Chapter 26 — Tuesday Afternoon, June 10 – Into the Mountains
Cleo and Rufus crouched behind a fallen log and peered at the entrance to the old mine. Cleo gestured. “There it is. I told you the tracks led here, right towards those old… tracks.” Emerging from the mouth of the dark hole were the remains of an old cart-rail system, that ran out on a rickety wooden spur, like half a bridge to nowhere. At the end there was a huge pile of ordinary looking rock, obviously from the excavations.
Cleo turned and sat down with her back to the log. “What exactly did you say to that unicorn?”
“I said, ‘We are here to deal with the bad creature that went to the mines, and to rescue our friends. Please help us if you can.’ ”
“No, dummy, I heard that part. I meant what you said after that.”
“Well, I said the same thing again in horse language. At least I think I did. It didn’t respond, or do much of anything, so…”
“It would have been nice to get a troop of unicorn cavalry about now.”
“Yeah, being ridden by scantily clad elven maidens, while you’re wishing.”
“In your dreams.” She sighed. “I guess it’s time to send one of your air bird thingies out to look for Bloody or the Charles’s.”
Rufus nodded. “I’d say you’re right.” Rufus breathed deeply and closing his eyes, summoned an air sprite, and sent it to scout out the area. Shortly he gave Cleo a report. “Nothing outside, living – or undead, except a few birds. I’m taking it inside now.” He shifted around briefly in his seat, peering at the inside of his eyelids. “There is a main shaft with a lot of side passages. The place is huge, though. I’m not really sure what I’m looking for.”
“I wish I could see what you’re seeing.”
“Good idea. I’ll try to open my mind up so you can see what I see. Close your eyes.” He reached out and placed his hand on Cleo’s forehead. “Just relax.”
Cleo closed her eyes, and instantly saw the inside of the mine. “Okay, I see trails in the dust. Let’s go back to the beginning… okay. Now follow those tracks. At least three different feet made these. Okay, only one went along that side passage to the left; keep going. Okay, here. They all went down this side passage, to the right. Follow that. Okay, keep on. There!” They were looking at iron bars, walling off a small room at the end of the side passage.
Cleo opened her eyes. “At least they’re alive. Let’s go get them.”
“In a moment. Close your eyes again.” They scouted along the main passage, and back along the side passage that showed extra footprints but all they found were more footprints. The tunnels seemed to go on and on, and there was no sign of Bloody nearby. “Okay, let’s go in.”
Rufus lit up his lantern. Cleo stuck three unlit torches in her belt and readied her bow. They entered the mine and easily followed the main passage, which rose slightly as they went, to the point where the footprints led off to the right. Cleo lit one of her torches from Rufus’s lantern and stuck it in a sconce on the wall. They headed down the side passage until they came to the bars.
Rufus examined the lock carefully. “I wish I had learned something about lock picking from Flummox.”
“Here, let me have a go.”
“When did you take up lock picking?”
Cleo drew a heavy mallet from her belt. “Never.” She made short work of the lock, and lot of noise.
Rufus cringed. “Well, if Bloody is still in here, he knows where we are now, for sure!”
Cleo examined the wounds on the arms of the unconscious pair. “These are really very shallow scratches. Looks like the point was to draw blood, not incapacitate.”
Rufus nodded. “Maximizing the infection points. Why are they asleep?”
Cleo shook them. They each thrashed a bit in response, but did not awaken. “Must be some sort of enchantment. Your specialty, not mine.”
A sickening sound of crashing, followed by a few falling rocks, then sand, came from back behind them. They flattened themselves against the walls in case of oncoming debris, but only a little dust came their way. Then there was silence. They could still see Cleo’s torch flickering in its sconce back at the main tunnel.
Rufus glanced back at the Charles’s. “I think those two will be okay. We need to deal with Bloody before we can do anything.”
Cleo looked at her friend with astonishment. “I think we ought to be a bit more worried about getting back to daylight. I’m not a fan of being buried alive.”
