"This I do not like," Ivo said looking back the way they'd come.
"Yes," Telenstil agreed speaking slowly, "both our scouts are gone."
"I've heard you both say the same before and it came to naught," Harold said, "I'm going to find Harald, you stay here and wait for Ghibelline." The halfling turned aside and gestured to Little Rat to follow.
"Wait, Harold Wait," Telenstil called after him. To his surprise the halfling stopped. "We will go, but I will not abandon Ghibelline or Harald."
"You will have us split again," said Ivo.
"No, we will search for Harald first then for Ghibelline," Telenstil told them all.
"No, Telenstil, we cannot leave Ghibelline," Gytha objected.
"Ghibelline may be well," said Telenstil, "he works to hide our trail, but Harald should have come back, something is wrong there."
"I will go back and find him," Gytha said firmly.
"Gytha, no," Telenstil looked her in the eye. "We may need you. If there is something wrong we would lose you as well. We will not abandon Ghibelline...."
"We are, Telenstil, we are," she said regretfully. "Let us be gone then, I will not abandon Harald as well."
* * *
Stillness: A slight breeze that ran across the denuded woods and raised a small dancing ghost of shredded leaves, then stillness again. Ghibelline did not move. Time passed, he worried that he was too long away from the others, but the feeling that something watched, something followed; that feeling was strong. His only cover was the thickness of the brush, but it was enough. Something stirred, the debris were furrowed by its passage.
At first Ghibelline could not make out what it was, all that appeared was a depression where branches were pushed down and a stirring of the leaves that were driven aside. Then as it came near he could see the scales, translucent but tinged with red. A fanged head turned and looked at him, a tongue split like a two pronged fork shot out and seemed to taste the air and then it turned away.
Ghibelline launched himself from behind the bush, his sword drawn, slashing at the long and sinuous neck.
* * *
"It just looks dark to me," said Talberth.
"There is light enough," Ivo told him, "I've spent too much time under the sun of late."
"The orcs are eager to get away from the light as well," Talberth looked back at the small group waiting behind him.
Telenstil went ahead with Harold and Little Rat, they showed him where the found the hole clawed through the stone floor, all three stood above the shaft and talked of what to do.
"It's an easy climb," said Harold. "I'll go first, he'll follow," he said pointing to the young orc.
"Cool here," said Little Rat, "let's go."
"Wait a moment," Telenstil said, "I will have the others come up. We will need a rope to lower Derue."
"Better just to leave him up here," said Harold. "It'll be harder getting him back up."
"We need to watch him, and we need a place where we can leave him safely," Telenstil looked down the shaft. "This may prove a convenient spot, a temporary prison."
"I'm for getting rid of him," Harold agreed.
"I am hoping to cure him of this curse," chided Telenstil. "Wait here, I will bring up the others."
Ghibelline's sword slashed through scales and then on through a neck as thick as the trunk of a tree. It passed with no resistance, the only sign that it had struck the monstrous snake was a crackle of red, a glowing line like a coal split open on a fire showing its blazing heart. The fanged mouth lunged, it bit at Ghibelline's arm, and as the sword had passed through the snake's body, the teeth passed through the elf's arm. Ghibelline felt a jolt as if lightning had struck nearby, his arm throbbed and a burning pain made him draw in his breath with a sudden hiss, he almost dropped his sword.
His blade was just an old longsword used by the bugbears of the steading, taken from some human warrior or bought from a merchant years ago. It had seen hard use, but had been kept sharp and oiled; no rusted orcish blade.
Ghibelline stabbed the snake, drove the point down into its head and buried a good foot of steel in the oerth. There was another crackle of red, but no feel of flesh or bone; the sword did not bite, only moved like an arrow through a cloud of smoke. The snake pulled back its head drifting through the steel like it wasn't there, but a line of red showed where the edge had cut. For a moment the skull split in two, flapping open wide then it pulled together in a flare. Ghibelline drew his blade from the oerth and dove into a roll. A pair of fangs snapped at the air where his face had been and Ghibelline swung, the sword passed through its head again. There was another flash of red but it did not slow the beast. The elf rolled clear and sprang to his feet.
There was no stopping the monster Ghibelline decided, not with ordinary steel. He ran to warn the others from a fight he knew that he could not win. Behind him he heard a hiss like white hot iron quenched in water and the crunch of branches but he did not look back.
* * *
The skittering was all around him, left and right, front and back. The ranger moved forward waving his torch before him but as he fought back the dark the noise retreated as well. As the light was carried away the black filled in the space and the sound of claws on stone joined in with the dark. Harald moved away from the center of the hall, at first he went toward the sound, but when he neared the source it disappeared and began again to his side, joined by another behind him. He swirled around expecting to catch whatever made the noise as it clawed for his back, but there was nothing, no attack, just the noise. Soon he was surrounded by the sound of scratching claws; the noise was just beyond the edge of light cast by his small torch. A wave of anger came over him, Harald swept his sword through the air, swung it in a circle around him, but neither the light nor his blade caught what made the sound.
Harald paused, he leaned on his sword letting the tip settle within a crack of the tile beneath his feet, and he laughed. "Come then!" he yelled, his voice echoed in the ancient hall. "Can you do nothing but make that noise! Bah! I have wasted enough time."
The hall went silent; the sound of claws, the scratching on the stones came to a sudden halt. Harald began to march across the floor, he had a sense of direction that would put a dwarf or elf to shame, and made for the passage leading out. And then his torch went out and the skittering noise erupted once again.
"Hells!" Harald cursed.
* * *
"Ahh!" Little Rat exclaimed with pleasure. "Nice here."
Harold shook his head. The bottom of the shaft was dank, there was an animal smell, and a thick must, and a faint scent of something burnt. A torch had been lit, the ranger, Harold had no doubt. There was a scrabbling sound from above, a few pebbles mixed with dust fell on their heads and pinged against the floor. The pair backed away and soon the old gnome stood beside them.
"You're getting sloppy Ivo or did you knock that dust down on purpose?" asked Harold lightly.
"Wasn't me," Ivo brushed at his own shoulders and hair, "Telenstil is sending Derue down next on a rope."
"He has a lot of faith that everything is safe down here," said Harold.
"I think he is just eager to get out of sight," Ivo replied. "Any sign of Harald?"
"I smell a torch freshly lit," said Harold.
Ivo sniffed the air and nodded in agreement. "Yes, I can smell the burning pitch," the old gnome inhaled deeply and walked a few steps forward. He bent and put his finger to the ground then went to a wall and examined the fragments of murals now fallen almost all to dust. "Human, work, old...very old. These claw marks are fresh."
Harold glanced down at the tiles and shuddered. "Well we know what made those marks don't we."
Behind them another fall of dust and rock showered down as Derue, still bound, was lowered down the shaft, but far ahead they heard a bellow, a loud curse then a wild roar.
"I know that sound!" cried Harold. "That's our ranger! Come on! I think he needs our help!" The halfling pelted down the hall; he drew his long knife as he ran.
"Wait!" yelled Little Rat. "Wait for me!" the small orc held a rusty knife of his own and pulled another from his belt before chasing after the thief.
Ivo said nothing but fished in his vest and belt for the components of a spell. He pulled a metal sphere from his pack then, quickly, but much slower than the younger pair, ran toward the roaring voice and the clangs of steel on stone that echoed down the hall.