As the tunnel twisted deeper Callindra could feel the air beginning to get warmer and an acrid stink of something burning made her eyes water. She glanced at her companions and saw their expressions grim. Something about the smell of the smoke was bothering them, but she didn’t know what it was. Just as she was opening her mouth to ask what the issue was Vilhylm, who was in the lead, raised a hand for them to stop. Ahead she saw flickering firelight and could barely make out some sort of rhythmic chanting.
She slipped up next to Vil, pausing for a moment before peering around the corner. The scene below made her heart skip a beat and her stomach roll. A group of humans were huddled naked and filthy in a ring of wooden slats surrounded by a group of well-armed Kobolds. Beyond them, a stone altar with a black stain running down the side stood and on the other side an open hole in the cavern floor bubbled with molten rock. A large bonfire blazed around which a motley assortment of Kobolds seemed to be working themselves into a frenzy.
A short, twisted creature with a head of stringy hair stood next to the altar, pulling the beating heart from a body that still twitched and convulsed on the altar and held it aloft. The assembled Kobolds raised a shout of triumph and hunger and the priest barked a few words, shaking the heart and showering the assembled monsters in a shower of hot blood. Two soldiers dragged the corpse from the altar and threw it to the shouting mob. They fell on it in a frenzy of snapping jaws and razor sharp claws.
The heart was deposited in a golden box hanging from the end of a steel pole on an iron chain and carried to the crack in the floor. Here the priest began a guttural chant and lowered it slowly into the lava where it burst into a greasy flame. The acrid sweetish smell burned in her nose and she was filled with an uncontrollable rage. This ended now.
Before anyone could stop her, Callindra stood and leaped off the high ledge in one smooth motion. She landed in a rush of air that blew the surrounding Kobolds off their feet. With a scream of anger, the creatures closed in on her but she was a whirlwind of magic and steel. Every time one of them tried to strike her, she managed to dodge out of the way and deal a devastating blow in return. By the time her companions arrived the crowd of Kobolds were all laying on the ground, bleeding and moaning.
“Bloody stupid thing, running off like that girl!” Vilhylm said.
“Don’t listen to the old stick.” Cronos laughed, “Nice work. Couldn’t have done it better myself.”
“We have bigger problems.” Said Tryst, pointing toward the phalanx of Kobold guards who were moving away from the slave pen. They were holding their weapons like they knew how to use them and the chainmaile they wore was polished to a mirror finish.
“You take care of the small fry.” Callindra said with a determined grimace on her face, “That shaman is mine.”
“Wait!” Tryst shouted, but it was too late. She had already ran straight at the guards, but instead of trying to cut them down, she dodged to one side at the last minute. Taking three quick steps up the wall of the cavern, Callindra sprang off and ran lightly over her foes using heads and shoulders as momentary foot holds. Turning a neat flip off the last one, she landed with a flourish in front of her intended opponent.
“Foolissshhh chhhild.” The shaman hissed and waved a hand at her, hissing more words in a sibilant language she didn’t recognize.
She readied Brightfang to spring for his throat but before she could, he vanished and re-appeared on the other side of the raging bonfire. Her sword hilt quivered in her hand, almost feeling too warm. It was strange but she focused on the scene instead, trying to find a way across the flames to her quarry. A quick glance showed her a possible route. With a short sprint Callindra slid between two approaching Kobolds, digging her toes into the ground and regaining her feet as the monsters smashed into each other. With a grin she covered the remaining distance between her and the shaman easily. It was only then that she noticed the pain in her hands.
Steam was coming from her thin leather gloves and the skin beneath was close to blistering. The shaman fixed her with a gleeful smile and opened his mouth to taunt her. This was almost nothing compared to the pain of her training. The smile faded off the creature’s face as she tightened her grip on Brightfang in spite of the sizzle of burning flesh.
“You think this is going to stop me?” She asked, twisting her face into a smirk in spite of Brightfang’s hilt now glowing red hot. “All it’s going to accomplish is that my blade will hurt more when it slices through your flesh. You’ve taken the blood of innocents. Now it’s time for you to bleed.”
“Sssso be it.” The shaman raised a spear tied with bones and totems from his side and swung it in an arc. Black wood met shining steel in a shower of sparks. The two fought back and forth over the floor, neither able to find advantage. Callindra found herself with her back to the lava pool, the shaman raised his spear for a strike that would surely send her into the molten rock.
