Bright Star Quest I: The Book of Baysil
Chapter 10: Anji, Soldier
Caution: This Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Magic, Fiction,
Desc: Sex Story: Chapter 10: Anji, Soldier - Book One of Bright Star Quest. A small group of adventurers start off on a quest to find a long-hidden treasure. S&S in a modified D&D world. Very little sex, but lots of blood and gore.
"Today and tomorrow we hunt!"
Anji looked up from her morning meal at Darrick's words. It took a few moments for his meaning to sink in. Indeed, it was some moments before anyone answered him.
"Why the delay?" Kargh snarled the words, coming to his feet at a bound. He was a properly warlike figure, she thought, sword and beloved axe slung from each side of his broad leather belt. "We've found the road to the deeper levels. That's where real treasure lies waiting for us!"
"We've found many things here. Things we never expected. Bands of Orcs and Goblins, thick as flies around a dead horse. Magical weapons, and monsters out of ancient myths. The very land is astir with the return of creatures thought long buried." Anji glimpsed again the weight of years that lay behind Darrick's easy manners. "Someone... or some Thing... is bringing together the forces of Darkness here in this old ruin. We must pick our way with care, or risk meeting powers that overmatch us in every way. This is no longer a carefree jaunt in search of a few paltry pieces of gold. I've begun to sense forces arrayed against us that bode ill indeed for the land of Orris Kayn!"
"So what would you have us do?" Kargh sneered. "Run? Take our handful of coins and scurry back to the safety of Shurrud?"
"No, we must go on," Darrick answered in somber tones. "Death and darkness lie ahead. We must take care that death is the portion of those arrayed against us, or if indeed it is dealt to us, we must not squander our lives in vain. We have marched out as to a picnic, or as actors whose wounds are wiped away in time for the next act of a play. We must all realize that this is more serious than we have thought."
"So? What would you have us do?" As always, Tarr's soft voice caught them by surprise.
"Firstly, we must ready ourselves for a thrust into the depths beneath the monastery. That means a couple of days of hunting, building our supplies of smoked and dried meat. When we next set out it may be many days before we again see the light of day."
"And secondly?" Anji couldn't be sure, but she thought that Tarr smiled in the shadow of her hood.
"We must use what little cunning we can muster." He didn't smile back, but a glimpse of humor danced in his eyes. "Weapons and armor can take us but so far, and the return journey will be even more perilous. We know not what may await us, but I propose to find out. Something stirs, something that calls evil things to this place. The Kobold spoke of a 'Dark One', and secret words to buy passage. We are no band of paladins in shining armor, going about the land righting wrongs and rescuing fair maidens. If we knew those secret words we might not have to fight tribe after tribe of misbegotten creatures."
"I like that thought!" Kargh barked sudden laughter. "Then Goblins we shall become, and none shall say us nay as we seek the riches of those deep places! Well, it should take but little to disguise this ill assorted lot, and we have weapons and armor enough to take on any who doubt us."
"We've been lucky!" Darrick snapped, his anger barely under control. "I say again that we have no idea what awaits us."
"The deeper the hole, the bigger the dragon?" Elm quoted the words of a children's fable, a twinkle in his eye.
"Aye, more true than you know. Now to the hunt, and pray to your Gods for success."
Darrick's words stayed with Anji, and she mulled over them often. They found a surprising amount of game, deer and bear the most common. They also spied several tribes of gangrel creatures, all seemingly on the move. Late on the second day she voiced her thoughts to one of her companions.
"We've had good hunting. You wouldn't think meat would be so easy to come by. Surely the tribes we've seen must also hunt for their food."
"The camps we've seen have been temporary ones," Baysil answered. "My guess is that most of the tribes are just passing through, not staying in one place long enough to do much hunting."
"The tracks we've seen are all trending toward the monastery," Darrick warned. "The word has been passed, and the tribes are gathering. Each week brings more of them."
"How much longer do we wait?" Kargh challenged on the morning of the third day. "We've got food in our packs to last us a ten day, and twice that hidden in the cave."
"No longer," Darrick answered grimly. "Today we march!"
"Hah! Let's go!"
"Not quite so fast. First, we clean this place up. Leave no trace to show that it was more than a casual camp for some wandering tribe."
