Mountain of a Thousand Caves
“Now what?” Elandra thrust the question at Haril like a sword stroke.
Haril winced. “You see where it looks like two beady eyes next to one another? Right above that, there’s an opening.”
Daen followed Haril’s gaze up the boulder-filled slope, illuminated only by the brightness of the moon. “What type of lookout will there be?”
“There’s a shallow shelf at the entrance with a single sentry.”
It had taken hours to reach the base of the Grogund-Dejedru Ridge and then an excruciating march without the aid of torches along the valley that bordered the rocky slopes. Exhaustion had set in and bodies slouched, which might have explained Elandra’s irritability, thought Daen.
Elandra grabbed Haril roughly by the jerkin. “You better not be lying about any of this, or you’ll be the first to die.”
“I-I’m not lying.”
“What do you think?” she asked Ren.
The swordsman gave a tired grin. “You know I believe everyone is telling the truth.”
Her upper lip curled in a snarl. “I mean about the climb.”
“It’s light enough, I suppose.” Ren looked critically toward the sky. “But should the clouds roll in, we’ll be climbing blind.”
“Then we shall start at first sign of the sun.”
“If I may,” Daen interjected. Perhaps on edge himself, he tired of Elandra snapping off commands as if she always knew best. “I have some experience in these matters. It would be best to begin at once. If we wait, we will not make it up the mountain until the sun is shining brightly, and by then even a lazy and drunk sentry would see us coming.”
“I trust your experience is in sentry duty and not being lazy and drunk,” Renaldo said.
“I was trained as a sentinel on the Isle of Nalesc.”
“Is that so?” He gave a nod of respect then turned back to scan the ridge. “I hear they start them young.”
“Since a boy of ten.”
“Then we will take your word for it. Just know these canyons often kick up wind unexpectedly and with gusto—similar to El’s temper. If this happens during a night climb, where visibility is also poor…” He shuddered at the notion.
“Ren is not too keen on heights,” Elandra said.
“I prefer my feet planted firmly on the ground.”
“Regardless,” she continued, “The pretty boy might have a point. We’ll proceed two at a time. The first pair will deal with the lookout and lower a rope as far as possible. The rest of us shall follow, climbing the rocks to the rope. Understood?” A nodding of heads all around. “Now, do we have any volunteers for a midnight climb?”
“I’ll go,” Daen said in a peevish tone. While Elandra might not have meant it so, the implication that he was good for little else than to be looked at was an insult to the highest degree. There were those in his family who would wear the “pretty boy” moniker well, but Daen refused to fall in with them. Copius raised his hand, only to have Selgrin pull it down. Daen wasn’t sure what the monk was thinking. He had a hard enough time staying upright on even ground—in daylight.
“I might as well,” said Selgrin. Before anyone could comment about his lack of a hand, he transformed in an athletic-looking Camerian with two working ones.
Renaldo looked pleased. “Then we’re settled.”
The Grogund-Dejedru Ridge was made up entirely of boulders stacked upon boulders, as though some enormous creature had piled them up. The name meant “the giant’s playground” in Rogrom, given back in a time that predated the humans. If not for how steeply the boulders were stacked—that and the lack of proper light to see where they were going—climbing these mountains would have been relatively easy.
Daen took the lead and ascended carefully, mindful that one misstep could send him tumbling downward. About halfway up the rocky slope, he almost did just that. He grabbed what he thought was the edge of a larger rock, but the stone came loose in his hand. Only a solid grip with his other hand kept him rooted to the side of the mountain.
An hour into the climb, an opening in the rocks revealed the shelf with a sentry carrying a shuttered lantern that gave off a dull glow. Much closer and they would be spotted for sure.
Daen found what he was looking for another twenty feet up: a narrow landing where he would have room to use his crossbow. Getting there would require some tricky climbing. He used his head to motion to Sel where he was going and received a nod in response.
