They moved silent as breath through the empty tunnels, tucking charges into crevices and butting them against wooden support beams. The devil's scent of saltpeter made the caverns smell like Hell, ready to burn with a single, ragged spark. Fairy lights danced in the deeper darkness where the Lieutenant and Trilaina licked wicks and set fuses, making certain everything was perfect. Up near the ore doors, Garm and Chaplain laid their casks with held breath. They were so close they could smell the sweat of the Molthuni regulars on the other side of the barred doors.
The cleric tapped Garm on the shoulder and pointed to the columns that framed the entrance. Garm set the keg down like it was made of glass, gently turning it back and forth to set it in the dirt. He was repeating the process with the other side of the door when something caught his ear. He cut his hand through the air and crept closer, pressing a tattered ear to the central crevice.
"You heard from either of them, though?" A man's voice. "They haven't come up in hours."
"Probably off with that girl Goblin's always talking about," another voice answered. The second voice was deeper, harder, with something inhuman in its accent and ancestry. "He won't shut up about her. If'n she wasn't a slave, I think he'd try and marry her."
"If she wasn't a slave, Goblin would have been clapped in irons by now," the first voice answered.
"Truth," the gruff voice answered. The first said something else, but Garm couldn't make it out. When the conversation picked up again, the words were more intelligible, and they sent a chill down Garm's spine.
"Still, it's strange that they haven't even checked in." Leather creaked and chain rustled as the other guard shifted his feet. "Maybe we should go and take a look?"
"I see enough of those two as it is."
"Maybe it's time for them to take a turn up here." The first voice stifled a yawn. "Got to change posts, make sure everyone stays sharp. I'd rather be down there than up here."
"You go check, I'll keep eyes up here," the other guard said. "You've got fifteen minutes. After that, you're not my problem."
Garm jerked his head at Chaplain. They grabbed the last three casks, using the noise of the door as cover while they sped around a corner. Chains tightened, and the bar lifted out of its brackets with a groan. One door creaked, and weak lamplight slipped into the underground. The door shut with a hollow boom. Chains rattled, and the beam dropped back into place.
"Your loss," the first guard called back through the door. Garm and Chaplain flattened themselves against the wall as the man approached the turn, but he stopped and turned back the way he'd come. His spear clattered against the wall, and a moment later the rain gutter sound of an emptying bladder filled the cavern. They heard him kick dirt over the puddle, then the lantern creaked as he lifted it up. "What the hell?"
Garm's soles made no noise on the smooth stone as he slipped behind the man and wrapped an arm around his neck. The half-orc wrenched, and the guard's neck snapped like a dry-rotted twig. The rank smell of excrement filled Garm's nostrils, and he dragged the corpse as quietly as he could. He looked at Chaplain, who made the sign of the hammer over the dead man.
"I think we're out of time," Garm whispered.
Chaplain grabbed the lantern, and Garm tore the lids off the remaining casks. Black powder glinted in the lantern light—sand with the breath of a volcano buried inside. Chaplain started down the hall, and Garm followed a moment later, leaving a trail of powder to the others kegs they'd already placed. Chaplain started humming an old dwarven tune the rest of the Irregulars would recognize, just in case someone got jumpy and started shooting at anyone carrying a lantern.
"What went wrong?" The Lieutenant stepped out from behind a pillar.
"Guard got curious." Garm poured out the remainder of the last cask. "His partner gave him fifteen minutes before he had to be back, and half of that's already gone."
The Lieutenant nodded. "All right, then. I'll slap the trigger together and hope for the best." He reached into a side pocket of the bag and pulled out three stoppered clay flasks. Fragile at the best of times, they'd do well enough for a timer. The Lieutenant laid the alchemical fire-flasks flat on their sides, and uncorked one more bottle. He leaned it carefully, the thick slosh of the caustic contents enough to give anyone pause.
Somewhere above them, an alarm bell brayed its single, brassy note.
The Lieutenant glared at the ceiling, then at the others. "Well? What are you waiting for, a bloody invitation? Get the hell out of here!"
They ran, but even the hard pounding of their footsteps and the muted call to arms overhead couldn't block out the pop of the cork, and the steady drip-sizzle of acid as it poured out onto the clay. They sped past supports and stress fractures, packed and fused, everything ready to blow at the first breath of flame. Garm slammed his shoulder into the exit door, sending it squealing open on its hinges. Trilaina leaped over the threshold, hair flying in a fan behind her and color riding high in her cheeks. Chaplain burst out last, boots dragging into the dirt as she tried to slow her forward momentum.