Even Kargh's thick skull should be able to hear the sense in that, Anji thought, but held her tongue. Sure enough, the surly Dwarf only muttered to himself. He poked and prodded at the piled stones that hid the mouth of their cave. At last they appeared undisturbed, just a part of the hillside. By the time the sun rose clear of the ridges, no trace of their camp remained to attract a casual glance.
"Now!" Kargh growled. "That's good enough."
Darrick nodded, and they were on their way. The sun was warm under a bright blue sky, but Anji felt a moment's chill. Would this be the last sunlight she would see, her bones left moldering in some lightless cavern? She'd never minded the thought of her body going back to the soil. Born on a farm, her life was but a moment in the circling dance of birth and death, planting and harvesting. She would never give life of her own to that dance. Cast aside as barren by the stout farmer whose third most wife she'd been, she had made her own way by doing odd jobs on farms and in villages until she had enough coppers hoarded to purchase a weapon. A cheap sword and leather hauberk had served to get her hired on as a caravan guard. Saving her pay, she'd bought better arms until she was equipped as well as most.
The pay of a caravan guard was poor, the dangers great. Many soldiers went on from there to a post in some Lordling's private army, but unless there was fighting and a chance for loot, army pay was not that much better. She had no wish to try that path.
Darrick's company had offered a third road to follow, and on a sudden impulse she'd taken it. The caravan had completed the most dangerous part of its journey, and she'd had little to look forward to but a spell of idleness, waiting in Pordigran for another caravan to come along. They'd been lucky to get Tarr and Burdock, two of the apprentice Spell casters who had replaced their slain Sorcerer after the attack by giant spiders. Elm and Kletta had also joined willingly. They all knew that four soldiers were none too many on such a risky venture, but to take any more would have weakened the caravan, left it too poorly guarded. Then, too, there had been none whose company they'd fancied, no skilled fighters who had seemed even marginally trustworthy.
They moved almost soundlessly among the boulders, approaching the main trail with all caution. Anji gestured a warning as the rattle of a displaced stone came from on ahead, and Elm climbed lightly up a tall boulder to spy out what had made the noise.
"A band of Goblins coming up the trail," he reported. "Ten or twelve, mostly fighters. Hurrying to get in out of the sun."
"No use trying to fool them here where the light is so bright. We'll let them get on past, then strike from the rear. Remember, we need prisoners."
The Goblin band clattered along, the noise waking echoes from the boulders that lined the trail. They were well armed, seeming unafraid of attack, but cringing from the morning sun. Whining voices rose in protest at this daylight march, but a harsh command from their leader silenced them.
The musical twang of Bartan's bow string went unheeded. A scale armored figure at the rear of the troop pitched forward onto its face. Another arrow, another victim. This one was only wounded. A shriek of agony brought its fellows around, gaping wildly in search of enemies. Crossbow bolts and leaden slugs sought out targets. Three more Goblins fell before they fully realized that they were under attack.
The Goblins fired back wildly, missiles glancing off rocks. Before they could fire again, Anji led the attack that penned the survivors in a cleft between boulders. Bartan and Kargh to either side, she pressed forward. Goblins broke and tried to run. Ducking and dodging, the creatures tried to scramble up the sides of the cleft. Tried. Failed.
"Take some of them alive!" Darrick shouted angrily over the screams. A rag pressed to his forehead sopped a trickle of blood. Behind him Baysil ministered to Tarr, though she seemed only slightly wounded.
"This one still lives." Furdick knelt by the one felled by Bartan's second arrow. Legs trailing limply, it had dragged itself a few yards into the shadow of a boulder before collapsing. Stripping away its weapons, Furdick rolled it onto its back. It sucked greedily at his canteen, swallowing convulsively.
"Truce breakers!" It glared blindly up at them from muddy green eyes. "Why you kill?"
"We swore no truce," Darrick answered.
"Dark One call truce," it panted. "No kill. Make war on towns. Raid farms, get women. Dark one give truce word."
"What truce word?"
"Truce word..." The Goblin's eyes were glazed, their inner fire almost gone. "Word is Thunder... Thund... Ahh!"
The gnarled body went limp. Furdick checked the scrawny neck, but there was no pulse.
