After a few moments of seeing and hearing nothing from the tunnel, ibn Fadil decides to set aside the question of what lies down the shaft for the moment, and goes back to find out what Valarin has found.
Seeing Valarin crouched down by the door monkeying with it, the half-elf hurries forward and grabs his shoulder. A glance down confirms his suspicion, and when the young man looks up at him he glares back and makes a gesture that unequivocally says, "Get your ass back there with others."
Val returns the gaze evenly, but does not move back immediately. The cold fire floods through his veins now, sparked by the half-elf's obvious ire.
"It *might* be a way out or through for us," he says in a hushed whisper. "At the very least, it might throw off pursuit."
For a brief moment, it seems that ibn Fadil might argue -- but this is not the time or place for an argument. He goes back down the tunnel again and urges the others to take up defensive/offensive positions at the tunnel's entrance. Then he quietly asks Gorn, "What should be on the other side of those doors?"
"That's where the Forge was, is, what's left of it unless he's spaced it all, it's where he stays when he's here, if he's not somewhere else of course, where he does most of his work, can't tell you what might be living in there now, it's always something new with him, last time I was in there was a few months ago, he was putting legs on snakes, ha, ha, now that's useful isn't it?"
Val halts at hearing this. That could've been bad if they were to go in there. Then again, if it meant they could put an end to the xixchil and what it did to the dwarves of this citadel...
_Damn, I *am* starting to sound like some sort of paladin,_ Val thinks to himself. _Best to leave the heroics to the professionals._
Ibn Fadil chews on Gorn's information for a moment. "Does he keep these things in cages?"
"Sometimes. Depends. Look, we don't go in there, we just drop 'em at the door and get the hell out before he decides he wants another go at one of *us*." He shudders.
The half-elf sighs. "I had wanted to climb down the shaft to see what is there," he tells Delmar. "We might be able to escape trouble here by going that way. Or, we could swiftly invade this xixchil's laboratory and hope to defeat him outright ..."
Delmar pauses to weigh the situation. "Far be it from me to issue orders when I got us into this, but even assuming we *can* get in, it might be a good idea to see what else we might run into. This place at least seems fairly safe," he adds with a glance around.
"Oh, we can get in," he says with a glimmer of dark humour. "But if Valarin can be persuaded to wait ..." He peers around the corner and finds Val doing just that. "Then I can take a few moments to explore the other exit." He asks Gorn, "What used to be down there?"
"It *was* living quarters." He sighs. "There were a lot more of us back then...."
Ibn Fadil catches hold of the rope again and begins a careful descent. He has gone down another twenty feet, and can see the gaping opening marking the entrance to the shaft on this level, when he hears more sounds. Not the frightful screeching again but some other animal growling. Also rapid footsteps and voices.
Stopping to listen more closely, he hears what sounds like... a scuffle? Is that Emmett's voice? The bird noises are louder, but it's really hard to tell how close it might be, the way things echo in this place. Looking through the opening into the hall leading off the shaft, its grate knocked half off its hinges, he sees a short corridor that turns out of sight to the left. Somewhere down there is a fading light source.
Biting his lip, he conducts a brief but fierce debate with himself. Responsibility to those he knows are waiting up above wins out and he scrambles back up the rope and onto solid stone again.
"Something going on down on the next level," he reports. "Lights, growling, I thought perhaps I heard Emmett's voice." He hesitates, too conflicted to recommend any particular course. "Gorn, does the forge connect with the next level down? In any convenient way?"
"There is -- or was," he's careful to add, mindful of the danger from the _Distraction's_ crew as well as from whatever may lurk in these abandoned tunnels, "a door on all of the levels, coming and going at all hours, but who knows if they're still working. "I guess he must have some way of getting in and out of there...."
"Then if we entered the forge area up here," he says reluctantly, "the mage's attention should be divided between two groups ..." It is clear that he would much rather shimmy down the rope and possibly dash to the rescue. "We should do that," he concludes, referring to the plan he has mentioned aloud. "Quickly."
Hiro, without a moments hesitation, acknowledges his acceptance of the Zahkaran's plan by taking a point position out of habit. His rough-hewn hand rests lightly on the pommel of his deadly blade. The band of gold on his finger blends neatly with the a similar ring lashed to the hilt.
Ibn Fadil joins him, drawing his own weapons again. Followed by Pham, Delmar, and the extremely nervous Gorn, they pace quietly up the tunnel to where Valarin is crouched over the stubborn lock.
"Quickly" is easier said than done. Val is painfully aware of time's passage as he probes delicately at the lock's interior for the next few minutes. Once a pick slips out of position, and for a split second he thought it was going to break. Disregarding the impatience of his companions, he pauses for a couple of steadying breaths before trying again.
This time, finally, it yields. There is a soft series of clicks from within the wall as some mechanism is set into motion and the immensely heavy doors begin opening slowly toward them, letting noise and light into the densely shadowed hall. Gorn whimpers nervously. The shrieking from within echoes loudly around them.
