Xoniuqé did not sleep at all. In his mind were the old memories of this place, or rather, the underground "city" that still lay far below where they were camped. Coupled with those images of empirical experience, were the metaphysical ones given to him in the "misty menagerie". Incomplete though they were, two features stood out in his mind until everything else became insignificant. The "pit of the god", in the back of the alcove, behind the large dais in the gigantic hall, below the gallery. And the other twisting staircase that none of them had seen yet. The one at the extreme opposite end from the "pit" and "forest of pillars", at the far end of the crypt directly under them. He cast about in his mind, hoping for another staircase to take shape there, that would take them down from here to the under "city". But nothing else was there in the fragmentary mental images of the layout of this place.
Speaking of "pits", there was, of course, the well shaft, which undoubtedly serviced all the levels where living quarters were. But a long, exhausting, treacherous descent to some lower level seemed even more folly than a rapid rush through the crypt to gain the twisting staircase. Where there was a well there was likely to be occupation, alerted by the noise of their descent, long before they arrived. Stupid idea! The "pit of the god", by its very name in Ahkrysyohs's mind, did not invite violation. The name bore some significance to Ghrusoq's guise as a deity. But it was a mystery rite secret that even the Apostle did not know. There was a "sacred ground" aspect to the "pit". Occasional sacrificial offerings were cast into it, including the living and the dead. It would be less terrifying to face the thousands of dead in the crypt, than to hazard the "pit of the god".
He didn't know for certain that the interred thousands between them and the circular staircase in his mind would arise to defend the passageways of the crypt. But Tarn Chasm held such a ward. And so why not the very home of the necromancer? Why, then, had the dead not stirred when they had stood on the very threshold of the crypt? How could they be sure? And if they were somehow to determine that such a ward existed in the crypt, what then? Could they gain the stairs and hold them with a rearguard? Or would the dead emerge from their graves in such numbers and with such speed that the living would be buried in foes, long before they could reach the stairs?
And with such thoughts burning in his head, the wizard spent both watches with his eyes closed, his breathing deep and slow and calm, but not a wink of sleep did he enjoy.
Everyone got ready to move out. Xoniuqé wasn't sure enough in his own mind about the circular stairs until the party started to explore in the next chamber. He stopped in the middle of the floor and everyone looked at him, wondering. "I see this as pointless," he explained. "We will just waste time checking out many rooms on either hand, and nothing in them leads down. We must go down. So, we must brave the crypt."
And they did. The broad corridor of the crypt was almost swept clean by the passage of many feet. So clearly it was not a dangerous place to living beings. And sure enough, they reached the end of the long corridor and turned left and continued half that distance down the darkened tunnel until they came to the doorway leading to the twisting staircase on their right.
This went around and down until they lost count of the revolutions. Then they came to a closed but unlocked door and passed from the staircase to an unoccupied room of generous size. After opening the single door ahead they saw a passageway leading off into blackness, which midway along its length was intersected by another on their right, while ahead the one they were following dropped by steep stairs. Not far along the side passageway were stairs leading up. Xoniuqé probed with his will and felt a faint superiority in choosing the way to the right, and up. This way reached a landing and then the hallway continued on. They arrived at a corner and went left and proceeded a modest distance to where the passageway turned left with a door on their right at the angle. Opening this door showed a narrow ridge, like a causeway, spanning deep chasms on either hand. Their flickering torchlight barely picked out a closed door set in the rock wall at the opposite end.
Here, Xoniuqé began to talk almost animatedly. "We've been here before," he said, addressing Lorinkh. He nodded toward the passage opposite the doorway. Hurrying his step, the wizard led them down it and into another largish, bare room. And at the sight of a stone door in the flanking wall, he nodded with satisfaction and went over to it. "See, along the edge you can tell that a hole above the floor has been repaired. We made that hole! While being pursued and while some of us defended the entrance" (he waved a hand toward the passageway that led here), "I helped weaken the stone while Lorinkh here bashed away at it with his war hammer. When it was big enough to shuffle through on our backs, that's what we did, with alacrity, I can assure you! Beyond this door, which I see is closed to the outside but not from this side, this time ..." (and suiting actions to words, they tried it and swung the ponderous stone portal ajar). Wordlessly, they looked up an angled, narrow way that faded out to blackness beyond their torches and the wizard light on his staff. "That's our way out, then," he said.
