No Way Out?
At Bardic’s urgent cry, the other four on the Halskul Glacier – sharp-eyed Celo, wary Vorel, deadly Morath and warm-hearted Edric – leapt into action. Vorel urged on the dozen shaggy northern ponies laden with baggage, while Morath followed Bardic into cover behind an upthrust jagged spire of rock. Celo turned to help Vorel, then realized that Edric was struggling, burdened as he was by his burel robe and chain shirt. The Tauranian borderer grabbed the Tarantian Friar and hustled him into shelter, then wheeled back to help Vorel.
Too late! As the other four watched aghast, Vorel – and most of the ponies – were knocked flying dozens of feet by a hammering wall of air that raced ahead of the avalanche at hurricane-like speed.
Celo reacted with the amazing speed he was known for: unlimbering the long coil of silken rope from his shoulder and grabbing the loose end, he cast the rest of the coil at Vorel with all his strength. Vorel snatched it!
“Help me!” Celo yelled: and a brawny Cimmerian arm wound itself around the rope-end. Bardic roared wordlessly, putting a huge surge of strength into the pull. Downslope, rolling blindly, waiting to be swept to his death, Vorel felt the rope sear through the two thicknesses of fur mittens he wore: he hung on, swimming as much as escalading the snow. And finally, he was able to choke and gasp his way clear, clinging to his fellows.
The ground’s trembling increased as a veritable tidal-wave of snow rolled towards their shelter. “We need to find better cover!” Bardic howled above the oncoming thunder. “All the air will be sucked away and we’ll be buried!”
“In here! There’s a crevice!” Morath screamed. Without debate the other four pushed in behind the wiry Zamorian, finding themselves descending a widening crevice, or more rightly cave. For a horrid moment, all the air sucked out of their lungs. Then behind them, snow roiled and back-washed into the vacuum. The light disappeared, but they could breathe once more.
“Hunh – this must be a whole cavern!” Bardic rumbled, felling about him and hearing the echoes subside.
“Almost… shaped stone!” Edric seconded, a note of scholarly enthusiasm in his voice. He knew that Hyperborea was the location of cyclopean remains: perhaps at some unthinkable time in the past, the rock spire had been a building?
The rough voice, in an uncouth attempt at Nemedian, sounded out of the darkness.
“I am Bardic, a Cimmerian. You?”
“We’re travelers, caught in the mountains. Got a light?”
Mistrustfully, Bardic kept his left hand on his poniard as he eased his way right, feeling along the wall and rough floor of the cavern with the natural balance of the barbarian. Finding himself halted by the cavern’s corner, he headed in towards the speaker, and before too long the resourceful Tauranian, Celo, had brought over a lit candle and a tiny blaze composed of rubbish, dried moss and twigs was burning.
It would be hard to imagine three less-savory wayfarers, Edric decided as he joined the campfire. Two were typical down-at-heel Hyborian sell-swords, ready to cut a throat for their next meal. Their furs were dirty, the bundles of fur-wrapped possessions nested alongside them were untidy, but their weapons were well cared for. The third and most striking was a very tall, lantern-jawed Hyperborean with a vast two-handed shamshir on his back. He looked vaguely familiar. Then as he spoke and the light picked out his sharp-filed teeth, Edric placed him. It was the mercenary known as Erlik’s Dog. Edric had last seen him at Castle Crow, being carried away to sleep off his stupor and the lighter by a gold bar thanks to Yemmi, Celo’s sidekick.
Bardic decided that no hostilities were about to erupt, and eased himself into a deceptively relaxed sitting position. The others did the same: though Bardic noted that Morath, ever paranoid, had never joined the circle and was quietly searching around the dark cavern.
As questions were exchanged, it was apparent that the three “travelers” were not being entirely open about their reasons for being there. The names of the Hyborians were Madruin, a Brythunian, and Bosipher, an Aquilonian from the Tauran like Celo. It seemed that the latter knew of Celo, but only as the small-time sneak-thief he had been back in the Tauran. Madruin had seemingly not been in Brythunia for some time, but did know Darius, having been in employment alongside him briefly. Their account was that they were planning to head down the glacier, into Hyperborea. They claimed to know nothing of bandits but had heard stories of ice monsters that could set off avalanches.
After some minutes, a working agreement had been formed to share dangers and resources in order to get out to safety and food. Then Morath, who had become fairly sure that someone else was in the cavern, whistled a quiet warning.
Vorel drew his swords and backed away from the fire: the wayfarers jumped up in alarm and with protests! Edric, using his staff as an aid, found the far wall and along it, until he too could hear someone. By the sound of it, it was a single small or light person, trying to stay away from sight and sound.
“Don’t be frightened, my child! Let Mitra guide you to trust me!”
