The harsh challenge of a nesting buzzard sounded through the heat-shimmer of tangled rocky outcrops breaking through the undergrowth. Vorel frowned and swung back to face the others:
“There aren’t any peaks high enough a buzzard would nest here, I would have thought!”
Since disembarking, Vorel and Bardic had led the remaining four confidently along a trail that led away roughly westward through reasonably deep stands of forest and undergrowth, rising by starts and turns to this jumble of rough country. Hat Rock, not always visible, had provided a steady landmark. It was hot and overcast: Vorel predicted an electrical storm in the near future.
As Vorel’s warning gave them pause, the wolflike senses of the Cimmerian detected the rattle of stones dislodged by retreating feet. He scaled an outcrop as easily as a mountain goat, and stared about. Edric imitated him, trying to make sense of the geography. Around them and beyond Hat Rock, the forest swelled darkly, save to the north, where the outcroppings of some titanic upheaval in a forgotten age that had produced this high ground spilled into vaguely regular shapes. Edric’s heart beat swifter: surely many of those outcroppings were ruinous stone structures! Yes, though the eye was often-deceived by weathering, some column-like outcroppings were in fact man-made columns, and some weathered fissures might prove to be fallen masonry.
Wary of ambush, the party resume their course, until Vorel sighted a cleft, an oblong slit in what could once have been stonework. It was no wider than one brawny barbarian’s shoulders across, and perhaps twice as tall.
Debate ensued. With the alarm sounded, it seemed certain that the bandits would be preparing an ambush of some sort. At length, the lads decided to work their way clockwise around the ruin, seeking the supposed northern or main approach, where a cart-trail must lie. They faded back into the undergrowth and thence into the trees.
Noon had turned to afternoon and then to late afternoon, when the six realised that they had circled too tightly and were amid the western part of the ruin. Edric’s attention was caught by a vaguely circular depression large enough to have been an ancient temple. With the lust of the true scholar on him he scraped ancient lichens away from the stub of an ancient pillar, seeking writings. The ground shifted slightly under him: he realised that he might be standing on decaying masonry, not solid ground. Bardic drew close, sensing that he might have to drag the antiquarian away. Edric tore a clump of surprisingly light turf away from the ground, and a section of brick loosened, and fell in with a muted clatter, leaving a gap through which mute blackness gaped. The Cimmerian scented an unpleasant stench from below. As he peered through, a mis-shapen grey hand reached up and snatched for his throat!
Leaping back with an oath, Bardic ushered the others away, and they resumed their foreshortened march eastward toward what appeared to be two roughly intact – or rebuilt – cuboid buildings. The sinking sun cast their shadows, immensely elongated, before them.
First to be hit was Vorel, picking his way between and through the crumbling stonework and odd-shaped hollows of the ruins some 20 yards from the smaller, more northerly building. A bolt sprouted from his left shoulder as if by magic! Wrenching it clear, Vorel sprinted for the next pile of rocks.
As the six began closing in the smaller building disgorged a single figure, running pell-mell for a door set in the larger building. Arrows from Vorel and Celo snapped around him as he ducked through it, and it slammed to behind him. With the door to the small building left open, Morath rushed it, receiving the next hurt for his effort but closing with the now-defenceless bandit and stabbing deep and true. Bardic followed his favorite hunting partner and the bandit dropped with a scream of agony! Morath bent to finish the job and loot the corpse.
Crossbow-shot from the larger building ceased as Verus and Bardic ran across to kick in the door. Vorel kept up a determined sniping at the slits high in its wall. A trapdoor in the floor led – in some uncertain way – to a tunnel, the entrance of which was to the north, underneath the building. It was here that a donkey-cart trail was clearly visible, even to Celo’s eyes as he reached that end and called out his findings.
The party assembled at the tunnel mouth: Vorel and Morath were lightly hurt, but the front-rankers were fit and fresh. Vorel knapped a loose flint and lit Bardic’s one torch. The Cimmerian took the van, torch high, head thrust forward, battleaxe ready in his strong right fist.
Through some ingenious arrangement of the ancient stonework, the bandits were able to loose bolts down from both sides of the tunnel. Bardic made an excellent target and was hard hit: dropping the torch he leaped forward away out of its light. Verus joined him, racing right through the gauntlet unscathed. More hesitant, Edric Morath and Vorel lingered near the light – though none picked it up – and Celo delayed far behind, at the tunnel mouth, in the twilight.
Susurrations and muffled knocking sounds around the ruins, growing ever louder in Celo’s fevered imagination, finally forced him into the pitchy darkness of the tunnel. By that time, chaos had taken hold of the party!
They had gathered in a cluster against a wall that ran perpendicular to their original course, though Verus was unsure if he had found a right-hand turn or a cross-tunnel. Lacking light, Bardic suggested he go back for it: but Verus demurred, insisting his superior armor made him the best candidate.
In reality, his bulk simply made him a good mark for the quiet attackers who had clambered down from their slits: three attacked Verus, sinking blades deep, and two came in from behind Celo!
Edric waited far back by the cross-wall as the others rescued Verus. He strained his ears over the cries and commands. Was that a footfall? A breath-like softness descended over him, and he suddenly found himself unable to move. His eyes darted frantically about as two figures out of some Stygian nightmare bulked up around him and dragged him away… into the darkness.