"So, now we know part of the word," Kargh laughed. "Too bad the little rat didn't last a moment longer. 'Thunder something'. Hey, Kletta! Any loot on them?"
"A few coins." She showed them a mixed bag of copper, silver and gold. "Nothing else of value. No weapons or armor worth the keeping."
"Strip off their cloaks," Darrick ordered. "Then pile rocks over the bodies to keep off scavengers. The longer before they're found the better for us. Put the cloaks on over your armor. We can pass for an Orc band as long as nobody looks too close."
Anji wrinkled her nose. Her borrowed cloak stank abominably, and she was sure that it had things crawling in it. They had no good way of imitating the Goblins' blotchy green skins, so they smeared their hands and faces liberally with mud. They might not look much like an Orc band, she thought, but they didn't look like much of anything else, either. Perhaps they'd be thought a mixed band of Orcs, Goblins and Kobolds, if such a thing could be.
The outer doors of the monastery swung open at her touch and they entered, leaving the fresh air and sunlight for corridors filled with dust and darkness and foul smells. Nothing hindered them as they sought the great central hall. The remains of the Kobold tribe were only gnawed bones and scraps of refuse.
"I'd have thought that new guards would have been posted to replace them by now," Anji said in a half whisper.
"Be glad they weren't," Bartan answered softly. "The longer we wait to test our masquerade, the better I'll like it."
They fell silent as Darrick approached the central pillar with its hidden door. Their beetle lanterns had grown dim with the passing of days, and Anji yielded her place at the head of the column to Kargh with his superior night sight.
The stairs curved widdershins down into darkness, the only sounds the muffled clatter of their passage. Behind them the hidden door swung shut, the echoes of the dull impact echoing in the enclosed space. A full turn of the stairs brought them to a landing like the one they'd just left.
"I say, go on down," Kargh rasped. "Downward is the way to treasure!"
"Treasure, and death," Darrick answered. "No, we explore as we go. Less danger that way of leaving unknown foes at our backs. We seek knowledge more than treasure, the secret of what evil is being brewed here."
Kargh shrugged broad shoulders, moving aside to let Elm listen at the door.
"No sound," the Thief reported, and Kargh thrust the portal aside. A dark and dusty corridor stretched away into the gloom. The glow of their lanterns died only a short way past their noses.
"Nothing here," Kargh grunted, moving ahead confidently. To his Dwarfish vision this corridor might seem broad and well lighted, but to Anji every shadow spoke of hidden menace.
"Not so fast," she cautioned. "Wait for the rest of us."
He grumbled, but slowed his pace. The hallway led toward the rear of the building, unless the winding stair had confused her. It continued on some forty or fifty feet before ending in a cross corridor.
"Which way?" Bartan asked.
Kargh shrugged, pulling a crossbow bolt from his quiver. Giving it a quick flip, he looked down to see which way it fell.
He led them to the right. The dusty hall seemed to lead on forever, though it must have only been some sixty feet to where a heavy door closed off an archway in the left hand wall. Unlike the doors on the upper levels, this one was a single panel. Its top was well above her head, though a couple of feet short of the ceiling, and her outstretched arms would have spanned it with room to spare.
There was no latch on this side, but when Kargh tried to thrust it open nothing happened. He pushed again, grunting with the effort. It gave way grudgingly, as though held fast by the weight of centuries. The room beyond was large, square, and empty. Its furnishings had long since gone to dust, and only a few scraps of rusty metal rewarded their search. A door in the far wall, much like the one behind them, led into another room that was similarly deserted. Faint sounds were only currents of air that whistled mournfully up a chimney flue built cunningly within the thickness of a wall.
"Nothing's been in here for centuries," Anji stated, standing in the center of the room with hands on hips.
"You're right..." Furdick agreed, but what else he might have said was drowned out by Kargh's growl.
"Nothing here! Let's get moving!"
"Take it easy," Darrick cautioned again. "We'll keep moving, but carefully. Remember where these rooms are. We might be able to use them to hole up in, since they aren't being used."
Kargh muttered something under his breath and headed for the door, but he did glance back to see that the others were with him. The corridor was still empty, and he led them on to the left. Twenty or thirty feet farther, and it too ended in a cross corridor.
"Which way?" he asked.
