by Robin D. Laws
On massive, clawed legs, the forest-beast bounds toward the elves and their captives. Its beady eyes, shielded by rootlike extrusions, seem to lock onto Gad. It stops to snort and paw the ground.
Gad can't help but wonder: why him?
It can't be that he's the only human present. There are two in the press-gang now.
Then he understands: he's bruised and limping from the thrashing Ethundel gave him. He reads as the weakest prey.
Dualal's lesser subordinates pose for flight. Ethundel preempts them, sweeping his sword from the imposing scabbard mounted on his back. "For you, milady!" he bellows. Meadow-grass churning beneath his boots, he runs for the forest-beast. It shifts its attention to the shouting warrior. It charges. Ethundel stands ready to pivot when it reaches him, but misjudges its speed. It butts him full-on. His wiry body flies into the air. He lands with a thud. The creature, spraying leafy sputum, rears to crush him beneath elephantine feet.
Ethundel rolls, seizes the hilt of his dropped sword, and stabs up into the beast's scaly belly. Gouts of pulpy blood gush from the wound. The elf reaches to withdraw his stuck blade. The creature bucks away before he can grasp it. Ethundel pulls out a dagger.
Finally shocked from their daze, his comrades rush with drawn longswords to join him.
Dualal remains in place. She reaches for the spiraled wand strapped to her back. Green energy swirls up the spirals to collect around its globular tip. With a snap of her wrist, Dualal lobs the gathered energy into the air. It arcs onto the creature's back.
The beast freezes in mid-leap. Its position insupportable, it thumps over on its side. Dualal calmly ambles over to it.
The elves have left Gad and the second prisoner on their own.
"Let's go," the young man says.
Gad shakes his head. "They'll catch up," he says, words muffled by the gag.
The creature isn't breathing. The wand's magic has stilled even its involuntary reactions. Dualal, impassive, watches it suffocate. Even in death it remains rigid.
"She wouldn't use that on us, would she?" the prisoner asks.
Gad points to his mouth, as if to say, I can't answer, I'm wearing a gag.
∗ ∗ ∗
For several hours Ethundel leads the party deeper into the wildwood. Signs of corruption grow ever more frequent. The ground cover becomes a slick fungal mass. Blackened spores swell the surfaces of rocks and boulders. Bloated insects the color of corpse-flesh hang like bats from withered branches.
Clustering firs give way to an expanse strewn with vine-choked logs. These thin out as the group trudges into a vast circle of dead vegetation. Diffuse smoke rises from a fire ahead. Temporary shelters, fastidiously constructed from scrap wood, huddle on the edge of a pit. On its lip, elven archers—Gad counts three of them and assumes there will be more—stand with exaggerated ease. Their weapons point down into the hole.
Ethundel seizes Gad by the back of the neck and shoves him onward. He hisses into Gad's ear, his breath hot and vaguely sweet. "Here's where you learn humility, churl."
The pit has been quarried from an earthy soil thick with chunks of shattered limestone. Ethundel manhandles Gad toward its edge. A treacherous ramp composed of loose gravel leads down into the pit. Ethundel means to steer Gad short of it, to heave him directly into the hole. It's a fifteen, maybe twenty-foot drop.
"Good Ethundel!" Dualal warns. Ethundel snarls, changes course, and jostles Gad onto the ramp. The prisoner stumbles, recovers, and slides down to its floor level without twisting an ankle. He contemplates the connection between the elf leader and her chief bullyboy. Not lovers, he decides: It's the wrong kind of heat. It smacks more of an unbidden, unexamined mother-son pull. Perhaps between a mother who has never had a son and a son who has never known his mother. Gad stores the theory for later use.
He surveys his new surroundings. Dried meal coats the side of an empty gruel-pot. Heaps of dirt and gravel periodically shed their pebbles. Planks of fresh-cut deadwood cover a deeper hole in the pit's center.
A dozen prisoners sit in exhausted stupor on hard-packed dirt. Shackles bind their ankles. They are pale, undernourished, water-starved. Eleven humans, three of them women, and a female halfling. Gad gives himself a plausible interval, and checks to see that none of his captors are looking, before seating himself next to the latter.
It hurts to see her in this state. Under chosen circumstances, Vitta would be impeccably turned out. No matter how deep the dungeon, she'd be powdered and rouged, her clothing spotless, her hair piled and secured by an intricate copper lattice. Grime coats her forehead. Her usually plump cheeks have sunk.
"You all right?" he asks.
She stares ahead, speaking without moving her lips. "Remind me again why I got volunteered to get caught first."
"Your expertise in matters subterranean. Your mastery of traps, engineering, hazards..."
"An annoyingly correct answer."
"They've been putting you to work?"
"Also remind me, once this rip is over, to never lift another rock." She steals a sideways glance. "You got kicked around some, too."
"Got to sell the gaffle."
"Speaking of which," she says. She lifts a flat, chalky stone. Beneath it lies a torn rag tied into a bundle. Vitta pats it, eliciting the telltale sound of cut gems rubbing up against each other. "Rubies. Found them down in the works. Behind a locked panel no one else saw."
"Dualal naturally insists that all swag is turned over to her, to disperse as she deems fit."
"Naturally. You've got that look."
"That look that says we're not going to get to keep these." Vitta replaces the stone.
"We're here for the big steal."
"This little steal could feed a village for a year."
"Not that you'd use it for that."
His expression kept safely flat, Gad laughs.
"Bad tidings," Vitta says, shifting her eye-line to guide Gad's gaze.
