“It’s bin half a score o’ years since I been down below,” said Seekate, puzzlement crossing his features. “Las’ time I was here, the blamed thing worked.”
“Is there another way down?” asked Denaryus.
“No,” said the old man.
“Pry it away from the wall?” asked Aeryn.
“We can try,” answered Denaryus. Turning to Evie she said, “keep an eye down the hall, let us know if you see or hear anything.”
The younger elf nodded and knelt near the door.
Natsu handed Aeryn one of the goblin spears that he carried. She shoved the blade between the wall and the bookcase. Putting her weight into the end of the shaft, she levered the case far enough away for Natsu to work his fingers into the narrow space and pull the bookcase further from the wall. When the spear was no longer useful, Aeryn stood next to the half-elf and helped him tug the wood loose from the block behind it. The bookcase came free with a loud crack. Natsu, Denaryus, and Aeryn strained to keep from dropping the suddenly dead weight.
The group froze. Evie snaked the upper half of her body around the corner, near the floor, ears twitching to catch the slightest sound. She shook her head at Aeryn and Natsu, and with the help of Denaryus, they lowered the case to the floor, making as little noise as possible.
Taking a moment to catch their breath and make sure the echo of the bookcase ripping free from the wall didn’t bring unwanted attention running in their direction, Aeryn examined the wall where the cabinet had stood. The blocks were intact, but a hole about two feet by two feet with metal rungs in one side opened in the floor and descended into darkness. She took the sail-pack off her back and dropped it down into the shadows. One. Tw-. Thump.
One by one, led by Evie, the party climbed down into the hole. Aeryn, going last, shifted the bookcase around to block the hole from casual view before lowering herself into the shaft. When she reached the bottom, she looked up to make sure the patrol wasn’t rushing down right on top of her head. Not seeing movement above, she progressed into the catacombs toward Denaryus, Evie, and Natsu. Seekate was nowhere in sight.
As soon as she cleared the entrance to the pit, she felt the ground shake and heard Seekate cackle with delight. Running forward, she tackled Evie, who had run toward the old man. The young elf huffed out a squeak as the girls staggered a few paces further into the warrens before toppling to the ground. They lay on the dirt as a cloud of dust and shower of rocks, large and small, rolled over them.
“Ow,” said Evie rising slowly and stepping down on her right ankle with care, “I think I broke it again.”
“Let me look,” said Denaryus, reaching around to pull a loose end from the sail and cut a strip twice the length of her arm from the edge of the oilcloth. After arranging the fabric, she pulled the boot from Evie’s foot, then wrapped the cloth around her ankle in such a way that the elfling could walk, albeit with a slight limp.
While Denaryus tended Evie, Aeryn jumped to her feet and confronted Seekate.
“What is wrong with you?” She stopped short and stepped back a pace when she saw his eyes. The rheumy look was gone, replaced by a detached calm that made the hair stand up on her neck and the gooseflesh rise on her arms.
“Heh, heh, heh, I knowed you’s could get me down here. H’ain’t been here in a time,” the old man turned to look at the girl as she backed away.
“The worst time coming down here was right after them first pirates left, all them years back. Had to do true by me cap’n, ya? Couldn’a leave him nor his lady lying dead, stripped down and all sliced up like that. Some’n had to fix him all fine and right for ‘is journey to the afterlife. So’s I hauled his-self down here. That was hard work, that was. Dressed Himself up in some finery that them pirates missed,” the old man looked at Denaryus.
“I laid Himself in the vault near his boy. Hauled his lady down and laid her between her menfolk. Grisly work, that was.”
Denaryus looked around for the bodies, she saw none, only a corridor leading deeper into the catacombs.
“I hain’t never been so sorrowful,” his gaze slid to Evie.
“Himself, he’d found a ring whiles out adventurin’. Caused things to happen, you just had to wish it. But afore he could use it, they cut him and his lady down,” a tear slid down the old man’s face, leaving a blurred trail through the dirt on his face.
“I took it off’n his hand and wished with all my might that the two u’d never rot, that they’d be ready when the need came. Seen I must’a done right; all these years and they never rotted, never crumbled. They’s in as good a shape now as they was back then, though it’s been a spell since I been down here,” Seekate looked from one face to the next, landing on Aeryn.
