"Glad you could join us," Robin said.
"Welcome back," Jared told him.
"So if you're done playing with your large friend...?" Harrick invited.
"Isn't he a sweetie?"
"Always what I figured your type would be. Shall we go?"
He got a bit of his breath back and nodded. "Yes."
They entered the cavecarefully. Terzin first, as stealthily as he could move, with an arrow ready at his bow. Jared followed him, then Harrick and Dubricus, and Robin on rear guard. They all immediately noticed that, unlike every other cave in the valley, this one showed evidence of having been shaped by its inhabitants. The floor and walls were covered in black tile with red veins. The air was cold and still, with a faint smell of corruption. The only light came in through the cave mouth.
They came to an intersection at right angles. Terzin, who was keeping an eye out for things like this, noticed a change in the stonework of the ceiling just behind him and started to turn around. Harrick sensed an Earth elemental presence just before the creature came down off the ceiling and wrapped itself around Jared. It began to squeeze, and to flow toward his nose and mouth as he struggled.
Terzin drew his short sword and slashed at it, hoping he wasn't going to stab through it and hit Jared. What appeared to be clay was hard as marble. Robin hacked at it with only slightly better results. It convulsed slightly, and Jared's ribs creaked. Dubricus, seeing his colleague engaged in a spell, watched the group's back.
Harrick's counterspell took command of the creature and directed it off toward the wall. "Move, I ain't got this thing for long!" he ground out. They obeyed as he sent it outside, moving something like a very large caterpillar. "Let's get the hell out of here before it comes back."
They headed quickly down the left-hand path and encountered another nexus, one chamber going left, one rightward, and the main corridor going forward. The way was lit now by occasional torches. They went left again.
Dubricus took hold of Robin's arm and said, "We shouldn't be here." They all had the same feeling. It was a mausoleum. The walls were full of empty niches. They suspected they knew where the occupants were.
Terzin inched forward a bit; the room was quite dark. He didn't see any ways out. "Let's split."
The short corridor off to the right led to what looked like an audience hall. Even from some distance away Terzin could see the edges of a dais where a speaker would stand, and benches set up facing it. Three kneeling figures were visible in the pews, staring. He crept back and reported to the rest of the group.
They made a plan quickly. Terzin would sneak in, loose an arrow, and start working his way into the room, shooting from under cover as often as he could. The others would rush in after him.
"We'll be right behind you," Harrick promised.
Terzin stepped inside, prepared to shoot one of the three kneeling figures. His arrow hit the figure square in the back of the head, ricocheted and ripped the hood, revealing bare bone. Terzin didn't really notice, because as soon as he had looked up upon entering, his eyes were caught by the figure at the dais.
He knew her name, though he had not before: the goddess Eshkagril. He knew many things now that he had not known before, and which were going to be in his dreams for the rest of his life. Her head was wide and fringed with cilia, with three eyes in a row. Her heavy body had six arms, two with hands and two with leech-like suckers, and the last two simply tendrils. He dropped the bow. His knees gave out.
The others saw him kneel, and paused in confusion. Then he started bleeding from the eyes. Robin, horrified, ran in and grabbed his unmoving form, saved more by luck than anything else from looking at the thing herself, and dragged her cousin out.
The pews were wood. Harrick had taught Dubricus Flame Gout. They looked at each other and launched their spells from a safe distance back. Harrick added in his Favorable Winds spell to give the fire more fuel. The robes of the three creatures in the room caught fire. They did not move. After several minutes, the skeletons collapsed on the floor.
Jared kept a watch on the corridor while the fire raged. Robin slapped Terzin's cheeks, trying to bring him around. It took a while for him to come back from wherever he was.
"Thank Kisha," she sighed.
"What happened?" Then he thought about it for a moment and went white.
"Harrick and Dubricus are taking care of whatever's in there," she reassured him. "Sorry about your bow."
After spending a few moments to recover their resolve, the group continued down the main hall they had been following, anxious to find something to distract them from the unnerving encounter.
"Terzin, are you okay to go first?" Robin asked.
"No." It was a rare moment of emotional honesty.
Jared took point with Harrick. There were no signs of further corridors or chambers, and the torches became more widely spread out. Terzin picked one up and brought it along. They kept going. They'd been in the caves for a quarter hour or so. Then the tunnel stopped in a pile of earth.
"Well, we found the tunnel out," Harrick sighed. Waste of time; they'd gone right back to the collapsed loot store, and now had to retrace their steps. The battle could well be won or lost by this time, but they did not see a choice other than to keep up their search for the cult.
Reaching the first intersection again, they saw the corridor slope up ahead of them. There was a hall to their left, which then made a right-hand turn, and doors to their right and ahead of them. They chose the right-hand door. Jared knocked it down.
A flight of stairs went down into darkness.
They decided try the other door. Jared kicked at it and missed because the door had just opened. On the other side was one of the men who had gone out with Mendel. He saw the five of them, shouted in surprise, and slammed the door again. They heard swords being drawn on the other side.
Jared opened the door, Robin charging in after him to clear the way ahead. A short corridor lay beyond, with one of the guards at the end, still strapping on the shield he had just been handed. He backpedaled madly, and the two of them ended up in a room containing Mendel, the two guards, and the two women. The others were only a couple of steps behind. Dubricus, as the last one in, closed the door.
"You don't see me; I'm not here," Mendel said, waving a hand.
He wasn't there. Must have been a clothes rack that they had mistaken for him standing there.
Assuming that they could not possibly be as harmless as they looked, Terzin slashed with his sword at one of the two women, who screamed and collapsed, holding her wound. They were, in fact, the simple companions they appeared to be. Oops.
Jared swung his mace at one of the two guards and dealt him a vicious blow across the face. Bloody teeth flew across the room. A few moments later he staggered back to his feet, bracing himself against the wall.
The one facing Robin went on the offensive, but she took his attack on her shield. Harrick threw a blast of flame at him, but it was too weak to do him much damage. Robin traded a few more blows with the guardsman and finally got a decent hit on his sword arm.
"Don't move, miss," Dubricus ordered the other woman, his foil hovering threateningly before her. Hearing the door open, he turned, but no one was there.
The one facing Jared screamed and came at him with an overhand strike. The fisher sidestepped neatly and backhanded him with the mace again. The man was still up, somehow, but obviously quite badly hurt. Again. The man obviously had more strength than brains; it took another one to put him down.
Terzin turned his attention to the man fighting his cousin, but missed as the guard lunged at her again. He and Robin seemed evenly matched, trading another set of blows. Harrick flamed him again, this time with better results. Dubricus joined in the ring that had formed around the hapless man; his foil flickered past his guard and pierced his throat.
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Copyright © 2000 Brian Rogers et al