And he led them back to the angle where the ridge stood out above the chasms. He stepped aside to allow Lorinkh, Myrdagyn, Ahnxst and Khrohm to lead out across the narrow way. That path had no rails or side walls, so everyone tended to cluster into a single file in the middle as they went. The door at the opposite end was unlocked. Entering it, the leaders found themselves in a large empty chamber with two more closed doors, one at the right end and another opposite. The floor was covered in dust. The passage of many feet marked the direct way in the dust to either door.
Xoniuqé suddenly stiffened and turned back to the ridge. "They are coming," he said. "The Apostle has raised the dead in the crypt. They will be attacking us very soon." His voice echoed in the air over the chasms.
As everyone fell silent and listened, a clear sound of mixed shuffling steps and clink of weapons and armor could be heard emanating from the doorway that they had come through to reach the causeway. Lorinkh had Khrohm choose several Legionaries to hold the far end of the causeway. Everyone else finished moving into the room with the three doors.
They tried the right hand door first and found it locked from the other side. "Don't waste your time and energies," the illusionist said to Mehlkohr, the worker of fire. "I sense nothing in that direction as yet. But through yonder door I am beginning to feel the presence of our adversary. He is not far away!"
So, their party was now between.
The left hand door opened to their efforts, revealing a room roughly twice the size as that in which they stood. Across the dusty floor the foot prints led to a black opening in the far left corner which could but dimly be seen. The vanguard went swiftly across the dusty floor and entered the passageway. Moving ahead of the others, Myrdagyn and Lorinkh came very soon to a corner where it turned right. On their left at the angle was a door that did not yield to their attempts to open it. And dead ahead, an equal distance away as the room behind, the passageway ended at another closed door. This they tried but found it also locked. They withdrew to the angle.
On his own initiative, Mehlkohr unlocked the door at the far end with a prepared spell. No sooner had he done this "service", when Xoniuqé exclaimed. "Big Juju is coming!" He pointed his staff at the door they had just retreated from. As if his words were an announcement, the door suddenly swung back, and advancing through it came rank on rank of bronze-armored Balogim from the Seven Hells!
"Back! Everyone back to the room!" said Myrdagyn.
But Mehlkohr did not seem to agree. Pushing in front of the "greatest swordsman who ever lived", the rescued wizard and his two bodyguards faced the oncoming enemy. Now, just visible over their horned helmets, and just the other side of the doorframe, could be seen a litter born upon the shoulders of undead soldiers, and on that litter was a throne, and seated there was a lichlike form. Little more could be discerned from this first glimpse. And besides, there wasn't time for scrutiny: the Balogim, with leveled spears and presented round swirl shields, were closing the gap swiftly enough, their eye sockets glittering with red dots of fire.
Mehlkohr gestured and belched forth a gout of flame, which instantly took a clearly humanoid form and advanced greedily up the passageway to confront their enemies. The first two Balogim that the flaming elemental reached were enveloped and almost instantly consumed. The elemental, which looked disturbingly like a slightly enlarged image of Mehlkohr himself, continued on into the next pair of Balogim, and the next beyond that. Mehlkohr's eyes bugged in his swarthy head, his full beard fairly bristling with the static electricity of his sorcery. His gestures and shouted words followed up his creation. Everyone behind the wizard, including Xoniuqé, were impressed. Wasting no time, the fire wielding magician pressed the elemental to the doorway itself. Behind it the floor was littered with blackened shields and weapons, and pieces of scorched bronze armor and smoking helmets, now emptied of bones, which had been reduced to ashes and glowing embers scattered from wall to wall.
Before the elemental could pass beyond the door, it swung shut with a resounding boom! The blazing fingers surged up against the stone frame and walls and the humanoid shape morphed against the rocks and licked at the ancient wood surface of the door. But before the fire could do more than compromise the strength of the joined timbers, Mehlkohr's sorcery was spent and the fire went out. He sagged for a moment, breathing heavily.
Lorinkh hefted his borrowed ax and stepped past the wizards to the door. In a few minutes he had the fire eaten wood sundered. Beyond, the passageway was deserted.