Shuddering, the girl backed up another half pace, prickles running up and down her spine as her hand slipped toward the hilt of her sword.
“You settle in, now,” he said, triumph coloring his voice. “Y’see, none of us is leaving,” his narrowed gaze slid to Evie. “I couldn’a let you walk off with Himself’s valuables, and I can’t let you disrespect his boy.”
He turned to look at Denaryus, eyes wide.
“What kind o’ loyal crewman would that make me? I would’a got down here and dropped that tunnel when they first put ashore, but them damnable orcs catched me afore I could get here,” he looked around at each face, resting on Natsu. “You done me a kindness by getting’ me here so’s that I could bring it down,” his eyed narrowed again. “Sorry to say, none of ya’s’ll be goin’. You won’t never find your way out. We’s all gonna die here together,” Seekate stopped for a moment, a contemplative look crossing his lined face.
“Now, there’s a thought,” he said, drawing a dagger from the folds of his tunic and, lunging at Natsu, stabbing the young half-elf in the side. Evie hobbled around out of sight of the old man, working her way around behind him.
Aeryn yanked her sword from its sheath and swiped at the old man. Oh, gods! Off balance, she swung and missed him, by luck also avoiding Natsu.
Natsu, his paralysis broken, stepped back a pace and stabbed the old man in the gut with the spear.
Seekate crumpled to the dirt with a muffled, “Oh!”
Everyone spoke at once.
“What the…” moaned Natsu, spear clattering to the dirt floor.
“Are you all right, Natsu?” asked Aeryn.
“I seen him pull the lever …” said Evie.
“Can I get some help here?” shouted Denaryus.
The torchlight that illuminated the catacombs threw shadows on everyone making the widening pool of blood surrounding Seekate shimmer and sparkle.
Denaryus made her way to Natsu to check his wound. It wasn’t as bad as she feared. The dagger had missed his vital organs, and she had the bleeding under control in a matter of moments. Again, using pieces of sail from the slave galley, she padded and bound his wound.
Evie searched the area behind the corpse and discovered huge cylinders that held crumbs. The grain had disappeared long ago. The drums were dank and decayed, and Aeryn saw that gnaw marks striped the wood. The next area held numerous bolts of rotting cloth and hanging masses of mold. Not one scrap of any of it could be used as anything but torch wrappings. The third area, marked “good weapons and armor,” was stacked to the ceiling with crates, chest, and containers. Evie examined the floor and side walls as the rest of the group stood back.
This time, Aeryn watched as she stopped and put her face close to the ground, get down on all fours, then follow something that Aeryn couldn’t see to the wall. The elfling had found a thin cable stretched across the opening at ankle height. Evie stepped over the wire and combed the area around the mound of cartons, but every time she tried to move one, the heap shifted.
“Somehow, I don’t think we’ll find anything,” said Aeryn after a few minutes. “My gut tells me it was a trap. Let’s take it slow from here.”
“Agreed,” seconded Denaryus, still surveying the swaying stack.
Stepping back over the trip wire and turning further into the catacombs, Evie led them down a narrow corridor to a section concealed with a rotting tapestry. She inspected the cloth and, finding nothing, pulled it to the floor. Dust hung in the air making Aeryn’s nose itch. Again, Evie crept forward, studying the floor and walls with every step. Ten feet down the passage, another tapestry obstructed their view. Once more Aeryn watched as the young elf scrutinized the hanging. Only this time, she discovered something. The elfling disappeared without a whisper of movement from the cloth. A few moments later, she reappeared and, with a flourish, pulled down the tapestry.
“It was rigged to yank the supports out,” she said, a touch of satisfaction in her voice as she produced a length of heavy wire. “The roof would’a caved in on us.”
“Nice work,” said Natsu.
The elf-girl blushed, not used to hearing compliments.
Continuing their search, they traveled another thirty paces farther down the tunnel when they came to another set of alcoves on their left. According to the old man’s diagram, the niche on the far end was supposed to have good water, but Aeryn wasn’t sure she believed the route anymore. Evie turned left into the first recess. The area was piled with crates, almost like the one the old man had said held weapons.
“Seems kinda strange to me someone would spend a lot of time moving trash in here,” said Evie as she searched. “This stuff’s packed in here pretty good.”
