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Copyright 2015 by billwstories
Chapter 01 - Using the Back Door.
The mission Kieren and his protectors had been on was fraught with danger and they'd suffered several setbacks since they'd first set out from Leander. Along the way, the small group had encountered numerous obstacles and been forced to deal with an assortment of foes, but they continued on. They had even endured the tragic loss of three of their companions: Selvaggio, Doenilio and Romaric. Although these fatalities were troubling, the men-at-arms were well aware of the fact that sometimes there was price to pay in order to complete an assignment. They also realized there was a chance they would lose even more of their comrades before this undertaking was over. Even though the warriors were able to deal with this unsettling prospect, it wasn't quite as easy for the boys. In fact, the individual having the greatest difficulty coping with the unexpected loss of life was Kieren.
When the Serpent Colossus had crushed the life from Selvaggio in the Murky Marshes, his death had greatly affected Kieren. Even though Kieren had known others that had died and he'd accompanied his parents when they went to bid a final farewell to his grandparents after they'd passed away, this was totally different. Since Kieren had actually observed Selvaggio's horrific death, it had made a far greater impression on him. It had been the first time Kieren had ever seen someone die, let alone witnessed a person he knew being killed in such a dramatic fashion.
If that hadn’t been difficult enough for him to deal with, it was even worse when the condor swooped down and snatched up Doenilio. This was due to the fact that Kieren felt responsible for Doenilio’s tragic end. After listening to the wizard explain how the medallion worked, Kieren began to realize that when he'd used the magical device, it was like lighting a fire on a dark night. The beacon attracted the condor's attention and enticed the giant bird to check out the area where they were hiding. If he hadn’t taken it upon himself to monitor the path ahead, then the monstrous bird would never have sensed the magic and been drawn there to investigate.
When the enormous bird first appeared on the horizon everyone tried to hide, but Doenilio tripped, fell and lost his helmet. This in turn dislodged his ear protection and allowed him to be driven insane by the cries of the specters roaming the Valley of the Dead. In the throes of his madness, Doenilio leaped up and began racing about, which permitted the condor to spot him. The aerial watchdog then swoop down and snatched him up, as its talons pierced the dwarf's body and ended his life. Although both of those deaths had taken a toll on Kieren, the worst was yet to come.
The most devastating blow for him, as well as for Garreth, had come when Romaric fell from the false span he’d ventured onto while attempting to save the group a few minutes of valuable time. Romaric desperately wanted to be the one to find a natural land bridge crossing over from the Citadel Mountains to the Devil’s Horseshoe, but in doing so he had ignored the dwarfs’ previous warnings. In his haste, Romaric failed to take the necessary precautions before trying to cross the structure and it gave way under his weight. This caused him to plummet to the slope below, yet left his body close enough for the others to see and possibly retrieve.
Even though the dwarfs tried to convince Kieren and Garreth that Romaric was probably already dead or beyond hope, Kieren insisted they try to rescue his friend. During the attempt, a snow shelf broke loose and started an avalanche that swept Romaric’s body away. Kieren and Garreth were nearly inconsolable after this happened, so much so that Kieren no longer felt he could continue on.
The others did everything they could to convince Kieren that he had to complete the mission; otherwise the three they had lost would have died in vain. Although it took quite a while before Kieren and Garreth were able to come to grips with what had happened to Romaric, they eventually conceded there was nothing more they could do for him. As they prepared to move on, Kieren suddenly appeared to summon a new resolve to see the mission through to the end. He was now determined to do it, if only to make Madumda pay for the harm he had indirectly caused them.
Kieren confided in Garreth that he now felt stronger and even claimed that he thought he'd absorbed a portion of Romaric’s strength and courage in the process. Kieren concluded this might have happened in a manner similar to how Madumda had combined the other wizards’ powers with his own. Even though Kieren was unable to explain how this might have been accomplished without the use of magic, he reasoned it was the only plausible explanation.
Now, after Kieren and his companions had finally completed the lengthy and circuitous journey to get to the Devil's Horseshoe, they had reached the backdoor leading into Treblanc. Slowly, the group began to inch its way closer to finishing this mission, because they were now in the tunnels that would take them to Madumda's stronghold.