They are at one end of a huge, vaguely ovoid chamber. The relative brightness is shocking in contrast to the rest of the citadel. About six feet before them the stone floor drops abruptly, repeated in a series of four terraces, each holding an entrance to this space from another level of the ship; there is one more such level above them. Ramps curve around each side of the large room, leading down to the main floor.
The back of the hall is occupied by a massive stack of junk - the forge equipment that had once occupied all of this space, driving the ship through the Flow, along with furniture and equipment from the deserted levels, all piled up to a height of about twenty feet in the center of the mound. Off to one side, incongruously, lies the delicately beautiful shape of an elven flitter, its wings ragged-looking as if eaten at by moths. Nearer at hand, to the left lies a row of heavy-looking wood and iron cages, while to the right is what might be the xixchil's living and work area, protected by a heavy canopy. The walls of the entire space are hung with a riot of colorful hangings that swathe the lowest ten feet or so of the walls. Directly before the intruders is only a wide empty space.
The shrieking sound grows much louder and its source becomes apparent: there are three skullbirds nested in the pile of trash, beating their wings and screaming, the sight of the monstrous birds of ill omen enough to give any spacer pause. Their new agitation sends a flock of winged rats (which explains where the missing bits of flitter went...) scurrying for safety, along with some of the eight-legged lizards, more of which crawl slowly along the walls. Some of the noise is also coming from the cages, but they can't see into those from this perspective. Despite the area's size, its inhabitants ensure that it doesn't smell particularly good.
There is no sign of the xixchil himself, however, and almost immediately their attention is drawn to the terrace below them.
* * *
For a few moments the creature that emerges snuffles audibly, then swings its head back and forth
towards Emmett and Yestin's hiding places behind the doors and wonders what to do. The door begins to close again.
The thing's general outline is that of a bear, but it has sharp angled teeth like a beaver's, a sinuous tail, and it's covered with scales. From the looks of it, it hasn't been terribly well fed and as it sniffs for them, would very much like to remedy that situation. With the door open - and it's a heavy one, nearly two feet of dense wood - the shrieking and croaking sound of the birds in the space beyond echoes around them.
Alais prepares for desperate combat. His eyes and magic detect nothing else coming through the door.
"Crap. Yestin, hold the door open so the others can get through. Alais, Nyala, get through there - the other animals are probably caged." With that, Emmett leaps onto the things back, trying to land astride and shove his blade deep into the things neck for both damage and balance.
Amazingly enough, although this thing is nothing like a griffon he does manage to grab hold in mid-air. The scales are heavy but small, smooth and dry under his hand; the blade slips off without effect. The creature under him turns its head this way and that, but it can't bite very effectively in this position. The tail whips around Emmett's head but fails to catch hold of him; the fact that the bear wasn't born with the thing makes it somewhat clumsy. It gives a chuffing growl of frustration.
Yestin, as directed, grips the door with both huge hands, straining against the mechanism that tries to drag them shut. For a moment he's sure he heard more of that strange clicking sound; then it's gone.
Nyala pulls Alais along the wall, trying to stay out of reach of the massive animal and get to the door while it's still open.
Seeing no other way to improve his stability, the half man grips tightly with his thighs and leans down, wrapping his flesh and blood arm as best he can around the things neck. "No way I can strangle it with the armor, but there is something else..."
He places his knife hand against the creature's scaly head and slides it forcefully forward, hoping to drive the blade into the things ear or eye. Fortunately, this threat is coming to the creatures left side, which will hopefully distract it from going after Nyala or Alais as they get past this strange rodeo.
It sits down heavily, almost jolting him loose with the unexpected action, and tries to reach him with a back paw, but that doesn't work either. Emmett's strike misses the eye as he spends a moment concentrating on holding on while that dangerously spiked tail flickers in and out of his field of vision.
Meanwhile, Nyala and Alais have cleared the doorway. Yestin hangs on gamely, but the door is starting to drag him in with it.
"Er... Emmett...?" he says in a slightly strangled voice.
Seeing the others are past and knowing the window, or more precisely door, of opportunity is closing, Emmett leaps free from the things back, trying to time it so as to be clear of the things swiping tail. The wooden leg slides out from under him, resulting in an awkward and somewhat painful landing, not altogether a bad thing as the tail slashes by a few inches over his head.
Once down, he leaps for the closing door, yelling, "Yestin, get in and hold it off with that club of yours!"
The young giff does his best, but the makeshift weapon misses by a country mile, and the scaled bear charges him.
Emmett flings his strength against the door in turn to give Yestin a chance at safety
The bear's lunge knocks the giff over and sends the two of them through the door in a struggling tangle. He drops his club but gets in a ferocious head-butt on the weird bear. Their rolling takes them over an edge just beyond the door, and they disappear from sight with a thud and a yell from the giff.
Rushing to the edge, Nyala sees that the bear appears to have been stunned by the fall, and that Yestin is not moving; she glances up once to take in the rest of the space for other threats, her eyes widening slightly in surprise upon seeing Hiro up there. Then she tucks the makeshift knife into her belt and turns to lower herself over the lip of the terrace before dropping the rest of the way. At her height it's a good ten-foot fall, and she lands badly. The bear's spined tail and all four paws twitch spasmodically as it tries to shake off the impact.
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson