Hell, it's about time
Eyolf hacked away with renewed vigor at the branches blocking his way. Knowing that his brother had not met his demise on the road filled him with purpose. He knew the woods well; if Ragnar had made it out of his cabin and into the woods, he would have a much better chance of avoiding his dark pursuers.
The wound in Eyolf's chest still ached, but the broadhead arrow he took during the fire had gotten stuck in his chainmail, doing a lot less damage than it could have. As it was, it proved a mere nuisance. He silently thanked his luck that it was the impostor Gormadoc that had ambushed them, and not those strange men that fell upon them back at the guard post. The bolts he had seen stuck in the bodies of the unfortunate townsfolk of Kaleeah looked like they were designed to penetrate the heaviest of armors. The group had discussed the possibility of the Maul Squad impostors being in collusion with those dark creatures and, while it was an unpleasant thought, it did make sense. At any rate, double-timing it to Ragnar's most likely hiding place was the agreed upon next step. Eyolf recalled an old mine a ways west of Ragnar's cabin, one they used to play around in when they were younger. This would surely be where his brother was holed up, had he gotten away. It's the only viable hiding place in the area, and the both of us know it well enough, he told the rest of the group.
He cursed himself for neglecting to bring the woodsman's axe from his brother's cabin. His own axe would be in dire need of a good sharpening after this venture. Then again, there were limits to what he could lug around and still be able to fight well, and the crossbow had proven a more prudent choice, lending a bit more versatility even though it felt heavy and useless presently.
Looking over his shoulder he saw that the rest of the group were falling behind a bit. Oddly, Gheed was the one in front, doing his best to negotiate the terrain in his rather impractical robes. He, too, seemed to have summoned some extra vigor from somewhere. Perhaps being nicked by arrows had made him realise the severity of the situation. Or, perhaps it was the invigorating drinks that Lukyan had brought with him from Land King Hall, a parting gift from the fellow they had fished out of the well. Then again, perhaps he was simply too winded to complain. Eyolf settled on the former, realising he had a newfound respect for the odd little man. It would have been easy enough to remain at what was left of Ragnar's cabin, tagging along with the soldiers when they had finished securing the site, back to a hot meal and a warm bed. But here he was, plodding along with the rest of them.
Rogan stayed in the back of the group, making sure they weren't being followed or that anything could creep up on them from the sides. They were making good time, but the noise they made negotiating the dense forest was louder than he was comfortable with. He considered casting a defensive barrier around the group to ward them from incoming arrows, but thought better of it; the spell would take up too much of his already strained powers. Instead, he made sure to weave a smaller, less costly force field around Eyolf and keep it up at all times. Being up front and a big man, he would most likely be the first to encounter trouble.
Lukyan was in a somber mood. As if the gruesome fate of the villagers wasn't enough he now had twelve more men unaccounted for: the soldiers of Maul Squad were almost certainly dead, their weapons and equipment stolen by Gormadoc and his ilk. They had slain the six ambushers at Ragnar's cabin, all clad in ill-fitting armor pillaged from men under his command. Six more might be out there somewhere, wearing armor that didn't belong to them. The thought of this, more than anything, made Lukyan furious. There was some small chance that the men were still alive, but Lukyan didn't figure that taking prisoners -- or allowing people to run -- was much of an option with these people. Certainly not if the ambushers were working with those things, those shadowy warriors, that had attacked the group earlier.
He fingered the amulet Victor had given him. It had belonged to Gormadoc and, upon closer inspection, they had found similar amulets on the rest of the ambushers as well. They had bagged the trinkets and left the king's men to deal with the bodies. He couldn't help but wonder what was the purpose of the amulets. It seemed a strange thing to carry for such a band, and he didn't recognise the symbol on their faces. They certainly hadn't come with the stolen armor. He made a mental note to visit the library at Land King Hall later: this warranted further investigation.
He stuffed the amulet into a belt pouch, along with a flare given to him by the captain back at the cabin. The small contingent of king's men would secure the site and make a sweep of the nearby forest before returning to Land King Hall, but promised to come to Lukyan's aid should he require it. All he had to do was launch the flare, and hope that the soldiers weren't already too far on their way back home to see it. He hoped he would have no need for it, but told the soldiers of their plans to investigate the old mine none the less.
