This is an unnatural place.
That was the best way Aleksandr could think of the Underpass. Unnatural. The word seemed almost too small, too insignificant.
It was a place of contradictions. The core tunnel was smooth, perfectly worked stone. Where age had not undone it, the ground was more perfectly formed than any Cassaline road. The walls worked with tools not yet understood, without any seams or mortar. And yet anywhere the original tunnel had broken down, offshoot tunnels were rough and unworked. It was filled with pitted holes, rising stalagmites, and other seemingly-natural formations. The walls around them, by turns, felt stifling and then unnervingly open. The darkness closed in around them, except when they crossed paths with the domovoy.
The domovoy. Aleksandr had heard stories of them, as a child. His wet nurse told tales of domovoy that dwelt in the frozen hills north of Pripia. But never before had he seen one.
The stories painted them as unnatural beasts from the deep earth, but the truth was, they seemed closer to men than monsters. He’d heard they bled liquid metal, but he’d spilled enough of it to put the lie to that claim. It was said that every once in a great while, a goblin grew to enormous size, larger than a horse. But Aleksandr had seen no evidence of such trolls here, either.
It was even said that the domovoy could see in the dark, but the ones down here carried light sources with them when they struck. Crossing one of the vast, open caverns, Aleksandr and the others could even see the distant firelights of what they could only assume was a domovoy—a goblin— settlement.
The second attack came soon after the first. As far as Aleksandr could tell, it was supposed to come as they suffered from a rockfall trap. But since Yorrin had disarmed the trap, the goblin attack was somewhat… lackluster. Prudence saw them coming, and Aleksandr countercharged them. Dascha scattered the small-statured domovoy, and it was a matter of but a few moments to rout them entirely.
Of course, Aleksandr was under no illusions. The domovoy were numerous. They would come again. And again, and again.
“How long have we been down here, you think?” Dylan asked. He kept his voice low, to stop it from carrying. That was wise; the shape of the tunnels made sound travel strangely in the Underpass. Especially in this stretch, with a sprawling open cavern to their right.
A good question, Aleksandr thought, pondering Dylan’s words.
“Hard to say,” was all he said.
“Never realized how hard it is to keep track of time, without the sun or stars to guide you,” Dylan continued.
“Da,” Aleksandr agreed. “I think has been no more than a few hours, though.”
“God damn, you really think?” Dylan said. “Feels like longer.”
“Aleksandr is right,” Alaina said. “We’ve got a long way yet to go. No way we make it through the other side without stopping to sleep, either. We can’t push ourselves too hard.”
Even in the dim glow of their lanterns, Aleksandr noticed that when the priestess spoke she glanced at Bear. The barbarian was sitting stiffly in the saddle, scowling. The wound he had taken earlier would certainly be paining him, but he bore it silently. It was good of Alaina to notice such a thing. To care. What was the health of a mercenary, to her? Their job was to risk their lives for hers, after all.
She cares because she is a good woman. Aleksandr hardly needed to give voice to the idea. She lives the virtues of her faith.
“Agreed,” Aleksandr said. He smiled at her. She smiled back.
Up ahead, past the edge of their light, something caught Aleksandr’s eye. A faint glow bobbing up and down amidst the sea of darkness. That would be Yorrin returning, most likely. Still, he rested a hand on the hilt of Kholodny, just in case.
The small shape came into view, with another lurking behind it. Yorrin and Prudence. An unlikely duo. Aleksandr respected each of them for their skills, but found their interactions deeply confusing.
They work very well together, considering how much they dislike one another.
“Yorrin,” Aleksandr said quietly.
Yorrin smiled. When he spoke, he kept his voice low. “All clear for a while. Until the tunnel closes back up, anyway. There’s a bend in the road up there that might be an ambush spot.”
“We will be ready,” Aleksandr said. “The domovoy are many, but they bleed and die easy enough. They will break, as they have each time before.”
“Yeah, about that…” Yorrin paused. “I had a thought.”
Aleksandr tilted his head. “Oh?”
“When they opened up the walls,” Yorrin said. “I saw one of them. Ugly son of a bitch, even for a goblin. He looked… different. Old, shriveled, with a strange staff.”
“Hmmm,” Borthul muttered. Aleksandr almost jumped. He’d begun to assume the old man had dozed off again. “This staff… describe it.”
Yorrin eyed Borthul, as if sizing him up. “Gnarled wood, with a chunk of stone in the headpiece, shot through with sparkles, like some kind of gold or silver ore.”
Borthul reached up and ran a hand through his scraggly gray beard. “A shaman, perhaps,” he murmured.
“Shaman?” Aleksandr asked. “I do not know this word.”
Just like so many others, he thought. Every time I think I finally have wrapped my head around Middish, I find a new twist or turn.
“A sort of… tribal priest, or wizard,” Borthul said. “Most of the goblins worship a fairly primitive duality, the union of Earth and Sky. Rather funny, when you think about how little they see of the sky!” Borthul chortled at the observation. Too loudly.
“A little more quieter, please,” Aleksandr said softly.
“More or quieter,” Yorrin murmured. “Not both.”
Of course. A foolish mistake, Aleksandr thought.
Borthul nodded, falling silent.
“This shaman, he is a priest of the goblin’s faith, then?”
“Likely so, yes,” Borthul agreed.