“You follow Qaim, but not too close,” they heard the aignx announce, because no one could actually locate him in the dark.
“We can’t do that,” Rhys advised him. “We can’t see a thing in here, now that the door is closed. You’ll need to give us a little more time for our eyes to adjust first and then we’ll be able follow you.”
“Hold on a second,” one of the dwarfs countered, although none of them could tell which one spoke. Sedain and Quintain not only looked quite a bit alike, but their voices also sounded nearly the same as well. “We have something that may help.”
Quickly, the pair began to rummage, or more appropriately to feel their way through their packs, until they had extracted a few items. Although the others couldn’t see what they were up to, the dwarfs had retrieved a handful of small torches and a couple of good-size pieces of flint.
“Doenilio suggested we should pack these items with our gear when we were at Thorold,” Sedain explained, while Quintain was trying to strike the flint and ignite the first torch. “He reasoned that our experience in the caverns while we were fleeing from the Dark Lord’s patrol had proven that such items might come in handy in the future. We agreed with his logic and each of us packed a few of these torches with our other things.”
The dwarf stopped giving his explanation, however, when he began to think about Doenilio and recalled what had happened to him. Those memories caused Sedain to choke up for a few seconds, so he quit talking and waited until he had regained control of his emotions before he was able to continue.
“Unfortunately, the torches Doenilio had been carrying were lost,” Sedain added a few seconds later, “so all we have left are the ones my brother and I brought with us. They will prove to be sufficient though, under the circumstances.”
While Sedain had been speaking, Quintain continued his attempt to ignite one of the torches. This proved to be quite a difficult task, however, since he wasn’t able to see very well and he needed to strike the two pieces of flint together and create a spark to achieve this goal. Therefore, he had to rely on his superior night vision to guide his efforts, so it took a little longer to accomplish than he would have liked. After several clumsy attempts, a spark eventually caught and one of the torches began to glow. Once the first torch was lit, the dwarfs used it to set the other torches ablaze.
As the light began to penetrate the all-consuming darkness that surrounded them, the torches also seemed to cast an eerie glow. The dwarfs then passed out the remaining torches, so nearly every person had one, except for Qaim. He didn't want to be bothered with one and would be able to see using the light from the others' torches. This also meant the companions would finally be able to inspect the area around them more closely and look for other dangers. They were now ready to continue on.
The others were grateful that Doenilio had suggested his fellow dwarfs should bring the torches along, even though he wasn’t here to benefit from them. Sedain and Quintain also admitted they had actually thought about using these items on a few other occasions when the companions had wanted some light, but decided it would be best to keep them a secret and save the torches until now. Each dwarf understood these items would be essential once they entered the tunnels, so they refused to risk using them for other reasons.
“We go now?” Qaim inquired, since he was growing impatient and wanted to get moving.
“Not quite yet,” Quintain informed him. “I think it would be best if we took a short break and ate first. Then we can start out again.”
Qaim actually seemed to like this idea, so they dug into their packs and quickly scrounged up a hasty meal. Everyone merely wolfed their food down though and rapidly filled their stomachs, rather than taking time to enjoy it. There were several reasons for their hasty actions. First of all, they didn’t have much left to eat and what they did have was merely sustenance and not extremely appetizing. Second, they were concerned about using up the torches while doing something other than traveling. Even more importantly, they were all very anxious to finish their mission, especially now that they were so close to reaching their final destination. For these reasons, none of them wished to tarry in one place for very long. If that wasn’t enough, they were also unsure about what else might be lurking about and worried there might be a sudden confrontation of some sort, so they wanted to be prepared.
Once each of them had finished eating, the companions began to stand up and mill about, as they waited for the others. This continued until Qaim asked his question again. “We go now?”
“Yes, my impatient friend,” Rhys responded, slightly amused by the aignx’s child-like persistence and innocence. “We can go now.”
