Darkness threatened the treacherous trail that led up through the towering walls of rock. Although the sun had hours of life left, the tall crags would soon deprive the narrow passage of light. Once the shadows grew to envelop the crevasse, the heat would dissipate, signaling the scorpions, snakes, and wolves to begin their evening hunt.
A train of fifty men pressed their mounts on, loaded down with freshly-won plunder. Grime covered their faces and equipment. Cracks lined the sun-dried leather that armored them. Swords and axes leaked blood from their scabbards, yet to be cleaned. No wounded rode with them; those who could not travel had been dispatched.
The king’s soldiers searched a day behind them, lost amid the innumerable crags and valleys of the desert plateau. No retribution would find the bandits anytime soon. Should the army ever find the spot, the thieves would have walls to protect them, and of course the Four.
In daylight’s last rays to reach the redoubt, the brigands came upon their stronghold. Despite its age, the fortress stood solidly, wedged between two mountains, hidden from view by their twisting, cliffy sides. They traversed the stony ledge leading to the main entrance tunnel, a passage filled with murder holes and sealed off with a rusted but solid portcullis at each end. A short crenellated wall of gray rock overlooked the approach, manned by a lone lookout.
Later, in the main hall, they searched through the chests and haggled over the spoils. The caravan had been guarded and the battle hard-fought, but the rewards were high. The band had brought back everything they could carry from the carts and wagons of their merchant victims. They ran their bloodstained hands over silk, foodstuffs, armor, salt, wax, gold... a trove of valuables harvested from far-off lands that had been destined for trade in the three kingdoms. A haul such as this might keep a hundred men in food and ale for a year.
The chamber’s old walls held only sparse decoration, placed by the new inhabitants. None of the original furniture or tapestries had survived, so the place held only whatever odds and ends the raiders had managed to put together. Black dust and gray rags, the remains of the original decor, stood in disheveled piles in the corners. The refuse only served to illustrate the perdurable nature of the stone walls themselves, which must have stood for centuries.
One group of thieves didn’t search through the bounty like the others. The two men and two women sat at a thick, scored table of heavy oak. Despite vastly differing manner and dress, they held in common an air of superiority and weapons close at hand.
The largest one laughed and drank deeply from his flagon. His hair grew in a wild brown mane. His giant crooked nose and fangs marked him as part sragn. He wore black scale armor over his torso that revealed gigantic scarred arms. The dark metal bore cryptic patterns engraved upon the scales, forged by some far-off or forgotten race.
“More drink? Nergal want more. LOTS more!” he demanded of the slave girl who came by their table. His armor clanked loudly. The half-sragn drew fearful glances from those near the table.
The servant nodded obediently. She looked uncertainly to one side at the woman next to him. “And for your lady?”
“Not my woman,” Nergal said, his voice slow and dangerous. “She Ayva-wo. She get more too.” The girl poured again and escaped, frightened by the massive warrior. Nergal looked to the woman at his side to see if his guess had been correct.
Avawo allowed her beautiful face to show mild amusement. Her perfectly black hair flowed back in long straight locks as if she rode through a gentle wind. Even thick leather traveling clothes could not hide the allure of her lithe body. Her eyes were narrow under the delicately folded skin of her eyelids, marking her as a stranger to these lands. Few were learned or traveled enough to recognize this hint of her lineage in Karpol royalty, and the extreme danger this meant for potential sexual aggressors. Karpol women of noble birth were said to be just as likely to slit the throats of their suitors as mate with them. The two thin, curved blades strapped to her leather-clad thighs lent weight to the legends.
She nodded at Nergal and then regarded another of their group, who had grabbed a different servant girl by the arm.
“Ralcander, perhaps you could wait until you take your bed. We’d rather not witness your perverted Vikarian sex rituals,” Avawo said. Her agile voice held an accent.