Aleksandr considered this for a moment. “Yorrin,” he said.
Yorrin glanced his way. “Sir?”
So I am “sir” now? Aleksandr wasn’t sure how to feel about that. A concern for another day.
“We should take him alive.”
Even in the dim glow of their lanterns, Aleksandr saw Yorrin’s face curl into a smile. He reached up and scratched the stubble growing on his jaw. “Might be tricky. They’ll fight hard to keep him safe, I expect.”
“Da, I think you are right. They will,” Aleksandr said, nodding. “But… he is the only one we need to take alive. Understood?”
Yorrin exhaled a quiet breath of laughter. “Yeah. I think we can manage that. Come on, Prudence. Time to set a trap of our own. I’ve got a downright terrible plan. ”
The pair of them padded ahead, soon disappearing into the inky black shadows of the Underpass. Aleksandr squinted into the darkness, but his eyes had adjusted to the brighter light around him. He couldn’t even make out the sliver of orange light from Yorrin’s lantern.
They kept moving. As they rode, Aleksandr nudged Dascha alongside Bear.
“How is your wound?” he asked.
Aleksandr arched an eyebrow, not that the big man could see it. “Bear?”
“Is fine, Aleksandr. Little ülger arrows not bring down Bear!”
“Glad to hear it,” Aleksandr said. “I think that we can use your help, in the next attack.”
Bear nodded. “Good, good. Always use me in attacks, da? I am attack!”
Aleksandr was fairly sure that Bear exaggerated how bad his Middish was, just so he could say things like that.
“Not… quite what I mean,” Aleksandr said. “Yorrin is planning a trap. We intend to catch their—”
“Ülger böö, da. Shaman. I listen. You take away the priest of the little mans, to scare them.”
Aleksandr blinked, momentarily silent. He’s definitely smarter than he acts, he realized. No question about it.
“Da,” he said. “That is right.”
“What place is there for a Bear?” Bear asked, grinning widely.
“You are quite big,” Aleksandr said. “Loud, aggressive, distracting…”
“Aleksandr!” Bear said. “Stop, too many nice words!”
Aleksandr genuinely couldn’t quite decide if that was a joke or not. But he stopped nonetheless. “I want for you to do what you do best, Bear. Catch the attention of the domovoy warriors. Shout, rage, roar. Charge their front line. Draw them out, if you can. I will strike at their flank, to further distract them. With luck, they will think that is the trap. Dylan…”
Aleksandr turned, and realized Dylan was riding just a few paces behind. Close enough to hear most of what Aleksandr had said.
He smiled thinly. “No problem,” he said. “I’ll hit their other flank with spear or bow, depending on where the fight happens. A simple multi-pronged attack.”
“But is not whole attack!” Bear said.
Dylan shrugged. “No, ‘course not. But the beauty of a maneuver like that is that they have to treat it as real. If they ignore or mishandle us, it’ll turn into a very real pincer. They’ll have to face us.”
“Da. They face us,” Aleksandr said. “Yorrin and Prudence are there to strike.”
“Good plan,” Bear said.
Dylan gave a short nod. “Assuming they can pull it off.”
“You not think they can?” Bear asked.
“I didn’t say that. Just… we’re putting our faith in them. Yorrin and Prudence seem loyal enough, but… it’s not as if they got their skillsets by being trustworthy, is it?”
The words wiped the smile off Aleksandr’s face. Dascha sensed his legs tense, and stopped. The other horses had all learned to follow Dascha’s lead by now, so the whole group paused as one. He noticed Alaina was watching him. She’d been riding close enough that he expected she’d been able to hear the whole exchange. Her expression was inscrutable: cool, analytical. Her ice-blue eyes pierced him through to his core.
She is a priestess, held in high esteem by the Torathi Church. A woman of substance. Aleksandr held no real interest for the southern Church. But he knew that Yorrin held Torath in high regard, and considered himself to be of the faith. The esteem of this priestess would likely mean something, to him.
“Dylan,” Aleksandr said. He put emphasis on the name. Authority, or so he hoped.
He felt some grim satisfaction when Dylan flinched as if he’d been backhanded across the cheek.
“Yorrin and Prudence are our traveling companions. Our brothers in arms, if we are a mercenary company, as you say.”
Dylan raised his hands, placating. “I know that, Aleksandr. I—”
Aleksandr kept talking over Dylan’s attempt at an apology. “More than that: they are our friends. They are good people. They would not do this thing you worry on. And friendship cannot survive distrust. Understood?”
Dylan nodded, lips pursed in frustration. “Yeah,” he finally said. “Of course. Sorry.”
“Good,” Aleksandr said. He nudged Dascha with his knees, and each horse continued trotting forward.
In the corner of his eye, he studied the priestess’s reaction. She was still staring at him, but he thought he detected a warmness to her expression that had been lacking moments before.
Good, he thought. Yorrin no doubt respects her. It would not be right to hurt his standing in her estimation.
That was the reason for Aleksandr’s intervention, certainly. To protect Yorrin’s image in the eyes of the Faith. Aleksandr couldn’t think of any other reason.
They rounded a curve in the Underpass road. Up ahead, he saw the faint orange glow of Yorrin’s lantern.
It is time, Aleksandr told himself. We take him now, or these little bastards will be plaguing us for three solid days.
He rested his hand on the hilt of Kholodny, and rode onward into the trap.