“Qaim go first and then you follow, but not too close,” their guide announced. “Qaim show you the way, but Qaim also make sure you not get hurt. Bad wizard has set many traps to keep others from getting to where he lives. Qaim undo traps and make it so you not get injured. Qaim good guide.”
“Yes, you are,” Kieren told him, “and Beraut was right about you and your abilities. You just tell us what you want and we shall do it.”
Qaim nodded and then scurried forward, but he kept close to the left wall as he went. Seeing this, the others felt it best if they did the same. The aignx had only gone a dozen meters down the corridor, when without explanation he came to an abrupt stop. The others were still a few meters behind him at this point, which they were doing as a safety precaution. They felt it would be best to keep the aignx in sight, without getting close enough to become involved in whatever he was up to.
The companions watched as Qaim cautiously crouched down on the pathway and ran his hands over the smooth, cold, stone floor. It was quite obvious he was searching for something, but none of them knew exactly what he was looking for. After many seconds, Qaim must have found whatever he was seeking, because the aignx suddenly came rushing back to where the others were waiting.
“Qaim need to borrow long, pointy stick,” he informed them, while pointing toward Rhys’ lance.
Rhys hesitated before parting with his weapon, but only for a moment. After thinking about it briefly, he held it out in Qaim’s direction. The Akiktite realized there must be a good reason for Qaim to ask to borrow it now, since the aignx had never shown an interest in any of the weapons previously. In fact, if anything, Qaim had always seemed to be afraid of their weapons before this, so Rhys figured his request must have some special significance.
Qaim quickly snatched the lance from Rhys’ hand and scurried back down the corridor until he reached the spot where he had been standing earlier. Once again, he located whatever it was he was looking for, before backing up and lying down on the floor. Carefully, he extended the lance out as far as he could in front of him and then waved the tip up and down.
The others were extremely curious about what Qaim was trying to accomplish, but it didn’t take long before they had their answer. They all jumped and gasped when a collection of sharp metal rods shot out from both walls and knocked the lance from Qaim’s hand. As Rhys’ weapon clattered upon the stony tunnel floor, they at last understood what the aignx had been up to. Qaim had obviously located a tripwire earlier and then used Rhys’ lance to reach out and snap it, thus activating this potentially deadly trap while remaining a safe distance from it.
Once the companions regained their composure, Qaim assured them everything was safe, but the others were still a little shaken by what they had just witnessed. Cautiously, they made their way forward to inspect the device and quickly discovered the pointed metal poles were arranged in an overlapping fashion. The rods also extended for a couple of meters, both before and after the tripwire, so the contraption would have skewered an entire group of people, even if the first person had failed to trip the line. That’s why Qaim had needed Rhys’ lance to reach it, since the tripwire was slightly more than halfway along the trap. This also helped to reinforce their previous notion about how dangerous traveling along this passageway could be.
Garreth had actually wet his breeches slightly when the device was sprung, but it wasn’t only due to the rapidity with which it happened. The sound the trap made when it was triggered had also been disturbing, but his little accident was mostly from thinking about what could have happened to them. He realized that he and the others would have been impaled by one or more of those metal rods, if they'd been in the area of the contraption when it had been set off. Suddenly, Garreth was extremely thankful that Qaim had been there to protect them.
“Now what do we do?” Rhys asked, while looking at the obstacle blocking their path.
“We crawl,” Qaim replied simply, while pointing toward a small gap near the lowest bars.
Instantly, all eyes focused on the bottom section of the device. That’s when they noticed the small opening. After the first row of bars, which was located about fifteen centimeters above the floor, the next set of rods didn’t jut out for about another thirty to forty centimeters above the metal spikes below it.
“That will be all right for most of us to get through,” Sedain commented, while eyeing Turquinine, “but I question if it will be enough room for some of the others. Is there an alternative plan?”
“No. Only way,” Qaim responded dryly.
“Thou needeth not worry about mine problems,” the knight informed them. “I shalt go last and thou canst leave me behind shouldst I fail.”
“We will not leave you,” Kieren responded immediately and emphatically. “We'll make sure you get through it with the rest of us. If Qaim says this is the only way, then we will follow him, but we won’t leave anyone behind.”