"Right last time, left this time?" Bartan suggested.
"Good choice as any." He shrugged broad shoulders.
The corridor stretched away broad and empty in the feeble glow of their lanterns. Anji wondered how soon they'd have to give up and start using the torches stowed in their packs. Torches would hamper them in a fight, but were still better than nothing.
"Hold it!" Kargh held up a warning hand. "Corridor ends up ahead."
These walls were fashioned from blocks of gray stone, cut and smoothed. Anji watched, oppressed by the darkness and the weight of the building above her. Darrick and Elm impatiently examined the walls for concealed openings.
"We need more light."
Furdick knelt, intent on the contents of his tinder box. Sparks flew from flint and steel, dying among the tinder. He struck again, and this time a spark caught. He nursed the glow to life and touched the tiny flame to the head of a torch. As the ruddy light flared high, Anji was shocked to realize just how faint their lanterns had become.
"That's better." Darrick pointed out a block of stone set high in the right hand wall where the imprint of countless hands had left a greasy splotch.
A section of wall fell away, cunningly contrived of thin sheets of stone affixed to a wooden panel. Torches held high, they searched the room beyond.
"Someone's been here," Bartan said in a low voice. "Not long since, either."
Anji nodded. The floor had been swept clear of dust through its center by trampling feet, debris kicked aside to lie piled against the back wall. A door at each end of the room was tightly shut, but didn't seem to be bolted or barred.
"We won't go this way!" Elm backed hastily away from the left most door. "Sounds like a whole stinking army in there! Orcs! Orcs in armor!"
"We won't fight unless we have to," Darrick cautioned again. "If they see us, we'll try to parley."
They tried the other door. It opened easily, but the room beyond was empty of anything that might have been a threat. The remains of massive tables and benches made an untidy heap in one corner. By the light of their torches they could see traces of footprints leading to a door in the left hand wall. A few moments spent poking through the debris only raised a small cloud of dust. His sword ready in his hand, Elm knelt by the door, listening.
"I hear nothing."
The flames of their torches were steady, hardly moving as the door swung open at Kargh's shove. Again the dust had been disturbed; again nothing of value or peril was found. The next door was to their right. Even before approaching, Anji could hear the rumble of voices from the room beyond. Elm moved toward it, but even as he did so the door swung open.
"Ho! What have we here?"
The voice was deep and resonant, speaking the Common Tongue with a guttural twist. The room beyond was bright and warm, what little they could see of it past the bulky body that so nearly filled the doorway. The man, if man it was, wore gleaming armor cunningly fashioned to resemble the head and body of a giant bear. Past him, Anji glimpsed another armored figure moving toward the door. As always in a moment of danger her senses seemed magically sharpened. The smell of dust and mold mingled with an almost animal reek in her nostrils, and her ears caught every rasp of armor and harness from the movements of her companions.
"We seek the Dark One." Somehow Darrick contrived to give his words an Orcish flavor.
"Do you, indeed?" The laugh was more of a growl. "Well, this is not his lair, though we have no real quarrel with him right now. Get you gone, before you meet an even darker fate."
"No!" Anji reached to stay Kargh as he lunged forward, but he shook her off with a Dwarfish curse.
"Hold!" The roared command halted even Kargh. "You are no Orc, no Goblin, but a true Dwarf. I say again, what have we here? No lies, now."
"I say again, we seek the lair of the Dark One." This time, Darrick's lilting voice held no trace of Orcish accent, no assumed roughness. "Though not for any purpose of his, old friend. And what brings you to this place, Haggar of the Bear Folk?"
"You know me? Come forward, then. Let me see you more clearly. Elf friend, Elf blood by your voice. It has been many turns of the seasons, but the memory is still green. Darriss was the name. No, not Darriss. Darrick! The Street of the Jewelry Makers in Oprne Ossa, on the western trade route to Pordigran. You gave us fair value for the gems we brought when others refused to treat with us. I sense no wrongness in you, though we do follow different Gods."
"Different Gods, indeed," Darrick answered sharply. "And different ways of life. Why are you here?"
Anji could sense Kargh's anger as his shoulder quivered under her restraining touch, but he kept silence except for a muttered curse of, "Were Bears! No good comes from them!"