Meanwhile, in their rear, the holding force of Legionaries at the causeway had thrown two rounds of heavy javelins into the oncoming mass of foegim, then met the flood with hand strokes. They backed across the ridge, fighting as they went. Two Legionaries perished over the chasms before the last two made it through the doorway and into the room.
The Drulathim formed a "box" around the open doorway and met Ahkrysyohs's minions there, dispatching pair after pair of them. Ancient foegim flew in brittle, dusty pieces in every direction and yet kept coming and coming and coming. The ridge was choked full with them. Many fell silently over the edges on either hand and yet more replaced the fallen. The doorway beyond was packed with their ranks. In the midst of them, a massive Urtuk foeg in full armor came up and engaged the Legionaries for a time, slaying one of their numbers before finally being cut to pieces and pushed off the ridge into the black abyss. Fighting at the doorway continued and another Legionary was cut down. Others were wounded. This could not go on for very long!
Behind this increasingly desperate holding action, the sturdy imperial axmen stood before the locked door, just in case. Horgand and Nouvzé formed a sort of rearguard or reserve in the center of the room.
The remnant from Uhrbum Mhortuorum had passed into the next room and stood there hearing the sounds of combat emanating from the first room, and Mehlkohr's shouting and the roar of his fire elemental coming from the passageway beyond. This second sound ceased as the elemental burned out. The sounds of Lorinkh's ax on the door boomed and thudded echoing down the passageway and into the chamber.
Lorinkh explored beyond the burned and sundered door. The way was bisected a short distance off by a cross passage, and on the far side of that intersection the present passageway ended at yet another door. At the intersection, the Drulath could see that the way on the right seemed to terminate in a cul-de-sac. To the left it went a short distance and then emerged into a cavern where the path crossed by bridge over the deeps to a closed door. Evidently, the litter-born enemy and his troops had retreated in one or more of those directions. Nonplused, Lorinkh withdrew to the others and they began to quickly discuss what course to pursue, whether or not to try and follow, and if so, which way, or stand their ground and await Ghrusoq's pleasure.
Suddenly, before their eyes, the men of Uhrbum Mhortuorum saw, to their horror, a narrow section in the bare stone wall drop out of sight into the floor! Before they could hardly draw breath to shout an alarm, rank on rank of Balogim shield and spear rushed them! Tittering hungrily, the flaming-eyed minions of Balog of the Seven Hells thrust and hacked at the outnumbered "crusaders" from the city of the dead. Fighting stubbornly to the last, these worthies were pressed to the walls and corners behind and slain to a man.
Behind them, in the chamber they had recently passed through, Lorinkh and the other heroes counseling in the passageway suddenly heard the sounds of screams and weapons clanging and thudding. By the time Ahnxst and Khrohm had rounded the corner and gone down the passageway to the room, Balogim packed the entry in serried ranks, spears leveled and shields overlapped. Khrohm paused. But Ahnxst in his youthful bravado before his peers charged straight into the waiting spears and shields. Cursing under his breath, Khrohm leaped forward to keep at the exposed left flank of the vainglorious, reckless nephew of the legendary Lorinkh.
Like ten pins, the leading rank of Balogim were knocked off their feet. Some stood up readily enough, others struggled in the press of combat to rise. Then Ahnxst was knocked down and fought desperately against odds. As he gained his feet again, he received a wound and was shocked back to his senses. "Had enough of this?" Khrohm practically screamed at him. Nodding, the bleeding Drulath youth backed with the captain of five hundred into the narrow confines of the passage, where they could fight on even terms. Over the sounds of their own combat, the pair of Drulath warriors could hear the shrill cries of their allies from Uhrbum Mhortuorum being done to death.
More Balogim flowed into the room.
At the angle in the passageway, Xoniuqé opened the door with his sorcery. It banged against the stone wall behind. A short length of passageway ahead was intersected by another at right angles. It was by that one that the Balogim were entering the room where the men of Uhrbum Mhortuorum lay in their gore. The party was split in two! And even as the door swung wide, the wizard, Myrdagyn and the others could see the litter-born lich pass through this intersection and out of sight toward the room. His guard of foegim remained to block the way.
