silently withdrew his sword, preparing for anything that might jump out. “What are you doing here?”
“Who’s there?” the voice rang out, hope seeping in. “Someone, anyone, help us. Help us, get us out of here!” Anxious panic began taking over the voice, slightly disturbing the group.
“Shut up, Galien. They’re just messing with you. Go back to sleep.” The owner of the second voice could be heard shifting in the cell.
Galien refused to listen, however, and continued calling out, his voice eventually fading to a hoarse whisper.
“My name’s Stoyan,” began the Paladin, needing to know who these captives were. “A Paladin of Tempus. Are you the guards – “. He was caught off by a third voice further in.
“Mihaylov? Stoyan Mihaylov? Veth’s boy?” This voice was stronger than the others, fuller and more certain.
“You are the guards!” cried Stoyan. “Where’s Veth? Is he here?” No one answered for some time and Stoyan had his answer.
The third voice broke the uneasiness. “He was taken by different men. Three men, exactly, all clad in black came in and took him. Looked like they were prepared for it, too. While these goons had us tied up and gagged they took off to the north, but not before tossing these goons some coin. Told them to hide their trail behind them and forget about it. Said we were theirs to do with as they pleased. And,” the man’s voice caught in his throat, “they slaughtered Richard.”
Stoyan moved to the man’s cell, disbelief in his eyes. “Where did they go? Who were they? What did they wan with him? Why?“
“Pipe down, boy, it ain’t like we know. ‘sides, if ya ain’t gettin’ us out, leave us to our fate.” It was the second man again, his cynicism thick.
“Alaiya, give me the keys.” Stoyan’s voice was collected, the anxiety gone as quickly as it had come. Within minutes, the cages were opened and the remnants of the guards were helped out of their cells. “Richard’s alive. He’s at the border crossing. He filled us in about what happened, and I sent word to Captain Jae. Fareen’s guards should be there within a week.”
The guards each exchanged looks, relief easing the lines creased into their faces. “Thank Pelor for his protection.”
Stoyan sneered slightly at the god’s name, still feeling uneasy about Pelor’s “shadow”. He forced the feeling from his mind and tended to the men as Alaiya and de Geffriel helped escort the three out. As Elias followed behind, a small hand lashed out from the first cell, latching onto his robes.
“Gnome!” The voice was high and skittish, full of fright. “Gnome! Shhh, don’t trust the Humans. Don’t have faith. Lack the faith. Let me out. Show you the light. Show you the power. I’ve seen it! I have, I have.”
Elias bent down, mostly to unfasten the hand from his pant leg. As he lowered his face the bars rattled as a face slammed into them. A beaten face of a Gnome greeted him, a wild look in his eyes. Scars ran across his face and his left eye was clouded over, adding to the frenzied appearance.
He spoke again, hushed and forceful, words the others would never hear. “Listen well, Gnome, listen close. Kalien, I’ve been there.”
It took a day and a half to arrive back to the main road between the crossing and Berathion. As they emerged from the forest, they encountered a small contingent of Paladins breaking down the ambush site. The cart had been removed already and they were clearing the last of the debris. As the companions approached they stopped what they were doing and ran to assist.
Quickly explaining what had happened, they learned that the Paladin scouting parties had found nothing of value to the north. They continuously lost track of the trails, which evaporated into nothingness as the searches continued. Deterred but not willing to give up hope, the group turned the guards over to the Paladins and took off to the north, intent on finding Veth.
It took two days traveling through the woods to the north before the group arrived at a familiar site. Stone statues greeted them as they strode into the clearing where they had last seen Lan and her lackeys. As he stepped into the clearing a sudden realization hit Stoyan, something that he neglected to recall when he had initially arrived at the ambush site. When Lan had fled from them before, she had fled to the north.
“I’ve done it,” he whispered to himself, “I’ve killed Veth.”