Ethundel has taken aside one of the humans. Unlike the others, this man wears no shackles. He towers above the elf warrior, outweighing him by fifty pounds of muscle. He's all jaw and naked cranium, framing a pinched and narrow face. The elf speaks into his cauliflowered ear. He nods obediently.
"That's Stokh," says Vitta.
"Let me guess. Jailhouse stooge."
"There's always one," says Vitta.
"Ethundel has taken a dislike to me."
"Looks like I'll have to watch my back."
"So nothing new, then."
Stokh breaks from Ethundel. He attempts to be subtle as he assesses Gad.
"Better break for a while."
Vitta hobbles away from him. Half an hour later, when the elven guards are inattentive, they drift back together.
"Want the breakdown on the complex?"
"Sure," says Gad.
"Two thousand years old, give or take. Definitely elven. Not purpose-built, but a reuse of an existing structure. The room forms are organic. Shaped as if the roots of a gigantic tree withdrew to somewhere else, leaving behind a hollow. It's all wood and earth, eternally suspended in a state between dead plank and living plant."
"What did they use it for? The elves who built it, or grew it, or whatever?"
"Originally? Vaults. Probably a treasury and armory. Quite a full one, judging by the size of the place. There's royal crests everywhere."
"Am I an expert on the heraldry of second-millennium backwoods elven royalty? You should have brought Calliard."
"He's not to be found. And yes, I also hate small-team rips. But there's a limit to the number of captures we could believably fake."
"I'm complaining, not re-airing the plan," says Vitta. "At any rate, the complex. Maybe sometime after it was first excavated, it became a shelter for noncombatants in a time of war."
"Something has to be going badly, for elves to live belowground."
"That's understatement for you. And then its last use: Like we thought, a prison. To keep something in, and to prevent any bunch of later fools from letting it out. Once they had it sealed in, they laid in a gaggle of impressive traps and filled the whole thing up with rocks and dirt."
"You figure they got the plants to do that for them, too?"
"No, they did it by hand. Whatever's in there, they truly wanted it to stay."
"And you reckon it did?"
"If it got out, it was through tons of tightly packed debris, not to mention some very impressive traps."
"So preferably, we steer well clear of it."
"Preferably," says Vitta.
∗ ∗ ∗
In the morning they are roused with sword-butts. Elven guards kick them until they stand. They remove the prisoners' shackles, clanking them into a heap. The longer-held captives know what to do: they pull the boards from the hole within the hole.
"Down you go," the amber-headed elf commands.
The prisoners form a queue. One by one they descend into a shaft, climbing with the aid of precarious spikes thrust into stone and root.
"We want to be near the front," Vitta tells Gad.
He edges in, with Vitta right behind him. The others are happy to give him his berth. The forward part of the job is evidently the hardest and most hazardous.
Stokh sees him and pushes his way into the line, too. The wretched captives seem surprised. Gad guesses that he doesn't generally take point.
The shaft takes them twenty feet down, where it meets a narrow tunnel. Metal buckets line the passage.
Stokh shoulders Gad into the rocky wall. He presses, pinning him there. "You're not going to cause trouble here."
"Why do you care?" Gad demands.
Stokh stinks of brandy, a provision not granted the other prisoners. "We're nearly there. Then the elves let us go. Safe. Don't you ruin it."
Before Gad can reply, Stokh storms down to the head of the procession.
Ethundel is up ahead.
Gad strides up behind Stokh. He waits. Then speaks: "Hey, bald-head. What liberties do you allow the elves, in trade for that brandywine?"
At first Stokh is too shocked to move. He recovers, turns, and swings a knobby fist. Gad ducks. He pushes into the bigger man. Stokh grabs him and shoves, pushing Gad into Ethundel. The elf withdraws, stiffening in revulsion.
"Cease this now, louse-ridden scum!"
Gad slips past to catch up with Vitta.
Stokh's outraged breathing fills the passageway.
The tunnel jogs to bypass a formation of hard quartz. Vitta grabs Gad by the back of the tunic. He stops short before brushing a section of quartz slathered in a wet, gluey substance. Above it juts a copper spout, now stuffed with rags. A man's corpse, mummified by the glue, adheres to the rock.
"Glue trap," says Vitta.
"I can see that," says Gad.
The passageway abruptly ends. Its rough terminal wall grants room for four laborers to have at it with pick-axes. Vitta takes an axe for herself, and hands another to Gad.
"Welcome to the hole," she says.
They dig, freeing stones, releasing cascades of dry soil. Other prisoners scurry up to gather the debris into buckets. They send it brigading down the passageway, each bucket passed from hand to hand.
They toil until they're dizzy and ready to drop. Their captors dole out miserly portions of water and gruel. When workers waver, the swordpoints come out.
By the time they're allowed to stumble from the excavation, night has fallen. Gad staggers to the wall of the outer pit and collapses. Sleep takes him immediately.
When he awakens, it is with Stokh's steely fingers around his windpipe.
Coming Next Week: Death and politics in Chapter Three of "The Ironroot Deception"!
Robin D. Laws is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel The Worldwound Gambit—also starring Gad—and six other novels, as well as various short stories, web serials, and comic books, plus a long list of roleplaying game products. His novels include Pierced Heart, The Rough and the Smooth, and the Angelika Fleischer series for the Black Library. Robin created the classic RPG Feng Shui and such recent titles as Mutant City Blues, Skulduggery, and the newly redesigned HeroQuest 2. His previous fiction for the Pathfinder campaign setting includes "Plague of Light" in the Serpent's Skull Adventure Path. Those interested in learning more about Robin are advised to check out his blog.
Art by J. P. Targete.