Everyone else nodded in agreement, although some of them were not as quick to do so as the others. Regardless of the immediacy of their responses, they all understood Kieren’s feelings.
“Do you think it will be safe?” Hadwin wondered aloud next.
This caused some of the others to turn in his direction, to see what else he had to say. When he realized all eyes were focused on him, he suddenly felt the need to explain himself further.
“What I mean is, do you think there might be a second trigger or another trap set to prevent someone from crawling through there, as we intend to do?” the Nardinian added.
“No, no more traps here,” Qaim answered, quickly and fairly convincingly. “We crawl through opening and go on until Qaim find new trap.”
Nearly everyone began to take furtive, sidelong glances at each other, in an effort to gage the rest of the group's reaction to Qaim’s pronouncement. Most of them felt the aignx had proved himself already and deserved the benefit of the doubt, so no one was eager to disagree with him or question his opinion. Even if they still had some doubts, they also remembered that Beraut had assured them the aignx knew what he was doing and had all of the necessary requisites to get them through this safely. They merely needed to trust in Beraut’s wisdom and Qaim’s magical abilities.
As Kieren looked around, he could tell some of his companions were not quite as sure about this as the others. Although he wasn’t struggling with doubts about their guide, Kieren could see a few of them were dealing with reservations of their own.
“Follow Qaim. We go now,” the aignx announced, without giving anyone a chance to argue with him.
“No!” Rhys commanded, emphatically. “I shall go first, and if I am able to cross successfully, then the rest of you can follow.”
Rhys noticed some of the others giving him a strange look, but before any of them could protest, he continued to clarify his statement.
“I will not be dissuaded, so save your energy and words of protest," he stated, defiantly. "I shall go first, then the aignx and then the rest of you can follow, in whatever order you desire after that. Turquinine may go last, if that’s what he wishes, but I shall be the first to venture across this barrier.”
The others immediately understood why the Akiktite wanted to do this. He was volunteering to assume the risk, just in case Qaim was mistaken. No one was willing to argue with him and readily accepted his decision. This was primarily due to the fact that he had made a similar offer earlier, which had been rejected when they were testing the land bridge. At that time, Rhys had been forced to defer to Turquinine and allow him to make the first crossing after the dwarf. However, it was obvious he wasn’t about to defer to anyone this time.
Having reached an unspoken agreement, they all turned toward the sprung trap. However, when they did, they discovered the aignx was already slithering his way through the small opening. Evidently, he was more a creature of action than of words, so he was halfway across the obstacle by the time they were ready to move. A few seconds later, the aignx was standing on the other side, urging the others to join him. Rhys merely rolled his eyes, to indicate his dissatisfaction with Qaim’s actions, before he took his turn and began to crawl through the barrier.
Rhys found the opening a little snug, but he still made it across quite easily. He also took the opportunity to stop for a brief moment along the way so he could retrieve his lance. As soon as he was on the other side and back on his feet, he quickly urged the others to follow. He watched their progress intently, as they clambered through the bars, until it was finally time for Turquinine to go.
The large knight encountered some minor problems during his attempt and found very little wiggle room for his huge frame. Occasionally, his body would get wedged uncomfortably between the metal rods, so when this happened he would grab one of the other bars farther in front of him and use it to pull his frame through the undersized space. Even though his crossing wasn’t easy, he eventually made it to the other side.
As soon as they were all together again, Qaim seemed anxious to get going and didn’t give them much of a chance to savor this minor accomplishment. As soon as they were all reunited, the aignx let it be known that it was time to move on.
“Follow Qaim,” he urged. “We go now.”
As soon as he made this announcement, Qaim started down the corridor, which forced the others to scurry in order to catch up with him. Even though they kept their distance, the companions followed cautiously behind their guide. They hadn’t gone very far before Qaim signaled them to halt, yet again. After everyone came to a stop, the aignx urged them to place themselves on the left side of the hallway, with their backs pressed tightly against the wall.
