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 watched as 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.
"I do not see..." Telenstil began, but stopped as he caught sight of the trail left by the snake. "Yes, I see the trail but I do not see this snake."
"I see it," said Gytha. "I know it well."
"You have seen this type of creature before?" asked Ghibelline. The elf held his sword so tight that his knuckles whitened from the grip. He felt a touch of fear as the creature approached, the wounds on his arm began to throb.
"You have seen it before, and you Telenstil," she told them. "It has grown, but it is what attacked me when I healed Derue, the evil is the same, you do not feel it, do not see it?"
"I see only the path it leaves," said Telenstil, "it nears."
"I do not see it either," Ghibelline rubbed at his arm. "I feel it though, where it struck me."
"Ghibelline, stand here," Gytha pointed with the iron staff she held to a place beside her, "I will ask the Saint for his blessing and protection."
The elf stepped forward and stood next to her, Gytha set her iron staff into the ground and took his hand in her own then reached out and put her other hand on Telenstil's. "Oh pure of heart and strong of arm, bless those gathered here to fight the spirit of evil which comes upon us." she released them and held up her hands, a wind, refreshing and cool, blew over them. With her iron staff Gytha traced a circle in the dirt around Ghibelline then looked up toward the sky. "Sainted one, you have blessed us all, protect this warrior with special care, he has fought the evil sent forth against us, your strength has touched him, let your spirit protect him!" A circle of white erupted around the elf; it shot up from the ground and wrapped him in its brilliance. Ghibelline felt the pain lessen in his arm, the venomous heat was gone, though the wound still stung. A sense of rest and strength settled on him and a feeling that the light had suffused his skin, protecting him from the evil that approached.
"I see it now!" cried out Ghibelline, he could see the edges of the scales, the fangs, the glowing eyes, red and molten in the serpentine skull. The body of the snake was still translucent, he could see clear through, but the monster was a net of shimmering lines of fire, no substance inbetween.
"Yes, let me see if my magic can hold it in place," said Telenstil. He drew out a small bar of steel and with it traced a pattern of blue fire in the air. "Zeiz! Zeiz! Zeiz!" he intoned and threw the steel bar at the snake. It flashed far across the clearing and exploded in a cloud of blue sparks that made the serpent jump and thrash like a fish trying to break the line which held it.
* * *
Everyone had run off. Halfknife could hear shouting from further up the passage but could not see where the others had gone. Someone was climbing down the wall; the human with the magic stick, Halfknife shuddered. The giants he understood, big ones always ruled while the smaller ones obeyed, but magic, the stuff the old shamans had used always frightened him. It frightened the Boss as well, they could all see it. The orc gave the human baggage a kick while he had the chance. "No sword now," Halfknife gave a barking laugh, "you stew-meat waiting for the pot."
Brokenhand laughed as well and drew back his foot, but Boss gave him a slap, then glared at Halfknife. "Save it," he told them. "Where did the little ones go?"
"They ran up there," Meatstealer pointed up the hall.
Boss took a few steps walking slowly perhaps to follow, but the shouting made him pause, then the screams began.
* * *
A thousand sparks of red and blue shot from the snake. They burned like the spray from a blacksmith's anvil as white hot metal was hammered into form. Telenstil felt the power of his spell disappear, the snake had overcome the magic force that would have held it frozen for a time.
"It's mad now," said Ghibelline.
Telenstil grimaced and held out his hand, "Noituus Istaa," he said and sent out five magic bolts. The flew toward the snake and struck it, leaving blotches of red where the scales were burnt and broken.
"Magic can hurt it," Ghibelline said relieved.
"Az-Trappa!" Telenstil replied. He took a step and pushed Ghibelline to one side then threw a small crystal toward the snake. The magic lightning boomed, the flash left an afterglow on their eyes, but the bolt passed through the snake, it bathed it for a moment, but to no effect. A tree, scarred deeply by the gibberlings, stripped of bark from roots to five or more feet high up its bole, it received the fury of the unnatural electric bolt and split, the bole smoking, half the tree falling with a crash to the ground.
"Cast another spell!" urged Ghibelline. "If I had my tome..." he cursed. The giants had taken his weapons, his pack and all he possessed. He had been skilled more with magic than with the sword, but without his book to study or even the components for his spells his skills as a warrior were all that he could use.
The snake skimmed across the ground, the magic bolts had stung it, the lightning had healed its hurt. The touch of steel had been no more than an inconvenience, but now it was refreshed. It had not been badly hurt by the magic darts, the lightning would have healed a much more grievous wound; it brimmed with the strength the spell imparted when it struck.
"Saint give us strength," Gytha prayed, "Saint strike our foe," she held out her iron staff, "Saint aid us now!" she struck the staff against the ground. A wave of force rolled out from the spot where the iron touched the ground. Like a stone hitting the still surface of a pond the power rippled out in all directions.
Telenstil and Ghibelline felt as if an arm steadied them and gave them strength, while the snake was rolled like a barrel loose on the deck of a ship wracked by a storm.