Rufus shook his head. “Nah, these tunnels go every which way. I’m sure they must connect up. Besides, Bloody is starting a new family with those two. He wouldn’t sacrifice them just to get us. He probably has no idea who we are, anyway.”
Cleo nocked an arrow. “Okay, let’s go teach him what he’s dealing with.” She crept back along the side passage to the place where her torch shone. A dozen feet to the left, the main passage was blocked by rock fall. “Okay, we’re going to the right then. Keep up with that lantern. My night sight isn’t as good as it was when I was a kid.”
As Cleo got to the first side passage, Rufus caught up. “Slow down. It’s a good bet Bloody knows these tunnels pretty well. Let me scout.” Cleo stopped and waited patiently as Rufus sent his air sprite first down the main tunnel, searched around that area, and back, then down the side tunnel. “Too bad we aren’t better swimmers. There is a way down and back, but it’s mostly under water. This side tunnel goes the same way as that first one, that had all the footprints, and this one has ‘em too. I bet they connect up.”
Suddenly there was a pop sound, and Rufus jumped.
Cleo turned towards him. “What happened?”
Rufus shook his head. “Dunno. Something zapped my sprite. Let me try going the other way around.” Again he closed his eyes, took some deep breaths, and sent an air sprite back down the main path. “I’m really drawing down the power on my staff. I hope things don’t get too much more exciting. Watch that tunnel, I’m pretty sure he’s down that way somewhere.” He leaned against the wall with eyes closed, swaying a bit for awhile. “Okay, I’m wiggling through gaps in the rock fall… and I’m through…. down the main passage… here’s the side passage, I’m turning… Okay, here’s a junction. I want to turn right…. yes, there are footprints this way! Look out Bloody, here we come… the junction ought to be pretty close…” Suddenly there was another pop sound. Rufus jerked his head back and bumped the wall. Fortunately his high collar and thick hair provided some padding.
Rufus blinked repeatedly. “Okay, the passages must connect straight down here about a hundred paces. Bloody obviously has some magic – no real surprise if we listened to the Withers; the powerful undead were all sorcerers in life. That’s how they get the energy to stay active, even without victims. Anyway, Bloody took out both of my air sprites somehow.”
“Well, let’s go get him. I’ve been thinking about where best to target. If I put an arrow in one eye socket, he can still see out the other, and from what you say, he could still throw spells and such. If I took off an arm, same deal, wouldn’t slow him much. Arrow through the ribs might just keep going. You know what a zombie’s weak point is?”
“I guess you’re talking about the way they sort of shamble.”
“Right, mobility. If I cut the spine below the rib cage, or even hit the pelvis and knock a leg off, he’ll not be going anywhere fast. At that point he’s a sitting duck, and we can finish him off.”
“Okay, that’s the beginning of a plan. I can’t distract him with an air sprite, but I still have one pigeon here.” From deep in his robe he extracted a pigeon. It cooed, and ruffled its feathers, but did not try to take flight. “This poor baby may give you time to make your shot count.”
“Alright, let’s go!”
“No, wait! I have a bad feeling about this. Bloody has to know we would come this way, and probably has traps set. He’s blocking my clairvoyance attempts as well as air sprites. Let me try and use precognition and see how that plan would work.” Again, Rufus leaned against the rough stone wall and closed his eyes.
He imagined Cleo running, bow at the ready, down the passage after his pigeon. In his vision he saw the pigeon dive at Bloody, Cleo stepping forward, taking aim, and then… disaster. “Cleo, there is a rotten wood floor just at the point you’d get your first bow shot. It won’t hold your weight, and there is a shaft going straight down beneath, right into the water. If you look for it, instead of Bloody, you should be able to spot it. Jump over it, and you’ll have your shot.”
Cleo’s eyes spread wide. “Thanks a lot, buddy boy. I owe you one. So he can’t get a shot at me until I cross the wood planks?”
