"Are you sure it's here?" Trilaina whispered.
Chaplain nodded, thick brown braid bobbing. "See there and there, the stress fracture lines they tried to hide? And how the stone around it is worn smooth, but this one spot is chiseled? It's been here a while, but it still doesn't fit here."
"Dwarves know their rocks," Gunner said as he watched their back trail. As far as his eyes were concerned, it was still as bright as daylight, even with a sky empty of anything except stars.
"My father was a stonemason," Chaplain said, putting a glare into her voice. Gunner made a small gesture over his shoulder, a duelist conceding a point to an opponent. Trilaina shrugged and ran her hands over the rock, eyes narrowed as if she could see through the stone.
"Even if it is a door—and I'll take your word that it is—there would have to be a knob, or a trigger or something..." Trilaina trailed off and smiled. Her fingers disappeared into a hidden niche, and something clicked softly. "Looks like I found our way in."
"’Bout time," the Lieutenant mumbled. "I'm tired of standing out here in the dark."
"Details, details," the half-elf murmured. "Everybody ready?"
Tendons creaked and knuckles popped. Cold steel whispered out of sheaths and glimmered beneath the moonless sky as the team nodded their assent. Trilaina filled her free hand with a nasty little hawkbill blade and opened the door. Counterweights turned, pulleys groaned, and the hundred-stone weight swung wide.
The assault was precision-perfect, and quiet as a greased whisper. They charged into the blackness, teeth bared, ready to bring permanent silence to the dark places beneath the mountain. Instead they found an empty hallway, the door flanked by dark lanterns and lonely-looking chairs. A deck of cards sat on a scarred tabletop, dog-eared and forlorn. The air tasted stagnant, and cold as second-day stew. They lowered their weapons, and Chaplain pulled the door closed.
"Where is everyone?" Trilaina asked.
"They're watching the woods for bogeymen," Hook said. He popped a match and lit a lantern. "They're down a patrol, with one man still missing in action, and everyone up there is wondering where we are. Just as I figured. The way out is a secret, and it's one of about a hundred possible approaches. In the dark, most people wouldn't have a shot in hell of finding it."
"Where do we go from here?" Garm asked.
"You and Chaplain reconnoiter," the Lieutenant said, slinging a leather bag down off his back and reaching in to the shoulder. "Eliminate threats if necessary, but bring your mental maps back here. After that, we move on to stage two."
The soldiers nodded, and the darkness swallowed them. Trilaina and Lieutenant Hook donned stolen armor stained with blood and took seats at the table. Trilaina dealt a hand of a game called king is dead. Gunner leaned on the wall and watched the shadows. Denna lay down with her nose on her front paws. She took deep breaths and awaited the approach of strangers. Seconds turned to minutes like slow-burn alchemy, but none of them moved. They knew their work, and waiting was part of it.
On the third hand, with Trilaina dealing bottom deck, footsteps approached. They heard the soft whisper of bare flesh on the stony floor flanked by two sets of boots. Hands wrapped around hilts, and eyes turned to the shadows. A girl with close-cropped hair, strong shoulders, and a shapeless shift wrapped around her body walked out of the darkness, Garm and Chaplain on either side.
"Taking in strays now, are we?" Trilaina asked. Garm held up his right hand. The knuckles gleamed with fresh, red blood.
"There were supposed to be two guards at this post," he said. "They decided no one would come in this door, so they went off to have a bit of fun."
"Is that what they're calling it these days?" Chaplain's frown pulled her entire face taut, and her dark eyes simmered. Garm nodded grimly.
"I hope you didn't show them your gentle side," Trilaina said. Garm shook his head.
Chaplain gently touched the girl's arm. "Go on, Rulla. Tell the Lieutenant what you told us."
The girl stared at them, hard eyes still suspicious. She swallowed and looked back where she'd come from. Apparently she considered them the lesser of two evils.
"The guards put us all in our cells hours ago," she said. "They took every digger out of the hole and filled every bolt room. Except for Regan and Goblin, everyone else is up on the wall."
"Goblin?" Gunner raised an eyebrow.
"Ugly whoreson," Garm replied. "My guess is his parents probably saw one and decided it was a fitting name."
"Go on, Rulla, tell him the rest." Chaplain silenced her squadmates with a look. Rulla licked her lips.
"When the last guards went up, they barred the ore gate," she said. "There's no way in or out except the rear door unless that main gate is opened."
The Irregulars looked at each other for several long moments, letting the significance sink in. The Lieutenant smiled, and his troops smiled back. He stripped off the stained leather and tossed it aside. Trilaina slit the lacing and peeled her disguise off like an unwanted second skin. Garm lit the second lantern and handed it to the half-elf.
"New plan, everyone." The Lieutenant rubbed his hands together. "Gunner, get outside and watch the hilltop. If someone realizes the mountain's bleeding out the rear passage, they're going to stopper us up from both ends."
"Consider it done." Gunner mounted up, and Garm opened the door far enough for the duo to slip back into the dim night. He closed it without letting the door catch.