“Makes me wonder what’s behind it,” commented Natsu.
Aeryn and the others helped Evie move the crates and barrels out of the way as they searched further into the room. A quarter hour later, they had created a path to the back corner. It was there that Evie discovered a rock that had a different color than the surrounding stone. When she tried to move it, it turned, and a door groaned open, exposing a rough-hewn tunnel leading into darkness. Stale air wafted from the passageway.
Behind them, the sound of falling rocks reached their ears, striking the floor of the pit from the direction they had entered the catacombs.
Aeryn stared at the others, relief and alarm pulling at her insides; both “Thank the goddess, it’s still daylight,” and “how long do we have left?” assailed her at once.
“Quick, move some of these crates back so they can’t see the entrance,” said Aeryn thinking fast and pushing one of the rubbish containers into the hole they had made. “The longer it takes them to find us, the longer we have to get out.”
Denaryus, Natsu, and Senisalma moved some of the stacked cartons around into a haphazard pile and throwing dirt to cover the disturbed areas, hiding the corner and the tunnel entrance from sight of the corridor in the process. When they finished arranging the cover, Aeryn hurried the group into the tunnel and shut the entry behind them.
“We can try to block the door, but I don’t know if it’ll hold,” said Evie.
“I just don’t want to make it easy for them,” replied Aeryn. “What do you have in mind?”
“I found this,” the elfling handed her a flat stone about the size of her hand. One edge was thin, less than a finger wide, the other a knuckle thicker. “If we shove it under the door, maybe it’ll bung up the mechanism.”
“Good idea,” Aeryn placed the stone flat in the hard-packed dirt and pushed it as far under the door as she could, giving the rock a little kick to jam it in tighter.
Evie led the way down the passage, Aeryn about ten feet behind, stumbling in the semi-darkness, the rest of the group following. Ten paces after they began their trek into the tunnel, their meager torches lighting the way, it curved to the left and continued for almost two hundred paces before a right turn opened into an enormous cavern. The coarse-cut walls each held two torches that lit when they entered.
Aeryn surveyed the space and saw that it might have been almost square had it not been for a walled-off section in the corner opposite where they entered. She noted that a length of wall on the other side of the chamber, near the enclosed partition, was smooth stone where the rest of the walls were chiseled rock. As she strode around the tomb, the girl counted her steps, thirty paces across in one direction and twenty-five paces across in the other.
The walled space cut out an area that was about eight paces deep and six paces wide. Two more dividers, each set about six paces apart, created three alcoves along the same side as the walled section. As she inspected the room, Aeryn could see that two of the niches contained platforms holding bodies, presumably “Himself” and his lady. A shudder ran through her as she thought about the wishing ring and the old man’s words. Warily, the girl approached the center alcove. She saw, but could not read, an inscription carved into the block upon which lay the body of a man arrayed in good quality blue garments and lackluster scale mail. Moving closer to the slab, she started to turn toward Natsu and ask him to read the inscription when movement caught her eye and stopped her.
Aeryn spun toward a scraping sound. She watched, cold sweat chilling her, as the corpse began to sit. Evie’s yelp told her that the other body had also arisen. Snatching the sword from its scabbard, she turned and swung at the now sitting zombie. Missing, she stumbled to the side as Denaryus fired a bolt at the same time Natsu stabbed at the creature with the harpoon.
Shuffling steps approached from the adjoining niche as the corpse in front of Aeryn swung its mace, only just missing her torso. Bringing the sword around again, she hit a glancing blow off the creature’s elbow. Denaryus had reloaded the crossbow and fired again. This time, she hit the monster in the shoulder. He staggered back a pace. Natsu’s spear pierced the air where the zombie stood a split second before. Dead eyes fixed on Aeryn, the zombie swung the mace at the girl. She threw up her left arm to block her head. The weapon struck, almost breaking her forearm, and causing her to stumble backward a step.
At that moment, she heard Evie shout with triumph.
“I killed her! All by myself!”
Off balance, Aeryn swung at the creature but couldn’t put the blade where she wanted it, her left arm wouldn’t move like it should, and she could barely feel the pommel in her left palm. Natsu, still trying to poke the monster with his spear, dropped to the ground as the latest bolt from Denaryus ricocheted off its armor toward the ceiling. The creature turned toward the source of the offending missiles. Aeryn saw Evie, close to the floor, sneaking around the pedestal, trying to get behind the undead creature.