Gunner emerged from his post behind a nearby stone, Denna at his side. "What happened?"
"Lieutenant had to improvise the detonator," Trilaina panted.
The gnome's eyes shot wide. He swung into the saddle and put his heels to the she-wolf's ribs. Mount and rider took off like they'd been fired from a siege engine, vanishing down into the obscured path along the ridge.
"You'd think he would have waited," Trilaina said.
"Did you forget what happened last time we tried this maneuver?" Garm asked.
Before the half-elf could reply, the Lieutenant burst from the tunnel entrance, his bad leg making him lope like a retired race horse.
"I would suggest we run now," the Lieutenant said. He emptied a flask down his throat, the contents syrupy slick and reeking of corrupt sugar and fermented poison. His lips drew back, and a shudder went through him as everything in the old man cranked a notch tighter. Joints popped, tendons sprung to attention, and his skin creaked like leather as the formula took hold. "Race you!"
They ran, hell hounds that had slipped their leashes and had no intention of ever going back. They skidded and tumbled, leaping over rocks and dodging over smooth patches that cut corners around switchbacks. One step ahead of a broken neck, they made it to the gentler foothills and ducked behind an outcropping. Before they could draw more than a single breath, the fuse hit home.
It started small. A rumble shook the earth, like the snore of an ancient colossus rolling over in its sleep. Stones that had sat in the same place for centuries jumped and bounced, falling over one another in their hurry to escape the fury boiling inside the mine. Everything went silent. After a few more breaths, the squad peered out to look at their handiwork.
The mountain exploded.
The hidden door splintered as fire and flame belched from the stone throat. A choking cloud of dust followed, tinged red by iron dust. The valley shook, and a roar like a beast in agony echoed across the crags. The surrounding hills gave back the cry, turning it into a chorus of rage and pain. Then, like a child calmed after a nightmare, everything fell silent again.
The squad looked to the Lieutenant. He shrugged. "Let's circle back around, make sure all the slaves got clear and that we really did what we came here to do."
They took formation, and looped a wide circle back to the front of the mine. They obliterated tracks where they found them, and kept to the rocky areas where they could. They tried to stay low, crawling through ditches or ducking into dry ravines where they could move quickly without the risk of anyone seeing them.
Gunner was the first to break the silence. "Guys," he said, peering over the lip of a sheltered ridge. "Get up here. You're going to want to see this."
One by one, they crept over the natural wall to see what they'd done.
The mountain was the same, reared up squat and wide against the sky. The road up to the mine was still there, as was most of the geography they'd spent all of yesterday studying so thoroughly. But the mine itself was completely unrecognizable. All that was left was a depression filled with crumbled rock and the remains of a few structures that had fallen down into the hole when their supports collapsed. One defensive wall had been shaken out like loose teeth, and the other clung on, nearly pristine despite the destruction that had reshaped the landscape in a moment. Nothing moved down among the destruction, except the odd tongue of fire that licked across smashed beams or broken doors.
"I told you it was poorly built," Chaplain said.
The others grinned, and at a hand signal from the Lieutenant dipped back down out of sight. They hunkered close together, eyes combing fore and rear to make sure no unexpected outliers took them by surprise again.
"Everyone, listen up," the Lieutenant said. "We did good work. But this is just the tip of the iceberg."
He smoothed the settled dust and laid out the countryside all around him and his squad. Mountains to the east, flat countryside broken by cities and rivers to the west. With precise measurements he drew three more X's along the mountains.
"We've made a good start, but a few escaped slaves and a single collapsed ore pit aren't going to slow down the war machine that Markwin Teldas and his ilk have built in this little place," the Lieutenant said. "The plan right now is to stay one step ahead of the reinforcements that will be combing the mountains, and make sure we have a few encore performances before we head back home to Andoran, where I'm sure we'll be welcomed with open arms and enough medals to tear your tunics."
The Lieutenant put his right hand out over the map. The others did the same, gripping tight to each other. The Lieutenant smiled, and his troops returned it.
They were the best of the best of the bottom of the barrel. The bloody hands that broke locks and necks with equal aplomb. They had their mission, and nothing would stand in their way. Gods above and below help the poor fools who chose to try.
"Gunner, take point," the Lieutenant said. "If Trevon is to be believed, then we're going to have company very soon, and I doubt they'll be as thrilled with our night's work as we are." He rose stiffly to his feet. "All right, Irregulars, let's move out."
Coming Next Week: A sample chapter of Chris A. Jackson's new high-seas Pathfinder Tales adventure, Pirate's Honor!
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