“That’s right. Head down, draw your bow when you see the planks, jump over them, look up and there’s your target. The pigeon ought to give you enough time. Don’t miss, you may only have one shot. ”
Cleo nodded. “Got it. Anything else?”
“This passage actually T’s off there. Our path out is back to the left, but he’s hiding, waiting in ambush, to the right. I got a vague impression there might be another vertical shaft behind him. A dark hole, anyway. Would be great if he fell down it, but I bet he jumps it and tries to get you to chase him and fall down the hole instead. Be careful.”
“I’ll have the pigeon charge him the moment you leap the wood planks. Good luck.”
“You humans still believe in stuff like luck.” She smiled and started slowly down the passage. In about eighty paces she came to the wood planks on the floor. She drew her bow back and the pigeon zoomed past her head. In a rush she jumped over the planks and drew a bead on Bloody’s pelvis. A slash of the scythe, and the pigeon lost a wing. Cleo’s bow twanged and the arrow flew true. With a clatter of bones, Bloody fell backwards around the corner.
Rufus rushed to the edge of the planks. “Stand clear! Drop!” Cleo crouched as Rufus’s lantern flew through the air. It smashed into the far wall and flaming oil sprayed everywhere. It was followed by glass bottles of oil, one – two – three.
They stood still, listening to the sounds of burning, but nothing seemed to be moving around the corner. Cleo helped Rufus across the wood planks then nocked another arrow and crept toward the fire, which was slowly burning down.
Around the corner there was nothing but a hole. The short passage dead-ended into a rocky face. Cleo edged past the flame, kicking aside a pelvis bone, still attached to a pair of legs. She waved Rufus forward. “See those drag marks? They go right to the edge of the hole. I’m not sure I want to stick my head over top of it. It will be dark down there, but I’d be silhouetted by the fires up here. You got any more in you, to summon one of those sprite things?”
Rufus sighed. “I’ll give it a go. Why don’t you toss a lit torch down there while I do the necessary. Cleo did this, while Rufus breathed deeply, pulling energy from his staff. Soon a sprite was winging down the hole.
Then, Rufus gave a laugh. “What’s left of Bloody is hanging upside down from a rusty iron spike in the wall. He seems to have crawled over here, thrown himself in the hole to get away from the fire, and his robes caught on the way down. There’s water down deeper there, but your torch got wedged in some wreckage halfway down. He’s thrashing around like mad; can’t reach anything. He’s trying to banish my sprite with his own magic, but seems to have run out of juice.”
Rufus went to the edge of the hole and looked down. “Hey there, Bloody! What do you have to say for yourself?”
“You stupid mortal! You have no idea of the powers you are dealing with! I will hunt you down with my last breath and make you pay for your arrogance! You wait, I’ll get you for this!”
Rufus shook his head. “Not if I get you first.” He gestured with his staff and a gout of flame shot down the hole. He held it steady for several seconds. When the flames cut off, the charred remains of the rags and blackened bones swung silently back and forth. He turned to Cleo. “You think you could hook that mess with one of your ropes and haul it up here, just to make sure of things?”
Cleo smiled. “My pleasure.” In short order they had the bones back up beside them. The hands clenched and unclenched feebly until Cleo got out her mallet and smashed the skull to dust. Then, nothing moved, and the tunnel seemed to feel warmer and lighter. “Well, that’s that.”
Rufus nodded. “Let’s go get the Charles’s and get back to town. They probably woke up when the magical bonds were broken. Lady, I’m pooped.”
“Sorry about your bird.”
The Charles’s were quite groggy but able to shuffle with some difficulty. Cleo and Rufus each held a torch in one hand and supported one walking wounded with the other. Crossing the planks was a chore, but it was managed by shifting the planks around double to one side. When they got to the opening of the mine, the Charles’s collapsed and lay down in the sunshine.
Cleo raised a hand. “Did you see that? Down there. Something big and dark, behind the pile of slag at the end of the track…”
Rufus thrust his torch at Cleo. “Here take this. Get rid of them.” He waved her back towards the mine.