Shouting war cries, Myrdagyn and the two women warriors charged up the passage and into their waiting enemies. Cutting and hewing and bashing their way to the intersection, they overlaid the floor in pulverized corpses, body parts and pieces of armor and weaponry.
Behind them, Lorinkh turned left to join his kinsmen in the mouth of the passageway. So too did Mehlkohr and his pair of swordsmen. He saw the stiff fight between the Drulathim and the minions of the necromancer, who seemed to keep entering the room from some unseen source. And so, of course, it was: for Ghrusoq was there now, inside the room, his litter facing both combats in both passageways, summoning Balogim seemingly almost at will to replace his losses. While the fighting occupied such narrow frontages, the Balogim losses were occasional. So were the wounds of the heroes. The fight could go on long enough at this rate to exhaust them. For the undead know nothing of physical stamina or its limitations!
Mehlkohr made another tactical decision. Drawing on what physical energies he possessed, he summoned his will and engaged in the creation of another flame elemental. This one appeared as the first, but with less initial vigor. Mehlkohr seemed tasked somewhat as he "pumped it up", literally blowing life into it and enlarging it, before sending it into the room, moving it behind and around the rear of the Drulathim, who had made a concerted effort to expand their front into the room and out of the way! The elemental met the first pair of Balogim and they were engulfed and consumed in short order. Mehlkohr stepped into the opening to the room and guided his creation skillfully around the melee, which his two swordsmen also joined. Another Balog warrior turned to flaming bone dust, its bronze armor falling to the stone floor, the various pieces rocking briefly there with glowing edges smoldering.
More Balogim magically appeared in the center of the room, before the litter-born lich on the throne. As the heroes snatched concerned glances at this evil looking prodigy, no one could detect the slightest evidence of movement in the corpse on the throne. Like statuary, the litter, the throne with its lich and the foegim bearers, stood in immovable silence like some kind of life-size ornament. Yet moment by moment, sometimes one or several at a time, more Balogim spearmen appeared and entered the uneven fight. It would be steadily in favor of the forces of evil, if not for the flame wizard and his all-consuming alter ego! Wreathing flames incinerated Balogim, and more advanced to interdict the approaching fire. But now the numbers of those appearing were merely replacing the ones being destroyed. There seemed to be in fact some limitation to Ghrusoq's necromancy after all!
When Myrdagyn and Auhxalys and Sehlinah finally arrived through the concealed portal and entered the room to engage the Balogim and foegim clustered before that portal, Xoniuqé, following immediately behind, got his first clear view of their enemies and began to banish them one by one.
This aid actually seemed to form a tipping point. No longer were Balogim appearing at the same rate as they were being burned up, banished or dispatched in the melee. The numbers of Balogim diminished! The heroes took heart!
"Get to him!" shouted Lorinkh. "Ghrusoq, you rotting rectum! I'm going to kill you, AGAIN!"
And his battle cry infused the others and they hewed and smashed down with might and main. Bones shattered and ancient bronze armor fell apart and shields clanged tottering to the floor to be kicked aside. The entire room was a chaos of flashing weapons and screaming throats, tittering voices from beyond the grave and the roar of flames!
In the other room, the desperate holding action got suddenly more so. The locked door before the axmen suddenly ripped open and the staircase beneath it was jammed with rank upon rank of Urtukim, led by no less a foe than Glushslug himself. He had received his marching orders hours ago. And at the opportune moment, so deemed by Ahkrysyohs, had flung himself at the head of his men into the fight. Now it raged on three fronts. First one and then another axman went down swiftly before the hooked two-handed sword of the Urtuk chieftain. But they resisted stubbornly despite their casualties. Glushslug was over-eager to push beyond the doorway and into the room, and suddenly he was knocked off his feet by the dying movements of one of his victims. A pair of axmen pressed into the doorway, seeking to end his miserable Ekbashim life before he could get back up!
But the foegim pushing ever forward from the ridge had caused many casualties amongst the Legionaries. Their ranks were thinned. Foegim began to push them back and jostled forward into the doorway. Ahkrysyohs could be seen in the midst of the span of bridge, commanding his minions on past him. The best of his troops were packed around him. And suddenly another massive foeg Urtuk in full armor burst into the doorway. The Drulathim holding force was starting to give way under overwhelming numbers!
(to be continued ...)