Firelight spread a rich, orange glow against the darkness of heavy stone that threatened to swallow them up in darkness. The storm raged outside, but being within the thick walls of the tor was like being in a deep mountain cave. Drier, though – that was something. The heat from the fire began to dry even the thoroughly water-logged gowns of the traveling ladies. One of them, taller and with hair blackened by the rain, vigorously chafed the arms of the other – younger, with a soft face and dark blonde hair that would lighten into spun gold when dry.
The Kid, relentlessly energetic, roamed the edges of the large anteroom they found themselves in. He found solid iron doors on all four walls, including double doors through which they’d entered and in the opposite wall, and smaller single doors to the east and west. He eyed each them carefully for a moment as he came to them, then tugged at their handles. Each time, he gained nothing for his efforts except the knowledge that the doors were either locked from the inside, too heavy for his elven frame to budge, or rusted shut.
Zanfire knelt near the doors through which they’d entered the crypt, trying to gauge how long the storm would continue. The ranger, after shaking off the water from his cloak and restringing his bow, strode beside him. “How far did you bring them through this mess?”
“Not far – mile, maybe two. Hard to tell in this,” he gestured towards the cascading sheets of rain.
“From the Fork Road?”
“Mile and a half. I know this area pretty well. You’re out of Adbar?” the ranger glanced towards Zanfire’s swords.
“Not easy for an elf to fit in up there. People call me G.O.B.,” he grinned, pronouncing it like Jobe.
“Good name – strong. Sorry to be so chatty; you’re the first person I’ve gotten to talk to since winter broke. Orcs are moving through, you know.”
Zanfire nodded and kept watch outside.
“Hey,” G.O.B. started again, voice lowered this time. “What do you know about the humans that came with you?” Zanfire shrugged.
“They were on the coach I was guarding.”
“The grey one, in the robes. He a wizard?” Zanfire eyed G.O.B. closely this time, then turned back to the rain.
“Don’t know. Go ask him.” G.O.B. frowned, cut his almond-shaped eyes towards the one who had sparked his curiosity, then shook his head. Under his breath, he muttered, “Don’t trust wizards.”
A thanks to the gods of peace and quiet flashed across Zanfire’s mind as the ranger moved back towards the fire, but it was squelched as the nobleman approached him. Over his shoulder, Zanfire could see the young barbarian gazing with unabashed interest at the two human girls, while Ruprecht’s tutor sat near them. The older girl turned her head towards Zanfire, and for a long moment, they held each other’s gaze.
“Scout! I want to thank you for guiding us here. I am Lord Alvin Heyward. I’m sure I know your commander at Citadel Adbar – as soon as I arrive in Sundabar, I will send him a letter of commendation on your behalf.”
“Don’t serve at Adbar anymore. Finished my time on the first of Tarsakh.”
“You left the service of the Marches? Why?”
“Don’t see how that’s any of your concern. Lucky for you I did, though.”
“Indeed. How can I repay you for your service?”
Before Zanfire could respond, the sky outside lit up a harsh blue-white and the atmosphere became rank with the scent of scorched air. Before his eyes had opened from their instinctive shutting-out of the sudden radiance, thunder exploded through the tor! The other doors slammed open with a dull gong as iron met stone. The shepherds called out softly to soothe their flocks. As the rest of the group shook the concussion out of their heads, a faint screeching noise became audible from the dark opening beyond the inner double doors.
“What’s that???” the younger girl shrieked. “What’s THAT???” Her sister covered her mouth to mute her screams and hugged her close with her other arm. “Shh…”
Eisbarzorn tossed his hammer nervously from hand to hand, and the tiny druid stood beside him, staff in hand. Together, they approached the dark hallway, where the screeching was drawing steadily closer. An arrow swished past them into the dark, and a squeal of pain could be heard over the squeals. “Rats,” Tylfan muttered, and “and not just a few, either.”
A bottle shattered in front of the opening to the crypt, and the Kid shouted, “That’s oil! Fire it up!” Tylfan grinned and concentrated for a moment, rubbing the staff his master had sought for him from Obed-Hai. For a tiny moment, he created a connection to the Elemental Plane of Fire – just long enough for a flickering spirit of fire to ignite the puddle of oil! The light flashed in the beady eyes and dirty brown fur of a horde of yard-long dire rats!