Talos rubbed his stomach, still sore from where Victor had kicked him. The pain radiating through his shoulder from where he had taken an arrow in the skirmish hurt more, but the violence inside the cabin was what unsettled him. True, he did not know Victor from earlier, but he had seen how the others had acted as well. Rogan didn't seem like one to throw punches at his friends, and Talos had to admit to completely losing his temper as well. There was something decidedly peculiar about the whole situation, he thought. He wondered if there might have been some magic at work; spells that addle the mind and make people act irrationally are certainly not unheard of, if not exactly common. He mentioned it for the rest of the group, who found it strange that their somewhat unrefined ambushers would know such magic, but didn't rule out the possibility. This was, after all, shaping up to become one very strange day.
After walking for a while they started going uphill, the dense forest giving way to smaller trees and shrubs. Before long, Eyolf announced that they were closing on the old mine. "Once we reach the top we'll be looking down at it," he said. "It's just an old shaft, straight into the mountain and down where it branches into several tunnels. More than large enough to stay hidden in if you know it well." He wiped the sweat off his forehead and picked up the pace, almost running for the hilltop. "My brother must be there," he added between breaths, mostly for his own benefit.
Sure enough, the top of the hill provided a good view of the entrance to the mine. That's why it didn't take Eyolf long to see that something was amiss. The mine did not look abandoned at all. Someone had gone through the trouble of fortifying a small area around the entrance. The dilapidated building that had been standing at the mine exterior had been torn down and a palisade wall stood in its place, sharpened wooden stakes the height of a man sticking above the ground, complete with a makeshift gate that now provided the only way onto the site. A tower had been erected in the southwestern corner, and Eyolf could see a lone figure standing watch.
Eyolf motioned for the group to lay low as they approached. "This is new," he muttered to himself and turned to the others. "The mine has been abandoned for years. Still was the last time we were out here hunting, not three weeks ago."
"Seems like someone had the same idea as your brother," Talos said, eyeing the hastily built fortifications. He produced a spyglass from his backpack to take a closer look at the figure in the tower. The lone man stood watch, gazing at the road leading up to the mine. They had been wise to travel through the woods, Talos thought to himself. Looking closer, there seemed to be something odd about the man in the tower, something very off-putting. Something about the way he seemed to stand, so still, as if frozen in place. No movement what so ever. Then Talos noticed the pallor of the man's skin, and realised that it wasn't a man at all.
"Hey. Look." He passed the spyglass to Lukyan, who held it up to his eye. "That look anything like the ones you took down earlier?"
"Ghouls." Lukyan spat the word, immediately recognising the creature for what it was. Raising the dead to do your bidding was an altogether repugnant act, as far as he was concerned. With the spyglass, he took a closer look at the compound and could see two more, as rigid and unmoving as the one in the tower. All three seemed to wear rags for clothes and carried primitive looking weapons, the kind that can be hastily forged but leave little in terms of protection, or durability. "Looks just like the ones that were protecting that demon we killed, yes," Lukyan said. "There are two more inside the compound." He put down the spyglass and turned to the others, a graven look on his face. "It would seem we have found another of their hideouts."
Eyolf closed his eyes momentarily and took a deep breath, and Victor put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"Seems odd to call attention to this place by building a fence around it," Talos said, lowering his voice almost to a whisper. "If people around here know it's supposed to be abandoned, I mean. Why not just place guards inside? And the undead guy in the tower, that's just downright conspicuous."
"Perhaps we caught them in the early stages of fortification," Victor offered. "It's not uncommon to put down stakes before you build a proper stone wall, and a cavernous mine makes for a good, defensible retreat at any rate." He turned to Eyolf. "You said this was the only hideout in the area. Perhaps they also know this."
Gheed shrugged. "We should write them a thank-you note," he said, "and send a huge army of the king's soldiers to deliver it to them!" He nodded vigorously to himself. "Well, that's all good, then," he continued, "a good day's work, everyone, I have to say. Now that we know where the bad guys are, we can just send in the troops!" His face broke into a triumphant grin as his eyes darted from person to person. "Right, friends?"
Lukyan sighed and prepared to lay the bad news on the merchant. "Not… as such, no," he said and noticed Gheed's grin fade. "We could signal for the soldiers back at the cabin, but we should investigate this new threat at once. We can not risk waiting and be caught here in the open." He nodded towards Eyolf. "What's more, his brother's life may very well depend on us."