As they stood leaning against the cold, stone surface, each of them kept his eyes on Qaim. Although they could only guess about what he was doing, the aignx slid his foot forward until it snapped another tripwire that extended almost invisibly across the tunnel floor. Everyone held his breath when they saw what the aignx was up to, but they became even more curious after they heard the wire snap. Each one wondered what was going to happen next, but they didn’t have long to wait before finding out what type of device this trigger activated.
Within seconds, a ‘swooshing’ sound filled the tunnel, as a menacing log pendulum was released from the ceiling and swung down in their direction. As this deadly device swung past them, the larger warriors instinctively reached out and placed an arm across the chest of the teen nearest them. It was a reflexive and precautionary measure to prevent their smaller companions from being harmed. The contraption exuded so much force when it swung past that it nearly sucked the lighter members of the group into the wake behind it. This could have been disastrous, but fortunately it didn't happen.
Once the battering ram went as far as it could go, it started to swing back in the opposite direction. It was apparent the log still had enough momentum left so it would have splattered a person all over the corridor, if someone had been unfortunate enough to have been pulled into the void. Everyone held his breath when the pendulum swung back again with nearly equal force. Their eyes also bulged out in amazement, as they contemplated how they might have been killed if Qaim had not been with them. It was only due to the aignx’s special abilities that they had remained free from harm.
As the deadly, log pendulum continued to swing back and forth, it slowly began to wind down. While this was happening, the companions remained pressed against the wall and continued to force their bodies to melt into the hard, rocky surface. Each time the log passed by, it did so with a little less force than the time before, so they were all greatly relieved when it finally came to a complete stop.
Everyone was still visibly shaken by this near miss, but the boys were feeling especially queasy. They couldn’t help but think about what the ramrod would have done to them, if Qaim hadn’t warned them about this contraption. Once again, Garreth felt a little dampness in his breeches and realized it had happened again. Even if the others realized what had occurred to him, they probably wouldn’t have said anything though. Even if they had, Garreth probably wouldn’t have cared or been particularly embarrassed, because he was just thankful to still be alive.
For some unexplained reason now that the log had stopped, Kieren and Garreth cautiously began to lift one of their arms, so they could reach out and touch this huge weapon. It almost appeared as if they were being compelled by some invisible force to extend a hand forward so they could feel the devise for themselves. Neither young man was sure why he was doing this, but each one felt it necessary to verify how dangerous this contraption had been. Once they examined the log’s texture and mass, their curiosity about its potential was sated and they were once again ready to move on.
About this same time, Qaim made what sounded to be an urgent request for them to follow him again, so everyone obeyed, immediately and without question. Considering what the aignx had done since taking charge earlier in the day, they now trusted him implicitly. After slithering sideways past the now stationary log, the others fell in line behind Qaim, while still keeping their distance. They were afraid to get too close, because they weren't sure what type of trap might be waiting for them next.
As they carefully made their way down the darkened corridor, Kieren was beginning to notice he was becoming quite weary from having spent so much physical and emotional energy along the way. This caused him to question when they would be stopping to rest for the night. He also began to wonder what time it was and how long they had been walking along these treacherous corridors.
Kieren had no idea how far these tunnels extended or even exactly where they were going to lead. Did these hollowed out sections of the mountain go in a straight line to the fortress or did they wind like a serpent between the rear door and the sorcerer’s lair? Was this going to be a short walk or would they have to cover many leagues before finally reaching their destination? Did the tunnels lead directly into Treblanc or would it take them into an area either below or next to the fortress? Kieren was about to ask one of the dwarfs how much longer they were planning to travel when the aignx signaled them he had located another device.
The others waited quietly as the aignx investigated this new phenomenon, but they also backed up a little more and gave Qaim plenty of room to operate. After feeling around the walls and floor for a short time, Qaim asked Rhys if he could borrow his lance again. This time, the warrior thrust his weapon into the aignx’s waiting hand without delay. Qaim took it, spun around and moved into position so he could activate this new device.
Carefully, the aignx reached his arm out as far as he could and then repeatedly banged the tip of the lance against the ground. Finally, it sprung the triggering mechanism and a portion of the path in front of them plummeted out of sight. The others gasped in horror as the roadway crashed into the resulting chasm, which extended far below the level of the corridor they were currently following.