She went a dozen paces back into the mine and tried to stub them out against the wall. They wouldn’t go out, so she pitched them as far back up the shaft as she could. She got out her bow as she went back to Rufus and the others.
Cleo chortled. “Looks like your cavalry has arrived, but instead of a hundred elfs, you’ve got one big ELF-ANT. Don’t get too friendly, now.”
Rufus smiled back. “No worries. Do you think you could rig up a thing to drag those two behind? I don’t think we’re going to be able to hold either of them on top of your elf-ant in their condition.”
“You got it. You look pretty beat yourself. How about you sit up top and drive, while I scout the trail for you guys?”
Rufus wrapped an arm around Trixie’s shoulder and leaned heavily against her. “As you wish.” He started scratching Trixie’s jaw. “How have you been, old girl? I bet you used to work here a long time ago, am I right?”
As they approached the mouth of Cave 3, at the end of Creek 4, the topology got a little weird. The creek ran right up to the base of a large outcropping then veered to the left, where a series of cascades came down a rocky slope. The path went into switchbacks, almost steps, even further to the left.
Animus held up a hand. “Let’s Grace and I take our bows to the top of the steps. The way we see open sky beyond suggests lots of visibility and no cover. We should scout, carefully. I’m picking up some wolf sounds in the distance.”
Quietly the two crept up the steps. At the top, there was a broad, grassy alpine meadow spotted with a few trees and patches of brush. The creek hooked back to the right beyond the rock outcrop, into trees. To the left, they could see a fair distance.
Animus readied his bow. “Bow ready, Grace. Silver.” Suddenly, a shaft shot from the thicket and stuck in the tan wolf’s shoulder. “Now!” Their two shafts joined the third, and the wolf collapsed in a heap. The other four wolves checked their rush, and began circling the thicket at a bow-shot’s distance. Animus quietly signaled the rest of the party to join them.
Then a giant of a wolf bounded forward out of the grass, past the smaller wolves, and halted close to the thicket. On its back rode a hunch-backed figure, that dismounted, standing upright, while spitting and drooling between wolf-like canines. Again a bolt leapt from the thicket, striking the upright figure in the chest. It drew a giant scimitar from its belt and laughed. “No puny kobold dart is going to stop me, Sniper, you little rat.” Grace and Hound easily understood his words, though they were in the goblin tongue.
A high-pitched voice came from the thicket, also in goblin tongue. “Eat shit and die, Slasher! We don’t want you around here any more.”
Animus took aim. “Now.” Two silver arrows shot out. One struck Slasher in the side, the other struck the giant wolf. Both howled in pain as blood spurted everywhere. Slasher threw himself across the giant wolf’s back and together they bolted back across the green. The rest of the wolves followed him.
Animus drew back his bow again but Grace put a hand on his shoulder. “Enough”.
As the plains cleared of wolves, Grace stood and yelled out in goblin tongue. “Peace, friends, they are gone.” Hound scrabbled up next to her and held one hand up, the other resting on his thigh as he leaned over, panting. He tried to speak but coughed instead.
Hound straightened up and found his breath. He replied in goblin tongue. “Viper and Vapor! I’ve brought friends to trade with you. As you can see, they are not afraid of the wolves.”
Hound turned and winked at the others. “As you say, Sniper. Will you trade? We brought food.”
Sniper put away his crossbow. “Really? What you got?” He turned and yelled toward the cave mouth. “Hey Stoner, get down here. We’ll need somebody to carry.”
A much larger humanoid, carrying a large stone axe, began moving slowly towards them from the cave mouth. He might have been an orc, or maybe an ogre – he certainly wasn’t a kobold like the first three.
Sapphire reached for her glass vials. “Grace, you keep them happy while I collect some blood. Flummox, D-Stract, help me. We ought to be able to find three separate sources here.”