The last treacherous stretch lay over some of the largest boulders he had seen, monolithic and smooth, impossible to grip. He could think of but one way to ascend. He propelled himself upward with his legs, grappling the boulder above in a broad embrace, feet dangling as he lifted his body up to the lip of the boulder to try the same procedure all over again. His arms were wrapped around the second to last boulder when the moon ducked behind the scudding clouds, leaving him in utter darkness. All he could do was hang from his position until the light returned.
He attempted to keep his thoughts from the strain in his arms and shoulders. Not an easy task. He had trained his awareness and mental precision for so many years it had become second nature. To let his mind wander was like allowing a heavy breeze to blow him off his feet.
“You can’t help what you are.” The words floated down to him through the darkness. The titter at the end was undeniably Elise.
“Always flitting around like a butterfly,” he answered with grunt.
“Says the grasshopper. Hop, hop away from your homeland.” He imagined her mimicking the bouncing insect—anything to keep his mind from his discomfort. “You can’t hide forever. That highborn warrior woman knows your secret.”
Daen kept his voice barely above whisper. “I can abide her that as long as she does not reveal me. You know what awaits if I am taken back to Nalesc.” He realized how stupid he appeared, hanging from a boulder, talking to himself.
“Even now, you’re telling yourself that I’m not really here.”
“You are dead,” he replied through gritted teeth. He could not hang on much longer.
“And you better not forget it.”
Anything more she said, he blocked out. Another string of her taunting and he might have thrown himself off the mountain.
The darkness endured. What he needed was a focus away from the numbing pain. He turned his attention to a sentinel trick to keep the mind awake: counting.
1, 2, 3… 4, 5, 6…
A torturous burn spread from his shoulders to his elbows. He considered making a blind leap to the next rock but dismissed the idea as folly. Not only would he have to make a precise jump in utter darkness, but he would have to do it twice to reach the landing.
16, 17, 18… 19, 20, 21…
The wind swept up around him, not enough to threaten his position, but enough to remind him things could be worse.
31, 32, 33… 34, 35, 36…
He pressed his face against the rock, hoping a new source of pain would distract him.
He had begun to consider leaving his arms behind when the clouds drifted past and the moon shed its light once more. He propelled himself to the boulder above, then one last time to the landing, pulling his body up and over.
The cold night air raised gooseflesh beneath his sweat-drenched shirt, and he shivered uncontrollably. He rolled onto his back, taking short, erratic breaths. When his breathing settled and the flaming appendages that were his arms reverted to normal, he got up on a knee, took his crossbow out, and added a bolt to the loading chamber.
The sentry now stood well within range, although Daen had no way of knowing how far into the cave behind him the bandit encampment lay. He needed to work quietly, with a single shot, to avoid alerting anyone else.
He braced himself against a rock surface, his heart beating steadily in his ears as he aimed and let loose a bolt.
The Camerian that Selgrin had chosen to impersonate was working out nicely. His strong arms and legs made the climb a breeze, and the light hair and skin helped him blend in with the moonlight-bleached boulders. He could see the bandit sentry hunched forward, shivering against the frigid night air. Then a bolt pierced his neck and sent him tumbling down the mountain, and Sel concluded he would never be cold again.
The rest of the climb went quickly. Once Selgrin pulled himself onto the shelf, he tied one end of the rope he was carrying around three separate large rocks and lowered the slack down the side. He was about to light a torch and wave it as a signal to those below when someone called out from behind him.
“Better not be sleeping, Kalfer.”
Dronilowyn’s luck! He needed to transform fast, while darkness and distance still hid his actions. He hadn’t gotten a good look at the sentry before he’d tumbled down the mountain, but maybe without scrutiny it would be good enough. His vision blurred as the shape-shifting completed, so he stayed down, pretending to admire the view.
A hand gripped his shoulder. “You’re not fooling anybody,” said the newcomer. His other hand held a longsword. “You can pretend to be all serious, but we all know you sleep half the time anyhow. Now get going inside, unless you want to take my watch as well.”