"We are seekers of solitude." The booming voice held a trace of regret. "Our... condition makes us less than welcome in the cities of Men, even could we stand the stench, so we live apart. The creatures of the forest give us companionship and sustenance, but from time to time we enjoy the comfort of a roof over our heads. But talking is dry work. Come into our... den... None dare trifle with us here, and a mug of ale would surely not be amiss."
Anji could have laughed aloud at Kargh's expression, even through his beard. Inborn distrust warred against the dryness of his gullet. Warred, and lost. At Darrick's nod, they approached and filed through the doorway into a well lighted room. Another armored creature awaited them, no taller than Darrick though much heavier.
"I'll not ask that you set aside your weapons. Sit down, and my mate will serve you. I am Haggar, and she is Ursam."
The room was richly, though sparsely furnished. The table and benches were of a size to match their host. Golden lamps shed their light over fanciful tapestries, and a fire crackled on a blackened hearth. As mugs of rich brown ale were set before them, Haggar and his mate removed their helmets. A broad forehead over tiny brown eyes that twinkled with rough good humor, a broad nose and jaws that thrust forward almost into a muzzle. Black hair tipped with gray curled close around his cheeks, merging into a close cropped beard. Ursam was smaller, more feminine, and had no beard.
"We are no friends of this Dark One," Haggar rumbled. "No more than are you. When we first used this lair, two summers agone, its upper levels at least were empty. There was nothing here to call up the Things that stalked the lower ways. We made this corner a snug den, and the few creatures that wandered by furnished us with food and sport. Orcs and Goblins tend to be tough and stringy, but young Kobold is a rare treat when stuffed with mushrooms and roasted over an open fire!"
Anji sipped her ale, making one mug last. Of her companions, only Kargh swallowed great gulps of the potent brew. At a guess, her fellows felt much the same as she. These creatures, however well they might be known to Darrick, would stand close watching. She felt almost as though she walked within a waking dream, so sudden had been the change from creeping through dark and dusty corridors. At the head of the table Darrick leaned forward attentively as Haggar scratched lines on the table with one clawed finger.
"... No other way down to the lower levels," she overheard. "Though rooms on this level have been set up for ceremonial worship. I have not heard of this thing you seek, but my mate and I have held scant converse with any creature of the Dark One. They are gathered here for no Good or Lawful purpose, and their strength grows with each day. Ursam and I have long planned to leave this place, and I think that now is the appointed time."
Even as they conversed, Ursam was gathering up their belongings into two great packs. When she was done, little of any value was left behind. The keg of ale gave up its last drops of precious fluid and was tossed aside with an echoing crash. Kargh started up, sword half drawn before he saw that the weren't being attacked.
"Follow us," Haggar boomed. "At least as far as the outer hall. None dare attack us! These Orcs are cowardly creatures."
Torches and lanterns held high, they retraced their steps until they stood by the door to the corridor.
"We leave by the central stair," Haggar boomed. "Another stair leads up from the rooms to the right, but that way is longer and not as safe."
"But the corridor ends at this door," Elm protested, the first time he had spoken since meeting these creatures.
"No, there is another secret panel, and a hidden latch. Oh, and in the room to your right is something you may deem of value."
"We listened at that door as we passed," Darrick answered doubtfully. "There were sounds as of Orcs in armor."
"A trick of echoes," Haggar laughed. "You will find many in this place. There is nothing there to menace you. Ursam and I go now. Good fortune on your quest."
The sound of their going faded, and Kargh heaved a sigh of relief. "Good riddance, I say!"
"Good riddance, indeed," Darrick nodded. "Their kind make for uncertain allies at best, and most terrible enemies. You did well, all of you, not to provoke them. Kargh! Are you able to lead us, or shall Anji take your place for a time?"
"I'm all right!" He clapped his hand to the pommel of his sword and glared up at Darrick, but to Anji's discerning eye he seemed none too steady on his feet. "By Klond's brazen bowels! It takes more than a few mugs of ale to fuddle me!"
"You had more than a few mugs. Are you sure... ?"
"I'm sure!" Kargh lurched toward the other door, the one they'd avoided on their way in. "It's quiet enough now. Let's see what's behind it."