The tall, slightly gaunt man she addressed sat directly across from her. He had a ridged scar running vertically down his cheek. He fondled the servant with one hand and knocked back a flagon of ale with the other. The Vikarian noble was massively drunk to even consider a camp wench as suitable breeding material for someone of his self-exalted status.
The Vikarians were driven to war quite often, and over the centuries they had earned the hatred of all their neighbor nations. In fact, the three mainland kingdoms would probably have allied and exterminated them by now if Vikaria hadn’t been an island continent protected by a powerful navy. As it was, the Vikarians were dissolute warriors of such skill that they were usually on the doing end of any genocide taking place at any given time.
“Perhaps this ritual requires an audience to be performed properly,” Ralcander suggested, his harsh accent at odds with Avawo’s soft flowing one.
“Then take two servant girls with you tonight,” Avawo replied smoothly.
Ralcander released the serving girl and laughed, revealing surprisingly strong, white teeth. “Tell me, Avawo, have you ever slept with a man without slitting his throat afterwards? Or during?”
“You may look under my bed in the morning, Ralcander, but you can never enter it in the evening.”
Ralcander laughed again. “I always take any opportunity to see what has become of your latest lover.”
Nergal knitted his brows in consternation. “May look under bed... sound like twisty Karpol saying.”
“Well, you got the twisted part right,” Ralcander muttered. “You have no idea.” Then he continued more loudly, “You’re the most normal of us all, Nergal. Your women always walk away afterwards... provided they don’t steal any of your food!”
Avawo turned to hide her smile from Nergal. Ralcander erupted into another bout of laughter.
Kreen, the last one at the table, observed the antics of her partners with detachment. She didn’t offer any smile or frown for their comments. Her powder-white face lay half concealed beneath a black mask that extended down from her winged headpiece of the same color. An elegantly long haspen rested against the table next to her, a metal shaft decorated with a sharp hook at one end and a small double-bladed axe at the other. The weapon was as black as the rest of her garments, which made her look like a pale ghost emerging from a tar pit.
Kreen’s green eyes flashed across the room. Several of the other bandits were walking towards them, angry looks on their faces. Their swagger told of a mixture of drink and violent intentions. The lady in black pushed her stolen wine away and reached for her haspen, as if resigning herself to the carnage to follow.
Nergal saw the men before they approached within range and tapped Ralcander on the shoulder.
“Dey want fight,” Nergal warned quietly. Then he stood up and walked around the table to confront the newcomers. Ralcander chose to ignore the summons and remained seated.
The leader, a stout looking man, wore a mail shirt and iron greaves. A sword dangled at his belt, encased in a plain scabbard. There were six or seven armed and armored men behind him.
“The Four!” said the leader scornfully. “You’re the ones who broke into the emissary’s wagon!” His loud words echoed in the wide open space of the great hall.
“Izzat so?” Nergal replied. His tone did not brook friendly conversation.
“Some of us saw the load you took from that special wagon. There’s plenty for everyone, I hear. We’re not going to let you keep the entire thing! We all worked for this one.”
“We’re keeping our share,” Avawo announced. “And we’re leaving within a few days. The kings are becoming too wary of our presence here. It’s time to move on.”
“You have more than your share! That wagon contained enough treasure to make us all rich!” More men had gathered around him, anger and greed in their eyes.
“Everyone take der own stuff,” Nergal growled. “Always it be dat way.”
“Not this time!” snarled the leader. He drew his sword and advanced on Nergal. The half-sragn gladiator crossed swords with the man and batted the blade aside. A practiced flick of his wrist sent his opponent’s sword hand flying away, severed from its owner. The man retreated but it was too late. Nergal stepped eagerly forward to slide his sword into the man’s throat. He kicked the dying man away to make room for the next combatant. The other men surged forward, attempting to overwhelm Nergal and his companions.