Saying so, Edric poured forth Mitra’s power in the direct he guessed the person to be: and was rewarded handsomely. A tall and lovely blonde woman stepped timidly into the faint light. By her eyes and bone structure, Edric guessed her to be some variety of Hyperborean. Her fur robes hid most of her figure, but suggested the sweetly-curved body of a woman in her prime.
After some stammering attempts to find a mutual language, they settled on poor Brythunian. The woman explained that her name was Kelvie, and like them had been trapped by weather. Her arrival caused great suspicion among the three wayfarers, but Bardic placed her under his protection, and that was the end of the matter… for the time being.
Morath returned from the area around where Kelvie had been hiding:
“I’ve found a draft – there’s another crevice with a possible way out!”
On a Shifting Footing
Makeshift lights were organized. Celo’s candle was dripped onto arrows and shreds of rag and fur embedded. With four or five of the negligible lights going, the group of nine squeezed through the new discovery. Bardic re-settled his great-sword scabbard, then drew the sword. He probed around then forward. Again, it seemed to him that this was perhaps an artificially-cut passage. The roof was more than adequately high, beyond the range of the glims. With the glims behind him to guide his feet he made his way cautiously forward to a rough four-way junction. Calling back his discovery, he made his way left.
Walking beside Kelvie well back toward the rear, Edric eyed his new companion covertly and carefully. Her poise and carriage wer excellent, her eyes modest, and she smelled much better than the four he normally traveled with. He found himself regretting the vows of celibacy his order demanded. But at the same time, he could not help noticing that she visibly relaxed when Bardic announced his intention of searching left.
Challenged – diplomatically – on this, Kelvie explained as best her command of Brythunian allowed:
“I here longer than other three; I – little – explore these. I in caravan; bandits attack: survivor I; shelter here. I find – old old written. That other way.”
Old old written? Edric’s scholarly curiosity caught afire. And did that mean she could read? He tried Pelishtim:
“Do you mean, you found ancient writings?”
“O stars of heaven! You speak the language of scholars!”
It was a match made in heaven for Edric, who found himself prattling on to the mysterious beauty, discussing writings and Hyperborea’s ruins. Kelvie Jure – who explained that she came of a sub-tribe of scholars, much maligned in Hyperborea – advanced a theory that the carven runes she had found dated back to the original inhabitants, perhaps at a time when the mountains were warmer.
Bored by the endless rattle of an impenetrable conversation, the others pressed on behind Bardic, who had so far reported that some edible moss and lichen grew along some of the tunnel. “It widens out here…”
Clammy, stinging tendrils or tentacles wrapped themselves around his face, cutting off his next words. With a surge of terrified fury Bardic dropped his blade, grabbed the tentacles in both fists, and wrenched himself free. He could feel the poison deadening the feeling in his face, and mopped the seeping blood off as best he could. Retrieving his sword as much by touch as by sight – since none of the wayfarers had leaped to his aid – he retraced his steps and suggested trying the opposite path. He also suggested a new working arrangement:
“Let’s put this deal onto a formal footing. I’ve got enough silver here in my pouch to hire you on a fighting wage. You work for us, and fight for us, until we’re clear. Deal?”
Madruin and Bosipher agreed to a scale of 2sp per day readily enough, but Erlik’s Dog balked:
“To Erlik’s Hell with that! I’m a fighting man and worth five silver!”
Bardic paid without demur, but his black brows beetled down thunderously. Bardic and Vorel then took the lead, the hirelings immediately behind.
Not far down the passage, but far enough to decide that under the layers of dirt was worked stone, Bardic and Vorel felt the stone floor shift sharply under their feet. They threw themselves backwards as a huge stone block dropped across the passage.
“It’s trapped!” Vorel stated.
“This woman has pointed us to our doom!” Erlik’s Dog growled with an oath.
“I don’t understand!” Kelvie murmured to Edric. “I walked along here before, and there were no traps. But oh – I am much lighter than those two warriors. Perhaps that is it.”
The fallen ashlar permitted the explorers to crawl over it. But now there would be a change of order. Edric and Kelvie squeezed over it – the others noting, in passing, that Kelvie possessed a fine rump – and took the lead.
Within less than a minute, the floor shifted under Edric’s weight, and – if not for Kelvie’s helping hand, pulling him sharply back – he would have become a floor tile under the weight of another ashlar. Erlik’s Dog turned to the others:
“What did I tell you? She knew this was a trap!” The other two hirelings growled agreement, and even the Cimmerian was beginning to regret extending his protection over Kelvie. At Edric’s insistence, the nine pushed on, reaching a wider space where their feeble glims revealed nothing.
“The ancient carven writings are over yonder. I stood studying them until my candle was gone, and lacking light, barely found my way out. I could not return.”