Selgrin rose, turning away so only his profile would be seen. The hand on his shoulder moved with him before tightening its grip and spinning him back around.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Selgrin now faced this man who knew “Kalfer” much better than he. They were both standing a foot from the edge of the shelf. The newcomer was examining the ground all around their feet. “You didn’t drop it, did you?”
The lantern—of course. The original sentry had taken it with him in his fall. Selgrin didn’t dare speak. He lowered his head in shame.
“I knew you’d been sleeping, you moron. Bastal’s going to hear of this—hey, what’s that?”
The man had spotted the rope. Things were about to get ugly. Selgrin decided against drawing his weapon, knowing his enemy’s brandished sword would strike first. As the man squatted down for a closer look, a better idea presented itself.
Selgrin’s palms were already thrusting outward when the sentry became aware that something was amiss. Dropping his weapon, the man reached up and latched onto Selgrin’s wrist—he would not be going over the shelf alone. Searched Selgrin’s face his eyes widened as he realized it wasn’t Kalfer he was dealing with.
The combatants pushed and tugged, each trying to gain the upper hand. At one point they pulled in the same direction and came apart. Selgrin nearly stumbled off the side. By the time he gathered his feet, the sentry was sprinting down the narrow passageway into the mountain.
In a few precious moments, the alarm would be sounded and they would all feel the repercussions; first the queen, then their rescue party, and eventually Mayalordrel.
A bolt whistled by his ear and sank into the back of the departing sentry. Selgrin glanced back. Daen stood at the edge of the landing with his crossbow. The fleeing man fell hard and called out for help twice before Sel silenced him with his broadsword. All they could hope for now was that the sentry’s cries had not been heard.
Selgrin and Daen waited on the shelf, weapons ready. If armed company arrived, they alone would take the brunt.
“If they don’t come back…” Elandra threatened a petrified Haril.
“You worry too much, El,” said Renaldo.
“What if he lied about the number of lookouts they have?”
And why had they been silent so long? It had been an eternity since Copius had side-stepped the body of the dead sentry tumbling down the mountain. Shouldn’t Sel had given them the signal by now? He peered up the mountain; nothing but boulders stacked ever higher until they were just shadows against the night sky.
Ren shrugged. “They survived the rats at your inn. Certainly they can handle some of these vermin.”
“One of these days, Ren, you’ll be sleeping at the inn when the king of the rats comes for you with all his minions.”
“Why else do you think I hone my sword skill?”
A fire swayed high above them—finally, the signal they’d been waiting for.
Elandra grabbed her gear and headed up with Dubree. Copius inserted himself next. He never liked to be in the back. As the saying went, last in line was first to be left behind.
“No.” Her tone was adamant. “Ren, untie the prisoner and follow me. The monk will be our anchor.”
The way she said it was as if she thought he was dead weight. It wasn’t the first time he was regarded as such, though it didn’t hurt any less.
Copius followed the others up. They climbed the less severe, first part of the mountain as Sel and Daen had. The night was still, the moon bright enough to find the best handholds.
“I thought the sentinel and dogar just made this look easy,” said Renaldo, “but it’s actually not so bad.”
“Leopold the Lucky said those same words—right before his ship hit a maelstrom,” said Elandra.
As if in response to the comment, the wind whipped at Copius’s robes.
“Get going.” Ren nudged Haril, who had stopped climbing.
“I’m adjusting,” said Haril.
Copius could no longer hear his words. A surge of wind gusted and swirled, wailing as it threatened to hurl them from the mountain.
“Dig in!” hollered Elandra above the gale.
Copius found a hole between rocks and wedged his hand inside. He looked up to see Dubree struggling to keep his footing, sliding past Elandra. Ren grasped his breeches. It seemed to steady him for a moment, but then a new billow of air blasted the mountainside, and he tumbled backward.