Avawo had rolled from her chair at the outbreak of battle and moved to the side, the gleam of metal visible above both her hands. She held the blades reversed like daggers, close to her arms, waiting to strike. She came up on the flank of the attackers, and was met by an older soldier with a drawn sword. She deflected a thrust with one blade, then darted forward to counter-slash with her other. Blood sprayed out as the man fell, clutching at his throat.
Ralcander remained seated, content to watch the fight until a long-haired bandit with a club approached from behind and tried to brain him. The Vikarian somehow sensed the danger and managed to move aside to take the blow across his mailed shoulder. He winced in pain. Ralcander spun around to his feet, releasing his longsword from its scabbard. His assailant tried to run, but the Vikarian, even drunk, was fast enough to hamstring the man with a slash of the four-foot blade. The injured man limped away on his good leg, falling behind a line of cowardly combatants-turned-onlookers.
Meanwhile Kreen also became engaged. A younger man of perhaps only eighteen summers swung at her with his blade. Kreen avoided the attack, spinning with an otherworldly grace to parry the sword with the middle of her own weapon. She stepped beside her opponent. Suddenly her haspen’s hook was buried in the man’s eye socket. The man squealed in anguish. He dropped his weapon and tried to dislodge himself. Kreen spun around and around, pulling her victim along by the long implement effortlessly, as if leading the man in some bizarre dance.
The other fighting was over quickly. Nergal had easily dispatched three more opponents in rapid succession, barely working up a sweat. He was satisfied to watch the survivors run, and he wiped his sword clean on the body of the first man to accost him. Then he walked over to retake his place at the table.
“Need more food,” he said lazily.
Avawo and Ralcander had also finished and found their chairs. Kreen danced on in front of them, the impaled man still crying in horror and pain. Wherever he turned, however he twisted and clawed, Kreen remained behind him, tugging at his head with her embedded hook. Kreen controlled him like a living puppet, toying with him. Nergal regarded the display, a grim look on his face.
“Kreen, she be da mean fighter,” he commented. There was something submerged in his voice. Perhaps disapproval.
“I think it’s beautiful,” Ralcander said, the tone of his voice slightly contrary. “It calms me to listen to the canorous moans of yet another victim of her art.”
“Well, at least after watching this, the others will think twice before trying to kill us in our sleep,” Avawo said.
Somewhere across the quieted hall, someone wretched and vomited. Only a few of the brigands remained present, muttering to themselves and watching the spectacle.
At last Kreen’s opponent had lost the strength to struggle. The man knelt on hands and knees, blood and spit pouring down his face and oozing onto the floor. Kreen jerked her hook out of the man’s head with a quick movement, then reversed her weapon and severed his spine just above the pelvis with the axe at the other end. The man fell to the ground and clutched at his back, gibbering. He started to pull himself away, his bloody hands sliding along the rough stone floor.
Kreen turned from him and sat down. Somehow, impossibly, not even a speck of blood had found its way onto her perfect white face. She let her bloody haspen rest against the table. Her manner returned to perfect calm. Only the gore dripping from her weapon told of recent calamity.
“Kreen, are you human?” Avawo asked with sincere curiosity.
“No,” Kreen said. No one chose to refute the answer. They sat in silence for a moment. Kreen’s victim had clawed his way to the door but seemed to have expired just short of exiting.
“Where we go now?” Nergal asked the group.
“I have a longing for the sea,” Ralcander said. “Perhaps we could go to the coast for a while, and then head south. We’ve never been in Phrygia. I hear the women there never go outside, except for their orgiastic rites, three times a year.”
“They hunt for us north and west,” Avawo said, “so the subject doesn’t really bear much thought. What other direction do we have, with more desert blocking the south?”
Nergal nodded. “Anywhere dey not be looking.”
“I agree that we’re safer now that the others have watched Kreen, but we should still find a more secluded spot to spend the night. Never underestimate the power of greed,” Avawo said.
“Where do you suggest we go?” Ralcander asked. “I hope we get to share the same room.”
