As the third body hit the tunnel floor and things started getting even wetter underfoot, I did my level best to blend in with the darkness. Celo had said there were two more crossbowmen out there and I had no intention of ending up skewered like a suckling pig. Bad enough that a bolt had dug a furrow across my shoulder scant minutes before; it was paining me sufficiently that I wondered idly if it were poisoned. I spared it little more thought; if it were a poison, ‘twas a useless sort.
Bardic’s nose (note to self: how DOES he do that? Are these Cimmerians part wolf or something? Further note: if I ever ask him, I’ll have to make sure he’s the worse for alcohol and unarmed at the time. His people seem a little hot-headed)… Ahem. Yes. Bardic’s nose confirmed that the crossbowmen outside had retreated.
As we moved further down the tunnel, though, the sight of a yellowish powder on the ground at the corner stirred my nastier instincts. Could this be what had taken Edric down so fast & silently? A pity that the remains of the stuff were rapidly soaking into the moisture on the floor.
While I was thus… sidetracked, the others spotted a small side passage, far narrower than the main, heading off to the left where the main passage angled right. Straining my ears, I could hear something breathing heavily down the main passageway, accompanied by an ominous scraping. I relayed that to the others and I suspect they were as spooked as I, because the main tunnel suddenly acquired “investigate later” status. Vorel eased off down the side passage, followed by Bardic. Verus, too, had gone some small way in when Celo heard a noise overhead. Reasoning that it just about HAD to be those crossbowmen trying to surprise us by attacking from above, I passed the word to Verus to alert the others, then headed silently back up the tunnel, gesturing to Celo to do the same.
I had just about got into position near the hidden entrances from which the three crossbowmen in the previous group had attacked us when there was a sudden loud noise and what might have been a muffled oath. Someone had lost his footing in the dark, had he? I stifled a grin. Who was it who had said “A foolish enemy is a gift from the gods”? I lunged forward in the dark, getting a good grip on one of them and plunging the new dagger home. With a rush, Verus and Celo were on them as well. They died swiftly, but alas, not before Verus took a grievous wound and slumped. Lacking any medical skill I was helpless to do more than ensure the rather more skilled Celo had some light to work with… The others returned, but to Celo’s grim pronouncement that Verus was beyond helping. I said a silent prayer to Bel for him, though he would hardly have been a follower; but for all that, he had been a good-natured and reliable sword-arm. He’d be missed.
Prayers said, we headed back towards the corner, Vorel lingering to take one more look over Verus as a precaution. Bardic was in the lead and doubtless rather better silhouetted against the torchlight than he thought; from the side passage, a bolt hit home. It appeared to do little more than anger him, and he ploughed forward. I shrugged inwardly, and followed. He had a lovely habit of distracting the enemy, and a distracted enemy is a dead one if I’m about.
Before I could close to melee, though, I saw Bardic’s sword whistle in an arc. There was a horrible – but brief – gurgle as the foe dropped, but as a bolt ploughed uselessly into the wall I finally spotted the second crossbowman beside the first. Impressively, Bardic’s single stroke had wounded him, too! As he moved to flee I hurled a dagger but it was only a glancing blow; he was jolted, but fled away down the corridor towards that strange noise. Bardic and I set off after him. Behind us there was a joyful shout as Celo was proven wrong; Verus lived yet. Had my prayer had some small effect?
As Bardic and I ploughed into the room, the source of the noise was immediately apparent; here was both the donkey and cart. Both sides of the large room were crudely divided by stakes and low partitions into rough cells. Though there was some light in the room, we could see no sign of the thug, so both ducked into a vacant cell to avoid any bolts from the shadows. Bardic’s keen ears – I swear the barbarian is better than me at such games – picked up furtive movement from the next cell, and a few quick gestures between us had him rushing for the door of the next cell, whilst I hurled myself nimbly over the partition to trap the foe betwixt us; a viciously effective hammer-and-anvil tactic at which we seemed to be getting rather good.
Unfortunately, though I dove into the cell nimbly enough and struck the thug a serious blow, Bardic had yet to make it through the stakes and I had the foe’s full attention – and the bastard had a heavy cutlass! As he seized it in both hands and levelled a mighty blow, I twisted away in desperation, but in the close confines I could not fully evade him and the cutlass grated across my spine before sinking into my side. I was gravely wounded but fought back the urge to scream in pain. The thug looked horrified that I hadn’t gone down. Bardic bulled his way into the cell at last and the thug made the fatal mistake of half-turning away from me. Silly, silly boy. MORE kidneys!!! (Note to self: tithe handsomely to Bel the next chance I get. He’s doing well by me so far, though that last cut was a reminder that HE’s the only one with infinite luck).
Out in the hallway there was a noise; a hulking fellow, cut from much the same cloth as Bardic, had come forth from the side passage. Bardic took up position in the doorway while I moved to flank; both of us were terribly injured, but if we could lure the fool towards us then Celo and Vorel (if they yet lived) could pin him between us. From the cell next to me I heard a strange, whimpering noise, but dismissed it for the time being. If whatever-it-was hadn’t burst out during our fight with the cutlass-wielder, it was unlikely to do so now.
There was a cry and the sound of bowstrings from the corridor; it seemed Bardic hadn’t got the attention of the new arrival after all, but he gamely hared off up the corridor, sword raised. By the time I got there Vorel had been further wounded but Bardic had cut savagely into his opponent. There wasn’t a lot of room for me to get into the fight so I stopped a few paces away and hurled a dagger. Slightly to my surprise, the man gurgled and went down.
A second muscular oaf burst from the side passage: however Vorel and Bardic made short work of him almost before he recovered from the shock of seeing his comrade already bleeding out on the floor. My, there was a lot of blood underfoot. And then, much to my surprise, an apparently unharmed Edric emerged from the side passage.
We cleared corpses out of the way until the donkey & cart could be brought up to where Verus lay. The whimpering from the cell turned out to be a couple of waifs, ill-treated and almost paralyzed with fear. I have little knack with children so left them to the others, but uttered a silent prayer to Bel that the kidnappers might be soon struck down, if not by us then by another. I may not be as zealous about these things as the barbarian, but by Bel and all his many daggers, some things should not go unpunished.
The others bickered a little over whether to pursue the ringleaders, who according to Edric had cut their losses and fled. The headstrong appeared about to win the day until I pointed out that we were almost all sorely wounded, we had a task yet to perform, and the man they were talking about pursuing had a fell reputation indeed. Even searching whatever remained of the complex, we would be running the risk of meeting something we could not deal with in our present state. With that, I left the others to search those rooms we had found thus far, and to load the urchins onto the donkey cart, while I took the items to be planted from Edric and concealed them in such a way that it would require no real skill or luck to unearth them again.
And with that, we made ready to leave.