"Garm, did you get the keys from the guards?" Both the half-orc and the dwarf took out two sets of well-used iron keys. The Lieutenant nodded approvingly. "Rulla, is everyone down here a slave?"
"Yes, sir." Her eyebrows drew together. She looked unsure, but she also clearly knew it was too late to stop, even if she wanted to.
"Good. Are there any hard cases we need to know about?"
Rulla shrugged. "I suppose."
Hook nodded, stroking his chin. "Anyone that belongs in this hole?"
Rulla narrowed her eyes. "You're just trusting me? Just like that?"
"He does that," Garm said, looking back into the darkness.
"And you'd just leave them in those cages?"
"Probably not," the Lieutenant admitted. "But I might make sure they went last, after everyone else got a head start. That would make them the most likely to be caught, and it would give everyone else more time to get away."
"No," Rulla said. The Lieutenant raised one bushy eyebrow. "No, there's no one that I think will make trouble. No one wants to be here, and if they were given a choice, they'd run till their feet bled."
"Hopefully it won't come to that," Chaplain said.
"There's only two keys, but we have to be fast." The Lieutenant sucked his teeth, glaring at the imaginary clock in his head. "Garm, you and Chaplain unlock the cages and send people back to this room. We'll make this our jump-off point. Small groups, easily mobile. Look for night-sights and moonbeams, spread 'em around as necessary so we don't have a bunch of scared people stumbling around in the dark and making all kinds of noise. We can't give them lights, much as we might like to. They're a high priority, but not number one."
"What are you going to do?" Trilaina asked.
The Lieutenant pointedly sat down in the chair he'd vacated a moment ago. "I’m going to supervise. From here, I can bottleneck either way, and keep a leash on this whole thing."
Garm, Trilaina, and Chaplain nodded, then scattered. Silence rolled in like an ebb tide.
Rulla looked at the Lieutenant, who took out a long-stemmed pipe. At last, she could stand it no more.
"Why are you doing this?" she asked.
The Lieutenant slowly crossed his good leg over his bad one, then lit the pipe and puffed. "Why are you here, Rulla?"
"I was sold to a slaver by my husband to pay gambling debts to a bookie in Laekastel." Her tone was flat, yet the Lieutenant could still hear coals burning beneath the ashes.
"Cheliax." The Lieutenant turned the nation's name into a curse. "Molthune is a small man with big plans. It has everything it needs to become an empire: ore, timber, fertile soil, and a defensible border to keep it safe from invasion. But you can't fight wars without soldiers, and you can't reap or sow without farmers. It’ll take too long to do it the old-fashioned way. The saber rattlers want to be kings now. So they buy slaves."
Rulla nodded. The Lieutenant blew a smoke ring, then cocked his head and listened. He stood, holding the lantern high.
They appeared like bog ghosts—filthy, pale will-o’-wisps with wide eyes and bent backs. Most were human, but an occasional dwarf or half-breed stood out among them. Down in the darkness, they'd all become one, and it was as one they came to escape. The Lieutenant looked at them and grinned, tapping out his pipe as he blew the remnants through his nose like a dragon scenting prey. He glanced at Chaplain and jerked his head.
The dwarf stood up on the rickety chair, facing the room. The assembled slaves stared at her with red-rimmed eyes.
"Prisoners of Molthune, listen close." Chaplain was never loud, but when she spoke people listened. A murmur went through them, and they shuffled forward to hear her. "You have been bought and sold. You have been brought to this place and turned into little more than cattle that can swing a pick and carry stones. Today that life is over. Today we’re giving you back the freedom that never should have been taken from you."
A soft, furtive cheer went up, as ragged and dirty as the men and women that offered it. Chaplain held her arms out, quieting and embracing them all as she continued.
"The night is long and the mountains are treacherous. You need to move quickly and quietly. You’ll have to help each other get away. Eagerness will get everyone caught, so listen carefully and do as you're told."
Trilaina and Garm took charge, dividing the escapees into small groups. They went quickly, quietly, slinking out of the mountain as Gunner led them to safety. One group left, another got ready, and soon the numbers dwindled to nothing.
"Good speech," the Lieutenant said.
"Thank you sir," Chaplain replied.
The Lieutenant flipped the flap on his bag of tricks and dug down deep. He pulled out a wooden cask, stoppered with cork and smelling strongly of sulfur. Then another, and another, stacking them nearby. He eyed every member of the team, lips peeling back in a wolfish grin.
"Now comes the fun part."
Coming Next Week: The explosive final chapter of Neal F. Litherland's "The Irregulars"!
Neal F. Litherland is the author of several other stories, including the novella "Summer People" and the short story "Heart of the Myrmidon," part of the post-apocalyptic romance anthology End of Days. He holds a Bachelors of Criminal Justice from Indiana University. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/NealFLitherland.
Neal F. Litherland is the author of several other stories, including the novella "Summer People" and the short story "Heart of the Myrmidon," part of the post-apocalyptic romance anthology End of Days. He holds a Bachelors of Criminal Justice from Indiana University. For more information, visit facebook.com/NealFLitherland.
Illustration by Lindsey Wakefield