"So, let me get this straight," Gheed said, having grown visibly agitated. "We, the six of us, are supposed to enter that old cave, mine, what have you, trudge through who knows how many tunnels, take on who knows how many of those scary looking fellows… all this to see if we can find someone who may or may not be there." There was a moment of silence, and Gheed tilted his head and looked at each and every one of the others. "Do you people do this kind of thing often?"
There was a quick exchange of glances before Rogan, Talos, Lukyan and Victor gave an almost unison yes in response.
"Besides, I know those tunnels well enough," Eyolf added.
Gheed sighed dramatically. "You guys are nuts," he said, and reached for his scepter.
Talos got the spyglass back and gave the compound another cursory glance. "Only that one sentry up high," he said, squinting. "No other signs of activity, and I bet we could get over that wall easily enough. I can't see any traps. We should have no problems sneaking up on the two inside, if…"
Victor eyed the crossbow slung over Eyolf's shoulder. "Think you can hit it from here?" he asked.
Eyolf nodded gravely and hefted the crossbow in his hands. "At this range? Easy as eating pie," he said. "Let me know when."
"I'll jump the wall as soon as you drop him," Victor said. He pointed to the corner of the compound, near the guard tower. "I'll go over there. If I can get another to join me from the other side, we'll take them both before they can raise any alarms. We move fast, they won't see us coming. Then we let the others in the gate."
Rogan nodded in agreement and broke the protective force field he had kept around Eyolf. "I'll go," he said, reapplying the spell to himself.
As the two men prepared to run for the barricade, Eyolf loaded the crossbow and took aim. He took a moment to steady himself, inhaling deeply, the head of the tower ghoul firmly in his sights. Simply hitting the thing wouldn't do; it had to pierce the brainpan or the creature wouldn't die. Then their position would be betrayed and things could get a lot more complicated. Easy as eating pie. He held his breath and squeezed the trigger firmly.
As the sharp twang of the crossbow filled the air, Rogan and Victor broke from the trees and hightailed it down the hill, moving as fast as they could whilst crouching to avoid being seen. Eyolf watched as the heavy bolt reached its target and, with impressive accuracy, buried itself in the skull of the creature. The ghoul jerked its head at the impact and dropped to the floor of the tower, vanishing from view; if it had made any sound, the two remaining sentries didn't seem to have picked up on it. Eyolf breathed a sigh of relief as he slung the weapon back over his shoulder.
Victor vaulted the palisade and drew his sword as soon as he was over. Silently and swiftly he closed the short distance between himself and the ghoul standing closest to him. In one quick motion he separated the unwitting sentry from its head and turned towards the other one. It had turned to face him, alerted by the sound of his colleague's demise, but was swiftly dispatched by Rogan, who threw one of his enchanted daggers into the side of its head, flash-freezing the creature on the spot.
Rogan ran up to grab the frozen form as it started to topple over, easing it to the ground to prevent further noise. He looked around the compound; the ghoul in the tower was down, crossbow bolt protruding from its head, and there were no other signs of activity. He retrieved his dagger and shared a nod with Victor, who silently made his way towards the mine's entrance, staying to the side of it to keep out of view of potential threats looming just inside.
Rogan walked up to undo the ropes holding the impromptu gate in place and slowly pulled it inward. He took one look over his shoulder to see that Victor was in position, before spying the heads of the other four companions there on the hilltop, sticking up above a log they had crouched behind. He had to smile to himself at how silly they looked up there, the four heads arranged in a neat row, vigorously watching for threats like a band of mongooses roused from their holes by some innocuous sound.
However, his smile faded when he took another step towards the group. Just as he was raising his hand to signal them he realised that something was not right. At first he couldn't quite put his finger on it. It was a strange sensation, almost as subtle as not to be perceived, but it was there. It was almost as if a small wave of energy had been released right beneath his feet, emanating from the ground and resonating with his force field spell, creating small ripples in the concentrated magic that surrounded him, then vanishing just as sudden as it had appeared. Then, he realised. He turned back and got eye contact with Victor who, judging by the look in his eyes, rightly interpreted Rogan's own expression as cause for alarm. Rogan motioned for his friend to get clear of the mine as he started to run back towards the hill to warn the others, silently cursing his lack of awareness.
He knew that he had stepped on a rune of warding, placed just outside the gate to warn whatever was inside the mine about intruders. He knew that someone, or something, had just been warned. And he knew that they would be coming.
To be continued…