The line went slack; the orcs let it drop and without a word began to climb down the shaft.
"Telenstil?" asked Talberth, "They've lowered Derue, do you want them to go next?"
"That work is finished, yes let them proceed," nodded Telenstil. "You go after, Gytha and I will follow."
"Waiting for Ghibelline?" Talberth looked at Gytha who stared out into the woods. "Don't wait too long; we may need you down there."
"Do not worry," said Telenstil, "we will not delay. We will find Harald then we will find Ghibelline."
* * *
The rustling of the snake faded behind him, it could not match the pace of a running elf. Ahead the trail curved slightly following a depression along the hill, the melting winter ice had carved it out over many springs. Ghibelline flitted over the shredded leaves and brambles, he barely left a trail. His feet seemed to skim across the ground touching the oerth only lightly as he raced along. Only a few minutes at his furious pace brought him to the ravine. A wave of relief washed over him, he looked to Gytha first, but was almost as happy to see Telenstil standing just behind.
* * *
"Gytha!" Ghibelline called out. He ran to the cleric and held her by her arm, she returned the clasp and they stood for a moment till she smiled. Ghibelline frowned and looked over her shoulder at Telenstil. He broke his grip, he had his sword drawn in his free hand and turned to face the way he'd come and spoke. "Some kind of snake, but my sword could not hurt it. It will be here soon."
"What did this snake look like?" asked Telenstil, coming up and standing near to the edge of the wood.
"I couldn't see it at first," said Ghibelline a little wildly, "I could see the leaves being moved, but not what moved them. Then when it was directly across from where I was waiting I could just make it out. Telenstil, my sword passed through, it was like fighting air!"
"An illusion perhaps," Telenstil thought aloud.
Ghibelline held up his sword arm and showed the red welts where the snake had bitten him. "Do these look like illusions!"
"I have seen men bleed from the touch of an image," Telenstil said kindly, "it is possible."
"The thing was real, I saw the tracks and the steel did cut it!" the young elf exclaimed. "The cuts seemed to burn but they closed instantly and there was nothing there to stop my sword, I ran."
"Good, you warned us, if it comes we will see how my magic fares against it," said Telenstil.
"Something comes, Telenstil, I feel something evil!" Gytha cried.
* * *
Teeth and needle claws, Harald felt at least a dozen stabs and bites, but they barely pricked his skin. He could hear the tearing of his clothes, small bodies jumped upon his back, climbed his legs, attacked his booted feet. A horde of rats he thought. Harald stamped and crushed one underfoot, he ran his sword across the floor, sweeping the edge back and forth, but he could not see them, and if he killed one, two more seemed to take its place. Something slashed him across his face, bit a small chunk from one ear, dug claws into the back of his neck. He felt another climb atop his head. With one hand he began to pull them from his body, Harald stumbled forward, nearly falling as each step crunched down, they carpeted the floor. All the while he screamed and cursed the little beasts, they were killing him by inches, scratching and clawing at his skin. His pants were being shredded, they climbed over his mail shirt and sought out his head and face, one cut him lightly across the throat; he grabbed the handful of fur, teeth and bones and squeezed out its life with one hand.
The thief sprinted down the long passageway, the ranger's voice was just ahead, loud screams and roars and a steady stream of curses. Harold saw his friend, the ranger bounced from wall to wall, his clothes seemed to move by themselves; he looked like he was wearing a heavy coat of fur and plucked at it with one hand.
"Rats!" Harold yelled. "He's covered with rats!"
"Tasty!" Little Rat called back, the young orc scraped one knife blade against another and licked his lips.
Harold closed on the ranger, the big man had dropped his sword and pressed one arm across his eyes, the thief could see small bodies hanging along it from elbow to back of hand. His knife slashed across the ranger's chest; two of the small beasts were cut in twain; the edge rang against the links of mail. He cut again and again slashing back and forth; the small orc joined him but fought the rushing tide of bodies which replaced the fallen.
"Get 'em off me!" the ranger cried out desperately. He used both hands to brush them from his head and chest, then grabbed others, smashed them into the wall or dashed them to the ground.
* * *
Little Rat danced among the waves of furry bodies in a frenzy of stabs and slashes. A small mouth bit his chin and he bit back, then spit out the body. "This no rat!" he yelled, but the other two did not reply.
Harald brushed a dozen of the creatures from his arms and legs then reached out and grabbed hold of the thief, then lifted up the small orc in his other arm. Taking huge strides he began to run, but he did not get far. The ranger was blind in the utter black; first he crashed hard against a wall then stepped on two of the little beasts. His foot slipped to the side and he fell, coming down hard on the knee of his other leg. He might have shattered the bone but a half-dozen small bodies took the blow instead. All three were sent sprawling across the ground, the furry wave swallowed them and they were gone.