A decision to move
As the various members of the mauled and battered group finished congratulating Yemmi and Kuruk on their exploits they turned their attention to the existing danger. Celo, pressing his ear to the double-doors to the south, believed he could hear clanging and banging as of something being assembled. Some suggested a scouring of the eastern tunnel, where none had investigated. Some suggested pulling out for a day. Edric decided in favor of returning upstairs west and searching the Superiors’ Wing: he had yet to begin sifting through the documents in the scrying room, he privately reminded himself; and surely there would be other vital things tucked away – such as healing potions?
“Yemmi, did you happen to find any potions while you were bravely defending the entrance?” Edric asked, skewering the rogue with a stern eye. Yemmi squirmed.
“Nah nah, just the odd scrap a’ this an’ that,” he protested, displaying some rings and pouches of silver and gold coin. Edric looked disappointed, as did Morath: who had been hoping for the faintest excuse to kill his fellow rogue.
Bardic dispatched Kuruk back to his post by the braziers, in good cover from any sortie from the south. Kayan, who was among the least-battered, he detailed to stand guard at the entrance to the western stairs. Should any sortie occur, each was to fall back – Kuruk using the space of the entrance, Kayan to fall back west to where Bardic and he could defend the stairs together. The remaining members retreated away from the hellish stench of the charnel mess.
Upstairs, Bardic called to his cousin, Gollarn, to let him know when he found a replacement hauberk or brigandine coat: both had had their outer layer of armor ruined and Gollarn would do the unpleasant chore of stripping likely corpses and examining the armor up in the light. Forgrim, whose helm had been shattered, merely replaced his with Martin’s helm.
Morath and Celo checked north, finding the small antechamber and closed double-doors as they had left them; then south, and determined that no new threat had emerged. Edric dispatched Yemmi south to see if he could clear the Stygian Fire powder away. In the event, he could only safely trigger it, clearing the next entrance along and returning to report that there was still two rooms further along – a total of four south of the stair-head – and that the tunnel ended in a door.
“The southern doors are opening!” Kayan called up to Bardic. “No – only one of them!”
A long pause ensued. Kayan moved as though to investigate, then was called back by Bardic and clambered over the wreckage and bodies clogging the stair entrance, ready to retreat swiftly.
Behind the Curtain
Celo and Morath entered the room they had previously hidden in. In the light of its two rush-lights, they assessed it. It was a living quarters, ascetically furnished. A large tapestry covered the entire opposite wall to the entrance: depicting a waterfall amidst a landscape that suggested the red country of southern Aquilonia. Even a cursory check behind the tapestry revealed dirty marks and worn surface suggesting a secret panel to Morath’s experienced eye. Yemmi was sent in with his tool-bag, and began a careful probing. Eventually, it sprang open: a broad tunnel formed a walk-in closet, comfortable enough to hide in for some time, and containing a chest.
The Damsons strike back
Below, there was a sound as of an engine of war and something was impelled violently across the ante-chamber, through Mitra’s legs, to explode with great violence on the side of the portal where Kuruk was concealed. The Hyrkanian and his doughty pony were scorched, but the stone doorpost protected them from the direct force of the blast.
“They’re coming out!”
The cry came from Kayan again. This time, the Damsons did not attempt to use mounted speed to gain the momentum. A double-file of men surged out into the ante-chamber, then doubled and split into two columns. One moved to the western exit, one to the eastern. Each was led by a figure armored head to toe in heavy brigandine and mail, bearing a superbly-crafted axe and a plume of command, as was worn by Aquilonia’s sergeants. Maneuvering clumsily through the sticky morass of offal and body fluids they clambered through the bodies: then checked. Kuruk had shown himself: riding deliberately across the entrance! The eastern column waved the other on, and turned to pursue the taunting Hyrkanian. As they marched out, Berdiches held ready, a noose sailed out and nearly snagged one of them. It would be a long perilous and fruitless pursuit!
Kayan, encumbered with little but his swords and a tattered jerkin, easily climbed the blood-pooled stair to where Bardic waited. The two of them turned and waited for their foes to clamber up.
“There’s Damsons coming from the south!” Morath cried, falling back into the room where most of Edric’s crew was now taking it easy. Edric began mustering a defense, based on his understanding of his gang’s fitness.
“Hod – you stay here and make sure Yemmi doesn’t uh, come to any harm on that chest. And Yemmi, get that chest open! Morath, you wait back by the other door, and Forgrim, you block the tunnel so we can strike anyone coming past the doorway. Keth, stand behind Forgrim next to Morath.”