Copius braced himself as Dubree plummeted toward him like the lead boulder in a landslide. He made a fist with his wedged hand, bracing himself—and then Dubree’s weight slammed into him. He wrapped a free arm around Dubree. The sheer force of impact might have torn his wrist off if he hadn’t used the kertaskai hergetra to make his skin as tough as steel. Even so, he felt fortunate the entire side of the mountain was not ripped free.
The wind refused to be denied. It clawed and twisted, attempting to peel them loose, until it finally blew itself out.
Elandra climbed down and offered Dubree her hand. “You okay?”
He gave a dazed nod and accepted her help.
“Good thing we had our anchor.” She gave Copius a wink before resuming her climb.
No dead weight here.
A third of the way up, they reached the end of the rope Sel had dropped for them. Elandra tied it around the nearest boulder, pulling it taut. They climbed in single file. At the top, Daen and Selgrin were waiting to help them onto the shelf.
The moment Copius pulled himself over the edge, the winds turned violent again, threatening to sweep him backward into oblivion. They all scrambled to find anything that provided stability—all but Haril, who seemed immune. The wind bent around him even as it pounded everyone else. He made harsh gestures, and sheets of air came one after another like waves in the ocean.
Copius clung to a rock on the edge of shelf. Why hadn’t he realized what Haril was sooner? The wind kept them pinned while the air elementalist made a run for it through the cavern opening. Only when he disappeared from view did the gusts lessen enough to allow Copius to force his way across the shelf.
By the One, he will not escape. With Daen at his heels, he angled into the mountain, emerging into a large chamber where an encampment had been made within a circle of torches. Haril stood inside, rousing men and calling out orders as he roughly handled a hooded woman. Judging by her frame, she was surely the queen.
A dozen men were grabbing for weapons, a number substantially higher than they had been led to believe. Haril pulled his captive by the arm, directing his men to deal with the intruders while he escaped to the far side of the encampment.
Elandra drew her sword behind Copius. “Let them feel the sting of retribution!” She rushed into a group of three bandits, parrying and ducking as they attempted to overwhelm her. Renaldo followed her into the thick of things, making opponents appear clumsy as he brushed away their blades.
Copius headed straight for Haril and his captive, wrecking two bandits along the way. His sandal collapsed the windpipe of one, and a fist knocked the other flat. Daen had pushed past him to go after Haril. When Copius caught up, they were at the end of a long passageway that ended with an opening in the mountain.
Haril held his captive at the edge. “You wouldn’t want to be the one responsible for the queen’s death, would you?”
Daen dropped his weapon and held out his hands. “You cannot climb down the mountain with her. Let her go, and I promise to return her to the others before pursuing you.”
“Such an honorable offer,” said Haril. “You might take it back if you knew what I really am.” And then with the queen in his arms, he turned and jumped down the mountainside.
“No!” Daen crumpled to his knees.
Copius rushed to edge. This side of the mountain was sheer. Haril and the queen were speeding toward its bottom. In a matter of moments, they would be dead.
A jet of air burst upward, shoving him back into the cavern. He forced his head back out, fighting to keep his eyes open against the blasting airstream. Haril and the queen were riding a channel of wind to the ground.
Copius twisted around. “They’re okay.”
Daen joined him, looking relieved despite watching their quarry drift out of sight.
Elandra approached with the others. “Where’s Haril?”
While she left it unspoken, Copius translated her question to Where’s the queen? They had to be careful. As far as Renaldo and Dubree knew, the queen was sleeping peacefully back at the inn.
Daen was still looking down the mountain. “He escaped. The wind guided him to the ground along with a woman.”
“Then he is lost to us.”
“Not yet,” said a gravelly voice. “Move out of my way.” Selgrin was beginning to shift, growing smaller in size and longer at the arms. Black and white feathers sprouted from his skin, and his lips pulled inward before hardening into a grayish beak that curved downward.
Sadly, the bird wasn’t big enough for Copius to climb on board. Sel shook his feathered head, as if he knew what Copius was thinking, then stepped to the window and took off into the night.
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