Ghibelline had a hard time hiding the trail the others left. The orcs, carrying the scout bound on a wooden pole, walked heedlessly, some left deep prints where they stepped into still damp oerth or pushed the brush aside, the broken ends shifted round like arrows pointing back the way the gibberlings had come. He ran ahead and talked with Telenstil, the wizard had his underling, the human Talberth, command the orcs to follow where he stepped, and Talberth walked where Telenstil directed. Their pace was slow; Ghibelline knew that they lagged behind the scouts. The ranger would be quietly upset; the huge man would scowl to see them take such time.
There were hours of daylight left but who could tell how far this trail would run. The pace did not improve but the orcs' trail began to lighten and even disappear. They wanted to march along in a straight line, but it was safest to shift and dodge their way around patches of loose debris or muddy ground. Ghibelline went ahead till he was near the last orc in line, then when they passed a thicket of brush he stepped into the woods and hid. A feeling had crept into his bones that something followed close behind but always just out of sight.
Ivo called for them to stop. The old gnome had found himself at the head of the march. The cleric Gytha was beside him but Telenstil was busy leading Talberth who led the orcs. A strange scene it created, an elf followed by a human, trailed by a quartet of orcs, all in single file walking down a path wide enough for a pair of wagons to ride abreast.
* * *
The torch flared into life and from somewhere nearby Harald could hear a high-pitched shriek then the sound of something skittering over stones. He almost dropped the wooden handle as he grabbed for the hilt of his claymore. The blade sent sparks from the wall and ceiling as he drew it from over his shoulder; he held it out before him one handed like a lance. There was nothing, no further sounds except the hissing of the flames and his own breathing, but what he saw astounded him.
In the torchlight he could see that the floor was a scratched and worn mosaic, the walls were stone, at one time veneered with thick plaster, now all but fallen to the ground. Still there were patches across the walls which showed a scene of plains with armored chariots rolling by, pursuing an enemy or beast now lost, their images mingled with the dirt and debris pushed into the corners and piled against the walls. This was no bare cave, instead it was once a decorated chamber the stones finely set, large blocks of grey rock speckled with black, their edges almost invisible, a razor would not fit between. A crack split the wall, above it the ceiling had fractured as well and through this the shaft had been cut. The slab that had formed the ceiling was thick, even with the stone broken Harald could not guess at how much work it had taken to claw through, scraping away a fragment at a time.
There was a doorway wide as the hall, two great valves of stone, which sat beneath the shaft, but it was shut and would not move. Two figures were carved into its frame, a pair of men, barrel chested, heavily muscled, their backs bent, their arms outstretched as if to hold up the arch. Still gripping his sword Harald ran his knuckles across the carvings, cold and smooth, the grooves and scars left across the wall had not damaged these. With the pommel of his sword he gave the doors a rap, the metal clanged on stone dull and solid, it sounded as if only dirt and rock lay beyond, but Harald had the feeling that they once opened out onto the sun and sky. Useless doors, they were now just a part of the wall, he turned his back on them and peered into the dark.
The chamber extended beyond the range of light that his torch projected. Harald was drawn forward, each step revealing more of the hall. It was wide, perhaps twenty feet across, the ceiling was not low, though Harald could reach up and touch it with the tips of his fingers, if he stood on his toes. The tiles beneath his feet had been obliterated; those that had not been broken or dislodged had been scratched by hundreds of clawed feet passing back and forth. The walls were just as bad, though it was time which had done the worst, the gibberlings had left the murals alone, but they had fallen in bits and pieces just the same.
A hundred paces and the passage opened into a vast chamber. A pillared hall each column shaped like some beast. An ogre, its chest armored in banded mail, a creature with the body of a snake and the torso of a strong looking woman, six armed, each hand gripping a different type of blade, a centaur, its bow raised and arrow notched, a manticore, and dozens more.
As he neared the middle of the room he followed a crack that meandered back and forth. At the center, surrounded by columns shaped like dragons of different hues but carved from the same gray stone, the crack widened, a circular pit with crumbling edges was watched over by these sculpted beasts. Harald looked into its depths but could see nothing, he bent and examined the edge; the stone was grooved and notched. He ran his hand within the pit and felt the familiar holds clawed into the walls. The gibberlings had come from here, he was sure of this.
The skittering sound came again, it echoed across the hall. Harald twisted his head back and forth trying to track it down, but with no success. Something was moving in the dark that filled the corners of the room. He left the pit behind and with his torch chased away the blackness and searched for whatever made the noise.
* * *
"Head feel better," said Little Rat.
"Good, good," Harold mumbled absentmindedly. The halfling had crept ahead till he reached the shaft carved into the floor of the ravine. "Shhh!" he signaled to the orc to keep quiet, then put his ear to the hole and listened. Nothing, he could not hear a sound. He felt like calling out the ranger's name and cursing him, but he held his breath.
"We go..." Little Rat whispered and pointed down the shaft.
"We go back," said Harold and gestured toward the woods and the path the gibberlings had clawed through the underbrush.
"I stay?" offered Little Rat. "Cool here, nice and cool."
"You go too," Harold told him. "Come on, we have to go tell the others."
Little Rat grumbled, he dragged a dagger's edge across the stones with a screech and spark.
"Keep quiet!" the halfling commanded. "I wish you'd put those knives away, they make me nervous. No way ta treat them either."
* * *
Ghibelline could no longer hear the others, not even the orcs as they tramped and grumbled along the march. The woods were still, the gibberlings had chased off all that could escape them and eaten all that could not. The elf made no sound, he did not move, he barely seemed to breath, just crouched and waited for whatever that was tracking them to appear.
* * *
"Ivo, Gytha!" Harold ran up to them.
"Harold what is it?" asked Gytha concerned at the sudden appearance of the halfling.
"What's wrong?" Ivo asked expecting to hear bad news.
"Telenstil!" Harold called over to the elf. "The trail ends, there is a ravine and a hole down into the oerth, but no ranger."
"Harold," Telenstil came over to them quickly but did not run, behind him Talberth and the orcs stumbled trying to pick up their pace and follow the elf.
"The ranger has disappeared," said Harold.
"Was there any sign of trouble... a fight?"
"No, and there is a hole, something dug into the bottom of a crevice at the end of the trail," the halfling told him breathlessly.
"You had better lead us there, he may need our help," said Telenstil.
"He told me to tell you to go north," replied Harold. "He told me, if something got him, go north, don't follow."
"We will take care but I have no intention of abandoning our ranger," Telenstil looked from face to face.
"Hey!" Harold exclaimed. "I'm all for going after him. I'm just telling you what he told me to say."
"Gytha, Talberth, Ivo," asked Telenstil, "what of you?"
"You need to ask!" Gytha would have laughed if she had not been concerned about the ranger.
"I think we are all agreed," said Ivo.
"Talberth?" asked Telenstil
"Yes, yes, fine," Talberth grimaced looking around the shredded brush and mangled trees. "I don't fancy being out in the woods without him. Where is that Wood Elf?"
"Ghibelline!" Gytha realized that he was nowhere to be seen.