“Callindra down!” Cronos’s voice rang out behind her. Without thinking she dropped to her knees and a wave of flame seared the monster before roaring over her head. It didn’t seem to have much effect on him, but the momentary distraction was enough to create an opening.
Brightfang slashed across the monster’s thighs in a left handed swipe and she followed up by grabbing the spear with her right hand and pulling back with all her strength. She allowed herself to fall backward, planting a boot in the shaman’s chest and flipping it over her head into the lava.
“Thanks Cronos.” She said rolling smoothly to her feet. They looked in satisfaction at the burning remains of the shaman.
“Yeah. Nice job on that one.” He said, nodding at the lava. They turned and looked at the remains of the battlefield. Tryst and Vilhylm were cleaning their weapons and binding some minor wounds. All the Kobolds were dead.
The few remaining human slaves cowered in the slat sided pen, not even moving until Tryst spoke to them at length. Eventually they regained enough confidence to follow his directions on how to escape the tunnels. The likelihood of them running into any more of the monsters after the number that had been in this cavern seemed slim and they would certainly have a better chance of escaping that way than following along.
“This was bad, but I don’t think it could account for all we’ve seen. There must be someone else behind their organization. I don’t think this… priest… would have the resources to provide them with armor and training.” Tryst said grimly.
“Perhaps we should follow these stairs then?” Vilhylm pointed to a steep set of steps that twisted up the side of the cavern. “They’re bound to lead somewhere important.”
“I’ll lead. I think I’m the most surefooted.” Callindra said and started up the stairs two at a time, not waiting to see if the others followed. As she got close to the top her pace slowed. Sunlight shone down from above and she could smell fresh air but more importantly there were voices up there. Human voices.
“I tell yeh, we gotta run. There’s people down there killin th critters left an right. They’s gonna make it past th priest any time an then they’s gonna come fer us.”
“We got plenny a loot boss. We should split while we can.”
“Yeh cowards, I say let ‘em come. Get yer bows ready. As soon as yeh see a head come up th stairs fill it wi arrows.”
She was going to leap out before they could draw their weapons, but Vilhylm’s hand came down on her shoulder. “Wait for Tryst to catch up.” He whispered, “He and Cronos are up to something.”
The other two came up quietly and put their heads close. “We all come out at once and scatter. There will be less targets that way. Callindra, you go for their leader since you’re the fastest. Cronos, see if you can distract them. Vilhylm, you and I will take care of the archers.”
“Just a second. If I’m fast now, I can double that speed with a touch of magic.” Callindra said with a wide grin. She whispered a few arcane words and called the North Wind to speed her feet. “All right, let’s go kick some ass.”
As one, they all leaped from the staircase and ran in separate directions. An arrow buzzed past Callindra’s neck, the loose fletching causing it to buzz like an angry wasp. The winds whirled around her as she ran, sending up clouds of dust and dead leaves. The men she saw were dressed in a variety of armor, but in spite of being slightly mismatched it was all relatively new and in perfect repair. She saw the only one who didn’t have a bow drawn and made for him as fast as she could. He calmly drew a scimitar and waited for her to approach with a smile of anticipation on his face.
They met in a clash of swords, but no matter how fast Callindra struck, he was faster. After a few moments she was covered in a myriad of small bleeding wounds, none of them were dangerous on their own but combined they slowed her down. She pushed harder, waiting for him to misstep, trying to find an opening but only succeeded in earning a few more cuts.
The ferocity of her attack had driven him back to the edge of a cliff but now he was on the offensive. They danced close to the precipice as he slammed blow after blow down on her, a series of strikes that ended with a massive overhand stroke that drove her to her knees. A confused expression crossed his face, and she saw an arrow stuck in his chest. His sword blow had saved her from being shot in the back.
With a complicated motion of her sword, Callindra summoned a blast of wind that knocked her still surprised opponent over the edge of the cliff. She spun on her knees to see her friends dispatching the last of the men. Sitting back with a weak laugh of relief she wiped Brightfang on the hem of her cloak and sheathed him.
“That was too god rotting close.” She said, wiping the blood out of her eyes.
Tryst was pulling an arrow out of Cronos’s arm with a grim expression on his face. “I couldn’t agree more Callindra. Far too close.”
She laughed in relief finally able to relax, but as the adrenaline wore off she realized she might have overdone things a bit. “Gods and demons. Tryst when you get a moment I could really use some of that healing magic of yours. I think I’m going to just … if it’s all right with you I’m going to rest my eyes for a second.”