Avawo ignored the comment and thought for a moment. “There’s a tunnel over on the west side that goes deeper into the mountain. It leads to two or three mostly empty chambers. We could safely sleep there, since it has only one approach.”
“May be,” Nergal said. “Or may be dat tunnel filled with giant spiders.”
“I doubt it. Shall we find out?” Avawo stood up from the table, eyeing the other bandits in the room. The few remaining had resumed their active trading, exchanging all kinds of loot. A couple of them had glanced over towards the group when she rose, but they didn’t make any moves to intercept her.
Avawo led the group out of the hall, taking an exit leading to the west. They moved through the body of the fortress, ignoring the sullen looks of the other men they passed. The brigands had lived here for several seasons now but they couldn’t hide the extreme age of the place with their temporary additions. Every few paces a cool draft could be felt, coming from the spots where the old stones weren’t perfectly fit together.
“Here’s the tunnel,” Avawo said. There was a small stack of torches next to the square entrance that beckoned. A hot breeze blew up from the tunnel. Nergal halted for a moment.
“Warm down dere,” he commented.
“That’s normal,” Avawo said. “It’s warmer deep in the mountain.”
“But why is the air flowing up out of it? I thought you said there were only three chambers, and no other approaches,” Ralcander asked.
“Hells, I don’t know. See for yourself,” Avawo said. She grabbed a torch and lit it from the room’s single flickering sconce. Nergal did the same and Ralcander grabbed the rest of them.
Avawo led the way down the tunnel. They walked single file deeper into the mountain, relying on the light of the two torches. The walls seemed to press in on the small group as they made their way through the tunnel. Avawo’s pace had started out brisk, but as they moved into the oppressive darkness she slowed. At last the tunnel emptied out into a dusty square room, bereft of all decoration. Three empty black doorways beckoned.
“Take your pick,” Avawo said.
“Hold your torch before the doors, see where the hot air is coming from,” Ralcander said.
Avawo held the torch forward in front of the nearest door. The flame seemed undisturbed. The result was the same with the second opening, but the third entrance belched air in fitful bursts.
“So we should stay in one of the other rooms?” Avawo said.
“Yes, we choose room without spider,” Nergal said.
Ralcander stepped forward. “Curse it! This warm air current has got my curiosity stirred up. Let’s check it out and see where the air is coming from.”
Nergal shrugged and walked through the doorway. The chamber beyond looked dismal. The walls were made of some subfusc stone, riddled with cracks. The floor rolled unevenly, half covered in dust and refuse. A rusted sword lay next to some bones in one corner.
Kreen walked the perimeter of the room. She seemed preoccupied. She took her long implement and began to tap it against the wall. As soon as Ralcander saw what she was doing he joined her in checking the stones of the wall.
“Suppose you do find another passageway. What do you intend to do about it?” asked Avawo.
“Oh come now, dear lady,” mocked Ralcander. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“That’s what I said to the man I lured into bed at Halfor’s Crossing,” Avawo replied. “I think he regretted his decision.”
Kreen had stopped in front of a segment of the wall. She beckoned to Nergal and pointed at a spot.
“You see spider?” Nergal asked.
“Open,” Kreen instructed.
Nergal pushed against the wall. Then he started to kick at it, but the stones held. Ralcander wandered over to join him. They managed to find a loose stone and started taking the wall apart. As they had surmised, a hidden passage lay beyond.
“Who knows what’s down there?” said Ralcander.
“Catacombs, you dolt,” said Avawo.
“Perhaps. Perhaps. If they haven’t yet been looted, we may find even more of value.”
“Nothing but a warlord’s cairn at best,” said Avawo.
“Maybe we find good treasure,” Nergal agreed, missing her mocking tone. He nodded wisely. “Brave ones go down dere, find good stuff.”
Avawo rolled her eyes. “Given your lychnobitic tendencies, I should have expected such advice. Then down we go. A waste of time, I say.”
“We’ll see,” Ralcander said. “We’ll see.”
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