As the beast turned, Aeryn pulled the sword back with both hands and swung as hard as she could. Hitting the monster in the neck, she almost severed the zombie’s head, and it dropped to the ground. Gulping air, her knees gave way, and she sank into the dirt next to the decomposing body, sweat streaming down her back. She flexed her left arm and hand as she unlaced the vambrace then slid the leather off. She would have a bruise for sure.
“Give me a look,” she heard Denaryus say from beside her.
Aeryn lifted her arm toward the elf and felt warm hands move across the enlarging limb. Immediately she felt relief, and the swelling subsided. Flexing her fingers, she felt the digits tingle as the numbness receded. The pain wasn’t completely gone, but she could use her arm.
“‘Milord Da’Velli, King O’ the Dragon Snout Sea,'” Natsu paused in his reading. “The old man sure had a high opinion of his liege.”
“Yah,” snorted Aeryn. “I didn’t trust him from the start. Something about him just hit me wrong.”
“He seemed all right to me,” said Denaryus.
“What else does it say,” asked Aeryn, ignoring the elf.
“‘Tamed the islands, laid low by pirates,'” the half-elf finished.
“Hey,” exclaimed Evie, “check this out.”
The group turned toward the young elf. At her feet lay a pile of armor encasing the skeletal remains of the self-proclaimed ‘King of the Dragon Snout Sea,’ a mace, its handle wrapped with bone fingers, and a golden coronet surrounding a bone brow. Aeryn looked down at the leather orcish armor she had taken from Farkis only the day before.
“Denaryus, do you want this stuff?” asked the girl. “It’s not the best fit, but it’ll keep you from getting too cut up. I think I’ll take this if you don’t mind” she squatted beside the scale mail lying at her feet. She picked up a gauntlet and poured the dust and bones from the metal.
“I could have used this a few minutes ago,” she lamented with a crooked grin.
“Learn to keep your arms out of the way,” she heard the cheeky voice of Evie at her side.
Aeryn turned and looked down at the elfling, who looked back up at her with an impish grin and a wink. The girl roared with laughter.
Denaryus picked up the mace and gave it a few swings.
“Sure, and I’ll take this,” she said. “I can use it if they get too close.”
Natsu handed Denaryus a handful of quarrels.
“One of them shattered on the wall back there,” he pointed toward the corner. “But I was able to salvage these. You might have to straighten a couple of tips, though.”
“Thank you,” the elf smiled at him as she replaced the bolts in the quiver.
Moving to the next niche, Senisalma read the crude inscription, “Milady Ristala, laid low by pirates, rests beside her cap’n.”
“So, now what?” asked Evie.
“According to the old man’s map,” said Denaryus, looking at the crude map the old man had drawn, “there should be a lever here somewhere.”
“Do you really trust his map?” asked Aeryn, standing to her full height. “He lied to us the whole time.”
“Not the whole time,” the elf shot back, staring defiantly up at the tall girl. “He got us the wand, and into the catacombs didn’t he?”
Aeryn flinched, then threw her hands in the air in a gesture of surrender, cheeks burning. She glared at Denaryus.
“What about this walled off section?” asked Senisalma.
“Can I borrow your club, please?” Aeryn asked Denaryus with exaggerated politeness.
The elf handed the girl the mace and stepped back. Aeryn moved toward the wall of the bricked-up corner.
“Natsu, what does this inscription say?” she asked, tersely, but politely before lifting the mace.
He shot Denaryus a quick side glance before reading: “‘Here lies Prince Ladoreh, brought down by illness in the twentieth year of Da’Velli’s rule.'”
As soon as he finished reading the inscription, Aeryn bobbed her head in curt thanks, gripped the club with both hands, and swung at the center of the wall with all her might. She managed to chip some of the brick. Again and again she struck the wall with the weapon. Getting into the rhythm of the work, a widening hole about the length of her forearm soon grew in the barrier. Stepping back to catch her breath, she saw Denaryus and the rest of the party move in and start pulling loose bricks from the edges. In a few minutes, the hole had almost doubled in size.