Praying and fierce shouting came from the south, and a column of Damsons emerged into the lights further south, making good time. Their losses had been severe but their fanaticism stayed bright. And to buoy up their spirits they were impelled by their Grand Master, who marshaled them with a fell black mace. This was Lorantus, whose quarters were even now being pillaged. He needed time for other minions to arrange his last desperate bargain with forces of ultimate evil. No matter that all his fighting brothers threw their lives away! If the invaders were stopped or forced to retreat, the Agent he could summon would soon turn the tables.
On the stair, Bardic cut shrewdly and deeply, his great blade chopping through the double armor of the sergeant’s brigandine and hauberk, and through the great vein below the collar-bone. The sergeant fell, to be hastily dragged back down and tended by those at the rear of the column. Cutting again and leaping back, Kayan and Bardic retreated around the corner towards their fellows. Lorantus cast a mighty Dispel, and all remaining wards and enchantments were stripped away from the intruders. Back to back, Bardic, Kayan, Keth and Morath prepared to do battle with the pincer-wise columns.
Forgrim hunched down, keeping his heavy shield high and waiting for an opportunity. Edric, reaching from beside Celo by the doorway with his Quarterstaff, tripped the man in front of Celo and Forgrim. Instantly, the rogue and fighter struck out and the man was laid out dead before his fellows could rescue or heal him. As another tried to pass Forgrim, he too fell prey to Keth or Edric’s staff, and Morath butchered him.
“Easy meat!” the black-clad Zamorian sneered, beckoning the others on.
The last ditch stand
Enraged, the southern column pressed hard, striking Forgrim savagely. Already tired, the big fighter was reeling on his feet. Bardic and Kayan were battling hard, but each Damson that fell was immediately dragged clear and healed. Something had to be done to turn the tide! Gollarn, raging, burst from out of the room and rushed at the southern column, hacking madly. He longed to bring as many with him as possible when he stood before Crom!
Poison and scroll
“Yemmi! Hurry up!” Edric urged again.
Yemmi squealed in pain as, made careless by Edric’s urging, he triggered a device that cut him, sending poison coursing into his body. Writhing in pain, he flipped the lip open clumsily and revealed a collection of scrolls, bags and oddments. “Got scrolls!” he called.
Edric needed no prompting: grabbing the first one Yemmi proffered he retreated to the light and scrabbled it open with feverish fingers. That would do! Racing back to Celo, he called:
Instantly, some half of all the Damsons – and Morath and Forgrim – fell sound asleep. Bardic, Gollarn, Kayan and Celo took as much advantage of the lull as they could, swiftly slaying a couple of foes as they lay helpless. Then those sleeping rose and the battle raged hotter than ever!
Edric returned and grabbed an armload. He brought them back into the light, and began clawing them open. But few seemed as promising as the first random choice. He tucked a scroll that would give one person Mitra’s Aid in his belt and resumed his post at the doorway. He looked back at Hod, who was checking that Yemmi was still alive. Perhaps some portion of loot Yemmi had found exchanged hands at that point: who can tell?
“Stand ready, Hod! You may be tired, but if Gollarn falls you are the front rank!”
But Gollarn, though cut, continued his mad course, cleaving through one Damson into another. They lost their close-rank defense and with it, their ability to heal one another.
It was not until the southern column was nigh vanquished that Lorantus fled. Urging his fighting men to give their lives gladly, he disappeared into the gloom.
Cut numerous times by the Berdiche axe blades of his foes, only Gollarn’s barbaric vitality was keeping him on his feet. He finished hacking the last of the southern column apart, and reeled, glassy-eyed, north. His cousin Bardic was also spending the last of his rage cutting the northern column apart. In contrast with the hacking sweeps of the Cimmerians’ blades, Morath had slipped through the column to flank them from the south, and was cold-bloodedly picking out those defending against Bardic or Kayan, and stabbing them in the kidney. Keth’s Quarterstaff was doing the work of three: he could trip them, stun them, shatter their axes, or any combination. Celo stabbed another fallen foe. Forgrim rammed his shield down on the last of the southern column, breaking the man’s neck, and he and Celo turned to watch the others push the last pair of the northern column back down the stairs. Morath slipped after them: the veritable shade of the Death that would be theirs as they attempted to get away down the now-treacherous stair.
Edric chanted from the scroll and as Gollarn collapsed, blood spurting from numerous cuts, Mitra’s Aid prevented him from dying outright. Bardic sank to his haunches, gasping for breath, as did Forgrim. Kayan too seemed very willing to rest. Celo shook the blood from his dagger and short sword, and grinned at Hod, who had barely bothered to raise his axe in the last part of the defense. Then a look of concern crossed Celo’s face:
“I think I hear more chanting… It seems to be coming from below.”