Before they could protest he'd kicked the door open with an echoing crash, crouching as though to spring with weapons bared at whatever lay beyond. Nothing happened, and he slowly relaxed.
"Nothing here but more junk."
They followed him into the room. Anji faced about at the sound of clashing metal, but there was nothing there.
"Air shafts," Elm guessed. "Sound carries through them. No telling where it comes from. Noises can carry both ways, so we'd better keep our voices down."
"Here's a chest." Bartan pulled aside a broken bedstead that still showed traces of gilt, uncovering a chest with fancifully carved sides. There was a lock, but Elm soon solved the simple design. Dust puffed up when the lid was raised, dust that came from the remains of rotting leather sacks. He tipped the chest on its side, spilling out more than a thousand silver coins.
"How come our friends didn't find these?" Elm asked with a nod of his head toward the doorway.
"Not them," Kargh grinned. "Didn't you notice? Bronze and iron they had, and gold in plenty, but not one bit of silver. Its very presence is pain to the Were Folk. Other than enchanted weapons or fire, it is the only thing they have to fear."
The coins were quickly distributed among their packs, though Burdock stopped to examine them more closely.
"From the reign of Darvish XIII," he declared. "Thought to be ill omened. We'll get a better price for these if we melt them down into ingots."
They returned to the outer room. Anji had retrieved a scrap of smoked meat from her pack as she stowed away her share of the coins, and chewed it as the others argued over which way to go.
"Back to the stairs," Kargh snorted. "Then on down to wherever this Dark One lurks. If your fancy gem is here, he'll know of it."
"We still aren't ready," Darrick argued. "We need to know more. We may seem Goblins at first glance, but a closer look would betray us. We need to know the passwords they use."
The Half Elf's counsel at last prevailed, though Kargh glared.
"Shut up!" Elm warned. In the silence, they heard movement in the hall on the other side of the door. To Anji it sounded like lightly pattering footsteps, and something dragging or scraping. Muttered words were followed by a dull thud, then silence. All she could hear was their own breathing, and the faint movement of air through hidden vents. The flames of their torches burned almost undisturbed, casting only the faintest of glows back from the farther walls of the room.
"it's gone." Kargh put his hand to the door. "Be ready, now."
The panel swung slowly open, moving easily from this side. Darrick soon found the hidden latch that Haggar had described. The end wall of the corridor split into two halves and swung away. The light of their torches barely reached to where another pair of doors closed off this length of corridor. These doors opened toward them, and were faced on the far side with thin slabs of stone.
"This monastery is a strange place, with its hidden panels and secret doors," Anji told Baysil. "Are such devices found in all monasteries?"
"Not as far as I know," he answered, glancing over his shoulder to assure himself that no danger menaced them from the rear. "The men who built this place lived in troubled times, on what was even then a desolate frontier."
A door opened to their left, just past the second set of secret panels, but it revealed only a room some forty feet on a side with no other exits. Piles of trash and filth were everywhere, and foul Orc scrawls defaced the walls.
"Phew!" Elm grimaced. "It smells like a public privy in here. Looks like one, too."
They moved on to where another set of panels closed off the corridor. Beyond, the left hand wall continued to form one wall of a large room, pierced by a single door. Along the opposite wall, a flight of stairs sloped down to where another door was set close to the rear wall of the room.
"Someone's been here, and not too long ago!" Bartan peered around in the torch lit gloom, seeming to sniff at the air for traces of danger.
"Remember, act the part of Goblins if we meet anyone," Darrick cautioned. "We're after knowledge right now, not loot."
"Sure, sure." Kargh nodded, bored.
The door in the left wall opened toward them. Elm fumbled with the latch and swung it open. The room beyond was dimly lighted by a pair of torches whose tall stands flanked a cowled figure.
"What... What... ?" The creature whirled angrily to face them, and ancient scroll dropping from its clawed hands. "Get out of here! Go back to your master while you can still crawl! Tell Clonmarr that Kaddith Han is not to be spied upon! The conjuration he wanted is spoiled, thanks to your clumsy meddling!"
Kaddith Han's voice screeched ever higher to match his rage, fueled by their silence. He moved forward, ignoring Darrick's stammered attempt at an answer.
"I'll give you a lesson in manners, you stupid filth!" He raised clutching hands above his head, impressive in spite of his small size, and mouthed the opening words of a spell.