Evie crawled into the gap and reported the contents.
“Whoa!” Aeryn heard the girl breathe. “We got us a boat, just like the goddess said,” she called to the rest of the group. “And another corpse, only this one’s stayed put,” the elfling reported. “And you should see the rest of the goodies. The old man weren’t kidding, there’s lots of treasure here.”
A moment passed, then they heard Evie grunt with exertion and the wall to the right of the bricked chamber burst outward, revealing the sky. The hole let in a blast of crisp, icy air, and a rush of briny water, adding motivation as they attacked the barrier with fresh energy. Aeryn pounded the wall to the sealed chamber, stepped back for a breather and a few gulps of water, as the group strode in and pulled as many loose pieces from the wall as they could, then the girl moved back in and again swung the mace, steadily loosening more bricks. Working this way for more than half an hour, they finally had an opening large enough to push the boat through. The entire time, they kept an eye on the sky as it changed from a light, hazy grey to a darker, more ominous grey-black, the clouds churning in a furious boil.
When the opening was wide enough they could push the boat through, they attached some of the rope they had taken from the slave galley to the inside gunnel. Denaryus and Natsu wrapped the lines around their torsos in such a way that they could pull the vessel while Aeryn got behind the craft and pushed. Evie and Senisalma stood to either side to keep it from falling to one side or the other and ripping a hole in the hull.
Water lapped into the tomb where the wall had tumbled into the water. The ocean bubbled up, floating the craft as they pushed, pulled, and pointed the boat toward the sea. When the bow reached the surf, Denaryus jumped onto the deck, pulling her rope in with her. As soon as the bow floated, Natsu tossed his line in, and he moved around to lift Senisalma into the craft, taking her place keeping the boat upright. Evie pulled herself over the side with Senisalma’s help when she could no longer touch the sea floor.
Wide-eyed, Aeryn pushed as she watched Denaryus cock the crossbow, load a quarrel, and fire at something behind her back before cocking the crossbow again. Natsu jumped into the boat and ran to the stern to offer the girl a hand into the boat. Senisalma and Evie freed the oars from below the benches, set them in the oarlocks, and began rowing the small galley away from the island. When Aeryn and Natsu caught their breath, they took places at the remaining oar benches and applied themselves to the task of escaping the island.
The girl could see that a handful of orcs and goblins had entered the tomb as they launched the boat. That’s what Denaryus was shooting at. By the time the pirates had reached a place where they could throw their spears or shoot their crossbows, the boat was far enough out to sea that the projectiles fell well short of their marks. Senisalma and Denaryus traded places, as Senisalma, who was familiar with the waters of the Dragon’s Snout Sea, thought she knew where they were and would be able to navigate them to a safe port. As the rest rowed, Senisalma sat at the tiller and counted a steady cadence, making it easier for the party to keep the oars from tangling, and the craft from going in circles.
Aeryn watched the wrathful sky over the woman’s head. A faint glow emanated from the island, enough to see a dozen or so water spouts drop from the dense clouds that obscured the sky. The cyclones tore along the landmass and threw large swathes of dirt and rock into the air. Tempest winds scoured the isle, and she saw the ruins of the village, the mansion, the garrison, and the stable ripping apart, hurled board by board and rafter by rafter into the air. The orc and goblin boats that had littered the beaches were heaved onto the shore, shattered by the wind and the battering seas. She watched as tiny figures scurried about, many hurled against the cliffs, others swept out to sea by the wind and the waves.
After twenty or so breaths, the pitching and rolling subsided, no longer threatening to throw them overboard. Pulling in the oars, they gazed at the island, obscured from shoreline to shoreline by a gray-brown whirlwind of rocks and brush and dirt and water that polished the island.
A quarter hour later, the vortex lifted, and all she saw was smooth, gray-white rock, looking not at all like the island on which they had landed yesterday. Without warning, the seas calmed, the clouds cleared, and stars spanned the sky overhead.
“Give me a hand with this mast,” Senisalma ordered.
Everyone stowed their oars and helped raise the mast, lock it into place, and unfurl the sail. Before the moon was two fingers above the horizon, the party was sailing southwest toward safety, guided by the hand of the goddess, Ashta’Qi.