The first wave of the nasty creatures leapt over the flames, their foul drool sizzling in the blaze, and the warriors burst into action. Zanfire sprinted towards one on the far left, twirling past it and thrusting both short swords into its torso and abdomen. Eisbarzorn kicked one back into the fire and shattered the skull of another with a vicious cross-body strike. G.O.B. loosed two arrows in the space of a heartbeat, dropping a fourth creature in its tracks. More rats, crazed by the lightning and the flames, pushed their way forward. The halfling let his staff fall to the floor, drew out a set of heavy darts, and started snapping them with brisk and uncanny accuracy. The tutor withdrew a light crossbow from his robes and began firing bolts steadily. Under the onslaught of blade and hammer and projectile rain, an even dozen dire rats lay stinking and smoldering in short order.
“THOR ODINSON! Your might has brought us victory!” roared Eisbarzorn, his massive lungs filling the room with his joy. He swung his hammer in a mighty two-fisted arc, clanging it off the floor hard enough to send sparks shooting into the air. Zanfire wiped his blades clean, or as clean as possible anyway, on a mangy pelt, while Tylfan stowed the rest of his darts back in their pouch and collected his staff. He met the talkative ranger’s eyes and gave him a quick nod. Annoying he might be, but shooting like that would always come in handy.
As they continued to clean up after their encounter with the dire rats, the Kid strolled into view, jingling a bit and looking pleased with himself. “Good work, boys!” he laughed. “Thanks for taking care of that mess. Gave me a chance to do a little exploring!” He jerked his head back towards the western door. “I guess whoever they buried in here didn’t want to be penniless on the other side! Less for him, more for me!”
“Coward!” Eisbarzorn shouted at the grinning elf, who was twirling a pouch in one hand.
“Curious, really,” the Kid replied, tossing the pouch to the big human. “Take your share – I’m not gonna cheat you out of what you’ve earned!” Cutting his eyes to Zanfire, he aimed a fake frown at him and said, “Didn’t expect that, did you, greyback?”
“Ruprecht? Ruprecht, where are you???” the tutor asked, peering into the shadows. Everyone looked around for the tall man in the blue and white armor. “Where did he go? Did anyone see him?”
The dark-haired girl pointed towards the darkness where the eastern door must have been. The flames from the bonfire barely illuminated her outstretched arm – the rest of the room was swiftly being swallowed up in inky blackness. “When the lightning strike blew the doors open,” she began in a husky but strong voice, “he was over there, I think.” All heads turned that way as a high, mournful woman’s wail reached out through the lightless room, gripped their guts, and twisted hard. Higher and higher, louder and louder, the scream pierced their heads and pulled at their minds!
“Osmund! To me! HELP!” came Ruprecht’s shout from the same direction. Desperation tinged each syllable, and his tutor, already moving that way, broke into a shuffling run. Eisbarzorn leapt ahead of him and rushed through the blackness, running towards the sounds of danger. As they approached, a sickly green glow lit their way, shining from the room at the end of the short hallway. They clapped their hands to their ears as they burst into the room, where the shriek echoed off the walls.
A disembodied head floated, maybe six feet above the floor of the antechamber. The source of the diseased light, it flapped around the young knight on foul little batwings sprouting from its temples. Ruprecht slashed towards it with his guisarme, once – twice! As he sliced at the foul vargouille, Osmund could see wetness that must be blood running from under the boy’s helmet that could only be blood. The scream must have ruptured his ears, perhaps even burst something in his nose. But still, he continued to struggle against the terrible scream. He moved left quickly, then with a mighty spin, anticipated the head’s ungainly move in the opposite direction. With a sound like the bursting of a rotten melon, the guisarme gashed through the floating head from jaw to temple. Another swing, this time against the wall, and the two sides of the head splatted to the floor. The boy took a deep breath and fell to one knee.
“Ruprecht!” Osmund cried out and rushed forward.
“Father?” Ruprecht sighed, then slumped towards the ground. Eisbarzorn caught him before he landed, and carried him back to the main chamber.