"Stop him!" An arrow flew from Bartan's bow at Darrick's shout, followed by bolts from three crossbows. Kaddith Han staggered from the impact of the arrow and Anji's quarrel, his spell disrupted before it could take effect. They sprang at him, weapons athirst for Goblin blood, but he had just enough time to recover from the shock. He barked another spell, and Anji was facing three of him!
The images shifted and wavered in the torch light, and she couldn't tell which one was real. She charged forward, flanked by Bartan and Kargh. One of the images vanished like a bursting soap bubble under Bartan's sword, but two still remained. Kaddith Han's harsh voice seemed to echo in her head and she staggered to a halt, sword dropping from fingers that had lost their will to grasp. Beside her, Kargh slipped to one knee.
Unaffected by the spell, Bartan swung his blade, shouting a wordless battle cry. This image didn't vanish! Kaddith Han fell, his life leaking out with his spurting blood. The sudden silence was broken by a shuffling, scraping noise and Elm's gasp of horror. From the darkness beyond the standing torches came creatures out of nightmare! Crab like legs bore up gross, hairy bodies. Coronets of beady eyes gleamed with evil intelligence over clacking jaws.
"Giant spiders!" Bartan shouted needlessly. By now Burdock and Tarr were through the doorway, spreading out to either side. They chanted the syllables of potent spells, but these were no Goblins, no simple creatures to be mowed down in droves by such magics. Only two of the creatures fell, legs folding under them while eyes lost their fierce gleam.
Bartan's sword glowed faintly blue, throwing off waves of cold that crackled in the humid air. At Kargh's command his blade sprang to life, dripping smoky orange flame. Behind them Baysil chanted a blessing, and fresh vigor seemed to flow through Anji's veins. Then she was only aware of their monstrous foes.
She evaded snapping jaws, her sword glancing from horny armor. The monster lurched as a missile from Burdock's wand ripped its body, and her next blow struck home. Furdick hewed at its other side, dividing its attention. The fight raged, the hatred and brute strength of the monsters pitted against the weapons and teamwork of skilled fighters.
There could be only one final result, but even as one spider fell to Bartan's sword, Kargh reeled away dripping blood. Darrick moved to protect him, swinging his mace in great arcs that just missed the ceiling. Horny armor yielded to the crushing blows, but a flailing leg sent him spinning.
Anji's foe was weakening, leaking gouts of slimy gray blood. Bartan came at it from behind, while she and Furdick attacked from each side. It spasmed, one last convulsive effort as Bartan's icy blade plunged to the hilt in its back. Then only feeble twitches stirred its legs at random as life went out of it.
They moved to help the others, but the fight was over. She and Bartan hastened to dispatch the other two spiders before they awoke, hewing grisly heads from armored bodies. Baysil tended to Darrick's wounds, and he in turn ministered to Kargh. Elm and Kletta searched the room for treasure, finding nothing. The only thing of value in the room seemed to be Kaddith Han's spell book, quickly claimed by Tarr. It was thick and ornately bound, a far cry from the tattered bundles of parchment they'd taken from dead Goblins earlier.
"The Spell caster spoke of one named Clonmarr," Tarr mused. "Could that be another name for the Dark One?"
"Perhaps," Darrick nodded. "Or perhaps not. We have no way of knowing. His spells were potent ones, and he had a goodly store of them at his command. He may have been a rival of this Clonmarr, striving to supplant him. Had he gained control over these monster spiders he would have become a potent foe for anyone, even this Dark One."
"His death shouldn't appear to be the doing of our band," Tarr suggested. "If it could be made to look like the giant spiders escaped his control and killed him, his followers would look no farther."
"It might be helpful," Darrick agreed with a wry smile. "How would you disguise sword cuts, wounds from crossbow bolt, arrow, and sling bullet?"
"Wait for me outside the door to this room." She removed a small pouch of gray leather from her pack, the pipes Elm had found in the hall of the Kobolds. "Gnawed scraps of bone and shell reveal little of how their erstwhile owners died."
The thin, sweet piping was soon answered, gray furred bodies peering and skittering from air vents and cracks in the walls. Tarr retreated as they boiled out and across the floor in a noisome tide.