Edric hastened across the floor of a cavern that had perhaps once been a regularly worked chamber. In a niche of sorts, a long commemoration was inscribed in runes so deep the eons had not erased them. He judged it to be ancestral Hyborian, the language from which all the modern Hyborian tongues descended. He and Kelvie fell into an animated discussion of meanings of various words.
After a few minutes of increasing irritation, Bardic exploded:
“Edric! Do you mean to tell us that you dragged us through traps to puzzle over old scratching, when our lights are nearly gone and we have no food!?!”
The seven non-scholars, making the best of the situation, scraped up the mess of wax left by Kelvie’s candle, and reapplied it to more scraps of cloth and tied those to more arrows. The return to the four-way junction was carried out with disgruntled murmurs and oaths.
Bardic and Vorel leaped back yet again – this time it was more of a loose rock fall, not a solid block. Bardic was not quite fast enough, and Vorel dug him out from under several hundred pounds of rocks. With a groan, Bardic checked himself for broken bones and pronounced himself fit to travel: but the party order must needs change again.
Morath snaked out ahead of the others, probing carefully. Within minutes, searching forward along a tunnel that showed increasing signs of ice formation, he found yet another trap.
“You knew about this, you blonde witch!” Erlik’s Dog snarled.
“Make her go in front! Then we’ll see!” Madruin agreed.
“That’s not going to happen! You’re being paid to take orders!” Bardic snapped.
“Yeah, well as a paid party hireling I’m suggesting that she should go in front. Up to you,” Madruin shrugged.
Another trap and much paranoia later, Morath discerned a widening ahead: not a mere sinkhole, but a true cavern. The faintest of air movements continued to beckon him onward. The surface underfoot seemed slicker: a rime of frost covered everything, and ice had formed on every surface. As the others followed him in and down to the cavern floor, their glims reflected off spires and stalactites and stalagmites all ice-covered: a winter wonderland of deep permafrost.
Vorel unwrapped his bow from the furs that had kept the wet and cold away from it thus far. Morath slid into what might be called cover, behind a pillar of ice. Off immediately to his left a deep sinkhole dropped away to unknown depths, and to his right the cavern wall opened out further. Madruin turned left, and tried working his way around the sinkhole, slid a little, and pulled back, pale faced.
Edric eased forward from the rear, Kelvie’s warm hand in his. Celo followed closely on her heels. Just for a moment, they thought that the lights had gone out: or that they had gone blind. Edric realized that Kelvie’s hand was no longer in his.
The Fight in the Ice Cavern
Even as he opened his mouth to warn the others, a glimmer of light grew on a rock ledge almost a hundred feet forward: grew, and lit Kelvie Jure as though from within. She stood arms raised and head back, and a terrible judgment was writ dire upon her beautiful face. Below the ledge, in the growing light, a second sinkhole could be made out. Something VAST pulled itself out with sinuous crepitation. In shape, it was like an eel or lamprey, but in color a whitey-blue. Its mouth worked, and the horrified adventurers could see serried ranks of needle-sharp awl-like teeth going back down its gullet. The temperature in the cavern dropped distinctly: the creature was radiating pure cold.
Swallowing hard, most stood their ground: but it was too much for Vorel and Erlik’s Dog, who flung themselves back toward the exit. Erlik’s Dog fell sprawling in the ice, but Vorel, more sure of foot, reached the exit: and found it sealed!
Edric put Kelvie’s treachery from his mind and focused on the immediate danger:
“Monster! I doom thee in the name of Mitra!”
If anything, this anathema caused the colossal ice-worm to focus more on Edric, as it smoothly approached, looming over Celo, Morath, Bardic, Edric and the two hirelings. The chill of the creature rimed their beards with frost and drew each face into a rictus of pain.
From the rock ledge, Kelvie gestured, one hand out as though to command a halt. A line of icy light leaped from her palm to Morath’s chest, and the Zamorian gasped with the cold. Then shook it off!
Celo held his feet ready to leap either way: but even with his lightning reflexes he was too slow! Ignoring Morath, the worm engulfed him in its maw! Screaming with cold and pain, Celo passed out. A dread wave of cold washed over Morath and Bardic, biting into their very bones.
With the name of one of Zamora’s multifarious demons spewing from chattering jaws Morath took a short run around the monstrous worm and vaulted up as high as he could: slammed his shortsword’s blade deep down into the monster’s flank. Cold ran up through the grips and through the layers of his mittens, but he held on grimly.
Bosipher and Madruin checked and looked to Bardic for orders:
“You – with me! You with the bow – keep your distance and shoot!”
Screaming the names of his mighty ancestors, Bardic leaped as high as he could and sliced down with all his strength just back of the worm’s mandibles. Madruin ran in to stab at the worm’s glistening white-blue flank. Bosipher nocked an arrow and loosed it to hammer home true. But while Bardic’s greatsword sliced through and came cleanly out, Madruin’s short blade snapped at the hilt and Bosipher’s bowstring snapped.