They approached the body of the tan wolf cautiously, but it was quite dead, and easy to get blood from. They then followed the tracks of the wolf and rider. It was hard to be sure which splash of blood came from which creature, so they took several samples they thought might be from each.
Grace waved them back. “We’re all going up to the cave mouth, behind those trees there, where we can finalize some trades. They are eager to get whatever rations we can part with, and they’ll pay well in gemstones.”
Just inside the cave mouth, they met what must have been a troll in steel armor, carrying a shield and mace. It had to be at least 10 feet tall. He was introduced as “Strong”; he just grunted in acknowledgement. True to their word, a trade was quickly brokered between the Trogs and Hound, and the hams and other foodstuffs were carried off below.
Hound turned to the group. “I asked if I could show Dawn the crystal caves and they were happy to let us go in. Who else wants to come with?”
Sapphire shook her head. “I have to get these blood samples back to the lab before they go bad.”
Hound looked surprised. “You aren’t going alone, are you?”
Animus raised his hand. “I’ll go with Sapphire.”
Sapphire turned to Animus. “I’ll be all right alone. I can use my magic to stay undetected. I can probably link up with Scooter, too.”
Animus stuck out his chin. “I’m not really… comfortable enough with these… Trogs, to put my safety in their hands. I’ll go with you.”
Flummox looked concerned. “What about the wolves? They seem pretty active in this area.”
“My bow ought to be most useful out in the open, where I can see my targets. That’s rough in the mountains and forest — impossible inside a cave.”
Hound shook his head. “No worries. The Trogs are going to send out a major… patrol, I think. Maybe you’d call it a raid, in response to the wolf raid. I think the wolves are going to have a full-scale war on their hands up here in the mountains pretty soon, and through the tunnels back in the mountains, I think. I’m not catching it all. Anyway, their attention is not going to be focused down on the road. You should be safe.”
Grace looked worried. “Hold on a minute. My… er, mission is to try to save the human children who have gone over to the wolves. A lot of them maybe used to be Trogs, some actual wolves, but a lot were humans. I’ve tried to explain to the goblins that they shouldn’t kill the ones that were humans, as it would sour relations with the town. They say those ones are no longer humans. I say we’re going to cure them; they say that’s impossible. I wish I knew how to stop this war from happening. Maybe if I could get to their Chief, or the tribe’s Shaman.”
Flummox nodded. “I think I’d better go back too — see if I can find anybody that can intervene. I’ll add to the escort for whoever’s going back. D-Stract, Grace, maybe you two can find a way to delay the Trogs from starting too much violence until I can see what I can manage in the way of support.”
Hound nodded, and held out the bag of gemstones. “Well then, you better take these back to Mr. S. to hold onto. About half are yours, the rest I’ll credit to the Autumn family, against what I can get for them after I cut & polish them.” He looked eagerly around at the rest. “So, we’re four for spelunking – Me, Dawn, Grace, and D-Stract. Everybody ready?”
Dawn swarmed onto his arm. “This should be fun.”
Trixie got the three humans to the South Bridge Gate, following docilely behind the elf. She refused to actually enter the town, though, so there they were stopped. Doug appeared, bearing his usual scowl.
Rufus waved at him. “You there, we need you to take a message to the stables.”
“I ain’t no messenger boy.”
Rufus put on his stern, commanding look. “This is a medical emergency. We must get these two to the doctors, immediately. Go get Duncan, and tell him to bring two horses, don’t bother with saddles, but bring lots of hay. Now go!”
Doug didn’t look happy, but he went.
Slowly, they got the Charles’s moved safely to the side, and were just unhitching the travois behind Trixie when Duncan arrived, with two horses and lots of hay. The horses were uncertain about meeting an elephant, but Trixie immediately immersed herself in consuming the hay.
While Cleo and Doug lashed the two invalids securely on the backs of the horses, Rufus coaxed Duncan forward. He timidly placed a hand on Trixie’s trunk. “She’s… she’s… beautiful!”
