The last Friar’s death throes over, the antechamber fell silent. It reeked of death, a cloying metallic taste in the throat. As Kuruk and Bardic made their warnings, Edric and Celo shuffled away from the door, and paid out lengths of rope.
“Tie this rope off between the door-handle and Mitra’s statue, high enough so that a horse will ride under it,” Edric commanded.
“I get it! Whoever is on the horses charge through, and the rope knocks them off!” Celo laughed, using his rope skills as best he could. The fighting men withdrew cautiously from the southern double doors, ready for a sudden attack, until they were all in the northern half of the antechamber. But no charge came.
“Well, thinking this through,” Edric pronounced at length, “and with my plan to cut the evil head of the body off, I say we go up the stairs. Yemmi, get that western door open.”
Yemmi spent some minutes patiently working on the lock, mainly by touch, kneeling in the darkened bay next to it. Its wards were well-defended. At last, he stepped back, saying:
“It’s unlocked. Yer’ll havta untie th’ rope though, if ya wanta push it open.”
Bardic assembled his order of attack. The door would let two men squeeze through. He placed himself and Gollarn first, then Kayan and Keth. He looked about for someone to push the massy ebon valve open: Yemmi was nowhere to be seen, so he levered the handle and opened it himself. No enemy sprang at him, nor any bolt. The area beyond was unlit, but stairs running up could be guessed at in the near-complete darkness.
The column moved up several steps. Now clear of the morbid stench of the ante-chamber, Bardic could smell men waiting expectantly above. Muttering warning to his fellows, he pushed on. Something hurtled down: they tried to get clear: a violent explosion knocked Bardic, Gollarn and Kayan from their feet, leaving them stunned and scorched! From above, two Damsons worked their way down the steps, feeling their way cautiously, then struck down clumsily with their Berdiche axes, wounding Gollarn and Bardic further.
Morath slipped through the crush of bodies on the stair, and stabbed up into one of the attackers. The man’s return sweep, and that of his fellow, cut into Morath; but he held his ground; and having given Bardic time to get back to his feet, slipped through and behind the Friar above Bardic and stabbed deep into the man’s back. Bardic finished the pair off with massive crunching blows from his great-sword.
At the tail of the column, Celo’s sharp ears caught the sound of the southern doors opening. He warned Edric, Forgrim and Yemmi, and slipped upstairs, weaving his way through the crowded bodies, trying not to slip on blood. Morath was already checking towards the head of the stair, high above. Celo could hear his voice murmuring back down:
“More prey for my blade… they lie in wait unseen.”
It was completely black. Surreptitious sounds from all around could just be made out; and on the very edge of hearing, a droning chant.
Back at the foot of the stairs, Hod and Forgrim pushed their way in and closed the door. Kuruk had fallen back into the gate chamber; and of Yemmi there was no sign at all. Edric, now in complete darkness, ran his mind’s eye back over the chaos and commanded:
“The door must be guarded. Stay here, Forgrim. And you, Hod, drag those bodies down the stairs and wedge them against the door.”
He and Hod made their way upstairs, catching up to Keth, who had healed someone a little: in the dark they could not make out whom. It seemed that Bardic, Gollarn and Kayan were ready to surge up. Hod began the unpleasant business of dragging the two dead Friars back down, and Edric groped his way forward upstairs. He followed Keth and the three fighting-men, mainly by the sound. Their footsteps and quiet calls to the rogues sounded as they made their way forwards.
Suddenly, the stairwell above was lit by a flash and a roar! Bardic and Gollarn had again fallen to the blast of another explosion! Edric urged his men forward to aid them, and now blind again, groped forwards. He tried to recall what the flash of light had shown. It seemed there was a T-junction, the passage at the head of the stairs going left, or south; and right, north.
Bardic’s heavy armor saved him from further blows as another pair of Damsons closed in, but Gollarn was cut again as he struggled back to his feet. Kayan vaulted through to help, daring much as he could not see, but effectively distracting the Frairs. Celo, who had slipped beyond the Friars, was quick to take advantage of their turned backs. Kayan Celo and Gollarn swiftly began seizing the ascendancy on that northern flank. But on the southern flank Morath was left to fend off several Friars. Fortunately Bardic, his keen senses enabling him to sense where the threat lay, gave the killer from Zamora the needed support. Soon, four Friars were retreating or clumsily defending a retreat back through doorways.
Celo felt his way back to the stair-head, slipped a candle-stub out of his pouch, and lit it. In its faint light, Edric looked around. Chanting could still be heard, faintly, from the south. The noises of fighting, or perhaps battering on the door, came from below him down the stairs. Hod’s face loomed faintly up out of the dark.
“They’re trying to break through the door,” he reported.
“Use your bow and discourage them,” Edric suggested. Wearily the Bossonian returned back downstairs.
From some Hyperborean hell it rises
To the south, Morath wiped his blade on the corpse of the last Friar and, hearing the chanting grow if anything, returned north to report. At first, Bardic and Edric were keen to race south and deal with the menace, but once they learned from Morath that the tunnel stretched away at least a hundred feet, caution reasserted itself. Morath positioned himself off in a doorway, and Bardic and Gollarn formed a front rank, Keth and Kayan behind them.
The noise of heavy, shuffling footsteps could be clearly heard. Then looming above them out of the darkness, a massive head leaned down, and bellowed a challenge! Its face was warped and twisted as though malformed or unfinished. Colossal shoulders were clad in thick leathern stuff and fur, and knotty, tree-trunk arms wielded a vast spiked club.
Although he had fought similar obscenities before, Morath checked and drew back a pace into the deep shadow of the room he had concealed himself in.
Pushing forward a canoe-size armored foot, the titan struck, pounding Bardic, Gollarn and Kayan. Bardic and Kayan cut back in reply, whilst Gollarn kept his guard up. Then again the misshapen giant smashed his club down! Neither Bardic nor Kayan fell, but blood sprayed from Gollarn’s mouth as he was dashed into the tunnel wall to slump to the ground. As Keth reached to heal Gollarn, he exposed his shoulder to the giant, and he too received a tremendous blow. Reeling, he held his ground!
Bardic and Kayan’s swords licked out, biting into the titan. Again it struck, and again Bardic resisted the fell damage. Finding his nerve, Morath slid behind it, and slammed his blade behind its knee. It fell! And promptly began dissolving, its body swiftly returning to the nether hell that spawned it. The candle stub was blotted out in the reeking hellish effluvium of its passing.
At last, a light grew to illuminate the north. Celo had found a sconce, and by its light could see that a larger alcove created a sort of antechamber before well-crafted double doors. But then a shout drew him back to the south:
“They’ve cut through the doors – and they’re bringing up more Kothic Fire!” Hod shouted up at Edric.
“Tell Forgrim to withdraw – we’ll meet them at this juncture!” the burel-clad Friar replied.
A phalanx of heavily-armored men surged forward as Forgrim gave back up the stairs. They had been humiliated by his simple tactic of ramming them back each time they clambered over the dead bodies and timber wreckage at the doorway. The stairs were too steep for them to deploy the heavy earthenware vessel holding the explosive: but they were tough, and eager for revenge! They carried their Berdiche axes up the stairs fearlessly, hunting the rats that had at last been cornered!