Qaim seemed a bit surprised by how large an area had been affected and struggled to keep his balance, while also trying to maintain his grip on Rhys’ lance. The weight of the weapon was slowly dragging him toward the gap and it looked as if he would soon either have to drop the weapon or risk falling into the gap as well. Before the aignx had to make that decision, however, Sedain and Quintain raced past Kieren and grabbed a hold of Qaim's arm. They barely arrived in time to keep the aignx from tumbling into the void, but managed to react quickly enough to keep him safe for now. Qaim, however, was still so startled by the near disaster that he was unable to open his mouth to thank them.
Once everything had settled down again and the dwarfs had pulled Qaim away from the gaping hole, they released their grip on his arm. Then, Sedain and Quintain started to slowly creep forward, so they could inspect the damage. Before the pair had gone very far though, they heard a shaky voice speak up.
“Thank you, little men, for keeping Qaim safe.”
“Don’t mention it,” Quintain responded, while trying to downplay their role. “It was our honor to assist you and possibly it will help to make amends for our earlier actions, when we doubted your ability and treated you shabbily. You have indeed proven you are a valuable member of this party and we are pleased to have you with us.”
Nothing more was said, as the dwarfs spun around to perform their next duty. Cautiously, they finished making their way to the edge of the missing walkway and held their torches out over it, so they could assess the problem. No one else was brave enough to join them, so they stayed back out of the way and allowed the dwarfs to work without interruption. After Sedain and Quintain had investigated the missing area thoroughly, they looked around to see if they could discover a way to get around this new obstacle. After several minutes of discussion between themselves, they returned to their companions to explain their options.
“The gap caused by this latest booby-trap is considerable and extends from wall to wall,” Quintain told them. “Unfortunately, we can see no way to get across it.”
The others sighed audibly upon hearing this news, but quickly turned their attention back to the dwarf when he started to speak again.
“We do not have sufficient light to see how deep the crevice is, but we can tell it goes down far enough to prove deadly, should anyone fall into it.”
“Don’t you have any suggestions about how we might cross it?” Alairic asked, thinking Quintain had finished his comments.
“Try as we might, there is nothing that my brother or I can think of,” Sedain replied, which caused some of the others to begin to slip into a deep depression.
Dismayed and confused, everyone began to sit down on the tunnel floor. They felt totally helpless and didn't know what else to do. How were they going to get past this latest hazard confronting them so they could complete their mission?
“Would it be possible for us to leap over the gap or could we bridge it in some way?” Hadwin wanted to know.
“The distance is too great to jump across,” Quintain responded, “and we don’t have the tools or supplies necessary to build a structure over it. It will take a great deal more investigation before we are able to discover if there is any other option.”
"What about the log that nearly killed us earlier?" Garreth asked. "Couldn't we use that to get across the gap?"
"The log would be long enough, but I'm afraid it would be far too heavy for us to move without assistance," Quintain answered. "I'm fairly certain that even if we managed to get it this far, then we wouldn't be able to slide it to the other side without it falling into the abyss and possibly taking some of us with it."
“Does anyone else have an idea about what we might try to do next?” Sedain asked the others, hoping someone might have a suggestion.
Over the next few seconds, the companions looked from one face to another, in order to see if anyone else had something to offer. Once it became clear that no one did, Alairic decided to speak up.
“Since we aren’t as familiar with problems of this nature, I doubt any of us will be able to help,” the river elf announced, frankly. “You two have much more experience with this type of situation, so we will leave it up to you to determine what solutions are available to us. I do think it might be best if we rested here for the night and then considered this dilemma again when we awake. We might see things differently after our strength has been restored and we’ve had a chance to sleep on it.”
There were some nods of agreement with his suggestion, since it didn’t appear as if they’d be able to continue moving forward, at least until they solved this current problem. That was until someone else questioned the wisdom of remaining where they were.
“Do you really think it's safe for us to sleep here?” Garreth wondered aloud.
* * * * * * * *
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