Yorrin stared at the grotesque totem set up in the middle of the road. Should’ve realized we’d find these before we found the aurin themselves.
The “night” had passed quietly, and they’d been back on the main road for a few hours without incident. They stumbled across the totem unexpectedly, coming around a bend in the road to find it in their path.
Even at a glance, it was obviously not the same as the racharin totems they’d seen outside the Underpass. It was constructed, not of wood, but of bone and metal. The metal was rough, poorly smelted iron. The bones looked to be a mix of goblin and human, judging from the size of them. Tattered leather hung from the totem, almost like a banner, but as Yorrin grew closer he became increasingly sure that the leather was stitched together goblin skins. He swallowed the bile that rose in the back of his throat and looked closer.
This totem was marked with strange sigils, carved into the skulls and the tattered skins. At a glance, they looked sort of like the goblin warning symbols they’d seen on the other totem. Yorrin didn’t pay them much mind—of everything about the totem that unsettled him, the symbols were the least of it.
But as the others passed it by, he heard a sharp intake of breath as Borthul saw the totem. The old man stared at the sigils with an intense look in his eyes.
“Borthul?” Aleksandr asked. “Something the matter?”
Borthul nodded slowly. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I think so. Those… those symbols, there.”
“Goblin writing, isn’t it?” Dylan asked.
“Different from the other totems, though,” Yorrin said. “I figured it was just the other kind. Aurin, right?”
The blood drained out of Borthul’s face, leaving it paler than usual. “If it is, these aurin are more dangerous than I expected. There’s no mistaking it… this script shares the same fundamental alphabet as the Thaumati script.”
Just lovely,Yorrin thought.
“What does that mean?” The Whip asked
Borthul took a moment to compose himself. He stroked his stringy beard thoughtfully. “I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. But… cults to the Thaumati have existed since time immemorial.”
“Like yours, right?” Prudence asked. “The cult of Gnomon?”
Borthul whirled around to face the girl. “The Order of Gnomon,” he said haughtily. “Is not a cult.”
Prudence just shrugged. “Sorry,” she said.
Yorrin couldn’t help but notice the complete lack of contrition in her voice. If Borthul noticed it too, he didn’t press the issue. He just sniffed, and turned back towards the totem.
“Setting aside your inexcusable ignorance,” he said. “You have the general idea, at least. People have ever tried to study the ruins left behind by the Thaumati, and unlock the secrets of thaumaturgy. Likely these aurin venerate Thaumati sorcerers in their society the way that Voresh fellow’s people venerated him.”
Aleksandr nudged Dascha over, moving inn between everyone else. “This is problem?” He asked.
Borthul seemed to contemplate the question for a good long while. Aleksandr sighed, and spoke again. “Let me say again. This change our problems? We do something different, now?”
He looked, not to Borthul, but to Alaina for his answer. She shook her head. “I don’t see how. We still need to get through.”
Aleksandr nodded, a single decisive jerk of his head. “Then let us go. Time is… trashed? No. Yorrin?”
“Wasting,” Yorrin supplied. “Time is wasting. He’s right.”
To prove it, he shook the reins of his horse, urging the animal onward. Bear joined him, clearly uninterested in anything that might come out of the goblins not drenched in viscera. The others followed soon after.
Even after they passed the totem, no attacks came.
Yorrin and Prudence ranged ahead of the others, scoping out every side passage and alcove for signs of the little bastards, but they came up empty every time. Minutes became hours, and they began to grow optimistic. Perhaps Voresh had overstated things. Perhaps the aurin weren’t all they’d been cracked up to be.
Yorrin heard a faint sound echoing from the passage ahead. Voices, he thought. Maybe that’s them now. He made a few hand signals to Prudence in the dim glow of his shrouded lantern. She nodded, and they crept forward.
The tunnel widened out considerably. A rough expanse of reasonably flat ground, maybe ten times the width of the road itself. Along the edge of the Underpass, it almost looked like there was some sort of keep. A low wall, stone jutting up out of the ground, ran along parallel to the Underpass road. Yorrin counted at least two shapes that looked rather like gates.
It was better lit than most of the Underpass. No direct lights visible, but Yorrin saw the orange glow of light coming off one or more flames. That meant it was inhabited, more than likely.
They built a God-damned fort down here. Yorrin was speechless. He knew the goblins lived down in the depths of the Underpass, of course. But he’d never quite realized that meant they’d have settlements.
This could get ugly, and quick, he thought to himself. The road passed in plain view of the wall, easy range of arrows, thrown spears, even stones. They’d be exposing themselves to a lot of risk, traipsing down that road on their steeds.
No sentries, at least, he realized. At least none I can see. Damn! I need to get a better view.
He signaled to Prudence to hang back. He left his lantern with her, and he crept closer. He kept himself low to the ground, and chose each step carefully. His pulse was pounding, but he felt alive.
Is this how Bear feels, when he fights? Yorrin couldn’t comprehend it. Tangling blades made him feel sick with apprehension. But this? This was his element. Shadows and uncertainty. He was quiet as the dead, and he reached the stone wall quickly and quietly.
The wall was goblin make. It almost looked natural, a sheer shelf of stone ripping up from the ground. The stone felt rough under his palm, cragged and pitted with small holes. Handholds.
Scaling the wall was the work of but a few moments. He didn’t clamber over the lip, instead just hanging off the edge of the wall. He hadn’t been seen yet, and he wanted to keep it that way. So he clung to the wall, and he listened for sentries or other goblins up and about.
Voices again. Closer now, much closer, Yorrin could make out distinct voices rising up from the other side of the wall.
The shock of it nearly made him lose his grip.
“What are you doing?”
“Takin’ a piss. That a problem, now?”
“It is when you’re on wall duty. Captain’s orders.”
“Oh bugger off, Lefty. Captain ain’t long for it now, we all know that. Besides, the little bastards didn’t much like the last taste we gave ‘em. You think they’ll be back so soon?”
“I think your orders were to man the wall. And don’t let me hear you say another word about the Captain.”
Middish. Men speaking in Middish. Their voices sounded normal enough. The one man, Lefty, had a rough accent not unlike the rural farmers of northern Torathia. But it was still Middish.
Yorrin fought the urge to leap up onto the wall and announce himself. Middishmen probably meant allies, but it’d be foolish to expose himself to such risk until he knew for sure.
He heard footsteps clatter on stone, and he realized the man that had been reprimanded was getting back onto the top of the wall. Yorrin decided to take his chances and stay put, rather than risk catching attention by climbing down now.
The man hadn’t been on the wall more than a moment before he gasped. Yorrin winced, looking up, expecting to find himself staring into someone’s face.
The man was well built, with a mail hauberk beneath a tattered and threadbare tabard. He looked filthy, haggard, and exhausted. He held a bow in his hands.
He wasn’t staring at Yorrin. He was standing straight, staring out into the Underpass.
Yorrin glanced over his shoulder, wondering if the fellow had spotted Aleksandr and the others. Instead, he saw a mass of dark shapes moving down the tunnel. Not where Aleksandr was at all, the opposite side of the tunnel. Yorrin couldn’t get a clear count, but it was surely more than twenty.
“Fuck!” The man on the wall finally shouted. “Lefty!”
The man below didn’t ask what the matter was. He didn’t respond directly to the fellow on the wall at all. He said only three words.
“Men! To arms!”