"That should do it!" She smiled gleefully as she tucked the pipes away. "A few bones and scraps, with nothing to show what guise Death wore."
Anji shuddered. She wasn't the only one, but nothing was said. Kaddith Han was dead, whoever or whatever he might have been. One potent foe the less for them to face.
"What about those steps?" Bartan asked as Kargh led them toward the other door.
"Leave them alone!" the Dwarf answered. "No telling what's up there. We don't want to go that way."
The door by the foot of the stairs resisted his strength, and it took several tries to get it open. At last it swung back, and his startled cry echoed off the stone walls.
"Centipedes!" His sword flamed anew at his command, and he beat frantically at the glistening horrors as they scuttled toward him. Anji chopped yard long bodies into writhing chunks, stamping on any that evaded her blade, while Bartan hewed apart any that made it through to him. Behind them Burdock's wand spat death, and only a few got past him to be dealt with by Furdick and Darrick.
"Are you all right?" She steadied Kargh, who was favoring his left leg.
"My ankle!" he grated. "One of the devils nipped me."
"Didn't break the skin," she reported, relieved. The jaws of the little horrors held a nasty poison that could cripple or even kill. "You'll be all right."
"Thanks," he muttered ungraciously. He pulled away from her and limped away to take a look at the room. "What kind of a place is this?"
It was one of the few rooms they'd found that looked like it might be in regular use. Rich tapestries, not too tattered, and dusty trophies hung on the walls. Several low tables were arranged in a rough circle near the center of the room. A pair of larger tables had been placed against the right hand wall, flanking the only other door. On each table was a small but sturdy chest, locked, but with a narrow slot in the top.
"Bolted down," Elm complained, trying to move one of the chests. "See if you can get that other one open, Kletta."
The locks soon yielded to their tools. The lids opened easily to reveal shining hoards of coins.
"Copper!" Kargh snarled at Elm. "Copper and silver! By Klond's crystal fangs! When are we going to find us some gold?"
"I hereby grant your wish," Kletta laughed, a thin sound that died amidst dusty draperies. "This chest holds enough gold coins to keep you quiet. At least, for a time."
"Let me see!"
He plunged his hands into the chest, bringing them up dripping with coins that gleamed redly in the light of their torches. Elm left the lid of the other chest standing open to watch, and to listen to the music of the falling metal.
"All right, let's keep moving." Anji started at the sound of Darrick's voice. "Divide them into equal piles and we'll stow them in our packs. No, don't close the other chest yet. Elm, take some of the coppers and put them in the empty chest. Then scatter a few gold coins over the top of them."
The substitution was soon made, and they turned their attention to the door. It swung open at Kargh's touch, and from the room beyond a soft radiance streamed out. Nothing moved, and in a moment they pressed forward. The doors on this level were all just wide enough that they could pass through two at a time, yet narrow enough so that a single warrior could defend them against an enemy.
Anji blinked her eyes, trying to see better. The light was grayish and dim, but the room was clear enough in the added light of their torches. She saw wall hangings, richer and in better condition than those in the other room. The light came from lumpy fungus growths in great pottery urns. One close look was enough, and she backed away hurriedly. The soil in the urns was 'enriched' with human bones, and the growths gave off the stench of rotting flesh.
A row of broad tables stretched away along each side wall, interrupted only by the urns, and a final pair flanked a door in the far wall. Scattered about on the tables were a few odds and ends of armor and weapons, but these were all either beyond repair or of the poorest quality.
"Nothing worth taking," Kargh rasped. "A bunch of junk."
Anji repressed a shudder as they approached the far end of the room. The air seemed colder, damp. The hairs on her arms prickled, and the sense of sleeping power affected her like the stillness before a thunder storm. In the gray fungus glow the woven figures of Gods, men and monsters writhed and twisted beneath the surface of the tapestries, though when she looked full at them they were only crudely drawn pictures. The door was ornately carved, incised with the seeming of potent runes that caught at and magnified her fears.
"Nothing..." Elm had to clear his throat and try again. "I hear nothing on the other side of the door."
A bronze replication of the eightfold Arrows of Chaos stood out from the age blackened wood. Kargh stretched out a cautious hand to the metal, drew it back with an oath.