At the rear next the blocked exit, Vorel breathed deeply, calming himself. Beside him, Erlik’s Dog, frothing and screaming, scrabbled back towards where his shamshir lay. Off beyond the sinkhole left of the entrance, Vorel saw Kelvie appear like a mirage. The great Bossonian longbow thrummed: the arrow sped through the sorceress: the bowstring broke.
Edric leaped forward, right to the creature’s maw. Ramming his quarterstaff forward like a spear, Edric began prying Celo out of the back-pointing spines or teeth. The cold washed over him: he held on. The creature bit at him: uttering prayers to Mitra, he kept prying!
Up upon the flank of the vast worm, Morath drew his poniard, and punched it down. Already his right hand felt as though it was frozen to the shortsword. Now the terrible cold raced up his left hand as the dagger sank deep into the creature. Biting his numb lips, Morath worked the poniard deeper, trying to find a vital.
Edric levered the staff: it bent, but did not break. And to his great relief and surprise, the creature let Celo fall. Perhaps Bardic’s cut had weakened it, or Morath had indeed found a sensitive nerve cluster. Releasing his grip on the staff, Edric dived onto Celo, shielding the icy corpselike body from further cold, and slid with it, toboggan-style, away forward. Digging into Celo’s crackling frozen furs he found his way down to the leather jerkin and beneath it to still-warm skin: then focusing his faith, poured Mitra’s healing mercies into the body.
“Live! Mitra hear me! Live!”
Madruin drew his second shortsword and stabbed again, tears freezing as they were forced from between his lids by the icy cold. That blade too broke off. He fell back towards Bosipher. Bardic, still roaring, sliced deep again, and this time the creature began threshing in death throes. Morath’s poniard had found its mark! The Zamorian, hands frozen into claws, vaulted away as far as he could, and rolled clear.
Stringing his reserve bowstring as swiftly as he could, Vorel risked a look up. He caught sight of Kelvie, back on the ledge – or again visible on the ledge, he corrected himself. He drew and loosed in one motion:
Erlik’s Dog, rising with shamshir in hands, took the full force of the arrow in his back, which struck through his sturdy fur and leather and lanced out through one shoulder.
Screaming with rage the huge Hyperborean turned to loom over Vorel, and his shamshir cut down through Vorel’s cap, across his face, through his furs and into his shoulder. Blood gouted, to swiftly freeze. Seeing the sudden turn of events, the other two hirelings swung round. Bosipher, who had just declined Madruin’s plea for his shortsword, charged Vorel, ramming his shoulder low. Then before Madruin could decide what to do, Bardic’s deep bellow cut across:
“Stay out, and keep your lives! This is between me and him!”
Bardic had indeed been longing for an excuse to lay into Erlik’s Dog, and without further preliminaries, charged from the side of the dying worm to cut down into the Hyperborean’s skull. Brains gushed out from the great head and with a last gnash of his sharp-filed teeth the villain fell dying.
Edric glanced up from where he was rubbing warmth into Celo’s frostbitten limbs. Kelvie leaped down in a vast graceful arc from her rock ledge. Her hands glowed as if with inner power and from somewhere on the ledge she had gained a long, slender ebon staff, intricately carved. Her prodigious leap took her to within a dozen feet of her erstwhile friend:
“We can negotiate this: or I can kill you.”
“So in brief: we give her the egg, she shows us the way out, we leave,” Edric summarized. They had found the large, glistening egg wrapped in the fur bundle Erlik’s Dog had been carrying.
“We nicked the egg ourselves: it’s worth heaps of coin!” Madruin objected. Bardic growled warningly.
But Edric nodded, and fished his coin pouch out:
“Here’s my money. Let’s set this up properly. Let’s say, 200.”
Madruin gasped in offence:
“It’s worth Zug-damned thousands!”
Bardic stepped in to facilitate:
“You get to live, after taking the Hyperborean’s part like a fool! Take the 200 we’re offering and thank Mitra!”
His argument, backed by his huge sword, was convincing. The two sell-swords agreed to leave the area. In their turn, the five agreed with Kelvie that she, guardian of the worm eggs, could keep the egg. Edric attempted to persuade her to stay with him:
“Come with us, Kelvie! We have so much to talk about!”
“I wish I could Edric. In you I feel I have a soul-mate. And besides, you look so much like my mentor, Kozrath, that you could be his son. But I am bound to stay.”
“Yes, the one you killed. He was my mentor. In time, he would have sponsored me to become an initiate into the Black Circle. But I fear that is now denied me.”
“Perhaps you could seek a different path… with Mitra’s guidance?” Edric suggested smoothly, recovering his poise.
“It’s possible. If I can, I’ll visit you in Luchisthan. Goodbye for now: goodbye all of you!”