Rufus nodded. “Yes, and she’s going to be your new best friend, if you bring her some hay every day. You can call her like this.” Rufus made a loud trumpeting noise, which was imitated by Duncan, then, to everybody’s surprise, Trixie. Ears ringing, they looked at each other and laughed. “She lives in the woods, but if you call her every time you bring hay, she’ll start coming just to be with you, when you call. She’s awfully lonely, off in those woods.”
Duncan nodded solemnly. “I will. Thanks so much.”
“One other thing – no fire. Trixie is terrified of fire.”
They hurried on towards the castle. As they passed the marketplace, they saw the entertainment troop setting up a new camp. Bonnie was there, running to and fro. “Watch that trash! And no fires! I don’t care what the Earl’s men told you, no fires on the grass!” Cleo looked at Rufus. “No wonder Trixie didn’t want to come into town.”
They continued on to the lab, leading the horses with their unconscious passengers. The interns helped get them inside, and they then debated where to put them. In the end, they moved Iggy and Chessy in together, and set Dan and Dora up with fresh cots in the right-hand cell. “Just in case,” said Nurse Scrubs. She proceeded to get blood samples from both of them, then went to close the barred door, looking meaningfully at Cleo.
Cleo shook her head and sat down on a chair between their cots. “I’ll stay here awhile, in case they wake up and have questions.”
Dr. Zhivaga smiled grimly. “This is quite a breakthrough. Never before have we seen the blue protective cells and the purple cells in the same sample. I think this proves that the purple cells are the infective agent, rather than a secondary infection that comes after the blue cells are lost. Do you notice anything else, Bug?”
Bug shifted uncomfortably. “The two patients are starting from different metabolic points on the aging curve. Since his hair is gray, and her hair is chestnut, the difference in metabolism probably reflected their ages. The progress of the disease may not be the same speeds in the two of them.”
Zhivaga looked at him appraisingly. “Let’s not jump to conclusions, but these two will be very, very interesting to watch over the next couple days. You and I are going to be very busy, logging data. Let’s go to my office and set up a schedule. Ms. Brown, Rufus, thank you so much.”
Rufus coughed. “Are you going to be able to save them?”
“One step at a time.”
Bug checked the first slide after Ms. Brown got it mounted. “I can see from other markers that this is not from a human, but… it seems the… wolf, you say? It was only just a wolf. No sign of infection here.”
All half-dozen samples of blood spatter were essentially the same. Bug gave some interpretation. “Half of these are wolf, half from something more or less human, but all show advanced stages of disease. They are much like the undead samples except lots of red metabolic cells instead of black, of which there are none. Very different from the plain wolf cells.”
Sapphire and Rufus exchanged glances. “They must be mingling together, natural wolves and wolves caused by disease, in the same pack.”
Bug turned to the doctor. “So what does all this mean? How do we stop it?”
Zhivaga just shook her head. “I really have to get some sleep and go over this in the morning with a clear head. Bug, let’s figure out when I need to relieve you.” The two of them headed for her office.
Rufus sighed. “Sounds like a good idea for us too. Back to the inn?”
Sapphire laughed. “If I can drag myself that far.”
Rufus shook his head. “Don’t lay down on one of these cots, or they’ll start sucking the blood out of you, too!”
Sapphire bolted erect. “Right you are! To the inn!”
They checked with Cleo, but she insisted on sitting with the Charles’s, so they left her and headed back to the inn.
With a great sigh of relief, Sapphire reached the door of her room and pushed it open. Then, she froze. All their possessions had been tossed on the floor, and the bedclothes were piled up in mounds. The water pitcher was lying on the floor and the bassinet was overturned. Raising her wand, she took a step forward. Thankfully the oil lamp, on a high shelf, had not been disturbed. Cautiously she lit it, and turned it up bright. There was something extra on one of the beds, something furry and white. It stirred. “Eeek?”
Something warm and soft joined her, and snuggled close. “Eeek!”